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Almost Top 10 Book Club Books of 2012

March 28, 2013

Almost Top 10 Book Club Books of 2012

I know. Everyone has their Top Book lists for the year… My buddies over at Reading Group just came out with theirs, NPR has a list (although there are only 5), Oprah has her list (bulging at a hefty 19 titles—Really? What’s up with that?), and of course, The New York Times has another. For book clubbers and bibliophiles, these lists are fun to peruse… For me, it feels a bit like that scene from Keeping the Faith, when the young Jake Schram is looking through the rabbi trading cards, “Got it, Got it, Need it, Got it”—which books have I read? And which ones have I missed—and want to read? Carol Fitzgerald calls this phenomenon “book guilt”—when you feel like you should have already read something. But it’s not just guilt—I’m always looking for a new book that groups will enjoy reading—and discussing! So my hope is that you might do the same. Also, the lists themselves generate a lot of controversy—and therefore, discussion. It’s all good…

I always feel behind at the beginning of the year. Before the holiday wrapping paper is put away I’m already off to a book club convention and planning several book club meetings. So each year I give myself lots of leeway on other deadlines. Last year, I told myself the Christmas tree had to be down by Easter. (Yeah—no use putting too much pressure on oneself…) This year it’s this list. I had to have it posted by this same grand deadline. I realize I’m down to the last couple of days—but that does mean I made my deadline…

But, before I can reveal this year’s actual Top 10, I have to give a few of my usual caveats of outstanding books that are not included in my list because of technicalities… These include books that were too long, too old, or (gasp—God forbid) non-mainstream (thrillers, speculative fiction, etc.) and are not listed in any particular order (the numbers are just for continuity)—so we go with:

The Book Club Cheerleader’s ALMOST Top 10 Book Club Books of 2012

Length: Many book groups have a page-limit—be it 350, 400, or 500 pages, and I understand the practical reason for this—since you want your book club members to be able to squeeze their reading in-between all the other time-hogs of their busy lives. And, of course, no one wants the daunting task of trying to facilitate the discussion for a door-stop-of-a-book that most of your club has not finished! But perhaps I’m more comfortable with the page-limit being a guideline, and not a rule. After all, where would The Help be if book clubs had ignored it (and its 451 HC pages)? So, two books I eliminated due to size were:

10. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach (5.1.12 PB; 528 p; 3.98 Goodreads; 3.5 Amazon)

This is a wonderful read that uses baseball analogies to talk about life. Not a baseball fan? Not to worry—this book is about baseball in the same way Seabiscuit is about horseracing or The Art of Racing in the Rain is about car racing. The characters, literary references, and interweaving story-lines really hit a home-run! The setting is secondary—so don’t worry if you’re not a sports fanatic. My neighborhood book club’s discussion went far into the night on this one! (Here’s a previous blog I wrote about The Art of Fielding and a couple of other “Olympic Reads” last summer.)

9. The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling (9.27.12 HC; 512 p; 3.29 Goodreads; 3.0 Amazon)

J.K. Rowling is a masterful story-teller who knows the human psyche. Set in a small English village, the author creates numerous multi-layered characters of all generations that you will want to spend time with. Touching on themes of family, identity, morality, social strata, ambition, and belonging, she skillfully weaves the tales of this ensemble cast into an intriguing story. You’ll be glad you visited her village. Warning: Open this one with a fresh mind—remember this is an adult novel with some very adult themes—and NOT a Harry Potter book!

Not of 2012: Here is where Sally-Slowreader did not get to the book when it was released either in hardback or in paperback. Totally not the book’s fault—is it? So, although I cannot call them a “book of 2012”, I do give them some special mention so that other book clubbers don’t suffer from my tardiness. These are books that would’ve made my “best of the year” if I were a time-traveler and could go back to when they were originally published.

8. The Blind Eye: A Sephardic Journey, by Marcia Fine (7.18.07 PB; 232p; 4.33 Goodreads; 5.0 Amazon)

A great story of a Jewish family’s exodus from Spain during the time of Queen Isabella’s reign—and the Jew’s mass exile from Europe. On top of this historical fiction account, the author overlays a current storyline of a young Cubana scholar struggling with her own identity. Well-researched—which made it quite informative, and well-written—which made it an enjoyable read. And between the characters and the two settings, there is a lot for you book club to talk about! Marcia is a great friend and a wonderful writer—you’ll want to be sure to check out the rest of her books as well.

7. Elizabeth Street, by Laurie Fabiano (10.04.10 PB; 400p; 3.81 Goodreads; 4.5 Amazon )

I actually discovered this book by perusing some of the aforementioned “best book club books” list. I put it on my TBR list and was so happy I did! A tale of immigration and intrigue, this book also weaves current and historical storylines into a novel about “the black hand”—the precursor to the mafia. It’s set first in Italy, and later in New York City and centers around one family and their struggles to survive and thrive in the tenements of Elizabeth Street. Beautifully written, this novel is based on true events that occurred in the author’s own family history.

6. The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton (2.16.10 PB; 560p; 4.09 Goodreads; 4.5 Amazon )

I may seem to be stuck on a theme, but this novel also carries two storylines of present day Australia and historical England, and we follow a family from continent to continent and back again. A grandmother’s search for her identity is abandoned, only to be taken up again by her granddaughter decades later, setting the stage for this multi-generational saga. With literary homage to The Secret Garden and fairytales, the author creates an almost magical aura to this down-to-earth story.

5. Island Beneath the Sea, by Isabel Allende (4.26.11 PB; 480p; 3.92 Goodreads; 4.5 Amazon)

For those who think they know everything about slavery in the 19th century Americas, think again. The author moves our focus from the typical Southeastern United States a little farther south to Jamaica as we learn about this small island’s multinational and multicultural history. Rich characters, sensory details, and strong relationships follow along with this novel’s strong storyline. Educational, delightful, and a must-read!

4. The Widower’s Tale, by Julia Glass (7.12.11 PB; 480p; 3.63 Goodreads; 4.0 Amazon )

This novel came to my attention as a “readalike” for one of my favorite novels, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Like the major, the title character has lost his wife and is struggling to find stability and fulfillment in his latter days. And like the major’s story, this widower’s tale is charming. This National-Book-Award-winning author can spin a yarn—and you’ll want to follow all of the threads of this one! Our widow’s life is far from stable, living in his small suburban enclave outside Boston. You must wonder how he manages the chaos—and the chaos comes in many human forms. The author wrote so firmly with her tongue-in-cheek, I’m surprised she didn’t bit it several times. With such divergent themes as family relationships, achievement, illegal immigration, healthcare, divorce, and finding love late in life, Glass writes a tale you will enjoy reading and discussing with your reading group. This is definitely a “feel-good” read—and is a nice break for your club from many of the heavier reads we discuss.

Non-Mainstream: Most of the book clubs I work with do not read thrillers or speculative fiction—their reasoning for the former is that “once you’ve found out ‘who-dun-it’, there’s not much to talk about.” For this reason, I typically leave this genre off my “best of” lists. However, I would argue that these two books deserve a second look—in fact, I challenge readers to try to NOT talk about them!

3. Defending Jacob, by William Landay (1.31.12 HC; 432 p; 3.94 Goodreads; 4.5 Amazon)

This is not your typical courtroom drama, although that will not be self-evident at the beginning of the book. Yes, the narrator is an Assistant District Attorney. Yes, a high-school boy is murdered early on. And yes, several suspects and motives are introduced to account for this murder. But this is really a story about a family—and it asks the questions we all ask ourselves: How good are we at parenting? How well do I know my child? When does my professional duty to my job get in the way of my moral duty to my family? And then, there’s the not-so-often-asked question of “can abhorrent personal failings—oh, say like ‘being a murderer’—be inherited?” And for those of you (like Handsome Hubby) who always think they’ve figured out what is going to happen—trust me—you won’t. Read it!

2. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (5.24.12 HC; 432 p; Goodreads 3.98; Amazon 3.5)

I sighed, “Ho, hum” when I first read the synopsis of this book: “A husband and wife look back on their marriage on their 5th year anniversary.” Really? BFD, I thought. Then I began reading some reviews. And then my friends began calling me to say “You’ve GOT to read this one.” Really? What’s the big deal? So picked up a copy and began to read. About a quarter of the way through the book, I’m still saying, “So what?”—but I kept reading. Curled up by myself on my back porch, I yelled out loud to the universe, “Oh My God!” I had hit the first twist in the story. Of course, I can’t tell you what is was—but it changed everything. I knew it was going to be a late night for this slow reader…There are a couple more twists to come—and none that even Handsome Hubby would spot. Enjoy the read—and again, I challenge you to NOT talk about it when you turn the last page…

My book groups generally don’t read speculative fiction, either—their complaint being that “they are just too ‘out there’—and you have to suspend all disbelief.” That may be true—but there’s no reason to suspend your reading of this creative coming-of-age story.

1. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (6.26.12 HC; 304p; 3.68 Goodreads; 4.0 Amazon)

A charming and sensitive story of a 12-year-old girl, Julia, whose typical coming-of-age drama is complicated by the cataclysmic slowing of the earth’s rotation, and all of the subsequent ecological and human issues that follow. The unique voice of this young narrator will steal your heart and somehow we see all of the world changes through the eyes of this little California girl. We watch her relationship with her grandfather who struggles to leave her a legacy. We experience her acute crush on the cute Seth and their on and off relationship that seems to change too fast—especially contrasted with the ever-slowing circadian days. We mourn as her best friend leaves for Utah to wait out the “final days”; and we grieve her loss of innocence as she begins to understand the cracks in her parent’s marriage. Although the whole earth’s issues are interesting, it’s what is going on in Julia’s little life that compels us. This is the Sci-Fi book for those who don’t like Sci-Fi. It’s a book about people, and life, and relationships—and the author deftly delivers these more dependably than the sun comes up in the morning.

So, that’s it for the caveats, and ‘almosts’, and ‘could-a’s, and ‘should-a’s ? Next up—The REAL Book Club Cheerleader’s Top 10 List of 2012… I hope you stay tuned!


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