My 5-Star Books of 2020

I review every single book I read on Goodreads, and review occasionally on Amazon and Book Bub as well. And I’m very stingy with 5-star reviews. I’m an old-fashioned reader. I love skilled use of the English language, but I don’t enjoy books that use language so creatively that it feels show-offy, and beautiful language isn’t enough for me. To earn five stars from me, a book must have a disciplined, well-paced plot, fascinating or relatable characters, and an overarching theme that I find inspiring or at least very interesting. I read over fifty books this year. Here are the five that warranted 5-star reviews.


Well-plotted historical novel

England, in the year 997. Edgar is a young boatbuilder who barely escapes death when the Vikings raid his harbor town. His family loses all that they have in the raid, and they migrate further inland, to scratch out a living farming in a town dominated by a lazy ferryman and a corrupt priest. 

Normandy, the same year. Ragna is a smart, headstrong, beautiful noblewoman. She could marry the wealthy French baron chosen for her by her doting parents, but chooses instead a dashing Englishman nobleman, Wilwulf, who visits her father to seek a treaty that will protect the English coast from the Vikings.  Ragna finds friends, enemies and danger in her new life in England.

I’ve often found that prequels are disappointing. But this prequel to Follett’s masterful The Pillars of the Earth is very worthy. Ragna, Edgar, the principled monk Aldred, Wilwulf’s wicked brothers, the slave girl Blod, and others, are all vivid characters with passions and motivations of their own. Their conflicts are expertly developed, and keep the reader turning pages.

As in Pillars of the Earth, Follett takes the side of the people who are builders and dreamers, lawmakers and rule-followers, people who help others and make the world a better place. They often are punished by men who want power for the sake of power, and who thrive on chaos and disorder. But, at least in the world Follett creates, they prevail in the end. A comforting tale for our times – and a warning of what a lawless world can be like.


A classic worth the time investment

Owen Meany has a birth defect that left him with unusually small stature and a grating falsetto voice. His story is narrated by his best friend, Johnny Wheelwright.

Johnny and Owen grow up in New Hampshire in the 1950s and 60s. The story opens with a tragedy: Owen’s one good hit in Little League strikes Johnny’s mother in the head and kills her. This sets Owen and Johnny on a years-long quest to discover the identity of Johnny’s father, which his mother never revealed. Meanwhile, Johnny is raised by his grandmother and his loving step-father.

Owen’s family is odd, and Owen has an odd aversion to them, so Owen is also taken under the wing of Johnny’s grandmother and step-father. His height and voice aren’t the only strange things about Owen. He is exceptionally smart, self-confident, and bossy – and he is eerily prescient and wise. Fairly early in the book, he starts insisting that he has foreknowledge of the date of his death and he has a recurring dream that he believes foretells how he will die. And it develops that his father has a startling notion about how Owen was conceived.

This story takes some patience. First, it’s a long book, so it is a commitment. Second, it isn’t told quite chronologically. It bears careful reading, to keep track of what happened when. Third, it is just odd. It was hard for me to tell what it was even about until half-way through. I thought maybe it was a coming-of-age story, but it is so much more than that. My patience was well-rewarded. I absolutely loved this book by the end.

A truly great novel is either timeless or perfectly of its time. This one was a little of both. Taking placing in the 50s and 60s, and written in 1989, it also uncannily foresees our own time.

FOR THE LOVE OF IRELAND edited by Susan Cahill

A tribute to Ireland

A friend in my Irish dancing group lent this book to me.  It’s a literary travel guide to Ireland, highlighting Irish authors from pre-history through current day, from each of the nation’s provinces and counties.   Cahill prefaces each piece with some background on the author, and follows each with a small travelogue to places of significance either to the author or in their work 

As with any anthology, I didn’t like every single work that was included.  For example, I will just never be a James Joyce fan.  But the pieces I did like, I really, really loved, which is why the book rates 5 stars from me.  Although I love the English language, I don’t generally read for beauty of language, which is probably why I’m not a big poetry reader, even though I am the mother of a poet.  I like story; I read mostly for character and plot.  But the language in some of the pieces in this book literally took my breath away:  how Roddy Doyle just nails the lilt, cadence and quirks of Dublin’s dialect, the crystal beauty Seamus Heaney brings to the simple memory of his father digging peat, Joyce Cary’s dreamlike description of the landscape of his childhood. 

I added several books to my reading list, thanks to this sampling, and feel inspired to return to Ireland to see some of the wonders that we missed on our first trip there in 2014. 


Very appealing heroine

Adunni is a 14-year-old girl growing up in a village in Nigeria.  Before she died, her mother gave her a strong sense of her value and a passion for education.  But let’s just say that her father is not quite as energetic and devoted to his children as her mother was.  When the family’s finances deteriorate, Adunni’s father ends her education and sells her in marriage to a much older man, Mofufu, who already has two wives.

The senior wife, Labake, treats Adunni cruelly, but she finds a friend in the second wife, Khadija.  When tragedy befalls Khadija, Adunni is involved and must flee both Mofufu’s house and her home village.  An unscrupulous broker sells her into domestic servitude in Lagos in the house of successful businesswoman Big Madam and her useless alcoholic husband, Big Daddy. 

Adunni is a true heroine.  She never loses her strong sense of self-worth.  Her work ethic and her cheerful, friendly disposition win her friends who can help her in spite of her seemingly hopeless circumstances.  

Adunni’s magnificent voice is the heart of the novel.  Dare made the risky choice to write in the sort of pidgin English that a Yoruba teenager like Adunni might actually speak, and it was a brilliant choice.  Her unique use of language both strengthens the reader’s sense of entry into a different culture and supports Adunni’s vibrant personality. 

The disgraceful treatment of women in a Nigerian culture transforming from traditional to modern is unsparingly portrayed.  Even Big Madam and Adunni’s mentor, Ms. Tia, are not immune to its blows. It is a testament to Adunni’s inner strength and goodness that she recognizes this, has compassion for it, and wants to dedicate her life to changing it. 

A wonderful book, with one of the most unique, likable and admirable heroines I’ve read in a while.



London in 1925.  Britain is still stunned and reeling from the catastrophic loss of life in WWI, and a new generation of Bright Young Things is determined to cast off the failed conventions of the past and heedlessly live for the moment. Selina Lennox is among the Brightest.  Her life is changed one spring night by a chance meeting with a poor young artist.

Fast-forward to 1936.  Selina’s shy daughter Alice has been left with her cold grandparents and Nazi governess in her mother’s ancestral house while her parents travel to Burma on business.  Her only friends are the family’s gardener Patterson and Selina’s former maid Polly.  Alice lives for the occasional letter from her beloved mother.  Selina has sent her on a treasure hunt, and each letter contains a clue.  But her mother has kept some secrets that don’t fit in boxes or jewelry cases.

The story is told on alternating timelines, between 1925 and 1936, with occasional perspective changes.  The shifts of perspective and timeline are very well-handled, and the secrets slowly and expertly revealed.  We are always just a few steps ahead of young Alice and at each step we are allowed the sad pleasure of watching her discover what we have already figured out.

An absorbing and heartbreaking read. 

Here’s to great reading in 2021! Here are some links to books that almost made my cut with 4-start reviews:

The Testaments

Why The Dutch Are Different

News of the World

Lady of the Rivers

American Dirt

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *