2021 Great Group Reads
Announcing the 2021 Great Group Reads!
Some stories on this year’s list span decades, some feature multiple points of view, and some are coming-of-age tales.
Whatever the time period, whoever the main characters are, however issues such as race, friendship, and grief are told, know that the novels and memoirs on this year’s list are amazing, heart-wrenching, and important. They will spark discussions that we all need to be having — yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
We hope you’ll read lots of books on this list and enjoy them as we do. If you talk about the books or their authors on social media, please use #GreatGroupReads.
And if you are looking for a book club to join, the Bookwoman Book Club exclusively reads books from the GGR lists.
Let’s celebrate the joy of shared reading!
The 2021 Great Group Reads List
by Brian Malloy
Publication Date: May 25, 2021
Categories: literary, LGBTQ+, AIDS, grief, friendship, family, coming-of-age
The year is 1988 and 28-year-old Kevin Doyle is bone-tired of attending funerals. It’s been two years since his partner Francesco died from AIDS, an epidemic ravaging New York City and going largely ignored by the government, leaving those affected to suffer in silence, feeling unjustifiable shame and guilt on top of their loss.
Some people might insist that Francesco and the other friends he’s lost to the disease are in a better place, but Kevin definitely isn’t. Half-alive, he spends his days at a mind-numbing job and nights with the ghost of Francesco, drunk and drowning in memories of a man who was too young to die.
When Kevin hits an all-time low, he realizes it’s time to move back home to Minnesota and figure out how to start living again — without Francesco. With the help of a surviving partners support group and friends both old and new, Kevin slowly starts to do just that. But an unthinkable family betrayal, and the news that his best friend is fighting for his life in New York, will force a reckoning and a defining choice.
All Sorrows Can Be Borne
by Loren Stephens
Publication Date: May 11, 2021
Categories: historical, coming-of-age, family, illness, grief
Inspired by true events, All Sorrows Can Be Borne is the story of Noriko Ito, a Japanese woman faced with unimaginable circumstances that force her to give up her son to save her husband. Set in Hiroshima, Osaka, and the badlands of eastern Montana and spanning the start of World War II to 1982, this breathtaking novel is told primarily in the voice of Noriko, a feisty aspiring actress who fails her audition to enter the Takarazuka Theater Academy. Instead, she takes the “part” of a waitress at a European-style tearoom in Osaka where she meets the mysterious and handsome manager, Ichiro Uchida. They fall in love over music and marry. Soon after Noriko becomes pregnant during their seaside honeymoon, Ichiro is diagnosed with tuberculosis destroying their dreams.
Noriko gives birth to a healthy baby boy, but to give the child a better life, Ichiro convinces her to give the toddler to his older sister and her Japanese-American husband, who live in Montana. Noriko holds on to the belief that this inconceivable sacrifice will lead to her husband’s recovery. What happens next is unexpected and shocking and will affect Noriko for the rest of her life.
Eighteen years later, her son enlists in the US Navy and is sent to Japan. Finally, he is set to meet his birth mother, but their reunion cracks open the pain and suffering Noriko has endured.
All the Young Men
by Ruth Coker Burks
Publication Date: December 1, 2020
Categories: memoir, LGBTQ+, social activists, AIDS
A Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award
In 1986, 26-year old Ruth visits a friend at the hospital when she notices that the door to one of the hospital rooms is painted red. She witnesses nurses drawing straws to see who would tend to the patient inside, all of them reluctant to enter the room. Out of impulse, Ruth herself enters the quarantined space and immediately begins to care for the young man who cries for his mother in the last moments of his life. Before she can even process what she’s done, word spreads in the community that Ruth is the only person willing to help these young men afflicted by AIDS, and is called upon to nurse them. As she forges deep friendships with the men she helps, she works tirelessly to find them housing and jobs, even searching for funeral homes willing to take their bodies — often in the middle of the night.
She cooks meals for tens of people out of discarded food found in the dumpsters behind supermarkets, stores rare medications for her most urgent patients, teaches sex-ed to drag queens after hours at secret bars, and becomes a beacon of hope to an otherwise spurned group of ailing gay men on the fringes of a deeply conservative state.
Throughout the years, Ruth defies local pastors and nurses to help the men she cares for: Paul and Billy, Angel, Chip, Todd and Luke. Emboldened by the weight of their collective pain, she fervently advocates for their safety and visibility, ultimately advising Governor Bill Clinton on the national HIV-AIDS crisis.
This deeply moving and elegiac memoir honors the extraordinary life of Ruth Coker Burks and the beloved men who fought valiantly for their lives with AIDS during a most hostile and misinformed time in America.
The Baddest Girl on the Planet
by Heather Frese
Publication Date: March 2, 2021
Categories: literary, Southern, friendship, sea
Winner of the Lee Smith Novel Prize
Evie Austin, native of Hatteras Island, NC, and baddest girl on the planet, has not lived her life in a straight line. There have been several detours — career snafus, bad romantic choices, a loved but unplanned child — not to mention her ill-advised lifelong obsession with boxer Mike Tyson.
This is the story of what the baddest girl on the planet must find in herself when a bag of pastries, a new lover, or quick trip to Vegas won’t fix anything, and when something more than casual haplessness is required.
The Baddest Girl on the Planet is inventive, sharp, witty, and poignant. Readers will want to jump in and advise this baddest girl on the planet — or at least just give her a shake or a hug — at every fascinating turn.
A Girl Is a Body of Water
by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Publication Date: June 15, 2021
Categories: literary, psychological, women, coming-of-age, cultural heritiage, African
Winner of the Jhalak Prize
In her thirteenth year, Kirabo confronts a piercing question: who is my mother? Kirabo has been raised by women in the small Ugandan village of Nattetta — her grandmother, her best friend, and her many aunts — but the absence of her mother follows her like a shadow. Seeking answers from Nsuuta, the local witch, Kirabo learns about the woman who birthed her, who she discovers is alive but not ready to meet. Nsuuta also helps Kirabo understand the emergence of a mysterious second self, a headstrong and confusing force inside her — this, says Nsuuta, is a streak of the “first woman”: an independent, original state that has been all but lost to women.
Kirabo’s journey to reconcile these feelings, alongside her desire to reconnect with her mother and to honor her family’s expectations, is rich in the folklore of Uganda and an arresting exploration of what it means to be a modern girl in a world that seems determined to silence women. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s A Girl is a Body of Water is an unforgettable, sweeping testament to the true and lasting connections between history, tradition, family, friends, and the promise of a different future.
Hell of a Book
by Jason Mott
Publication Date: June 29, 2021
Categories: literary, Southern, African American
An astounding work of fiction from New York Times bestselling author Jason Mott, always deeply honest, at times electrically funny, that goes to the heart of racism, police violence, and the hidden costs exacted upon Black Americans, and America, as a whole.
In Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, a Black author sets out on a cross-country publicity tour to promote his bestselling novel. That storyline drives Hell of a Book and is the scaffolding of something much larger and urgent: since Mott’s novel also tells the story of Soot, a young Black boy living in a rural town in the recent past, and The Kid, a possibly imaginary child who appears to the author on his tour.
As these characters’ stories build and build and converge, they astonish. For while this heartbreaking and magical book entertains and is at once about family, love of parents and children, art and money, it’s also about the nation’s reckoning with a tragic police shooting playing over and over again on the news. And with what it can mean to be Black in America.
Who has been killed? Who is The Kid? Will the author finish his book tour, and what kind of world will he leave behind? Unforgettably told, with characters who burn into your mind and an electrifying plot ideal for book club discussion, Hell of a Book is the novel Mott has been writing in his head for the last ten years. And in its final twists it truly becomes its title.
Mona at Sea
by Elizabeth Gonzalez James
Publication Date: June 30, 2021
Categories: literary, coming-of-age, Hispanic and Latino
In this sharp, witty debut, Elizabeth Gonzalez James introduces us to Mona Mireles — observant to a fault, unflinching in her opinions, and uncompromisingly confident in her professional abilities. Mona is a Millennial perfectionist who fails upwards in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis.
Despite her potential, and her top-of-her-class college degree, Mona finds herself unemployed, living with her parents, and adrift in life and love. Mona’s the sort who says exactly the right thing at absolutely the wrong moments, seeing the world through a cynic’s eyes. In the financial and social malaise of the early 2000s, Mona walks a knife’s edge as she faces down unemployment, underemployment, the complexities of adult relationships, and the downward spiral of her parents’ shattering marriage.
The more Mona craves perfection and order, the more she is forced to see that it is never attainable. Mona’s journey asks the question: When we find what gives our life meaning, will we be ready for it?
The Mountains Sing
by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Publication Date: March 16, 2021
Categories: historical, war, coming-of-age, cultural heritage
Runner-up for the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize in Fiction, Winner of the 2021 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, Winner of the 2021 International Book Awards for Literary Fiction and Multicultural Fiction, Winner of the Blogger’s Book Prize 2021, NB Magazine’s Book of the Year, Winner of the 2020 BookBrowse Best Debut Award, Winner of the 2020 Lannan Literary Award Fellowship for “a work of exceptional quality” and for “contribution to peace and reconciliation.”
With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore apart not just her beloved country, but also her family.
Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.
The Mountains Sing is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel in English.
No Hiding in Boise
by Kim Hooper
Publication Date: June 15, 2021
Categories: literary, women, psychological, crime
July 2021 Indie Next List
When Angie is awakened by a midnight call from an officer with the Boise Police Department, she thinks there must be a misunderstanding.
The officer tells her that her husband was involved in a shooting at a local bar, but how can that be possible when her husband is sleeping right next to her? Except when she turns to wake him, he isn’t there.
Tessa is the twenty-three-year-old bartender who escapes to a backroom storage closet during the shooting. When it comes to light that five people were killed, she is burdened with the question of why she survived.
Joyce wakes up to a knock at her front door, a knock she assumes is her wayward son, Jed, who must have lost his keys. It’s not Jed, though. Two police officers tell her that Jed is dead, shot at the bar. Then they deliver even worse news: “We have reason to believe your son was the shooter.”
So begins the story of three women tied together by tragic fate — a wife trying to understand why her now-comatose husband was frequenting a bar in the middle of the night, the young woman who her husband was apparently pursuing, and a mother who is forced to confront the reality of who her son was and who she is.
The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margo
by Marianne Cronin
Publication Date: June 1, 2021
Categories: literary, women, friendship
An extraordinary friendship. A lifetime of stories.
Seventeen-year-old Lenni Pettersson lives on the Terminal Ward at the Glasgow Princess Royal Hospital. Though the teenager has been told she’s dying, she still has plenty of living to do. Joining the hospital’s arts and crafts class, she meets the magnificent Margot, an 83-year-old, purple-pajama-wearing, fruitcake-eating rebel, who transforms Lenni in ways she never imagined.
As their friendship blooms, a world of stories opens for these unlikely companions who, between them, have been alive for one hundred years. Though their days are dwindling, both are determined to leave their mark on the world. With the help of Lenni’s doting palliative care nurse and Father Arthur, the hospital’s patient chaplain, Lenni and Margot devise a plan to create one hundred paintings showcasing the stories of the century they have lived — stories of love and loss, of courage and kindness, of unexpected tenderness and pure joy.
Though the end is near, life isn’t quite done with these unforgettable women just yet.
Delightfully funny and bittersweet, heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting, The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot reminds us of the preciousness of life as it considers the legacy we choose to leave, how we influence the lives of others even after we’re gone, and the wonder of a friendship that transcends time.
The Paris Library
by Janet Skeslian Charles
Publication Date: February 9, 2021
Categories: historical, literary, women, friendship, WWII
Paris, 1939: Young and ambitious Odile Souchet seems to have the perfect life with her handsome police officer beau and a dream job at the American Library in Paris. When the Nazis march into the city, Odile stands to lose everything she holds dear, including her beloved library. Together with her fellow librarians, Odile joins the Resistance with the best weapons she has: books. But when the war finally ends, instead of freedom, Odile tastes the bitter sting of unspeakable betrayal.
Montana, 1983: Lily is a lonely teenager looking for adventure in small-town Montana. Her interest is piqued by her solitary, elderly neighbor. As Lily uncovers more about her neighbor’s mysterious past, she finds that they share a love of language, the same longings, and the same intense jealousy, never suspecting that a dark secret from the past connects them.
“A love letter to Paris, the power of books, and the beauty of intergenerational friendship” (Booklist), The Paris Library shows that extraordinary heroism can sometimes be found in the quietest places.
The Parted Earth
by Anjali Enjeti
Publication Date: May 4, 2021
Categories: literary, cultural heritage, Asian American
Spanning more than half a century and cities from New Delhi to Atlanta, Anjali Enjeti’s debut is a heartfelt and human portrait of the long shadow of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent on the lives of three generations.
The story begins in August 1947. Unrest plagues the streets of New Delhi leading up to the birth of the Muslim majority nation of Pakistan, and the Hindu majority nation of India. Sixteen-year-old Deepa navigates the changing politics of her home, finding solace in messages of intricate origami from her secret boyfriend Amir. Soon Amir flees with his family to Pakistan and a tragedy forces Deepa to leave the subcontinent forever.
The story also begins nearly seven decades later and half a world away, in Atlanta. While grieving both a pregnancy loss and the implosion of her marriage, Deepa’s granddaughter Shan begins the search for her estranged grandmother, a prickly woman who had no interest in knowing her. When she begins to piece together her family history shattered by the Partition, Shan discovers how little she actually knows about her ancestors and what they endured.
For readers of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, The Parted Earth follows characters on their search for identity after loss uproots their lives. Above all, it is a novel about families weathering the lasting violence of separation, and how it can often take a lifetime to find unity and peace.
by Ilaria Bernardini
Publication Date: January 5, 2021
Categories: literary, women, family
An internationally renowned writer, Valeria Costas has dedicated her life to her work and to her secret lover, Martìn Acla, a prominent businessman. When his sudden stroke makes headlines, her world implodes; the idea of losing him is terrifying. Desperate to find a way to be present during her lover’s final days, Valeria commissions his artist wife, Isla, to paint her portrait — insinuating herself into Martìn’s family home and life.
In the grand, chaotic London mansion where the man they share — husband, father, lover — lies in a coma, Valeria and Isla remain poised on the brink, transfixed by one another. Day after day, the two women talk to each other during the sittings, revealing truths, fragilities and strengths. But does Isla know of the writer’s long involvement with Martìn? Does Valeria grasp the secrets that Isla harbors?
Amidst their own private turmoil, the stories of their lives are exchanged, and as the portrait takes shape, we watch these complex and extraordinary women struggle while the love of their lives departs, in an unforgettable, breathless tale of deception and mystery that captivates until the very end.
The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories
by Caroline Kim
Publication Date: October 1, 2020
Categories: short stories, Asian American
2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize Winner; 2021 Northern California Book Award Finalist; Longlist for 2021 The Story Prize; Longlist for 2021 PEN/Robert Bingham Prize
Exploring what it means to be human through the Korean diaspora, Caroline Kim’s stories feature many voices. From a teenage girl in 1980’s America, to a boy growing up in the middle of the Korean War, to an immigrant father struggling to be closer to his adult daughter, or to a suburban housewife whose equilibrium depends upon a therapy robot, each character must face their less-than-ideal circumstances and find a way to overcome them without losing themselves.
Language often acts as a barrier as characters try, fail, and momentarily succeed in connecting with each other. With humor, insight, and curiosity, Kim’s wide-ranging stories explore themes of culture, communication, travel, and family. Ultimately, what unites these characters across time and distance is their longing for human connection and a search for the place — or people — that will feel like home.
A Recipe for Daphne
by Nektaria Anastasiadou
Publication Date: February 2, 2021
Categories: literary, women, cultural heritage, Middle Eastern
An American-born traveler to one of Istanbul’s oldest communities receives an unexpected welcome in this heart-warming and romantic debut.
Fanis is at the center of a dwindling yet stubbornly proud community of Rum, Greek Orthodox Christians, who have lived in Istanbul for centuries.
When Daphne, the American-born niece of an old friend, arrives in the city in search of her roots, she is met with a hearty welcome. Fanis is smitten by the beautiful and aloof outsider, who, despite the age difference, reminds him of the fiancée he lost in the 1955 pogrom.
Kosmas, a master pastry chef on the lookout for a good Rum wife, also falls instantly for Daphne. She is intrigued by him, but can she love him in return? Or will a family secret, deeply rooted in the painful history of the city itself, threaten their chances?
This story of love, hopeful beginnings, and ancient traditions introduces a sparkling new literary voice sure to transport and entertain.
The Seed Keeper
by Diane Wilson
Publication Date: March 9, 2021
Categories: literary, women, family, nature and environment, cultural heritiage, Native American
A haunting novel spanning several generations, The Seed Keeper follows a Dakota family’s struggle to preserve their way of life, and their sacrifices to protect what matters most.
Rosalie Iron Wing has grown up in the woods with her father, Ray, a former science teacher who tells her stories of plants, of the stars, of the origins of the Dakota people. Until, one morning, Ray doesn’t return from checking his traps. Told she has no family, Rosalie is sent to live with a foster family in nearby Mankato — where the reserved, bookish teenager meets rebellious Gaby Makespeace, in a friendship that transcends the damaged legacies they’ve inherited.
On a winter’s day many years later, Rosalie returns to her childhood home. A widow and mother, she has spent the previous two decades on her white husband’s farm, finding solace in her garden even as the farm is threatened first by drought and then by a predatory chemical company. Now, grieving, Rosalie begins to confront the past, on a search for family, identity, and a community where she can finally belong. In the process, she learns what it means to be descended from women with souls of iron — women who have protected their families, their traditions, and a precious cache of seeds through generations of hardship and loss, through war and the insidious trauma of boarding schools.
Weaving together the voices of four indelible women, The Seed Keeper is a beautifully told story of reawakening, of remembering our original relationship to the seeds and, through them, to our ancestors.
The Son of the House
by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onubia
Publication Date: May 2021
Categories: literary, women, family, cultural heritiage, African
Nigeria Prize for Literature 2021 Finalist; SprinNG Women Authors Prize 2020 Winner; Best International Fiction Book Award Winner at Sharjah International Book Fair 2019; Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize 2021
The lives of two Nigerian women divided by class and social inequality intersect when they’re kidnapped, held captive, and forced to await their fate together.
In the Nigerian city of Enugu, young Nwabulu, a housemaid since the age of ten, dreams of becoming a typist as she endures her employers’ endless chores. She is tall and beautiful and in love with a rich man’s son.
Educated and privileged, Julie is a modern woman. Living on her own, she is happy to collect the gold jewelry lovestruck Eugene brings her but has no intention of becoming his second wife.
When a kidnapping forces Nwabulu and Julie into a dank room years later, the two women relate the stories of their lives as they await their fate.
Pulsing with vitality and intense human drama, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s debut is set against four decades of vibrant Nigeria, celebrating the resilience of women as they navigate and transform what remains a man’s world.
The Third Mrs. Galway
by Deirdre Sinnott
Publication Date: July 6, 2021
Categories: literary, family, women, historical, slavery
It’s 1835 in Utica, New York, and newlywed Helen Galway discovers a secret: two people who have escaped enslavement are hiding in the shack behind her husband’s house. Suddenly, she is at the center of the era’s greatest moral dilemma: Should she be a “good wife” and report the fugitives? Or will she defy convention and come to their aid?
Within her home, Helen is haunted by the previous Mrs. Galway, recently deceased but still an oppressive presence. Her husband, injured by a drunken tumble off his horse, is assisted by a doctor of questionable ambitions who keeps a close eye on Helen. In charge of all things domestic is Maggie — formerly enslaved by the Galway family and freed when emancipation came to New York eight years earlier.
Abolitionists arriving in Utica to found the New York State Anti-Slavery Society are accused by the local papers of being traitors to the Constitution. Everyone faces dangerous choices as they navigate this intensely heated personal and political landscape.
When the Apricots Bloom
by Gina Wilkinson
Publication Date: February 2, 2021
Categories: literary, world literature, family, friendship, cultural heritage, Middle East and Arabian Peninsula
At night, in Huda’s fragrant garden, a breeze sweeps in from the desert encircling Baghdad, rustling the leaves of her apricot trees and carrying warning of visitors at her gate. Huda, a secretary at the Australian embassy, lives in fear of the mukhabarat — the secret police who watch and listen for any scrap of information that can be used against America and its allies. They have ordered her to befriend Ally Wilson, the deputy ambassador’s wife. Huda has no wish to be an informant, but fears for her teenaged son, who may be forced to join a deadly militia. Nor does she know that Ally has dangerous secrets of her own.
Huda’s former friend, Rania, enjoyed a privileged upbringing as the daughter of a sheikh. Now her family’s wealth is gone, and Rania too is battling to keep her child safe and a roof over their heads. As the women’s lives intersect, their hidden pasts spill into the present. Facing possible betrayal at every turn, all three must trust in a fragile, newfound loyalty, even as they discover how much they are willing to sacrifice to protect their families.
Why Birds Sing
by Nina Berkhout
Publication Date: October 1, 2020
Categories: women, family
After a very public onstage flameout, a disgraced opera singer is confronted with her crumbling marriage, a prickly and unexpected brother-in-law, and a cheeky parrot named Tulip — and she must learn to whistle her way through it all.
From the author of Harper’s Bazaar Hottest Breakout Novel The Gallery of Lost Species comes a charming, lively, and deeply felt story that is perfect for readers of Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness and Amy Jones’s We’re All in this Together.
When opera singer Dawn Woodward has an onstage flameout, all she wants is to be left alone. She’s soon faced with other complications the day her husband announces her estranged brother-in-law, Tariq, is undergoing cancer treatment and moving in, his temperamental parrot in tow.
To make matters worse, though she can’t whistle herself, she has been tasked with teaching arias to an outspoken group of devoted siffleurs who call themselves the Warblers. Eventually, Tariq and his bird join the class, and Dawn forms unexpected friendships with her new companions.
But when her marriage shows signs of trouble and Tariq’s health declines, she begins questioning her foundations, including the career that she has worked so hard to build and the true nature of love and song.
What is Great Group Reads?
Started as an initiative in 2009 for the Women’s National Book Association’s National Reading Group Month program, Great Group Reads is a list of recommended books perfect for shared reading. The list is released annually in time to celebrate National Reading Group Month in October.
Each year, publishers send their fiction and memoir books to be considered for the list. These books are recommended for use by book clubs, librarians, and educators to facilitate meaningful discussions. A committee of readers reads through all of the selections and chooses around 20 books that become that year’s Great Group Reads list.
While some of the books on the Great Group Reads lists go on to be bestsellers, many books are mid-list titles or come from small publishing houses. These books may be ones you’ve never heard of, but they are incredible books that deserve to be read.
Books on the lists tackle a myriad of social issues, and our hope is that reading these books will expose readers to people and worlds unlike their own, cultivate understanding, help develop empathy, and spark conversations that can lead to change one person — one community — at a time.