Top Books of 2020 (so far)
Welcome back if you’re returning! Greetings if you’re new!
Today we’re talking about my favourite reads of 2020 (so far). THE DEETS:
· This has been a weird reading year, so I’m a little behind on 2020’s releases. For that reason I decided not to limit this list to books published this year.
· I gave all of these five stars, except the Honourable Mentions which were four-star books.
· A lot of these are in different genres and age categories, which impacted their place on the list. If you love YA contemporary, maybe those picks would be #1 for you! But I’m not vibing with contemporary as much right now (probably because my current project is fantasy), hence why contemporary is lower on the list.
Anyway, let’s get to the ratings!
TYLER JOHNSON WAS HERE by Jay Coles
(TW: police brutality, gun violence, racism, grief)
When Marvin Johnson's twin, Tyler, goes to a party, Marvin decides to tag along to keep an eye on his brother. But what starts as harmless fun turns into a shooting, followed by a police raid. The next day, Tyler has gone missing, and it's up to Marvin to find him. But when Tyler is found dead, a video leaked online tells an even more chilling story: Tyler has been shot and killed by a police officer. Terrified as his mother unravels and mourning a brother who is now a hashtag, Marvin must learn what justice and freedom really mean.
TYLER JOHNSON WAS HERE was amazing. It was punchy and funny and tragic and necessary. Also: go look at that cover. STUNNING. When I saw it for the first time, I was blown away. I love a beautiful cover, even when I don’t get to buy physical copies of books (or even hold them—I have to read on a Kindle right now).
The characters in this book felt like friends by the time I was done. I knew them inside out: their talents, their fears, their little quirks. Marvin and his friends were sweet and funny and so incredibly kind to one another. Their simple acts of love leapt off the page; all the little moments of Ivy and G-Mo comforting Marvin as he grieved were just heart-wrenching.
There’s also Faith, our love interest, who was immediately eye-catching and took over every scene she was in. I loved her—her leopard-print and her independence and her softness. One of the reasons I’ve strayed from reading YA contemporary recently is that I often struggle with the romances. That wasn’t an issue here, partially because Marvin and Faith’s growing feelings weren’t the centrepiece of the book. They were a gentle backdrop to that powerful grief and struggle and strength that runs through every page. If you’re looking for a contemporary YA, please go and pick this up (and support an OwnVoices Black author). I loved the entire cast of this book and I’d happily read a million more words about them.
THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson
Adrift after her sister Bailey's sudden death, Lennie finds herself torn between quiet, seductive Toby—Bailey's boyfriend who shares her grief—and Joe, the new boy in town who bursts with life and musical genius. Each offers Lennie something she desperately needs... though she knows if the two of them collide her whole world will explode. Join Lennie on this heartbreaking and hilarious journey of profound sorrow and mad love, as she makes colossal mistakes and colossal discoveries, as she traipses through band rooms and forest bedrooms and ultimately right into your heart. As much a celebration of love as a poignant portrait of loss, Lennie's struggle to sort her own melody out of the noise around her is always honest, often uproarious, and absolutely unforgettable.
A while back, I read I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN (also by Jandy Nelson). It quickly became one of my all-time favourite books and fun fact: it’s actually a comp title for my novel MAKE ME FEEL UNSTOPPABLE). I didn’t read THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE immediately afterwards for one reason: I was afraid. I didn’t want to be disappointed! I loved Nelson’s other book so much that the standard just seemed too high! (I am terrible for doing this: Alice Oseman, I will read Solitaire and Loveless eventually; I just loved Radio Silence too much to bear.)
Thankfully, THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE didn’t disappoint. I was an ugly-crying mess for most of it, to be honest. There are beautiful scraps of poetry between chapters, written on things like coffee cups and scraps of note paper and receipts. It’s a beautiful illustrated element that adds so much emotion to the story.
Lennie’s voice is funny and vivid, and I really liked both of the love interests. Toby, who was the boyfriend of Lennie’s dead sister, understands Lennie’s pain and grief. I felt the energy that was drawing them together. Then there’s Joe, who’s just a joy to read. I usually don’t like love triangles, but I enjoyed this one!
THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE is definitely an oldie, published back in 2010 (!!!) but certainly a goodie. Try it out if you haven’t already!
A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara (TW: child sexual abuse, domestic abuse, assault, paedophilia, rape, suicide, self-harm, depression, drugs, bullying, chronic pain, chronic illness, grief)
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
If you want to ruin your existence, read A LITTLE LIFE. This book was a really tough read for me. I have PTSD and I definitely found that this book stirred up a lot of difficult, painful memories. However, it was also one of the most profound and realistic depictions of a survivor I have ever read/seen.
This book was beautiful, heart-wrenching, enough to move me to sobs and make me nauseous with grief. I loved it, I hated it, I’ll always carry it in my heart. It’s one of those books that just imprints itself upon your soul. I’m a newcomer to literary fiction but I adored this almost as much as I love THE SECRET HISTORY—a line from which I have tattooed on my arm—so there you go.
I have a lot to say about this book. I have even more to say about its reception. I’ve written an entire essay on my thoughts about some of the Goodreads reviews I saw that, as a survivor, absolutely INFURIATED me. So if you want to see a big rant written in peak A LITTLE LIFE-induced emotional upset, let me know. I shall say no more except: go forth and read (in safety and security).
A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN by Roseanne A. Brown
(TW: panic attacks, self-harm, PTSD, racism, colonialism)
The first in an fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction. For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts Malik’s younger sister, Nadia, as payment into the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom. But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition. When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?
Oh my LORD this was the fantasy book I’ve been searching for so so long. The world: built. The characters: developed. The stakes: higher than MOUNTAINS!
Malik is a soft boy with a difficult task ahead of him. Karina is a badass who pushes everyone away—but really, she’s trapped by guilt. Getting to know these two characters was a delight. Every page spent with them felt like a Solstasia blessing! And the twists nearly knocked me out. I found myself reading this one slow so I’d have more time in Ziran with my faves.
The family dynamics were absolutely everything to me in this one. The romance made me fall in love. I want to move to Ziran and wait for the next Solstasia so I can hang out with the champions and drift between temples and soak in the world. And the magic system? YES. MORE PLEASE.
If you want a twisty-turny fantasy—fast-paced and breathtakingly detailed—then please, please pick this up. I’m begging you.
HONOURABLE MENTION #1
THE FASCINATORS by Andrew Eliopulos
(TW: homophobia, abuse, cults)
Living in a small town where magic is frowned upon, Sam needs his friends James and Delia—and their time together in their school's magic club—to see him through to graduation. But as soon as senior year starts, little cracks in their group begin to show. Sam may or may not be in love with James. Delia is growing more frustrated with their amateur magic club. And James reveals that he got mixed up with some sketchy magickers over the summer, putting a target on all their backs. With so many fault lines threatening to derail his hopes for the year, Sam is forced to face the fact that the very love of magic that brought his group together is now tearing them apart—and there are some problems that no amount of magic can fix.
It’s time for our first honourable mention! This one goes to THE FASCINATORS because I loved, loved, loved this book, but it wasn’t quite a five-star for me.
The cover of this blew me away. I didn’t even read the blurb before I added this to my TBR last year, and as soon as it released it went into my basket. And you know what? It totally delivers on those contemporary magic vibes promised by the cover.
I wanted to give it top marks for the dialogue alone—these characters are so damn witty! The magic system? Chef’s kiss. I love a world where magic is just… kinda normal? And there are full-on school competitions in this one, except our MCs live in a religious town where magic is considered Not Great.
And we’ve got queer rep! Yes. Sam, our narrator, is gay and that’s at least a part of the reason he’s ostracised in his small town. Tragically, it was actually the romance that brought this one down a star for me. It sucks because it was a five-star all the way through—until the ending, which made me say, “Huh? No!” and go to Goodreads to see if there’d be a sequel. Which there won’t be, by the way. I’ll spare you the Google search. But that won’t stop me from recommending this book, which absolutely schooled me in the contemporary fantasy genre. I’d totally recommend picking this one up, and if you’ve already read it, get in touch and share your thoughts!
HONOURABLE MENTION #2
A RIVER OF ROYAL BLOOD by Amanda Joy
(TW: racism, gore, colonialism)
An enthralling debut perfect for fans of Children of Blood and Bone set in a North African-inspired fantasy world where two sisters must fight to the death to win the crown. Sixteen-year-old Eva is a princess, born with the magick of marrow and blood--a dark and terrible magick that hasn't been seen for generations in the vibrant but fractured country of Myre. Its last known practitioner was Queen Raina, who toppled the native khimaer royalty and massacred thousands, including her own sister, eight generations ago, thus beginning the Rival Heir tradition. Living in Raina's long and dark shadow, Eva must now face her older sister, Isa, in a battle to the death if she hopes to ascend to the Ivory Throne--because in the Queendom of Myre only the strongest, most ruthless rulers survive. When Eva is attacked by an assassin just weeks before the battle with her sister, she discovers there is more to the attempt on her life than meets the eye--and it isn't just her sister who wants to see her dead. As tensions escalate, Eva is forced to turn to a fey instructor of mythic proportions and a mysterious and handsome khimaer prince for help in growing her magick into something to fear. Because despite the love she still has for her sister, Eva will have to choose: Isa's death or her own. A River of Royal Blood is an enthralling debut set in a lush North African inspired fantasy world that subtly but powerfully challenges our notions of power, history, and identity.
A RIVER OF ROYAL BLOOD was another lush, beautiful fantasy novel. I was so invested in this book—I was telling my mom about it, I was telling my gran about it, I was screaming into my pillow about it. It was a stunning, incredible debut—so strong in terms of worldbuilding and story. BUT THE CHARACTERS ARE WHERE IT SHINES!
This book created probably my favourite character of 2020 so far: Baccha. Let me rant for a second: I would give up my life for this fey piece of shit. I would die for him, I would kill for him, I would run off into the sunset for him. Every time he was on the page, I wanted to throw myself into his arms. He was so funny! and charming! and also such an asshole! But in the best way! Eva, our MC, was also WONDERFUL. I loved her a lot and I kind of want to be her, sneaking off to mysterious revels and dancing with khimaer and bloodkin boys. I also want Falun as a best friend. If I could have a thousand pages on the adventures of Eva, Falun, and Baccha, I would. Eva is fierce and clever and trying so hard to achieve her goals, and the guys back her up neatly and emphasise her strengths and weaknesses.
The thing that brought this down to a four-star was the pacing. I felt it went almost too fast for me at times—I wanted a break to absorb all that incredible action! But I am someone who prefers a slower-paced book, so I definitely wouldn’t let that put you off reading this one.
THE FEVER KING by Victoria Lee
(TW: violence, genocide, child abuse, rape, suicide)
In the former United States, sixteen-year-old Noam Álvaro wakes up in a hospital bed, the sole survivor of the viral magic that killed his family and made him a technopath. His ability to control technology attracts the attention of the minister of defense and thrusts him into the magical elite of the nation of Carolinia. The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam has spent his life fighting for the rights of refugees fleeing magical outbreaks—refugees Carolinia routinely deports with vicious efficiency. Sensing a way to make change, Noam accepts the minister’s offer to teach him the science behind his magic, secretly planning to use it against the government. But then he meets the minister’s son—cruel, dangerous, and achingly beautiful—and the way forward becomes less clear. Caught between his purpose and his heart, Noam must decide who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in pursuit of the greater good.
I went into THE FEVER KING thinking it wasn’t going to be for me. But I’ve followed Victoria Lee on Twitter for a while and thought they seemed super cool, so I figured I’d go and check out their book—you know, to be nice.
And it basically threw me off a cliff, then saved me, then threw me off the cliff again.
THE FEVER KING is a YA masterpiece, honestly. The pacing is perfect and I had such incredibly complex feelings towards every character. And this book has one of the best (and most awful) villains of YA, so there’s that. Every side character has a motive, a drive, something they’re pushing towards. They all have backstories that twist and collide. Noam, our MC, is sweet but determined in a way that keeps him hungry for accomplishment—sometimes at the expense of his morals. I love a moral conflict!
The sequel came out this year and I had luckily just finished reading THE FEVER KING, so I picked it up immediately. I thought it tied everything up perfectly—the series is a duology by the way—and it left the characters in a really satisfying place. I’m usually pretty hard to please when it comes to sequels, and I thought THE ELECTRIC HEIR was on a level with the first book, maybe even better. So. Yeah. Read it please.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading! Will you be picking up any of these books? Have you read any already? What were your thoughts? Come share with me! It has been said that I don’t bite, although I can’t vouch for that. Good luck out there, Yves ☾
(All summaries are taken from Goodreads)