We’re halfway through January, but I’m still over here recapping last year’s reading and I’m not sorry about it. A couple weeks ago I shared my favorite new releases that I read in 2020, and today I’m sharing my favorite backlist picks!
The majority of my reading in 2020, about 77% of it, was made up of books published before 2020, so shuffling through those titles to pick out my top twelve favorites was a true struggle. I read so many good books. *insert sobbing emoji here*
But shuffle through and narrow down I did, accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth, etc., and now, without further ado, here are the twelve best backlist books I read in 2020:
This novel follows Frankie, a young art school graduate whose grandmother passed away a few years ago, as she works through her grief while living in her late grandmother’s old bungalow. Sara Baume’s writing is lovely, and I especially enjoyed the art references sprinkled throughout. “Works about _______, I test myself,” Frankie will think, filling in the blank with whatever subject is relevant to her current moment; she then goes on to name and describe a painting, sculpture, or performance art piece that fits the stated category. I looked up many of these works so I’d have a visual in mind as she described it and drew parallels between it and her own life. I loved how this particular technique created a connection between the fictional main character and the real world and allowed me to go deeper into Frankie’s head. A Line Made by Walking reminded me a lot of H is for Hawk with a little bit of Eggshells thrown in. I recommend it for readers who like characters living in their own heads and working through big feelings and questions.
Oh stars, I just really loved this book. It’s about the crew of a tunneling ship called the Wayfarer, who are all from diverse backgrounds and species, but who also deeply care about each other (or… dislike each other in ways that still manage to be charming). Much of the story takes place after the Wayfarer accepts an assignment that requires extensive travel; the plot follows the ship and its crew members as they undertake this long journey together. But really, the focus is on the characters and their relationships aboard the ship—they’re all so interesting! I especially loved Sissix, Kizzy, and Jenks. There’s a really comforting found-family vibe here that reminded me a lot of Firefly, so if you’ve seen and liked that show, you definitely need this book in your life too. Also, pardon me while I go ahead and cheat a little, by recommending the entire Wayfarers series—the other two books are different from the first in terms of plot and characters, but they all have the same big heart. And! A fourth book is coming out in April of 2021! Can’t wait. Looking back at 2020, this series was probably my favorite thing I read during COVID isolation.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (2018)
My mind is seriously blown at the fact that this novel is a debut. Come for the inventive look at a fractured psyche and the interesting variety of perspectives within a single person; stay for Akwaeke Emezi’s insanely beautiful, sharp, and poetic writing style. For example: “… here is the place where you miss that man and the girls and the road you used to run down, it is soft and fleshy, a bulb of feeling, and here we are like a useful edge and here is the cut, here is the fall, here is the empty that follows it all. Here is the empty that follows it all.” I would include content warnings here for rape, self harm, and suicidal discussion, but if you are comfortable and okay reading about those things, read this book. Wow.
This novel follows a couple of young, Black newlyweds named Celestial and Roy, both full of promise and potential. Very early in their marriage, Roy is unexpectedly arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and consequently sentenced to jail time. What follows is a flawlessly written, absolutely heartbreaking look at the fallout from this event and the long-term effects on Celestial’s and Roy’s relationship. Tayari Jones makes you care about and sympathize with pretty much everyone involved, so it’s impossible to take a side. No matter how things had turned out, you would have been crushed on behalf of somebody. And nothing that happens is really any one character’s fault; the blame, instead, is rightfully placed on the horrible, broken system that lands Roy in jail in the first place. This was a very hyped book when it was released, and I’m happy to say that it completely lived up to all the praise. I’m going to be thinking about it for quite a while.
I’ve tried to read romance before and always came away disappointed in the predictability, the less-than-great writing quality, and the one-dimensional nature of most of the characters. BUT NOT THIS TIME. I freaking loved this book. Casey McQuiston’s voice is modern and smart and funny, and her characters are well-written and well-rounded. I laughed out loud multiple times, and teared up a little too. I got completely lost in the world she created and felt gutted at the end of the book when I realized I didn’t actually live there and instead had to return to the garbage fire of Actual America 2020. And yes, because of romance convention, we know that the two main characters will eventually get together, but the path toward that end was interesting! There was more to the story than just the romance aspect—I loved the friendships and family dynamics and political landscape. I was on the edge of my seat as the election returns started coming in at the end of the book. In short, Red, White & Royal Blue held up to my slightly snobby standards and filled my cynical heart with joy. I was very pleasantly surprised by this reading experience and will absolutely read McQuiston’s next book. Even if you’re not normally a romance reader, I recommend giving this one a try.
I’m not naturally drawn to short story collections, but occasionally I stumble upon a collection that I really love, and that was the case with What is Not Yours is Not Yours. These stories are set in the real world, but they all contain strange, unexpected, and magical elements. And while they aren’t necessarily related to each other, they share certain themes and motifs: locks and keys, puppets, ghosts, fire. And, throughout, main characters from one story pop up in the background of others, giving them a sense of interconnectivity and making it clear that they take place in the same universe. If you enjoy magical realism and like authors like Kelly Link, Kevin Wilson, or Akwaeke Emezi, definitely pick this one up.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan (2017)
This story follows Lois Clary, a coder in the Bay area who works long hours for a robotics company. When the small restaurant where she orders dinner every night unexpectedly closes, she is gifted their sourdough starter and the course of her life is forever changed. Reading this right after the bakery where I work had to close due to COVID-19 was absolutely the correct choice. It’s all about people who make food with their hands and love what they do, and it was such a delight to be immersed in Lois’s world as she teaches herself to feed a starter and make sourdough bread. The slightly sinister, mysterious elements of the plot add some drama and fantasy to the situation, and the idea of nationwide chapters of a club for people named Lois really sprinkles some whimsy on top. I just enjoyed this book so, so much. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in food, learning a new skill, figuring out your “calling,” or if you read and liked Sloan’s previous book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Similar to What is Not Yours is Not Yours, mentioned above, each of these stories has some sort of explosive, strange, magical, or surreal element to it. The main character in one story ends up working at a Scrabble tile sorting factory after her parents spontaneously combust, for example, and a trio of friends in another spends their days literally tunneling into the earth and hiding underground from their post-college existential dread. My one minor qualm is that Wilson only notes a character’s race when that character is non-white, assuming whiteness as the default. But aside from that, this collection is an imaginative, darkly funny, and delightfully bizarre read.
This is a helpful and informative collection of answers to questions about death posed by children. (While the subtitle “and other questions about dead bodies” is technically correct, I prefer the more precise one from the hardcover edition, “big questions from tiny mortals about death,” since the whole point is that all of them came from kids.) Doughty’s answers are gentle enough to be read to or with a child who is experiencing the death of a loved one or just curious about the concept, but they aren’t so dumbed down as to be boring to an adult. I personally learned a lot, laughed a few times, and especially liked the illustrations by Dianné Ruz. I gave my copy to my parents as a gift this holiday season—we recently had a pretty in-depth conversation about death and dying (hi, we’re a morbid family) and I think they will really like it too.
The length of this book was intimidating when I first picked it up, but something about Lori Gottlieb’s writing is so approachable and conversational that it drew me in immediately. I loved the way she seamlessly blends together ongoing stories of her own life, her work with a few of her patients, and her sessions with her own therapist. This whole thing just felt like such an affirming human journey. I laughed! I cried! If you’re at all interested in, involved in, or just curious about therapy, how it works, and what it can do, I absolutely recommend reading this.
The value of this book cannot be overstated. Kendi’s research is thorough, his ideas clearly explained, and his chronology well-structured. I don’t always have the easiest time with history texts, but the way he set this one up, following a few key central figures through the life of the United States so far, made it easy to understand. His core thesis was eye-opening to me: there aren’t just antiracists & racists, or a simple good & evil, but rather segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists. And it is absolutely possible to internalize and spread racist (either segregationist or assimilationist) ideas even if you don’t realize you’re doing so. He shatters the “but we’ve come so far!” argument regarding the reduction of racism in America by showing how rights for Black folks might be improving and increasing over the years, but racism and racist ideas are growing and strengthening simultaneously, too. Both can be true at the same time. Our country will not be where we want it to be until we can identify the racist ideas we hold and get rid of them before they fester and spread. I wish Stamped from the Beginning had been around when I was in school — it really turned a lot of what I thought I knew on its head. This is the kind of history book our young people need! I’m grateful to have read it in my 30s, though, and I can already tell I’ll be revisiting it for a refresher in the future.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (2013)
Jesmyn Ward is an incredible writer, and she does the heavy subject of this book—the deaths of several different men in her life over the years, including her own brother—the justice it deserves. She has a way of drawing you into her world and making you feel like you know the friends and family members who populate it; you’re sitting around on a hot evening with them, drinking with them, being silly and young with them. And then when the sadness that you knew was coming arrives (again, and again, and again), it hits even harder because Ward has so fully shown you these men’s faces and personalities and hearts. Her bravery and poise, not only in living through these losses, but also revisiting them to write about them, are astounding. There is a lot to absorb and ponder in this memoir, including the young men’s deaths and their causes, but also ideas of motherhood, home, family, education, policing, and institutional racism.
And there you have it, folks. Are any of these books favorites for you, too? Have you added any of them to your to-read list? If you had a stand-out backlist read in 2020, leave a comment and let me know what it was!