2018 Book Club Reviews
This spring, I started a book club at my local coffee shop. Over the rest of 2018, we picked and read a wide variety of books. Here are some quick reviews of our choices this past year, just in case you’re interested in spicing up your own book club or in need of a fresh read.
May: The Power by Naoimi Alderman
I wrote a blog post about The Power a few months back, see my full review here.
This book has a lot of trigger warnings: Rape, sexual assault, violence, religious cults.
The Power is an award-winning speculative fiction taken from current events that explores the idea of power dynamics. It is an ambitious tale that follows the uncomfortable and shocking story of the ten years of a matriarchy’s rise to global power after women have developed the ability to create a physical electric charge.
Overall, our group thought that the book was very uncomfortable (which was the point) and we were all a little disappointed that it seemed to be a parable on how power is to blame for the division of sexes and the personalities/roles of each.
However, I think as a conversation piece, The Power is excellent. Alderman points out and prods the problem of extremes taking power, but doesn’t actually offer any solutions. As a bookclub pick, it was perfect: there were no shortages of opinions or fodder for discussion.
June: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
I mentioned this book in my blog post about grief. You can find the post here: 10 Fictional Books about Grief, Death, and Mourning
Plot-wise, this book sounds crazy town: fifteen-year-old Leigh is trying to cope with reality after mother committed suicide, but she is also convinced that her mother turned into a bird. A big, red, beautiful bird. Leigh travels from America to Taipei to meet her maternal grandparents, learn about her mother’s past, and to hopefully catch her mother, the bird, to get some closure.
This debut novel was universally loved by everyone in my bookclub. We were all impressed with how realistic and honest the book felt. Despite how crazy-town the plot was, we all bought it: ghosts, magic, giant red birds, and all.
The Astonishing Color of After is proof that YA fiction can be just as compelling and nuanced as “real” literature**. Emily X. R. Pan pulled no punches as she dealt with a wide range of themes: reconnecting with one’s family and culture, depression and mental health, multicultural families, grief, and identity and the discovery of self.
** YA fiction is real literature. Full stop.
July: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant is completely and utterly fine, or is she? She actually seems to be a bit odd, lonely, isolated, and quite bad at appropriate human interactions. In fact, she’s not even that likable, probably due to her frank and honest attitude. Eleanor is a woman who learned who to survive, but not how to live.
Eleanor is an unreliable, but dryly funny, narrator that takes the reader on her journey as she struggles to learn what it means to fit in. The book deals with the long-term cost of bad things happening, but that your future doesn’t actually have to be defined by your past. Before you think that this is a self-help book disguised in a fictional story, let me tell you that while I felt for Eleanor, I never felt manipulated or preached at. I genuinely wanted her to succeed as she fought her way to achieve self-worth and develop meaningful relationships with other people.
Another solid discussion book. My group enjoyed discussing the various characters and discussing her quirks. We liked the subtle humor that kept the book from getting overly morose and especially enjoyed the strong character development throughout the story.
August: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
I included this book as an honorable mention in my last post about audio books. Read the full blog post here: Listen Up, Book Nerds.
Another stunning debut YA novel, Children of Blood and Bone was a spell-binding, unapologetic, coming-of-rage fantasy novel that tackled so much more than you’d think possible: inequality, class structures, modernity, racism, and genocide.
Adeyemi’s world-building was top notch. She crafted a book that was unapologetically African, YA, and magical. I loved the clever use of West African mythos and the clear Nigerian influence. But what I loved even more was that she didn’t dumb it down for her white readers. If you didn’t know what something was, you could look it up. She wove rage, anger, vengeance, and hope into a beautiful tapestry that my bookclub couldn’t get enough of.
September: Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley
We switched genres up a bit for our September read, going for a historical mystery. Kat Holloway has just been hired as a cook in a very odd, but very rich, noble Victorian household. While eccentricities and oddities don’t bother her much, murder does. Especially if it happens right there in her kitchen. She teams up with an old pal, Daniel, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery and finds out that the murder of her assistant was the least of her problems.
The mouthwatering descriptions added to the well-developed Victorian atmosphere. Everyone in my bookclub was intrigued by the descriptions of the downstairs life hierarchy and charmed by the distinct characters. While we felt that the mystery itself was a bit lacking, the rest of the story more than made up for it.
As a note, there is a prequel: A Soupçon of Poison (amazon link here). I didn’t read it before hand as it’s not strictly necessary), but I wish I had. I’d recommend doing so.
October: Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie
We decided to go the opposite route of the usual October picks and opted to read a romantic comedy instead of anything spooktacular. Bet Me is a pseudo-retelling of Cinderella in a modern Ohio town.
Minerva Dobbs, accountant and risk-averse, wears great shoes but isn’t interested in being in a relationship after being ruthlessly dumped by a world-class idiot. Just because she’s curvy, doesn’t mean she wants kids and her ex just can’t seem to figure that out. Unfortunately, she’s left dateless to her sister’s wedding with a dress that doesn’t fit and she needs at least one of those two things to be solved to get her mom off her back. Calvin Morrisey has made a successful business from taking chances, but he’s not willing to extend that to his love life. He likes women, but he doesn’t need the commitment. A misunderstanding about a bet, a terrible date, and a lot of chicken marsala seem to throw a monkey wrench in both their plans as they race against the clock to see if they get a happily-ever-after.
I had already read Bet Me, but I was thrilled to re-read it for my bookclub. It’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s sexy. Luckily, the others in my club agreed. It was nice to read a fully-fleshed out book that didn’t shy away from hilarious banter and chemistry.
November: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
The Rook brought our club back over to the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre, but this time with a twist. We found ourselves in the middle of a rainstorm with Myfanwy Thomas — a woman with no recollection of who she is and why she is surrounded by dead people. She finds a letter in her pocket addressed to her, from her past-self with instructions on where to go next.
Next thing you know, you’re watching Myfanwy try to figure out how to navigate her new life and her old life as — get this — a woman with superpowers who also happens to be a high-ranking member in a secret agency. The book is equally hilarious and delightful and fully ass-kicking. If you want monsters, you’ve got them. If you want kickass heroines, you’ve got them. If you want downright weird, that’s all here too. All with a healthy dosage of secret agencies filled with British X-Men and Buffy’s out to take care of the world.
In full disclosure, it’s a long book with a long info-dump of world-building in the first 100 pages. However, O’Malley handled that pretty well. Unlike most SFF books with a long introduction to the world, I wasn’t bored. He weaved in the information you needed with a lot of action, which is just what this reader wants to see.
December: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
We stayed within the realms of Fantasy for our final book of 2018, but Spinning Silver was a completely different feel from any of our previous reads. Novik’s cool, calm narrative loosely tackled the Rumplestilskin fairy tale (along with others) through weaving three incredibly different women’s storyline’s together. Novik’s prose was beautiful and melodic, as usual, and perfect for reading in front of a fire.
Everyone in my book club was entranced with Miryem and the ice-cold world she lived in. We loved watching her grow into her family’s legacy of moneylending, where she could turn silver into gold. Her pragmatism was relieving and her bold, stubbornness was endearing. We loved Novik’s ability to demolish the stereotype of the evil Jewish moneylender in a fictional account, in fact she turned the story of Rumplestilskin on it’s head.
Because that’s what the story is really about: getting out of paying your debts.
Not only are you introduced to Miryem, but also to Irina, the daughter of a rich duke and the intended bride for the tzar, and Wanda, an incredibly poor farmer’s daughter who is just trying to get enough food and to avoid her drunken father’s fists. Their tales are their own, and yet the three women come together to tell a smart and endearing tale.
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