2020 was once again an incredible year for my reading life. While I’d planned on reading less this past year, the restrictions on events and gathering with friends made instead for even more time for reading. Because I read so much again, it was especially hard to narrow down my top reads this year. Here are, after great deliberation, my top eleven, with a long list of honourable mentions below!
(Alistair McLeod, 1999)
This is a multi-generational family saga that follows clan MacDonald in the centuries after they settle in Cape Breton and beyond. It’s a rich story of the ties that bind, history repeating, and finding a country of one’s own. In other words, it’s a quintessentially Canadian story.
(Emma Donoghue, 2020)
In a year when many books saw their publication dates pushed back because of the pandemic, this is one of the few that was published earlier than planned, and with good reason. This is a gripping, urgent story that spends three days in a special labour and delivery ward for Spanish flu patients in a stretched-past-its-limits Dublin hospital. Massive global events — wars, pandemics, revolutions — collide with the lives of individual women and men in this book, and I could not put it down.
(N.K. Jemisin, 2020)
Jemisin is known for her high-concept speculative fiction and biting social commentary, and this most definitely checks those boxes. New York City has just transformed into a sentient being, but is under threat from an alien force. Can the newly personified boroughs band together to save the City? This is a great piece of speculative fiction, one of the most probing New York books I’ve encountered, and a powerful commentary on urban life and gentrification all in one.
(Madeline Miller, 2018)
I was a bit suspicious of this book; it came out to great hype and fanfare and I often find find such books disappointing. This was a huge exception to that rule. Miller masterfully weaves together the various strands about Circe found throughout Greek mythology into a story cycle of her own. After millennia of being a bit character in other people’s stories, Circe is here given her due, and is fleshed out as a fascinating, complicated, flawed and relatable heroine. A brilliant book.
(TJ Klune, 2020)
There is something special about a good, simple story told well. And this book is a truly wonderful example of this. The ground it covers isn’t especially new, but it covers it oh so well! Its protagonist is a low-level bureaucrat in an agency that oversees orphanages for “special” children, whose life is turned upside down when he is asked to look into the placement of a very special child, who happens to be the Antichrist. A delightful book guaranteed to make you smile.
(Hilary Mantel, 2020)
The long-anticipated final volume in Mantel’s trilogy tracing the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s long-time advisor Thomas Cromwell more than lives up to the lofty expectations set by the first two books of the series, both of which won the Booker Prize. It covers the final years of Cromwell’s life, as the political games of the Tudor court grow ever more complicated and eventually take down their most genius player.
(Susanna Clarke, 2020)
This is a strange, wondrous book: mythology, psychology, and thriller in one compact package. It is a first-person narration by a man who lives in an infinite labyrinth. He is curious and methodical in his explorations but he takes the state of his universe as a given, until one day when he uncovers there may be more to his world than he thinks. Layer by layer, he slowly peels back its mysteries. This is one that sticks with you.
(Yoko Ogawa, 1994 (transl. 2019))
It feels almost criminal that it took twenty-five years for this beautiful, eerie work of speculative fiction to be translated into English. This is a quiet and thoughtful book that looks in on a young woman and her elderly friend as their world becomes smaller and smaller in a country whose government erases words and the things they signify from existence, and where remembering them is a crime.
(Stephen Price, 2019)
This book follows Giuseppe di Lampedusa, the last of an ancient line of the high Sicilian aristocracy, as the harsh new realities of post-World War II life inspire him to write a novel about the impact the unification of Italy had on the … high Sicilian aristocracy a century before. The novel he writes is The Leopard, which is widely recognized as the greatest piece of modern Italian literature. The two works function beautifully together and Price magnificently recreates the tone of Lampedusa’s masterpiece as he weaves together these two stories of ends of eras, decline and decay, and the emergence of new, heretofore unimagined worlds.
(Alexis Hall, 2020)
Romance novels are maligned for their predictable resolutions and worn out tropes. But, I’ve come to appreciate how the best examples the genre use these tried-and-true formats to tell truly great stories of people overcoming their problems and getting their shit together to create a better life for themselves. I read a few such genre-transcending novels this year, but this one gets my nod as my favorite. Faced with the prospect of losing his job after some embarrassing run-ins with the tabloids, the down-on-his-luck (and down-on-himself) son of an aging rock star needs a respectable boyfriend ASAP and turns to his friends for help. This is a hilarious book (literally laugh-out-loud funny) with two charming leads and also happens to be a delightful satire of English culture. (The book often reminded me of Kate Fox’s 2004 classic of contemporary anthropology, Watching the English). Such an unexpectedly wonderful read.
(S.A. Chakraborty, 2020)
I couldn’t not include this final installment of the Daevabad trilogy on my best of list for the year. This is easily my favorite fantasy series of all time, and Chakraborty more than sticks the landing here. What makes this book so impressive is that she ties up all the loose threads of her story while simultaneously widening the narrative world. It’s so impressive and I cannot wait to see what she will do next!
BONUS: A Tale for the Time Being
(Ruth Ozeki, 2013)
I haven’t finished this book yet (at the time of writing I’m about three quarters through), so it doesn’t belong on my ‘best of list’, it definitely merits a place of honour. This book should not work — it brings together themes of ecological crisis, teenage angst, middle aged ennui, social ostracism, dementia, suicide, and Buddhist philosophy — and yet, not only does it work, but but it ‘works’ in a highly enjoyable and even delightful way. I can’t get over how good this book is!
- One to Watch, Kate Stayman-London – This is ostensibly a Romance, but is also a fantastic exploration of weight and body image in media and popular culture.
- Pachinko, Min Jin Lee – A multi-generational family saga about the ethnically Korean community in Japan.
- Little, Edward Carey – This little-known but stunning book explores 18th-Century France through the eyes of a young servant girl who would grow up to become Madame Tussaud.
- The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller – As she did with Circe, here Miller fills in the gaps in the known stories of Achilles and Patroclus to create an exciting, moving, and original work.
- Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks – A young woman’s life is completely unmade and remade over the course of a single, horrible, wondrous plague year.
- The Secret Chord, Geraldine Brooks – This fascinating book follows the biblical prophet Nathan as he is tasked with compiling an official biography for King David by interviewing those who admired, loved, and hated him — often at the same time.
- The Friend, Sigrid Nunez – A woman inherits an old friend’s dog as she reflects on friendship, grief, problematic ‘great’ men, and, yes, dogs.
- The Midnight Library, Matt Haig – A tale exploring all of life’s roads not taken in the search for the one that fits
- The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa – The original, classic Italian novel whose writing is explored in Lampedusa (see above)
- Red, White, and Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston – A hilarious and adorable story about an ambitious son of an American President who realizes his feelings for his royal arch-nemesis may be more complicated than he thinks.
- Nimona, Noelle Stevenson – This is a delightful graphic novel about a plucky girl who desperately wants to become the sidekick of her world’s Super Villain.