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My 10 Favorite Books of 2020 (through June)

Cindy Burnett
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Cindy Burnett shares her top 10 books of 2020 as of the end of June. 

The first half of the year is over, and 2020 continues to astound and dismay us all. Reading provides an escape for me from the real world, which we all really need right now. The silver lining is that I have had more time to focus on book-related things including expanding our literary salon with new events, creating a Summer Reading Recommends List and launching a podcast where I interview a variety of authors. I find that focusing on something other than the pandemic lowers my stress level significantly.

In another effort to try new ideas, this year I am assessing my favorites for 2020 as the year progresses. In May, I compiled a list of my favorites published in 2020 after the first third of the year. This week, I am updating this list through the end of June to list my top 10 favorites for the first half of 2020. Some books remained on the list while others were replaced with ones that came out in May and June.  

2020 has been a banner year for books already, and as always, I had trouble narrowing the list to just 10 titles. Here are my top 10 reads for the first half of 2020:

  1. Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano - Dear Edward is one of the most beautifully written and poignant tales that I have read in a long time. This book tells the story of Edward, a 12-year-old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash, and his attempt to carry on in the aftermath of this horrific event. The story alternates between the lives of the passengers on the doomed plane and Edward’s life following the crash. While the subject matter is obviously sad, the book itself is ultimately uplifting, life-affirming, and just plain fantastic.  I cannot say enough good things about this wonderful and unique tale. 
  2. Followers by Megan Angelo - Followers is a thought-provoking, sometimes frightening, look at today's society, specifically the use of social media and smart devices and the complete loss of privacy that results. Toggling between 2016 and 2051, Angelo follows her three main characters as they navigate a world dominated by the worst effects of social media. The book is a complete page turner, and her insights and perceptiveness regarding cell phone and social media usage are intriguing and more than a little scary. 
  3. The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner – The Jane Austen Society is set in Chawton, England following the Second World War – the town where Jane Austen spent her last years. When Austen’s legacy is threatened, an eclectic group of townspeople band together to save her home and her heritage. Struggling with personal tragedies and loss, these individuals unite around their love of Jane Austen and her stories and find themselves aiding each other as much as they help save Austen’s legacy. The Jane Austen Society is a tribute to Austen and is chock full of fascinating tidbits about the author and her tales, but it also highlights the importance of community and relationships demonstrating that both can be found in the most unlikely places. 
  4. The Last Flight by Julie Clark: The Last Flight is a high-octane thriller that begins with a bang and never slows down. Two women eager to flee their own lives agree to swap tickets for their flights at the last minute: Claire gives Eva her ticket to Puerto Rico and takes Eva’s ticket to Oakland. When the flight to Puerto Rico crashes into the ocean, Claire realizes she must assume Eva’s identity to survive, but quickly learns that Eva was not who she claimed to be. Toggling back and forth between the two women, the story rapidly unfolds revealing jaw-dropping twists and turns that you will not see coming. The Last Flight is indisputably the best thriller that I have read in ages – Clark skillfully blends great characters, beautiful writing and a superb mystery, and I loved racing through it.
  5. Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park by Conor Knighton – In this gem, Knighton recounts the year he spent traveling to every national park in the U. S. The parks are grouped by theme instead of location, and the book is interspersed with humor and character. Knighton highlights the importance of our national parks, how various parks received their designations, and how climate change and over-visiting is impacting these beautiful sites. Leave Only Footprints will definitely make my top 10 books of the year.
  6. The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai - Beautifully and lyrically written, Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s English debut follows multiple generations of the Tran family against the backdrop of Vietnam’s heartrending 20th century history. From the rise of the Communist government in North Vietnam to the years of conflict during the war itself, The Mountains Sing highlights the impact and cost of the rise of Communism and the subsequent Vietnam War on the Vietnamese people from their perspective. While I have finished the Tran’s story (and needed lots of tissues), their experiences will stay with me for a very long time. Listen to my interview with her here.
  7. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (as Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb – Bess and her grandmother Bobby shared a special bond, and when Bobby died at age 90, Bess was devastated. To honor Bobby, she decided to write a memoir from Bobby’s perspective utilizing the many voicemails, emails and texts Bess had kept. Channeling Bobby, Bess conveys the advice she received (sometimes hilarious, sometimes critical but always heartfelt) and tales from Bobby’s childhood. I laughed, I cried, and I did not want it to end.
  8. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James - The Sun Down Motel is a creepy, rundown motel serving as a pit stop for travelers on their way through Fell, New York. But as Viv and Carly, two women 35 years apart, learn there is someone or something else living at the Sun Down, and they both are determined to find out who or what is haunting the motel. St. James’ pacing is perfect, and the book is awesomely creepy but not overly scary. Once you pick this book up, you will not put it down until you have turned that last page.
  9. Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America by David Kamp: In this non-fiction retrospective, Kamp chronicles the fabulous forces that brought Sesame Street, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, The Electric Company, and Schoolhouse Rock! to the television screen in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These shows transformed children’s television and set a much higher standard for children’s programming; they each have a permanent place in today’s popular culture. A current cultural icon, Questlove, provides the introduction and reminisces about what Sesame Street meant to him growing up. Sunny Days highlights the incredible individuals behind these shows and the impact they had on generations of young children of all colors and cultures who happily recognized themselves in the characters they saw on television.
  10. We Came Here to Shine by Susie Orman Schnall: Against the backdrop of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, two women forge a friendship and summon up the courage to pursue their dreams and overcome adversity. Vivi Holden wants to be a famous actress and first must perform well as the headliner for the Aquacade, the synchronized swimming extravaganza at the World’s Fair. Max aspires to be a journalist and must prove her worth covering the fair for its pop-up publication. Historical fiction steeped in the spectacle and hoopla of the New York World’s Fair, We Came Here to Shine is a story about courage, friendship and having the strength and determination to achieve one’s goals. Once I started this one, I could not put it down, and I reveled in Schnall’s vivid recreations of the fair. I recently interviewed her about her research and writing process, and you can listen here.

I hope you enjoyed reviewing my list, and I would love to hear what your favorites for the year are so far. Feel free to drop them in the comments or email me at [email protected].

Conversations from a Page is hosting a Curated Book Discussion over Zoom for Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson on Wednesday, Aug. 26 at 11 a.m. CST. (cost-$5 or $30 for an annual pass). For more book recommendations and bookish thoughts, see @ThoughtsFromaPage on Instagram, the Continuing the Conversation newsletter, or Cindy’s Reading Recs.

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