Recommended books: Summer 2018

recommended books
Credit: BETH GWINN

Reading time: Less than 5 minutes

Looking for some recommended books in time for summer reading? Here’s my semi-annual roundup of books I’ve read this year.  

I aim to read 52 books every 12 months, and my habit is to post a complete list of the names of them for you, in July and December. Here is a description of the 27 books I’ve enjoyed so far this year. Yes, I really do read more than a book a week! I give you this list close to the North American summer solstice to help you with plans for your own summer reading. 

Please note I don’t generally read mysteries, sci-fi or fantasy. I pass no judgment on those who do; my tastes don’t usually run in those directions.   

FICTION (in order of preference) 

1-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.

2-McKoen, 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. Richly rewarding.

3-St. Aubyn, Edward. Never Mind. (A Patrick Melrose story.) St. Aubyn is one of those rare writers who has great wealth, incredible talent AND the ability to work hard. An exceedingly unusual trifecta. I was particularly impressed with the way he was able to capture the voice of a six-year-old. The fictional story (based on the author’s own tragic life) is rather bleak, but it is beautifully told. (The Patrick Melrose books have recently been turned into a SHOWTIME series starring Benedict Cumberbatch.)

4-Best, Gillian. The Last Wave. I loved this richly written novel, focusing on a woman who successfully swam the English Channel nine times and the complex threads of her adult life.

5-Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, Unburied, Sing. An almost unrelievedly grim story — about a black family in Mississippi — this book has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve encountered in many years. It appeared on a number of “best-book-of-2017” lists.

6-Strout, Elizabeth.  Anything is Possible. I’ve been a big fan of Elizabeth Strout ever since I read her Pulitzer-prize winning 2008 book, Olive Kitterage. Once again, Strout creates a series of linked short stories in which she thoughtfully explores the everyday lives of people living in the fictional rural town of Amgash, Illinois. I consider Strout to be the American Alice Munro.

7-Ko, Lisa. The Leavers. Set in New York and China, this book offers a beautifully written story of the challenges of immigration. Displays superb figurative language, was a National Book Award Finalist and was named a best book of 2017 by NPR.

8-Rosenstiel, Tom. Shining City. Pretty good political thriller based in Washington DC, telling the story of a political fixer who is brought in to vet the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court. (Particularly timely given last week’s resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy.)

9-Johnston, Wayne. First Snow, Last Light. Didn’t like this one as much as his previous novels, such as The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Navigator of New York. The plot seemed forced and the characters, with the exception of Sheila Fielding, seemed unrealistic and hard to believe. Excellent writing, though.

10-Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. I read this some four months before the death of the acclaimed author. The third book in a trilogy, this one explores the topic of race relations in a university setting. The plot is clever and well expressed, although I frequently found myself distracted by Roth’s “rants” (others have described these as “virtuoso passages”) about crows, dancing and big band music.

11-Khong, Rachel. Goodbye Vitamin: A novel. This is a novel about a woman who moves home at the age of 30 to help care for her father who has Alzheimer’s disease. Surprisingly funny in spots, and some fine figurative language, but overall her writing seems a bit immature.

12-Urrea, Luis Alberto. The House of Broken Angels. Pretty good book with some exemplary writing, telling the story of a Mexican immigrant family. Terrific characters and some great humour. The story goes slightly sideways towards the end but otherwise is very worthwhile.

13-Redhill, Michael. Bellevue Square. The book jacket describes it as a “darkly comic literary thriller,” I’d call it more of a ghost story. Well written but also frustrating and, at times, hard to follow.

14-Jones, Tayari. An American Marriage. This is the story of what happens to a young black couple when the husband is wrongly imprisoned for five years. Wish I had liked it more. Felt like mediocre chick-lit despite a few moments of some very fine writing and a surprisingly sophisticated ending.

15-Harris, Robert. Munich. A fictionalized retelling of the Munich Peace Agreement, negotiated between British PM Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in 1938, just a year before the Second World War. Flawlessly researched and interesting but not as gripping as Harris’s other books, Conclave and Enigma.

16-Horowitz, Anthony. Magpie Murders. The first half of this book really didn’t impress me, but it picked up considerably in the second. Sort of a murder within a murder (like a play within a play). Quite Agatha-Christie-ish. Not quite to my taste, though.

17-Egan, Jennifer. Manhattan Beach. An engaging plot and a good read (and Egan’s usual fine figurative writing) but I was disappointed by the ending. Not enough change in many of the characters. What was the point of this book?

18-Itani, Frances. That’s My Baby. The story of a woman who was adopted as a baby in the 1920s and who struggles to learn her birth story. The plot should have been engaging enough but I couldn’t get past the writing, which struck me as awkward and distancing. Too much passive voice. Characters too thinly developed.

19-Hawley, Noah. Before the Fall. Pretty good page-turner focusing on a plane accident, although it often devolved into cliché. The writing style is slightly more sophisticated than John Grisham. Might be a good beach read.

20-Jaswal, Balli Kaur. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. The title is the best thing about this book. Funny concept — a writing teacher is brought in for Punjabi widows, but what they want to write is porn. But the writing of the book is lifeless and cliched.

21-Slimani, Leila. The Perfect Nanny. I don’t often read “hot” books, but I was about to climb on a plane and I had heard excellent reviews of this novel. And, to boot, it had won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt. I’m not spoiling the plot when I tell you the nanny murders her charges. (You learn this fact in the book’s first sentence.) But I had hoped for better writing and more sophisticated psychological analysis. Instead, I found the book very thin and either poorly written or, perhaps, poorly translated. Many reviewers loved this book, however.

Not recommended

22-Lynch, Christina. The Italian Party.

NON-FICTION (in order of preference)

23-Vaillant, John. The Golden Spruce. Beautifully written book about the destruction of a 300-year-old Golden Spruce tree in British Columbia. Reads partly as an environmental work, filled with lots of detail, but also appears almost as a novelistic thriller, exploring the backstory of the mysterious man who took a chainsaw to the tree and then disappeared.

24-Westover, Tara. Educated. This is the story of a young woman raised in a large isolated family where scavenging in the family scrap yard and making herbs into medicine were the only sources of income. Tara escapes and goes on to win a fellowship from Cambridge university and graduates with a PhD. She is also a remarkable writer.

25-Doroghy, Dave. The Accidental Apiarist. This book has not yet been published (I read the author’s manuscript) but I have no doubt it will be. It’s a funny and charming memoir about the life of a part-time beekeeper. Keep your eye out for it.

26-Hendricks, Gay. The Big Leap. Interesting self-help book (on how to have a better, more successful life) from a New York Times bestselling psychologist. I dislike his fondness of cute language (e.g.: The “Upper Limit Problem”) but I found his chapter on time particularly helpful and insightful.

27-Marzano-Lesnevich, Alexandria. The Fact of a Body. The book is a pretty interesting examination of a New Orleans murder case, woven, strand-like, into the author’s own memoir. Didn’t work 100% of the time, but she’s a graceful writer and has interesting reflections on the law.

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My video podcast last week aimed to help writers with their self-motivation.  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.

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What books have you particularly enjoyed this year? We can all learn from each other so, please share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Abby, the winner of this month’s book prize, Between You and Me: Confession of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris for a July 26/18 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by July 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of The Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted July 3rd, 2018 in Power Writing