The top 13 books of the 100 that I read in 2020 - everything from historical fiction and true history to fiction and spiritual writings. Come find 1 (or more) books for your TBR pile!
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Choosing and writing this article of the best books I read the last year is really one of my favorite things to write.
Well, that is now that I have my reading life fully formed again after going a whole year without reading one book a few years back.
And I can tell you I'm richer for it - mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. Books help me to connect with others through their writings, to be more empathetic to those who aren't like me, and to learn so.many.things.
2020 Reading Challenge
Last year after making it to 100 books for the year, I stopped setting a reading goal number and instead challenged myself to do the Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge.
How did I do? Well, it was hit and miss. I accomplished about 80% of the challenge - the books I didn't read were one from the year I was born and a book nominated for an award.
Of the books I did read, one I abandoned at only the 1/3 mark (Fahrenheit 451 - ugh, so boring and pontificating...) and none of the books I read have made it to this best of list.
So...I did stretch my reading life, but I don't really think those kind of challenges are for me, ha! Did you do a reading challenge last year?
I again read and listened to 100 books in 2020 - a thing I still can't believe I can accomplish, lol. Oh, and I don't differentiate between audio and visual books - it's all reading to me!
Tips to Read More Books
If you're curious about how I went from no books to 100 books a year in just a few years, these are the tips and habits I use in my reading life that I highly recommend:
- Always have a book ready to read. I have books waiting on my bedside, in my Kindle, on my library app, and in my Audible account. There’s never an excuse not to read.
- Embrace audio books. Many of the books I read each year are audio books which I listen to when I’m walking, gardening, cooking, and doing DIY projects. This is the #1 thing that has allowed me to read more. (Oh, and audiobooks are not “cheating” – our minds process them about the same either way.) Some lend themselves better to audio (fiction) and some don’t (heavy nonfiction you want to mull over and re-read passages). It’s even become fun for Brian and I to listen to books in the car while making our 20-minute trips to town as well as longer trips. Not only is it a great use of time, but we have had some great books to talk about with each other.
- Have a goal. Since making that first goal back in 2015 to read one book a month I have read more because I’ve prioritized it – I want to reach or beat my goal. So if the choice is a mindless TV program or reading? I pick reading every time.
- Keep track of the books you’ve read. I use the Notes app on my phone for books I’ve read, the Lists section of my Flexible Planner for books I want to read, and now my Book Notes Journal for quotes and ideas I want to remember. However you keep track, it’s wonderful to see what you’ve accomplished – as well as remember what you’ve read and how they impacted you.
- Make choices that support your goal. I listen to just a few podcasts – while there are more that seem interesting to me, I know they will take away my reading time, so I usually choose books. Same with TV – there are a lot of shows people talk about that I don’t watch, and what I do watch better be good because it’s taking me away from a book! That’s what happens when you make goals – you also make choices to support them, no matter what the goal is. And that moves you in the direction of living the life you want, whatever you want it to look like.
Best Books of 2020
Note: this list is in the order that I read the books, not in any way ranked.
This was such an interesting book and look at a part of our country’s history that I knew nothing about, other than the assassination of President Garfield.
While the man who shot Garfield was mentally unstable, it was the medical practice at the time that really killed him. He lingered for more than a month in tons of pain as the infection caused by so many well-meaning doctors who probed his wound without washing their hands raged through him.
Learning about the politics of the era and more about the amazing man Garfield was made both Brian and I (we listened to this together) say again and again – what difference would he have made to our country if he had lived? He was a caring, forward thinking man who embraced all men regardless of color and who had the presidency thrust on him unwillingly. The book was a bit slow in the beginning, but hang on and you’ll find yourself riveted.
I didn’t really know what to think when going in to this book (I ordered this from the library based on a Modern Mrs. Darcy recommendation, and she usually doesn’t let me down), other than it was a story of four friends tied together through a New York City church.
It starts much earlier than that, before any of the four main characters knew each other, so you get to see all the family backgrounds that make them who they are when they eventually meet – first as the two couples date and get married, and then as the couples meet in order to co-pastor a church.
What did I like so much about it?
First, the writing and character development was excellent. I quickly became invested in these four people and couldn’t wait to see what was going to unfold next.
Then I thought the deep themes of family, death, love, discouragement, and all the things we humans deal with were treated in such thoughtful, meaningful ways. I especially found the spiritual aspect thought-provoking to see how God can use each one of our gifts and foibles to help each other (even though this isn’t a "Christian book").
This is a WWII historical fiction book that’s based on the incredible experiences of 17 year old Pino Lella. The author met him when he was an old man and spend 10 years recording his experiences, interviewing others, and researching documents. He then built the dialog and drama around these activities into a moving story that is both happy and sad.
We learned a lot about the war in Italy, sometimes called the forgotten front, and how devastating it was to civilians. I just can’t imagine living under those circumstances. Even when the war ended, you weren’t safe from men taking advantage of lawlessness. And the epilogue is really detailed giving as much information as the author could find on what happened to many of the characters.
Both Brian and I were engrossed the whole time - this is just really a good book! (And I read it's soon to be a movie with Tom Holland playing Pino!)
As a history fan, this exploration of the black migration from the Jim Crow south to the north during the 20th century (up to the 1970s) was super interesting to me. The author goes into quite a bit of detail about why this was happening, why some left and others didn’t.
She uses the stories of three people and their families who made the journey at different times to illustrate this and make it personal, which was a great way for us to become invested in the book. One of the people is actually the authors mother and is why she got interested in the subject.
Some things that will stick with me are:
- The horrible stories of how the southern blacks were treated in Jim Crow era (humans can be so terrible sometimes).
- The ridiculous laws of the time (as trains passed from a northern state to a southern Jim Crow state, the black passengers had to move to a different car or part of the car).
- The author’s findings that the southerners didn’t cause the problems in black neighborhoods in northern cities as it has been suggested.
I’m really glad to know this about this part of our country’s history as it builds empathy and understanding.
I have been wanting to read these books for awhile, ever since seeing a couple of the PBS series episodes and people telling me I’d like it. It's a memoir of a young nurse who trained with a group of nuns who had been taking care of a poor neighborhood in Britain for years.
As someone who loves history, the stories in this book are incredible – it’s like a picture out of the late 1800’s or early 1900’s instead of the 1950s. Wow, the living conditions and poverty.
Also I didn’t know there are some pretty graphic scenes included – and the ones around the prostitution story were pretty disturbing. But the overall story of the nuns and nurses called to minister to the poor was so good - and listening to the authors faith-journey was inspiring, that it ended up on my best of list.
This book was put together from a series of talks Elisabeth Elliot gave and was published after her death.
(For those who don't know, Elisabeth Elliot is the widow of Jim Elliot who was killed along with four other missionaries in the jungle of South America in the 1950s. She was a young wife with a small child at the time and eventually when back to work with the tribe that was responsible for Jim's death. She later remarried and lost that husband to cancer. Her story is incredible and inspiring - I'd recommend any of her books, though you'd want to start with Through The Gates Of Splendor.)
I have two pages of notes from Suffering is Never For Nothing in my book notes journal, which means there are great nuggets and it is super timely to the era we’re living in. Here are a couple of thoughts and quotes I recorded:
My note: Our lives and how we respond to circumstances should look different as Christians from those around us. There should be two main differences: Acceptance and Gratitude - of God’s gifts, not the specific suffering, which was key for me.
This is how she put it with regards to her own suffering:
I don’t think I need to thank God for the cancer (that killed her second husband) or the murder (that killed her first), but I do need to thank God that in the midst of that very situation, the world was still in His hands. There is, in fact, no redemptive work anywhere done without suffering. -Elisabeth Elliot
I’ll probably need to re-read this in the future, the message was that important.
This book is well written and I found myself engaged with the characters and the heroism of the women portrayed that is so inspiring.
There are four main women portrayed – three are based on real women who fought (and some died) to resist the Nazis, and one is a fictional character who was developed to help us get the Jewish perspective (there is an author’s note that describes her thinking).
This book is set in the years leading up to World War II, with only the last chapters during the war, so it’s a slightly different take on other WWII books I’ve read. This is quite good and highly recommended, even though the (true) ending is hard.
This fascinating book has a time frame that goes back and forth between before the civil war and after on a remote plantation. It tells the story of a healing woman, her daughter who grows up to be a healer, too, and the plantation owner’s daughter who befriends the “conjure woman’s” daughter.
While it doesn’t downplay the slavery era, it’s not only about all the horrible things that happen (like I found The Kitchen House to be). You get to see how the slaves survive after the war because of the remote area where the plantation was, how they adapted, and how they lived. I really felt like I was transported to their world through the author’s writing (and this is her first book!).
Brian and I listened to this while riding in the car since we LOVED her last book, News of the World (now a movie with Tom Hanks!). And while the story wasn’t quite as on-the-edge-of-your-seat as that book, this one was just as interesting and just as well written.
Let me say that again – Ms. Jiles is SUCH a great writer! Both Brian and I were constantly amazed at her metaphors (a memorable one is describing an out-of-tune piano as having “discouraged keys”), phrasing, and how she builds a scene from another place in time so vividly.
The story is a sweet (and at times bittersweet), about an orphaned young man who’s a wonderful fiddler. The beginning of the book finds him trying to avoid conscription in the Confederate army in Texas in the last days of the civil war, getting conscripted, joining others he meets there to form a band, and then how they manage after the war ends.
He sets his sights on marrying an Irish girl he sees at one of his gigs and most of the story after that revolves around him working to find and woo her.
I wish, wish, the ending hadn’t felt so abrupt and that it continued for at least another chapter so we’d see them firmly on their way to their new life, but that’s the only thing I would change in this beautiful story.
This was another book Brian and I listened to and it was a real treat read by Nick Offerman. He does such a great job with this classic tale.
I hadn’t ever read this before and didn’t realize it was a time travel book that is actually written like a lot of our current time travel books but in the late 1800s! I’m pretty sure this has influenced more sci-fi books than we know.
The details of medieval life from a more modern perspective still rings true today – even though that "modern" perspective is 130 years old. Both fun and poignant as the hero tries to bring humanity to a pretty dark age, this is Mark Twain at one of his best.
I read lots of great things about this Pulitzer finalist novel and waited quite awhile for it from the library. There was a slightly less longer wait for the audiobook, so I went for that and was glad I did, since Tom Hank's narration added a special note to the book.
Like many of Ann Patchett's stories, this is about a family and covers many years. I enjoyed the characters and the premise of grounding it around a large, spectacular house that some loved and some hated – and how it affected them all.
I found the love and devotion between the brother and sister to be especially sweet. Given the nature of many books today, I kept expecting a terrible falling out or horrible secret, but instead it is a real-life relationship with it's ups and downs, but they always stay loving to each other through it all.
I knew within the first few chapters of this historical fiction recounting of the electric lightbulb “war” between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse (and Nikola Tesla occasionally) that it would make my year-end best of list.
It is a fascinating part of history I knew nothing about, told in a way that makes you want to keep reading/listening.
Especially interesting is the focus on the young attorney of Westinghouse, Paul Cravath, who was chosen for this herculean task just 18 months out of law school. He went on to form one of the most successful law firms – even though he didn’t win the case. Highly recommended.
This was one of the last books I read for 2020 but I definitely made room for it on my best of list – it’s well written, well researched, and a storyline that will leave you reeling with feelings of motherhood -the joys and the losses.
I really appreciated the world Ms. O’Farrell built of what it was like to live day-to-day in 16th century England. You see cooking, cleaning, imagine the houses and gardens. There are wicked stepmothers, bossy in-laws, and lovely children. It’s just a beautiful, if heart-rending, story told exquisitely.
The fact that this is a fictionalized idea of what might have happened to William Shakespeare’s son who died shortly before he wrote Hamlet (names which the author says were used interchangeably then) is only a minor plot point, though an interesting background to be sure.
Well, that's it for my favorite books of 2020 - I'd love to know what your favorite books were!
If you'd still like more book recommendations, here are the previous years best books lists - just looking through these again reminds me of the great books I've read (and makes me want to do some re-reading!):
- 13 Best Books of 2019
- 13 Best Books Read in 2018
- The 13 Best Books I Read in 2017
- Best Books Read in 2016
- My Top 5 Books from 2015