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What will your book club discuss this year? Image: iStock

Book clubs are back! Well, virtually. 

However you're planning to revive your book club in 2021, there's never been a better time to connect, communicate and maybe have a small barney over the merits of books. And so to help, here's our suggestion of novels that offer salient talking points for These Strange Times of Ours, from decades-old classics to contemporary prize-winners. Let us know how you get on.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson (2021)

Themes: Gothic, history, womanhood

Alexis Henderson's electrifying debut won a suitably cult audience upon its release last year. The Year of the Witching follows Bethel, a young woman with prophetic abilities powerful enough to lure her away from her puritanical upbringing and into a war of a scale she could never have imagined.

A dark and compelling tale, The Year of the Witching has won comparisons to The Handmaid's Tale, if Atwood's fundamentalist dystopian state was set in the time of the Salem witch trials, instead. Escapist and thrilling, it's bound to be a read that your group have plenty to say about.

Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan (2021)

Themes: feminism, history, structuralism

The third novel from Jenni Fagan is a marvel. A thorny, gripping tumble through a century, and a towering Edinburgh tenement building, that places a dozen outsiders in a tight fist of the events that have happened before them. How much does our past shape us, how much agency do we have in changing out fates and what power do women – and especially women – have in a world built by men?

Fagan's ambitious novel tackles these swaggering themes with passion and flair, as quirks from real history collide with a swarthy gothicism. Luckenbooth is a swift-to-read novel that will keep you in its grip long after you shut the covers.

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh (2020)

Themes: motherhood, feminism, free choice

The decision whether or not to have children feels, in some ways, bigger today than ever with the future of the planet so uncertain. What if that choice was taken out of your hands? In the follow up to her Booker-nominated The Water Cure, Sophie Mackintosh envisions a world in which women are allocated their reproductive fates by the government as soon as they have their first period.

A novelist with already unmistakable style, the brilliance of Blue Ticket lies in its ambiguity. This is less of fully realised dystopia than a smudgy mirror on the world we inhabit today that will give you plenty to chew over about how we discuss – and dictate – the role of female bodies in society. As Mackintosh told us: "women's pain is not something that can be put aside". 

Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (2021)

This January sees the long-overdue publication of the trilogy of memoirs by Tove Ditlevsen, a well-known, controversial figure in Denmark who has taken a century to be recognised in the UK. The Copenhagen Trilogy, as the series is known, is compelling and tragic and delivered in Ditlevsen's trademark dry wit. She depicts a life of ascending to the literary circles of Copenhagen from a childhood survived in the city's poorest neighbourhoods, with plenty of ill-advised life decisions made along the way. 

Ditlevsen may be being heralded as an autofiction master, but she has always won over women readers. If you loved Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan Novels, you will devour The Copenhagen Trilogy.

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2019)

Themes: race, politics, power

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of America's foremost critical thinkers on culture, politics and social issues. He is also, somewhat unfairly, a brilliant prose writer with gift for storytelling that made his debut novel, The Water Dancer, a favourite of Oprah Winfrey and other literary tastemakers in the US.

A blend of historical fiction and magic realism, it tells the story of Hiram Walker, a man born into slavery on a Virginia plantation who also has a mysterious, superhuman ability to transport himself and others across impossible distances. In a year when race relations in the US has dominated news around the world, this vivid and compelling novel feels even more pertinent.  

Victory by James Lasdun (2019)

Themes: marriage, friendship, sexual politics

If your book club is full of busy people, this duo of novellas might be just the ticket. The first, 'Feathered Glory', is a painfully astute depiction of a seemingly traquil marriage that's disrupted when the husband randomly encounters an old flame. 

But it's the second, 'Afternoon of a Faun', that was widely discussed upon publication for being one of the first pieces of literary fiction to grapple with male culpability in the post #MeToo era. In it, the protagonist's friend, a minor celebrity, is accused of a historical rape and the story follows his struggle to find out the truth and reckon with his conflicting senses of loyalty and morality. Brilliantly truthful and never didactic, few books of the modern era have made the case for the value of fiction like this one.     

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan (2021)

Themes: family tradition, history, religion

Zayyan's debut won the inaugural Merky Books New Writer's Prize even before she finished the manuscript. The resulting book is a beauty, an ambitious and exploratory novel that spans mid-century Uganda and modern-day UK.

Sameer is a millennial caught between a high-flying career as a lawyer, and an inexplicable desire to navigate his family history. Hassan is living a comfortable, if grief-stricken, life in Uganda when Idi Amin's expulsion of the country's Asian minority in 1972 changes his family's destiny forever. 

There's plenty to learn about and discuss from We Are All Birds of Uganda - as well as the opportunity to discover a startling new literary voice in Zayyan.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

Themes: love, sex, generational divides, queer identity

To avoid the book club curse – people not doing the reading and trying to blag it on the day – try the most enjoyable book of 2019. Not only will everyone finish Girl, Woman, Other, they’ll probably do so early. On paper, the Booker-winner sounds like it could be a bit of a slog; a huge cast of characters spanning multiple generations, dealing with complex themes like gender identity and intergenerational conflict. Yet from the first page to the last it is a palpable joy, such is the wit and verve of Evaristo’s prose, her ability to do heavy emotional digging with the deftness of touches. As the narrative breezes through the lives of twelve women – ranging from an elderly matriarch struggling through a family dinner to a young student finding her feet at university – each is brilliantly and believably evoked. So much to enjoy; so much to talk about afterwards.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

Themes: PTSD, womanhood, aging and mental health

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Quite a lot of people, it seems. Depending on the book club, to raise Mrs Dalloway as next month's option might well be accused of being anything from trite to pretentious, such is the reputation of Modernist literature’s leading lady. Cast away those presumptions, though, and Woolf’s searing portrayal of crumbling domesticity - and London in a post-pandemic word – in the wake of the First World War has the potential to conjure all manner of conversations on matters that still resonate today. There's also the opportunity to bed in with Woolf's famed stream-of-consciousness writing style, which radically changed the literary form we read today, and like only the best books holds new meaning for every age.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans (2018)

Themes: modern marriage, black identity, domesticity 

Not to be confused with Sally Rooney’s Normal People, this realistic novel paints a portrait of a marriage that, 13 years in, is running dry. Evans’ has previously spoken of her ambition ‘to see the everyday in middle-class black lives normalised and humanised’ and in Melissa and Michael’s (‘M&M’) Crystal Palace home, things seem gratingly familiar - until they don’t, and the otherworldly starts to unfold. 

For those who have a soft spot for the traditional novel, Evans has earned comparisons to Dickens and Tolstoy, such is her ability to create a complete and familiar world. Which means that, even if you don't want to talk about relationships, marriage or long-term love, there is the recent history of Barrack Obama's inauguration and the death of Michael Jackson to reconsider as a group.

A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr (1980)

Themes: memory, loss, rural life, the lost golden age of England

Not for nothing did the much-lauded literary podcast Backlisted make this 1980 Booker-nominee the subject of its first-ever episode. You’d be hard pressed to find a more perfect novella, nor one so strangely overlooked. It’s tells the deceptively simple story of a single, rejuvenating summer spent uncovering a mural in a village church by Tom Birkin, a restoration expert and war veteran escaping London in the wake of a failed marriage. A Month in the Country richly and gently evokes rural English life – both its scenery and cast of eccentric characters – but without ever getting misty-eyed or glib. As a prompt for exploring the topic of nostalgia and national character in the year we leave the EU, this is just the ticket.

Pine by Francine Toon (2020)

Themes: spiritualism, isolation, motherhood

Francine Toon’s chilling debut found its place on plenty of breathless preview lists before its release in January, but there are better reasons that mere hype to bring a new release to a book club. Pine works deceptively hard. Toon’s elegantly minimalist prose immerses the reader in a remote and tight-knit Highlands community, steeped in silence and superstition. We find it through the lens of 11-year-old Lauren and her struggling, borderline-alcoholic single father, around whom increasingly unsettling things start to happen. Masterfully, Toon never fully clarifies who is tidying their gloomy little house, nor what leaves the scent of ‘something rotten, like meat left in the sun’ - which means there’s all the more to be discussed as a group.

The Thing About December – Donal Ryan (2014)

Themes: coming-of-age, grief, the Irish crash

Novels with grand political points to make are all well and good – and indeed, this 2014 novel has plenty to say about the economic flagrancy of pre-recession Ireland – but what really makes for a good book club discussion is the way characters make you feel. For one who will play with your heart like a rag doll, meet Donal Ryan’s protagonist Johnsey Cunliffe, part of fine literary tradition of big-hearted but not-too-bright giants pitted against a cruel world. Newly orphaned, the young Johnsey struggles with the upkeep his family farm in Ireland while local vultures circle his estate. Grieving, lonely and ill-equipped, his life takes a turn for the better when he befriends a nurse and a fellow local oddball.

The Thing About December is wonderfully sad and devastatingly funny, executed with a lyrical beauty that is often stunning, with clear shades of Flowers For Algernon, Of Mice and Men and Forest Gump among others.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (1999)

Themes: abuse of power, consent, race

This Nobel Prize-winning novel follows David Lurie, a middle-aged professor in Cape Town who has an affair with a young student. When it ends and she makes a complaint to the university, he is publicly shamed but refuses to apologise. Sound familiar? Coetzee’s slender masterpiece (Disgrace is only 220 pages long) was lauded for its examination of post-apartheid in South Africa in 1999, but is finding fresh relevance in the post-#MeToo era thanks to its protagonist, a powerful, pompous man who is appalled when his own daughter is attacked while being unable – or unwilling – to see his own behaviour in a similar light. Coetzee is at the peak of his powers here, sifting through giant and complex themes with prose as taunt as a drum.

The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon (1956)

Themes: immigration, identity, the Windrush generation

Immigration dominated British politics earler this year, with the government announcing a new ‘point-based’ entry system and the Windrush Generation deportations being carried out against an ongoing outcry. What better time to revisit one the finest works of fiction about the latter, Samuel Selvon’s classic novella The Lonely Londoners. It follows several West Indians who arrive in the capital following the 1948 British Nationality Act, which granted citizenship to those living in Commonwealth countries. A freewheeling and somewhat raucous affair, the book centres on Trinidadian Moses Aloette, a veteran who takes new arrivals to London under his wing and shows them how to survive. Full of sex, scams and adventure, it’s also a quietly touching insight into immigrant life and the sorrow of being far from home.

Summer by Ali Smith

Themes: aging, the migrant crisis, current affairs

The fourth book in Ali Smith's Seasonal was released in September, completing one of the most revolutionary publishing experients of the decade. If you've not read Autumn, Winter or Spring, no matter - Smith's books, like the seasons they represent, work in a cycle. If you have, you'll know that there is plenty to relish - and discuss - here: the migrant crisis, the passing of time, parenting and lost love. This is a beautiful and profund book for our times.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Themes: motherhood, India, inheritance

What do we carry from those who came before us? How do our relationships with our mothers inform those who we mother? Avni Doshi explores these questions and more in this evocative, unsettling novel, which was one of four debuts shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year. This is a book that is bound to provoke strong feelings and fascinating discussions - and one of the most searing pieces of writing to emerge from 2020.

Read more: Avni Doshi interview: 'Ambivalence is intrinsic to motherhood'

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015)

Themes: marriage, memory, gender

One of the most interesting themes to emerge in literary fiction in recent years has been the playing with perspectives, and narrative expectations, around gender. Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry  (2018) started as a portrait of a famous male writer then played a delicious sleight-of-hand to put its female protagonist centre stage. Fleishman Is In Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (2019), did something similar by keeping the titular character’s wife both unsympathetic and firmly at arm’s length until a virtuoso final third. The precursor to both of these hits was Lauren Groff’s wonderful 2015 novel Fates and Furies, which charts a marriage in two parts: the story of talented but wayward playwright Lance, followed by his beautiful but elusive wife Mathilde. Fans of TV show The Affair (before it became rubbish) will love the differing perspectives on the same relationship. Fans of good writing will love Groff’s mastery of everything, from dialogue and scenery to suspense and delivering an emotional wallop.

How's your book club going? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk. 

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