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My Reviews

Loving Frank: A Novel by Nancy Horan
 
Informative, Interesting, Dramatic
historical fiction about Frank Lloyd Wright and his relationship with Mamah Cheney

This is a terrific book for discussion. For one thing, every person in my group enjoyed reading it--nobody had anything negative to say about the reading experience. There are so many topics to discuss--architecture, the hazards of trying to live with a genius, women's rights and the feminist movement, the differences between then and now, paparazzi as the price of fame. It was fascinating!

We would highly recommend this as a great read for other book clubs.

The Double Bind: A Novel by Chris Bohjalian
 
Interesting, Dramatic, Brilliant
Laurel Easterbrook is a young social worker who becomes obsessed with the photographs left behind by a deceased client.

I really felt duped by the author. One quote a member brought to our discussion was "a literary game not played by fair rules". It made for good discussion although only three or four of the ten of us present liked the book. But then one of the best discussions we've had was for a book not one of us actually enjoyed! On the other hand, if it's a book everyone loves, discussion is apt to be a little boring.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Gloomy, Interesting
Innocent Traitor

Our Book Club enjoyed talking about Innocent Traitor. Although it wasn't a title that some of us would have picked up on our own, and since it's based on fact, I was concerned that we wouldn't find much to discuss. Not to worry! We talked about writing style (changing points of view), characterization, how likely it is that Jane would have reacted as she did (did author do a good job of speculating about how she might have been feeling?), the way people lived in those times, education, etc. There was plenty to discuss, and several of us are now wanting to learn or read about Queen Mary! Even though most of us knew how it was going to end, we kept reading. Now, that's the sign of a good author!

 
Book Club Recommended
Boring, Pointless, Unconvincing
The Senator's Wife

Two women, at different stages of their lives, are drawn together as neighbors sharing a duplex in New England. The older has a most unconventional marriage to a well-known retired senator; the younger has been married only a few months, and is still trying to get comfortable in her life. Their lives become entangled as each tries to cope with her challenges.

Although this book certainly provided fodder for discussion, several of us didn't care for it at all. None of the four main characters was particularly likable--and I, for one, did not especially care about spending time with them! We also thought the characters and some of the occurrences in the book were not very believable. Even the time line seemed unrealistic.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows
 
Informative, Interesting, Fun
The Guersney Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

This was a fine book to read--several of us enjoyed it quite a lot. Others were put off by the format, since it was written as letters. There just wasn't a lot to discuss--oh, wasn't it awful what they had to endure during the war; how terrible to have been occupied for so many years, etc. Many of us didn't know about this occupation, and were glad to learn. However, our discussion was brief.

Half Broken Things by Morag Joss
 
Book Club Recommended
Fun, Dark, Brilliant
Half Broken Things

This title by English author Morag Joss is unlike anything I've ever read, and certainly not a title I'd ever have picked up had it not been a book club choice.

Jean has had a long career as a house-sitter, enjoying someone else's roof over her head. Now, however, her agency must let her go, since she is well past retirement age. Her final assignment is to watch over, for eight months, a lovely estate hidden away from a tiny village. Soon after moving into this home she feels it reaching out to envelop her in its comforts. Then to make her life complete, Jean decides to add another resident...

Although it moves at a leisurely pace, paying attention early on pays off. The story builds on the many small details dropped by the author. Encourage your members to stick with it to the end. They won't be sorry!

Certainly there are issues to discuss, such as what do we really mean by "family". The writing is lovely; and the sense of place clearly drawn. The suspense is of a different kind than we are used to, but I read practically the entire book with a sense of dread--surely they will be found out, and what then??

The dark humor may not resonate with readers until they think back on the story and characters, and discuss it with friends. Our group got rather rowdy talking about Half Broken Things!

Holy Fools by Joanne Harris
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Slow, Dramatic
Holy Fools

This book was certainly interesting. I knew little about this time period (early 1600s in France)so the historical details were fascinating--the life of a drama troupe or "circus" on the road, life in a small family-sponsored convent. Parts of it were somewhat unbelievable, but perhaps in those times people were less skeptical than we are now. For me the part set in the convent went pretty slowly. It was difficult to keep the nuns straight; if I were to offer any suggestion, it would be to keep a list of players! It was surprising to me, because "convent books" are a sub-genre I've enjoyed very much over the years. The final big scene made up for all the slow pages--it was like something straight out of Dan Brown! Very exciting, and hard to predict an outcome. Joanne Harris' writing is excellent--very sensual, in every sense of the word. At our club, opinions varied widely. Some didn't make it past the first page; others found it hard to put down. There were definitely things to discuss, from the history of the time, to how these old convents were set up, to the relationship between the protagonist and her sometimes villainous lover. I'm not sorry to have read it!

Stealing Buddha's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Boring, Interesting
Stealing Buddha's Dinner

Our group found quite a lot to talk about in this account of a Vietnamese refugee family who found themselves transplanted among the mostly Dutch residents of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Although many sections of the book were repetitive and worked too hard at driving home the point of just how different Bich felt as she was growing up, we were interested in her experiences, and how the other members of her family integrated themselves into American society--or not! We wished that it had been in chronological order--the jumping around in time was disconcerting. We agreed that if Bich's family had immigrated in 2009, their experience would be quite different. Even Grand Rapids is much more diverse than it was 30 years ago!

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Beautiful, Difficult
Elegance of the Hedgehog

The consensus of the group was--there is no consensus! Several LOVED it; a couple read it but didn't like it, and several just hated it so much they couldn't read it! The format probably was offputting for some; others thought there was just too much philosophy.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Dramatic, Insightful
The Heretic's Daughter

This gave a fascinating look at the Salem witch trials, and how people in America lived in the late 1600s. It was great for discussion because there were so many different aspects to the story--family life and relationships, disease and public health, the witchcraft craze, the judicial system, bullying, and more! Of course, as several members pointed out, it was not a particularly uplifting or cheery story--but well-worth reading, nonetheless.

 
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Brilliant
American Salvage

My response to this collection of short stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell was visceral--her words and characters penetrated right into my being. The stories are heart-breaking and gut-wrenching. Her characters are the people on the fringe of society who are just barely making it--meth addicts and alcoholics; men and women at the end of their ropes earning or scraping together just enough to survive. There is love to be found here among these people, as well as hate--and guns. Lots of guns! Campbell lives 20 miles from here--we see these people every day in the library, so her stories seemed especially relevant. Her writing is stunning, and we won't soon forget the characters she introduced us to!

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Inspiring, Interesting
The Help


This is a great book for discussion--there are endless important topics to talk about. We really didn't run out, but kept veering off into how prejudiced were WE in 1962, how prejudiced are we NOW (being every one of us a white-bread northerner), telling stories of our own parents' household help, etc., etc.

We could have stayed for hours!

 
Book Club Recommended
Fun, Boring, Pointless
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Rhoda relates the story of growing up in a Mennonite home in California, and the breakup of her 15 year marriage to a fellow who left her for a man he met on gay.com. Our feelings about this title were mixed. Some of us thought it was uproariously funny, but it just didn't set right with others. There is room for discussion, but basically for our group it just came down to some liked it and some didn't!

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick
 
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Dramatic, Interesting
A Reliable Wife

This was a great book for discussion because we had so many different opinions. Some of us loved the writing style, some hated it; some thought the characters were just too monstrous, others found them fascinating. It's not a very pretty story, to be sure, but it was kind of like watching a car wreck--what on earth are these people going to do next!

So not a cheery book, but worth reading, and fine for discussion!

 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
Let the Great World Spin

Most of our members liked this title quite a lot. We agreed that it got better as it went along--you had to really get to know the characters and to get used to McCann's writing style before you could become fully invested in reading it. One of us didn't get past the first little bit, and we chided her! She probably would have enjoyed it had she stuck with it.

It's difficult to write a concise review of such a sprawling book! Two Irish brothers end up living in New York City. Through their eyes, and the eyes of many other New Yorkers, we see New York as it really was in 1974. One of the brothers, Corrie, belongs to a religious order, and he has taken it upon himself to serve the prostitutes in the Projects. The entire story goes around and keeps coming back to the young man who walked the tight rope between the twin towers. It's a satisfying story that comes full circle--if the reader will give it a chance!

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
 
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Interesting, Inspiring
Half Broke Horses

Our group liked this title pretty well, although we were split as to whether or not we liked the protagonist, Lily Casey. It certainly makes all of us who have not yet read Glass Castles, also by Jeannette Walls, eager to get our hands on it! A rip-roaring western yarn, where the author often makes Lily seem larger than life. Some of us found her unbelievable, others were willing to accept every word as God's truth! Over all we liked it, but perhaps didn't take it very seriously.

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Difficult, Dark
The Dress Lodger

Only three of us gathered to discuss this title--perhaps an indicator that the rest of our group couldn't finish it? Or just didn't like it and didn't want to spend time discussing it?

We couldn't even decide if we were glad we had read it. Set in a large town in England during the 1730's, the story involves grave-robbing (so physicians and medical students would have cadavers to aid their learning), prostitution (or more specifically "dress lodging" where an entrepreneurial man would purchase a beautiful and expensive gown for his girl to wear, so she could cater to a higher class clientele), and a cholera epidemic. You can guess how much fun it was! We learned that life in those times was desperate, grimy (filth everywhere), and ugly! We were all glad we hadn't lived then.

We also didn't care for the author's writing style. There were many narrative asides to the reader that were most disconcerting!

That said, although none of us liked it very much (in fact we agreed that there weren't many people we'd recommend it to), there were certainly plenty of topics for discussion. Some of the subjects we hit upon were the differences between the social classes, the horrible living conditions of the times (mostly lower class, but the higher classes would have been subjected to it as well, when out in the filthy streets), how there are always some who rise above their station or condition, and the devastation caused when disease is combined with unsanitary living situations.

I wouldn't steer another club away from discussing The Dress Lodger, but be forewarned! It's not a pleasant read!

People of the Book: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Interesting, Insightful
The People of the Book

This is our Club's favorite type of book, because it is so meaty. There was plenty to discuss--we never ran out of things to say! Hanna Heath is a conservateur of ancient manuscripts. When an extremely rare version of the Haggadah is found, she embarks on a study to determine where it has been in the last 500 years. Whose hands have touched it, and what might their stories be?

Brooks has woven a story from each of the centuries in this book's life into a more contemporary account of Hannah and her travels as she studies various aspects of the haggadah. Each of the stories draws the reader in, from the WWII resisters in the mountains above Sarajevo all the way back to the African slave girl whose talent for art saved her life more than once!

This was a very satisfying read, and we would recommend it hightly for other clubs.

 
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Graphic, Informative
The Lotus Eaters

Several of us have always avoided novels about the Vietnam War. This title did not change our opinions. It will be a very long time before I pick up another.
Soli's writing is quite lovely, and her descriptions, especially of the land and the people were wonderful. The characters were not very likeable--even the protagonist Helen wasn't anyone we would care to know. Of course there was plenty to discuss--what drove Helen and the other photojournalists to put their lives in danger? Why was the war being fought? Who were friends, and who were enemies? Why, why, why??? What a waste it was--of money, but most importantly, of young men. Very sad...

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Confusing, Gloomy
The Particular Sadness of the Lemon Cake

Our club had widely varied opinions on this title. All pretty much agreed that much of the writing was lovely, and that it held their attention, and they wanted to finish it. We ended up with lots of 2s and 3s, and a couple 4s. I would recommend it to other clubs, not because everyone will love it, but because it can spark excellent discussion.

Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
The Room

An excellent choice for book groups because of the myriad discussion possibilities! Our group spend a lot of time wondering if Jack and Ma would "make it" in the real world because of the damage done to their psyches (and Jack's development) during their confinement. Some found the first part very difficult to read--emotionally--one member didn't even finish the book or come to our meeting because of this. Others of us found the first part much more fascinating than the last! Personally I adored Room and strongly recommend it as a book club title!

The Bells: A Novel by Richard Harvell
 
Book Club Recommended
Brilliant, Beautiful, Dramatic
The Bells

Our club hasn't read this and probably won't. They don't like having to read "long" books for book club! And although this is only 384 pages, it's not a fast read. There is too much going on with the language and the foreign setting--a reader has to give it plenty of time. For some it may even require some "plowing"! The world of 18th century Europe is beautifully drawn, with opera and Vienna playing a huge role. A wonderful story with music at its center, awaits the patient reader!

However, this is the wonderful story of a man who was born in a bell tower, and thus had perfect pitch, and the sound of music dwelt in his soul. At an early age, he ran away and was adopted by two monks as they traveled back to their monastery.

The Blue Orchard: A Novel by Jackson Taylor
 
Book Club Recommended
Poorly Written, Interesting, Dramatic
The Blue Orchard

Although this was nobody's favorite book, it certainly provided for great discussion! Growing up in the 1920's, Verna's life was never anything but hardscrabble. Her mother sent her off to work for a nearby family where she was raped by the man of the household at age 14. Of course, she became pregnant, and the local midwife helped her abort. The Depression hit, and she moved from town to town, looking for a decent job. Along the way, there were other men--unfortunately, the next one to get her pregnant was already married. She had the baby, and left him with her mother to raise, while she set off to make something of herself. Verna went to nursing school, and after a couple disappointing early jobs began to work with Dr. Crampton, a highly respected African-American physician. She cared for the women who came to him for abortions. Quite radical for the time period!

Along the way she married a man who at first was very good to her--and then he started drinking, and their relationship went downhill quickly.

Overall, this was a pretty bleak story. Verna was not a very likable protagonist--in fact there was only one pleasant character in the entire book! The writing was not stellar--there were sometimes discrepancies and anachronisms, perhaps due to poor editing. That said, though, it was a fine title for book club because there were so many topics for discussion. So, although none of us really loved The Blue Orchard, it certainly was thought-provoking, and for that reason I would recommend it.

The Lock Artist: A Novel by Steve Hamilton
 
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Interesting, Dark
The Lock Artist

Michigan author Steve Hamilton has written a riveting coming of age story about Michael, who at 18, has been mute since experiencing a traumatic event 10 years prior. During the course of one year, he discovers that he has two major talents--he is a gifted artist, and a genius at picking locks and cracking safes. These talents lead him down quite different paths. Hamilton jumps back and forth between two time periods--Michael's last summer of high school, and the summer after. The tension builds in both times, and you can't wait to find out what will happen next. Definitely a page-turner. Although the reader may not always agree with the choices Michael makes, it certainly creates an exciting and unpredictable life for him! Even though we couldn't find any discussion questions for this book, we had no trouble finding things to talk about. Was Michael the master of his fate or did he just allow things to happen to him? How is he at taking responsibility for his own actions? What will his life be like when he is released from prison? Will he speak again? A quick read, different for our club, but pretty popular.

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Interesting, Dramatic
The Privileges

This title by Jonathon Dee did not hit the spot for all of our members. It opens with a wonderful long chapter describing Adam and Cynthia's wedding day. Immediately the reader is struck by the opulence surrounding the bride and groom. They had plenty of money and weren't afraid to spend it! Later the author delves into the mind of each of the main characters--Adam, Cynthia, and their children April and Jonas. It deals with what life is like for children who have grown up with no material wants left unmet. And it deals with what it feels like to know you've earned your money in investments by skirting the law.

Because he covers so many years in this family's life, sections jump several years. This can feel a bit awkward. Dee's writing is very descriptive, although, personally it felt that sometimes he was telling rather than showing. We hear over and over how much Adam and Cynthia love one another, but we don't really see that so much in their actions.

Dee touches on several great topics for discussion--parenting (how not to do it!), being rich, feeling guilty, love, etc. It was fine for book club because we did not run out of things to talk about. Several of us said they didn't really enjoy reading it, but the more we discussed what the author had done, the more they appreciated it. So, yes--I would recommend this as a book club title--but you may find that not all your members will read it!

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
 
Book Club Recommended
Inspiring, Insightful, Interesting
Girl in Translation

Not all of us agreed that this was a great book. The writing wasn't the best, and the ending was especially weak. However, the story just sweeps you away! Kimberly Chang and her mother immigrated to Brooklyn when Kimberly was eleven years old. What was waiting for them there, neither could ever have guessed! Rather than being set up in a nice apartment by Kimberly's aunt, they are sent to the slums and forced to work in a sweatshop, making clothing. Fortunately, Kimberly has what she calls "a talent" for school. Watching her and her mother work through their struggles is an amazing ride. A real "feel good" read!

 
Book Club Recommended
Romantic, Fun, Insightful
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Our group just loved this book. The writing is wonderful, and the characters really come to life. If the plot was a bit weak nobody cared. This is just a delightful read! Its strongest aspect is its "Englishness". Major Pettigrew (DON'T call him Ernest!) is a retired British officer who served in India. After his wife dies, he surprisingly finds himself falling in love with Mrs. Ali, the local Pakistani shopkeeper who has recently lost her husband. Watching this relationship develop, and seeing the reactions of all the townspeople--to say nothing of the Major's family!--is a real treat. There is plenty to discuss--racism, outsiders, different cultures, the author's writing style. We all can't wait for Helen Simonson to publish another book!

 
Book Club Recommended
Confusing, Interesting, Insightful
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

In a series of non-chronological vignettes, Rachman tells the story of an international English newspaper which was founded in the 1950s, had its glory days in the 1960s, and pretty much struggled from then on. It's not so much the paper that the story is about-- though it did almost feel like a character--but the many people who worked there over the years. The author chose to use character sketches of the reporters, editors, proofreaders to tell the paper's story. In the 1990s when the internet came into prominence it was easy to see that the future wasn't very bright for a hard-copy newspaper. Most members of our book club enjoyed this a lot more than I did--for me, the format was too hard to keep up with (jumping from 2006 in the first chapter to 1953 in the next, then up to the near present again, and then to 1954). All of the characters were pretty unlikable which is never my favorite trait in a book. However, we did have a very lively discussion--not too much about weighty themes, but much about the writing, the format, and the really odd characters. If you select The Imperfectionists for your club, I would suggest taking notes as you go, for instance, in the first chapter, note the character's name and what position he's in: Lloyd Burko, stringer searching for stories, 2006. And on the italicized sections, especially, be sure to add the date!

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dramatic, Dark
Before I Go To Sleep

Our group was pretty divided on this title. Some of us liked it a lot--and others not at all. Those who didn't like it thought it moved too slowly in the middle. The rest couldn't put it down, and stayed up too late reading it! None of us thought the ending was very credible--it was quite overdone and unbelievable. It was fun to talk about, though!

The 19th Wife: A Novel by David Ebershoff
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Interesting, Insightful
The 19th Wife

Well, The 19th Wife gave us plenty to talk about! I think we agreed that we found the contemporary story more engaging than the tale told from AnnEliza's point of view in the late 1800s. It was sometimes hard to keep characters straight, in both time periods. Now, which of the wives shot The whole story was fascinating in a kind of car-wreck way! Did they really live like that? Are there places where polygamy is still common practice today? Great discussion, too, on LDS as opposed to Firsts and similar splinter groups.

 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Dark
A Land More Kind than Home

This is a rather sad story about life in a very small community in the mountains of North Carolina. Many of the people there are taken in by a smooth talking preacher, who among other things, uses snake handling as part of his worship. The congregation just follows along blindly, not even stopping him when one of their members dies of a snake bite. Most of the story is told from the point of view of nine-year-old Jess, who can do nothing but watch as his family disintegrates in front of his eyes. Heartbreaking, dark, and really not much fun to read! (Not that there wasn\'t plenty to talk about--this book really got us going!)

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
defending jacob

This book inspired one of the most lively discussions our group has ever had! Several of us didn\\\'t LIKE it that much--the writing wasn\\\'t great, the format was a little confusing, and, for me, anyway, the characters didn\\\'t feel very real and were not likable. However, the plot was fascinating--what would you do if you were a District Attorney and your son was arrested for murder--and you fear that you have passed on to him the \\\"murder gene\\\" ? We actually talked about the book and our reactions for a full 50 minutes! So much better than when we all love a title; then we find there\\\'s very little to say. We barely used the discussion questions in the back of the book--we just didn\\\'t need them!

 
Book Club Recommended
Fun, Interesting, Adventurous
Where\\\'d You Go, Bernadette

Bernadette\\\'s life is unusual at best, She and her family live in a crumbling old mansion in Seattle. Bernadette hates Seattle, and we hear about that often. Her husband is a highly respected employee at Microsoft, and his life revolves around his work. This means that their daughter Bee gets little attention from anyone. After a series of unfortunate (but very funny) events, Bernadette disappears. Bee takes it upon herself to follow the clues, and find her mother.
It\\\'s pretty hysterical and we all enjoyed it. There were also important topics to discuss--family relationships, neighborliness (hahahaha!), faithfulness. If you haven\\\'t already read this one, put it on your list!

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Inspiring, Optimistic
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Our club enjoyed reading about Harold and his impromptu pilgrimage. In fact, it was universally appreciated by our members. We found it touching and it resonated with many of us (who are mostly of or near retirement age.) It was a heart-wrenching tale of atonement and regret--and Harold\\\'s journey was certainly life changing for him. We would recommend it highly to other clubs!

The Round House: A Novel by Louise Erdrich
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Informative, Interesting
The Round House -- Louise Erdrich

This was an interesting look at life on tribal reservation in the late 1980s. What grabbed us was the beautiful writing. The story was full of fascinating characters like we have never known. Many moral questions were raised, so it made for good discussion.

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