Look no further – these are the must reads of the year.
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2020 will go down as a year as rough as 1929. An economic crash, a pandemic, an erratic, gridlocked government – many of us are looking for healthy ways to de-stress and cope. Books are an excellent way to escape from real life, immerse yourself in a story or new knowledge and is something that can easily be done for free. Librarians all over the world are sitting quietly at their reference and information desks, just waiting for you to come in and look excited about a book.
Do you have a library card, yet? If not, bookmark this page and just go get one, right now.
As you can see on my website, I am an avid reader and use Goodreads.com to track which books I read, which books I want to read, and what I thought of each book. Goodreads offers book suggestions based on what you’ve read and how you’ve rated it. Each book you read is added to your “read” shelf and you can rate it using a five-star system. In addition to the recommendation feature, there is a social aspect that sets Goodreads apart from the rest. You can link your Facebook account to your Goodreads account, allowing you to see what your friends are reading and how they rate the latest bestsellers. I like being alerted when a much hyped book turns out to be a snooze. I’m not affiliated with nor do I receive any compensation from Goodreads or Facebook. I just really enjoy this service.
For library users, often time bestsellers must be put on hold and work their way through a long waiting list. Having a book on my “want to read” shelf on Goodreads gives me a good idea of which books I want to search for and put on hold at the library. Again, do you have a library card? Seriously, go get one. It’s unlimited reading, for free. Imagine walking through a building bigger than Barnes & Noble and being able to read everything on the shelves for FREE. Sorry, Barnes & Noble. I’ll still come visit you to purchase gifts.
In 2020, I read a lot. There was a lot of stress and fear to escape from. Also everything to do was closed. So, lots and lots of audiobooks and books were consumed this year. Thirty-seven of the books were published in 2020. Here are the eight books I rated five stars, with a special honorable mention:
Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks
Let me start with Max Brooks’ latest bestseller and World War Z follow up, Devolution. This book is the escape from reality we all need. Deep in the pacific northwest forest exists a futuristic planned community. Hours away from civilization, residents order their food and supplies that are delivered by drone at regular intervals. A tech start up billionaire’s pet project, he and his supermodel wife live right in the village with the other residents, each having moved to the middle of nowhere to escape the bustle of city life, while sacrificing none of its conveniences. The story is told through diary entries of Kate Holland, a woman who moves to the village just days before a massive earthquake rocks the pacific northwest, cutting the community off from the entire world. As supplies and resources grow scarce, they begin seeing and hearing a terrifying pack of animals encroaching on the village. They have to come together to fight a giant pack of … Big Foot?
This book was not my normal genre of fiction, but it might have changed that. I can read books like this all day long. Humor, suspense and a little bit of gore. It was unputdownable. This one will probably no longer have a huge wait list at the library, or you can download it instantly here.
If it Bleeds by Stephen King
Like most Generation Xers, I started reading Stephen King really young. I read all of the faded paperbacks on my parent’s bookshelves, only a couple of years old but with yellowed pages and the old book smell wafting up as each page was turned. My copy of Needful Things had pages coming loose at the edges from being read and re-read so many times. It is astonishing that Stephen King can publish something this original, this remarkable still, after decades of prolific writing. He is famous for it, as he should be. He is truly a master of storytelling.
If it Bleeds is a collection of four new, original stories. Each is classic King, Americana and nostalgia mixed together with a hint of the supernatural. The first novella, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, is a coming of age story about a young boy and his mentor. Mr. Harrigan is an eccentric wealthy man living in rural Maine, and nine-year old Craig is hired on to work for him. Each year, Mr. Harrigan mails Craig a lottery-ticket for his birthday. One year, he wins a substantial amount and uses some of the funds to buy the old man an iPhone – a technological marvel which he finds himself unable to resist. After Mr. Harrigan’s death, the cell phone continues to work, even though Craig tucked it into the man’s pocket just as he was being interred. I will not spoil the rest for you!
In The Rat, a bargain is struck with the devil. Drew Larson, an aspiring novelist that has never been able to finish writing a book without serious disruptions to his mental health, is away in a remote cabin during a terrible storm. He is feverish and ends up having a conversation with a rat. Will he be willing to bargain the life of someone he cares for in exchange for a finished, successful book? The suspense in this story comes from every direction – a flu-like illness that leaves him physically vulnerable and sicker than he has ever been, the raging nor’easter that cuts off access to roads and medical help – and then, the rat he lets in the door. Of all four stories in If It Bleeds, the Rat is my favorite.
If it Bleeds brings one of King’s recurring characters back to the page – Holly Gibney from The Outsider and The Bill Hodges Trilogy – and she finally gets her due as the lead in the story. Gibney is presented with evidence of something like The Outsider, a man who appears to report news from all over the country, yet never seems to age. The more gory the story, the more vibrant and energetic he becomes. After the bombing of a school, Holly steps in to figure out who this guy is and where he comes from. As usual, Holly Gibney shows selfless bravery and true grit. She is a favorite character to so many people, and this story gives her the spotlight that she deserves.
Last but certainly not least, The Life of Chuck is a stoner’s philosophy come to life. What comes next is somewhat of a spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you wish. What if all this is just a part of someone’s dream? Billboards all over town exclaim that Chuck has had a great run, but no one that can see these billboards know exactly who Chuck is. Their world is crumbling around them – and yes, the two things are definitely related.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Alternative history fiction is one of my favorite genres of late. The thought exercise of how the world would be had one event gone differently is almost endlessly fascinating. Combine the thought exercise with a talented writer who can turn history into a novel – another writing trend I love – and you have Rodham. What would Hillary Rodham’s life been like had she said “no” every time Bill had proposed to her? What would his life look like? Would he have been President of the United States without her by his side? In the imagination of Curtis Sittenfeld, Hillary and Bill have a hot and heavy romance through law school, but that is were reality ends and the fiction begins. Hillary turns down Bill’s proposal, and heads back to her home in Chicago. Weaving real people and events with excellent dialogue and humanizing details, Sittenfeld writes a novel that is well executed and appeals to lovers of fiction and history. Besides, you really want to know what happens, don’t you?
A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers
A witch in time is a love story. A young girl has an affair with an artist in France during the Romanticism period. Her mother, a witch, performs a curse that forces her to fall in love with him again and again, in future reincarnations of themselves. The girl is reborn again and again with different names and in different places, and she always ends up with the same man, and there is never a happy ending. The love story reaches its apex as she learns how the curse can finally be broken.
This is a book that I could not put down. The character development was so unbelievably detailed- I was feeling what the characters felt: the desperation, the fear, the joy. I’m a sucker for a happy sad book.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King
There are times when I rate a book five stars because, at the moment I turn the last page, I feel like I just had a great time reading the book. In both Devolution and Writers & Lovers, the books were simply enjoyable. In Writers & Lovers, a writer named Casey is stuck behind most of her friends in the scheme of life, writing the novel she’s been working on forever, and avoiding getting a 9 to 5 job or entering into any serious relationships. She waits tables and lives in a stinky garage apartment. As she progresses towards completing her novel, she meets two very different men and starts to fall for both. What follows is a sweet story with a sweet ending. I look forward to reading many more books by King in the future. She has a special talent for storytelling.
Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie
Every once in a while, when I am not in the mood to read any of the books I’ve got in my queue, I open up my local library’s e-book app, Libby, and scroll through whatever is available to check out now. The night I found Fifty Words for Rain, I just wanted to read something new. It was the first book listed, and I didnt even read the description. It was like book roulette. I’m so glad I did – I was fortunate to pick a really good book, and one I’d likely not have ever picked if I had gone looking. I love historical fiction, but I avoid World War II stories because I’ve read so many. I’ve probably read over 100, from Hiroshima to the Tattooist of Auschwitz and there seem to be dozens more each month that hit the market. I now wait for the reviews to come in and just read the books that become considered to be classics. In this case, Fifty Words for Rain is set in post-World War II Japan but it is not a war novel.
Noriko Kamiza, or “Nori,” as she is called by those who love her, is the granddaughter of royalty. Her grandmother is the cousin of the Emperor, and even though he has lost his power due to the war, they are still very much considered royalty and they are extremely wealthy. Nori, however, is a mixed-race, illegitimate child. Her mother ran away to have her, leaving a husband and son behind, knowing that when the child was born the husband would see her skin color and kill her. Years later, her mother leaves her with her grandmother at the ancestral family home, telling her it is extremely important to obey. Nori is a shame to her family, and the treatment of her by her grandmother is abhorrent – she is given chemical baths to lighten her skin, she is beaten regularly in order to beat the tainted heritage out of her so that she will become a docile Japanese lady. Nori, however, can not suppress her curiosity and it causes her constant anguish. Time moves quickly in this novel, and before you know it, Nori hasn’t seen the outside world, or even left the attic, in over three years.
Everything changes when her mother’s former husband dies. Nori’s older brother Akira comes to live with them. Her grandmother defers to her brother in all things, as he is the family heir and therefore the most important person in the household. He is horrified at the treatment of Nori, and although he finds her admiration and attention annoying at times, he orders his grandmother to release Nori from the attic, to let her play outside. The grandmother complies somewhat, but continues to scheme to rid the family of what she sees as their greatest shame.
A twisted story of a dysfunctional family adjusting to a new world order, new customs and fighting to hold on to old values; fifty words for rain will grab your heart. I listened to the audiobook version, and the talented full cast of narrators really does justice to this novel.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker
An all American Catholic family with ten sons and two daughters – twelve children in total, have an extraordinary life. When six of their ten sons are diagnosed with Schizophrenia, they face a life like they had never imagined. This book tells the tragic story of each of the lives of the six boys with schizophrenia, and how it affects the family. Severe mental illness in any family can cause a myriad of secondary problems, such as financial hardship, resentment, guilt by the children who are not ill. The author shines a light on a broken revolving-door psychiatric system that is not equipped for the practical needs of the sick nor does it provide support for caregivers who often have to put their own lives on hold to make sure the illness is treated after the patient is discharged. Each family member that was profiled was shown as they were – the beauty of their uniqueness and the darkness of sickness. In so many of these cases, schizophrenia stole entire futures away. Mental illness can affect anyone. This book is a combination of a fascinating, unique subject and an excellent writer who can draw the humanity from his subjects without exploiting their pain and suffering.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
If you’re a regular reader, you’ve likely seen this book everywhere this year, and for good reason. Isabel Wilkerson, author of the highly acclaimed Warmth of Other Suns, is an African-American historian and journalist. Her skills and personal experiences all come together in this reclassification of race-relations as Caste systems in America. Wilkerson finds evidence that America’s racial divide mirrors a class system, behaving the same way in practice as the higher caste reacts to members of the lower caste outperforming their expectations. The blowback of America’s election of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate immediately following a Barack Obama presidency, for example.
This book earns five starts by being well researched, well written, and, well, because Oprah says so.
Untamed by Glennon Doyle
If you can believe this, I had no idea who Glennon Doyle was when I checked this book out from the library. I kept seeing this colorful book, Untamed, pop up on my friends’ Goodreads lists over and over, so I put the book on hold. I believe it took me a few months to get through the waiting list, so by this time, even more of my friends were raving about the freedom they felt after reading this book.
I take it that most people know who Glennon Doyle is, after her bestselling memoir Love Warrior, where she details the strife and anguish she suffers at discovering her husband has been repeatedly unfaithful to her throughout their marriage. Before this, she had branded herself as a popular blogger dedicated to having the best life possible with her husband and two children, so this story of infidelity was not only endangering her marriage, her confidence and her children’s well being but also her career. She fought for her marriage, and for a while, she found success. She tried. Except, she didn’t really.
As she was out promoting Love Warrior, she met Abby Wambach, an Olympian and soccer star, who was out promoting her own memoir. The moment they met, Doyle said she felt a physical shock. As they spent a few more fleeting moments together, Doyle found that her entire life had built to this moment – she had fallen in love at first sight. Untamed is the memoir of taking the biggest leap of her life – out of her marriage, out of her comfort zone – and how she models the life she wants for her children. A life of freedom, authenticity and love. The memoir includes lots of anecdotes and encouragement. When I finished the book, I gave it four stars, but since I’ve found myself going back to read certain words of wisdom I highlighted on my kindle again and again. I’ve literally never done that before. A friend would confide a problem with me and I’d immediately think, “Oh! I highlighted the perfect suggestion for this problem in Untamed!” I didn’t rate this five stars the night I finished, but.. maybe I should have.
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