Favourite books of 2020
It's finally here: the end of 2020... Although it's been a year in which pessimism and negativity has ruled supreme, I'm going to end it on a positive note as usual with my top 10 favourite novels of the year. As horribly cliché as it sounds, this year hasn't been easy, but books have been a large part of what's helped me trough the darker moments, so for that I'm very thankful to them and of course the bookish community online. Without further ado, let's talk about my favourites of the year: my top 10, some honourable mentions and of course a shout out to some debut author and my favourite bookish creators.
Some household rules as always:
Not all of these books are 2020 releases; they are simply books I read in 2020.
Rereads are excluded from my top 10, but may be mentioned in the honourable mentions.
This year, I couldn't for the life of me put these books in order. Basically, my top 5 is my top 5, but all of them are interchangable in place.
To kick off this list, we have the start of an adult fantasy series For the citizens of the great city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal. This year however, will be different. The upcoming convergence of the winter solstice with a complete solar eclipse has been prophesied to bring an unbalancing of the world and chaos along the way. In the days leading up to this event, a disgraced Teek captain (women with the power to calm waters through their Songs) is tasked with trafficking a mysterious passenger to the city in time for the Solstice, as he may have an important role to play. What follows is a tale of destiny, celestial prophecies, sacrifice, dark magic, and individuals struggling fulfil the role that faith has dealt them. All I have to say about this title is: if you’re a fan of the high-fantasy genre, you can’t pass this one up. This was exactly what a great fantasy novel should be: great and memorable characters, intrigue, an exciting plot from start to finish and of course a fantastically well thought out world filled with magic, history and lore. I can’t wait for the second book, which will hopefully arrive in 2021, to continue this series.
Yes, I’m on the bandwagon with at least one hyped book of 2020. I had very little interest in this book at first, because I knew the author primarily writes romance, which just isn’t a genre that interests me much. Then this thing just kept making its way into my life in the sneakiest ways, appearing in random bookstores, on my social media feeds and being recommended by my favourite bookish-creators. Upon reading the synopsis and realizing this wasn’t just a romance novel, but a kind of magical-realism adventure with a romance woven through, I decided to take the plunge just to get this out of my system. I didn’t regret it for a single moment. We follow Linus, a case-worker for the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, where he spends his day overseeing the well-being of magically gifted children in government-sanctioned orphanages. Although he loves working with the children, he’s often wondered if there’s more in life than his boring old job and his rude bosses. This question is answered when he is send on a highly classified assignment to a remote orphanage on Marsyas Island, where six dangerous magical children reside. After a month of living on the orphanage grounds, he is to report on the children, and most importantly: their mysterious caregiver mr. Parnassus. What follows is nothing like what Linus imagined it to be. This is an adult novel that reads very much like the whimsy of a middle-grade and with it’s adorable characters and lightly campy pocket-wisdom it’s hard not to love. It’s not a life-changer for me, but it was a right-book-at-the-right-time for many including myself. I can’t think of a better time for wholesome and lovable fun than in the middle of a global pandemic.
Rebecca Podos’ sophomore novel makes a second appearance in my yearly wrap-up: not just underrated, but also a favourite of the year. There was just so much for me to love here. Not only is it the exact kind of contemporary I love (ard-hitting topics, a focus on family and/or coming of age, all against the highly atmospheric backdrop of (preferably) a small town...), it was also executed to wonderfully. Our story follows Savannah, who after graduation finds herself stuck in her small New Mexico town that she’s been anticipating to escape for so long now. That was before everything changed after her father was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, and her mother needed all the help she could get to keep their family and their restaurant afloat. Now Vanni lives at home, working as a performing mermaid at a second-rate water park, and flirting with the local guys just to keep her mind off reality. Everything changes when she meets Leigh however, who quickly becomes her friend and potentially more (yes, there is own-voices bisexual rep). What I appreciated most about this novel, apart from the impeccable atmosphere (seriously, you can feel the Mexican heat blazing from the pages!), is the characters and their dynamic. I loved the depiction of a teen struggling with being a daughter and a care giver to her dad. There honestly aren’t many books that have done this well for me, and this one did the trick. I also love the family dynamic, and the developing friendship and romance between Leigh and Vanni. I stand by what I said in my previous mention of this book: I wish it wasn’t as underrated, and if it sounds like something you might enjoy I beg you to give it a chance.
I received an early copy of Migrations for review, ánd went out of my way to pre-order a physical copy for myself, and I still haven’t written a more coherent review than some disjointed ravings and throwing around of 5-stars. It’s not for a lack of trying, but I have this thing where I sometimes struggle to express my thoughts about the books I love. It’s not necessarily a specific topic, or character that speaks directly to me, that I can point the finger at. It’s just that the book itself is a literary masterpiece. At the docks in Greenland, a lone woman talks her way onto a fishing boat with a singular purpose in mind: to follow the last Arctic terns in the world on what might be their final migration to Antarctica. As the shore disappears far past the horizon, the Arctic sea envelops them and Franny gets to know the crew of the boat she’s boarded, her own history begins to unspool. A tragic life filled with regret, misfortune and solitude. We soon learn Franny’s chasing after more than just birds, and perhaps even chasing away from something completely. The arctic setting of this novel perfectly match the content: harsh and unforgiven, but seeped in an otherworldly beauty you won’t find anywhere else. With a beautiful narrative voice the author combines a portrait of a damaged an unreliable woman, with nature-writing of an inhospitable and untameable biome at the mercy of climate change. Although the author has published YA works before, I believe this is her debut in the adult literary fiction category, and I can’t wait to see what else she’ll bring in the future.
I’d originally finished this favourites list about halfway into December, not anticipating to read too many new favourites within those final weeks anymore. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars was the one to force me to reorganise the entire list to make space for it, because it couldn’t be left out. Perhaps there’s a bit of nostalgia at play, as I grew up with Christopher Paolini’s debut series The Inheritance Cycle, and have some treasured memories about them. Yet never had I expected to love this second work (10+ years in the making) as much as I did. We follow xenobiologist Kira Navarez, who has the misfortune to stumble upon an abandoned alien ruin, during a routine mission on an uncolonized planet. When Kira finds herself infected with an alien parasite, the story soon fractals out into a galaxy-wide war, and the worst threat humanity has ever faced. Although Kira would do nothing rather than return home to her family, she and her parasitical passenger seem to be the only chance to prevent mutual annihilation. This book was filled with a lot of heart, mind and characters to love. So much so that even after almost 900 pages of it, I was sad to have to say goodbye. Coming from someone who isn’t typically a “space-scif-kinda-girl”: this was great!
Another December-addition to the list, also by an already favourite author was Watch Over Me. My most anticipated release of 2020, and a book that almost seemed targeted specifically to me. Just read the synopsis, and you’ll understand why. This book had its arrows targeted right at my heart, and I was a sitting duck from the start. In this contemporary ghost-story with magical realism element we follow Mila, who, recently having aged out of the foster system, accepts a teaching job at an isolated farm on the North Californian Coast. During the daytime she finds connection and friendship in her colleagues and the foster children she tutors, yet during the night the lingering seamist is filled with ghosts. Ghosts of Mila’s past, and that of the others, that won’t let her leave her what’s happened behind. Coastal fog, grief, ghosts and found families, all in the beautifully understated and resonant prose that’s Nina LaCour’s signature. For more of my thoughts you can find my review here.
Other than the books I sniff out for myself, I have a few places I know to go for consistently great book recommendations. My favourite online creators have been Kayla from BooksandLaLa and Jen Campbell. It’s become an accidental tradition that at least one or two of their recommendations make it to my favourites list. This year, it’s one by Jen: The Museum of You. In this coming of age novel we follow Clover, a young girl with a fascination for museums and a deep desire to know her mother, who passed away when she was very young. Her father took his wife’s death hard, and has locked his grief away (literally) by keeping all his wife’s possessions in a dedicated room and sealing the door. Unable to talk to her dad about her mother, Clover takes to the locked room to find her own answers about her mom’s life. Piecing together the bits, Clover curates her own museum filled with mundane objects of a woman she wish she’d got to know. I’ve already discussed this book in my Most Underrated Reads, and I have a review up, which you can find here, so for now I’ll leave it at this, and hope you’ll pick this book up for yourself.
The Queens of Innis Lear is one of the overall lowest rated fantasy books on my shelves, and one of the most beautiful ones I’ve ever read. The story is a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic King Lear, wherein a prophecy-obsessed mad king sends a isle into turmoil when he refuses to chose a successor from his three daughters. Battle-hungry Gaela, strategic mastermind Reagan and starblessed Elia refuse to leave their future up to blind faith, and soon find themselves in a conflict over even more than just the crown. I can see why this book hasn’t got the highest ratings, as it’s a far cry from your typical action-packed fantasy. It’s a characterd-driven story that’s about the slow-build tension, the atmosphere, lyrical writing and gradual development. All of those things I happen to love and made for an absolutely magical and immersive read, filled with memorable characters that I came to adore and despise at the same time. With polarizing books like this, I don’t recommend them blindly to everyone. Rather I tell you to decide for yourself: do you enjoy character-driven, highly atmospheric and slower paced fantasy, that has a beautiful pay-out in the end? You need to read this ASAP! Does all of this sound boring to you? Maybe rethink reading it: even though it was one of my favourites, it might not be for you.
My favourite fantasy novel of the year came completely out of left field. I’m not one to like books where humour is a big part of the attraction, especially not fantasy books that try to be funny and exciting at the same time. For that reason I was pretty sceptical about this one. Kings of the Wyld isn’t at all like that, however. This is a quality, action packed, exciting fantasy novel, that doesn’t try to be funny. It just happens to be hilarious. Our protagonist Clay Cooper is a middle-aged, retired member of a mercenary band, content to live out the rest of his days at home with his family, reminiscing about the glory days. That all changes when his daughter is kidnapped, and Clay’s father-instincts kick his old fighting prowess back into gear. In order to save his daughter, Clay gathers up his band once more (all of its members grown apart, old, fat, drunk - or a combination of the three) for a final adventure across the Wyld. I described this book as “middle-aged, out of shape dads thrown in a plot that unfurls like a D&D campaign on steroids”, which is probably still accurate… It’s a bit campy at times, but it’s also filled with a lot of heart, friendship and some memorable, lovable ánd kick-ass characters. If after this description you question my sanity for putting this so high on the list: please do go ahead. All I’m saying is: this was the escapist entertainment I and everybody else needed in 2020!
It was hard to decide what book to put in first place this year, but I decided to pick the one that fits the loose trend I’ve had in my favourites over the past years. Often the nr. one spot has gone to the book that had the most emotional resonance with me for that particular year based on “life events” that time. This year that parallel was very loose, yet nonetheless impactful for me. In broad terms and without spoiling anything, this book is about coping with trauma, PTSD, (survivors)guilt and grief. About the choice of literally running from your demons, or facing them head-on, and about creating/finding your own support system to stand behind you when you do so. Although our particular trauma’s and life-experiences were very far apart, I recognized a lot of protagonist Annabelle in myself, which is why it was so impactful to me. It’s my personal reason to put it in the nr.1 spot, yet there are many more to give for why it truly deserves to be there. For example how many other important topics are covered, leading back to the source of Annabelle’s trauma. I won’t go into them here, as you do find out along the way, but there are plenty of reviews that include trigger-warnings and details for those who need them. Another reason is how this book strikes the perfect balance of emotions in its reader: it’s quite a difficult book to read at times. Annabelle’s journey is one that requires a lot of bravery and is quite hard to go through with her. However, it’s never doom-and-gloom in this book. When I said this book was about trauma, I was lying just a little bit: it’s more about healing from trauma. About finding your strength, your place (in this case among some of the best fictional families and friend groups I’ve read about), and the love for yourself and the life in front of you to keep going. Keep putting one foot in front of the other… I deeply adored this book, and I’m happy I found it, especially at the time that I did.
That brings us to the end of my favourites list, and of course, to the end of my 2020 reading-year. Before we really wave 2020 goodbye, I want to give a quick shout out to 2 honourable mentions, that almost made the list: Firstly: The Glass Hotel– Emily St. John Mandel Like I mentioned: I usually start compiling this list around mid-December, and originally that list included The Glass Hotel in the number 10 spot. Unfortunately for it, I finished To Sleep in a Sea of Stars just after that, so it got pushed to place 11. It’s still a fantastic read, and I felt wrong not to include this stunning character portrait of a young woman, set during the 2008 financial crisis, all in the beautiful voice that characterizes Emily St. John Mandel. You can find my full review here.
Secondly: The Unseen World – Liz Moore This would have made my favourites list if it hadn’t been a re-read. I still adore this book for the beautiful depiction of a father-daughter relationship, through all its difficulties, sickness and health. Review can be found here.
I wish you all a very happy 2021, and I hope to see you back in the new year. Starting off tomorrow fresh with my most anticipated books for 2020! Happy New-Years Eve, and happy reading.