What I’m about to say will surprise exactly no one: 2020 was an unusual reading year for me. I read stacks and stacks of wonderful books, and yet I read very differently than I have in previous years.
When the year began, I was preparing to release a book of my own, and getting ready to head out on book tour—where I’ve learned that, weirdly, I don’t have time to do much reading. Well, Don’t Overthink It came out on March 3, and we all know what happened next.
On top of the pandemic, my dad became critically ill this year and died late summer, and while the effects on my reading life were far from the most significant, they were immediate and obvious.
In 2019 I read just over 200 books. 2020 isn’t over yet, but I’m dangerously close to 300. That’s not a number I’m proud of; it’s too high, and that’s because I read and read and read as a coping mechanism this summer. You won’t see these books listed below, but honorable mentions and a big piece of my heart go to Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers and Knitting in the City series, Susannah Nix’s Remedial Rocket Science series, and Kate Clayborn’s Beginner’s Luck series for providing a pleasant much-needed distraction this year. Series like these are also a big factor in my annual tally: it was easy for me to read one of these books in a day, and then immediately begin the next in line.
Choosing favorites is always terribly difficult, but with so many titles to choose from, it was especially difficult this year. Instead of forcing myself to narrow it down, I decided to go big. Below, you’ll see:
• 13 favorite novels • 10 favorite nonfiction books • 7 favorite re-reads • and that doesn’t even include audiobooks, which I’ll post tomorrow. (Yes, this was absolutely a sneaky way for me to sneak in more favorites!)
For this year’s favorites list, I prioritized books with staying power and emotional resonance; ones that were well-written, that I enjoyed reading, and that I found myself returning to in my mind—even long after I finished the book.
I track my titles in my reading journal, and put a simple little star by especially noteworthy titles. Despite my best efforts at record-keeping, I’m probably forgetting a favorite here, because I always do.
I would love to hear your favorite books of the year in the comments section. And if you’d like to find and enjoy more books you truly love in the year to come, make sure you join us for our 2021 Reading Challenge: our #1 goal is to get you reading more great books that are just right for you. We’ll post that on the blog next week and talk about it more in January.
All books featured here were chosen because I loooove them. If you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission. More info here.
My favorite novels of 2020
I read so many wonderful novels this year that even narrowing down my list to this hefty baker’s dozen was hard!
I've been meaning to read this and Olive Kitteredge for years, and it was a joy to read them both practically back-to-back in February. Retired schoolteacher Olive is not keen about the way her small Maine town is changing. Through a series of interconnected short stories, we get to know Olive's family and some of the townspeople as they each grapple with their respective problems. I enjoyed this follow-up even more than the Pulitzer-winning original. Strout has a genius for capturing profound emotions in everyday moments, which made this collection by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. More info →
I actually read this in the last days of 2019, but since I read it after I shared my favorite books of 2019 I'm including it here. When my husband, Will, came on on What Should I Read Next, he named this as his favorite book possibly ever—and so I made it a winter break priority. I LOVED it and read it in two days. The story centers around two velodrome cyclists who are best friends and arch-rivals, training under the same coach for their last remaining shot at the London Olympics, while respectively navigating personal crises and the life-threatening sickness of a child (note that content warning, please). I was riveted as Cleave set out the complicated history between the two women and kept raising the stakes in the present. The story is told from multiple points of view to great effect; the coach's point of view made the book for me. More info →
This charming debut was a 2020 Minimalist Summer Reading Guide selection as well as one of our picks for the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club. Jane Austen lived out her last days in the sleepy village of Chawton, and in the days just after World War II, her legacy still looms large. Times are hard, and we meet several villagers burdened with their own private sorrows, who are doing what they’ve always done: turning to the works of Austen for solace. When a local business attempts to buy the Austen property and raze her cottage, the villagers band together to preserve her legacy. At one point, a character muses that Austen’s works present “a world so a part of our own, yet so separate, that entering it is like some kind of tonic.” The same can be said of Jenner’s wonderful book. Audiophile alert: Richard Armitage reads the audiobook, and his narration is predictably outstanding. More info →
Another 2020 Minimalist Summer Reading Guide selection. I've been waiting for a follow-up to Bennett's smashing debut The Mothers for years, and this historical novel was worth the wait. Identical twins Desiree and Stella grew up in a town so small it doesn't appear on maps. They're closer than close, so Desiree is shocked when Stella vanishes one night after deciding to sacrifice her past—and her relationship with her family—in order to marry a white man, who doesn't know she's black. Desiree never expects to see her sister again. The twins grow up, make lives for themselves, and raise daughters—and it's those daughters who bring the sisters together again. It's a reunion Stella both longs for and fears, because she can't reveal the truth without admitting her whole life is a lie. Bennett expertly weaves themes of family, race, identity, and belonging into one juicy, unputdownable novel spanning five turbulent decades. More info →
Yet another 2020 Minimalist Summer Reading Guide selection! That's no coincidence; I pack that short list with books I LOVE. I've enjoyed Jemisin's work in the past, but her new urban fantasy—the first in a planned trilogy—nevertheless took me by surprise. Every city has a soul, and the great cities of civilization—like Rome, Athens, São Paolo—finally reach a point when they come to life. Now it’s New York’s time to be born, but the city itself is too weakened by a gruesome attack to complete the process. If New York is to live, five people—or, more precisely, five avatars, one for each of the city’s boroughs—must rise up and unite to evade, and then destroy, the creeping tentacles of their opponent, the amorphous power personified by the Woman in White. Jemisin layers her fantasy upon a deeply realistic modern-day New York. A wild and wonderful ride, fantastically inventive and imaginative. More info →
I enjoyed this book so much I read it twice! That cover is perfection, but it's also confused a lot of readers: take note that appearances aside, this is no rom-com. January is a 29-year-old romance writer who no longer believes in happily-ever-after. Demoralized and broke, she moves into the beach house she inherited when her father died, hoping to lick her wounds and finish her current manuscript. But then, in a cruel twist of fate, she discovers her neighbor is the beloved literary fiction writer Augustus Everett, her college rival (and crush), whom she hoped never to see again. But it turns out Gus has troubles of his own, and so the two make a bet to get their writing back on track: January will try her hand at the “bleak literary fiction” that Gus writes, and Gus will write a romance novel. A warm and delightfully meta take on love, writing, and second chances. More info →
I read this for the first time this year, and it was not at all what I expected. Written in 1929, set during the Jazz Age in Harlem, this is the story of two childhood friends who reconnect after choosing very different paths. Both women are Black and light-skinned. Clare has chosen to pass for white, and is even married to a white man who knows nothing of her heritage or history. Irene is married to a successful African-American physician. As the women spend more time together, Irene's life starts looking better and better to Clare ... and what unfolds is a battle of wits in a story akin to a psychological thriller. The story feels so fresh and unexpected, I couldn't believe it was written nearly a hundred years ago. What a page-turner! More info →
A reading friend passed this my way, describing it as a tale of "outlaw librarian lesbian spies." This genre-bending novella is a little bit fantasy, a little bit dystopia, with a neo-Western vibe. It starts with a woman on the run, fleeing a bad marriage and the law after her partner was hanged for possessing Unapproved Materials that were not government-sanctioned. She takes shelter with a band of traveling librarians—and quickly discovers that these librarians are insurrectionists against the state. I loved how this book was constantly surprising in every way. Gailey made me laugh on every page, even as their characters shoot up gangsters in their quest to dismantle the patriarchy and right society's wrongs. I proceeded to read nearly all their works over the course of the year. Magic for Liars is a close second favorite work of theirs, but I chose Upright Women Wanted for the surprise-and-delight factor. More info →
"Making good moonshine isn't that different from telling a good story, and no one tells a story like a woman." So begins this new literary novel, out in May, that deserves more attention than it's received thus far. Wren lives in the Appalachian Mountains with her family: her snake-handler father, who scares and enraptures the town with his preaching, and her mother, who only ever wanted to get off the mountain with her best friend Ivy, but whose parents made her marry. When Ivy stumbles into the fire and Wren's father performs a "miraculous healing," it sets in motion a chain of events that has devastating consequences for all. Gorgeous, lush, and beautifully sympathetic, I read this in one sitting. Recommended reading for fans of Jayber Crow—the similarities between the two books run deep, though they're not immediately apparent. More info →
I adore Maggie O'Farrell; her 2016 novel This Must Be the Place is one of my all-time favorites. In her sweeping new novel, she takes a few historically known facts about Shakespeare’s wife and family and, from this spare skeleton, builds out a lush, vivid world. You should know this book is devastating, and I consumed the better part of a box of Kleenex while reading it. Yet with its captivating central character and evocative storytelling, I didn’t want to leave Shakespeare’s world—or put down O’Farrell’s writing. The story centers on Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, who is torn apart by grief when their son Hamnet dies at age 11. Soon after, Shakespeare writes Hamlet—and O’Farrell convincingly posits that the two events are closely tied. In her distinctive style, O’FarrellI takes you to the heart of what really matters in life, making you feel such a deep sense of loss for Hamnet that you won’t look at your own life the same way. More info →
I read and enjoyed my advance review copy ages ago, and I'm so glad it's finally here and landing with readers! The story begins in France, 1714: a girl is running for her life. She's been warned to never pray to the gods that answer after dark, but she's desperate to escape an unwanted marriage—and so makes a deal with the devil. In doing so, she gains immortality—but only slowly does she realize that she's given up the possibility that anyone will remember her, ever. Not her legacy, her existence, or even her name. Over the next 300 years, she learns to work within the confines of her curse, moving through a world where she cannot leave a mark. Until one day, in a Manhattan bookstore (it's called The Last Word, and boasts a bookstore cat named Book), she encounters a beat-up copy of Homer's Odyssey and a man who offers her the kind of hope she hasn’t felt for 300 years. An imaginative, absorbing, genre-busting read. More info →
You may notice that a book that takes me by surprise is likely to end up as a year-end favorite—and this one sure did. As a confirmed scaredy-cat I was afraid to pick up this sci-fi/horror novel, but a couple of readers I trust told me I could probably handle it. They were right. Here's the deal: Mermaids are real, but they are not like Ariel. Some researchers believe this with their whole heart and have made studying these mermaids, or sirens, their life's work. Others are deeply skeptical, but regardless what camp they're in, a huge swath of the scientific community isabout to set sail on another voyage to the Mariana Trench, a follow-up to a voyage seven years earlier ended in tragedy with everyone on board lost at sea. No one is exactly sure why; skeptics called the whole thing a hoax. Both the siren skeptics and the true believers are about to discover mermaids are very real—and it will be a miracle if anyone gets out of there alive. More info →
I was utterly absorbed by this wistful novel about first love, coming of age, and Shakespeare, from the author of One Day. 16-year-old Charlie Lewis doesn’t have much to look forward to. He’s struggling in school, his family’s fallen apart, he’s caring for his depressed father, and he can’t see beyond what seems like an endless summer. But then one day he’s out for a bike ride and literally stumbles into a beautiful girl and a local theater production of Romeo and Juliet. When Charlie asks the girl to coffee she gives him an ultimatum: he has to join the production. Charlie doesn’t see himself as “one of those theater kids,” but he can’t say no to Fran—and this decision changes his whole world. Perceptive, bittersweet, and stirring. More info →
I do love a good food memoir, and food writing of all sorts has been comfort reading for me this year. Ann Mah’s delectable memoir is a rich account of culinary—and expat—life in Paris, City of Light and city of her dreams, where she sinks in for three glorious years when her diplomat husband is stationed there … that is, before he gets reassigned to Iraq, alone, stranding her in an unknown city. I was cheering her on as she tentatively explored the city, dabbled in its cuisine, and began to build her own community far from home. We had such fun reading this together in the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club (and chatting with the author, just last night!). More info →
My husband Will surprised me with a new urban planning book for Christmas, and I enjoyed reading this over our holiday break last year. The author, a Minnesotan who's been an urban planner for several decades, argues that our cities are on the verge of a long, slow decline, and that any solution needs to begin with a bottom-up approach. Marohn pushes for change beginning at the most local level—not by implementing billion-dollar regional plans, but instead carrying out whatever the "next smallest thing" is that can improve our community. I enjoyed it, but wouldn't have called it "best of the year" back when I read it. But I've thought and talked about it SO MUCH this year that it deserves the honor. More info →
In this unusual memoir, "matrilinear love story," Bess Kalb tells the story of her grandmother Bobby Bell's life, and their special relationship, in her deceased grandmother's voice. (On the second page of the book Bobby, speaking from her own funeral, is telling the readers, "It's a terrible thing to be dead.") I enjoyed this story so much: Bobby is spry and spunky, fiercely opinionated, a force of nature—and firmly invested in (or committed to meddling in, depending on how Bess is feeling at the moment) her granddaughter's life. Bobby's fierce and sometimes persnickety devotion to Bess shines on every page, from Bess's birth to Bobby's dying days at age 90. For most of Bess's life, the two spoke on the phone every day, and my favorite parts of the book were these phone conversations. More info →
I loved The Warmth of Other Suns and my only regret was how long I waited before picking it up. I resolved not to make the same mistake with Wilkerson's new book Caste, in which she explores how America has been shaped by a hidden caste system. She links the caste systems of the United States, India, and Nazi Germany in a story-driven deep dive into history, class, and race. The subject matter may make this sound like homework, but Wilkerson gracefully pokes the holes in the history you thought you knew, interlacing personal stories with tales from decades and centuries past, wrapping it all in absorbing prose that makes it darn near impossible to stop reading. More info →
Like many cooking enthusiasts, we met Vivian Howard through her Netflix series A Chef’s Life, “a show about people, place, tradition and family told through the lens of food.” Howard's newest cookbook, filled with simple recipes that highlight the way she actually cooks at home every night, as opposed to at her fancy award-winning restaurant, caught my eye at the local bookstore. She’s insistent that she will CHANGE THE WAY YOU COOK. I was intrigued! So I brought it home, read it cover to cover, and immediately started messing around in the kitchen, with great success (so far). I've loved the recipes I've tried so far, but the thing that really makes a cookbook for me is the stories, and this book has oodles of good ones. More info →
This is the book I didn't know I needed in my life! In a hard season, reading about Dolly's life, both personal and professional, was an unexpected grace. With history, biography, and close-reading of Parton’s famous songs, Smarsh weaves a tale of female empowerment, brilliant songwriting, and the importance of self-expression. I always love to hear the behind-the-scenes stories of my favorite artists, and this one delivered on that count, as expected. But I was unprepared for the poignancy of reading Dolly's story against the backdrop of our current cultural climate. Thank you, Sarah Smarsh, and thank you, Dolly Parton. This book is a joy. More info →
Food memoir is one of my favorite nonfiction subgenres, and I loved this inside look at the Momofuku empire and Chang’s life story. Raised by his Korean immigrant parents in Virginia, Chang struggled with loneliness and isolation. When he couldn’t find a job after graduating college, he convinced his father to loan him restaurant start-up money. The result: Momofuku’s famous comfort food staples like ramen bowls and simple pork buns. While his career and business took off, Chang struggled with mental illness and self-confidence. With candor and humility, he shares both his struggles and successes in this intimate and unconventional memoir. More info →
File under: books I can’t stop talking about. I’m just a touch old to fall under Petersen’s definition of the millennial generation, yet I found myself nodding along to every chapter as Petersen explained how my and my peers’ personal life experience slot neatly into cultural and economic trends. Her biggest topics are our childhoods, our college experience and the implicit (and explicit) promises it had for our future, and why work is so awful for so many these days—all set against the backdrop of the economic realities of the last 40 years in the United States. I closed this book feeling understood, and like I better understand the world I’m living in. Petersen notes that she completed her final edits on this book while COVID-19 was just beginning her spread, and I appreciated her thoughts on how the pandemic subtly shifts the lens through which readers will engage with the ideas presented here. More info →
Unlike so much of my reading, I read this book with a specific purpose in mind (and brace yourself, it's probably going to sound like a boring one): when I asked a handful of friends to share tips for running better meetings, an uncanny number recommended this book. Parker doesn't take her subject lightly: she believes that it is the way a group gathers that determines what happens there and how successful it will be, and that the little design choices the organizer makes can make or break it. As someone who tends to be interested in the behind the scenes of any endeavor, I was fascinated by her insights into why some gatherings work—and others don't. With chapter titles like "Don't Be a Chill Host" and "Never Start a Funeral with Logistics," Parker pushes her readers to think differently about why and how they gather. Helpful and thought-provoking. More info →
I read a portion of this book ages ago, and it was a joy to read it in its entirety this year. This utterly delightful graphic memoir the story of Knisley's coming of age in the kitchen, surrounded by good food and people who love it, and love her. I don't read many graphic memoirs, but this one feels as though it was tailor-made for me, combining so many elements I love: a family story, cooking and craft, New York City, finding your way, and good food. Because we've visited some of the places that appear in the book, my whole family enjoyed passing this around the dining room table, enjoying the stories together. More info →
My favorite re-reads of 2020
I’m a committed re-reader, and this year I revisited quite a few books I’d previously read and loved. I love to revisit books I enjoyed on my own time. As you’ll see, another common pattern is that I’ll read a book once on my own, and then again to prepare for an event, like an author chat for the MMD Book Club. These were my favorites.
Opening line: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." In her third novel, Jones writes about the link between two African-American half sisters, one legitimate and one secret, only one of whom knows the other exists. That is, until the secret of their father's second marriage starts to force its way into the open. Rather than writing back-and-forth between two perspectives, the reader encounters almost all of one sister's point of view in the first half, followed by the other's. The result is an absorbing coming-of-age narrative wrapped in a complicated family novel. I already loved this book, but when we discussed it with author Tayari Jones last month in the MMD Book Club my appreciation and enjoyment skyrocketed, as so often happens—I love to peel back all the layers of a good book. More info →
I first listened to this on audio (Mozhan Marno's narration is exceptional), and then read this together with the MMD Book Club last January. We so enjoyed chatting with Kamali about her work! In 1953 Tehran, a young man failed to meet his betrothed in a Tehran square. Sixty years later and half a world away, the woman, now grown old, is about to discover why. This sweeping love story spans 60 years and two continents, taking the reader between contemporary New England and 1953 Tehran, thoroughly immersing the reader in the volatile political climate of 1950s Iran. More info →
The first time I read this on audio (narrated by Scott Brick), and then I picked up a hardcover copy, to more thoroughly examine the strong echoes of Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey I picked up on my first listen. (And to prepare for our Book Club discussion with Kent Krueger—a highlight of my Book Club year was listening to him read us the opening pages!) This tough and tender coming-of-age story focuses on four Minnesota kids during the Great Depression, whose respective situations become ever more impossible due to human cruelty and circumstance. After a tornado demolishes the last of life as they know it, they realize no one is going to save them—and so they make a plan to save themselves that starts with escaping down the river. A great story, beautifully told. More info →
Once again, I listened to the mesmerizing audio version (narrated by January LaVoy) and then read it with the MMD Book Club (and chatted with Alix, so fun!) in February. This novel combines so many elements I love: it's a literary mystery, a book about books, a coming-of-age story, a tale of adventure and suspense and revenge. I recommended this on an episode of WSIRN: episode 196 with Anudeep Reddy as a gateway fantasy, a fantasy novel for people who don't like fantasy. Creative and inventive and lots of fun, and a 2020 Hugo Awards Finalist. More info →
I first read this fun novel last year and then read it again with the MMD Book Club, where it proved to be a favorite. Berry combines three unexpected elements to great effect: World War I, a love story, and Greek mythology. It begins with Aphrodite and Ares walking into a swanky Manhattan hotel during WWII, and soon enough Aphrodite's husband Hephaestus challenges her to show him what love really looks like. She obliges, and takes the reader back in time to meet four young lovers in 1917 Britain, showing her fellow gods how each couple fell in love, and what they mean to each other. It sounds unlikely but the interesting narrative structure totally works. More info →
I first read this in fall 2019: a small group of readers read the galley months before publication so we could chat with Ariel about the book at our inaugural MMD Book Club Retreat. And then I read the final version when it was actually published this spring. This WWII novel tells the story of Nancy Wake, the unsung French Resistance leader who was #1 on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list by the end of the war. The real Nancy was larger than life; bold, bawdy, and brazen—a woman who, as the only female among thousands of French men, was not only respected as an equal, but revered as a leader. The story is set during WWII, yes—a setting the author says she came to kicking and screaming, because there are a lot these days—but at its heart this is a story of friendship, and of love. Nancy leaps off the page, with her Victory Red lipstick, snappy one-liners, and incredible bravery. More info →
I read it first in print, and then on audio because I really wanted to hear Acevedo perform the narration—and I wanted to read it again before our MMD Book Club chat with her in September (SO GOOD). This incredible novel-in-verse won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Xiomara finds her voice as she pours her soul into her notebook. Every frustration, every harassment, every triumph and every secret is turned into a poem. When she gets invited to share her work in slam poetry club, Xiomara isn't sure if she can keep her passion secret from her strict family. But she soon learns that speaking up and living her truth is the only way to be fully herself. I'm now committed to being an Acevedo completist; I can't wait to see what she writes next. More info →