What I Thought About All of the Books I Read for Book Club This Year

Dec 19, 2020

You all know how much I love my book club. I joined it back when Aaron was just a toddle, and I have only missed a handful of meetings since then (even a scheduled induction the very next day couldn't keep me away). 

Four years ago, our book club was struggling to stay afloat. Although many people were on the list and received the emails about the meetings, only four of us read and discussed the book with any regularity. In a bold move, we decided the book club could use a revamp. 

We curated a group of women who were avid and dedicated readers, came up with a yearly outline of genres, and even drew up a list of rules like the true nerds we were.

And thus, the "scary" book club was born.

It has been so good for my soul. I love these smart, classy women so much. I love that no matter what we choose, people will actually read it and come to the meeting with sticky notes, tabs, background insights, and underlined sections ready to dive deep and discuss. It is everything I could have asked for in a book club.

Like most things this year, our little book club suffered because of the pandemic. We did our first zoom meeting in March during the week that everything shut down. (I can still remember when my friend sent out the group text that said, "Should we zoom this week instead?" And I said, "What's zoom?" Oh, my poor little naive self.)

At the time, we thought a virtual meeting would be a one, possibly two, time exception. But month after month, the texts continued to say the same thing, "See you on zoom on Thursday!"

I'm not going to say that virtual meetings were an acceptable replacement to the real thing. Please. Half the fun is getting together and snacking on delicious treats. Without this element, it felt much more like work or an assignment than in the past. Besides that, the stress of daily life caused many members to lose their reading mojo, especially if the book involved a difficult subject. 

But we did it. As we had our final meeting of the year last week, I looked over the thirteen squares on my computer screen, and I felt this sense of extreme pride. My book club can survive a pandemic! 

I thought it might be fun to look back over everything we read this year and reminisce just a little. I'd love to know if you've read any of these, either with a book club or solo. 

January: Lovely War by Julie Berry (Fiction) 5/5

Out of everything I read this year, this one is my top pick for 2020. So either everything went downhill from there, or it just kicked off a really great year of reading. I choose to think the latter. The best part was that I really had no idea I would like it so much. I knew very little about it going into it, except that Greek gods were somehow involved. Having never really enjoyed Greek mythology that much, I can't say that was a very big selling point for me. But somehow, that ended up being one of my favorite parts and elevated the story from just another World War I/II story to something really special. I wrote a whole review of it here, but basically it gets all of the praise, gold stars, and highest recommendations from me. 

February: Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns (Relationship) 4/5

In February, we like to choose a book that focuses on relationships. It's kind of our nod to Valentine's Day without being overly sappy. We've read quite the variety of books, from nonfiction to fiction, over the years, and I always like examining them through the lens of relationships, which puts a slightly different spin on things from a typical discussion. Cold Sassy Tree was rich in relationships--romantic, familial, and friendship. I had never read it before and knew pretty much nothing about the plot. I loved the voice of the 14-year-old narrator, which was accurate and uncomfortable at the same time. The story unfolded in the most surprising way, and there was so much to discuss when we all gathered together (our last "real" gathering of the year). Full review is linked here.

March: Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (Memoir) 3/5

Okay, let's get one thing straight from the beginning. This book is not a memoir (unless children who spontaneously go up in flames is part of someone's reality). But we read it for what was supposed to be a memoir month. The book that was originally slated for March was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (which is indeed a memoir). However, in the weeks leading up to it, no one could dredge up any enthusiasm for it (even though we had all voted for it). We decided to make a last minute change--because sometimes that just feels right, and it's our book club so we get to make the rules. I felt like we should go with one of the other memoir choices for the month (because even if we make our own rules, I am still a rule follower at heart, and this was our memoir month). However, the majority of the members wanted to read Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, which was a runner-up for July, our wild card month. And now, looking back, I find it eerily appropriate that we decided to read about a combustible set of twins during this month that set off our dumpster fire of a year.


April: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Classic) 5/5

This was the only book on this year's list that I had read before, but it was an absolute pleasure to return to it. I read it aloud to my kids, and we enjoyed every page. They loved Dickon (who doesn't?), and I loved Mrs. Sowerby (a worthy mentor if ever there was one). After we finished, we watched the 1993 movie, which was equally delightful. I was so grateful for the chance to reread this beloved classic and share it with my kids. Also, in my humble opinion, April is, and always will be, the best month in which to read this book. 

May: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (Middle Grade/Juvenile) 4/5

This happened to be the month that I was in charge of. The three books I originally recommended were The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo. I think any of those would have made for a great discussion, but you just can't go wrong with Kate DiCamillo. Her tight prose and deep themes just never disappoint. I quite enjoyed jotting down potential questions while I was reading this book and considering different angles. But ask me how much I like leading a discussion over zoom. (Answer: not so much.) I have since read the second book in this trilogy, Louisiana's Way Home and enjoyed it just as much or even more. The third one, Beverly Right Here, has been checked out from the library twice, and I hope to make it a priority soon. 

June: Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice by Bill Browder (Nonfiction) 3/5

As much as everyone at book club thought this story was fascinating, one of the things we couldn't seem to get past was the author's rather egotistical voice as well as some of his sexist comments. We spent a good ten minutes bashing him before moving onto the actual events that made this story so compelling. The funny thing is when I mentioned this indignation to Mike (who I had convinced to read the book), he was surprised by our reaction. He hadn't picked up on it at all, probably because he's a man. Regardless, this was a book that connected a lot of dots in the world news for me, and I've recommended it to my father-in-law, brother-in-law, and brother, so obviously I was able to overcome my personal grievances.

July: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb (Wild Card) 4/5

"Wild Card" is not an actual genre but we always dedicate one month out of the year to catch any books that don't fit into another category or that are just about something a bit unusual. Although this book definitely could have fit into our "memoir" or "nonfiction" months, its format was out of the ordinary. It was a mix of the author's own experiences in therapy, insights and techniques from being a therapist, and the contrasting experiences of her clients. I really loved the narrative style and the way the stories intertwined with one another. And it was really helpful to get the perspective of both client and therapist from one voice. Book club consisted of people swapping their own therapist stories alongside comments about the actual book. I felt like I didn't have much to contribute since I've never been to a therapist. But this book convinced me that I probably should. 

August: When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin (Fiction) 2.5/5

This was a bit of an uncomfortable read for me. I found it over the top in so many ways: too saccharine, too predictable, too sentimental, too preachy, too lofty, too dramatic. But the whole time I was reading it, I was thinking about the person who was leading the discussion in August; she had put in a major plug for this book when she said it was one of her favorites. Books are so personal, and I didn't know how I was going to be able to share my honest opinion without sounding offensive. But in the end, I didn't need to worry. This woman reread it in preparation for leading the discussion, and it didn't hold up for her on a second reading. She came to many of the same feelings as the rest of us, so we were able to just all briefly agree on that and then get down to discussing the intricacies of the plot. Sometimes the best discussions end up being for the books I didn't love.

September: Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell (Nonfiction) 3.5/5

I always love Malcolm Gladwell, and this book was absolutely fascinating, as I expected. Unfortunately, it depressed me quite a bit. The basic premise was that we, as humans, are not the best judges of character. We give credibility to certain cues, attributes, and characteristics that often actually lead us astray. Most of the stories Gladwell chose to illustrate these scenarios were intense and graphic and really disturbing. I already have a skeptical personality, but this book made me distrust even my closest friends and family members. This was not Gladwell's intent, but that was the effect it had on me. Still, it made for a really good book club discussion, and I've mostly recovered from reading it, haha. 

October: Beloved by Toni Morrison (Mystery/Suspense) 4/5

I know this is on many high school reading lists, but I somehow missed it until now. I'm not going to lie--it was a slow start for me. And even once it got going and I really started loving it, there were still moments when a description was a bit cryptic or the setting changed abruptly or the writing style moved into free verse, and I felt a little like I was floundering again before I regained my footing. The story was intense and heartbreaking and vacillated between the real and imagined. During our discussion, there were many questions of, "Do you think this really happened?" and "Was this person real?" It was a bit mystical, which made the harder subject slightly easier to cope with, and I almost had a sense of floating through this story, which was quite lovely. 

November: Star of the North by D.B. John (Historical Fiction) 4/5

I almost didn't read this book because I honestly didn't know if I could handle a book about North Korea right now. Plus, I had been really diligent about reading everything else this year, so I thought I could take a pass if I wanted to. But man, my upholder personality runs strong, and since I didn't have a good reason not to, I felt like I should at least give it a chance. I'm so glad I did. Although reading about North Korea did not exactly make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, the premise of a young woman being kidnapped off the coast of South Korea and her twin sister then sacrificing everything to find her was so captivating. Even though much of the book is based on real information about North Korea (I was shocked to find out that the seed bearing program referenced in the book was a real thing), the tone of the book felt more like a thriller than something that could actually happen. Because of that, it was more escapist than I was anticipating, and that ended up being a good thing.  

December: Annual planning and book exchange

Our meeting in December is used to plan out the schedule of books for the following year. Everyone claims a genre and then comes to the meeting with three choices. A summary of each book is given, and then we all vote on which one we'd like to read for that month. It is like Christmas for book lovers because not only do we get the eleven books for the year but also the twenty-two runners-up. After each spot has been filled, we have a little book exchange where we each give and receive a new book. This year, I brought As Bright as Heaven (but if I hadn't read it for this book club, I probably would have brought Lovely War). It makes me happy looking over our list of picks for 2021. No matter what the year brings, I have a feeling it's going to be a good year of reading. 


  1. It's so interesting/fun to read about your book club experience. I've been in my book club for 16+ years and it's been a constant source of joy and learning. Like yours, we've had our ups and downs and switched to Zoom in April. We're so tradition-bound that I'm not sure we'll ever change things up as radically as you did. We rotate who hosts, chooses the book and serves a meal each month (I'll be next month!). We also read "Maybe You Should Talk to Someone" and I really enjoyed that. Another highlight from the year was, "A Woman of No Importance" about American/British spy Virginia Hall. I don't love or even like every book we read, but that's negligible compared to the experience and conversations.

  2. I'm in a variety of book clubs, some really loose (read if you feel like it) and some where there's a big commitment. I like 'em both but I follow the rules for each.

    By the way, H Is For Hawk is actually a great book that you'd probably like. It sounds lame but reading it is a great experience. Or so I found -- I carted it around for years because it sounded dull but had been highly recommended, and when I finally read it I was really impressed.


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