Summer has arrived, and it’s finally beginning to feel like it outside (here in Toronto, at least). As per tradition, Bookclub-in-a-Box’s Marilyn Herbert has put together a list of must-reads for this year. Whether you’re on the beach, on the subway, or at the cottage, you can’t go wrong with the following list, which spans enough genres to provide something for everybody. Have you read any of these books? What would you add to the list?
Rules of Civility (Amor Towles)
New York, 1937, is a place with a beat. War is not yet on the horizon, the jazz clubs are inviting, and it is still possible to be surprised by new people. Two young working women, Katey Kontent and Eve Ross, meet the enigmatic, charming, well-groomed, and seemingly wealthy Tinker Grey on the last night of 1937. The characters, fascinating and complex, sweep us along the streets and through the sites of New York.
Flight Behavior (Barbara Kingsolver)
Set in rural Tennessee, Dellarobia Turnbow, a young mother of two, sees a sight on the mountains behind her home that astounds and frightens her. Millions of monarch butterflies have arrived, having flown off-course from their usual destination in Mexico. Dellarobia is also thrown off-course from her decade-long marriage and narrow future. The presence of the butterflies has serious implications for the environment and economics of the world, the local area, as well as for Dellarobia and her family.
And the Mountains Echoed (Khaled Hosseini)
Hosseini’s third novel has been highly anticipated after the success of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Unlike the single narrators of his first two books, And the Mountains Echoed is a multigenerational family drama that circles the globe. It looks at the binding ties of a family in terms of love, loyalty, honour, sacrifice, and betrayal.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce)
Harold Fry is recently retired and has nothing to do to fill his time. His wife, Maureen, seems irritated with him underfoot. One day a letter comes addressed to Harold from Queenie, a former co-worker, whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. Queenie is dying in hospice and wrote to say goodbye. Thrown by this event, Harold writes a brief response and goes off to mail his letter. A conversation with a young shopkeeper convinces him that he must say his goodbye to Queenie in person. And so, Harold Fry begins walking from his home to the hospice — 600 miles. He believes that as long as he continues to walk, Queenie will remain alive.
TransAtlantic (Colum McCann)
Colum McCann takes his sweeping narrative across the oceans of time and place. His stories span 150 years between North America and Ireland. As with his other work, McCann’s individual characters merge into a grand, epic tale. Contrasting characters like the black American slave, Frederick Douglass, who goes to Ireland in 1945 to speak about the abolition of slavery, only to encounter Ireland in the midst of its worst famine ever. In 1919, two young American aviators, Alcock and Brown, try to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. In 1998, American senator George Mitchell heads to Northern Ireland to broker peace talks with Great Britain. McCann is looking at individual identity in a world that is quickly shrinking in national identity.
Life After Life (Kate Atkinson)
We have all experienced déjà vu, the feeling that we have been here or had this experience before. But what if we actually have the opportunity to live completely different lives, while starting out in the same place and time? Ursula is first born in 1910 in rural England. The umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck. Ursula is reborn on the same date a few more times, but with each retelling, her life (and the world’s history) unfolds differently. She is not precisely aware of what has happened to her before, but she senses echoes of the traumas she has previously experienced. Kate Atkinson is an experienced novelist who is experimenting with the novel’s form and sense of fiction.
City of Women (David R. Gillham)
With the men away at war, Sigrid Schroder, a German soldier’s wife, is alone, like all the other women in Berlin. She occupies herself with work, family, and life in general, trying to ignore what is going on around her, but she has a secret. She had a former Jewish lover, but she doesn’t know what has happened to him. This novel deals with the space between right and wrong, secrets and truth, and what, if anything, can be done by ordinary people.
Siege 13 (Tamas Dobozy)
This book is a collection of linked stories that read like a novel. Budapest in 1944 is caught between Nazi control and Soviet forces at her doorstep. By early 1945, the Soviets are firmly in charge. Dubozy’s stories look at the historical, psychological, and physical impact of the times. The 13 stories follow the survivors both in Budapest and abroad — in Canada, the U.S., and Europe.
Born Weird (Andrew Kaufman)
Born Weird is the story of a family (whose name was the mistake of the intake clerk at immigration) that has been scattered across the country and needs to regroup. The family’s dying matriarch, Grandma Weird, tells her grandchildren they were each given a blessing at birth, but that those blessings have inadvertently turned into curses (or “blursings,” as they call them). The five siblings must appear before Grandma at exactly 7:39 p.m. on April 20 so that she can lift the curses. This quirky book is allegorical fiction exploring themes of family love, loyalty, and the ties that bind. (Read the full Bookclub-in-a-Box review here.)
The Orphan Master’s Son (Adam Johnson)
North Korea is not usually perceived as a place of humour or mirth, but Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel lampoons life in this country, led by the supreme totalitarian leader (until 2011) Kim Jong-il. Johnson paints an absurdly Kafkaesque portrait of one man’s attempts to serve his leader — as a naval spy, a kidnapper, and tunnel soldier — and to win the attention of North Korea’s lovely leading lady, Sun Moon. Johnson is not Korean and is not attempting to create an insider story of real life in North Korea. Instead, he lets us peek in, mouth open, to a normally closed society.
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
America during the Roaring Twenties was a spectacular place and time. There was what seemed like boundless prosperity, music, and dance. Jazz afficionados and flappers were the flavour of the day, and it is this world that Fitzgerald introduces us to through Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and Daisy and Tom Buchanan. The American Dream is close at hand, but falls quickly apart in the presence of greed, cynicism, and open boundaries of behaviour. Fitzgerald catches America in between the two Great Wars.
The Wanting (Michael Lavigne)
Michael Lavigne follows up his provocative book, Not Me, with a story about the aftermath of a bus bombing in Israel. Lavigne gives us a trilogy of reactions from the injured architect, Roman Guttman; his 13-year-old daughter, Anyusha; and Amir, the young Palestinian who pushed the button. The buses burned during the 1990s when Israelis and Palestinians crossed over into each other’s territory almost at will. Terrorism was just in its beginning stages. Lavigne uses a bit of magic realism to discuss the difficult issues at hand.
Inside (Alix Ohlin)
Alix Ohlin uses the world of therapy to explore the issues and responsibilities of making ourselves available to others, be it strangers, family, or friends. Who do we help and how should we do it, while staying true to ourselves? We follow Grace, a devoted Montreal therapist, her patients, and even Grace’s ex-husband from Montreal, to the Arctic, New York, Hollywood, and Rwanda. With empathy and humour, Ohlin makes each of her characters seem like people we already know. Our reactions to them mirror the relationships we have in our own lives.
The Best Place on Earth (Ayelet Tsabari)
Ayelet Tsabari is a Yemeni-born Israeli who now lives in Canada. The Best Place on Earth is an ambitious collection of short stories that aims itself directly at the heart of current Israeli life. Her characters represent different ages, genders, cultures, social strata, and origins and each person deals differently with the daily realities of life in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and elsewhere in this tiny Middle-Eastern country. The stories are emotional, personal, wise, and empathetic. They have a lusty sexual outlook and are quietly honest and political. (Read the full Bookclub-in-a-Box review here.)
Caught (Lisa Moore)
David Slaney is a young, presumptuous, man who escapes from prison where he was serving time on a charge of marijuana trafficking. Instead of going straight, Slaney goes straight off into another adventure – he and his old partner head to Colombia to try to for one last, big enough score, to set them up for their future. Moore has captured a sense of freedom and wildness that was present in the 1970s all over North America. Moore focuses in the bravado of the young people in Newfoundland at that time. (Read the full Bookclub-in-a-Box review here.)
Americanah (Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie)
Nigeria, America, and London are the settings for this book about what it means to be black in both Africa and the West. Ifemelu was born and raised in Nigeria but leaves the country to study in the U.S. Among the difficulties she encountered in Nigeria, race and identity were not issues until she lived in America. This novel follows Ifemelu and her childhood love, Obinze, as they grow older and try to cope with multiple problems of love and living on three different continents and in three different societies.
The Blondes (Emily Schultz)
Canadian-American author Emily Schultz’s novel is based on a compelling premise. Just as grad student Hazel Hayes discovers she is pregnant by her (married) thesis advisor, Karl Mann, she finds herself caught up in an even more pressing dilemma: an unprecedented epidemic is spreading across New York City, turning blonde women—and only blonde women, natural or dyed—into violent, mindless killers. Attacks are becoming more frequent and more widespread, and when Hazel tries to flee the city to return home to Toronto, she finds that public panic and border security impede her ability to travel, or even to communicate with her family or her best friend. Overall, The Blondes accomplishes the impressive feat of being equal parts social commentary and a truly entertaining, sometimes gory read. (Read the full Bookclub-in-a-Box review here.)
A Hologram for the King (Dave Eggers)
From the publisher: In a rising Saudi Arabian city, far from weary, recession-scarred America, a struggling businessman pursues a last-ditch attempt to stave off foreclosure, pay his daughter’s college tuition, and finally do something great. In A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers takes us around the world to show how one man fights to hold himself and his splintering family together in the face of the global economy’s gale-force winds. This taut, richly layered, and elegiac novel is a powerful evocation of our contemporary moment — and a moving story of how we got here.