Annual Top Ten Picks

It’s here! Our annual Top Ten Picks for 2020! We had LOADS of time to read this year and we read some truly great ones. Just a reminder that these are books that we reviewed in 2020 and not books published in 2020. We hope you will discover some new favorites from our list and if you have any that we should check out ourselves, please let us know in the Comments section! Happy reading!

Adult Fiction/Biography/Historical Fiction

  1. The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer (reviewed January 2020)
  2. Jewel by Bret Lott (reviewed January 2020)
  3. Paris is Always a Good Idea by Nicolas Barreau (reviewed February 2020)
  4. Best. State. Ever. A Florida Man Defends His Homeland by Dave Barry (reviewed March 2020)
  5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Historical Fiction) by Mary Ann Shaffer (reviewed April 2020)
  6. Tracks by Jim Black (reviewed May 2020)
  7. Tuesdays with Morrie (Memoir) by Mitch Albom (reviewed June 2020)
  8. A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding (Historical Fiction) by Jackie Copleton (reviewed June 2020)
  9. The Walk (Inspirational) by Richard Paul Evans (reviewed July 2020)
  10. The Zookeeper’s Wife (Non-Fiction) by Diane Ackerman (reviewed August 2020)

Juvenile/Young Adult

  1. Dovey Coe by Frances O’Roark (reviewed January 2020)
  2. Shadow of a Bull (Newbery Medal) by Maia Wojciechowska (reviewed February 2020)
  3. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Historical Fiction) by John Boyne (reviewed March 2020)
  4. We Were Here by Matt de la Peña (reviewed April 2020)
  5. Bronze and Sunflower (Historical Fiction) by Cao Wenxuan (reviewed April 2020)
  6. A Moment Comes (Historical Fiction) by Jennifer Bradbury (reviewed May 2020)
  7. The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio (Fantasy) by Lloyd Alexander (reviewed June 2020)
  8. Esperanza Rising (Historical Fiction) by Pam Muñoz Ryan (reviewed July 2020)
  9. It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (reviewed October 2020)
  10. Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley (Historical Fiction) by Ann Rinaldi (reviewed October 2020)

Castle in the Air (YA Fantasy)

Castle in the Air

Diana Wynne Jones (YA Fantasy)

Abdullah was a young carpet merchant who lived in the city of Zanzib.  It was clear that he had always been a disappointment to his father for upon his passing, all he left Abdullah was just enough money to buy and stock a modest booth in the northwest corner of the Bazaar.  Despite this, Abdullah knew he was destined for greater things.  In his daydreams, he was actually the kidnapped son of a mighty prince who must now live a life filled with heat, haggling, and the smell of fried squid.  But soon came the day when a man entered Abdullah’s booth.  A rude, imperious stranger bearing a worn out carpet that he wished to sell.  A carpet that was magical.  Could this carpet be the key to what his prophecy foretold upon his birth: “…he will be raised above all others in this land.”?  With a flying carpet in hand, Abdullah would soon find himself encountering an evil djinn, a bottled genie, an enchanted cat, and the beautiful girl of his dreams.

Castle in the Air is the second book in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Castle series.  Like its predecessor, this book is filled with wit, charm, action, adventure, and a lot of heart.  It’s the stuff that fairy tales are made of: a conniving stepmother, evil beasts, magical objects, princesses, curses, and large doses of bravery, kindness, loyalty, and love.  One thing that I appreciate about Jones is that she makes both her male and female protagonists equally strong, clever, and resourceful.  She resists the urge to diminish one character in order to elevate his or her counterpart and even writes that Abdullah’s love for his princess was strengthened by these admirable qualities: “Here Abdullah was somewhat amazed to discover that he, really and truly, did love Flower-in-the-Night just as ardently as he had been telling himself he did—or more, because he now saw he respected her. He knew he would die without her.”       

The first two-thirds of the book could very well have been a standalone story since only minor references to Howl’s Moving Castle were made.  However, once you just about hit the 200-page mark, that’s when things really pick up and several characters that readers fell in love with in the first book begin to make their appearances.  It’s not a showstopper if Castle in the Air is your first introduction to Jones’s wonderful flying castle trilogy, but you are lacking a bit of backstory that deepens the journey and makes reconnecting with these characters a nice reunion.    

Even though this series is targeted to young adult readers, it would be an engaging and delightful read for children grades five and up.  With strong females and morally-centered males, Jones gives us a nice alternative to darker fantasy books that tend to monopolize library and bookstore shelves.   With good triumphing in the end, bad getting its comeuppance after learning a valuable lesson, and a happy ending never far from sight, Castle in the Air reminds us that you cannot cheat Fate, to be very careful what you wish for, and that a little bit of kindness can go a very long way.

Rating: 4/5

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The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano

The Girl She Used to Be 

David Cristofano

I open my eyes and realize there is no way to turn this around. Before, there was one good guy and one bad guy; now I’m lost in a world of distrust and corruption and the odds of my survival have slipped to about one in a thousand.  The only person left I can trust is myself—and I have no idea who I am.

Melody Grace McCartney has been in the Witness Protection Program since she and her parents observed a violent murder on the morning of her sixth birthday.  By the age of 13, Melody had already exhausted six identities.  Through years of countless cities, occupations, and names, the only thing that Melody knows is that there is certainty in numbers.  In numbers, there is stability and consistency.  Math never lies.  Now 26, Melody is about to be relocated again when she encounters Jonathan Bovaro.  He’s charming, rich, and the son of the man who is the reason behind her seclusion and the murder of her parents.  Jonathan tells her that she is safe while she is with him, but after twenty years of hiding in the dark, can this man actually show Melody the light?

The Girl She Used to Be is a prime example of when people make very (very, very) bad decisions.  The book starts off promising, but with each chapter, the ludicrous choices begin to pile up faster than traffic on US 101 in California during rush hour.  Although we lament Melody’s loss of a “normal” childhood because of the secret she’s forced to keep, her twenty-year plight becomes a bit tedious and whiny as she is being relocated for the umpteenth time due to boredom (she gets a tad itchy at about the 18-month mark). Sadly, Jonathan “Johnny” Bovaro doesn’t come across any more likable or sympathetic.  His good intentions are clouded by a quick-trigger violent streak and his optimism of his Mafia family is laughable (hasn’t he seen The Godfather?  Even Zootopia should have clued him in—the arctic shrew mafia boss is cinematic genius by the way).   

All in all, David Cristofano’s novel isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but after an interesting enough start, it begins to fall apart about midway through and then just ends up in a tangled pile of spaghetti.  The actions and judgments of the story’s two main characters make the story implausible (surely adults aren’t THIS naïve) and hard to wrap your arms around.  Interestingly, Cristofano starts each chapter not with a title, but with an equation.  Unfortunately, his numbers just don’t quite add up.

Rating: 3/5

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Savvy by Ingrid Law (J Fantasy)


Ingrid Law (J Fantasy)

There are certain things that the Beaumont family knows about secrets: they need them, they have them, and they keep them. In just a few days, when Mibs turns 13, she’ll join her mother’s side of the family and will have a secret of her very own. That’s when she’ll get her own savvy and her world—as she currently knows it—will never be the same. But before her big day, her father is involved in a terrible accident and left seriously injured. With her newly acquired supernatural power and a pink bible bus filled with a handful of misfits, Mibs encounters bikers, brawls, and plenty of banana cream pie in a race to bring her whole family together and to save her broken father.

A 2009 Newbery Honor Book, Savvy is an imaginative and heart-pounding adventure story filled with many relatable themes that are standard fare for young readers: bullying, standing out, fitting in, first love, and making friends. The first in a series of three books (Scumble and Switch are both complete stories, but make small references to the original book), Savvy is an easy-to-read, thrilling ride that introduces us to a quirky set of characters including the preacher’s daughter, a belittled bible salesman, and a waitress with a heart of gold. Each of these people allow Mibs to slowly understands that perhaps the Beaumonts aren’t the only ones that possess supernatural powers. The ability to encourage, to help, to listen, and to accept are just as powerful as any savvy and Mibs quickly realizes just how special her new friends are in their own way.

Ingrid Law packs so many wonderful lessons in this book and that alone is worth the read. Along the way, Mibs learns that sometimes a bad thing can make a good thing happen or that happy endings come in all shapes and sizes or that things don’t always happen the way you want them to. Perhaps the most valuable lesson Mibs receives was from her mother who told her, “In most ways, we Beaumonts are just like other people. We get born, and sometime later we die. And in between, we’re happy and sad, we feel love and we feel fear, we eat and we sleep and we hurt like everyone else.” Through the eyes of an awkward teenaged girl, Law reminds us of how much good can be accomplished and gained when we focus on our similarities rather than our differences.

Rating: 4/5

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