Fifteen Favorite Fiction Books of 2020

Meet me at the Museum by Anne Youngson was a delight. It could be because Youngson is a retired grandmother and this is her first novel, but it was enjoyable and thought provoking nonetheless. It is written as letters between Tina, a farmer’s wife in England, and Anders, a professor and museum curator in Denmark. Their correspondence examines how writing illuminates ones own attitudes, regrets and feelings. Both Tina and Anders reveal themselves little by little and discover more about each other and themselves. 

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A thoughtful book about a “tasked” man, Hiram Walker, and his understanding of being “tasked” by “Quality” whites. He meets Corrine, a woman of quality who had become a leading member of the underground and Harriet Tubman, who mentored him in “conduction,” which is the gift of transferring physically on the basis of memories. I hesitated to read it, because it is difficult to read of the misery and evil of slavery, but this book wasn’t just a story of brutality. It was a story of evil, yes, but most of the story was about costly and dangerous hope.

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard. Another heartbreaking novel about WWII and the appalling treatment of Jews. Aron is a sensitive boy of about 8 or 9 who gets involved with smugglers to stay alive in Poland. His family had been sharing an apartment – Jews were crowded into apartments – and he was kicked out and on his own when his mother died. He eventually ends up in the orphanage of Janusz Korzcak, a doctor who famously refused to get himself out of Poland because he was caring for orphaned children. 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow is a good story about a young girl, January, who finds doors into other worlds. January lives in Mr. Locke’s estate and her father, in Mr. Locke’s employ, is rarely around. January finds a book that reveals the stunning truth about the doors, where her father goes and the character of Mr. Locke. At its root, the book is about writing and how it can create openings into different worlds, how it can transform one’s existence, and about a young girl coming of age.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout. Olive seemed a bit more likable than I remember her in Olive Kitteridge. She is still honest, forthright, sometimes humorous and often clueless about the affect she has on others. The book is about her coming to terms with who she is, as expressed by a final statement: “I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.” (p. 289)

Writers and Lovers by Lily King. I enjoyed this book about Casey, a 30 something novelist wanna-be, her struggles and insecurities, which sounded a lot like my insecurities, and her faltering love life. She has been working on a novel for 6 years, is broke, in debt, coming off one relationship and into two potential relationships, and she misses her mother who had died 6 months before. She perseveres through it all.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. This book was a condemnation of American materialism and explores what it does to people, whether or not they were born here. Immigrants Jende and Neni Jonga had been in the US for a year or two when Jende got a job chauffeuring Clark Edwards, a wealthy Wall Street type while his wife, Neni, gets a degree in pharmacy. Everything is going well until the stock market crash – the book begins in 2007. Jende and Neni face lost jobs, frustrating asylum applications, and conflict over what they should do next. I had a little trouble staying with the story in the middle, but it was an interesting perspective on immigration and materialism. 

The End of October by Lawrence Wright. An eerily close to home novel about Henry Parsons and his fight to stop a pandemic that originates in Indonesia and becomes global as one carrier travels to Mecca for his Hajj. The book follows Henry through Saudi Arabia, onto a submarine, and back home in Atlanta as he explores the pandemic, his relationships and his understanding of God.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger. Excellent book about 4 orphans who undertake an odyssey on the Minnesota River to the Mississippi River to St. Louis in flight from an abusive children’s home where they had been placed during the summer of 1932. Odie (12), Albert (16), Emmy (6) and Mose are in it together and their trip teaches them who they are, what the world is like and, for Odie, who God is. Particularly disheartening is the rampant prejudice against Native Americans and others, and it reminds me that the evil of racism is nothing new. It’s a compelling read and its messages are solid. 

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird is another good read set at the end of the Civil War about a slave who didn’t consider herself a slave, but a captive. After the war, she signed up for the Buffalo Soldiers and had to pretend she was a man. Fortunately, she was tall and knew how to handle a gun, but it wasn’t easy. The book was inspired by a true story; Cathay Williams was indeed a woman who served in the Buffalo Soldiers, but much of the surrounding story is fictitious. Again, the horrible racism – against African and Native Americans – of the time is appalling. George Custer is portrayed as a particularly arrogant racist. And, it was a love story. Cathay Williams, the daughter of a daughter of a queen, was a forceful, independent woman and an inspiration to me.

The Overstory by Richard Powers. Interesting book about environmental activists and the importance of trees. The story is of five activists who come together until their activism escalates to deadly proportions. They disperse, and many suffer with guilt for the rest of their lives. Trees play a significant and fascinating role in the story, which was a little long, but never having been too involved with environmental activism, I found it interesting. 

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. Dear Edward takes its name from the hundreds of letters written to Edward, the only survivor of a devastating airplane crash. Edward lost his entire family, and his aunt Lacey and uncle John who haven’t been able to have their own children did their best to raise Edward. Shay, the girl next door befriends Edward and is one of the few people with whom Edward feels safe. When Edward discovers the letters that have been saved for him by John, he feels something release inside of himself.

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez is an intriguing look at the influence of people on their loved ones after they’re gone. Antonia Vega taught English, her husband was a doctor, and their life was good. Antonia had just retired when her husband suddenly died of a heart attack, leaving Antonia without her work and no husband, and she didn’t know what to do. Sam, her husband, was a good hearted doc who volunteered, helped everyone, and it turns out, influenced Antonia to do the same after he died. Asking herself, what would Sam do often, she slowly becomes involved with needy people. She is forced to consider the question: who is most important? The young pregnant Mexican girl living with her or her sister, who is in crisis?

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See. This fascinating book is about a community in China, their customs – some pretty awful – a young Ahka girl, Li-yan, and her strong mother. Li-yan falls in love, becomes pregnant, but her man is not around, so she is forced to run away and give her daughter up for adoption. She left a tea cake with her daughter from an important tree that only Li-Yan and her mother know about. Li-yan then gets an education, learns Mandarin, and gains a position in a special college for tea growers, experts, and sellers. She knows tea and eventually opened a tea shop. Li-yan’s daughter, meanwhile, is being raised in California, and their lives grow closer to each other. Will they meet?

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Desiree and Stella are twins who grew up in a small town in Louisiana. The town’s inhabitants are black, but most of them are light skinned, suggesting that racism takes various forms is different communities. Desiree and Stella run off to New Orleans when they’re 17 years old, and Stella passes for white, takes a job as a secretary, falls in love with her boss and ends up living a privileged life in LA. Desiree doesn’t know what happened to Stella, and eventually marries a very dark skinned man who reveals himself to be violent, so Desiree and her daughter move back to Louisiana. Desiree’s daughter falls for a transsexual man, but no one guesses that he was once a girl, which raises the issue of our impressions of gender. Stella’s and Desiree’s daughters eventually meet. Who are we? How much does sexual identity and racial makeup have to do with our identity? First impressions don’t tell us much about our actual identity.

Have you read any good novels during the last year? I’d love some recommendations!

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

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