Everyone has different ways of coping through with spending the majority of the year in quarantine—Kelly and Leslie read. Like, a lot. This year, we each read more books than we ever have before, many in one sitting, including novels that transported us outside of our apartments and non-fiction that taught us valuable lessons. You'll notice some cross-over between the lists (we have a tendency to take each other's recommendations!) and books that came out years ago but are new to us. Most importantly, you'll find books that, we hope, will expand your world, or at the very least, distract you for an afternoon. Below are the 29 of the best books we read in 2020:
Something look familiar? Some descriptions below include excerpts from Leslie and Kelly's original reviews of the books!
1. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch*: This is it! Not only is Dark Matter my favorite book that I read in 2020, it's also the book that you all told me was your favorite book I've recommended this year. I read Dark Matter in the small part of 2020 that was "pre-COVID", and I think it has provided a lot of people with some much needed escapism since then. It's one of the most "palatable" sci-fi novels I've ever read–you don't need to be a fan of the genre to completely devour this book. This is also the book that made me start my Bookstagram account, so its spot as my #1 read of the year feels well deserved. Dark Matter is a fast-paced sci-fi thriller with family/romance elements that really tug at your heart strings. Perfect for anyone who has ever been consumed by the idea of "what if?"
2. The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne*: From the very first page, I knew I would love this book. The Heart's Invisible Furies is the story of Cyril Avery told in seven year increments, spanning from 1945-2015. It's a beautifully written account of Cyril's life as a gay man in Ireland in a time when homosexuality was considered a crime. It's funny, heart breaking, and absolutely worth its hefty 600 pages. I think my copy has literal tear drops on it from me absolutely losing it a few times. (Also one of Leslie's favorite books of 2019!)
3. The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin: My mother, the sci-fi and fantasy literary queen, told me to read this series a few years ago and I ignored her. Having read it now, that was a very poor decision (sorry, Mom!). The Broken Earth trilogy is a fantasy epic with strong themes of racism, oppression, and heroism that is honestly pretty hard to describe (which is probably why I didn't jump to read it right away). If you like fantasy, escapism, and strong female characters, look no further. I finished all three books this summer and think about them constantly! The best comparison I can think of is that fans of Game of Thrones will absolute love this series.
4. The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson: This is an absolute smash of a debut, full stop. The Space Between Worlds has literally everything I like in a book: It's sci-fi but doesn't waste time over-explaining anything, has characters that feel incredibly real, a plot that doesn't drag, and made me bawl by the end. It also explores a deeply important topic, serving as a larger metaphor for the way large corporations prioritize profits over people. If this is Micaiah Johnson's first book (what?!), I can't wait to see what she writes next. This book is definitely not just for sci-fi fans; it's a perfect pick for fans of Dark Matter and absolutely epic storytelling.
5. Miracle Creek by Angie Kim*: I like a mystery/thriller, but it's pretty rare for me to categorize them as my absolute favorites. For me, they're usually more of a fun escape or a palate cleanser in-between deep literary or historical fiction picks, but that was not the case with Miracle Creek. I think I held this book in my hands for several minutes after finishing just staring at the back cover because my brain had temporarily stopped working. This is an absolutely explosive courtroom drama/mystery/thriller/crime novel and I raced to the end to figure out what happened. Somehow this is Angie Kim's debut novel, and I think I am still completely in shock.
6. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: Eeeeek, I love a fantasy novel set at a school with ghosts and magic and secret societies!! That's exactly what Ninth House offers, and it does not disappoint. In Ninth House, our heroine is offered a place in Yale's freshman class if she will join Lethe, the "Ninth House" that monitors the activities of Yale's eight Houses of the Veil. Oh, and she can see ghosts. It ends with a very clear setup for a sequel, which I am very anxiously anticipating!
7. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi: This book destroyed me. It's literary fiction with a crime/thriller/mystery element that pulls the plot along to a devastating and explosive conclusion that broke me in two. I may never recover. The Death of Vivek Oji is about the life and death of Vivek, a young Nigerian man who explores his shifting gender identity and relationships with his friends and family. A deep, emotional read that will keep you hooked until the very last page.
8. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Jesmyn Ward is a hell of a writer. This was my first book by her, but it won't be my last. Her writing is sorrowful, lyrical, and poetic–I could literally read her grocery list and probably still be in awe. Sing, Unburied, Sing follows a biracial family as they take a road trip to bring the father home after three years in prison. There are also ghosts(!!), and two of the main characters take turns throughout the book being haunted by ghosts who are unable to cross over. Whew. It's heavy, but truly excellent.
9. The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio: I really don't read a ton of non-fiction, but I think about this book often. Part memoir, part reporting stories of other people the author meets over the course of a few years, The Undocumented Americans almost starts a completely new genre–I've never read anything like it. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who went to Harvard (and is currently getting her Ph.D at Yale). This book is both her story and the stories of other undocumented immigrants living in the United States. In an episode of Code Switch on NPR, Karla says she wrote the book because, "I wanted to tell the stories of people who work as day laborers. Housekeepers. Construction workers. Dog walkers. Delivery men. People who don't inspire hashtags or t-shirts. But I wanted to learn about them as the weirdos we all are outside of our jobs."
10. Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam*: If this isn't the book to represent 2020, I don't know what is!! I tore through Leave The World Behind in one day and then immediately told Leslie she needed to read it ASAP (you'll see it in her picks below!). This isn't a disaster novel–it's a story about people in a sinister disaster situation where no one really knows what's going on, technology is unreliable, people are slowly getting sick, themes of race and class permeate throughout, and we're all desperate for answers. SOUND FAMILIAR? This book is one of the most polarizing of the year (every review I've read either loves or hates it), but it made me take a good, hard look at who I am in a crisis situation, and honestly, I liked the answer. [Spoiler ahead.] The ending is sudden, but I think the point of that choice is that there just wasn't any more information to tell–we won't ever really have "answers," and isn't that kind of like life itself?
1. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid: I knew I'd love Kiley Reid's novel Such a Fun Age before I even opened the first page. At its heart is the relationship between Emira, a young Black woman, and the white mother of the toddler Emira babysits. What's already a problematic, if externally functioning, relationship gets split open after Emira is accused at a grocery store of kidnapping the child (at the "concern" of the most Karen-y Karen). The book has as many twists as a thriller, which makes it an extremely quick read, but Emira's relationship with her best friend Zara, the conversations about race and class that switch effortlessly between white and Black characters' perspectives, and rich subplots (like the mother's letter writing business) place it among my favorite books of the year. If nothing else, the fact that I was able to carve out time to read it in the middle of my move to Portland should speak for itself!
A quick note: Of all of the books I read about anti-racism this year, I found fiction to personally be the most impactful (see Kelly's excellent list here). While non-fiction provided a compass for me to follow and learn from, fiction struck me more emotionally and personally, as it often does.
2. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam*: This book had been on my radar for a while, but it wasn't until Kelly Slacked me in all caps about it that I finally cracked it open—and proceeded to devour it. As Kelly alluded above, the story revolves around a couple from Brooklyn who splurges on a beautiful vacation home in Long Island. They've hardly settled in before the homeowners they're renting from arrive in the middle of the night, interrupting their bliss to tell them a blackout has hit New York. The questions of whether to believe the couple, how much to panic (is it a simple, temporary blackout or World War III?), race (the homeowners are Black, while the renters are white), and how to cohabitate during a catastrophe are central to this building, un-put-downable thriller.
3. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room, Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences for murder, at a women's correctional prison in California. The gritty prison life, which makes Orange Is The New Black look cute, is interspersed with flashbacks to her former life in San Francisco and descriptions of the judicial system that made me feel livid and largely helpless against the deeply disturbing and flawed American prison system. The novel is so rich, I was surprised to learn that it isn't autobiographical, though this New Yorker feature proved to me that Kushner's every bit as interesting as her characters. It isn't a happy book, but it is an immersive escape that will make you feel more grateful for whatever refuge you're sheltering in place within.
4. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett*: I read this book on the camping trip Jonah and I took as our honeymoon earlier this year. It explores the story of identical twin sisters, starting in the 1950s, who are both white-passing, but whose stories go in very different directions: Stella moves to Brentwood, California and marries a white man (who does not know about her past or heritage), and Desiree returns to the small town they both grew up in. The women, unsurprisingly, live dramatically different lives, which is underscored when their daughters have a chance meeting. I had no problem finishing it in two days because I literally couldn't put it down.
5. Adele and The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani: Although these short novels by Leïla Slimani aren't intended to be read together, clear complementary patterns emerged when I read them back to back. Each is about motherhood (and how it can feel like the opposite of a calling), the places we live, the strangers we trust with our secrets, and our relationships with spouses. They also stare unflinchingly at the darkest moments. The Perfect Nanny begins with the murder of three children in a Parisian apartment, and the protagonist of Adele repeatedly inserts herself into reckless, and often dangerous, sexual experiences. The translations (by Sam Taylor), from French to English, maintain the beautiful language Slimani has woven into each. Don't be surprised if you finish each in a day.
6. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: The Glass Hotel is grounded in a mysterious, remote glass hotel off of Vancouver Island but quickly expands to follow the marriage of Vincent, the bartender, and a former guest and financial mogul, plus a cast of characters that, like St. John Mandel's last book, is comprised primarily of artists. It's been critiqued for biting off more than it can chew, but I personally love a book with a sweeping narrative. The best way into it is headfirst—don't even read the cover copy, which gives away too much. (I also love her previous novel, Station Eleven!)
7. American Prison by Shane Bauer: Even if you haven't read it, you've probably heard of Shane Bauer's historic article for Mother Jones, written about his experience as an undercover corrections officer at a privately held prison in Louisiana. His book, American Prison, expands on the article and weaves his personal experience as a guard with a history of the American prison system. His reporting draws a crystal-clear link between the emancipation of enslaved people and the widespread use of penitentiaries (watch this documentary, if you haven't yet). And his experiences—of understaffing, incompetent guards, and cruelty towards inmates—are eye-opening and enraging to say the very least.
8. The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker: At the beginning of the year, when COVID-19 didn't even have a name yet, I read four books about pandemics, a choice that now feels eerily prophetic? In addition to The Great Mortality by John Kelly (about the Black Plague), The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (about AIDS), and Severance by Ling Ma (a satire on a fictional pandemic), I read Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers. In it, a mysterious and highly contagious disease is causing people to fall into deep sleep in a small Northern California town. As the epidemic sweeps through the town, Walker's novel introduces new characters, questions, and problems. Though reading it during a bout of insomnia felt cruel (a sleeping disease sounded great at the time), it was also likely the reason I couldn't fall back asleep: I didn't want to put it down.
9. Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford: Give me a memoir—any memoir—and I will love it. Reading about real things that happened to real people is never not interesting, but Lacy Crawford's book, Notes on a Silencing, is truly gripping, while horrifying. Trigger Warning: The rest of this review references her sexual assault. The first chapter dives right into the assault (though she struggles to put a word to it) that happened at her prestigious boarding school, St. Paul's: Two eighteen-year-old men forced Crawford, then fifteen, to perform oral sex. But the meat of the book is less about the assault itself—and more about the school's reaction, or lack thereof, to it and how that shaped Crawford's life. Even having heard horror stories from friends about boarding schools, I was struck by how the institutions, at least St. Paul's, are truly old boys' clubs, built to protect men and silence women, even after they become "progressive" enough to admit women.
10. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill: Dani Shapiro's memoir, Hourglass, was one of my favorite books I read last year. In it, she reflects on the transformation of her marriage over the past eighteen years through short scenes interspersed with quotes. The entire time I read Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation, I couldn't help but compare it to Hourglass. It's also written in fragments (which makes it easy to finish in a day), and presents seemingly random moments that together paint the picture of a full, flawed marriage. Once you read it, listen to her interview on the podcast First Draft, about her unique writing process.
Honorable mentions: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood (reviewed here), Untamed by Glennon Doyle (reviewed here), The Yellow House by Sarah Broom (reviewed here), An American Marriage by Tayari Jones* (reviewed here), Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (reviewed here), Recursion by Blake Crouch* (reviewed here)
*Kelly and Leslie both loved this book!