Books which carried me through 2020: Top 12 picks

There were some plonkers, a lot of good but not great books, and a few excellent books that graced my year. My average rating for the 46 books I read this year was 3.5, achieving an almost normal distribution! (Nerd joy!).

The pandemic has made it more clear that when possible, I should support the businesses that I hope will survive. Since browsing a bookshop is one of the things I truly miss, I have been trying to buy from my local book store when possible. I have also been ordering from Bookshop.org (currently available in the UK and US), which supports independent bookshops, as Jeff Bazos & co already has too much of my money. (Side note: can someone figure out how independent book stores can sell ebooks? I read a lot on my Kindle but don’t love having to buy the books on Amazon). I have also bought a lot of books on Wordery.com (worldwide) this year as well, as they also have a particularly good selection of some of the nerdy epidemiology books (and they have free shipping!). I have also ordered a few gems from Better World Books, who donate a book to someone in need for each book purchased.

But before I get into more online shopping / COVID / Amazon rants, I give a list of books that were 5 star reads!

Top 12 books from 2020

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

Genre: Historical fiction

In this stunning, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, you meet on two young protagonists in WWII: Marie-Laure, a blind girl living in Paris with her father who flees to Saint-Malo at the invasion of Paris, and Werner, a German orphan with a technically brilliant mind and an engineering wunderkind when it comes to making and repairing radios. Beautiful and moving in equal parts.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo (Christy Lefteri)

Genre: Contemporary fiction

This is a gripping story of Nuri, a beekeeper, who finds himself as a refugee with his wife Afra. The book follows them through unspeakable loss and heartbreak, through a harrowing and difficult journey to seek safety and to find hope once more. Lefteri flashes between threads of the story – painting tranquil scenes from Nuri’s past, with the trauma of the asylum-seeking journey, to their time waiting in England for a decision on asylum. In this way, the book mixes beautiful moments with some of the worst traumas a person can experience in a way that is haunting and devastating. These stories are the sorts of stories everyone should read in order to do more for the people displaced and seeking a new home in the world.

Cilka’s Journey (Heather Morris)

Genre: Historical fiction

Based on the true and heartbreaking story of Cilka Klein, who survived Auchwitz only to be sentanced to a Siberian work camp.

This book is truly an amazing testament of courage amid the most extreme adversity.

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

Genre: Historical fiction

“I have to say that although it broke my heart, I was, and still am, glad I was there.” This quote from the last chapter of The Book Thief summarizes my reaction to the book. It is so heartbreaking but also so beautiful, that I am glad I read it, even as I sit in my living room sobbing.

This book is narrated by death, but is an exploration of love and what it means. At it’s centre is Liesel, a young girl in Germany. From a heartbreaking beginning where we meet Liesel as her brother dies and is left for a foster family, to her move to Himmel Street and where she learns how to read and how to love her new pappa, her best friend, a hidden Jew, and books.

This book will probably make you sob, but not before stringing bits of joy and mischief into the backdrop of Nazi Germany, as after all “A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning to a lasting friendship.”

The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafón)

Genre: Historical fiction

Set in the 1940-1960 in Barcelona, this book follows the most fantastic plot as a Daniel tries to unravel the mysterious story of Julian Carax, the author of the Shadow of the Wind which he had selected from the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books.” This book has so many twists and turns that it was not until the very end that I had any sense of the true story. On top of this, the writing is lush – poetic, philosophical, and imaginative.

This alluring book has convinced me both of the genius of Zafon but also the mastery that Lucia Graves demonstrates in the translation in producing such a poetic and nuanced book.

Home Body (Rupi Kaur)

Genre: Poetry

Home Body is a powerful, challenging, and evocative collection which beautifully distils growth after trauma, courage to love yourself, and bravery to find your community. The simple illustrations accentuate the poignant and cutting poems. This is a book that I am sure I will come back to time and time again.

On Writing A Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King)

Genre: Non-fiction, writing, memoir

This is one of the best books on writing that I have read. King mixes thoughts on his own life, and experiences with some really useful insights about the writing process.

Nothing to See Here (Kevin Wilson)

Genre: Contemporary fiction

It’s been a long time that I stayed up late into the night because of an un-putdown-able book but “Nothing to See Here” was one of those for me.

It was funny, creative, moving, dark, and light-hearted. I was utterly charmed by this book – Wilson tackles hard subjects (inequality, intergenerational advantage, trauma, class, belonging) in a way that was never preachy and really engaging. With children that catch on fire. 

Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)

Genre: Contemporary fiction

This is a trendy recommendation, but definitely worth the binge read. As shown in the wildly popular Netflix show, this book os set in Shaker Heights , a “planned” community where things were designed to be governed by rules and standards. The arrival of Mia and her daughter Pearl mark a disruption of this quiet place, and what unfolds is a touching and beautiful story of family dynamics, tackling the questions of race, class, and what it means to be a mother. This includes the contrast between Mia and Mrs Richardson, providing for their kids and parenting in very different ways. This theme is further explored when the custody of a baby between biological mother and adoptive parents tears the community apart.

Normal People (Sally Rooney)

Genre: Contemporary fiction

This is a “read in one day” type of book – I was completely captivated by Marianne and Connell, the main characters in this book. This book is beautiful but complex – examining twisted and traumatic relationships, exploring issues of class, in a story that is about love and pain.

“Marianne had a wildness that got into him for a while and made him feel that he was like her, that they had the same unnameable spiritual injury, and that neither of them could ever fit into the world. But he was never damaged like she was. She just made him feel that way.”

No, Lisa. I have not watched the BBC show yet. I have been much too “busy” with Hallmark holiday season 😛

Circe (Madeline Miller)

Genre: Historical fiction (ish) – Mythological

 This wins my 2020 award for best travel companion. I was island hopping in Greece, and this book on the Greek gods was the ideal pick. Focusing on Circe, the daughter of Helios (the sun god) and a nymph, Circe discovers she has the gift of witchcraft, which ends of transforming her life, ultimately exiling her to a remote island. I loved this unique journey through some of the great mythological characters and stories, which was only further enhanced by my travels.

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehishi Coates)

Genre: Non-fiction, memoir

This book, written as a letter from Ta-Nehishi Coates to his 15 year old son is poetic, powerful, and poignant. This book covers some of the history of racism and race in America, but importantly draws the focus to the system which has “made your body breakable” that “the injury is not being born with darker skin and broader lips and a fuller nose but in everything that happens after.”

This book was too beautiful and too important to take in all at once. As soon as I finished the audiobook, I listened to it again to let the the words and the implications sink into my soul and pausing to write down quotes from the book that I wanted to carry with me for a little bit longer.

If you are looking for more recommendations, you can check out my 2019 list, best books from 2018  or recommendations from 2017. You can grab any of these great reads from Bookshop.org (I have created a fancy list here: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/lovelyoutliers). If you have any suggestions for books to add to my 2021 reading list, pop a comment below! Would love to hear what books kept you company!


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