2020, favorite reads, recommendations, Wrap-Up

Favorite Fiction Reads of 2020

In my last post, I talked about the books I gave 5 stars in 2020, but those were 8 out of the 100 books I read, so I wanted to talk about some other great books that I read last year. Below are ten fiction books I read in 2020 that I would definitely recommend.

The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1) by R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War is the first in a fantasy series based on real events in Chinese history. Rin is an underdog who gets into an elite military academy where she has to prove to the others students and teachers that she deserves her spot there. While at the school, she discovers shamanistic powers that will turn her into a dangerous weapon when the country becomes embroiled in war. Rin was not my favorite character but I enjoyed the other side characters and I thought the world-building was well done. I also read the second book in the series, The Dragon Republic, in 2020 and it is an excellent sequel. Trigger warnings for all of the things.

The Last Human by Zack Jordan

I was lucky enough to get an ARC of this to review for Booklist, and I really enjoyed it! This is a sci-fi debut about Sarya, who is the last human in the universe. When her home is destroyed, Sarya sets off on a journey in a stolen spaceship with a ragtag group that includes a rebellious spacesuit and a super genius ball of fluff. Pursuing Sarya are two omniscient beings: one who wants to resurrect the human species and one who wants to extinguish it. I found this to be witty and humorous while contemplating on themes such as classism, lack of freedom and the meaning of destiny.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a contemporary novel about a girl named Eva who is a culinary prodigy that grows up to be a renowned chef. The story is told in vignettes from various people who come into contact with Eva and how she touches their lives, either on purpose or inadvertently. Eva is a little bit of a Mary Sue, but the writing gave me Fredrik Backman vibes and he is one of my favorite authors. I will definitely be trying Stradal’s other novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota.

Brunch and Other Obligations by Suzanne Nugent

This was another ARC I received for review for Booklist, and I also enjoyed this one! This is about a group of friends: Molly, Leanne, Christina, & Nora. The latter 3 women are really only friends because of Molly. When Molly dies, she leaves a request for the 3 women to meet up for brunch once a month for a year. Over the year the women grieve the loss of their friend together and learn they have so much more in common than they thought. It was witty and charming and a great debut.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium #1) by Stieg Larsson

This one was a reread for me, and I’m sure a lot of you have already heard of it and/or read it. I think it still holds up; Lisbeth Salander is still a kickass character and the mystery is still compelling. My one complaint is that Larsson focused a lot on Lisbeth’s looks which was just sort of uncomfortable and gross. But the action and characters made up for that and I would definitely recommend the first 3 of the series.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

One thing I love about reading historical fiction is learning about pieces of forgotten history. Granted, The Nickel Boys is based on the tragic history of the Dozier School for Boys. The Nickel Boys follows Elwood Curtis, a young man growing up in the 1960s who is sent to a reform school called “The Nickel Academy” after being unfairly sentenced. Once he’s there, it’s clear that there is no reform, only horror. When he becomes friends with Turner, Elwood begins thinking about escaping Nickel. Once a plan is put in action, there is no escaping the consequences. I listened to this on audiobook and thought J.D. Jackson did a great job. I just wish the book was a little longer so that there would be more time to connect to the characters. The fact that Whitehead could convey such heartbreak and horror (again, this is based off of A REAL SCHOOL) in so short a novel though is a testament to his writing skill.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Dominicana is what I call a “quiet” story, in that not a lot happens plot-wise; the plot is essentially a character study where you’re just reading about the character’s development (or lack thereof). In this case, we’re watching a young teen named Ana get married off by her parents to a man twice her age, and after the wedding he takes her to New York City circa 1965. Over time, we watch Ana grow into her own person and become more empowered, all while getting accustomed to the new country she now calls home. I just really liked the writing style and was always hoping things would work out for Ana. If you like character-study-type storytelling, you may enjoy this one.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

This is another one you might have already heard of because it was really popular a few years ago. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is about A.J. Fikry (duh), a curmudgeonly bookstore owner who has recently lost his wife and is slowly isolating himself from his community. When a baby is left at the bookstore, A.J. embarks on the adventure of living and connecting with humans again. I thought this novel was sweet and charming and essentially a love letter to books. Scott Brick reads the audiobook, which I definitely recommend.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

After reading Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, I knew I had to check out their other work. And Freshwater did not disappoint! Emezi is skilled in writing short novels with engaging prose and packed with multiple themes. Freshwater is a semi-autobiographical contemporary that follows Ada who was born “with one foot on the other side”. When Ada experiences a traumatic event, the selves inside of her take control. I listened to this on audiobook which really adds to the reading experience because it is narrated by Emezi.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Finally, we have this short novel about a sister who may well be a serial killer. Korede is the older sister of Ayoola, who is beautiful and used to getting what she wants. Korede is used to helping Ayoola get out of ugly situations–even those that result in murder. Ayoola has claimed self-defense every time, but this is the 3rd boyfriend Korede is helping to dispose of. Korede has loved her sister too much to turn her in, but when Ayoola catches the eye of Korede’s crush, Korede begins to wonder if she should at last tell the truth. For a novel about a serial killer, this one was actually kind of fun because of the deadpan writing style. I would definitely check out anything else Braithwaite publishes.

So those are some of my favorite fiction reads from last year! Have you read any of these? Let me know what your favorite fiction reads of 2020 were in the comments below.

Until next time,

recommendations

My 5 Star Reads of 2020

So in 2020, I read 100 books. My average rating was 3.5, which means I am a picky bitch. What does it take to be a 5 star for me?

If it’s fiction, it needs to have compelling writing, interesting characters, a believable plot and detailed world-building and/or scene setting. Bonus points if it can make me have a physical reaction (ie. tears…and one of these did!).

If it’s nonfiction, it again needs to have compelling writing but it also needs to keep my interest, have legitimate citation (if it’s one of those types of nonfiction), and it needs to teach me or inspire me.

And sometimes, a book just has that je ne sais quoi and I just love it because I love it! Below are the 8 books I absolutely loved in 2020.

I read this as part of my work for a committee I was on, and I am so glad I did. We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival by Jabari Asim is a must read in the catalog of books written about the Black experience in America. A short, poignant collection of essays that fans of Ta-Nehisi Coats’s Between the World and Me may enjoy.

This was my first from author Akwaeke Emezi, and it dit not disappoint. Pet is a short young adult novel about a young girl named Jam who lives in a world where monsters no longer exist. Until one day a horned, clawed creature emerges from her mother’s painting and tells Jam they are there to hunt a monster. And the monster lives in Jam’s best friend’s house…

One thing I liked about this book is how stunning the writing is in that Emezi can convey deep meaning with simple writing. A quote I liked was “There is the unseen, waiting to be seen, existing only in the spaces we admit we do not see yet”. This is an excellent read AND listen, as Christopher Myers does a great job narrating the audiobook.

Ooh boy this one made me emotional. The Midnight Library is the story of Nora Seed, a woman who feels she has only ever made wrong choices. When one of her choices lands her in The Midnight Library, Nora discovers the different directions her life could have gone based on different choices she could have made. Such a compelling read that explores depression and the choices that make up our lives.

Witchcraft and suffragettes. Like need I say more? The Once and Future Witches follows a trio of sisters with magical capabilities who get entangled with the suffragette movement of 1893 New Salem and end up fighting an old enemy who is determined to keep witches from regaining their power.

Ok so this is the one that made me cry!! The Last Train to London follows multiple characters who are connected to the Kindertransport, which was an effort to get as many Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied countries after the events of Kristallnacht. One of the main characters is Tante Truus, who was a real woman who helped with getting children out of Vienna. I think I cried because it’s horrendous to know that this is based off of a true story, but I think it’s testament to Meg Waite Clayton’s skill in being able to write that urgency into the story. And I definitely recommend this on audiobook, as John Lee does a great job.

I listened to this one on audiobook because Bahni Turpin narrates it (and she is my fave audiobook narrator). This is a must read for everyone but especially white people. Racism is real and it has consequences. White privilege is real and it has consequences. White supremacy is real and it has consequences. Oluo is frank and direct in what white people need to learn and do to help eradicate racism. This is definitely one I’ll need to reread the physical copy so that I can highlight and take notes.

N.K. Jemisin is queen. The first in a trilogy, The Fifth Season is about a woman who discovers that her son has been murdered and her husband may be the killer. But he’s kidnapped their daughter and is on the run. Essun must traverse a ruined land to find them before the world enters another Fifth Season. Jemisin’s writing is compelling and the world-building complex. At times I felt I was too dumb to get it but I didn’t care. The whole series is *chef’s kiss*.

This is another important read for everyone, but especially white Americans. As it covers the entire history or racist ideas in America, it is dense. Kendi has done the work and the research to craft a well written text on racism in America. There is a youth version that I hope will be added to the curriculum for American high school history classrooms in the future.

So those were my 5 star reads of 2020! I will follow up soon with my favorite fiction and nonfiction of 2020, because I did read other great books! They just didn’t have that *thing* that makes a book a 5 star read for me. Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned? What were your 5 star reads of 2020? Comment below!

Until next time,