January 15, 2021

2020 By The Books

It's my habit in January to look back at the books I read in the year just ended. In 2020, of course, everything was different, but reading was the one part of my life that didn't change all that much.

I read 46 books in 2020. While that looks like a notable increase from the previous year's 39, the number of novellas and other shorter works means I don't think I spent substantially more time reading. I've been fortunate not to have the sort of reading block many people have experienced during the pandemic, though my ability to focus on a story certainly fluctuated week by week and hour by hour. Often fiction was the only thing that could distract me from the news, and I might have ended up reading a whole lot more if I hadn't eventually started writing again.

My book selection patterns remained fairly stable in 2020. More than half my reading was brand new books, with almost all the rest from the past five years. I read my usual mix of realistic fiction, speculative, and stories that fall somewhere in between. As always, fiction dominated, but I also read a couple of books about writing, two other nonfiction works, and a book of poetry. The one type of book I wanted little to do with was my previously beloved apocalyptic genre (though I did make one exception). And a weird trend was that without meaning to, I happened into quite a few stories involving characters who see ghosts.

I read a lot of good books in 2020, which is perhaps the nicest thing I have to say about the year. Here's a rundown of the ones that impressed me most, each linked to the monthly recap with a full review:

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells brought me the most reading delight, though it has an unfair advantage as a series. I was hooked by ALL SYSTEMS RED (May), the first thrilling adventure of the Security Unit who's great at its job but not at interacting with humans. Three more novellas and a novel (so far) provide further action, intrigue, and space travel, while also developing an increasingly complex exploration of friendship, anxiety, and feelings. I love how Wells combines these elements, and I can't wait for more Murderbot this spring.

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid (January) was one of my first reads of the year and remains one of my most frequent recommendations. This page-turner revolves around a babysitter and her employer when the mother decides to address the race and class differences between them. Good intentions and bad assumptions go wonderfully awry as the plot winds tighter, and Reid brings the story to life with fantastic dialogue and nuanced, compassionate character portrayals.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam (October) was the one apocalyptic scenario I was willing to read this year, because I was so intrigued by the combination of author and premise. Alam writes such strong, well-observed character interactions, and the story starts with a promisingly uncomfortable dynamic. A family on vacation at an Airbnb is surprised by the late-night arrival of a panicked couple who say they're the owners, and that something terrible is happening in New York City. Events outside the house grow more and more disturbing as the occupants try to cope with the awkwardness inside. This novel is profoundly unsettling, and so good.

THE LOST BOOK OF ADANA MOREAU by Michael Zapata (February) is a novel set in the real world that's about and for lovers of science fiction. The mystery of a lost and found manuscript connects characters across generations in a tale that explores immigration, loss, and family. Zapata has crafted a gorgeous, inventive novel about stories, journeys, and the rambling path both often take, and I was captivated all the way through.

LITTLE EYES by Samanta Schweblin (June) imagines a faddish new gadget sweeping the globe that connects strangers in a random and asymmetrical fashion. A consumer can purchase either a plush toy with a camera and wheels, or the software to see through and control a toy somewhere in the world. All sorts of outcomes might follow, from horrible to touching to just plain confusing, and Schweblin does a great job spooling out a wide variety of possibilities. The premise is disconcerting, and that's the point, but it's also very compelling to read about.

MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (August) tells a horror story that mixes familiar trappings (a spooky house, a menacingly secretive family) with fresh, unexpected aspects and twists. When a socialite from 1950 Mexico City travels to her cousin's marriage home in a remote town, she encounters a patriarch obsessed with eugenics, possible evidence of poisoning, and disturbing nightmares. This novel starts off creepy and gradually ramps up to downright gruesome. I am impressed by Moreno-Garcia's skill at writing horrifically vivid scenes, to the point that I'm a bit resentful over the images now implanted in my brain!

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett (June) starts with light-skinned Black twin sisters, once close, who grow up to live very different lives with two different racial identities. From that intriguing opener, the story becomes even more interesting with each new development, expanding to consider many types of passing and identity. Bennett is a master at handling shifts in time and perspective, as well as portraying small moments and details that make the characters real.

GODS, MONSTERS, AND THE LUCKY PEACH by Kelly Robson (May) is a short book jam packed with fascinating worldbuilding and great character development. An ecological remediation firm gets a contract to time travel back to ancient Mesopotamia and study the rivers. The project lead and the firm's young admin initially clash but eventually reach a good working relationship. Robson's story is original and a ton of fun, with many science and project management details to geek over.

INTERIOR CHINATOWN by Charles Yu (January) takes place in a Chinese restaurant on the set of a TV cop show that seems to be the entire world for the characters of the novel, who are actors who play the characters in the show. Yu's mind-bending, metafictional concept unfolds in a blend of screenplay and prose formats that fractures as the protagonist strains against the limitations of his life. This is a sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching story about family, race, and media, and it's unlike anything else you've read.

FIEBRE TROPICAL by Juliana Delgado Lopera (May) is a queer coming-of-age story that stands out for the strength of its narrative voice. From the opening page, the fifteen-year-old narrator expresses her opinions with attitude and humor. She has nothing but disdain for her mother's evangelical church until she starts to feel her heart opening, if not to Jesus then at least to another girl in the teen group. Delgado Lopera's confident writing develops all the story's personalities to the fullest.

HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD by C Pam Zhang (December) sends two young siblings alone on a journey across the post-Gold Rush West. The story builds suspense over what will become of the kids as well as what happened in their family to bring them to this point, and I admired each narrative shift. Zhang wields perfect control at both structure and sentence level, mixing tight dialogue with imagery that captures the beauty and ugliness of the characters' lives.

FIND LAYLA by Meg Elison (October) looks inside the life of a junior high student who has practice keeping that life hidden. Layla dreams of escape for herself and her little brother, but a permanent way out is hard to plan from an apartment they must exit through a window because the front door no longer opens. The child neglect in this story is deeply upsetting, but Elison keeps the novel from descending into pure misery with a strong, hopeful narrative voice and an engrossing plot.

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