For the past several years I’ve been doing a year-end wrap-up of some of the best books I’ve read during the year. Usually it’s a top 10 list with a few extras thrown in. (One of last year’s honorable mentions was As Bright As Heaven By Susan Meisner. It was more timely than I ever could have imagined, because its topic is the 1918 pandemic. As we live out our own pandemic, I would highly recommend this one again.)
This year, I’ve had lots of time to read since there wasn’t much else I could do. (No commuting and many of my regular activities curtailed by COVID-19.) So I’m presenting 20 of the best books that I have read. (BTW: Four of the books on my list were also on President Obama’s list…someone has good taste.)
As I write this, my list of books read nears 90, and includes two series: I concluded the Miss Julia series by Ann B Ross (a total of 22 books as of now) and undertook Sheila Connelly’s Orchard series (12.5 books in the series; book #10, Seeds of Deception, partly takes place in Montclair!). I also discovered Steve Cavanaugh’s Eddie Flynn books, but have not yet read his latest (which is why it doesn’t appear on this this).
As we hunker down for what may be a LONG winter, here my top 20 for 2020, with the titles linked to their listing in the Verona Public Library catalog for easy borrowing:
The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis: My love of the theater was definitely piqued by this novel. Taking place mostly in the 1950s in New York City and focusing on the world of theater, if you love either you will love this book. I ran through many emotions with this book and I bet you will too.
Thirteen by Steve Cavanaugh: This was the fourth in the series and where I started. I would recommend reading the series in order (I know I wish I did), but if you are only going to read one, this is it. It was a true thriller and I couldn’t put it down. Will give you a whole new outlook on jury duty!
If It Bleeds by Stephen King: One of my favorite storytellers and King always is at his best with short stories. There are four here (including one that links back to one of my favorites from 2018: The Outsider.) Each one of these stories will get under your skin and each in a different way. Personally, I found “The Life of Chuck,” which is the second story, to be the most bizarre and as result perhaps the scariest.
The Dutch House by Ann Pachett: I really didn’t know what to expect from this book. Many of the characters were dislikeable (the “evil” stepmother) or not understandable (the father), but the dynamic of the brother and sister and all the complexities of relationships grabbed me. I had a lot of questions after reading this book (what made Andrea the stepmother that she was?) and this is definitely one that would be good for a (socially distant) book club.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: Another period piece that takes place in the NYC theater scene that completely captivated me. (Perhaps this is the start of a new genre?) I adored the narrator. I soaked in every little detail about life in the theater and in NYC during the 1940s.
Chances Are by Richard Russo: I haven’t read ALL that Richard Russo has written, but I have read quite a few. This is in my opinion, the BEST. (Yes, I liked it even better than Empire Falls, which won the Pulitzer Prize.) This is a tale of three friends meeting after many years and the mysterious disappearance of their friend years ago. Once I finished I immediately wanted to go read some more Richard Russo. A good author will do that to you.
You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe: This you know everything about our first president? Think again. This is an excellent and easy read, giving some interesting (new) insight into the first president. In Coe’s capable hands he is not saint or sinner, but human.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker: Can a true story about mental illness in one family really be a good read? Yes it can! This was not just good; it was excellent as it puts a “face” on mental illness. This a real family of 12 dealing with multiple members diagnosed with schizophrenia. It is compelling and fascinating.
Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore: This was not at all what I expected as Oona, every year on the stroke of midnight “leaps” (for lack of a better word) into a different year in her life. Starting from 19 she goes to her 51st year and then back to her late 20s. Yes it is confusing and I’ll admit that it took me a while to get into this, but once I did I could not put it down. As Oona goes from year to year, out of order, the story just gets better and better. This is NOT true science fiction; so you’ll never find out exactly how and why this is happening, but forget about that and just enjoy.
28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand: This is strictly summer chick lit. Or maybe if you need a little summer in your winter. If you love Bernard Slade; if you love Dot Frank; you will love this book which is a tribute to them both. This was such a powerful and moving story. I love Same Time, Next Year. I love summer stories. And I miss Dot Frank…this was my first summer without a book from her and it hurt. This book made it hurt a little less.
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James: Set at a run-down motel (obvious), young woman takes up night clerk job just as her aunt did several decades before. The aunt that been missing for decades. This book was creepy, spooky and scary. I highly recommend, but only in daylight hours!
The Dearly Beloved by Cara Walls: This tale of two couples whose lives intersection when the husbands become co-pastors at a church in New York City. This is a quiet and slow book which is also wonderfully touching. It is not preachy or overly religious, but instead is about faith (or lack of it) and relationships.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson: You’ve probably heard about this one; it was an Oprah book selection. Despite having to put this book down several times because I could not stomach the realities of this book, I could not help but finish it quickly. Isabel Wilkerson has written about a complex matter in an understandable way. To say I was moved is an understatement. She has opened my eyes to things I do not want to see and I will never be able to close them again. As the author says: “Once awakened, we then have a choice. We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate…We need not bristle when those deemed subordinate break free, but rejoice that there may be one more human being who can add their true strengths to humanity.” I have made my choice…and I WILL rejoice.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John: This is the second book that I’ve read by the author. (The first being Station Eleven, which was in my top ten list of 2018.) In the beginning of both I wondered why I was reading, but I got swept up. The story is depressing and slightly gothic. I got swept in and couldn’t stop myself, even though I felt a depression settle over me as I read parts. This book makes you feel and think…and wonder…and dream.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: I guess this is a coming of age book, as it’s about Edward’s life through the years as he recovers physically and mentally from the plane crash, but it’s more than that. The author did a wonderful job weaving bits and pieces from the other passengers on the plane as well. The book just grabbed me as it was so well written and really told a story that I thought I wouldn’t like, but I did.
Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: We all think of the American Dream as something that is “pretty.” Something we need to aspire to. In this tale of immigrants from Cameroon, it becomes clear that the American Dream is anything but.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa: I read this because it was required reading for my son’s English class. I’m not a big fan of dystopian fiction. (I also read 1984 as that was also on his reading list and HATED it.) The book was beautifully written, but made me very uneasy. Perhaps for the times we live in it hit too close to home. Maybe the theme of disappearing hit me too hard. But I’m glad I read it and since there are currently no memory police here, I will not forget this novel.
The Lost Girls Of Paris by Pam Jenoff: Based on the real-life mission of British women working as spies in France during World War II, this fictional tale of Grace finding an abandoned suitcase at Grand Central Station which leads her down the rabbit hole of the roles British women played in World War II. A great read for anyone who is interested in WWII and women’s roles; although I will say I wish this had been longer and there had been more detail about some of the lesser characters involved.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Benett: An interesting concept: twin sisters, one light-skinned and one dark, run away from home and end up going their separate ways living very different lives. This book was very thought-provoking (and another good one for a book club). Makes you think about who you are and what you would do to be someone else. What people have done to survive and become someone else? What and why is skin color.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi: I don’t know who recommended this to me or why I picked it up, but I am so glad I did. It was a delight to read. A short, but beautifully written novel; less about “time travel” and more about the complex relationships that the characters have. This book is to be savored like the cup of coffee that is served at the cafe where the novel takes place. You’ll want to drink it before it gets cold and then ask for another cup. I suspect I will have “gulped” down the “sequel” Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Café before we turn the page on 2020.
Finally, since I mentioned in the beginning that four of the books on my list were also on President Obama’s list (Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, The Glass Hotel and The Vanishing Half ) I also want to say that I read his book, A Promised Land, which does not land on my top 20 list (Michelle Obama’s Becoming did make my top ten last year), but is worth a mention and worth a read.
Be prepared however, this is REALLY long and really detailed. Some of the detail was too much for me (ok, so it was a little dull), but this was really my first look into what it looks like inside the presidency. You know that the position is a LOT of work, but to hear from the man who was there all that goes into every move was fascinating for me. Although I have to be honest, I enjoyed the more personal bits than the details; the human sides instead of the policy.
I admire that the president can look back and see where and why things did not go as planned…for the most part he doesn’t place blame…he shares it. He doesn’t take glory; he shares it. (Which in my opinion is the hallmark of a good leader.) This is NOT a quick read; it is an engrossing one so make sure you give yourself a lot of time to completely delve into this compelling look into the first term of the Obama presidency.
Honored to see The Chelsea Girls on your list – many thanks!