This list of modern masterpieces and timeless classics is guaranteed to stimulate a lively discussion.
This list of modern masterpieces and timeless classics is guaranteed to stimulate a lively discussion.
Here’s to book clubs – those thought-provoking, friendship-forming, cheese-nibbling evenings spent catching up with fellow readers.
Whether you're sticking to online or making the leap back into IRL meetings, the tricky part can sometimes be finding the right book to read. If your group loves to discover the newest thing, then take a look at our run-down of the unmissible debuts to read this summer, but otherwise there is much joy to be found in older books with themes that feel as relevant today as ever.
Here we suggest a rolling update of our favourites – old and new – to cater for all book club tastes. Let us know how you get on!
The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller (2021)
Themes: Romance, mid-life, family legacy
Miranda Cowley Heller may be a debut novelist, but she’s no stranger to good stories. A former books editor, she spent a decade as Head of Drama Series at HBO. No wonder, then, that The Paper Palace is a gripping, devastating read. Told between the mid-Fifties and the passing hours of a contemporary summer in a New England beach backwater, The Paper Palace hooks you in until the end – when events reach a climax that you’ll be desperate to discuss.
Read more: The best summer reads for your book club
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (2021)
Themes: Womanhood, legacy, ambition
Maggie Shipstead’s third novel was an instant New York Times Bestseller and landed itself in the 2021 Man Booker Prize longest. Not enough to convince you? It’s a moving and clever read that dovetails the biographies of two remarkable, fictional, women - both of whom have familiar real equivalents. Marian Graves is an early aviation heroine, attempting to be the first woman to fly around the world longitudinally, across both poles. She disappears within reach of her final hurdle, but her story lives on in the hands of Hadley Baxter, a modern-day Hollywood ingenue who hopes to resuscitate her career in a Graves biopic. By entwining these two lives, Shipstead paints a gorgeous story of womanhood across the decades.
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.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)
Themes: Civil Rights Movement, racial equality, social justice
Does your book club read non-fiction? It can be a great way to get stuck into a book that demands conversation after reading. Pretty much any of James Baldwin’s work would be a wise choice to read as a group, but Baldwin’s short but vital duo of “letters” is a good place to start. The Fire Next Time became a bestseller upon its release in 1963, capturing the mood of a nation on the brink of a civil rights movement and exposing America’s terrible legacy of racial injustice. Nearly 60 years on and Baldwin’s book remains as pertinent as a means of reflecting on what has been – and what still needs to be – done to gain equality.
Read more: Where to start with James Baldwin
Themes: family trauma, parenthood
Nothing gets the conversation flowing at a book club quite like a good mystery novel, where the motives and actions of the characters are as fun to dissect as the twists and turns of the action. There is no writer more perfect to fill this brief than Lisa Jewell, whose superbly-written psychological thrillers have been gripping readers for decades, and no better novel than her latest – The Night She Disappeared. Centred around a cold case of a missing daughter and her complex relationship with her mother, abandoned mansions, mysterious notes and deep rooted family pain also play their part in a book that’s unpredictable to the very end and too good not to talk about.
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.
Read more: How I wrote it: Jenni Fagan on Luckenbooth
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (2020)
Themes: race, masculinity, young love
At just 160-odd pages, Caleb Azumah Nelson's debut novel is a slip of a thing, but the heartache it manages to contain within its pages is enormous. This is a book about the near misses of love, the love too intense for the life it stumbles upon. Set against a richly drawn backdrop of contemporary South London, music, books and institutional racism colour the experience of our hero. A vital and beautiful story.
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".
Themes: addiction, memoir, creativity
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.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel (2021)
Themes: creativity, exercise, aging
The pioneering cartoonist never meant to write anything too serious with her latest graphic memoir. But then eight years went by and she realised that a lifelong fascination with exercise had helped her through some of the toughest moments of Bechdel’s life. Covering grief, mortality, creativity and the difficulty of giving ourselves a break, The Secret to Superhuman Strength offers Bechdel’s trademark wit and humanity with familiarity.
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.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha (2020)
Themes: womanhood, plastic surgery, trauma
Plastic surgery, trauma and art collide in a claustrophobic housing block in Seoul, Korea, in Frances Cha’s intoxicating novel. Following four young women as they navigate the difficulties of finding independence – both in spirit and finances – and escaping their pasts, If I Had Your Face is a fascinating novel with plenty to talk about.
Territory of Light by Yuki Tsushima (1979)
Yuki Tsushima’s sparse and stunning novel was originally published as a series of short stories in the late Seventies, but you’d be forgiven for thinking she was a woman writing from the 21st century. Tsushima’s narrator is a recently separated woman with a three-year-old daughter, with whom she lives in a compact, light-filled apartment in Tokyo. She is not, on paper, a “good” mother - she leaves her child alone, she gets drunk. And yet it’s impossible not to feel intrigued by Tsushima’s character. Delicately exploring the ideas of motherhood, feminism and autonomy, Territory of Light is as pertinent a read now as it was 40 years ago.
Read more: The 20 must-read classics in translation
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.
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan (2021)
Themes: youth, relationships, dependency
Megan Nolan's highly anticipated debut novel reads as the author intended: as if you're sucked into the intense relationship she describes within its pages. A relentless and compulsive book, Acts of Desperation follows the falling in and out of love of the anonymous narrator with a chilly and coercive artist, who makes a reluctant boyfriend. In the process, Nolan interrogates what it is to want to love more than another person wants you, and the lengths people will go to achieve the romance society has promised them.
Read more: Megan Nolan: the books that shaped my life
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.
Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder (2021)
Themes: Motherhood, creativity, magic-realism
If you've ever been alone in the house with a small child, thinking wistfully about your life before children, Nightbitch will be an illuminating read. Rachel Yoder's incendiary debut has won praise from Carmen Maria Machado and Jenny Offil for her unflinching and funny portrayal of how an artist turns gradually into a dog after giving up her job to raise her son. Sound wild? It is. There's plenty to chew on here.
Read more: Get to know our 2021 debut authors
What It Feels Like For A Girl by Paris Lees (2021)
Themes: adolescence, Noughties club culture, LGBTQ identity
Paris Lees made her name as a journalistic breath of fresh air, discussing sex, dating and politics as a trans woman. But her first book, What It Feels Like For A Girl, marks Lees out as a serious literary talent. Funny and heartbreaking, this memoir reads like a novel as we follow 13-year-old Byron Lees through a youth of misadventure – sex work, drugs and imprisonment – in a quest for freedom from their small-minded Nottinghamshire hometown.
Read more: Interview: Paris Lees is dancing on her own
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.
Read more: Books that define the Windrush experience
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.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)
Themes: isolation, domesticity, horror
Always controversial, long loved by other writers, over the past decade Shirley Jackson has enjoyed something of a (posthumous) revival among modern readers. Her sparse prose is brilliantly engaging, her images and ideas are chilling, her characters are unforgettable. At a time of information overload, there is something irresistibly simple about the dark worlds Jackson creates. Where better to start with unsettling story of sisters, We Have Always Lived in the Castle?
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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