Although 2020 may not go down as anyone's favorite year, I think most of us had a good reading year, at least. I started the year with "As Bright as Heaven," which is set during the Flu Epidemic of 1918. I love a good sad story, and this one touched me deeply. Imagine my surprise when we faced our own worldwide pandemic just a few weeks later! Seriously, no one would have predicted such a crisis. But having read this book kept my perspective in check as the sorrow and difficulties we've faced have paled in comparison to the devastation of 1918.
Here are my 5-star reads of 2020, sorted by genre. All summaries and links are from GoodReads, so that you can quickly add them to your TBR stack.
As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner
In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters--Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa--a chance at a better life.
But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without--and what they are willing to do about it.
The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes
Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.
The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.
What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children and a house on the Cape, is a celebrated Harvard professor at the height of her career when she notices a forgetfulness creeping into her life. As confusion starts to cloud her thinking and her memory begins to fail her, she receives a devastating diagnosis: early onset Alzheimer's disease. Fiercely independent, Alice struggles to maintain her lifestyle and live in the moment, even as her sense of self is being stripped away. In turns heartbreaking, inspiring and terrifying, Still Alice captures in remarkable detail what's it's like to literally lose your mind...
Adventures with Waffles by Maria Parr
Lena is Trille’s best friend, even if she is a girl. And there is never an ordinary day when you’ve got a best friend like Lena.
Hardly a day passes without Trille and Lena inventing some kind of adventure that often ends in trouble. Whether it’s coaxing a cow onto a boat or sledding down the steepest and iciest hill with a chicken, there is always a thrill—and sometimes an injury—to be had. Trille loves to share everything with Lena, even Auntie Granny’s waffles. But when Lena has to move away and Auntie Granny leaves the world, it sometimes seems like nothing will ever be right again. The warmth of friendship and the support of family suffuse this lightly illustrated novel, proving that when times are tough, a little taste of sweetness can make all the difference.
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
When Viji and her sister, Rukku, whose developmental disability makes her overly trusting and vulnerable to the perils of the world, run away to live on their own, the situation could not be more grim. Life on the streets of the teeming city of Chennai is harsh for girls considered outcasts, but the sisters manage to find shelter on an abandoned bridge. There they befriend Muthi and Arul, two boys in a similar predicament, and the four children bond together and form a family of sorts. Viji starts working with the boys scavenging in trash heaps while Rukku makes bead necklaces, and they buy food with what little money they earn. They are often hungry and scared but they have each other--and Kutti, the best dog ever. When the kids are forced from their safe haven on the bridge, they take shelter in a graveyard. But it is now the rainy season and they are plagued by mosquitos, and Rukku and Muthu fall ill. As their symptoms worsen, Viji and Arul must decide whether to risk going for help--when most adults in their lives have proven themselves untrustworthy--or to continue holding on to their fragile, hard-fought freedom.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the forest, Xan, is kind and gentle. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, Fyrian. Xan rescues the abandoned children and deliver them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey.
One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this enmagicked girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. To keep young Luna safe from her own unwieldy power, Xan locks her magic deep inside her. When Luna approaches her thirteenth birthday, her magic begins to emerge on schedule--but Xan is far away. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Soon, it is up to Luna to protect those who have protected her--even if it means the end of the loving, safe world she’s always known.
Without the Mask: Coming Out and Coming into God's Light by Charlie Bird
Charlie Bird—the viral face of BYU during his years as Cosmo the Cougar—made waves across the nation in February when he came out and revealed to BYU fans that he is gay. Now, in Without the Mask, Bird reflects on how his identity has strengthened his testimony and how he views his sexual orientation in conjunction with his faith in Jesus Christ.
Alternating between memoir and teaching chapters, Bird's touching and authentic prose chronicles his decision to openly share that he is gay and to remain active in the faith. Highlighting the challenges Bird has faced along the way, the book also shares the blessings he's learned to recognize through his sexual orientation. Charlie feels deeply the importance of maintaining a relationship with God and hopes this message will "spark healing, bridge gaps of understanding and inspire hope" for other LGBTQ readers and those who love them.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
An unforgettable true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to end mass incarceration in America — from one of the most inspiring lawyers of our time.
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law office in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to defending the poor, the incarcerated, and the wrongly condemned.
Just Mercy tells the story of EJI, from the early days with a small staff facing the nation’s highest death sentencing and execution rates, through a successful campaign to challenge the cruel practice of sentencing children to die in prison, to revolutionary projects designed to confront Americans with our history of racial injustice.
One of EJI’s first clients was Walter McMillian, a young Black man who was sentenced to die for the murder of a young white woman that he didn’t commit. The case exemplifies how the death penalty in America is a direct descendant of lynching — a system that treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.
The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud, Ned Johnson
A few years ago, Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson started noticing the same problem from different angles: Even high-performing kids were coming to them acutely stressed and lacking any real motivation. Many complained that they had no control over their lives. Some stumbled in high school or hit college and unraveled. Bill is a clinical neuropsychologist who helps kids gripped by anxiety or struggling to learn. Ned is a motivational coach who runs an elite tutoring service. Together they discovered that the best antidote to stress is to give kids more of a sense of control over their lives. But this doesn't mean giving up your authority as a parent. In this groundbreaking book they reveal how you can actively help your child to sculpt a brain that is resilient, stress-proof and ready to take on new challenges.
The Self-Driven Child offers a combination of cutting-edge brain science, the latest discoveries in behavioral therapy, and case studies drawn from the thousands of kids and teens Bill and Ned have helped over the years to teach you how to set your child on the real road to success. As parents, we can only drive our kids so far. At some point, they will have to take the wheel and map out their own path. But there is a lot you can do before then to help them find their passion and tackle the road ahead with courage and imagination.
I'd love to hear... what were the best books you read this year?