This is the time when the end of the year “Best Of” lists start appearing, and that means it’s time for my Most Compelling Books of 2020 list. These are the books that I still think about long after I have finished them. They have intriguing characters, fascinating storylines, and writing that makes you stop and reread beautifully crafted sentences.
This year I had more time to read, so I had a larger selection from which to choose- over 125 books. I found it interesting that all of my choices were novels, perhaps because the escape from the real world outside to fiction was a necessity.
Emily Nemens’ book The Cactus League takes the reader inside the Arizona baseball spring training for one season. The story is told by multiple characters, including the pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery trying to hide that it didn’t work, a former MVP whose personal life hides a secret that could blow up on him, and the overhyped rookie.
Colum McCann always tells a great story and his novel Apeirogon is based on the true story of two men- one Palestinian and one Jewish- who both lost their daughters to violence. They join together to try and understand each other. It is so beautifully written, and he combines the history of a troubled region in a poetic way with these men’s tragic family stories. It’s an epic accomplishment.
Brit Bennett has gotten much well-deserved praise for her second novel, The Vanishing Half about twin Black sisters from a small town in the 1950s. At the age of sixteen they leave home. One returns years later with a young daughter, and the other one manages to pass as a white woman. It’s an eye-opening look at race and family.
Regina Porter’s The Travelers also tackles race in her multi-character driven novel. Her story tells the tale of two families whose members intersect over the years. Her characters are so well-drawn, and the strong pull of home here rings true.
The world has been waiting for the fourth book in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels, and the wait was worth it. Jack brings us the back story of a preacher’s prodigal son Jack Boughton, after being released from prison in 1950’s St. Louis. Jack falls in love with Della, a young Black schoolteacher. Interracial relationships are against the law, but Della finds herself drawn to Jack, and he fights to be the man she deserves. It’s just stunning.
V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue tells the story of Addie, young woman in 1714 France who, while running away from an arranged marriage, makes a deal with the devil. She wants to live life on her own terms and when she is done, her soul is his. He agrees, but in making the bargain, Addie discovers that while she will live as long as she wants, no one will remember her. It’s a sad life, until 300 years later she meets a man who remembers her. Why did this happen?
Jess Walter’s historical novel The Cold Millions combines real people with his characters of two Irish immigrant brothers who get involved with the labor movement in 1909 Spokane, Washington. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling, his best since Beautiful Ruins.
Kristin Fields’ A Frenzy of Sparks is set in 1965 Howard Beach, New York, when young men are being drafted into the Vietnam War, and the scourge of drugs is starting to appear in young Gia’s close-knit neighborhood where almost everybody is related. The story of a family fighting addiction is heartbreaking.
There are a lot of WWII novels, but Hazel Gaynor’s When We Were Young & Brave tackles a different aspect. Her story is set in a Japanese Army internment camp in China, where a British school’s students and teachers are being held. The bravery of the teachers protecting the children is the best of humanity. Fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale should pick this one up.
Emily Gray Tedrowe’s The Talented Miss Farwell captured me from the very first page. Becky Farwell is the comptroller of her small town’s government. She has an alter-ego named Reba who becomes enthralled by the art world, and becomes a dealer and collector, financed by money she steals from her town. The tension ratchets up as the art world collapses and her town’s finances crater. It is based on a true story, and an homage to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Here’s to reading good books in 2021.