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Five of Jen's Favorite Reads of 2020 (Part 2)

by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)

Oh, friends, making book choices never gets easier for me. I had shared so many excellent books in my 2020 mid-year post AND on our 2020 Unabridged Awards Episode that I thought I would have narrowed the list from which to choose. Wow, was I wrong! (Be sure to check our mid-year posts: here's mine, Ashley's, and Sara's.)

I read 345 books in 2020, and of those, 28 earned five stars from me, and 92 earned four-and-a-half stars. So, even with the 14 books I've covered so far, I'm only half-way to mentioning the best of the best. Is that enough? Of course it's not! But, here we are.

So, I tried to choose books that represented the range of what I loved in 2020 . . . and have just accepted that I'll have to leave out too many.

From the publisher:

"From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.

"With stunning historical detail, Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for civil rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a glitteringly successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.

"Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an 'unrecognized immigration' within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic."

Why it made the list:

This book had been on my TBR list for a while—I read it because of a buddy read, which gave me the extra push I needed. I read some excellent nonfiction in 2020, and The Warmth of Other Suns exemplifies what the best nonfiction does for me: it balances a wide view of American trends, of information and analysis, with the zoomed-in stories of three individuals who represent the duration of the Great Migration, the geographic variety of their destinations, and the disparity between the lives they end up leading. I learned so, so much and felt even more.

Kawai Strong Washburns's Sharks in the Time of Saviors

From the publisher:

"In 1995 Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on a rare family vacation, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls overboard a cruise ship into the Pacific Ocean. When a shiver of sharks appears in the water, everyone fears for the worst. But instead, Noa is gingerly delivered to his mother in the jaws of a shark, marking his story as the stuff of legends.

"Nainoa’s family, struggling amidst the collapse of the sugarcane industry, hails his rescue as a sign of favor from ancient Hawaiian gods―a belief that appears validated after he exhibits puzzling new abilities. But as time passes, this supposed divine favor begins to drive the family apart: Nainoa, working now as a paramedic on the streets of Portland, struggles to fathom the full measure of his expanding abilities; further north in Washington, his older brother Dean hurtles into the world of elite college athletics, obsessed with wealth and fame; while in California, risk-obsessed younger sister Kaui navigates an unforgiving academic workload in an attempt to forge her independence from the family’s legacy.

"When supernatural events revisit the Flores family in Hawai’i―with tragic consequences―they are all forced to reckon with the bonds of family, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival."

Why it made the list:

I read this novel because of one of my favorite annual bookish events, the Tournament of Books (this one was part of the summer competition, Camp ToB, and it won! So, we'll see it again in March 2021).

In my review, I wrote, "I FELT every moment of this book. This family is heartbreaking and hilarious and so, so imperfect—I love them so much. They often made choices that I considered to be wrong . . . and then I questioned WHY I thought they were the wrong choice and how I was measuring success or the right answer. Washburn deals in real ways with poverty, with the ways that families can love each other and then turn around and hurt each other deeply. It covers betrayal and forgiveness, grace and redemption. I absolutely loved the ways that Washburn developed each character's arc separately, and yet I see how they're interwoven, the way one sibling's tragedy might be a triumph for another. And behind it all, even as the siblings move to the mainland, is the haunting, gorgeous, but sometimes burdensome presence of their true home." Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a beautiful blend of reality and magic and well worth your time to read.

From the publisher:

"Find the heir, win the crown.

The curse is finally broken, but Prince Rhen of Emberfall faces darker troubles still. Rumors circulate that he is not the true heir and that forbidden magic has been unleashed in Emberfall. Although Rhen has Harper by his side, his guardsman Grey is missing, leaving more questions than answers.

"Win the crown, save the kingdom.

Grey may be the heir, but he doesn't want anyone to know his secret. On the run since he destroyed Lilith, he has no desire to challenge Rhen—until Karis Luran once again threatens to take Emberfall by force. Her own daughter Lia Mara sees the flaws in her mother's violent plan, but can she convince Grey to stand against Rhen, even for the good of Emberfall?

"The heart-pounding, compulsively readable saga continues as loyalties are tested and new love blooms in a kingdom on the brink of war."

Why it made the list:

In 2020, so many types of books got me through: romances, fantasy novels, books in a series with characters who feel familiar. A Heart So Fierce and Broken has the additional benefit of being the sequel to a phenomenal fairytale retelling (which I always love!), and it does what the best sequels do: it continues the magic of book one, A Curse So Dark and Lonely, while adding delicious complications, compelling new characters, and a few more problems that book three will have to solve. (Book three, A Vow So Bold and Deadly, comes out next week, and I cannot wait!)

Danielle Evans's The Office of Historical Corrections

From the publisher:

"Danielle Evans is widely acclaimed for her blisteringly smart voice and x-ray insights into complex human relationships. With The Office of Historical Corrections, Evans zooms in on particular moments and relationships in her characters’ lives in a way that allows them to speak to larger issues of race, culture, and history. She introduces us to Black and multiracial characters who are experiencing the universal confusions of lust and love, and getting walloped by grief—all while exploring how history haunts us, personally and collectively. Ultimately, she provokes us to think about the truths of American history—about who gets to tell them, and the cost of setting the record straight.

"In 'Boys Go to Jupiter,' a white college student tries to reinvent herself after a photo of her in a Confederate-flag bikini goes viral. In 'Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,' a photojournalist is forced to confront her own losses while attending an old friend’s unexpectedly dramatic wedding. And in the eye-opening title novella, a black scholar from Washington, DC, is drawn into a complex historical mystery that spans generations and puts her job, her love life, and her oldest friendship at risk."

Why it made the list:

From one angle, it seems as if the best short stories and novellas would make a reader yearn for them to be longer, but I think that, actually, the best short stories offer a sense of resolution, the satisfaction that they're exactly as long as they need to be. Every story in this collection felt like that, as if Evans had reached the perfect concluding moment and then moved on. I also came to appreciate audiobooks so much more in 2020, and this collection on audio—featuring a variety of narrators—is absolutely phenomenal.

From the publisher:

"Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian—half, his mom’s side—and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.

"Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush—the original Persian version of his name—and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.

"Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough—then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay."

Why it made the list:

I re-read Darius in 2020 for the podcast and for our buddy read this month—it was one of my favorite books of 2019, too—and it reinforced several principles for me. First, I love young-adult literature. Second, the best books hold up to a re-read AND yield even more the next time through. Third, good discussion (like the conversation I had with Ashley and Sara for the podcast or the buddy read chats we had on Instagram) makes any book better. This is phenomenal realistic fiction, and I could read it again today.

(A note to our readers: click on the hashtags above to see our other blog posts with the same hashtag.)

Interested in what else we're reading? Check out our Featured Books page.

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