Recommended books: winter 2020

Reading time: Just over 4 minutes

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

I aim to read at least 52 books every 12 months and my habit is to post a complete list of the names of them for you, in November and June. Here is a description of the remaining 26 books I’ve enjoyed this year. (In my summer list, I told you about the 27 books I’d finished earlier this year.)

Following my new format, 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 mysteries, sci-fi or fantasy. I pass no judgment on those who do; my tastes don’t usually run in those directions.


  1. Williams, Niall. This is Happiness. Charming, funny and remarkably written book about a village on the western seaboard of Ireland. A loving portrait of a small community and the people who live in it. Wonderful language.
  2. Maxwell, William. They Came Like Swallows. Beautifully written story exploring the life of an American family during the time of the 1918 flu pandemic. The characters are exceptionally deftly painted and the writing is crystalline clear.
  3. Hertmans, Stefan. The Convert. Fascinating piece of historical fiction about a true “Romeo and Juliet” story from the 11th century. She was a high-born Christian woman and he was a rabbi’s son. They fall in love, escape together, and tragedy ensues. Based on a true story and remarkably well written — the author inserts himself into the story in an unusual and sophisticated way.
  4. Olafsson, Olaf. The SacramentThis novel has elements of a police procedural but is far more sophisticated than that. A young nun is sent by the Vatican to investigate allegations of misconduct at a Catholic school in Iceland. During her time there, on a gray winter’s day, a young student at the school watches the school’s headmaster fall to his death from the church tower. Two decades later, the child—now a grown man—calls the nun back to the scene of the crime.
  5. Majumdar, Megha. A Burning. Really good first novel focusing on a young Muslim girl growing up in the slums who is forced to take the blame for a terrorist incident. Beautifully written; terrific characters.


  1. Voss, Chris. Never Split the Difference. Remarkable book on how you can buy a car better, get a raise from your boss, negotiate with friends and family and renegotiate your rent. Written by the FBI’s former lead international kidnapping negotiator. Thanks to reader Roger Groce who recommended it to me.
  2. Konnikova, Maria. The Biggest Bluff. A journalist with a smart idea for a delectable book, Konnikova took herself from someone who had never before played poker into a game-playing expert in less than a year, including winning a major title. She also absorbed some terrific life lessons — about luck and chance — along the way. I have no interest in poker and I found this book unputdownable.
  3. Caulfield, Timothy. Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? Very entertaining and convincing book about the trouble with celebrity. (Doesn’t focus exclusively on Gwyneth Paltrow and, in fact, when the book was released in the US its title was different: The Science of Celebrity.) 
  4. Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime. Listened to the book on audio, as recommended by a friend, and was blown away by the talk show host Trevor Noah’s remarkable writing and by his superb delivery. (This one is even better to listen to than to read, I suspect.) What a brilliant guy. And what an intelligent and affecting story about his young life as a mixed-race kid in apartheid-infused South Africa.
  5. Kristin, Kimball. The Dirty Life. Exceptionally well written story about a New York writer who falls in love with a farmer, marries him and becomes a farmer herself. Fascinating and well told tale.

OTHER FICTION (in order of preference)

  1. Sittenfeld, Curtis. An American Wife. I really enjoyed this book which fictionalizes the story of Laura Bush. (How does someone smart marry someone so apparently stupid?) Very well written. Highly engaging characters — although I can guess I would have taken no pleasure in knowing the real Barbara Bush.
  2. Ma, Ling. Severance. Not sure how I found myself reading this sci fi type of book (about a pandemic no less!) but I thought it was really well written, until I arrived at the end, which I really didn’t like. Still glad I read it, though.
  3. Ohlin, Alix. Dual Citizens. Two sisters – Lark and Robin – are products of an indifferent Canadian mother and two separate American fathers (hence the title of the book). Well written novel about sisters, motherhood and life ambitions
  4. McEwan, Ian. Machines Like Me. Engaging story set in a parallel universe where Alan Turing has not committed suicide and where Artificial Intelligence allows the sale and purchase of companion robots (who appear to be real human beings) in 1982. Well told with interesting characters.  
  5. Maxwell, William. So Long See You Tomorrow. The cleanly written story of two lonely boys who are pulled apart by a murder. (The story is less interesting than the writing which is exquisite.)
  6. Ferrante, Elena. The Days of Abandonment. Reasonably well written, swiftly moving book — telling the story of a woman who has been abandoned by her husband. Written by the famous author of the Neapolitan Novels (which I have not read) struck me as slightly less sophisticated than I would have hoped.
  7. Olafsson, Olaf. One Station Away. Olafsson is a skillful writer but I found this story — about a neurologist and his partner, his mother and a patient — to be less charming and less interesting than his book, The Sacrament (described in the top 5, above.)
  8. Miller, Alice. More Miracle Than Bird. The author tells this biography-turned-into-a-novel through the eyes of the young Georgie Hyde-Lees who married W.B. Yeats. But surely the more interesting story belonged to Yeats. Not because he was a famous poet but because he had such a tortured love-life, making three failed marriage proposals to Maude Gonne and then one to her 23-year-old daughter. He didn’t marry Georgie until he was 51.
  9. Dolan, Naoise. Exciting Times. Beautifully written book but the story bored me to tears. I think this may be a generational thing; I expect more story than most millennials seem to demand.  
  10. Hauty, Chris. Deep State. Interesting and reasonably well-written thriller with some predictable turns and some unexpected ones. The characters weren’t quite rich enough to take this to the next level, though.

OTHER NON-FICTION (in order of preference)

  1. Harvey, Samantha. The Shapeless Unease. Described as a “genre-defying memoir” this book explores the insomnia of English writer Samantha Harvey. As someone who has suffered insomnia myself, I can verify her well-written findings. Nevertheless, when I awoke at 2 am one morning and grabbed this book as I went into another room to read, I feared I had made the wrong choice. Reading about insomnia is not the least bit comforting when you are suffering from it.
  2. Langella, Frank. Dropped Names. A friend of mine was disappointed this book dished the dirt ONLY on actors who are already dead. Still the list of names that actor Frank (Dracula) Langella offers is famous, including Marilyn Monroe, Noel Coward and Richard Burton. The stories are all interesting and exceptionally well written.
  3. Wiener, Anna. Uncanny Valley. Excellent memoir about a woman who is barely making it as a literary agency assistant and who throws in the towel and gets a job at a tech start-up in San Francisco. Her background and questioning attitude make her react differently to the great risk-taking — and wealth — involved. Made me think more skeptically about start-ups and the people behind them.
  4. Brodeur, Adrienne. Wild Game: My Mother, Her Secret and Me. The writing is excellent in this tragic memoir about a woman recalling her teenage life, when she was forced to be an unwilling secret-keeper as a result of her mother’s affair with a friend.
  5. Wearing, Alison. Moments of Glad Grace. A father-daughter trip to Ireland — in search of genealogical research — forms the backbone of this charmingly written memoir.
  6. Becker, Howard S. Writing for Social Scientists. Useful book written by a sociologist. Offers lots of tips — mainly focusing on the value of editing — likely of interest to all academic writers, not just social scientists. 


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 how to know when you’ve finished editing. 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 in the last 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 Tina Raymond, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a Nov. 4/20 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Tina!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Dec 31/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. 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. It’s easy!

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