2020 has been both the longest and shortest year. It has been difficult to concentrate on reading, but I have managed to find some new favourite books.
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
In her new novella, Sunday Times best-selling author Becky Chambers imagines a future in which, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the solar system instead transform themselves.
Ariadne is one such explorer. As an astronaut on an extrasolar research vessel, she and her fellow crewmates sleep between worlds and wake up each time with different features. Her experience is one of fluid body and stable mind and of a unique perspective on the passage of time. Back on Earth, society changes dramatically from decade to decade, as it always does.
Ariadne may awaken to find that support for space exploration back home has waned, or that her country of birth no longer exists, or that a cult has arisen around their cosmic findings, only to dissolve once more by the next waking. But the moods of Earth have little bearing on their mission: to explore, to study, and to send their learnings home.
Carrying all the trademarks of her other beloved works, including brilliant writing, fantastic world-building and exceptional, diverse characters, Becky’s first audiobook outside of the Wayfarers series is sure to capture the imagination of listeners all over the world.
I went into To Be Taught, If Fortunate knowing absolutely nothing about it but knowing that I was going to love it because it was written by Becky Chambers. Whenever someone asks the question about who are the five people you would want to have dinner with, I always say Becky Chambers. Chambers creates characters that are such individuals and it is always fascinating to see how they all interact with one another. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is only 150 pages, so I think it is best to go into it blindly, just know that it is everything that I love about the SciFi genre.
“It is difficult to give thought to the stars when the ground is swallowing you up.”
In the Dream House by Carmen Marie Machado
For years Carmen Maria Machado has struggled to articulate her experiences in an abusive same-sex relationship. In this extraordinarily candid and radically inventive memoir, Machado tackles a dark and difficult subject with wit, inventiveness and an inquiring spirit, as she uses a series of narrative tropes—including classic horror themes—to create an entirely unique piece of work which is destined to become an instant classic.
After having read Machado’s short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, I already knew that I loved her writing when I picked up her memoir, In the Dream House. What I was not expecting was the emotional impact that her story would have on me. Machado is so vulnerable in this memoir and she has this way of wording her feelings and experiences that forces you to listen and to reflect. I cannot remembered that last time I wrote down so many quotes from one book. She also includes a great deal of secondary research in her memoir, which I thought was interesting.
“We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.”
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
A sharply intelligent novel about two college students and the strange, unexpected connection they forge with a married couple.
Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed, and darkly observant. A college student and aspiring writer, she devotes herself to a life of the mind–and to the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi, her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and tall, handsome husband. Private property, Frances believes, is a cultural evil–and Nick, a bored actor who never quite lived up to his potential, looks like patriarchy made flesh. But however amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect. As Frances tries to keep her life in check, her relationships increasingly resist her control: with Nick, with her difficult and unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi. Desperate to reconcile herself to the desires and vulnerabilities of her body, Frances’s intellectual certainties begin to yield to something new: a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.
I always say that you will either love or hate Sally Rooney’s work. I happen to love both of her novels, but I would never recommend them to everyone- I would have to understand your reading taste first! The characters in Conversations with Friends are all extremely unlikable and deeply flawed, but that is what made them feel so real in my mind. I was constantly questioning their decision making, but I felt that I understood them. The friendship between Frances and Bobbi is complicated to the point where I often questioned why they were friends to begin with, but I do think that we can be pulled to someone without having an explanation as to why. These are not people that I would ever want to be friends with, but it was interesting to have a peak into their lives.
“You underestimate your own power so you don’t have to blame yourself for treating other people badly.”
Be Not Far From Me by Mindy McGinnis
The world is not tame.
Ashley knows this truth deep in her bones, more at home with trees overhead than a roof. So when she goes hiking in the Smokies with her friends for a night of partying, the falling dark and creaking trees are second nature to her. But people are not tame either. And when Ashley catches her boyfriend with another girl, drunken rage sends her running into the night, stopped only by a nasty fall into a ravine. Morning brings the realization that she’s alone – and far off trail. Lost in undisturbed forest and with nothing but the clothes on her back, Ashley must figure out how to survive despite the red streak of infection creeping up her leg.
I have to say that I am surprised that I loved this book as much as I did, because I am not normally a fan of survival stories- I should have trusted Mindy McGinnis! It was compelling to live inside Ashley’s mind as she navigated her situation. There was also an element of mystery that I did not expect initially. What also took me by surprise was just how gory this book got, but I actually appreciate that because it added to the authenticity of the story. Be Not Far From Me is one of those books that you have to read in one sitting because it will always be on your mind if you put it down.
“If you’re quiet in the woods long enough, you’ll hear something die.”
The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jiminez
Two years after losing her fiancé, Sloan Monroe still can’t seem to get her life back on track. But one trouble-making pup with a “take me home” look in his eyes is about to change everything. With her new pet by her side, Sloan finally starts to feel more like herself. Then, after weeks of unanswered texts, Tucker’s owner reaches out. He’s a musician on tour in Australia. And bottom line: He wants Tucker back.
Well, Sloan’s not about to give up her dog without a fight. But what if this Jason guy really loves Tucker? As their flirty texts turn into long calls, Sloan can’t deny a connection. Jason is hot and nice and funny. There’s no telling what could happen when they meet in person. The question is: With his music career on the rise, how long will Jason really stick around? And is it possible for Sloan to survive another heartbreak?
I was not expecting this book to make me so emotional, especially since I did not read the first book, but wow did I become attached to these characters. It was so refreshing to see how respectful Jason was of Sloan’s boundaries as she navigated through her grief. I am also such a sucker for any romance where one of the characters is famous in some way. Also, the dog! I cannot wait for the next book in the series.
“You can’t control the bad things that happen to you. All you can do is decide how much of you you’re going to let them take.”
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people…
In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.
Separated by distance – and Papi’s secrets – the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered. And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.
Papi’s death uncovers all the painful truths he kept hidden, and the love he divided across an ocean. And now, Camino and Yahaira are both left to grapple with what this new sister means to them, and what it will now take to keep their dreams alive.
In a dual narrative novel in verse that brims with both grief and love, award-winning and bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo writes about the devastation of loss, the difficulty of forgiveness, and the bittersweet bonds that shape our lives.
No surprises here! Whenever I read an Elizabeth Acevedo novel, I know it is going to end up on my “best books of the year” list. No one can absolutely shatter my heart and then put it back together quite like she can. This is a story about family, sisterhood in particularly, and it was a joy to read about Camino and Yahaira’s journey. I highly suggest the audiobook for all of Acevedo’s novels, as she narrates them and really brings her characters to life.
“Maybe anger is like a river. Maybe it crumbles everything around it. Maybe it hides so many skeletons beneath the rolling surface.”
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.
I read both of Brit Bennett’s novels this year and either one of them could have ended up on this list. It seems as though everyone is reading and loving The Vanishing Half at the moment, and for good reason. This book is so poignant and thought provoking, and the characters are so well written and real. HBO just acquired the screen rights in a seven figure deal, so I am thrilled about that!
“You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.”
The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya
Everyone talks about falling in love, but falling in friendship can be just as captivating. When Neela Devaki’s song is covered by internet-famous artist Rukmini, the two musicians meet and a transformative friendship begins. But as Rukmini’s star rises and Neela’s stagnates, jealousy and self-doubt creep in. With a single tweet, their friendship implodes, one career is destroyed, and the two women find themselves at the center of an internet firestorm.
Celebrated multidisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya’s second novel is a stirring examination of making art in the modern era, a love letter to brown women, an authentic glimpse into the music industry, and a nuanced exploration of the promise and peril of being seen.
I did not go into The Subtweet expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. For a book that is only 220 pages, it really gave me a lot to think about. It explores the music industry, social media, friendship, race, and more. Vivek Shraya is talented in so many ways, and she even wrote and recorded “Every Song”, which is the song that is at the centre of the story. Please give it a listen- I think it will convince you that you need to give this book a chance. I cannot wait to read Shraya’s memoir, I’m Afraid of Men.
“Unlike many artists, she had never considered herself a mere vessel for the muse, or a medium, or even a parent. Her songs weren’t her “babies”. Her songs were her.”
Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson
Biggie Smalls was right. Things done changed. But that doesn’t mean that Quadir and Jarrell are okay letting their best friend Steph’s tracks lie forgotten in his bedroom after he’s killed—not when his beats could turn any Bed-Stuy corner into a celebration, not after years of having each other’s backs.
Enlisting the help of Steph’s younger sister, Jasmine, Quadir and Jarrell come up with a plan to promote Steph’s music under a new rap name: The Architect. Soon, everyone in Brooklyn is dancing to Steph’s voice. But then his mixtape catches the attention of a hotheaded music rep and—with just hours on the clock—the trio must race to prove Steph’s talent from beyond the grave.
Now, as the pressure—and danger—of keeping their secret grows, Quadir, Jarrell, and Jasmine are forced to confront the truth about what happened to Steph. Only each has something to hide. And with everything riding on Steph’s fame, together they need to decide what they stand for before they lose everything they’ve worked so hard to hold on to—including each other.
Since I finished reading Let Me Hear a Rhyme, I have not stopped talking about it- it is just that good! Trust me. you will fall in love with these characters. I was in tears from the first chapter until the last page, so make sure you have a box of tissues handy when you read this. Let Me Hear a Rhyme is everything that I love about YA contemporary- it is challenging, emotional, hopeful, and charming. Tiffany D. Jackson is an incredible author, and I have already preordered her newest release and plan to read her backlist titles this summer.
“Headline: Three Kids From Brooklyn Pull Off the Biggest Heist in Hip-Hop History“
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.
When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.
However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie up some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.
A recently finished an eARC of Cemetery Boys, which comes out on September 1st. Preorder this book now- I certainly did! I have a feeling that this book is going to be widely popular, and it is going to deserve it. I cannot even begin to tell you how wonderful this book is. Yadriel and Julian have great banter and so much chemistry. This is one of those books that takes you on an emotional journey- it is devastating, hopeful, fun, romantic, upsetting, and joyful. I truly cannot recommend it enough, and I will post a full review closer to the release date.
What was the best book you have read so far in 2020?