Book Reviews—Themes by Month

bookstackEvery month we seek out books that work together thematically. You'll find a variety of themes—some fun, some serious, but all of them thoughtful.

The books are listed in the order of:
A Lighter Touch ... Wonderfully Written ...
and Great works.

 2015 BookReviews — Themes . . . and the Books
June '15 — The Sibs
Brothers and sisters make for some of our most intimate life relationships. Undergirding the rivalries, jealousies and suspicions, is a shared history and often deep, abiding love.
A Reunion of Ghosts
Early Warning
The Children's Crusade
Apr '15 — Stranger Than Fiction
Real-life events and personalities in this month's nonfiction works are far stranger than can be found in most novels. When it comes to the incredible, history trumps fiction...easily.
Dead Wake
Little Demon in the City of Light
A Spy Among Friends
Mar '15 — The Western, 21st-century style
The Westerns of yore—cowboys, Indians, and stagecoach robbers— have given way to far more nuanced stories. The vast spaces and endless skies are the same, but characters struggle with complex issues of love, memory, and redemption
Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Black River
• All the Pretty Horses (coming soon)
Feb '15 — We Are All Looking for Ourselves
Three wonderful books with characters in search of themselves—arguably literature's most enudring theme..
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
We Are Not Ourselves
We Are Pirates
Jan '15 — Stuck
It's easy to get stuck—in a dull job, untenable relationship, or humdrum life. But this month we follow three men, often with hilarity, who find themselves stuck in unimaginable situations.
The Global War on Morris
The Martian
2014 Book Reviews — Themes . . . and the Books
Dec '14 — Women Unboxed
This month's books look at three women who defy convention and tackle careers traditionally reserved for those with the Y chromosome. These are women who think—and live—outside the box.
The Signature of All Things
The Spy Who Loved: Christine Granville
Nov '14 — End times
Three remarkable books offer glimpses into end times: one imagines the end of civilization; another examines medicine and the end of life; and a third considers ... well, it's hard to say.
Station Eleven
Being Mortal: ...What Matters in the End
Oct '14 — Strangers in Their Own Land
This month's book take a look those who through racism, misogyny, or maltreatment are excluded from the full rights and comforts of their own culture. They're aliens in their own land.
Mountaintop School for Dogs
Hidden Girls of Kabul
Invisible Man
Sept '14 — Hell's a Kitchen
Conditions are brutal in restaurant kitchens. So what keeps chefs and cooks standing for 12-hour stretches, non-stop, in 110-degree heat? Find out.
Sous Chef
Kitchen Confidential
Aug '14 — Grumpy Old Men
Three books in which older men have reached the age where more of life lies behind them then ahead. Still, maybe it's not too late to start living large.
A Man Called Ove
The Unlikley Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the
June / July '14 — The Bawdy Politic
A double standard has long existed when it comes to the feminine body. The daring heroines of this month's books fight that standard in ways that even today we find troublesome. But what's a girl to do?
The Wife, the Mistress, and the Maid
Belle Cora
Moll Flanders
May '14 — Women and the Bomb
This month's theme was inspired by two recent books on women and the Manhattan Project—fiction and history. Then we added a 2005 biography on Madame Curie, who helped usher in the nuclear age.
The Los Alamos Wives
Girls of Atomic City
Obsessive Genius: Marie Curie
Mar '14 — War Lines: at the front and behind
Extraordinary books continue to be written about the Mideast wars, and despite the lack of media coverage, we believe they're essential. They cover those on the front lines and those behind the lines.
Thank Your For Your Service
Duty: Robert M. Gates
Feb '14 — Marriage: For better or for . . .
For worse? If Gone Girl gave you a thrill, these books centered on spooky marriages will too. The fun is in not knowing who's nuts—is it he or she?
Before I Met You
Before I Go to Sleep
Jan '14 — The Cinder-Fella Complex
Young boys, bereft of parents, struggle to find love, belief in themselves, and maturity—in a hard-knock world that works against them.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
The Goldfinch
David Copperfield
2013 Book Reviews — Themes . . . and the Books
Nov '13 — LOL Books
Yes, we're laughing out loud. Sometimes it feels good to take a break from all the heavy lifiting. Each of this month's books is a humorous take on a particular slice of life.
The Rosie Project
Truth in Advertising
Me Talk Pretty One Day
Oct '13 — The JFK Assassination: 50 years
Three books on the death of the president: one, a portrait of Kennedy and Oswald; one fiction, and one challenging the lone gunman theory.
Killing Kennedy
Sept '13 — D.C. Dysfunction...was it always so?
Given the state of the nation's capital, this month's books take a good look at the ins and outs of life as it is—and was—in the District of Columbia.
This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral
Gore Vidal's Lincoln and/or Team of Rivals
Advise and Consent
Aug '13 — Scott & Zelda, Beautiful & Damned
America's first Jazz-Age couple. Fitzgerald's famous Flapper girl stories, inspired by Zelda; a fictional bio of Zelda; and The Great Gatsby, a love story paralleling Scott's deep attachment to his wife.
The Gatsby Girls: Stories
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby
June '13 — The Power of Perfume
Three books explore the age-long hold that exotic scent has over the human imagination—it's power to evoke memory, elicit passion, and inspire crime. Two works of fiction and one nonfiction.
The Perfume Collector
The Book of Lost Fragrances
The Emperor of Scent
May '13 — Class Conscious / Class Conscience
We like to think of ourselves as a "classless" society. But as this month's books show, socio-economic divisions are part of our history and still with us today.
Seating Arrangements
The Accursed
The House of Mirth
Apr '13 — The Process of Becoming
Young women who withstand hardship, in both body and soul, as they struggle to become the person they know they're meant to be.
With or Without You
An Unquenchable Thirst
Jane Eyre
Feb '13 — Mystery Meet
What makes people fall in and out of love, hurt those closest to them, even commit murder? And how is justice best served? Questions our three mystery books ponder.
Gone Girl
Faithful Place
And Then There Were None
Jan '13 — Family Matters
What makes a family? This month we consider three books with different ideas of what constitutes family.
The Death of Bees
Little Women
2012 Book Reviews — Themes . . . and the Books
Dec '12 — War
Three books about the brutality, randomness, and absurdity of war—and the impossibility for civilians to ever comprehend combat.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
The Yellow Birds
Nov '12 — The Age of Edith
We've been through "The Age of Jane"; now it's Edith's turn. We feature a fictionalized biography of Edith Wharton, a re-make of her  masterpiece, and the masterpiece itself.
The Age of Desire
The Age of Innocence
Oct '12 — Quests: Personal & Epic
This month's books are about quests—one to find love, one to answer to a desperate question, and one to rid the world of evil. Ultimately, though, all quests are about the search for Self.
Coral Glynn
A Partial History of Lost Causes
The Lord of the Rings
Sept '12 — The Ways of Grief
Grief—the most painful and universal of emotions but experienced in profoundly different ways. Two recent novels and Shakespere's greatest drama explore how those left behind cope with loss.
The After Wife
The World Without You
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
August '12 — Hollywood, vanity of vanities
We take aim at the self-consuming, self-important world of Hollywood. Yet all three books remind us it's our wider culture that drives Hollywood's vanity.
The Next Best Thing
Beautiful Ruins
The Last Tycoon
June '12 — River Journeys
Authors often use rivers to represent life's passage —and journeys on rivers to explore mysteries of the human soul.
Once Upon a River
State of Wonder
Heart of Darkness
May '12 — Good Books, Tough Subjects
Some books tackle difficult, painful subjects but do so with exceptional prose, wit and, most of all, compassion. They make for compelling reading.
The Fault in Our Stars
The Orphan Master's Son

Mar '12 —Pride & Prejudice, Murder & Mayhem
Pure fun. Start with Austen's original...then turn to either P.D. James's mystery...or Graham-Smith's zombie send-up. Have fun comparing the homage to the "homagee." Oh! 'Tis too much joy.
Death Comes to Pemberley
Pride & Prejudice & Zombies
Pride & Prejudice

Feb '12 — Baseball, the Art of Perfection
In the eyes of literature, baseball is life—the heroic individual standing against forces both within and out. Three books pit players' drive for perfection against their own human frailties.
The Batboy
The Art of Fielding
The Natural

Jan '12 — The Past Is Never Past
As Faulkner put: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." This month's characters are haunted by events of their childhoods. To move on, each must achieve understanding and let go.
The Language of Flowers
The Cat's Table
Death of a Salesman

2011 Book Reviews — Themes

 . . . and the Books

Dec '11 — Kids Raising Cain
Kids on the loose, their compasses askew—"fierce savages" as one of our books puts it. All of which makes you wonder: how did they get like this? Did we do it?
Lord of the Flies
Nov '11 — Nuclear Family Explosions
Ordinary families explode under pressure from everyday life. Yet their struggles to put the pieces back together is a tacit acknowledgment of our primal need for family ties.
The Astral
Oct '11 — Love You To Death
Vampires don't die...and neither, it seems, does our fascination with them. So why not cozy up to our trio of scary vampire books this month?
The Radleys
Sept '11 — That New York Glitter
Three books with characters on the outside looking in at New York's glittering society. They discover life's sad maxim—all that glitters is not gold.
Rules of Civility
The Emperor's Children
The Age of Innocence
Aug '11 — The Books of August
August, the last gasp of summer—when temper-
atures run high and emotions run hot. We've got three great reads, all with August in the title.

August Heat
The Dry Grass of August
Light in August

July '11 — Eastward Ho
Many authors have explored the cultural divide faced by Asians making their homes in the West. We're bucking the tide to find out what happens when Westerners head to the East.

City of Tranquil Light
Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
A Passage to India

June '11 — Crash of the Titans
So many books have been published about the 2008 Wall Street crash that book clubs might want to take note. We've chosen three—all great reads, like the best of fiction.

The Big Short
Too Big to Fail
All the Devils Are Here

(All 3 in the Wonderfully Written category.)

May '11 — Ghostworld
Authors use the paranormal to explore the normal— their earthbound human characters who turn out not to be so normal after all.

Maybe This Time
The Third Angel
The Turn of the Screw

Feb '11 — Stranger than Fiction
When it comes to history—especially the history of human achievement—what constitutes real life is simply stranger than fiction.

The Professor and the Madman
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Great Bridge: The Brooklyn Bridge

Jan '11 — Sisters in Exile
Sisters banished from lives of comfort and security find unknown reserves of strength and courage in adversity. They discover who they are—and learn what matters most.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport
Shanghai Girls
Sense and Sensibility

2010 Book Reviews — Themes

 . . . and the Books

Dec '10 — Time's (Crooked) Arrow
Time appears to us as a steady forward movement. This month's books disrupt its normal flow—and two of the books do curioius things with aging.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
A Visit from the Goon Squad
The Picture of Dorian Gray

Nov '10 — Rock-Paper-Scissors
ROCK for the fossils at Lyme Regis, PAPER for an international newspaper, and SCISSORS for the medical profession satirized in Sinclair Lewis's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel.

Remarkable Creatures
The Imperfectionists

Oct '10 — Work, If You Can Get It
A tribute to everyday heroes who labor in the underbelly—the infernos of restaurant kitchens, coal mines, and assembly linesto make life habitable for the rest of us.

Last Night at the Lobster
Coal Run
Studs Terkel's Working

Sept'10 — Tudor History - Herstory
The momentous events surrounding Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: three books follow the same figures...yet a hero in one is a villain in another. Who says history is dull?

Briref Gaudy Hour
Wolf Hall
A Man for All Seasons

May '10 — The Good, Bad & the Ugly
A nod to the iconic Clint Eastwood Western—with it's stark mix of heroes and villains. This month's books remind us it's not always so easy to tell who's good...and who's not.

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift
Mr. Golightly's Holiday

April '10 — Urban Mysterioso
Cities lend themselves to the mysterious—their immensity, anonymity, and teeming diversity make them ideal settings for the fantastic.

When You Reach Me
The City and the City
The Quincunx

Mar '10 — M is for Magic
Despite our knowledge of science—from the big bang to the human cell—we continue to strain to the possibilibies of magic.

The Magician's Elephant
The Magicians
The Magus

Feb '10 — True Grit
Three real-life Americans who helped shaped their country—courageous, persevering, inventive, they found ways to do what needed to be done.

Half Broke Horses
Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Jan '10 — Coming of Age
Young people, crossing over the threshold into the adult world, often find that passage bittersweet, even searing, as they leave their innocent childhoods behind.

Sag Harbor
A Gate at the Stairs
A Separate Peace

2009 Book Reviews — Themes

 . . . and the Books

Dec '09 — Domestic Disturbances
Marital bliss—a bumpy road toward a dubious destination. A sustaining marriage depends not on the ignorance of bliss but on self-knowledge.

The Motion of the Ocean
That Old Cape Magic
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Nov '09 — Criminally Addicted
Murder mysteries offer a strange sort of comfort by presupposing a world that can be known, answers found, and order restored. No wonder so many of us are addicted.

The Stephanie Plum Series
When Will There Be Good News?
The Woman in White

Oct '09 — Those Who Teach...Must
Teaching is in the DNA for some. It's a passion—a need, really, to offer young minds a glimpse of a wider world and guide them through the first rumblings of self-knowledge.

Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Mister Pip
The Prime of Miss Jean Brody

Sept '09 — Henry's Ladies
Henry James' most famous heroines are wealthy, young Americans—vibrant, intelligent yet untested innocents, who find themselves up against a rigid, even duplicitous society.

Daisy Miller
The Master
The Portrait of a Lady

Aug '09 — Municipal Bonds
Communities bind us together, for better or worse. They offer comfort and aid—and something larger than ourselves—but they can stifle and exclude.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet
Olive Kitteridge
The Hamlet

July '09 — The Kindess of Strangers
Those who stretch out a hand to strangers end up changing not just the lives of those they help, but their own lives as well.

The Cure for Modern Life
The Soloist
Bartleby the Scrivener 

May '09 — Chick Lit on Steroids
Real Chick Lit: vibrant heroines living rich, complex lives. Their stories give us a lot more to chew on than Prada shoes and Gucci bags.

Ex Libris-Confessions of a ... Reader
The Stone Diaries
Vanity Fair

Apr '09 — What Women Want. Really.
Earth to Freud.... Why was it so hard to for the great man to figure out what women want? Women want what men want—love, family, and freedom to pursue their dreams.

Good Grief
The Ten-Year Nap
The Feminine Mystique

Mar '09 — Animal Planet
This month's books honor those creatures that domesticate their owners.

Dewey: the Small-Town Library Cat
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Call of the Wild and White Fang

Feb '09 — Remembrance of Things Past
When we explore the past—the confluence of events, family and friends, choices made and made for us—we uncover our present selves.

Tender at the Bone
Charming Billy
Absalom, Absalom!

Jan '09 — The Gatsby Effect
What does it mean to be an American? This month's main characters attempt to re-invent themselves in order to achieve their ideal of the American dream.

The Great Gatsby

2008 Book Reviews — Themes

 . . . and the Books

Dec '08 — African Trio
A newly elected US president—half African; a reader requesting a book guide for Cry, the Beloved Country; and a daughter taking a semester in Africa all served as inspiration for this month's LitPicks, beautiful books, all.

The Syringa Tree
Half of a Yellow Sun
Cry, the Beloved Country

Nov '08 — A Boy's Life
Three boys come of age in the years soon after World War II—one from the American Midwest, one from Norway, and one from India during the tumultuous years of independence.

The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
Out Stealing Horses
Midnight's Children

Oct '08 — Quiet Intimacy
Some books speak to us softly, peering into the corners of our lives and matters of the heart. Plot is secondary to characters and relationships. These works are quiet but remarkable.

To the Lighthouse

Sept '08 — Beyond the Pale
This month's authors tackle horrific subjects, the unthinkable. Yet as readers we end up sympa-thasizing with characters we would otherwise villify. This is life in its irreducible complexity.

Skinny Dip
Nineteen Minutes

Aug '08 — Uses of Mythology
Literature draws on mythology, primitive stories that frame life's events. Populated with heroes & heroines, deities & monsters, myths reveal a universal pattern of human behavior.

Edith Hamilton's Mythology
The Human Stain
The Iliad

July '08 — No theme this month, just a few good books.

The Lovely Bones
The Grapes of Wrath

June '08 — War Torn Lives
Lives and communities torn apart by World War II. This month's stories are tales of survival. Though grim at times, each offers a transcendent vision of humanity.

The Book Thief
Suite Francaise

May '08 — Wherefore Happiness?
What is happiness? How does one attain it, who deserves it, and how does one hold onto it? Three books consider happiness—using vastly different lenses and reaching very different conclusions.

The Jane Austen Book Club
Saying Grace
A Doll's House

Apr '08 — Transgressions
Three women cross boundaries, defy codes, and flout tradition. They gain much—and lose much—as they search for a truer self. What are we to make of them?

Their Eyes Were Watching God
Loving Frank
Anna Karenina 

Mar '08 — Healing: horses, books, people
Three books use parallel symbolism to explore human healing. A sick horse heals her owner; a damaged manuscript heals its conserver; and a returning spirit heals her mother.

Chosen by a Horse
People of the Book

Feb '08 — Magical Realism
These books use a pretense of realism while weaving in fantasty and the supernatural. The magic blends seamlessly with the natural world to reveal life's wondrous possibilities.

Garden Spells
The House of the Spirits
One Hundred Years of Solitude

Jan '08 — No theme this month, just a few good books.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Remains of the Day
Far from the Madding Crowd

2007 Book Reviews — Themes

 . . . and the Books

Dec '07 — In Praise of This Land
This month's books delve into the soil of the great American plains where their characters find rootedness, connection and community.

A Thousand Acres
My Antonia

Nov '07 — Sons and Mothers
A connection like no other—born of intensity, bound by love, and fed by dreams. The lives of three men are shaped, for better or worse, by their mothers' ambitions.

The Color of Water
Empire Falls
Sons and Lovers

Oct '07 — Novelist as Master Weaver
"Social Novels" are sprawling works, inter-weaving multiple plot strands with large casts of characters. They reflect the complex social fabric of an era, it's ideals and traditions.

Can't Wait to Get to Heaven
The Whole World Over

Sept '07 — The Novel of Ideas
Some works masquerade as fiction—they use the narrative mask of plot and character to explore serious philosophical ideas. Serious, yes, but gripping stories, too.

The War Against Miss Winter
On Beauty
Howards End

Aug '07 — The Inimitable English Woman
Three very different English heroines from three different eras. Bridget, Edith, and Elizabeth—all distinct characters, but each delightful...and each very, very English.

Bridget Jones's Diary
Hotel du Lac
Pride and Prejudice

July '07 — Male Bonding
Male friendship is a literary theme reaching back to Homer. Rarely without conflict, books about friendship are windows onto our own capacity for love, loyalty...and sometimes betrayal.

A Walk in the Woods
The Kite Runner
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

June '07 — Seeking Wholeness
This month's works revolve around those who seek to piece together broken hearts, fill empty souls, and mend divided identities.

Eat, Pray, Love
The Bone People
Till We Have Faces

May '07 — The Meaning of Water
Water occupies a special niche in our collective psyche: it connects us, it binds us in common humanity. We spring from water, we are made of water. Water is pure, it cleanses, it nourishes, it heals, it renews. Water is mysterious, it is eternal, it merges past with present. To be adrift on water is to be adrift in life, it is to be in life, it is life.

A River Runs Through It
Life of Pi

From this point on there are no themes. It just hadn't dawned on us until May 2007. So don't quit now—you're near the end! Scroll down just a bit farther to see our earliest Book Reviews. There are some great ones!

April 2007
Curious Incident of the Dog...Night-time
Mountains Beyond Mountains
Out of Africa

March 2007
The Secret Life of Bees
Crossing to Safety
Absalom, Absalom!

February 2007
The Annotated Alice in Wonderland
Bel Canto
A Dance to the Music of Time

January 2007
Marley and Me

December 2006
Pavlov's Cats (Poems)
Ahab's Wife
The Good Soldier

November 2006
The Samaurai's Garden
The Memory Keeper's Daughter
Great Expectations

October 2006
Early Bird
The Time Traveler's Wife
Mrs. Dalloway

— End —

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