The top six book club books recommended by Real Simple readers:
- The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
- The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
- The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
- Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
- Life of Pi, by Yan Martel
- The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
I think what makes a book good is when there is plenty to talk about. But to be the best it has to be one that stays with you. For me, that one is We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver. We read it in October 2004 and we’re still talking about Kevin!
East Longmeadow, Massachusetts
Several years ago, my book club of 10 years read The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. Although the book was set in the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s, it made me question the way I live, the little decisions I make each day, and the things I take for granted more than any book I can remember reading.
You expect me to pick just one? Impossible! Instead, here are my nominations just from what we’ve read in the past year. (Indulge me.) Best fiction by a man with an amazingly convincing female perspective: A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. Best fiction recently uncovered but written 70 years ago: Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky. Best nonfiction for moms with school-age kids: The Case Against Homework, by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. Best inspirational (and what have you done lately?) nonfiction: Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Really, my book club picks a fabulous variety of books, so I could go on and on.
Woodland Hills, California
It was a book most of us would never have found on our own, as it’s often shelved under “fantasy” rather than “fiction”―and most of us had never looked in the fantasy section of a bookstore before. The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, is a beautifully written, oddly seductive, and captivating book from beginning to end. As an added bonus, it’s the story of strong women. Our book club was together for more than five yeas and this was one of only two books that was universally loved.
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. I hadn’t read Steinbeck since high school and was captivated by this startling and poignant book. I found myself staying up half the night to finish reading it.
A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines. We weren’t crazy about the book, but this is the one that got us started. Now, 10-plus years later, a few deaths, a few births, and countless other celebrations of life and we are still together. What a wonderful, opinionated group of women we are. Some of us would never have connected had it not been for this club.
Highland Park, Illinois
Finding the Doorbell, by Edie Thys Morgan and Cindy Pierce, sparked the liveliest and most revealing discussion we have ever had. The book features important content, delivered with a rare combination of matter-of-fact tone and hilarious anecdotes.
Lake Tahoe, California
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. This book allowed us to cry, make fun of one another crying, laugh, and realize how real this story could be in any community.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, has to be the best book we’ve read. From the tragic moments of loss to the heartwarming addition to a family, every aspect spills emotion and true humanity. The main character, Francie, contains a bit of everyone. This is a wonderful book for women of all ages―a timeless tale of growing up and discovering who you truly are.
Walled Lake, Michigan
Ozma of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. Not only did this wonderful book take me back to my childhood joy of reading but it also inspired me to reread the whole, beloved series with my six-year-old. Never mind Judy Garland; the real Dorothy Gale still sparkles with intelligence, determination, and humor more than a hundred years after her creation. Our daughters (and sons) could find far worse heroines to admire and emulate.
Our book club read The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan. Although the book was lovely, the best part about it was the company we shared it with. Our book club is composed of 20-somethings living in Baltimore, and we all invited our moms to participate. The moms traveled from all over the country to spend Mother’s Day at the book-club meeting with their daughters. Everyone found ways to relate to the mother-daughter relationships in Tan’s novel.
The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. It is about the strong women in our lives who nurture us and help us grow through all the different stages of life. I have given the book as a gift numerous times to women in my life who have nurtured me and helped me grow.
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, transported me to a part of the world about which, despite our military presence there since 2001, I knew little about beyond the facts of the Soviet invasion nearly two decades ago. I didn’t want this book to end―it allowed me to smell the flowers and then the oil residue in the tanker, feel the sand under my feet and taste the delicacies. This was the first piece of fiction I had read in years and it put me at the mercy of a gifted storyteller, Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner is a blessing and a useful tool to achieve global understanding.
Medford, New Jersey
We’ve read many intellectually stimulating books, but the book that generated the most poignant discussion was Billy Crystal’s touching memoir, 700 Sundays. Like Crystal, we examined the relationships we had with our fathers and how they made an impact on our lives. We recalled what growing up was like in a much simpler era, the 50s and 60s. We laughed, we cried, and we shared a wonderful afternoon remembering.
James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Ignore all the controversy over whether it should be labeled a memoir or not―this text grabs you, punches you in the gut, and leaves you cheering for the broken, flawed hero. It temporarily removes you from your own world, and what more can you ask for in a book?
Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. This book is amazing and crosses gender, age, and race boundaries to inspire us all to evolve in our own lives. The book makes me want to study yoga, eat pizza, and celebrate love and life to the fullest! Many of my friends feel as I do: That this book altered their core being and made them want to be more. I wish the author were my best friend.
Atonement, by Ian McEwan, has to be it. He’s such a brilliant writer, and all his characters are so real and complex. As a reader, I would have been enough satisfied with that. But then McEwan lightly tosses in a devastatingly simple twist about a page and a half from the end of the book and you have to rethink your perceptions of the entire novel. This twist cinched it for me. I was enthralled and in awe and so grateful for such a rich read. Never have I thought so long about a book or been so amazed.
Catherine S. Vodrey
East Liverpool, Ohio
It would have to be Personal History, by Katharine Graham. I love biographies because you learn so much about the “behind the scenes” of historical events, and I particularly enjoyed hers and seeing that part of the 1900s through her eyes. Her childhood, her private struggles as a wife, the challenges she overcame as a businesswoman, and how she carried her influence in society at the time were all compelling.
The Jesus I Never Knew, by Phillip Yancey. Growing up going to church my entire life, I believed Jesus to be this untouchable, sacred, passive, gentle figure, too far and too majestic to pay attention to me. What I learned is that he is more human than most people give him credit for and he cares about the things I care about, no matter how large or small they may be.
I sponsor a book club for children, and the best book we have read so far is The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate Dicamillo. The book took us through a page-turning adventure involving a small mouse, a princess, red thread, and soup, but the real story was what was hidden underneath. Quickly the kids and I found ourselves looking through the eyes of a storyteller. Stories are the light of the world, and through them we can learn to love, to fear, to discover, and to shine.
Palm Harbor, Florida
We read Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, by Warren St. John. We all know someone who is a huge sports fan, and we live in Athens, Georgia, which is a college-football–crazy town, so we could appreciate the book’s context of Alabama football. We found the points raised about being a fan great for discussion. The author even called in for our book-club meeting, and we had a great time eating tailgate food and talking to him.
I was working at a college at the time, and Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld’s inside look at prep school, reminded us how tough adolescence can be―a helpful reminder when working with young adults. Our club members varied in age and gender, so we all seemed to have a unique interpretation, which is exactly the point of a book club.
Glen Ellyn, Illinois
Technically not a “book club” (we choose to drink our wine solo―ha!), friends and I have passed around Fall on Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald. By far, this is one of the most absorbing and oddly inspirational books that has ever crossed our paths. You’ll quickly fall into the lives of these precious characters and never want to say good-bye. I highly recommend this little appreciated gem of literature.
Carleton Place, Canada
Nineteen Minutes, by Jodi Picoult, has had the biggest impact on our book-swap club. Our group is made up of teachers from the middle school where we teach, and Picoult’s foray into a high school shooting grabbed each one of us and took us on an emotional roller-coaster ride for which no one was prepared. After reading the novel, several of us actively campaigned for others to read it and stubbornly persisted until they did. Nineteen Minutes is that good.
Union, New Jersey
The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory, was the second selection our book club read, and it is still number one on my list. It brought history to life and made me realize that though times may change, the battle of the sexes remains the same.
My book club takes place in my eighth-grade classroom with a small group of teenage girls. This year we read Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. It’s an amazing journey into the life of a teen living in Pakistan during the 1980s. My students and I found much to relate to, even though the culture is highly different from ours, and it sparked daily animated discussions about women’s rights.
Standing Still, by Kelly Simmons, was the best book our book group read this year and the one that created the most lively, interesting, and memorable meeting in our group’s eight-year history. Several of us admitted to shirking all responsibilities from the time we picked up the novel. The subject matter was compelling and had us debating issues that included guilt, motherhood, marriage, safety, therapy, and Third World labor relations. The fact that the author came to our meeting was incredible. Each month we typically speculate about what was in the author’s head, what was the real inspiration, what was autobiographical, and on and on. This time we heard the backstory for the novel and its riveting characters and learned what it’s like to get a novel published.
New Hope, Pennsylvania
Beneath a Marble Sky, by John Shors, is the fictional account of the man who built the Taj Mahal for his wife, told from his daughter’s point of view. A member picked this for a February read, since it’s a love story of sorts, and it turned out to be one of the best books we’ve read in almost three years. The fast and steady pace of the novel, along with the detailed descriptions of every event, made this an enjoyable read. It also made us all want to travel to India, though I tried persuading everyone to go to the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. (It’s a bit closer!)
My oldest daughter and I were in a mother-daughter book club while she was in elementary school. When it was our month to choose the selection, our pick was The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis. What a poignant, funny, moving book! It’s the one we both enjoyed most of the 20 or so books we read in the club. Last summer we both reread it (my daughter is 20 now) and still found it as great as we had 10 years earlier.
Surrey, British Columbia
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, is the best book our book club has read. It is a compelling journey back into Chinese history and reveals the bonds of sisterhood and the communication that sustains females throughout life, especially during the trials and tribulations experienced by daughters, wives, and mothers. The characters and environment come vividly to life and are unforgettable.This book contains a vast amount of historical data woven into a story taking place in the 19th-century China, where young girls were expected to have their feet bound as a sign of beauty and with the hopes of finding a wealthy husband. This book encouraged an interesting discussion, after which we all agreed that the power of female friendship is as necessary today as it has been throughout time. And we wondered how a culture decides what is beautiful and what lengths it will go to obtain beauty.
San Marcos, California
Our book club read Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfork Cross. It is a wonderful story based on a real woman who posed as a man and became the pope for two years. The exciting part about picking this book is that the author, Donna Woolfork Cross, will talk with the club by speakerphone if you read her book. She chatted with us for an hour, answering all our questions and giving us great insight into the book.
Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, by Chelsea Handler. While I definitely have not had quite as many wild experiences as Chelsea, I think it’s wonderful that she teaches us to all laugh at our mistakes. There’s often so much judgment and guilt in our world. I love how Chelsea helps us to lighten up about our past experiences and see that they do not determine the future. When we play on our strengths and find true joy, then everyday can be a ball.
Mary Fall Wade
The best book my now defunct book club ever read was A Prayer for Owen Meaney, by John Irving. It has special meaning for me because it was my mother’s final book club before she passed away, in 2006. I will always associate the memories of my mother with a belief that everything happens in this world for a reason, and that belief helps me accept her untimely and painful death as part of a much bigger plan that I am still too small to see.
New Orleans, Louisiana
My book club, a coed group of mixed ages, has been meeting for 16 years, and we’ve read more than 150 books together. Top picks include A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley; Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels; and The Rule of the Bone, by Russell Banks. But our hands-down favorite would also surely be considered one of the great novels of the 20th century: Beloved, by Toni Morrison.
Walnut Creek, California
Years ago, my book club selected Watership Down, by Richard Adams, and I recall being a bit annoyed that we were going to read what I thought was a children’s book. I ended up falling in love with the story. Now, nearly 20 years later, I will pull the book out several times a year and reread the final pages that two decades ago moved me to tears. They still get me every time.
North Wales, Pennsylvania
The best book our book club has ever read is the last book―whatever that book is. I think our club will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, and that’s a powerful place to be. In that time, we have learned and taught each other so much that it almost doesn’t matter whether we liked the book or not―we learn to read and think from so many different perspectives. Often (and I frequently disagree with the choice of the book), when I leave the book discussion, I want to read the book again to see what I missed.
Looking for even more book suggestions? Check out the The No-Obligation Book Club.