Six of My Favorite Book Club Books of 2023
More book club love!
My book club has been meeting for 17 years; we're all from a moms' group we joined when our kids were tiny and I'm so thankful that we have held steady!
Some of our book club "rules": we don't have to finish the book to attend, but we do need to be ready to hear spoilers; we always end up talking much more about books we're frustrated by or unhappy with than the ones we like; and sometimes (always?) we talk about life more than the book.
These are my favorite book club reads from the past year. (I've already read our November and December books and they're listed here as favorites!)
We also read A Play for the End of the World, How to Be Perfect, These Impossible Things, Reminders of Him, Less Is Lost, and Hester, which I listed in the Greedy Reading List Another Six Wonderfully Witchy Stories to Charm You.
For some of my favorite book club reads from the past, check out the Greedy Reading Lists Six Book Club Books I Loved Last Year, Six Book Club Books I Loved in 2021, and My Six Favorite Book Club Books of 2022.
Are you in a book club? Have you had any favorite book club reads this year?
01 Uncultured: A Memoir by Daniella Mestyanek Young
Young offers a brutally honest behind-the-scenes look at the systematic abuse she suffered in The Children of God cult and a front-row view of the misogyny and gaslighting she experienced in the military in this powerful memoir of resilience, reflection, and self-discovery.
Daniella Mestyanek Young grew up the daughter of high-ranking members of The Children of God cult in Brazil. Her mother was forced to marry the cult's leader when she was thirteen and worked as secretary for "The Family" for many years.
While in the cult, Daniella was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused, while being told these acts reflected God's love. She was not allowed to attend school.
Young doesn't flinch away from sharing the grueling details of the generational abuse, hunger, male-dominated power structures, and various methods of deprivation that kept her and other cult members under control of the Uncles, as the group called the men in charge.
I'm fascinated by a peek into a secret scene, and cults and the military each fit the bill. Young's pain in both avenues is substantial and horrifying, and she is brutally honest. Yet Uncultured is primarily an affecting account of Young's impressive perseverance, hard-fought growth, personal reflections, and significant strength.
For my full review of this book, please see Uncultured.
02 The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell
I was hooked on the captivating details of Renaissance life, masterfully paced swirling danger and paranoia, and richly developed major and minor characters in The Marriage Portrait.
In The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O'Farrell turns her attention to Renaissance Italy to tell a historical fiction story of a precocious third daughter of the grand duke of Florence.
But when young Lucrezia's older sister dies suddenly before her scheduled marriage to the ruler of Ferrara, the men of the families involved and their advisors are quick to thrust the preteen into her sister's place. Her trusted nurse and former milk-mother Sofia does her best to delay plans to wed the slight young girl to an older duke, but ultimately Lucrezia is offered as a substitute.
O'Farrell masterfully balances the reader on a tightrope, wondering how much of the potential danger Lucrezia perceives is imagined and how much is real. Lucrezia's shrinking world made me feel claustrophobic on her behalf and paranoid about everyone's potential intentions.
The Marriage Portrait offers wonderful details--of food, palace life, clothing, and art--as well as a shocking ending. O'Farrell presents a fascinating Author's Note about the real figures and circumstances that inspired this book.
For my full review, please check out The Marriage Portrait.
03 Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
In Lucy by the Sea, familiar Strout characters Lucy Barton and her ex-husband William flee New York City for rural Maine during the Covid-19 pandemic. The novel offers introspection, vulnerability, and new beginnings.
But despite her insecurities and what sometimes feels like fragility, Lucy is often able to see the difficult truth in situations and face them with stolid resolve. She alludes to her difficult childhood circumstances (which are more fully explored in My Name Is Lucy Barton), and we see that her lifelong ability to cope with despair and grim events serve her well in her current circumstances.
The nearby ocean is a haunting presence but also a steady, everchanging comfort to Lucy. To her surprise, she begins to notice and respond to the wonders of the light, the weather, the air, and the changing scenery of her daily walks in beautiful and immersive passages in the book.
Strout takes us into the heart of a stressful, unusual pandemic situation in which Lucy and William, longtime friends and ex-spouses, live in intimate solitude together, wondering about and worrying about their daughters, each other, themselves, and the world.
In order to feel the full weight of this book, I think it's important to first read Strout's My Name Is Lucy Barton. Lucy's creation of an imaginary, supportive mother and her loving responses to and comfort for Lucy in this book absolutely broke my heart. Oh William! is another Strout book linked to this story, but I didn't respond to that one as much as Lucy Barton or Lucy by the Sea.
For my full review, check out Lucy by the Sea.
04 Solito: A Memoir by Javier Zamora
Zamora's memoir of his grueling journey from El Salvador to the United States without family at age nine keeps the reader within each immediate, breathless, uncomfortable, fear-filled moment through and to the unknown.
In Solito, the poet Javier Zamora shares the story of his grueling journey from El Salvador to the United States at age nine.
Zamora keeps us in his nine-year-old perspective, which also serves to keep us focused on moment-by-moment sensations and concerns and makes the memoir feel immediate and breathless. Physical discomfort (he is tired, cold, hot, burned, thirsty, hungry), emotional turmoil (he feels loneliness, fear, concern, disconnectedness), and yearning (he is desperate for trust, for assurances, for safety and security, for reunification) are at the forefront.
Zamora takes us through what often feels like his literal step-by-step journey, without summarizing or skipping over impactful moments of need and want and despair. Yet he doesn't mine the difficult situation in an effort to build drama; his account feels honest and without emotional manipulation.
I listened to Solito as an audiobook. Click here for my full review of Solito.
You might also be interested in the titles on my Greedy Reading List Six Fascinating Books about Immigrants' Experiences.
05 Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
Atkinson's newest mystery is set in vivid Roaring Twenties London as Nellie Coker struggles to hold on to her empire of clubs while mysterious dark undercurrents threaten stability throughout the city.
It's 1926 in London, and recovery from the Great War inspires many in the city to dive into the wild nightlife scene and revel in the frenzy of the Jazz Age.
Nellie Coker is fresh out of jail and ready to jump back into the action, masterminding moves to increase her family's power, influence, and riches.
But not everyone she's paying off can be trusted, some of her six children are undermining her, and goings-on in the dark undercurrents of Soho could shake Coker's hold on her empire--and upset her ambitious dreams.
On the other side of the Shrines of Gaiety story line is Detective Frobisher, an upstanding outlier in the largely corrupt police force, and his unlikely assistant in investigating Ma Coker, former librarian Gwendolen Kelling.
I was particularly hooked by the intersection of Gwendolyn and Ma Coker's golden child, her eldest son Niven--along with the mystery of missing girls across Roaring Twenties London, plus deadly high stakes, the dealings of various crooks, and significant double-crossing throughout the story.
Click here for my full review of Shrines of Gaiety.
06 Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Marcellus the octopus is the very deserving star of the show here, and being able to predict much of where the story was headed didn't affect my enjoyment of this big-hearted tale.
Shelby Van Pelt's Remarkably Bright Creatures centers around a widow who makes an unlikely friend.
After Tova Sullivan's husband died, she began working the night shift at her local aquarium as a custodian. She's always felt that keeping busy helps her cope--she tried the same approach when her son disappeared from a boat in Puget Sound decades earlier.
Then Tova forms a connection with Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus who heretofore has been unwilling to cooperate with his captors.
An overly convenient situation and moment of chitchat pushes the main mystery of the story to a head-- although the reader has seen various layers of situations in the story that are leading us there--but again, I didn't mind. Remarkably Bright Creatures has a lot of heart, and I felt cozy in my confidence that all present situations would ultimately, in a fashion, work out.
Check out my full review of Remarkably Bright Creatures here.