In today’s post: I’m reviewing ten novels I think you should read this year. Some of them are brand new, some of them came out in the past few years, and one won the GoodReads Choice award in 2020. I’m also including my new favorite book that had my laughing and crying all at the same time. Get ready for some great reads!
Please note that the title of each book is linked to the kindle version on Amazon. These are affiliate links. You can find all of my book review posts by clicking here. If you have a favorite book you think I should read, please let me know in the comments – thanks!
10 Great Novels to Read This Year
The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (New!!)
It’s midway through WWII in England, and four different women in a rural town outside of London are dealing with the challenges of the home front. Their circumstances vary – from kitchen maid to lady of the manor – but they are brought together by a contest to co-host a BBC radio show. “The Kitchen Front” encourages it’s listeners to embrace the creativity needed to figure out how to cook filling, nutritious meals within the constraints of rationing, which had become quite stringent by this point (for example, fresh eggs were limited to one per person per week). As you can probably imagine, the competitors end up becoming friends in this novel that fits squarely into the “cozy read” category. I’ve read plenty of WWII fiction, but I haven’t read another novel that gives this much insight into the challenges of “making do” with wartime provisions. Sure, this book might be a wee bit predictable, but it’s entertaining enough to make it a great weekend escape or fun vacation read.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (New!!)
I remember learning the story of the Trojan war (briefly) in elementary school. As with most history (both real and mythical), the story focused on the heroes: the men. A couple women were mentioned – after all, Penelope gets some good book time from Homer for her long, constant wait for her errant husband – but for the most part, the women were footnotes. A Thousand Ships changes all that, placing women back into the center of the story of Troy and making them come alive. This novel reads more like a collection of short stories, each chapter chronicling the experience of a different woman from Homer’s Illiad, with narrative from faithful Penelope weaving throughout the book. And it’s AMAZING! Right from the start you are hit with the true human cost of war – this is no epic tale glorifying the honor of dying in battle. Instead you see what happens to those who are left behind to suffer the consequences after the “heroes” have spilt each other’s blood. In places, this book is heart wrenching. But in other places, it’s hilarious – I especially love when a wry Penelope lets out a little more snark as she waits, year after year, for the husband she doesn’t even know any more to return. This book feels fierce and poignant and whole, showing both the incredible strength of the women involved and the petty weaknesses that put the whole story into motion (thanks a lot, Aphrodite). I loved it!
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce (new!!)
It’s 1950, and Miss Margery Benson is living a tiny life. She’s a spinster who teaches school because she doesn’t have a better way of supporting herself, with no family and no real friendships. It’s a far cry from the life she expected to have – that of a naturalist and explorer who would make her father proud with her discoveries of new species. After one particularly bad day, she decides to chuck it all in and take a chance on an expedition to New Caledonia to look for the fabled Golden Beetle. Of course, she’ll need an assistant, and of course (because this is a quirky British book) she ends up with the most unsuitable person possible: Enid Petty, an obviously fake blond who totters around on high heels, leaves a string of admirers in her wake, and possessively guards a suspicious red suitcase. That’s the set up for an expedition that’s sure to be full of disaster, but this book offers so much more: friendship and warmth and the strength of being willing to take a risk for the life you wish you were living.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Goodreads Choice Winner 2020)
Within the first couple pages of this book, we learn that Nora, the main character, has decided to die. Nothing in her life has worked out the way she expected, and not one soul on earth needs her. And so she decides to die. But even that doesn’t work out as planned, and instead of the after life, Nora ends up in the Midnight Library, a place between life and death that holds all the possible lives Nora could have lived. All she has to do is choose a book from the library’s shelves and she can step into a life where different choices led to a different outcome. Sounds a little gimmicky, right? But somehow, it’s not. This book was a universal favorite in 2020 and I think one of the reasons why is because it’s written with so much empathy for the way all of us go wrong and fall short, and it encourages us to find the energy to try again. I found this book extremely well written and (eventually) heart warming, without being sentimental.
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman (my favorite book of 2020)
I have loved Fredrik Backman’s books for years, since I first read A Man Called Ove. But this book is for sure the best one he’s written. If all you want is an entertaining story, skip this book. I will warm you that you cannot read this book without your heart being involved. But if you want an entertaining story that will make you laugh out loud as well as cry real tears, check this one out ASAP. It’s the story of a bank robbery gone wrong turned hostage situation that brings together eight strangers, all of whom are in need of rescue in different ways. This book will make your brain work: there are various back stories that are a bit difficult to sort out at first. But that’s ok because the stark beauty of the prose and the way Backman perfectly demonstrates human nature over and over again won’t let you stop reading until you make it to the end. This one is a true gem that I wanted to read over the minute I finished.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd (2020)
Ana is a young woman growing up in a privileged household in Galilee. Thanks to a permissive father, Ana learns to read and write and secretly records stories of women from Jewish history even though such activities are considered unlawful for a woman. Ana knows she longs for more in her life than an appropriate marriage, but the constraints of her world seem unavoidable. And then she meets Jesus, and we realize that this is the story of Jesus Christ’s young wife. Regardless of your religious tradition, I think there are lots of interesting ideas to consider in this novel: the place of women in history, the place of women in Christianity, the longing many of us have for something more, the humanity of Jesus, etc. I found this book to be very reverent in it’s treatment of Jesus and I loved the historical context that was shared and the fleshing out of what may have happened beyond the fairly limited story we get from the New Testament. But Jesus isn’t the main character of this book; Ana is, and her story is also very interesting. This isn’t a page-turner of a book with a fast moving plot, and I did find the story slowed down in some sections. But in general it was such a fascinated exploration of what may have been that I didn’t really mind.
Valencia and Valentine by Suzy Krause (2019)
Valencia is afraid of nearly everything, including airplanes and the fact that she’ll be turning 35 soon. Her OCD makes having anything resembling a “normal life” nearly impossible. Mrs. Valentine is an old woman who is desperate for someone to talk to, someone who will listen to her stories about the love of her life (whom she misses dearly). It isn’t until near the end of this book that we understand how these two women are connected, and some of the content feels confusing until we get that understanding. But it’s worth the confusion. This book is also quite sad in parts, but it’s worth the sadness too. I found it a very tender and sometimes raw depiction of mental health struggles that increases my empathy for people who experience life in this way. Plus it’s an engaging story that kept my interest the whole way through.
Note: I was surprised in looking at reviews of this book how many people called it “weird”, referred to the main character as “disturbed”, or said it was unrealistic. I found a note from the author addressing some of these reviews, and I love her response, so I’m including a snippet here: “If at any point you think her [the main character’s] thought processes or reactions or interactions are far-fetched or overwrought, I’d encourage you to stretch your empathy muscles—I love that fiction, by nature, forces you to do this—and consider that this is how some brains work.” – Suzy Krause
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018)
When I read a synopsis for this book that called it “a mix between Agatha Christie and Downton Abbey” I assumed I was going to like it. I also assumed it would be a quick, easy read that I could basically turn my brain off for. Well, I was right on the first count but wrong on the second! This book is tons of fun, with a British manor house party setting and lots of likeable (and rather unlikeable) characters, but it’s also quite complex. You find out within the first few pages that the main character’s job is to solve (and prevent) a murder before it happens. Pretty standard stuff. But then you find out that the main character happens to be in someone else’s body, and is going to be reliving the same day in the bodies of other characters until he solves the murder or has his memory wiped and starts all over again. This is not your ordinary British mystery – it’s an Agatha Christie/Downton Abbey/Groundhog Day mashup, and it works surprisingly well. It’s super entertaining and super engaging. Just make sure you pay attention – this one will give your brain a workout.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018)
I know, I’m a little late on reviewing this book. It was THE NOVEL of 2018 and judging by the 125k five star reviews on Amazon, it seems like most people have read and loved this book already. But I didn’t read this one right away, because the synopsis put me off a bit. A story about a girl found living alone in the marshland who maybe gets attacked by the young men from town? I guess it sounded too bleak for me. But I finally gave it a chance and I was hooked just about immediately. Yes, there is some bleakness here, but also so much bravery and kindness and love. And it’s not just a coming of age novel, it’s a (really interesting) murder mystery all wrapped in one. Be advised there is some adult content.
Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy (2018)
If you’ve ever loved Anne of Green Gables, you ought to read this book! It’s an imagining of Marilla’s story, starting when she’s thirteen and first meets John Blythe. (That’s Gilbert’s dad, if you don’t remember – Marilla tells Anne that at one point he used to be her beau.) This is an unusual book in that we know how it ends, but the story is engaging enough that you want to keep reading to figure out how and why it ends the way it does. Marilla’s backstory feels very believable, and this book does a good job enriching and fleshing out the somewhat prickly woman we grow to love in Anne of Green Gables – as well as her brother Matthew. The writing style is very similar to that of Lucy Maud Montgomery, and I especially liked the way this book is grounded in the events of the time – we hear about the push for Canadian independence and the American Civil War and how both of those events affect Marilla and Matthew. Plus it’s pretty fun to meet a young Rachel Lynde!