Wednesday, December 16th, 2020

Top 5 Books of 2020


Every year we make a list of the top five books read by LibraryThing staff, and we’re not going to let 2020 stop that tradition. You can see past years’ lists here. And you can talk about your reading year on Talk.

What were your top five for this year? We want to know, so we started a list that all of LibraryThing can add to. Note: This is about what you read in 2020, not just books published in 2020.


The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. I found this historical fantasy, steampunk London book just completely captivating. It’s a delicate magical mystery, and its sequel The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is just as good.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey. I loved this the way I love a Sarah Waters novel. Gothic and tense and SO tightly written, it unfolded so precisely and beautifully. Perfection.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. This book has heart. It is charming and delightful and queer and kind and I want to clutch it to my chest and keep it safe forever.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Magic secret societies at Yale. Need I say more?

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. A quiet and evocative book set in Dublin in 1918, in a hospital maternity ward, in the middle of the Spanish Flu pandemic.


Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Funny and provocative, this tightly-plotted novel had me laughing, crying, and cringing. The story begins with twenty-something Black woman Emira being falsely accused of kidnapping the white girl she babysits. Reid uses this set up to tackle questions of race, gender, age, and class. I found myself constantly entertained while also doing some tough self-reflection.

Writers & Lovers by Lily King. It was not that long ago that I was living in Boston writing stories that I worried would never be published. Which is to say, I related very much to King’s latest novel. I actually saw myself so deeply in this book that I wondered if anyone else in the world would like it. People did. In retrospect, there are a lot of differences between my experiences and Casey’s: I never waitressed or went on a writing retreat or dated a much older man. I think it’s a testament to King’s ability to write so specifically about this character and her world that it becomes universal.

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier. The protagonist of Frazier’s debut novel is eighteen and pregnant. She works as a pizza delivery girl and at night, while her boyfriend is sleeping, she sneaks out to her dead father’s shed and drinks can after can of beer. She is lost and the only thing that seems to feel real to her in Jenny Hauser, an older woman who orders pizza with pickles. The two become friends, of sorts. Our heroine fixates on Jenny in a way that can be hard to read, but feels very true. This is a bold book that surprised me at every turn.

The Book on Pie by Erin Jeanne McDowell. I won this book from a local independent bookstore right before Thanksgiving. I am normally the pie-baker in the family, and I was feeling sad about not being able to share pies with my parents. A recipe for hand pies solved that problem deliciously. I had less success with my attempt to make the Apple Butterscotch pie: my butterscotch pudding never set. But, I took the whole thing, crust and all, dumped it into the ice cream maker and made apple pie ice cream. I think McDowell would approve.

Quintessence by Jess Redman. Perhaps my favorite trope is a group of unlikely kids coming together to save the world. In this middle grade novel, four mismatched kids must help to return a fallen star to the sky. There’s a mix of magic and science, and a blurring of the line between the two, which is something that I also love very much. What really makes this novel stand out, though, is the way Redman addresses the main character’s anxiety. Alma has panic attacks, but the book isn’t about that. With anxiety on the rise in children, this book offers a nice reminder that all kids can have adventures and save the world.


Annus horribilis! It started in New Zealand, which was lovely, but by March we were fleeing back to the US on the last Hawaian Airlines flight, leaving the only country that would truly defeat the virus. In truth, I could barely concentrate on reading for months. Eventually reading came back, with a special focus on lighter fare, and home schooling and enjoying time with my 14 year-old son, Liam.

Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman. Although I studied American History in college, I had never done a deep dive on the Constitution. Beeman provides a detailed narrative reconstruction of the (somewhat vexed) primary sources, with some valuable content and analysis. To understand the Constitution and its origins well is, of course, a corrective to much contemporary political discussion and—shall we say—treasonous shenanigans?

Facebook: The Inside Story by Stephen Levy. This is a comprehensive, well-sourced and engrossing narrative of Facebook’s improbable rise. Unlike Brad Stone, whose The Upstarts, on Uber and Airbnb, utterly missed what was toxic and broken in Uber, Levy sees clearly how Facebook’s culture and reckless early decisions created the dangerous mess it eventually became.

Honorable mention goes to two other company bios I read this year. In the Plex, Levy’s portrait of Google, was great, but didn’t quite match up to Facebook. The topic is interesting, but he does not seem to have enjoyed the same access to top Google people as he had to Facebook people. And Google is simply less of a trainwreck. Lastly, I enjoyed We Are the Nerds by Christine Lagorio-Chafkin, about the history of Reddit. As LibraryThing began on the edge of some of the circles involved in that story, it had an element of reminiscence for me.

Red Shirts by John Scalzi. My 14 year-old son and I enjoy listening to science fiction together, but have struggled to find the right books. We ended Dune about a third of the way in when my son proclaimed that it had no funny parts at all. (Honestly, he’s right; Dune takes itself way too seriously.) After Red Shirts we listened to Agent to the Stars, Scalzi’s other humorous book.

Red Shirts takes place in a Star Trek-like universe, where some of the minor characters are beginning to suspect something is wrong with reality. Agent to the Stars imagines that aliens initiate first contact with a Hollywood agent. These books aren’t great literature, but they are fun!

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. I’d read it when young, but on a re-read—holy smokes this is a great book! Douglass is an absolute master of his craft and aims. My son and I were fairly floored by it. If you haven’t read it, you simply have to.

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. H. P. Lovecraft was, of course, a racist, and racism is shot throughout his work, but it wasn’t immediately obvious to me that a Lovecraftian exploration of American racism would work. It largely does. I resisted putting it on my 2020 list, but however jagged the story can be, it “stuck”; my mind keeps returning to certain scenes months after I finished the novel. I have not seen the HBO miniseries, but I hear it’s good.


The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. Being emotionally devastated by beautifully written stories is one of my favorite things. I’m still thinking about the characters and their lives and this perfect book.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo What Abby said.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia. 2020 was the year of a global pandemic, yes, but also the year of Kate Racculia for some reason. I know so many folks who read and loved this book and rightly so! It is so stinkin’ good! The highest praise I can give this book is that it’s evocative of The Westing Game, but more modern, more fun, and with more heart.

The Searcher by Tana French. Is it even a best books of the year list if I’m not talking about Tana French? My father-in-law and I share an appreciation for French’s books and after reading this one we both had the same reaction/synopsis: there were no major plot points that made any sort of impression, but we loved reading it. The Searcher is said to be French’s take on a western, which is not a genre I particularly like (save True Grit. True Grit is a masterpiece.), but this book proves that I will read and enjoy literally anything that Tana French offers me.

Mexican Gothic by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia. This one was a departure for me as I tend to avoid anything remotely scary, but I’m glad I made an exception. Reader, I wasn’t scared! It was heavily gothic and atmospheric and creepy, and I enjoyed every bit of it.


The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Blockchain : the next everything by Stephen P. Williams

21 lessons for the 21st century by Yuval Harari

Yesterday’s son by A. C. Crispin

The rational optimist by Matt Ridley


Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman. Braverman’s coming-of-age memoir is as raw, wild, and visceral as the Arctic. Great read.

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West. A collection of essays that hits on the big issues in America today. A witty, intelligent, cathartic read. (And yes, yes we are coming.)

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. If you’re looking for a fun, adventurous mystery, and you can overlook a few plot/character holes, this is it. It was a welcomed escape read.

Perfume by Patrick Süskind. Chilling.

Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson. A nod to my children’s-only genre from last year’s picks, this was one of my favorite bedtime reads with my now 20-month old son Finn. Each animal in the story was given their own voice, of course (in the spirit of Redwall). Looking forward to collecting the series!

Honorable Mention: A Promised Land by Barack Obama. I can’t vouch for the whole book just yet (and I’m “reading” the audiobook narrated by Obama), but it’s been a delightful listen so far. Best described as a nostalgic breath of fresh air.

That’s it!

Come record your own Top Five of 2020 on Lists and Talk.

Labels: top five


  1. Mary K Paxson says:

    Some great ideas for my “to be read” list ! Thanks.

  2. FinHub says:

    I love reading books, and this site is becoming one of my favorites…

    Thank you

  3. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind. It is one of the works that has impacted me the most. I have been tempted to reread the novel, but I am somewhat afraid that I might not like it. I want to keep the memory of it. Greetings.

  4. Ninth house was a hard book to read. The composing style was off-kilter to such an extent that it took until partially through the book to get a genuine feeling of what was happening. I read this with a gathering and everybody felt the equivalent.

    As I would like to think, this book was route over-advertised and certainly not dream! Paranormal perhaps, however not dream. Additionally read more like YA than grown-up.

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