So. Let’s talk about 2020. 2020 included: a baby-turned-toddler, my husband’s deployment, a pandemic (during the deployment), and an overseas move (during a pandemic.) I actually managed to “read” quite a lot this year, thanks to embracing audiobooks as I never had before. Audiobooks got me through the endless hours of dishes involved in a lockdown with three children. (I don’t understand how it’s possible to spend 17 hours of a day doing dishes, and yet…) However, many (most?) of these books aren’t exactly, uh, great literature. Consider this list the Real Housewives of Reading. If you need a mental escape, there are plenty of cheesy rom-coms and throwaway thrillers that are a nice distraction, but ultimately unmemorable. Don’t write these all off, though – there are a few gems! Here’s to hoping 2021 brings better fortune than 2020, and better books.
Favorite Fiction: Oona Out of Order, Leave the World Behind, Such a Fun Age
Favorite Nonfiction: Just Mercy and – I’m 100% serious here – Open Book by Jessica Simpson
1) My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan (audiobook): I heard about this book soon after I learned we might be moving to Oxford for a year, so naturally I had to read it. This isn’t a genre I typically go for, but this was actually a very sweet, endearing story with more depth than I expected. And the descriptions of the City of Dreaming Spires got me so excited for my own upcoming adventure. (The adventures of a mom in her mid-thirties moving to Oxford is quite different than a Rhodes Scholar in her 20s, but still, I enjoyed this.)
2) A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum: Thought-provoking, troubling, sad. I wanted more closure.
3) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling: I love reading this series with my daughter. I haven’t read these early books since they were released, and it’s great fun rediscovering them.
4) Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Excellent. A grand, sweeping book both historical and incredibly imaginative.
5) The Other Windsor Girl by Georgie Blalock (audiobook): What a disappointment. I expected some juicy historical fic-lit on Princess Margaret, but she was really a secondary character to her fictional lady-in-waiting. Ultimately it was a bore.
6) Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane: Alright, I’m going to diverge from popular opinion here – I did not love this. Yes, it’s well-written and there were a few great scenes but overall, I thought it slow and dull; I just couldn’t invest in these characters that much.
7) Followers by Megan Angelo (audiobook): For a dystopian novel about the toxicity of social media and faux-celebrity culture, this was a fun read! Fun, but also eerie and dark. Like, what if constant tech use will irreparably damage our brains in some terrifying, unknown way?! Eh, whatever. It could’ve been a few chapters shorter, but overall was enjoyable.
8) The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (audiobook): What do you know – C. S. Lewis holds up! The narration is fantastic and the book is as relevant today as the day it was published.
9) The Farm by Joanne Ramos: This was good but not great. The premise – a “farm” where women (usually poor immigrants or women of color) are paid surrogates for other (wealthy) women – is provocative because it doesn’t seem all that far removed from reality. It brings up some interesting ethical questions and attacks some important themes – but somewhat artlessly. I’ve found that a lot of contemporary fiction bludgeons you over the head with its message – there’s very little nuance, and the works end up being unchallenging and uninteresting for the reader. This certainly wasn’t the worst offender (see: The Last Story of Mina Lee) but it could’ve been better.
10) The Wives by Tarryn Fisher (audiobook): I don’t even know where to start with this. I have so many questions. There’s an unreliable narrator, and then there’s… whatever this is. Look – this kept me engaged because it is totally bonkers, but like I said, I have so many questions.
11) Open Book by Jessica Simpson (audiobook): This book was made for me. Behind the scenes Mickey Mouse Club gossip? 90s Teen Pop Queen rivalries? Newlyweds set drama? Tell me everything! There’s actually a lot of depth and quite a bit of sadness. Simpson is refreshingly honest and unapologetically herself. One of my favorite books this year.
12) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling: A note to parents considering this series for their kids: This series gets dark, early. Azkaban is pretty terrifying. I know a lot of my kids’ friends who have read the entire series at a fairly young age. You know your child best – it’s okay to wait if they’re not ready for this kind of content, even if all their friends are reading it! My oldest was ready for this book, but my middle who is much more sensitive will not be reading this at the same age.
13) My Friend Anna by Rachel DeLoache Williams (audiobook): Whoa. This memoir of a woman who got conned by a fake socialite is wild, although DeLoache’s unwillingness or inability to assert herself or ask for help as Anna upends her life made me extremely uncomfortable. Anna is a sociopath and DeLoache is undoubtedly a victim, but not a very sympathetic one.
14) Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe: Wow. This was fascinating and completely disturbing. I highly recommend for anyone interested in Northern Ireland’s history.
15) Do You Mind if I Cancel?: (Things That Still Annoy Me) by Gary Janetti (audiobook): This book made me laugh out loud in several instances, but Janetti’s snark eventually wore on me and his essays grew tiresome.
16) Little House in the Big Woods: I had grand visions of reading the entire Little House series with Elisabeth as my dad did with me, but regrettably I think we began when she was a little too old for this to really hold her interest. I wasn’t sure how she would relate to the toil and drudgery of 19th century homesteading, but she was surprisingly captivated by the process of making head cheese (ugh) and, of course, the panthers. However, upon beginning the second in the series, Farmer Boy, she decided to move on. Upon re-reading this for the first time since my childhood, I decided this book is must have subconsciously created my extreme aversion to camping.
17) My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: The characters in this frustrated me. I couldn’t quite enjoy this.
18) Whisper Network: I think this was a buzzed-about book, but I forgot about it as soon as I finished it.
19) Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur: Wowza. If you want a tale of dysfunction to make your own family feel normal, read this. Brodeur’s memoir is an extremely readable but twisted tale of her mother’s decade-long affair, and how her mother enlisted her – a young teen at the beginning of the affair – as her confidante and accomplice. As a mom, Broduer’s mother’s actions are unfathomable and shocking, and it’s awful how profoundly they impacted Brodeur herself.
20) The Twits by Roald Dahl: Not remotely close to one of Dahl’s best, but nonetheless a quick, wacky, fun read for kids.
21) Trust Exercise by Susan Choi: Interesting and surprising. This book stayed with me awhile.
22) The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda (audiobook): This was an exceedingly boring thriller. Don’t bother.
23) Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes: This book is what I imagine Hallmark movies to be.
24) The Mother-in- Law by Sally Hepworth (audiobook): This is not the flashiest or most exciting of thrillers, but after a slow start I really enjoyed it.
25) Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid: This was one of my favorites this year. Most of the characters are so cringey and many of the scenes are super awkward – but I think that’s because it’s probably one of the more honest portrayals of race and privilege I’ve read recently. And *SPOILER* – Can we talk about when the crazy mom obsessed with her cringey ex-boyfriend LEAVES HER BABY ALONE IN THE HOUSE FOR, LIKE, TWO HOURS WITHOUT REALIZING IT!? No. Nope. I was freaking out. And then the ending. Oof.
26) Witches by Roald Dahl: This book is still seriously creepy, even as an adult.
27) City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: This is glamorous and fun. I wouldn’t say it’s exceptional, but I enjoy Gilbert’s writing.
28) The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liz Constantine (audiobook): This kept me on edge even once I had figured out what was going to happen. Gotta appreciate how over-the-top psycho some of these characters are. Keeps it interesting!
29) On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: I am going to diverge from popular opinion again, but I strongly disliked this. Maybe my least favorite read of the year. I just dreaded reading it, but I felt compelled to finish. I will grant that mid-pandemic I might not have been in the right headspace to tackle this – I just found it too depressing – so don’t write it off because of me.
30) The Wife by Alafair Burke (audiobook): A compelling, twisted thriller. The ending shocked and disturbed me, but I that’s what I want in a thriller!
31) In Five Years (audiobook): I picked this somewhat randomly from my audiobook subscription, and it was a good escape listen, but not nearly as light-hearted and fun as I expected. This one is sad, folks!
32) Miracle Creek by Angie Kim: Intense and suspenseful. Really, really good – one of the best of the year – but also tragic and tough to read (*SPOILER* this book involves dead children.)
33) The Hate U Give (audiobook) by Angie Thomas: I tend to avoid YA lit, but after all the attention this received, I thought I would try it, and I’m glad I did. It’s a powerful story.
34) Oona Out of Order (audiobook) by Margarita Montimore: I adored this. One of my favorites this year. Oona jumps to a different year of her life the first of every year, never knowing what year she’ll land in. I loved discovering her life with her; I didn’t want it to end.
35) This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel: A thoughtful and nuanced story dealing with a controversial subject. I appreciate that the author asks a lot of important questions but allows the reader to examine them themself. I also appreciate how this book highlights the love and joy of a big family – I haven’t seen that much in contemporary literature. My only qualm is that there is an abrupt shift in setting and tone about 2/3 of the way through – the end felt like it could’ve been another book!
36) The Unhoneymooners (audiobook) by Christina Lauren: Ugh. Trite, cliched, predictable.
37) The Jetsetters (audiobook) by Amanda Eyre Ward: Another disappointment. Just, dull. Not nearly as deep or revelatory as it’s intended to be.
38) All the Missing Girls (audiobook) by Megan Miranda: This title is misleading. There were two, maybe three missing girls. That is hardly as exciting as ALL the missing girls! This was not quite as much as a dud as The Last House Guest, but it wasn’t great, either.
39) Take Me Apart (audiobook) by Sara Sligar: An unmemorable, uninteresting “thriller.”
40) The Kiss Quotient (audiobook) by Helen Hoang: This is basically an R-rated The Rosie Project with the genders reversed. And without the charm. Also – I need to mention how ridiculous the male protagonist is. He’s a gorgeous escort/master tailor/expert swordfighter?! I’m sorry, it’s too much.
41) Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: This was our book club selection right before book clubs were indefinitely cancelled. Once I realized this was a sequel of sorts to My Name is Lucy Barton, I put this aside and read that first. I liked this slightly better than Lucy Barton, but not by much. Again – this might be a pandemic mindset thing. Melancholy, sad stories just didn’t do it for me.
42) The Hunting Party (audiobook) by Lucy Foley: Tense and gripping. Bonus points for taking place in Scotland. One of the better thrillers I read this year.
43) A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett: A classic, of course. I bribed Elisabeth to read this with me with the promise we’d read the next Harry Potter next. She resisted liking this book, but ultimately she was as captivated and charmed by this story as I. BUT. I remembered the movie, not the book, and was shocked – shocked! – at how different they are. Like, oh, HER DAD IS REALLY DEAD IN THE BOOK. The whole time I was reading expecting a heartfelt reunion and, nope. He’s dead. I was not emotionally prepared for that.
44) Red, White & Royal Blue (audiobook) by Casey McQuison: This was a good pandemic read. The love story between the President’s son and one of the Queen’s grandsons was too saccharine for me, but in general the book was a fun diversion.
45) The Wife Between Us (audiobook) by Greer Hendricks: Meh. Fine to listen to while doing chores, but not much more than that.
46) My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: Oh boy. This was complex, disturbing, sad. Left me feeling kind of hopeless.
47) The Secret History (audiobook) by Donna Tartt: A rare instance where I hated the narration (Tartt narrates it herself) but loved the book. I wish I had read it, not listened.
48) The Boys’ Club (audiobook) by Erica Katz: A kind of shallow woman-in-a-man’s-world book. A perfectly decent audiobook to pass time.
49) The Cactus (audiobook) by Sarah Haywood: A sweet, charming story.
50) Writers and Lovers (audiobook) by Lily King: “I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?” That is how I felt about this book. Whelmed. (This might’ve been a case where I would’ve appreciated the writing more had I read not listened to the book.)
51) The Topeka School by Ben Lerner: Lerner is obviously a talented, skillful writer. I just didn’t enjoy this story, despite the great writing.
52) The Wife Stalker (audiobook) by Liz Constantine: Not as scandalous as The Last Mrs. Parrish, but the twist ending surprised me – although it shouldn’t have; the signs were all there.
53) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling: I confess that one night after Elisabeth went to bed, I read ahead without her. I couldn’t remember the ending and I just had to find out what happened! Let’s be straight – Rowling isn’t a fantastic writer, but she’s a masterful storyteller.
54) The Lying Game (audiobook) by Ruth Ware: Disappointing. This dragged.
55) Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson: Phenomenal. This book just devastated me. It’s heartbreaking but I’d recommend everyone read it.
56) The Family Upstairs (audiobook) by Lisa Jewell: Okay. Mildly suspenseful.
57) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: I read this as a child and wanted to reread it with Elisabeth. I generally don’t enjoy science fiction/fantasy, but this is an undeniably great book for kids – lovely writing, inspirational characters, and important themes that L’Engle makes accessible for younger readers.
58) The Last Story of Mina Lee (audiobook) by Nancy Jooyoun Kim: This was just awful. The mystery lacked suspense or urgency, the writing lacked intelligence or creativity. Hated it.
59) Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker: This is an extraordinary story of a family one family with 12 children, six of whom suffered from schizophrenia, and the scientific and medical community’s quest to understand and treat the disease. This book is filled with grief and suffering, but also, hope. Highly recommend.
60) The Nanny (audiobook) by Gilly Macmillan: English nobility with a possibly psychotic nanny? Sign me up! Not the best thriller of the year, but certainly not the worst.
61) A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler: A tragic story that felt especially poignant after reading Just Mercy.
62) One Day in December by Josie Silver: This was a bit predictable, and the ending was SO cheesy, but the book actually had a lot more emotion than I anticipated. Not bad, for a romance.
63) Cobble Hill (audiobook) by Cecily von Ziegesar: This had a very Emma Straub vibe. Not a lot of plot or action, just a host of characters who are supposed to be quirky (but are actually rather pathetic) and their interaction with one another. It’s fine.
64) The Phantom Tollbooth: Another book I know I read as a child but couldn’t remember. Elisabeth loved this. As an adult I found it a bit tedious, but it’s clever and fun for a kid. And the ending is really lovely.
65) Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam: Phenomenal. Alam never reveals what catastrophic event has happened that forces two families – strangers – together in a vacation home cut off from the world, but he masterfully turns tension into quiet terror. This was gripping and chilling – I was so absorbed in the audiobook I had no idea it was nearing the end and was stunned when it concluded. I need to know more!
66) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh: It’s quite jarring to read great literature after you’ve been reading mostly contemporary crap. Beautifully written, wry, humorous, sentimental, a bit surprising – a wonderful book to end the year.
Books I didn’t finish:
Dopesick by Beth Macy: This is an informative and important book about the opioid epidemic. I hope to finish it another time, but I had to shelve it this year. There was already enough despair in the world to delve into this.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about any of these – and of course, your recommendations! What were your favorites this year?