Summer reading means something a bit different to everyone, but I’ve got you covered in my 2020 Summer Reading List. Some of you like to put their brains completely on vacation with fun, easy reads. Some of you like an action-packed page turner. Some of you want something with a bit more substance. And some of you might like to head off the beaten path.
Personally, I like books you can fly through, books you don’t have to work too hard on, and books you can get easily immersed in. I avoid books that demand to be read in perfect peace and quiet (last time I checked, the beach and pool generally have screaming kids around!).
I’ve read every book that appears on this list and, as always, will continue to add new selections throughout the summer.
Stay tuned tomorrow’s episode of the Sarah’s Bookshelves Live Podcast…where Susie from Novel Visits and I talk about books that missed last year’s Summer Reading Guide, books that are set in cool travel destinations, and our #1 2020 summer picks!
A couple elements are returning from last year:
- Printable Cheatsheet – the Summer Reading Guide in quick recommendations in PDF format for easy printing (great for taking to the bookstore or library!). Download for free below!
- #1 Picks for Each Category – I highlighted my very favorite book in each category in the Guide (Something Fun, Something Intense / Fast-Paced, Something With A Bit More Substance, and Something Different). Stay tuned because these picks could change as I add more books to the list throughout the summer!
This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link), through which I make a small commission when you make a purchase (at no cost to you!).
2020 Summer Reading List
Latest Additions (July 22, 2020)
Plot Summary: A story (told in verse) of two sisters (Camino in the Dominican Republic and Yahaira in the U.S. – who don’t know about each other) grieving their father’s death and discovering the truth about their families.
My Thoughts: I adored this coming of age story of two girls dealing with the same grief in parallel worlds. It had heart and I loved both Camino and Yahaira. But, I loved the story in spite of the verse format rather than because of it. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Bea Schumacher, a plus-size blogger, becomes the lead of Main Squeeze, a Bachelor-esque reality TV show.
My Thoughts: One to Watch gives a juicy behind-the-scenes picture of The Bachelor (which I think is fairly accurate based on everything I’ve learned by reading Reality Steve‘s blog). Diversity within the Bachelor franchise has been in the news a lot lately (including this campaign) and this book explores that in spades. It felt timely and looked at various types of diversity (obviously body type, but also racial, etc). Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Ruby King’s mother is murdered in her home, Ruby is left to live with her abusive father…while her best friend, Layla, makes it her mission to save her.
My Thoughts: This debut novel is absolutely stunning and it was my first 5 star read in quite a while! West’s writing is intimate and powerful. There is an incredible amount packed into this story, but it flows so easily. It’s about the hatred that can happen between parent and child (both mother and son and father and daughter), but also the generational struggles that can drive that hatred. Ruby’s and Layla’s families are chock full of secrets, which both girls are looking to unearth. Despite the heaviness of these themes, there is hope and strength. For fans of The Mothers by Brit Bennett (my review) and A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum (my review)! Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Juliet and Michael decide to escape their conventional lives by taking their 2 young children to live on a sailboat off the coast of South America, disaster strikes.
My Thoughts: The publisher describes Sea Wife as a “literary page-turner” and there is a suspenseful element, but I want to dispel the “page-turner” myth right away. Sea Wife reads more like literary fiction with a suspenseful element that is very much in the background of the story. This is a story about marriage (Juliet and Michael were struggling with their marriage prior to their trip) and the commentary on marriage (and parenthood) is excellent. Full Review.
Something Light / Fun
My #1 Picks
Plot Summary: Katharine McGee imagines a world where George Washington was King rather than President and the book focuses on his modern-day descendants, particularly Beatrice, a young woman who is first in line for the throne (and would be the first Queen by birth).
My Thoughts: Beatrice and her siblings are falling in love (sometimes with the wrong people) and having to navigate that within the confines of the monarchy. It’s pure, unapologetic fun, examines appearances vs. reality involving public figures, and has a number of couples to root for. It reminded me of The Royal We (my review), I flew through it in a few days, and it pulled me out of a mini slump. The second book in the series (The Majesty) is coming in September!
Plot Summary: Anna K is a perfect Korean-American daughter (especially compared to her party-boy brother, Steven) with the perfect Greenwich society boyfriend until she meets Alexia “Count” Vronsky, a notorious NYC private school lothario.
My Thoughts: Anna K is a YA romance that is the first novel in a series (the second installment, Anna K Away, is coming in 2021). It’s billing as a reimagining of the classic novel, Anna Karenina, but also as “Crazy Rich Asians meets Gossip Girl” is 100% accurate. There’s a lot of NYC glitz, drugs, beautiful people, and partying. Full Review.
Plot Summary: After leaving New York in disgrace after a case of the yips, Dean (a pitcher for the Yankees), escapes to a small town in Maine and moves into Evvie’s (a recent widow) guest apartment.
My Thoughts: I really enjoyed this rom-com! It has all the rom-com cliches you’d expect: good friends with sexual tension, two broken people trying to put themselves back together, and a strung out “will they or won’t they” scenario. But, the writing and the dialogue tempered the cheesiness of all these cliches for me. It’s smart and snappy and Holmes also included excellent commentary on grief, secrets, platonic friendship between a man and a woman, and appearances vs. reality. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When happily married Mitch and Jessica’s three closest friend couples get divorced, they embark on a crazy experiment to preemptively protect their marriage.
My Thoughts: The premise of this novel is admittedly a little outrageous. But, if you’re able to just roll with it, Last Couple Standing is a fun palate cleanser of a novel. Mixed into Mitch and Jessica’s crazy idea to protect their marriage from crumbling are astute observations about marriage, reasons marriages become stale post kids, and divorce. Full Review.
Plot Summary: College best friends, Stella (wealthy and careless) and Violet (poor, responsible, and ambitious), move to New York City after graduation and Stella enters Violet’s cable TV career world.
My Thoughts: It’s a mash-up of a toxic friendship and wealthy people behaving badly story. It’s also about realizing as you get older what true friendship is…and what it’s not. Violet is an outsider and is a vehicle for excellent social commentary about the wealthy. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Lillian, a scholarship kid, and Madison, an heiress, become friends at their Tennessee boarding school. Years later, Madison is married to a U.S. Senator and asks Lillian to serve as “governess” for her ten year-old stepchildren. But, the stepchildren catch fire when they get upset and Senator Roberts is gunning for higher office.
My Thoughts: I was nervous about the outrageous premise (kids literally catching on fire when they’re upset). I usually like my fiction firmly rooted in reality; however, I’m a mother, so I appreciated this idea as a metaphor. This book seamlessly combines dark humor with warmth into brain candy that has sass and heart. Lillian’s salty, filter-free commentary on rich people’s eccentricities and her rough-around-the-edges demeanor balance out the unrealistic premise. Full Review.
Plot Summary: After sleeping with him once, Rachel Klein’s writing professor (famous novelist Zahid Azzam) unexpectedly becomes a summer houseguest at her parents’ Connecticut home, living with Rachel and her newly separated mother (Becca).
My Thoughts: Can I call a novel “dark Brain Candy?” That’s what Very Nice felt like. It’s a tornado of awkwardness that you know is going to touch down at some point and wreck havoc, but you don’t know when or how. It’s been compared to a Bravo TV show, but I think it’s more simmering than that (there’s nothing simmering about Bravo). It’s about a power struggle between mother and daughter and there are no truly likable characters. The ending was a little over-the-top, but I read it in 2 days on the beach (and it was the perfect book for that).
Something Intense / Fast-Paced
My #1 Picks
Plot Summary: When corporate attorney Lizzie Kitsakis gets a call from an old law school friend who is being held at Rikers after his wife is found dead in their home, she gets enmeshed in the tony Park Slope parents’ scene and finds her own life in turmoil.
My Thoughts: Kimberly McCreight is one of my go-to mystery / thriller authors (I loved Reconstructing Amelia and Where They Found Her too). A Good Marriage is heavy on the legal angle and she sets a breadcrumb trail that leads up to an ending that is surprising, yet not too outlandish. I loved how she explored different issues that often mean trouble for marriages: addiction, workaholism, neglect, fidelity, money, and ambition (to name a few).
Plot Summary: The story of two Philadelphia sisters; Kacey, an opioid addict living mostly on the streets, and Mickey, a cop whose beat is Kacey’s hang-out area.
My Thoughts: This book was marketed as “the next Girl on the Train” and was blurbed by Paula Hawkins. Forget about that right now…Long Bright River is not like The Girl on the Train (it’s much better!). It’s feels like a literary police procedural with some character-driven family drama thrown in and I’d say it’s much more mystery than thriller. It’s long, but I flew through it. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When fifteen year-old Stella Sandell is accused of murdering a wealthy businessman in his thirties, her lawyer mother and pastor father must decide what they’re will to do to save her.
My Thoughts: Told from three perspectives in three sections (Stella’s Dad’s, Stella’s, and Stella’s Mom’s), it reminded me of a cross between Miracle Creek (my review) and Reconstructing Amelia (my review). The evidence tells a different story depending on whose perspective you’re viewing it from, which kept me turning the pages. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Bookstore owner Malcolm Kershow is drawn into a murder investigation when someone begins committing real murders based on the fictional murders in a blog post he wrote years ago called “Eight Perfect Murders.”
My Thoughts: I loved Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing, but hated his last thriller, Before She Knew Him. Eight Perfect Murders is completely different from both. It feels much more like a mystery than a thriller and is somewhat of an homage to classic murder mysteries (i.e. Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, etc), but you don’t have to be intimately familiar with those books to like this one. Also, it’s weirdly a somewhat comforting mystery (maybe because of the bookstore setting). If you like mysteries that avoid outrageous, eye-roll-y twists / endings, this might be for you.
Plot Summary: Thirty years after Dave Boyle got in a stranger’s car while Jimmy Marcus and Sean Devine watched, Jimmy’s daughter is murdered, Sean is assigned to the case, and the three men find themselves thrown together again.
My Thoughts: While Mystic River is a mystery, it’s first and foremost a story about the fictional community of East Buckingham, MA (outside of Boston), class, and whether or not people change. It’s a fast read for such a long book and, while I did guess the outcome towards the end, I spent every moment leading up to that changing my mind a million times about what happened to Katie Marcus. A solid literary mystery!
Plot Summary:After a period of scamming rich people in LA, Nina (the daughter of a con woman) and her partner, Lachlan, team up to target a wealthy heiress in Lake Tahoe after Nina’s mom gets sick.
My Thoughts: Though this is a thriller, it felt more suspense fiction and didn’t feel super thriller-y to me until the very end. The writing was the first thing I noticed about this book and that’s not what I usually say about a thriller. There’s a bit of a Breaking Bad element, which makes Nina likable. And, I enjoyed the commentary about social media in general and social media influencer culture in particular.
Plot Summary: When two college girls end up in the icy Black Root River on their way to Minnesota, a small town is taken back to another young girl’s death in the same river a decade earlier.
My Thoughts: This literary mystery feels like a suspenseful small-town story (especially in the first half)…not a thriller. Though the beginning is a slow burn, I was immediately drawn in and wanted to find out how these two river tragedies a decade apart would connect. And, the second half really takes off. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Libby learns on her 25th birthday that she’s the sole heiress to a crumbling mansion in London, she discovers the strange tragedy that befell her family years ago…and her surviving siblings.
My Thoughts: A mash-up family drama / mystery and that reminded me a bit of Tana French’s The Witch Elm. This was my first Lisa Jewell and I’ll definitely read more from her!
Plot Summary: Ten years ago, Maya was the lone juror who wanted to acquit Bobby Nock of murdering Jessica Silver…and she was able to convince her fellow jurors to come around to her side. Now, a true crime docu-series is reassembling those involved with the case, including the jurors.
My Thoughts: This courtroom drama was inspired by Moore’s (Academy Award-winner for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game) real-life experience serving on a jury in 2008 and sending that defendant to prison for murder. The Holdout does not have a particularly thriller-y vibe, but it’s easy to quickly turn the pages. It looks at the impact of a high profile trial on the jury (particularly one that is sequestered)…how it affects the jurors’ lives, families, and mental state…and how slippery the legal system is in the U.S. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Shay Miller is living a lonely, unremarkable life in New York City when she witnesses a woman jump in front of a subway train. Horrified and intrigued, Shay seeks out the woman’s glamorous friends, who turn out to be interested in Shay too.
My Thoughts: When I started this book, I was in an epic reading slump (four DNFs in a row!). You Are Not Alone was just the book I needed, hooking me from page one and keeping me engrossed for the next two days. It’s a story about loneliness and the lengths people are willing to go for companionship. And, for once, a thriller where the women are in charge! My Review.
Something With A Bit More Substance
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: The story of a teenage friendship between Bunny, a 6 foot 3 girl whose mother died and father is a wealthy alcoholic, and Michael, a gay boy who’s living with his Aunt after his mother was sent to prison and his father skipped town…set on the North Shore of California.
My Thoughts: It’s a dark coming of age story (though there is a life-changing incident that drives the plot) of two teenagers who feel like outsiders in their own ways trying to come to terms with who they are amid their own family drama. Thorpe’s voice and writing are the stars of this show…as are the characters of Bunny and Michael, who are flawed, yet endearing. I think readers will be drawn to them. Full Review.
Plot Summary: The story of the friendship between three female cadets and basketball teammates (Dani, Hannah, and Avery) at West Point…during college and into adulthood as they go in different directions.
My Thoughts: The writing is incredibly readable and I didn’t feel the length of this book at all. I love that Gibson focused on women at West Point and she grew up living on the West Point campus while her father was a professor, so had firsthand knowledge about life there. Despite their athletic and academic statures, all three of these women are relatable and I cared about all of them. Beyond the Point is a unique, character-driven novel about female friendship that you’ll fly through! Full Review.
Plot Summary: At age fifteen, Vanessa begins an affair with her boarding school English teacher (Strane). Almost twenty years later, amid the #metoo movement, the teacher is accused of sexual harassment by another student, who wants Vanessa to come forward as well.
My Thoughts: This debut novel is told in alternating timelines: when Vanessa and Strane are beginning their affair in high school (2000) and, years later, when Strane is accused of sexual harassment by another student (2017). I knew this book would be uncomfortable, totally messed up, horrifying and heartbreaking. It was and I was riveted. I was completely surprised by the direction the story took. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Laura moves to New York’s Lower East Side to pursue her music dreams, but her life is turned upside down by a love affair with a flaky fellow musician.
My Thoughts: If the theme of women struggling to pursue their dreams while being mothers and wives appeals to you (and you like character-driven novels), read this book. The story begins with a toxic relationship that reminded me of the one in Sweetbitter (my review) and turns into an exploration of motherhood and balancing time and attention to children with pursuing a dream of your own. Perfect Tunes packs a lot of themes and a long timespan into a small package, but the story and characters still feel fleshed out. Full Review.
Plot Summary: In this fictional alternate history, Sittenfeld reimagines Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life if she had decided not to marry Bill.
My Thoughts: The story itself is immersive and raises topics that are fascinating to think about (i.e. How would a Bill / Hillary non marriage have changed the trajectory of the entire country? How would Bill be received by the public in a post-MeToo era?). This book is also divisive…Hillary is portrayed extremely sympathetically (I wish there had been a little more nuance here) and Bill is absolutely slammed (i.e an outrageously charismatic man-child who’s also a sexual predator). Readers that never liked Hillary probably won’t like this book.
Plot Summary: After running away from their small, black town in Louisiana (Mallard) at age sixteen, the Vignes twins’ lives diverge dramatically, with one living back at home with her black daughter while with other one “passes” for white in Los Angeles, CA.
My Thoughts: This is a story about family and identity, told through the eyes of four unforgettable women (the Vignes twins and their respective daughters). Like in The Mothers (Bennett’s debut novel), Bennett explores multiple serious issues (including race, status within a race, class, gender identity, belonging), but leads with her characters rather than the issues. I knew from The Mothers that Brit Bennett could write and, unsurprisingly, her writing shines in The Vanishing Half as well!
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: The businesswoman, singer, and reality star talks candidly about her life and career.
My Thoughts: I was so pleasantly surprised by this book! The title is perfect…Simpson is an open book with her life. She talks about her struggle with weight and body image, her high profile romances (including more than I ever knew about her relationship with John Mayer), and starting her clothing business. One of the best celebrity memoirs I’ve ever read (4.5 stars)! Full Review.
Plot Summary: The true story of Israel Keyes, one of the “most ambitious and terrifying serial killers of modern history,” whose exploits never made it into the news like a Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer.
My Thoughts: This one was one of the most riveting (and terrifying…maybe avoid reading it at night?) true crime books I’ve ever read. Callahan, a journalist at the New York Post, spent years interviewing people in law enforcement and Keyes’s friends / family, and investigated classified FBI files to tell this story. I started reading it at the beach and you wouldn’t think it would be a great beach read, but it actually was…it’s incredibly readable, and the beach setting tempered how terrifying the book was. If you liked In Cold Blood or The Stranger Beside Me, American Predator is for you!
Plot Summary: Audrey Lee has fought her way back from back surgery to make the Olympic gymnastics team for Tokyo only to have the team torn apart by devastating news.
My Thoughts: I loved the behind-the-scenes of preparing for the Olympics and team dynamics, which I’ve always been so intrigued by with gymnastics. The stakes are super high…I was on the edge of my seat every time one of the gymnasts did a routine. There’s a cute love story as a sub-plot and, though you do need to suspend disbelief on a few plot points, I flew through this in 2 days.
Plot Summary: The author shares personal stories from her project called Craigslist Confessional, where she asked strangers to “confess if you knew it would never get back to your spouse, your colleagues, or [their] family.”
My Thoughts: I didn’t know much about this book going into it and kind of expected it to be light-hearted. I couldn’t have been more wrong. These stories are the take-your-breath-away kind that I remember from Tiny Beautiful Things…just without the advice element (Dea Bala chose to strictly listen). They’re deeply raw, unfiltered, and unflinching. Each story is relatively short, so you could easily read this in snippets or take breaks if the stories become too emotionally overwhelming. A 5 star book that came out of nowhere for me!
Plot Summary: When Hurricane Sadie hits Florida, a skeleton crew of teen employees at the Fantasticland amusement park stays behind to take care of the park. After weeks have gone by, the National Guard finds a horrible scene full of dead bodies hanging from lampposts and heads on stakes.
My Thoughts: This story is told through a series of first person interviews included in a fictional journalist’s book about the fictional event…making it feel a bit like an oral history. I loved this structure and think it was key to making such an outrageous story work because it made these events feel more real. The structure also enables a lot of speculation about how a group of normal teens could devolve into a Lord of the Flies situation in such a short amount of time. I read Fantasticland in a day and a half on the beach…and, weirdly, it made a riveting beach read!
Plot Summary: The true story about a con artist in New York City (Anna Sorokin-Delvey) who passed herself off as a German heiress, eventually scamming the author out of over $60,000.
My Thoughts: This is one of those crazy, “only in New York” kind of stories that you can’t turn away from. It’s an easy, quick read that includes a good dose of NYC glitz (the author works at Vanity Fair and she and Anna hit lots of NYC hot spots).
Plot Summary: The author of Sweetbitter (my review) returns to her hometown of Los Angeles from New York City after selling her debut novel and faces her traumatic childhood including alcohol and drug addiction (in sections called “Mother” and “Father”)…and an unhealthy relationship (in a section called “Monster”).
My Thoughts: Danler’s memoir hit me in my core, but it’s one of those books I don’t think will be for everyone. It’s super dark and one of the most raw memoirs I’ve ever read, yet immersive and riveting. Danler recounts horrible things that happened with her family in a matter-of-fact tone, yet her pain still pulses through her writing. Ultimately, she’s scarred and bearing those scars for the world to see. If you’re looking for lighter, more comforting fare with 100% likable characters, this probably isn’t for you.
The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000’s by Andy Greene
General Nonfiction, Released March 24, 2020
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: An oral history of the TV series The Office.
My Thoughts: Greene uses the oral history format (which I love) to share the backstory of how the show got adapted from British TV, cast, developed over the years, and ultimately came to an end after Season 9. Rather than focus on every episode, it highlights a certain number of “key episodes” within the bigger picture story. You get a nuanced picture of the show showing both the good and the bad. Bonus: pair with The Office Ladies podcast! Full Review.
Plot Summary: Brodeur’s story of her role as facilitator of her mother’s affair with her stepfather’s best friend starting at the age of fourteen.
My Thoughts: I flew through this 5 star memoir in two days! Malabar (“Rennie’s” mother) is a vibrant, but highly manipulative character and she has her tentacles wrapped tightly around her daughter…and all this impacts Rennie’s adult life. But, this isn’t what makes this memoir shine. Brodeur can write…and the Cape Cod setting comes alive through vivid descriptions of the water, the wildlife, and the food. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Doyle shares her journey to finally living a life that’s true to herself…including her marriage to soccer star Abby Wambach.
My Thoughts: Untamed came into my ears (the audiobook is excellent!) at a time when I desperately needed an extra dose of sanity (i.e. about 6 weeks into coronavirus quarantine and when I was mentally starting to break down from it). Listening to Glennon Doyle felt like going to therapy. She makes you feel like it’s okay to just be you…whatever that looks like. She’s fierce in her belief that women should not be constrained any longer…by other people or societal expectations / norms. She encourages women to be the “goddamn cheetah.”
Happy Summer Reading!
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