My Twelve Favorite 2020 Books
Updated: Jan 5, 2021
01 This Is All He Asks of You by Anne Egseth
Egseth's debut novel has remained largely under the radar since its publication last June, but I adored it and would love for more readers to pick it up.
I just loved This Is All He Asks of You. The character of Luna has a unique and lovely voice and is an irresistibly odd bird of a twelve-year-old girl.
She's facing her mother’s decline in health and exploring her own identity and meaning in her life, and she shapes her sometimes practical but often mystical thoughts and reflections through writing letters to her father, who she has never met, in the conversational tone of a pen pal writing to someone who will love her and her words unconditionally.
Luna stumbles into encounters that shape her life dramatically, in unorthodox and heartbreakingly meaningful ways. I simultaneously wanted to scoop her up and take care of her and to follow the lead of this wise-beyond-her-years, intensely spiritual young person.
I received a copy of this book through John Hunt Publishing and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
02 The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
I loved The Mercies. The majority of page time in the historical fiction title is spent showing the tasks of daily life (and almost-claustrophobic interconnectedness) within a tiny, very northern Norwegian community in the early 17th century. But there are witch hunts at hand, and dabbling in the Sami traditions of runes, poppets, or the playing of drums—or simply being a strong-willed woman helping to feed a village by manning fishing boats when the men are all lost—is enough to lead to terrible consequences.
Hargrave allows some light into the darkness and cold in the form of love, and important realizations, and some brutal justice, but ignorance and pettiness lead to other horrific and undeserved consequences.
One standout for me was the strength of the women in the face of men's abuses of power and physical cruelty. The setting was vivid and Hargrave's richly described landscape has stayed with me.
This is Hargrave's first book for adults, but she has several other young adult and children's books I'd love to read, including The Girl of Ink & Stars and The Deathless Girls.
03 Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
In the novel Utopia Avenue, Mitchell takes us through the twists and turns of a fictional psychedelic British sixties band on its rocky rise to popularity, through exploring its members' crises, joys, fears, and triumphs.
Utopia Avenue contains endless imagined cameos, fictional adventures, and gems of wisdom from real-life musicians like David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, and members of the Rolling Stones, as well as authors and artists--not to mention wild parties, betrayals, leaps of faith, breakups, and tragedy. But Mitchell expertly builds the four band members--Jasper, Elf, Griff, and Dean, plus their beloved manager Levon--into rich characters you're rooting for through their individual ups and downs as well as through the triumphs and setbacks of the band Utopia Avenue.
If you like Mitchell's beautiful, offbeat, sometimes meandering and tough to pin down stories, you'll likely also love this almost 600-page book. As always, there are references to other parts of the David Mitchell universe, and the links to other books felt cozy, like I was coming home to more very welcome Mitchell madness and delving into another layer of his imagination. Reading his other books isn't important in enjoying this novel, whose focus on music loosely reminded me of Daisy Jones & The Six.
Mitchell doesn't provide too easy or neat of an ending, but it felt fitting and left me satisfied. Utopia Avenue was a really captivating book that kept me intrigued throughout.
I received an advance copy of this book through NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an unbiased review. For my full review, see Utopia Avenue.
04 Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Long Bright River is a mystery set in Philadelphia and centers around two sisters in disparate but linked situations—Mickey is a cop and Kacey is a defiant addict Mickey's keeping an eye on and trying not to scare away.
When Kacey disappears and a string of murders rock the community, everyone is suspect and Mickey's desire to solve the mystery becomes relentless and personal.
Situations aren’t resolved too easily or cleanly, but Moore finds a way to satisfy the reader as well. Things aren’t as they initially seem, yet I didn’t feel manipulated. This is a smart, compelling story that totally had me hooked.
Liz Moore’s writing is thoughtful and the story in Long Bright River is character-driven. Yes to this. I’m in for anything Moore is putting down on paper at this point.
For my full review, please see Long Bright River.
05 When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald
Zelda is obsessed with Vikings. She uses Old Norse words in her speech and thoughts; she frequently mentions bravery, combat, wisdom, and other elements of Viking legends to anyone she encounters; and she models her life after the factors she considers essential to a Viking legend.
She’s eager to learn how to be more independent, and she’s smart and accurate with so many of her pure and good instincts and actions, it just made my heart swell. She’s also gloriously selfish and flawed and impatient sometimes. But there’s a dark undercurrent throughout When We Were Vikings: when Zelda becomes caught up in sketchy business of her brother’s, she finds that her situation is a lot more complicated than sorting out her love life with Marxy from the community center, playing matchmaker with Gert and his wonderful ex Annie, or securing a job at the library. She has to figure out what it means to live her own legend, and whether she can save Gert or even save herself.
I loved this. The characters, the story arc that isn’t too easy but leaves you in a promising place after all, and the dialogue—love love love.
This is Andrew David MacDonald's first book. I'm all in for the next one. This title was listed in Six More Great Fiction Titles I Loved This Year. For my full review, please see When We Were Vikings.
06 Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
Anna doesn't put up with any good old boy chauvinism from anyone, and she's so smart, her talents are probably going to waste in her profession. She's an expendable part of a data entry pool and works boring temp jobs...for villains.
Then she's unexpectedly and accidentally involved in a violent clash of good and evil and is badly injured by a gallingly shiny superhero. She doubles down on her contempt for the good guys and her annoyance at how others see them as infallible when they're far from blameless. She sets out to reveal the details of the dark side of the superhero myth. (This premise reminded me somewhat of the TV series "The Boys.")
I loooooved this book. Walschots hooked me immediately and completely with her character-driven, superhero-focused, smart, wicked, and action-packed book.
I read a prepublication copy of Hench courtesy of NetGalley and William Morrow. For my full review of this book, see Hench.
07 A Star Is Bored by Byron Lane
Author Byron Lane was Carrie Fisher's personal assistant in real life, and in this novel, Byron's main protagonist Charlie is assistant to a sci-fi-blockbuster-famous actress who played the iconic Priestess Talara. Kathi Kannon is a character with a big, wacky personality who also struggles with addiction. She's Hollywood royalty, and her former movie star mother lives in a home on the same compound.
So I was definitely picturing Carrie Fisher as Kannon throughout this story.
Charlie is searching for meaning and direction--and he doesn't much mind the social cachet of being assistant to a high-profile celebrity. Kathi tends toward outrageous excess and could use a loyal companion who cares enough to set limits toward a goal of her self-preservation. We see practical Charlie learning to roll with and embrace Kannon's spicy banter and often outrageous wishes.
The story is zany and wonderful, with lots of glimpses into glamorous (and often tedious) celebrity details. There are fun and frenetic scenes about meeting the varied demands of an enormous star, and Lane explores the characters' challenges of striving to maintain balance in an odd employer-assistant relationship that blurs the lines of the professional and personal.
I was surprised by how much heart and reflection Lane injected into the story to flesh out a deep, poignant relationship. I very much cared about Kathi and Charlie's struggles together and as individuals, and I laughed a lot. I adored this.
For my full review, see A Star Is Bored.
08 The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
This was so interesting: a story from the point of view of an imagined wife for Jesus, which includes an exploration of gender roles and the reimagining of a rigid faith, marriage/child/parental/educational expectations for women, adventure, strong female loyalty and friendship, love, and lots of fascinating details of life at the time.
Much of the fever pitch of support and hatred for Jesus occurs when the main character of Ana is off having other experiences (and often-dangerous adventures).
Jesus' role in Ana's story is as a faithful man who disagrees with the politics of the faith at the time, but primarily as a person who cares for and understands and supports his wife.
09 Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
Robert Kolker retraces the lives of Mimi and Don Glavin as they raise their ten sons and two daughters. Over time their eldest boys begin to fracture the family with unrelenting violence, destruction, and constant tension. One by one, six siblings develop schizophrenia. For many years Mimi desperately insists on keeping the family’s troubles private, clinging to the preservation of her idea of a perfect family. But there’s no permanently hiding the wandering, ranting, furious young men. The family descends into chaos; there is secret abuse, and there is always the dark, disturbing force of unchecked mental illness shaping their lives.
The scientific community studying schizophrenia locks onto the family; with the help of the brothers and their now-willing parents, researchers begin to pick apart genetic factors that might contribute to the development of schizophrenia. The family's vast amount of genetic material--from both those affected by and those free from mental illness—begins to bear out valuable breakthroughs in understanding and treatment of the condition. These significant advancements wouldn’t have been possible without the genetic material from and the cooperation of the Glavin family, and Kolker explores the scientific ins and outs of all of this in a manageable way for the reader.
Hidden Valley Road is a fascinating, disturbing, heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful book.
This book was listed in the Greedy Reading List Six of the Best Nonfiction Books I've Read This Year. For my full review, see Hidden Valley Road.
10 The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
In early eighteenth-century France, 23-year-old Addie LaRue makes a Faustian bargain in order to live freely--until she's ready to surrender her soul.
But each day Addie wakes up a stranger to everyone around her. She can make no mark on the world--she cannot write or draw, she cannot disturb the snow by walking through it, she cannot even say her true name to another person. Yet she begins to eke out an existence around the edges of the oppressive rules of her existence. She can serve as a muse; she can inspire music and art in others; she can learn what others want or need and be that for them for a day. She can borrow, steal, indulge, and then disappear. I found Addie's workarounds to be one of the most fascinating parts of this story.
Then Addie meets a young man in a hidden-away bookstore--and he's the first person in almost three hundred years to remember her after she walks out the door, the next day, and every day afterward. At long last, she can say her true name to someone; she could even tell him her preposterous story of eternal life. But why is she able to break the rigid rules of the Darkness with him? And what secrets is he keeping from Addie?
For my full review of this book, please see The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.
11 The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Set in Ireland in 1918, The Pull of the Stars follows a nurse, Julia; a doctor, Kathleen Lynn (a real-life, formidable figure); and a young volunteer, Bridie, over the course of three tumultuous days as the fiery, complex, capable women work desperately to help the patients at their understaffed hospital who are about to give birth while suffering from the devastating new influenza.
Our heroines are sometimes trapped by the chauvinistic framework they're working within, and we see them try to create their own solutions to crises, choose to follow tradition or improve upon it, and frequently fly under the radar to instinctively and knowledgeably help their patients rather than rely on, for example, young, untested, book-smart male doctors.
Donoghue weaves a good amount of fact into this story. She offers sometimes horrifying particulars of early twentieth century medical care and exquisitely detailed glimpses into daily life and the workings of society at the time.
Donoghue immersed me so fully in the moment-by-moment health and emotional crises; the women's determined, sometimes desperately creative attempts to preserve lives; and the occasional triumphs that the rest of the world fell away for me as I was reading. I couldn't wait to get back to this book when I wasn't reading it.
For my full review of this book, please see The Pull of the Stars.
12 When These Mountains Burn by David Joy
Ray, a gruff, tough, burly, stubborn, but kind man, has outlived his beloved wife in the mountains of North Carolina.
He has a precious old girl of a dog, a fascination with (and healthy fear of) coyotes, a love of reading, and a no-nonsense manner that makes clear he doesn't brook fools. He has almost resigned himself to the heartbreaking idea that his addict son is too lost to be saved.
There's an undercover cop nearby who's trying to help take down a robust drug ring, and then there's Ray, who uses old-fashioned methods and his knowledge of mountain terrain to address injustices in a straightforward way.
When These Mountains Burn isn't always easy to read, but imperfect characters offer surprising hope here. Joy's characters are fascinatingly faulted and keep you humming right along. I read this in 24 hours while also wishing I were making it last longer.
I received an advance reader's copy of this book from NetGalley and G.P. Putnam's Sons in exchange for an unbiased review.
Which books were your favorites this year?
I love an end-of-year, best-of, favorite books list, and I loved putting together this very first year-end list (which is not precisely in order of most to least favorite, although the titles are numbered for reading ease) on The Bossy Bookworm! I hope you find a new-to-you book to read that intrigues you. If you do give any of these a go, please let me know what you think!
You might also like some of the books on the other Greedy Reading Lists I posted this year:
Thank you so much for checking out The Bossy Bookworm during its very first year. Cheers to another year of reading--and discovering wonderful new books!