I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.
Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES
Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).
The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.
The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.
The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!
I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.
These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.
As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.
Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.
And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.
Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.
Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.
Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.
Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.
The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.
The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.
These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.
I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?
Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.
I belong to a group on Facebook called “What Should I Read Next?” It is mobbed by more than 53,000 eager readers who seem equally motivated to share what they like and learn what others have discovered. I joined the group for a few different reasons:
- I wanted to keep up with what was popular out there right now with regular readers (not librarians, reviewers, and other colleagues);
- I saw it as a chance to practice my own readers’ advisory skills in a social media format, to see what works best;
- I thought by sharing my reviews, I could find more followers for my obscure little blog!
It’s actually working quite well: I’m discovering that many readers fish in a shallow pond of popular titles and are therefore all reading a lot of the same books, which both gives me those titles and also allows me to make suggestions of others not as popular but perhaps as good or better reads. I am learning a lot about how to work as an advisor in a written online format; after I referred someone to a book by writing a short synopsis in the comments, three separate people wrote back to me and said some variation of, “I wish other people would give a little description with their recommendations so I would know whether I would even be interested in looking this book up on Amazon or Goodreads.” So now, every time I make a recommendation, I throw in either a short annotation or at the least some characteristic of the book that I think people would be interested to know (such as, “It develops slowly but the characters are so lifelike you expect to meet them on the street and invite them for coffee!”). And both my Facebook page and this blog have picked up a dozen new followers since I began this “relationship” with other online readers.
I am also discovering that, like many librarians who think they have good readers’ advisory skills, regular people also think it is sufficient to recommend a book based on what they like, rather than trying to find out what the person who is asking might prefer. I get a little impatient sometimes when a mom asks for realistic books for her 13-year-old son and someone posts “Harry Potter!” Harry Potter is not the answer to everyone’s reading needs, people!
Anyway, suffice to say that the interaction with the subscribers to this page is really highlighting and pinpointing their needs, along with how poorly they are being served when people concentrate too much on the books and not on the readers themselves.
Recently, someone wrote that her mother was about to have surgery and had asked her to stockpile some titles she would enjoy during recovery. The criteria was, “She likes books that take place at the beach. Her dream is to live in a lighthouse.”
People immediately started throwing out names of authors who write books that are set on the Outer Banks, the Jersey shore, or the beaches of Cornwall. Some of them fall into the category of actual “beach reads”—that is, lightweight and frothy, perfect for a summer vacay book. Others, though, had such a wide variety of styles and stories that I wondered, “Would anyone really read books just because they were set in a preferred location?”
Then I thought about myself and the many books I have read that were set on the streets of Paris, and how some of them, though
frankly mediocre, still pulled a decent rating from me because of their evocative development of “setting.” So, as an experiment (since I also like the ocean), I am reading a few of the books mentioned, to see if the right “environment” in a book can offset such things as poor writing, shallow character development, or the lack of a cohesive
I also proposed to one reader who was a big fan of Kate Morton that she might, if she likes mysteries, also enjoy the books of Tana French. She had never heard of French, and asked me why I thought so. My reply was, People who like Kate Morton are willing to accept extremely slow pacing while Morton sets up place and characters in what sometimes lasts hundreds of pages. Tana French, although writing in a different genre, subscribes to the same style.
My premise here is that people who are willing to read in multiple genres may still gravitate to the same type of book in terms of reading appeal, i.e., this slow pacing shared by these two authors, rather than picking something fast-paced in one and slow in another. I don’t know whether that reader will take me up on the Tana French challenge; she said “Thanks for the tip” rather than “I’ll rush right out and read one.” But I’m hoping that if she does, she will come back to me and confirm or deny my theory. (I realize that basing it on one person isn’t good data collection, but everything starts with a first step….)
I will report back on these ponderings!
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novic, is so exquisite, both in the writing and in the telling, that after having spent three days reading at breakfast, lunch, and bedtime, I stayed up from 2:00 until 4:00 a.m. this morning to finish it; and when I got up at 9:00 and made my breakfast, rather than starting a new book I opened Spinning Silver
to page one and began reading again, to remind myself of all the reasons why.
I purposely used the alternate spelling of “fairy” in the title because, although this book is billed as a fairy tale retelling, it is light years away from most of those. It borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any relatively prosaic fairy godmother from the Grimms’ tales.
This is, above all, a character-driven story, and so you have to be patient as a reader for the first little while until you are sufficiently acquainted with the three protagonists. As a readers’ advisor, I am always one to tell a reader that if they aren’t enjoying a book in the early chapters, by all means drop it and find another. I’m not saying that this book isn’t good from page one—it is. And things begin happening from fairly early in the story; but it takes about 120 pages (which is a pretty big commitment out of 480) to complete your introduction to the pivotal characters and provide some action that really moves their joint story forward in a significant way.
As a person who loves character development, that didn’t matter to me in the least, because I was so fascinated with the way the first protagonist, Miryem, morphs from a cold, hungry, desperate girl into a tough, confident one who, once she decides that she is the one who will have to take care of her family, shows no hesitation.
Miryem and her parents, the Mandelstams, are Jews living on the outskirts of their little village near the forest. Miryem’s mother’s father is a moneylender in the larger town of Vysnia, and a hugely successful one; but Miryem’s father, who decided to take up the same profession based on the dowry from his wife, is too gentle to make a living the same way. When he attempts to collect on the money he has lent, his customers jeer at him, shout racial epithets, and chase him from their doorsteps, or else make excuses that they know will touch his soft heart and cause him to give way. All around the Mandelstams, the other people in the village are benefiting from the money they have borrowed, with their investments in more livestock, better farm tools, warm clothing, and fields of crops, while the Mandelstams starve. Finally, with her mother ill and her father helpless and discouraged, Miryem decides that she will have to be the moneylender of the family and, taking up her basket, she treks from door to door insisting on her just desserts. Soon there is a new thatched roof, warm clothing, and meat in the pot, but her parents weep that she has become cold inside from this “unladylike” profession.
Meanwhile, six miles away, Wanda lives with her Da and her brothers, Sergey and Stepon. Her mother is dead, buried in the yard under a white-blossoming tree with her six miscarried baby boys, and her father is a drunkard and a wastrel who has borrowed six gold kopeks from the moneylender, more than he will ever be able to repay. When Miryem comes calling asking for payment on the debt, he reviles her and tries to drive her away. She knows that if she lets him win she will confront the same problem at every turn, so she tells him that his daughter, Wanda, may pay off his debt a half cent a day by working for her and her parents. Although Miryem believes this will be a hardship, Wanda is secretly delighted, since it gets her out of the house and away from her father’s constant abuse; so Wanda becomes a fixture in the Mandelstam household, and soon becomes the debt collector in Miryem’s stead, while Miryem pursues other business.
Finally, after an ill-advised boast by Miryem about being able to turn silver into gold attracts the attention of the king of the Staryk, who comes to her with a bargain she is unable to refuse, we meet the third leg of the stool of this story: Irina, daughter of a duke and a quarter-breed Staryk “witch” and, up to this point in life, a plain and silent girl with no expectations. But the advent of Staryk silver alters her worth in the eyes of her ambitious father, and she suddenly finds herself betrothed to the dashing Tsar Mirnatius, who is both less and a lot more than he seems, with dire effect. Although the men in the book play pivotal roles, it is this triad of women whose thoughts and actions control the progression of their layered, interwoven lives, and who end up saving the kingdom of Lithvas from powerful enemies.
The themes in this book—agency, self determination, pride, empathy, duality, the embracing of family wherever you find it—are pervasive, and poignant but also raw. Watching each protagonist rise to her challenges with ingenuity and quiet determination was a joy. And the best praise I can give is that the quality of the character development, the language, the scene-setting, everything you would want from a story like this were maintained from beginning to end. The final sentence was as satisfying as all the rest, and was the perfect ending to a gripping and entertaining tale. It’s been a long time since I read a book that I loved with as much fervor as this one. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it after I heard about it. I was and am thoroughly beguiled.
ADDENDUM: I must address one issue with this book that was brought up to me by a friend on Goodreads. Although the author otherwise goes out of her way to be inclusive and expansive in her representation of characters of different religious and economic status, she is not similarly sensitive when it comes to the one gay character in the book. There is a courtier who makes it obvious that he is smitten with his cousin the Tsar, and Novik has the protagonist Irina scheme to marry him off to a woman for her own political gain, and is mocking and dismissive of his true preferences, actually threatening him to get him to comply with her plan. Novik needs to recognize that gay people merit the same sensitivity of treatment as her other represented groups. She should know that bad gay representation is worse than no gay representation. Yes, it’s two pages out of 480, but it continues a precedent and a prejudice that should not be present in this jewel of a book. I’m sorry to see it here.
On impulse, after finishing Once Upon A River,
I picked up and re-read Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Shore, which I reviewed here when I first discovered it. Since I thoroughly covered all aspects of the book in my first review,
I wasn’t going to bother to bring it up again; but re-reading it set me thinking on various tangents that I thought might be worth discussing from a readers’ advisory standpoint.
The first tangent was Colgan’s treatment of Zoe’s son, Hari, in the story. Hari is a four-year-old boy, perfectly delightful in every way according to his mother, except that he doesn’t speak. There’s nothing physically wrong with him, and all the doctors consulted by Zoe say it’s a psychological thing and will “probably” resolve itself eventually when something shifts and he simply starts to talk.
This is small comfort to Zoe, who has to live her life explaining something big about her child. Everywhere they go, people bend over and say “Hi, little guy, what’s your name?” and are at first offended at the lack of response and then pitying when they discover the reason why. At every daycare, at every school, with every new acquaintance or stranger in a shop, both Zoe and Hari are called to account for his not being able to do what many parents probably wish their children would do less of—speak, shout, cry. In all these aspects, happy or sad, Hari is silent.
Even Hari’s father, Jaz, judges him by this lack of ability. While he loves his son, Hari’s inability to speak is a constant nagging flaw that Jaz seems unable to get past. Colgan evokes a genuine sense of compassion for Hari and for Zoe for having to deal with all this heavy expectation every time Hari is given the opportunity to open his mouth.
When the pair move to Scotland and Zoe becomes an au pair at a “big house” with three children, for the first time Hari is accepted for who he is, by the five-year-old Patrick. Patrick is, by his own estimation as well as everyone else’s, incredibly clever for his age, and with that quite outspoken.
In short, he’s a talker. Their first encounter:
Hari put down his tablet, got up and padded over to the newcomer.
“Who are you?” said Patrick.
“This is Hari,” said Zoe. “He’s living here too.”
Patrick regarded the boy with some suspicion. Hari glanced over at Zoe worriedly, but she smiled at him as if to say it would be all right.
“Hmmm,’ said Patrick eventually. “You don’t talk too much. I like that. I like to talk A LOT. Do you like dinosaurs?”
“Okay,” said Patrick carelessly.
And just like that, Hari’s situation was normalized. Later, when Jaz visits, Patrick steps up to him and says, “I am absolutely Hari’s best friend.”
“Oh. Well. Good,” said Jaz. “Can you teach him to speak?”
“I absolutely like Hari how he is,” said Patrick.
This was such a simple and beautifully done example of both the hardships encountered by the differently abled and the potential for them to be loved no matter what. I realized, upon re-reading this book, that one of the things I enjoy about Colgan’s writing is her evocation of a sense of empathy with all her characters. This is a key element in readers’ advisory—does your reader want to identify closely with the characters in their book? Some people enjoy being alienated by the protagonists of their stories, but there have been books (notably, The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling) that I have refused to finish because I found the characters so repellent and so totally lacking in any redeeming qualities that I simply didn’t want to spend another minute in their company.
By contrast, I love reading about people who are different from me, whether that means significantly older or younger, of a different race and country, gay, male, extraordinarily gifted or limited in some way—as long as I can somehow identify with them through the agency of empathy. When I ran my high school book club, I remember some of the parents being puzzled by why all the girls in the club seemed to consistently choose books with gay male protagonists. The reason was not specifically that they were gay or male, but that the author had done a good job both highlighting their differences and conveying their similarities.
The second tangent that came to mind upon re-reading this book was place. Colgan’s books are, at least six of them, set in the wilds of Scotland, up among the hills and the lochs and the sheep, with the wind whistling in off the ocean and the weather subject to change by the hour. If someone asked me objectively if this was my ideal locale to put down roots, I would most likely say no, since I hate wind, don’t like being cold, and greatly value the close proximity of my Trader Joe’s. But I live a comfortable, mostly middle-class life, with a (small) house to myself, a driveable car, and enough income (most months) to keep me going. If I had lived (like Zoe, the protagonist of this book) in a small, dark, stuffy bed-sit in a bad neighborhood of London with my little son, worked two jobs just to maintain that life, and had to drop off my kid at a questionable daycare while I did it, those same hills and lochs and freezing but beautiful views might seem like heaven. In fact, if I lived here in Los Angeles in a grotty little apartment, sharing walls with noisy neighbors who smoked and fought loudly, and had to take the lousy public transportation system to two jobs to get by, Scotland would be a dream come true for me, as well.
This is the talent of the author who can evoke a palpable sense of place for the reader, whether by contrast as in this example, or by the use of lyrical language and detailed description (also employed by Colgan). Since one of the reasons many people read is to be transported out of their everyday lives to another time and place, to a lifestyle they may have dreamed of but never dared to attempt, or even to a lifestyle they wouldn’t voluntarily choose but might wonder about, the sense of place is a powerful tool when advising people on what to read.
The talent of the writer is to make wherever the reader lands more palatable, or at least more fascinating and foreign or perfectly homey. For instance, while none of us might want to live in the bed-sit in Edinburgh or in London, where Colgan’s characters Nina and Zoe originated before embracing Scotland, that’s partially because of the way the accommodations, and their surroundings, are described: Dim light, dirty streets, noise, confusion, traffic, bad air, crowded buses and trains, the pervasive smell of takeout drifting up from the café downstairs—a thoroughly unappealing situation.
On the other hand, what if the bed-sit you were living in, just as tiny, were at the top of an old house in the Latin Quarter of Paris? What if, even though it was small, and you had to climb four flights of stairs because the elevator was always broken, once you arrived at the top and entered your little space you could see out the dormer windows to a perfect view of the dome of the Sorbonne? What if you painted your tiny flat a beautiful shade of seawater green, and put up diaphanous sheers at the windows, and hung a few favorite pictures, painted by talented friends, and had a cozy little stove to keep it warm? What if outside your tiny room and down four flights of stairs was Paris?
The quality most closely related to a sense of place as an appealing quality of a book is the desire (or need) for escape—to experience something different, somewhere else, and live there for a while. Try out your readers’ advisory skills by describing the setting of the book you are suggesting and see if your readers’ eyes don’t light up at the prospect of going there.