2020 Summer Books: 12 Unique Novels to Choose From
Crime, history, whimsy, romance — there's something for every reader
It's always hard to winnow three months of wonderful books to a short top-picks list, but it's particularly tough when an upcoming summer is as rich with great new novels as this one is. Our list includes fiction from long-beloved authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and James Lee Burke, as well as newer voices, including two relatively unknown suspense writers — You-Jeong Jeong from South Korea and debut novelist Alex Pavesi.
Whether you like beachy romance (try 28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand) or historical fiction (Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell is a must), you should be able to find your next favorite among these 12 new books.
Seven Years of Darkness
Internationally best-selling Jeong has been called the Stephen King of South Korean thrillers, and her latest spellbinder, Seven Years of Darkness, finally arrives on our shores. Its premise: A young girl is found dead in a reservoir in a remote South Korean village, and suspicions fall on the girl's grieving father and two security guards. All three have something to hide, but the murder is pinned on one of the guards. Did he really do it? His son, living under a protective new identity, works to discover the terrifying truth of what really happened that day. It's guaranteed to keep you guessing.
Black Sun Rising
Journalist and novelist Carr melds historical fact with fascinating fiction in a gripping tale set in 1909 Barcelona's Ramblas District and Catalan capital, as Spain verges on insurrection. Private detective Harry Lawson is hired by a widow to find out why her husband was killed in a terrorist bombing, but as the body count rises (and a blood thirsty creature begins claiming even more victims) Lawson must team up with a young anarchist and a reporter to find the true story — and stay alive.
Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.
Joyce Carol Oates
Yes, at 1,200 pages this doorstop of a book requires a commitment, but it's absolutely worth taking the plunge if you love brilliant literary novels that dive deep into a family's bonds and troubles. The prolific Oates, who's written nearly 60 novels (her last was 2019's spooky Pursuit), sets this story in upstate New York. It's centered on the difficult death — the result of police brutality — of a wealthy family's strong patriarch, John Earle “Whitey” McClaren, and how his five adult children and widow, Jessalyn, mourn and cope with the loss and the reason for it.
Jake and Mallory's clandestine summer affair — three blissfully perfect days every Labor Day, every year, without fail — on Nantucket (Hilderbrand's favorite place) has lasted for decades. Then tragedy strikes, and Mallory's son Link finds out about the lifelong love his mother and Jake have so carefully nurtured and kept hidden. Along with blowing up Link's view of his mom, the discovery could ruin Jake's wife's ascent to the presidency. Based on the classic 1978 film Same Time, Next Year, it's an unabashedly romantic read.
How the Penguins Saved Veronica
This feel-good novel features a prim, rather stubborn 86-year-old British heroine named Veronica McCreedy, who will steal your heart. A box of mementos and a nature show inspire Veronica to life-changing action, leading to the discovery of a scruffy adult grandson, Patrick, and a newfound mission to save the penguins in Antarctica. It's a fun read that brings to mind Maria Semple's 2012 best seller, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? — because of its humor as well as its fleeing-to-Antarctica theme — and a heartwarming tonic for troubled times.
Fans have loved Castillo's series of crime novels set in Amish country (a unique literary genre), featuring police chief Kate Burkholder, including 2009's Sworn to Silence, which became a Lifetime movie called An Amish Murder. Outsider, 12th in the series, will likely rule the list yet again. Kate is hired to help an old friend and ex-policewoman, Gina, who's targeted for death for allegedly killing an undercover cop. She helps Gina hide out at an Amish farm, but as her suspicions rise she begins to question her trust in her friend — and in her fellow cops.
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The British pop-folk-rock band Utopia Avenue this novel focuses on seems so true to life, at least one reviewer (who shall not be named) may have Googled them just to confirm that they were a figment of the author's imagination. To be fair, Mitchell — author of 2012's Cloud Atlas and 2014's The Bone Clocks, among other acclaimed novels — does include lots of real characters, including Janis Joplin and John Lennon, in this story that's set in London's late-1960s music scene. It's about a group of musicians’ wild ride to fame during those psychedelic times. As Mitchell focuses on each character's perspective, he weaves in the riots, drugs, Vietnam, sex and music of the era, re-creating its chaotic mood.
One of the best works of historical fiction you may read this year, this story by O'Farrell, a beautiful writer, is so evocative that you can almost smell the freshly baked bread and hear the clopping of horses in 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon, England. This is a story about William Shakespeare's family: Hamnet (a name that was sometimes spelled Hamlet back in the day) was, in real life, his son, who died at 11, four years before the playwright created Hamlet. History never recorded the cause, but in O'Farrell's imagining, it's due to the black death (a truly gruesome pandemic, as depicted here). The novel's spotlight, though, is on the playwright's wife, Agnes, an independent, spiritual soul whom we meet as a young woman and follow through romance and tragedy. The book has been nominated for Britain's prestigious Women's Prize for Fiction and is a likely Booker Prize contender.
The Eighth Detective
This inventive mystery debut (nine publishing houses reportedly bid on it in a heated auction) from former bookseller, mathematician and software engineer Pavesi is a smart thrill ride to the heart of what it takes to both write and solve a mystery. Julia Hart, a young, ambitious editor, travels to a remote village in the Mediterranean to search for author Grant McAllister, hoping to get his secrets about mapping successful whodunits. But Grant is hiding something, embedding clues in his work, and as Julia digs deeper she begins to realize that the writer just may be the greatest — and most dangerous — mystery of all.
A Saint from Texas
The books by 80-year-old American novelist, memoirist and essayist Edmund White — honest, fierce and joyful explorations of love, sex and family — have been breaking boundaries and engaging readers for nearly 50 years. His latest whisks us from the hardscrabble Texas prairie to the streets of Paris and Columbia with the story of twin sisters Yvette and Yvonne Crawford, one of whom becomes a Catholic saint while the other is destined for the high life in Paris. It's a stunner about the secrets and dreams that bind two very different women.
With or Without You
This one's for readers looking for a quietly intimate story they can get lost in. It's about a couple in their 40s who are at a breaking point. Simon's a formerly successful musician whose star is fading; Stella is a nurse, eager for a child that Simon doesn't want. When Stella ends up in a coma after having a bad reaction to a drug, Simon finds support from her best friend, Libby — complicating relationships all around. By the author of 2010's best-selling Pictures of You, among other novels, it's a moving story with characters you can't help but care for, especially Stella, who must build a new life after her brush with death.
A Private Cathedral
James Lee Burke
You can always count on Burke, the prolific best-selling author and two-time winner of the Edgar Award, to deliver a white-hot page-turner. He does so in his 40th book, again featuring the beloved but troubled detective Dave Robicheaux, who's been hired to track down two lovestruck heirs on the run from their rival gangland families. But as Robicheaux and his partner race to save the kids, they uncover their parents’ frightening secrets, and a superhuman time-traveling assassin is sent to silence them with deadly hallucinations. It's a heady blend of crime and romance, with an inventive twist of sci-fi.