I spent a good deal of 2020 reading things other than books.  Like many of us, I spent WAY too much time on social media, glued to the constant and horrifying news cycle and reading painful and scary news headlines daily.  Somewhere around May I was finally able to break my addiction to doomscrolling and actually read some books.  Even then, despite my post about reading funny and light reading, I didn’t take my own advice and I read a lot of heavy nonfiction (there will be another AntiRacist post soon!).  I learned a lot, but turns out none of it could help me control the craziness of 2020, so toward the end of the year I returned to fiction as escapism.  I limped over the finish line of my reading goal for this year, but barely.  My middle grade books did a lot of heavy lifting this year. 

So I’m here to share the fruits of my reading labors.  I present a list of my 10 favorites (and some -ok a BUNCH- of honorable mentions) from this difficult year.

Memoir:  A very popular memoir, Untamed by my most beloved, Glennon Doyle, has taken up a lot of air time so I will say, yes, I adored that book. Go read it.

But I believe that my favorite memoir of 2020 was actually a much less famous one – Raising A Rare Girl by Heather Lanier.  I first saw her TedTalk about raising her daughter, who was born with a rare syndrome.  Ms. Lanier is both a wonderful speaker and a gorgeous writer.  This book is filled with emotion, acceptance and love.  It is a small and steady light of goodness in the darkness. 

Politics: It’s clear every day in almost every way that we have a serious problem with how our (American) government is run.  In Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein  explores where we used to be [sidenote:  as a Gen Xer I was flabbergasted at how different politics were before the 1980’s], how we got here, and what we do now that we’ve arrived at this seeming impasse. Despite the heavy subject matter, this is a fascinating book and easy to read.  Moreover, it is important; it is only when we understand the context of the undercurrents of our political system that we can change it for good (in both senses of that word).

Essays:  In case you need a break from politics Lindy West is back with a series of essays about movies called Shit, Actually.  If you’d rather fight about whether Love, Actually is a good movie or not (it isn’t) or whether Face Off is a bad movie (it is), jump right in.  West’s humor was a great salve to the mayhem of 2020.  She eviscerates movies that we love, some we hate and some we love to hate.  Reading these essays made me realize I needed to re-watch a whole lot of the insanity that was cinema in the 1990’s. As always, West’s references are on-point for a small subset of late Gen Xer/early Millennials. 

Graphic Novel:  My daughter had a call with her teacher last spring and her teacher asked her what she was reading.  “Bloodlust and Bonnets,” she answered (by Emily McGovern).  Her teacher took a beat and then laughed.  This book is hilarious and I’ve talked about it before in a previous post (see link above). 

Fiction:  A lot of folks know Frederik Backman from A Man Called Ove, a book that made the bookclub circuit in a big way a few years ago.   He is one of my very favorite authors, and despite his books’ potentially heavy material (life, death, suicide) they are explicitly and sometimes subtly hilarious.  Anxious People is his newest release and so far it is my second favorite of all his books (after My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry – if you haven’t read that one, do it ASAP!).

Fiction Honorable Mention:  Apparently I love the Swedish sense of humor (no doubt due to the several large dollops of Swedish blood from my Grandmother’s family) because An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good by Helen Tursten was amazing as well.  Murderous old ladies are my jam.

AntiRacist Non-Fiction:  I think I highlighted about half of this book; I hungrily ate up every chapter and then had to pause to digest it all.  Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall is a necessary book for anyone calling themselves a feminist.  It illustrates how the mainstream (white) version of feminism ignores, circumvents and obscures the needs of BIOPOC and women of color in favor of what is useful and helpful to white women.  As in many things, our white ignorance is dangerous.  I will no doubt re-read this book, more than once.

Anti Racist Non-Fiction Honorable Mention:  I cannot believe it took me so long into my adulthood to read Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis. This small book taught me more about the history of slavery, racism, patriarchy and classism than anything in my entire life.  Each chapter was filled with hard-hitting facts that I was never taught in school, as well as the context of these issues that so many of us are missing in today’s perspective. 

Fantasy:  I loved V.E. Schwab for quite some time, and I read a bunch of her work in 2019.  This year I read four of her books, but my absolute favorite was her long-awaited The Invisible Life of Addie Larue.  This book got a lot of press and I usually keep such books off my “best of” lists, but I love it so much I don’t even care.  This book deserves every single ounce of praise.  It is a beautiful book.  It is also part of a sub-genre I’m fascinated with: “Young woman vs. immortal or omnipotent god-like being.” [maybe I’ll do a post on the many wonderful books in the subgenre].  Addie LaRue makes a deal with maybe a literal devil and she is made immortal but cursed so that no one will every remember her. 

Fantasy Honorable Mention:  The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern also got a LOT of press this year.  And again, I just don’t care.  It’s a lovely story, beautifully told. It is another one of my favorite things:  a story about stories.  The plot loops back on itself several times and you don’t always know what end is up.  It is just as visual and intricate as The Night Circus but lighter and airier. 

Fantasy Honorable Mention:  Crossings by Alex Landragin is a book that defies description.  But a few things are true.  1) it’s a story about three overlapping and interconnected stories 2) it’s about magic and 3) it might make your head spin.  There are two ways to read this book – the typical start on page one and go until it says the end (the Traditional Way) and by following the sequence of numbered pages that the book sends you on (The Baroness’ Sequence).  I read the Baroness’ Sequence, because it’s 2020 and all bets are off. 

Middle Grade Fiction:  Sweep by Jonathan Auxier made me cry.  I got really attached to the main characters, a chimney sweep named Nan Sparrow and her companion Charlie, immediately.  Nan’s background and current situation is full of sadness but also full of hope and beauty.  Auxier is a great middle grade author; his stories engage you from page one and his characters linger in your heart long after you are done reading. 

Middle Grade Honorable Mention:  Katherine Arden’s Dead Voices (sequel to Small Spaces) is so well written that her description of a storm that her characters are caught in made me grab a blanket.  I literally felt cold for them.  This series can be best described as “middle grade horror” and includes a Big Bad and some ghost henchmen.  Like similar books (e.g. Coraline) but they are legitimately creepy, even for adults. 

Middle Grade Graphic Novel:  Lightfall; The Girl & the Galdurian by Tim Probert is bright and shining and filled with visual delights.  I spent an inordinate amount of time distracted by the scenery and the art in this book.  Which is saying a lot, because the characters are lovely and the story is interesting.  The Girl (Bea) and the Galdurian (Cad) meet unexpectedly and head off on a Quest to find Bea’s forgetful grandfather (the Pig Wizard) who may or may not be in danger. 

Novella:  Thanks to Seanan Maguire (of The Wayward Children series fame) I’ve grown to love the idea of novellas.  I used to think they weren’t enough, being so short.  I’m a big fan of long, complicated stories and tomes that make your arms hurt. But a novella, done well, is like a satisfying and rich piece of chocolate cake.   Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh (and its sequel Drowned Country) are both gorgeous.  I’m still not sure how Ms. Tesh created an entire world with such visual beauty AND such well-developed characters in 112 pages.  She must be a magician.  Both books follow the “Wild Man” of the Greenhollow Forest and Henry Silver, the new owner of the estate in which the forest resides.  Everything and everyone is more than meets the eye, including Henry’s mother, who is by far my favorite character.