Books

Welcome to the Ladies' Home Journal book club! Join us in discussing the latest book reviews and reading lists.

This Month's Pick: The Interestings

In the summer of 1974 six left-leaning, artsy New York teenagers bond together at a camp in New England and dub themselves "The Interestings." Is the nickname a blessing or a curse? Readers can decide for themselves as Wolitzer skillfully steers the friends -- some of whom end up with lives far less interesting (and far more tragic) than they anticipate -- through the next 37 years. The main protagonist, Jules Jacobson, a middle-class girl from the suburbs, attends the camp (and, later, a state university) on scholarship. Jules marries a decent, but depressive, medical technician and, after abandoning her acting ambitions, she settles on a more practical career as a social worker. And while she stays tight with her camp pals -- especially the brilliant cartoonist Ethan Figman and his wealthy golden-girl wife, Ash Wolf -- Jules never comes remotely close to matching their artistic or economic success. In this engrossing character-driven novel (her tenth), Wolitzer nails the sticky complexity of long-term friendship. She manages to paint a vivid and astute portrait of an entire generation while also allowing each character to remain fiercely individual.


Past Picks

Bitter in the Mouth

Linda Hammerick suffers from a condition known as synesthesia: The sound of a word triggers a taste. Her own name evokes mint; her childhood crush's, the taste of orange sherbet. But for Linda, coming of age in the '70s Deep South, this peculiar syndrome is only one of the ways in which she feels like an outsider -- and this sense of alienation follows her into adulthood. When a family tragedy pulls her back home, Linda uncovers the truth about her personal history. Provocative and poignant, this is a novel to savor.

I Think I Love You

He was no Elvis, but try telling that to the millions of teen girls around the world who worshipped David Cassidy in the '70s. I Think I Love You is the story one such fan: Petra, a 13-year-old promising cellist living in South Wales in 1974.You'll care deeply about this dreamy, besotted girl and the woman she becomes, and you'll cheer when she gets the happy ending she deserves.

The Widower's Tale

Seventy-year-old Percy Darling is settling happily into retirement: reading novels, but his routines are disrupted, when he is persuaded to let a locally beloved preschool take over his barn. No longer can he remain aloof from his community, his two grown daughters, or, to his shock, the precarious joy of falling in love.

The Bird Sisters

This debut novel, which follows the lives of spinster sisters Milly and Twiss, is full of hope and beauty, heartbreak and sacrifice, and offers wonderful surprises at every turn.

Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

Marylou Ahearn is going to kill Dr. Wilson Spriggs come hell or high water. In 1953, the good doctor gave her a radioactive cocktail without her consent, and Marylou has been plotting her revenge ever since. Find out what happens in this month's darkly funny pick.

The Language of Flowers

We can almost guarantee that Victoria Jones, the troubled narrator of this engrossing first novel, will get your book club fired up for debate.

Next to Love

Experience sorrow and hopefulness with three childhood friends whose lives are upended by World War II when their husbands go off to fight. You'll feel deeply for these characters -- and realize that the devastation war wreaks on families never changes.

The Astral

How does a seemingly happy 30-year marriage suddenly fall apart? That's the question that haunts Harry Quirk, a down-on-his-luck Brooklyn poet, after his wife, Luz -- enraged by the infidelity she thinks she's discovered -- throws him out. Not a lot happens, plot-wise, but Christensen draws you in with mesmerizing prose that jolts you into a surprising realization: Everyone, even a screw-up like Harry, is entitled to a second shot at happiness.

Conquistadora

Historical fiction buffs, you're in for a treat. This absorbing epic, set mostly in the mid-19th century, has it all, including politics, sex and a don't-mess-with-me heroine named Ana who emigrates from Spain to run a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico. (Not for nothing has Conquistadora been compared to Gone With the Wind.) Along the way Santiago throws in some scandal, plenty of page-turning suspense, and fascinating history.

The Shoemaker's Wife

You'll get caught up in this sweeping epic tale of Ciro Lazzari and Enza Ravenelli, who meet as teenagers in their native Italy, kiss, then part. They meet again in New York, where each has been forced to start over -- Ciro as a shoemaker and Enza as a seamstress. Theirs is a story of missed connections until one of them stages a dramatic intervention that changes their fate.

Caleb's Crossing

Pulitzer Prize-winner Brooks takes a tiny slice of American history -- in 1665, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College -- and imagines an unforgettable story of friendship and aspiration in Colonial America.

Heft

The two loners who take turns narrating this haunting book will capture your heart. Arthur Opp, 58, is a 550-pound former professor who has retreated to his house and stayed there for more than a decade, eating himself into oblivion. "Kel" Keller, 18, is a baseball prodigy who lives in poverty with his mother but attends an affluent high school where his athletic talent allows him to fit in. As the two men's parallel stories start to converge, Moore's lovely prose will have you hoping that these characters will manage to rescue each other.

The Snow Child

Jack and Mabel, a childless couple in their 50s, have moved to this harsh landscape to escape a long-ago trauma -- the stillbirth of their baby. One day they build a snow girl in their yard; the next morning it's gone. When they glimpse a wild-looking girl in the woods near their home, neither is sure if she's real.

The Dressmaker

Who can resist a story about a Titanic survivor? Not us! This time, the drama centers around Tess, a beautiful English servant girl who maneuvers her way onto the ocean liner's maiden voyage. Tess is hired as a lady's maid by the imperious (and real-life) fashion designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon. What's different about this story is that most of it takes place after the shipwreck. Both women survive and reconnect in New York City, where Tess, a gifted seamstress, lands a spot working in the designer's atelier. Her dream job loses it's luster when rumors start to fly, amid a Congressional investigation about Lord and Lady Duff Gordan's ugly behavior in their lifeboat. Tess is also torn between two good men -- both madly in love with her.

The Beginner's Goodbye

Many months after her death from a freak accident, Aaron Woolcott's wife, Dorothy, begins appearing to him at odd moments. These bouts of magical thinking are brief but shake Aaron to his core.

The Gods of Gotham

Welcome to New York City, 1845, a time when crime is rampant and the newly formed police department struggles to keep order. Bartender Timothy Wilde loses almost everything--his home, his job, his savings, and his hopes of proposing to the woman he loves--in a massive fire that incinerates lower Manhattan and disfigures his face. Penniless and desperate, he reluctantly joins the police force, egged on by his older brother, a Democratic bigwig who uses his political pull to get Tim the job. While patrolling the slums one night, he literally collides with a young girl covered in blood. The story she tells him--that dozens of murdered children are buried in a nearby forest--is hard to believe. But when Time begins to investigate, he quickly discovers that her tale is all too real.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

At breakfast one day Harold Fry opens a letter from a former colleague who tells him she's dying of cancer in a hospice 600 miles from the small English town where he lives with his wife, Maureen. Harold writes her a postcard and goes out to mail it, but then--after a cashier tells him that faith, not medicine, keeps a person alive--spontaneously decides to walk to the hospice. "As long as I walk, she must live," Harold explains as he sets off on his journey, with no phone, map, or decent shoes. Marveling at the English countryside and the random acts of kindness he experiences along the way, Harold contemplates the meaning of his life. Meanwhile, Maureen does some soul-searching of her own. Separately yet together, the pair move on parallel paths toward a stunning climax that will break your heart and heal it at the same time.

Orphan Train

When Molly, a troubled foster teen, agrees to clean 91-year-old Vivian Daly's attic in order to avoid juvenile detention, the pair strike up an unlikely friendship. As they open boxes, Molly learns that Vivian is a survivor of a little-known chapter of U.S. history: the "orphan trains" that , from 1854 to 1929, carried homeless children from the East Coast to smaller towns out West. The orphans were chosen at stops along the way by couples looking for a child--sometimes to adopt but just as often to put to work as a servant or farmhand. Irish-born Vivian boards the train in New York 1929, after most of her family dies in a fire, and she endures terrible cruelty before she ends up with a kind Minnesota couple. Similarly rootless, Molly has shuffled from one unhappy foster home to another. As this touching novel alternates between past and present, you being to understand why the two women--who share a deep yearning for family--forge such a strong bond.

Tigers in Red Weather

Klaussmann's mind-blowingly good first novel is the perfect read for the summer of Gatsby. Like Fitzgerald's enigmatic hero, the characters are rich -- their estate is on Martha's Vineyard yet could easily be on West Egg -- but are not very happy. The story, spanning the two decades following the Second World War, beings with newlywed Nick and her cousin Helena anticipating a wonderful life "houses, husbands, and midnight gin parties." But that dream fades when Nick's husband returns from the war an aloof version of his former self. Meanwhile Helena, a war widow marries a charming con man. Years later the younger generation -- Nick's daughter (whose boyfriend is infatuated with Nick) and Helena's creepy son -- are scared by their discovery of a grisly crime. Klaussmann weaves all of these elements into a haunting, suspenseful tale of love and treachery.

Alys, Always

Don't even think about opening this wickedly entertaining first novel unless you've got a sizable chunk of time to spare: You'll want to devour it in one sitting. But Alys, Always is more than an incredibly fun read -- it's a shrewdly drawn portrait of upper-class English life and the social climber who longs to inhabit it. After Frances Thorpe, "an invisible production drone" for the books section of a London newspaper, witnesses a car accident victim's final moments, the police asked her if she would be willing to meet the dead woman's bereaved family. (They crave closure.) Frances declines, and that might have been that -- except she soon learns that the deceased was Alys Kyte, the wife of one of Britain's most prominent novelists. Frances's wheels begin to turn and slowly, slyly, she insinuates herself into the Kyte household, befriending first the couple's mixed-up daughter and ultimately the great man himself. You'll be amused, appalled and kept constantly guessing as Frances comes into her own -- and plays both the Kyte family and the London literary establishment like a seasoned virtuoso.

Margot

This novel has an ingenious premise; What if Margot Frank -- who died with her younger sister, Anne Frank, at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 -- had survived and secretly settled in the United States after the war? In Cantor's reimagining, Margot is now a gentile named Margot Franklin, an introverted legal secretary working for Joshua Rosenstein, an up-and-coming Jewish attorney in Philadelphia. Set in 1959, amid the mass excitement that greeted the release of the movie The Diary of Anne Frank, the story finds Margie weary of her disguise and desperate to locate Peter van Pels, the son of the other family who hid with the Franks in Amsterdam, whom she is convinced survived the war. (Perhaps Cantor's most audacious fictional leap is to cast Peter as primarily Margot's love interest, not Anne's.) Her anguish intensifies when Joshua asks her to look into the case of a local woman (also a Holocaust survivor) who alleges employment discrimination against Jews. Then there's the fact that Margie and Joshua are obviously in love. All of these torments finally come to a head for Margie in a dramatic conclusion that will have you smiling -- and fighting off tears.

The Obituary Writer

Vivien Lowe and Claire Fontaine, Hood's dual protagonists, live in two different eras and milieus -- San Francisco in 1919 and early 1960s suburbia. Yet each is a woman ahead of her time, instinctively rejecting the conventions and gender roles of the day. Vivien, a writer of unorthodox obituaries, persists in believing that her lover, a married attorney who disappeared on the day of the Great Earthquake of 1906, is still alive. Claire, a pregnant housewife and mom living in a Virginia suburb, is fascinated by Jacqueline Kennedy and escapes her mostly loveless marriage and the mind-numbing routines of suburban life by having an affair. Hood expertly alternates the women's stories, drawing an especially poignant portrait of the grief and longing that make Vivien a poet of her trade ("Tell me about your loved one," she says to the bereaved, then lets them talk) and slowly revealing the connection between the two women. Character-driven and meticulously observed, The Obituary Writer is a great old- fashioned read that transports you into the hearts and minds of people you could swear you know.

The Death of Bees

It's no surprise that the author of this stunning debut novel is a screenwriter. The story unfolds cinematically, in short, diary-like chapters told from the perspective of three alternating narrators: Marnie, a super-smart but damaged 15-year-old from Glasgow who spews profanities in her own inimitable Scottish dialect; her sister, Nelly, who "sounds like the Queen of England", and Lennie, the elderly gay neighbor who informally adopts the sisters after their drug-dealing, deadbeat parents go missing. In fact, as we learn on page one, the parents are dead, and the girls, to avoid foster care, bury the pair in the yard and tell everyone they're abroad. O'Donnell throws additional characters and dramatic plot twists into the mix, but ultimately the book belongs to Marnie. With this tough-talking but vulnerable teen, The Death of Bees gives us one of the most memorable protagonists in recent fiction.

Calling Me Home

Get out the box of tissues now -- you'll need it by the time you reach the end of this heart-wrenching love story. Calling Me Home alternates time periods (1930s Kentucky and present-day Texas) and narrators (Isabelle, an 89-year-old white Southerner, and Dorrie, her 40-something African-American hairdresser). Kibler captures the deepening bond between the two women as they drive from their Texas town to Cincinnati to attend a funeral. In between dealing with a family crisis back home via cell phone, Dorrie listens to Isabelle as the old woman shares her personal history for the first time: It's 1939, and Isabelle, then 16, falls madly in love with Robert, the son of her family's black housekeeper. The couple elope across the border to Ohio, but her father and brothers soon track her down and drag her home. (Later, the brothers brutally attack Robert with a branding iron.) From that point, the tragedies multiply, but thanks to Kibler's sure hand, the novel never resorts to melodrama or cheap sentimentality. She crafts a haunting, multi-layered story that brings to life the tragic and during legacy of racism in America.

Above All Things

When the British mountain climber George Mallory made his third attempt to scale the summit of Mount Everest, in 1924, all of England -- still recovering from the carnage of world War I -- rallied around him as a national hero. The expedition's outcome is no secret, of course, but Rideout's fictional re-creation of his climbing team's incredibly difficult ascent is so gripping that you'll find yourself racing through the pages just to learn how it turns out. Alternating with those chapters are others from the point of view of Mallory's wife, Ruth, who unfolds the story of a loving marriage filled with passion but also, for her, constant fear and frustration at having to play second fiddle to a treacherous mountain. All but one of Ruth's chapters take place over a single day as she cares for the couple's three children and prepares to host a dinner party in their Cambridge home. Rideout's skillful juxtaposition of Mallory's ordeal on that implacable peak and Ruth's ordeal back in Cambridge, waiting anxiously for the mail to bring word of her husband's whereabouts, make Above All Things a vividly detailed and mesmerizing read.

Oleander Girl

A shocking family secret lies at the heart of this coming-of-age novel. The story unfolds in 2002 in India, where old traditions are bumping up against an emerging yuppie class, and in the United States, where outsiders are being subjected to post-9/11 xenophobia. An orphan since birth, Korobi Roy has been raised in a sheltered environment by her once-wealthy and (still highly respected) grandparents. At 18 Korobi is newly engaged to the charming, handsome son of prosperous art dealers when her ultra-traidtional grandfather suddenly dies. In the aftermath, her grandmother reveals a longstanding lie about Korobi's father. Korobi decides she must go to the Untied States (where her mother attended college) to track down this missing link from her past. The journey proves frustrating yet fruitful as Korobi makes a discovery that threatens her impending marriage. A skilled storyteller and keen cultural observer, Divakaruni weaves a multilayered and always surprising narrative that exposes the divisions of race and class in both countries. And she creates an unforgettable heroine who knows instinctively how to bridge those divisions.

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