The 2020 War on the Rocks Summer Fiction Reading List
Things have changed since last summer. The global pandemic and economic downturn have upended nearly everything, from work to travel to buying groceries. For the time being, we need to stay apart, wear masks, and flatten the curve.
Amidst the uncertainties of the moment, our need for stories endures. In that spirit, War on the Rocks has asked our staff as well as our senior and contributing editors to recommend works of fiction to read (or listen to) this summer. We hope, now more than ever, that you will enjoy these stories as much as we have.
Mary Kate Aylward
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. This is the great American novel. It’s a vivid portrait of an indomitable woman, a uniquely American community, and a love story. The characters’ speech, which Zora Neale Hurston wrote in dialect, really comes alive in Ruby Dee’s audiobook version, if you prefer that format.
My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber. My Life and Hard Times will have you in stitches, especially the standout essay titled “The Night the Bed Fell” — which you can read here if you are a New Yorker subscriber.
The Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian. If you’re ready to start a 20-book series this summer, consider picking up Master and Commander, the first volume in O’Brian’s series of novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. Come for the riveting bouts of naval warfare and 19th-century subterfuge, and stay for the period-specific dialogue and immersive, mind-bogglingly specific nautical terminology (the Russell Crowe/Paul Bettany film isn’t bad, either).
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. A classic novel on war and humanity, as told by those who fought and died at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. An essential read at a time like the present when the legacy of the Civil War has re-entered public discourse.
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Amidst the profusion of plague-related reading, The Decameron never got its due. This novel is far more fun to read than any by Albert Camus.
My Ears Are Bent by Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell’s flowing, long-form New Yorker pieces about strange characters from 1930s New York — gypsies, conmen, voodoo priestesses, and the like — have always been favorites. I only recently discovered that they were a bit more fiction than Mitchell let on.
‘The Tain’ by the Decemberists. That’s right, this isn’t a book nor is it to be consumed via reading. But it is fiction in the form of a song by the ever-eclectic Decemberists, based rather loosely on the Irish epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley. One reviewer notes, “Suffice it to say, The Tain is full of bad people doing bad things, flawed heroes who get swept up in the badness, blood, guts, war, adultery, cattle.” The music video is worth watching, but I recommend just listening to the song first. Oh, and it’s 18 minutes long with five thematically distinct movements. My favorite is the third. “Here come loose the hounds…”
The Plague by Albert Camus. COVID-19 is bad, but it ain’t the plague, thank God. Depending on who you ask, Camus’ novel might be not just a tale of disease or existentialist riff, but also an allegory of wartime France under German occupation.
Independent People by Halldor Laxness. It’s an Icelandic masterpiece by Laxness, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The story of an oft-broken farmer and his maybe-daughter Asta Sollija is nothing short than stunning. Skip the Blue Lagoon and dip into this novel instead.
Ulrike Esther Franke
The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz. The best science fiction is the kind that makes you think, and that stays with you long after you finish the book. This was the case for me with Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline. It is a story about time travel, which doubles as a very clever feminist critique of society. Newitz poses the question about the impact that specific events and specific people can have on how society develops, and warns us that some advancements may not be as secure as we may think. A great read and food for thought.
Recursion by Blake Crouch. This book will give you whiplash! And there is a chance you will want to read it in one sitting. It’s a truly new and innovative take on time travel, with — toward the end — geopolitical deliberations thrown in. It’s fast, clever, jarring — and a great holiday read.
The Power by Naomi Alderman. The Power is a science fiction account of two scholars looking back 5,000 years to our own time and trying to understand how the world developed into a matriarchy after women developed a shared power to emit electricity from their hands. It is an intricate narrative of different women (and one male observer) as they discover this extraordinary power, fight against a violent male counter-movement, and connect with other women around the world to coordinate, mobilize, and best deploy their newfound strength.
Another Country by James Baldwin. Baldwin is perhaps best known as a powerful essayist, but his fiction (one could add Giovanni’s Room) is often underappreciated. Beautifully written and extraordinarily moving, this novel captures the aura of New York City’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, exploring race, love, sexual orientation, music, and art. At times, it is a bleak picture, marked by domestic abuse, depression, suicide, jealousy, repression, and prejudice. It is a powerful meditation on the possibilities for love under unbearably impossible circumstances.
Redshirts by John Scalzi. This is good escapist science fiction. Crew members on a space ship realize that they are being routinely placed at ridiculous levels of risk by their captain. And, strangely, while the captain and a few key members of the command team go on each of these dangerous missions, they are never harmed, while the fatality rate among the rank-and-file crew members is startlingly high. This is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead meets Galaxy Quest. A fun, quick read.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I wind up measuring almost every adventure story I read against the standard set by this classic. Arrested at his wedding feast and jailed for a crime he didn’t commit, Edmond Dantes escapes an impregnable prison fortress, recovers a secret treasure, and sets out on a journey of revenge against those who took his life from him. Fans of The Princess Bride will recognize Dantes as the likely prototype of the mysterious man in black. This is a great swashbuckling story.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. In this book, a scholar from a world governed according to anarchist principles tries to bridge peoples and, thereby, prevent war with an oligarchic world modeled on our own. Le Guin’s story holds up a mirror to the ills of modern society while showing us the good and bad of a radical alternative.
David E. Johnson
City of Thieves by David Benioff. This is a fascinating book on several levels. First, it gave me a sense of the horrors of the siege of Leningrad. Second, it is a tale that is full of irony and the ridiculous. Third, it is a story about the will to survive and how people can remain human even in extraordinary circumstances. I couldn’t put it down.
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin. In this science fantasy novel, the Stillness — a place familiar with disaster — is ravaged by a cataclysmic climate event, leaving its inhabitants to rebuild their lives. The story centers on the “orogenes,” who wield incredible yet, at times, uncontrollable power and are, therefore, feared and even hated. This book, the first in the Broken Earth trilogy, speaks to our time: climate change, prejudice, race, and hierarchies of power.
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. This was the first Chinese novel to ever win a Hugo Award, written by China’s foremost science fiction author. The story blends Chinese history, extraterrestrial intelligence, astrophysics, scientists, and even a video game — not to mention mysterious deaths. What other science fiction novel opens with a struggle session by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution?
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. This is a brilliant novel that uses high school speech and debate as a lens to explore the sources of American political and societal decay. A powerful dose of nostalgia for all of us recovering debaters.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This beautifully written novel is equal parts social critique and love story. Its exploration of racism, sexism, and class differences in the United States and the United Kingdom feels especially relevant today.
A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion. The third novel by America’s greatest living essayist. For those who have read Didion’s non-fiction, A Book of Common Prayer will feel familiar with its cool and understated prose. The novel revolves around California socialite Charlotte Douglass, who travels to the fictional Central American country of Boca Grande in search of her daughter, Marin, who’s suspected of trying to blow up a building in San Francisco and hijack an airplane.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. One of the most beautiful and important books about India. The story follows Saleem Sinai, born in Bombay at midnight on Aug. 15, 1947 — the precise moment at which India gained independence from the British Empire. Not only is Saleem granted telepathic powers, but his life serves as an allegory for the history of India in the 20th century.
Sea of Fire by Gregory Shepherd. Of course, I am recommending a book on North Korea. This has all the excitement you need — from the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command to nuclear weapons to the gulags to North Korea’s illicit activities network of Department 39. It has a far-fetched plot built around a conspiracy theory you could only find in North Korea. However, if you pay close enough attention, you will notice grains of truth and insights about the mafia-like, crime-family cult known as the Kim family regime, and the corrupt society it has developed for the past seven decades.
Comfort Women by Nora Okja Keller. This is another book about Korea and one of most tragic events in its history — the sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese military during World War II. But is also about Korean and American culture and different generations in Hawaii, living in the present while dealing with the ghosts of the past. This is not a fun read but one that will enlighten the reader about both a tragic historical event that continues to plague geopolitical relations in Northeast Asia, as well as about one of the many different cultures in the melting pot of America.
Sixteenth Watch by Myke Cole. How many military science fiction fans have reacted in horror to space operas that focus on a force modeled around the Navy being dumped out with the establishment of the U.S. Space Force? But, to add another wrench to the works, what if there were a Space Coast Guard? In this book, Myke Cole tells the story of a cislunar interservice rivalry between the Navy and Coast Guard that develops as the United States is challenged to compete with China for valuable lunar energy resources. What better way is there to clear the taste of the millionth numbing defense hot take about U.S. space policy than a “Space Coastie” adventure?
The Ship by C. S. Forester. Published in 1943, this wartime novel tells the story of the fictional HMS Artemis, a Royal Navy light cruiser, as it participates in a surface combat action against the Italian navy in the Mediterranean (in a battle that bears a striking resemblance to the experience of HMS Penelope during the Second Battle of Sirte. Telling the story from multiple perspectives among the ship’s crew and diving deep into details about the ship’s design, construction, and daily activities, the book can be considered something of a proto-technothriller — one with a section that details the life of a shell, from the mining of its component minerals to the moment it impacts the flag bridge of an Italian battleship. Forester’s The Ship is not a bad accompaniment to an afternoon sitting on the porch and enjoying a nice, cold beer.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Although she is better known for her book The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, makes for a great summer read. This creepy novel has everything: murder, an East Coast setting, and Latin and Greek!
Radha Iyengar Plumb
The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White. This is a story of the Arthurian legend — but with a twist. According to White, Guinevere is not a fragile princess. Instead, she was sent by another royal family to protect Arthur. The legend itself serves more as a backdrop to help readers explore Guinevere’s experiences and past, as well as Arthur’s own choices. This book is engaging and interesting, and excellent for escaping into a totally different world.
The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel. Because … obviously! I am hardly original in my enthusiasm for the third and final act in Mantel’s magisterial Cromwell trilogy, but that in no way diminishes my affection. Cromwell’s long-anticipated downfall is totally inevitable and still breathtaking.
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. This book offers a fascinating meditation on the social and ethical implications of the adoption of artificial intelligence and the forces it may unleash. Set in early-1980s England in the context of some clever historical counterfactuals, McEwan’s prose is as buoyant as ever. However, the saga’s ending does not quite hold up to the plot itself — this is the rare occasion on which I regret not skipping the last two chapters.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King. Lily King’s story of aspiring young novelist Casey Peabody is an ideal summer read, especially — though not only — if you’re familiar with Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the book takes place. The novel centers on Casey’s struggle to finish her first novel and find love in the wake of her mother’s sudden death, but it’s the raucous cast of supporting characters who work with Casey at an upscale Harvard Square restaurant that really makes the story shine.
Loren DeJonge Schulman
The Elemental Trilogy by Sherry Thomas. Thomas delivers extreme girl power within a young adult fantasy with the added bonus of British boarding schools, magic, disguises, romance, revolution, and more. Indulgent escapism for people who love Tamora Pierce.
Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia. Racculia provides a multi-layered and fun mystery with delightful characters and relationships you’ll treasure. If you read Westing Game a million times, you’ll love this book. Bonus: The main character works in development (fundraising) with tremendous asides on the intrigues of the profession.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. A surprisingly eventful and beautiful story of a former Russian aristocrat under house arrest in the Hotel Metropolitan in Moscow for over 30 years. During a lockdown, it was a salutary reminder of just how much you can see and do without ever leaving the building.
Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson. This novel unveils yet another erudite, elaborate science fiction plot from Neal Stephenson, who is the master of the genre. This one gets tangled up at times in its own complexity, but — once again — the idea of being able to upload your consciousness to another plane of existence has obvious appeal during a pandemic.
Image: Pexels from Pixabay