10 best book club reads
From an exploration of raising a transgender child to an imagined re-telling of famous murders in the 19th century, these are some of the best new conversation-starters
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If you’re struggling to recommend a novel for your next book club, here is a list of accessible, exciting and original books to get the conversation started.
From Laurie Frankel’s exploration of raising a transgender child in This Is How It Always Is, to Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful telling of people’s lives in Anything Is Possible, there are plenty new stories this year to stoke the imagination, and discuss at length with your fellow readers.
1. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: £12.99, Penguin Random House
Anything Is Possible is the sequel to wildly popular novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, which tells the story of a writer who grows up in poverty in rural Illinois, escapes to New York and becomes a writer. In Anything Is Possible, Barton has published her memoir, her book is discovered and read by those she grew up with – neighbours, friends, enemies – and their own stories come to light. The writing is sparse, beautiful and addictive. The book is also dark. It hints at the trauma and abuse suffered by Barton in childhood, and does not flinch at human instinct. Each character is complex, their quirks seem unique to them. In essence, the book is profoundly human.
2. He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly: £12.99, Hodder & Stoughton
Erin Kelly, the author behind the novelisation of Broadchurch, is back with her best book yet, and it’s a Sunday Times bestseller to boot. He Said/She Said centres around two witness testimonies of a rape trial: whether they really saw what they said, and whether they are telling the whole story. Kelly cleverly drops a few red herrings, but the twist is, as one reviewer described, “weepingly good”. The author also manages to challenge our assumptions and prejudices that can impact a victim of sexual assault, without making us instinctively flock to the victim’s side or giving us a lecture on morals.
3. The Baltimore Boys by Joel Dicker: £20, Quercus
Swiss author Joel Dicker’s writing has set the French and the English-speaking world on fire – his novel The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair knocked even Dan Brown’s Inferno off the top of the charts – and he returns with this immense and detailed thriller. The story describes the fictional life of famous writer Marcus Goldman, and how his book was born out of a family tragedy in 2004. Now he is rich, and moving back and forth between New York and Florida, but haunted by the past. As a child, he was just a boy from a low-income family in New Jersey. How did he and his two cousins, the Goldman Gang, survive a rivalry, intense friendship, betrayal, jealously and a love for the same woman? The backstory of the Goldman Gang, their parents and neighbours is all-consuming and will not let you – or anyone else in the club – skip a single paragraph.
4. Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett: £12.99, Orion
For fans of Laura Barnett’s debut novel Versions of Us, her next book Greatest Hits is no disappointment. Singer Cass Wheeler is returning to music after a decade of silence, and must confront her past as she selects 16 tracks for her Greatest Hits album that have defined her life. The whole book is set over one day, interspersed with flashbacks from Cass’s life, which reveal why she retreated from her career a decade ago and what prompted her to return. Barnett proves once again that she can master the art of storytelling and weave a complex, enticing plot into 400 pages.
5. Larchfield by Polly Clark: £14.99, Quercus
For anyone who knows what it feels like to move to a new place and feel lonely, or feel like an outsider, this book will speak to you. Larchfield, the first novel by writer and poet Polly Clark, cleverly connects two imagined lives, flicking between the 1930s and the early 2000s. On one side is poet W H Auden and the two years after university when he taught at a boys’ school, Larchfield, in the small Scottish coastal town of Helensburgh. In the present day is the life of Dora Fielding, a once prestigious poet in her own right who loved her life in London before moving to the same town with a new husband and baby. As Dora struggles with her isolation and her battles with the upstairs neighbour, she starts to lose her grip on reality and her obsession with Auden intensifies. How will it end for both of them?
6. Together by Julie Cohen: £12.99, Orion Books
This is a beautifully written and evocative story about two lives, and their great love. Robbie and Emily met in 1962, but the novel starts at the end, when elderly Robbie is struggling with Alzheimer’s and Emily still feels the weight of their shared secret. The chapters descend in reverse chronological order, through their lives, from old age and living in Maine, back to raising their child, family arguments and their first days together as students. Their secret, as it turns out, is well worth the wait. The book has the solid weight of two lives well lived, and the writing from Julie Cohen is rich in detail and memory.
7. This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel: £16.99, Headline
What happens when your little boy wants to be a girl? This is a warm family story about two parents, five children and how their “secret” becomes something totally normal and accepted. Some parts of the book are more exciting than others – such as when the family fights off bigotry or when the mum is dealing with a belligerent colleague, although a family trip to Thailand near the end of the novel could have cut to the chase. But there are few writers who could have explored the everyday humdrum of family life in such an entertaining way. The story is loosely based on the author’s own experience of her daughter’s transition, and rings true to real life. As the author says herself, she knows the book might be seen by some as controversial, but she “often forgets why”, and this book will make readers think the same.
8. The Dry by Jane Harper: £12.99, Little Brown
Who killed the Hadler family? The setting – rural Australia during a drought – is the perfect backdrop for this murder-mystery tale. Jane Harper’s slickly-worded debut is so full of red herrings and plot twists that you might find it hard to put down. The characters are dangerously close to stereotypes – most women are dishing out the food as their husbands chat business – but the reader can forgive that thanks to the clever plot and smooth dialogue. It’s a whodunit that will keep you guessing right until you have scored out the last man or woman in the village.
9. The Other Hoffmann Sister by Ben Fergusson: £14.99, Little, Brown
The Other Hoffman Sister is a gripping story about two sisters, Margarete and Ingrid, in pre-war Germany. Margarete goes missing on the eve of WWI after she gets engaged to Emil von Ketz, whose father sold land to her family, and Ingrid is determined to find out what happened to her. The evocative setting and the quick-paced plot takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through South Africa, to Berlin and back again, through war and its aftermath, through aristocracy and the von Ketz’s crumbling estate. The novel, written by the award-winning author Ben Fergusson, would appeal to fans of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent.
10. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt: £12.99, Headline
In this, her debut dovel, Sarah Schmidt has boldly gone where no psychological thriller writer has gone before, to re-invent the famous story of the murder of Abby and Robert Borden in 1892. The two bodies were brutally murdered with an axe in Michigan, and all eyes fell on the youngest daughter, Lizzie Borden. Did she do it? The writing cleverly ekes out the odd personality of Lizzie, who appears to view the world one way and be viewed differently by everyone else. There’s enough circumstance to keep the reader guessing throughout. There are plenty of mentions of bones, blood, and sickly sights and sounds to make you pleasantly uncomfortable from start to end.
The Verdict: Book club reads
Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible provides endless avenues of conversation. What is the motive for each character in the town? Why did Lucy come back to her hometown, and what really happened when she was a child? Why did her siblings not leave too? Each chapter of the novel focuses on a different person and their story, their interpretation of living in the same place – Amgash, Illinois – as young Lucy. Only at the end of the novel does the whole story come to light.
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