Books

The Best (and Worst) Books of 2020

The Best (and Worst) Books of 2020

Hooray! It’s my annual review of the books I read last year! This is one of my absolute favorite recurring posts. And this year, I’ve given the books star ratings, which I think will make it easier for y’all to figure out which books you do (and do not) want to add to your own reading lists!

I read 47 books in 2020…probably the most books I’ve ever read in a single year (thanks, quarantine!).

I continue to listen to audiobooks far more often than reading physical books, even during this pandemic when I have more downtime. I listen to books while cleaning, cooking, and doing other chores around the house. Sometimes if I’m reading something really good, I’ll find myself actually trying to find more chores to do so I can keep listening!

This year, another friend group of mine started a book club, so I now find myself in two monthly book clubs! I didn’t think this would actually be feasible, but so far I have kept up. I will be interested to see if I can stay on pace post-pandemic.

I used a five star system to rate each book I read this year, with 5 stars being the highest rating and 0 stars being the worst rating. Obviously the star ratings are highly subjective, as they are based on my own enjoyment of the book. You may see silly beach reads ranked alongside truly great works of literature, because I may have enjoyed each one equally!

Without further ado, here are the books I read in 2020, along with my rating and opinions on each.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. 5/5

An incredible story of two French sisters who both, in their own ways, make a remarkable difference in the lives of others during WWII. Full of love, loss, and redemption. I don’t quite know how to put into words how powerful this story is. Just read it.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. 5/5

Hands down one of the best books I read this year! Suspenseful and fast-paced. This grabbed my attention, and I couldn’t put it down. As a social worker, I really enjoyed all of the commentary on therapy and mental health.

Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. 5/5

SO good! This is a remix of Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning and is intended for use with students. I think people of all ages would find it helpful. This book highlights parts of Black American history not often talked about in actual history books and clearly defines what it means to be anti-racist. All of this is done in Reynolds’ incredibly talented prose. This book is a true work of art. I highly recommend the audiobook version, as it is read by Reynolds.

Off the Clock by Laura Vanderkam. 5/5

Never thought I’d be giving what is essentially a time management book 5 out of 5 stars, but this book was seriously that good. It is almost more time perspective and time curation than time management. Whatever you want to call it, this entire book was chock full of research-based tips for how to feel like you have plenty of time in this busy world. As someone who nearly constantly feels stretched too thin, this book was extremely practical and applicable and had so many lightbulb moments for me!

Untamed by Glennon Doyle. 4.5/5

It’s no secret around here that I adore Glennon Doyle. Her latest book focuses specifically on her decision to leave her heterosexual marriage and begin a relationship with a woman (famous soccer star Abby Wambach), while also zooming out to critique American society’s caging and taming of women. There is a LOT of really great truth in these books, and I think many women will find freedom in the pages, while men would do well to read and learn along with us.

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. 4.5/5

This memoir by former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl is absolutely fascinating. I really enjoyed hearing about all of the dreamy food at New York City’s most fabulous restaurants (just a few parts made me cringe as an animal lover–I do not necessarily recommend this book if you’re vegan!) and Reichl’s disguises as she attempted to go undercover.

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley.  4.5/5

This is a really cute story told from multiple characters’ POVs about the joy and freedom that comes from living authentically. There were times when the book didn’t come across as very “polished” (you can tell it is the author’s first work of fiction), but it is an enjoyable read nonetheless! Would be a fun pick for a book club.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. 4.5/5

This is a book every American should read. Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, describes his work as a lawyer working with wrongly/unfairly convicted individuals on death row while also confronting racism in the Deep South. He relays the fascinating and often heartbreaking details of each case with such compassion and empathy. This book brings to attention important and often overlooked issues in the American criminal justice system. This book at once made me feel anger and tenderness, sadness and hope. It also demonstrates the clear need for us to take action.

Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry. 4.5/5

This novel about a teenage boy trying to find his place in a new Catholic school is a wonderful commentary on religion, faith, and the Catholic Church with humor, love, and teenage angst thrown in the mix. I absolutely loved it!

The Guest List by Lucy Foley. 4.5/5

This murder mystery was both suspenseful and light hearted. I loved the Scottish setting and the “whodunnit” style of the book.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. 4.5/5

Incredibly informative. I already knew quite a bit about mass incarceration yet still learned a lot from this book. Highly recommend for any audience over age 16.

When Life Gives You Pears by Jeannie Gaffigan. 4.5/5

This memoir details Gaffigan’s experience with a brain tumor as a mother with young children. Yes, she is Jim Gaffigan’s wife, and she is just as hilarious as you’d expect. This book had me laughing out loud while also digesting profound life truths Gaffigan learned during the course of her illness.

One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London. 4.5/5

This is a cute and easy romance read about a fashion blogger who becomes the first star of reality TV show “Main Squeeze” to be someone who is plus-size. “Main Squeeze” is essentially The Bachelorette. While some of the book is predictable or corny just by nature of the subject matter, I thoroughly enjoyed it and became very attached to main character Bea. Her relationships with the contestants on the show were fun to watch unfold. This is a feel-good book!

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center. 4.5/5

I loved this book! It was an easy read about a woman who is a firefighter. She encounters sexism within her chosen career field as she heals from past trauma and learns to love and forgive. Such a great story!

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum. 4.5/5

I’m going to be honest: This book is incredibly sad, but really good. Told from multiple perspectives of various generations of women in a single family, the book illustrates the patriarchy and oppression of women within traditional Palestinian culture. There is some hope in the end, but you wade through a lot of depressing stuff to get there. Yet, I think it’s so important for us to understand what women have gone through and still go through in various parts of the world, and for us to continue to fight for women who are being oppressed or abused.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Corey McQuiston. 4.5/5

At first I thought this novel about a First Son of the U.S. falling in love with a prince of England was going to be cheesy in every way. But it actually developed into a great story with political themes of equality. I loved it and was so rooting for this unlikely couple. I really hope they make it into a movie, because it would be the cutest rom com! Fair warning – some of the scenes are racy. Not quiiiiite 50 Shades level of NSFW, but close.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. 4.5/5

This is another book I started in 2019 but didn’t finish until January 2020. Y’all, I am the worst! I never actually sit down and read a physical book, so it just took me for-ev-er to read this. It is actually an excellent work of literature, and sometimes excellent literature means you’re not necessarily getting a quick and easy read. This novel explores the relationships between a young man and his Muslim parents as well as his two sisters. There are recurring themes of broken relationships, sibling bonds, forbidden romance, and living as a Muslim in America. The book is told through the points of view of multiple different characters and is very rich in character development!

Forward by Abby Wambach. 4/5

I loved this inside peek at Abby’s life and soccer career. I am a huge fan of her wife, Glennon Doyle (see review of Untamed above!), and I feel like I have “gotten to know” Abby a bit through Glennon’s social media accounts. It was great to take a deeper dive in this book and learn more about her past.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. 4/5

This book about authenticity and wholehearted living was a breath of fresh air! I read it slowly, taking time to think about and marinate on each chapter before moving on to the next. Much of the book is “common sense,” but frankly I can use the reminders. I had some major “aha” moments while reading this book.

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. 4/5

This is a book I started in 2019 and didn’t finish until 2020….and not because I disliked it! Again, just time constraints! I thought this courtroom drama was quite interesting. The book centers around the trial of a mom accused of purposefully causing an explosion that killed her son and best friend. The story is told through the points of view of multiple characters, and there are so many twists and turns as each of them reveals new information or discovers new information related to the tragedy. As someone who has worked with people with special needs, I especially appreciated the commentary on the special needs mommy wars as well as the day-to-day experience of having a child with special needs. The book also wove in great insights about what it’s like to immigrate to the U.S. as a teenager and as a young adult.

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton. 4/5

I wasn’t sure about this book at first–it seemed like a lot of overly romanticized travel content and cliche romance. However, the book ended up giving interesting historical anecdotes and turned out to be an enjoyable story about love, family, and class issues during a time of political unrest.

The Day My Brain Exploded by Ashok Rajamani. 4/5

This short book describes the author’s experience with a traumatic brain injury and recovery. Rajamani is incredibly funny and engaging!

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. 4/5

This biography of the women impacted by workplace radium poisoning in the 1920s is horrifying yet historically important. The author tended to be overdramatic at times, but it was a compelling narrative nonetheless. The description of the women’s suffering was authentic and chilling, and their courage was commendable. I had never heard anything about these women or what they went through, and I learned a lot!

Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire by Jen Hatmaker. 4/5

This book reads like part memoir, part personal development book. Some chapters were absolute fire, others were a bit “meh.” Definitely worth the read for the little gems that crop up throughout!

The Beach Club by Elin Hilderbrand. 4/5

I always love Elin’s books, and this was no exception! A true beach read that takes place on Nantucket and details the friendships and romantic/family relationships of employees at a beachside resort.

Feels Like Falling by Kristy Woodson Harvey. 4/5

This was a great, easy beach read about two women struggling with their own unique challenges on the Carolina coast one summer. The characters and plot were somewhat predictable, but I loved getting drawn into the story and cheering for happy endings.

The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda. 4/5

This suspenseful novel, set in an idyllic Maine beach town, sucks you right in. My favorite books are those you can’t put down, and this was exactly that. I was hanging onto every word, trying to figure out the real story behind the mysterious death of a prominent young woman.

Atomic Habits by James Clear. 4/5

An excellent book for anyone looking to start a habit, break a habit, or generally improve their daily routine and productivity. The book is short and interesting…not at all dull as the topic might imply! Very practical.

The Children of Maglan and the Children of Blane by Mereda Hart Farynyk. 4/5

This is the second book in the Firedark series, and I tore through it! This is a self published book and you will be able to tell that it didn’t go through the edits of a publisher – there are some typos, and definitely some times when the plot could have been developed further. But I love the story and the characters and the subtle angsty romance. I think I’m discovering that I’m way more of a fantasy person than I ever used to think I was!

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. 4/5

I was expecting to love this book more considering all the hype it has gotten. There are certainly some interesting and relevant themes related to what it is like to be Black and/or trans in the United States. It makes for great discussion. But the book is a bit long and lacking in action.

The Blue Bistro by Elin Hilderbrand. 4/5

For some reason this novel had a different feel than many of Elin’s other books. Maybe it’s because I had a hard time connecting with or visualizing the characters. That said, the descriptions of Nantucket and the gourmet food at The Blue Bistro had me salivating both for food and travel. The book is worth a read for those two things alone, and the plot is interesting enough as well.

Conviction by Denise Mina. 4/5

This mystery was quite unique in a way I’m not sure how to describe! The narrator’s own secretive past gradually becomes clear throughout the book as she explores the mysterious death of an old friend. These two separate events turn out to be quite interconnected. I loved listening to the audiobook because of the wonderful Scottish accent! The characters were unique yet relatable. And I thought it was interesting how there were podcast episodes interwoven into the book as the narrator listened to a podcast about her friend’s disappearance–that was a neat literary element I’ve never encountered before!

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. 4/5

I had a hard time getting into this book at first because the concept was so different. It was like fan fiction of real people’s lives! But, I did find it incredibly interesting, especially toward the end when a lot of the current major political figures enter the story. A thought-provoking read that I think would make for good book club discussion. It is interesting to think about how someone’s life could be so different just based on one critical decision.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. 3.5/5

I honestly still don’t know what to think about this book. In some ways, I LOVED it. I thought the characters in the book were really well done. I felt like I knew these women in real life. They reminded me of many of the Southern ladies I grew up knowing! At the same time, this book was just….strange. I couldn’t really get into the whole vampire thing. Also, there were some scenes that were truly grotesque or gross. Basically: While the plot was weird, I adored the characters. This is definitely a book I will never forget because it was truly unique.

Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner. 3.5/5

This book about a plus size fashion influencer and her ex-best friend was a fun and easy read! I loved the body positive message that also felt realistic. The book took a turn half way through that I did not see coming. I felt like the ending wrapped up wayyyy too fast. I personally think the book would have been better if the author had taken more time with the ending and included lots of detail like she did while setting up the story.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. 3.5/5

This novel centers around a couple whose marriage is put to the test by a wrongful conviction. It was well written, though not at all uplifting if that’s what you’re in the mood for. I appreciated but was saddened by the theme of mass incarceration of Black men in the U.S. A timely read.

Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding. 3.5/5

I’ve seen the Bridget Jones movies many times but had never read the book! It’s mostly cute and funny, and I chuckled out loud a number of times. However, some of Bridget’s recurring issues with food/calories and low self esteem made me sad, and angry that so many women in western culture experience similar thoughts. I suppose it was honest to include these things, but I felt like it could also feel triggering to someone struggling with similar issues.

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory. 3.5/5

Light and fluffy. Interesting enough if you’re just looking for a romance. In a world where romance literature is very white, it was nice to have a novel featuring an interracial couple. But there isn’t much plot outside of the love story.

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella. 3.5/5

Cute novel about a young woman who befriends the ghost of her deceased great aunt and seeks resolution for unanswered questions so that her great aunt can move on to the afterlife. The main character was absolutely hilarious and I loved the relationship between her and the ghost of her great aunt. The novel moved a bit slowly at times, but it was a nice, easy read.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. 3.5/5

I thought this was a really interesting read about minimizing screen technology in our lives. The author’s position was a bit extreme in my opinion, but that extreme position may work for some people. Not so much for me, I don’t think. But, it did make me turn a critical eye to my digital use, which is always good!

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Alan Switzler. 3/5

Definitely be sure to read a physical copy of this book if you pick it up. I listened and felt like I could have gotten more out of it by reading and being able to pause and think about concepts a bit more as I went. I do think this is a helpful book for anyone wanting to up their communication skills, especially surrounding tricky issues. Would definitely be incredibly helpful for anyone who is managing others at work.

Writers & Lovers by Lily King. 3/5

This was a quick and interesting enough read, but it certainly didn’t grab and hook me. Just okay. I did enjoy all of the main character’s different romances, even if I couldn’t necessarily relate. I thought the ending wrapped up way too quickly and felt unrealistic.

Grey by EL James. 3/5

This book is essentially Fifty Shades of Grey from the perspective of character Christian Grey. I listened to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy several years ago and am not sure whether the audio version buffered me a bit from poor prose, but I didn’t remember the writing being quite as bad as it was in this one. This was an easy and entertaining beach read for someone who had enjoyed the Fifty Shades series, but is by no means a great book.

Darker by EL James. 3/5

See review above for Grey—I basically have nothing else to add about this one.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. 3/5

I listened to the audiobook version of this novel and wish instead I had read it. This isn’t a book I recommend listening to while driving or doing something else when you’re distracted…it is best read when you can focus on it. The book is presented as a series of letters from an old father to his young son, detailing religious ponderings as well as a recounting of the important events of his life. There is a lot to digest! Great commentary on a real-life prodigal son situation, as well as a man’s great love for his hometown.

Woke Church by Eric Mason. 2/5

I appreciated this book for offering a Black pastor’s perspective on racial justice as it relates to the American Christian church. I found his voice valuable as a perspective I don’t hear in my day-to-day life. However, I had major theological differences with Mason, and that greatly impacted how much I got out of the book.

The Summer Girls by Mary Alice Monroe. 2/5

This easy beach read ruffled my feathers at times. There were outdated and problematic tropes that were romanticized by the author, including the Black maid who had dedicated her entire life to serving one rich white family, along with the genteel southern women who don’t work and are aghast at someone disagreeing or voicing their opinion. The book felt a bit trapped in the (not-so-great parts of) the past.

Alright friends, that’s a wrap! Leave me a comment if you also have thoughts on the books listed. And, be sure to comment with suggestions of books to add to my reading list for 2021! You can see what’s already on my list on my Pinterest board.

And, you can read my book recaps from previous years here: 20192018,  20172016.

xoxo Laura

P.S. – This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission (at no cost to you) if you purchase a product using a link from this post. Read more here about my disclaimers/disclosures.

The Best and Worst Books of 2020 | Fairly Southern

4 comments

  1. Great list – picked up a few to put on my unmanageable TBR list! Think about adding these to your 2021 list: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (I have a copy to loan), Song of a Captive Bird by Jamin Darznik, The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan.

  2. I read The Nightingale a few years back and agree it’s a fantastic novel worth reading! So happy someone else read it and loved it!

    Also, since you have a fair amount of memoir-style nonfiction on your list, I highly recommend Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey for 2021! 😀

  3. I’m surprised you didn’t give the Bridget Jones a higher rating. I totally loved those books. As someone who didn’t find love/marriage till mid 30’s I really felt I could identify with her character.

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