I don’t know about you, but I plan to do very little the next week other than read, read and read some more. I’m ready to put a bow on this year, and I can’t think of a better way to go out than with books and bourbon in our cozy cedar home.
If you’re looking for some recs for your own holiday reading, here’s what I’ve read this fall:
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Spanning the 1950s through the 2020s, The Glass Hotel weaves together a haunting tale of a cast of characters and how their lives intersect throughout the decades. At the center of the novel is the complex heroine Vincent, a troubled teen who goes on to be the wife of a millionaire real estate mogul, and a strange hotel in the middle of rural Canada, accessed only by boat (though the hotel plays a much more minor role than the title would lead you to believe). Grief, loneliness and fraud are the central themes of this novel that travels through both time and locations.
St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven this is not, but it’s similarly strange, and in the end I quite liked it. I didn’t love it, as I found that none of the characters were particularly likable, but I appreciate how different it is from a lot of contemporary fiction out there right now. Obama, however, put this on his top reads of the year, so take my review with a grain of salt.
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
What a delightfully fun and heartwarming read Red, White & Royal Blue turned out to be! To be honest, I added this one to my list without an iota of an idea about the subject matter (that said, if you read hard copies, the cover would give the plot away).
The book opens when rivals and enemies Alex, the First Son of the President of the United States (a woman!) who is running for reelection in 2020, and Henry, the Prince of Wales, get into an altercation at the White House, then are forced into a fake friendship for the sake of transatlantic relations and good PR. Only, the more they hang out, the more they realize they have a lot in common—in particular a mutual affinity for each other. As you might imagine, this is a relationship doomed from the start: one that can’t evolve publicly (what would the Crown say?!), so Alex and Henry put everything on the line to pursue a romance in secret.
There are scenes that are quite salacious without feeling indulgent on the part of the author (in other words, if you’re a prude, this book probably isn’t for you). But I absolutely loved this romance and how it tackles the topic of normalizing the acceptance of same-sex relationships even in the most high-profile of situations.
The Wife Stalker by Liv Constantine
No one writes deception better than Liv Constantine, the pseudonym for this duo of writer sisters, and we know there’s something up with Piper Reynard when she breezes into an affluent New England town with a past reeking of death. She falls in love with the dashing Leo, a lawyer who appears at her wellness center, much to the dismay of Joanna with whom he has a very layered past. There’s not a lot more to say without throwing out spoilers, but this psychological thriller will have you questioning who’s reliable and who’s perhaps making everything up as she goes.
If you haven’t read The Last Mrs. Parrish, add that one to your list immediately. But Wife Stalker? I’d only recommend if you need a semi-mindless read that’s fairly fast-paced but pretty predictable—though like The Last Mrs. Parrish, of course there’s a twist at the end.
All Adults Here by Emma Straub
I’ve come to accept that I’m just not Emma Straub’s target audience. I tried to love Vacationers and failed. I made it through Modern Lovers only to find it a huge snooze. So if you do like Straub’s past reads, then maybe you will like All Adults Here. It’s the best of the books I’ve read of hers, but still only gets a “meh” for me.
There’s the matriarch of the family, Astrid, who watches a woman get killed by the bug at the beginning of the book, and it prompts her to come out as gay to her children. There’s the troubled teen who was sent away from her Upper East Side private school to live with Astrid, her grandmother, for reasons we won’t learn until the end. Then there are Astrid’s three children, each of whom comes with their own baggage. At times it felt a little all over the place, almost like “let’s cover every hot-button issue in one 366-page book,” and I wish she’d narrowed the focus a bit.
Beach Read by Emily Henry
This book’s title could not be more misleading: It’s not really about a beach at all, nor is it the kind of can’t-put-it-down beach read I typically reserve for, well, beach vacations. Rather, chick lit author January Andrews moves to the lake for the summer into the cabin her father left behind as she falls into a romance with a neighbor while simultaneously grieving her dead dad and trying to overcome writer’s block to complete the novel that’s long overdue to her publisher.
Despite that snapshot, the book is, well, fluffy. There’s not a whole lot of substance, and the dialogue is fairly forced; in fact, my mom who reads 50+ books a year gave this one up at 70 percent. I was shocked it made so many notable book club lists this summer with so many other great reads out there. Skip.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
If you haven’t heard of The Vanishing Half, you do not surround yourself with the same circles I do as this seems to be the only book people have recommended to me this year. I feel like I’m the last person to read it, which isn’t necessarily a good thing as hype and expectations going into it were high.
The synopsis: A pair of light-skinned Black twins, Stella and Desiree, grow up in a rural Louisiana community in the 60’s where everyone looks a lot like them. When they’re teens, they run away to New Orleans, where Stella decides to “pass” as white, before disappearing from Desiree’s life for good. This multigenerational story of shame, acceptance, and overcoming racism is told from the third-person vantage points of Stella, Desiree and each of their daughters.
The book drew me in from the beginning, but then started to lag a bit toward the middle. I did like The Vanishing Half a lot—and wish there were more fictional reads about passing in general—but the ending was a letdown and I thought there were significant chunks of Stella’s life that the editors should have cut out that dragged along and distracted from more important discussions. Still, I do think this is a novel everyone should read for the subject matter alone.
28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand
I know a lot of people who are Elin Hilderbrand stans and have been for years, but I only read my first book of hers, Here’s to Us, last year; I immediately fell in love with her engaging writing style—and the fact that the majority of her books are set on dreamy Nantucket—and I’ve been on the waiting list for 28 Summers pretty much since it dropped. It was worth the wait.
The book works its way backward from the present, when Mallory Blessing is dying from cancer, to 1993 when she moved to Nantucket into a small cottage her aunt left her and first encountered Jack McCloud. They strike up a “same time, next year” relationship where no matter what is going on in their lives, they vow to reunite for four blissful days over Labor Day in every subsequent year. For the rest of each calendar year, per their arrangement, the pair has no communication and is allowed to do as they please and date who they want.
I couldn’t put this book down. Each chapter begins a new summer when Mallory and Jake are set to reunite, yet goes back and fills in the gaps on what’s happened in their lives the past 11 months. Hilderbrand is a master craftsman of characters, and you’ll find yourselves rooting for both Mallory and Jake despite the fact that the whole novel revolves around an adulterous affair.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
I’m a big fan of everything Sittenfeld has written to date, so when I read last spring that her newest book would be historical fiction based on Hillary Clinton, I was in. It took until a month ago for my name to pop up on the library list, and I dug right in.
But, to start, it’s slooooooow. I don’t remember that aspect of Sittenfeld’s other books like American Wife, but it could be because she’s getting us, her readers, into the impregnable spirit and mind of the protagonist. Rodham starts at Yale Law School with Hillary meeting Bill, then travels through the first couple years of their relationship—until they break up due to his infidelity right around the time they got engaged in real life. From there, the book follows a Sliding Doors-esque alternative reality of Hillary and Bill and how their individual careers progressed had they stayed broken up, culminating in a run-off of a very important election.
Was it my favorite of Sittenfeld’s? Hardly, but in the end, I found myself appreciative of her smart writing style and dedicating so many pages of redemption to a real-life heroine the media has forever portrayed as unlikable. If you’re a Bill Clinton fan, you might not be at the end of this book. But if you’re a champion of women, you’ll appreciate Sittenfeld exposing head-on the double standard women candidates (or really, women in general) face and possibly even feel a bit of remorse if you’ve ever been guilty of casting HRC in such a light in your own mind.
I just hit the library bounty and have Leave the World Behind, The Night Swim, Big Summer, Head Over Heels, The Things We Cannot Say, Summer of ’69 and Anxious People all checked out for my holiday reading. I can’t wait to do nothing but read and snuggle Ella.
What’s the last great book you’ve read?