Book Club Prep: The Witch Elm by Tana French

Our next book club book will be The Witch Elm by Tana French! This latest novel from the greatest mystery writer working today (in my opinion, anyway) rolled onto the market last autumn, so hopefully you’ll be able to get your hands on a library copy by now without too much delay!

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.

Highlight white text for content warnings: sexual harassment, physical assault, terminal illness, death and dying, suicide, homophobia, ableism, sexism

For those of you looking for hosting ideas, here are some easy snacks and beverages you and your book club compatriots can enjoy while discussing French’s latest work. And for those of you who are looking for something more beyond the book itself, here are some articles and books which either tie into French’s novel or expand upon its themes and content.

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2019 Reading Challenge!

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2019 Reading Challenge: Color & 2019 Reading Challenge: Black & White

It’s that time of year again: the time to say, “You know what? I don’t think I’ve read enough books this year. Or if I have, I bet I could have been reading more books that I wouldn’t usually think to read!” At least, that’s what you might say if you’re a couple of huge nerds who recently decided their ultimate birthday celebration included a trip to the local bookstore. (We regret nothing!) But whether or not that sounds like you, we’d still be absolutely thrilled to have you join us for our 2019 Reading Challenge!

In the PDFs above that you can print out to track your progress, the reading challenge has been broken into three levels, so you can shoot for 25, 50, or 75 categories. Choose whatever level will be the best fit for you! Since the two of us live in the U.S., it is pretty U.S.-centric in a few categories, so feel free to adjust as necessary for all geographical needs. And lastly, if you feel that certain categories should have been included, please add them or swap them around for yourself! Sadly, we do have to cut many ideas we would like to include.

Happy reading!

Book Club Questions: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich

For more than a half century, Father Damien Modeste has served his beloved Native American tribe, the Ojibwe, on the remote reservation of Little No Horse. Now, nearing the end of his life, Father Damien dreads the discovery of his physical identity, for he is a woman who has lived as a man.

To further complicate his quiet existence, a troubled colleague comes to the reservation to investigate the life of the perplexing, possibly false saint Sister Leopolda. Father Damien alone knows the strange truth of Leopolda’s piety, but these facts are bound up in his own secret. He is faced with the most difficult decision: Should he tell all and risk everything… or manufacture a protective history for Leopolda, though he believes her wonder-working is motivated solely by evil?

My friend and I picked this book out for our Seattle Public Library Adult Summer Book Bingo cards, which required a book written by a past or present Seattle Arts & Lectures speaker. It’s not really the genre of book either of us would typically pick up (leaning more towards the YA, mystery, fantasy, and sci-fi camps), so we were both glad that SPL Book Bingo forced us to go outside our bubbles and read this wonderful book. I especially recommend this book to anyone who enjoys complicated characters, beautiful and intimate imagery, drifting narratives not overly concerned with chronology, and a plethora of moments that are just as sad as they are hilarious.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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Book Club Questions: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

The future is small. The future is nano…

And who could be smaller or more insignificant than poor Little Nell? An orphan girl alone and adrift in a world of Confucian Law, Neo-Victorian values and warring nano-technology?

Well, not quite alone. Because Nell has a friend, of sorts. A guide, a teacher, an armed and unarmed combat instructor, a book and a computer: the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is all these and much much more. It is illicit, magical, dangerous.

And it isn’t Nell’s. It was stolen. And now some very powerful people want to get their hands on this highly desirable object. Nell is about to discover that the world can feel very small indeed…

My friend and I had a bit of difficulty with this novel, to be honest. We both found it quite interesting and engaging for the first two-thirds, with plenty of neat concepts and strong characters. After that point, however, the book went a bit off the rails, and we were each left with a good deal of confusion by the time the novel ended. I might still recommend it if you are big into hard sci-fi and also have a soft spot for Victoriana and/or steampunk, since the first part of the book really was an interesting read that I just wish had continued in that same vein.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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Book Club Questions: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and mostly elderly residents. Neighbors Roman and Minnie Castavet soon come nosing around to welcome the Woodhouses to the building, and despite Rosemary’s reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises that she keeps hearing, her husband takes a special shine to them. Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Rosemary becomes pregnant, and the Castavets start taking a special interest in her welfare. As the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castavets’ circle is not what it seems…

Both my friend and I really enjoyed reading this horror classic! I was reading it while on vacation in NYC, which was a nice coincidence – although I kept wishing I could just continue reading, rather than go do tourist things with my family. Fortunately the torment didn’t last too long, since the book is both a. short and b. a page turner. I would recommend this book to everyone, but especially to people who haven’t read much horror in the past and want to dip a toe into the genre. Also, if you’re sensitive to scary things, this book is (psychologically) frightening without forcing you to keep the lights on all night in order to sleep.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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Book Club Questions: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.

Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.

My friend and I had mixed reactions to this critically adored collection of short stories. It’s certainly an interesting book, and one which I would say is worth reading, even though I personally found much of it frustrating. You will probably enjoy this book most if you appreciate more nebulous writing, with a focus on ideas and images rather than character or plot.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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Book Club Questions: Out by Natsuo Kirino (tr. Stephen Snyder)

Natsuo Kirino’s novel tells a story of random violence in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works a night shift making boxed lunches brutally strangles her deadbeat husband and then seeks the help of her co-workers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime.

The ringleader of this cover-up, Masako Katori, emerges as the emotional heart of Out and as one of the shrewdest, most clear-eyed creations in recent fiction. Masako’s own search for a way out of the straitjacket of a dead-end life leads her, too, to take drastic action.

The complex yet riveting narrative seamlessly combines a convincing glimpse into the grimy world of Japan’s yakuza with a brilliant portrayal of the psychology of a violent crime and the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse between seasoned detectives and a group of determined but inexperienced criminals. Kirino has mastered a Thelma and Louise kind of graveyard humor that illuminates her stunning evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds and the friendship that bolsters them in the aftermath.

My friend and I definitely found this book an interesting read; its subject matter is grim and brutal, held together by the attention-grabbing puzzle that is Masako Katori. Masako’s rise from the cocoon of her dead-end middle-aged existence while she takes control following her coworker’s spousal murder is a journey laced with fascination and dread for the reader. It’s a dark read, and not for everyone – but if detailed descriptions of dismemberment or cat-and-mouse games with vicious killers don’t faze you, then this might be the book you’ve been looking for. I must warn that the ending perplexed my friend and I in its sudden departure from the narrative trajectory of the rest of the story – but aside from that, we enjoyed this book a great deal.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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Book Club Questions: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko…

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? Award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers one of the most highly acclaimed science fiction novels of the twenty-first century.

My friend and I both read The Water Knife by this author a couple years ago as our “book based entirely on its cover” category filler. (The hardcover had one of the most beautiful covers I have ever seen.) I was wonderfully impressed with that story, which I probably would never have read if I had seen the synopsis! This time my friend and I decided to read Bacigalupi’s first novel, The Windup Girl, which also happened to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Much like The Water Knife, this book can boast of extensive worldbuilding, a sometimes horrifyingly realistic plot structure, and an alarming vision of Earth’s future. Unlike The Water Knife, there were some features that were troubling – most glaringly, the way in which the titular character is portrayed, which may be a dealbreaker for some readers. Nonetheless, it was certainly an interesting read that provided plenty of conversation, and it will no doubt stick with me for a long time to come, just like Bacigalupi’s second novel.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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Book Club Questions: This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee

In 1818 Geneva, men built with clockwork parts live hidden away from society, cared for only by illegal mechanics called Shadow Boys. Two years ago, Shadow Boy Alasdair Finch’s life shattered to bits.

His brother, Oliver—dead.

His sweetheart, Mary—gone.

His chance to break free of Geneva—lost.

Heart-broken and desperate, Alasdair does the unthinkable: he brings Oliver back from the dead.

My friend and I were absolutely thrilled to read this book after delightedly tearing through Lee’s second novel The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue earlier this year (my best read of 2017). Much like The Gentleman’s GuideThis Monstrous Thing is unique and imaginative, with enjoyable characters, LGBTQIA representation, and a delightful new take on a familiar period of history. I highly suggest reading this book if you are a fan of intertextuality, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, narrators who somehow keep managing to shock you with just how poor their poor decisions are, and really just a thoroughly good time.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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Book Club Questions: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

Like most of Shirley Jackson’s work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle manages to be a concisely unsettling story. Jackson frequently manages to challenge our first impressions, as well as our initial expectations from when the story began. Although many are only familiar with her famous short story The Lottery, Jackson’s other works are well worth reading, and I definitely encourage you to pick them up. This particular novel might be a good fit for you if you are a fan of cagey narrators, a mild spookiness factor, and depictions of society’s vicious enmity toward the “other.”

Discussion questions below the cut!

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