Home » 2020 Book Reviews

2020 Book Reviews

by Ashley
Published: Last Updated on 2 comments 517 views 87 minutes read

Ever year, I set an ambitious reading goal and set out to read a varied mix of fiction and non-fiction books. I post these reviews on my personal Instagram but will be moving those review posts to the No Place Like Anywhere Instagram for 2021. In the meantime, I’ve compiled all of the reviews I’ve written this year here in this post, and will continue updating it through the end of the year.

My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Jodi Meadows, and Brodi Ashton

Fiction: YA Historical Fantasy

After unexpectedly enjoying My Lady Jane, the first in this anthology series, I decided to give the second one a chance. A YA retelling of Jane Eyre mixed with the ghost-busting fun of, um, well, Ghostbusters, and the irreverent tone of The Princess Bride or Monty Python, this book was just as fun (but not as weird) as the first one. Romance, mystery, people being possessed by spirits in order to do the bidding of the evil villain, and a very meta approach to this retelling — this book isn’t for everyone but if any of those things intrigue you, you’ll enjoy yourself. I’ll definitely be reading the next one in the series when it comes out! (Fun random note: the authors are clearly Hamilton fans. I counted no fewer than six direct references to or quotes from the musical.)

Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World by Richard Snow

Non-fiction: History, Pop Culture

Absolutely fascinating and fun journey through history.  Disney fans will love this detailed and thoroughly reported examination of how and why Disney built Disneyland. And theme park junkies (like me!) will enjoy learning about a world when our concept of a theme park was just one man’s silly, audacious, insane dream.

““Look, the thing that’s going to make Disneyland unique and different is the detail. If we lose the detail, we lose it all.”

Walt Disney

When I Was You by Minka Kent

Fiction: Mystery, suspense

Well that was FUN!!! I read this whole thing in one day. Good pacing, smart writing, interesting characters with unexpected motivations. A unique twist, and a fun race to the finish with a satisfactory (IMO) ending. There are a few scenes I wish I could flip back to reread with the context of the ending, but on a kindle it’s a bit hard to do that so I’ll just have to assume everything makes sense. I would definitely read another one by this author.

A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab

Fiction: YA Fantasy

HOLY MOLY. This was fantastic. Rarely do I read fantasy and lately I haven’t been into series, but I immediately requested the sequel from the library, it was that urgent that I get to continue living in this world. The world building is unparalleled. The characters unforgettable. The plot, pacy and intriguing. The dialogue was on point, believable and snappy, at times outright funny without being goofy. Parts of it were scary and more violent than I like, but I skimmed past the most brutal. The writing seemed effortless and pitch perfect. Plus you’ve got a cross-dressing female wannabe pirate, four versions of London, lots of magic, evil twin monarchs, and echos of beloved stories like Aladdin, LOTR, HP. The atmosphere reminded me of another fun urban fantasy set in an alternate NYC I read last year called Westside. Absolutely stunning work, imo. Fans of urban fantasy will seriously dig this.

Table of Contents

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

Fiction: Mystery, Crime

Not as good as the precursor. I still really enjoyed the meta self aware aspects of the storytelling but  honestly not sure I would continue with the series after this one. The mystery didn’t grab me as much, and honestly I had trouble keeping up with how the two mysteries tied together through the whole thing. Even when it was all explained at the end, it seemed kind of meh. There were a couple little twists that made it more interesting but the story on this one gets a big old meh from me. What I did really like, as with the first one, was the way it was written, the meta self aware nature of the storytelling (like, I’d totally believe that this is a true story, as the book proclaims), and learning more about Hawthorne. But I can’t say it makes me super excited for another. (The author plans to write ten. My God. Lol)

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez

Non-fiction: Science, Politics, Data analytitcs

HOLY CRAP. Five stars. This was stunning and disturbing and fascinating and depressing and eye opening and just wow. Wow. Every human needs to read this. Wow. Exhaustively researched. Compelling narratives. Engaging writing. Infuriating data. A staggering piece of work.

“Invisible Women is the story of what happens when we forget to account for half of humanity. It is an exposè of how the gender data gap harms women when life proceeds, more or less as normal.” – Caroline Criado-Perez

“Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.”

Simone de Beauvoir
Non-fiction: Sexuality, gender

A must read for moms of boys! A frank, comprehensive, and thoroughly contemporary examination of the sexuality and gender issues boys face while growing up, including defining their masculinity and ‘fitting in with the boys’, understanding their bodies, learning about consent, exploring romantic relationships, etc. Informative and data driven without being overly academic; conversational, humorous-when-appropriate voice, infused with passion for the subject and empathy for her interview subjects.

“There is this notion of gender and sexual scripts in which men in heterosexual sex are understood to be responsible for moving the ball down the field. Men are supposed to be the aggressors and girls the blockers, so that makes it hard for men to understand and label their own experiences of unwanted sex. Agency and consent are assumed. It also makes it hard for women to understand the necessity of getting consent from men.”

Jennifer Hirsh, codirector of the SHIFT study

The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World

Non-fiction: Science, agriculture

I was hooked from the first chapter and enjoyed learning about so many new things. I now have a long list of things I need to learn more about, but the chapter about food waste was maybe the most urgent and eye-opening to me; I was riveted listening to the scary numbers, learning about how we have put ourselves in a garbage crisis, and the myriad ways we can turn things around, both old fashioned and tech-forward, for the average consumer, governments, and large companies. I was already really enjoying the book up to that point, but that chapter felt like a call to action sung by a siren.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in continuing to live on the planet without killing it for future generations, those who are curious about the future of agriculture, food and nutrition, or environmentalists who need a dose of hope.

Unfuck Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life by Gary John Bishop

Non-fiction: Self-help

A solid, straight forward, no BS entry in the modern self-help library. I don’t think I’m at a place in my life where this was as useful as it could have been when I was younger, but I can see how this would be a swift kick in the pants for some people. A tough love, no-nonsense approach to stop thinking and start DOING. Short, simple, with lots of practical realistic advice and great motivational quotes. Not nearly as much cursing as the title would have you believe, so don’t let that put you off.

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

Non-fiction: Environment, Economics

Well written, well researched, good information. This book is an in-depth journalistic examination of how the global secondhand economy functions, the challenges it faces (such as import laws and quality issues), and how individuals can contribute (buying less new stuff, buying and selling more secondhand stuff). I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in sustainability and environmentalism, global trade, or just learning what happens to the stuff you donate to Goodwill.

According to a 2018 study by the World Bank, humans are on track to generate waste at a pace more than double that of population growth through the year 2050.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Takemori)

Fiction: Contemporary, Japanese

2.5 stars. I don’t know that I understood this book, and I can’t decide if it’s because of the translation, a cultural disconnect, or if I’m just not grasping what this is about. I explain much of my consternation in my full review. One thing that I must give the author credit for is somehow making the life of a robotic, passive, hard-to-connect-with convenience store worker compelling enough to keep turning the pages. As an American who’s never visited Japan, the convenience store world was foreign and fascinating to me.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch

Non-fiction: Linguistics

What a fun linguistic journey! Studying how the internet is evolving the way we communicate was even more fun than I anticipated. From texting, memes, and email to emoji and punctuation, the author examines how the internet has impacted informal writing in ways both mundane and revolutionary. This book is another smart, compelling and fun entry in the “how language evolves and why it’s not a bad thing” cannon.

Recommended for anyone interested in linguistics and the fluid nature of English, for those who are still upset over an emoji character being the Oxford Dictionary’s “word” of the year or the use of a singular ‘they’, or anyone who wants to better understand how to communicate through informal writing online in the workplace or with different generations of friends and family.

We already had a way of representing individual sounds, in the form of letters, and we’ve been developing the system for representing tone of voice using our existing punctuation and capitalization that we talked about in the previous chapter. So emoji and other pictorial elements are filling the third important pillar of communication: a way of representing our gestures and physical space.

Gretchen McCulloch

Shimmering Images by Lisa Dale Norton

Non-fiction: writing

Slim but solid and insightful volume on memoir writing. Gave me a lot of wonderful ideas for getting organized and figuring out a focus for my story.

Too Much is Not Enough by Andrew Rannells

Non-Fiction: Memoir

What a charming memoir! I just love him so much. Listening to this was a total delight. His performance never felt like one and was pitch perfect. I loved all of the behind the scenes of the theatre world, his positive attitude as he reflected on tough times in his life, and his openness and generosity in storytelling. When it ended I said NOOOOO. I didn’t want it to be over! It ends before he gets to Book of Mormon or his TV shows so I’m assuming there’s another book on the horizon…. Or there better be!!!

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

Non-fiction: memoir

Very enjoyable. Very relatable. Smart, funny, no holds barred, truthful, painful. I liked this way more than I expected to, and it was far more insightful, emotionally resonant, and serious than I had expected.

A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen

Fiction: Contemporary Sci fi

Really fun pandemic story here. Maybe a bit TOO REAL right now, though, lol. But Mike Chen has proven himself with his standout debut time travel tale, and followed it up with a solid sophomore act. I will read whatever he puts out next. Complex characters, diverse cast, pacey plot with realistic turns and beats and character choices and motivations. Not too heavy an approach to a pandemic tale. I very much enjoyed reading this.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Fiction: Contemporary

Wow, I did not expect to love this book but I couldn’t put it down. Killer dialogue, complex characters, compelling without being a plot heavy book. Impressive. Great for fans of the shows Dear White People and Insecure, and books by Mary Choi.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

Non-fiction: memoir

Good solid, funny, entertaining celeb memoir. I’m a huge fan of Issa Rae’s show “Insecure” on HBO, and this look at her early years reveals a lot of the inspiration for her character on that show, imo. Like many memoirs these days, her story is broken up by little essay interludes, which were funny and insightful but I dont particularly care for that format. They really take me out of HER story. If I wanted to read a book of essays, I would. As for her story, I think her stories about her family and her time visiting Senegal were the strongest, especially the examination of her parents’ divorce and the effects of their relationship on her and her siblings.

All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

Fiction: Contemporary YA, Romance

LOVED this adorable, charming, timely, sweet YA story about a Circassian American teenager who explores her family’s religion while also exploring her first romantic relationship. It felt so real and authentic (which makes sense since the author is also a Circassian and “passes” for white even though she’s Muslim). The characters were all richly drawn, notably the protagonist’s parents and love interest. I felt so drawn in from the first pages, I couldn’t put it down! Wonderful conflicts and realistic and reasonable resolutions. Beautiful, non-preachy exploration of one’s faith and coming of age as you begin to realize your parents are also human. Really loved this. Super sweet romance. Would definitely read more by this author!

The hardest thing about telling your parents you want them to back off and treat you like an adult is when they actually start doing it.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Fiction: LGBT, Contemporary New Adult, Romance

Recommended for fans of: Adam Silvera’s books (notably “What if it’s Us“), Gilmore Girls, Aaron Sorkin shows, the book “The Royal We“, HBO’s Veep, and Beatrice/Benedict-esque love stories.

FAVORITE fictional book I’ve read in a long time. A gd delight, from page 1. Funny (often times laugh-out-loud-even-though-I’m-by-myself funny), sexy, charming, romantic, relevant and timely, optimistic, hopeful. An alternate history of our current 2020 as if a competent and intelligent woman won the white house in 2016 instead of the dumpster fire that resides there now. This is an incredible love story between one of the First Children and a member of the English Royal Family. It’s SO SO SO SO good. Despite this being a bit of hopeful fantasy fiction (ya know, with sane and reasonable leadership of our country), everything else about it rings true and feels authentic.

American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures by America Ferrera

Non-fiction: Essays

I LOVED listening to this audio book. Perfect for those who like books of essays by multiple authors, people interested in the immigrant or non-White American experience, and anyone who has to balance living between two cultures. Very insightful and worthwhile read.

Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor

Non-Fiction: History, Racism

Recommended for history buffs, people who love road tripping and can’t imagine not being free to drive wherever you want, and anyone who saw the Green Book movie and thought that it might have been better told from the Black guy’s perspective and not the dude with a white savior complex.

This is more than a history of the Green Book, which in itself is really interesting and worthy of your time. This examines all the ways in which black people could or could not move about freely in this country, and how they helped one another do so more safely. It provides an eye opening history of how racism affected a black person’s leisure and travel; a perspective that I had (ignorantly) never once considered. Incredible to think this all was going on less than 100 years ago. It’s very comprehensive without feeling overly dense, though there were some overly detailed sections that I kinda just skimmed through when they were getting into the weeds of details about someone’s life or about one of the original Green Book sites.

“History is fleeting, ephemeral, and slippery, and it changes according to who is telling it.”

Candacy Taylor

Followers by Megan Angelo

Fiction: Speculative

This book dazzled me. Completely absorbing world building and addictive story, doling out just enough back story and mystery each chapter to keep you turning the pages. I could not stop reading this and thought it was just such a thoughtful meditation on social media’s effects on society, what some people will do for fame, and the difference between sharing ourselves online and connecting with others.

Recommended for fans of Mike Chen, Black Mirror, or anyone interested in asking tough questions about privacy in the age of social media.

Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell

Non-Fiction: Linguistics, Feminism

Another linguistic triumph! This one is a fun and fascinating journey through gendered and sexist language, deconstructing the hows and whys of cursing, insults, grammar, pronunciation and vocal patterns through a feminist lens. I learned a ton and, as much as I enjoyed the audio version of this book, wish I had a kindle or hard copy version so I could have highlighted passages to come back to because there’s no way I’m going to remember all of the fun facts and tidbits.

If you’re interested in how language shapes culture, informs behavior, and has helped keep women down over the centuries, you’ll enjoy this hilarious and thought-provoking romp. (Highly recommend listening to the audio book, read by the author, because she is delightful! She does a great job, infusing her words with humor and wit, relishing in the sound of our language.)

The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson

Fiction: YA, Mystery

The final in a trilogy that, imo, didn’t need to be a trilogy. It was fine? I have mixed feelings because I enjoyed the reading experience — not too heavy, interesting characters, enough mystery to keep you turning the pages — but the story was dragged out. Could have been one long book or two, max. The mystery was soooooo drawn out and then wasn’t even all that satisfying when it wrapped up. The love story was annoying and perhaps a bit toxic. The whodunnit reveal at the end was lackluster. I didn’t feel like any of the people who died got avenged properly. A new character was introduced in this book and I’m not entirely sure what his purpose was? I dont know. Overall, I enjoyed reading these — kinda light despite the death, fun, frolicking mysteries — but the conclusion was not that satisfying and doesn’t feel like a worthy conclusion to a trilogy. WHY was this three books long?

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Non-fiction: Memoir, self-help

Part memoir, part self help, part overview about depression. And wholly wonderful. If you know anyone who has suffered or suffers from depression and you just can’t understand or want to better understand the depressive experience, this book captures it. In detailing his mental breakdown and reflecting on his crippling depression from his early 20s, Haig offers a compassionate hug in book form. Never preachy or condescending, never overly sad or trite or even maudlin, he’s able to capture the truth of his experience (and that of many like him) while making relatable the illogical irrational mental state of someone with mental illness.

“If you have ever believed a depressive wants to be happy, you are wrong. They could not care less about the luxury of happiness. They just want to feel an absence of pain. To escape a mind on fire, where thoughts blaze and smoke like old possessions lost to arson. To be normal.”

Matt Haig

The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family by Dan Savage

Non-fiction: Memoir

Overall, I enjoyed this meditation on, well, exactly what the subtitle says. I liked it and will probably look for a more recent one next. He’s funny and while his tone could be grating at times, I chalk it up to his youth and the time period in which he was writing about a very personal (and at the time controversial) subject. But even though it’s only 15 years old, it feels very dated. I also don’t think I’m a fan of the long meandering zigzaggy way in which he tells stories.

Sadie by Courtney Summers

Fiction: YA, Mystery

This is an extraordinary book and the less you know going into it the better. The format was the first unique thing that stood out to me and one of my favorite things about it. Chapters alternate between Sadie’s inner point of view, and a podcast in the vein of Serial about Sadie and her murdered sister. I don’t want to say anything about this book because I was really glad to go into it mostly blind. It’s so so good. I read it in a couple nights. I didn’t want to stop reading. I see this making an excellent limited HBO series one day.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

Non-fiction: Science, history

If my high school Biology book had been written in this manner, I would have paid way more attention. This was so interesting and I loved how he organized the content. It was long but didn’t feel long, the chapters interspersed with physiological and anatomical facts, and historical and cultural anecdotes. I read part of this on my Kindle but ended up listening to most of it as an audiobook and I have to say that Bill Bryson does a great job narrating his books. Now I need to go listen to another one!

A Brief History of Feminism by Antje Schrupp

Non-fiction: History, illustrated

A let down due to the poor translation, several typos, confusing language, and overemphasis on German feminist endeavors and underemphasis on intersectionality. I’m not convinced the illustrations help at all? What’s their point exactly? They’re not funny or particularly illuminating.

Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets, & Advice for Living Your Best Life by Ali Wong, Justin Hakuta

Non-fiction: Memoir, Comedy

Super enjoyed this memoir by the hilarious and (unexpectedly) insightful Ali Wong. Written as a series of letters to her daughters, this functions both as a collection of essays and memories covering topics such as growing up as one of four children of immigrant parents, her experiences thus far as an Asian American female comedian, and many awkward sexcapades. I laughed out loud many times while listening to her read this book aloud, which was such a treat! If you’re a fan of her comedy, you’re going to love this. If you’re not a fan of her comedy, you will hate this lol. I really enjoyed the fact that they ended the book with an afterward by her non-comedian husband, grounding the whole experience with an earnest, heartfelt peek inside their marriage and family from HIS point of view after hearing about him from his comedian wife for five hours. Great celeb memoir! I’ll def read another book by her.

Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter

Non-fiction: Linguistics

This is a fast, insightful argument in favor of considering Black English a full, systematic dialect of American English, and it’s very convincing! If you are interested in how and why language evolves and adapts, and how and why people can sound Black, you’ll enjoy this. I think this is a really accessible and thoughtful look at an oft-dismissed language that could change even the stubbornest of minds.

“Black English is America’s only English dialect that combines being strikingly unlike standard English, centuries old, embraced by an ever wider spectrum of people, and represented in an ever-growing written literature. It is worthy of celebration, study, and certainly acceptance. America will never truly grow up linguistically until this is widely understood. This book has been my brick in the wall.”

John McWhorter

Rising Strong by Brené Brown

Non-fiction: Self-Help

Who needs therapy when you have Brené Brown? I read this slowly to allow myself time to reflect on each chapter. And oh boy there is a LOT to think about in here. Even things that I didn’t think had any immediate relevancy stayed in my mind and became useful days or weeks later. This is the type of book that would be useful to revisit every few years, or to keep on hand to reread certain sections as needed.

“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists—we’re so easy to keep quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.”

Brené Brown

A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Ramey Berry, Kali Nicole Gross

Non-fiction: History

This is the way that history should be taught! I loved how each chapter, which focused on a specific time period, opens with an intimate story of a specific woman that sets the stage for the era and related issues we’re about to explore. Throughout each chapter, more stories of specific women are shared, which really helps bring the history to life. It’s not just a bunch of events and dates, the way that too often history is taught in school, but well-told, compelling stories that illuminate and illustrate these tough issues (of racism, sexism, oppression, slavery, etc.) in a way that just talking abstractly about the issues can not accomplish.

Highly recommend this book for anyone who thought their American history class was a bore and can’t remember shit from high school. Reframing the history of the US through the viewpoint of Black women was enlightening and really interesting.

The Wonder Trail: True Stories from Los Angeles to the End of the World by Steve Hely

Non-fiction: Travelogue

While I enjoyed this light and frothy travelogue, I don’t think it is particularly life changing or one of the top reads in the genre. Technically, it’s a memoir of the author’s 3 month journey from LA south to the tip of South America, but he doesn’t dig too deeply into any emotions or have any insightful epiphanies or realizations so it’s less memoir-ish and more just a straight travelogue. Which is fine! It was just not one that will stay with me, for long. This book was amusing, a fun light escapist read full of fun facts and anecdotes. Definitely a nice way to spend a few hours, but don’t expect it to change your life.

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Non-fiction: Memoir

What a powerful read. I love her writing style, her voice. (Also note: the way she narrates her audio book is perfect.) Her use of metaphor and analogy to convey her points is so smart and creative. I love her ability to create unexpected imagery that relates perfectly to her message, and how she weaves those threads throughout the entire book. Absolutely beautiful story. Some really thought provoking essays that made me stop and go “huh. wow. yeah. she’s right.” or that would make me stop and ask myself questions in a way that I hadn’t thought to before. Great stuff. I’m going to be reading more of her work in the future!

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Non-fiction: Essays

Holy smokes, Samantha Irby is my hero! This was SO EFFING GOOD. Hilarious from start to finish. I literally LOLd several times. Her voice absolutely lifts effortlessly off the page. You swear she’s in the room with you, telling you these ridiculous stories and making you laugh til your sides hurt. I must get my hands on her other work! (Also she wrote one of my favorite episodes on Shrill!)

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Fiction: YA, Contemporary

While the writing is strong, with an authentic voice and realistic dialogue, and the main character is complex and engaging, the plot was too rushed for me. I’m a bit confused on how the big climax actually came to be, and the resolution leaned a bit too heavily into magical realism for me. I also worry that the story normalizes abusive relationships. The world building was solid, with lovely colorful cultural details, and the characters did come to life off the page, but some unclear and sloppy plotting really didn’t land. I much preferred Zoboi’s other YA entry, “Pride“.

The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History by Andy Greene

Non-fiction: Pop Culture History

What a fun, informative read for any fan of The Office or how comedy TV gets made today. At first, I was thrown off by the style of this book, which is 90% direct quotes from people involved. The ‘written’ sections, by the author, provide transitions between all of the interview quotes, which function exactly like in a documentary. By the end of the first chapter, I was into the format and felt like I was watching a behind the scenes documentary. The amount of information in this book is INSANE. I’m a big fan of the Office and this just made me appreciate the craft of the show that much more.

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

Fiction: Contemporary Romance

WHAT A PURE DELIGHT! Absurd premise, that is just believable yet still unique enough to make me go “huh, okay, let’s read this.” And then it takes off with three-dimensional, complex characters; funny dialogue that lifts right off the page; an adorable meet-cute; a modern, realistic approach to the villain; lovely side characters; and B-plots rooted in injustice and strife that pull at the heartstrings and really round out the whole world of the story. Plus, the chemistry between the two leads is super sexy. Romcom lovers will eat this up. I don’t typically go for these sorts of reads anymore, but I’m glad I gave this one a shot; I read the whole thing in three days on vacation. Now, I think I might need some more romance in my reading life to combat the 2020 Blues.

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel

Non-fiction: Psychology, sexuality, relationships

A thought-provoking psychotherapy examination of what triggers infidelity, how relationships can prevent it and what we can learn from those who have gone through it. A lot of couples could probably save themselves a lot of confusion, anger, and tears if they went to couples counseling, but they could also save a bunch of money if they just read this book and work through the thought exercises and have some deep, challenging conversations based on the stories presented. 🙂

“As sex columnist Dan Savage argues, it is reductionist to make sexual exclusivity the sole marker of devotion. He likes to illustrate this with the story of a five-times-married woman who accused him of not being committed because he and his husband of twenty years are nonexclusive.”

Esther Perel

Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me by Janet Mock

Non-fiction: Memoir

Beautifully written. Oddly page-turning given that it’s not like a plot heavy, high stakes thriller but a heartfelt memoir of a trans woman navigating love and work in her 20s. I find the way she writes to be poetic without being too artsy, and her ability to evoke setting and a sense of place is novelesque without ever being overwritten.

I loved all of the details and insights from her time working as a stripper, and how she worked her way into publishing. It was a fun inside look at an industry I briefly wanted to go in (and am so glad I did not lol). The honest way she writes about her romantic relationships made her stories so relatable, even if you haven’t experienced the exact same thing. I really liked this, maybe more than her first memoir!

Alienated by Melissa Landers

Fiction: Contemporary YA Sci Fi

This was…. not good. At first glance, this is the exact kind of book I would love — and that I tried to write, back in the day. But a few chapters in, and I find myself eye rolling way too often, and wishing for MUCH MORE. Overall, I get the impression that this started as a book about a European exchange student, but to make it more exciting the author decided to make it an alien, throw in some military action, and uber-racism. The sci fi is almost an afterthought. There’s little to no world building. The characters are flat and under developed. It just did NOT work for me. The only reason I read the whole thing was to see how it played out — and it was dumb. Don’t bother with this one. (But do please read my lengthy criticism lol)

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Fiction: Contemporary Romance

What a delight! Sexy, fun, funny, romantic. This was the piece of cake I needed. I dont typically read romance but this grabbed me with its unique protagonist (a BIPOC woman with chronic pain), and then it pleasantly surprised me with some seriously sexy R-rated love scenes. Whoa! Was not expecting that, but am not complaining 😉

While some of this was SUUUUUUUUPER cheesy with some dialogue reminiscent of Hallmark movies, overall I felt that this couple and their coupling was presented pretty realistically and the author didn’t draw out the conflicts for too long. So just as you think it’s going to get annoying or eye-rolly, they work things out and get back to making out. Would recommend if you need a distraction from the dumpster fire of 2020.

Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright

Non-fiction: History, Science

I LOVED THIS. Irreverent and often LOL funny, this history chronicles the worst pandemics and epidemics that have plagued humanity, focusing on the people they affected and the people who fought back against them. While she does cover the basic science of each illness, this is a people-centric history as opposed to a detailed scientific exploration. And it’s FASCINATING and disgusting and timely and fun and sad and funny and revolting and inspiring and disheartening all at once.

Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever by Gavin Edwards

Non-fiction: Biography, Pop culture

An absolute delight of a biography. I listened to the audio book and the narrator was particularly adept at his reading, especially at how he subtly differentiated between Fred Rogers’ quotes and everything else.Aside from being a thoroughly researched and well-written biography of a man and his craft, this book provided a detailed and fascinating look into the evolution of TV production. Rogers began making public children’s television in the fifties, and continued to do so through the 90s. Learning how much — and often, how little — actually changed throughout the decades was a fun jaunt through pop culture history. Any film making or TV nerd, like me, will get a kick out of the behind the scenes of this iconic TV show.

Read this if you: grew up on Mister Rogers, want to know how kids TV shows used to be made, want a crash course in child psychology, are a Christian who wants inspiration for ministering without explicitly evangelizing (and thereby alienating many people).

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

Non-fiction: History

Bill Bryson does it again! Can he just write all of the history books? I love his wit and writing style. I FREAKING LOVED THIS BOOK. It was a total blast. I loved the structure, framing history through the various rooms of a house (specifically, the old rectory that Bryson himself lives in), using the familiar home environments to set the stage for the history of hygiene (the bathroom), childhood (the nursery), clothing (the dressing room), sex and death (the bedroom), etc. I loved that each chapter, quite long and covering dozens of subtopics, was divided neatly into parts and then smaller sections so you could read just a few pages and then take a break to digest all of the fun facts and trivia that had just been presented to you. Some will find his approach too loose and disorganized, jumping from topic to topic without ever digging too deep, but this surface level history is perfect for people who just want a broad overview of a lot of different things.

Read this if you: enjoy surface level histories of a wide variety of topics; tend to go on Wikipedia rabbit holes; want to think differently about the rooms in the house you live in.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

Non-fiction: Memoir, Psychology

This is a memoir done right. It focuses on one time period in the author’s life, a very specific journey, in this case a devastating breakup that sends her, a therapist, into therapy. It’s the story of her own recovery and experiences with therapy, coupled with the B-plots of four of her own patients’ stories. (Obviously their names and identifying details have been changed). The stories are revealing and insightful (which do make me question how truthful those might be, but I don’t think it really matters at the end of the day). It grabbed me from page one, and hit hard on many emotional levels, making me laugh and cry and ask myself probing questions.

Read this if you: miss going to therapy; ever wonder how or why someone becomes a therapist; what goes on behind the scenes of therapy; are going through tough times of your own and need an unbiased friend.

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

Non-fiction: Travelogue, Sociology

Not my favorite travelogue and the author’s attempt to emulate Bill Bryson was at times annoying, but I loved the structure of the chapters and his journey, and the author’s willingness to deep dive into activities that make him uncomfortable. Most enjoyable was that he wrote about places that don’t often get included in travelogues including Bhutan, Qatar, Moldova and Iceland.

Read this if you: miss traveling; have never heard of Moldova (like me); don’t mind learning about foreign places through the lens of a grumpy author.

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman (Translated by Katalin Getto)

Non-fiction: Memoir, Religion

Oof. What a read. The writing is gorgeous and engaging, drawing me in from page one. Stunningly engrossing. Feldman is a natural storyteller. The inside look at a very closed off community felt almost illicit and was quite shocking in some ways; the stuff that happens to the author feels so outdated and old fashioned and foreign but was happening in NYC at the same time that I was growing up. It’s a good reminder that there are millions of different lived experiences happening around us in our own country and that we can never truly know what someone has been through.

Read this if you: enjoyed the Netflix series based on this book; study religion; have never heard of the Satmar sect of Judaism; enjoy memoirs that grab you tightly on page one and don’t let go. 

Educated by Tara Westover

Non-fiction: Memoir

I put off reading this book for as long as I could. Initially, the premise sounded interesting but didn’t really leap out at me as a “must read” like everyone was touting it to be. But I finally had to give in and find out what the fuss was all about.


Read this if you: enjoy memoirs; don’t understand the survivalist or ultra religious mindset; need inspiration to push your own mind and worldview; have self-taught yourself anything.

Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi

Fiction: Contemporary

This was fantastic. I’ve enjoyed both of Choi’s works so much that any new book of hers will automatically go on my TBR list. This was a light but not fluffy read that will appeal to fans of shows like Insecure, Younger, or Dear White People; people who like to imagine the internal lives of the rich and famous; and anyone who likes a solid coming-of-age story.

I care about everything equally until I care about so many things I get overwhelmed and care about nothing at all.

Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard

Non-Fiction: Business, Environmentalism

I knew next to nothing about Patagonia the company before listening to this audio book but now it’s a company I want to buy from. Learning about Patagonia’s mission and philosophy, and the philanthropic approach to business that Yvon Chouinard employs was not only a masterclass in business done right but also an eye opening peek into the world of corporate activism. Any student of business or environmental activist would learn a LOT by reading this book. I am so impressed by Patagonia and want to learn more about all of their endeavors including Patagonia Provisions, their documentary/book/media work, and charitable giving. Fun fact: since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment and created the One Percent for the Planet alliance!

My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress by Rachel DeLoache Williams

Non-Fiction: Memoir, True Crime

I had remembered reading about Anna Delvey when this all broke in 2017/2018, but the details were foggy. I remembered that she was a wannabe socialite fraud, but just how far her deceit went, I had no idea. So the idea of a book written by one of the people Delvey intimately ripped off really appealed to me. Here was the inside scoop. And boy, what a tale. If you’ve read about Anna Delvey case, you’ll enjoy this first person account of the whole ordeal from the point of view of one of Anna’s best friends whom she owed more than $70,000 when it was all said and done. If you’ve never heard of her, but true enjoy stories of con men, like Catch Me If You Can, then you’ll dig this. It is absolutely a jaw-dropping, head-shaking story of betrayal, audacity, and a baffling level of entitlement.

How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

Non-Fiction: Memoir, LGBT, Anti-Racist

I think the title and both cover designs that I’ve seen are misleading. They gave me the impression that this would be a really heavy read, big on capital-I Issues, full of essays on racism and discrimination, more along the lines of When They Call You Terrorist. But it’s really a beautiful coming of age memoir of a young gay Black man in the South and a deep exploration of the relationship he has with his mother. Similar to how Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime functioned as a love letter to his mother, Saeed Jones uses his memoir to celebrate the woman who raised him.

A poet by trade, Jones’ writing is lyrical and intimate, painting a detailed portrait of himself as he figures out who he is, and perhaps more importantly how to use his body. The body as a weapon and as an extension of oneself is a dominant theme, playing into the title of “fight[ing] for our lives” but I still maintain that the title (and especially the cover designs) do not do justice to this touching story.

Note that there are many heavy R-rated sex scenes so if explicit descriptions of sexual acts make you uncomfortable, perhaps skip this one.

The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager

Fiction: Mystery Thriller

This was not as good as I wanted it to be. The author did a great job of creating a creeping sense of dread, and making us doubt everyone including the narrator, but it felt dragged out. For the first 50-70%, the narrator kept saying things about her own culpability, and what she did in the past, how awful she is, how she is so guilty, but for most of the book it just felt like she was ragging on herself for no real reason? Like, everything that happened could be explained logically as NOT HER FAULT or not that terrible? I dont know how to explain it properly, but it definitely fell into that annoying habit of the book TELLING YOU just how bad things are and not showing it to you….. Like if you’re watching a movie that has super creepy scary music (which is a hint to the audience that something creepy or scary is about to happen) and nothing creepy or scary happens until the last 10 minutes of the movie (I’m looking at you Blair Witch). The whodunnit reveal was……..less climactic than I had hoped. Not quite as satisfying as you’d want from a story like this. And there was a nice twist at the end but I dont know that it was enough to make up for the rather lackluster mystery of the whole book.

The June Boys by Courtney C. Stevens

Fiction: YA Mystery

This one gave me a lot of mixed emotions as I was reading, but ended up being a solid 3.5 stars for me at the end. The last quarter was especially exciting and kept me up way past my bedtime to figure out what happened, by whom, and why. I did not connect with these characters as much as I have with the author’s previous works and characters within. I was definitely more invested more in the plot and what happened to the June boys, but not necessarily the boys themselves or the narrator. 

Overall, unique premise. The vibe of the story reminded me of a YA Sharp Objects. Small southern town where terrible things happen to its young people, quirky group of suspicious characters, outsider law enforcement coming in to help solve the crime, families full of secrets. Great for fans of Criminal Minds, Mind Hunter, and Sharp Objects.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Non-Fiction: History

Another diverting romp through history with Bill Bryson. This time, he applies his signature wit, attention to detail, and serpentine storytelling to the summer of 1927, taking us on a whirlwind tour of America in a wild, carefree time before the Great Depression. Charles Lindbergh, Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford, and Babe Ruth are prominent figures in the book, main characters if you will, whose stories form a scaffold upon which the rest builds into a compelling, fascinating snapshot in time. Prohibition, anarchists, a school bombing, Al Capone, flooding in the Mississippi, a murder scandal that rocked the nation, the birth of talkies, the decision that catapulted our nation into a recession that became a depression, the Florida real estate boom, and Show Boat revolutionizing Broadway. 1927 was a BIG year, full of transitions and transformations that would have impacts lasting well into our time today.

Prohibition laws were nearly impossible to enforce in any case because they were so riddled with loopholes. Doctors could legally prescribe whiskey for their patients, and they did so with such enthusiasm that by the late 1920s they were earning $40 million a year from the practice.

Bryson, discussing Prohibition laws

Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

Fiction: Contemporary, Romance

This was suuuuper cute and highly unrealistic. Total fluff. Sweet and fun, funny and romantic, sexy but never graphic. The dialogue was a lot of fun to read, and while I really loved the two main characters, most of the supporting cast were very broad or cartoony in their ridiculousness. The pacing in the beginning was a tad slow, but the narration was so engaging and fun that it wasn’t a drag. Once the actual Plot began though, things definitely got more interesting. The premise, though, is absurd and so high concept and sitcommy that there’s no way anything like this would remotely happen in real life, but hey that’s okay, because it was still super cute and fun.

For the Love of Men: From Toxic to a More Mindful Masculinity by Liz Plank

Non-Fiction: Psychology, Sociology, Feminism

This should be required reading for men, for women, for parents and parents to be, for therapists, for educators, and for the people who don’t understand feminism’s fight for gender equality and how part of that fight must be to end toxic masculinity.

The factory we put boys through in order to turn them into men is global, and the urgency of exposing and disrupting it could very well be the paramount test of our time.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Non-Fiction: Biology, History

Who knew dead people could be so interesting? I love Mary Roach’s approach to investigating a topic: from every possible angle, with humor and compassion and a total willingness to put herself in uncomfortable situations asking the weird questions the rest of us only google at night when no one else is looking. While I found everything in the book interesting (if morbid and kinda gross at times) — from funereal traditions, medical cannabilism, and the study of body decay, to the fascinating, disgusting and environmentally friendly pratice of human composting — the parts I found most surprising and enlightening were all of the ways that human bodies are USED after death. Going beyond organ donation, corpses are used as crash test dummies, help medical students with practice surgery, and act as bomb and bullet victims to test the impact and effects of weapons. Definitely a great read for those who are fans of Bill Bryson or unique science nonfiction topics.

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby

Non-Fiction: Essays

I did not love this collection of essays nearly as much as her other book (Wow, No Thank You). Her self-deprecating humor and insistence on her own inherent grossness wears thin after a while. I had to take a break mid-way through this, and could only really read one essay at a time because I found her “I’m dumb and gross and a trash person who hates people why would anyone ever love me let alone have sex with me” theme to be grating.

This might work better as an introduction to Irby’s comedic and writing styles — which will *not* appeal to everyone — and it’s definitely funny, but it felt like she was trying much harder in this one. (Which could just be a symptom of having been an earlier work than the 2020 collection Wow, No Thank You). The last half of the collection was better than the first, and the essays that shine the most are less haha-funny, where she lets down her humor guard to reveal some vulnerabilities and uncomfortable truths of her upbringing.

What have you not found but would like to have in a relationship? Someone who will leave me the hell alone for extended periods of time without getting all weird about it. I have a lot of audiobooks to listen to on the toilet.

Samantha Irby, answering important relationship questions

Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson

Fiction: Sci fi

A super fun, surprisingly heartwarming exploration of what it means to be human. I expected this to be a purely light hearted sci fi romp but it was insightful, thought-provoking, and emotional! I recently learned that Edgar Wright is making a movie of this and there is no other director better suited to bring this story to the big screen. I can’t wait to see if they are able to do it justice.

That’s all folks! 2020’s a wrap!


mphtheatregirl October 2, 2020 - 7:52 am

I always loved fantasy novels. My other top favorite genre is classics.

I was recommended A Darker Shade of Magic by a local bookstore. Loved that book from the first paragraph. Automatically, I knew I wanted to own the rest of the series.

Other books I read this year- Illiad (was started 2019 and finished 2020), Spinning Silver, Wind in the Willows, Odyssey, Anna Karenina, Bleak House, and The Golden Compass. Right now, in the middle of Secret Garden. The only one I really wasn’t the biggest fan of is Anna Karenina.

October 2020: More Crash Course, SBTB, #SciWri20 – Gretchen McCulloch December 22, 2020 - 9:42 pm

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