As reading years go, this year has been unexpected which makes it very on brand for 2020. When I found a book I loved, I really loved it. However, much of what I read was good, but not amazing. My favorite books need to wow me, make me think, reorient my perspective or make me think long after the story is finished. I also love a book that is unexpectedly funny. Having read 100 books this year, it was easy to dissect the titles that wowed me from the ones that made good or middling reads. In fact, many of the authors on my list this year have additional titles I enjoyed this year.
Since I am a fan of reading not just new releases but backlist books as well this list includes a mix of both. For me, recommending books on the backlist (the fancy word for books that aren’t new releases) is an accessibility issue. Not everyone can afford to buy new releases and the wait and some libraries are long. These two things shouldn’t keep you from a good book. This list also reflects my commitment to read authors of black, hispanic, indigenous, and Asian descent as well as authors that center the LGBTQIA perspective. My reading has so much growing to do, but it grows in that commitment.
A final word about this year’s list. I tried this year to read across a wider expanse of genres, as I realized I also had a bias in terms of what genres produce good literature. I have always maintained that reading is a creative endeavor that not only engages, but shapes the imagination and the books we choose and the books we exclude say much about the world we imagine for ourselves and others. For that reason I stretched myself to read from romance, YA, fantasy and sci-fi this year and was pleasantly surprised to find books that will be life-long favorites.
Here are the best books I read in 2020:
Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl
Released in 2019, I grabbed my copy at The Corner Bookstore on Maddison and 93rd on the Upper East Side last winter which is fitting given this memoir of Reichl’s time as the head of Conde Nast’s Gourmet magazine is so delightfully New York. Reichl’s writing is clean, well edited, engaging and unexpectedly funny. I immediately tracked down copies of her back list via my local used bookstore and am working my way through them. So far I adore Garlic and Sapphires almost as much as Save Me the Plums and can’t wait to dive into Reichl’s one novel Delicious. You can read a full review of Save Me the Plums HERE.
The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare
Universally adored, this novel about a fifteen year old Nigerian girl Adunni brought up in a rural village and sold into marriage creates a hard to achieve balance between revealing the hardship and brutality visited on women and girls and creating a sense of spirited hope. In The Girl with the Louding Voice, Dare gives her protagonist and other female characters dignity in difficult situations which is the true mark of an Own Voice author and why we need more Own Voice authors and stories published.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Often YA fiction gets overlooked by readers, but as Angie Thomas, Nic Stone and Jason Reynolds have demonstrated in the past few years, YA can be a force when it comes to wrestling with complex issues in thoughtful and nuanced ways. Acevedo introduces us to Emoni, a high school senior thinking about her future and juggling motherhood. Instead of getting some low-key sermon on teen sex, Acevedo treats teen moms with respect and dignity and Emoni’s obsession with the culinary arts practically jumps off the page creating a richness and texture to the story. With the Fire on High was a delight to read because Acevedo respected her subject, characters and their urban life.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
There are a million and one ways that a book about the forgotten wife of Jesus could go disastrously sideways. And I thought of a good portion of them when I saw Kidd was releasing this book, but turns out you can avoid those pitfalls with good research, clear vision and a thoughtful and feminist touch. I loved The Book of Longings as a piece of historical fiction but also for the theological insight it offered from a strong female voice in her own right not just as a women in Jesus’s orbit. You can read my full review HERE.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
I love a book that makes me laugh out loud, books like people who make me laugh have my heart. Add in a slapstick caper, a teen in trouble but not wanting rescue, a lonely mob boss and detective, a well woven community dynamic that centers around a church and *chef kiss* I am here for it. McBride delivers something unique, bright and compelling in Deacon King Kong, a rare gem in my reading life not just this year, but ever.
The City We Became by NK Jemisin
I am ashamed to admit I had never read Jemisin until this year, but now that I have she has set the bar for what Sci-fi literature can be. The City We Became is a smart, sharply insightful commentary on racism, civilization and building communities of mutual thriving. Plus this book is like a love note to the rich culture of the five boroughs that make up New York City. I cannot wait for the rest of this trilogy to be released.
On the Other Side of Freedom: A Case for Hope by DeRay McKesson
I can’t tell you how many times I have grabbed On the Other Side of Freedom off the shelf when writing or prepping sermons or told my preacher friends how helpful this book has been. McKesson, one of the original organizers in Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement and founder of Campaign Zero, shares tells the story of the beginning of a movement but also makes a case for why the work of racial justice is worth hoping for and how the work can be achieved. More than that, there’s a undercurrent of theology and a direct address to the church and its role in the movement for racial justice that I found moving and helpful. You can read an essay I wrote inspired by McKesson’s words HERE.
This Tender Land by William Kent Kruger
If you’ve been talking books with me for a while you know I love a good “kids on a heist/adventure” book a la Mark Twain. This Tender Land is a moving story about a group of kids who make an escape from a boarding school that is more of an internment camp to set upon the river. Set during the Great Depression, they run across all sorts of characters from farmers to faith healers each on their own journey to find home and meaning.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
I loved this book for the reason many reviewers found it hard to digest. The white people behave poorly, there are no grand epiphanies and it felt like the perfect book to capture the pervasiveness of white fragility and white supremacy this year has been particularly good at shining a light on. In the white characters I saw painful fragments of myself as a white woman and that’s why many people didn’t love it and why I think Such a Fun Age is a must read.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
Technically billed as fiction, this book is appropriate for any reader from your third grade nephew to your grandma. A touching fantasy story about an investigator sent to look in on and write reports on a school for children with special abilities, The House in the Cerulean Sea is a touching book about queerness, love, chosen family and finding your way. I will be gifting and sharing this book for years to come.
Obviously this list is not exhaustive. There were so many books I enjoyed, made me laugh or caused me to think deeply about what it means to be human, a thoughtful Christian and engage other traditions and experiences. But of the 100 books I read in 2020, these are the ones that stand out as books I will revisit, recommend and pass on for years to come.