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Great Reads

ggr_logo_right.jpgWe at Booklist are proud to once again partner with the Women’s National Book Association for National Reading Group Month. Every October, the WNBA supplies a list of Great Group Reads. The 20 titles on this year’s list have been chosen for their appeal to reading groups by a selection committee of writers, reviewers, librarians, booksellers, publicists, and committed readers. The following titles cover timely and provocative topics and include under-represented gems from independent presses and lesser-known mid-list releases from larger houses. The 2016 list is below, with links to their Booklist reviews. 

Blackassby A. Igoni Barrett A fairly straightforward story of life in today’s Lagos, this novel shows that having white skin is an advantage, even in virtually all-black Nigeria. The opposite, of course, is equally true. Following his well-received story collection Love Is Power, or Something Like That(2013), this novel further establishes Nigerian Barrett as an important voice in African fiction. 

The Book of Harlan, by Bernice L. McFadden When it comes to Harlan Elliott’s life, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts—until fate throws him squarely in the path of evil. Harlan leads a pretty routine existence as a young black man coming of age in 1920s Jazz Age Harlem. Playing with themes of divine justice and the suffering of the righteous, McFadden presents a remarkably crisp portrait of one average man’s extraordinary bravery.

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman In Backman’s latest, ever the dutiful, long-suffering wife, Britt-Marie leaves her boorish husband when she discovers his infidelity—at 63, with no job experience and little life experience to speak of. The theme of the awakening of an unappreciated, invisible woman has been done before, of course, but in Backman’s scattershot community of losers and loners, Britt-Marie’s metamorphosis from cocoon to butterfly seems all the more remarkable.

charmed particles.jpgCharmed Particles,
by Chrissy Kolaya Ambitious theoretical physicist Abhijat is consumed by his quest for new discoveries at the National Accelerator Research Lab outside Chicago, leaving his wife, Sarala, fresh from Bombay, largely alone as she tries to adjust to the strange quiet of small-town American life. Kolaya investigates urgent questions of ignorance and fear, authenticity and deceit, of bridging gaps between cultures and individuals, and of recognizing and embracing what truly matters.

The Cosmopolitans
by Sarah Schulman Prolific author and gay rights and AIDS activist Schulman, recipient of a Guggenheim, a Fulbright, and two ALA Stonewall Book Awards, is dedicated to telling stories of the discriminated against, the marginalized, and the overlooked. She takes precise and revealing measure of prejudice, mendacity, fear, and greed, creating a captivating, perceptive, and empathic novel of New York on the brink of the first stirrings of the civil rights and women’s movements.

The Curious Charm of Arthur Pepper,
by Phaedra Patrick A year after the death of his wife, Miriam, Arthur Pepper discovers a charm bracelet she’d hidden away, and the charms point to parts of her life he’d never known during their 40 years of marriage. Patrick’s debut novel tells a sweet and poignant story about marriage, grief, and memory. Readers will find bumbling, earnest Arthur utterly endearing.

The Drone Eats with Me: A Gaza Diary,
by Atef Abu Saif Gazan novelist Saif is no stranger to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In his devastating first-hand account of the 50-day war in Gaza in 2014, he serves as an eyewitness for those who lived and perished that summer. With journalistic eloquence and the compassion of a husband and father of five, his war diary records his family’s experiences day by day, night by never-ending night.

hard and heavy.jpgA Hard and Heavy Thing, by Matthew J. Hefti Lifelong friends Levi and Nick have been in college “mere weeks” when 9/11 changes their world. They decide to join the army to fight in Afghanistan, but by the time they go to war, they are sent to Iraq. America’s past wars have already inspired fine novels, and this debut effort is an intense, compelling addition. Hefti was an explosive-ordnance-disposal technician deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq twice, and his depiction of life and death in the misbegotten Iraq invasion will stay with readers for a long time.

Heat and Lightby Jennifer Haigh In the same way that characters from Haigh’s Baker Towers (2005) dealt with Bakerton nearly becoming a ghost town after the Pennsylvania coal mines were shuttered, the characters here face similarly big changes as fracking comes to the area. Neighbors and friends find themselves at odds as Bakerton farmland is snapped up around them by unscrupulous developers, who sweet-talk their way into the rural area and lay waste to the land. 

The Honeymoon, by Dinitia Smith Smith’s vivid exploration of the mind of author George Eliot, given name Marian Evans, and her late-in-life marriage to John Walter Cross raises the bar for historical fiction. Eliot fans will certainly inhale every page, but any historical-fiction readers will thoroughly relish Smith’s tale of a remarkable woman and an unlikely Victorian love.   

The Measure of Darknessby Liam Durcan Like Abraham Verghese, Durcan is a medical doctor who moonlights as a novelist. In Cutting for Stone, Verghese follows two conjoined twins and weaves typhoid fever, leukemia, and syphilis into his tale. Durcan also writes about two brothers: a once promising architect, Martin, who gives up on his wife, kids, and career and has a mysterious accident, and Brendan, who spends time in Vietnam.

miss jane.jpgMiss Jane, by Brad Watson In rural Mississippi in 1915, country doctor Ed Thompson is fairly certain that the child born to Sylvester and Ida Chisholm—sure to be their last—is a girl. But a strange formation of key parts leads him to do further research before reporting back with certainty, tempering what was already a rather uncelebrated birth, unplanned and late in the Chisholms’ lives. The narrative, which closely follows Jane, the gruff father who’s only tender with her, and the wise, warm doctor who becomes her closest companion, is affecting, nature-bound, and grounded in its glory.

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, by Sue Klebold On the morning of April 20, 1999, author Klebold’s son, Dylan, and his friend, Eric Harris, committed one of the worst school shootings in American history. Klebold’s painful memoir unfolds with more sorrow than drama; readers will be left with the sense that even the “best” mother cannot know what her child may be feeling or thinking.

Orphan’s Inheritance,
 by Aline Ohanesian Stretching back and forth through time over the course of the twentieth century, Ohanesian’s heartrending debut chronicles the painful odyssey of one family against the broader backdrop of the Armenian genocide.  Ohanesian does a remarkable job of conveying the weight and the influence of time and place without excusing or excluding the human dimension that necessarily factors into the unfolding cataclysm.

Over the Plain Houses, by Julia Franks In Eakin, a small town in Appalachian North Carolina, Irene Lambey lives in excessive austerity with her preacher-husband, Brodis: no electricity, no dancing, no piano playing. To satisfy her nostalgia for her former, more self-possessed life, Irene sneaks out of the house at night to commune with keepsakes from her past, which she stores in a nearby cave.  Readers curious about religious fundamentalism and women overcoming societal pressures will be moved.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommendby Katarina Bivald In what is clearly a case of the world’s worst timing, Sara Lindqvist arrives in the ramshackle town of Broken Wheel, Iowa, on the day of Amy Harris’ funeral, having abandoned her ho-hum life in Hannige, Sweden, to meet the woman she knows only through the books they’ve swapped and letters they’ve shared. Touching and lively, Bivald’s genuine homage to the power of books vibrates with fondness for small-town life and fascination with its indelible connections.

this is your life.jpgThis Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison With a tip of the hat to the 1950s game show This Is Your Life, Evison’s droll portrait of 78-year-old Harriet Chance homes in on key incidents in the widow’s life. As Harriet sets off on an Alaskan cruise, she is visited by the ghost of her dead husband, Bernard, who held some dark secrets that, once revealed, inspire Harriet to seriously reevaluate her life.  Uplifting and melancholy, funny and thought-provoking, this read speaks directly to the importance of acceptance and healing.

This Side of Providence, by Rachel M. Harper Both uplifting and melancholy, funny and thought-provoking, this entertaining read speaks directly to the importance of acceptance and healing. This powerful story of hope and redemption reveals the un- acknowledged side of one of our oldest American cities, where even the bleakest of realities can’t destroy the bonds between parent and child.

300 Days of Sun, by Deborah Lawrenson Journalist Joanna Millard has traveled to the Portuguese town of Faro to escape an unhappy love affair and a stalled career. While attending language school, she meets Nathan Emberlin, a charming young man with a mysterious past. Lawrenson has written a deeply satisfying novel, a rich story with a strong feeling for time and place and the expert pacing of the best thrillers.

The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories, by Anthony Marra This powerful collection of interconnected short stories by the gifted Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, 2013) spans the gamut of the Russian experience, covering the years 1937 to the present. Between bursts of acidic humor, Marra summons the terror, polluted landscapes, and diminished hopes of generations of Russians in a tragic and haunting book. 

What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir, by Abigail Thomas In astutely titled short chapters, from a quarter-page to a few pages, best-selling author Thomas walks readers with her through some heady times, including love affairs, friendships, pets, cancer, and death. She intersperses her recollections with discussions of her artwork (paint on glass) and how the colors and the results surprise her. This episodic memoir is full of love and life.
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