Best Books I Read in 2020

30 December 2020

At the end of each year, I like to do a write-up reflecting on my personal favorite books I read in the past year. I’m happy to say that I surpassed my Goodreads goal of 45 and read 48 books this year. And though I read fewer books than last year (52), I read overall more pages than last year (close to 18,000 pages) See my full “My Year in Books” list here.

Normally I pick my top 10 books, but this year I’m picking my top 12. It’s always hard for me to pick my top books of the year, so I mostly went with my gut for my most memorable or enjoyable reads for the year. My specific ranking order is not a strong opinion, except I do think my pick for #1 book does deserve the top spot. 

Here it goes:

12. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb (This book is short and sweet. I just felt it was such an endearing story, and Bess Kalb’s grandmother is a character not easy to forget.)

11. Travel Light, Move Fast by Alexandra Fuller (I think Alexandra Fuller has made my list every year since I started making them. She is the queen of memoir to me.)

10. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (This novel is the fascinating first-person account of a formerly enslaved boy Henry Shackleford, nicknamed ‘Onion’, who is forced to accompany the fanatical abolitionist John Brown from the Kansas Territory till his raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859, but due to a misunderstanding on Brown’s part, must do so disguised as a girl.)

9. Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller (This was like listening to an extended episode of WNYC’s Radiolab—probably my favorite radio show and podcast. I love how the author wove her own life’s story with the life of ichthyologist David Starr Jordan and really dug deep into the philosophical meaning of life.)

8. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe (I’ve always wanted to know more about The Troubles in Northern Ireland after visiting there in 2010. This was a good primer on not only a specific murder that happened, but the entire complex political and social background to the many decades of strife in the country.)

7. Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (I went on to complete the entire Mistborn series this year. I’ll have to admit, it took me reading at least a third of the first book to understand what was going on, but once I understood the “rules” of the Mistborn world, it was a fun ride. Definitely one of the more engaging pieces of fantasy I’ve read in a long time, though the first book is the best in the series.)

6. That Distant Land: The Collected Stories by Wendell Berry (Oh, Mr. Berry. Somehow he captures ordinary life in the most extraordinary way. Visiting the fictional town of Port William and all the people therein is always a treat. The collected stories in That Distant Land are no exception.)

5. Congratulations, Who Are You Again?: A Memoir by Harrison Scott Key (A hilarious new-to-me author, a follow up The World’s Largest Man, which I also read this year, and could honestly swap in this position as just-as-good as this one. It’s a memoir on the process of writing a memoir—a bit “meta”—but also about dealing with insecurities and observing your own life from a distance.)

4. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham (I love books that dissect a particular disaster or event in history from many different angles. The who, why, what. This book does just that with the infamous Chernobyl disaster in a very engaging way, and it’s just “science-y” enough that I felt I learned something, too.)

3. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (I swoon over anything David Mitchell writes. It’s hard NOT for me to be biased to love anything he writes. His way with words just wins me over every time, no matter the topic. This one’s about a 1960’s rock band (think: The Beatles)—not my normal go-to topic, but again, Mitchell can make anything fascinating to me. If I were a novelist, he is the writer I would want to be. There is no objectivity for me with Mitchell. Top 3! LOL!)

2. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (This was one of the most different and thoroughly engrossing novels I’ve ever read. I read and loved Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell many years ago and watched the BBC show. She has a very particular style and tone that is reminiscent in this book. ***Small spoiler, perhaps: I do have to say that the ending may not be the most earth-shattering revelation or wholly original, but the journey to it in small bites and clues is one of the most fascinating and original puzzles I’ve ever unraveled in words.*** It’s going to be one that I re-read later for sure, and I don’t re-read the same book very often.)

1. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry (This might be one of my favorite novels I’ve EVER read. It’s near perfect in my eyes. When I read this book, I felt like I had lived another life—and isn’t that one of the goals of a novelist or of reading books? To let us live and experience other lives, even as we live our own?)

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Whole series I read (or series I started to read) this year include:

  • Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (It’s a lot of pages, but it’s a good series with a memorable world and cool characters overall.)
  • The Truly Devious series by Maureen Johnson (This was a very fun murder mystery that spanned the whole series, which I thought was quite nice since most murder mystery series wrap up each mystery per book, instead of carrying it through the whole series like this one. I enjoyed it quite a bit.)
  • I started George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (A Game of Thrones). (I know I’m waaaay behind the eight-ball on this, and I’ve never watched the show. It was good, but I can’t expect I can read more than one of these per year till I finally catch up because they’re so long and dare I say, a touch melodramatic?)
  • I started the Kingkiller Chronicle series by Patrick Rothfuss with The Name of the Wind. As with George R.R. Martin’s series, I do plan to continue it at some point, but they are chunkers!

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  • The most challenging: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (When a book begins with a sentence like “When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule / Entry for the First Day of the Fifth Month in the Year the Albatross Came to the South-Western Halls . . .” you know it’s going to be a strange and challenging book, but this one was so highly worth it.)
  • The worst (would not pick up again): The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins. (Ugh. What a slog. Sorry. Overall, I had loved the Hunger Games series, but I had such a hard time getting through this prequel.)
  • The funniest: Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key (The author had some of the funniest turns of phrase, and he reminded me a lot of David Sedaris, another one of my favorite authors. I had a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments reading this.)
  • The weirdest: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (This was not necessarily a bad book, it was just very dark and strange, and while I related to some of the themes in the plot, it was just . . . weirdly intense.)
  • Delightful sequel: Hank Green’s A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor was a sequel that might have been even better than the first (An Absolutely Remarkable Thing).
  • These are other contenders for top spots that I very much enjoyed but get an honorable mention here: Educated by Tara Westover; Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber; The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel; and The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies.

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What were some of your favorite books that you read this year? What should I read in 2021? I’d love to hear your recommendations.