Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Annual List -- 2020 Edition

This year feels like living in a cocoon. When I saw this creation from Butterfly Books on Etsy, I realized that books were helping me deal with life in the 2020 cocoon and my goal is that some day they'll assist me in emerging in a butterfly-like manner. (Image credit: ButterflyBooksCo)

What do you read during a pandemic? Do you look for books that soothe, books that help you escape, or books that require little or no concentration? Do you want books that challenge you, that put you in the place of those who are suffering, or that make you consider problems that will be with us long after we're back to some sort of a new normal? I wanted them all. I found myself reading more mystery series when the weather kept me inside, the news was daunting, and we learned that a close friend had died of COVID-19. I also wanted and needed challenges when I regained my ability to concentrate -- if only for a short time.  Thankfully, there were books to fit my needs and desires. This list contains the more than 100 books I read this year. I hope you'll find at least one that will satisfy your hunger. I'd love to know which ones touched you, tickled you, or challenged you. Comment below or email me at trinabookhungry@gmail.com.

I wish you all a "butterfly" year in 2021 with a renewed commitment to caring for each other. Books will help us understand each other even if we disagree about almost everything. 

Happy Reading,

Trina Hayes

Hungry for Good Books? Annual Book List for 2020

 ©Copyright December 1, 2020, by Trina Hayes

Letters after each selection designate the book as CC: Chinese Carryout (page-turners, great for plane rides), D: Desserts (delightful indulgences), DC: Diet Coke and Gummi Bears (books for teens and young adults), G: Gourmet (exquisite writing, requires concentration), GPR: Grandma’s Pot Roast (books that get your attention and stick with you), GS: Grits (evocative of the American south), OC: Over Cooked (good ingredients, but overwritten), PBJ: Peanut Butter and Jelly (children’s books adults will like), PP: Pigeon Pie (historical fiction, parts or all of the novel set at least 50 years ago),  R: Road Food (audio books for road trips and more), S: Sushi with Green Tea Sorbet (satire, irony, black humor, acquired taste), SBP: Sweet Bean Paste (translated and international books), SF: Soul Food (spirituality, theology, books for your soul), SN: Super Nutrition (lots of information, yet tasty as fresh blueberries), and T: Tapas (small bites including short stories, novellas, essays, and poetry). The letters BC denote books for book clubs.  Asterisks (*) depict the most outstanding titles in each designation. The plus sign (+) is for books I recommend. The number sign (#) is for books with full reviews on my blog. All books listed were published in 2020 unless noted otherwise. 

General Fiction and Poetry

*Allende, Isabel, A Long Petal of the Sea begins in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War where Victor, an army doctor saves lives as his brother dies leaving his unknowing pregnant widow Roser escaping into the Pyrenees. When Victor finds Roser, they enter a marriage of convenience so they can escape on a ship chartered by poet Pablo Neruda that’s taking refugees to Chile. The two build a life with their “son” and the novel expertly shares their story along with the changes in the coming decades in Chile under Allende and Pinochet. Beautiful characters share love, hope, history, and exile. GPR/PP, BC

+Andrews, Mary Kay, Hello Summer is just what the beach-read-with-a-mysterious-twist reader will want. Andrews, the Queen of the Beach Read, delivers a fast-paced novel about Conley who escaped from the beach town where her family published a small newspaper for the lights of Atlanta and journalistic success. Ten years later when a big job in New York falls through, Conley goes home to visit her grandmother and falls into investigating the death of a congressman under shady circumstances. She clashes with her sister who’s trying to keep the family newspaper afloat by appeasing the community. Quirky characters, a touch of romance, and attempted murder make this work. D/GS

*Attenberg, Jami, All This Could Be Yours offers a wry glimpse of a family with big secrets. Father Victor is on his deathbed in a New Orleans hospital and daughter Alex, a lawyer in Chicago, hopes to get her mother to tell who Victor really is. She knows he’s a bad man who physically and mentally abused them while making money nefariously. “If I know why they are the way they are, then maybe I can learn why I am the way I am,” she says. Her mother Barbra, a woman obsessed with her own beauty, loves her father and ignores the rest of the family. It’s dysfunction junction with heat and lush writing. I agree with Kirkus that Attenberg is “the poet laureate of difficult families.” I want a sequel. G/S, BC (2019)

+Backman, Fredrik, Anxious People begins slowly when an inept bank robber tries to rob a cashless bank then escapes into a condo and holds those attending a real estate open house hostage. Most of the novel is of the hostages’ conversations that allow them to form a community. It’s an unusual narrative effect that works because it makes the reader care. The droll humor is spot on. GPR/SF/SBP, BC

*Bennett, Brit, The Vanishing Half explores identity through the lives of twin sisters escaping their tiny hometown in 1968. All the town’s residents are light-skinned African Americans. Twin Stella easily passes as white and her sister Desiree marries the darkest man she meets. Ten years later, Desiree returns home with her coal-black daughter. Desiree and Stella’s grown daughters then illustrate how secrets affect being. The novel beautifully probes issues of colorism, sexual identity, and self-hatred via careful attention to its vibrant characters and compelling story line. G/PP, BC

+Berg, Elizabeth, The Confession Club revisits Mason, Missouri where Berg’s The Story of Arthur Truluv and Night of Miracles charmed readers. Maddy and Iris return in this novel of women supporting each other. John, a captivating homeless man, adds to the tale. Berg’s novels feel like home and help us grasp that we’re okay as we are. Without preaching they celebrate taking risks. GPR/D, BC (2019)

+Brown, Karma, Recipe for a Perfect Wife follows Alice who leaves her publishing job to become a writer. She and her husband move to the suburbs where she finds a 1950s cookbook left behind by Nellie containing letters and Nellie’s musings on life. Nellie has more to teach Alice about becoming a strong, independent woman than about how to make meatloaf. I love the way the women’s stories meld. GPR/S, BC

Callahan (Henry), Patti, Becoming Mrs. Lewis should have been a book I’d enjoy. It shares the story of C.S. Lewis and his falling in love with Joy Davidman. Both were fascinating Christian writers. This rendering is more Harlequin Romance than character study. Most of my book club found it lacking. PP/SF (2018)

Callahan Henry, Patti, A Perfect Love Song: A Christmas Story is a re-release of a 2010 novella. Two close friends reconnect and fall in love with brothers who are part of a traveling band. When a new song makes one brother famous, there’s trouble. Little character development, too many coincidences, and a contrived ending made this reader wonder why it was reissued. It’s short yet still too long. OC/T (2019)

*Center, Katherine, Read for Joy: a Journal for Book Lovers is a delightful little stocking stuffer type journal that will give you or whomever you gift it, a sense of reading for joy. Grab one for yourself then several for gifts. It’s small and inexpensive. D

*Cha, Steph, Your House Will Pay, see Mysteries and Thrillers for an exceptional novel based on the actual 1992 murder of a 15-year-old girl by a Korean shopkeeper.

+Choo, Yangsze, The Night Tiger presents intertwined narratives set in 1931 Malaya. Ren, a 10-year-old houseboy for a physician, moves on to serve a surgeon after his master dies. Li Jian is smart but as a girl isn’t allowed to continue school while her stepbrother is in medical school. She and Ren both see the ghost of Ren’s twin. Filled with intrigue and secrets, reading this feels like solving a jigsaw puzzle. The audio version won an Audie Award and I hear it’s mesmerizing. GPR/PP/RT, BC (2019

+Christie, Michael, Greenwood, It’s 2038 and most of the earth’s old-growth forests are gone due to disease. Jacinda, “Jake” Greenwood is a guide on Greenwood Island, a Canadian resort for the ultra-wealthy where trees still exist. She has heavy student loan debts and needs her job to survive. She learns that she might have inherited rights to the island, but unraveling the story of the Greenwood lumber fortune back to 1908 reveals a frightening tale. This is a fine saga for fans of The Overstory. G/PP, BC

+Clegg, Bill, The End of the Day follows several characters from the early 1960s through today. Dana is wealthy and uses her privilege. Her best friend Jackie marries young. Lupita works for Dana’s family then finds success in Hawaii. Agnes has a good life and a son she loves. All are influenced by secrets most don’t know. The writing is lyrical. The characters are vivid. The movement between times and lives didn’t offer enough pace and tension to make this exceptional though. G/PP, BC

+Croupe, Jill McCroskey, Beginning with Cannonballs celebrates the off-and-on friendship of Hanna and Gail, two girls who shared a crib as infants in 1950s Knoxville, Tennessee. Hanna, the daughter of Gail’s family’s live-in-maid, attends a school on the other side of town because of segregation. The two lose touch until Gail reaches out to Hanna and their lives intersect. Including the perspectives of their mothers makes the novel deeper. The cannonball-like glimpses of racism are compelling. GPR/PP, BC

#Cummins, Jeanine, American Dirt is not a book I recommend. There are better choices if you want to learn about migrants crossing the US/Mexico border and there are much more accurate accounts of such journeys. This novel didn’t seem authentic to me and I felt that I had read much of it previously as Cummins borrowed much of her story and details from the books of Latino authors I’d read. I don’t like plagiarism. If you want the real story, read Luis Alberto Urrea or Don Winslow.

+Di Pietrantonio, Donatella, A Girl Returned takes place in 1975 in a small Italian town where a 13-year-old girl is returned to her birth mother and her poor family by the aunt and uncle who’d adopted her. Why? How will she cope with sharing a slim cot with a younger sister who wets the bed every night? This is a beautifully written and translated short novel that will capture readers as the girl returned shares her story twenty years later. A Best Book of the Year by the Washington Post and Kirkus Reviews as well as the winner of the Campiello Prize. G/GPR/SBP, BC (2019)

*Edugyan, Esi, Washington Black won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, was a Man Booker finalist, and was on the New York Times best books of 2018 list. It combines a swashbuckling adventure with a sensitive tale of slavery and freedom. “Wash” Black is an enslaved ten-year-old on a Barbados plantation in 1830 when he’s selected to assist his master’s brother with his invention. After a bounty is put on Wash, he escapes with Titch, who is now his master. This is a miraculous tale of loyalty and freedom. Select it for your book club and get ready for an endless conversation. G/PP/SN, BC (2018)

*#Erdrich, Louise, The Night Watchman is pure Erdrich perfection. Based on the life of Erdrich’s grandfather Patrick Gourneau, a night watchman and tribal elder who fought the US attempt to remove natives from their North Dakota land in 1953, this story offers an intriguing tale with compelling characters, a touch of magic realism, and a view of history we all need to see. Erdrich notes, “if you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.” Readers, it did give me heart. You won’t be able to read this without falling in love with Patrice, Thomas, and the other residents of the Turtle Mountain Reservation. It’s a masterpiece. G/GPR/PP/SN, BC

*#Geye, Peter, Northernmost tells the harrowing tale of Odd Einar Eide trying to survive alone in the Arctic Circle in 1897 combined with his great-great-great granddaughter’s struggles redefining herself and her own escape from a frozen marriage. When Greta discovers her ancestor’s story, she examines her own life as she retells his remarkable adventures. This is a compelling adventure, but first it’s a love story told with heat and compassion. This is the third novel in the Eide trilogy, but it stands alone and can be enjoyed without reading the previous books. The writing is exquisite. It’s one of the best books out this year. G/GPR/PP, BC

+Heller, Peter, Celine is a unique character, an older woman private detective who went to prep school and tracks missing persons after all efforts have ended. When Gabriela asks her to find her father, a National Geographic photographer who’s been missing and declared dead for twenty years ago, Celine and her trusty partner in life head to the lands beyond Yellowstone Park and find that someone wants to keep the case closed. As always with Heller, the landscape is exquisitely rendered. GPR, BC (2017)

+Jiles, Paulette, Simon the Fiddler is a fine descriptive novel filled with memorable characters — a few of whom were in my favorite Jiles novel, News of the World. While I adored the last fifty pages of Simon the Fiddler, I found the early sections missing the narrative punch of her previous novels. Despite that, this is a fine work of post Civil War historical fiction that would make for a great discussion. PP/SN, BC

+Kamali, Marjan, The Stationery Shop is an atmospheric romance that transports the reader to 1953 Tehran where teenagers Roya and Bahman fall in love over books and poetry in a stationery shop during a time of political turmoil. It’s a tender tale of love, loss, betrayal, and grief that’s simple, yet endearing. It’s also an evocative story of food and culture. GPR/PP, BC (2019)

*King, Lily, Writers & Lovers is simply a great novel. It has boundless energy, extraordinary characters, and an evocation of grief that will lift you. Casey is 31 and trying to finish writing her first novel while working as a waitress to pay her college loans. She’s a wreck with grief over her mother’s death and she doesn’t choose boyfriends who treat her well until she meets Oscar, a famous older author with a delightful family, and one of his endearing students. King is such a gifted writer. G/GPR, BC

+Marciano, Francesca, Casa Rossa is a crumbling farmhouse in Puglia where Alina revisits the lives of her artist grandfather, her grandmother, and her mother who was married to a screenwriter. Concerns about Alina’s radical sister add to a story that moves from Jazz Age Paris to 1950s Rome and back to southern Italy. It makes you want to visit Puglia which I found to be just as Marciano described. Lush language: “Puglia is the heel of Italy, the thinnest strip of land between two seas . . . the refraction of the sun hitting the water on both sides –- that made the light of Puglia so rich and warm.” GPR/PP/SN, BC (2002)

*McCann, Colum, Apeirogon took me three months to read because it requires acute attention and early in the pandemic, I couldn’t concentrate enough to do it justice. I kept coming back for the exquisite metaphors, for the words of the protagonists, and for the birds, especially for the birds. The novel is inspired by the real-life friendship between Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, whose young daughters were killed in the Middle East. The book has 1001 chapters, some only one sentence, some a blank space, and some interviews with the men. The chapters refer to 1001 Arabian Nights. This is a masterpiece. G/SN, BC

+McQuiston, Casey, Red, White & Royal Blue is a romantic romp debut with explicit sex that’s clever, tender, and romantic. Alex’s mother is the first woman President of the U.S. Alex detests Henry, the Prince of Wales. When photos show the two in a heated disagreement, officials on both sides of the pond decide that the two must fake a photogenic friendship. Soon they’re more than friends and their secret romance threatens his mother’s reelection and the monarchy. What to do? CC/D (2019)

+Moyes, Jojo, The Giver of Stars follows Alice Wright who leaves England to marry Benjamin Van Cleave and moves to what she expects to be an exciting life in the U.S. in the 1930s. Small town Kentucky life with a husband who isn’t interested in her and a father-in-law who wants to rule her the way he rules the town and his coal mine make her yearn for more so she becomes a pack-horse librarian and everything changes. I read The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek which also featured pack-horse librarians. This is more nuanced and has better character development. GPR/GS/PP/SBP/SN, BC (2019)

+Mustafah, Sahar, The Beauty of Your Face shares the life of Afaf Rahman, a Palestinian-American Principal at a Muslim school for girls in a fictitious Chicago suburb. The book opens with Afaf hearing gunshots and screaming in the school then it moves back to 1976 when her 17-year-old sister disappeared and her family changed. It follows Afaf and her embrace of Islam as it examines prejudice, faith, and love. Mustafah beautifully captures silence and yearning for a way to belong.  GPR/SF/SN, BC

+Napolitano, Ann, Dear Edward shares the story of twelve-year-old Edward, the only survivor of a cross-country flight that killed 183 including his parents and older brother. Moving between the hours of the flight before, during, and after the crash and Edward’s recovery and life in the years after the crash, the novel compassionately illustrates how we become whole and care for one another. It might have seemed like an unlikely read for a pandemic, but it offered both hope and escape. GPR/SF, BC

+Nunez, Sigrid, The Friend won the National Book Award and numerous other accolades. A woman mourning the death of her close friend and writing mentor reluctantly takes in his grief-stricken Great Dane despite it being against the restrictions of her rent-controlled apartment lease. The dog elevates her from her suffering and in a tight 200 pages helps explore why life is meant to be lived. G, BC (2018)

*Phillips, Julia, Disappearing Earth leads the reader through the remote Kamchatka Peninsula on the northeastern edge of Russia where two young sisters disappear. Phillips uses interrelated vignettes to portray the indigenous and Russian inhabitants and their relationship to the girls’ disappearance. The novel makes the reader feel the land then it explodes into one of the best conclusions ever written. Bravo! Sense of place, fascinating details, and brave characterizations make this a debut novel deserving of its accolades. The tension builds over twelve months until we learn the girls’ fate. Book clubs will want to explore themes of xenophobia, racism, gender, vulnerability, and grief. This debut novel was a National Book Award finalist. G/SN, BC (2019)

+Prior, Hazel, How the Penguins Saved Veronica is just what readers searching for a “feel-good” escape from 2020 want. Veronica is a crusty Scottish octogenarian who doesn’t need others. When she falls in love with a group of penguins she sees on television and meets a grandson she didn’t know existed, things might change. Off she goes to Antarctica to meet the penguins where she might learn to connect with humans. Delightful information about penguins adds to this light, optimistic story. D/SBP/SN

+Reay, Katherine, The Printed Letter Bookshop is an inspiring, heartwarming, old-fashioned ode to friendship, self-awareness, forgiveness, and books. If it weren’t for the nuanced exploration of self-awareness, it would have been just another romantic charmer, but watching Madeline, Claire, and Janet grow in self-knowledge made it more. Madeline’s aunt Maddie died and left her her house, bookstore, and debts. Madeline learned this on the day she didn’t make partner at her Chicago law firm. Heading north to Winsome (I wish it would have had another name), a town north of Lake Forest, Madeline becomes friends with efficient Claire and artistic Janet while trying to keep the store afloat until she can sell it. Mitford fans will enjoy this. GPR/SF, BC (2019)

Reay, Katherine, Of Literature and Lattes revisits Winsome, Illinois and the characters from Reay’s The Printed Letter Bookshop. Janet’s daughter Alyssa returns home from Silicon Valley where she’s lost her job and is part of an FBI investigation into the shady practices of her former employer. A new coffee shop opens and the women at the bookstore are still an integral part of the caring town. This one adds more Mitford-type Christian influence with a men’s prayer group and scriptural references. It’s not as sharp as her earlier novel, but readers looking for a romantic escape might enjoy it. GPR/SF

*Reid, Kiley, Such a Fun Age satirizes the casual racism of supposedly woke liberals while offering a meaningful story. When her white boss calls Emira, the family’s Black babysitter, to take 3-year-old Briar to the supermarket so she won’t be home when the police come to investigate the breaking of a window, Emira, needing the cash, hurries to help. At the store a security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping white Briar and another shopper’s video of the encounter goes viral. This is both a “fun” novel and a surprisingly serious look at race, culture, money, influence, and love. A debut novel isn’t often long-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s perfect for book clubs. GPR, BC

*Rooney, Kathleen, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, In 1918, Cher Ami, a British-trained carrier pigeon, flew a dangerous mission in France and delivered a vital message that might save US troops. One hundred years later, the pigeon, now stuffed, is on display at the Smithsonian where she remembers the past. Major Charles Whittlesey, an erudite Manhattan attorney and the leader of what became known as The Lost Battalion, tells how he and his men were trapped in enemy territory for six days by the Germans and US friendly fire. He wrote the note Cher Ami carried. Returning home, the Major is hailed as a hero but feels responsible for so many deaths. Flying above it all, Cher Ami sees everything clearly. This is based on actual events of World War I. It touched me deeply. GPR/PP/SF/SN, BC

+Rooney, Sally, Normal People offers a subtle glimpse of a friendship/romance that builds over the years from high school through university. Marianne isn’t like her peers and while she seems to relish her outsider status, Connell may be the only person who sees who she really is, a person craving normality. Their interactions while at Trinity College in Dublin bring up issues of class, gender, intimacy, and fear. S/SBP, BC (2019)

+Rosen, Renee, Park Avenue Summer is set in 1965 when Helen Gurley Brown decides to transform “Cosmopolitan” into a magazine for independent young women. Alice is her newly hired assistant and we see all the changes of the sixties through her eyes. The sexual revolution meets “Mad Men” in a nuanced escape. CC/D/PP, BC (2019)

*Rum, Etaf, A Woman is No Man begins in 1990 when 17-year-old Palestinian Isra is forced into marriage and moves to Brooklyn where she is treated brutally when she bears daughters. Rum draws on personal experience and her own escape from such a marriage. The book also shows Isra’s daughter in 2008 who’s imprisoned in the same system. Fans of Netflix’s “Orthodox” will see similar patterns despite the religious differences. This is a powerful, yet disturbing debut. GPR/SN, BC

+Russell, Mary Doria, The Women of the Copper Country sheds light on Annie Clements, called “America’s Joan of Arc,” who in 1913 led a fight for union recognition for copper miners in Calumet, Michigan after one too many deaths. Russell is best known for writing The Sparrow, but her meticulous research in books like this and A Thread of Grace makes her an exceptional writer of historical fiction. Russell makes Annie and the evil mine boss James MacNaughton come alive. GPR/PP/SN, BC (2019)

+Sittenfield, Curtis, Eligible is an updated version of Pride and Prejudice set in Cincinnati. Liz and her older sister Jane move home temporarily after their father undergoes heart surgery and find the family deep in debt yet still spending lavishly. The Darcy character is a snobbish neurosurgeon. The result is a satirical lark. D, BC (2016)

+Sittenfeld, Curtis, Rodham takes an imaginative look at what might have happened if Hillary had never married Bill but had instead forged her own career and followed her own political ambitions. When Hillary runs for President the novel soars. D/S, BC

*Stuart, Douglas, Shuggie Bain is an exquisite character study that delves into the lives of Shuggie Bain, his alcoholic mother Agnes, his older brother and sister, and his absent father in 1980s Scotland. Stuart portrays Agnes’s vanity and pride while showing the underbelly of her addiction. This was emotionally one of the most difficult novels I’ve ever read. I appreciate Stuart’s skill, but the novel left me drained. It deserves its accolades as a National Book Award finalist and Booker Prize winner, but it’s one tough read. That it’s a debut novel makes it even more impressive. G/SBP, BC

*#Sweeney, Ashley, Answer Creek follows the Donner party across the desert and mountains in 1846. Strong on research and the real story, Answer Creek focuses on Ada, a fictional heroine who survives despite a lack of food, water, and boots. Imagine spending 124 days in a remote cabin in the winter without food or heat while eating only shoe leather. Ada persists and her grit and intellect offer insight and wisdom. Sweeney’s landscape portraits equal that in her stellar debut Eliza Waite. GPR/PP/SN, BC

*#Tyler, Anne, Redhead by the Side of the Road is quintessential Tyler with its quirky protagonist, a glimpse of a chaotic family, quotidian details, and the joy of the unexpected. Micah Mortimer is a self-described tech hermit who fixes people’s computer woes. He lives a carefully constructed life, but the unexpected finds and upends him when his “woman-friend” is threatened with eviction and he responds poorly and when the college-age son of an old girlfriend appears at his door thinking Micah is his father. In 178 pages that I gulped voraciously, Tyler created a world I’ve pondered far longer than it took me to devour her words. G/GPR, BC

+Waxman, Abbi, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, Sometimes you need a wry romance with a touch of clever repartee, and this novel offers both. Nina Hill, a bookseller addicted to planning, reading, book clubs, trivia, and her anxieties, learns that the father she didn’t know existed has died and she has siblings, nieces, and nephews. When she falls for a trivia competitor, she fears the changes invading her comfortable life. D (2019)

*West, Catherine Adel, Saving Ruby King is a testament to friendship and the reality of living with secrets and the sins of the father. This debut honestly and realistically describes the south side of Chicago where churches are family and flawed characters work to support each other. I adored this poetic exploration of fear and violence that offers redemption and hope. I flagged almost every page. It’s a compelling story told by multiple narrators including Calvary Church, the place where the characters share their lives and secrets. GPR/SF, BC

+Yoon, Paul, Run Me to Earth shares the stories of three Laotian kids working in a makeshift hospital near the Thai border during the war in 1969. Their viewpoints offer a searing image of the devastation of war and the lasting impact of violence on survivors. The story ends in 2018 with one of the three remembering his friends. It’s difficult to read emotionally as the language crisply details the tragedies. G/PP/SN, BC 

+Youngson, Anne, Meet Me at the Museum is a wise look at the meaning of life seen through the letters between a Danish academic and a woman living on an isolated English farm. This epistolary novel, is reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society both in structure and tone. Both novels explore the connections people who seem entirely dissimilar can make when they share their deepest thoughts and concerns. This debut, short-listed for the Costa First Novel Award, is a loving glimpse of self-reflection, honesty, and compassion. Tina and Anders are tender and charming. GPR/SBP/SF, BC

Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers

+Barton, Fiona, The Child is the second of Barton’s thrillers told from the point of view of a detective, a reporter, and a person of interest in a crime. A construction worker unearths a baby’s skeleton in SE London. Kate stumbles onto the story and tries to identify the infant. One woman thinks it must be her baby that was kidnapped years before. Red herrings abound. CC/SBP (2019)

*Barton, Fiona, The Suspect is the third in the series and this time Kate’s son who dropped out of law school to explore Thailand hasn’t been heard from. When two London teens are killed in Bangkok, Kate goes to cover the story and finds that her son is a suspect. Lots of great twists and turns. I love Kate. CC/SBP

*Barton, Fiona, The Widow is a searing suspense-filled tale told from the perspectives of the widow of a probable baby killer, the detective investigating the case, and the reporter trying to get the story. Your opinion of each will change as you learn more about who they are and how they’re motivated. This is brilliant and was just what I needed as a pandemic read. Can’t believe it’s a debut. CC/SBP (2016)

Bowen, Rhys, In Farleigh Field: a Novel of World War II entertains as it features Lady Pamela who’s working as a code breaker, Jeremy, her boyfriend, an RAF pilot shot down by the Germans, who’s escaped and is recovering at his family estate, and their childhood friend Ben who’s part of a secret M -15 unit. The novel offers a look at WWII spies among the gentry that’s informative and breezy, but the ending has so many unbelievable plot twists that the denouement is laughable. CC/PP (2017)

+Brown, Janelle, Pretty Things pits con artists Nina and Lachlan against socialite Vanessa. Nina’s been stealing rare antiques from people too wealthy to notice, but when her mother’s cancer returns, she plots to steal the million in cash hidden in the Lake Tahoe mansion she visited as a teen. Vanessa, heiress and owner of the estate, is a social media darling who posts about her decadent trips, handbags, and shoes. Told from Nina and Vanessa’s viewpoints, this novel’s twists will keep readers guessing. CC

*Cha, Steph, Your House Will Pay is so much more than simply a great psychological, suspense-filled thriller, it also affords a look at our divided, unequal society. Based on the real-life killing of fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins in 1992 by a Korean woman who was convicted of manslaughter but never sentenced to serve a day in prison, Cha takes the anger, fear, grief, and guilt of the families involved and transforms them into a masterpiece of a novel about human nature. Shawn, the cousin of the murdered girl, is a 40-year-old black man who served time and now lives a life of hard work and devotion to family. Grace Park, the daughter of the woman who killed his cousin as he watched 24 years previously, is a pharmacist in her parents’ store who didn’t know about her mother’s crime. Seeing things through both their eyes is brilliant, unsettling, and informative. G/GPR/SF, BC

+Dionne, Karen, The Wicked Sister is something of a bad seed tale. Diana, the strange, unemotional first child of a biologist couple who move to a vast, remote hunting estate in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, grows up without having to answer to the rules of society. Her younger sister is traumatized when she witnesses her parents’ death and she spends fifteen years in a mental health facility blaming herself for their death. A breakthrough leads her to return to the estate to confront the past. This one is perfect for Gothic suspense lovers. CC

+Fields, Helen, Perfect Remains is the first in a series of six featuring French/Scot detective Luc Callanach investigating the abduction and murder of two women in Edinburgh. Warning: the crimes are graphic and brutal, but the character development and detailed plotting make the novel compelling. A side story shines as well. CC/SBP (2017)

+Fields, Helen, Perfect Prey is the second in the DI Callanach series. In this entry, a series of gruesome killings of caring people who help those in need is happening across Edinburgh. Soon the detectives find graffiti about the victims before they’re murdered. CC/SBP (2017)

+Fields, Helen, Perfect Death, the series third entry, intertwines two stories, one of police corruption and the other of a serial killer on the loose. Callanach and Turner shine in this one. CC/SBP (2018)

+Fields, Helen, Perfect Silence, fourth in the series, finds a murdered girl whose skin has been used to create a doll that’s soon left beside an abandoned baby. When another girl dies under similar circumstances, Callanach must act quickly. CC/SBP (2018)

+Fields, Helen, Perfect Silence, the fifth in this spellbinding series, begins as a man is about to jump from a bridge until a summoned counselor talks him down. A week later, the would-be jumper is dead and more people who’ve attempted suicide are found violently murdered. Another story line finds a murder that may be tied to Callanach’s mother. CC/SBP (2019)

+George, Elizabeth, The Punishment She Deserves is the twentieth in the exceptional Lynley series and at 690 pages it’s packed with the adventures of and insights into Barbara Havers, Thomas Lynley, and Isabelle Ardery. A local deacon in a small town is accused of a serious crime and is presumed to have killed himself while in custody. When Havers and Lynley investigate, they know something’s missing and use their wiles to find it. As always in this series, their interactions and foibles fascinate. CC (2018)

*Griffiths, Elly, The Stranger Diaries has all the features of a Victorian novel, but it’s set in contemporary England. After Ella, a teacher, is murdered, someone writes in her friend and fellow teacher Clare’s diary. Soon, another teacher is killed and the reader learns more about the characters and crimes from three viewpoints: that of Clare, her 15-year-old daughter Georgie, and Harbinder Kaur, the Detective Sergeant investigating the case. All are intriguing and make the 2020 Edgar winner compelling. There are touches of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White and a clever ghost story within the novel that add to the eerie atmosphere. Hoping for more from Detective Kaur. CC/GPR/SBP (2019)

+Horowitz, Anthony, Magpie Murders is an homage to Agatha Christie and other classic British writers. When Susan Ryeland reads the manuscript for the latest Atticus P√ľnd mystery from author Alan Conway, she’s sure there’s more to the story than just a cozy English village tale. Reading this is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Horowitz is known for his screenplays including Foyle’s War and this thriller shows his cinematic skills. My book club loved reading and discussing this novel. CC/PP/SBP (2017)

+Knecht, Rosalie, Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery is the second in the Vera Kelly series, but I happened upon it before the first. It’s 1967 and Vera has just lost her job as a CIA agent after completing her last mission. Her girlfriend has dumped her and the CIA doesn’t like that she’s a lesbian so she decides to use her training to become a private investigator when she’s asked to find the missing son of a politically troubled Dominican Republic family. Her life and her CIA connections are intriguing. CC

Lapena, Shari, The Couple Next Door is a tension-filled mystery with one-dimensional characters and a contrived, predictable plot. Anne and Marco leave their baby asleep at home and attend a dinner party next door with their baby monitor. They check on the baby every half hour, but when they go home, she’s missing. Who took her? Family secrets can’t save it. My book club found it trite after mistakenly choosing it. CC (2016)

Lapena, Shari, The Unwanted Guest is all red herrings and improbable murders in a mystery with no character development and very little story. Travelers arrive at a remote hotel where an ice and snow storm leaves them without power or any way to communicate with the world. When the murders begin, there’s nothing they can do but wait for the roads to clear or the killing to stop. Don’t waste your time. CC (2018)

Marabell, Peter, The Final Act of Conrad North is the fourth in the series of Michael Russo mysteries that take place in northern Michigan. This one is centered in Petoskey and Traverse City and features gangster Conrad North who wants revenge. It isn’t as good as the others in the series.

+Miranda, Megan, The Last House Guest, Everyone thinks Sadie threw herself off a cliff into the sea at the end of the summer. Her best friend Avery doesn’t believe it. Lots of creepy atmosphere and class tensions abound in this summer resort thriller. CC (2019)

+Mizushima, Margaret, the Timber Creek Mystery series features Mattie Cobb, an officer in a rural Colorado Sheriff’s office, and her newly trained K-9 partner Robo, a smart, resourceful German Shepherd. Each mystery features the team solving a crime with the assistance of Veterinarian Cole Walker, and a strong cast in the Sheriff’s office. Every book in the series offers insight into the training of search and tracking dogs.

+Mizushima, Margaret, Killing Trail: a Timber Creek K-9 Mystery (#1), Deputy Cobb and Robo find the body of a teenage girl and when Mattie takes an injured dog found at the grave site to the veterinarian, she learns that his daughter may know something that will help solve the crime. Robo’s introduction is stellar. (2015)

+Mizushima, Margaret, Stalking Ground: a Timber Creek K-9 Mystery (#2), When Deputy Ken Brody’s girlfriend is missing in the mountains, Mattie and Robo search and find her body in a dark snowstorm. Mattie and Robo must guard the grave site alone overnight and as the investigation continues, hunters become prey. (2016)

+Mizushima, Margaret, Hunting Hour: a Timber Creek K-9 Mystery (#3), When a 13-year-old is found dead on a hill behind the school, her contacts with older boys seem responsible, but after Cole Walker’s 8-year-old daughter goes missing from her bus stop, everything changes. Can Robo track and find her in time? Another fine entry in the unique series. CC/SN (2017)

+Mizushima, Margaret, Burning Ridge: a Timber Creek K-9 Mystery (#4) strikes close to home when Mattie’s long lost brother contacts her then is found brutally burned and murdered in a rocky, remote area. Memories of Mattie’s abuse as a child haunt her, but Cole and her co-workers offer help. Why would her brother return to the area and who could want him dead after so many years? CC/SN (2018)

+Mizushima, Margaret, Tracking Game: a Timber Creek K-9 Mystery (#5) takes Mattie and Cole deep in the wilderness in search of a hunting party and a killer. A wild predator makes the search more dangerous. (2019)

+Mizushima, Margaret, Hunting Falls: a Timber Creek K-9 Mystery (#6) has Maggie looking for secrets from her childhood when she and Robo discover an odd religious cult that controls its members. Bodies, forest dwellers, and strange suspects make this fascinating.  (2020)

*Olafsson, Olaf, The Sacrament is a haunting tale of Pauline, a young woman studying at the Sorbonne who becomes enamored with her roommate Halva, a student from Iceland. When a church deacon thinks Pauline might be a lesbian, he convinces her to leave. Pauline pushes against her instincts and becomes a nun. Years later, the deacon who is now a bishop sends Pauline, now Sister Johanna, to Iceland to investigate charges of abuse in a local school because she speaks Icelandic. The book moves back and forth between these two periods and forty years later when Sister Johanna again travels to Iceland. Sister Johanna is a great character and the tension of the novel builds with the unveiling of the abuse. The ending is spectacular as is the setting. The audio version is extraordinary. GPR/RT/SBP/SF, BC (2019)

*Penny, Louise, All the Devils Are Here takes the Gamache family to Paris to await the birth of a grandchild, but after a reunion dinner, Gamache’s billionaire godfather is hit by a speeding van and is near death. Gamache thinks the hit-and-run intentional and investigates. Corporate secrets and the possibility of corruption in the French police bring in Gamache’s wife Reine-Marie and her research skills to find out what’s happening. I miss Three Pines but loved this clever mystery. GPR/SN/CC

*#Richard, Saralyn, A Palette for Love and Murder brings back Detective Oliver Parrott in a case involving the theft of two paintings from a Brandywine Valley estate. When the theft leads to murder, Parrot investigates while trying to understand his wife’s PTSD. The murder victim’s secret past may reveal clues, but the New York City police don’t want Parrott’s help. GPR/SF/CC, BC

+#Spencer-Fleming, Julia, Hid from Our Eyes: A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mystery is the ninth in the series. If you haven’t read any of them, don’t read this, instead begin with In the Bleak Midwinter and you’ll race to read them all. Clare, an Episcopal priest and her husband the Chief of Police have a new baby and a town that is considering turning over policing to the State Police when a murder that mimics two unsolved possible homicides -- one in 1972 and one in 1952 -- threatens to reduce confidence in the local squad. Clare is concerned about her baby as she drank when she didn’t know she was pregnant. The problems of her job, her husband’s position, adjusting to motherhood, and staying sober seem overwhelming. This series is always a great read and Clare, Russ, and the locals never disappoint. GPR/SF/CC

+Slimani, Leila, The Perfect Nanny is a page-turner you’ll read in a day. You know on the opening page that the waif-like nanny has murdered the children and attempted to kill herself. The rest of the novel tells you why. She arrives like a magical Mary Poppins and doesn’t just entertain and delight the children, she also cooks gourmet meals and does everything to make herself indispensable. What happened for it all to turn deadly?  CC/SBP (2018)

+Tapper, Jake, The Hellfire Club is CNN journalist Tapper’s first novel. It takes place in McCarthy-era America in 1954 when a new congressman wakes up from a drunken stupor after a car accident. A lobbyist pulls up, burns the evidence and whisks Congressman Charlie away. Can an honest man survive? There are some outlandish events, but the book is a great ride and a page-turner. CC/SN

+Walker, Wendy, Don’t Look for Me is a compelling, twisty mystery about a woman who disappears in a storm on her way home from a visit to her son. She’s still grieving the loss of her youngest child who she accidentally killed when the girl ran into the street as her mother turned the corner. The man she thought was rescuing her has kept her captive and now her family may be in danger if they find her. This is an absorbing psychological thriller. CC

*#Weiden, David Heska Wanbli, Winter Counts is an evocative debut thriller that takes place on the South Dakota Rosebud Indian Reservation where Virgil Wounded Knee is an enforcer who metes out justice and revenge when the legal system won’t. When pills and heroin threaten lives, his teen nephew Nathan is trapped. The crime narrative is compelling and exciting, but what counts in this novel is its attention to tribal ceremonies and identity and to the injustice of the federal response to felonies. GPR/SN, BC


+Broom, Sarah, The Yellow House: A Memoir won the 2019 National Book Award. It’s the memoir of Broom’s life before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The yellow house is her family home, a decaying relic that her family holds tight. Broom’s prose elevates this from memoir and history to a searing tale that eloquently shares the ways America has failed Black Americans. G/GS/SF/SN, BC (2019)

+Brown, Austin Channing, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness is Brown’s compelling memoir and impassioned tirade against white supremacy. She shares what she’s learned from being a Christian feminist and trying to survive in a world that isn’t made for people like her. Chicago residents will find her time as a student at North Park University informative. SF/SN, BC (2018)

*DiAngelo, Robin, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race is the book that will help white people like me listen to what we need to hear to overcome our implicit racial biases. I have long benefited from being white so I don’t see those benefits because of the white bubble I inhabit. This book helps us confront the truth and thus begin to change. I think it imperative to study this in a group to challenge one another. I’m glad I’d read Waking Up White and So You Want to Talk About Race first. SN, BC

*Doerr, Anthony, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, In 2004, Doerr, his wife and their six-month-old twin boys moved to Rome where he had a fellowship. As he began writing what was to become All the Light You Cannot See, he explored life and Rome. It’s a captivating view of the eternal city and a simply delightful book. It will make you see Rome afresh. In a year when we can’t travel, it's pure joy. D/G/SN (2007)

*Houston, Pam, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country illustrates how living on a remote, 120-acre homestead in the Colorado Rockies healed Houston.  Written as an almanac of her life, it’s filled with observation and introspection. This is a woman who loves the earth and shows the reader how that love grew. Her parents were such drunks that she’d been in sixteen totaled cars before her sixteenth birthday. Her father had abused her and she had to find a way forward and reader, she did. Phenomenal writing. Animals and nature can heal us. G/GPR/SF/SN, BC (2019)

*Kendi, Ibram X., How To Be an Antiracist is the book we need to read when we ask ourselves what we can do to change racist policies. Coupling it with Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race helps start the conversation and should make us do more. SN, BC

+Kord, Tyler, Food 52: Dynamite Chicken: 60 Never-Boring Recipes for Your Favorite Bird is an informative and clever look at how to cook the ubiquitous chicken. It’s filled with good ideas and delicious recipes.  SN

+Lucas, Melissa, Comfort in an Instant: 75 Comfort Food Recipes for Your Pressure Cooker, Multicooker, Instant Pot, Melissa Lucas’s recipes in the New York Times are delicious and consistent. So, when I bought an Instant Pot, I turned to her to learn how to use it and because we all need comfort in 2020. She didn’t disappoint and her fast weeknight comfort meals including Risotto Carbonara, Lemon Chicken with Garlic & Olives, and BraIsed Lamb Shanks with Herbs and Garlic were just right. I can’t wait to explore this more this winter. SN (2018)

+Mazzeo, Tilar J., Eliza Hamilton: the Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton offers more insight into Eliza Hamilton’s life than the musical and the biography of Alexander Hamilton did primarily because Mrs. Hamilton’s papers were discovered after the others were written. Her papers offer new insight into Alexander Hamilton’s alleged affair and into the remarkable life Eliza led after Alexander’s death. She was a brilliant and accomplished woman and this book brings her to life. SN (2018)

McEwan, Ian R., Pan’ e Pomodor: My Passage to Puglia isn’t by the well-known author Ian McEwan. Instead, it’s an account of renovating a home in Puglia. I read it as preparation for a trip. It offers little to anyone. SBP/SN (2007)

+Shoemaker, Jan, Flesh and Stones: Field Notes from a Finite World feels like taking a walk with a close friend. These universal essays mine the impermanence of life with humor, wisdom, and candor. From world travels with her daughters, to the loss of her mother, Shoemaker explores what being human means and wakes the reader to the wonders of living an authentic life. G/GPR, BC 

*Trethewey, Natasha, Memorial Drive: a Daughter’s Memoir embeds the reader into the poetic account of Trethewey’s mother’s murder. It reads like a true-crime detective story as told by a poet laureate. Trethewey, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007, paints her grief and anguish with a palette of brilliant colors that illuminate and share her anguish and her growth. This book is both a master class in the use of metaphor and a tension-filled accounting of what happens when women at risk, especially black women, aren’t heard when it matters. G/GS/SF, BC

Peanut Butter and Jelly – Picture Books and Books for Preschoolers and Toddlers

*John, Jory, The Good Egg is a perfect read-aloud tale about a very good egg who works hard to be good despite the bad behavior of the other eggs in the dozen. He begins to crack under the pressure and learns self care via relaxation, meditation and art. It’s a delight PBJ Ages 2 – 6 (2019)

*Pumphrey, Jarrett and Pumphrey Jerome, The Old Truck reminds this Nana of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Red Barn and the Little Truck series with its gorgeous clear and simple color. My grandson sat enamored as I read it to him on FaceTime during the pandemic. This will be a classic. PBJ Ages 2 and up

*Weideman, Amy Ann, If Stones Could Tell is a delightful book written in English and Italian that beautifully illustrates the history of ancient Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the author is a registered guide. Every visitor to this magical place should buy this book. The timeline alone is worth the purchase. PBJ/SBP/SN Ages 5 and up

*Willems, Mo, There Is a Bird on Your Head is a clever way for kids to learn that asking rather than complaining often works — yet always with humorous consequences with Elephant and Piggie. Even squirmy little ones love these. PBJ Ages 3 to 7(2007)

*Willems, Mo, Waiting Is Not Easy is another delightful tale featuring Elephant and Piggie and a lesson in why waiting is hard but worth it. PBJ Ages 3 to 7 (2014)

Diet Coke and Gummi Bears: Young Adult Books and Books for Teens and Tweens

 *Acevedo, Elizabeth, The Poet X is a rhythmic novel in verse with a distinct staccato pitch. Xiomara Batista wants to join her school’s slam poetry club, but her strict Mother only allows church activities. Xiomara’s twin brother lives in his own nerd world of secrets and Xiomara has some of her own. Only her writing allows her to soar. I adore the way this book shows that everyone has a voice and identity. The final two pages celebrate the promise of light in darkness. I will reread this often. DC/G, BC Ages 13 and up (2018)

*Anderson. Laurie Halse, Speak may be more important and topical today than it was in 1999 when it was a National Book Award Finalist. The silencing of teenage girls and the brutality of bullying and “othering” in high school hasn’t gotten better in twenty years. Melinda was a happy, bright girl until the end-of-summer party when she called the cops and was shunned by everyone just as she began high school. Why she called the cops, why her grades have fallen, why she won’t speak, and why she doesn’t want to think about that night come at the reader with insight, humor, sarcasm, and compassion. Read this book no matter what your age or gender. Select it for your book club. DC/S, BC Ages 14 and up (1999)

*#Park, Linda Sue, Prairie Lotus is a great book for children ages ten and up and it’s a remarkable story that adults will adore. If you loved the “Little House” series as a child, this book is for you. If not, it’s still fabulous as it embeds the reader in the story of Hanna a half Chinese, half white, 14-year old girl in 1880 in the Dakota Territory. Cheer as Hanna persists against slurs and danger. Ages 9 and up DC/PP/SN, BC


  1. Ah, where to begin? I'll start with historical fiction or maybe mysteries and thrillers. As long as I can get something on my kindle until I can linger in a library, I'll be happy. Thanks, Trina.

  2. You’ll probably be able to find many of the ones you want on lithe library apps Libby, Axis 360, and hoopla via the Suburban Library System. Outside that system Overdrive may also be available. I read several of the mysteries on this list on Libby and hoopla on my IPad.

  3. Thank you so much for your list. I just spent over an hour adding titles to my list.

  4. This is the best Content which i read .thanks for sharing such a useful content.
    I have read a few of the Content on your website now, and I really like your style.
    Thanks a million and please keep up the effective work.
    Trinity House Publishers

  5. I have been doing a bunch of home projects this week with my earbuds in and got through three novels from this list:
    Eligible, All This Could be Yours, and The Widow. Enjoying each, thanks for this resource!

  6. Thanks, those would be just right for listening while workin.