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My 2020 Book List: Recommended Reads
I feel like I read more fiction this past year than I normally would, because everyday life was more overwhelming than usual. I mostly “read” by listening to books on Audible while I clean and fold laundry. For way too many days, I simply found it difficult to focus on non fiction. But there were a few titles I got in, despite that! And if you are looking for comfort reads, this is a great list for you!
As always my book list is sorted by genre. I’ll be reading (or, more likely, listening to) more books in 2021, so please share recommendations in the comments!
Non-Fiction History Books to Read
Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance tells one of the most astonishing true stories I’ve heard. Clearly meticulously researched, the book shares the life story of Virginia Hall, an American socialite who wound up playing an important role in the French resistance during World War II – despite having a prosthetic leg.
Say Nothing by Patrick Raddon Keefe chronicles the troubles of Northern Ireland, particularly the actions of the unknowns and the stories of some of the disappeared. This was a book club pick, and quite intense due to the topic. I do recommend reading it if you want to learn more about this time in history.
Nations by Colin Woodward examines the 11 different regional origins of Europeans who settled in North America, and how their origin cultures continue to influence the parts of North America that they settled today. This was a book club pick that I probably would not have read otherwise, but it was interesting.
Popular Science Non-Fiction
Vivek M. Murphy’s Together focuses on just how important connection is for humans. It’s a point that was driven home over and over this year, since we live in an area with very strong covid restrictions in place and my own lack of a kidney (from childhood cancer) and then my husband’s cancer diagnosis led to our family being very cautious on top of restrictions.
Non-Fiction Books to Read on Current Issues
I decided it was well past time I read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. I usually read books like this in print, but it was out of stock so I picked Audible instead. It’s a good book, and well worth reading in its entirety.
Memoirs Featuring Current News Headlines
Chanel Miller’s Know My Name was my favorite book in 2020, even though the topic makes it feel strange to say that. We were living on Stanford campus when she was assaulted by Brock Turner in 2015, and we voted to recall Judge Persky. Chanel’s memoir is powerfully written, searingly honest, and something that everyone should read.
My reading of Bakari Sellers’ My Vanishing Country has me thinking this is a man we will likely see run for president at some point – and when he does, we should consider him seriously as a candidate.
I appreciated Clare Bowditch’s take on struggling with not being “thin enough” and struggling with anxiety in Your Own Kind of Girl. Get the audiobook rather than the paperback, because she includes her songs in the recording.
Middle Grade Fiction Picks
I bought Kelly Yang’s Front Desk after my daughters told me how much their friends enjoyed it. I decided to read the book as well, and I’m glad I did! It’s a great middle grade fiction read with some great messages about finding creative solutions to problems and advocating for and being an ally for others. The book is fiction, but inspired by the author’s own childhood.
The Boy at the Back of the Class tells the tale of a Syrian refugee in a London classroom – told from the point of view of one of his 9-year-old classmates. This middle grade fiction novel paints the stark reality of life as a refugee and the terrible price that is all too often paid to make it out of a country at war. But it feels hopeful thanks to themes of friendship, allyship, helping others, and standing up for what is right. I read this book out loud to my 11-year-old and my 8-year-old, who both loved it so much that their 12-year-old brother also read it. He also really enjoyed this book.
I read All-of-a-Kind Family and All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown to my daughter Lily as her bedtime story over a series of nights. I love the warmth in these books, written based on the author’s own childhood growing up Jewish in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. Lily loved them too, and I’m sure we will finish the series.
I highly recommend Torrey Maldonado’s What Lane? The book can be hard to get into (my 10-year-old said she didn’t really “get” it until Chapter 5, but it’s a beautifully crafted look at race relations in America. Our kids are learning about this in the news right now anyway, and the book’s well crafted characters offer a gentle introduction to the realities of being a young Black book in the United States right now.
Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus follows the adventures of a girl who was born with no arms who has to move to a new school in a new state. She befriends two other kids who struggle to fit in with the crowd, and together they find ways to connect with others. This is middle grade fiction dealing with tough issues that stress kids in meaningful and impactful ways.
I don’t usually include this category, but I wasn’t sure where else to stick Alexander McCall Smith‘s books. They aren’t really chick lit, and they aren’t historical fiction, and they rarely pull in current events. I read them when I was a book that reminds me that life CAN be boring in a very pleasant way, even if it isn’t right this moment.
This was the first book I read in 2020! The Peppermint Tea Chronicles was the latest in the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith that I originally started reading in the newspaper The Scotsman when we lived in Scotland. While I enjoyed the book, I don’t think it would interest someone who hadn’t followed the series from the beginning, or at least for a while. The same is true of its sequel, A Promise of Ankles. Appropriately, this was the last book I read in 2020!
Alexander McCall Smith’s books are always relaxing listens, and The Talented Mr. Varg was no exception. No great depth, but fun for a harmless escape read.
Book Club Fiction
I created this Book Club Fiction list to accommodate a few books that I wasn’t sure to place within my 2020 book list. I feature book club books elsewhere; the books that are in this section are books that work well for a book club because they will likely inspire a range of reactions from readers.
I’m not even sure how to describe A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This Pulitzer prize winning book was another book club pick. It features a series of stories about a range of characters who connect to one another across time. At one point the book includes a PowerPoint presentation; not something I’ve ever seen before. it’s worth reading if you like quirky and unusual books and don’t mind troubling content.
Julia Cliaborne Johnson’s Be Frank with Me must have been an Audible deal of the day, because it was not my typical book. That being said, I enjoyed the story even if the ending leaves an arguably frustrating number of threads hanging.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered was a book club pick and not something I would have chosen for myself. I didn’t love it, but I did enjoy learning a little bit about scientist Mary Treat. The author included a fictional romance between Treat and a made up character, which is something that I don’t feel completely comfortable with.
I read Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety for the second time (first time was 22 years ago). This is one of my brother’s favorite books, and I really wanted to like it. But, once again, I didn’t. I assumed 18 was too young to appreciate it, but at 40 my reaction feels similar. Stegner’s female characters just feel one-dimensional to me, and the men seem self absorbed. While I admire well written language, this book feels self consciously well written. But lots of people I know adore it, and maybe if I read it a third time in another 22 years I will?
I generally like Liane Moriarty, but Truly Madly Guilty got too dark and twisted for my tastes. I felt like the characters had a strange mix of complexity and lack of depth.
K.M. Shea is one of my favorite escape into a book authors. I really enjoyed reading both Royal Magic and The Prince’s Bargain. Her books are almost always available on Kindle Unlimited, which is even better!
Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink was a book club read. This is a beautifully written, intense tale that is hard to put down.
Yaa Gyasi crafts a powerful telling of slavery and its impact on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in Homegoing. This is an important, tough read.
Catherine Fyffe’s An American Duchess was a fun listen-while-doing-chores book. The plot felt extremely unrealistic, though.
Traci Chee brings Japanese American imprisonment in the United States to life through a range of vivid fictional storytellers in We Are Not Free. I highly recommend this book for high schoolers who are learning about World War II.
I really enjoyed the lead female character in Roseanna M. Whites The Number of Love. It’s a World War I story focusing on the role of codebreakers, including female codebreakers.
Jean Grainger explores class and English-Irish relations in What Once Was True. I enjoyed this historical fiction book enough to read its sequel, Return to Robinswood. They are very accessible books that cover some difficult topics, but with a happy ending.
I enjoyed Julia Kelly’s The Light Over London and recommend it for people who love World War II stories. It isn’t my favorite book in this genre, though.
Elin Hildebrand’s Summer of ‘69 was an interesting look at this eventful year in U.S. history.
Current Events Fiction
Kim Johnson’s This Is My America pulled me into her lead character’s world more than most books do. It’s a rare author who can take someone so different from me as a character and bring their world to life to the point where I wind up dreaming about it. This is an intense, often difficult read that brings important current issues to light while still ending in an okay way.
Elizabeth Acevedo weaves language brilliantly, and Clap When You Land is no exception. What happens when a father dies, only for his daughters to realize that he had two families, one in each country? This book tackles many issues, including grief, forgiveness, race, and poverty.
Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X is an intense read. It rang true with what I observed of my low income middle school students’ lives and experiences.
Tobly McSmith’s Stay Gold book features a young transgender boy finding his way in the world. It’s an often light book with some extremely serious undertones. If you are trying to better understand transgender identity, issues, and struggles, this is an approachable place to start.
I listened to Sonali Dev’s Recipe for Persuasion on our road trip, and loved it enough to also listen to Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. That was listening to the books in the wrong order, but I still thoroughly enjoyed both Jane Austen inspired stories.
I decided I should probably read Jane Austen’s Persuasion after reading Sonali Dev’s Recipe for Persuasion. I enjoyed the book, but it won’t top my Austen reads list.
Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable is another Jane Austen inspired book that I listened to on the same book. I actually discovered this book first and then found Sonali Dev’s books when I went looking for similar titles.
Brooke Burroughs’ The Marriage Code is a chick lit book about getting married in India. It does touch on multicultural relationships and what it is like to live in a culture that is not your own, as well as figuring out what to do when you don’t want to live in the culture you were raised in.
Spring House by Mary Ellen Taylor was another recommendation from my sister. A fun read with a hint of mystery.
Marc Levy’s A Woman Like Her offers a great example of chick lit with serious undertones. I enjoyed the characters he crafted.
I really enjoyed Suzy Krause’s Sorry I Missed You. Unique characters and an original plot.
Robyn Carr’s Sunrise on Half Moon Bay was another mostly-light listen. Definitely chick lit. It was interesting to read a book set not far from my house.
Second Chances Fiction
My sister recommended Have You Seen Luis Velez, and I loved the book. Catherine Ryan Hyde writes complex characters brilliantly.
Walk Me Home is another Catherine Ryan Hyde book that I enjoyed. She is the queen of Second Chance Fiction.
Barbara Davis’ The Last of the Moon Girls was a light-ish read with some pretty serious overtones. It was well written with several plot twists.
Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish by Tori Whitaker is really about forgiveness – of yourself as well as others.
What books did you love in 2020?
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