Usually, I publish a round-up of the year’s best books and select a number of books correlating to the year. But as you know, 2020 has provided the “gift” of SO much time inside, and it was hard for me to choose just 20 books to recommend this year, so instead, I’m recommending 30 books I read and loved this year.
Whether you’re shopping for a Christmas gift for someone else or looking for your next literary escape, this list is sure to have a book that will pique your interest.
Perhaps you need to know that others have it worse than you? There are a plethora of psychological thrillers on this list you’ll love. Or maybe you want to be reassured that happily ever after still exists? I spent several months this year in that camp and recommend several of my favorites. Wish you could go back in time? I love historical fiction and this year was a great year for the genre. Is the pandemic a trainwreck you just can’t look away from? There’s even a 1918 pandemic-era book that’s the best medicine for this year. And of course, if you want to cuddle up with a good book during the holidays, I recommend a couple of Christmassy books that pair perfectly with hot cocoa.
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Many of these books were received as free advanced reader copies from the authors and publishers through NetGalley. All opinions are my own, and I only recommend books I love!
Psychological Thrillers + Mysteries
Darling Rose Gold
Darling Rose Gold is all kinds of dark and twisty– a stark contrast to the shiny title. Rose Gold spent her childhood in and out of doctors’ offices, mostly confined to a wheelchair with a shaved head due to hair that kept falling out. But despite the number of doctors visited… not a single one could find the cause for Rose Gold’s mystery illness. It turns out, instead of looking for what was making her sick, they should have been asking who was making her sick.
This thriller delves into Munchausen syndrome by proxy, betrayal, and revenge. I finished the book in less than 24 heart-pounding hours. Stephanie Wrobel expertly executes plot twist after plot twist, leaving you slightly paranoid and 100% satisfied as you close the book.
Read this if you want to feel better about your own mother/daughter relationship or if you are in the mood for a seriously twisted story of revenge.
The Girl from Widow Hills
Who needs sleep? Not me! From the moment I opened this book, I don’t think I put it down once. The story of a sleepwalking child, Arden Maynor, lost in the drains on a stormy night, once captivated the nation. The world watched Widow Hills as she was rescued, catapulting Arden and her mother to fame.
Her mother used the tragedy as a money-maker, while Arden just wanted a normal life. Now an adult going by the name Olivia, she thinks the past is behind her. It’s been years since the last sleepwalking incident and she’s just received a box of her mother’s last effects.
However, as the 20th anniversary of the incident nears, strange things begin to happen. The sleepwalking begins again, and this time, Olivia wakes outside next to a dead man. And when his identity is revealed, her well-hidden past is certain to catch up with her.
The Half Sister
Kate, Lauren, and their mother meet for lunch every Sunday– but it’s just not the same without their father, who recently passed away. On this particular Sunday, though, everything changes with the ring of a doorbell.
There’s a woman on the porch who claims to be their father’s daughter. Could it be true?
The devastating news causes the girls to rethink everything they knew about their father, cast suspicion on the “picture perfect” life their mother claims, and dig into their memories for clues. Along the way, family secrets are revealed and you’ll never guess the truth– you’ll just have to read until the very last page!
The Lies that Bind
You probably know Emily Giffin as the New York Times bestselling author of Something Borrowed. She’s got another hit on her hands. I loved this book so much I woke up at 3 am, planning to read “just one more chapter” and finished the whole book.
It’s 2001 and Cecily Gardner is trying her best to not think about her ex… but the incessant checking of her phone is making that nearly impossible. So she leaves the phone at home and heads to the bar. She’s about to break, though, and her finger is hovering over the last digit of his number on the bar’s landline when a mysterious voice behind her says “Don’t do it—you’ll regret it..” She spends the evening taking shots with mystery man – Grant Smith- and in a very un-Cecily-like fashion, invites him home. She’s surprised when Grant is the perfect gentleman… not even the attempt of a kiss.
Over the coming weeks, Cecily and Grant fall head over heels in love, vowing to stay together despite the distance that’s about to keep them apart when Grant heads overseas to take care of some family business.
He returns to the US on September 10, leaves Cecily’s apartment the morning of the 11th… and after the Twin Towers are hit, Cecily is unable to get in touch. When she sees Grant’s face staring back at her from a missing person’s flyer, the reporter in Cecily takes over. She needs to know who’s looking for him and the answers she finds will cause her to question just how well she knew the man she loved.
Holy moly! I finished this book in less than 24 hours— I couldn’t sleep until I found out the truth about what happened to power couple Marin and Derek’s son Sebastian after he was abducted just a few days before Christmas. Jennifer Hillier does a great job delving into tough subjects and not shying away from the big, real, raw emotions of the characters she created.
In the aftermath of the abduction, the trail goes cold and it seems we may never find out what happened to Sebastian. Marin and Derek each grieve in their own ways… Derek finds solace in the arms of a younger woman named Kenzie while Marin focuses on a problem she can solve… and that problem is named Kenzie.
The Leaving Party
I sat down to read this book before dinner… and didn’t put it down until I fell asleep that night. I mean… who needs to eat when there’s a crazy psychopath taunting Ava about a tragic event from her past?!
For years, Ava’s received a black rose on the anniversary of the event she’s tried so hard to forget. But now that she’s leaving the UK for good to be with her handsome boyfriend, Ben, in the US, the taunts have increased. On the day of Ava’s leaving party– so perfectly planned by her best friend Lena– black roses and a black cake are delivered and now Ava’s passport is missing. Whoever has been torturing her for the past 13 years wants to make this leaving party a night to remember.
Ava’s friends and co-workers are all at her house to wish her well… or are they? Is one of her friends responsible for the black roses? What exactly is their end game? You’ll have to read the book to find out!
The Night Swim
As a fan of true crime podcasts, I couldn’t wait to read Megan Goldin’s latest book. In it, Rachel Krall, one of the nation’s top true-crime podcast hosts, finds herself in a small coastal town to cover the rape trial of a local girl against one of the town’s shining stars and Olympic hopeful. Before the case even begins, though, Rachel starts receiving disturbing messages about another case from the town’s past. Twenty-five years ago, a girl named Jenny drowned, but her sister is convinced there’s more to the story. As this book follows the injustice committed against two young girls, you’ll experience a myriad of emotions over the atrocities that changed the town forever. This book is incredibly well-written, haunting, heartbreaking, and a really heavy read. Read it… but queue up a light-hearted beach read next!
The Perfect Mother
Roz is a young Irish woman, pregnant by a man she never should have slept with in the first place. She has to get out of Ireland and away from her best friend, who would be absolutely crushed if she ever learns the truth about the baby’s paternity.
Roz signs up for an elite adoption service and is delighted when an A-list celebrity couple shows interest in her baby. She boards a flight to New York City, only to find that the couple left out a few *minor* details when they invited Roz to stay for the duration of her pregnancy. Once she’s stripped of her cell phone and locked in a basement suite, Roz begins to wonder whether she’ll ever see the outside world again. The couple wants the baby more than anything… but what happens once the baby’s born?
Someone’s leaving ominous notes about the couple for Roz to find and she’s sure her life is in danger… but will she escape before it’s too late? The clock is ticking and labor could start at any moment!
What would you do if a knock on the door revealed the toddler you’ve been raising isn’t actually your own child?
DNA evidence has revealed that Miles and his wife, Lucy, have been raising Pete and Maddie’s son, while Maddie and Pete raised theirs. At first, it seems like the children have hit the jackpot as the two couples discuss a kind and compassionate way to be involved in both children’s lives.
However, Miles becomes aggressive and cold when Pete and Maddie don’t bend to his every whim and things begin to disintegrate quickly. Soon, it looks like Pete and Maddie may be left childless as Miles manipulates the law and the courts to take everything Pete once loved.
How far would you go for the love of your children?
The Red Lotus
I’ve been waiting for this book since 2018. Here’s the proof:
Thankfully, my visit to Vietnam in 2018 was not quite as eventful as Alexis and Austin’s trip.
When Austin arrives in the ER after a gunshot wound, Alexis treats his wound and the two quickly find themselves falling for each other. Six months later, the new couple visits Vietnam for a cycling trip through the gorgeous countryside, and Austin is looking forward to visiting sites where his father and uncle served during the Vietnam War.
It should have been a relaxing holiday. Instead, Alexis finds herself searching for Austin, who’s seemingly disappeared into thin air on the day he insisted on paying his respects alone. Soon, the FBI is involved and Alexis begins unraveling a series of lies Austin left behind. Who took Austin? Why? And should Alexis be worried that the same people might be after her next?
Who Did You Tell?
Lesley Kara first made an appearance on my website in 2019 with her novel, The Rumor. I loved it so much and was so excited to learn about her latest book, Who Did You Tell?
Astrid is a recovering alcoholic, living with her mother in a sleepy seaside town. While she was drinking, she did things she’s not proud of, but she’s trying to put it all behind her now. Unfortunately… her past doesn’t seem to be done with her yet.
Astrid is tortured by her ex’s cologne showing up in the most unusual places and causing her to wonder whether sobriety is playing tricks on her. But when threatening letters begin showing up at her mother’s place, she knows she’s really in trouble.
This book is full of twists and turns. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, flip the page for surprise after surprise until the very end.
Woman on the Edge
Samantha M. Bailey
Holy moly! Talk about a thriller! I finished this book in less than 24 hours…and it only took me that long because I had to sleep and work, too.
Morgan is on her way to work when a bedraggled young mother asks her to hold her baby… and jumps in front of an oncoming train. She’s never met this woman before, and yet Morgan is certain the mother addressed her by name.
When the police discover just how badly Morgan wanted a baby and no commuters or camera footage is able to corroborate her version of events, Morgan begins to look like a suspect in Nicole Markham’s death. But in this book, things aren’t always what they seem.
Before the baby, Nicole was a high-powered CEO worth millions. Was she murdered? Or did something else push her over the edge? Finding the answer to that question is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat!
Love, Magic, and Happily Ever After
500 Miles from You
Jenny Colgan’s books always make me smile and this title’s nod to one of my favorite happy songs by The Proclaimers made me eager to read this one.
After Lissa, a nurse in London, witnesses a horrific accident involving someone she knows, she begins displaying classic PTSD signs. Cormack is an ex-Army medic from a quiet town in the Scottish Highlands who visited London once many years before.
When Lissa’s supervisor suggests the two swap places for three months, it seems like it might do them both some good. They agree and the HR department requires daily emails to keep each other up-to-date on patients. Emails quickly become texts… and each wonders if they’re alone in their developing crushes. Separated by 500 miles, will they ever meet?
The Little Teashop in Tokyo
Just over a year ago, I traveled around Japan on a series of press trips– invited by tourism boards across the country to showcase their regions on this blog. The Little Teashop in Tokyo was a bittersweet read as I have no idea when I’ll get to travel internationally again. This book follows travel blogger Fiona on her all-expenses-paid trip to Japan. As she visits the famous sites, she is charged with creating a photography series to show at a gallery when she returns home. To aid her in this task is a world-famous photographer named Gabe.
Unfortunately, this isn’t Fiona’s first time meeting Gabe. Also unfortunately, he acts completely disinterested in helping his charge and doesn’t seem to remember Fiona at all… even though he broke her heart while she was in college. Will Fiona get the inspiration and instruction she desperately needs? Will Gabe remember Fiona? You’ll just have to read the book to find out!
Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop
As I’ve traveled around the world, I’ve heard whisperings of women who can see the future in the remnants of tea leaves and coffee beans. In Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop, we follow the story of a young woman who wants nothing more than to be rid of the “gift” that’s ended most of her relationships as she blurts his deepest, darkest secrets or foretells the death or illness of a loved one.
When her parents arrange a visit to a matchmaker, she learns she has no “red string,” indicating a partner. Shortly after, Vanessa follows her aunt, who shares her gift, to Paris. If she can’t get rid of her gift, she needs to learn to manage it. During her time abroad, she’ll learn that perhaps the future isn’t as set in stone as it may have originally appeared.
The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany
Lori Nelson Spielman
I absolutely loved Lori Nelson Spielman’s The Life List and The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany might be even better!
A family curse generations earlier doomed all second-born daughters in the Fontana family to life without lasting love. And for 200 years, the curse held strong. So when Aunt Poppy (a second daughter) invites fellow second daughters Emilia and Lucy to accompany her to Italy for her 80th birthday with a promise to break the curse, the girls defy their strict Nonna’s wishes and head across the ocean. Emilia has accepted her fate, settling into a life that’s as comfortable as the ugly wire-rimmed glasses and old sweaters she wears. Meanwhile, Lucy gives herself to any man who shows interest, hoping that one of them will be the key to breaking the curse.
Aunt Poppy is full of wisdom for both girls… but will she be able to break the curse? She says the love of her life will meet her on the steps of the Ravello Cathedral on her birthday, but is this just a recipe for disappointment?
What You Wish For
Have you ever read a book and experienced physical sadness when you closed the book? Katherine Center’s What You Wish For was that book for me.
Samantha Casey is the librarian at an elementary school in Galveston, TX known for creative and conscious teaching methods. But when the beloved founder and principal dies unexpectedly, the entire faculty mourns the loss of a man who brought fun to the school.
When Duncan Carpenter is announced as the new school principal, Sam breathes a sigh of relief. No one can replace the old principal, but Duncan is as close as you can get. They taught together years ago and Sam remembers Duncan as the man in the flamingo pants, who would juggle for the kids, and made learning fun.
When Duncan pulls a very real looking gun out during a meeting and declares his mission is to secure the school, it’s evident that fun Duncan is gone and in his place is a very different man who seems hell-bent on ruining the school.
Can Sam coax the old Duncan out of his drab, grey suit and into his colorful wardrobe and lighthearted ways?
This book will make you laugh and cry and fondly remember all the teachers who made education enjoyable.
What You Wish For introduced me to the genius that is Katherine Center! I quickly read two of her other books, Things You Save in a Fire and How to Walk Away. Then I watched The Lost Husband on Netflix, which is based on her novel by the same name.
The Book of Two Ways
Nearly everyone goes through an Ancient Egypt phase. Pharaohs, pyramids, and mummies are fascinating. But for Dawn and Wyatt, the phase turned into a career and a life spent looking for discoveries. At least that’s what Dawn had intended before her mom became ill and she was summoned home to care for her little brother.
Soon, Dawn was pregnant and married, leaving Egypt behind for good as she began a career as a death doula. Life was perfect… until her own close call with death made her wonder whether life could have –should have– gone a different way for her.
The Book of Two Ways is a literary sliding door, with two versions of Dawn’s life playing out chapter by chapter. Which will she choose?
In 2018’s best book round-up, I included Susan Meissner’s As Bright as Heaven, set during WWI and the devastating Spanish Flu pandemic. I loved the strong female leads and the message about holding on to the things that matter in 2018 and recommend it even more strongly this year.
The Pull of the Stars
Oh wow. This book was a timely read. Set in Dublin during the Great Flu of 1918, Emma Donoghue brings us inside a maternity ward set up for expectant mothers suffering with the flu. Nurse Julia Power is understaffed as she attempts to keep these women – and their babies – alive as they are quarantined together.
When a young and inexperienced volunteer shows up, Julia teaches her how to disinfect equipment, insists windows remain open to aid air circulation, and teaches the importance of clean hands. (Sound familiar?) In stark contrast to Bridie Sweeney’s inexperience, Doctor Kathleen Lynn is competent and empowers Julia to make decisions on her patients’ care. So what if she’s a rumored Rebel, on the run from the police?
In the midst of fear and illness, the women support one another, offer hope in the darkest of places, and change each others’ lives in ways they could never have imagined.
The Book of Lost Friends
A few years ago, Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours haunted me for weeks after I turned the final page. And while The Book of Lost Friends took me a little longer to get into, Wingate masterfully weaves a tale of a freed African American on a grand adventure in 1875 with the story of a teacher in poor, rural Louisiana in 1987. I wasn’t ready for the book to end and would have happily read another 100 pages of the story.
When Benedetta Silva moves to Augustine, she knows next to nothing of its history. And the influential families wish it would stay that way. However, Benedetta discovers a treasure trove of a library with glimpses into the town’s past that could affect the troubled teens she teaches and everyone in town.
Hannie is a young and free African American, choosing to work the land of her former owners. Land ownership is just within her reach. But she unwittingly gets swept up in a quest of epic proportions when her former owner’s daughter, Lavinia, tricks her illegitimate, Creole-born half-sister Juneau Jane to go visit a man about her inheritance. When the man turns on both of the girls, Hannie’s life takes a drastic turn.
The term “Lost Friends” refers to a compilation of newspaper ads placed by freed slaves in hopes of finding their family. Throughout the novel, the girls collect the stories as they travel, helping others reconnect with lost loved ones. One big question remains: Will Hannie ever see her family again?
The Book of Lost Names
When Eva Traube Abrams sees a newspaper come across the returns desk at the library where she works, she freezes at the sight of a book she’d thought long lost to history– the Nazis to be exact.
Eva begins a journey to Berlin to reclaim The Book of Lost Names, which contains a code only she and two other people ever knew. Now, she’s the only one left to make sense of the markings in the old book.
When Eva’s father was rounded up and sent to a concentration camp, Eva and her mother escape to the Free Zone thanks to Eva’s artistic talents and a blank set of documents. When they arrive, Eva is approached by the local priest to help create documents for children escaping to Switzerland. She joins Rémy, a handsome forger, as she learns the skills needed to save lives. But the thought of erasing the children’s past doesn’t sit well with Eva and she comes up with a way to save their identities, so they can be reminded when the war is over.
The book was stolen at the end of the war… but it’s never too late to make things right.
The Brideship Wife
Marred by a scandal that’s not her fault, Charlotte is sent away from England by her brother-in-law who fears she may be a hindrance to his political aspirations. To add insult to injury, Charles sends his own wife along on the treacherous journey as she’s been unable to produce an heir. En route to British Colombia, Charlotte meets a cast of unlikely characters and finds herself struggling to make her own way in the world.
In 1862, a woman’s worth is defined by her family, her husband, and the company she keeps. Charlotte and Harriet are about to find out who they are when they lose it all.
This book took a little while to sink into. However, once I was hooked, the adventure, friendship, and romance kept me flipping the pages until the very end.
The Forgotten Home Child
Have you ever heard of the British Home Children? I hadn’t until reading this book. Between the late 1860s and early 1930s, more than 100,000 British street children and orphans were sent away to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa as cheap laborers.
This is the fictionalized account of Winny and her friends, sent to Canada to become indentured servants in the 1930s. While some of the British Home Children became adopted members of their new families, many experienced neglect, hard labor, and horrific abuse.
Genevieve Graham writes a story of unwavering friendship, love, and belonging— no matter the circumstances that seek to tear a chosen family apart.
The German Heiress
I’ve read plenty of WWII novels…but it’s rare to see a Nazi as the heroine. Heiress Clara Falkenberg earned the nickname “the Iron Fräulein” whilst running her family’s ironworks company during the war and fled the city at the end of the war, assuming a new identity.
But eventually, Clara returns home hoping to stay with her best friend Elisa as she seeks answers to questions about her family. Unfortunately, Elisa is nowhere to be found. More unfortunately still, Clara encounters an American soldier intent on bringing her to justice for war crimes.
Clara begins a journey to find her best friend and meets Jakob, who is also looking for Elisa. As we get to know Clara, we learn there might just be more to the Iron Fräulein than first meets the eye. This novel will force you into Clara’s shoes, demanding you to reconcile the idea of good and evil and the choices that determine a person’s character.
The Island of Sea Women: A Novel
This book was published in 2019, but I was a little behind the curve and I don’t want you to miss out on this incredible story. I wrote about Lisa See’s The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane in my 2018 roundup, and it’s one that’s stuck with me in a way many books do not.
In The Island of Sea Women, Lisa See writes about the haenyeo (sea women) of Jeju province in Korea across the span of 80 years. The women forge unshakable bonds of trust and friendship as they dive deeper, longer, and in harsher conditions than any other divers in the world. Mi-ja and Young-sook met as young girls and despite their differences– Young-sook, the daughter of a well-known haenyeo and Mi-ja, the daughter of Japanese collaborators– grew to become the best of friends.
That is– until their friendship reaches a breaking point as the 1930s and 40s bring trouble to their small island.
The Lions of Fifth Avenue
I’m a sucker for books about libraries and loved this intimate look inside the New York Public Library. The fictionalized story of the family who once lived behind the bookshelves is fantastic.
In 1913, Laura Lyons and her family move into the library when her husband takes the role as the library’s superintendent. We’re invited alongside Laura as she works to be a good wife, mother, and student– as one of the first females at Columbia Journalism School. Her white-bread life gets turned upside down when she runs into an old schoolmate and scores an invitation to the Heterodoxy Club– a group of forward-thinking women who challenge the norm and debate issues like women’s suffrage and birth control. When books start going missing from the library, the Lyons family comes under suspicion and as authorities close in, they are set to lose everything
In 1993, Sadie Donovan has found her place as a curator at the New York Public Library. Her grandmother, Laura Lyons’ legacy initially drew her to the job, but quirky Sadie in her vintage outfits has found her place among the books and priceless objects. When she’s promoted to head a new collection, things seem to have fallen into place… but when priceless pieces of history begin going missing, Sadie’s job and reputation are on the line and she thinks her family’s past might play a role.
Buckle in as Sadie digs into the elusive Laura Lyons’ history and crack the mystery of the missing books.
The Ringmaster’s Daughter
This book caused my heart to race and my eyes to “leak” more than once. Set in WWII-era France, Michel Bonnet flees the city of Paris as the Nazis invade. With the help of his dear friend and mentor Bertrand, Michel hops onto a train leaving the city only to find himself aboard a circus train. His career as a horse trainer turns out to be a useful skill, and he joins the troupe on their journey. He befriends the company’s dwarf and giant, and catches the eye of one of the performers. Not all is high-flying trapeze and juggling though. Michel is met by hostility from the ringmaster and finds himself falling for the one woman with whom interactions are forbidden. Carly Schabowski weaves a tale of friendship, family, betrayal, and love beneath the big top.
The Little Bookshop on the Seine
The Little Bookshop on the Seine is the perfect Christmas read– It’s The Holiday movie for bookworms! There’s a dreamy bookshop in Paris, run by a posh-yet-heartbroken French woman named Sophie. And there’s a quiet bookshop in a sleepy town in the US run by Sarah– who’s completely content with her life, her friends, and her journalist boyfriend. But who wants to settle for being content when Paris is calling?
This novel is a realistic love letter to Paris– heavy on the dreamy side, without failing to add in a few bumps along the way. I guessed incorrectly about how the book would end… and I love the way Rebecca Raisin chose to finish her novel!
In a Holidaze
Have you ever seen the movie Groundhog Day? If you thought the movie needed a bit more romance and a lot more snow, you’ll love In a Holidaze. Maelyn Jones and her family spend Christmas every year with their chosen family, her parents’ best friends from college, in an idyllic cabin in Utah. Mae has been in love with Andrew ever since she can remember– even secretly hiding a message about her unrequited love on the bottom of a unicorn mug. But in a haze of eggnog and desperation at Andrew’s seeming lack of interest, she makes out with Andrew’s younger brother Theo. To make matters worse, just before everyone leaves, Theo and Andrew’s parents announce they’re selling the cabin.
After making a wish that the universe would show her happiness– Mae is sent straight back to the beginning of Christmas week to try to make things right. Can she fix her mistake, save the cabin, and maybe even find love with the right brother?
Christmas at the Island Hotel
Jenny Colgan is the queen of feel-good, romantic Christmas novels, and this years’ Christmas at the Island Hotel is a royal hit! With a new hotel opening on the island of Mure– between Scotland and Norway, preparations are in full swing to get everything ready by Christmas. There’s a son-of-a-duke in disguise and a whole lot of secrets that are about to make their way into the air. Will Christmas be ruined by leaked secrets?
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