Welcome to my last post of 2020! It feels appropriate to finish out a year full of bad by talking about the books that got me through and made it all somewhat bearable.
I’ve managed to narrow down the 99 (soon to be 100—I’m determined to finish one more before midnight) books I read this past year into my top eight. Every single one of these is a new favorite, and if you’ve been following along with my reading from 2020 you probably won’t be surprised by any of them. From this list, four are 2020 releases. We’ve got six adult books, one young adult, and one middle grade, interestingly enough. In terms of genre, there are three fantasies, four contemporaries, and one nonfiction.
Enough intro, let’s dive in and see if I can talk about my favorite books of 2020 in a concise way at all! Presented in the order that I read them…
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
“May she wander but always return home, may all her words be written true, may every door lie open before her.”
January Scaller was raised alone in a mansion full of treasures, the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, knowing nothing of who she is or where she came from. When she finds a book filled with strange stories of doorways to other worlds—a book that even starts to open some of those doorways for her—she begins to unravel the secrets of her past.
I read this book almost a year ago now, and within the first pages I knew that it was going to end up among my favorite books of the year. Not only is Alix E. Harrow’s prose some of the most stunning I’ve ever laid my eyes upon, but the story itself is simply brimming with wonder and possibility. It’s the kind of story you want to fall asleep to just so you can cling onto it a little longer in your dreams. Every word is brilliantly crafted, the story-within-a-story weaves together perfectly, and January was an instant favorite character. This book makes me want to believe in magic.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
“A home isn’t always the house we live in. It’s also the people we choose to surround ourselves with.”
Linus Baker works as a social worker at orphanages for magical children, and he’s good at his job. So good, in fact, that he’s being sent on a secretive assignment to an orphanage on an island with highly dangerous children and a mysterious caretaker who would do anything to protect them.
Reading this book in the depths of quarantine earlier this year, when everything felt hopeless and joyless, made me so happy that I fully cried my way through the last fifty pages. I’ve said before that it feels like a hug in the form of a book; it’s probably my most recommended book at work this year, since it’s the perfect uplifting read. Even just thinking about it makes my heart want to burst. Full of found family, eccentric and adorable kids, sweet romance, found family, standing up to authoritarianism, overcoming trauma, found family, and an absolutely hilarious narrative voice, it’s the kind of book that I will never stop recommending. Oh, and did I mention the found family?
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
“You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.”
After ten years in prison, Oliver Marks is finally free to tell the truth of the crime he may or may not have committed. Back then, he was one of seven Shakespeare students at an arts college, where the line between reality and the tragedies that he and his friends acted out onstage began to blur.
I’m not sure how it happened, but I picked this book up and the next thing I knew, I was facedown on the ground in tears, having read the final lines and felt my entire heart shatter. This book probably elicited more physical reactions from me than any other I read this year, and even months later, just thinking about the perfection of the foreshadowing, the exploration of Shakespearean tropes, or the tragedy of it makes me want to collapse onto the floor. I’m blown away by M.L. Rio’s brilliance and could probably read this a dozen times and still pick up on new details. Not to mention, it absolutely brought out my pretentious dark academia English major side, and I loved every second of it.
Hurricane Season by Nicole Melleby
“‘The sadness will last forever,’ Vincent had said to Theo, moments before he died. Fig thought maybe she could understand him now.”
Fig and her father have always only had each other, but things are starting to change faster than Fig can keep up. As her father struggles with bipolar disorder, Fig tries to keep social services away and understand her father’s strange obsession with hurricanes by reading about Vincent Van Gogh.
This is an exciting occasion: the first time a middle grade book has showed up on my favorites of the year list! I can’t think of a more deserving book for this honor. Even as it managed to break my heart over and over, it proceeded to patch it back together again in the most beautiful ways. It’s a story about a little family striving to stay together, a girl who’s stronger than she should have to be, and the confusing mess that is growing up. I so admire the way that Nicole Melleby was able to handle some heavy topics like mental health and coming out in a way that feels accessible to young readers without oversimplifying at all. I truly loved every word of this gorgeous, bittersweet little book.
Loveless by Alice Oseman
“I had been so desperate for my idea of true love that I couldn’t even see it when it was right in front of my face.”
Georgia is obsessed with love—in movies, in fanfiction, in real life. When she starts university, she’s determined to find an epic love story of her own, even as her attempts lead to disastrous results within her group of friends.
It should surprise absolutely no one to see this book among my favorites of the year, considering how loudly I’ve been screaming about it all across the internet since this summer. Even after all this time, though, I still don’t entirely have the words to talk about how much this book means to me; it feels bigger than words can express, somehow. Alice Oseman manages to not only write a genuinely entertaining and Shakespeare-filled university coming-of-age story, but she captures that specific messiness, confusion, and grief that comes with figuring out a part of your identity that you don’t quite feel ready to embrace. And she does it while celebrating love in all its forms, whether romantic, platonic, or otherwise. I am in awe, and I’m still crying about it.
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
“New York takes from her, sometimes. But she takes too. She takes its muggy air in fistfuls, and she packs it into the cracks in her heart.”
When August moves to New York, she wants to disappear within the city that feels as cynical and rough-edged as her. Then she meets a woman named Jane on the subway. Jane isn’t like most of the New Yorkers August meets—she’s friendly and charming…and she might actually be displaced in time from the ’70s and stuck on the Q train.
I’m sorry to include a book that doesn’t come out until next June on this list, but I simply could not resist. I had high expectations for this book, considering how much I loved Casey McQuiston’s debut, but even so, I was blown away. Simultaneously hilarious and heartwrenching, with the kind of romance that knocks you off your feet, it made me want to hug every single one of its characters and also be best friends with them all. I cannot wait for this book to be out in the world so I can scream about it more with everyone else. (I admit, though, as someone who’s the exact same age as August and was supposed to move to New York this year before, you know, everything, it did have a bittersweet sting for me. But hey, even if I couldn’t fulfill that dream this year, at least I got to read this book early!)
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
“One witch you can laugh at. Three you can burn. But what do you do with a hundred?”
It’s 1893 in the city of New Salem, and the three Eastwood sisters reunite after their abusive father drove them apart for years. They first get involved with the suffrage movement, but soon that isn’t enough for the youngest, James Juniper, and she sets their sights on a new goal: bringing witchcraft back to the world.
Congratulations to Alix E. Harrow for showing up twice on this list! Just like with The Ten Thousand Doors of January, the sharp, breathtaking prose would have been enough to make me love this book, but when you combine that with a story about angry women, fighting for a better world, legends come to life, and sisterhood…well, I’m predictable. This book checks essentially all of my boxes and it made me feel like I could take on the world and win, so I love it more than words can express. Though it’s full of rage and injustice and hopelessness, it came into my life at the perfect time (a few weeks before the US election) and reminded me that no matter how awful the world gets, there will always be people fighting to make it better.
Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller
“Nowhere is the sky so blue, the grass so green, the sunshine so bright, the shade so welcome, as right here, now, today.”
When her life hit rock bottom, Lulu Miller learned about David Starr Jordan, a nineteenth century taxonomist who discovered a fifth of the world’s fish and famously persisted in his work despite countless setbacks. Hoping to learn from him how to find order and meaning in a chaotic universe, she dove into researching his life.
We’ve got another first here, folks: the first nonfiction book to show up on my best of the year list! When I picked this one up, I did not expect it to hit me so hard, but as it turns out, it was pretty much exactly what I needed during what’s probably the darkest winter of my life so far. Through the life, accomplishments, and failures of David Starr Jordan, Lulu Miller explores some of the toughest questions we face, such as: Is there a point to our existence? How do we persevere when we have no hope left? Can we ever understand the chaos of the universe? I don’t know how she did it, but within the pages of this little book she provided, if not answers, then at least some understanding toward all of these questions and more. Also, I learned a lot about fish!
Whew, we made it! Thanks for reading this far, if you’re here, and I wish you the happiest of new years. Here’s to finding many more amazing books in 2021!
Did you read any of the books on my list of favorites? What were some of your favorite books of 2020?