Here are the ten books I enjoyed reading most in 2020. Most of them were published in 2020 also, but some are earlier. I tried to explain what made each book special to me, but sometimes the appeal of a book is mysterious.
Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
I reread this, the third book in Cashore’s Graceling series, because a sequel is coming out in January. I enjoyed it more this time that I did the first time I read it, I think because it didn’t demand a lot of me and provided me with an emotional story instead of an action packed one. Bitterblue is the 18-year-old queen of Monsea, the heir of a monstrous father who tortured his subjects and clouded their minds. In order to heal her country, she has to uncover truths that have been hidden because they’re too horrible to contemplate. I appreciated the way she both has a romance with a commoner and yet is limited as to what future can come of it. That dose of reality is rare in a YA fantasy.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
An outstandingly well-written and tense book about a woman and her son fleeing cartel violence in Acapulco. She lived a middle-class life until her reporter husband wrote one too many articles about a particular cartel, and the leader orders the slaughter of her whole extended family. She and her 8-year-old son escape and become migrants, heading north. They ride the top of freight trains and encounter all the variations of migrant pain we read about. It’s a compelling book. I had to take breaks or skim some parts because it was so scary. Highly recommended but not light reading.
Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
This is the sixth and last book in one of my favorite fantasy series. It had a big job to do in tying together a long developing political plot when the Medes finally invade the Little Peninsula. It’s told mostly from the point of view of Pheris, the handicapped grandson of Erondites. He’s viewed as a monster, which I suppose one might also say about the series central character, Eugenides, The Thief of Eddis. Gen’s monstrous side shows itself more clearly in this book than I’ve ever seen it, as he moves ruthlessly to eliminate his enemies. And yet, he’s still Gen, the man who wants his wife’s love. Like all the books in this series, this one is elliptically written, with gaps the reader has to consider and fill in. Turner’s subtlety marks her work as different than most YA fantasy. If you haven’t read the previous books, you’ll be lost. But I admire these books tremendously and am sorry the series is done. Start with The Thief and keep reading. You won’t be sorry.
All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny
I love this series about Inspector Gamache, Chief of Homicide at the Quebec Surete. In this latest addition to the series, Gamache visits Paris for the birth of his granddaughter when an old friend is deliberately run down in the street. Gamache sets out to find out who did it and why. His investigation takes him into the high levels of both the Paris police and corporate governance, as various kinds of power interact. Along the way, he struggles to establish a relationship with his estranged son. And of course, there’s plenty of Paris! Penny’s greatest strength is her exploration of character and what it takes to be a good human being. I enjoyed the book greatly, but it’s probably not the best one to start with if you haven’t read the series before. Begin at the beginning with Still Life. You won’t be sorry.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
A friend recommended this, and it’s just as wonderful as she promised. The focus is on Shakespeare’s family, particularly his wife, and what the death of their son meant to all of them. We go to London and the Globe Theater only at the end when Shakespeare stages Hamlet for the first time. Highly recommended.
This Tender Land by William Krueger
Set in the 1930s in the upper Midwest, this is the tale of four children who escape from a cruel orphanage. The central character is Odie. He’s accompanied by his older brother, Arnold, by a Sioux boy called Moses, and by a little girl with a strange gift. As they canoe down the Gilead River, the narrator wrestles with guilt, trust, and forgiveness. He and his companions move through a host of other people adrift during the Great Depression. The woman who runs the orphanage is perhaps too evil to be believed, but other than that, this is wonderfully well written.
Fireborne by Rosaria Munda
I bought this because a stranger on twitter said it was the best book they’d read in a long time. This goes to show you the power of recommendations. Feel free to give them out!
At first, I thought the book was going to simply use familiar tropes, but by the time I was 10% into it, I saw it was much more than that. Its plot is about YA dragon riders who are meant to defend a new regime that tossed out an oppressive old one. The characters are well done in themselves and in their relationships to other people. I cared about their struggles with their pasts and also with their current actions. Because one thing Munda shows is that nobody comes out of this with clean hands. Nobody. That rightly suggests cynicism about politics even from people who have good intentions. But Munda also shows the tragedy of it which is what made this book stand out for me.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
Wonderful book set in 1953 when the Federal government tried to disband the Turtle Mountain Cherokee tribe and appropriate the reservation land. The central character is Erdrich’s grandfather. Erdrich is a beautiful writer. She uses multiple points of view, so it took me a while to learn who everyone was, but it was so worth the effort. She brings the essential humanity of them all to life. And the cultural aspects of life on the reservation were fascinating. Even the kind of wood used to make a cradle has significance.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Beautiful book about a large group of people held hostage by terrorists for months. Among them is an opera singer and her music ties them together. As time passes, we see both hostages and terrorists turn into people we can care about. The book builds to a tragic ending that simultaneously inevitable and surprising.
Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats
Oh holy moly, this was good. It’s historical fiction set in early 12th century Wales. Elen, the central character, had the bad luck to live in the path of a warband which slaughtered her family and took her with them after she healed their leader. She convinces him she did it through the intercession of her namesake saint, and that she can keep him safe if no harm comes to her. This book takes place three years down the line and chronicles how she searches for the means to escape when the man who holds her believes she’s vital to his survival. I’ve lately been wondering if fantasy tells women’s stories very well. In a lot of cases, it tells what would traditionally be a man’s story with a woman in the central role instead. This is a woman’s story. A trigger warning for rape.
Jade War by Fonda Lee
The sequel to last year’s Jade City.
Think The Godfather with a vaguely Asian setting and extra powers granted to some people through contact with bioenergetic jade. The Kaul family governs the No Peak Clan which is at war with the Mountain clan, a state complicated by international conflicts as other nations crave jade and the power they hope it will give them. I like the family dynamics a lot. I like the complicated international wrangling much less so. Still it’s an original premise that’s very well told. If you haven’t read Jade City, do that first.