Book Club Questions: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

In Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel, we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world – where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder.

My friend and I both still needed to read a pulp fiction novel for our yearly book category challenge, so we picked this classic to read together. It was definitely quite the psychological journey, one which I would probably best describe as “exhausting” – bizarre, horrifying, and comically ridiculous in turns. If you are a fan of horrible people as protagonists, surprisingly unpredictable thrillers, and stupid murders, this is the book for you.

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Book Club Questions: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

This book was quite a different read for me, since I’ve read very little in the way of hard sci-fi, and the amount of crazy physics concepts in this book was a little intense – but in a good way? Maybe??? I definitely enjoyed reading it, even if it made my brain hurt at times. In some ways, its scientific intensity made it challenging for me to come up with discussion questions, but we still managed to spend a long lunch at Tao of Tea in Portland talking about them all! If you are a fan of philosophical questions raised by the existence of alien life, the long-lasting impact of the Cultural Revolution in China, and Very Intense Physics, this is the book for you.

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Book Club Questions: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

When beautiful young Lucy Graham accepts the hand of Sir Michael Audley, her fortune and her future look secure. But Lady Audley’s past is shrouded in mystery, and Sir Michael’s nephew Robert has vague forebodings. When Robert’s good friend George Talboys suddenly disappears, he is determined to find him, and to unearth the truth. His quest reveals a tangled story of lies and deception, crime and intrigue, whose sensational twists turn the conventional picture of Victorian womanhood on its head. Can Robert’s darkest suspicions really be true? A publishing sensation in its day, Lady Audley’s Secret is a thrilling novel of deception and villainy in which the golden-haired heroine is not at all what she seems.

My friend and I had the most fantastic time reading this book! For me, it was a reread, since it was one of the novels covered in a Jane Eyre and Revision course I took in college, while for my friend it was a new adventure. Lady Audley’s Secret offers plenty of mystery and suspense, along with wonderfully sly depictions of class and gender inequality in Victorian England during the time. It also moves at a relatively fast past with lively prose, for those of you who may have bad past experiences with Victorian literature. If you are a fan of sordid pasts, incompetent detectives, and vicious battles of wits, then this is the book for you!

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Book Club Questions: Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (tr. Ebba Segerberg)

It is autumn 1981 when the inconceivable comes to Blackeberg, a suburb in Sweden. The body of a teenage boy is found, emptied of blood, the murder rumored to be part of a ritual killing. Twelve-year-old Oskar is personally hoping that revenge has come at long last—revenge for the bullying he endures at school, day after day.

But the murder is not the most important thing on his mind. A new girl has moved in next door—a girl who has never seen a Rubik’s Cube before, but who can solve it at once. There is something wrong with her, though, something odd. And she only comes out at night….

My friend and I picked this book because we thought it would be a good chance to discuss vampire fiction, and because a friend of ours had already read it and gave it a high recommendation. After reading Dune, we were hoping for a book that both of us would have a great time reading – and we were not at all disappointed! Let The Right One In is an especially wonderful read if you are looking for contemporary vampire fiction in a very dark Nordic style, with plenty of horror moments. It’s definitely a page turner, but in a way that sneaks up on you.

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Book Club Questions: Dune by Frank Herbert

Here is the novel that will be forever considered a triumph of the imagination. Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, who would become the mysterious man known as Maud’dib. He would avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family and would bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.

A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what is undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction. Frank Herbert’s death in 1986 was a tragic loss, yet the astounding legacy of his visionary fiction will live forever.

I’ve meant to read Dune for a long time, seeing as how it is a heavy-hitting classic in the sci-fi genre. My friend had read it in high school, but was looking forward to reading it again to have the more informed and thoughtful opinions of someone who is now in their mid-20s. We also thought it would be a nice discussion opportunity, since she is much more knowledgeable about the sci-fi genre compared to me.

Cue the next agonizing month of my life. To put it nicely, I fucking hated this book. If you love it, great, have fun, but my opinion is unalterable and I can back it up with many a reason why, so please don’t yell at me about it. I did still make a strong effort to write questions that would not lead the reader’s answer and would also foster interesting discussion, and as a result our discussion was, indeed, a very good one. Our tie-in viewing of the 1984 film adaptation is still pending, but will no doubt feature a great deal of alcohol.

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Book Club Questions: The Trespasser by Tana French

Antoinette Conway, the tough, abrasive detective from The Secret Place, is still on the Murder squad, but only just. She’s partnered up with Stephen Moran now, and that’s going well – but the rest of her working life isn’t. Antoinette doesn’t play well with others, and there’s a vicious running campaign in the squad to get rid of her. She and Stephen pull a case that at first looks like a slam-dunk lovers’ tiff, but gradually they realize there’s more going on: someone on their own squad is trying to push them towards the obvious solution, away from nagging questions. They have to work out whether this is just an escalation in the drive to get rid of her – or whether there’s something deeper and darker going on.

Tana French! Oh, Tana French. She is, unquestionably, one of my all-time favorite authors, and certainly the best mystery author I’ve ever read. The Trespasser had just come out and, since we had both just gotten our long-awaited copies from the library, my friend and I decided we might as well read it for book club. Our three-hour discussion was then regularly punctuated with exclamations of, “Oh my god! Tana French is just so good.”

The competition is fierce, but I think this might well be my favorite book of the entire Dublin Murder Squad series. If you’ve never read anything by Tana French, I highly suggest you start. (It’s not essential that the Dublin Murder Squad series be read in order, but I would recommend it.) If you love mystery books that aren’t really mystery books but actually tightly focused explorations of one character’s subjective point of view, or if you love beautifully written books in which every single sentence is dripping with unbearable suspense, then reading this book would be a good idea.

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Book Club Questions: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. 

Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned across the years to save him. After this first summons, Dana is drawn back, again and again, to the plantation to protect Rufus and ensure that he will grow to manhood and father the daughter who will become Dana’s ancestor. 

Yet each time Dana’s sojourns become longer and more dangerous, until it is uncertain whether or not her life will end, long before it has even begun.

We’d been meaning to try Octavia Butler’s writing for a long time, and finally made it in reading this book. While the book itself is far from an uplifting read, we were both glad to have read something from this wonderful author at last. Kindred is an excellent book that raises lots of interesting (and tough) questions about the delineation of power, our responsibility toward our kin, and the ways in which our modern worldview has altered our perspective on the historical realities of slavery.

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Book Club Questions: The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin

Once a culturally rich world, the planet Aka has been utterly transformed by technology. Records of the past have been destroyed, and citizens are strictly monitored. But an official observer from Earth named Sutty has learned of a group of outcasts who live in the wilderness. They still believe in the ancient ways and still practice its lost religion – the Telling.

Intrigued by their beliefs, Sutty joins them on a sacred pilgrimage into the mountains…and into the dangerous terrain of her own heart, mind, and soul. 

I’d read The Left Hand of Darkness a few years ago, and was interested in reading more of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work – so fortunately my friend joined me on this journey! (And then read The Left Hand of Darkness prior to our book discussion because she is an over-achiever.) If you are nervous about diving into sci-fi, I think Le Guin is an excellent place to start, as she tends to focus more on social concerns or philosophical concepts that can be illuminated by sci-fi settings. The Telling was a lovely book, although I personally think The Left Hand of Darkness was more hard-hitting with its topics and questions. I would particularly recommend The Telling if you are interested in thinking about the role of a historian or what creates a culture.

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Book Club Questions: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their difference, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. 

But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear. 

After reading The Goldfinch, which we both agreed was “kind of gay, but nowhere near gay enough,” we picked a book we had heard would not disappoint: Madeline Miller’s retelling of Achilles and Patroclus’ epic love story on the battlefields of Troy. Both of us definitely enjoyed reading this book, and had a lovely discussion about it while sitting outside enjoying a surprise sunny spring day in Seattle. I think you will benefit in your reading experience if you are already familiar with the Iliad to some degree, though reading a thorough summary would probably suffice. While not The Best retelling I’ve ever read, this book was certainly a good and thoroughly enjoyable time. I would particularly recommend it if you are a fan of Greek mythology, retellings, or sad doomed love stories.

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Book Club Questions: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch combines vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate. 

After the disappointment of Death Comes to Pemberley, we figured we’d head back to Donna Tartt whose The Secret History we had liked so well. Also, our 2015 reading challenge had a Pulitzer prize category, so this book took care of that. I would say our reactions to The Goldfinch were a little mixed – mine more forceful and in some ways negative. Personally, I felt like this book missed a lot of opportunities to become a truly meaningful and thought-provoking read, but my friend and I did not see entirely eye-to-eye on that. (Having different opinions is, of course, the point of having book club – so if you fucking love this book, good on you, and I hope you have a friend who has a differing point of view, with whom you can good-naturedly argue over a cup of tea.) This book also prompted an interesting discussion of the Pulitzer prize and whether it means anything at all as a mark of a book’s quality or that book’s representation of American literature. We certainly had a great time talking about The Goldfinch, and if you’re interested in reading it, hopefully the same will be true for you!

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