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Favorite Books of 2020

Favorite Books of 2020

The Reader by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot
The Reader by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot

I think I completed 46 books this year– not counting audiobooks or books I read with the kids, which would add another dozen or two or more if I counted them. And I might have missed one or two, I haven’t kept very good notes. Additionally, I feel like I picked up another two dozen books that I did not finish for various reasons. It wasn’t a great year for perseverance or pushing myself to read books that didn’t captivate me. I read a lot of lighter fare and not as many books that were challenging or improving. Such was 2020 for a lot of people, I suspect. Though I know some people who made great headway in their reading.

Still, there were a few books which really stood out and I thought I’d do a roundup of my top ten, er, eleven.

1. Enemy Brothers by Constance Savery

Bella fell in love with this middle-grade novel and was desperate for someone to talk about it with her. I signed her up for an online literature/history class through Homschool Connections which read the book and studied it in the context of the war. She loved the class as well. And I also read the book and loved it.

The novel was published in the middle of World War 2, when the fate of Britain still hung in the balance and nothing was resolved. It explores the moral questions that are at stake– symbolizing the Nazi and Ally sides using the imagery of two different magical swords of legend.

Yes, it glorifies the English side somewhat, but it’s not wrong about what was at stake. But what made me love the book was how it considered the need to see and recognize the humanity of those on the “other” side. Here, the enemy Nazi is literally a long-lost brother, stolen as an infant and raised as a German. He must be convinced to discern his real family in the enemy English. At the same time the family must learn to respond to his animosity with understanding and compassion.

At root it’s not a novel about war but about seeing past ideological differences and into the heart of the other to recognize their humanity and brotherhood. This is doorway to love and the true root of peace. Always a timely lesson, for people both young and old.

More: Enemy Brothers and the Broken Icon.

2. Charis in the World of Wonders by Marly Youmans

This is probably my favorite book of the year and the one I am most likely to recommend to anyone looking for a good book to read, and especially for a bookclub looking for a book that is meaty with a lot to discuss and yet short and not difficult to read.

The language is lyrical, not difficult, but beautiful and delighting in words for their own sakes. The characters are compelling and the story is a journey that sweeps you along. It does not drag slowly but kept me moving from page to page. But what really blew me away was the deep love of creation and Creator, a probing into the lived theology of encounter with God in nature, in humanity. And a true wrestling with moral questions which is the mark of a mature spirituality.

This novel was luminous and I really cannot praise it highly enough. Read it.

More: Charis in the World of Wonders.

3. If You Can Get It by Brendan Hodge

I rejoiced with my friend Brendan at the publication of his first novel and enjoyed reading the final, polished version of a book I’d read in draft form. The final version was surprisingly engaging– I often have difficulty with re-reads.

It’s a hard book to summarize because the surface plot about two estranged sisters finding their way in the world sounds rather cliched and the differences, the insight into the business world don’t sound very compelling. So what I loved about it was hard to put my finger on. But it takes me back to Charlotte Mason’s definition of a living book: one in which an author is passionate about his subject and carries the reader away and makes them care too by the strength of his enthusiasm. I think that comes as close as I can get: I don’t care about corporate culture and business meetings any more than I care about the lives of lobsters, but meeting a writer who finds the world of business fascinating and sees the lives of the people there as worthy of exploration… well, they are. All lives are interesting. What I appreciated was that there weren’t any huge epiphanies for the protagonist, no earthshaking moments of insight, but her change and growth are satisfying as watching a garden growing when you are watching alongside a gardener who loves every shoot.

More: If You Can Get It

4. One Is One by Barbara Leonie Picard

A middle-grade historical novel, set in the Middle Ages in Britain. Stephen is a social misfit, an outcast. His mother is dead and no one in his family seems to love him or respect him. He’s a weak boy in a knightly culture that values strength and feats of arms. He’s afraid of dogs, having been traumatized by a dog in his infancy. His siblings bully him and so does his father, who determines to bundle him off to a monastery. But while Stephen likes to draw he doesn’t feel called to the monastic life. He’s still obsessed with winning respect for feats of arms. I loved the journey that Stephen goes on as he runs away from the monastery and sets off on his own to seek his fortune. What he finds, is a rare gift: his truest self.

One Is One is a story about misfits and about the yearning for belonging and connection. It’s also a story about vocation and calling. I really liked it, though at first it seemed pretty grim and I wasn’t sure where it was going. I’m glad I pushed on to the end, which was incredibly satisfying.

5. Tug of War by Joan Lingard

I’m not sure why this juvenile novel was so compelling to me, but it’s one of my favorite World War 2 historical fictions. Maybe because it’s a small story, told well, that was a story I hadn’t heard told before? It’s about two families of refugees from Latvia who escape to Germany when the Soviets invade. The protagonists are twins, a boy and a girl and they are accidentally separated when they arrive in German. The boy, Hugo, loses his glasses and his family and spends the rest of the war in the care of a German family. He falls in love with their teenaged daughter and, thinking his family are dead, becomes engaged to her and plans to spend the rest of his life in Germany. But then he finds his family who are about to immigrate to Canada. I also read the second book, which was good but not quite as compelling a story, about what happens to them in Canada. Based on the author’s husband’s family’s experience in the war.

6. Outcast by Rosemary Sutcliff

Beric is an orphan and foundling, rescued by British tribesmen from a wrecked Roman ship. When the tribe has a bad year, they make him the scapegoat and cast him out. Thereafter he has quite a long adventure. He tries to join the Roman legion and is instead kidnapped and sold into slavery. Most of the story is how he finally makes his way back home and how he is changed in the process and how he finds a new home among the Roman people, his birth people. Like many of Sutcliff’s novels it’s a story about what it means to belong, to have a home. Sutcliff herself was something of an outcast, and in her novels there is such a longing for home.This novel had some dark moments, but it’s a story of new hope.

7. Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Set in the town of Buxton in Ontario Canada, a settlement founded by runaway slaves. Elijah is the first child in the community born free and was once held by the great Frederick Douglas (infant Elijah threw up on the great orator). Elijah is rather gullible, believing everything anyone tells him— his mother calls him fragile. As an innocent, he makes an ideal first person narrator to help younger readers understand something of the horrors of slavery.  

His perspective shifts over the course of the novel and he loses some of his naïveté and gullibility as he encounters firsthand betrayal and meets with slaves who have been caught by slave catchers. I thought the novel  navigated these treacherous waters admirably. It does not shy from showing the horrible truth about the abomination that is slavery. And yet it also is careful not to deliberately use shock and awe to harm the young reader. Sensitive readers might be upset, but a helpful adult will be able to guide them to understand the importance of good people taking a stand against evil and injustice, but also the limitations of what a child can do to rectify the evils of the world. As sad as it was, I liked that Elijah didn’t become an improbable savior. He cannot undo the evils of slavery nor would it be right for that burden to be put on him. I admired the novel’s restraint.  

8. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A fresh take on the magical school story. A Deadly Education, as the title suggests is a much darker school story than the dreamy wonder of Hogwarts. The Scholomanse is not just a dangerous place, the school is actively trying to kill the students.

El is a deliberately unsympathetic narrator. She doesn’t want allies; she doesn’t want rescuing. She just wants to make it to graduation alive. She is prickly and rude and often seems quite petty. But she also has integrity and a deep sense of honor. She has a past that explains a lot of her prickles. And in short it didn’t take long for her to grow on me.

I loved this one so much I went back and read it a second time immediately on finishing. And I never re-read books. Really looking forward to the promised sequel.

9. The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

A middle-grade historical novel set at the time of the partition of India and Pakistan. Nisha addresses her diary to the mother she never knew. She’s the daughter of a rare love-match between a Muslim mother and a Hindu father. And now that partition has come her family is being rejected by the people who they once considered friends and neighbors. They must leave their home, under threat of violence and journey through the desert to India. Nisha doesn’t understand the hatred and is torn between her two worlds. Nisha loves to cook and finds herself through her food. A beautiful exploration of culture, family, and a portrayal of a period of history I didn’t know much about. The novel gets dark at times, but appropriately for older children. Nisha witnesses violence, she and her family almost die of thirst in the desert. But the story is also a celebration of love.

10. The River and the Source by Margaret Ogala

A multigenerational novel from a Kenyan novelist that traces one family through the twentieth century. I loved the characters, the strong portrayal of family and faith. Christianity has always been the religion of widows and orphans and it is two widows and two orphans who arrive at the mission seeking a new understanding of the world. Akoko, daughter of a chief and wife of a chief, who lost her first son when he ran away and joined the army (which none of the family even knew existed) in the first World War, and her daughter Nyaberi, who lost child after child and then her husband. They find solace and comfort in a God who is love and who was born of a woman and became man. The story is deep and powerful told simply without much artistry but somehow the plainness suited the people and the story itself.

More: The River and the Soure

11. Bonus poetry book: Motherland by Sally Thomas

I love this collection of poetry so much, but I cannot gather my thoughts succinctly. It’s just.. a feast!

But if you want more, read my gushing here: Motherland

Here is my favorites list of 2019.

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4 comments
  • Thanks for the fab recommendations. I’m reading my way through Tove Jansson’s oeuvre in order, alongside an excellent literary biography. The Moomins face cataclysmic global events in the first two stories which feels oddly fitting in these plague times. Moomins’ relationships are very true to life, full of adventures, squabbles and deeply secure family love. The tone is both joyfully anarchic like Pippi Longstocking and gentle and whimsical like Winnie the Pooh. Emotional reverberations run deep. I’m enchanted.

  • Thank you so much for reading, liking, and sharing the news (here and elsewhere) about Charis in the World of Wonders. Such things always mean a lot, but especially in a pandemic launch year. And how pleasant to be on a list with my friend Sally Thomas! I met her in 2019 when she showed up at a reading of mine at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, and I have since become a fan of all things Sally, including Motherland.

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