My Favorite Books of 2020
In a crazy, ridiculous year like 2020, I never thought I’d be able to make it to my annual 100 books read because I fell into a bit of a slump at the beginning of the pandemic. However, I somehow managed to make it to 102 books and the year isn’t over yet! Maybe I’ll make it to 103? We’ll see! I still managed to have 13 favorite books of 2020.
At least there was one good thing to come out of 2020: incredible books.
I love to share book recommendations but I realize I only have one other blog post here about the books I love! And it’s from 2017! That’s blasphemous! So, I decided it was time to share my top 13 best books of 2020 (along with some honorable mentions because when you read 100 books a year, there are quite a lot bound to become favorites).
There’s quite a mix of genres here, as well as many books with diverse characters written by diverse authors. If you’re only reading straight white cis male authors and about white characters, you’re not reading diverse enough. This is your call to action to branch out and read more diverse books.
So here it is, the definitive list of my top 13 favorite books of 2020:
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis
This book absolutely ruined me. Five women who “sing” (cantoras means to sing but was also slang for lesbians) create found family during a time when being themselves could cost them their lives. I can’t recommend this novel enough.
We begin our story in 1977 Uruguay, at the height of the Uruguayan dictatorship, where we meet our five cantora protagonists who discover an isolated cape called Cabo Polonio, which becomes the only place they can be entirely themselves. The novel expanses over thirty-five years as the women deal with the trauma of living in a dictatorship and the aftermath of a world that suddenly tries to accept them.
I didn’t know anything about the Uruguayan dictatorship (tbh I only knew that Uruguay was now a very liberal country that was a go-to vacation spot for the LGBTQAI+ community). I had no idea how horrible and claustrophobic the dictatorship was. This really opened my eyes and broke my heart.
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
A dystopian sci-fi fantasy about a black, bisexual protag who literally travels through multiverses? Sign me the FUCK UP! I haven’t seen much hype for this book which is disappointing because it was literally so good.
In a world where multiverses are possible and can be visited, there’s a catch: you can’t visit a multiverse where the “you” who lives there is still alive. We meet our protag Cara, a “transverser” whose life has been cut short on 372 worlds because she comes from poverty and lives in a world not made for her. Because her counterparts have died so often, she’s the perfect fit to travel multiverses and gather data for the company that hires her. However, when one of her counterparts ends up murdered, Cara breaks protocol and vows to figure out the mystery of her other-self.
The writing in this book was gorgeous and suspenseful and we get an adorable “will they, won’t they” between Cara and her handler Dell. I laughed. I cried. Though I felt like the ending was a bit rushed, I could not recommend this enough.
This was FILLED to the brim with suspense and horrible truths about the world we live in.
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
The history! The writing! Diversity! The Downstairs Girl, set in late 1800’s Atlanta, follows Jo, a Chinese American girl who moonlights as a sassy newspaper advice columnist called Miss Sweetie. By day, she’s a ladies maid for a cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. By night, she’s basically radicalizing southern women to question the racist and misogynist world they live in.
Everything about this was gorgeous and taught me so much about Chinese history in America and all the absolute racist bullshit they had to go through. Did you know ex-slave owners brought Chinese people to America to replace black people as laborers after the civil war? I didn’t and it was horrifying to read about. I loved how this book brought attention to the fact that women of color were consistently and historically excluded from the women’s rights movement.
Paired with Jo’s Sassy persona and threaded with beautiful writing, this book is an instant classic. Please read it!
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Do you want to read a book about all the reasons to stay alive? The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is just that. Matt Haig knows how to write about the poignant things that hurt and break and heal.
Nora Seed, our protagonist, is ready to end her life. She takes too many sleeping pills and ends up in The Midnight Library, a place hung in time, that allows Nora to ask herself the age-old question: what if I had made another choice, would I be happier? Aided by a mysterious librarian, Nora jumps between her different lives and finds out if the grass really is greener on the other side.
As you can probably tell, I love books about multiverses and different timelines. This book mixed that love with a page-turning story about the meaning of being alive. Think modern-day It’s A Wonderful Life.
During a pandemic, when everything seems like it’s standing still, reading this book filled my heart with joy. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. If you need that reminder, too, this book should be your next read.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
What would you do if you could never be remembered?
This book. THIS BOOK. Even though this was almost 600 pages, I read it in two days because I could not put it down.
In the late 1700s, Addie Larue makes a Faustian bargain with a handsome demon and is cursed to live forever…except no one can remember her. She floats through hundreds of years of art, literature, and technology, traveling through history and continents, trying to be remembered and leave her mark on the world. However, after nearly 300 years of everyone forgetting she exists, a handsome guy in a bookshop finally remembers her name.
Invisible Life of Addie LaRue takes us through Addie’s 300 years on earth, slipping in and out of people’s lives like a shadow. It’s expansive and beautiful.
It may be my favorite book of the year.
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
This book could change the world. It should be required reading for literally everyone who considers themselves a feminist.
I’m going to include the blurb for the book here because it describes how important Hood Feminism is better than I ever could:
“Today’s feminist movement has a glaring blind spot, and paradoxically, it is women. Mainstream feminists rarely talk about meeting basic needs as a feminist issue. Food insecurity, access to quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage, and medical care are all feminist issues.
All too often, however, the focus is not on basic survival for the many, but on increasing privilege for the few. That feminists refuse to prioritize these issues has only exacerbated the age-old problem of both internecine discord and women who rebuff at carrying the title. Moreover, prominent white feminists broadly suffer from their own myopia with regard to how things like race, class, sexual orientation, and ability intersect with gender.
How can we stand in solidarity as a movement, Kendall asks, when there is the distinct likelihood that some women are oppressing others?”
If there’s one book you should consider required reading from this list, it’s this one.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
A sprawling, heartbreaking novel about identity, race, womanhood, and the meaning of family.
The Vanishing Half weaves together the strands of multiple generations and spans over sixty years. Two twin sisters are born into a small, Southern town where everyone is black but light-skinned. The twins run away from home and live drastically different lives. One passes as white and enters into white high society at the height of the civil rights movement. The other has to hide with her daughter in the same town she ran away from in order to escape her past.
This is a story about acceptance, race, identity, and racial inequality in America. It’s also about family and the ties that bind us together, even if we don’t want them to.
I cried my eyes out. There’s a reason this book was a national bestseller – it’s intricate and expansive. A must-read.
Dig. by A.S. King
Okay, so this one is a little weird. If you like extremely strange, speculative fiction, Dig is for you. I’d say the perfect summary of this book is: white privilege, racism, potatoes, and dancing flea circuses. Not particularly in that order.
A story about a family of potato farmers and their children, this book dives deep into systemic racism and white privilege in a way you’d never expect. With characters with names like The Freak, CanIHelpYou?, and The Shoveler, Dig explores the rot a family’s legacy can leave behind.
Perfectly transgressive and just my kind of weird, I can absolutely predict that reading this novel will take you places emotionally you were never expecting to go.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
I read In The Dream House pre-pandemic, which feels like 100 years ago. Like, I finished this book on my lunch break in the office and read it on the tram. What a concept!
Part memoir, part horror story, Carmen Maria Machado writes about her experience in an abusive same-sex relationship but reimagines her experience as a haunted house story. Describing it that way sounds kitschy but it’s not. This may have been one of the most beautiful memoirs I’ve ever read. Seeing how Machado reconceptualizes her traumatic experiences into something so imaginative made the book even more powerful.
I’ll just quote my own Goodreads review: “unbelievably raw and searing. I cried.”
We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Berry
In the lane of weird books similar to Dig, I bring you We Ride Upon Sticks.
Set in 1989 Salem, a girl’s field hockey team descended from the witches they didn’t burn decides to turn to witchcraft in order to gain an unbelievable winning streak. Filled to the brim with iconic 80’s references and a sentient bleach-blond bang called “The Claw”, this book was hilarious and had me on the edge of my seat. Like, I’m not kidding. One of the main characters is a sentient pair of bangs that sits on the top of the co-captain, Jen Fiorenza’s head. If you’re not up to date on your 80s iconography, The Claw looks like this:
If that doesn’t make you want to read this book, I don’t know what else could.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Another expansive book, The Great Believers shifts between 1985 Chicago and modern-day Paris. One of our main protagonists, Yale Tishman, begins to see his art career flourish just as the AIDs epidemic grows around him. His friends begin to die off one by one as the government and the world turn their backs on them. He begins to attend more funerals than parties and the virus gets closer to closer until all he has left is the sister of his dead best friend, Fiona.
In modern-day Paris, Fiona is tracking down her daughter who got caught up in a cult. The two timelines take us through the heartbreak of the AIDs crisis in the 80s and the aftermath of the modern world.
When I tell you I sobbed my eyes out, I mean it. I’m surprised I even have eyes after reading this. This book was beautiful, smart, and true. There was also a cat named Roscoe and every second he was on the page I found myself blubbering.
The AIDs epidemic was a modern tragedy and it’s disgusting how the government just let so many gay, lesbian, and trans people die alone in hospitals. Ronald Reagan didn’t even mention the word “AIDs” on live television until 1987 – a few months after a straight person contracted the virus. This should infuriate you. I think this book did a great job at portraying the impact and fallout of the AIDs crisis in America and is has such perfect, raw portrayals of grief. It was breathtaking.
The Great Believers is a story about what it means to live and to be loved. It’s a story about the fragility of our lives and how human connection is all that matters.
An absolute favorite.
Beach Read by Emily Henry
I had never read Emily Henry before I picked up Beach Read and I realize I was seriously missing out. I laughed, I cried, I swooned. But, mostly, I just laughed.
This was laugh out loud funny. Michael can attest to this as he literally watched me burst out laughing on every other page and he was like “this must be the comedy of the year.” He’s not wrong.
I don’t read a lot of romcoms, but when I do, they need to be this funny.
Two writers who are also neighbors make a bet to take on each other’s genres. While she writes happily ever afters a-la Christina Lauren, he kills off his entire cast a-la Game of Thrones. Neither respects the other’s genre, so they decide to switch to see if they can branch out and write a book outside of their comfort zone. Romance and a series of swoony hijinks ensue.
Beach Read literally had me like:
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
A series of personal essays, this book follows author George M. Johnson throughout his life as he explores his sexuality, gender identity, toxic masculinity, and the meaning of brotherhood.
I don’t even have the words to describe how poignant and important this book is. It could change the world. George’s writing style was so lyrical and enthralling as he takes us through his childhood and adolescence as he grows up as a queer person of color.
This book weaves emotional moments with Black joy and I think this should be required reading for everyone.
I guess when you read 102 books in a year, you can’t just narrow it down to a small list of favorite books of 2020. Who knew. This was also a really good reading year so I had more four- and five-star books than usual. So I want to quickly breeze through some honorable mentions of books I loved this year:
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
Magical doors that go to different worlds! Time travel! Alice and Wonderland but diverse! This book uses fantasy worlds to critique racism, sexism, and misogyny. It’s like The Starless Sea but coherent.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
A semi-autobiographical book written entirely in prose about a queer British boy of color growing up and discovering the eye-opening, colorful world of drag.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I read this as a child and thought Amy was the worst. Now, I’m an adult and 100% #TeamAmy.
Home Before Dark by Riley Sager
The Haunting of Hill House (and also, strangely, the Haunting of Hill House Netflix series) if it was modern-day and a thriller.
King and The Dragon Flies by Kacen Callander
A beautiful, heartbreaking middle grade about a trans, nonbinary kid growing up in Louisiana who believes his dead brother has become a dragonfly. I cried.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
This book is the literal embodiment of the quote: “A southern woman is like a teabag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
Except there is also a vampire living next door and a true-crime book club.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (I reread this whoops)
This is my favorite book of all time but I read it two years ago so I didn’t include it in the list above. It’s about a virus that wipes out half of the population but it’s also about the beautiful ways we are all connected and it’s also about Shakespeare. I was really leaning into the whole apocalyptic fiction thing in the beginning of the pandemic. The audiobook was incredible.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Written by the same author of Station Eleven, this book is about a Bernie Madoff style Ponzi scheme but also about ghosts and also about humanity as a whole. I can’t really tell you why this novel hit me so hard but I can tell you it’s been six months since I read it and I still think about it from time to time.
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