You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 was a weird year, and that definitely showed up in my reading list. For a long time mid-year, I really shied away from anything that was dark or challenging. Still, I somehow managed to read books this year, and I managed to put together a list. Eventually, I mean it is April 2021, which is a little late for a Best Of 2020 list.
Rankings were done using the same nerdy comparison system I used last year. Don’t take the rankings seriously, they are for entertainment only, by which I mean my entertainment, because I like ranking things.
I liked all of these, and maybe you’ll like some of them, too.
30: Titanshade by Dan Stout
What Is It?: Imagine a gritty 70s cop movie where the hero is the marginally less corrupt cop bringing the system down. Then add magic.
Titanshade gets its noir tone right, the book does a great job of feeling like a particularly high-stakes episode of Rockford Files or Columbo (it’s fantasy with a very 70s level of tech and cultural markers). If that sounds at all interesting to you, you’ll like it.
29: Or What You Will by Jo Walton
What is it?: The most Jo Walton thing that has ever been Jo Walton’d. It’s meta-fantasy. The main character is in fact, fictional, he’s an archetype that a famous fantasy author has used in several of her novels. Except he’s real. At least, in the authors’s head. And he’s got a plan to not die when she does. Oh, and it all kind of takes place in Florence, Italy.
Did that make sense? I think so? This is a very meta story that takes place in the sort-of real world, plus a historical fiction, plus a historical fantasy, plus who knows what all. Like other great Walton books, it should be a mess, but somehow it works beautifully.
28: I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn
What is it?: One of a few books on the list this year that could be described as “the kind of YA romantic comedy where nothing very bad happens to anybody and they all live happily ever after”. You can see the appeal.
This is a very sweet, fun book about a teenager who goes to visit her grandparents in Japan and has a sort of YA-coming-of-age time. The book is obviously delighted by the culture that she discovers and it’s charming.
27: The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison
What is it?: It’s a fantasy version of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is an Angel, and Watson is… well, that would be telling.
The tagline for this book is “This is not the story you think it is. These are not the characters you think they are. This is not the book you are expecting.” And boy, was this not the book I was expecting. Holmes pastiche from the author of The Goblin Emperor. Still, I like Holmes pastiche, and this is a good one.
26: The End of Everything by Katie Mack
What is it?: Light non fiction about the literal end of the universe.
I never quite know what to do with non-fiction in this list. There is usually at least one non-fiction book near the top of the list, as there is this year, and then a few sort of scattered around. Anyway, this book is surprisingly funny for a book about the end of all things, and physics has changed since the last time I read about this topic.
25: Dead Lies Dreaming by Charles Stross
What is it?: The Laundry Files branch out into Neverland
This is book ten in the Laundry Files Novelistic Universe, and what started as a funny series about an IT guy dealing with ancient evil summoned by math has become a funny series about a nightmare world where the ancient evil has basically taken over. This starts a new sub-series within the book as the world gets weirder and weirder.
24: Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller
What is it?: The former host of NPR’s Invisibilia and current host of Radio Lab produces the closest thing I’ve seen to a podcast in print form. The book weaves in and out between Miller’s personal story and the story of David Starr Jordan, a scientist who discovered a very large number of fish species, and whose samples were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
Just to clear things up, the title is why “fish” as a category isn’t a thing, not a strong claim that flounders are a figment of your imagination or something. Anyway, the structure of the book, with the way the stories are laid out to twist, turn, and comment on each other, is very reminiscent of Radio Lab.
23: Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein
What is it?: I mean, the title gives this one away. It’s an argument about American politics, eventually coming to the conclusion that polarization is not itself the problem, but becomes a problem in conjunction with the structure of the US Government, which makes it hard to do anything in a highly-polarized environment.
See, the non-fiction books all clump together. Anyway, you probably already know whether you are interested in this one or not.
22: The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
What is it?: The third book from the Night Vale team, telling the secret origin of the Faceless Woman.
I admit I did not, in advance, think that the Faceless Old Woman needed an origin story. This book is great, though, with the signature Night Vale mix of funny, creepy, and just weird. I’m not sure it’s a great starting place if you aren’t already a Night Vale fan, though.
21: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
What is it?: Modern fantasy where the physical embodiments of each of New York’s five boroughs work together to defeat the evil forces trying to destroy New York’s diversity.
This is starting to show up on award ballots, it was nominated for a Nebula, which proves what I kind of suspected, that a lot of people were going to like this book more than I did. It’s not that I didn’t like it – I did, I just like the Broken Earth books more. It was, though, a very odd experience to read this book about NYC resilience in March/April, 2020.
20: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth
What is it?: I barely even know where to begin. In 1905, two girls at an exclusive boarding school die mysteriously. A few years later, the headmaster of the school is similarly haunted. A few years ago, a woman wrote a book about them all, and a few years after that, an actress wants it to be a movie. That’s most of it. Add in some intrigue, romance, and a very voice-y narrator, and maybe you’ve got it?
This is very much a “not for everyone” book. The narrative voice is intrusive, which I love, but I suspect some people won’t. It’s kind of long, and maybe doesn’t technically resolve everything? But the parts that hit, and there are a lot, are really fun.
19: A Wizard’s Guide To Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
What is it?: YA fantasy about a young girl with magical powers over, well, over bread. Turns out you can do a lot with magical bread, and what is likely a sentient sourdough starter.
Let’s talk about this one three books down-list…
18: Harrow The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
What is it?: Sequel to Gideon The Ninth, middle book of a trilogy. SF that is so far-future as to be essentially fantasy.
This book, I think is closer to what I was afraid Gideon would be before I read it. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s long, and there’s a big chunk in the middle where it’s not completely clear what’s going on. (I strongly suspect that I’d have gotten more out of it if I was more into fanfic). It really helps to have Gideon fresh in your mind when you read it. The last hundred or so pages, though, after a spoiler thing happens, pick up quite a bit, and do make it clear what was happening in the middle, and to some extent why all the book’s plot is happening. So, still looking forward to the trilogy’s finale this year.
17: Stormsong by C. L. Polk
What is it?: Fantasy in a WWI England-ish setting, where the country in question is having to deal with past misdeeds done in the name of protection.
The first book in this series, Witchmark was a book that I liked, but other people loved. I think I liked this one better. The first book was about uncovering something terrible, and this book is about dealing with having uncovered it in way that I found interesting. Book three is in my To Be Read pile even as we speak.
16: Paladin’s Grace by T Kingfisher
What is it?: Romance/fantasy between a paladin who served a god who has mysteriously died and a woman who gets caught in a web of intrigue.
Kingfisher was new-to-me this year, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen, there’s a kind of storytelling about good and competent people that strikes me as very reminscent of Bujold. This book, in particular, deals with the clergy of the White Rat, who are basically super-competent religious lawyers has a very, very Bujoldian feel to it. That’s a high complement.
15: Tweet Cute by Emma Lord
What is it?: Another entry in the YA romance where nothing bad happens to anybody and it all works out.
Her name is Pepper, her family business is a big-ol’ fast food company. She runs their social media. Her high school classmate, Jack (get it?) runs social media for his family’s mom-and-pop NYC deli. Shenanigans ensue. It’s fun.
14: Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett
What is it?: Book two of what is apparently called “The Founder’s Trilogy”, about a world where magic looks a heck of a lot like computer programming.
I also very much liked Foundryside, the first book in this series. The magic setup is great, it’s very interesting what Bennett has the characters do. The books are basically about open-sourcing magic, which is based on what are basically huge compilers that allow you to write on objects and convince them that reality is different. (Like, you could convince an arrow that it’s really light, but super strong, and you’ve created a crossbow).
13: The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk
What is it?: A cross between a Regency romance and a secondary world fantasy, where magic exists, but married women are barred from practicing it.
This book takes two genres that I am usually hit-or-miss on – Regency romance, and “vaguely England-like fantasy world” and puts them together well. It’s particularly well done that how lead character has to solve a problem that is both a social problem and an in-world plot problem.
12: Tuesday Mooney Talks To Ghosts by Kate Racculia
What is it?: “The Westing Game but for Grown-ups” gets you about 80% of the way there.
Racculia is apparently a huge Ellen Raskin fan, which is great, because so am I. There’s a lot of Westing Game DNA in this book about a series of puzzles left behind by a dead billionaire. And that’s more than enough for me to like something.
11: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
What is it?: Superhero fiction, from the point of view of the villain’s henchperson.
I love prose superhero stories. In this one, a woman who works doing temp work for supervillains is accidentally injured by a “hero” being irresponsible. She eventually uses spreadsheets and data to determine that the heroes do more harm than good, and then further uses data to make the heroes’ lives miserable. It’s a very clever book, that as an aside, has some very squicky body stuff toward the end.
10: A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker
What is it? Eerily prescient novel about a world where pandemics and terror attacks have made group gatherings illegal.
This book was released in September, 2019, about six months before its official subtitle became “eerily prescient”. (Though it’s interesting that in this book, the anti-gathering laws are suggested as coming more from conservatives…) Anyway, our main characters are a performer who gave “the last concert” before everybody went inside, and a woman who seeks out underground music venues so she can co-opt performers into a conglomerate that promotes virtual concerts. It’s not a happy book, exactly, but it’s about the power of live performance and community, and that part hits very hard.
9: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
What is it?: Addie LaRue is granted immortality, in exchange for the small price that nobody will ever remember her. Like if she leaves a room and comes back, nobody knows who she is. Complications ensue.
This is one of those books where the author was waiting for years to feel like they could do the story justice. It’s an interesting book that never quite went where I expected. Addie’s long life of re-introducing herself seems exhausting (which it’s meant to be by the entity that curses her).
8: The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson
What is it? Last book in a mystery trilogy, where all is revealed.
The whole idea of a mystery trilogy seems hard. There are innumerable mystery series where each book is basically self contained, but a trilogy where there’s one overarching mystery but yet enough sub-stories to keep each book interesting, there aren’t nearly as many of those. This book wraps up all the stories in a very satisfying way, but still leaves its lead detective available for more cases…
7: The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes
What is it? Just your typical noir mystery where the main character is a plush dinosaur toy. You know, the old cliche about the hard-bitten stuffed triceratops.
Every year there’s one book that gets the coveted “if you only read one” joke, and here’s this year’s. If you only read one book where a stuffed triceratops named Tippy fights a monster that is basically murdering imaginary friends, read this one. It’s inventive, clever, and has some interesting things to say about grief and growing up. If the description is at all compelling to you, you want to read this.
6: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi
What is it? Book three of Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, which means you are probably already in or out no matter what I say here.
Scalzi is reliably Scalzi. These books have surprised me in that the structure of each of them is really good, and so the snappy dialog is also backed up by a plot that is effective and clever. This is a series about the end of an intergalactic empire and it is not monumentally depressing, which was nice.
5: Murder on Cold Street by Sherry Thomas
What is it? Book five of Thomas’ series about Charlotte Holmes, who solves crimes in London, but has created a fictional brother Sherlock to cover for her lack of social standing.
I like this series a lot. Maybe this rating is too high? But I genuinely did think it’s the best mystery plot of the series, a classic locked room with some nice detective bits around. It’s genuinely a little odd that six of the top eight books here are part of larger series. Anyway, I like Holmes pastiche stories, and this series is probably my favorite of them.
4: Reaganland by Rick Perlstein
What is it? Book four in what I am tempted to call the Rick Perlstein Cinematic Universe, a series about American conservatism from Goldwater to Reagan. This one covers 1976-1980.
This one was depressing. It’s a relentless description of how America got to a place where Ronald Reagan could be elected president. It also turns out to be an interesting picture of Carter, who I’m old enough to remember, but never really read through the details of his term like this before. This series is very interesting as groundwork for what the Republican party is now, and how much of that has been around for generations.
3: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
What is it? Well, the marketing text describes it as “a hypnotic new novel set in a dreamlike alternate reality”, which is not quite true, but is about 80% of the way there.
This might could be number one. From the descriptions of this book, I was expecting something, well, dreamlike, where you were never sure what was real and what was in the character’s head. That’s not the actual book. It’s always crystal-clear what’s real, which is what makes it terrifying. The narrator is unreliable, but not because he’s confused about reality. A book that works both as the plot and also as an allegory. It’s beautiful and strange.
2: Network Effect by Martha Wells
What is it? The first novel-length Murderbot story.
And it’s great. It does exactly what you’d want a longer story to do, move the character forward, open up the world, add new relationships, and generally have the character have to make different kinds of decisions. Honestly thrilled to see Wells, who I’ve been a fan of for, like 20 years, have a breakout hit.
1: The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
What is it? The third book in the Lady Astronaut series, it’s more-or-less parallel to the second book, showing what happened in Earth and the Moon during the Mars trip.
I’m so in the tank for this series. I love the setting, I love the characters, I love how Kowal works to make the setting seem realistic. This book has everything I loved about the first two, with a different set of smart but flawed people solving impossible problems. It’s so much of what I like about SF, and I’m pretty confident it was my favorite book of 2020.