Wednesday, December 30, 2020

20 Favorite Books of 2020

Five star grades, top ten lists, "must-read" books--the moving parts of a story are so subjective, I find it really difficult to "grade" them. What sticks with me isn't the sum total of a book, either, but individual scenes, a character impressive in strength and vulnerability, or a moment that shocks me awake into a different sense of reality.

Now, I made a post the other day that summarized my year doing the Book Riot Read Harder challenge, but realized I should probably make a list of books that stuck with me the most this year.

So, here's my favorite books I read this year, placed in a somewhat arbitrary but, I hope, organized list:

 The Lonesome Bodybuilder: Stories (2018) by Yukiko Motoya

The ability to leaven quirkiness with self-reflection is a gift. Motoya proves she has it in spades with this surreal short story collection. In the titular piece, an isolated housewife decides to pick up bodybuilding, which, despite her physical changes, her husband doesn't seem to notice. "An Exotic Marriage" has a woman realize she and her husband are beginning to look alike, and that he may not be as human as he seems. The stories here often center on marriage, bodily changes, and how connections between people are always in flux.

My favorite story, however, is "Fitting Room." The main character is a shop assistant in a women's clothing store, dealing with a customer whose face is obscured by being the very fitting room she's slipped into while our innocent employee wasn't looking. The shop assistant does her job and devotes herself to helping this possibly-nonhuman-entity find the perfect dress.

It's a wild collection. I was intrigued when I saw it was an Otherwise Award nominee. I'm looking forward to reading more of their nominees.

19. Harleen (2020) by 
's work for his series, Sunstoneoften feels overwritten and repetitive, under the editorship of DC Comics, he writes a tight reiteration of Harley Quinn's origin. This character is close to my heart and began as a Joker "hench-wench" in Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), which I watched in my formative years far too much. Harley Quinn was made distinct by voice actress Arleen Sorkin's sparkling charm and notably Jewish vaudevillian affectation. She was later given a back story in the 1993 Eisner Award-winning graphic novel, The Batman Adventures: Mad Love.

 takes that backstory and remixes it with his well-known attention to character detail. Harleen isn't just a love struck neophyte therapist when she meets the Joker (here illustrated to look a lot like the late David Bowie), but going through her own difficulties with isolation. An ill-advised affair with her graduate school professor, alluded to as a visual gag in Mad Love, has left her shunned by her peers. Her support network in violent, antisocial Gotham is non-existent. She's slipping into a depression and, after she starts her stressful job at Arkham Asylum, courting alcoholism. When the chance to prove her thesis and treat the Joker appears, she grabs onto him like a lifeline.

One of the most fascinating things about this retelling is how it works as an inverted romance novel. Harleen is eventually convinced she's "taming the beast" and changing herself into an empowered person in the process. Rather than come to see her as an equal, however, the Joker seduces her into a volatile relationship and recreates her as a "hench-wench," another tool for his arsenal. My hope is that  is allowed to write more of the character and her eventual break-up with the Joker as well as her more functional relationship with Poison Ivy, as he did in fan comics before DC took notice of his work.

18. Freshwater (2018) by Akwaeke Emezi

After the 2019 Otherwise Award winner was announced, I decided to give it a read. I was not prepared for the emotional experience. 

In form and content, this is a work that crosses borders and laughs at boundaries. It's simultaneously a work of fantasy and a creative memoir, a discussion of mental illness and how it intersects with faith, a Nigerian's troubled childhood and eventual move to the United States, and a story that switches deftly between third and first person. Also, it's deeply queer.

Ada is born with many selves inside of her. The selves are gods, multiple personalities, and facets of her mind. They're beautiful and, as she goes through traumatic events, sharply dangerous. 

This is the sort of dark fantasy and deeply personal storytelling I crave. It's a strange, lovely work, less a single story and more a homemade creation assembled with peculiar, vulnerable, trembling pieces.

17. Shattered Spear (2019) by Otava Heikkilä 

A fascinating, Neolithic age historical graphic novel. While short, the reality of this world is vividly detailed and not just with its approachable, eye-catching art style. 

The story follows two female characters in the ancient Jordan Valley as they slowly grow to trust each other. Their daily lives melt together into a friendly pattern. To say more would spoil the story and ruin a gut-wrenching read.

Postcolonial Love Poem (2020) by Natalie Diaz

Like my previous selections in this list, this is yet another story of a woman's complex relationship with her identity. Diaz's poems are about growing up Mojave in the United States, her sapphic romances, tumultuous family ties, and a love of basketball. Talking about any one poem is like trying to describe a song without being able to listen to the music.

Instead, let me share with you an excerpt from her piece, "Ink-Light":

We move within the snow-chromed world: Like-animal. Like deer. An alphabet. Along a street white as lamplight into the winter, walking--: like language, a new text. I touch her with the eyes of my skin.

The way I read any beloved--: from the ramus of the left jaw down to the cuneiform of the right foot. She isn't so much what she is--: and becomes herself only when added to the space where she isn't. What is touch--: not the touch not the hand but the white heat it floats through.

While I contemplate her more difficult, melancholy poem, I want to curl up in the most joyful of her words and take a long, lovely nap. 

Gargoyles glower on top of houses. Sirens are feared for the control they can potentially inflict with their voices, even though they're a small percentage of the population, often Black women who are already harassed by cops. Cities, countries, and many cultures appear to be the same--Renaissance Fairs still exist and so do public swimming pools! Sadly, so does institutionalized prejudice and racial oppression.

Tavia is a siren trying to keep her powers a secret from the other high schoolers her age. Her difficulties are exacerbated by struggles with mental health. Effie is Tavia's shy, kind confidante and is going through some changes of her own. Together, they end up digging through their respective pasts, resisting police brutality, and fighting for a better future.

Morrow's storytelling is thoughtful and smart. I adore her voice and how, in her debut YA novel, she's able to draw such a vivid world.

My favorite non-fiction book I've read this year. How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by was a more emotional read for me, but Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism lit an incandescent fury. It asks just how much power women wield in a society that commodifies sex and housework, answering questions posed by many feminists with cold data, including Silvia Federici decades earlier in her essay "Wages for Housework."

It's an invigorating read. The title is provocative, but the content is a nuanced look at what we can learn from the USSR and other countries that have aspired to socialism. The approaches to female autonomy and sex research in the Soviet Era are contrasted with the cultural mores of the United States. Ghodsee is honest and devastating about the errors made in their social structures and ours. Ultimately, she writes with hope.

13. The City We Became (2020) by 

Of the work I've read by Jemisin, this is the novel I've connected with the most. I lived in Manhattan for a few exciting months as an undergraduate and the memories this book brought back were vivid. Also, the story is wild. 
ew York gentrification is explored through Lovecraftian tropes--otherworldly monsters, mind-altering "hallucinations"--and the lens of anti-racism. Our main characters are humans who, through inter-dimensional shenanigans, are now personifications of the Boroughs. This includes Manhattan as "Manny," a multiracial grad student and recent New York transplant whose memories have been wiped clean by the oncoming cataclysm; the Bronx, or Bronca, a courageous and distrustful director of the Bronx Art Center with Lenape heritage and memories of Stonewall; Brooklyn, a hip-hop artist who's "cleaned-up" as a councilwoman and local politician; Queens as Padmini, a brassy Indian immigrant and talented mathematician; and Stated Island as Ainslyn, a sheltered, terrified white woman who tries hard to resist the pull of the city that scares her so much. Of these characters, I hate to say I related to Ainslyn the most in her fears and insecurities, but I think that's a testament to Jemisin's writing and her ability to make even vile people readable.

Not content to be a tribute to one of the most famous artistic and immigration hubs in the world, as so many pieces of media are, this book is an exploration of New York's fraught, often racist identity. It's a difficult reality that each character contemplates with their own perspective. Characters, with their capabilities and limited knowledge of a thoroughly unique and metaphysical situation, rise to the challenge and as systemic racism becomes a monstrous reality.

12. In the Dream House: A Memoir (2019) by Carmen Maria Machado

I still don't know how I feel about the use of fairy tale citations throughout the book, but this memoir is a festering portrait of a bad relationship. It follows Machado's flirtation and eventual romance with a person known only as "the woman in the dream house." She's a seductive figure, a blonde Ivy League graduate with an interest in literature. Unfortunately, she's also interested in manipulation.

What begins as a few misunderstandings become explosive fights. Machado writes of a partner who appears to forget things, conveniently reframing events to best suit her perspective. In one wrenching moment, Machado ponders if her relationship with this woman is explosive because "women feel more passionately than men," her consuming desire to see the best in her girlfriend materializing as a horrid, sexist miasma.

Even though Machado spends the work using different genres to view the relationship through literary perspectives, ultimately, this memoir mostly feels like a gothic nightmare. It's a depiction of creeping, verbal and psychological abuse that I continue to think about months after finishing it.

Take a Hint, Dani Brown (The Brown Sisters #2) (2020) by Talia Hibbert 

I found the contemporary romance Get a Life, Chloe Brown (The Brown Sisters #1) (2019) so delightful, I knew I had to try the sequel. Danika Brown is the middle sister of her siblings, a bisexual PhD student with a flare for paganism, independence, and the single life. Due to her difficulties being vulnerable, she's opted out of longterm relationships. 

Then she and a co-worker with whom she's friendly, security guard Zafir Ansari, become a social media sensation. In the land of contrived fake-dating romance, they pretend to be a couple to draw attention to Zaf's organization meant to benefit troubled boys. Dani begins to examine exactly why she's avoiding serious relationships and Zaf comes to terms with his social anxiety. 

It's deeply sweet and a wonderfully frothy experience.

10. The Scapegracers (Scapegracers #1) (2020) by Hannah Abigail Clarke 

A wonderful book about teen witches, queerness, and how The Craft (1996) really should have gone down. 

Sideways Pike is a lesbian witch in a small town where she lives with her two fathers and their antique shop. She's a born misfit in the mold of Rebel Without a Cause, an outcast at school for her prickliness and her claims of being talented at witchcraft. Three of the most popular girls at school hire her to prove said magic at a cool, neon-glowing spectacle of a party. Once Sideways backs up her claims, they begin to bond, eventually growing close, being queer together, and forming a coven. The plot is loose, giving the characters room to breathe and for us to enjoy their connections.

This is a dream of a YA fantasy. It combines electric, evocative prose with the wish fulfillment of finding your people. This was the best impulse purchase I made this year, hands down.

9.  Lent (2019) by Jo Walton 

What at first looks like historical fiction with a splash of a speculative element becomes a dark and terrifying exploration of a particularly vindictive God and His afterlife. Girolamo Savonarola, a 15th century Dominican friar famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities, believes he can see demons and the future. Apart from his detailed descriptions of small, fairy-like creatures, the first part of the book involves Girolamo's mundane life wherein he tries to clear corruption out of the Catholic Church and becomes a controversial figure in Florence. Then the story takes a turn for the metaphysical and the horrifying, a cross between Dante's Inferno and Groundhog Day.

Walton is an exquisite writer and a master of her craft. Her prose are confident and her obsession with Renaissance Florence is delightfully sincere and beautifully researched. This book was a particularly grim choice to read at the start of the pandemic, but it's a story and a contrary main character I've thought of often in the intervening months. 

8. Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Tell me if you've heard this one. There's this woman, right? She's just gotten married into a wealthy family after a short courtship. Her new husband is handsome but he clearly has some sort of secret. 

This is the plot of more than a few Gothic books and films, but the woman in question here, however, is not the heroine, but Catalina, the main character's cousin. Her would-be rescuer is our true main character, Noemí Taboada, a debutante college student who smokes, parties, and has just received a deeply worrying letter from her cousin. When she goes to visit Catalina at a dusty English mansion, High Place, that was transplanted to Mexico, her cousin insists nothing's wrong. So do her new in-laws and their family physician. The town below the mansion, however, is full of people who know not to trust the house on the hill. Noemí's exploration grows increasingly strange, particularly when she discovers the mold that runs throughout the house.

A stunning piece of horror. The suspense and prose are lovely and deeply terrifying. Moreno-Garcia writes with intimacy regarding colonialism, punishment of femininity, assault, intergenerational family abuse, and a big, deeply sinister house perfect for a Gothic heroine to suss out some terrible secrets.

This is all to say it took me far too long to pick up the next books in the series. 

6.  Boyfriend Material (2020) by Alexis Hall 

The first book I read of Alexis Hall's was Pansies (2016), a contemporary romance about a flower shop owner who hooks up with the guy who bullied him in high school. It's an engrossing read and gorgeously written, though there was a bit more melodrama than I usually like. The author's style was singular and his characters felt vivid. Also, the sex scenes were hot. I decided to seek out more. I saw that the author had recently come out with a book this year (with a cover that seems like it was almost certainly modeled on last year's Red, White, and Royal Blue), so I thought I'd give that a try as well. 

Boyfriend Material is a funny, heartening, and lovely read. Hall is in top form here. The main character is Luc O'Donnell, a sassy, charismatic employee of a non-profit for dung beetles who just so happens to be the son of two rock legends. This makes him, and his younger, wilder, druggier days, catnip for British tabloid journalists. A couple compromising photos means that Luc needs to polish up his image before a particular fundraising gala spells the end of his job. In true romance novel form, he enters a private deal and a public relationship with Oliver Blackwood, a dour, over-serious, if extremely attractive barrister (lawyer). So they're definitely not going to fall in love for real! (WINK.)

Discovering I enjoy romance has been an enormous boon during the pandemic. This book was both hilarious (see: Luc's clueless co-workers) and devastating (see: Luc's meditation on loneliness, Oliver's revealed lack of self-confidence). It's a balm to the soul.

I'm now reading through Hall's Arden St. Ives Series, a gay, kinky, and very direct response to Fifty Shades of Grey. It seems as if all of Hall's work is smart, searing, and genre savvy. I look forward to reading more.

5. Gingerbread (2019) by Helen Oyeyemi

Oyeyemi is an expert at making weird fiction intimate without sanding off any of its surreality. Her novel Gingerbread is my strangest experience with the author's work yet. Ostensibly a story about a mother and daughter's loving but complicated relationship, it's also about the experience of immigration, being Black in Britain, fairy tale tropes, adolescent emotional isolation, and a mother country, Druhástrana, that most people don't think exists. The plot negotiates a winding path along generations of family.

While teenage Perdita Lee is in recovery, her mother, Harriet Lee, talks about her childhood. Particularly, Harriet describes Gretel Kercheval, another Druhástranian teenager. Gretel is brash, impulsive, and wealthy, a roving id where Harriet is proper and quiet. She may be named for a heroine in a story about candy, but her fluid nature and confidence make her more like Rumpelstilskin or Cinderella's fairy godmother. Their friendship is the friendship built between children, recognizably strained, lopsided, deeply devoted, and built on the love of the titular snack. 

Events coalesce (while gingerbread is made by unwilling hands) and the friends are driven apart. Harriet leaves with her mother, Margot Lee, for Great Britain, and Gretel declares her desire to be a changeling. Regardless of whether or not Gretel is present, the fates of the Kercheval and Lee clans are now intertwined and find their next chapter in Perdita.

4. Nothing to See Here (2019) by Kevin Wilson

This book surprised me. What appears to be a surreal fable about the worst babysitting job ever becomes a dissection of classism and privilege in Tennessee with a side of humor and warmth. Lillian is a smart, working class woman stuck in a dead-end lifestyle. Her former, affluent roommate at boarding school, Madison, is now married to a politician and in need of a babysitter for her stepchildren. Madison says she would hire a professional, but she needs a resourceful friend in the role she can trust with a secret: the kids in question catch fire when they're upset.

The book takes place over several months where Lillian gets to know and grow to love the children in her care. She also gets to better understand Madison and their complicated relationship. Though the story gets sentimental, it never strays into trite territory for me. Ironically for the subject matter, I found it to be a cool, sweet respite in the middle of a humid summer.

3. Harrow the Ninth (The Locked Tomb #2) (2020) by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb #1) (2019) thrilled me when I read it last year. I found the puzzle-solving plot a bit repetitive, but the necromancer space opera world building, murder mystery setting, delightful character work, and bizarre meme inclusion won me over. And the twisty ending had an enormously cruel cliffhanger!

The second book in the trilogy is, in its way, also very cruel and still bizarre. It concerns Harrowhark Nonagesimus, a small, angry, lesbian nun who has recently ascended to the role of Lyctor (a freakishly powerful necromancer). She's now under the tutelage of the Emperor, who she thinks of as God but who goes by John, and his peculiar, immortal frenimies. Muir has referred to this book as a "school story," which seems to dismiss the deeply cool space opera elements but, in fact, perfectly describes Harrow's painful, awkward experiences around instructors she considers divine. In the midst of her own self-doubt, she recalls events from her recent past that appear to directly contradict the story of Gideon the Ninth. She's convinced she's mad. The truth is far more fascinating and visceral.

Reading this book demands more than a little patience, so I recommend burying yourself in the prose as the plots machinations are under way. It's worth the wait.

2. Dance On Saturday (2020) by   

Cotman's collection is deeply lovely and the first of his work I've encountered. His prose are pristine and his stories are transcendent and often fun. It's the sort of work that pushes you out of reality and into a new, beautiful headspace, a world within our own that looks slantwise at the everyday. 

The strongest of the collection, and probably my favorite short story of the year, is "Seven Watsons." The narrator, Flexo, and his peers are enrolled and housed in a technical school, Pittsburgh Job Corps. Flexo describes the increasing eccentricities of his new roommate, Chris, a "youngbul" who tries "to hide how scared he was with a mean mug." Chris's oddness becomes increasingly fantastical--his tattoo of a Canadian goose, his identical and peculiar brothers, and his mysterious past. Flexo watches with growing shock as his sense of reality is torn open and then sutured back together. The strengths and vulnerabilities of these characters sit side by side, here, challenging our preconceptions of young, impoverished Black men trying to do their best and have a good time.

The rest of the collection is tightly written. "Mine" is about a high student caught in a hellish volleyball game at her majority-white Catholic school, "The Son's War" is the lush literary tribute Prince always deserved, and "Among the Zoologists" is a reality-bending depiction of sci-fi/fantasy conventions and business conferences. Cotman is a brilliant fantasist and I'm so sad I've slept on his work until now.

1. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1987) by 

Baptiste Grenouille is both deeply relatable and utterly dreadful. Born to a woman charged with his attempted murder and blessed with a keen sense of smell, Genouille is an artist who comes to see his fellow mortals as resources for his art of choice: making perfume. His lust for young women is transformed into a desire to hunt and retain their "scent," a monstrous way of both destroying and preserving the beauty he adores.

The book asks difficult questions about how much we're willing to forgive "geniuses" and how the act of creation can, in some small way, make people immortal. The world-building is detailed without, to my knowledge, being entirely historically accurate. I still haven't seen the film and, considering how unique and visual the novel is, I'm not sure if I want to just yet. The story lives inside me and I don't want to complicate it just yet.

Like many stories on this list, it's stuck between genres. It's not quite fantasy and it's not exactly memetic (mainstream or "literary") fiction, either. It's its own, surreal beast, a complete thing that carries its readers from the depths of despair to the height of jubilation. What better gift can a good book bring than that?