What’s On the Bookshelf: 4 book club selections to kickstart the conversation
Add these books to your must-read list…
We’ve all been there: agonising over selecting the next book club read in the hopes that it will keep members engaged and spark lively discussions. And with so many brilliant books available to choose from each month, it really does make it harder. Luckily our friends at the Emirates Literature Foundation are more than well-versed at facing this tricky dilemma, as it’s one they tackle quite frequently when hosting one of their five official book clubs every month, each one tackling a different reader age group, genre, or language!
And as usual, they’re full of suggestions as to what we should be adding to our bookshelves. But for the sake of this list, they’ve chosen to focus on a few recent releases that will be perfect for fiction book clubs, as this is where the options are particularly boundless!
Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R. F. Kuang
Kuang’s first novel following her award-winning Poppy War trilogy is a towering testament both to her skill as a writer and to her specific and singular vision to tell a tale set within the realms of the sub-genre known as “dark academia,” while also examining highly-relevant themes such as the effects of colonisation, specifically on the use of language and the way it can twist the act of translation into something almost violent. Set in the 1800s in an alternate universe where magic exists, Babel follows the story of Robin Swift, a Chinese orphan who is brought to London from his native country, and trained in Latin and Ancient Greek, alongside Cantonese — all in preparation for him eventually joining Oxford University’s Royal Institute of Translation, also known as the titular Babel.
Of course, as Kuang deftly reveals, living and working within what is regarded as the cradle of translation for the wider world exposes Robin to various ways in which language itself can become a tool in colonisation’s quest for power. One that the British Empire does not hesitate to exercise almost regularly, further powering it with the use of magic. Soon, Robin is torn between serving Babel and all that it means, and the Hermes Society, a secret organisation working towards putting an end to the Empire’s imperial expansion. But with Britain seeking to (unjustly) go to war with China over the silver that powers the very magic they perform, Robin must make an urgent and life-altering decision…
While Babel itself clocks in at 557 pages, Kuang’s actual prose is almost intentionally accessible, making it a book that almost breezes by as you follow Robin on his journey. This works on multiple levels, as Kuang is able to effectively convey the pain that stems from knowledge turned into a weapon, along with the enormity of what is being asked of Robin and his friends, in a setting that’s almost as terrible as the actions it helps administer. Babel is a worthwhile read that will leave you with plenty to ruminate over long after it ends, while inspiring opinions you’ll be eager to discuss at length, making it the ideal book club selection! (In fact, ELF have already selected it for their April book club. Register if you want to join the discussion!)
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
While most readers might be familiar with Collins’ previous bestselling series, The Hunger Games, her latest addition to the series’ canon is definitely not to be missed. Especially with the film adaptation already in the works and set to hit cinemas later this year, expanding the world of Panem further.
This time story follows none other than Coriolanus Snow, who readers will remember as one of the main villains of the previous series, as he constantly used his role as President to target Katniss hoping to quash her role in the rising rebellion against the Capitol. However, the “Coryo” readers meet in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is nowhere close to becoming that man (yet), though Collins does take us on his journey towards getting there, as he is tasked with becoming a tribute mentor in one of the earliest hunger games, long before it became the even more monstrous spectacle that audiences were graced with in Katniss’ time. This means readers are treated to plenty of Easter eggs to future characters they already love, while being treated to a history of the world, only told from the point of view of someone enforcing the games, rather than someone forced to survive through it.
The result is a book that taps into everything fans loved about the previous series — including Collins’ immense ability to end almost every chapter on a cliffhanger, making the whole novel as tense as the games themselves — while still being able to stand on its own as a more nuanced, multi-layered read that will have readers constantly examining their own reactions. Snow is a compelling and complicated character whose steady descent into villainy unfolds how it might in real life: with plenty of small sacrifices and concessions towards the status quo. It’s a fascinating and almost familiar picture, one that only highlights his eventual battle against Katniss in the future and adds to the depth of the series that comes after it. Readers are almost guaranteed to want to launch after intense discussion after finishing the book. So select it and clear your schedules! It’s going to be one lively meeting!
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
Garmus’ debut novel was one of the biggest books of 2023, which means it’s definitely a mustn’t-miss novel, even a whole year later. Set in the 1960s, Lessons In Chemistry sees single mother (and noted chemist) Elizabeth Zott forced to become a television host for a cooking show after life deals her an unfair hand. But as she does things in her unique, offbeat way, it starts to inspire the women tuning in to her show to challenge the status quo in favour of them being treated as equals.
Filled with a memorable cast of supporting characters, Lessons in Chemistry is a hilarious romp filled with astute observations and witty turns of phrase, rendering it as memorable as Zott herself. It’s sure to be a hit among readers looking for something slightly lighter but no less meaty in terms of execution and subject matter. There’s plenty to love, and even more to discuss, making it a perfect summer book club selection!
A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djeli Clark
Despite being a novella, A Dead Djinn in Cairo serves as a perfect introduction to the memorable Fatima el-Sha’arawi, the bowler-hat-and-suit-wearing detective along with Clark’s alternate universe where the English failed to colonise Egypt following the emergence of djinn, ifrits, and more from the realm they exist on. What’s more, it has a quick-moving murder mystery at its heart, one that stretches the world even wider and sets up Clark’s full-length follow-up novel, A Master of Djinn.
Book club members will find this one a quick and easy read — perfect for those pressed for time — with plenty to discuss in terms of the world Clark sets up and this unique and interesting take on alternate history, a world that is all at once fascinating and invites further consideration, while inspiring an eagerness to return to it as quickly as possible.
If you enjoyed today’s selection of book recommendations from Nivea Serrao, the Web Content Manager at the Emirates Literature Foundation, then don’t miss their other bookish content on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.