There is no diminishing the pain, anxiety and loss of 2020. But I will say I read alot, and so did you, I am guessing. After all, this was the year that baking, picnicking, and reading all experienced a resurgence. And not only reading itself, but reading classics surged due to the pandemic.
This year, I once again followed my reading structure, intentionally reading one of each of the following four categories every month:
- A classic (or a new classic, such as Kindred by Octavia Butler)
- A diverse read (something written by a person of color or about a race other than my own). This year, this kind of reading didn’t feel optional anymore. Books aren’t going to dismantle white supremacy. But for those of us who are beginning to think more deeply about their own role in the American story of systemic racism, they’re a pretty good place to start.
- A new, minty, buzzy book (This year I hopped in and out of the #ReadwithJenna and Reece Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book clubs and relished reading along. My favorite book of the year was a #ReadwithJenna pick!)
- Something from my unread shelf, always a trove of treasures.
It’s no surprise that my best-loved books of the year again come from all four categories. I read so many plummy books this year, it was agonizing to choose just ten. So I didn’t. I chose thirteen! This year’s list is extra special because it includes books from four authors I have had the pleasure of getting to know on Instagram: Sarah Miller, Brenda Janowitz, Amy Meyerson, and Marisa de los Santos.
If any of these books sound like your cup of hot cocoa with homemade marshmallows, please do comment! Each comment will be entered in a drawing to win the book of your choice from this list. Last year’s winner, Mia, chose The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek! Which book will you choose?
I heard Maya Angelou speak years ago at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University, and was very taken with her as a human, a speaker, and a writer. But sometimes even the most luminous books are not a good fit for a particular season, and for me, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, didn’t really fit when I first tried it. But this time–THIS TIME–it fit like an piece of dovetailed parquet flooring. I was obsessed with this book and Maya’s majestic writing, resplendent with prose that demands a reread or twelve. (In one section, she paints an inviting portrait of coziness, describing how she read Jane Eyre before the fire as her Mama rattled pans and fried corn cakes for supper. “The homey sounds and scents cushioned me,” she writes. Swooning!) As I read the story of Maya’s upbringing in a small Arkansas town, I felt like I was there with her, which is probably why the terrible scenes of her sexual abuse are so searing. Searing, but worth it. In a year where we were forced to wrestle with racial injustice, this masterpiece of memoir and story is an oracle of truth. (1969, Rated PG for most of it, R for some of it.) (Classic, Diverse, Unread)
Usually, I have no time for science fiction, other than A Wrinkle in Time, but Kindred was my kind of science fiction because I love time travel. Set in the late 1970s, a 26-year-old African American woman named Dana is sucked into a time warp and finds herself in the Antebellum South, a dangerous place for a Black woman to be. I was fascinated by how easily Butler seemed to imagine what it would have been like for someone like her–a modern Black woman–to inhabit a place and time where she was nothing but a piece of property. “In Kindred, Octavia Butler creates a road for the impossible and a balm for the unbearable,” Walter Mosley said. “It is everything the literature of science fiction can be.” (1979, PG-13 for violence and assault). (Classic, Diverse)
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
It’s no surprise that this gasp-worthy book has won all the awards for 2020. Brit Bennett’s second novel pulled me out of a reading slump and locked me in for the entire ride–and what a ride it was. I was tantalized by the premise–of light-skinned Black twins in the Jim Crow South, and one twin “vanishing” into a white world, passing for white. Let me tell you, this premise lived up to all the storytelling potential and then some. It propelled me along with the sizzling story, but also made me ponder issues of race, Blackness, white privilege, identity, belonging. I found this book to be unputdownable while it stirred me to think deeply and maybe even change. (2020, Rated R) (Buzzy, Diverse)
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
I heard Bryan Stevenson speak at the January Series at Calvin University about 4 years ago. I was incredibly taken with Stevenson–his character, gentleness, and passion shone through. But it took me until January 2020 (yes, prompted by the movie starring Michael B. Jordan) to read this worthy book. If you have seen the movie, you know it depicts him as a young, green lawyer in Alabama who must find a way to get an innocent man off of death row. I read it in shock and horror, yet Stevenson’s writing presents these real injustices (and attempts to fight injustices) in a redemptive, hopeful manner. I read it before Ahmaud Arbery, before George Floyd, before Breonna Taylor (who grew up very close to me here in Grand Rapids), and somehow, it prepared me for all that was to come during this last turbulent Spring. If you are wondering how these injustices keep happening, Just Mercy is a nonfiction magnum opus that helped me understand the ongoing struggle faced by my brothers and sisters of color. Illuminating, agonizing, and essential. (2015, PG-13) (Diverse, Unread)
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende does not disappoint. If possible, I adored her, even more, when I finished the pages of A Long Petal of the Sea. Gorgeous, sweeping, and immersive, Queen of World Fiction Isabel delivers another literary page turner. I learned so much about the Spanish Civil War and the history of Spanish immigrants to Chile and both subjects (surprisingly) enthralled me. Oddly, I found my father in these pages. Just as he was a refugee from Stalin (and some of his family members ended up boarding a boat for Paraguay after WW2), Allende’s characters Victor and Roser flee from Franco and board a boat called the S.S. Winnipeg (!!!) for a new life in Chile. (I say “!!!” because Winnipeg is my beloved hometown. One never does figure out why the boat is called that, though.) If you love to sink into another time and place in your reading, treat yourself to the opulent jewel that is this novel. You’ll be carried along on the S.S. Winnipeg and beyond. (2020, Rated PG-13) (Buzzy, Diverse)
Caroline by Sarah Miller
If you loved the Little House on the Prairie books, you will adore Caroline: Little House Revisited. In a nutshell, it is Little House on the Prairie through Ma’s eyes. I read this comforting and uplifting book after my trip this summer to the actual Little House on the Prairie, in Independence, Kansas. Replete with plush prairie details, about Ma’s spider pan and cooking cornbread and somehow making it over that raging creek in a covered wagon, this novel made me feel as if I was bumping along on the way to Kansas with the Ingalls family Talk about a transporting read! The book also gave me new insights into Ma–Caroline–and her troubling issues with Indigenous Peoples; in this book, the Osage. If you read LHOTP, as I did this summer on my way to Kansas, you may be appalled as I was by a few of Ma’s words and Pa’s actions. Caroline gives much-needed nuance and context, though it does not let anyone off the hook. (I say, instead of canceling Laura and her books, let’s grapple with these real-life pioneers as they were, with character flaws and blind spots.) Elegantly written and scrupulously researched, Caroline is a book to savor and soak up. (2017, PG, except for a couple of scenes of Little Frisky Biscuits on the Prairie) (Unread)
The Imperfects by Amy Meyerson
When the fractured Miller siblings, forced to be together for the first time in years, lose their beloved grandmother, Helen, they have no idea how their lives are about to change. Their immigrant grandmother was far from wealthy, so they are stunned to find that a brooch in her possession is bejeweled by none other than the Florentine Diamond, a 137-carat yellow gemstone that went missing from the Austrian Empire a century ago. This is the clever and enticing kickoff to the action as the siblings, including Jake, who, winsomely enough, works at Trader Joe’s, race to find out if they are the rightful heirs to this priceless gemstone, still missing in real life. While I relished the humming storyline, I really appreciated Meyerson’s wise insights into grown siblings, their estrangements, and what really binds us together. (2020, Rated PG-13) (Buzzy)
Beach Read by Emily Henry
One of my favorite things to do in my bookish life is reading a novel in its setting. Obviously, since most novels are not set in Grand Rapids, Michigan, lightning doesn’t strike very often. But this past summer (she says wistfully, staring out at the gloomfest of icy roads and “pearl grey” skies as Anne of Green Gables so poetically described, well, a gloomfest), it happened: I read Beach Read at the beach. And not just any beach either, it was nearly the exact same beach where it was set–Holland, Michigan. This was the cherry on top of an already decadent sundae because Beach Read is scrumptious. Augustus and January (oooh, awww!) are two writers with the dreaded writer’s block who end up inhabiting neighboring cottages. He writes profound literary fiction; she writes sparkling romances with sunset endings. Until one night, they decide to swap genres for the summer, a move designed to bust them out of their blockages. Call me enticed, which I was. Enticed as I sat on a beach towel, watching the waves come in and becoming more enamored with Emily Henry’s craft as I turned the pages. She manages to pull off a neat trick–write a positively iridescent, entertaining romance novel with layers of meaning and truth-telling. Come for the premise and buzz, stay for the banter and linger for the emotional perceptions. (2020, Rated PG-13)
The Grace Kelly Dress by Brenda Janowitz
This book is less about Grace Kelly and more about generations of family and all the ways they are stitched together, for good and for bad. If you are looking for a snappy page-turner with equal parts charm and insights into life, love, grief, and family heirlooms, look no further than this shimmering pearl of a read. Three brides, three generations, and one magical dress. I admired the way Brenda Janowitz fashioned this plot, with mini cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. This kept me reading at a brisk pace as I became attached to Rose, Joanie, and Rocky, three intriguing heroines from very different eras: the 50’s, the 80’s, and 2020. Highly recommend if you need something a little bit breezy that still offers hidden depths. If you are planning a wedding or know a reader bride, this would make a darling gift. Reading this as I anticipated my son’s December wedding (a tiny, 15 person-affair) made me aspire to be a good, accepting, encouraging MOTG. (2020, Rated PG-13) (Buzzy)
Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos
After choosing Love Walked In for last year’s Best of Books list, I knew I would adore the follow up, 2011’s Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos, who is, I happen to know, a loyal, bosom friend to Anne with an E. (Yes, dear readers, everything does ultimately come back to Anne of Green Gables. If you want to fight me on this, I will meet you at the door with “Raspberry Cordial.” Prepare to make plum puffs with me.) Belong to Me is my all-time favorite kind of book–propulsive as a jet engine, fizzy as prosecco and as cozy as drinking hot cocoa by the fire wrapped in alpaca wool robes. Set in an upscale suburb with three very different residents as the main characters, this book reminded me of Little Fires Everywhere, but sweeter and more redemptive. Some books keep their characters at arm’s length, but not this one. Cornelia, Teo, and the gang pretty much envelop you. You are going to need the hugs, believe me; there’s heartache ahead. As someone who has lost dear ones to cancer–including my childhood best friend–de los Santos definitely gets the sacred intimacy of those harrowing days and months of goodbye. It’s a wrenching book and a joyful book. Ultimately, it’s a book that teaches readers what it means to belong. (2011, PG-13) (Unread)
Emma by Jane Austen
I had never read Emma before this year, and it instantly became my favorite Austen (though I still have Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey to read, so the jury is still out). Our Miss Woodhouse can be a bit full of herself, but I loved following her on her journey of growth and maturity. I enjoyed her attempts at matchmaking (well, not all of them), and saw myself in her trying to throw people together for the giddiness of watching them fall in love. Of course, this plan often backfires, both in Regency England of 1815 and today. The side characters such as endearing Miss Bates, that insufferable cow Mrs. Elton, and the most hilarious hypochondriac in all of literature, Mr. Woodhouse, all filled me with delight. Also, there is a picnic scene that is both glorious and inglorious (Badly done, Emma!) at the same time. Finally, there’s Mr. Knightly–a knight of a man. I do believe I prefer him now to any other Austen leading man. Sorry, Fitzwilliam Darcy, but you do seem a bit grumpy in comparison. (Rated PG) (Classic, Unread)
The Story Girl by Lucy Maud Montgomery
You are never too old for a book that enchants, comforts, and makes you smile every page and a half. Though I resisted this book for lo, these many years of Lucy Maud Montgomery fandom, once I gave in I was a goner. You see, I resisted The Story Girl because I thought it was a book of short stories. I do like short stories, especially if they are written by Maud (The Quarantine at Alexander Abraham’s was rich reading this Spring), but I love novels so much more. As it turns out, this is kind of a hybrid short story collection/novel, with enough connective tissue between the characters and enough of a plot, per se, to engage my novel loving heart. In short, I was an idiot for missing out all these years. I couldn’t wait for my nightly reading in bed, when I could spend time with Sara Stanley, the Story Girl, and her cousins, Bev, Felix, Felicity, and Cecily as they navigated life in a Prince Edward Island village in 1911. And I did end up enjoying most of the 32 stories tucked within, especially The Blue Chest of Rachel Ward. I saw that Blue Chest myself on a trip to Prince Edward Island. Maud herself called this novel her favorite, having drawn from her own teenage diaries to create these lovely cousins. Her writing, as always, is so intuitive, rollicking and funny. Back to the Blue Chest, which sits at Silver Bush: when my pal Kim and I arrived at Silver Bush, we came in out of the blustery November cold and were greeted by Pam Campbell, Maud’s relative, and the incandescent scent of hot mulled cider warming on the stove. We sipped, she told stories, and it was all a slice of Heaven. That’s exactly what this book is like–a coming in out of the cold, and in a year like 2020, we all need a shelter in the storm. (Rated G) (Classic, Unread)
My Top Read of 2020:
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
What a wonderful surprise this book was. With a captivating premise–a 12-year-old-boy is the sole survivor of a plane crash that should have killed him–this #readwithjenna pick moved me deeply. When young Edward survives a plane crash that leaves him orphaned, he must move in with his goodhearted, childless, and somewhat bumbling aunt and uncle. More than that, he must figure out a way to exist in the world without drowning in his losses. If this sounds depressing, miraculously, it’s not. Yes, it’s sad and even a bit haunting, but ultimately gripping and inspiring. The plot dazzled me; the author’s method of weaving between Edward’s current life, post-crash, and telling the backstories of the other passengers, pre-crash, is absolutely brilliant. You will fall in love with Edward (as a mom, I was ready to fly to his fictional house bearing casseroles and hugs), and cheer him on as he gropes his way through the dark tunnel of terrible grief to a life worth living. I wouldn’t read this on a plane, like I did, but do read this if you want to be beguiled by an unforgettable character and the truth that there is great joy after profound loss. (2020, PG-13) (Buzzy)
Which of my 2020 Best Of Books looks most alluring to you, bookish friends? Comment below for a chance to WIN!