Bite-size book reviews: Fiction our readers loved in 2020

I just finished reading Erin Morgenstern’s second book, “The Starless Sea.” Like her first book, “The Night Circus,” it is fantasy, and takes the reader on a marvelous journey. I really had trouble putting it down.

Margi Griffith
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

I devoured Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible.” If you’re an impressionable reader, it will change your view of Africa, the developed world, and your own dinner table. It may also have you questioning conventional ideas about the meaning of human life, suffering, and death. Kingsolver packs enough poetry, philosophy, and gripping narrative for several books into this one volume. 

Why We Wrote This

Monitor reviewers make lots of book recommendations over the year. Now, our community of readers returns the favor.

Jennifer Quinn
Gate City, Virginia

“Nothing to See Here” by Kevin Wilson is a funny and touching story about a young woman entrusted with the care of a U.S. senator’s twin children. The children share a unique trait – they spontaneously combust when disturbed or upset, setting fire to everything around them but remaining unharmed. While seemingly preposterous, the plot flows naturally as their new guardian struggles to overcome her own past while helping the children avoid being cast aside as inconvenient oddities by their parents. It’s a wonderful story that reminds us not to judge people by outward appearances.

Harry Melkonian
Vaucluse, Australia

“Go, Went, Gone” by German writer Jenny Erpenbeck is a powerful story that relates to Europe’s refugee crisis. Set in contemporary Berlin, it concerns a retired East Berlin-born professor who meets and befriends asylum-seekers from Africa and the Middle East.

Nick Royal
Santa Cruz, California

I am currently listening to “The Guest Book” by Sarah Blake, and reading “Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA” by Amaryllis Fox. Both are very entertaining and engaging!

Jennifer Kirn
Kennebunk, Maine

I highly recommend “Continental Divide” by Alex Myers. The protagonist is a young transgender man who leaves behind stuffy New England to seek independence and adventure in Wyoming. The novel is engaging, witty, thoughtful, and at times exciting. Myers is transgender himself, and he has spun a charming, accessible coming-of-age story that will ring both familiar – and not – for many readers.

Julie Allen
Berkeley, California

Stuart Woods’ first novel, “Chiefs,” is an interesting and exciting story of the Deep South that combines mystery and political intrigue.

William Curtis
Olympia, Washington

I have been greatly enjoying “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” by Mohammed Hanif. A political satire set in Pakistan in 1988, Hanif’s novel sharply and hilariously sheds light on the end of the war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan and the American and Pakistani involvements therein. Hanif is scathing in his rendering of authority figures but takes a gentle, human approach in writing about the Everyman protagonist, who finds himself swept up in historical events. The author himself was a pilot in the Pakistani Air Force and writes with a clear perspective.

Julie Allen
Berkeley, California

I recently finished Robert Klose’s “Life on Mars,” a satirical dystopia about a United States that has, as Klose’s narrator would say, lost its perspective and descended into chaos. The novel’s premise is that humankind was seeded on Earth by a race of alien creatures who become disappointed with how human society has turned out. What unfolds from that premise is thoughtful and also wildly humorous.

Paul Puccio
Morris Plains, New Jersey

I am nearing the end of “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift. It’s one of those “classics” that I never read but dismissed out of hand as a book for children, or as irrelevant in the 21st century. The introduction to the used paperback Penguin Classics edition from 1967 that I picked up in Florence, Italy, quickly disabused me of those notions. It was one of those rare examples in which the writer really did strive to introduce this classic to the reader, rather than show us how much he understood. I love Swift’s sarcastic wit and descriptive prose, which is delightfully humorous despite the 300 years that separate us. And I had not the slightest idea that “Gulliver’s Travels” was written to denounce English society in general and the crown heads and their attendant court specifically.

Rusty Wyrick
Ghivizzano, Italy

I recommend “World Without End” by Ken Follett, which is the second book of the Kingsbridge series. In the early 14th century, four children witness a murder in the forest, an event that will braid their lives together by love, greed, and revenge. The novel is a beautiful and interesting portrait of the late Middle Ages.

William Curtis
Olympia, Washington

I enjoyed rereading Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious 1938 novel, “Scoop.” It’s an amusing satire on newspaper journalism. A young journalist, frustrated that his stories are not being printed, confides to a boss that he writes imaginary news stories. The young guy asks, “But do you think it’s a good way of training oneself – writing imaginary news?” His boss replies, “None better.” In “Scoop,” Waugh might have given us the birth of “fake news.”

James Patterson
Washington, D.C.

Editor's note: Reader recommendations are a regular feature in the Weekly magazine. Tell us what you're reading at books@csmonitor.com.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.