Reviews

My Best Books of 2020

I managed to write three blog posts this year? Woof. What a year. I’m terrible at remembering dates, like even my own birthday, but I think I’ll remember this one.

This year I managed to read 48 books! *fanfare noises* Ironically, I read maybe…two books throughout lockdown #1 (in the UK). As it turns out, I really depend upon work lunchbreaks and exhausted evenings to have scheduled reading time. But it also turns out that being disassociated from your favourite hobbies is one of the signs of depression, so whoop whoop. What. A. Year. Moving on…

So, out of 48 books, how many of those would I actually recommend? I had a pretty good year for books, to be honest! I enjoyed most of them, which is pretty rare.

Here are the few that make my shortlist of best reads in 2020*, in order of discovery.

*Note: I do not mean published in 2020.

1. THE GIVER OF STARS by Jojo Moyes

GiverofStars

I cannot believe I read The Giver of Stars this year. It was my first book of January 2020. That feels like a lifetime ago. A different world, when work was fun. But I remember how I could not put this down. I recommended this to my aunt, my grandmama, my mother, my colleague – just SHOVED THIS into everyone’s hands, and I don’t know a single person who came back to me and said ‘meh’. It was a resounding “Whooo!” from everyone.

I’ve never read Jojo Moyes before, but how could I ignore a novel based on real librarians who delivered books on horseback in Kentucky? I loved this so much more than expected. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I felt my emotions doing all kinds of twisty, joyful, painful and teary things. Beautiful. And DAMN do I have writer’s envy for the plot structure! The structure, yo. Ugh. So clever.

2. THE FOLK OF AIR TRILOGY by Holly Black

If I hadn’t consumed this as an audiobook, I probably wouldn’t have read past the second chapter of book one, THE CRUEL PRINCE. It starts very cliche bloodthirsty, and then cliche teen school drama in a world of cliche beautiful teen immortals, and it still took me a while to really get hooked.

But I did enjoy it. I particularly enjoyed how the protagonist did not simply fall in love with her enemy as soon as things got complicated. In fact, she gets worse. She enjoys being nasty. She enjoys having power and making her enemy miserable. She follows through on all that she has consistently desired: to make him feel as miserable as he’s made her feel. That was certainly different and I found that thrilling. I loved how…angry the protagonist was? And her fears feel genuine, which in turn makes her anger and power struggles all the more genuine. Not just…I want to be strong and prove I’m worthy. It had layers. Yum, yum, yum. I think I just enjoyed how the story sets up Jude to be ambitious and then fulfils that. The teen romance is simmering on the back-burner in the BEST possible way. Boy, do I love a slow burn.

The plot also takes unexpected turns. I was totally surprised by the violent first-act twist (or was it mid-point? Hard to remember with audio), and it grabbed me in the right way! So I’m glad I was stuck listening to this in my car more often than not – it really made me give this a proper chance. By disc 4, I actually brought it into the house and spent whole days painting and listening to the story. Listening to books two and three just cemented my appreciation for the series. I honestly gave all three 5 stars. *applause*

If you can borrow this as an audiobook from your library: DO IT. The narrator is incredible. She’s like, oh, you want me to act pain and anger and fear and do it all in distinct voices? Hold my purse.

3. ATTACHMENTS by Rainbow Rowell

At the start of lockdown, after three weeks of isolation, it was hella weird to read about people touching and bumping and going to gatherings and sharing work spaces. Anyway.

This was PERFECT. This was amazing. So funny. So adorable. So many feelings. PER. FECT. Like, I realise the two women speak terribly of other women they’re jealous of, but it felt very real. It felt like a part of the 2000s, and it didn’t make me hate them for being conditioned to speak about other women that way. They were very believable. Products of the life they were born into, and I actually really liked that. And I’ve never empathised with a female character before who is so genuinely terrified of having children. Me too, babe.

So, on top of this lush friendship, you’ve got this bizarrely adorable romance? I say bizarre, because in most circumstances it would be creepy as heck. And yet. The protagonist is a man who acts as surveillance on everyone’s emails. He falls in love with one of the women above by reading her work messages to her Scared To Have A Baby Friend. He wants to look out for both of them and is, in general, very kind to the people around him.

I don’t care what you think, this book was damn adorable. It made me smile and laugh SO MUCH, especially at a time when you want people to be kind.

4. BONDS OF BRASS by Emily Skrutskie

Now this is my favourite book of 2020. Oh my GOD is it perfect. Look, you only need to read the first sentence of the blurb to know you want this:

A young pilot risks everything to save his best friend–the man he trusts most and might even love–only to learn that he’s secretly the heir to a brutal galactic empire.

I listened to this as an audiobook, which I then promptly shared with everyone. The reading is sumptuous, so it only adds to an already wonderful experience of galactic politics, two teen boys in love, and sexy piloting skills. Apparently the author was cross with Star Wars for not developing Finn/Po, so she wrote her own book. *applaused and screaming* Honey, you did it better than they ever could have.

My partner missed the first hour of this audiobook, but ended up listening in as I led beside him in bed. The next day, he asked, “Are you going to listen to more of that story?” I said, “Yeah, why?” He replied, “Please don’t listen without me, I want to hear more.” So even though he lacked the entire opening sequence of events, he was hooked too.

Brilliant narrator, give him the first chapter to prove it to you. Five-thousand star story.

5. THE LADY’S GUIDE TO CELESTIAL MECHANICS by Olivia Waite

I love a historical LGBT+ story that doesn’t ignore the dangers of the time, but doesn’t use them as a crutch for the story’s drama. This is 100% focused on the lady’s relationship and the perils of miscommunication, propriety, self-degredation, and the fear of getting hurt. This is a great adventure in love and in striving to achieve your passions. Money clearly helps. But aside from that, this is a feel-good romance frothing on the tides of science and art as two ladies in love fight to prove they are worthy of being noticed.

Never once was it gauge or heavy-handed as it laid out the injustices done to female scientists throughout history, or other “female” persuits, such as embroidery.

This was equally rivetting for the protagonist’s ambition and career as it was for the romance at its core. Funny, gooey, and intriguing.

6. DRAGON’S BLOOD AND WILLOW BARK by Toni Mount

This was an excellent read. As someone who doesn’t have any deep knowledge on the subject, this was super accessible and fascinating. I love the author’s subtle sense of humour and the almost biographical glimpses into many different practitioners.

I’ve never held much stock in herbal remedies beyond lemon and honey for a sore throat, but this was also very humbling to learn that, obviously, so much of modern medicine is born from the natural world that our predecessors had to depend on. What is more humbling is learning that many natural ingredients are still important to modern medicines for treating things like diabetes and creating asperin.

I don’t often read non-fiction quickly, but I blitzed this and enjoyed the learning. Deffo recommend.

7. CRAVEN MANOR by Darcy Coates

Aside from the fact Darcy Coates won’t stop being amazing, this was as to be expected: SO GOOD. Scary and intriguing. A wonderful ghost mystery that always had you second-guessing yourself. Delicious, ghosty scares. My partner and I loved the narrator, too, because the best way to consume a Darcy Coates story is as an audiobook. *chef’s kiss* He did a fantastic job of delivering emotion and tension, especially on a beautiful summer’s day in lockdown.

8. THESE WITCHES DON’T BURN by Isabel Sterling

I loved chapter one. Wasn’t so sure about chapter two. And then I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN. This was a super compelling thriller to be honest with you, tangled up with an excellent break-up saga and new-love story. I think I read this in three days? That really doesn’t happen often for me. Magic, and friends, and love! Perfect. The author clearly cares about Wiccan Covens but has given it a unique little spin that elevates it into superhero territory without making it stupid.

Again, I’ve been pushing this onto all my friends as politely as possible, because I think this is fantastic.

9. THE ROAD TO CONSCIOUS MACHINES by Michael Wooldridge

I didn’t expect to read this so quickly, but I super enjoyed it. I love Wooldridge’s style. He seems like a genuine man who honestly wants to share an understanding of what AI actually is and where it is actually headed in the future. It’s never patronising and never hollow in it’s explanations (such as mentioning a programming technique and then never explaining what that means, or giving an explanation that seems like I’ve been cheated of information because it’s “too hard” for my understanding). Always excellent diagrams and breakdowns that somehow weren’t dry and boring. Wow, well done.

I enjoyed reading the chronological history of AI through its highlights and failures. While it evidently cut out a lot of history, it also felt like a fantastic entry point, with descriptions that really WANT to convey the significance of each landmark to a layman.

The subsequent chapters on philosophy, socio-economic factors, consciousness, and real-world current progress – this was overall just fascinating. Despite the overall message “we will probably never achieve conscious machines sorry but really we won’t – here is why” it was very positive on what can be achieved and offered a new perspective on what we SHOULD be worried about.

10. SING THE FOUR QUARTERS by Tanya Huff

I can’t believe this has been sitting on my shelf for seven years, just staring at me. Waiting. Waiting for me to pick it up and get on with it. BECAUSE YOOOOO. THIS IS BRILLIANT. So brilliant that I posted it to my cousin.

Personal favourite things that make it 5*:

– Excellent use of misinformation. Characters did things that hurt each other/made matters worse based on their prejudices and assumptions. These were never stupid or forced for the sake of creating a dilemma. These were perfectly planned and genuine to each character based on each individual circumstance at the time. This gave me anxiety in the best way possible.

– So many gay couples. And it’s SO CAUSAL about it. I love it. I love it. You don’t even realise you’re in the same room as two married women until the other partner gets given a pronoun. Yes. Yes. I’m still eager for books where gay love is normal and doesn’t need to be explained to me that it’s normal. Just give me a fantasy world where the prejudices aren’t like my real life.

– BI PROTAGONIST. PERFECT. And perfect for exactly the same reasons as the one above.

– “You don’t own your children.” I love it for this line alone.

– The bard magic is never explained. Took me a while to wrap my head around it. But once I got it, super cool.

– I am someone who has a very dry sense of humour, so I really appreciated Huff’s in this book. Some cracking lines that I didn’t realise were a joke until I hastily reread a few sentences back. So good.

THINGS TO WARN:

– A lot of weird fantasy names. Maybe they’re based on a real-world custom, but it was a bit off-putting to start with, especially with some names looking similar to each other.

– Heavy politics. Not a lot explained. You gotta concentrate hard for the first 20%, and then by that point you’re integrated.

11. FIFTH QUARTER by Tanya Huff

Yes, Tanya Huff gets two individual shout-outs, because book two is completely and utterly different. Although it’s set in the same world as book one, it is not linked AT ALL until book three. Weird. Love it. Why not.

Trying to describe what happens in these books is honestly like trying to describe an alien planet. I love it so much. I don’t even think a lot happened in this novel* but there was so much INNER TURMOIL and FEELINGS in the most CLEVER WAYS. My loyalities became clear-cut very quickly (piss off Bannon), but I still wondered how this was going to be resolved kindly for everyone. BECAUSE GREAT INNER TURMOILS.

I enjoyed trying to figure out a solution. But in the end, I was still surprised in the best way possible. When you read a lot of fantasy, it’s wonderful to be surprised. Especially since this was first published in 1995? Well done, Tanya Huff. You’re ahead of your time.

*like technically, a lot happens – undead, kidnapping, body snatching, soul sharing, patricide, assasination – but also, they are just feeling things as they constantly travel after a far away goal and goshdamn was I HOOKED

12. FRUITS BASKET by Natsuki Takaya

I am rereading all of Fruits Basket. This is a beautiful manga. The protagonist, Tohru Honda, has remained one of my idols to this day. One of my favourite mottos is “What would Tohru Honda do?” because she is a kind person who works hard – even when she’d rather stop. She tries hard to see the best in people, even if they don’t necessarily deserve it. She’s kind when it counts and positive about the small things. The people around Honda, also teach her to be kinder to herself and not to tolerate absolute shit.

Do you need a gorgeous story about growing-up, dealing with grief, and caring for others with a subtle pinch of magic? Then look no further. Ten years later and this manga is still making me cry.

And there you have it! My best books of 2020. Loads more than last year, thank goodness. Out of 48 books, these are the ones I heartily recommend and can say without hesitation: I loved them. Happy reading!

What are your best reads of 2020?

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