Smart Mamas Read 2020 Summer Booklist


Why do you need a list? Because your time is valuable. Because when you leave for vacation, you need to know that you have a stack of winners, even if they’re stacked on your Ereader, and not weighing down your suitcase. You need all the information to pick your own list of winners.

Here’s a quick peek at the winners for your Summer Booklist: Peace Like a River, Hannah Coulter, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Wonder, Unbroken, Educated, The Chosen.

What makes this list different from other lists online? There are no new releases. It includes missionary stories. There’s titles for all ages. Content and language alerts are included without spoilers.

Is summer reading different than any other time of the year?  Sure it is. Summer is just different. More sun. More daylight. Different rhythms of life. Hopefully, some vacation time.

There’s a lot of talk about beach reads, and I agree with Anne Bogel that anything you take to the beach is a beach read. But some books fit more naturally with the mood you’re trying to create on vacation. Easy, breezy can fit well here. Happy, uplifting stories. Or, anything compelling that keeps you turning pages without the worry of a late night and slogging through the workday tired the day after. 

Sometimes vacation is the best time to take on a longer, more complex books that requires a little more focus. When life is stressful, I have trouble sticking with those weightier tomes.  

A note about sex. 

If we read fiction to understand human nature, sexuality is an integral part of who we are as humans. But the way it’s depicted in literature matters. The belief system and world view of the author matters. 

What we choose to dwell on matters. 

There are different issues at stake. There are young people who are developing their belief system and world view. There are mature people who know what they believe and can critically appreciate literature that depicts varying world views. 

There are books in this list that contain language plus belief systems that I don’t personally hold. I think it’s helpful to know the content and perspective of a book going in, to not be surprised by an agenda that you weren’t expecting. 

On the other hand, most people don’t want spoilers ruining the reading experience. 

I tried to balance both of those objectives with these reviews.

Happy summer reading to you!

Compelling Literary Fiction

Peace Like a River by Lief Enger

Told through the eyes of an eleven year old boy, the novel is not about a span of time, it mostly just covers one year.

Rueben is the eleven year old, Swede, his younger sister, and Davy their older brother. They live with their father out west, growing up in a modest life.

Circumstances dictate a quest to the west, search for answers to a reality that doesn’t add up.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

I can’t remember the last time a novel made me cry.  This one did.

Ove is near the end of his life, but this novel takes us back to his family, his first love and his losses. It is a bittersweet exploration of what really matters in relationships and what gets in the way.

Love, friendship, community and social awkwardness.  It’s the recipe for a great novel.

It demonstrates in brilliant colors that no man is an island.

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Maise Dobbs is a detective in Victorian London. Coming from modest means, she is indebted to her benefactors for her education and mentoring.

The work of a sleuth is different in the days before cell phones and fingerprints. An ability to understand human nature and get to the truth are the skills that are needed.

Independent and likable, Maise Dobbs is a heroine to cheer for and skillful plotting of the story keeps you turning pages.

These is My Words (?) 1998

These is My Words by Nancy E. Turner

“A moving, exciting, and heartfelt American saga inspired by the author’s own family memoirs, these words belong to Sarah Prine, a woman of spirit and fire who forges a full and remarkable existence in a harsh, unfamiliar frontier. Scrupulously recording her steps down the path Providence has set her upon–from child to determined young adult to loving mother–she shares the turbulent events, both joyous and tragic, that molded her and recalls the enduring love with cavalry officer Captain Jack Elliot that gave her strength and purpose.

Rich in authentic everyday details and alive with truly unforgettable characters, These Is My Words brilliantly brings a vanished world to breathtaking life again.”–Goodreads

Unpredictable.  Well-written.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

“Ignorant boys, killing each other,” is just about all Nathan Coulter would tell his wife, friends, and family about the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. Life carried on for the community of Port William, Kentucky, as some boys returned from the war and the lives of others were mourned. In her seventies, Nathan’s wife, Hannah, has time now to tell of the years since the war. In Wendell Berry’s unforgettable prose, we learn of the Coulter’s children, of the Feltners and Branches, and how survivors “live right on.”—from GoodReads

Enthusiastic five stars from me.                                                                    

Brilliantly written, wholesome story.

The story spans the decades of Hannah’s life, giving a panoramic look at her life.

Human drama at it’s literary best.


Humanity’s Greatest Rescue

The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun and Paul Hattaway

Brother Yun’s story highlights the incredible religious persecution of Christians in China.

The verses of scripture they cling to are not the same ones that are familiar to us because they live a different reality.

It’s good to have that world opened up to us and to spend some time thinking about it.

Something Needs to Change by David Platt

After listening to Annie F Down’s interview with David Platt on her podcast about his book I knew I needed to read it.

Platt traced his one week trek through the Himalayas and the impact it had on him to see such a dark place first hand.

He recorded in his journal the people he met, the scripture he read on the trip and his thoughts and emotions in response.

He witnessed human trafficking, extreme persecution of believers, children in isolated mountain villages without the most basic education and scores of people who had no knowledge of Jesus.

Platt was overwhelmed by a first hand experience with a dark corner of the world in desperate need, spiritually as well as physically. He eloquently invites believers into his pain as the first step to impacting the world.

The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken with Gregg Lewis

Nik and Ruth Ripken (not their real names) left Kentucky and moved with their family to Somalia to serve God.  They encountered a shocking world of spiritual warfare and the persecution of Christians.  

Nik Ripken pulls back the curtain to this world. 

Believers who are imprisoned and tortured and martyred for their faith.  Those who sing to Jesus and can’t resist sharing him with others, no matter the price. 

Human life is not valued.  Women and children are not valued.  Freedoms and dignity are not valued.  All stemming from a world view so foreign it is difficult even to conceive. 

They have since interviewed 600 believers in 60 countries to give voice to their stories. 

These are their stories and Nik Ripken and Gregg Lewis share them so well. 

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

A Christian family in Holland hides Jews from the Nazis during World War II.  Corrie Ten Boom’s incredible story of espionage, imprisonment and forgiveness.

The Ten Boom family takes their faith seriously.  They believe the Jews are God’s Chosen People and risk their lives to protect them.

They continue to trust God in spite of horrific circumstances and they see His hand at work.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi

This is the raw, treacherous journey that Nabeel Qureshi took to find faith in Jesus including the sacrifices he made, the intellectual, emotional and relational barriers that kept him from finding faith in Jesus and the story of overcoming those barriers.

Why do we need to know Nabeel’s story?

There are millions of devout Muslims on the planet. If we understand his story, we come closer to understanding them.

To understand the Muslim mindset opens the door to greater compassion, to a better chance of building bridges to individuals who are seeking.

Statistics are one thing.

One person’s story is something else altogether. What difference can one person’s story make?

We are faced with the same choices as Nabeel Qureshi.  Are we going to accept what we were taught growing up? Or are we going to search for something else?

These are the questions that individuals from every devout family faces. These are the issues that we wrestle with. These are the answers that we must find. This is the peace that we must come to.

Irregardless of the belief system we choose, the struggle is universal. It’s the dragon we all must fight.

Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot

Five Missionaries were martyred in Ecuador in 1956. Their stories are told by one of the widows, Elisabeth Elliot. Each one knew the dangers of the mission field. Each one willingly gave their lives before it was taken. This book is a clear reminder of counting the cost and complete surrender.

Memoir and True Stories

Endurance by Alfred Lansing

Earnest Shackleton was the captain of a ship headed for an exploratory trip to the South Pole. The mission didn’t go as planned and the ship was trapped in ice.

Shackleton had some tough decisions to make as a leader of his crew. Lives were at stake. Survival became the new mission.

I loved this real life study of leadership and teamwork as was fascinated to watch it play out.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic runner and World War II soldier.

The perseverance and resilience Zamperini displayed in the face the multiple titanic challenges is an inspiration.

Knowing his background and family intensifies the story.

The final resolution is satisfying and heart warming.

Aside from the story, the writing is a work of art.

Educated by Tara Westover

I found myself thinking about this book long after I finished it.

“Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.”– from Amazon

How do you earn a doctorate without attending school till age 17?

This question drives the book, but there’s so much more: mental illness, brainwashing, belief systems accepted and rejected, family dynamics, isolationism and, mostly, confronting your history honestly without bitterness.

There’s a few heroes I love in this narrative, in addition to Tara herself who confronts her own story with transparency and courage. She dares to travel the road not taken.

Since I’ve read it, it continues to haunt me (in a good way) and intrigue me and fascinate me.

Highly recommended.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

The only thing I didn’t like about this book was gratuitous language.  Sometimes language in a dialogue can prove a point, but there’s no good reason for it to be in the narrative.

That being said, I love the social analysis wrapped around a boot-strapping overcomer’s story. J.D. Vance emerged from an impoverished childhood to graduated from Harvard and become a successful lawyer.

It has some similarities to Ben Carson’s story in Gifted Hands.

I love the positive impact and stability the author’s grandparents brought to his life.

My heart breaks for the young people in this country, especially for the homes that so many grow up in–for the poverty–not of money so much as love, stability, education and faith.

One thing that struck me is that the author wasn’t able to find much help in counseling, but research, learning and understanding about himself and his formative years brought a measure of peace.

Not Just for Kids

Frindle by Andrew Clements

I love Frindle for the same reason I love Harold and the Purple Crayon. Because it teaches us to believe in possibility.

Nicolas Allen was a fifth grader who believe he could make an impact. First on his classroom, then on his school, on his community and beyond. It took an idea, a belief and someone who believed in him. Heart warming story for all the dreamers of the world.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

What a great book!  Highly recommended for all ages.

I love the way it tackles head on mega topics: embarrassment, shame, discouragement, rising above difficult circumstances, the elements of a true friendship. 

August Pullman is a likable fellow.  If he were a jerk, this story wouldn’t have worked.

It strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a person.  Where do you fit into society.  How does society react to you?

It’s not just an overcomer story.  It’s a family systems story.  Our family of origin matters so much when it comes to what we believe about ourselves.

I love the middle school principal in this story.  I love the way he has such a deep understanding of kids.  I love how he can see past the surface level to what is happening beneath the surface.  This is so good for teachers, administrators, youth pastors, everyone who deals with kids.  And for kids, themselves.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

I consider C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia to be the pinnacle of children’s literature. These stories can be appreciated at all ages (beginning around age 5), maturity levels and intellects. They contain parables illustrating tenets of the Christian faith. They can be classified as fantasy, yet the truths they portray are real. In the midst of stories of talking animals, Lewis manages to paint realistic pictures of human nature and personality. They can be reread multiple times.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first in the series that Lewis wrote, though some people like to start with The Magician’s Nephew which tells the story of the creation of Narnia. I recommend starting with Wardrobe and view The Magician’s Nephew as a prequel.

The War That Saved My Life  by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

“Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?” — from GoodReads

Great story.

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

“In this companion novel to The Wednesday Wars, Doug struggles to be more than the “skinny thug” that some people think him to be. He finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer, who gives him the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Schmidt expertly weaves multiple themes of loss and recovery in a story teeming with distinctive, unusual characters and invaluable lessons about love, creativity, and survival.”– from Amazon

Excellent book. LOVED it. 

Deals with so many important themes.

Abusive parent. War veterans. Learning disabilities. Young love. Poverty. Predjudice.

There’s just so much there. And the story is so satisfying.

You know how it is? When a story is satisfying? When all the right people win in the end and the rest get what they deserve?

Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahme

Kenneth Grahme’s classic has delighted readers for more than a century. Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger are friends who adventure together, explore true friendship and stage interventions. It is a universal commentary on human nature, because we all know someone like Toad. The original edition can be appreciated by older kids and teens. Adults will likely engage at a whole new level. This is the longest and most complex story in this category.

Inspired by True Stories

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

 Based of the life of the first female lawyer in Bombay.

Not only does this fictional account weave a riveting tale, it highlights the culture and customs of 1920’s India.

Limited educational opportunities, arranged marriages, gender segregation and inequalities.  These were real obstacles.

Navigating that world and winning is a real feat.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan

C.S. Lewis has always been one of my favorite authors and The Chronicles of Narnia the pinnacle in children’s literature, in my opinion. Even though I knew the basic facts of the love story between Lewis and Joy Davidman, Becoming Mrs.  Lewis fleshed out the story in a probable narrative of their relationship.

I came to see her as an unsung hero in Lewis’ life.

There’s nothing like an inside peek at the life of one of the world’s greatest writers.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

“Inspired by the incredible true story of one Jewish family separated at the start of World War II, determined to survive—and to reunite—We Were the Lucky Ones is a tribute to the triumph of hope and love against all odds.” —Amazon

The Kurcs were from Radom, Poland, but in the course of the war, three generations are spread throughout Europe and beyond, fleeing the Nazi regime.

I am in awe of this story. It is a light in a dark time and highlights the triumph of love, family and the will to survive.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

The narrative moves back and forth between present day South Carolina and the 30’s and 40’s Tennessee. The setting is an orphan asylum where children are cared for until families are found for them. Unfortunately, the people in charge are not as altruistic as they appear. Inspired by true facts, this book tackles difficult themes with a surprising amount of optimism and hope. Trigger warnings.

Mrs. Mike by Nancy and Benedict Freedman

Sixteen year old Maggie O’Flannon is shipped off from her home in Boston to an uncle in Calgary for her health. What she doesn’t expect is to fall in love, with the frozen white north and with a Mountie.

Beautifully told, the harsh and beautiful life of rural Canada captures the heart and the imagination.

Classics to Read and Reread

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

“The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience. “–Goodreads

Rightly labeled a literary work of art.  Francie Nolan develops the grit and humanity she needs to survive her tumultuous life.

Masterfully written.  A joy to read.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Anne is a herione universally loved by girls and remembered fondly by women.

Of course, so much of the charm is Anne herself, spunky, competitive, fiercely loyal, throughly human.

The Hobbit by J.R.R.Tolkien

One of literature’s ultimate hero’s journey, the story of Frodo Baggins resonates deeply, even if you’re not a homebody. Frodo certainly wasn’t out looking for adventure, because hobbits are fond of regular meals and the comforts of home. But, if there’s a wizard and a dragon, a quest, danger, travel companions to help and hinder, a magic ring and some treasure, it all adds up to a satisfying tale with uncanny parallels to life as we know it.

Pride and Predjudice by Jane Austen

It’s hard not to like Lizzie Bennet. She speaks her mind, she’s unfazed by social regulations, she’s fiercely loyal. And no one can articulate matters of the heart like Jane Austen.

Five girls growing up in one household is certainly a recipe for matchmaking dilemmas.

Certainly other Austen titles have won hearts, but Pride and Prejudice often is recognized as standing above the rest.

The Virginian by Owen Wister

Owen Wister has been credited with starting the genre of the Western, with his story of the unnamed cowboy, the Virginian.

Wister explores the justice of the newly settle West, the relationships, the quest for man to build their own kingdoms and fence them. The country was captivated by the tales of the people who lived untamed lives on untamed land.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok brilliantly captures the internal struggles of two boys growing up in Jewish homes in New York City beginning in the 40s. There’s the clashes with their fathers, wrestling with what they believe about faith, community, family and their own future. Potak so vividly paints the world he grew up in, it feels like you were dropped onto the sizzling New York City asphalt yourself.

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