Best Books of 2020: Literary and Historical Fiction, Plus Some Geeky Reading Stats (and Pie Charts!)

In 2020, I read 205 books this year totaling 67,188 pages. I know reading was all over the place for a lot of people, but for me this was my best reading year on record, both in terms of quantity and quality (as evidenced by the plethora of 4 and 5 star ratings). At the same time, I genuinely think I was harsher with ratings than ever before. If I didn’t like something, I felt no pressure to pretend otherwise. If you want to see everything I read in 2020 and follow what I’m reading in 2021, check out my Reading Challenge on Goodreads. Also just be friends with me on Goodreads in general because I want to see what you’re reading and talk about it!!!! 

I’m going to start with some stats because I think it’s interesting, but if that’s not your jam, skip down to the book list!

Of the 205 books I read in 2020

156 were Fiction, 46 were Nonfiction, and 3 were Poetry collections.

164 were by female authors, 36 were by male authors, and 5 were by nonbinary authors or more than one author.

142 were by white authors and 63 were by authors of color

In terms of genre, 57 were general contemporary fiction or contemporary literary fiction, 36 were mystery/thriller/crime, 28 were memoir, 18 were general nonfiction,17 were romance, 15 were fantasy/sci-fi/speculative fiction, 14 were historical literary fiction, 9 were horror, 8 were YA, and 3 were poetry collections.

For reviews, I gave 43 5-star reviews, 84 4-star reviews, 62 3-star reviews, 12 2 star reviews, and 4 books I did not rate.

Now that my nerdiest self is satisfied, on with the rest of my favorite books of 2020!

I’ve divided my favorite literary fiction into historical literary fiction (meaning anything set before the present day) and contemporary literary fiction. I’m also tacking on my favorite romance and favorite fantastical/speculative fiction books at the end.

Best Literary Fiction (Historical)

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali

It’s 1953 and Tehran is a hotbed of political turmoil and activism. Mr. Fakhri’s neighborhood stationery shop is an island of calm in the middle of it all. When Mr. Fakhri introduces his two favorite customers, Roya and Bahman, romance blossoms. The teenagers are giddy with joy, but on the night before their secret wedding, tragedy strikes. The couple is caught up in the violence of the coup d’etat and are separated…possibly forever? Heartbroken, Roya moves forward, eventually moving to California and building a life there. But when a chance encounter brings Bahman back into her life 60 years later, everything comes rushing back.

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall

This book is not going to be for everyone, but this might have been my favorite book of the whole year.. If you have no background in the Christian church or interest in Christianity, I doubt this will interest you, but it spoke perfectly to my own spiritual history and struggles with faith. The Dearly Beloved tells the story of two couples who are brought together in 1963 when the two husbands are hired to co-pastor a church. Charles is an academic who was struck profoundly by the unwavering sense of truth . His faith transcends understanding and is strong and unwavering. Meanwhile, his wife Lily is an avowed atheist. He does not try to change Lily’s mind, and she does not try to undermine his beliefs and his career. Meanwhile, James is an activist and an idealist with a passion for social justice. Although he isn’t sure he believes all the tenets of the Christian faith, he has come to believe that the church is the best vehicle for him to serve people in need. His wife Nan on the other hand is a devout believer from a long line of devout believers. This is a quiet, but beautiful story about these two couples over a long period of time as they each wrestle with their beliefs, support and challenge one another, and experiences the trials and triumphs of life together.

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

This book really took me by surprise. I am not typically drawn to historical fiction, particularly not set in Biblical times, but I gave this a try because I adore Sue Monk Kidd. This is the story of the fictional wife of Jesus, a woman named Anna. Not only was I engaged by the beautiful writing and storytelling, the character of Jesus the man as he is portrayed through the eyes of Anna was so compelling. I especially loved how Kidd took the words of Jesus from the gospels and wove them gently into conversations in a way that made me see Jesus as a real person instead of this disembodied voice reciting aphorisms. There is also a big feminist slant to this book since it is told from the perspective of a woman in a time when women were often treated as property. It’s really just lovely. 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I don’t know what there is to say about this that hasn’t already been said. It is worth the hype. Identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella grow up as light-skinned black girls in the small town of Mallard, Louisiana (Side note: Mallard is a fictional town, but the characters actually go to the town where I went to high school several times in the book, so that was fun). At the age of 16 the twins run away to New Orleans where they end up forging separate lives. Desiree ends up returning to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter years later after escaping from an abusive husband. Meanwhile, Stella has made her own life in California where she has been passing as white, marrying a white man and keeping her past a secret. This book is a fascinating exploration of racism, colorism, identity, and family. It’s expertly crafted and (in my opinion) it deserves all the praise it’s been receiving. 

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Gyasi’s Homegoing is one of the best books I have read in recent years, so I was eagerly anticipating her new release. Transcendent Kingdom is nothing like Homegoing, yet I found it equally moving and provocative. Gifty’s beloved older brother died from a drug overdose after getting hooked on painkillers following a knee injury. Her mother ebbs and flows through tides of severe depression. Gifty sees the way her mother suffers and the way her brother suffered and has channeled her own pain into studying the science behind addiction at Stanford Medical School. Transcendent Kingdom follows Gifty through the past and into her present as she tries to use science to make sense of what she has seen and experienced. It explores themes of grief and love, of science and faith, of addiction and depression, of despair and hope. Part of my love for this book has to do with my personal connection to some of the characters’ experiences, specifically the extremely religious upbringing and having a sibling with an addiction, but I think this would be a compelling read even without those extra connections. 

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

This was one of several eerily apt books about pandemics to come out in 2020. This follows nurse Julia Powell working on an improvised maternity/influenza ward during the Spanish Flu epidemic in Ireland as she does her best to serve her patients in the midst of utter chaos. When help arrives in the form of Bridie Sweeney, a volunteer helper who knows absolutely nothing, Julia resigns herself to making do. But Bridie surprises and inspires her with her quick intellect and unflagging energy. Set over 3 days at the hospital, the story is equal parts hope and heartbreak as patients die rapidly from this aggressive new flu and new babies enter the world, sometimes at the same moment.  

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller 

This is a gorgeous retelling of The Iliad which imagines the same events with Patroclus and Achilles as lovers. Achilles is kind of a douche, but Patroclus is such an endearing character, you can’t help but love him. The writing is beautiful and evocative and the story (especially the ending) is even more compelling and devastating than the original. I don’t think you need to be super familiar with The Iliad to enjoy this, but maybe look up a character list or something to keep all the characters straight. 

Best Contemporary Literary/General Fiction

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

This is the story of two families in LA, one Korean-American and one African-American, who have both been rocked by the same incident. Grace Park’s sister Miriam hasn’t spoken to her mother in years, but Grace has never really understood why. She sets out on a quest to reconcile the two most important women in her life. Meanwhile, a police shooting of a black teenager has brought Shawn Matthews back to the murder of his own sister years earlier. As LA erupts in racial tensions and violence, the Matthews and the Parks are brought together in an unexpected way.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

It’s been several years since I read Olive Kitteridge and now I want to reread it. Olive, Again is Elizabeth Strout at her best. This follows her typical format, reading more like linked stories than a traditional novel. She continues the story of Olive Kitteridge, a widow and retired school teacher living a quiet life in Crosby, Maine, while weaving in stories from the members of her community. Olive is no-nonsense and even a bit prickly at times, but ultimately she is looking for what we all want – connection, community, and meaning in our lives. I think I liked this even more than the first one.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid 

This is another book that everyone and their mother has talked about this year. When I first read it I thought it was just OK, but over the year it has continued to stick with me. Emira is a young black woman navigating the confusing world of her early 20’s while working as a babysitter for a wealthy white family. When Emira’s boss, Alix Chamberlain, calls her on a night out with friends begging her to come over last-minute, Emira jumps at the chance to make some extra cash. Emira takes 3-year-old Briar to a local supermarket while the Chamberlains deal with a family emergency, but the night takes a turn when a security guard at the supermarket accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar. Alix Chamberlain is outraged on Emira’s behalf. Although Emira shrugs it off and moves on, Alix can’t seem to let it go. The novel turns into an interesting commentary on performative allyship and what happens when good intentions become self-serving. 

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. 

Backman’s newest novel is about the world’s worst bank robber. It’s about a hostage crisis. It’s about a father and son police team learning to work together. It’s about grief. It’s about how to make a marriage last. It’s about connection and empathy and hope. It’s funny. It’s tender. It’s almost unbearably sweet. And I just loved it.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

It took me two tries to actually get through this book because I found it so disturbing, but it’s supposed to be disturbing. I am so glad I came back to it and finished it. When Vanessa Wye  was 15-years old, she was seduced by her 42-year old high school teacher, Jacob Strane.  17 years later, Strane is being accused of sexual abuse by another former student who contacts Vanessa hoping that she will come forward as well. But even after all of these years, Vanessa is unable to accept that what happened to her could have been abuse and  not a genuine experience of first love. 

This book is a riveting, brutal portrayal of how trauma can shape a person’s life. It explores the psychology of grooming, the abuse that is inherent in relationships with a power imbalance, how people can become trapped in cycles of abuse and even be unable to see and understand their own trauma for what it is. It is a brilliant depiction of a topic that will (and should) horrify you.

Best Fantasy/Speculative Fiction

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Shwab

I have a hard time calling this a straight-up fantasy because there aren’t like dragons or wizards or made up lands or anything like that. It is set in our world, but has fantastical elements, so I think people who aren’t into high fantasy would still like this. 

It’s 1714, and Addie LaRue wants a different life from the one carved out for her – marriage, family, housekeeping. She wants something more for herself. Mostly, she wants freedom to make her own choices and live how she wants. On the day of her wedding she escapes into the forest where she begs any powers that are listening to save her. When the Darkness answers her, she trades her soul for the chance to live a free life for as long as she wants. Her dream turns into a nightmare when she realizes her bargain also includes a curse – everyone she meets forgets her as soon as she moves out of their sight. We follow Addie back and forth over 300 years as she reconciles her life of freedom with the need to leave a mark and discovers ways around the curse.  

The characters (particularly Addie) were so well-drawn. The prose is lovely – immersive without being overly flowery. The magical elements weren’t too over the top. It’s a beautiful meditation on mortality and memory and to what degree the meaning of our lives lies in our connection to the world and to other people and our ability to leave a mark. I intentionally slowed down when I got near the end because I just didn’t want it to be over.

Best Romance

Beach Read by Emily Henry

January Andrews is a best-selling romance writer who’s not sure she believes in love anymore. She owes her publisher a new manuscript, but she is grieving the death of her father and reeling from the discovery that he had been having a long-term affair with an old high school sweetheart. In his will, he left the lake house he shared with his lover to January. Now January has moved into the lake house to get it ready to sell while she works through her grief and betrayal and tries to write her book. What she isn’t expecting is for her old high school rival to end up next door.

Augustus Everett is a serious literary fiction writer who is going through his own writing slump. He’s got an idea for a novel based on a real-life death cult, but can’t seem to get it off the ground. When January and Augustus realize they are in the same predicament, they decide the best way to break their writer’s block is to try to write outside of their usual genres. Augustus will write a romance, and January will write serious literary fiction. Shenanigans ensue. It’s so great. I laughed; I cried. I already want to read it again.

And that is IT! What’s the best thing you read this year?

14 comments

    1. When I was making them I thought to myself, “This is a lot of work. Nobody cares.” and then I thought, “False. Lorien will care.” And I persisted.

      Like

  1. If you have already answered this just point me to the post: how do you access all of the books you read? Crazy book budget? Wonderful public library? Secret access?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No crazy book budget, sadly. I almost never buy books, especially not new ones. When I was in the US we would hit up the library book sale once a year and maybe get a couple of books a year as a birthday or Christmas present. Since being abroad though, I rely heavily on the Libby app which allows me to check out ebooks and audiobooks from the last public library I had a card for (Richland County in South Carolina) AND things on my mother-in-law’s card which is for the entire state of Ohio public library system. So between those two I can find most things I’m interested in, especially if they are newer releases.

      There is also a little bit of secret access involved in that I am sometimes also able to ARC’s from the publisher through NetGalley.

      Like

    1. Well, thanks for the compliment, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading more slowly. Sometimes I have to remind myself not to rush through something just to tick it off my list. Reading should be for enjoyment and to learn and sometimes I lose sight of that when I get caught up on racing through quickly to get to the next thing.

      Liked by 1 person

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