The best books of the worst year

Greetings, loved ones. Let’s take a journey (deep into the darkest depths of your memory, where if you have any recollection of my existence at all / the regrettable moment at which you smashed that follow button, such a thing would reside, monstrously ad alone).

I’m back.

Or more accurately, I am here. For this moment. And no other guarantee of any other. We are mere mortals, and I am both lazy and easily distracted. A bad combination for a blogger who is physically unable to write a blog post under 80,000 words.

This blog post is easier than other ones, because I’ve already essentially written it. I just have to write this classic “hello I’m here, yes it’s been 87 months, I’m sorry but not really” intro, hit copy-paste-copy-paste-copy-paste, insert some images, and boom.

Yes. It’s that time.

It’s time for me to release the Kraken my list of favorite books I read this year.

In 2020, I read 200 (!!!) books (and proceeded to brag about it across platforms because that has been my ultimate reading goal for five years). I gave ten of them five stars, for a 5% love rate fitting of a soulless demon such as myself.

Don’t ask how many of them I gave under 2 stars.

Anyway. Let’s chat about the dream team!

(These are in order of when I read them, and not how much I like them or something unhinged like that. Who do you think I am?)

SYNOPSIS

Less

Who says you can’t run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes–it would be too awkward–and you can’t say no–it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.

QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?

ANSWER: You accept them all.

What would possibly go wrong? Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.

Because, despite all these mishaps, missteps, misunderstandings and mistakes, Less is, above all, a love story.


REVIEW

This is my favorite kind of story.

It’s a rendition of life in its mundanities and monotony, a display of the fallacies and frustrations that make up our daily story, but one that refuses to flinch away from the breath-stealing beauty of it. The miraculousness and gorgeousness and fated magic of life.

And that type of story rarely wins awards. It is dismissed and mocked as treacly and feel-good. In all honesty I feel that if this book were written about or by a woman, it’d be relegated to a corner of by-rights-less-serious “women’s fiction,” called even a romantic comedy and never ever ever spoken of in the same sentence as the word Pulitzer.

But it is not overdone and tired to depict everyday life as wonderful and gorgeous. In fact, it’s the bravest story you can write.

That’s all I have to say.

Bottom line: How lovely.

SYNOPSIS

Layoverland

Beatrice Fox deserves to go straight to hell. At least, that’s what she thinks. On her last day on Earth, she ruined the life of the person she loves most–her little sister, Emmy. So when Bea awakens from a fatal car accident to find herself on an airplane headed for a mysterious destination, she’s confused, to say the least. Once on the ground, Bea receives some truly harrowing news: not only is she in purgatory, but she has been chosen to join the Memory Experience team. If she wants another shot at heaven, she’ll have to use her master manipulation skills to help 5,000 souls suss out what’s keeping them from moving on.

There’s just one slight problem. Bea’s first assigned soul is Caleb, the boy who caused her accident, and the last person Bea would ever want to send to the pearly gates. But as much as Bea would love to see Caleb suffer for dooming her to a seemingly endless future of listening to other people’s problems, she can’t help but notice that he’s kind of cute, and sort of sweet, and that maybe, despite her best efforts, she’s totally falling for him. And to make matters worse, he’s definitely falling for her. Now, determined to make the most of her time in purgatory, Bea must decide what is truly worth dying for–romance or revenge.


REVIEW

I have exactly one criticism of this book, and I will get it out of the way immediately:

This takes place in purgatory (awesome). Purgatory is set up as an airport terminal in which everyone has to figure their sh*t out in order to catch their flight to heaven (amazing). Everyone stays in an airport hotel with lumpy mattresses and an orange motif (also fitting).

But here’s the thing.

All the food in purgatory

is

enveloped

in

gelatin.

Existing in a world where every food is wrapped in a jiggly nightmare of savory Jell-o is nothing short of hellish. That cuisine has absolutely no place in anywhere other than hell itself.

Now that we’ve got the complaining out of the way.

This is an almost perfect book. Ignore the bit I just complained about and it is totally perfect.

It is Emily Henry-esque, which is, as anyone who has the misfortune of knowing me knows, the highest possible praise I can give any object, individual, media, or element of matter.

It is so funny. The concept is brilliant. The writing is descriptive and visual and lovely. The main character is a gem. Okay, all the characters are gems.

And yes, fine, maybe I could have lived without the romance, but I didn’t hate it and I see its purpose and overall that may have much more to do with my cold unfeeling heart than the romance itself.

Bottom line: I can’t wait for Gabby Noone to write another fantastic creative funny ridiculous book so I can graduate from “appreciation” to “complete obsession.”

(Disclaimer: I have read her Twitter feed as if it were a book once or twice.)

SYNOPSIS

Americanah

Two teenagers are in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Ifemelu leaves for America, and Obinze goes to London. It’s a novel about race, love and identity.

(Man, ya gotta love a short & sweet synopsis, huh? Doesn’t help me though, on the whole formatting–consistency thing. So I’m just going to ramble I guess. Anyone else kinda hungry right now? Like not hungry-hungry, but kinda bored and could eat? I feel that way for most of my existence. Oh I just remembered my roommate bought me Starbursts. Perfect. Be right back.)

(That is still not even close to enough text. And I just realized Starbursts are a bad choice, because they are a snack that involves a lot of hand work – opening the lil two packs, organizing them by color, removing the annoying paper, etc. – and so is writing a blog post. Hm. Tough.)


REVIEW

I, like any self-respecting bookworm, am a big fan of a bookstore.

Left to my own devices for a few hours, I will often find my way to one, usually an old favorite but sometimes a new one to try.

And once I am there, I will stay there for a very long time.

When I found this book, it was in the literary fiction section of a bookstore basement, where the used books were kept in winding rows.

Another thing about me: I keep a wish-list of books I mean to buy. When I want to buy one that isn’t on that list, I achieve a Bare Minimum Requirement of reading a few pages and seeing if I feel ordained to keep going. (I almost always do.)

So in this bookstore basement, on a Thursday night around 9:30 or 10 pm (yes, I know this is late. The coolest bookstores are open late), I found a chair in a corner under an unseemly pipe, plunked myself down, and started reading.

Over the next hour, a series of quirky college students had loud and performative first dates in a cycle so coordinated it was as if they scheduled it. First two girls yelled about how one of them had seen Panic! at the Disco at a rural gas station. Then a boy and a girl did an intentionally adorable thing where they pointed out the title of a book and tried to guess the plot (this was the girl’s idea, and the boy’s interest was never more than half-hearted). Then two older women shouted across the shelves about where the children’s section was before learning the answer: right f*cking in front of them.

That last one may not have been a date, but I promise it was equally annoying.

Through it all, I sat and read this book.

It wasn’t even a comfy chair, or a particularly pleasant room. It was just that good of a book.

My favorite TED talk (which is a very low bar) has been Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” since I watched it in a gender class a few years ago. In it, Adichie explains the pervasiveness of stereotypes and bigotry when only one story about a certain group is being told – she uses the story of Africa being a continent of poverty without technology, the only one told in America, as an example.

After I watched that talk in that class, and after I got home and watched it again, I should have gone right out and bought everything she’d ever written. But I didn’t. What a dummy.

This book is divine.

It is so, so beautifully written. I care about each and every character in a way that hurts my heart. It’s nearly 600 pages long, and character-driven to the point that there’s essentially no plot other than the daily progression of our protagonists’ lives, but if it were twice as long as I wouldn’t have minded.

It’s just that good.

I feel like it expanded my whole brain.

Everyone should get to have that feeling.

Bottom line: Everyone should read this book.

SYNOPSIS

Know My Name

She was known to the world as Emily Doe when she stunned millions with a letter. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford’s campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral–viewed by eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Thousands wrote to say that she had given them the courage to share their own experiences of assault for the first time.

Now she reclaims her identity to tell her story of trauma, transcendence, and the power of words. It was the perfect case, in many ways–there were eyewitnesses, Turner ran away, physical evidence was immediately secured. But her struggles with isolation and shame during the aftermath and the trial reveal the oppression victims face in even the best-case scenarios. Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life.

Know My Name will forever transform the way we think about sexual assault, challenging our beliefs about what is acceptable and speaking truth to the tumultuous reality of healing. It also introduces readers to an extraordinary writer, one whose words have already changed our world. Entwining pain, resilience, and humor, this memoir will stand as a modern classic.


REVIEW

Everyone, everyone, everyone should read this book.

That’s my review.

SYNOPSIS

You Deserve Each Other

Naomi Westfield has the perfect fiancé: Nicholas Rose holds doors open for her, remembers her restaurant orders, and comes from the kind of upstanding society family any bride would love to be a part of. They never fight. They’re preparing for their lavish wedding that’s three months away. And she is miserably and utterly sick of him.

Naomi wants out, but there’s a catch: whoever ends the engagement will have to foot the nonrefundable wedding bill. When Naomi discovers that Nicholas, too, has been feigning contentment, the two of them go head-to-head in a battle of pranks, sabotage, and all-out emotional warfare.

But with the countdown looming to the wedding that may or may not come to pass, Naomi finds her resolve slipping. Because now that they have nothing to lose, they’re finally being themselves–and having fun with the last person they expect: each other.


REVIEW

The best things in the world are as follows:

  • when you perfectly toast a bagel. I mean we all know how easy it is to underdo that bad boy so it’s still a weird squishy bread circle or even more likely, burn that baby till it’s glorified charcoal but when you really find that sweet spot…(chef’s kiss)
  • baking cookies and then eating them while they’re still warm, and then you eat a whole tray because if you made them they don’t count as caloric
  • genuine, believable enemies to lovers where you really feel them fall in love and also it’s funny and also everything is perfect.

Aka this book.

Because I am extremely picky about books and am disappointed by most of what I read, I like to do this very adorable and charming thing where when I like one thing, I assume I will like everything that is similar to it.

I very much enjoyed The Hating Game (possibly to an extent in which I compared myself both to a jack o’lantern and a gif from Disney’s Tangled in my review, I don’t know, who’s to say), and so I assumed I would like every rom-com. Especially ones that were actually funny.

Especially-especially of the enemies to lovers.

And, like the new Star Wars movie and orange-flavored Skittles and every other disappointing thing, that was not to be.

But finally, FINALLY, my suffering has been rewarded.

Because…dare I say it…

This book is better than The Hating Game.

I KNOW.

Look at us. Hey! Look at us. Who would’ve thought?

Not me.

This is The Hating Game in terms of tropes and plot and the overall yay-falling-in-love feeling it gives off, but with better characters. And more humor.

GOD. This is so funny it doesn’t make sense. Since when are books funny? When was the last time I truly laughed at a book and I wasn’t laughing out of all the anger and hatred in my cold dark soul?

Not sure. Well before this, I’ll tell you that.

But it wasn’t just a barrel of laughs my friends. It also made my heart hurt, but in the good emotional way where you’re like, oh my god…fools…just love each other…kiss already…except also don’t because the drama and conflict and miscommunication and will-they-won’t-they (they will) is the fun part.

Basically what I’m saying is: I don’t know how to love anything without being obsessed with it, and I already want to read this eleven more times.

Bottom line: I didn’t play Animal Crossing for this! ANIMAL CROSSING!!!

SYNOPSIS

Homegoing

Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.


REVIEW

Why are five-star reviews so much harder to write than negative ones?!

All I want to do is say “This book is perfect. Read it. Bye.”

Anything more than that is just extraneous.

Okay, I do also want to say that this is such a beautiful and painful representation of how white America has stolen the stories of Black people. As the reader of this story is able to learn the story of these bloodlines over the course of 300 years, constructing a narrative from ancestry to the present, so must the reader be aware of how this history has been kept from the very people who are living it. No character in this story is able to have the breadth of knowledge that any reader does, and that is not only because of the slave trade but because of the school-to-prison pipeline, because of the war on drugs, because of the racism that is present in our society to this day.

If you are able to read this book without awareness of your accountability in that process, read it again.

Also, I can mention that even though we rarely follow one character for more than 20 or so pages, nearly all of them manage to be full and real and unforgettable. (@ authors who manage to write 300 pages about one character who I still can’t be bothered to care about – you are ON NOTICE.)

And lastly, I will write the four nonsense stream of thought sentences I jotted down upon finishing this:
“This is just so gorgeous”
“The first 5 star I’ve given in months”
“You will never ever read a book like this ever”
“What a gift”

Bottom line: Required reading.

SYNOPSIS

The Summer Book

In The Summer Book Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer—its sunlight and storms—into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice, write a fanciful study of local bugs. They discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love. “On an island,” thinks the grandmother, “everything is complete.” In The Summer Book, Jansson creates her own complete world, full of the varied joys and sorrows of life.

Tove Jansson, whose Moomintroll comic strip and books brought her international acclaim, lived for much of her life on an island like the one described in The Summer Book, and the work can be enjoyed as her closely observed journal of the sounds, sights, and feel of a summer spent in intimate contact with the natural world.


REVIEW

This book is beautiful, enchanting, miraculous, magical.

The writing is lovely. The characters are charming and real. The stories give an immersive look at the as-yet-otherwise-unknown-to-me experience of a Scandinavian summer that feels totally new, and simultaneously gives a look at a childhood summer that is so familiar and comfortable and nostalgic.

It’s a dream. That’s all.

Bottom line: I don’t intend to let another summer go by without me reading this book during it.

SYNOPSIS

This Is How You Lose the Time War

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war.

(Well, here we are again. Gotta write more stuff.)

(Guys, get a load of this: my ENTIRE BAG of Starbursts only had two reds in it. TWO. I don’t even like any other flavors. I tried to eat an orange and almost had to contact the Poison Control Center.)


REVIEW

I do not know how to write five star reviews.

Give me a book I hate and I’ll write a full-on thesis on it. Prime example: Just yesterday I spent one human hour on a seven-page one star rant review. And honestly? Time well spent.

But when it comes to something I truly love? I’m illiterate. Can’t read. Can’t write. Call me Jared, 19. What am I doing on this book site? Couldn’t tell you.

I WANT to scream about this from the rooftops. I want each and every one of you to read it, because it is utterly one of a kind and it’s gripping from page one and the characters are fantastic and the writing is witty and beautiful and it is…

I tried to trick myself into stating all the ways in which it is amazing, but as always I got overwhelmed and ran out of words to describe it. (The one scenario in known human existence that can get me to shut up for even one second.)

Anytime I write a five star review, I struggle to render perfection onto the page, and I just make myself want to reread.

Damn…I really, really want to reread.

Bottom line: Don’t take my insufficient words for it!!! But read this book immediately.

SYNOPSIS

Her Body and Other Parties

In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.


REVIEW

Here’s something those of you who have not yet had the misfortune of following me on Goodreads wouldn’t know: I have unleashed a curse upon the innocent users of the internet’s largest reading community.

For the past four months or so, I have undertaken a Genius Project, in which every day I read + review a short story, one completed-stories-collection at a time, absolutely barraging the feeds of people everywhere as I go.

Thus this full review is way too long to copy and paste here, being as it is made up of countless mini reviews.

You can read it here, though. But be forewarned.

SYNOPSIS

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

Stamped traces the history of racism and the many political, literary, and philosophical narratives that have been used to justify slavery, oppression, and genocide. Framed through the ideologies and thoughts of segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists throughout history, the book demonstrates that the “construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, whether financially or politically,” and that this power has been used to systemically and systematically oppress Black people in the United States for more than four hundred years.

(Goddamn it. Here we are again. Curse me and my undying loyalty to formatting.)

(I don’t have anything else to say about Starbursts, either. I guess I will take this time to warn you that this is another cop-out review where I just tell you to read this book without saying anything about it.)


REVIEW

if you take one recommendation from me this year, let it be this one.

everyone should read this book.

What were some of your favorite books of 2020? Have you read any of mine?

7 thoughts on “The best books of the worst year

  1. ahaana @ Windows to Worlds says:

    ahhhh emma!!!! i missed you and your posts so much!!! i was so happy when i saw this in my reader!! ❤️ i’m ashamed to say i haven’t read ANY of these books – but i do own a copy of you deserve each other, so i’m excited to read that soon!! okay, your negative reviews and rants are ICONIC. reading through them are always so much fun ahh and i am NEVER picking up exciting times lol it sounds so bad (and problematic, ew)!! i cherish all of your highly rated books because omg they are so rare and i know i will love them!! i just bookmarked this post for future reference!! ❤️️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. HollyPNWbookworm says:

    Congrats on reading 200 books! I have not read any of the books you mention in this post, so I now have several added to my TBR list in Goodreads. 🙂 As for a favorite book from 2020…I really enjoyed Mexican Gothic. The author has been a favorite for a while and I tend to lean more towards the dark and twisty, so it was a perfect fit for me. I love how it both stays within the typical Gothic structure and deviates from it. Highly recommend!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love, Saimon says:

    I’m a bit late to this (but gimme a break I’m just now going through my emails and blog subscriptions). I’m so glad you read Homegoing and loved it. It truly is SO GOOD. I was blown away by it. It’s one of my favorite reads of 2018 (?I think).
    Anyways, here’s wishing you a more successful reading year in 2021. May you find more favorites so you can gush about them 😌

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ashley baker says:

    Ok I agree with most of your reviews and I think you are hilarious except this is how you lose the time e war is undeserving of your time and your 5 star rating. It’s three stars at best…… I say this with love and as a writer myself. Now one book that is better is….. A Father’s by Ashley Baker …. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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