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Find more Great Reads
From the intimate dynamics of family and personal relationships to major cultural and world issues, timely and provocative topics are represented by the 21 titles below, chosen as the 2013 Great Group Reads for National Reading Group Month (an initiative of the Women’s National Book Association). Booklist and its blog Book Group Buzz have been selected partners of the initiative since its inception.
Selection Committee coordinator Rosalind Reisner says the books are chosen because they “will help passionate readers find those great gems of mid-list fiction and nonfiction that may be overlooked in the clamor over the bestsellers.” The Great Group Reads selectors are writers, reviewers, librarians, booksellers, publicists, and committed readers.
Here are this year’s selected titles with links to Booklist reviews where available.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
To the women in the hair-braiding salon, Ifemelu seems to have everything a Nigerian immigrant in America could desire, but the culture shock, hardships, and racism she’s endured have left her feeling like she has “cement in her soul.”
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
In 1962, Pasquale Tursi, inheritor-proprietor of the Hotel Adequate View in Porto Vergogna, Italy, a tiny coastal village visited only by tourists who overshoot the similarly named neighbor they intended to go to, is shocked when beautiful, sickly American starlet Dee Moray arrives, on purpose.
Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver
Pandora is a successful entrepreneur living in Iowa with her uptight husband, Fletcher. Pandora’s brother, Edison, is a once-popular jazz pianist in New York who can no longer pay his rent. Against Fletcher’s wishes, Pandora sends Edison a plane ticket to Iowa; when he arrives, she almost doesn’t recognize him owing to the “hundreds more pounds” he carries than when she last saw him.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
In this extraordinary first novel, Marra homes in on a people and a region that barely register with most Americans and, in heartrending prose, makes us feel their every misfortune. In rural Chechnya, during the second war, a small group of people struggle to survive in the bleakest of circumstances.
David, by Ray Robertson
David, born a slave in 1847, but educated and raised a free man in the historical Elgin Settlement in Canada, can’t subdue his rebellious nature and is evicted from the community. Years later, he’s a successful saloon-keeper, but the death of his mentor turns his world upside-down.
The House Girl, by Tara Conklin
Conklin persuasively intertwines the stories of two women separated by time and circumstances but united by a quest for justice. When law associate Lena Sparrow is handed a plum assignment—to find the perfect poster child for a class-action suit on behalf of the descendants of American slaves—she has little appreciation for how radically the task will change the course of her own life and destiny.
How It All Began, by Penelope Lively
The ruling vision of master British novelist Lively’s latest delectably tart and agile novel is the Butterfly Effect, which stipulates that “a very small perturbation” can radically alter the course of events. The catalyst here is a London mugging that leaves Charlotte, a passionate reader and former English teacher become adult literacy tutor, with a broken hip.
Is This Tomorrow, by Caroline Leavitt
Leavitt has a way of crafting the loveliest novels out of tragedy. Her latest work, set mainly in the 1950s, turns on a single fateful incident: the disappearance of 12-year-old Jimmy Rearson. Though Leavitt eventually reveals what happened to Jimmy, in a closure that provides little in the way of solace, it’s her examination of loss, grief, and disappointment that will engross readers.
Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson
In a radical departure from her Jackson Brodie mystery series, Atkinson delivers a wildly inventive novel about Ursula Todd, born in 1910 and doomed to die and be reborn over and over again. She drowns, falls off a roof, and is beaten to death by an abusive husband but is always reborn back into the same loving family, sometimes with the knowledge that allows her to escape past poor decisions, sometimes not.
Margot, by Jillian Cantor
Everyone who’s read The Diary of Anne Frank knows that Anne and her sister, Margot, died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. But what if Margot didn’t die? What if she somehow survived and immigrated to Philadelphia? What if she continued to hide? That’s the premise of Cantor’s daring new novel.
Mary Coin, by Marisa Silver
Interweaving the stories of Mary Coin, a young mother grappling with the cruel realities of raising a family during an enduring economic crisis, and Vera Dare, the brilliant young photographer facing life-altering decisions of her own, this dual portrait investigates the depths of the human spirit, exposing the inner reserves of will and desire hidden in both women.
The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg
The Middlesteins, a Jewish family of strong temperaments and large dysfunctions, living in the middle of the country in Chicago and its suburbs, revolve around Edie, a woman of gargantuan appetites. Attenberg marshals her gift for mordant yet compassionate comedy to chart Edie’s rise and fall in sync with her ever-ballooning weight.
Nowhere Is a Place, by Bernice L. McFadden
Sherry has aimlessly wandered through her life, traveling throughout the U.S and the world looking for a place to belong, going from man to man, moving as far from her mother and her family as possible. After her latest interracial relationship—this one with a white jazz musician—Sherry returns to Mexico for succor and recovery. Even with a new man in her life, she doesn’t feel that she is fully recovering and strikes upon the idea of traveling with her mother.
The One-Way Bridge, by Cathie Pelletier
The folks who live on either side of Maine’s Mattagash River are a quirky bunch, and all of them are known to Orville Craft, who, as the local letter carrier, gains unique insight into their habits and idiosyncrasies. In the waning days before his retirement, Orville becomes particularly vexed by the outlandishness of his nemesis, Harry Plunkett, whose moose-shaped mailbox is an affront to Orville’s devotion to the dignity of the U.S. Postal Service.
Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger
Frank Drum writes as a middle-age man looking back on a summer in 1961 in New Bremen, Minnesota, when he was 13; the Minnesota Twins were in their first season; and death, in five different instances, shook his family and their community in the Minnesota River valley. The first death is that of Frank’s sometime friend Bobby Cole. The proximate cause was a train, but the mystery is whether Bobby stood in front of that train, or was pushed or placed there.
The Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell
Rose, a police precinct typist in Prohibition New York, has seen many things. As the recorder of confessions and transgressions of all sorts, she considers herself to be an astute judge of character. So when Odalie Lazare, a new typist, arrives in the office, Rose is intrigued by her beauty, charm, and seeming wealth. Rose becomes infatuated with Odalie, who is not what she appears to be.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
The son of a tribal judge, Bazil, and a tribal enrollment specialist, Geraldine, Joe Coutts is an attentively loved and lucky boy—until his mother is brutally beaten and raped. Erdrich’s profound intimacy with her characters electrifies this stunning and devastating tale of hate crimes and vengeance, her latest immersion in the Ojibwe and white community she has been writing about for more than two decades.
Schroder, by Amity Gaige
Originally from East Germany, during his teenage years Erik becomes convinced that he does not fit in with his peer group and creates a new, Americanized identity, calling himself Eric Kennedy. This ruse lasts for many years, through college, a marriage, a semisuccessful career, and fatherhood. However, in the midst of a heated custody battle, Erik slowly becomes unhinged and makes a grave mistake that results in the unraveling of his elaborate secret.
Sparta, by Roxana Robinson
Robinson tells tales of psychic maladies with spellbinding intensity and acute insight. Here, she occupies the PTSD-assaulted mind of an Iraq War veteran. Conrad had everything going for him as the oldest child in a loving and achieving Westchester County family. Smart, handsome, poised, and enthralled by his college studies as a classics major, he decides to seek his own Sparta by joining the marines, thus shocking his “bookish and liberal” parents.
Wash, by Margaret Wrinkle
Wrinkle’s debut novel tells the heartrending tale of life on a slave plantation in early nineteenth-century Tennessee, where the lives of two slaves, Wash and Pallas, intersect with that of Richardson, a land baron and Revolutionary War veteran. Richardson acquires Mena, already pregnant with Wash, at auction in 1796.
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
This first novel by a former soldier follows 21-year-old Private John Bartle and his friend Murph from basic training through their horrific experience in Iraq and Bartle’s subsequent attempts, once he arrives back home, to reconcile himself to what he saw and did in the war. Flowing entirely from Bartle’s perspective are long, languorous sentences that simultaneously describe the stark desert landscape of Iraq and the mutilated corpses that litter the battleground.
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