Monday, December 21, 2020

My Top Ten Favorite Reads of 2020

I am, and have always been, a voracious reader. The ability to escape into fiction has been a saving grace throughout my life. Below are my favorite 10 books, out of some 60 I read over the course of the year.

Let's get to it. And I hope some of my likes will inspire you to read... All books are available in digital and hard copy at Amazon or any other bookseller.

10. Girl Gone Mad by Avery Bishop 

A mind-bender, stay-up-all night super suspenseful read. Very few books deserve the accolade, "I just couldn't put it down," but this is one of them. From the well-defined characters, the authentic sense of place, the expert build-up of suspense, this is simply an outstanding thriller. Hollywood, if you're listening, this would make a great movie. 

9. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Although I liked this author's A MAN CALLED OVE much better, I did really love this one too. I deducted a star for this one only because it was a bit confusing and hard to follow because of an unnecessarily (in my opinion) structure that made it difficult for me to get into the story and to feel empathy for the characters. That said, by the end of the book, I was in tears and in awe at Backman's ability to transport me, make me think, deliver emotions, and wrap it all up in a very meaningful way. 

8. A Marriage in Dog Years by Nancy Balbirer

Although this memoir caused me to ugly cry in the most undignified way, it doesn't interfere with my wanting everyone to read it, especially those of us who've come out on the other side of loss, whether through break-up or death. Balbirer writes with wit, charm, and sensitivity about her failing marriage and the slow death of her beloved dog, all in the same time frame, and about how we all may tend to cling to things we love that are beyond saving, simply because we can. Profound. Full of emotion and insight. And, at times, bracingly funny.

7. In the Shadow of the Valley by Bobi Conn

This is one of the best books, in my opinion, to come out of Amazon's publishing imprints. It's filled with wisdom, heartbreak, despair, joy...and hope. It's a portrayal of the resiliency of the human spirit and, while it chronicles one woman's growth, it's a story I believe we can all relate to. We're all broken and we can all find our paths on this journey we call life. Bobi Conn, I can't wait to read what you write next.

6. At Risk by Alice Hoffman

Gut wrenching. Took me back to a time when AIDS was a death sentence and I lost so many close to me. Hoffman's narrative, though, of a child succumbing to the virus is almost beyond bearable. In her capable hands, though, the book is a powerful meditation on the strength of love and family during a crisis. Not an easy read, but certainly a worthwhile one.

5. Man from Milwaukee by Rick R. Reed

Yes, I had to include one of my own! I'm particularly proud of this unreliable narrator story about a closeted young man's fascination and identification with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the summer of 1991, when he was arrested. 

4. Calypso by David Sedaris

CALYPSO is one of Sedaris's very best books. He brings to the stories contained within the collection a wisdom and maturity that will resonate with most of us, especially those of us growing older and who've faced losing family members and others close to us. That's not to say there aren't laugh-out-loud hilariousness afoot here, there is, in spades, but Sedaris's musings about his parents (one dead and one in decline) brought out such poignancy and humanity that makes CALYPSO a masterpiece. I listened to Sedaris himself read the book on audio and when he gets to the last lines of the last piece about his father, my heart broke and I was in tears. And I looked very stupid because I was in the midst of an outdoor run at the time. But those last couple of lines not only tie the whole collection together, but our lives as human beings.

3. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I adored this book. I also adored its predecessor, OLIVE KITTERIDGE and doubted Strout could surpass herself. I wouldn't say she surpassed herself, but OLIVE, AGAIN was certainly an equal to the first book in terms of emotional power and truth. Its beauty and depth lie in deceptively simple prose that renders deep commentary on the human condition, love, aging, and loss.

2. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Oh man, this is right up there with not only one of my most cherished books of the year. It'll also have a place in my heart and memory as one of my favorite books ever. Entertaining, profoundly moving, achingly beautiful prose that skirts poetry at times, unique, flawed, and all-too-human characters, and a mesmerizing sense of place all add up to literary gold.

1. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

If I could give this book more than 5 stars, I would. It's shot right up to the top of the list of best books I've read not only this year, but in my life. And that's no small feat, since I have been a constant reader since my age was in the single digits. This debut novel, which deservingly won the Booker Prize and was shortlisted for the National Book Award, is a heartbreaking portrait of alcoholism and poverty in Scotland, centering around the tragic and beautiful Agnes and her son Shuggie, who loves her with a kind of hopeless ferocity anyone who has ever loved an addict or alcoholic will understand. Stuart brings to poignant light the Glasgow (and surrounding areas) with a palette of simple grays...startling in its clarity, breathtaking in its detail, and cutting in its truth. This is one of the rare books I will read again and again. It's not a happy book and I shed many tears, but the artistry here is beautiful and a real testimony to the resiliency and kindness of the human spirit.

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