Each January each year, I ponder which books I read the year before that were the most rewarding, stayed with me the longest (not in a bad way, like indigestion), and were the most exquisitely written. Below are my favorite 2020 reads.
Last year brought a lot of unexpected surprises to us all, but one of the benefits for me was how much I read. I was looking for a way to escape everyday realities!
I have three books that made the standout list. All three are fiction.
#1 Favorite 2020 Read
The Overstory by Richard Powers
If you judge a book by the awards it wins, this one, well, wins. Here’s a list of its achievements:
- Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
- Winner of the William Dean Howells Medal
- Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
- More than one year on the New York Times Bestseller List
- A New York Times Notable Book and a Washington Post, Time, Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year
What’s It About?
Published in 2019, The Overstory’s concept can be described in one word: trees. Now, if trees aren’t your thing, before you quit reading this blog post, pause long enough to ponder Ann Patchett’s comment about the book:
The best novel ever written about trees, and really just one of the best novels, period.”
The book starts out with short stories about a variety of people and their encounters with trees. Some love trees from the get-go. For others, their families’ histories are tied to trees. Still others are indifferent to trees–and remain so until almost the end of the book.
One came to love trees when, on a drug overdose, she touches an electrical cord as she steps out of her bath–and dies. After being resuscitated, she turns her life 180. She becomes a fierce almost-superhero, who fights for the trees to survive humanity’s desire to harvest them or at least get them out of the way. What holds true for each character is that, ultimately, trees become, well, forces of nature for them.
What’s So Great About The Overstory?
At first I thought the whole book was a series of short stories. Then, about a third through the book, the characters’ lives merged. Some quickly, some slowly, but merge they did. The way the author brings them together is a thing of beauty. Powers showcases what a master of his craft he is.
The cast of characters is large, often involving an entire family in each short story. Yet every person the reader meets is deftly drawn and unforgettable.
The book is ambitious. It depicts trees as existing in a world alongside ours―vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. The handful of main characters ultimately come to see that alternate world and join forces to spare the trees their unfolding catastrophes.
All this is done by constructing layer upon layer of meaning. Each character symbolizes some aspect of all of us and our response to nature. This is the type of book made for book clubs and teachers to salivate over. But it also can just be read on the surface and still be spellbinding.
To sum up its wonders, I turn to this quote from those who bestowed the Pulitzer Prize on the novel:
An ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them.”
#2 Favorite 2020 Read
Whose Waves These Are by Amanda Dykes
This novel became a sweet surprise because I found it on our office’s bookshelves–the ones where we display all of our clients’ published books. (She’s Wendy’s client.)
Amanda’s debut novel is something special. Just how special? It won the Christy Award for Book of the Year, besting stellar, established authors to nab this prize.
When I finished reading the book, I called Wendy and said, “Wow. What a quirky, marvelous read.”
What’s the Book About?
I can summarize the concept in one word: rocks. Yeah, I’ve never read a novel about rocks either. But, as is true for The Overstory, Whose Waves These Are is about so much more.
After WWII, a grieving fisherman writes a poem about rocks and submits it to a small-town Maine newspaper. In the poem, Robert Bliss invites others who are grieving a loved one lost in the war, to send him a rock as a symbol of their grief. He promises to build something meaningful out of them.
He was unprepared for the avalanche of rocks that arrived from all over the country, as his poem is picked up and published in newspapers seemingly everywhere. Then he sets about building a lighthouse from the rocks. A thing of beauty, a light in the dark, the lighthouse becomes his life’s work. But when a fresh tragedy strikes, he abandons the project. Not until his niece, a young anthropologist, returns to town years later, does the project take on a new life, as she encounters in his house and old barn walls of boxes filled with rocks.
What’s So Great About It?
First of all, what a quirky premise! But it’s the characters and their wounds that make this read touching and enthralling.
Here’s the fetching beginning:
“Every wave in that big old blue sea is a story.”
Bob told me this a long time ago, his voice brined with wind and water.
I laughed and focused on the cresting peaks from his old dock. They disappeared faster than a ten-year-old could count…
So many stories. In this pocket of a harbor, broken lives, like waves upon the shore, are gathered up and held close. I never imagined then that it would be my breaking place, too.
Nor how beautiful the breaking could be.”
Speaking of beauty, this book is laden with it: in the rich descriptions, in the lyrical language, in the author’s clear voice calling to readers to seek beauty in their breaking as well.
This review articulates just what is so great about Whose Waves These Are:
In her stellar debut, Dykes crafts a moving and quietly adventurous romance that is steeped in subtle beauty. She links two time frames and the heart-wrenching events of 1944 and 2001 with the maxim, ‘Life is big, God is bigger.’ The result is a poetic tale of grief, honor, memory, and love that is full of characters readers will long to know and, at the same time, feel as though they already do. Dykes’ inspiring story tracks one person’s journey to not only find the light in the world, but to fight for it.”
—Booklist starred review
#3 Favorite 2020 Read
Set the Stars Alight by Amanda Dykes
Right after reading Amanda’s debut novel, I sashayed over to our bookshelf and pulled off her second novel, Set the Stars Alight. I wanted to see if her sophomore novel could possibly be as pleasing as her first.
It’s even better!
(I know, my post is growing into an overstory of trees itself, so I’ll be brief.)
What’s It About?
Bearing little resemblance to her first novel, Set the Stars Alight, is also told as a contemporary and a historical. In the contemporary story, a forensic astronomer and a marine archaeologist use the odd combination of their skills (sky and water!?) to hunt for a tall ship that disappeared two hundred years earlier off the East Sussex coast. Unlikely couples in both eras find themselves in a love that surprises and dismays them. But, ultimately, a secret sea cave unlocks the mysteries of the lost ship and the hearts of the couples.
What’s So Great About It?
One comes to realize how complex Amanda’s novels are when trying to summarize the storyline, the layers of meaning, the beauty of the language, and the surprise elements you never saw coming. Where she comes up with these ideas and then creates stunning novels from them is a mystery to me. Just read them to see for yourself.
Now it’s your turn. What books nabbed you by the shirt collar and said, I’m going to gobsmack you! and then made good on the threat? I’m eager to find out what your favorite 2020 read was.
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Kristen Joy Wilks
Ooooh, the owner of our small Indy bookstore keeps gushing about The Overstory! I’m putting it my book idea list for my oldest son. He is the one who owns all five James Harriot books and who strongly chastised me when I borrowed one and left a stain on the cover! Yes, I scrubbed it with white toothpaste and apologized. What a great kid! He would love this concept I think. Thank you! And I just filled out a library purchase request for Whose Waves These Are. It looks so good. Maybe I should order all of these …
I love your enthusiasm, Kristen. We’ll see how your son does with The Overstory, it’s a big, complex book. I hope he loves it because he loves nature.
Kristen Joy Wilks
He adores nature and big complex stories. It sounds right up his alley. He just finished the 4th novel in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive and it is over 1,000 pages long. The book before it had 18 viewpoint characters and I would have to go and ask my son who was who when I read it, ha! They are the ones telling me that I can make it through their books now. “You can do it Mom!”
Well, I worked in trees and rocks…
I recall a great cathedral nave
that offered soul’s release;
rock-walled, with grass its floor was paved,
and its clerestory was trees
through which the briny sea-mist drifted,
through which the cries of gulls were heard
while peeking sun-spoke shadows shifted
and there was not a human word
to shock this place of beauty bare
nor lend opinion to the thrall
that held my heart, its every care,
and wiped away the Fall
as God laid His hand on me
in His Creation’s victory.
That’s beautiful, Andrew. And evocative. Thank you.
Janet, thank YOU, for keeping the blog going, with life and verve and challenge. I enjoyed writing this.
I can’t imagine a more enjoyable novel than “Whose Waves These Are,” so now “Set the Stars Alight” is on my must read list. You’ve convinced me to add “The Overstory” as well. Now I’m looking forward to finding a few extra moments by the fire! Thanks, Janet.
Enjoy, Brenda. Each of these books is a treat.
They’re on the to-read list. Thanks for the recommendations!
I’ve heard great things about “Whose Waves These Are” so now you’ve sold me on reading both of Amanda’s books!
Hooray! My work here is done.
One of my favorite reads was written by Ginny Yttrup. The scenery and atmosphere of the book took me into the town and along the walkways and coastline. I almost felt the spray of water and the tears of the characters as they worked through their flawed beliefs and stepped into truth.
Another awesome book is by Cynthia Ruchti. I read “Afraid of the Light” and was moved by it, but “Miles From Where We Started” took my emotions on an unexpected, joyfully difficult ride as the characters came to terms with the half-life they’d lived and faced what they really wanted.
Mark Batterson’s “Chase the Lion” is a challenging, courageous exercise in leaving conformity and complacency behind and a call to not only face fear but engage it for victory’s sake.
I highly recommend these to anyone.
Thanks for these recommendations, Susan. What’s the title of Ginny Yttrup’s novel?
I read Afraid of the Light this year, and it was glorious. I would have included it in my blog post, but I was already stretching readers’ willingness to read on. The characters were so real, and I loved the snappy dialogue between Cam and Eli. There was so much to savor in that novel!
Sorry I forgot to add the name of Ginny’s book. It is “Illusion.” It is the second in her series. Very good.
Susan, thank you so much for your comments about Afraid of the Light and Miles from Where We Started! It warms my author heart!
Janet Holm McHenry
My favorite read in 2020 was Afraid of the Light by our own Cynthia Ruchti. It’s my favorite also of her fiction. While the primary purpose of fiction is typically “to entertain,” Afraid of the Light does more than that. It informs. If makes you smarter. It helps you understand and empathize and equip yourself for dealing with the issue in the book–whether it’s your own issue or that of someone you love. It’s just stellar, and all you Bookies should read it.
BTW, what will probably prove to be my favorite 2021 nonfiction red is Sacred Rest by Saundra Dalton-Smith. Wow. It’s helped me understand the seven areas of rest I need, why I suffered from exhaustion in the past, and how to recognize signs of rest-need now. A Christian physician, she is interviewing on big media all over the place. I highly recommend it.
Janet McHenry is officially a huge blessing!
Janet, I so agree about your recommendation of Cynthia Ruchti’s Afraid of the Light. It’s my all-time favorite of her novels, too.
You’ve intrigued me with your description of Sacred Rest. I’m going to check it out.
Both novels by Amanda Dykes sound superb. Much of what I read this year was from authors I already knew I enjoyed, but two books surprised me: Britfield & The Lost Crown by C.R. Stewart and Sense Without Sensibility by Keena Richins.
The first is an exciting novel of an orphan in search of the truth, who is pursued by multitudes of people determined not to let him find out. The second is a modern retelling of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I have never read the original, so I had no idea what to expect. Loved the characters in this one.
Those both sound like great reads, Cheryl.
Wonderful topic! I look forward to reading these three soon.
My favorite 2020 book is a tie: “One Long River of Song” by Brian Doyle and “Devotions” by Mary Oliver.
Speechless!! I truly cannot express enough of my thanks for this, Janet…that you would take the time to read these tales, and then on top of that, that you’d be so very kind and generous with your words! I’m honored, especially considering the source. Thank you a thousand times over!
Amanda, I was compelled to recommend your books. They are rich in every way. You deserve every accolade heaped on them.
Patricia, I love the title, One Long River of Song. It sounds literary, is it?
Judy Gordon Morrow
I ordered and read both of Amanda’s books and loved them! I hope to read them again to savor and appreciate the stories even more the second time ’round. I had the joy of meeting Amanda years ago at Mount Hermon and connected with her in our first conversation–what a sweetheart! I had no idea then the amazing ideas and beautiful writing that would pour out of her.
And I’m glad to know about The Overstory, Janet–sounds fascinating!
You’re welcome, Judy.
Amanda’s novels were my favorite too. I predict that Set the Stars Alight will win book of the year, next year, as well.
Thank you for the recommendations.
My favorite 2020 read was Rooms by James Rubart. It highlights the choices we make and the resulting consequences on our lives…as if both choices result in parallel realities. As the protagonist realizes he can affect his past choices/consequences he’s torn between giving up one reality before embracing another reality.
I’d never thought fantasy could be so compelling a read. It made me want to write fantasy for my next book.
All three of these books are on my wish list. Now, they’re on the top for my next purchase. Four of my recent favorites: The Water Keeper by Charles Martin; When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin; Catching the Wind by Melanie Dobson; Memories of Glass by Melanie Dobson.