Now that we have safely entered 2021, I thought it would be a good opportunity to look back on my favourite reads of 2020. It was challenging to narrow it down, but the following are my personal top ten in no particular order.
Open House (2020) by Jane Christmas is a witty, quirky memoir told through stories about the thirty-two houses the author has lived in over the course of her life. What makes a house a home? Christmas has been chasing the answer her whole life, across continents and through multiple renovation projects. Readers with an interest in interior design, architecture, or who fantasize about the idea of restoring a century home may appreciate this like I did.
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (2019) by Casey Cep is an account of a sensational murder trial that captivated a small town in Alabama and novelist Harper Lee's aborted attempt to write a true crime book about the case. Organized into three parts, author Casey Cep chronicles the life of Reverend Willie Maxwell and the murders he allegedly committed, the raucous trial of Maxwell's vigilante murderer George Burns, and the personal and professional life of the enigmatic Harper Lee. Filled will historical insight and contextual details, Furious Hours illustrates the turbulent cultural and political climate of the deep south in the mid to late 20th century.
The Pull of the Stars (2020) by Emma Donoghue follows a maternity ward nurse living and working in gritty 1918 Dublin as the world is being ravaged by the Spanish Flu. I wasn't crazy about the melodramatic last quarter of the book, but everything leading up to it was gripping. You know a book is effective when you find yourself visibly squirming and cringing as you read. Plus, this novel serves as a reminder that COVID is far from the first global health crisis the human race has experienced and overcome.
The Dutch House (2019) by Ann Patchett is about two siblings, Danny and Maeve Conroy, their strange obsession with the grandiose mansion they lived in as children, and how their lives unfolded over the years. The story is narrated by Danny over multiple non-linear time periods as the family members squabble, strive, fail, and redefine their relationships to each other. If you enjoy complex (and sometimes very unlikeable!) characters and appreciate a poignant reading experience, you should seek out The Dutch House if you haven't already. Also, the audiobook is narrated by Tom Hanks and definitely worth a listen.
While British author Lucy Foley had a new book out this year (The Guest List), I much preferred her earlier novel The Hunting Party (2019). Both books are locked-room mysteries in the vein of Agatha Christie, feature similar types of characters, and are set in haunting, remote locales in the British Isles. In my opinion, The Hunting Party had the better ending by far, which is why it made my top 10, but both are solid, atmospheric whodunits that will keep you guessing.
The Henna Artist (2020) by Alka Joshi is vivid and engaging – the perfect "armchair travel" read. Set in 1950s India, it follows Lakshmi, a henna artist to Jaipur's upper crust who is slowly but surely building the house of her dreams. When Lakshmi's sister, previously unknown to her, suddenly shows up in town, her carefully built life threatens to topple.
Memorial Drive (2020) by Natasha Trethway is a moving memoir that drips with nostalgia. It describes the author's early life in the 1960s south as a child of an interracial marriage, obviously not something widely accepted in Mississippi during that era, and how she coped as a teen when her mother was murdered by her abusive stepfather.
If you are looking for a laugh, A Very Punchable Face (2020) by Colin Jost is a pretty safe bet, especially in audiobook format. With self-deprecating humour, SNL head writer Jost discusses his largely unremarkable (and yet still interesting) upbringing on Staten Island, the hard work that went into launching his career, and what goes on behind the scenes at SNL. Comedian memoirs are a dime a dozen, but this is a good one.
The Push (2021) by Ashley Audrain is one of the most highly anticipated books to be released in 2021, so I was lucky to get my hands on an advance reader copy this past fall. It follows a woman, Blythe, who nervously prepares for motherhood, knowing that the women in her family have not adapted well historically. As expected, Blythe struggles with her newborn daughter Violet and things only go further downhill from there. Violet seems to have a nasty streak...but is it real, a consequence of Blythe's distance, or is it entirely imagined?
Perhaps my favourite book of the year was Consent (2020) by Annabel Lyon, which felt like classic Canadian literary fiction in the very best way. Following two sets of sisters who lives become intertwined because of a tragedy, it is a sharply observed exploration of family responsibility, as well as the nature of consent on a number of levels.
All of the titles mentioned here can be reserved from your branch of the County of Lennox and Addington Libraries or online at www.CountyLibrary.ca
This article was originally published in the The Napanee Beaver.