I’ve learned over time that reading fewer than 60 books in a year, or more than 100, is a clear sign something is off with my inner life. Too few books means I’m not prioritizing the self-care reading affords me; too many and I’m leaning too heavily on reading as a coping mechanism.
I finished 94 books in 2020. Do with that information what you will.
The 20 that rose to the top are listed below, categorized this year by my favorite novels, most helpful non-fiction titles, and most memorable audio experiences. I hope you find something here to help you thrive, cope, or do a little of both in the New Year.
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Until then, happy reading.
Greenwood by Michael Christie
My favorite novel of 2020 by a landslide.
The breadth, beauty, and brilliance of this multi-generational family saga grabbed me by the heart and didn’t let go. A ingeniously structured literary page turner, Christie’s novel starts in 2038 and travels back in time to 2008, 1974, 1934 and 1908 to reveal the secrets, tragedies, crimes, decisions, betrayals and passions that shaped a family as they faced the hopeful, impossible task of growing toward the light
If I could physically press this into your hands, I would. It’s that good, and it’s absolutely capable of making you more tender toward your own ancestry than you’ve ever been before.
A few weeks before I picked up Greenwood, I finally got the nerve to dig into newspaper archives and unearth the truth behind an event in my family’s history that explains nearly everything about my once fraught relationship with my dad. My grandfather’s imprisonment in 1968 for embezzlement shaped much of the remaining 50 years of my dad’s life, including his relationship with me, my brother, my mom, and alcohol.
Reading Greenwood challenged and compelled me to extend more grace to my late father than I already have because, my gosh, I’m only privy to one ring of the story. There’s so much I will never know or understand, even as it all shapes my frame today.
“Every tree is held up by its own history, the very bones of its ancestors…Jake has gained a new awareness of how her own life is being held up by unseen layers, girded by lives that come before her own. And by a series of crimes and miracles, accidents and choices, sacrifices and mistakes, all of which have landed her in this particular body and delivered her to this day.”
The (postponed) Olympic year reading experience I didn’t know I needed. I loved it for its refreshing premise (two female speed cyclists fighting over an Olympic berth instead of over a man), its plucky supporting characters, including a Star Wars-obsessed girl with leukemia, and an aging coach with an unbearable decision to make.
Having been a Level 10 gymnast and, later, a Division 1 high jumper, I identified with the book’s themes of ambition and sacrifice as readily as I did with the layered relational dynamic between the athletes and each other, and the athletes and their coach. In weaker hands, the story’s twists and emotional turns could feel contrived, but Chris Cleave’s trademark ability to make us care deeply for his characters lends itself to a memorable, satisfying ride.
“Just beyond your sight, life might be moving in ways that were moments away from being revealed to you. It was a mistake to take disappointment at face value.”
Haunted house visits may not have been COVID-approved this year, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t stop by the one Riley Sager drew as the lead character in this shadowy, satisfying (though snake-infested) thriller. Equal parts murder mystery and ghost story, I was riveted from start to finish thanks to its palpable setting, flawless pacing, and book-within-a-book dual narrative.
If you’re in the mood for something spooky but not super scary, Home Before Dark is just the book to disappear into. It’s the right amount of creepy with plenty of sounds that go bump in the night and will keep you turning the pages while the world spins out around you.
“Every house has a story. Ours is a ghost story. It’s also a lie. And now that yet another person has died within these walls, it’s finally time to tell the truth.”
If you’ve liked any of Fiona’s other historical mysteries, definitely pick this up. I co-sign on this review from author Kristin Harmel:
“A captivating ode to the power of books, the bonds of family, and the beauty of finding the strength to be ourselves. Fiona Davis’s spectacular setting—the iconic New York Public Library—comes alive across the generations as two women—one in 1913 and one in 1993—struggle with their own identities, a compelling mystery, and a tragedy that impacts both of them. What begins as a search for vanished rare books becomes, for both women, a quest to redefine themselves and open their hearts. This is a novel for all those who believe in the transformative magic of the written word.”
I avoided this 2018 release for more than two years because the cover and title screamed bodice ripper romance. I mean, just look at it, right? WRONG. I hereby confess to giving this book five emerald green stars. It was one of the most compulsively readable, poignant novels I cracked open this year. Steamy at times? Sure. But mostly it’s about an unconventional family avoiding—and then facing—hard truths. I’m so glad I read it.
“The epic adventures Evelyn creates over the course of a lifetime will leave every female reader mesmerized. This wildly addictive journey of a reclusive Hollywood starlet and her tumultuous Tinseltown journey comes with unexpected twists and the most satisfying of drama.” ~PopSugar
Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore
After a brutal stretch of 3-star reads, heavy reads, and a handful of DNFs last spring, this gem pulled me right up out of my reading rut in June. If you’re in the mood for a light, fun, inventive, perfect-for-summer read about a woman who has no idea what year of her life she’s going to wake up in each New Year’s Day, pick this one up.
“The day love makes sense, check the porkchops for feathers.”
Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun
This book’s dedication says it all:
“For the middle aged women of America. You’re not imagining it, and it’s not just you.”
If you are a member of Generation X (born 1965-1980ish)–or if you raised one–Ada Calhoun’s exploration of the struggle and confusion that is the Gen X women’s experience in middle age will make you feel all kinds of seen. Sandwiched between the Boomers and the Millennials and fed the lie that they can “have it all,” Gen X women have arrived at middle age exhausted, terrified about money, under-employed, and overwhelmed. Calhoun explains the cultural and political contexts that have landed us in this abyss and what we can do to lift ourselves out of it.
“Generation X women, who as children lacked cell phones and helicopter parents, came up relying on our own wits. To keep ourselves safe, we took control. We worked hard and made lists and tried to do everything all at once for a very long time without much help. We took responsibility for ourselves–and later we also took responsibility for our work or partners or children or parents. We should be proud of ourselves.”
In The Lazy Genius Way, Kendra equips the likes of you and me to embrace what matters, ditch what doesn’t and thrive in each of our weird, wacky, wonderful worlds.
I can say with confidence that every woman I know needs this book is because, without realizing it, I’ve been applying nearly all of Kendra’s 13 Lazy Genius principles to my life for years, and they 100% work. Whether you are overwhelmed with meal planning, deciding what gifts to buy your kids’ teachers, cleaning your nasty bathroom on the regular, or making space for what you love, Kendra will help you create a less stressed and performative, more chilled out and generous, life.
“You have permission to let go, wonder, and go slow or to desire, hustle, and power through. Whatever you choose, make sure you’re focused on what matters to you, not what matters to Instagram, your mother-in-law, or the voice in your head saying you’re not enough. Every choice matters because each one matters to someone, but hold only the ones that matter to you.”
Be the Bridge by Latasha Morrison
I’ve watched Tasha grow Be the Bridge and empower people toward racial healing, equity and reconciliation from afar for years, but I haven’t gotten involved until now. I’m considering starting a racial reconciliation group at our church once we can meet in person again, so reading this book was the first step toward that and, hopefully, so much more.
“Forgiveness and healing cannot begin until we become aware of the historical roots of the problem and acknowledge the harm caused.”
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs
In 2017, at the age of 39, Nina Riggs died of complications from metastatic breast cancer. While she was sick (and simultaneously losing her mother to multiple myeloma), she wrote The Bright Hour. Like When Breath Becomes Air, The Bright Hour a hopeful, honest and impossible-not-to-cry-at-the-end-of memoir on living with death in the room. Five stars.
“For me, faith involves staring into the abyss, seeing that it is dark and full of the unknown—and being okay with that.”
Burnout by Emily & Amelia Nagoski
If you’re weary of all the books touting expensive self care, creating margin and marinating in essential oils as ways to deal with and stave off stress and anxiety, pick this up. I found it helpful for its strategies on how to complete the biological stress cycle and befriend the inner critic.
“Reclaim rest and you reclaim sovereignty over your own life.”
I read a lot of heady and historical books on race this year, including The Color of Compromise (wowza), but Ijeoma’s was the most approachable and practical. It’s my new go-to recommendation for anyone looking for a solid place to start with racial reconciliation.
“When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.”
Get Out of Your Head by Jennie Allen
Tired of falling victim to your thoughts? Get your hands on this book now.
Jennie does an incredible job momma bearing readers into seeing that we are in charge of our thoughts; they are not in charge of us. Get Out of Your Head will help you:
- Identify the negative thought patterns that are keeping you stuck
- Understand the science behind why your thoughts can change your life
- Recognize your God-given power to confront and overcome your toxic thoughts
“Taking every thought captive is not about what happens to us. It’s about choosing to believe that God is with us, is for us, and loves us even when all hell comes against us.”
Try Softer by Aundi Kolber
Far more practical and accessible than The Body Keeps the Score, and a perfect companion to Burnout, Try Softer is a salve and a solve for our chronic over-functioning. Aundi, a licensed counselor, shows us how to stop white-knuckling our way through life by doing the sacred work of:
- Setting emotional and relational boundaries
- Making sense of the difficult experiences we’ve had
- Identifying our attachment style―and how that affects our relationships today
- Growing in self-compassion and talk back to our inner critic
To know if this book might be for you, listen to Aundi talk to Annie Downs about it on Episode 196 of That Sounds Fun.
Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker
Regardless of how many “rosé all day” shirts Target peddles, the level truth is that booze is so very bad for us, you guys. Quit Like a Woman is one of three books I read this year on sobering up and, with each one I finished, my relationship with alcohol became harder to justify.
Everything I learned about creating a cozy, uncomplicated home that serves people more than it impresses them, I learned from Myquillyn Smith. I have several copies of this, her latest release, stashed at the ready to gift to newlyweds, teachers, hostesses and new homeowners.
Pick it up today. You will not regret one second spent in its pages. Myquillyn is exactly the bossy big sister you need to help you finally understand what matters–and what doesn’t–as you prepare your home for the season ahead.
“Your house might not be perfect, but your hospitality is exactly what we need.”
More Myself by Alicia Keys
You don’t have to listen to Alicia’s music, or know anything about her, to absolutely love this memoir. It’s fantastic, especially on audio. I have so much respect for the fierceness with which Alicia learned to protect her art and her identity.
“And when I reveal my true heart, not everyone is going to approve. What I know now is that I don’t need them to.”
I was hesitant to pick this up. I didn’t think my heart could handle reading about a man who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. But then I opened it up and found, as Richard Branson did, “an example to us all of the power of the human spirit to rise above complete injustice.”
You will fall in love with Anthony Hinton in these pages and marvel once again at the way Bryan Stevenson is spending his life working to see men and women like Anthony set free.
“Despair was a choice. Hatred was a choice. Anger was a choice. I still had choices, and that knowledge rocked me. I could choose to give up or to hang on. Hope was a choice. Faith was a choice. Compassion was a choice. And more than anything else, love was a choice.”
Open Book by Jessica Simpson
Jamie Golden green lighted this on the Popcast, so that was enough to make me pick it up on audio. Prior to reading, my interest in/knowledge of Jessica Simpson was limited to the time my husband I watched Newlyweds in 2003/2004 when we were newlyweds ourselves. I had no idea what came before or after for Jess, and I’m genuinely glad I took the time to find out. Jessica reads the book and does a wonderful, earnest job of it.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
My most memorable audio experience of 2020 (I drove from Phoenix to Las Vegas and back in the same day and listened to this in one fell swoop), The Lager Queen of Minnesota goes down smooth.
I married into Minnesota and still own a home in one of the cities featured in this story, but you don’t have to have “Minnesotah” ties (or know anything about beer) to love the heck out of this heartwarming generational story of family, tragedy, perseverance and forgiveness. Five boozy stars.
“Her mother told her once that the nicest thing you can do for someone is be happy to see them.”
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