As I review the books I’ve read over the fall season (September, October, November) I am struck by how as my reading nears the end of the year, it has gotten more focused. I’m less willing to give my time to fluff or average reads. I am prioritizing books I really want to read, giving my time only to those books that wow me. Does that mean that there are no duds? No, there are some. But far more of my fall books will make my Best of 2020 List at the end of the year.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 371 pages
This novel will easily make it onto my list of favorite books of 2020. McBride does something incredibly rare in this book–he’s able to build a community that is funny, nuanced, quirky and authentic. But Deacon King Kong had me on the first page when he described two sisters fighting in the choir in the way that church ladies are wont to do.
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
Format: Audiobook; Length: 15 hours
The Alice Network follows female spies during the First World War and the people they left behind to find them after both wars had ended. While hardly my favorite Kate Quinn (that will forever be held by The Huntress), it’s a book that does what it has to do.
The Holdout by Graham Moore
Format: Audiobook; Length: 10 hours
A legal thriller about a juror turned attorney, turned murder suspect, The Holdout was a fast paced legal thriller that posed the questions “can we ever be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt?” I would recommend this one if legal thrillers are your jam.
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
Format: Audiobook; Length: 9 hours
If Mary Oliver made a climate apocalypse novel in the vein of Station Eleven about grief and loss, the beauty of birds and the collision human life creates, it would be Migrations. I found this book hauntingly beautiful, with complex characters and breathtaking sense of place. While this is a very particular kind of book, I thoroughly enjoyed the prose, the haunting sense of Frannie’s past like a ghost in the story and the ecological themes.
Small Mercies by Bridget Krone
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 223 pages
Oh my heart, this book will be one of my favorites of the year for sure. Mercy lives with her elderly white aunts Mary and Flora in a small town in South Africa. As Flora becomes ill and money runs short, they decide to take on a boarder in the garden cottage, Mr Singh. Add to her troubles at home Mercy’s school life is a miser game of social survival each day. I loved each of the sweet quirky characters in this book who represent the wide array of people that make up communities. I also deeply appreciated the way the author introduces some of the teaching of Ghandi to readers. The ecological theme that runs through the larger theme of community and chosen family was beautifully done and not overworked. Small Mercies will go on the list with The House in the Cerulean Sea as a favorite book to give away to Middle Grader readers and readers of all ages.
The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant by Kayte Nunn
Format: Audiobook; Length: 11 hours
A dual timeline historical fiction novel about a woman who’s been committed to a mental health facility after the loss of her infant and the research scientist that comes across her lost letters. The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant was a middling novel about discovering what you want and who you want to be with in life.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 416 pages
Another excellent read for this year following the life of the forgotten wife of Jesus of Nazareth. There are a million ways this book could have gone sideways but doesn’t. Instead The Book of Longings delivers a well researched, moving and thoughtful story. I understand that this is not going to be a book for everyone, but if you enjoy historical fiction, feminist critique, if you are comfortable with the human aspects of Jesus and enjoy a more progressive faith, you will find this an enjoyable read. Read my extended review HERE.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
Format: Audiobook; Length: 12 hours
The twelve year old sole survivor of a plane crash, we follow Edward as he settles into life with his aunt and uncle. I enjoyed each of the characters in Edward’s post-crash orbit. I loved the way we as the reader move inside Edward’s shell of grief so that we can experience how he breaks out of it. I could have done without one or two of the back stories of other passengers on the plane but I understand once it all came together why she included so many. Despite my slowness to warm to it, on the whole I loved Dear Edward and was very moved by the way all the threads were pulled together.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
Format: Hardcopy ARC; Length: 416 pages
The New Wilderness is a post-apocalyptic book that centers around climate change and a mother and daughter relationship. I found this book very hard to believe–Cook creates a world in which there is no ritual, meaning making or grief. It’s primal and raw and leaves too many strings left untied in the end, the longer time passes since I’ve read it the less I’ve liked it.
The Scent Keeper by Erica Bauermeister
Format: Audiobook; Length: 10 hours
This book was unexpected in that for the first several chapters I thought I was reading some sort of historical fiction or perhaps a book with some magical realism and instead about a third of the way in I discovered it is contemporary fiction. It follows Emmeline from her late childhood, a childhood of magic and fairy tales into the real world as a presumed orphan. But she has a special gift, her father taught her to see and understand the world through the richness of smells. The Scent Keeper was unique but still left me wanting, although what I’m uncertain.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 400 pages
Emoni is headed into her senior year and has a lot of decisions to make about her future, all of which will impact not just her but her two year old daughter and aging Abuela. When the opportunity of a lifetime shows up—a new culinary arts class and a possible trip to Spain—Emoni is stretched in new ways as she balances work, family and her passion to cook. I absolutely loved this story for the way it provided a counter narrative to all the negative stereotypes about teen moms. I loved how earnest Emoni was in her the way she engaged her friends and family. I loved that food played almost it’s own mystical character in the book. In a similar vein, the city of Philly was given such a sense of place, it wasn’t just a backdrop it gave detail and texture to the story. And I loved that the romance in this book was secondary to Emoni discovering who she was and what she wanted. With the Fire on High was a delightful read I highly recommend.
Harry’s Trees by Jon Cohen
Format: Hardcopy; 432 pages
Harry is a year widowed and suddenly decides he can’t keep up his mundane job and live in his grief drenched house anymore and so takes off for the forest. Oriana’s dad, strong and admirable Dean, died suddenly a year ago leaving she and her mom Amanda spinning in their own tide pools of grief. Throw in Olive the aging librarian of the dilapidated Pratt County library, a mysterious book and the magical thinking of a child in grief and Harry gets more than he bargained for when he tried to retreat from life in the woods near Oriana’s home. Harry’s Trees gave me a similar feel to This Tender Land by William Kent Krugger and Magic Hour by Kristin Hannah so if you enjoyed either of those you will likely enjoy Harry’s Trees.
The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis
Format: Audiobook; Length: 11 hours
Which is why I was surprised by The Lions of Fifth Avenue—a story set in two timelines 1918 and 1993 that revolves around stolen books from the New York City Library, it’s also a feminist story of women exploring what they want beyond domestic life. I loved the strong female characters, the library setting, the bookish and feminist plot. I didn’t see the plot twist until almost the end. I did feel like the ending scene was rushed a bit but I can forgive it because overall it was a great book. If you liked Fiona Davis’s The Dollhouse you will enjoy this one.
One by One by Ruth Ware
Format: Audiobook; Length: 13 hours
I loved the mix of the setting of a ski chalet that is isolated by an avalanche and the characters which were a toxic combination of working class and rich people behaving bratty. The pacing and suspense was excellent. While I find Ruth Ware inconsistent in delivering female characters I enjoy, I really loved One by One.
Out of My Mind by Sharon M Draper
Format: Audiobook; Length: 7 hours
I read this one with my oldest after she said she’d heard it was akin to Wonder. Melody can’t write or talk or walk, but she has a photographic memory and can remember details better than anyone else in her class. But most of the grown ups and kids around her can’t see past her cerebral palsy. Determined to show she’s more than her disability Melody tries out for the quiz bowl team and what ensues is an exploration about different abilities including the ability to be open minded about the gifts of others. We loved Out of My Mind and the social nuances that lent itself well to discussion.
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 297 pages
Another read with my middle grade reader, I highly recommend the Vanderbeekers series for the spunky, determined and often mishap Vanderbeeker children as they adventure through life in Harlem. Funny, quirky and endearing, we look forward to reading the other four books in the series.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by VE Schwabb
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 442 pages
One of the most hyped books of late 2020, I fall into the small group of people who found this book uninspiring, overworked and dull. Three hundred years ago Addie LaRue made a deal with a dark god to live forever, not knowing the catch was that no one would remember her. The premise sounds interesting but we meet Addie 300 years into her curse and still behaving like a 23 year old. To put it plainly, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue didn’t pass my “why should I care about this white woman’s woes?” litmus test.
The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare
Format: Audiobook; Length: 12 hours
The story of teenage Adunni growing up in a rural Nigerian village who longs to get an education so that she can speak up for herself and teach other girls. Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her path, Adunni never loses sight of her goal of escaping the life of poverty she was born into so that she can build the future she chooses for herself. I adored Adonni’s grit and determination as she navigates an adult world far too young. As she navigates one hardship after another her character is unflappable and while there are adults that would harm Adonni there are also adults that help her along. I loved The Girl with the Louding Voice for its story about hope, education and finding one’s voice in the midst of so many that wish to silence it.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 263 pages
This was my first Louise Erdrich but won’t be my last. Cedar finds herself pregnant as the world is unraveling genetically. With a precarious pregnancy, a questionable father of the baby and a complicated family of origin, Cedar navigates this strange new world with grit. Erdrich creates an apocalyptic book with theological themes that are not overworked, drawing on the Christian mystics and northern Minnesota Native American mythologies to create an interesting reflection on motherhood, family, heritage and life. For me I found Erdrich’s gritty yet hopeful outlook in Future Home of the Living God strangely comforting.
Mindful Silence: The Heart of Christian Contemplation by Phileena Heuertz
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 188 pages
A thoughtful look at the intersection of prayer, meditation and mindful living by one of the co-directors of Gravity Center. I found some excellent takeaways for my own spiritual practice. Heuertz, studying under Richard Rohr for decades, brings a fresh voice to the contemplative world in Mindful Silence.
Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 256 pages
Big Friendship is a delightful reflection on what it takes to make and keep lasting and meaningful friendships. I found myself so moved that by the second chapter I had mailed copies to two of my dearest friends (with plans to mail the others copies soon #budget). Not only was this book affirming of the women in my life I love but it gave me new language and frameworks for thinking about my friendships, how I invest in them and how they have stretched me to grow as a person. I particularly love the way Aminatou and Ann debunked “Squad Goals” as cliquish and performative and instead offered up the metaphor of the Friendweb which better captures the nuance of our connection. I also think the entire chapter on inter-racial friendship in a racist culture was worth the price of the book alone.
I Don’t Want to Die Poor by Michael Arceneaux
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 256 pages
I Don’t Want to Die Poor a collection of essays by Michael Arceneux about the calamity of higher education, debt and rising cost of living is honest, self-deprecating yet unflinching look what’s its like to be an entire generation of young adults struggling to achieve an ounce of the American dream.
Faithful Families for Advent and Christmas: 100 Ways to the Season Sacred by Traci Smith
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 128 pages
I love love love this resource for families this holiday. Its the perfect book to help you celebrate Advent and Christmas at home in meaningful and thoughtful ways. You can read all the reasons why HERE.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 192 pages
This collection of short stories nominated for the National Book Award blew my mind and I don’t say that lightly. Exploring the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and faith, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies will be a book I think about for years to come. Don’t let this small, powerful book slip off your radar.
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 266 pages
After years as a restaurant critic for the New York Times Ruth Reichl is offered the top position at America’s oldest epicurean magazine Gourmet. The story of Reichl’s time at the helm of Gourmet during the golden age and subsequent decline of print media is a fascinating look into not just the magazine world, but the culinary world as its was rapidly changing. Save Me the Plums was a delight and I will be reaching for more of Reichl’s work. You can read my full review HERE.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
Format: Audiobook; Length: 30 hours
In the strange year that is 2020 some people have mastered baking sourdough bread, others have conquered the Pellaton world, while others have trained for marathons. Me? Well, I read all 750 pages of the first volume of President Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. I knew it would deliver an in depth look at his election and first term but what I wasn’t prepared for was how emotional I would be reading it. This wasn’t due to President Obama’s overly optimistic view of his work, although it was emotional to be reminded of what an orientation towards optimism and hope can do to shape one’s work. Instead I found myself moved several times because this history was so real to my own young adulthood and formation. To revisit the historical moments that shape me with him was a treat.
Early Music by Micheal O’Suilleabhain
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 86 pages
I am a sucker for the Irish poets with the reverence of nature, gritty, nuanced view of humanity and ability to knead the English language into something startlingly beautiful. Early Music delivers on everything I love about Irish poetry from someone who’s musical background shines in the lyrical quality of the poems enclosed.
Homies by Danez Smith
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 96 pages
Homies sat for too long on my shelf as a gift from a loved one earlier in the year, but I am so glad that I got to it before the end of the year. These poems are everything you’ve come to expect from Smith–sharp, witty, honest.
The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness and Joy ed John Brehm
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 312 pages
This book was strangely hard to digest due to its physical size and I wasn’t expecting that. Despite this being a pocket-sized volume I enjoyed the poems selected from around the world and particularly appreciated the small biographical entries at the back of the book so you could learn more about each poet and their work could be experienced in context.
What Kind of Woman: Poems by Kate Baer
Format: Hardcopy; Length: 112 pages
I received a copy of What Kind of Woman from the generous people at HarperCollins and found it immediately engaging. Baer offers poems about womanhood through a feminist lense, there were some gems within the collection and I even selected her opening poem for part of my newsletter reflection last month.
On the whole, fall was a more deliberate reading season for me. I read more poetry and non-fiction so my literary diet was more balanced and for that reason I think I enjoyed more of what I read. While the earlier half of the year I was willing to explore genres I don’t normally engage like YA and contemporary romance, the later part of the year I tend to get focused on reading the books in the genres I adore like literary and contemporary fiction and really try to seek out the books that will make my best of list for the year.
At the end of each season I do a recap of the books I’ve read and offer a few thoughts. You can read my Fall 2019 Reading Recap to see what I was reading this time last year. Or you can see the Winter, Spring and Summer recaps for 2020 to get a feel for the sweep of books I’ve consumed this year. And as always you are welcome to follow along on my reading adventures on Instagram where I talk mostly about books and writing.