The Best—and Worst—Books I Read in 2020

Unlike a lot of people this year, my reading did not slow down because of the stress of 2020. In fact, I read 53 books this year, one more than my goal of 52. Plus, that is the most books I have read since I started keeping track a few years ago.

What has been different about my reading life is that I read a lot of disappointing or bland books this year. There were certainly some winners and losers, but mostly there were a lot of mediocre books that just fell in the middle. I blame part of that on 2020 for a few reasons: With my local library shut down completely from mid-March to July, I had to rely on either buying books online or reading books I already had at home. Now, to be clear, I have a bookcase of 60+ books that I haven’t read yet. This year, because of the pandemic, I reached for those books more often. But still only read nine of them—and only one of them made it into my top 10. Most of them were good or just OK.

I also didn’t have the luxury of browsing books in bookstores, which is how I often find some true gems. And that is one of the things I miss most during this pandemic—just spending an hour or two browsing a bookstore, discovering new reads, seeing what I’m in the mood for, choosing a book after reading a jacket cover or the first few paragraphs, and finding new business books I want to explore.

In normal years, I read about half fiction and half nonfiction, including several business books and memoirs. But this year, I read only 18 nonfiction books out of 53, which is about 34%. Seven of those 18 nonfiction books were memoirs. Most were good, but only one made my top 10 list.

I also realized this year that I read a lot of dark books. When friends began to ask me for lighter book recommendations or if I was reading fluffier books during the pandemic, especially during summer beach read season, I realized I had little to offer them in the way of lightheartedness. While I did reach for a few cozier books this summer, the pandemic apparently did not turn me off my darker reads.

Here are my top 10 books of 2020 (in order of when I read them):

Daisy Jones and The Six (2019)
This was the third book I read in 2020, way back in normal January. I don’t typically love books written in journal or script form; this was written like a magazine interview, but it worked so well, and I became fully absorbed into the story. I loved these characters and fell into their lives.

Long Bright River (2020)
This is a sad, haunting book about two sisters in Philadelphia—one a cop, one struggling with drug addiction. This is what I said back in February: “I can already tell this will be one of my favorite books of the year. And it’s my favorite type of book: a page-turning literary book about families. And then there’s a mystery thrown in for good measure, although it’s not a traditional mystery book.”

Evvie Drake Starts Over (2019)
I read this book on my Florida vacation (remember those?) back in February, and it was a great “beach read.” It was thoroughly charming, and I loved the characters of Evvie and Dean. This book was so much better than a basic rom-com—and it wasn’t quirky (I really hate quirky). It was about two grown adults who have backstories and complications and are trying to both move past tragic events in their lives. Plus: baseball!

The Vanishing Half (2020)
One of those rare instances where a book lives up to the hype and critical reviews. It’s poetic, beautiful, thought-provoking and powerful, while also just being a really great story that you can’t put down. I really enjoyed Brit Bennett’s debut novel, “The Mothers,” but this (only her second book) far exceeds that.

The Family Upstairs (2019)
This was a great thriller with a gothic feel. I wasn’t sure what this book was when I started reading it, which made it all the more enticing. Was it a psychological thriller? Was the “family upstairs” about ghosts? Or was this about something else? So many questions. The story kept me guessing until almost the last page.

The Warmth of Other Suns (2011)
I had seen this book so many times on bookstore tables since it came out in 2011, but I shied away from its hefty 540+ pages, plus I feared it would read more like a textbook. I was so wrong. The author gives an exhaustive historical account of the Black migration from the South to the North, telling the history through the personal stories of three people. They give the story its heart, as they take you on a journey through the racist 20th century and the experiences of Black Americans.

We Were Liars (2014)
This is the young adult book that a friend recommended about four years ago and has been sitting on my shelf ever since. I can’t believe I waited this long! This is a hard book to review because I don’t want to spoil anything. The book is about Cadence, a pretty, rich white girl on a private island, along with other family members, including the other “liars,’ who are her two cousins and a sort of step-cousin she adores (all her age). The writing is poetic and kept me going. There’s not a linear plot, or much of a plot, and the characters aren’t fully developed, but there’s a reason for that. Wait for it. Suddenly, Cadence mentions a head injury and migraines without really explaining what just happened. It’s like it was just dropped in the middle of the book. But there’s a reason for that. Wait for it. I was reading this book, going along for the ride to find out what happened, and then I found myself utterly absorbed. And in the end, this book gutted me.

Eight Perfect Murders (2020)
This was a fantastic murder mystery. It’s not scary or fast-paced, but a great whodunnit. In the book, Malcolm Kershaw owns a bookstore in Boston that is focused only on mysteries. Several years before, in his first bookstore blog post he writes a great analysis called “Eight Perfect Murders,” choosing the best unsolved murders from real classic mysteries. Now, an FBI agent shows up and tells him the murders are happening. Like the best mysteries, I couldn’t figure out what was truly happening till the final pages

Mexican Gothic (2020)
This horror book is a slow burn and definitely lives up to its “gothic” title and all the hype it has received. It’s set in 1950s Mexico. After Noemí’s father receives a disturbing letter from Noemí’s cousin, Catalina, he sends Noemí to her cousin (like a sister to her) to find out what is happening. Catalina had recently married a man and moved into his family’s large country home. When Noemí arrives she quickly learns her cousin is unwell and the family is, to put it mildly, weird. The suspense and eeriness build and build and build as Noemí uses her socialite confidence and spunk to push back against the family’s rules and to try to take care of her cousin.

Know My Name (2019)
Easily the best memoir I read this year, this book is stunning and powerful. It’s not just the content—that Chanel Miller “comes out” through the publication of this book as the person that rapist Brock Turner (the “Stanford swimmer”) brutally raped—but the writing and the laying bare her soul. Chanel is a gifted, beautiful writer.

Honorable Mention:
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (2020)
This book is polarizing, which I understand. At times it’s unclear what this book is trying to do or what genre it’s in. But I loved it, despite some flaws. One GoodReads reviewer aptly described it as Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias and Dracula wrapped up in one. I thought it was going to be a lighthearted “Southern ladies’ book club slays vampires by night.” It’s not that. It’s about a group of stay-at-home moms in the South in the 1990s who form a book club, reading mostly true crime fiction, which they do not tell their husbands about because that is not what Southern ladies read. Patricia is the main character. Soon, a stranger moves to town and starts acting weird and Patricia suspects he’s a vampire. The thing that is infuriating in the book is that all the husbands gaslight their wives and think they’re just “dumb little women” who should focus on cooking, cleaning and kids. Basically, every man in the book is awful, so if you can’t stomach that, I understand. The book also addresses themes on race, which turns into much more than a light-hearted romp about slaying vampires.

The Most Disappointing Books of the Year

I heard great things about the following books, but they were huge disappointments for me.

The Resisters (2020)
Dystopian world. And baseball. Sign me up! I liked the first one-third of the book. But it was all downhill from there. It became really slow, and it became clear that it was told from the wrong point of view. Why tell a feminist girl-power story set in a dystopian world from the dad’s point of view? It made no sense to me.

The Death of Vivek Oji (2020)
A ton of people loved this book, and I was really looking forward to it. But it was a definite miss. I figured out quite early the so-called “mystery” of what happened to Vivek Oji, but even beyond that, the characters and plot fell flat. The writing is gorgeous; I can’t deny that, but everything else felt superficial. There were too many characters in such a short book, and you never really get to know any of them. I can only tell you which characters hooked up with who and that Vivek grew out his hair so it was long and luscious—his hair was described about 1,000 times throughout the book. There were also several unexplained and unnecessary plot points.

Saint X (2020)
I had hoped this would be a good mystery and/or character study. A rich family goes on vacation to a Caribbean island; their oldest daughter goes missing and later turns up dead. Fast forward, and the youngest child is an adult grappling with her sister’s death when something happens to bring it all front and center again. First, the writing was trying to be clever in the beginning when they were on the island. Instead, it was meandering and dull, but I stuck with it hoping that in the future when the youngest daughter takes over most of the book, it would get interesting. But there’s very little plot and no character development. I was just bored.

The Worst Books of 2020

While those three books were disappointing, there were two books I absolutely hated this year. Sadly, one wasn’t a surprise, but the other one was a huge disappointment and I wanted to throw it across the room. And that was …

Leave the World Behind (2020)
Again, I love postapocalyptic and dystopian books, and I’d heard such great things about this book. I got it for Christmas and read it in three days, but mostly because I wanted to see if got better at some point. I don’t mind ambiguous stories, and I liked the premise of the book: A white family rents a vacation home in a remote part of Long Island, when an older Black couple knocks on the door late at night, claiming there is a blackout in New York City and that this is their vacation home and they had nowhere else to go. The book purports to be an examination of the racism and prejudices that situation brings up, which I found intriguing, but the author beats you over the head with this. The white family is completely unlikeable, and while the Black family isn’t unlikeable, the author does little to make me care about them. The author seems to have a detached, sneering view of his characters, making the reader never care for them. But the worst part of the book is the author’s weird obsession with everyone’s genitals and his unintentional hilarious sexual metaphors. I thought this book was just pretentious and ridiculous.

American Dirt (2020)
I bought into the hype this book received in the fall of 2019 and preordered my copy. But by the time it came, the book had exploded in controversy, being accused of racism and getting hype only because a white woman (who claimed some sort of Hispanic heritage) wrote it. After letting it sit for several months, I finally picked it up in April. I won’t add to the discussion over the racist problems of this book. A lot has been said about that by Latina writers. But even if the book didn’t have that problem, it would be a bad book. I ended up reading 200 pages before just skimming the rest so I could see how it ended. The main character is woefully, ridiculously naive (I think this is where some of the racist accusations come in), and I had no emotional connection to her. There are some truly horrible things that happen in this book, but I didn’t even get upset. I just cringed. Dozens are murdered, girls are raped, young men die, but it’s all just trauma porn.

That’s it. What did you love and hate in your reading life this year? Let me know in the comments or let’s chat on Twitter @MelEdits!

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