Mini reviews of books I read for book groups that provoked good discussions or strong opinions among group members:
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss
Just before America’s first winter of World War I, Martha Lessen – a horse whisperer before the term was coined – leaves her unhappy childhood home to break horses, traveling around from ranch to ranch. She is of marriageable age, but wants to make an outdoors life for herself, not have six kids in six years as her mother did. Quietly competent and confident in her abilities, Martha is far more comfortable with horses than with people. Although eventful, this is a quiet story about Martha’s work with different horses as she “rides the circuit” and about how she eventually gets to know the ranch families in the area, and not just their horses. A “clean read” for readers who don’t mind sadness or realism in a book but don’t care for edgy language or graphic scenes intended to shock or titillate. (Love that word!) This story grew on me slowly. If you’re a horse person, you will probably like it right away. A sequel to this book has just come out.
Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley
A humorous novel about Supreme Court politics that pokes fun at liberals and conservatives just about equally, Supreme Courtship was a fun selection for a group that wanted a break from serious (“depressing”) books. When President Donald Vanderkamp’s nominees for a Supreme Court vacancy get shot down by the Congressional panel – one serious, well-respected jurist after the other – he chooses reality TV star Pepper Cartwright of the hit show Courtroom Six to be his new nominee. A determined brunette bombshell from Texas, Pepper has a Judge Judy-like way of saying what she thinks and a dubious family background, but it’s entirely possible that Congres will have to take her seriously in her bid for a seat on the Supreme Court.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker portrays pre- and post-Civil War history through the eyes of Elizabeth Keckley, an African-American former slave who bought her own freedom and became a successful independent dressmaker in Washington, D.C. When she eventually gains the new First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, as a client, she shares in many intimate family moments as she sits and sews in the White House parlor, as well as having an insider’s view of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and his decisions leading up to and during the Civil War. The basic facts of Elizabeth Keckley’s life come from her own memoir, Behind the Scenes. This would make a good book club choice for groups that like straightforward historical fiction from a woman’s perspective. The author follows up on her success with Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker with one that focuses on Kate Chase Sprague, who is mentioned a few times here, called Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, and The Spymistress, based on the life of Elizabeth Van Lew.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Even though this story borrowed from the fairy tale about a child made from snow that came to life, it seemed to appeal to readers who normally eschew fantasy as well as those who enjoy it, and to male readers as well as women, making it an ideal book club selection for a mixed group. In the story, a grieving, childless couple has moved to the Alaskan wilderness in the early 20th century and is trying to make a life there, just the two of them, on an isolated farm in the uncleared woods, far away from family and their former lives. (So, at the beginning of the book, things aren’t going so well, as you can probably guess, but then a child enters the picture.)
Sunset Park by Paul Auster
The first novel by this author that I’ve read, Sunset Park reminded me a bit of Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon and The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel, with its interconnected stories and focus on young people screwing up their lives as they enter adulthood. But Sunset Park wasn’t as gripping as either of those novels, maybe because the tone of the book was muted and the atmosphere less heavily freighted with doom. Set mostly in New York City, the main character, Miles, suffers from guilt over a long-held secret, and has been estranged from family and friends for years before moving back to Brooklyn where he grew up. Miles’ parents’ and housemates’ perspectives are included, resulting in the reader’s knowing a little about everybody but not a lot about anyone. Read a summary of the book club discussion by one of the members here.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
With many references to Jane Eyre throughout and two reclusive writers as main characters, this Gothic tale generated a good amount of discussion about ghostly happenings, twins, truth-telling, unreliable narrators, and biography. I felt the lack of never having read Jane Eyre, but got by fine just knowing the plot outline, as most readers probably do. This was my second reading of The Thirteenth Tale (published in 2006) and I really didn’t remember the story from the first time around, which was good, because following the twists and turns of the plot (which jumps back and forth from past to present) is half the fun of the book. The other half is soaking up the Gothic atmosphere of mystery. Read about the book club discussion written by a member of the group here, and add a comment if you want!
Alone by Lisa Gardner
The first monthly selection for our new Mystery Readers book club. For the first year, we’re using the theme “First in a Series.” Alone is the first book in Lisa Gardner’s D.D. Warren series. D.D. Warren is a detective with the Boston Police Department. She doesn’t actually star as the main “detective” character in this first book; that would be Bobby, the Massachusetts State Police sniper who kills a man with a gun and as the investigation into this job-related shooting in a simple domestic violence situation rapidly goes from routine to complicated, Bobby becomes the investigator as well as the investigated as he tries to sort out victims from criminals. Fast-paced action, gritty police work, and psychological suspense combined to make several readers eager to go on to follow up on the story from this book in Hide, but for me, the characters in Alone didn’t become interesting people I want to read more about.