Celeste’s Top 20 Books of the Year (2020)

Celeste’s Top 20 Books of the Year (2020)

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If you’d like to see a list of everything I’ve read this year, you can click here to see my year in books for 2020!

2020 was an incredible reading year for me. I read over 150 books, and have found a number of new favorites. I haven’t read as much fantasy this year, but I still managed to find some wonderful new stories that I know will stick with me for a long time to come.  Thank goodness for books, right?  I don’t think I could’ve gotten through the dumpster fire that was 2020 without them. It was incredibly difficult to narrow my list down to twelve books, but I finally managed it. There will be a handful of honorable mentions at the end of this post, for those I just couldn’t bare to not include. I’m taking a page from Petrik and following three rules for my list:

1. Only one book per author.
2. Rereads don’t count.
3. The books were new to me, but didn’t have to be published this year.

Once again, I’m ranking my reads. That being said, every single book on this list was a 5 star read and I highly recommend them all.  You can view my full review of each book (including the honorable mentions) by clicking the link  in each title.  And now, without further ado, here are my favorite books of 2020.

20. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Publisher: Grove Press (first published: July 27th, 2016)

Just because your life doesn’t look like everyone else’s doesn’t mean you’re wrong or that your feelings and decisions are any less valid. As long as your choices aren’t inflicting actual harm on another human being, march to the beat of your own drum. Live your best life. Learn from Keiko and stop hiding who you are at your core just to please the masses. You do you. Even if that means everyone else on the planet is left scratching their heads in confusion and huffing in frustration over your refusal to conform.

19. My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Vol. 1 by Emil Ferris

Publisher: Fantagraphics (First published: February 14th, 2017)

Beautiful. I had no concrete expectations for this going in, but My Favorite Thing is Monsters is hands down the most unique graphic novel I’ve ever read. The story, the art style, and the character development where all absolutely brilliant. I was incredibly moved by it. The story was meaty, and was well balanced by the stunningly original artwork. Karen Reyes felt incredibly real to me, and I was thankful to be able to spend so much time with her. I can’t wait to see how the story wraps up in Volume 2.

18. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Publisher: Ecco (First published: October 29th, 2019)

Nothing to See Here is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. The tone is just hilarious. Lillian, the perspective character, is absolutely bonkers and I adore her. She’s tough and kooky and always afraid that she’s going to mess things up, and I just want to be her friend more than anything. This book is short and breezy without being shallow, and it completely transported me into this beyond weird circumstance in the midst of normalcy. Nothing to See Here is the best kind of crazy. If you’re looking for something that will make you laugh and remind you that your problems could always be worse, this is the exact right book for you.

17. Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

Publisher: Celadon Books (First published: May 5th, 2020)

In the past few years, I’ve developed a deep love for any memoir in which someone details their crazy childhood and how they managed to rise above it. While they are radically different, Hollywood Park is joining Educated as one of my favorites in this random subgenre for which I’ve developed such a fondness. You can tell that Jollett is a musician and songwriter. There’s a beautiful rhythm to the prose, and so many sentences struck me as lyrics hiding within a story. He tells the heartbreaking story of his childhood with grace and honesty and humor.

16. Beach Read by Emily Henry

Publisher: Berkley (First published: May 19th, 2020)

Beach Read is basically a Hallmark movie but better. Way better. If I were asked to describe the book in one word, that word would be: AWWW. It was sweet and heartfelt and incredibly funny, with enough drama and depth to keep itself from becoming overly saccharine. I can honestly say that, for the majority of the story, I was reading with a grin plastered across my face. This is a book I definitely intend to revisit, and to revisit often. Finding a new comfort read is such a wonderful feeling. And Beach Read gave me that lovely, comfy glow.

15. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Publisher: Algonquin Books (First published: January 29th, 2018)

An American Marriage gutted me. The characters it portrays are stunningly, viscerally real. And the situation in which they find themselves is heartbreakingly, infuriatingly believable. This was a story brilliantly well told. The writing was phenomenal, not in a way that made you stop and admire a sentence, but in a way that allowed you to see every line of anguish on someone’s face and hear the hurt in the lines of their letters.

14. The Orchard by David Hopen

Publisher: Ecco (First published: November 17th, 2020)

If you loved The Secret History but thought it could use more Talmud and philosophical discussions about God, The Orchard is the book for you. But despite my inability to discuss one without the other, I do truly believe these two novels, though both exquisite, are worlds apart. Hopen’s debut is a gorgeously written, lovingly crafted work of art that I believe will find a devoted, and hopefully huge, following. It stretched my mind in the best of ways.

13. Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry (Stephen Fry’s Great Mythology, #1)

Publisher: Penguin (First published: November 2nd, 2017)

I’ve adored Greek mythology since I was a child. I’ve also always been utterly charmed by Stephen Fry. The combination of these two things was an absolute delight. Fry’s writing is a perfect marriage of class and sass, and he gives the original source material tremendous respect while never taking those sources or himself too seriously. It requires a very deft hand to so impeccably balance freshness and timelessness, but that’s exactly what Fry managed to accomplish in this collection. I can’t sing this book’s praises enough. Every single minute spent with Mythos was a pure and unadulterated delight.

12. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Publisher: Atria Books (First published: April 25th, 2019)

Anxious People was incredible. Brilliantly written. It doesn’t quite have the charm of A Man Called Ove or the emotional weight of Beartown, but it’s a pretty great marriage of both. The prose managed to be both amusing and deeply philosophical in the same sentence, which I found incredibly impressive. All in all, Anxious People is a delightfully heartwarming read that felt very applicable to the times in which we’re living. By the final chapters, the story ended up feeling like a hug made of words. It was sweet and hopeful and just what I needed.

11. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Publisher: Vintage (First published: September 1992)

When my co-blogger Emma informed me that this was one of her favorite books ever, I decided to take the plunge. I’m so glad I did. Far from failing to meet my absurd expectations, The Secret History blew them out of the water and is now happily ensconced on my favorites shelf. The group dynamic reminds me of a darker Dead Poet’s Society, or a more academic Cruel Intentions. I think the group of frenemies can be be described as mirroring the Classics that bind them: decaying beauty. While I can’t speak to the rest of her work, The Secret History alone proves that Tartt is a powerhouse of an author, and I’m already itching to read more from her.

10. Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

Publisher: Harper (Frist published: March 31st, 2020)

Valentine is absolutely gorgeous. The writing is so vivid and transporting that I felt like I indwelled each character during their prospective chapters. It’s also one of the most tragic, heartbreaking stories I’ve read in a very long time. My heart almost physically ached during my time reading this book. But most of all, Valentine is immensely powerful. It proclaims an almost rebellious resilience in the face of heinous adversity that is fiercely and unequivocally feminist, and I felt impacted by it at a soul-deep level. While it is definitely a difficult book to read due to the content, I absolutely recommend Valentine to any reader who wants a rallying cry to stand up for those who have been marginalized, and a reason to applaud those who live through trauma and don’t let it define them.

9. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Publisher: Viking (First published: August 13th, 2020)

Any work of fiction that can move its readers to reevaluate their own lives and try a little harder has accomplished something incredible. And if the book can do so in a way that is gentle and comforting instead of shaming in any way, that’s truly something special. Matt Haig gives us something that special with The Midnight Library. I can see this being a book I reread whenever life starts feeling like it isn’t worth the trouble. The Midnight Library is hope and potential and solace all packed into one slim book. Read it. Press it into the hands of anyone you know that might be struggling. Let it comfort and inspire you.

8. The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (First published: October 1st, 2020)

The Devil and the Dark Water is a wonderful spin on a nautical mystery in the style of Sherlock Holmes. Featuring a stellar cast, a rich and atmospheric setting, chilling brushes with the supernatural and a grippingly paced plot, this was everything one could possibly hope for from a mystery novel. I found it incredibly clever, satisfyingly twisty and deliciously suspenseful. And it had an ending I didn’t see coming. Honestly, I couldn’t ask for more.

7. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (First published: January 30th, 2018)

If I had to define The Great Alone in one word, that word would be harrowing. I can’t remember the last time I had such a visceral response to a book. I came into The Great Alone expecting an adventure story. While there was indeed adventure in these pages, I found so much more than that. Hannah gives her readers a peak into not only Alaska, but into love in all its forms and scope and limitless variety. It is a study of all the various types of love listed above. It is a display of the tenacity of the human spirit, and how much one can overcome, especially for the sake of another.

6. Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (Locke & Key, #1-6)

Publisher: IDW Publishing (First published: November 11th, 2014)

Locke & Key is insanely creative and wildly unique, the perfect pairing of medium and story. The prose is surprisingly thoughtful and complex and is perfectly matched by Rodriguez’s wonderfully detailed illustrations. I love the mythology Hill built here, and how fathomless and rife with possibilities that mythology proves itself to be. This is one of those rare series that not only starts off incredibly strong, but maintains a steady growth pace through the last page of the final installment. It was brutal and beautiful in turns and equal measure.

5. The Waste Lands by Stephen King (The Dark Tower, #3)

Publisher: Signet (First Published: August 1991)

The Gunslinger was fine the first time I read it, and I enjoyed it more the second time around. I loved The Drawing of the Three almost immediately, and that love never wavered throughout the course of the novel. But The Waste Lands is one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. I’m not saying it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, as I’ve been fortunate enough to consume some absolute masterpieces. King’s prose doesn’t quite measure up to masterpiece quality. There are imperfections here. But for sheer enjoyment value, for its ability to keep me so invested that I had a difficult time focussing on real life, for its insistence on invading my dreams even after I had read its final pages, this book just wins. I was never less than completely entranced. The plot was astonishingly intricate and never lagged. I was never bored for a single second.

4. Beyond the Point by Claire Gibson

Publisher: William Morrow (First published: April 2nd, 2019)

I find it almost impossible to believe that Beyond the Point is a debut novel. The prose is fantastic, and the Gibson managed to perfectly balance lovely writing, intensely deep character development, engaging plot, and thoughtful contemplations on philosophy and faith. Not only was I never once bored, I highlighted probably a quarter of the text. I annotated so much, in fact, that digging through and narrowing down the quotes I wanted to include was crazy difficult. I’m blown away by how polished and powerful and purposeful Gibson was able to make every single chapter of this novel.

3. A Time of Courage by John Gwynne (Of Blood and Bone, #3)

Publisher: Orbit (First published: April 2nd, 2020)

A Time of Courage was a stupendous finale to not just its trilogy, but to Gwynne’s Banished Lands saga. While I would love for him to revisit it someday, I believe that Gwynne wrapped things up perfectly. Not neatly, mind you, as that wouldn’t have rang true. There were losses and loose ends, as there should be in any believable tale with stakes this high. But I found the ending exactly right, giving closure while still providing room for wondering. I wish every fantasy lover the world over would pick up Malice and fall in love with Gwynne’s world and writing. Haïfa and I were the last Novel Notions bloggers to read this book, so I can now say with certainty that it’s a blog-wide favorite for 2020. Thank you so much for all the time and care you put into writing this book and all of its predecessors, Mr. Gwynne. Thank you for giving us an entire world and a plethora of characters to mutually adore. You and Brandon Sanderson are a huge part of the bond the six of us share. We all love you for it.

2. Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella

Publisher: Random House (First published: May 5th, 2020)

Ghosts of Harvard is a brilliant and seamless bridging of so many ideas and genres. I am in awe of how much research went into the writing of this book, and how Serritella was able to convey so much without a single aspect feeling forced. Much like the university after which it is named, Ghosts of Harvard contains multitudes. This book is a campus mystery, a coming of age story, a scientific exploration of mental illness, a tale of espionage, a moving historical account, a romance, an esoteric dive into poetry and philosophy and faith and prejudice and a family drama. While this mingling could have led to a bloated and unpalatable slough, all of these elements were instead woven together with a level of grace and care that is truly rare.

1. Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson (The Stormlight Archive, #4)

Publisher: Tor Books (First published, November 17th, 2020)

Rhythm of War is hands down my favorite book of the year, and I’ve read some truly incredible books over the course of 2020.  In my opinion, there has never been a better time in the history of publishing to be a fantasy fan. And for me personally, that is in large part due to Brandon Sanderson. His work captivates and inspires me so much, and I can’t wait to see where he takes his readership next. Is it too soon to start counting down the days until Book 5? But in the meantime, I’ll be reading whatever he puts out and rereading what he’s already given us. If you’re looking to escape from reality for a while, and would prefer to do so in a way that will lift you up emotionally and feed your soul, there’s no author I’d rather recommend.

And honorable mentions go out to:

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, The Awakening by Nora Roberts, I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano, Sea Wife by Amity Gaige, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, and The Book Charmer by Karen Hawkins.

And even though they were rereads, I’d like to mention The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Watership Down by Richard Adams. Both were just as wonderful the second time around.

Thank you to all the authors of these amazing books for sharing them with the world.   I can’t wait to see what wonderful stories 2021 holds. Reading has been such a solace during this wacky, frankly terrible year, and I hope that it has been for y’all, as well.  Here’s to hoping and praying that 2021 is better in every single respect.

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