Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Best Books of 2020

I've been capturing my top books of each year since 2001. You can access all of them here.

While some of my friends are reading far less this year (for example, my book group has continued reading but is not reading books because many members are having a difficulty finding the time or energy), I guess I've actually amped up my reading a bit. 

Links go to my reviews. I have fallen behind in my reviews, so some of them don't have full reviews yet!


1. Daughter of Black Lake, Cathy Marie Buchanan

Historical fiction all the way back to the Iron Age, this fascinating novel features two powerful women characters...a mother and daughter named Devout and Hobble. I haven't read a story this old since reading The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Red Tent, and the Bible. I had a great time interviewing the author for my Finding Fertile Ground podcast series on resilient characters, and I'll be featuring her interview in the next month.

2. The Power, Naomi Alderman

This dystopian novel blew my mind, imagining what it would be like if women had a course of power running through their collarbone, capable of great strength and power. I still think about it, even though I read the novel several months ago. At my book group, we discussed whether women would be as violent and aggressive as men if they had the power. I actually think it's not fair to make comparisons, because the women in this novel were oppressed and had a reason to be angry and violent. It was not a level playing field to make this comparison. This book will make you ponder.

3. Kindred, Octavia Butler

Dana suddenly gets flung back in time into the antebellum south to save a drowning white boy. It turns out he is one of her ancestors. Dana ends up back on this plantation over and over again, each time to rescue clueless and careless Rufus. This book is grueling and difficult, but amazing, and my first Octavia Butler, thanks to my friend Catherine. She published this book in 1979, so it's amazing I'd never read it before.

4. There There, Tommy Orange

A series of interconnected short stories about the Native American experience...all characters traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Beautifully told, compelling, heart-breaking, and so important for every American to read to understand the Native experience. I learned so much, both from reading the novel and from my research afterward.

5. Sweet Bean Paste, Durian Sukegawa

I loved this precious little story, about a former convict, Sentaro, who sells dorayaki, a pancake filled with sweet bean paste. His life is meaningless until a disfigured elderly woman, Tokue, walks through the door. Tokue makes sweet bean paste beyond his imaginings. I learned a great deal about the way Japan treated people with leprosy in the not-so-distant past, including the time when I lived there in the 1980s. I plan to watch the movie (available on Kanopy) one of these days too.

6. The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

Judging from some of the reviews, many readers believe that this sequel to The Handmaid's Tale was unnecessary. I actually liked The Testaments and found it to be a suitable conclusion to The Handmaid's Tale, and it complemented the Hulu series well. The story takes place 15 years after the founding of Gilead, and it is told from the perspectives of three different people, including Aunt Lydia. If you prefer endings that are unresolved, stay away from The Testaments. If you'd like to see a resolution for Offred and others--and get some hope--read this sequel. 

7. Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens

So many people recommended this unputdownable book to me, and it did not disappoint. It takes place in the North Carolina marsh country in the late 1960s, an area of which I'm unfamiliar. Kya Clark is a resilient protagonist, and the natural world and its wild creatures are just as vivid of characters as Kya herself. It's a tale about deep poverty and child neglect. My heart broke for Kya, so alone throughout her life.

8. The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

John Boyne is a gay Irish writer, and this story is a poignant tragedy about the travails of being an unwed mother, or being gay, in Ireland. It's a great family saga that takes place from the 1940s to the present. It's definitely also an indictment on the hypocrisies and cruelty of the Roman Catholic church.

9. Dragonfly in Amber, Diana Gabaldon

The second in the Outlander saga, I actually enjoyed this book more for having watched the Outlander series on Starz. Time travel, romance, France, and Scotland. A perfect distraction from the modern-day mess of this world right now.

10. Rooftops of Tehran, Mahbod Seraji

This was a beautiful story, pre-Iranian revolution, of Pasha and his friends, who gathered in the evening on his neighborhood's rooftops. This book is about coming of age, with deep bonds of friendship and the blossoming of a forbidden romance. It's also deeply sad and lovely, if you can stand the sadness.

11. On the Come Up, Angie Thomas

I love Angie Thomas, especially after having her seen her in person when she was promoting this novel. Starr Carter, who has a true gift for rap, takes after her dad who was gunned down in the streets. She's damned if she tells her truth through rap, and she's damned if she doesn't. This book gave me an appreciation for the artistry of hip hop. I will read everything Angie Thomas writes.

12. An American Marriage, Tayari Jones

I also got to see Tayari Jones promote this novel, which turned out to be especially topical reading for this year when so many Black people have been falsely accused and gunned down by police. It's the story of a couple, Celestial and Roy, who seem on their way to "the American Dream" until Roy is falsely accused of rape and sentenced to prison for 12 years. The characters were not particularly likable, and I found it hard to believe they ever really had love in their marriage, but they were survivors facing difficult conditions.

13. The Canterbury Sisters, Kim Wright

A nice, light read. Che de Milan is the daughter of a narcissist who has died. When her mother's ashes arrived, they came with a plea to take her to Canterbury Cathedral. On that same day, Che received a "Dear Juanita" letter from her long-time lover, dumping her. She booked a ticket to England and embarks on a walking trip following the Canterbury Tales. She had hoped to journey alone, but she ends up in a motley tour group, sharing stories along the way.

14. A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick*

Set in cold northern Wisconsin in the early 1900s, A Reliable Wife is the story of many people from various backgrounds who share something in common: miserable childhoods lacking in love and nurturing. Wealthy businessman Ralph Truitt asks for "a reliable wife" to come join him in the far-flung north, and Catherine Land claims she fits that bill. An interesting story about manipulative, deeply unhappy, unloved people. 

15. What She Knew, Gilly Macmillan

I think this was a decent effort for a debut novel about a missing child, a distracted mom, and the toxicity of the Internet. But I felt disappointed with the ending...both the identity of the abductor and also the character development of many of the people in the book.

16. Island of Lost Girls, Jennifer McMahon

Another "missing child" novel...this time, the main character actually sees the child being taken. As she tries to help solve the crime, she is reminded of her childhood friend who disappeared when she was younger. It was a compelling read, but I found the plot to be implausible at times.

17. A Stranger in the House, Shari Lapena

A thriller with unraveling secrets, about a seemingly normal married couple in upstate New York. Again, the characters were unreliable and unlikable, but read it if you like twists and turns.


1. Real American: A Memoir, Julie Lythcott-Haims

Real American is a book, like Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, that all people need to read...or even better, listen to, which is how I absorbed this beautiful and heart-breaking memoir. New York Times bestselling author Lythcott-Haims was born to a white (British) mother and a Black American father. All her life she never felt like she fit into either race, beginning in kindergarten when her friend asked, "What are you?" This is such an important book. I'm featuring Lythcott-Haims on my podcast too! She's better known for her book How to Raise an Adult, about her reflections from working as a dean for Stanford University.

2. Untamed, Glennon Doyle

I loved this book. If you cannot abide Elizabeth Gilbert or Brene Brown, steer clear. Glennon Doyle is not for everyone. Untamed is about Glennon's journey back to herself, after a lifetime of trying to please everyone else and becoming the image of what she thought God and her parents wanted her to be. “When women lose themselves, the world loses its way. We do not need more selfless women. What we need right now is more women who have detoxed themselves so completely from the world's expectations that they are full of nothing but themselves. What we need are women who are full of themselves. A woman who is full of herself knows and trusts herself enough to say and do what must be done. She lets the rest burn.”

3. Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is a hero for the neglected, the abused, the convicted without a fair trial, and those who are forgotten on Death Row. Just Mercy relates his stories of working tirelessly on their behalf, combined with facts and historical context about the prison industrial text and racism in this country. I found this book to be tragic, moving, inspiring, and infuriating. Stevenson shows up in the documentary 13th and also in the Nicholas Kristof/Sheryl WuDunn book I'm reading right now, Tightrope. Highly recommended.

4. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Patrisse Khan-Cullors

When They Call You a Terrorist is the beautifully written story of a Black girl growing up in inner-city Los Angeles by a hard-working single mother and a father and stepfather who come and go. Although raised in poverty, she and her family fiercely love and protect each they have to do big time when her beloved brother Monte is repeatedly targeted, beaten, and incarcerated for his mental illness. Patrisse emerges from her childhood with a feisty, creative, and confident spirit in spite of the fact that she sees firsthand the destructive damages of racism every single day. Here's who needs to read When They Call You a Terrorist:

  • Every white person who thinks we've transcended racism.
  • Every person who has ever uttered "All Lives Matter" or "Blue Lives Matter."
  • Every white person who thinks they are "woke."
  • Every white person who has never had to fear their children being arrested for just existing.
  • Every white person who looks away when #BlackLivesMatter comes up in discussion.
  • Every white person who voted for Trump.
  • Every white person who voted for anyone else but Trump.
  • Every white person who thinks that police are always fair and friendly.
  • Every white person who believes people should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps."
  • Every white person who thinks there are more drugs in Black neighborhoods than white ones.
  • Every white person who thinks that people in prison deserve to be there.
  • Every white person who lives in a predominantly white neighborhood or community.
  • Every white person who has never been pulled over and questioned because of their race.
  • Every white person who can conveniently stop thinking about racism when they want to.
  • Every white person.
  • And everyone else too. 

5. More Myself: A Journey, Alicia Keys

This book is meant to be listened to, because Alicia Keys' voice has such a lovely lyrical lift, and she also sings on the audio book. She bares her soul and her personal struggles in this book, and the most vivid memory I have is when she talks about racism and parenting Black children. Such a beautiful retelling of her life.

6. The Guilty Feminist: From Our Noble Goals to Our Worst Hypocrisies, Deborah Frances-White

Deborah Frances-White is the host of one of my favorite podcasts, The Guilty Feminist, which discusses topics “all 21st century feminists agree on” while confessing their insecurities, hypocrisies, and fears that underlie their lofty principles. The book is a great primer and commentary on feminism, with a wonderful sense of humor to boot!

7. The Middle Finger Project: Trash Your Imposter Syndrome and Live the Unf*ckwithable Life You Deserve, Ash Ambirge

Ash is a rags-to-riches author, internet entrepreneur, and founder of The Middle Finger Project, a blog about following your passions (unless you’re a serial killer). Her work focuses on helping women find their voice and use language as a tool to increase upward mobility, create economic opportunity, and increase their sense of personal agency in their career and life. I listened to this book on audio, and it was a fun ride.

8. What We Carry: A Memoir, Maya Lang

In this beautiful memoir, Maya Lang (who is of Indian origin) writes about her experience with her highly ambitious and accomplished mother developing Alzheimer's disease around the same time that she has a baby. At first Lang is heartbroken to experience her mom's apparent lack of support when she gives birth and has postpartum depression, but then she discovers the reason...her mom's increasing dementia. A wonderful story about mothers and daughters, especially growing up in an immigrant household with even higher expectations of grown children.

9. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped is a fast-track version of the longer Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, designed for younger readers. It traces the history of racism and the many political, literary, and philosophical narratives that have been used to justify slavery, oppression, and genocide. I had many ahas while listening to it, and I learned a ton, similar to the documentary Thirteenth, making me realize what a pathetic history education I had!

10. The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom

Sarah Broom grew up in a family of 12 children. Sarah was only six months old when her father died, leaving her mom, who did not know how to drive at the time, with several children at home and a rambling, ramshackle house she bought with her own money at a very young age. It's also a story about New Orleans, where the yellow house stood until it was split in half during Hurricane Katrina. It's about a family displaced and the Black, working-class experience, a failure of infrastructure and corrupt leadership, a failed safety net, and the displacement of people who cannot afford to live in New Orleans any longer. And still, it's a love affair of sorts for New Orleans. All wrapped up in a towering, split-in-two Yellow House.

11. Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, Susan Rice

I didn't know much about Susan Rice until I heard her interviewed on a podcast. She struck me as incredibly bright, funny, and capable, so when I saw she'd written a book I was immediately intrigued. This book is packed with stories about her childhood and young adulthood, diplomacy and policy work here and overseas, and family. She married her college sweetheart and has two children--one a diehard liberal and the other a Trump supporter. Yikes! Susan Rice is a rock star, and I enjoyed learning about all she's accomplished in her time on earth.

12. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, Angela Davis

A book encapsulating the brilliance of Angela Davis, talking about state-sanctioned oppression, the parallels between racial justice in the United States and oppression abroad, Black feminism, and more. She writes about supporting the presidency of Barack Obama, even while challenging him to do more. "Freedom is a constant struggle."

13. My Vanishing Country, Bakari Sellers

This book has been compared to Hillbilly Elegy, but for the Black experience. Bakari Sellers grew up under the shadow of his father's civil rights activism. His father was a friend of Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King Jr. Sellers describes his own struggles to come to grips with his history and the lives of his peers, who did not have as positive of an outcome as he did. 

14. Thick: and Other Essays, Tressie McMillam Cottom

One (white male) reviewer on Goodreads used the term "firebombing" when describing this book. He thought that McMillan wasn't nice enough, I guess. That attitude (Black women need to be nice) is telling, given the fact that firebombing has been used for mass destruction of Black people since the Civil Rights Movement. This book by sociologist Dr. Tressie Cottom McMillan, contains incisive, insightful essays about race and racism, white people, Black girlhood, academics, sociology, beauty, and other topics. The most powerful essay for me was about the high mortality rate for Black women in labor and childbirth, when McMillan shared her own heartbreaking story. Dr. McMillan is a writer and wise voice to follow.

15. Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin* (reread)

I first read Black Like Me in high school, so it was interesting to revisit. Journalist John Howard Griffin conducted an experiment in the 1950s, using a medication to darken his skin and living as a Black person. Although dated in many ways, his book still offers observations and lessons to modern-day America on racial justice throughout the ages. 

16. Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad

I led a book group on this and White Fragility this summer. Saad wisely outlines her lessons in bite-size chunks, so it's easier for white people to swallow a little at a time. I am aware of the controversy surrounding this book, and I actually thought it wasn't the best book on race I've read. But it has good elementary steps on how to become an ally and anti-racist.

*I continue to read books mostly by underrepresented voices. Only the asterisked books are by straight white men.

What I've Been Watching: 

Sex Education, Crash Landing on You, Schitt’s Creek, Thirteenth, Outlander, Great British Bakeoff, The Great, Killing Eve, Kim’s Convenience, Self-Made, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Unorthodox, Atypical, Dead to Me, Never Have I Ever, One Day at a Time, Shrill, Grey’s Anatomy (for the first time), Mrs. America, Little Fires Everywhere, This Is Us, Law and Order SVU 


  1. Thanks a lot, Marie! I have over a thousand books on my “to read” list, and now I have more to add from your list. I was surprised that you have read so many that I hadn’t even heard of, and I read a lot of reviews. I’m not actually complaining; your reviews make it easy for me to judge whether or not a book would appeal to me, and I have read several. The one I couldn’t agree with you on was Where the Crawdads Sing. I didn’t like the author’s need to do so much explaining, and I hated the ending. Oh well, there are plenty more books to like!

  2. Love reading your book profiles, Marie. Great recaps of some I've read and wonderful ticklers for those I now want to add onto my to-read list.