Suggest an interesting book club book
November 13, 2010 1:25 PM   Subscribe

My book club is looking for some book recommendations. We’re hoping to find books that will be a bit out of our comfort zone, but will still be engaging. In particular, we’d like to try something outside of the literary fiction or historical fiction genres. Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery or even a short story collection would be welcome. We like good writing, but we love ideas and themes that lead to interesting discussions even more.

Here’s the list of the books we’ve read so far:
North & South - Gaskell
Cry, the Beloved Country - Paton
Wolf Hall - Mantel
Olive Kitteridge - Strout
The Help - Stockett
The Particular Sadness of Lemoncake - Bender

Thanks so much!
posted by shesbookish to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
I read The Sparrow for book club and it blew my mind. It's Sci Fi.
posted by Duffington at 1:29 PM on November 13, 2010 [5 favorites]

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
posted by J. Wilson at 1:31 PM on November 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

My two favorite books right now are To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
posted by cooker girl at 1:32 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go.
posted by Spinneret at 1:34 PM on November 13, 2010

...we love ideas and themes that lead to interesting discussions even more.

Dune meets these criteria, and is a great read.
posted by djgh at 1:36 PM on November 13, 2010

I really enjoyed The Alienist which is sort of historical fiction as well as being engaging and well written.
posted by Saminal at 1:53 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a page-turning mystery that is also historical and literary!

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor is amazingly complex science fiction that is also literary and explicitly in dialogue with Africa's history of colonialism.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:53 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a historical fantasy novel set in England in the 1800s. It's won nearly every fantasy award and is quite engrossing. Lots of interesting themes to discuss as well.
posted by Rinku at 1:56 PM on November 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

The Disposessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
posted by Salvor Hardin at 2:04 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. I've been a SF reader all my life and this is the best.
posted by grobstein at 2:08 PM on November 13, 2010

One of the more interesting and unique books I've read in recent years is Metropol by Ferenc Karinthy.

It was published in the sixties but only translated into English in 2008. The premise is a linguist on his way to a conference in Helsinki falls asleep on the plane. He wakes up upon landing and disembarks but realizes that he got off in the wrong city. He doesn't recognize the language, has no idea where he is, and spends the rest of the novel trying to piece it all together. More kafkaesque than Kafka and is ripe for discussion.
posted by fso at 2:24 PM on November 13, 2010

China Mieville's The City & The City might work for you. Current, and on the literary side of the fantasy/SF spectrum. Arguably not SF at all, and really a detective novel. My copy actually has extra material specifically designed to add to group discussion.

Never Let Me Go and Jonathan Strange above are excellent suggestions as well.
posted by tyllwin at 2:31 PM on November 13, 2010

Seconding Cloud Atlas. A really neat and unusual book.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:31 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan is usually shelved as fantasy, mainly because the setting is an alternate world version of Byzantium. But really, it's written as a historical fiction, just in a fictional world. I find the characters wonderful and interesting, and I think there could be some interesting discussions about the very difficult choices some of the characters make.
posted by booksherpa at 2:53 PM on November 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ray Bradbury's books might fit. My favorite's Dandelion Wine, and he's also written quite a lot of short stories.

One I haven't read (but really want to!) is the Black Water Anthology, edited by Alberto Manguel. I recently went to a lit event where Manguel, Mieville, and Maggie Gee discussed this book, and it sounded fascinating. The common theme of the stories is the fantastic.
posted by bibliophibianj at 2:53 PM on November 13, 2010

Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin.
posted by freejinn at 2:53 PM on November 13, 2010

My book club loved The Stolen Child and Little, Big. Little, Big is more challenging but both are excellent.
posted by something something at 3:34 PM on November 13, 2010

Gibbon's Decline and Fall by Sherri Tepper. Totally eerie, totally consciousness-raising, and likely to provoke many interesting discussions about gender roles and values in our society.
posted by DrGail at 3:35 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ursula Le Guin's books are short, provocative and explicitly concerned with issues of gender, race etc. Also, she's a good writer.

I would recommend The Dispossesed, The Left Hand of Darkness, or The Lathe of Heaven.

Disregard The Name of The Wind and Jonathon Strange above. They are absolute door stopper books, and not really suitable for a bookclub with participants of no doubt varying tastes and commitment, and they are not really a great introduction the fantasy genre for those unfamiliar with it, despite their merits and fans.
posted by smoke at 3:36 PM on November 13, 2010

We should have a moratorium on recommendations of Cloud Atlas :-)

How about Borges? If you can't find something to discuss with his short stories then you aren't trying.

Ted Chiang is a science fiction writer who writes almost exclusively short stories (and it appears to be mandated that each story be nominated for either a Hugo, a Nebula, or both). He is all about (some would say only about) ideas.

Italo Calvino. If On A Winter's Night A Traveller or Invisible Cities.

I don't think that the The Book Of the New Sun is a good choice. It's a frigging doorstop, incredibly dense writing, and totally unlike everything else in the science fiction or fantasy genre. I've read it once and I'm not going back without a couple of sherpas and a map.

Vernor Vinge's A Deepness In The Sky is good SF and has some pretty alien aliens (which is less common than you might think).

Stanislaw Lem is tough to beat. I haven't read Eden in years, but remember finding it very disturbing when I did.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:58 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lois McMaster Bujold is an excellent writer, and both The Sharing Knife and Vorkosigan series are not only well-written but fabulously entertaining and human.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 4:03 PM on November 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

My literary fiction-oriented book club read The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold and 7 out of 8 enjoyed it.

I put together a little study guide for it if you end up picking it that I can probably dig up if you MeMail me.

We've done two rounds of "outside our usual picks" books -- we had each person pick a favorite novel that they wanted to introduce others to that wasn't "typical" bookclub stuff -- Curse of Chalion was my pick, we also read some mysteries and other things. It was interesting to see each others' taste. In our current round, we each picked a book that was a big influence on us in high school or college (after reading The Great Gatsby with "The Big Read" last year and having a lot of interesting discussions sparked by having read it in high school and then reading it again now, plus great classics of literature lend themselves well to discussion!). So we're reading things from "Forever" by Judy Blume to "To Kill a Mockingbird" to "The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B."

Incidentally, we often try to pick a Young Adult or Juvenile book for December, since everyone's so busy with the holidays -- a shorter, YA/Juv book reads faster -- and that has usually been a pretty big hit. It's a nice change, and there's a lot of really great "kiddie lit" being published!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:05 PM on November 13, 2010

I read 253 by Geoff Ryman not long ago, and immediately recommended it to a friend for his book club. It's the 'print remix' of one of the earliest hypertext novels, from back in the day when people still used the word hypertext. Starting from the fact that a London Underground train carries 253 people if all seats (including the driver's) are taken and no-one is standing, it takes 253 people travelling the final four stops to Elephant and Castle on the Bakerloo Line one morning, and describes each of them--outward appearance then inward state--in 253 words, bending this rule with footnotes occasionally. One chapter per carriage. It sounds like it would be boring, repetitive, or at best 'bitty'. In fact it's funny, wide-ranging, unexpectedly moving, and steadily builds up a plot momentum that you wouldn't think possible for a book that is made up of short descriptions of 253 individuals.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:18 PM on November 13, 2010

The Book of the New Sun is great, but might be a bit hefty. Maybe Peace, also by Gene Wolfe. I would "unvote" Dune. I have never had a non-SF recommendee enjoy it.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:20 PM on November 13, 2010

Seconding Connie Willis. To say nothing of the dog or Passage.
posted by nimsey lou at 4:23 PM on November 13, 2010

Seconding Ursula Le Guin.

Others: in fantasy, Philip Pullman. In sci fi, Asimov.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:32 PM on November 13, 2010

Totally seconding The Sparrow, which is awesome and very good for fostering discussions. I also loved The Stolen Child, and would recommend it as well. I think American Gods might work well too. I also loved Portable Childhoods and Bad Marie recently, both of them are interesting and thought provoking.
posted by gemmy at 4:50 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also came in to recommend The Sparrow. So many interesting themes to pull out of that one.
posted by dorey_oh at 4:54 PM on November 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads is a gorgeously written fantasy novel--incredibly engaging and complex. This book has been seriously slept on, but I would strongly recommend it.
posted by sea change at 5:04 PM on November 13, 2010

Hmmmm....what about Red Harvest by Dasheill Hammett? It's a hardboiled mystery, and it would be historic if it wasn't you know, actually written in the 40s. The Maltese Falcon is interesting, too, simply because it contains the scene which is the Ur-scene of a million parodies and riff and references but you've never actually read it. But Red Harvest is more thematically interesting.
posted by Diablevert at 5:09 PM on November 13, 2010

Double thumbs down on The Sparrow, IMO. Like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man among literary classics or A Case of Conscience as another classic SF example, it's a serious turn-off to people uninterested in religion or religious doubt, not to mention (sorry for the spoiler, but I think it's important to know) extra gross rape.

Just picking from the books above to help narrow the many great suggestions so far, I'll second Ted Chiang's SF story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. It lies squarely in the genre, it's entirely readable, and it's loaded with great ideas to talk about, including religion but so much more as well.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:56 PM on November 13, 2010

Loved, loved , loved The Sparrow.
posted by mazienh at 6:24 PM on November 13, 2010

I came to suggest 'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula le Guin, but I see it has already come up, so I guess I am thirding it. I'm not that into sci-fi, but I read it for uni and found it super thought-provoking.
posted by Emilyisnow at 6:25 PM on November 13, 2010

This is an oldie, but it's one of my favorites - Try The Fuzzy Papers by H. Beam Piper.

I like it because I think it's interesting to see how someone from the past pictured the future and how some things have come about (computers, video conferencing) but in completely different ways, while other things have not (space travel, etc...) also, it's interesting to see how the author pictured gender roles in the future. Plus, I like the story itself.
posted by patheral at 7:00 PM on November 13, 2010

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Short (novella, 128 pages), but the emotional wallop has stayed with me for almost 20 years.

Have you thought about reading short stories written by Angela Carter? She does some really interesting reworking of fairy tales.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 7:37 PM on November 13, 2010


What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. I love her most recent book, I'd Know You Anywhere as well.

(Lippman is married to David Simon, and although her work is mostly set in Baltimore and involves crime, it is stylistically and thematically quite different from The Wire.)
posted by Violet Hour at 9:16 PM on November 13, 2010

Definitely Blindness, by Jose Saramago.
(not really sci/fi at all but...)Love in the time of Cholera: GGM
"The wall", by Sartre, addresses issues that arise in the digital worlds of much sci fi, if you are considering short story collections.

"Atom: a single oxygen atom's odyssey from the big bang to life on earth... and beyond." - Lawrence M. Krauss (great read!)

Closer to what you describe wanting to avoid or have already done... yet still close in my mind to what you might be seeking (historical themes/literary fiction/good writing about science, and the issues related) themes worth talking about, and well worth reading.

"The Rescue of Jerusalem; The alliance between Hebrews and Africans in 701 BC"
by Henry T. Aubin.

Sweeter than All the World by Rudy Wiebe

The "books that shook the world" series, particularly "marx's Das Kapital; A biography" by Francis Wheen (which is a biography of the book, is a really interesting quick read.

"The Last of the Crazy People"
by Timothy Findley is fascinating, it is from a child's perspective, listening into his musings, as he slowly drowns in a toxic family environment, while simply trying to understand, and comprehend the bizarre surroundings and fairly crazy family (warning, disturbing)

The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt, by William Nothedurft with Josh Smith
is another in the history section

For a critical look at the field of Genomics and DNA science, Robert Lewontin's "Biology as Idiology", it is not a fiction work, it is part of the "CBC Massey Lecture Series", it covers, in a quick way some of the major areas of concern for Biologists in the coming decades.

Arthur C. CLarke, Childhoods end, which I bet many have read already, and may be old hat to some, I came to it late, and really enjoy though.
Fascinating history of the human lives responsible for the rise of modern Geology, "The Map that Changed the World; William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology" by Simon Winchester

The Massey lecture series this year is released as a novel also... Player One: What is to Become of Us? Player One (book) House of Anansi.

I haven't read it, only listened to the "audio version", but it definitely captures that sense of "contemporary themes" and leading to interesting discussion topics. It is Fiction. If the book is half as striking as the reading of it, it would be a good suggestion. (own link, sorry)
posted by infinite intimation at 10:11 PM on November 13, 2010

If you would want to try nonfiction, here are a few really good titles:

The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Sin In The Second City - Karen Abbott

Devil In The White City - Erik Larson

All books i *love* selling at the shop where I work. All really great reads. I also heartily agree with the Connie Willis suggestion (and will throw in her Doomsday Book).

Also, for fiction: Year Of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.
posted by bibliogrrl at 10:19 PM on November 13, 2010

My book club read Terry Pratchett's Going Postal to get away from more literary fiction - but the discussion wasn't great because too many members were just put off by it being fantasy. We had better luck with children's books (Homecoming and Treasure Island, though the latter is of course hist fict too). We also had a good discussion with the first of Kate Atkinson's mysteries, Case Histories.

Your final link is borked - leads to The Help - you might want to contact a mod to correct.
posted by paduasoy at 1:22 AM on November 14, 2010

Perhaps magical realism?

Anything Gabriel Garcia Marquez, some Isabelle Allende, Laura Esquivel....

One Hundred Years of Solitude--Marquez
House of Spirits--Allende
Like Water for Chocolate--Esquivel

Or Ender's Game for sci-fi?
posted by astapasta24 at 4:42 AM on November 14, 2010

The Mote in God's Eye - Niven and Pournelle
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 4:56 AM on November 14, 2010

Seconding Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go for a science-fiction pick. It's got a big idea behind it, is beautifully written and not as out-there as some of his other books. As much as I love To Say Nothing of the Dog, it's pretty long for a bookclub and relies on the reader being a bit genre-savvy. Willis's Doomsday Book might be a better introduction to time-travel stories, but it's also long and makes a lot of people cry.

In the mystery genre, I'd tentatively suggest Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L Sayers. It does rely a bit on plot revealed in previous books with the same characters, but I've known a lot of people who've picked it up as their first Wimsey mystery and really enjoyed it. The mystery takes a back seat to the ideas being presented, and it's interesting to see how feminism was shaping up in the inter-war period.

For a book that is probably outside your comfort zone but which doesn't fit comfortably into any genre, Chabon's The Yiddish Policemans' Union is a touching noir-ish detective story with elements of alt-history and fantasy, which also has something to say about the nature of hope.
posted by harriet vane at 6:17 AM on November 14, 2010

Sorry - another point in favour of Doomsday Book is that large sections of it are set during the early 14th century, so it might be easier for your club's fans of historical fiction to get into the science-fiction aspects. It also deals with the (mis)understandings that 'modern' people have of 'the olden days'.

And another point in favour of Never Let Me Go is that the tone and writing style aren't too far away from literary fiction (Ishiguro also wrote The Remains of the Day, which I'd put under a historical/literary heading). So you'd be stretching your boundaries rather than completely busting them apart.
posted by harriet vane at 6:23 AM on November 14, 2010

Fiction books that have inspired great discussion in our book club include:

World War Z by Max Brooks (told as a recent-history report of what happened when an epidemic of zombie-hood took hold of the planet -- surprisingly nuanced and interesting even for people who aren't into the whole zombie craze)
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (interesting questions about cultural relativism, leadership, human nature, etc.)
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenidies (lots of discussion about gender identity and fitting in)

If you're open to nonfiction, each of these inspired some fascinating conversation in our group:
My Life in Orange by Tim Guest (author was raised in a cult-like commune atmostphere)
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (about a doctor who has sacrificed remarkably to fight TB in developing countries -- may be especially relevant now that Haiti has been in the news so much)
Stiff by Mary Roach (Hilarious and informative look at what happens to human bodies that are donated to science, though probably not for the squeamish. "Bonk" by the same author is also very interesting if your group isn't squeamish about sex.)
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman (Story of a Hmong-American family's encounters with the healthcare system as their daughter deals with severe epilepsy)
posted by vytae at 11:17 AM on November 14, 2010

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin
The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
posted by Ellemeno at 2:16 PM on November 28, 2010

« Older (How) should I apologize for bullying?   |   US iPhone in the UK Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.