South of Broad, by Pat Conroy

The saga takes place in the wealthy and prestigious neighborhood called South of Broad, in beautiful Charleston, South Carolina. The main character, Leopold Bloom King is 18, awkward, painfully shy, friendless and finally beginning to recover from the traumatic suicide of his older brother and hero.

Leopold’s (Leo’s) recovery is especially challenging since Leopold found his brother’s body—and since their mother continues to be furious and verbally abusive to Leo because his brother, and clearly her favorite son, died instead of him.

After years of counseling and a stay in a mental health institute being treated for depression, Leo is lonely and adrift, but he also is friendly, out-going and more than ready to make friends. He finds them in a tightly-knit group of high school misfits: his new neighbors – the exotically beautiful, talented and troubled twins, Sheba and Trevor Poe;  Ike Johnson, the son of Leo’s new African American football coach (a first in the recently desegregated south); Niles and Starla Whitehead, a teenage brother and sister, recently arrived in town and already in trouble with the law; and three South of Broad Blueblood teens, Chad and Fraser Rutledge and Molly Huger.  Surprisingly (strangely perhaps) Leo meets and becomes friends with all of them in one, very eventful, day.

South Carolina’s legacy of racism and class divisions are the background of the story, which weaves its way through two decades of the friendship that binds them together through good and bad marriages, hard-won successes and devastating problems. Finally their friendship is tested in an unimaginable set of circumstances. Then, with no warning at all, right out of the blue, comes the twisted ending.  For me, this was the final piece of a story that already become over-the-top unbelievable.


Full disclosure: I was part of a very small minority of my fellow Books, Brew and Banter club members who did not particularly like this book. For me, the story became a soap opera, overdone from the plot, to the dialogue, to the over-the-top writing.

I know that Conroy is an award-winning, respected author of long-standing.  A number of reviewers said this book was not one of Conroy’s best.  I’ll take them, and my fellow Book Club members, at their word and try another of his books.

—Gail Stilwill

Room, by Emma Donoghue

Best-selling, award-winning novel and motion picture, nominated for four Academy Awards

Room is a good story from start to finish.  But what makes it so effective and so captivating is that it is told in its entirely by one of its main characters, Jack, in his five-year-old voice.

Jack has lived his entire life in an 11×11 foot, windowless room.  He was born there.  He and his “Ma” eat, sleep, play and live there, intentionally hidden from the outside world.  At night Ma shuts Jack into the wardrobe, safe and hopefully asleep when “Old Nick” chooses to visit.

But while “Room” is home to Jack, to Ma it is the prison where she has been held captive for seven years, since she was kidnapped when she was 19.  She is repeatedly raped by Old Nick who enters Room any night he pleases. Jack is the result of one of those rapes.

Jack’s observations are bright, often insightful and reflect the good education his mother has managed to give him despite very limited tools. She teaches him to read, to think and to question. She makes up creative games to increase his vocabulary and give him a love for books, hoping to prepare him somewhat for the outside world. Together they create “word sandwiches”—if something is both cool and scary is is “coolary.” Jack’s observations when he finally is able to see the outside world through a window are all his own. He calls the sun “God’s face.”

While Ma is depressed and fiercely determined to escape, she is loves her young son and creates the best life and most loving environment she can for him.

But Jack’s curiosity and her own desperation are building and she knows she must find a way for them to escape from Room. They make a harrowing escape into the “Outside.”But now they must make huge and very different adjustments—Jack into a world full of people, sunshine, wind, buildings, cars and loud unfamiliar sounds everywhere.  And Ma now finds herself in a familiar but very changed world. While her family and friends hoped and prayed she was still alive they could have had no idea what her life had become: motherhood, repeated rapes, imprisonment in a small room with no windows, completely cut off from the outside world.

Ma and Jack are frightened, but of different things and for different reasons. We watch them both in their separate struggles, hear Jack describe his new world, his fear, awe, and his worry about his Ma and her own very different struggle to adjust.

The continuing thread is the unconquerable love and determination Jack and his Ma share—the diamond-hard love between a mother and her child.

— Gail Stilwill

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Tom Sherborne, World War II Veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, wants only to forget the war and live a quiet, isolated life.  So when he gets the job of lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a tiny island a half-day\’s boat ride from the coast of mainland Australia, seems a perfect fit.  The supply boat comes only four times a year and shore leave might be granted every other year at best. 
Tom\’s only companion is his young, loving and vivacious wife, Isabel.  They are very much in love and very happy with each other and their life on the island.  They hope for children, but after several years, two miscarriages and a stillborn birth, they reluctantly give up hope. Tom watches sadly as his young wife suffers from grief.  Then, miraculously it seems, a rowboat washes on shore.  Aboard are a dead man and a tiny living baby girl. 
Tom feels strongly that they should report the dead man and the baby, but Isabel begs him to keep the child.  Against his better judgment he gives in, beginning a cycle of happiness, guilt and fear for them both.  They bury the unidentified man and try to push aside the fact that the baby likely has grieving parents somewhere and that they are breaking the law by not reporting their find. 
They fall completely in love with the little girl, who they name Lucy, and build their lives around her.  For two years they are a happy family.  Lucy thrives and is developing into a bright and happy child.  Isabel and Tom love parenting her, but Tom is increasingly troubled and guilt-ridden about not reporting finding Lucy and the dead man.  Then shore leave is granted and the family of three returns to the small town where they are reminded that there are other people in the world and that their decision has almost certainly ruined the life of one of them.

The book is unique—a bit of a mystery and a love story with unpredictable plot twists.  The setting on the beautiful, isolated coast of Australia is a perfect backdrop for this wonderfully written story about good, loving people and decisions that can lead only to tragedy.—Gail Stilwill