Top Book Club Picks: 8 Reads That Blew Us Away in 2020

December 23 2020
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Social gatherings have looked a whole lot different this year—book clubs included! While I could no longer sit on my bookish friends’ living room floors and discuss the ins and outs of a title we came to bond over, my book chats did not die, they simply formed in new ways, from video chats and phone calls to socially distant park gatherings. It seems that it must be true: Nothing can get in the way of sharing a good book with a great friend. Not even a pandemic! Hopefully you, too, have found ways to ponder over a plotline or gush over a character arc with a pal. With that being said, I’ve rounded up some of the best book club–worthy books I chatted about this year. Were any of these the topic of your virtual literary conversation as well?

The Book of Lost Names
by Kristin Harmel

This title was exactly the kind of hopeful story I needed to round out my year. THE BOOK OF LOST NAMES by Kristin Harmel follows elderly librarian, Eva, who has spent the last 60 years attempting to erase the painful memories of her past. But when historians uncover a secret wartime text that holds an indecipherable code, Eva is met with the decision to reopen the wounds of her time in the Resistance. The plotline then travels back to World War II France when Eva forged illegal documents to help children cross safely across the border into neutral land. This story is about finding strength in times of uncertainty, light in a world of darkness, and the courage to choose what’s right.

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The Book of Lost Names
Kristin Harmel

Inspired by an astonishing true story from World War II, a young woman with a talent for forgery helps hundreds of Jewish children flee the Nazis in this unforgettable historical novel from the international bestselling author of the “epic and heart-wrenching World War II tale” (Alyson Noel, #1 New York Times bestselling author) The Winemaker’s Wife.

Eva Traube Abrams, a semi-retired librarian in Florida, is shelving books one morning when her eyes lock on a photograph in a magazine lying open nearby. She freezes; it’s an image of a book she hasn’t seen in sixty-five years—a book she recognizes as The Book of Lost Names.

The accompanying article discusses the looting of libraries by the Nazis across Europe during World War II—an experience Eva remembers well—and the search to reunite people with the texts taken from them so long ago. The book in the photograph, an eighteenth-century religious text thought to have been taken from France in the waning days of the war, is one of the most fascinating cases. Now housed in Berlin’s Zentral- und Landesbibliothek library, it appears to contain some sort of code, but researchers don’t know where it came from—or what the code means. Only Eva holds the answer—but will she have the strength to revisit old memories and help reunite those lost during the war?

As a graduate student in 1942, Eva was forced to flee Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she begins forging identity documents for Jewish children fleeing to neutral Switzerland. But erasing people comes with a price, and along with a mysterious, handsome forger named Rémy, Eva decides she must find a way to preserve the real names of the children who are too young to remember who they really are. The records they keep in The Book of Lost Names will become even more vital when the resistance cell they work for is betrayed and Rémy disappears.

An engaging and evocative novel reminiscent of The Lost Girls of Paris and The Alice Network, The Book of Lost Names is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of bravery and love in the face of evil.

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MENTIONED IN:

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Mrs. Everything
by Jennifer Weiner

MRS. EVERYTHING is a beautifully written multigenerational novel. Jo and Bethie are sisters growing up in 1950s Detroit. Jo is the tomboy rebel, while Bethie is a feminine good girl. As the novel traces these girls’ lives through the Vietnam War, Woodstock, women’s lib, and more, Jo and Bethie survive tragedy and traumas. Neither woman grew up into the person they expected to be. But is it too late for them to find their place in the world?

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Mrs. Everything
Jennifer Weiner

In this instant New York Times bestseller and “multigenerational narrative that’s nothing short of brilliant” (People), two sisters’ lives from the 1950s to the present are explored as they struggle to find their places—and be true to themselves—in a rapidly evolving world from #1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner.

Jo and Bethie Kaufman were born into a world full of promise.

Growing up in 1950s Detroit, they live in a perfect “Dick and Jane” house, where their roles in the family are clearly defined. Jo is the tomboy, the bookish rebel with a passion to make the world more fair; Bethie is the pretty, feminine good girl, a would-be star who enjoys the power her beauty confers and dreams of a traditional life.

But the truth ends up looking different from what the girls imagined. Jo and Bethie survive traumas and tragedies. As their lives unfold against the background of free love and Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib, Bethie becomes an adventure-loving wild child who dives headlong into the counterculture and is up for anything (except settling down). Meanwhile, Jo becomes a proper young mother in Connecticut, a witness to the changing world instead of a participant. Neither woman inhabits the world she dreams of, nor has a life that feels authentic or brings her joy. Is it too late for the women to finally stake a claim on happily ever after?

In “her most sprawling and intensely personal novel to date” (Entertainment Weekly), Jennifer Weiner tells a “simply unputdownable” (Good Housekeeping) story of two sisters who, with their different dreams and different paths, offer answers to the question: How should a woman be in the world?

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Ask Again, Yes
by Mary Beth Keane

Francis and Brian are neighbors, cops, and best friends. But when the instability of Brian’s wife sets off a series of explosive events, the two families are forced apart in conflict. This divide is most heartbreaking for the children of these two families, especially as Francis’s daughter and Brian’s son become best friends, turned lovers. Over the course of 30 years, their bond and loyalty will be continuously tested as both individuals are haunted by that one fateful day between their parents. Suffice to say, there’s a lot to unpack in this book!

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Ask Again, Yes
Mary Beth Keane

One of the most beloved novels of the year, the 2019 Tonight Show Summer Reads pick and “magnificent” (NPR) New York Times bestseller offers “profound insights about blame, forgiveness, and abiding love” (People) about two neighboring families in a suburban town, the friendship between their children, the daily intimacies of marriage, and the power of forgiveness.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, rookie cops in the NYPD, live next door to each other outside the city. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

“A beautiful novel, bursting at the seams with empathy” (Elle), Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting and “smartly told” (Entertainment Weekly) exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next forty years. Heartbreaking and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes is a gorgeous portrait of a relationship haunted by echoes from the past, yet marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

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This Tender Land
by William Kent Krueger

THIS TENDER LAND is the best book I have read this year. Set in the summer of 1932 on the banks of the Mississippi River, four orphans embark on a life-changing journey. From lonely farmers to traveling faith healers, the children meet all sorts of characters along the way that may help provoke interesting character studies in your book clubs. Matched by impeccable descriptions of the American landscape, this story is not one to miss.

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This Tender Land
William Kent Krueger

For fans of Before We Were Yours and Where the Crawdads Sing, “a gripping, poignant tale swathed in both mythical and mystical overtones” (Bob Drury, New York Times bestselling author) that follows four orphans on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression, from the New York Times bestselling author of Ordinary Grace.

1932, Minnesota—the Lincoln School is a pitiless place where hundreds of Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to an orphan named Odie O’Banion, a lively boy whose exploits earn him the superintendent’s wrath. Forced to flee, he and his brother Albert, their best friend Mose, and a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own.

Over the course of one unforgettable summer, these four orphans will fly into the unknown and cross paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds. With the feel of a modern classic, This Tender Land is an en­thralling, big-hearted epic that is “more than a simple journey; it is a deeply satisfying odyssey, a quest in search of self and home” (Booklist).

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MENTIONED IN:

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Family Upstairs
by Lisa Jewell

Some of the most fun book discussions come from eerie suspense books that keep me on the edge of my seat. THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS was definitely one of those. Soon after Libby’s 25th birthday, she is notified that she has inherited a mansion from her birth family. But when she arrives to investigate her inheritance, she discovers that 25 years ago a mystery had taken place in that same house. Police arrived to find three dead bodies lying downstairs, and a healthy baby girl upstairs in her crib. Uncovering this dark secret about her birth family was traumatic enough, but soon Libby will find that there were others—and they have been waiting for her all this time.

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Family Upstairs
Lisa Jewell

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A GOOD MORNING AMERICA COVER TO COVER BOOK CLUB PICK

“Rich, dark, and intricately twisted, this enthralling whodunit mixes family saga with domestic noir to brilliantly chilling effect.” —Ruth Ware, New York Times bestselling author

“A haunting, atmospheric, stay-up-way-too-late read.” —Megan Miranda, New York Times bestselling author

From the New York Times bestselling author of Then She Was Gone comes another page-turning look inside one family’s past as buried secrets threaten to come to light.

Be careful who you let in.

Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.

She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.

Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.

In The Family Upstairs, the master of “bone-chilling suspense” (People) brings us the can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets.

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The Dearly Beloved
by Cara Wall

Set against the backdrop of New York City in the 1960s, THE DEARLY BELOVED follows the friendship of two couples. Charles and James are hired to steward the Third Presbyterian Church, however their personal differences and their wives threaten to tear them apart. This novel follows the couples through friendship, jealousy, and immense changes while providing a unique look at faith, all themes which are greatly enhanced over a lively book discussion.

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The Dearly Beloved
Cara Wall

“This gentle, gorgeously written book may be one of my favorites ever.” —Jenna Bush Hager (A Today show “Read with Jenna” Book Club Selection!)

This “moving portrait of love and friendship set against a backdrop of social change” (The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice) traces two married couples whose lives become entangled when the husbands become copastors at a famed New York city congregation in the 1960s.

Charles and Lily, James and Nan. They meet in Greenwich Village in 1963 when Charles and James are jointly hired to steward the historic Third Presbyterian Church through turbulent times. Their personal differences however, threaten to tear them apart.

Charles is destined to succeed his father as an esteemed professor of history at Harvard, until an unorthodox lecture about faith leads him to ministry. How then, can he fall in love with Lily—fiercely intellectual, elegantly stern—after she tells him with certainty that she will never believe in God? And yet, how can he not?

James, the youngest son in a hardscrabble Chicago family, spent much of his youth angry at his alcoholic father and avoiding his anxious mother. Nan grew up in Mississippi, the devout and beloved daughter of a minister and a debutante. James’s escape from his desperate circumstances leads him to Nan and, despite his skepticism of hope in all its forms, her gentle, constant faith changes the course of his life.

In The Dearly Beloved, Cara wall reminds us of “the power of the novel in its simplest, richest form: bearing intimate witness to human beings grappling with their faith and falling in love,” (Entertainment Weekly, A-) as we follow these two couples through decades of love and friendship, jealousy and understanding, forgiveness and commitment. Against the backdrop of turbulent changes facing the city and the church’s congregation, Wall offers a poignant meditation on faith and reason, marriage and children, and the ways we find meaning in our lives. The Dearly Beloved is a gorgeous, wise, and provocative novel that is destined to become a classic.

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The World That We Knew
by Alice Hoffman

It’s World War II and Hanni Kohn knows she must send her daughter Lea away in order to save her from the Nazi regime, but she won’t let her leave without protection. Desperate, Hanni asks the rabbi’s daughter Ettie for help. Together, they create a mystical Jewish creature who is sworn to protect Lea. The lives of these women eternally intertwine as the story unfolds and they seek refuge from the disaster erupting in their hometown.

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The World That We Knew
Alice Hoffman

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * LONGLISTED FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL

On the brink of World War II, with the Nazis tightening their grip on Berlin, a mother’s act of courage and love offers her daughter a chance of survival.

“[A] hymn to the power of resistance, perseverance, and enduring love in dark times…gravely beautiful…Hoffman the storyteller continues to dazzle.” —THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

At the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. Her desperation leads her to Ettie, the daughter of a rabbi whose years spent eavesdropping on her father enables her to create a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Hanni’s daughter, Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never-ending.

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When We Were Vikings
by Andrew David MacDonald

Zelda, a 21-year-old Viking enthusiast, has such a unique narrative and perspective. For her, life is best lived by a strict set of rules. But when her older brother Gert resorts to fairly dangerous methods of obtaining money, Zelda is forced out of her comfort zone and into the real world. As Zelda attempts to fulfill her own Viking quest, she uncovers things about herself and tests the depths of her personal strength. Bring an extremely heartwarming read to your book club with this marvelous novel.

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When We Were Vikings
Andrew David MacDonald

Indie Next Pick for February 2020
Book of the Month January 2020
LibraryReads January 2020 Pick
Bookreporter New Release Spotlight
New York Post “Best Books of the Week”
Goodreads “January’s Most Anticipated New Books”
The Saturday Evening Post “10 Books for the New Year”
PopSugar “Best Books in January”
Book Riot Best Winter New Releases

“Zelda is a marvel, a living, breathing three-dimensional character with a voice so distinctive she leaps off the page.” —The New York Times

“Heartwarming and unforgettable.” —People

For Zelda, a twenty-one-year-old Viking enthusiast who lives with her older brother, Gert, life is best lived with some basic rules:

1. A smile means “thank you for doing something small that I liked.”
2. Fist bumps and dabs = respect.
3. Strange people are not appreciated in her home.
4. Tomatoes must go in the middle of the sandwich and not get the bread wet.
5. Sometimes the most important things don’t fit on lists.

But when Zelda finds out that Gert has resorted to some questionable—and dangerous—methods to make enough money to keep them afloat, Zelda decides to launch her own quest. Her mission: to be legendary. It isn’t long before Zelda finds herself in a battle that tests the reach of her heroism, her love for her brother, and the depth of her Viking strength.

“A most welcome and wonderful debut” (Tyrell Johnson, author of The Wolves of Winter), When We Were Vikings is an uplifting debut about an unlikely heroine whose journey will leave you wanting to embark on a quest of your own, because after all...we are all legends of our own making.

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