So 2020 was a year, wasn’t it?
I figured this would be the year I broke a book a week, seeing as there is pretty much nothing else to do except read and scroll through Twitter. Well, and work. And walk the dog. And feed the cats. And bake bread. I baked, and am still baking, A LOT of sourdough bread.
My year-end tally, thanks to a sprint through the last half of Barack Obama’s memoir, got me to 38 books, a mere three more than last year. It’s not that I am big on meeting any kind of quota, I just like to think I am spending more time reading than on social media. (Except that I kind of love Twitter. It’s a constant source of entertaining animal videos.)
If you are new to my blog, a brief history: this post is the entire reason I have a blog. I’ve been sharing out my year-end list with my friends that love to read for probably close to 20 years now. Mostly, because I just love talking about books. And hearing about what my friends like. My reviews are almost never negative — I am a big believer that for every book, there is a fan. And while I will note below which were my favorites, I stopped doing a “Best” list because there’s absolutely no way to really know what’s best thanks to the sheer volume of what is published every year. And honestly, whatever is “best” is what YOU like the most. If I play some sort of role in turning you on to something new, I’m thrilled. The gift for me in all of this is friendship, fellowship, and learning about authors I would have otherwise never picked up.
This year’s breakdown:
Female: 29.5 (One book was co-written) — the Year of the Woman!
Authors of color: 10. Awful, but double what I accomplished in 2019, so …. progress.
Repeat authors: 9. Not bad, in that I really do like to find new favorites.
Nonfiction: 9. I threw memoirs into this category. I need to up my game here, but I just love made up stories. What’s a girl to do?
Here’s the list — enjoy! And please please please tell me what you loved, so I can add it to the queue:
The Swallows, by Lisa Lutz
I can’t even believe this was 2020, it feels so long ago. Taking the time to go back and think about what I read, I will say this — The Swallows has stuck with me as one of the more entertaining reads for the year. A thriller set on the grounds of a private school, English teacher Alex Witt finds herself in the middle of teenage f*ckery and sets out to end it before it ends her.
Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson
A favorite. I’m biased, as I love Wilson’s books, but this was perfectly wacky and sentimental all at once, even if it does center around a dysfunctional friendship and two kids that can set themselves on fire at the drop of a hat. Maybe the best line from my initial review: “Taking care of pyrotechnic kids may be a mountain that’s impossible to scale, but it’s still a better option than pushing 30 while working as a checkout clerk at the Sav-A-Lot and living in your mother’s attic.”
Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid
Ah, Emira. This is on a lot of “best of” lists this year for good reason — incredibly well-written, complex characters, a plot that never seems to stall out and an ending that isn’t convenient or comfortable for anyone. Also, a reminder that some influencers are just plain nuts.
A Very Stable Genius, by Carol Leonig and Philip Rucker
I’ve tried to stay away from the Trump scare scene when it comes to reading, mostly because I get my fill on TV and the internet. But I like these two a lot and the book was indeed fairly dishy on the behind-the-scenes.
Why We Can’t Sleep, by Ada Calhoun
A favorite. Amen to Ada! I recommended this one to all my friends of a certain age. Calhoun’s deep dive into what’s keeping us newish 50-somethings was revealing and validating at the same time.
In Five Years, by Rebecca Serle
I’m always a happy girl when I get an unsolicited ARC that I can turn around and recommend to friends. Serle’s story of two friends in NYC and how even the strictest planning can’t prevent the universe playing its own trump card when it wants to.
American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins
What’s a year in books without a little controversy and Oprah mixed in? So, on the plus side, if the uproar around a novel about immigration written by someone whose voice may not be as authentic as all would like opens the doors to more Latin/Latina authors, then good. I’m not going to throw this book under the bus, though — I found Lydia and Luca’s journey immensely engaging and couldn’t stop turning pages.
Weather, by Jenny Offill
This too shows up on a a lot of “Best Of” lists — maybe not the book to read during a pandemic. Looking back and noticing I reviewed this in early March, before the shit really hit the fan, I can see why one could enjoy engaging in someone else’s anxiety. If I was reading it now, I might just want to hide under the covers.
Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo
I had conversations with friends on both sides of the “love it/hate it”fence with Three Women. Maggie, Lina and Sloane — three very different women sharing, ultimately, the same desire. My favorite line from my review: “Three Women goes a long way to proving the point that self-esteem isn’t exactly optional when it comes to growing up and into healthy relationships.”
The Red Lotus, by Chris Bohjalian
One of my go-to authors, this was also a suspect read during a pandemic, but Bohjalian always delivers great escapist entertainment, this in the form of a medical-ish thriller. I can see this novel’s protagonist, Alexis, following in the footsteps of “The Flight Attendant“‘s Cassie in a TV adaptation. (Which, if you haven’t watched, was much better than I anticipated it would be. If you need a binge, check it out.)
Inside Out, by Demi Moore
My celebrity tell-all for the year. Demi did not disappoint. In fact, knowing more about her past actually explains a lot about her present. Quite the incredible (and sometimes incredibly challenging) life. And ugh, her mother. She’s genuinely a person I can root for into the future.
My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell
A favorite. It’s twisted, dark, made me want to scream out loud in a few places and is super super cringey but yikes I loved it. Jacob Strane is one of the most hideous characters to come to life in a book in recent memory. Just a bad, bad man. And Vanessa, so emotionally damaged. Whew. Lord, this was a book.
Friends and Strangers, by J. Courtney Sullivan
Just a good straight up fiction read. I will admit that by the end of the year, I had less of a recollection about the entire plot line here — that can happen when you’re perpetually reading —and I laughed out loud when I looked at my review and remembered Elisabeth’s sister. Hahahahaha what a beeyotch.
A Good Neighborhood, by Therese Fowler
A favorite. It was an ugly cry. It’s tragic. It’s young love. It’s complicated. There’s a reason “Fences make good neighbors” rings true, and in this case, we could only wish for a taller, impenetrable one.
A Prayer for Travelers, by Ruchika Tomar
This had been sitting on my nightstand for what felt like forever and with the library closed over the summer, I was able to dig into my TBR pile more than usual. This is one of those stories that while at the time, I enjoyed but didn’t think it was earth-shattering, I am surprised by how much it has stuck with me throughout the rest of the year. The love of family and friends, and the grief that always associates itself with loss. I would love to see Cale and Penny on the small screen. That’s some epic television, there.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb
Of course therapists have therapists. Or they should, if they don’t. There’s something comforting in knowing that even the people trained in having it all together still need help in KEEPING it all together. A really thoughtful memoir with dramatic plot points included. Worth your time.
The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel
A favorite. I thoroughly enjoyed “Station Eleven,” so much so that Emily St. John Mandel is now one of my go-to authors. When a book comes out, I am going to read it. Quickly. “The Glass Hotel” didn’t disappoint. Engrossing characters and a captivating backdrop had me carrying this book with me everywhere.
Valentine, by Elizabeth Wetmore
Trigger warnings galore for anyone that’s been in an abusive relationship. BUT. If you can get past that, Wetmore paints several very complex, very different pictures with a handful of female protagonists. Life in rural Texas in the 70s is not for the faint of heart. It isn’t fair and it isn’t pretty but you can put the book down firmly believing that somewhere, women like Mary Rose, Ginny and Corinne really do exist, and they are kicking ass.
A Ladder to the Sky, by John Boyne
Did I love this as much as The Heart’s Invisible Furies? No‚ but that would be impossible. (If you haven’t read it yet, you need to get on that.) BUT. Boyne makes character study as an art possible, with the parade of people that get in the way of Maurice Swift. It was a page turner for me, for sure.
A Burning, by Megha Majumdar
A favorite. Like “A Prayer for Travelers,” Majumdar’s tale of a young Indian prisoner, Jivan, and the people that could save her, stuck with me. For as simple as the prose felt while reading it, the more I appreciated how talented you have to be to convey the depths of anguish with such brevity. Shades of “A Fine Balance” here. So good.
This Is How I Lied, by Heather Gudenkauf
Gudenkauf is another go-to for me. I can count on her books to keep me distracted from the real world and engaged in hers, and also know I’ll be able to finish them over a weekend. If I lined up all her books in a row, this might not be my favorite (That belongs to The Weight of Silence) but it was an entertaining thriller and who doesn’t need a little bit of a distraction these days?
American Housewife, by Helen Ellis
A favorite. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA I love Helen. That is all.
Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett
A favorite. In a year where the question of race relations in America came up repeatedly (and deservedly so), Bennett’s tale of two sisters and their relationship with their skin color, the town they were raised in, the lives they led after they left and the resulting aftermath, while fictional, strikes a very necessary, real, chord.
Too Much and Not Enough, by Mary Trump
I wouldn’t have immediately thought this was going to be a book I wanted to read. Salacious family tell-alls are rarely very telling. But I gotta hand it to Mary — she has zero f*cks to give and has no qualms about spilling some tea. And it’s not even really that gossipy. Instead, it’s actually kind of enlightening. I don’t wish Donald’s father had loved him for Donald. I do kind of wish it for us, though.
Last Couple Standing, by Matthew Norman
This is straight up escapist entertainment. There’s nothing earth-shattering or should searching-worthy in this (unless, of course, you’re considering an open marriage. Than good luck and godspeed.) It is, however, enjoyable and funny and a good way to spend a weekend.
Lady in the Lake, by Laura Lippman
A pretty good mystery, even if I have quibbles with exactly how the main character found her way into a career in journalism.
Real Life, by Brandon Taylor
A favorite. Maybe even my top favorite for the year. This book! It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and if you loved “A Little Life” you need to read this. I could not put it down until I knew if Wallace was OK, and I feel like I am still waiting. I ugly cried. Taylor deserves all the awards for this, and for his Twitter feed.
Wow, No Thank You, by Samantha Irby
A favorite. Outrageously funny and human and sometimes uncomfortable, but that’s life and Irby doesn’t suffer fools so don’t bother complaining if you have an issue or two with her truth-telling. If we ever get to go clubbing again, I want to sit at her table.
Want, by Lynn Steger
Oh, Elizabeth. If you are looking for a short-ish read with so many layers that make this an excellent book club discussion choice, “Want” is your next book. Reading about a depressive can be a little draining, but …. yeah. There are several hours worth of gabbing here.
Mother Daughter Widow Wife, by Robin Wasserman
You know, this was a mystery that I think I enjoyed more than I thought I did at the time I read it. Elizabeth and Alice make quite the duo and who doesn’t want to be Wendy for a day or two?
Luster, by Raven Leilani
So, this is on a lot of “Best Of” lists and I would agree it is, from an artistic standpoint, a thing of beauty. I can enjoy it for the art that it is. I will say though, it was not an easy read. It’s hard to get comfortable with Edie (I think this is by design) and the stream of consciousness style of her writing requires a more patient mind than I sometimes had.
Kept Animals, by Kate Milliken
A favorite. I’m borrowing this from my review because it’s really hard to describe any other way: “There’s a lot to break down in Kept Animals that ultimately (and maybe unfortunately as well) is incredibly timely — climate change, sexuality, violence against women, racism, socioeconomic inequality. Fire is tragic. But it’s also cleansing. Maybe there’s a bit of karma in the Topanga Canyon fire. It may have been nature’s way of erasing more than one tragedy. All that said, if you believe in little miracles, the ending is worth the wait.”
Monogamy, by Sue Miller
Sue Miller is such a good writer. Like, really good. So even something seemingly mundane as “my husband died and I found out he was a cheater” in her hands makes for really gripping fiction. (PS I am not really giving anything away with that statement, trust me.)
Little Family, by Ishmael Beah
A favorite. Had you asked me when I first read this if I’d think it was a favorite at years end, I would have said no. But these characters have clung to me and won’t let go. I miss Khoudi and Eliman and Namsa.
Writers and Lovers, by Lily King
Also a favorite. I might not have said that at the beginning, when it feels like King’s protagonist, Casey, just can’t get her shit together. but by the end of the book, I was rooting for her big time, and happy to have read something uplifting and heartwarming.
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt, by Anonymous
I’ve mentioned my love of Twitter, have I not? That’s where I first encountered the duchess, and I just love her. It’s a beautiful, funny world she’s created for herself and her followers and her very real memoir is hopeful and inspiring and reminds us that we are all connected in one way or another, so it’s best to practice kindness.
Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam
A favorite. I feel like Alam’s story about two very different families sharing very close quarters at the start of oh-maybe-it’s-the-world-ending is a bit of an enigma, because I feel like I am the only one that would use “creepy in a good way” and “yeah, it’s totally whack but you’ll love it” in a review. It’s sardonic and kind of terror-filled all at once. But it’s definitely worth the read.
A Promised Land, by Barack Obama
Of course I loved this. It’s about my favorite president. He’s a wordy guy, but the details make the stories worth telling.