The Women’s National Book Association has released their 2012 list of “Great Group Reads.”
What makes a book a good contender for reading groups? The committee looked for fully realized characters and strong narratives, as well as books “which perhaps have flown under the radar of reviews and reading groups overwhelmed by the sheer number of new releases each year.”
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By: John Boyne
A masterfully told tale of passion, jealousy, heroism and betrayal set in the gruesome trenches of World War I. It is September 1919: twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he fought alongside during the Great War. But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He can no longer keep a secret and has finally found the courage to unburden himself of it. As Tristan recounts the horrific details of what to him became a senseless war, he also speaks of his friendship with Will—from their first meeting on the training grounds at Aldershot to their farewell in the trenches of northern France. The intensity of their bond brought Tristan happiness and self-discovery as well as confusion and unbearable pain. The Absolutist is a masterful tale of passion, jealousy, heroism, and betrayal set in one of the most gruesome trenches of France during World War I. This novel will keep readers on the edge of their seats until its most extraordinary and unexpected conclusion, and will stay with them long after they’ve turned the last page. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: David Maine
Dr. Regina Moss has built herself a successful career as a psychiatrist in Boston: she enjoys a lucrative private practice, hefty consultation fees, and a reputation that inspires colleagues and patients alike. Why then, is Regina haunted by her past? Why does her own daughter barely speak to her? What’s the story with her gruff, softhearted husband Walter—and why can’t Regina stop thinking about the lanky new tech on the ward? An Age of Madness peels back the layers of Regina’s psyche in a voice that is brash, bitter and blackly humorous, laying bare her vulnerabilities while drawing the reader unnervingly close to this memorable heroine. From the author of The Preservationist, which was hailed as “hilarious and illuminating” by The Los Angeles Times Book Review and “pithy and smart” by the New York Post, comes the latest turnabout in a career filled with unexpected surprises. An Age of Madness brings a sharp edge of psychological realism to a story filled with startling revelations and heartrending twists. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Chad Harbach
At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended. Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ team captain and Henry’s best friend, realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life. As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment—to oneself and to others. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Jan-Philipp Sendker
A poignant and inspirational love story set in Burma, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats spans the decades between the 1950s and the present. When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be… until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Kathy Hepinstall
Amid the mayhem of the Civil War, Virginia plantation wife, Iris Dunleavy, is put on trial and convicted of madness. It is the only reasonable explanation the court can see for her willful behavior, so she is sent away to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good, compliant woman. Iris knows, though, that her husband is the true criminal; she is no lunatic, only guilty of disagreeing with him on notions of justice, cruelty and property. On this remote Florida island, cut off by swamps and seas and military blockades, Iris meets a wonderful collection of residents—some seemingly sane, some wrongly convinced they are crazy, some charmingly odd, some dangerously unstable. Which of these is Ambrose Weller, the war-haunted Confederate soldier whose memories terrorize him into wild fits that can only be calmed by the color blue, but whose gentleness and dark eyes beckon to Iris. The institution calls itself modern, but Iris is skeptical of its methods, particularly the dreaded “water treatment.” She must escape, but she has found new hope and love with Ambrose. Can she take him with her? If they make it out, will the war have left anything for them to make a life from, back home? Blue Asylum is a vibrant, beautifully-imagined, absorbing story of the lines we all cross between sanity and madness. It is also the tale of a spirited woman, a wounded soldier, their impossible love, and the undeniable call of freedom. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Alyson Hagy
An unforgettable story of men and horses, the American West, and the dream of a ticket out. Will Testerman is a young Wyoming horse trainer determined to make something of himself. Money is tight at the family ranch, where he’s living again after a disastrous end to his job on the Texas show-horse circuit. He sees his chance with a beautiful quarter horse, a filly that might earn him a reputation, and spends his savings to buy her. Armed with stories and the confidence of youth, he devotes himself to her training—first, in the familiar barns and corrals of home, then on a guest ranch in the rugged Absaroka mountains, and, in the final trial, on the glittering, treacherous polo fields of southern California. With Boleto, Alyson Hagy delivers a masterfully told, exquisitely observed novel about our intimate relationships with animals and money, against the backdrop of a new West that is changing forever. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Alice Hoffman
The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s most ambitious and mesmerizing novel, a tour de force of research and imagination. Nearly two thousand years ago, nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic and iconic event, Hoffman’s novel is a spellbinding tale of four extraordinarily bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada by a different path. Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, an expert assassin, never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wife, watched the murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her young grandsons, rendered mute by what they have witnessed. Aziza is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and expert marksman who finds passion with a fellow soldier. Shirah, born in Alexandria, is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power. The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets—about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Anita Amirrezvani
Iran in 1576 is a place of wealth and dazzling beauty. But when the Shah dies without having named an heir, the court is thrown into tumult. Princess Pari, the Shah’s daughter and protégée, knows more about the inner workings of the state than almost anyone, but her maneuvers to instill order after her father’s sudden death incite resentment and dissent. Pari and her closest adviser, Javaher, a eunuch able to navigate the harem as well as the world beyond the palace walls, possess an incredible tapestry of secrets that explode in a power struggle of epic proportions.
Legendary women—from Anne Boleyn to Queen Elizabeth I to Mary, Queen of Scots—changed the course of history in the royal courts of England. While they are celebrated, few people know of the powerful and charismatic women in the Muslim world. Based loosely on Princess Pari Khan Khanoom, Equal of the Sun is a riveting story of political intrigue that brings one extraordinary woman to light. Anita Amirrezvani is a master storyteller, and her lustrous prose brings to life this rich and labyrinthine world with a stunning cast of characters—passionate and brave men and women who defy or embrace their destiny in a Machiavellian game played by those who lust for power and will do anything to attain it. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Jennifer Haigh
It is the spring of 2002 and a perfect storm has hit Boston. Across the city’s archdiocese, trusted priests have been accused of the worst possible betrayal of the souls in their care. Estranged for years from her difficult and demanding family, Sheila McGann has remained close to her older brother, Art, the popular, dynamic pastor of a large suburban parish. When Art finds himself at the center of the maelstrom, Sheila returns to Boston, ready to fight for him and his reputation. But what she discovers is more complicated than she imagined as the scandal forces long-buried secrets to surface. Elegantly crafted and sharply observed, Jennifer Haigh’s Faith is a haunting meditation on loyalty and family that demonstrates how the truth can shatter our deepest beliefs—and restore them. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Wiley Cash
In his phenomenal debut novel—a mesmerizing literary thriller about the bond between two brothers and the evil they face in a small North Carolina town—author Wiley Cash displays a remarkable talent for lyrical, powerfully emotional storytelling. A Land More Kind than Home is a modern masterwork of Southern fiction, reminiscent of the writings of John Hart (Down River), Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter), Ron Rash (Serena), and Pete Dexter (Paris Trout)—one that is likely to be held in the same enduring esteem as such American classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and A Separate Peace. A brilliant evocation of a place, a heart-rending family story, a gripping and suspenseful mystery—with A Land More Kind than Home, a major American novelist enthusiastically announces his arrival. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Lily Tuck
The tale unfolds over a single night as Nina sits at the bedside of her husband, Philip, whose sudden and unexpected death is the reason for her lonely vigil. Still too shocked to grieve, she lets herself remember the defining moments of their long union, beginning with their meeting in Paris. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Vaddey Ratner
You are about to read an extraordinary story. It will take you to the very depths of despair and show you unspeakable horrors. It will reveal a gorgeously rich culture struggling to survive through a furtive bow, a hidden ankle bracelet, fragments of remembered poetry. It will ensure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated two million people lost their lives. It will give you hope, and it will confirm the power of storytelling to lift us up and help us not only survive but transcend suffering, cruelty, and loss.
For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours, bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.
By: Peter Behrens
An unforgettable saga of love, loss, and exhilarating change spanning half a century in the lives of a restless family, from the author of the acclaimed novel The Law of Dreams.
The O’Briens is a family story unlike any told before, a tale that pours straight from the heart of a splendid, tragic, ambitious clan. In Joe O’Brien—grandson of a potato-famine emigrant, and a backwoods boy, railroad magnate, patriarch, brooding soul—Peter Behrens gives us a fiercely compelling man who exchanges isolation and poverty in the Canadian wilds for a share in the dazzling riches and consuming sorrows of the twentieth century. When Joe meets Iseult Wilkins in Venice, California, the story of their courtship—told in Behrens’s gorgeous, honed style—becomes the first movement in a symphony of the generations. Husband and wife, brothers, sisters-in-law, children and grandchildren, the O’Briens engage unselfconsciously with their century, and we experience their times not as historical tableaux but as lives passionately lived. At the heart of this clan—at the heart of the novel—is mystery and madness grounded in the history of Irish sorrow. The O’Briens is the story of a man, a marriage and a family, told with epic precision and wondrous imagination. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Amanda Coplin
At the turn of the twentieth century, in a rural stretch of the Pacific Northwest, a reclusive orchardist, William Talmadge, tends to apples and apricots as if they were loved ones. A gentle man, he’s found solace in the sweetness of the fruit he grows and the quiet, beating heart of the land he cultivates. One day, two teenage girls appear and steal his fruit from the market; they later return to the outskirts of his orchard to see the man who gave them no chase. Feral, scared and very pregnant, the girls take up on Talmadge’s land and indulge in his deep reservoir of compassion. Just as the girls begin to trust him, men arrive in the orchard with guns, and the shattering tragedy that follows will set Talmadge on an irrevocable course not only to save and protect but also to reconcile the ghosts of his own troubled past. Transcribing America as it once was before railways and roads connected its corners, Amanda Coplin weaves a tapestry of solitary souls who come together in the wake of unspeakable cruelty and misfortune. She writes with breathtaking precision and empathy, and in The Orchardist she crafts an astonishing debut novel about a man who disrupts the lonely harmony of an ordered life when he opens his heart and lets the world in. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Christopher Tilghman
A masterful novel that confronts the dilemmas of race, family, and forbidden love in the wake of America’s Civil War. Fifteen years after the publication of his acclaimed novel Mason’s Retreat, Christopher Tilghman returns to the Mason family and the Chesapeake Bay in The Right-Hand Shore. It is 1920, and Edward Mason is making a call upon Miss Mary Bayly, the current owner of the legendary Mason family estate, the Retreat. Miss Mary is dying. She plans to give the Retreat to the closest direct descendant of the original immigrant owner that she can find. Edward believes he can charm the old lady, secure the estate and be back in Baltimore by lunchtime. Instead, over the course of a long day, he hears the stories that will forever bind him and his family to the land. He hears of Miss Mary’s grandfather brutally selling all his slaves in 1857 in order to avoid the reprisals he believes will come with Emancipation. He hears of the doomed efforts by Wyatt Bayly, Miss Mary’s father, to turn the Retreat into a vast peach orchard, and of Miss Mary and her brother growing up in a fractured and warring household. He learns of Abel Terrell, son of free blacks who becomes head orchardist, and whose family becomes intimately connected to the Baylys and to the Mason legacy. The drama in this richly textured novel proceeds through vivid set pieces: on rural nineteenth-century industry; on a boyhood on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; on the unbreakable divisions of race and class; and, finally, on two families attempting to save a son and a daughter from the dangers of their own innocent love. The result is a radiant work of deep insight and peerless imagination about the central dilemma of American history. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Naomi Benaron
Running the Rift follows the progress of Jean Patrick Nkuba from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life. A naturally gifted athlete, he sprints over the thousand hills of Rwanda and dreams of becoming his country’s first Olympic medal winner in track. But Jean Patrick is a Tutsi in a world that has become increasingly restrictive and violent for his people. As tensions mount between the Hutu and Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream that running might deliver him, and his people, from the brutality around them. Winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Naomi Benaron has written a stunning and gorgeous novel that—through the eyes of one unforgettable boy—explores a country’s unraveling, its tentative new beginning, and the love that binds its people together. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Jesmyn Ward
Winner of the 2011 National Book Award.
A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn’t show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting. As the twelve days that make up the novel’s framework yield to their dramatic conclusion, this unforgettable family—motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce—pulls itself up to face another day. A big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bones is muscled with poetry, revelatory and real. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Eowyn Ivey
Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart—he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone—but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them. (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Liane Moriarty
A “cheerfully engaging” novel for anyone who’s ever asked herself, “How did I get here?” Alice Love is twenty-nine, crazy about her husband, and pregnant with her first child. So imagine Alice’s surprise when she comes to on the floor of a gym (a gym! She HATES the gym) and is whisked off to the hospital where she discovers the honeymoon is truly over—she’s getting divorced, she has three kids, and she’s actually 39 years old. Alice must reconstruct the events of a lost decade, and find out whether it’s possible to reconstruct her life at the same time. She has to figure out why her sister hardly talks to her, and how is it that she’s become one of those super skinny moms with really expensive clothes. Ultimately, Alice must discover whether forgetting is a blessing or a curse, and whether it’s possible to start over… (Publisher’s Marketing)
By: Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson’s novels have established her as a major figure in world literature. She has written some of the most admired books of the past few decades, including her internationally bestselling first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents that is now often required reading in contemporary fiction. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the Universe as Cosmic Dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past that Jeanette thought she’d written over and repainted rose to haunt her, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a tough-minded search for belonging—for love, identity, home, and a mother. (Publisher’s Marketing)