I can’t tell a lie. 2020 a very good year for reading. I read 90 books–thanks almost entirely to the public library which steadfastly and efficiently delivered ebooks to my Kindle and audiobooks via Overdrive. Listed below are my favorites of last year.
Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison. If you’re in the mood for a gender-bending, gun-slinging, nonstop tale of Wild West violence and corporate greed in the 1880s, this is the one. When Jessilyn Harney’s father dies, this teenage girl cuts her hair, binds her breasts, saddles her mare, and heads west in search of her brother, Noah, a notorious outlaw. She changes her name to Jesse with the goal to survive and locate the prodigal Noah before someone kills him. But the story becomes so much more than that. It’s the classic quest, the Hero’s Journey writ large, and a beautiful tale of coming of age and identity set against the harsh backdrop of the American West.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In this debut fiction from a predominately nonfiction writer, protagonist Hiram Walker is a slave on his father’s plantation tasked with taking care of his none-too-bright and boorish half brother. When he and the brother are thrown into a river as the result of a carriage accident, the brother drowns and Hiram learns that he has the power of “conduction”, a gift that the legendary Harriet Tubman was said to possess. The Water Dancer in the novel is Hiram’s mother, who was sold away from the plantation when Hiram was nine. Magical realism, soaring prose, collective cultural memory, and the quest for freedom combine to make this an extraordinary and memorable read.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd. Raised in a wealthy family in Galilee, teenage Ana is unusual. Unlike her peers, she is highly educated for a girl of the times. She is expected to marry an elderly widower to further her father’s ambitions, but a chance encounter with the eighteen-year-old Jesus of Nazareth changes everything. She marries Jesus and goes to live with his poor family. This is a riveting, well-researched, and credible historical novel about the times that changed Western Civilization forever. A surprising and thought-provoking read.
Long Bright River by Liz Moore. An excellent mystery and an amazing story about Philadelphia then and now. The “long bright river” is the stream of drugs that flows through the city as Mickey, a police officer, searches for her sister Kacey, who is a drug addict and lives on the streets. It’s a story of the disease of addiction within a family and within our society.
Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling. The fifth in the Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacott series was exactly what I needed as the days grew short. It’s a flawed book in that it is long and rambling, a year in the life of this literary pair, their detective agency, and a conglomeration of personal problems. And yet, I loved it in its entirety. Full of details and puzzles, triumphs and tragedies. If you want to be anywhere but here, this is the book for you!
Next to Last Stand by Craig Johnson. I am a huge fan of the Walt Longmire series–the books, a bit less the television series. Good westerns (see Whiskey When We’re Dry, above) are not that easy to come by. After several over-the-top adventures, Johnson has his feet on the ground and his brain where it should be in this intriguing search for a long-lost iconic western painting. There are murders, old soldiers, great discussions on western art, violent encounters, and the incomparable Vic Moretti, should one get bored. One won’t, I assure you!
The Searcher by Tana French. And yet another western…. Tana French wrote this novel in the style of the American western, where a stranger rides into town. Only in this departure from her Dublin Murder Squad series, the stranger is a retired cop from Chicago looking for a place far from city life, and “town” is a small village in hilly rural Ireland. All is peaceful for about a week, and then a kid starts hanging around. The kid wants Cal to find his brother who went missing six months ago. And suddenly, this little Irish village is a different place. It could be downright dangerous. Brilliant plotting, writing, and insights.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. Not since The Round House has Louise Erdrich dazzled readers with such a gritty and evocative book about reservation life, a looming tribal tragedy, and a family tragedy. Thomas Wazhashk is the night watchman at a jewel bearing plant located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. It is 1953, and the U.S. Congress is fed up with Indians. Its new bill seeks a “termination” that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. Thomas, a Tribal Council Member, wants to stop the bill. In a nearby household, Pixie (“call me Patrice”), who also works at the plant, mourns for her sister Vera, who ran off to the city with her boyfriend and has disappeared into God knows what. Fearing the worst, Patrice summons her courage to search for Vera. An incredible story about invisible people doing extraordinary things. Beautifully told, it’s Erdrich at her absolute best.
I’ve blabbed enough, but more book recommendations will be coming to you next week.