Last chance for a summer fling: The 10 best books of August 2020

Why We Wrote This

If finishing your beach read has left you high and dry, check out these end-of-summer offerings to keep the literary vacation going well into autumn. 

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group and Penguin Random House
“The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings” by Neil Price, Basic Books, 573 pp.; and “When These Mountains Burn” by David Joy, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 272 pp.

The 10 best books of August deliver rousing historic fiction, a quirky travelogue, a searing exposé, and the biography of a controversial government figure. 

1. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Irish-born writer Maggie O’Farrell vividly renders the home life of William Shakespeare in a historical novel named for the playwright’s son, whose death at age 11 may have prompted his father to write “Hamlet.” O’Farrell extrapolates a very thin historical record into an imaginative, sensitive story. (Q&A with the author here.) 

2. Olive the Lionheart by Brad Ricca

In 1910, noted British explorer Boyd Alexander promised his fiancée, Olive MacLeod, that he would return home in one year. When she suddenly stops receiving his letters, Olive ventures to Central Africa to learn what became of him. The author draws from real-life journals and letters to tell the fictionalized story of a young woman who discovers her resourcefulness and strength.

3. When These Mountains Burn by David Joy

A father struggles with his son’s drug addiction in a bleak, brutal thriller that nonetheless treats its characters and its Appalachian setting with respect and deep empathy. Unlikely heroes rely on each other in a North Carolina county ravaged by the opioid epidemic, a place where “these mountains used to have their own kind of order.”

4. Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“Brontë's Mistress” by Finola Austin, Atria Books, 320 pp.

In 1845, Branwell Brontë – brother to Anne, Charlotte, and Emily – was abruptly dismissed from his position as a tutor at Thorp Green Hall, with rumors flying about an affair with his employer’s wife, Lydia Robinson. This richly atmospheric novel tells the story from Lydia’s viewpoint. (Full review here.)

5. The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart

Botanist Cecily Kay brings her powers of observation to bear on the mysterious murder of Sir Barnaby Mayne, London’s most esteemed collector. Convinced that his servant has wrongly confessed, Cecily aims to discover the truth in this delightful whodunit set in the 18th century. 

6. The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts

In one of the season’s most unlikely triumphs, travel journalist Sophy Roberts recounts her expeditions to Siberia, where she pursues a succession of the often-legendary pianos that have given music to a place seldom associated with cultural riches. In the process, Roberts turns up insights into the land, its history, and its people. (Full review here.) 

7. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

In her stirring follow-up to “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson persuasively argues that racism alone does not explain America’s social divisions. Rather, the United States ought to be understood as having a race-based caste system, one whose hierarchies, though artificial, are remarkably enduring. (Q&A with author here.) 

8. Fallout by Lesley M.M. Blume

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World” by Lesley M.M. Blume, Simon & Schuster, 288 pp.

“Fallout” pulls back the curtain on an extraordinary feat of journalism. In the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, John Hersey wrote an on-the-ground account of the horrific injuries of the victims, which the U.S. government had tried to hide. The exposé was published in The New Yorker, which devoted the entire Aug. 29, 1946, issue to Hersey’s story. His account served to strengthen opposition to nuclear warfare. (Full review here.) 

9. Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price

Copious documentation and the latest archaeological findings gird a new history of the Vikings, which broadens the narrative beyond the violent warrior image. Neil Price explores what is known about Viking society and culture, and its impact on the peoples and lands that were conquered.  

10. Henry Kissinger and American Power by Thomas A. Schwartz

The former secretary of state under Richard Nixon has inspired a mountain of biographical studies, some treating him as a hero, others as evil incarnate. In this volume, history professor Thomas A. Schwartz effectively separates the man from the myths.

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