My three book clubs: TikTok influencers boost novels, for good and ill – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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While an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey’s book club still holds sway in the publishing industry, another powerhouse has emerged in the form of a hashtag. The force of #BookTok on the TikTok app can be seen at bookstores with entire displays dedicated to authors who are popular on the video platform. The TikTok influence is also seen on bestseller lists, where books published years ago suddenly hold top spots. It can even affect libraries, where you might find yourself at No. 92 on a waiting list.
Two books I read in August are by authors who have benefited from TikTok — Madeline Miller and Colleen Hoover. Two other books — “Remarkably Bright Creatures” and “Lessons in Chemistry” — are ones I’d emotionally pitch myself, if I were a TikTok creator.
{h5}By Colleen Hoover{/h5}
What I thought • “It Ends With Us” landed on my radar a few months ago because of people raving about it on TikTok, and I was happy when it was selected for last month’s book club. That happiness lasted only a few pages. I had not even finished the first chapter before I texted a book club member: “Does this book get better?” Here’s my “naked truth” — no, it doesn’t.
Lily, who grew up in a Maine town, has moved to Boston, where she has decided to open a florist shop. Lily. Last name: Bloom. Middle name: Blossom. Opening a florist shop. The men in her life? A handsome neurosurgeon named Ryle, with whom she shares her “naked truths,” and her first love, Atlas, formerly a homeless teen whom Lily loved at 15. Now, he’s the owner and chef at a Boston restaurant. With lines like, “I’m really good at it, Lily. … You’ll hardly have to do any work,” how can she not fall into bed with Ryle, who looks so sexy in his scrubs? There are also whole chapters devoted to excerpts from Lily’s teenage diary, where she writes “letters” to Ellen DeGeneres.
There’s no doubt Hoover, nickname CoHo, is popular. She has a rabid fan base, and one publication called her “the author of the summer.” You will find her books all over bestseller lists. “Verity” and “Reminders of Him” were Nos. 1 and 3 for trade paperbacks on Publishers Weekly for the week that ended Aug. 27, and “It Ends With Us” has also held reign on that list this summer. Hoover’s romance books resonate with TikTok users, roughly 43% of whom are between the ages of 18 and 24 and 57% of whom are female, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Reading the author’s personal note about the subject matter of the novel — breaking a cycle of abuse — did soften my critique of this book.
At book club • Like me, some members found elements of the storyline unbelievable and the quality of the writing lacking. I wasn’t the only one who compared it to the success of the “50 Shades of Grey” series — minus the S&M. But at least two members plan to read more books by Hoover. Though this book didn’t “change their life” like many TikTok contributors have raved, they did find it entertaining enough.
And though the ending was a little too tidy, we agreed that if it lets young women know they don’t need to stay in abusive relationships, then that is a win. Even I can laud Colleen Hoover for that.
‘Remarkable Bright Creatures’{h5}By Shelby Van Pelt{/h5}
What I thought • If anyone asked me for a book recommendation this summer (sometimes even when they weren’t asking), I suggested this completely charming novel. I read “Remarkably Bright Creatures” in May, but I waited to write about it after two of my book clubs picked it for August.
I have mentioned before in this column how much I love curmudgeons, and in this book that role is played by Marcellus McSquiddles, a giant Pacific octopus who lives in Puget Sound’s Sowell Bay Aquarium. Not happy with his captivity, the mischievous Marcellus (he picks locks and squeezes out of his tank to go on late-night snack runs) doesn’t like many things, but he does like Tova, a 70-year-old widow and nightly cleaner at the aquarium.
Marcellus can sense the sadness in Tova, whose 18-year-old son mysteriously disappeared more than 30 years ago on a boat in Puget Sound. A second narrative follows Cameron, an adrift 30-year-old who can’t hold a job or a relationship. He heads up to Sowell Bay on a whim to search for a father he has never met.
Van Pelt’s depiction of aging and Tova’s practical approach to it — she doesn’t want to be a burden — make this book memorable, but it’s the observant Marcellus who is the star and ties it all together.
At book club • A book with chapters written from the point of view of an octopus? Many members said they would not have picked up this book with a vibrantly orange octopus on the cover. But Marcellus — he’s funny and also very wise — managed to steal their hearts. He grabbed one reader so much that she said she will probably never eat octopus again. Luckily, there was no seafood on the menu at this book club meeting — just delicious quiche and a German wine Champagne punch.
Even though the novel has undertones of sadness and loneliness, as one book club member pointed out, it is at heart a feel-good book.
My other book club met to discuss at a restaurant where a few members ordered calamari. I think Marcellus would have approved. Many of these readers were already octopus fans thanks to “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix. “I would read anything with chapters from an animal’s point of view,” said one member. Another reader was struck by the sense of loss by all of the characters — Tova, Cameron and Marcellus — but somehow the book still managed to make her happy.
Bonus books
• A charming and humorous book about sexism? That’s just what I found in Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel, “Lessons in Chemistry.”
Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant chemist, but in the 1960s, it’s a man’s world. In her job at Hastings Research Institute, she earns a lot less money than the men and refuses to make copies, brew coffee or be subjected to groping, making her unpopular with co-workers. Except for one. Calvin Evans, a Noble Prize nominee and fellow social outcast, also works at Hastings. Chemical reactions fly when the two start dating and find happiness. Add to the equation a dog named Six-thirty, who failed at bomb detecting but excels at vocabulary.
After a tragic accident, Elizabeth finds herself alone — and pregnant. The pregnancy is cause for termination at Hastings. Faced with trying to raise her daughter, named Mad (no, it’s not short for Madeline), Elizabeth takes a job as the host of an afternoon cooking show and becomes an unlikely star. Per usual, she refuses to conform to what her bosses think the show should be, instead finding an opportunity to convince women they can be more than housewives and mothers while teaching them a little about chemistry along the way. Don’t forget to add sodium chloride and acetic acid to your grocery list! One warning: Despite the humor, the book does address heavy issues, including a sexual assault.
• Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles,” a retelling of the story of classic Greek mythology involving Achilles and the battle of Troy, won a prestigious fiction prize in 2012 when it was released. It sold well then, but not nearly as well as it has recently thanks to fans on TikTok. According to a New York Times article, the publishing company saw a spike in sales in early August. According to the Times, the company eventually traced it back to a TikTok video promising “books that will make you sob” by @moongirlreads{span style=”text-decoration: underline;”} .
I was familiar with Miller thanks to “Circe,” which I read a few years ago. I discovered then that you don’t have to be familiar with Greek mythology to enjoy Miller’s books. In this novel, Miller tells the story of Greece’s greatest hero through the eyes of Patroclus, an awkward prince who becomes Achilles’ best friend. Another twist? Patroclus is also Achilles’ lover.
While “The Song of Achilles” did not make me sob (it’s not really a spoiler to say this book does not have a happy ending), Miller, as she did in “Circe,” does a beautiful job of humanizing the myths and the gods. The story lends itself well to audio, and narrator Frazer Douglas keeps you spellbound.
• “High Street is an illusion of cigarette butts and liquor stores, a winding trail to and from drugstores and adult playgrounds masquerading as street corners.”
Leila Mottley’s debut novel, “Nightcrawling,” reads like poetry. The young author’s book caught my eye when it landed on the longlist for the Booker Prize for fiction. It was also a recent pick for Oprah’s Book Club.
Set in Oakland, California, life for Kiara Johnson has been hard. Her mom is in a halfway house, her dad has died, and her brother, the one person she thought she could count on, has quit his job and, instead of working, is unsuccessfully pursuing a career as a rapper. When the 17-year-old Kiara is faced with piles of bills and an eviction notice, she turns to sex work. Adding to her struggles, Kiara is also trying to care for Trevor, 9, whose drug-addicted mother has abandoned him in the apartment next door.
Her misfortunes continue after she is picked up by the police, who instead of arresting her take advantage of her situation. Loosely based on a real-life police investigation, Mottley wrote the book in the summer of 2019, right after graduating from high school. Some may find this novel dark and dreary, but with her beautiful prose, Mottley illuminates problems that many people either never see or refuse to see.
Norma Klingsick is a former designer and editor at the Post-Dispatch. She can be reached at
“This Time Tomorrow” by Emma Straub • A woman turning 40 wakes up to the day of her 16th birthday. Will it give her a different perspective on how her life turned out? This Back to the Future episode may even offer her the chance to change her father’s life. An expected bestseller (along with Jennifer Weiner’s just-published “The Summer Place”). (Riverhead; May 17) 
“Two Nights in Lisbon” by Chris Pavone •  Fast-moving thriller about a woman who wakes in a hotel to find that her younger husband has disappeared. The author will be at the Jewish Community Center on June 7 in collaboration with the county library. (MacMillan; May 24)
“The Latecomer” by Jean Hanff Korelitz • The author of “The Plot” turns to a family drama involving triplets ready to go their own ways. Their mother, fearing a lonely empty nest, decides to have another child, “the latecomer,” who further disrupts the family dynamics. (Celadon; May 31)
“Deep Water” by Emma Bamford  • Psychological thriller begins with a married couple buying a yacht to explore exotic lands. Unfortunately paradise turns fearsome in this lauded debut. (Scout; May 31)
If your dad is a John Grisham fan, he might particularly enjoy the author’s latest book. One of the three novellas is set in St. Louis. $19.02 at and at local bookstores
“Sparring Partners” by John Grisham • Grisham offers 3-for-1 in his first collection of novellas, legal stories that include the mystery of a Mississippi lawyer who disappeared, a man on death row, and two contentious brothers in St. Louis and their disbarred father, who is still trying to run their law firm from jail. (Doubleday; May 31)
“Tracy Flick Can’t Win” by Tom Perrotta •  The young heroine of Perrotta’s “Election” (Reese Witherspoon in the movie) returns for a humorous high school sequel, although now she’s an assistant principal who hopes for a promotion — despite her complicated life. (Scribner; June 7)
“After the Lights Go Out” by John Vercher •  A mixed-martial arts fighter realizes he’s suffering from CTE, pugilistic dementia, even as he awaits an important comeback fight. He also contends with an ailing white father, beginning to realize why his Black mother left. (Soho; June 7)
By Geraldine Brooks
Published by Viking, 416 pages, $28
“Horse” by Geraldine Brooks • A novel of a great 1850s racehorse, his Black groom and a painting spans more than a century, inspired by the true story of stallion Lexington. By the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “March.” (Viking; June 14)
“Last Summer on State Street” by Toya Wolfe • Set in 1999 Chicago, four girls live in a housing project slated for demolition in  a coming-of-age novel about friendship and family.  (Morrow; June 14)
“The House Across the Lake” by Riley Sager • The plot sounds like “Rear Window” set on a Vermont lake, with a woman who watches her neighbors through binoculars and becomes suspicious when one disappears. (Sager is at the Ethical Society June 22.)  (Dutton; June 21)
“Lapvona” by Ottessa Moshfegh •  Medieval historical fiction involves a blind midwife with spiritual insights and a vindictive governor during a year of famine. By the author of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” (Penguin Press; June 21)
“Fellowship Point” by Alice Elliott Dark •  Longtime, aging friends may be at cross-purposes regarding a beloved piece of Maine one wants to donate to a trust. Family stories, secrets and friendships in sophisticated story compared by publisher to  “a classic 19th-century novel.”  (Scribner; July 5)
“The It Girl” by Ruth Ware • The popular British author’s new mystery concerns a group of Oxford friends, including a vivacious “It Girl” who is murdered. Ten years later, one of the group realizes that the man convicted of the murder likely wasn’t guilty after all.  (Gallery/Scout; July 12)
“The Last White Man” by Mohsin Hamid  • The author of “Reluctant Fundamentalist” imagines Kafka-like tale about a white man who wakes up, not to find he has metamorphosed into an insect, but into a brown man.  (Gallery/Scout; July 12)
“Bronze Drum” by Phong Nguyen •  An epic about ancient Vietnam, based on oral history, tells the story of two sisters who raised an army of women to overthrow the Han Chinese. By a creative writing professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.  (Grand Central; Aug. 9)
“Our Unfinished March” by Eric Holder with Sam Koppelman • The former attorney general under President Barack Obama will discuss his history of voting and current threats on May 26 at the St. Louis County Library. (Tickets are required; see  (One World; May 10)
“River of the Gods” by Candice Millard • The Kansas City historian and author of “Hero of the Empire” has a new adventurous history of the Nile River. Famous British explorers claimed to locate its headwaters, but they failed to include the essential help of an African guide, whom Millard now brings to light.  (Doubleday; May 17)
“What the Ermine Saw” by Eden Collinsworth •  A masterpiece by painter Leonardo da Vinci survives World Wars, the Nazis and a duke’s wife, jealous of his teenage mistress in the portrait.  (Doubleday; May 24).
“His Name Is George Floyd” by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa •  A biography of the man whose murder by police two years ago sparked civil protests around the globe. Floyd, a native of Houston, experienced racism his entire life, the authors find. (Viking; May 17)
“Little Brother: Love, Tragedy and My Search for the Truth”
By Ben Westhoff
Published by Hatchette, 276 pages, $29
“Little Brother: Love, Tragedy, and My Search for the Truth” by Ben Westhoff  • Westhoff, the white son of physicians, became a mentor to a underprivileged Black boy in St. Louis. He later investigates his mentee’s fatal shooting, determined to find the killer and learning more about the forces of violence and poverty. (Westhoff talks about his book at the Ethical Society May 25.) (Hachette; May 24)
“Brace for Impact” by Gabe Montesanti • A queer woman writes about her difficult upbringing and how she found confidence playing roller derby for Arch Rival. (The author will be at .ZACK May 26.) (Dial; May 24)
“African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Freedom” by David Hackett Fischer • The Pulitzer Prize-winning author argues that “historians should not focus solely on the tragic moral paradox of racism and slavery without also considering the positive, enduring impacts that enslaved and free Africans have had on the United States’ founding ideals,” says Library Journal in a starred review. (Simon & Schuster; May 31)
“Travelers, Tracks and Tycoons: The Railroad in American Legend and Life” by Nicholas Fry and John Hoover •  In connection with an exhibit in New York at the Grolier Club, a catalog details many of the St. Louis Mercantile Library’s historic holdings about railroads. (The Grolier Club; June 5)
“The Watermen” by Michael Loynd •  New York native Charles Daniels became America’s first star swimmer, winning Olympic Gold in St. Louis in 1904 and developing the “American crawl.” (The author will be in conversation with Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the Jewish Community Center  on June 15.) (Ballantine; June 7)
“The Twilight World” by Werner Herzog, translated by Michael Hofmann •  The film director’s first book in years recounts his acquaintance with a former soldier who protected a Philippine island from the Allies for decades after World War II, not realizing the war was over. (Penguin; June 14)
“Under the Skin: “The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation” by Linda Villarosa • Individual accounts of racial health disparities come together in a book that explains how Black Americans “live sicker and die quicker.” (Doubleday; June 14) 
“The Colony” by Sally Denton • An investigation into the 2019 murder in Mexico of three Mormon fundamentalist wives and their children, this true crime story delves deeply into a polygamist outpost and how it intersected not only with a sex cult, but also drug cartels and farmers fighting over water rights.  (Liveright; June 26)
“Invisible Storm” by Jason Kander • The former Missouri state representative and secretary of state writes in detail about suffering from and getting help for PTSD, a result of his Army service in Afghanistan.  (Mariner; July 5)
“Proving Ground: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Modern Computer” by Kathy Kleiman •  More “hidden figures” are illuminated in this story of forgotten women who figured out how to program the ENIAC, the first all-electric, all digital computer. (Grand Central; July 26)
 “The Big Lie: Election Chaos, Political Opportunism, and the State of American Politics After 2020” by Jonathan Lemire •  Politico correspondent writes about the Donald Trump presidency and the escalation of lies in politics. (Flatiron; July 26)
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