Recommended books: Summer 2020

Reading time: About 6 minutes (but very scannable)

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 early summer 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. 

But I’m changing my format this time. Moving forward, I’m going to list my top 5 fiction reads followed by my top 5 non-fiction ones. After these highlighted titles, I’ll name all other books in each category, in order of preference.

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.

BEST FICTION TITLES: TOP 5

1-Schine, Cathleen. The Grammarians: A Novel. Very funny book with a marvellously distinctive voice about a pair of twins named Daphne and Laurel (get the joke?) The former is a copy editor and grammar columnist who devotes herself preserving the dignity and elegance of Standard English. The latter is a former kindergarten teacher who becomes a poet.  A rich, multi-layered novel that is also a very fast read. 

2-Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Again. Sad but very beautiful story about a memorable character introduced in Strout’s earlier book Olive Kitteridge. I love interlocking short stories and Strout is particularly amazing with her ability to bring to life fully developed characters. I’ve long called her the American answer to Alice Munro

3-Moore, Liz. Long Bright River. A suspense novel that is also the story of addiction and family. Very clean writing with an interesting, distinctive voice. And remarkable development of characters. Far more sophisticated than most crime novels or thrillers. 

4-Wetmore, Elizabeth. Valentine. Beautifully written novel, ostensibly about a sexual assault on a young Latina but more clearly about the Texan community in which the assault took place. Wetmore is a remarkable writer.

5-Haddon, Mark. The Porpoise. Beautifully written, if somewhat distasteful, story about an incestuous father-daughter relationship. But what really makes this story is the reflection back to the ancient Greek legend of Antiochus. In case you don’t recognize the author’s name, Haddon is also author of the bestselling The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime

BEST NON-FICTION TITLES: TOP 5

1-Dryer, Benjamin. Dryer’s English. I loved this very funny book that addresses a job for which I am not well suited — copy editing. I am what Dreyer calls an “editor editor” — someone who deals with content and meaning. But I’ve always had enormous respect for copy editors. Particularly ones who are as amusing as Benjamin Dryer. 

2-Caldwell, Gail. Let’s Take the Long Way Home. Beautifully written book about friendship. I discovered the author via an article she’d written in the New York Times and thought, “I must read more that this person has written.” That was a smart choice. This book is a winner.

3-Salzman, Mark. The Man In The Empty Boat. Well-written and true story about anxiety and writer’s block and one author’s battles with this two-headed monster. Great — maybe even necessary — reading for any aspiring writer. 

4-Cep, Casey. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. Really good book about a fascinating court case and the famous writer (author of To Kill a Mockingbird) who was trying to write a book on the trial. Bonus: Some great sideways glances into the issue of writer’s block. 

5-Kolker, Robert. Hidden Valley Road. With a large-sized family of 12 kids, that perfectly matched the baby boom (1945 to 1965), the Galvins had a terrible secret. Six of their children were schizophrenic. This sad but captivating book not only tells their story, but also the shadow history of a serious mental illness.  

OTHER FICTION (in order of preference)

1-King, Lily. Writers and Lovers. The story of  a young woman — a former child golf prodigy, now intent on becoming a writer — whose mother has just died and whose life is starting to fall apart. 

2-Arnett, Kristen. Mostly Dead Things. There is a lot of fine writing in this somewhat strange story of a family of taxidermists. 

3-Gilbert, Elizabeth. City of Girls. The story of a young woman growing up in New York City in the 1940s. It explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.

4-Rooney, Sally. Normal People. Wasn’t impressed with the plot (I’m just not that interested in the s*x lives of people in their 20s) but, wow, this young woman can really write. Great natural style and superb use of figurative language

5-Sloan, Robin. Sourdough: or Lois and her Adventures in the Underground Market. Delightful, light-hearted novel about a computer programmer who suddenly discovers the art of baking sourdough bread. I didn’t like the fantasy/magic realism element towards the end but overall found the story engaging and fun to read. 

6-Braithwaite, Oyinkan. My Sister the Serial Killer. The story of a nurse who suffers with a more attractive sister who tends to kill her (many) boyfriends. A beach read but slightly better than most in the genre, mainly because the writer shows a winning sense of (dark) humour. 

7-Shattuck, Jessica. The Women in the Castle. This piece of historical fiction tells the story of the widow of a resister murdered in the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The widow promises her husband’s conspirators to find and protect their wives. The writing is so-so but the characters are tremendous: fully developed and deeply interesting. 

8-Reid, Kiley. Such a Fun Age. Telling the story of a wealthy, white housewife whose black nanny is forced to undergo a public humiliation at the neighborhood grocery store, the novel explores race, privilege and transaction relationships. I just wish the writing hadn’t been so mediocre. 

9-Ware, Ruth. The Turn of the Key. By Ruth Ware, 2019. Great, engaging plot — about a nanny wrongly accused of murder — but I found the writing both predictable and pedestrian. 

10-Patchett, Ann. The Dutch House. I usually like Patchett’s writing but this one didn’t really do it for me. Cleanly written, of course. But too dull, flat and ho-hum. 

11-Sadowsky, Nina. The Empty Bed. So-so thriller. The author has written many screenplays and I could tell she sure wants this one to be a movie.

12-Hollinghurst, Alan. The Sparsholt Affair. Hollinghurst is an excellent writer but I found this book a bit too tedious for my taste. Not sure what the point of it was and none of the characters seemed to grow significantly during the course of this overly long narrative about gay life in England in the 1940s and beyond.

13-Hall, Tarquin. The Case of the Love Commandos. Light-hearted murder mystery of the Alexander McCall Smith variety. Charming in spots — and I enjoyed the recipes, yes, recipes! — but I don’t think I’ll read another one.

14-Donoghue, Emma. Akin. I really enjoyed Donoghue’s earlier book Room, but this one just didn’t do it for me. The story of an elderly man taking his grand-nephew to France, it was simultaneously boring and plodding. 

15-Hummel, Maria. Still Lives. This woman thinks she’s a way better writer than she is.  Disappointing murder mystery. Not worth the effort of carrying it to the beach.

OTHER NON-FICTION (in order of preference)

1-Armstrong, Kate. The Stone Frigate. I heard Armstrong interviewed on CBC radio and, after hearing the digest of her story, decided to read her book about being one of the first female cadets to graduate from Royal Military College in Canada. It’s plainly written but I always enjoy reading about underdogs who prevail. 

2-Grant, Phyllis. Everything Is Under Control. I am a sucker for any book billed as “a memoir with recipes,” as this one was. I read an excerpt on LitHub and then immediately bought a copy for my kindle. This woman can write (as well as cook) but I found the impact of the book to be much less impressive than the excerpt. Read it in a couple of hours and found there was just not quite enough to hold it all together, despite some very fine sentences. 

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My video podcast last week addressed the topic of reader’s block. Or, see the transcriptand 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 are the best books you’ve read so far this year? 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 June 30/20 will be put in a draw for a digital 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!