Recommended books: summer 2021

Reading time: About 5 mins.

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 25 books I’ve enjoyed so far this year. Yes, I really do try to read a book a week! (If you want to learn how to read more, see here.)  

I give you this list close to the North American summer solstice to help you with plans for your own summer reading. I list my top 5 fiction reads followed by my top 5 non-fiction ones. After these highlighted titles, I’ll name the other books I’ve read in each category, in order of preference.

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


1-O’Farrell, Maggie. Hamnet. Exquisitely well written piece of historical fiction, telling the story of the death of Shakespeare’s son, presumably from the Plague. Such an interesting and creative novel, so skillfully told. (In Canada and the U.K., the work goes by a different title — Hamnet & Judith — but it is the same book.) 

2-Hall, Meredith. Beneficence. Moving story with crystalline writing about a farm family (in the 1940s and 50s) that lives through a terrible crisis. 

3-Tokarczuk, Olga. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Variously described as a thriller, a fairy tale and a murder mystery, this book is beautifully written and  highly engaging. The author is Polish and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

4-Forna, Aminatta. Happiness. Interesting book — ostensibly about the immigrant experience but about much more than that — exploring the art of finding belonging wherever you end up. Great characters, too. 

5-French, Tana. In the Woods. Much better and far more sophisticated than most murder mysteries in that the writing in this one — set in Dublin — is just as important at the plot. It’s the first in a six-part series. I will be reading more.

Do you have any fiction titles you can recommend? Please name them here!


1- Keefe, Patrick Radden. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. Painstakingly researched and beautifully written exposé of the Sackler family, developers of the opiate crisis with their invention and (sleazy) promotion of the opioid OxyContin. Note that Keefe’s 2019 book, Say Nothing, is another remarkable work — that one on the troubles in Northern Ireland. 

2-Jaouad, Suleika. Between Two Kingdoms. One of the best memoirs I’ve read in the last decade, telling the story of a young woman struck by an especially deadly form of leukemia. She is a marvellously vivid writer and a thoughtful person, as well, with profound insights. 

3-Lewis, Michael. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story. Really engaging and well written book about the COVID-19 pandemic. Michael Lewis can make the most technical information both readable and fascinating.

4- Friedman, Rachel. And Then We Grew Up. Interesting reflections on the value, use and worth of “creativity” and how to deal with childhood dreams that don’t quite come to pass. 

5-Snyder, Timothy. Our Malady. When I read a book like this, I feel so grateful to live in Canada, where our medical care system doesn’t depend on individual wealth. 

Do you have any non-fiction titles you can recommend? Please name them here!

OTHER FICTION (in order of preference)

1-Pandya, Sameer. Members Only. Entertaining and well-written novel about a south Asian immigrant who has joined a posh tennis club and has a hard time fitting in. 

2-Kingsolver, Barbara. Unsheltered. The story of two families, two centuries apart, living at the same street corner in New Jersey considers poverty, science, and the rules of society. Not as richly layered as Kingsolver’s breakaway novel The Poisonwood Bible, but still a rewarding read. 

3-Brit Bennett. The Vanishing Half. Twin sisters who grew up Black, in the American South, end up separating, with one of them deciding to secretly pass as white. A compelling story, well told. 

4-Alam, Rumaan. Leave the World Behind. I must confess, I found it irritating the way the book changed into a sci fi/fantasy at about the 75% point. Still worth reading for the author’s incredibly skillful writing, though.  

5-Donoghue, Emma. The Pull of the Stars.  A novel based in a maternity ward in a Dublin hospital during the pandemic of 1918. Although competently written, the plot is a bit plodding during the first two-thirds of the book but it picks up considerably in the final third. 

6-Harrigan, Sharon. Half. I thought this story of identical twins was a bit disappointing although I found Harrigan’s idea to write in the first-person plural (for twins, get it?) to be enormously appealing. 

7-Frazier, Jean Kyoung. Pizza Girl. This is a coming-of-age story of a pregnant pizza delivery girl who becomes obsessed with one of her customers. Somewhat entertaining but could have used a better developmental edit. 

8-Lerner, Ben. The Topeka School. I expected to love this multiple-award-winning book featuring one of my quirky passions — high school debating — but I could never settle into this story and I found the shifting perspectives (son, father, mother) to be disorienting. 

9-Leilani, Raven. Luster. This book won all sorts of awards, and became an instant NY Times bestseller. Still, I found the story of a young black woman who has an affair with a married man to be a bit lightweight with not very interesting characters. 

10-Korelitz, Jean Hanff. The Plot. Although described as a psychological thriller, this book is way too predictable and not nearly well-written enough. 

OTHER NON-FICTION (in order of preference)

1-Kross, Ethan. Chatter. Fascinating and useful book, suggesting proven strategies for dealing with the “voices” in our head that provide a running commentary on how we’re doing and what we’re worth. The content was terrific and I could tell Kross tried hard to make the writing interesting and engaging but he didn’t quite manage to display enough flair. The book was also shorter than I expected. (Footnotes take up a good portion.)

2-Housel, Morgan. The Psychology of Money. Well written and interesting book about what the title suggests. I share the author’s view that being a ferocious saver is the best way to operate in this world. 

3-Nestor, James. Breath. The author knows how to tell a great story although some scientific colleagues have told me that his understanding of science is slightly suspect. Still, some interesting, provocative ideas about breathing and how we can learn to do it better. (Writers can benefit greatly from learning about this subject.)

4-Fowler, Gene. Timberline: A story of Bonfils and Tammen. Until a reader sent me a copy of Timberline (thanks again, Bill Spaniel!) I had never read any of Fowler’s writing; I just liked to quote him! The book tells a story of the Denver Post and describes the early days of the Wild West. 

5-Vuong, Ocean. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. This memoir, by a Vietnamese refugee now living in Massachusetts and a professor of writing, gets my prize for best title of the year. Presented as a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read, the book explores a tragic family history. 


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


My video podcast last week addressed whether it’s necessary to write in the morning. 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 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 30/21 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!

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