This …s…l…o…w… reader is proud to proclaim that I read 80 books last year! (With a huge thanks to Audible and books on CD.) Not all of them were published in 2013—but of the ones which were, the following titles were my favorites, grouped alphabetically by theme, except for my very top pick, which certainly earned its No. 1 spot! If you or your reading group hasn’t picked up one of these, it might be time to try one.
Top 10 Book Club Books of 2013
It’s not an accident that this genre accounts for half of my Top 10 list. Book clubs love historical novels because in addition to talking about character, language, and plot—there’s all that great history to discuss as well.
10) And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. OK, probably no surprise here. This is the author’s third novel and they’ve all been excellent book club picks. But this novel, narrated as a series of linked short stories, is my favorite so far. Hosseini’s writing has matured, while still retaining tons of heart.
9) The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin. I enjoyed reading Benjamin’s debut novel, Alice I Have Been, an intensely-investigated take on the real Alice in Wonderland story. I liked her sophomore effort, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, even more and enjoyed seeing Benjamin’s writing develop. But she truly soared with her third richly-researched historical novel as she captured the lives of the King and Queen of Aviation, Charles & Anne Morrow Lindberg.
8) Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt. Although the author finally hit the New York Times bestseller list with this—her 10th novel—and WNBA selected it as a 2013 Great Group Reads Selection, many folks are just now discovering the magic that is Leavitt’s writing. Set in the 1960’s –it’s much more than a nod to the Mad Men–era. The author paints a picture of women’s roles at that period in time, what it feels like to be an outsider, and how loss can keep you from finding your own way in the world. Powerful stuff—and, of course, great discussion material for book clubs. Her last novel, Pictures of You, may have put her on the map, but Tomorrow is certainly her best so far!
7) Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford. Those of you who know me, know what a HUGE Jamie Ford fan I am. He’s not only a talented writer, but also an exceptional human being—and Jamie’s authenticity clearly comes across in his writing. Book clubs who fell in love with his debut novel, Hotel and Corner of Bitter and Sweet, will also fall hard for this one. It’s a tale of a mother and son struggling with their separation and individual identities, while jazz-era Seattle jumps (and jives) to life to serve as the story’s backdrop.
6) Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. Fans of The Great Gatsby, A Moveable Feast and The Paris Wife will love this latest novel of life in the Jazz age and the Lost Generation. Fowler presents a very sympathetic view of Zelda—the Southern Belle turned quintessential Flapper—by showing all of her other talents as well: classical ballet dancer, visual artist, and author in her own right. This is a Zelda you’ve never seen before!
Isn’t it interesting that how you experience a book can largely be determined by when you read it? I read both of the following books immediately after reading Kristof & WuDunn’s ground-breaking expose’ “Half The Sky”—so I definitely had women’s issues on the brain. After reading these two books, all I can say is, “Go Girls!!!”
5) Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I’ve been telling every woman I know—no matter their age or life-situation—that they MUST read this book. It is to today’s women what Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was to women fifty years ago—only better edited. And as controversial as the author is, this book is guaranteed to generate one of the best discussions your book club has ever had. My neighborhood book club went into overtime last month after our immensely-animated dialogue of all the implications. (Oh, yeah—and all of my nieces found a copy tucked into their stockings last month courtesy of Auntie M.)
4) My Beloved Word by Sonia Sotomayor. Regardless of your politics or background, this is one of the most inspirational memoirs you will ever read! You’ll enjoy discovering a strong woman whose immigrant parents sacrificed so that she and her siblings could follow their American dreams. Of course, for Sonia, those dreams took her all the way to the Supreme Court. Brava, Sonia!
Being Alabama born, I’m certain a bit of the culture of Faulkner and Flagg runs through my veins. And I believe both authors would be proud of these next two books.
3) Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Reminiscent of one of my favorites from last year, Wiley Cash’s A Land Kinder than Home, this gothic southern novel is part mystery, part literary fiction, and 100% compelling story. It was also selected by WNBA as a 2013 Great Group Reads selection. The sensual language will grab your attention from the start and the deeply-drawn characters will pull you in the rest of the way. Don’t miss it!
2) Chimes from a Cracked Southern Belle by Susan Reinhardt. This is the funniest book I read this year. It reminded me of Robert Leleux’s The Living End and Fanny Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. Hard to believe with all those laughs that it’s a saga of a battered woman escaping the nightmare of her violent marriage and rebuilding her life. Susan creates charming characters and hysterical dialogue with a surprisingly optimistic outlook given the serious topic. And, of course, this novel will provide tons of issues for your book club to debate.
Grand Prize Winner:
And the answer I’ve been giving everyone to the $6 million question, “What’s the best book you’ve read this year? (Drum roll, please.)
1) The Crooked Branch by Jeanine Cummins. This is a tale of two mothers separated by an ocean—and more than a century. Yet, they’re united in their will to do what’s best for their children. The author creates such rich, realistic, and rounded characters, she makes it easy for us to cheer for them. The two stories alternate with each chapter, offering unique voices and creating suspense while contributing to the pleasant pacing of the storylines. But, what stood out most for me about Ms. Cummins’ writing is how she can switch from snarky New York humor (and precocious potty-mouth) to lyrical prose in a heartbeat. This is not a book for just mothers or daughters—although mothers and daughters will love it—but a book for everyone who considers themselves human.
What books were your favorite reads for 2013? We’d love to hear from you!
Marsha Toy Engstrom coaches and facilitates numerous book clubs. She also pens a book column for The Wildwood Independent newspaper, writes on all-things-book-club on her blog, Book Club Cheerleader, and is working on her first book, Celebrating Book Clubs! Marsha serves as the Author Event Coordinator for her local Carnegie Library, is a team-member for her hometown’s One City, One Book program, and recently spoke as a panelist for BEA’s Book Club Facilitators Speak Out. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the WNBA-San Francisco Chapter, and has served on the WNBA selection team for National Reading Group Month’s Great Group Reads for the past couple of years.