My Favourite Books from 2020

Published: 07 Dec 2020
My Favourite Books from 2020

I’m a pretty keen reader. After being inspired by Todd Kashdan’s annual book review, I started my own last year. A few things to be aware of before reading.

  1. I don’t care what year the book was published. If I read it this year and loved it, it’s in the list. Good books are good books, regardless of when you read them.
  2. You may have different tastes in books. That’s fine. It’s just an opinion list.
  3. COVID meant I worked harder, longer, and more intensely than ever before, so my reading was reduced this year. I only got through 26 books… so my list of recommended reading is shorter than usual.

One thing I guarantee, each of these books is worth the dollars and the time required to genuinely invest in their message.

I may have completed my formal education years ago, but I never want to stop learning. These books may make you insatiable for more too. I’m willing to put my name to every one of these recommendations. I think they’ll change your life, take you to places you’ve never imagined, and give you insight that will make you a better person.


The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog (Bruce Perry)

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog is, on the surface, a hard book to read simply because of the subject matter. It's a book about abused and neglected children. In some ways it is a book about the very worst that humanity might do to its young. And yet, when we see great tragedy we also find tremendous goodness.

And this is a book about goodness.

Dr Bruce Perry shares a series of stories dealing with diverse abuse and neglect of children (from the David Koresh, Waco TX atrocity to a boy who was literally raised as a dog; from challenging tales of sexual abuse to stunning neglect by well-meaning but uninformed adults, and more) in a way that conveys tremendous compassion and kindness for the children, and in some cases even those who have caused them harm. His insights are simple but elegant. His review of the science and the way it is integrated into his storytelling is wonderfully accessible. As someone who has little capacity for hearing horrible stories of damaged lives because it makes me so sad, he has been sensitive and gentle. I think this is the best book I've read this year. I loved it.

Here's one gem of a quote (among hundreds I could have chosen):

The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.

Or this:

Whether people have survived an earthquake or have been repeatedly sexually abused, what matters most is how those experiences affect their relationships – to their loved ones, to themselves, and to the world. The most traumatic aspects of all disasters involve the shattering of human connections.

Oh my word. Read it.

This is going to hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor (Adam Kay)

Quick personal insight. I don’t like coarse language. In fact, I really hate swearing. I hate hearing it. I hate reading it. And I don’t use it.

As such, this book should not be getting a 5 star review from me. It is staggeringly, unflinchingly, horrendously coarse. I was pained with his far-too-frequent use of the worst language. It was crass. It was incredibly raw. And yet...

As I read through the pages of this book, I didn't want to put it down. I would read a diary entry, laugh out loud, go find Kylie and read it to her, return to the room, and repeat the process! After I finished the book Kylie commented that now she won't need to read it because I read so much of it to her.

In the book, however, I saw the human face of a junior (and eventually quite senior) doctor in the UK's NHS (obstetrics and gynaecology) working insane hours, experiencing enormous personal pain as a result of the job, and experiencing parts of life that I will never have to experience. I laughed a lot. I had a lump in my throat a couple of times. And my eyes were wet at one deeply moving point near the end. It’s hard to recommend a book that goes against all of my sensibilities. The language was rough. But I'm giving it 5 stars and promising that if you can get past the stuff I've mentioned, you'll love it.

The Happiest Man on Earth (Eddie Jaku)

I couldn't put this book down. It's a short read - probably about 3 hours - but it is one of the most valuable books I've read this year.

Written by a centenarian German Jew, now living in Australia, who survived Auschwitz (and other camps), this is a book that tells one of the most horrific stories in history with matter-of-fact humility and simplicity. There's no hyperbole. The prose is plain (my 10 year-old is reading it now). And yet the power of Eddie's story is affecting.

I want every single person I know to read this book, to understand its message, and to learn from this horrible history.

Eddie describes the power of relationships to give meaning and purpose to life - and indeed, to give life. He outlines his escape from a moving train after 7 hours of chiselling away at the floorboards of a carriage to break a hole and drop down onto the ground while the train was moving. He tells of traversing hundreds of kilometres of European countryside on foot behind enemy lines. His heartbreak at the loss of his family, at betrayals, and the pain of losing loved ones is crushing. And his salvation as Germany capitulates - he weighed just 28kgs when he escaped Auschwitz - is moving.

An incredible story. And a must-read book even for your kids.

See what you made me do (Jess Hill)

This is a book that is meticulous, horrendous, and extraordinary. It’s hard to recommend because the content has hurt my soul. But I feel as though it should be compulsory content for anyone and everyone. Coarse language is strong but almost always in context. But if you're offended by the language you won't be able to stomach the content.

Hill writes deeply, carefully, and with genuinely provocative nuance about coercive control and domestic abuse in Australian homes. She unpacks the central theories (and evidence) around why it occurs (mostly shame and entitlement), who it happens to (mostly women, though she acknowledges how coercive control and abuse affects male victims), and how it happens. Hill takes the feminist view of the patriarchy as her guide, but is jarringly effective at highlighting its shortcomings while also explaining why it's still the best theory as she dismantles other perspectives and ideas. This was a highlight because it would have been so easy to accept the narrative that dominates worldview in one big swallow. I loved the way she picked at it, teased the inconsistencies out of it, and highlighted ways the theory needs to grow and improve to accommodate the evidence.

Hill examines how children are affected by this blight (and this was the hardest chapter to read by far). She talked about violent women and the abuse of men in our homes. She thoroughly investigated the police response (for good and bad) to this issue and unpacked the central reasons for their ineffectiveness with empathy and painful precision. And she talked about indigenous issues that are so much worse than the rest of our country's problems.

Solutions were called for and suggested. If you want a book that makes you feel, that makes you angry, that makes you grateful – this is the one.

Know my Name (Chanel Miller)

This year it seems I’ve overdosed on difficult stories - and it's wonderful for expanding my view and seeing new perspectives. Chanel Miller was the female victim in the Stanford sexual assault story involving swimmer, Brock Turner, that made headlines a few years ago. This is her story - and she uses her voice in incisive, extraordinary ways.

The book has a message whose time has come. Chanel Miller is a simply incredible writer. I was stunned at how beautifully the book is written. Literally one of the most remarkably written books I've read.

The book is gutwrenching, personal, invasive, uncomfortable, sad, and ultimately hopeful. I actually couldn't put the book down. It's not just important. It's gripping. It's sticky, It slides into your thinking and pins you down, making you reflect again and again on the unfairness of life and the biases in our systems. So much to say, but I can't do it justice. Possibly up there in contention for my book of the year. Once again, a language warning. But my goodness, what a book.

Almost Christian (Kenda Creasy Dean)

I’m a person with a strong faith. And I love to read high quality books about faith. Last year I had The Jesus Wars in my top books list. This year, another religious book.

From Oxford University Press, Dean pulls apart the results from the National Study of Youth and Religion and the story is fascinating. American youth don't know God or His teachings. They attend church to participate in the doctrines of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In short, they worship a false God. They don't feel strongly about their religion because they don't understand it.

Except... mormon youth. They stand out from the crowd as different. They have a language of faith. They score differently on the measures. They are excelling.

I highlighted, dog-eared, and wrote all over this book. I found it insightful. I found it inspiring. And I found it breathtakingly helpful in analysing what our youth need to form deep and abiding faith. Great comments on the good (and bad) of youth camps, impressive talk about mission, and a fascinating treatise on today's "church" (meaning broader Christianity) and building faith in parents so they can build faith in their children. Not a light read, but a brilliant and thoughtful evidence-based treatment of an important topic.

Looking over this list I’m struck by the fact that each book actually sounds like a real downer. Mental institutions, Nazi war camps, a Doctor going through struggles, domestic abuse, and a sexual assault survivor.

I did read another 20 books this year. None of them came close to the six on this shortlist. (I went over the list three times more to find something else to recommend, but these were the crowning collection.)

As always, tell me what you think. Buy them. Read them. Be improved by them. (You can click on the link for each book to support our site and get them at great prices.)

Leave your ideas in the comments!

And here’s last year’s list in case you missed it - My Favourite Books from 2019


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