Reading time: 11 minutes (but easily skimmable)
When I was a child I learned that I could make time pass more quickly by reading. Here are more than 52 novels to read during the pandemic…
I’ve kept a book diary for the last 25 years. The list comes in handy whenever I want to buy gifts for friends — or remember a title that my increasingly unreliable memory will point blank refuse to recall.
I spent several hours last week, combing through my diary’s seemingly endless pages to produce a list of book recommendations for you to read during this time of enforced isolation. What do we have but time, these days?
Although the list is long (I’ve read more than a book a week for several decades), I applied the highest standards when choosing the titles below. They are all books I loved or found un-put-downable. I also tried to pick titles that mostly failed to remain on bestseller lists (although there are several Pulitzer Prize winners) so there should be some surprises in here as well.
I’m focusing on novels because I figure we all need a chance to escape right now. But if non-fiction is your thing, refer to a post I released in January.
And, of course, be aware that the majority of these books are also available in audio form, so you can always don headphones and have someone read them in your ear, if you like.
- Atkinson, Kate. Behind the Scenes at the Museum. This very funny novel begins with the conception of the main character — a middle class English girl — and takes readers through the entire 20th century as seen through the lens of the character’s own dysfunctional family. Lots of fun.
- Barnes, Julian. Arthur & George. This novel explores the true story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) and his efforts to help a young South Asian lawyer who was wrongly incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. Gripping fact-based plot that’s well written, too.
- Bezmozgis, David. The Betrayers. The story of a Soviet Jewish dissident who has become a disgraced Israeli politician, this book offers exceptionally clean, clear writing and a captivating plot. (I’m not a big short story fan, but I also enjoyed the same author’s collection Immigrant City, which explores the immigrant experience with sophisticated characterizations.)
- Brooks, Geraldine. People of the Book. One of the earliest Jewish religious volumes to be illuminated with images, the Sarajevo Haggadah survived centuries of purges and wars. Geraldine Brooks, has taken the history of this work and turned it into a compelling mystery, love story and history lesson. Amazing research and truly remarkable storytelling. Also consider Brooks’ other titles, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning March, the story of mostly-missing father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Year of Wonders the story of a village isolating itself from the Plague. (Too close for comfort perhaps?)
- Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. The story of a young blind girl and a gifted young German boy, this captures the Second World War from two perspectives you normally wouldn’t think about. My favourite book of 2015.
- Donovan, Anne. Buddha Da. Wonderful, richly detailed characters and great, gripping story. Very funny in spots too. Getting through the Scottish brogue was a bit of job (e.g.: My Da’s a nutter. Radio rental. He’d dae anything for a laugh so he wid; went doon the shops wi a perra knickers on his heid, tellt the wifie next door we’d won the lottery and were flittin tae Barbados) but I became accustomed to it by about a third of the way through the book. Well worth the effort.
- Donoghue, Emma. The Wonder: A novel. Donoghue is famous for her better-known book (and movie) Room, but I found The Wonder to be subtler and more interesting. A young English nurse is hired as an outside observer to determine the validity of the claim of a rural Irish family that their 11-year-old daughter has taken no food for four months, and yet, is thriving. Donoghue is an exceptionally observant writer and has a remarkable ear for dialogue, too.
- Egan, Jennifer. Look at Me. Really well written —and surprising— story about a fashion model who’s in a disfiguring car accident. The book features an incredible number of metaphors. I also enjoyed Egan’s A Visit from The Goon Squad, the story of a record executive and the troubled young woman he employs. Note that there’s an “experimental” section towards the end that is all but impossible to read on the Kindle.
- Enright, Anne. The Green Road. Spanning 30 years, the book tells the story of a thoroughly dysfunctional Irish family — mother plus four children, scattered across the globe. The writing is magnificent and the story is very moving.
- Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. A truly remarkable piece of storytelling based on the life of a character named Calliope Stephanides and three generations of his Greek-American family. The book has everything – history, mythology, lyrical writing, unforgettable characters. I usually get tired of long books. But this was 529 pages and I didn’t want it to end. Very affecting. I felt as though I knew the characters and lived their lives with them. (Haven’t enjoyed any other of Eugenides’ books, though.)
- Fowler, Karen Joy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. An exquisitely crafted coming of age story placed on the set of a dysfunctional family. I read it on my Kindle without knowing anything about the story so a charming plot twist (revealed at about the 25% point) took me completely by surprise. Fowler is a skilled writer who is able to blend humour with other, darker emotions in a highly readable book.
- Gaiman, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This fable is deeply weird – a fantasy – something not normally to my taste, but I couldn’t put this one down. The narrator and his family don’t have names, just roles. And the writing is compelling. I’ve heard that the audiobook (narrated by the author) is even better than the paper one.
- Galloway, Steven.The Confabulist. A superb piece of historical fiction, this book imagines the life of escape artist Harry Houdini and a fictional character who plays an unexpected role in it. I fell in love with the characters who came completely alive for me. Lovely, lyrical writing, too.
- Goodman, Allegra. Intuition. Offering a story set in a prestigious research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this novel presents an unusual combination of topics –workplace intrigue, scientific thriller and moral analysis. On top of it all, it’s well written and surprisingly subtle.
- Greer, Andrew Sean. Less. This comic novel walked away with the 2018 Pulitzer Prize. A satirical story about a 50-year-old gay male novelist, the book addresses lost chances and lost time. It’s outstanding not just for its story but also for its finely crafted figurative language.
- Hager Cohen, Leah. The Grief of Others. A husband and wife have lost a baby, just 57 hours after his birth and their family struggles to cope with the profound loss. I found some of the characters slightly off-putting, but otherwise the book amazed me. Cohen has such wonderful images. My favourite: “His toenails: specks of abalone.”
- Hay, Elizabeth. A Student of Weather. The story of two sisters in small-town Saskatchewan and a man who enters both of their lives. Beautifully written with a compelling plot spanning 30 years.
- Henriquez, Cristina. The Book of Unknown Americans. Dazzlingly written, engaging and sympathetic story about Latino immigrants to the US. Should be required reading for American politicians.
- Humphreys, Helen. The Evening Chorus. A richly imagined Second World War story, exploring the very separate lives of a solider, his wife and his sister. Humphrey’s earlier book The Lost Garden also addresses wartime themes in a similarly lyrical fashion. Both books are superbly written with fully realized characters. The writing is more like poetry than prose.
- Kauffman, Rebecca. Another Place You’ve Never Been. I enjoy novels created out of a series of interconnected short stories — something about the form of that kind of story-telling appeals to me. In this case, the author focuses on a couple of cousins throughout their lives. Straightforward language and fully formed characters.
- Kent, Hannah. Burial Rites. A woman is condemned to death for her part in the murder of her lover. The year is 1829 and the place is northern Iceland. This piece of historical fiction — based on the last execution in Iceland — features superbly drawn characters.
- Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. This is the popular book I’m going to re-read in the next couple of weeks. I know it will feel like putting on a pair of my most comfortable shoes. Superb writing. Great storytelling, about the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist who takes his family on a mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959.
- Lansens, Lori. The Girls. Two very different books carry this name. The one I don’t recommend is by Emma Cline, which re-imagines the story of Charles Manson, from a teenage girl’s point of view. The one I liked, by Canadian novelist Lori Lansens, tells the fictional tale of a set of conjoined twins. I found the characters unforgettable and the writing marvellous. (Haven’t enjoyed any other of Lansens’ books though.)
- Lamb, Vincent. The Headmaster’s Wager. A suspenseful and affecting story about a Chinese headmaster in Saigon who has a weakness for gambling and who must decide how to respond when his son gets into trouble with the Vietnamese authorities.
- Lawson, Mary. Road Ends. Mary Lawson is better known for her novel Crow Lake, but I preferred this story about a family unravelling in the aftermath of a tragedy. It took me awhile to get into it, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.
- Lee, Jonathan. High Dive: A Novel. A novel based on the true story of a 1984 bomb attack in Brighton targeting Margaret Thatcher. Terrific plot told with beautiful writing. Almost impossible to believe that this is a first novel. So smart!
- McCann, Colum. Let The Great World Spin. My heart breaks for New York City, struggling so mightily in the coronavirus outbreak. Perhaps rereading this book — which tells a panoply of stories from New York in the 1970s — would be a fitting gesture for these difficult times. McCann’s writing is truly striking. I scribbled so many notes to myself about his metaphors, similes and sentence length. A masterful writer.
- McCracken, Elizabeth. The Giant’s House. The crazily original plot (a librarian in her mid-20s falls in love with a young patron who suffers from gigantism) and spectacular figurative language made me fall in love with this book. I’d read it again in a heartbeat.
- McEwan, Ian. Sweet Tooth. I’ll read just about anything McEwan writes, even though I don’t enjoy all of it. This book, however – the story of a Cambridge student who becomes an MI5 recruit in 1972 — captivated me. The surprise ending made the book even more powerful in retrospect.
- McKeon, Belinda. Tender. The story — a coming-of-age drama about a young woman in Dublin — is so deeply felt and exquisitely explained (almost dissected), I felt as though I’d lived through it. Very little figurative language but, still, superbly written.
- Maguire, Gregory. Wicked. This highly unusual and creative book retells the Wizard of Oz story from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s audacious and un-put-downable once you get about a third into it. Normally, I loathe fantasy but this one is essentially a meditation on the nature of good and evil with overtones of Nazi Germany and comments on terrorism (although written before 9-11). The Broadway musical Wicked was based on this story but, trust me, this book is much more interesting and nuanced.
- Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. This beautifully written and emotionally complex novel about the death of a troubled teen captures the tension between Chinese and American cultures and generations.
- Nunez, Sigrid. The Friend. A woman unexpectedly loses her lifelong best friend and mentor. As if that weren’t tough enough, she then discovers she needs to care for his orphaned Great Dane. Nunez uses a very straight-ahead writing style (“move along; nothing to see here!”) but conveys great impact with her writing.
- Oates, Joyce Carol. A Book of American Martyrs. This very long book held me in its grip for a week while I sped through the 736 pages. The story of an abortion doctor who is killed by a religious right-to-life advocate may be offensive to some (on either side of the abortion divide), but I found the book uplifting and deeply fascinating. Neither side is spared in this nuanced account.
- O’Farrell, Maggie. The Hand that First Held Mine. The book tells the story of the spirited Lexie Sinclair, who finds her way from rural Devon to the center of postwar London’s burgeoning art scene in Soho. And it continues, 50 years later with the story of Ted and Elina: a contemporary London couple who’ve just had their first child. Even though I loathed the final paragraph, I otherwise loved this book.
- Ohlin, Alix. Inside. I picked this up fearing it was chicklit and, in the end, was surprised and delighted to discover the insight and fine writing concealed in this story of four complex characters (although, primarily, a therapist named Grace) in present day Montreal.
- Rachman, Tom. The Imperfectionists. Wonderful novel about the private lives of reporters, editors and executives of an international English-language newspaper in Rome. Some of the chapters are less successful than others (a little too O. Henry-ish for my taste) but overall the book is magnificently pulled off and displays few of the mistakes of a typical first novel.
- Semple, Maria. Where’d you go, Bernadette? Screamingly funny book about a dysfunctional family living in Seattle. Terrific beach/holiday/pandemic read, more sophisticated than most. I watched the movie recently (starring Cate Blanchett) and can say that the book is much richer and much more sophisticated. And a whole lot funnier, too.
- Smith, Dominic. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. This remarkable book offers an unbeatable combination of a compelling plot with very fine, layered writing. Bridging both historical fiction with contemporary storytelling, the novel explores the work of a female Dutch painter of the golden age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth. One of the best novels I read in 2016.
- Stein, Garth. The Art of Racing in the Rain. Can’t quite believe I enjoyed this novel about a dog with a car-racing master, as I’m a cat person, not the least bit interested in cars. But the book is a thoroughly charming read about life and coping with hard times. Perhaps eerily appropriate now?
- Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge. A retired school teacher with strong opinions, Olive Kitteridge is the unforgettable main character of Strout’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book. The other characters are just as interesting and fully realized. Even better, Strout’s 2019 sequel, Olive, Again, continues the saga in a similar fashion. I put Strout on the same list as Alice Munro.
- Southwood, Kate. Falling to Earth. If you want to read more about real-life disasters, consider this novel about a real-life Illinois town (Marah) flattened by a tornado in 1925. Told from the point of view of one family unharmed by the event. They pay their price later. Beautifully written.
- Straub, Emma. Modern Lovers. Some might consider this chicklit but I call it something much more sophisticated than that. Funny, charming plot — about neighbours and nosiness, youth and middle age — interesting characters, terrific figurative language. A great way to forget about the pandemic.
- Toibin, Colm. Brooklyn. I’m so sorry I saw the movie first! Would have been better to do it the other way ’round as the book — about a young Irish girl who escapes to Brooklyn — is so much richer than the film. Toibin has a very distinct way of writing and superb character development skills.
- Towles, Amor. A Gentleman in Moscow. Thoroughly entertaining story of a Russian Count, who in 1922 is sentenced to house arrest in a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. When the pandemic is over, it will be a TV-movie starring Kenneth Branagh.
- Vickers, Salley. Miss Garnet’s Angel. Captivating complex plot — about a retired female British history teacher who escapes Britain and rents an apartment in Venice — and wonderful writing. In fact, I will read just about anything by Vickers. I also enjoyed Instances of the Number 3, which has one of the best opening sentences I’ve ever seen in a novel: “After Peter Handome died, people were surprised that his widow seemed to spending so much time with his mistress.” I also appreciated The Cleaner of Chartres, which tells the story of an adult orphan who grew up in a religious community.
- Waldman, Amy. The Submission. Outstanding first novel with an exceptionally clever plot. There’s a “blind” competition to create a 9-11 memorial in New York and the winner turns out to be Muslim. Waldman’s use of figurative language is superb.
- Walter, Jess. Beautiful Ruins. Artfully and carefully crafted book, weaving in and out of chronological order in clever and unexpected ways. Explores a multitude of interesting characters (including Richard Burton!) who spend time on the Italian coastline over some 50 years. Beautifully written.
- Wang, Weike. Chemistry. The fascinating story of a young female scientist whose academic (and personal) life goes surprisingly off track. The author has an incredibly distinctive voice.
- Waters, Sarah. Fingersmith. A Victorian mystery, thriller, horror and love story. Absolutely impossible to put down. I read the 592-page book in three fevered days. I recall shrieking at a particularly surprising plot twist. Even though I found the ending to be disappointing, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Hope to re-read during the pandemic, just to distract myself.
- Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, Unburied, Sing. Almost unrelievedly grim story — about a black family in Mississippi — this book has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve encountered in a long time. Read it if you’re feeling strong.
- Wolff, Tobias. Old School. Determined to fit in at his New England prep school, the narrator of this richly told novel has learned to imitate his more privileged classmates. All comes undone in his final year, with a terrific twist. Wolff is a remarkable writer whom I deeply admire.
My video podcast last week addressed how to write to a character count. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
What novels would you recommend for pandemic reading? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/20 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!