Better Late Than Never: My Best Books of 2020

Even though 2020 might not have been the best year of our lives, there was no dearth of enthralling titles to keep us occupied over the year. Following is a selection of titles I especially enjoyed but check here for the complete printable list with annotations.

During the first few chapters of Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, I thought I was reading a suspenseful story of an AirBnB stay gone wrong but that wasn’t the case. The unsettling story of two couples grappling with unknown events became much more than that. Some readers have loved it and some have hated it not seeing the point (and I admit it wasn’t particularly clear) but these are the kinds of books that make for a great discussion.

My favorite novel of the year is the fascinating The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict. Based on the real life event of Agatha Christie’s 11-day disappearance in 1926, the story is told from the viewpoints of Agatha and her husband who narrate the story of how and why she managed to pull it off along with a few twists along the way.

For more insight into Agatha’s story (along with other exposés of other real-life authors’ scandalous lives), get a copy of Writers Between the Covers by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Reardon.

Crime Fiction

If you’re looking for something to keep you on the edge of your couch, any of the following will take care of your needs.

The Guest List was a compelling gothic-tinged mystery set on a remote Irish island featuring the wedding of two celebrities and an array of suspicious guests. And then the storm rolled in…

If you’re looking for a simple procedural murder mystery, try Matt Goldman’s Nils “Shap” Shapiro series. Most are set in Minnesota although in Dead West, Nils travels to Los Angeles to solve a mystery. Readers who miss Sue Grafton may wish to give this series a try, and if so, start with Gone to Dust.

Even though the ending left me a little puzzled, I loved Alice Feeney’s mind-bending, Sometimes I Lie, and her follow-up, I Know Who You Are, also kept me in suspense. Her third book, His and Hers, is told from three viewpoints with twists galore and the suspense didn’t let up until the very last page.

In Julie Clark’s The Last Flight, two strangers meet in an airport and decide to switch identities, each taking a different flight. But one of the planes crashes killing all aboard, which sets a path of mayhem for the survivor. One might be tempted to take this on a long plane trip but trust me, this is best read while on the ground, preferably in your back yard.

Nonfiction

It was a good year for narrative nonfiction, especially memoirs. Here are a few of my favorites.

I love books about adventure and Roman Dial’s The Adventurer’s Son was both gripping and moving. The first half of the book focused on Roman Dial’s epic experiences and the second half chronicled his family’s exhaustive search of their son who disappeared in Costa Rica. This is perfect for those who liked Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

During the height of the lockdown last spring, I read Peggy Rowe’s About Your Father and it was the perfect uplifting book for the time. Peggy Rowe, Mike Rowe’s (of Dirty Jobs fame) 82-year-old mother, channeled her inner Erma Bombeck and wrote a wonderful homage to married and family life complete with heartfelt observations about growing older.

Anne Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting was one of my favorite memoirs of the year. Although born around royalty (Princess Margaret was a good friend), Glenconner’s life wasn’t all silver spoon-ish. Her married and family life had many tragedies but despite it all she kept her sense of humor. The most interesting part of the memoir was the story of how she and her husband developed the island of Mustique, which became a celebrity destination.

I adore a good tell-all about any business and even though I can’t remember the last time I was in a bar, the story of building a trendy speakeasy from scratch was fascinating. In Unvarnished, Eric Alperin writes in minute detail how he developed bar Varnish from the ground up and includes a huge amount of cocktail recipes. Try this is you liked Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr examines life behind the fish counter at Whole Foods market, how a new food product makes it to the grocery store shelf, the origination and development of Trader Joe’s, the slave labor of harvesting shrimp in Asia, plus more. This was a wee bit dry in places but you’ll never look at grocery shopping in quite the same way. If you want to learn even more about how grocery stores operate, try Michael Ruhlman’s Grocery.

Do you ever drop off donations to the local Goodwill store thinking they will all appear on that store’s shelves in a few days? Probably not going to happen. They could be on their way to Mexican secondhand stores or even overseas. Adam Minter’s Secondhand also gets a little too detailed at times but the journey of where our used goods go is very informative. [When we were in Arizona, we would see almost daily a rickety truck piled high with used mattresses heading south to be sold in Mexico, and turns out that is one of the top imports from the US to Mexico.]

Terry Virts isn’t exactly a household name but he sure knows his space travel! I was fascinated by all of the nitty gritty details about training, traveling, and living in space he packed into How To Astronaut. This is the perfect for curious minds that want to know the “no-holds-barred” scoop about “going” in space.

This is going to be a fabulous year for books from Oregon authors and I’ll be highlighting a batch in my next post.

5 thoughts on “Better Late Than Never: My Best Books of 2020

  1. Secret Life of Groceries made my favorites list too, thanks to you for that wonderful recommendation! Good to hear you liked the other Grocery book too, I’d noticed mixed reviews of that one but I’m so interested in that topic, weirdly.

    Secondhand sounds really interesting too, I remember you mentioning that one. Not sure I’d love it if it gets so granular but I am curious. I might try to find a copy of that one to page through, at least. I’ve heard so many good things about The Adventurer’s Son too, it sounds worthwhile too! Thanks as always for your insightful suggestions 🙂 I’m always impressed by what unusual nonfiction you find, titles I rarely see mentioned elsewhere when they really deserve to be!

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    • GROCERY also had its flaws (see my review) but parts were very informative. I think one thing that worries me when I read these kinds of books is just how fragile our food chain is for getting food to the stores. After our lockdown last spring, it was a little scary to find empty shelves at the market, and I still can’t figure out why the BBQ sauce shelves were almost empty.

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      • I completely agree. It’s one of those processes we totally take for granted but it didn’t take much to upend it completely, as we saw. I was shocked too at how much was wiped out certain places, there was just NOTHING left at times! I had gotten so lucky that I’d moved back only a couple months before and so had to stock my entire kitchen from scratch – I already had all the staples like pasta, lentils, rice canned stuff, it was just a challenge to get fresh vegetables, really. And of course paper products, hope those hoarders are enjoying their mountains of toilet paper and paper towels now 🙄

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  2. Hi Robin, One of your non-fciton picks, The Secret Life of Groceries: The DarkMiracle of the American Supermarket Hardcover by Benjamin Lorrre reminded me how much I enjoyed Grocery: The Buying and Selling ofFood in America by Michael Ruhlman. I never reviewed it but it was a favorite. I have added your pick to my list of good things to read.

    Good to hear from you, better late than never. Hope life is treating you well. All is well here.

    Carol Kubala Retired – Not for Hire  

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  3. A good companion to “the Adventure’s Son” is “The Cold Vanish “ by Jon Billman. It emphasizes the near impossibility of finding someone lost in the forest.

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