Episode 110 – 2020’s Books

For those of you fellow intrepid readers who are interested in what a kindred spirit has been reading, here are ALL THE BOOKS I’ve read since our library re-opened under COVID protocols in July. They’re all fiction, with the exception of 3 memoirs.

For the short list of just my top 10, flip back to Episode 109.

28 Summers, by Elin Hilderbrand. If you liked “Same Time Next Year” with Alan Alda and Ellyn Burstyn, you’ll love this book! I especially enjoyed that it’s completely up-to-date too…. right into COVID 2020.

A Conspiracy of Faith, The Absent One, and The Keeper of Lost Causes, all by Jussi Adler-Olsen. These are the first 3 in the Department Q series and, because I’ve listed them alphabetically, are backwards. All I can say is those Scandinavians are VERY dark and intense, and yet somehow also hilarious. Department Q, created to deal with the most impossible cold cases, while simultaneously providing funds to the rest of the police department, is staffed by a fabulous collection of intriguing misfits. These first 3 books were riveting. I see more of the series in my future.

All Adults Here, by Emma Straub. Do you ever wonder whether you were a good parent? Funny, poignant, frustrating, affirming…. it’s all in here.

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. I’m not the least bit surprised this book won a Pulitzer in 2015. It runs the full gamut of human emotion and fallibility as it follows the parallel stories of an orphaned German boy and a young blind French girl during World War 2. Really a great read.

All The Ways We Said Goodbye, by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White. Three threads, each written by a different author using a different voice, set in 1914, 1942, and 1964, intriguingly tied together by a woman living at the Paris Ritz.

Anthropocene Rag, by Alexander Irvine. It has been a long time since I’ve read any science fiction (although I love the loosely related Steam Punk genre), but I remember really enjoying Isaac Asimov’s robot series, so this story of emerging artificial intelligences after a climate disaster intrigued me. I loved the way the story blended the future with characters from North American mythology. (Hint: Mark Twain and Paul Bunyan both make appearances). AND…. if you have children or grandchildren obsessed with Big Hero 6, you’ll be ahead of the game in understanding the nano technology.

Braised Pork, by An Yu. I found this story about a young Chinese woman’s journey to reclaim her individual identity after losing her husband intriguing. It certainly has a very eastern sensibility, feeling sometimes like a cross between a yoga meditation and an anime cartoon – a little disorienting at times, but nonetheless interesting.

Broken Man on a Halifax Pier, by Lesley Choice. One of my pandemic reading goals is to read more books by Canadian authors, and more books set in Canada. I was intrigued by this one because its title is taken from a lyric in Stan Roger’s iconic song Barrett’s Privateers. It really is about a “broken” man – unemployed and swindled into bankruptcy – and the journey he takes with a complete stranger he meets on a pier in Halifax. I loved the Nova Scotia settings, and the quirky relationship that develops between the two main characters. Worth reading for the witty conversations alone.

Beach Read, by Emily Henry. A cute rom-com about two very different authors who end up living next door to each other, and the rivalry that ensues. An easy read that used up a couple of hours on a grey day. No deep thinking required.

Carolina Moon, by Nora Roberts. For fans of creepy thrillers, like Dexter, or Criminal Minds. Maybe don’t read it before bed.

City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Written from the perspective of an older woman looking back at her life in 1940’s New York City after dropping out of college. The main character, and the worldly aunt with whom she goes to live, are great characters, and the time period is wonderfully evoked through their reminiscences.

City of Women, by David R. Gillham. Set in Berlin during WWII, during a time when all the able-bodied men were off fighting and women left behind to survive on their own. The setting is interesting in that we’re used to reading this kind of story from an English perspective, but bombing raids, rationing, and loneliness existed on both sides. What makes this novel so interesting is that it forces us to ask the hard questions about what we would do to survive; whether strength is always good and weakness bad, and whether humanity is inherently fallible.

Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. “This is Spinal Tap” ….. but for women. You’ll be absolutely convinced you’re reading about a real rock band. Magical.

Death by Dickens, an anthology of short stories by modern authors all writing in the style and time period if Dickens. A nice compilation if you only have half an hour to read, because you can put it down between stories (although I didn’t).

Death in Focus, by Anne Perry. When Anne Perry decided she was done with her 2 detective series, I was SO disappointed…. but this is the first in a NEW series with (another) great female character, Elena Standish, a young photographer who gets caught up in pre-WWII espionage. I liked it enough to immediately put book 2, A Question of Betrayal, on hold, even though I did not enjoy it as much as her other new series featuring Daniel Pitt.

Eagle & Crane, by Suzanne Rindell. Yet another good tale, spanning the Great Depression through to WWII in California. Hidden inside an exciting story featuring circuses and barnstormers is the question: when do people cease to see others as “foreign”?

Eden in Winter, by Richard North Patterson. Back in the 1990’s, I binged on Richard North Patterson’s political and courtroom dramas. This suspense novel, written in 2014 and set in a wealthy enclave in Massachusetts, was good…. but not as good as I remembered. If you’ve never read his books, grab one of the older ones. I’d highly recommend 1991’s Silent Witness.

Educated, by Tara Westover. Just wow. This memoir brought to mind Jeanette Walls’ Glass Castle, although in this case it is not so much poverty as religious fanaticism that shapes Tara’s childhood and adolescence. Her story of leaving her family and becoming university educated is a true testimony to human resilience. I’d go so far as saying this is a “must read”.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. After I finished this one, I felt stunned. Let me just say that Eleanor is NOT fine, but is a fascinating character with lots of surprises to reveal.

Ellie and the Harpmaker, by Hazel Prior, was my favourite book of 2020. I can only compare it to The Rosie Project, but in reverse. The story of a frustrated housewife and a gifted savant is gentle, heartwarming, life-affirming, and sweet, but also genuinely funny.

Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy. Be forewarned: this is a 700 page book, and every single page is needed to detail the saga of 10 wonderful characters. The jacket blurb drew me in, and the dedication made me think of my amazing grandmother. For some reason, this year I read a lot of novels set in wartime. Maybe reading about survivors of devastating events has helped me put 2020 in perspective. We’re SUCH a fortunate generation. The dedication below could have been my words (except my grandmother’s name wasn’t Hannah)

Good to a Fault, by Marina Endicott is a tale of a Good Samaritan somehow gone horribly wrong. It is in turns frustrating and hilarious. Well worth reading.

Heat Wave, by Maureen Jennings, is set in 1936 Toronto, and features a female private investigator. Telling you that Maureen Jennings is the author of the Murdoch Mystery books upon which the long-running Canadian television series is based really says it all: familiar settings, fun characters, and a little bit of local Ontario history.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D.Vance. I read this memoir to get another perspective on the frustrations of blue-collar America (as in the U.S.), but found I really couldn’t internalize the author’s experiences. Although Educated (by Tara Westover) was a much more extreme departure from my own life, it resonated in a way that Hillbilly Elegy didn’t.

How the Penguins Saved Veronica, by Hazel Prior. After reading Ellie and the Harpmaker, I was really excited about this book, and was not disappointed. Maybe because of the age of the main character, a “senior” woman, the struggles and triumphs involved in reigniting her “spark” felt very real. Lots of humour, a few tears…. and who doesn’t love penguins? I enjoyed Hazel Prior’s books so much that I ordered them TWICE through Indigo/Chapters and gifted them to my two best friends.

In Other Words: How I Fell In Love With Canada One Book At A Time, by Anna Porter. This was my third attempt at a memoir, after Educated (which I loved) and Hillbilly Elegy (which I didn’t). I really, really wanted to like this, because it was by and about a successful Canadian woman, and set largely against the background of the Canadian publishing industry, but it left me feeling “meh”. Too much name-dropping, and not enough emotional connection – for me, anyway.

Last Seen, by Matt Cohen, was a lovely surprise. I chose it only because it was by a Canadian author, without even reading the dust jacket, so when the book turned out to be a quirky story about a young man who keeps “seeing” his dead brother in strange places, I was pretty happy.

Latitudes of Longing, by Shubhangi Swarup, was shortlisted for the Hindu Prize for Fiction in 2020. In the past couple of years, I’ve begun reading a few East Indian novelists, and getting a taste for what is often a very languid and lyrical writing style. Our library was highlighting Indian authors in their newsletter, which was my impetus to pick up this particular book. The novel is made up of four loosely connected love stories: on an island, in a city, in a valley, and in a snow desert. It involves clairvoyants, mysticism, and pure romance, and spans several age ranges. While I often found myself drifting while reading this one, it was always in a good way – picturing the vividly described locales, or imagining the characters.

My Antonia, by Willa Cather. I decided to try reading an American “classic”, written in 1918. It’s not often you get a library book bound in leather, embossed in gold, and with a sewn-in satin bookmark! Think of Little House on the Prairie, but grittier, and reflecting the experiences of European immigrants settling the mid-west.

Never, Never, Cajun Justice, and The Summer House, all by James Patterson. What can I say? If you enjoy John Grisham, or Lee Child, you’ll enjoy these. James Patterson churns out reliable, somewhat formulaic, action thrillers. They’re not great literature, but they’re entertaining. He’s now writing collaborations, and I suspect just adding his name to the cover to secure sales by his loyal followers. Aficionados wait eagerly for the next book; I’ve read about a dozen now and am probably done.

Not Our Kind, by Kitty Zeldis. A beautifully told story about the unlikely (for the times) friendship between a New York socialite and the young Jewish woman hired to tutor her daughter. We sometimes forget that irrational prejudice existed on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid 20th century.

Not Wanted on the Voyage, by Timothy Findley. Another of my pandemic reading goals is to read some of the “classics” that I’ve missed out on. The fact that this one is also by a famous Canadian author is a bonus. That said, this was my favourite book of the year: funny, irreverent, and thought-provoking – a telling of the Noah’s Ark story that you will never forget. If you are not bothered by “blasphemous” ideas, this is a totally enthralling read. Fair warning: God is a capricious, self-centred, self-important old man. Noah is a proud, sadistic, misogynistic jerk. Lucifer “fell” to earth on purpose. Animals can talk…….And cats are awesome.

One Fatal Flaw, by Anne Perry. I should start by admitting that I love Anne Perry and have read everything she has ever written. Her books are not “literature”, but they include all the elements that I enjoy: great characters that develop as each series progresses, wonderful Victorian English settings beautifully described, murder, mystery, political intrigue, not-so-veiled commentary on class structure, and exciting climaxes. Plus, she knows when to quit: both her William Monk and her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series reached their logical conclusions when their protagonists retired. This book is part of a new series featuring young lawyer Daniel Pitt (son of Thomas and Charlotte), and moving into the Edwardian era. I’ve already admitted to being prejudiced when it comes to Anne Perry, but I loved it. That said, if you’ve never read any of her books, I’d suggest getting absorbed in one of her earlier series so you don’t have to wait for the next instalment to arrive.

Shelter, by Frances Greenslade. Set in the small logging towns and unspoiled wildernesses of British Columbia, this book is a beautiful depiction of sibling love, told through the journey of two young sisters trying to find the mother who left them.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, by Megan Gail Coles. So….. this is the book I couldn’t finish. If this is even close to being a realistic depiction of life in Newfoundland, then I remain as depressed as I was while trying to slog through reading this novel. No idea if there is a happy ending, because I couldn’t force myself to get that far.

The Big Door Prize, by M.O. Walsh. What if a machine suddenly appeared in your grocery store that could tell you, from a quick cheek swab, what your DNA indicates you “should” have been? This book is hilarious, despite some dark moments. For my teacher friends, even if you read nothing except Chapter 6, I guarantee this book will make you laugh.

The Bone Garden, by Tess Gerritsen. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The discovery of an old skeleton in a garden leads back to events that took place in early 1800’s Boston, involving gruesome murders (think Jack the Ripper), turn of the century medicine and policing, societal prejudices, and a love story, all revealed through letters written by Oliver Wendell Holmes. As a bonus, the characters and scenes set in present day are just as entertaining as those set in the past.

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway, asks in part “is the ability to create and appreciate music what makes us human?” This was written back in 2008, but if you haven’t read it already, I’d highly recommend it. It is a real tribute to humanity in the midst of struggle.

The End of the Day, by Bill Clegg. Thought provoking. At “the end of the day”, is it ever okay to reveal someone else’s story, even if your intentions are good? Sometimes I just wanted to yell “stop!” at the main character.

The Library of Lost and Found, by Phaedra Patrick. I always drift toward books with “library” in the title, and who doesn’t love an underdog story? This book’s main character goes on a quest to discover herself, spurred on by a handwritten book dedication from her grandmother that could only have been written long after her grandmother’s death.

The Lost Carousel of Provence, by Juliet Blackwell. Another story set partly in WWII, but this time in France. Beautiful prose, beautiful settings, and an uplifting conclusion.

The Magnificent Esme Wells, by Adrienne Sharpe. A fun novel about a showgirl in the early days of Las Vegas. I especially got a kick out of the author’s note at the end of this one. Basically, “based on facts, except where it’s not” !!

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. I can’t say it any better than the review in the New York Times did. Read this and tell me you’re not fascinated. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/13/books/the-orphan-masters-son-by-adam-johnson-review. I was amused, horrified, and completely hooked … and I REALLY hope it’s pure fiction.

The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson. It took me a few (short) chapters to get into the two sleuths, Dandy and Alec, in this 1930’s Scottish mystery, but then I thoroughly enjoyed it. A cross between Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books.

The Unsuitable, by Molly Pohlig. A gripping Gothic ghost story…. or is it? I loved the Victorian era setting, the ridiculousness of gender expectations, and the psychological twists.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. Identical twins. One lives with her family under the black identity with which she was born. The other “passes” and lives as white. The story spans the 1950’s through 1990’s. Are you intrigued?

Well, that’s it for last year. Ontario has just entered a 28 day “stay at home” state of emergency due to rising numbers of Covid cases. I’ve finished the first of the books that I picked up this month, and have another 4 in the pile. If libraries are not allowed to continue curbside pickup, I’ll run out by month end and may actually have to resort to e-books. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen, but how lucky we are to have options!

8 comments

  1. Well, I can’t imagine reading all these but it is impressive you sure did..I have added some on my list for sure.the parenting one…we all wonder if anything we did as young parents worked for or against us! so interesting to see that someone addresses issue, because boy we need to hand our adult kids in some way.. and our parents did not have the same measure to speak with us as baby boomers, we just went along with it..
    All Adults Here, by Emma Straub — This one sounds good as well…Not Our Kind, by Kitty Zeldis. I sure hope I can read as much as you have…lots of books I have purchased and I need to get to.. Thank you for guiding us on books..they are precious!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rose, you are amazing! Your reviews are magnificent and even moi, the non-reader, has a few new ideas to enjoy.

    BTW, your “Beach Read” was lovely – as you promised. Other than it took me two weeks!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank so much Rose. This has given me some new authors to explore. I have been reading a book in a day or two then figure I should get off my ass and do something productive, clean, sort rearrange and then it’s back to more books; can’t seem to stop myself. Just finished Linwood Barclay’s Elevator Pitch (Canadian author as I’m sure you know) and am now into David Baldacci. Happy reading!

    Like

  4. Found your blog via FB Senior Nomads–thanks for all the reviews! Definitely added some to my list. Check out Mary Lawson’ “Crow Lake” for a great Can-Lit read

    Like

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