The Best Books I Read in 2020

At this time of year, “best of 2020” lists are everywhere. For books, movies, albums, food, trends –  you name it, there’s a list for it. I love making lists, but these are hard for me because “best” is so subjective.

I’ve previously ranted about my displeasure with “best of” awards and lists- it seems more fair to call it them “most popular” lists. And no, those two things do not always  mean the same thing.

I finished 202 books this year, a personal best (Thanks COVID)!

I read a lot of great books this year, so it’s hard for me to pick only a few that I think are the best.

I’ve broken down the books I completed into genres, and give you one to three titles from each genre that I found exceptional.

When you’re done reading this post, I’d love your feedback. Do you disagree with my assessment on some of these titles? Do you have a favorite from this year that doesn’t show up here?!

The Best Books I Read in 2020

General Fiction

The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe

Hands down my favorite novel of the year. The writing is exceptional, the storyline is gritty and shocking, it’s packed with dark humor and gut-churning moments. Bunny is “the queen of North Shore.” She’s a tall, blonde, volleyball star with a rich father and a pool in her backyard. Michael moves next door with his aunt and cousin after his mother goes to jail. It’s a cramped, modest house that never feels like home to him. When Bunny catches Michael smoking in her backyard one evening, he is quickly drawn into her life, and it becomes clear things are not as perfect as they appeared from the outside.This is a portrait of a friendship, of true unconditional love, and the journey to ones’ chosen family when the biological one isn’t what we need.

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler

A close second to the above novel, this one is also dark, gritty, and shocking.  This book ripped my heart out and stomped all over it, and it still haunts me. It’s an incredibly well-done domestic drama, a story is about two neighboring families, whose teenage children fall in love, a black boy and a white girl. The author explores everything about race, class, and privilege that I could imagine. The characters are extremely well developed. The story is a slow burn, the tension building gradually from the first page. The writing flows well, as it follows multiple characters.

The Switch by Beth O’Leary

While this one is categorized as a romance, it really isn’t. There’s some romance but there’s so much more. After being forced to take some time off from work, Leena has the brilliant idea to swap places with her grandmother to give them both a change of scenery. The results are funny and heartwarming for the reader while painful at times for the cahracters. It was a joy to follow these two women on their journies, if the age difference hadn’t been so great between them I doubt the story would ahve been as impactful. This is story about family and relationships. It’s also about grief, and the struggle to find a new normal after loss.

Mysteries/Thrillers

The Last Flight by Julie Clark

This is a stunning thriller, you’ll be fully engrossed from beginning to end. The chapters alternate between Joanna and Piper, two utterly different women who are fighting to be with Leo and his two children. The story moves back and forth in time seamlessly as the story unravels. It’s fast paced and intense, yet takes time to develop both main characters well.  

Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy

This one’s a juicy domestic thriller but I’m not going to say anything about the plot because I found it a great experience to go in without any hints. We get alternating points of view from various characters. All the narrators were great, giving their characters personality and contributing to the suspense. I love books where I have no idea what is happening for a while, and that is delivered here for sure! I was hooked from start to finish and highly recommend it for a quick entertatining read.

Romance

Beach Read by Emily Henry

Absolutely brilliant, I loved everything about this book! Emily Henry has great skill at relaying real world emotions in her characters. January is a best-selling romance author who has suffered a great loss and no longer believes in happy endings. Next door lives Augustus, a former college classmate who is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. The two writers strike up a contentious friendship based on loathing the others’ genre. This novel is so much more than a romance or a “beach read.” It’s about what happens when someone you love and trust implicitly betrays you. It’s about healing and starting over after such a trauma.

Layla by Colleen Hoover

This one hooked from start to finish, I read it in two sittings! It’s a sweet love story with a high creepiness factor. I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance quite like it. Leeds and Layla have an intense whirlwind relationship and are determined they will spend forever together. Then an accident changes everything and they are left feeling lost and trying to find their way back to each other.

The Winston Brothers Series by Penny Reid

This is a seven book series that changed how I feel about romance novels. I enjoyed them before, but Reid’s writing proves over and over how important the genre is for readers. Reid writes complicated characters that are utterly human. She shows that even people who do “bad” things are capable of redemption and more importantly, worthy of receiving and giving love. The first book is Truth or Beard, and while it’s my “least favorite” of the series, it’s thoroughly enjoyable and sets a lot of groundwork for the rest of the books.

Young Adult

My Eyes Are Up Here by Laura Zimmerman

This is one of the best YA novels I’ve read. It strikes me as a powerfully realistic look into the mind and body of a teen girl. ≤≥      I appreciate how this book is honest about the fact that body conversations are tough for parents and kids both. It was especially eye opening to learn how large breasts can be a burden to a woman, physically and in regard to unwanted attention. The writing is sharp and there are funny parts. There are also lots of feelings and likable characters. There’s a romance aspect that’s quite sweet, but for me the most prominent thread in the book is Greer’s journey from being ashamed of her body. I highly recommend this one for readers of the genre and also women’s fiction.

Frankly in Love by David Yoon

What a gem! Yoon puts a unique spin on a coming of age story. Frank is a high school senior who never fits in anywhere. He has always been stuck between his Korean immigrant parents’ traditional expectations (such as “date Korean only”) and his life as a teen in Southern California. When he falls for a white girl, Frank knows he has to keep it from his parents. This is a complex story with many layers. This is a funny, heart wrenching read.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth

I had this book on my shelf for a few years and I’m kicking myself for putting it off so long! The writing is exceptional. Her descriptions, dialogue, and emotions are all vivid and realistic. I often had to remind myself this is fiction, it reads like memoir.This is a heavy story. Cameron is a young girl struggling with her sexuality in regard to her religious upbringing. There’s a lot of homophobia throughout the book. I don’t want to say more than that because the plot unfolds so beautifully it should be experienced without spoilers.

General Non-Fiction

You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy

This was my tenth book of the year, finished in January and it has stayed with me. It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I learned a ton about how I can pay attention better in conversations, and how that will improve my relationships.This isn’t a book about how to be a good listener. It’s about why we aren’t good listeners. From a young age, we’re taught to speak up. If you’re “too quiet,” someone will likely ask you what’s wrong. Kate Murphy does an amazing job of explaining all the cultural components that have created a society full of people who talk over each other, without truly listening to what others have to say. She gives scientific explanations for how we listens and take in information. It’s a unique book in that it is not only science based but also addressed social science and emotional aspects of conversation and relationships.

The Lazy Genius Way by Kendra Adachi

This book reminds me of Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F–k, which I love. Both concepts come down to: evaluating your life, figuring out what’s most important to you and devoting your energy to those things. Kendra’s writing is positive, encouraging, and straight forward. There are 13 lessons that make up The Lazy Genius Way, each is given a chapter and explained in clear terms with specific examples. Kendra writes with honest and humor that was comforting and inspiring to me. 

Memoir

The Lady’s Handbook For Her Mysterious Illness by Sarah Ramey

I promise this will be one of the most powerful and important memoirs you’ll ever read. This is the author’s story of over a decade spent trying to get help from medical professionals for chronic pain, fatigue, and a variety of other symptoms. The book is so much more than a memoir, it’s a guidebook for other women in similar situations (there are thousands of us) and a call to action for the medical community. The writing is brutally honest, poetic at times, and loaded with research.

Wiving: A Memoir of Loving Then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer

This memoir is right up there with those by Mary Karr and Cheryl Strayed. It’s incredibly personal, honest, and gritty. I was immediately drawn in by her writing style, and how well it fits with her bits of memories that are revealed. This is a memoir about religion and the way being raised under those expectations shaped the author. It’s about the ways she both conceded and rebelled. It’s also about mental illness and the effects felt by those close to the ill person. The author’s story resonated with me on a deep level in regard to her relationship with her mother, living with the knowledge that her mother was a part of her and the mental illness may manifest. She writes about people close to her with brutal honesty and also care. This is a memoir where the author cracks her chest open and shares everything with the reader. It’s extremely powerful, I think all women should read it.

Maid by Stephanie Land

 A well written memoir about Land’s experiences as a member of the working poor while raising her daughter alone. It’s framed as commentary on the way the poor are treated in the US, which is certainly interesting. I found this more of a deeply personal account of what it means to be human, especially a woman. We love the wrong person, we make mistakes, we try our best, we work hard. It’s about the universal feeling of wanting to be seen and connect with others. The writing is top notch, honest and vivid.

Poetry

Felon by Reginald Dwayne Betts

I found this poetry collection much more accessible than I expected. There’s a lot of power in how concise his writing is. While there were a couple poems that felt over my head, the rest hit hard. The redaction poems (also called blackout poems or found poems) were my favorites because they take rambling legal documents and expose the bare bones to deliver a strong message about the bail system. Several of his other poems had lines that made me gasp out loud like I’d gotten a sucker punch. Betts illustrates complicated concepts regarding race and class so well.

Audio Books

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

I listened to this audio book, while referring to my physical copy for notes and photos. Neither format would do it justice alone. This isn’t a straight forward memoir, but a collection of thoughts, quotes, and antecdotes from McConaughey’s life. What I appreciate most is how he tells stories from his life without focus on his films or stardom. Of course they show up, but they’re not the primary reason for this reflection on his life. Overall it’s a positive, inspiring read and a super fun listen, although a little jarring at times when he raises his voice. If you’re a fan of his, you’ll love this!

Sabotage: How to Get Out of Your Own Way by Emma Gannon

This short book is absolutely packed with helpful advice. I chose it because I know I’m guilty of self-sabotage, but I had no idea how much I was truly doing it! The biggest thing I got out of this one is the awareness as to when the sabotage is happening. I found this particularly relevant during this time of COVID because it is so easy for me to bail on things and not push myself, and blame the pandemic. I listened to the audio book read by the author. Her voice is soothing and listening was like getting a pep talk from a friend. Her writing is honest and straightforward. 

Other People’s Houses by Abbi Waxman

This is a juicy, compelling listening experience! It’s the story of a neighborhood where the families are quite intertwined. Our main character Frances runs the carpool everyday for several families. When news of another mom’s extramarital affair becomes public knowledge, the entire block is on edge. Everyone is looking into their own relationships, wondering if the same thing could happen to them. I couldn’t stop reading, I was desperate to know what happened next and find out how it all wrapped up. The writing is sharp and witty, Waxman is obviously a keen observer of human nature. At parts laugh out loud funny, at others sad or maddening, this is an emotional story about families and relationships.


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