Book club book reviews

I have been a part of one or more book clubs for over 20 years, and I have learned a few things about what makes a book club successful and how to get your book club talking. I have two cardinal rules in selecting the best book club books: choose mostly books available in paperback and pick books that will foster great discussion.

How to find the best book club books

While you occasionally want to read the hot new bestseller with your book club, the truth is that a lot people just cannot afford to buy new hardbacks all the time. I have found that participation is better when you choose books that are more affordable in paperback, can be borrowed from the library, or can be purchased used.

Selecting books that generate discussion means doing a little homework, and you’re in luck, because I have done some of that research for you! The following list includes ten tried-and-true book club picks. These are novels that have inspired some of the most thought-provoking discussions in my own book clubs over the years, and these book club books are all available in paperback or at your local library.

1. The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

Roger, a seemingly bland divorced middle-aged guy, and Bethany, a cynical goth girl in her early 20s, are both stocking office supplies in the fluorescent, soul-crushing aisles of Staples. Bethany happens onto Roger’s journal in the break room one day, reads it, and decides to write back. Thus, an unusual relationship develops as they continue to exchange notes. It is a clever, quirky book about two unlikely friends, wounded people helping each other to open up and heal.

2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The book begins when two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born in 18th century Ghana. The story then branches to follow several generations of their descendants as Effia stays in Ghana and Esi is taken to the United States. Homegoing is a moving, multi-generational saga that examines the reverberations of colonization and slavery through the centuries and up to the present day.

3. Defending Jacob by William Landay

Andy and Laurie Barber have a comfortable life in their suburban town where Andy is a respected district attorney. But their lives are upended when their 14-year-old son Jacob is charged with the murder of a fellow student. As the trial unfolds, the family fractures as the parents are forced to confront the evidence that Jacob may indeed be capable of this horrible crime. The book poses thought-provoking questions about parental responsibility and how far a parent might go to protect their child.

4. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

This coming-of-age story is set in 1987 and centers around 14-year-old June Elbus, who has just lost her beloved uncle Finn to AIDS. She is surprised to learn that her uncle had a partner named Toby, and Toby wants to meet her. As June and Toby embark on this unexpected friendship, there are changes in store for the whole family. Brunt perfectly conjures the universal confusion of the teenage years and the ignorance and fear surrounding AIDS in the Reagan-era 1980s.

5. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Marion and Shiva are orphaned when their mother dies in childbirth and their surgeon father deserts them. The twin brothers grow up in Ethiopia, always together. As they reach adulthood, that bond is shattered, and Marion is compelled to leave for America to work in a New York City hospital. But he cannot run from his past forever, and he will have to face his brother and father once again. This engrossing story interweaves riveting descriptions of third-world medicine into a powerful exploration of the enduring ties of family.

6. Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund

This amazing historical fiction novel is told from the perspective of Marie Antoinette. It begins with her arranged marriage at 14, takes us through her experience as Queen of France, and follows her extraordinary life until her execution by guillotine at age 37. Naslund’s beautifully written account makes this fascinating era of history come alive and sheds light on what life might have looked like for the young queen.

7. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love in school in Nigeria, but university strikes and political unrest force them to flee the country. Ifemelu finds success at an American university and blogs about race. Obinze, unable to join her, lives as an undocumented immigrant in London. They reunite many years later, with a renewed love for each other and Nigeria. This book cleverly explores race, belonging, interracial relationships, and immigration.

8. Tenth of December by George Saunders

When I read the very first story in this collection, there was a moment that made me gasp with utter surprise, and I thought, “Oh wow. This is going to be interesting.” And it was. This book of short stories is insanely inventive, is sometimes a bit disturbing, and will give your book club so much to talk about you may never go home. The stories are wildly varied, but concentrate on people facing ethical and moral dilemmas, where good and bad are not so easily defined.

9. The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

This book tells the parallel stories of two Afghan women: Rahima, who lives in Kabul in 2007, and her great aunt Shekiba who lived a century earlier. Both women suffer abuse at the hands of the men who control their lives, as they desperately long for freedom in a culture that prohibits it at every turn. This is an eye-opening story that illustrates the dangers many women encounter in Afghanistan, and the resilience and courage needed in the face of such oppression.

10. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This is a gorgeously written story of a lifelong friendship between two couples, and the insightful examination of a marriage. As Stegner shines a spotlight on the everyday minutiae of life, these tiny moments glow with importance as the couples travel through the years together. It is a book that reminds us of the complexity of deep relationships and the conflicting qualities present in all of us that make us who we are.

Find more of the best book club books

Need more ideas for book club books? Try these:

  • Book Club Suggestions for 2018
  • Top Twelve Book Club Books Chosen by Book Riot Readers
  • Nonfiction Recommendations for Book Clubs
  • YA Books for Book Clubs

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The Book Club

Mary Alice Monroe, Author Mira Books $5.99 (402p) ISBN 978-1-55166-530-6 More By and About This Author Buy this book Monroe’s (Girl in the Mirror) new novel opens as five friends, all members of a monthly book club, face turning points in their lives. Eve’s husband dies suddenly, shattering her comfortable lifestyle, while Midge’s mother makes an unannounced and unwelcomed reappearance. Annie finally feels ready to have a child, only to find her health and her marriage in jeopardy. Gabriella strains to make ends meet after her husband is laid off; Doris slides into depression as she tries to deny signs of her husband’s infidelity. Sometimes close to and sometimes at odds with each other, the friends struggle to face harsh realities and, in the process, gain new independence. The actual book club of the title plays an oddly small role in this celebration of friendship and growth–the books the club reads are mentioned only briefly and often seem irrelevant to the women’s struggles. Still, Monroe offers up believable characters in a well-crafted story. (Sept.)

12 best book subscription boxes

We all know the power of a good book, but finding the time to seek out the latest bestseller or discover your perfect reading companion can be time consuming. If you begun your year with the intention of swapping your electronic devices for a paperback on a more frequent basis, then signing up to a book subscription box can take you one step closer to achieving your goal.

Whether you can’t get enough of crime and mystery books, are partial to a literary classic or want something more contemporary; the latest book subscription boxes deliver a book to your door on a regular basis (either monthly or quarterly) and much more. Many of the boxes offer added extras as a companion to the book; as well as the chance to join a thriving online book club community to share your thoughts and insights.

We tested out the latest book boxes, measuring them on value for money, content of the box and of course… the book itself. We’ve delved through different centuries, genres and text types to bring you 12 of the best book subscription boxes.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

Reading In Heels: £10, Reading In Heels

Since its launch last year, Reading In Heels quickly gained a bit of a cult following amongst young women, and when our box arrived, it was clear to see why. Everything about the box is “instagram” friendly, from its decadent marble print box; to the curated gifts that come alongside its choice of modern, contemporary female-led fiction.

Yet it’s definitely not a case of style over substance: there’s no chick lit in sight. In our box we found Umani by Laia Jufresa – an inspiring debut novel set in inner-city Mexico. Given it’s only £10 a box, you might think the book alone makes it good value; but alongside it subscribers receive a range of curated items. We received Artisan Easter Eggs, wildflower seeds, face cream and super tea sachets. An affordable treat that’s a must-for busy women looking for some well-deserved “me-time”.

Buy now

Crime and Mystery Book Box: £45, My Chronicle Book Box

My Chronicle Box offer a quarterly box with several different genre choices. We opted to try the Crime and Mystery Book box; which despite its seemingly high price tag, is actually incredible value. Our hefty parcel (which came wrapped up in tissue paper with an accompanying very important looking embossed-sealed letter) contained three different books. Enclosed were two paperbacks and one hardback (our personal favourite was new release and bestseller The Confessions by Jo Spain) that all centred on contemporary crime fiction.

Alongside this were also a bundle of other goodies, including a library print, loose leaf tea, a small notebook to keep track of our reading endeavours, handmade lip balm and exclusive printed interviews with the writers featured. A great purchase if you enjoy plenty of added extras and like to have several books on the go at once.

Each quarterly box will contain three of the best new releases, 3-5 luxury, bookish goodies and author exclusive content. Pay monthly or quarterly.

Buy it now

Books That Matter: £12.99, Books that Matter

New book box “Books That Matter” is one of those ideas that you can’t believe haven’t been around forever (and wish you’d thought of yourself!) A woman-run team; this subscription box delivers relevant, engaging and challenging pieces of female fiction, around themes of gender, race, sexuality and ethnicity, alongside a gift from independent female artists.

We received feminist classic The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (in a beautifully decorated hardback version); alongside an enamel pin from The Literary Emporium and a “mind the gender gap” tote bag. There’s also an online forum to meet and chat with fellow readers and the box aims to shine a spotlight on smaller, independently published work.

Buy it now

Book Box Club: from £27.99, Book Box Club

If you’re looking for a box that also offers a real sense of community, Book Box Club is the one for you. It’s ‘themed’ boxes extend far beyond the choice of reading material. We received their “Into Dystopia box” which combined a YA novel (Out Walk Eris) with some perfectly themed items: An arrow pen (a nod to dystopian classic The Hunger Games) a bracelet with an inscription from TV show The Handmaid’s Tale, a “supplies to stay alive£ notebook and an invite to a monthly online book club.

One of the best things about Book Box Club is its desire to fully embrace its theme: once you’ve read the box and used your items, you’re invited (via a scroll no less) to an online book club with not only other members but the author themselves.

Buy it now

Illumicrate: £29.99, Illumicrate

Illumicrate is a quarterly fiction box, crammed with books and themed goodies. Books come from any genre but tend to focus on Young Adult and Speculative Fiction in particular. What’s great about Illumicrate is the sheer variety of items received, all of which were truly unique and complemented our reading experience.

Our box contained three different books (one of which, Artemis by Andy Weir, was an exclusive cover edition just for subscribers), along with a fragrant “Reading in Bed” candle, gold printed JK Rowling quote, a delicate piece of jewellery and 2018 diary. Illumicrate pride themselves on working directly with independent suppliers and book publishers directly, meaning lots of what you receive is exclusive in every sense of the word: subscribers often receive advanced reader copies, author letters and items that are made specifically for Illumicrate. If you’re looking for something that you definitely won’t find on the high street, then definitely give Illumicrate a try.

Buy now

Spanish Story Boxes, from £17.99, One Third Stories

We all know it’s important to foster a love of reading from an early age, but “One Third Stories” offers more than a book subscription box for children: it promises to help them learn a language at the same time.

Available in French and Spanish, each box comes with an original, illustrated story-as well as flashcards with key words (to reinforce children’s learning) and an audiobook too. As your subscription progresses, the books become more challenging to build on and develop your child’s learning.

Along with being educational, the books are also beautifully illustrated and One Third Stories is something that any parent and child alike would love to receive.

Buy now

The Couples Book Club: £44.99, The Willoughby Book Club

Who says reading has to be a solo activity? If you’re determined to find something other than television to discuss with your other half, then investing in The Couples Book Club could be the perfect solution. At £44.99 for a three-month subscription, you’ll receive two copies of a specially curated novel (based on a short survey in which you explain your likes and dislikes) one for you and one for someone special in your life. The psychological thriller If You Knew Her perfectly matched the responses we gave, and is definitely something we’d have opted for.

There’s no added extras or fancy packaging with this book box, but we still love its simplicity and how it gets couples reading together.

Buy now

Rare Birds Book Club: from £10, Rare Birds Book Club

At just £10 a month, Rare Bird Book Club is one of the cheapest on our round-up. The monthly book box delivers a beautifully wrapped book at the start of each month (and unlike most on our list, it’s letterbox friendly, so no waiting in for the postman) Whilst there are no other products included, we did receive some information on the story itself and why it had been selected. There’s no curated aspect to this book club, meaning what lands through your door truly is a surprise.

In turn, there’s no fixed genre either – the only thing each book you receive has in common is it that it features a female protagonist, making it a great choice if you want to challenge yourself by reading a variety of texts. The accompanying “online digital book club” is a nice touch.

Buy now

Date Night with A Book: £9.95, Date Night with A Book

If you’re on a budget, Date Night With A Book offers a book subscription box for under a tenner. The no-frills, brown paper package includes a specially-selected book (subscribers have to provide information on their five favourite books as well selecting their genre from a drop down list); a cup of tea and a hot-chocolate sachet. A fussy drinker? Don’t worry, the site’s easy to navigate drop-down menu means you can also select your favourite tea and hot chocolate flavours too!

Date Night with A Book is a simple concept at a great price.

Buy now

Classic of the Month Club, from £16.00, Bookishly Tea and Book Club

If your goal this year is to revisit the classics, then this affordable “Classic of the Month” club is a fantastic option to explore the literary canon. Each month, subscribers receive a true classic (think Alice in Wonderland and Sense and Sensibility updated with a modern, bright cover (perfect for brightening up your coffee table) and a curated bag of herbal tea to sip alongside it.

At £16 a month, one could argue that the classics can be purchased inexpensively online, but since you are paying for the experience of having one selected, beautifully covered and sent straight to your door with a perfectly-fitting bag of loose tea, it it well worth the expense.

Buy now

Classic Poetry Subscription by Bespoke Verse: £35, Not on the High Street

Don’t have the time to read a whole novel each month? Classic Poetry Subscription sends a themed box of beautifully printed verses-appropriate to the season. On subscribing, we received a wooden stand to proudly house our verses. Then each month we received three printed postcard sized verses to display, all perfectly matched to the upcoming month.

April’s box included Spring by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Transformations by Thomas Hardy. Not only do they provide a quick dose of the classics but they also double up as decor items-and look beautiful framed.

Buy now

Wildest Dreams Box: from £18, Wildest Dreams

Bookworm and blogger Zoe created Young Adult themed Wildest Dreams Box whilst battling with a chronic illness and hunting for an affordable book subscription. Each box is very much about pampering and “me time”, as well as being themed around the latest release.

We received April’s Hocus Pocus theme, wrapped in purple tissue paper and containing a handmade “hubble bubble” bath bomb, some vibrant loose-leaf “witch’s brew” and a copy of hot-of-the-presses The Witches Blood (which was only released weeks earlier). We loved Zoe’s dedication to each box’s theme and if you’re a fan of YA fiction and like to keep up with new releases; Wildest Dreams Box offers an affordable and fun solution.

Buy now

Verdict: book subscription boxes

Our top pick is Reading In Heels, for its combination of challenging, female-led fiction and luxury goodies:all at just £10 a box. Continuing our love of female-fiction is Books That Matter; a fantastic concept. Finally, if you’ve only minutes to dedicate to your reading ventures then don’t fret: sign up for Bespoke Verse’s Classic Poetry Subscription Box for beautifully presented snapshots of poetry.

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

The Choice

1 New York Times bestseller Nicholas Sparks turns his unrivaled talents to a new tale about love found and lost, and the choices we hope we’ll never have to make.Travis Parker has everything a man could want: a good job, loyal friends, even a waterfront home in small-town North Carolina. In full pursuit of the good life — boating, swimming, and regular barbecues with his good-natured buddies — he holds the vague conviction that a serious relationship with a woman would only cramp his style. That is, until Gabby Holland moves in next door.
Spanning the eventful years of young love, marriage and family, THE CHOICE ultimately confronts us with the most heartwrenching question of all: how far would you go to keep the hope of love alive?
From Publishers WeeklyIn his 13th book, bestselling Sparks (At First Sight, etc.) limns the far-reaching implications of several seemingly ordinary choices made by Beaufort, N.C. veterinarian Travis Parker and his next-door neighbor Gabrielle Holland, a physician’s assistant and recent arrival. After an inauspicious first meeting where Gabby accuses Travis’s boxer of impregnating her purebred collie, the two fall hard for each other. Already dating someone else seriously, Gabby is faced with a dilemma: whether to stick with longtime boyfriend Kevin, or get involved with Travis. The first part of the tale paints a vivid picture of her decision-making process and its effects on Travis and Gabby’s lives. That sets up Part II, which takes place 11 years later when Travis faces a life and death decision following a car accident. A tender and moving love story and a quick read, Sparks’s latest does not disappoint.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
ReviewHolter Graham gives a polished performance with his versatile skills and vocal range as he embraces the roles of Travis Parker, local veterinarian, and Gabby Holland, physician’s assistant. In Part One, Graham captures the exquisite story of their attraction, love, and marriage with a warmth and rhythm that breathes life into the characters. Ten years later in Part Two, Graham portrays Travis’s torment when Gabby falls into a coma after a car accident that is his fault. As Gabby fails to recover, Graham captures Travis’s conflict over a decision he must make—a decision based on a promise Gabby extracted from him before her life took its tragic turn. A compelling story. G.D.W. © AudioFile 2008, Portland, Maine

The Choice: The Gayton McKenzie Story


As told to Charles Cilliers

Published by ZAR Empire

First Edition 2006

Second (revised and updated) Edition 2007

Third (Ke Na Le Matla) Edition 2007

Fourth (newly updated) 2013

The Choice: The Gayton McKenzie Story

As told to Charles Cilliers

Published by Charles Cilliers at Smashwords

Copyright 2013 Charles Cilliers and Gayton McKenzie

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

ISBN: 9781301954346

Tel: +27(0) 11 472 5161, +27(0) 73 920 5585

Fax: +27(0) 866 959 870

[email protected]

Company reg. no 2012/094195/07

Cover design by Kobus Faber

Front cover photo by Papi Moye

Proofread by Henry Cilliers

Dedicated to Chubb, the Rotary

and everyone who believes in second chances

In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by another human being who blows on the coals. We should all be thankful to those who rekindle the inner spirit.

Albert Schweitzer

Also by Gayton McKenzie

A Hustler’s Bible (2013)

Also by Charles Cilliers

The Choice: Junior (2007)

For Whites Only (2008)


In September of this year, it will be seven years since the first edition of this book was published. It’s a book that has changed the lives of many – it has reached school kids, parents, general readers, the thousands of people who attended Gayton’s motivational talks, almost everyone in the media, business leaders, foreign visitors, and, perhaps most importantly, men and women still incarcerated in prisons here and around the world. The letters and emails we have received over the years all bear testament to the power of this book to make you think and to change you. It’s still as fresh and exciting to read now as it was the first time, but it’s a very different feeling for me to read it, because if this book changed anyone’s lives the most, then it was Gayton’s and my own.

Nelson Mandela once said, in one of his most famous quotes, that ‘there is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered’. I’d like to add that this feeling is even more profound with a book, as there’s nothing quite like returning to a book about you that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered. If you have spent many of your best years in those cold, noisy, fetid cells, how different do you imagine an apartment in Sandton, with a Porsche in the garage must feel? Imagine that, and you’ll come close to a fleeting understanding of it.

Gayton has been out of prison for more than ten years now. He’s been out for as long as he was in. He’s no longer entirely and conclusively defined by being an ex-con. A few years ago, when you met him, the first thing he would have said to you was: ‘Hello, my name is Gayton McKenzie and I come from jail.’ Everything about Gayton centred on prison: what led him there, what he learnt and experienced there, and what got him out of there. There was, literally, nothing else for him and about him. He was Gayton ‘Prison’ McKenzie. He thought about prison, spoke about prison, laughed about prison, lost sleep over prison, fought with people about prison, got married because of prison and in a prison dining hall, wrote this book about prison and became famous primarily for having been a prisoner – all because if you’ve spent as long as he and I have in a South African jail, then don’t be surprised if the institution of prison consumes you. To move beyond it, as Gayton has, and transcend the limited world of the prisoner, to become something much more than a mere ex-convict, is no small accomplishment. Today, if you met Gayton, you would probably be introduced to the Mr McKenzie, owner of a mining company, a mining consultancy company, a chain of lounge bars, called ZAR, and ZAR Empire, a developing entertainment and arts business, all of which have turnovers in the millions of rands. After talking to him for hours about business and life, you might be astounded to discover that he was in prison and that his formal education ended in high school.

His is not a life path I would recommend to anyone, just as I wouldn’t recommend my own. Going to prison is a profound blow to anyone’s hope of a good career and a decent life. There are few other examples I can think of (though they do exist), of someone like Gayton, who went to prison as little more than a thoughtless thug, and emerged to become something much more. That doesn’t mean that many others cannot do it (for many others must), it just means that if you do want to do it you should understand that it’s very, very difficult, you need to work harder and smarter than anyone else you know, and you have to be incredibly careful, because the world will watch your every move, but not so careful that you forget to take the right risks – and you can never give up. Maybe then you’ll have a chance of success. You see, the real message of Gayton’s story, and his success, is that he was able to make something of himself despite starting from a position in society that is truly rock bottom. This has been the point of his many motivational talks – which he used to share with people even while he, himself, was only on his way to reaching some of the dreams in his life – that if he could do it, then anyone could. That’s not to say that he did it on his own. Many, many people helped him along the way – but he made himself into someone whom it was possible to help.

And for every one good thing he received, he always tried to repay it with two.

In prison, he declared that he was going to be successful on the outside, and he promised me, as well as many other guys, that he would find us when the time was right. I was released a while after him, and he was already doing his talks and building a name for himself. Shorly after the first edition of this book was published, I saw him waiting for me at the school where I was working for a humble salary, which at the time I was proud of because I wasn’t doing crime. He asked me to join forces with him as someone he could trust with his life, and I agreed in an instant. I started as his manager, helped to market this very book and I’m happy to say I was right there with him whenever we had a breakthrough in our lives, be it in business or personally.

He tried to help many others, and he kept his word to as many of the other guys as he could – but, like I said, if you think success comes easily or that anyone owes it to you, then you’re going to find it will always appear to be owing to you, and failure is much, much easier. I’m happy to say, though, that we have been able to improve the lives of some ex-prisoners, by giving them opportunities and work. A few of them make it.

Gayton and I have been through all the struggles and the joys together. We will continue to do so for as long as either of us has breath. Before Gayton’s father, Stanley, whom you will read about very shortly, passed away on in October 2008, he made the two of us promise that we would always be brothers, with an inseparable bond of loyalty. I’m happy that Stanley lived long enough to see the man his son became and was still on the way to becoming.

Many of our successes were leveraged from the success of this remarkable book and the stories it tells. I hope that while you read it, you will understand why this book has been so transforming to so many, and especially to me and Gayton. I particulaly hope that this is a book that will inspire you to take ownership of your own choices, because we all get opportunities along the way, it doesn’t matter how bad our beginnings may be. As Gayton says in this book, what matters is the path you choose to take to get beyond your bad beginning. That bad beginning could be the very thing that makes you special.

And how you get out of it should be the thing that eventually defines you.

Kenny Kunene, Sandton

1 March 2013

Early Childhood

I was born at two am, 10 March 1974, in Pelonomi hospital in Bloemfontein, a confusing new addition to a confusing world. My grandmother is Irish, my grandfather Japanese. My father is a product of that, but looks like a coloured man. My mother is Sotho. I simply look black. I am not entirely clear about my ethnicity. My parents have the photographs at home, but the genetics have been shuffled with a deck of wildcards, and the result is me, someone who looks nothing like the Irish, but has their luck, who looks nothing like the Japanese, and can’t think of anything I have that’s remotely related to them, except the DVD player at home, and can’t even say I’m a typical Sotho, but at least I can tell you that in Sotho. Ke ka o bolelo ntho eo ka Sesotho.

It is a dry evening in Heidedal and children are kicking up dust on the dirt sidewalks. They are skipping in time to the rhythmical rise and fall of a rope, and playing games like the one they call amperscotch, a variant of hopscotch, where you jump backwards and kick a little stone from outlined block to outlined block in the sand. Watching, in the gathering dusk, is a three-year-old boy who is not allowed to play with his seven-year-old sister or his cousins from the neighbourhood. He clings to the fine wires that enclose the home he will see shrink before him in time as he grows to be a man; as he grows to become someone for whom the definition of enclosures will change, from being there to protect him, to being there to protect everybody else.

This is to become my earliest memory, of a twisting, metal fence that rises up above a toddler body like a reprimand for what I am thinking of doing. The little squares of wire cross their arms and do nothing as I make my first escape into the street, another heedless child asking to be struck by a car among the hodgepodge houses and the thick smoke from cooking fires and bolas, coal heaters made from pierced drums against the Free State winter.

My mother, Louise, has been very clear about it. ‘Gayton, you don’t leave the yard.’ But I am too curious and rebellious, even then. I want to play the games. They say that in many ways you are born with your personality intact, curled up inside you like a dense flower bud waiting to unfold.

I am given my first hiding that day, and it isn’t to be the last.

The game I enjoy more than any other takes place in the back of the yard, where the children are caught up in something that is half mock role-play and half serious. My sister, Sharon, plays the part of teacher and I watch as the others write and recite a mantra of ABCs, dotted Is, and crossed Ts. I am perfectly silent, keeping to the condition my sister and the others have set, but I am allowed to say, ‘Juffrou (teacher) … can I go to the toilet?’ a formalism that the children respect as a fetish of learning. Somehow, this careful illusion of the classroom materialises into something genuine, because one day, when I am four, a truck passes by and my mother hears me say something quite unexpected.

I have recognised and spoken correctly the arbitrary pattern of letters that have flashed past on the side of the truck. Suddenly everyone knows that there are web-like strands in my spidery young mind, capturing letters and sounds like tiny flies and sucking the juices from them. I can read. The thought of what to do with this lively, curious little boy, who is beginning to outgrow the house’s fence, no doubt troubles my mother as she rings up other people’s purchases at the supermarket, looking at the various families and their children, the affluent whites that buy the chocolate assortments, the macadamia nuts, the red and sparkling wines, canned cherries and cream, thinking: do you have a four year old who can read and write, even if just a couple of words? Is he quiet, attentive, and keen to learn, or wouldn’t he know a word if it formed itself in freckles on his nose?

She realises that perhaps I need greater stimulation than what her eight-year-old daughter can teach. So, after talking to my father, she tells me I am ready for school.

We live in 44 Jack Colbert Street, which faces the back of Olympia Primêre school, where I am taught in Afrikaans. At the age of four, I walk with my sister to school, just to watch, but it’s not long before I am allowed to attend on my own. By the end of the year, it’s a great surprise, but I am the top pupil in Grade 1. Teachers feel they have a dilemma. I will always be ‘the little kid’ in school. But there is no way I can repeat a year, so they let me continue with the expectation that somewhere along the line I will break, and not make it.

Maybe, on reflection, they will get their wish, but it will prove to be a long wait.

My father says we’re Irish. He makes Irish coffee, and it is apparently the real thing, but I can’t tell you as I never plan to try it. He is always so proud of, particularly, his mother and his Irish descent. I have never been able to make the connection to this white woman, though. She died at the time of my birth, and I sometimes wonder what it might have been like for me had she been around, and had she been genuinely fond of me. Would I have been even more confused, or would it have made things clearer? I was just as unlucky with my grandfather, a sailor, who was dead before her. They loved one another. My father is one of four boys and has three sisters. My uncle, his brother, lives three houses away.

My father gets up early to go to work as a storeman. For some time I can only imagine what he is doing, but I know it has to be something very important, because he always arrives home tired. He gives a little wave of the hand and then uses the same hand to pour the brandy when my mother asks him how the day was. She tells him to fix something in the kitchen and he nods. He is a proud handyman. The house is a small, blue, thick-walled building with a tin roof, identical to almost all the other houses in the neighbourhood. I stay in the dining room, which is also the living room, sleeping on a mattress that we slide under the table each night because there’s no room to sleep anywhere else. I call myself ‘the receptionist’, because people step into this space when they enter the house. I hang my clothing from nails on the walls. My sister has a tiny bedroom to herself, next to the kitchen.

One morning, on a Saturday, I join my father when he goes to work. I am very excited. This walk up the road and quick trip in a taxi minicab is an enormous adventure. As we go through the morning gloom, I look carefully at all the passing black township houses, a churned-up spatter of haywire, piecemeal design. Someone is telling us a story in Sotho as we go, about how the queen once came to visit Bloemfontein and insisted on seeing what separate development was really like. The government prepared very well for her few minutes through the smoky ghetto by building a row of pretty little brick houses with flower pots facing a tarred road, and perfected their sultry-smooth phrases of how well everyone was doing. ‘Just look at their happy smiles,’ her guide would say. Other people in the taxi, blacks and coloureds travelling to their separate occupations in this old and drunken automobile, laugh at the story. ‘I don’t think she was fooled,’ the man says and everyone agrees. Those houses, we are told, are still prime real estate in the black part of the township.

We arrive at my father’s job, in a hulking warehouse with the sign for NCR (National Cash Registers) across the front. I am led to the kitchen and join my father for coffee and meet Miesies G, a cheerful white lady who fusses about how cute I am and asks me questions about my shoe size. While my dad goes off to do his job she gives me a book with crayons and I spend hours colouring in and then go to look around the yard. I see my father in the warehouse carrying boxes, and then a white man shouting his name: ‘Stanley!’

‘Yes, baas?’ he calls.

‘Stanley!’ he yells again and then starts to shout. My dad apologises, but the big man with his wispy grey hair continues to berate him loudly. I don’t know what my father has done, but then, with a final threat from the other man, Stanley is left alone. I don’t want him to see me playing there in the yard, but he notices me and tells me to go back into the kitchen.

‘Make me some coffee.’

Miesies G comes back from somewhere in her car and gives me a pair of shoes and clothing. What I am most excited about, though, is the toys: a model car and a male figurine, a white man. He-Man. I forget about everything and run back outside, wearing my scuffed ‘new shoes’ and slightly faded ‘new’ shirt to make miniature roads for my ‘new’ model car and strike at it with the, by comparison, enormous figure, whose left leg is only slightly broken, hanging limply where some other child must have pulled it too hard.

My father thanks Miesies G profusely for the gifts, making embracing gestures towards his own heart and lowering his head. He makes such a show of it that I realise I may not have been grateful enough myself. ‘Thank you Miesies G,’ he says. ‘You are so good Miesies G. May God bless you.’ When we leave at lunchtime, a shortened day because of the Saturday working hours, I give the woman’s leg a tight hug. She laughs and says I should come again, and my heart exults. My father’s job is so wonderful, I have forgotten, for the moment, what I saw a few hours before. His status as a hero is confirmed to me and I am wondering, on the way home, if anyone else in the taxi is noticing my new outfit and shoes. I make revving noises with my car along the seats of the taxi and feel my father’s hand on my head. ‘Gaytie,’ he says softly.

When we arrive at home I show my sister my new things but she is not impressed. Later, I find my father sitting in the narrow lounge. The curtains are drawn and he is in his worn-out sofa chair, his drink in his hand.

‘Yes. I’ll take you again,’ he promises me, and I am perfectly pleased.

I am by far the smallest and youngest boy in school, an ant among termites. Being bullied is casual and regular. They take money, food and inflict bruises, saying it won’t show because I’m the blackest thing they’ve seen.

‘You think you’re clever, McKenzie? You’re just a runt. Go to school with your brothers in Mangaung.’ (the black township).

I have friends, but none are what you’d call ‘a best friend’. Of my friends, Neil Gallieboy is around most often. Most of the boys my own age have an older brother who has been through much of the nastiness that our lives seem to engender, but not so for me.

You’ll just be sitting on the front step and see older boys walking by staring at you, and you’ll think: what’s the problem? What do you want? As it is, I feel alone and I come to rely on myself. Even my friends seem able to turn on one another quickly and will be into a fight sooner than later.

I learn to fight in school and on the streets of Heidedal, though I am often overpowered. The battles that aren’t simple, sadistic bullying are mostly about things like marbles or, especially, gambling, but on the whole it comes down to something more simple and brutal: who is toughest. I learn to fight, even when the pain is so overwhelming I forget who I’m fighting and why. There’s always somebody who wants to moer (hit) you, and rob you. Marbles double up as ammo for a kettie, a home-made catapult made from a well-chosen fork in a tree branch, the rubber from inner tubes and a bit of leather. I am shot at with everything, from stones to marbles, twisted wires, nails, even chicken bones. Ketties are not particular about ammunition, and I learn to shoot back. I come to feel that if anyone were to set up a kettie tournament, I would win.

It’s not unusual to see children as young as six gambling. They use more traditional props, like dice, but I prefer a game called blikkie. You play using a tin cup and a coin. Children gather to place their money on the ground while you hold your cup upside down and roll the coin inside with an expert motion of the wrist, so that the coin spinning within makes a satisfying sound to rival the flashing lights and electronic sounds of any casino. Every coin that the other boys have put down you must match with a coin of your own. If the first of them puts down heads, all of them do, and you roll your coin and slam down your tin praying that when you lift it you will see tails. We take turns to spin the coin and the coin spinner has the most to lose or gain, including a bloody nose.

I love this game, and though winning or losing is merely a matter of chance I feel there is some skill involved and that my good luck is due to my technique in some way. I have confidence that I am superior, and perhaps all young boys have this sort of self-assurance, but it is something that comes to define me. I want others to see it too, so that I scream all the harder when an older boy gives me a wedgie. I walk home, the inside of my upper thighs burning, the ruined elastic of my underpants hanging like two dead tongues from the top of my pants, and I vow revenge.

When we play cops and robbers, as all children do, no self-respecting Heidedal kid wants to be a cop. We share more bloody noses for the honour of being Billy the Kid, the most notorious gangster in the neighbourhood. Every child knows all the stories of the formidable Billy, how every cop fears him, and every gangster fears him all the more. No door with money behind it can keep Billy the Kid out, and no door with bars can keep him in.

The stories we tell are brutal, though many are softened by a sense of loyalty. Billy the Kid will always come back to pick you up when you’ve been shot.

I never see the man, but I know about him, and can also tell you about Tebogo Mohana, aka Tebza Ngwanya, who runs the underworld of Joburg from Soweto, Jackie Lonti, the Jakkalas (jackal), who no one will dare to oppose on the Cape Flats. Only the Staggie brothers, Rashied and Rashaad, in Cape Town, are spoken of with the same respect. We have debates about who’s toughest and will act out role-plays of gang wars.

The real thing is not very far away. The Philadelphia Kids are my local slice of intimidation and drug dealing. Every area is gang turf. No area of South Africa has as many gangs as a coloured township, and Heidedal is no exception. Its territory is shared among The Fast Guns, The Spaldings, The Stylistics, The Bosbere (bush bears), Hot Stuff and The Philadelphia Kids, whom we just call the PKs. We all know which gang our allegiance is sworn to and kids at school who live in the Hot Stuff area are not disinclined to come over to me and push me around because the PKs did something unacceptable to the Hot Stuff clan. They shove you between them and say, ‘You PKs think you’re so great, don’t you? Well kiss my arse.’ And you’re trying to fight back and thinking: what in the world are you actually on about anyway?

I’m five, and still in my first year of school. Mando is a rough, scarred man, with wiry muscles and a hard glare in his eyes. He lives a minute’s drive from my house, in Karel Botman street.

I am in the house when I hear the argument outside. I step outside to look. The quarrel seems to be over cigarettes. The other man moves away and I see that Mando has a knife. He grabs the retreating man by the belt and strikes. As his victim screams, there’s a rich fountain of blood from his neck. He screams again and falls. The blood drains from him and he is soon silent. Mando notices my small presence and he points at the body and says, ‘Ja saanie, jy’t fokol gesien hier.’ (Yes, sonny, you saw fuckall here).

The police come and take away the body and I see Mando walking with his friends afterwards. I’m not the first-ever witness in my neighbourhood who’s been too afraid to say anything. I can’t think of anyone in Heidedal more feared than Mando. He points at me as he passes with his pals and says: ‘Hey, my lightie!’ I’m his little boy now, and the thought terrifies me. There never seems to be a good time to mention that I saw Mando casually murdering a man. I am also terrified that someone else will say something about it and Mando will think it was me. So I keep his secret, as do many others. It’s hardly his first murder, and though he’s always discussed, there’s ‘never proof’. Murder is so common in our area that one could look at the statistics and think there’s a serial killer running about. There probably is.

A toffee apple is the first thing I steal, from an old lady shop owner.

I am six years old. They are lying there on a table in a kitchen where she has just made them and I help myself on impulse, thinking about the thieving hero, Billy the Kid, and slip one into my trouser pocket. The toffee is still boiling-hot though, so it sears my skin, and when I’ve reached safe distance I pull it out and the toffee is inedible, covered with material from my ruined trouser pocket. I eat what I can and justify the theft by thinking that my pain has caused me to pay more than anyone else anyway.

I come to steal other things, like cassette tapes, just recordings of music I think I need. I am also beginning to understand that money is fluid and hard to hold onto for some. If you are sharp, you can drink from what drips between the fingers of others. ‘The sugar’s up,’ I’ll tell my mother, who knows how I love the trips to the shop. She’ll give me the money and I’ll skim just a bit from the change. I become known as a gopher at other homes, from where the people send me running for occasional essentials. The biggest essential is beer, and I find it isn’t too hard

Whether you’re picking your book club suggestions as a group or looking for the best book club books to choose from for an individual choice, these 29 options will have you covered! From chick-lit to historical fiction to non-fiction that reads like a novel, there’s a book here for every book club!

Is there anything that puts fear into your heart like having to choose a book for book club? I think not.

Of course, maybe you are braver than I am. Nothing puts fear into MY heart like that annual sign-up sheet asking for my best book club suggestions.

Here are 29 book club suggestions that I think most people will enjoy reading, ones that will spark interesting discussions, and ones that you’ll feel good about having forced other people to read.

Some of these are the best book club books from my own book clubs over the years and others are ones I WISH my book club had read.

This list of book club books has non-fiction, chick-lit, young adult and middle grade titles, history books and parenting books. There are new titles and ones that are bit older.

Whatever you’re looking for, I hope you’ll find a few perfect book club suggestions on this list for your group.

My favorite book club suggestions

  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – This memoir published after the author’s early death from lung cancer will basically rip your heart out, but also make you so glad to be alive. In the past, we’ve done family reunion book clubs and if we did another one, this would be in my top three book club suggestions for sure. (Full review here)
  • I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella – If you’re looking for funny and fluffy book club books, it’s hard to beat Sophie Kinsella. I laughed my head off reading this book about a woman who loses her cell phone and finds another one in a garbage can, accidentally taking on the role of secretary for the businessman who owns the phone (Be warned that there is some swearing). (Full review here)
  • The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin – This is one of those book club suggestions that was just MADE for book lovers and while I usually shy away from books described that way (they always seem so pandering), this one is just spot-on. I couldn’t love this story of a grumpy old book shop owner who finds himself the caretaker of a little baby who is left in his store. (Full review here)
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson – When I shared this book on Instagram, SO many people responded telling me that their book clubs had read this title and had amazing discussions. It’s all about the American justice system, especially how the racial bias in it. I wished on every page that I had a book club to discuss it with. (Full review here)
  • Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese – A quick read with all sorts of funny stories about food, cooking, and raising animals sprinkled with lots of recipes. Bonus, it’ll be easy to pick refreshments to go along with this book! (Full review here)
  • The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak – A really elegantly written young adult book about an orphan girl in Germany during WWII and the family that takes her in. One of the best books I’ve read. (Full review here)
  • Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies by J.B. West – I read this more than three years ago and I still think about it ALL the time. It’s chatty and easy to read without being gossipy. (Full review here)
  • How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn – Despite the click-bait title, this book is SO good. I felt like it was packed with helpful ideas and research, and it was super fun to read. If you invite me to join your book club this year, odds are good that I’ll choose this one. (Full review here)
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan – This one is pretty hefty, but it’s so interesting that no one in our group seemed to have too much trouble getting through it. And wow, did we have a fascinating discussion about the food sources in our country, the organic industry, and a multitude of other topics.
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport – This book is one that I kind of need to go back and read about every six months to help me refocus. I’d love this as a book club pick and then to come back and revisit it a few months later to see how everyone was doing.
  • Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool – One of my favorite Newbery winners in recent years, this story is told by two different voices – a young girl during the Great Depression and a young boy just before WWI breaks out. (Full review here)
  • This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick – This book would be an especially good book club suggestion if you were in a book club with mostly transitory people, say students or expats. (Full review here)
  • Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey – This book about a family of twelve children, being raised in a home with an efficiency-expert father is sweet, hilarious, and just plain interesting. The sequel, Belles on Their Toes, is just as good. Nothing to do with the embarrassingly bad Steve Martin movie. (Full review here)
  • These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine by Nancy E. Turner – The first thirty pages are a bit slow, but after that this diary-style novel really gets going about Sarah, a teenager growing up in the West, trying to educate herself, and, of course, falling in love. This book is deeply romantic, but to call it only a romance would be to sell it far too short. (Full review here)

  • What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty – My favorite chick-lit book of all-time, about a woman who wakes up after a fall at the gym to discover that, instead of being pregnant, twenty-nine, and deeply in love with her husband, is thirty-nine, the mother of three and on the verge of divorce. As she tries to get back her memories of the past ten years, she also struggles to figure out what has changed her life (and marriage) so drastically. And, more importantly, can that marriage be saved? (Full review here)
  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chau – This is my pick for my bookclub this year (I’m leading the discussion in December) and I am just really excited to see how everyone feels about this book about Chinese parenting – or at least one woman’s take on it – and how it works in America (Full review here)
  • Nutureshock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman – One of my book clubs picked this a few years ago and I loved the amazing discussion about sleep, racism, praising children, and a whole slew of other parenting topics. (Full review here)
  • Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand – This book is non-fiction but it’s so amazing, it’s hard to believe someone didn’t make it up. Olympic runner Louis Zamperini’s plane is shot down in the Pacific during WWII and after surviving on a tiny inflatable raft for 47 days, he’s taken prisoner by the Japanese. And compared to being a POW, the raft time looks like vacation. Probably the best WWII book I’ve read. (Full review here)
  • Wonder by R.J Palacio – A remarkably done middle-grade novel about a boy with severe facial abnormalities who begins attending public school for the first time in middle school. Moving, well-written, and full of things to talk about, which is why it’s one of my favorite book club suggestions.
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – This book would be especially fun if you were choosing for October – kind of a gothic thriller/romance. The first chapter (about 30 pages) is a smidge slow, but after that, it is hard to put down! It ollows a young woman who marries a very rich widow and feels like she can’t escape the shadow cast by his larger-than-life first wife who died in a boating accident.
  • Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely – Along the same lines as Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but Ariely is a professor and runs his own research studies. You could talk about this book all night long – it’s one of the best book club books I can think of!
  • The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine – This middle-grade historical fiction title is set in Alabama during WWI. Dit is anxious for the new post master to arrive, since rumor is that he has a son Dit’s age, but when the post master’s family arrives, Dit can’t decide whether he’s more surprised that the family is black or that the promised friend is a girl. (Full review here)
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman – This is YA fiction at its best. After a horrible car accident, the course of Mia’s life is drastically changed and all the plans she’s had for her future are called into question. It’s not a very long book, but it is beautifully written. I cried both times I read it. (Full review here)
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls – One of the best book club books that makes your own childhood look really really easy, this is a memoir about growing up in a completely dysfunctional family, where the family keeps moving in the middle of the night and the children eventually realize that the parents are never going to pull themselves together. (Full review here)
  • Red China Blues by Jan Wong – In college, I read this memoir about a Canadian girl (of Chinese descent) who goes over to China during the Cultural Revolution, on fire with Mao’s vision. During the years she spends there, she comes to realize that Mao’s ideas for China might not be all that she’s hoped. This book is absolutely fascinating – I even sent my mom a copy for her birthday a couple of years ago (she loved it too).
  • Room by Emma Donoghue – Horrifying, but ultimately full of hope, this book about a little boy raised by his mother in a single room where she is kept by her kidnapper and their eventual escape, explores what happens when the whole world opens up before you. (Full review here)
  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart – One of my very favorite YA books of all time about a very smart girl at a boarding school who discovers her boyfriend belongs to a secret boys-only society and is determined to get in. This is one of those book club suggestions that is easy to read but has TONS to chat about when you meet. (Full review here)
  • Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance – I basically made Bart have our own little book club for this one, since I read it on a long car trip and then proceeded to read huge sections aloud to him and discuss each chapter, while he probably wondered how many more miles until we got home. (Full review here)
  • All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know about Getting and Spending by Laura Vanderkam – This book was just MADE for reading in a book club. It’s broken up into short, readable chapters and each one is full of interesting conversations all about how we choose to spend our money and what actually makes us happy. (Full review here)

By the way, our book club has tossed around the idea of doing a theme for the year, whether it was books written by women, fiction only, children’s lit, etc. I think that might be a fun idea, since it’d make it at least slightly easier to choose a book. But I think other people might find that too restrictive.

And please tell me your best book club books that have been big hits in YOUR book clubs! I’m always looking for more book club recommendations.

If you liked this post about book club suggestions, you might also enjoy these:

  • 25 MORE book club books
  • How to start a successful book club
  • Hosting a one-time book club
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