What’s new, readers? Hooboy, are you as relieved as I am that 2020—the year of COVID-19, bloodred skies, murder hornets, the wrongful deaths of numerous Black Americans at the hands of police, the passing away of Chadwick Boseman and Alex Trebek, the lunacy of Donald Trump and his sycophants, the blazing wreckage that is the Artemis Fowl movie, and [insert dung pile of your own pick]—is officially over? Cheers to 2021 seeing us reprioritizing our needs and goals, forging a path of recuperation and well-being, and reconnecting with each other. That being said, we did have breaks in the storm clouds here and there—Hamilton coming to Disney Plus and America beginning to fathom its bedrock of racial inequity, for example. For my part, I also whizzed through a wealth of books, maybe four or five hundred. I’m glad to have read some fantastic books for the first time in 2020, including the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas, Dune by Frank Herbert, and Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. Now I’m going to bid farewell to the previous year by putting together a list of my top ten favorite books of 2020. The keyword is “favorite,” as in they made it to my list because they reflect my personal tastes, continue to resonate with me since I finished them, and are evocative of 2020; these picks aren’t meant to be the “best” books of the year. But first, I want to name some honorable mentions that were in the running for my list.
Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey
Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore
Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy
Simmer Down by Sarah Smith
Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby
Shortfall by Robert Jackson Bennett
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur
Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump
Untamed by Glennon Doyle
With that, here’s my Top Ten Books of 2020 list, starting with #10.
10. The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Set in a present-day world where great cities can be animated into sentience and choose locals to become human avatars that embody their lore and cultures, an extradimensional adversary known as the Enemy ambushes New York City as it undergoes its own birth, leaving the main avatar comatose. Each of the five boroughs subsequently summons an avatar to represent its unique identity and protect the city. The Bronx picks a queer Lenape woman who runs a nonprofit art gallery, Manhattan a young racially ambiguous grad student whose amnesia doesn’t stop him from suspecting the violence that may be dwelling in his murky past, Brooklyn a Black city councilwoman who was formerly a hip-hop superstar, Queens an Indian immigrant and math wizard, and Staten Island a skittish Irish-American white woman who constantly puts up with her cop father’s virulent bigotry and misogyny. If these avatars are able to overcome their differences and band together, they can shield their city from the Enemy’s insidious forces of xenophobia, gentrification, and eldritch monsters.
Why this is on my list: I became acquainted with Jemisin’s work through her Broken Earth trilogy, a breathtaking fantasy series that made her the first person to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row. The City We Became, based on “The City Born Great” in the author’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month, puts her boundary-stretching imagination on full display again. Rather than forging a new and magical world from scratch, though, she creates a contemporary vision of what it would be like for cities to come alive and ward off a powerful opponent who weaponizes people’s fear of the other. It feels purposeful that the Enemy usually manifests as the Woman in White, a figure overtly influenced by H.P. Lovecraft’s viciously racist and homophobic literature. The well-paced and vividly written book is steeped in Jemisin’s love for her home state and its ferocious, multifaceted, and fluid character. This is the first entry in The Great Cities trilogy, and I’m eager to see how the following installments will expand on the multiversal battle against a Karen with white tentacles.
9. A Promised Land by Barack Obama
The Honolulu-born son of a Black father and a white mother, the law professor, the Illinois state senator, the forty-fourth president of the United States—Obama is all these things and more. In Volume 1, he recounts the fire in his belly that drove him toward delving into politics and eventually emerging in the momentous role of the nation’s first Black president; ruminates on the daily chores of the president and the immense sacrifices his wife and two daughters had to make while residing in the White House; navigates his thought processes as he devoted himself to various duties like the Beer Summit, the Affordable Care Act, the military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan regime, and the SEAL Team Six raid that ended with Osama Bin Laden’s death; expresses his frustrations at obstacles such as partisan opposition from Republicans and the baseless allegations of birtherism; and more, wrapping up towards the tail end of his first presidential term.
Why this is on my list: It brings me back to the good old days of America being helmed by a dignified, intelligent, and compassionate Commander-in-Chief. He invites us inside his head, turning a deeply meditative and optimistic eye on his life in the country’s paramount office, enriching his account with plentiful memories of the smallest events, and providing a frank perspective on his regrets and missteps. With Obama’s fluent writing making this 768-page hulk tremendously easy to read, A Promised Land transcends the typical politician’s memoir and has me fervently looking forward to the second volume.
8. Boys & Sex by Peggy Orenstein
Boys trying to live up to the societal standard of masculinity, gaining approval from male friends, relying on porn as early as the sixth grade for sex education, partaking in hookup culture, adopting foggy and unhealthy attitudes toward consent that lead to coercion and sexual abuse, realizing the ways that being a POC or queer can affect relationships—these are just some of the topics explored in the 100-plus interviews that journalist Orenstein conducts with a racially and sexually diverse group of boys aged between sixteen and twenty-two.
Why this is on my list: Boys & Sex is an incisive and forthright dissection of the misogyny, homophobia, and toxic masculinity that continue to unconsciously influence Gen Z males after #MeToo. As uncomfortable as it can be to tackle these issues, we need to do all we can to create a space that, on a continual basis, repudiates detrimental labels and supplies maturing boys with the materials they need to comprehend their emotions and express them beyond the confines of American gender constructs.
7. The Loop by Ben Oliver
Sixteen-year-old Luka Kane has been serving two years in the Loop, a death-row prison that runs cruel experiments on its inmates and harvests energy from them for the benefit of a futuristic government built to accommodate wealthy Alts who relish the privilege of cybernetic enhancements. When the shutdown of the government’s operating system, gossip about a virus that’s tearing through the population and transforming victims into raging killers, and other unexplainable events come crashing together, Luka and his inmates attempt to escape the Loop and contend with the harrowing threats of the outside world.
Why this is on my list: After reading my fair share of YA dystopian sci-fi, it has grown challenging to find original, gripping, and relevant successors that can break through my dystopian fatigue. With wildly tight writing propelling a cinematic and suspenseful narrative that gives off The Maze Runner vibes, touches on class warfare, and follows a racially inclusive cast led by a dark-skinned protagonist, Oliver’s debut novel wholly fulfills those requirements.
6. The Roommate by Rosie Danan
Anxious to escape the scandals and gossip clouding her upper-crust Connecticut family, 27-year-old demure and fastidious socialite Clara Wheaton accepts an offer to stay with a close friend she’s crushed on for years and relocates from Manhattan to Los Angeles with her doctorate in art history and some laminated lists in tow. However, her friend dashes her hopes of their friendship growing into something more by spending the summer touring with his band and renting out his room to cute stranger Josh Darling. Clara is flabbergasted when she learns from her aunt that her new roommate is actually a burgeoning porn star whom Cosmopolitan dubbed “catnip for millennial women.”
Why this is on my list: It was close to the end of 2020 when I got around to picking up debut author Danan’s forced-proximity romance from my TBR pile, and I’m glad to say this lands high up there with some of my favorite rom-com reads. The impressively innovative premise blossoms as Clara, in order to help Josh escape the contract into which his massive porn employer Black Hat is blackmailing him, collaborates with him on a groundbreaking website full of how-to videos focusing on women’s sexual gratification. Danan cleverly uses the scorchy-as-hell love scenes between the engaging and well-characterized leads to progress the slow-burn narrative instead of tossing them into the plot for mere titillation. Themes of destigmatizing the porn industry and embracing feminine sexuality will particularly resonate with the romance audience.
5. Skyhunter by Marie Lu
Eighteen-year-old Talin Kanami fights for the Nation of Mara as a Striker, one of many elite soldiers who serve the last free country in a world where every other Nation has been crushed by the Karensa Federation. Talin—a refugee who weathers flagrant xenophobia from other Marans and uses sign language to communicate since she was rendered mute by poison gas while she and her mother fled their Federation-conquered birthplace of Basea ten years ago—and her fellow soldiers are often dispatched to the warfront to kill Ghosts, humans who have been mutated by the Federation into an army of feral beasts that can bite victims and turn them into Ghosts as well. When Talin saves a Federation prisoner of war from being executed and is subsequently ordered to partner with him, she soon realizes the Federation has ruthlessly engineered him into a Skyhunter, a superhuman weapon of war who might be the key to helping her destroy his tyrannical government.
Why this is on my list: As with The Loop, Skyhunter is another YA SF dystopian tale that stands out from its genre. Of course, it’s a Lu read, so I wouldn’t expect anything less than first-class goods. With a tough and endearing protagonist backed up by her equally fleshed-out allies, a palpable post-apocalyptic world, taut pacing, and scathing commentary on immigration and the psychological and emotional sacrifices of war, Skyhunter leaves me keenly awaiting the sequel in Lu’s duology.
4. The Golden Cage by Camilla Läckberg
Faye Adelheim seems to enjoy the plush life of a Stockholm socialite, a loyal wife to her ambitious billionaire husband Jack, and a caring mother to their young daughter. However, their world is far from paradise. Faye is left to stay at home and endure a distant marriage to Jack while he devotes prolonged workdays to his investment firm, Compare. He ignores the fact that Faye helped him create the company when they were at the Stockholm School of Economics together and then dropped her studies to pay the dues for them as a waitress. Then she encounters her husband cheating on her with Compare’s CFO in their bedroom, after which he files for divorce and uses the prenup to leave her broke. Instead of falling apart like he expects, she wields her righteous fury and business savvy in a devious scheme to give Jack his comeuppance.
Why this is on my list: I’m always up for an alluringly dark female revenge thriller that distinguishes itself from the rest of its competitors. Läckberg, regarded by many as the queen of Swedish noir, achieves exactly that by elevating the vengeance plot with nimble twists that keep the reader entranced all the way up to the last page, a relatable and intelligent protagonist whose flashbacks into her enigmatic past add depth to her character, and undertones of venerating feminine brilliance and mettle.
3. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Emira Tucker, a Black twenty-five-year-old babysitter who just finished Temple University, is having a fun time with her friends when she gets a hectic call to help out Alix and Peter Chamberlain, the well-to-do white married couple that employs her. The night quickly escalates when she takes their two-year-old kid Briar to a premium supermarket and a security guard erroneously accuses her of abducting the toddler. In the altercation’s aftermath, Emira has to juggle the day-to-day frustrations of her haphazard life with a friendship being enthusiastically and awkwardly foisted on her by Alix, a successful mommy influencer reeling from a racist faux pas that her TV newscaster husband tangled himself in, and a romantic relationship with Kelley, a white guy who captured the grocery store fracas on his phone.
Why this is on my list: Exceptional writing and nuanced dialogue boost Reid’s debut, which provides a witty and acute lens for the daily experiences of Black and white people in America. It effectively captures American racism and classism, white privilege, Black fetishization, and the archetype of “good white people,” while also creating a moving tale of maternity and the growing pains we withstand while trekking into adulthood.
2. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by Victoria “V.E.” Schwab
The sun has set on July 29, 1714 by the time Adeline “Addie” LaRue, ignoring the caution “Never pray to the gods that answer after dark,” desperately prays for deliverance from her cramped life in a little French village right before she’s about to go through with an arranged marriage. The god who does answer bestows immortality on the young woman, but also curses her to be forgotten by anyone she meets as soon as she leaves them. This launches an extraordinary and lonely journey through continents and centuries as Addie yearns to leave her mark on the world. That is, until the year 2014 in Manhattan, where a young bookshop employee named Henry Strauss turns out to be the first person to remember her in three hundred years.
Why this is on my list: As a huge fan of Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy and Villains duology, I had high expectations for her latest genre-mashing outing, and I was not disappointed one bit. Jumping back and forth between the present and the past, the nonlinear narrative follows the eternally free-spirited Addie on an exquisitely introspective and affecting odyssey of love and heartache, legacy and art, and human connection and solitude. Awash with droll humor, rich literary language, and casual queer rep, this luminous and ambitious fantasy romance is especially suitable for quarantine reading.
1. When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
Having returned to her childhood home of Gifford Place to care for her sick mother, Sydney Green is unsettled by the rush of white newcomers pushing Black occupants out of her Brooklyn neighborhood’s brownstones. When she joins a walking tour, she becomes bothered by the white guide telling stories only about the community’s wealthy white dwellers and otherwise ignoring its rich Black heritage. This galvanizes Sydney to launch her own tour with the hesitantly accepted aid of Theo, a white man who recently moved into the area with his girlfriend. As they dig into Gifford Place’s complex history, they run into increasingly disturbing developments—Black residents going missing, strange sounds coming from the walls, encounters with racist jerkasses. Are they mere coincidences or evidence of sinister agents worming their way into the neighborhood?
Why this is on my list: 2020 was a year hallmarked by, among many things, the racial reckoning that swept through America in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. As a result, romance author Cole’s newest offering rises a few bars above your everyday psychological thriller as an unnervingly relevant interrogation of gentrification, white supremacy, and class inequity. Sharply drawn dual narrators, a paranoia-filled and smart plot that dips into horror and romance, and chilling twists and turns strengthen this excellent spine-tingler.
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy, stay strong, and happy new year!