Maybe little else went according to plan for 2020, but one thing was true for me: I read a lot of good books. As of this writing, I’ve crested 150 reads for the year, which is about average, and I spent far more time reading books I like and knew I’d like while letting go of the ones I felt I should read or couldn’t connect with.
As always, rather than offering up a “Best of,” I prefer to write about the books that were my favorite for one reason or another. These are all 2020 releases — save the one which came out at the tail end of 2019 — and each one was a reading experience I deeply enjoyed. Interestingly, I found myself gravitating toward science fiction, magical realism, and fabulism more this year than in the past, and that’s reflected here.
This isn’t an entirely comprehensive list, as I didn’t include my pick for best book of 2020 that I noted on Book Riot, nor did I include the two picks I had for best children’s book of 2020, also noted on Book Riot.
My Favorite Books of 2020
The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and The Hunt for the Perfect Bird by Joshua Hammer
Talk about a breathlessly-paced adventure story that is 100% true. This is the kind of bloodless true crime I find utterly fascinating and engaging, and this book would be a perfect one to pass along to fans of The Feather Thief.
In May 2010, Jeffrey Lendrum was arrested in the UK at an airport after a security guard in one of the lounges thought something suspicious was going on. Lendrum had left his partner in the lounge while he went into the bathroom for twenty minutes. The guard went in after and noticed nothing had been touched while he was in there — no shower, no running water. But there was a suspicious looking egg in the garbage can. Before long, it was discovered Lendrum had numerous eggs secured to his body, along with numerous eggs in his luggage. These were the eggs of falcons, each of which — were they to make it alive to his destination in Dubai — would net him a lot of money from political leaders in the region who practiced the art and sport of falconry.
From here, the book follows the rise of falconry in the middle east and how it ties into their history, as well as how it is Lendrum got caught up in the theft of some of the world’s most rare raptor eggs and how he traversed some of the most dangerous places in order to steal the eggs and make a profit. It’s a fascinating and infuriating story, not only because of how it plays into disturbing nature and causing further harm to hurting species, but also because of how Lendrum’s passion for nature went so off-course from his boyhood days in South Africa.
Books that marry true crime and history like this scratch such an itch for me. This one, besides its obvious exploration of theft of eggs, has some moments of animal harm, but it’s one I think those who are sensitive to that might be able to stomach without too much problem. Hammer offers a fair assessment of why Lendrum would partake in such illegal acts, while balancing the history and legacy of falconry in the middle east. It’s not an apology nor excuse for his behavior; rather, it’s context and conjecture for the whys, particularly where Hammer was unable to get the information first-hand.
I blew through this one and will forever look at birds in a new way.
Thirty years after the Atalanta took five pioneering women to space in hopes to settling a far-away planet named Cavandish, Naomi, one of the Atalanta 5, is finally telling her story. It begins with grand theft spaceship — yes, the spaceship was stolen — and ends with Earth’s humans falling victim to a pandemic that may have been started purposefully.
Naomi, who’d been raised by Valerie Black after the deaths of her mother and father, is deeply in love with the smart woman who invites her to be among the five women who will travel to the new planet in order to set up a new world, free of the flaws plaguing Earth. Right now, women’s rights have been decimated, the environment is collapsing, and the reality is there aren’t more than a few dozen “good” years left for it. Naomi, along with three other women, embark on the journey without permission from the government, but they believe in their heart of hearts they’re doing the right thing.
Then Naomi finds out she’s pregnant, and the father is one of the people who might be able to help change the course of the future of planet Earth. But it won’t come easy and it won’t come without the power of these women to steer the ship right.
Wholly immersive and dark, this book is about what leadership is — and what it is not. Lam’s writing is captivating and engrossing, evoking a scarily close-to-home scenario of a global pandemic destroying the planet in conjunction with human consumption, climate change, and the revoking of liberties for women across the globe. What sounds like will ultimately be a utopian setting at Cavendish, though, isn’t: instead, the story takes a ton of twists and turns that are surprising and ultimately change what it is these women perceive to be good and flawed about human nature.
When you’re destined to start something new, do you go for it? Burn down the past and try to forget it? Or do you learn from that past and build with the materials you have at hand to do better?
I’m not going to spend much time talking about this one because I wrote a lengthy piece about it over on Book Riot earlier this year. The long and short is this is a hilarious and painfully real book about growing up with big boobs and how challenging it is to navigate your body and adolescence when you can’t just buy a bra at the store. Greer was so relatable to me, down to where she grew up, to loving sports but realizing that uniforms and bras won’t fit a large chest, and having a snarky sense of humor about it all.
I listened to this one on audio and cannot recommend that route enough. Nicole Lewis is a phenomenal performer. Her voices are great, intonation spot on, and she makes the entire experience even more immersive than the book already is. This is one where the hype is real.
What I loved about this book is how it’s the perfect snapshot of what the phrase “the personal is political” means. It’s also a mirror to white people to look at where and how you’re being a savior to people of color, be it in micro or macro ways. It’s contemporary and timeless.
I loved Mira deeply, and she embodies what it means to be a young adult coming into her own in a world not made with her in mind. Though this book is marketed for adults, Mira is in her 20s, and I suspect YA readers looking for a good adult book that has a YA feel to it will dig this one.
A clever twist on King Lear and Little Women, this story about four Latina sisters in San Antonio desperate to escape their home — one of patriarchal standards, oppression, and pain — is laced with a story of what it means to grieve tremendous loss. Lush and evocative, Mabry writes three achingly beautiful sisters, each dealing with the loss of their oldest sister Ana in a different way. Jessica, by trying to become Ana; Iridian, reading her sister’s books and attempting to write those stories; and Rosa, trying to connect deeply with the beating hearts of the living world of creatures around her. But Ana isn’t gone, not really. It’s her ghost which keeps the girls connected and fighting the power attempting to keep them down.
Readers who love Nova Ren Suma will love this, not only for the writing, but for the weaving of a ghost story with a story of sisterhood. This is a book about desire to escape but the pull — both chosen and not — that keeps girls tied to the places where they are. Fans of Mabry will see this as such a natural next book for her, as it is a “true” ghost story, as opposed to a story which toys with ghostly spirits in other ways.
There’s a clever subplot here about the escape of a wild animal, and the way it parallels the desire within the Tores sisters sings.
Many may not see this as a clear Lear retelling because it’s not. It subverts Lear, utilizing a line from the story “tigers, not daughters,” to catapult it to something else entirely. They’d make a fascinating pairing for study.
This absolute gem of a book fell totally off the radar this year and I really hope more people pick it up. It’s a brilliant portrayal of grief and sisterhood.
Ariana has disappeared. Her sister Row is first to discover this, but she can’t find any clues as to where she might be. Told in two voices in verse, this is a heart-felt story about grief and the ways it can manifest and emerge so differently for everyone.
When Row and Ariana’s stepmother loses her 12-week pregnancy, Ariana spirals into grief as the wounds of losing her mother six years prior — and being the person with her as she died. Row, too, finds sadness welling up inside her again, but she takes it out by turning deep into her love of soccer. For her, whenever she’s on the field, her mother is right there with her.
With the help of her friend Kennedy, Row begins to look for her sister, and it’s here we see the wells of her sadness emerge, particularly as Kennedy gets overbearing in relation to why it was she didn’t know Row’s stepmother had been pregnant.
Ariana’s voice is present in this story, though it’s told primarily through flashbacks. She’s hopped on a bus, and we know there’s a piece of artwork in her lap. A few stops in, a former best friend gets on the bus, and she begins to share the story of the dissolution of their once-close connection. Ariana wanted to be so mired in her grief she couldn’t understand that other people, including this friend named Alex, deal with their personal losses in different means.
Row finds Ariana, and the end of the book is a beautiful reflection of friendship, sisterhood, and the ways that loss and sadness can tie and unite people, as much as hurt and divide them. Rosario nails grief so perfectly, offering up the ways we can be cruel and isolating toward others, as much as the ways we can seek the comfort of a loved one through the things we cherish. For Ariana, it turns out, art is therapeutic in a way that she never anticipated until Row shares how much pouring herself into soccer has meant her mother is with her always.
The verse is well written and the story is tightly told over a period of less than a single day. But within that day, we see a large expanse of life for both Row and Ariana. Both are girls of color who are part Filipino, and their ethnicity is something that furthers the power of exploring grief here — it’s not something palatable, clean, easy, and consumable like the white media and “research” suggests it should be.
This one hit me in some tender places, as I deal with a big loss in my own life. I felt both girls’ pains deeply and saw their methods of working through it as part of my own, too. This is a quick read, but it is in no way a slight one.
I’ve been meaning to write more about this book, as well as Mabry’s, and how these types of ghost stories are far more about the ghosts we carry inside ourselves than about the ghosts outside us. It’s a concept I cannot get enough of and one reason I love ghost stories so deeply.
No one writes loneliness and grief quite like Nina LaCour. This book is about the ghosts we live with in our minds, the ghosts of our bodies and past selves, and what it takes to piece together each part of us so we may find the true whole of who we are.
Mina’s grief is palpable, as is her desire to find peace with the decisions she’s made in her life that lead her to where she is. It’s a book about loss, but it’s equally a book about finding and being found, both by others and yourself.
Moving and thoughtful. This has ghosts in it, but they’re ghosts of the past and the present, as opposed to ghosts out for vengeance. LaCour carefully balances realism with the otherworldly in a way that packs a punch.
Quiet but immensely powerful. There is an older protagonist in this one — Mina is 19, and she doesn’t go to college — and there’s no romance, for readers who seek those things out in their reading.
I almost feel bad about how frequently I’ve recommended Barry’s book this year and yet, I don’t feel bad because it’s such a delightful romp of a read. It’s adult but has tremendous teen appeal and plays out a bit like the movie Now and Then insomuch that it’s adults reflecting upon their high school experience.
The story follows a team of field hockey players in Danvers, Massachusetts, who believe they’re imbued with the power of witchcraft as bestowed upon them by Emilio Estevez. Each of the main characters tells one of the chapters from a third person POV, and it all rounds back to the team revisiting one another on their hallowed ground 30 years later.
Inclusive, soaked in late-80s pop culture references, and downright hilarious at times, this is also a surprisingly thoughtful story of the power of being a teen girl, the ways our society has shifted in the last 30 years, and what it means to make your own type of power.
Here’s just a peek at the kind of humor to expect: there are two rabbits in the story, and their names are Marilyn Bunroe and Luke Skyhopper.
Now tell me: what were your favorite books of 2020?