What a year 2020 was! I don’t know about you, but it’s certainly not one I’ll be forgetting anytime soon. Aside from all the craziness of pandemic living, one good thing it gave me was time — which lead to reading 81 books from a wide variety of writers and across a range of genres and topics. And while I know it’s almost the end of January, I wanted to officially put forth my top 10 favorite books of 2020!
10 – The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nelson Spielman
This book was one of the biggest delights of 2021! When the book popped up as one of the November Book of the Month choices, I picked it purely because Italy (where the story takes place) sounded like such a wonderful escape during a time in my life that was rather difficult. But I ended up falling in love with the second-born Fontana sisters (Poppy, Emilia, and Lucy), cursed never to find love. This book, while funny and oftentimes light-hearted, was far from fluffy, diving into serious topics, as the Fontana women not only discover more about each other, but also learn more about themselves as individuals. Overall, it was a wonderful tale of family forgiveness, self-discovery, and learning how not to let others’ opinion (or even you own self cloud of judgment) define who you are.
9 – These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
If you didn’t know, I am a major Shakespeare fan girl (my college capstone was actually about feminism in his plays, but we can talk about that a different time!). But surprisingly, my least favorite play of his is actually Romeo and Juliet. Maybe it’s the countless poor re-imaginings of it out there or the tired old star-crossed lovers trope — or least that’s what I’m going to blame, because Gong’s debut novel completely transformed my view. It was such a fresh take on an old classic, namely through its setting of 1920s Shanghai and its diverse cast. I mostly adored Juliette Cai — underneath a hard exterior was a character who cared deeply for her family, friends, and city and is willing to do whatever it takes to protect them. She is the heroine I wish I had growing up: someone who looks like me, experiences some of the same feelings I do as an Asian woman, and isn’t delegated to some basic, uninteresting, or stereotyped side character.
8 – Anna K by Jenny Lee
So confession — I just told you how much I adore a good reimagining. But I actually haven’t read Anna Karenina! It just seemed like one of those really intimidating classics, so alas, it has been left untouched on my shelf. Regardless, I adored Lee’s retelling. It read like a television show, giving off massive Gossip Girl vibes, but it was diverse — and actually diverse, not just “here’s some characters of color to please readers.” Anna K herself was smart, brave, and kind, and she was another character I wish I had read about as a teen trying to come to terms with my identity as an Asian American woman.
7 – Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
This book was a bit of slow burn for me, told from the point of view of Gifty, a PhD student studying the role of addiction on rats’ brains. Through this heavily character-driven story, I found myself sucked into Gifty’s narrative and she addresses her experience growing up in a Ghanian immigrant family in the Deep South and watching her brother and mom struggle with addiction and mental health, often in retrospect of her current role as a scientist. Her voice is so honest as she grapples with coming to terms as a scientist, daughter, sister, lover, and friend. For me, the most powerful part of Gyasi’s novel was her exploration of Gifty’s personal, sometimes contradictory, and oftentimes intertwining relationship between science and religion. Gyasi is a talented writer with artful control of language — I’m so glad to have discovered her this year.
6 – The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Sometimes a novel seems to just show up when the world needs it most — which is why this book became one of my favorite books of 2020. This story deals powerfully with race in a way I hadn’t discovered yet in fiction, and this year perhaps more than ever showed us that we need books that can do this and do it well. Each character was well-developed, making me feel like I knew them intimately, especially the twins: stubborn, vibrant Desiree, and intelligent, secretive Stella. This book is tenderly written and equal parts imaginative and grounded. It made me both escape inside the story and think hard about my world. And while it made me think about how much we as a society have to grow when it comes to how we deal with racism, it also gave me hope. It definitelyd deserved to be named Book of the Month’s Book of the Year!
5 – Anxious People by Fredrick Backman
So this was my first book by Fredrick Backman! I know he’s a fan favorite of many readers, and after this one, I can completely see why. For the first 100 pages or so, I honestly had no clue what I was reading — the plot was so weird, albeit funny, with a cast of oddball, off-kilter strangers. Yet through this charming story of a hostage situation gone wrong, Backman created a story that managed to touch my heart, make me both laugh and cry, and remind me of why stories done right about mental health are so important, as the story explores the lengths each character is willing to go for love, family, friendship, and forgiveness. There’s no surprise to me that this was a finalist for Book of the Month’s Book of the Year award.
4 – Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
In 2019, after finally finishing up school, I made a promise to myself to work hard to explore writers of Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander descent. As an adopted Chinese American, I realized how powerful fiction was in allowing me to better explore my own culture and identity. Of all the amazing writers I have discovered, this hilarious and ultra-creative satire by Charles Yu really sticks out. For one, it is laugh-out-loud funny, but it also perfectly addresses the ways that Asians in media are portrayed. I think this perspective has been vastly left out of storytelling, so I am so glad that Yu’s story won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2020. This story spoke to my soul as an Asian American woman, and I was so touched by its beckoning to “be more” than any stereotype dictates of us or the world sees us as.
3 – The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
I recently revisited this book for the second time with a book club and a friend described it as a “warm hug of a book.” He could not have been more correct! I recently received my The StoryGraph results, which showed that I tend to read books that are emotional, mysterious, and reflective. So I love that a more lighthearted yet simultaneously thoughtful and touching love story cracked my top three. In a year that was full of collective challenges — isolation and fear from a pandemic, decisive politics, continued police brutality and reminders of the systemic racism still present in our society — this book was a breath of fresh air, as it followed case worker Linus Baker, enigmatic children’s home director Arthur Parnassus, and six magical, powerful children capable of bringing the world to its knees. It was not only lovely, heartwarming, and whimsical, but it was also a powerful reminder to embrace empathy, understanding, and acceptance of both self and others.
2 – The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
If you didn’t know, Addie LaRue is a special book to me — so special, that I named my new puppy in honor of the titular character! But as Addie walks forgotten and invisible across time, history, and geography, I found her story to be a powerful testament to the importance of living life to the fullest, loving deeply, and staying true to yourself. Simultaneously, it did a great job pondering the question of what makes up an identity: a name, a face, an idea, or something else? By the time I hit the end of Addie’s story, I wanted more. She is the type of character who I wish I could be friends with in real life. She’s brave, resourceful, intelligent, and brimming with curiosity and adventuresome spirit. Despite immortality, she is so achingly human — and because of Addie alone, this book deserves its spot as my No. 2 favorite read of the year. Check out my full review here.
1 – The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
And for spot No. 1 — The Midnight Library! This wonderful story will probably always hold a special space in my heart. I remember finishing this book in a hotel room in Westchester County, N.Y., while my husband was on a virtual meeting. I attempted to hold in sobs as I reached the end — Erik thought some terrible tragedy had occurred, when really, I was just experiencing the power of fiction at its finest. Relatable-as-hell Nora Seed feels as if life has passed her by. Ultimately her choices — or lack thereof — bring her to titular Midnight Library, granting her the opportunity to pursue decisions she decided to bypass in her root life. What I love most about Haig is how he powerfully transforms his own experiences dealing with depression and suicide into a work of fiction that was so raw and relatable. Of all the books this year, this one really touched my soul the deepest, made me think the hardest, and has been most difficult to forget — so of course, it fully deserves spot No. 1.
Honorable mentions and books not published in 2020: This Tender Land by William Kent Kreuger, The Space Between Worlds by Macaiah Johnson, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Three Souls by Janie Chang, Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Circe by Madeline Miller, and Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano.
What were your favorite books in 2020? Post a comment or reach out to me via Instagram!