If reading is on your list of things to prioritize in 2020, then buckle up because I’m here to blow up your TBR list.
I finished just over 80 books in 2019, and today I’m sharing a stack of my favorites, plus two books I’m kicking myself for not getting to before the clock struck December. I intend to sit down this weekend to map out my 2020 TBR, so please leave a comment letting me know which of your favorite books should be on it.
FAVORITE READING EXPERIENCE
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018)
I can’t talk about this without overusing adjectives like lyrical, moving, original and luminous. It’s the most engrossing, enjoyable novel I read in 2019. It’s stunning (see, there I go again).
BEST FAMILY DRAMA
This messy, heart wrenching family saga is a Top 5 read for me this year.
Two rookie cops meet at the NYC Police Academy and strike up a friendship, setting in motion a tragic chain of events that echo through the decades, through the lives of their children and grandchildren. There’s so much here, including questions like, “At what cost do we cling to our past? How much energy do we expend in the name of vengeance? What, exactly, constitutes a life well-lived?”
Mental illness and alcoholism triggers abound, so know that going in, but trust me when I say this is well worth your time.
BEST BAIT AND SWITCH
Nothing is as it seems in this psychological suspense novel, and I loved it. Written by a former screenwriter, it had me turning the pages and wondering how long it’ll be before Hollywood gets ahold of it.
THE ONE THAT MADE ME UGLY CRY
Steve & Me by Terri Irwin (2008)
Thirty five minutes. That’s how long I cried on the couch at the end of Terri’s memoir about she and Steve falling in love and staring the Australia Zoo.
I love everything about these two and the legacy Steve left his children, Robert and Bindi. If you do nothing else over your holiday break, start watching Crickey! It’s the Irwins on Animal Planet, and then request this beauty from your library.
BEST HISTORICAL FICTION
I was completely swept up and along by this masterful exploration of the improbable love story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. The prose is gorgeous, the insights are remarkable and the skill it took to intelligently marry fact with fiction deserves all the praise this book has received.
MOST COMPELLING PIECE OF JOURNALISM
Parkland: Birth of a Movement by Dave Cullen (2019)
Moving, inspiring, and hopeful are not words ever used to describe books about mass school shootings, but this one is all three. For once the survivors became more famous than the shooter, and we are all better for it.
“Movements are born from hope, but they are built brick by brick.”
BEST BEACH READ
This domestic mystery is everything you want in a summer read. When Lucy’s mother-in-law, Diana, turns up dead from a questionable-looking suicide, it seems everyone in her family had a motive for her murder, including Lucy, whose relationship with Diana has been fraught since it began 10 years ago. So why does Lucy seem genuinely sad about Diana’s death? We find out in short, compelling chapters, told alternately from Lucy and Diana’s points of view, that keep us turning the pages.
This fictional story of a concert pianist whose career comes to an abrupt end when he’s diagnosed ALS took me by surprise. I didn’t expect to be so swept up in the narrative, invested in the characters, or impressed with the research (much of which aligned with what I learned about ALS from a friend’s experience seeing her husband through the disease).
Ultimately, it’s a redemptive story about finding peace inside forgiveness, and for that I am thrilled to have picked it up.
FAVORITE CELEBRITY MEMOIR
A must read for creatives and Breaking Bad fans. I cannot recommend the audio version enough. Get it for free here.
“Storytelling is the essential human art. It’s how we understand who we are. I don’t mean to make it sound high-flown. It’s not. It’s discipline and repetition and failure and perseverance and dumb luck and blind faith and devotion. It’s showing up when you don’t feel like it, when you’re exhausted and you think you can’t go on. Transcendent moments come when you’ve laid the groundwork and you’re open to the moment. They happen when you do the work.”
This unbelievable story of one woman’s escape from her Mormon survivalist family to the halls of Cambridge University reads like a thriller. Excuse my language, but there’s no other way to say it: Westover’s life is crazy AF.
“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
Runner Up: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (2018)
“…a richly moving story that explores the indelible bond between two siblings, the house of their childhood, and a past that will not let them go.”
Having grown up with a younger brother in a house that was taken from us as swiftly and remarkably as it became ours in the first place, I connected easily to this story of a paradise lost. I loved its setting, its siblings, and its thoughtful exploration of what people do when the things they love go missing (and who they must forgive along the way).
Harry’s Trees is a story of loss and grief that turns into a tale of friendship, whimsy, and adventuring through tragedy to redemption. At its center are a tree house, some gold, a book, and a wise old librarian who knows the power reading has to assuage the heart.
I’ve pressed this into the hands of more friends this year than any other book. It’s a crowd pleaser.
“Because it’s worth it. Worth the risk and the pain. Of all the glorious enchantments of this world—spring, snow, laughter, red roses, dogs, books—love is by far the best.”
An emotionally difficult, but necessary, read, Colson Whitehead brings Jim Crow-era Florida to life through the real story of a reform school in Tallahassee that claimed to rehabilitate delinquent boys and instead abused and terrorized them for over one hundred years.
Provocative, propulsive, and unnervingly believable, The Passengers is one heck of a ride.
The set up: Someone hacks into the systems of eight self-drive cars, sets their passengers on a fatal collision course, and leaves it up to the public on social media to decide who lives and who dies.
Considering how close we are to living in a world with autonomous vehicles, the premise is compelling because it’s not at all far-fetched. You could confidently recommend this to anyone, including notoriously tough sells like husbands, fathers-in-law and teenagers.
DREAMIEST AUDIO NARRATION
I’ve had a crush on Rob Lowe since I shared chips and salsa with him as a teenager while my mom showed him rental properties in Santa Barbara. He was as kind to me then as he was when I talked to him at a luncheon in Las Vegas a few years ago. Those are both stories for another time, but here’s the thing: He’s a class act and this book explains why. He reads the audio version and I “literally” loved it. Listen to it for free here.
Runner Up: Love Life by Rob Lowe (2014)
I ate this alllll the way up (and cried like a fool through Chapter 10: “The One Where It Ended, Twice”). A must read for anyone who lived through the ‘Must See TV’ era, owned the Friends DVDs, or has the show permanently slotted as ‘Recently Watched’ on Netflix.
“The memories we made on Stage 24 are better than any dreams we ever had.”
MOST GENEROUSLY (and beautifully) WRITTEN
I have none of the words and all of the feels about this woman, this book, and what it means to wrestle with God while holding fistfuls of grief and joy. Sarah is the. most. profound, prophetic voice in Christendom today. If you aren’t listening to it, you are missing an opportunity to have your breath taken away and returned to you stronger, surer, and full of things more sacred.
The last chapter is far and away the most generous, life-giving end to a book you’ll ever read.
Runner Up: Almost Everything by Anne Lamott (2018)
The Editor by Steven Rowley (2019)
In this fictional glimpse into Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ career in publishing, we meet James, a struggling writer who gets his big break when the most famous woman in America falls in love with his autobiographical novel, one built on the fault lines of own dysfunctional family. Over the course of finishing the manuscript, the two develop a friendship that inspires James to finally see his mother as human, fallible, and as prone to heartbreak as anyone.
Layered with warmhearted and well-researched detail about a beloved historical figure, The Editor is a smart, witty, deeply-felt story about the importance of reconciliation. I was surprised to be taken on such an emotional ride.
The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman (2019)
If it’s transformation, peace, or clarity you’re after in 2020, this book will get you there by reminding you of the one who gives it. As she does so insightfully each week on The Next Right Thing Podcast, Emily guides us through a simple, soulful practice to cut through the decision-making chaos, quiet the fear of choosing wrong, and find the courage to decide without regret or second-guessing our next right thing.
Whether decisions loom large or small in your life right now, Emily’s here to remind you to take a deep breath and know that, no matter what you decide, Jesus won’t let you miss your future.
Here, Now by Kate Merrick (2019)
Kate’s call to presence in all of life’s seasons—be they bright with hope, dark with sorrow or clouded by the mundane—will make you weep and giggle (sometimes on the same page), reflect and repent, cut away and re-connect. Most of all, her hard-won insight will compel you to look up and around at what you have and see that it is good.
BEST YOUNG ADULT
“I’m so, so tired of always worrying about our world splitting into a before and an after again.”
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
My biggest reading regret of 2019 is that I didn’t get on the holds list sooner for this oral history of 9/11. I’ve heard nothing but incredible things about it and will be reading it as soon as possible in 2020.