2020 was a year. There were ups and downs, but one thing that kept me sane was having so many books to read. While I didn’t come close to meeting my reading goal (I set it for 20, think I only got to 15), I still read some great books. These books altogether inspired me and also filled me with the kind of doubt you get when you are in awe of something doing the same thing as you, only like, way better. However, it wasn’t all la vie en rose – there were a few books that just weren’t for me.
Here are five of my favorite and five of my least favorite books of 2020. Now I know, not all of these were released this year, but these are ones I read so it still counts – cool?
I’ve been wanting a high fantasy tale that didn’t feature 90-plus percent white people and that wasn’t set in real or fictional Europe. I was delighted when my book club, B2Weird, chose Black Sun by Roanhorse. Set in a pre-Columbian land, it tells the tale of Serapio, Xiala, Naranpa, and Ocoa who lead different lives but whose worlds all collide leading up to and on the day of a historic eclipse. This book dealt expertly with issues of class, identity, faith, and more. Xiala was one of my favorite characters of the year – how could I not Stan a bisexual siren who runs the shit?
I was hype about this book, which was billed as a gothic horror and essential read. However, I found myself drifting every time I’d pick the book up. So much of the tale is populated with “day in the life of” the main character Inez that it left me wanting more tension. I know it’s supposed to be a slow burn, building in intensity like Suspiria or Rosemary’s Baby. But, the book didn’t hold my attention enough to wait for the big payoff.
I like my fantasy gritty, real, and full of things that scare you. That’s what Ninth House is. It’s got fucked up characters that are dealt fucked up hands in life and forced to deal. I devoured this book, especially loving the worldbuilding that Bardugo put into the societies. I’m also a fan of people having powers that they don’t altogether understand, as that allows for a. The reader to connect with them more because we are all novices and b. The hope that there will be a series for us to watch Alex get more powerful because she deserves it. Also, I liked that this book was devoid of a romance – it was a nice change of pace.
This was another book I was looking forward to but sadly left me unimpressed. It reminded me of The Favorite Sister (read in 2019, loved) and Big Little Lies with the way it was both a murder mystery and a critique and examination of modern womanhood. However, the author placed the burden of saving the day on Rosalita, the Latina office cleaner, only to ostensibly leave her out of the sisterhood of mostly white, blonde women in the end. Without realizing it, the author essentially reinforced the notion that though Black and Brown women do the painstaking labor of anti-racism and sexism work, white women are the first or main benefactors.
I read The Return on a weekend while laying in bed due to my chronic pain. I was looking for something to get lost in, and The Return was that girl. It follows three friends – Elise, Molly, and Mae, in the aftermath of their friend Julie’s disappearance. Molly and Mae want to move on, but Elise believes Julie is still out there. Two years later she’s back, only she came back wrong. This book is a well-rounded horror on so many levels. It’s got a Kubrick-eque atmosphere, especially when the group takes a weekend vacation at a hotel that’s reminiscent of The Madonna Inn, and also a whole lot of body horror. But it also examines the horror of drifting apart from your friends and how that can cause you to lose yourself.
I love a good beach read, and this was set to be the read for the summer. Though I loved the author’s writing style, I finished this book feeling meh. It’s a murder mystery, following the disappearance of and investigation into the death of a teen named Alison, who vanishes while on vacation with her family at the fictional island of Saint X. While I like that the author had Alison and Claire (our MC) explore their privilege both from a class and race standpoint, the fact that she wrote the other main character to be a Black man and had Claire essentially stalk him for answers about Alison’s death felt like a contradiction and ignorant about the complicated history of white women accusing Black men of crimes.
This book blew me away. I’m a sucker for worldbuilding, and Johnson crafted not one but hundreds of worlds with precision. It tells the tale of Cara, a traverser who travels to different worlds to collect data for the Eldritch Institute. Since traversers can only go to worlds where there isn’t another version of them, Cara is able to visit all but 8 out of 382 worlds. I loved the way Johnson approached complicated topics like abuse, identity, sexuality, and class. Each character she wrote was fully fleshed and human, even the abusive boyfriend that Cara always seems to find on every world she visits. I also adored the relationship between Cara and Dell, Cara’s handler as she traverses. I’m not normally a ‘shiper, but I ‘ship them. Hard.
The concept of this book was so unique that I bought it without hesitation. By the end, though, I was so underwhelmed that I wanted to throw the book across the room. The book essentially deals with the idea of stories being cursed, and how ruinous they can be to the people they are told to. After a woman and her daughter are killed for alleged witchcraft, a young boy is told the story at a camp by a counselor who knew the girl. That boy grows up to make a movie about the killing, casting a young girl to be the daughter, with disastrous results. That girl comes back for the remake of the film, and years later tells her story to a podcaster. Again, the concept was wonderful. The execution left a lot to be desired as it felt like the author got bored halfway through writing it and decided to wrap it up in a random, nonsensical way.
What were your best and worst reads of 2020?