Well, well, well. We’ve screamed, we’ve cried, we’ve languished aimlessly around our homes in existential misery. But at long last, we’re here, merely hours away from the end of this decade of a year that has been 2020.
Since it’s been something of a transformative year for my reading, and also because this is my blog and I do what I want, this won’t be a straightforward “Best and Worst Reads.” Instead, I want to reflect not just on what I read, but on how I read. So grab a cup of tea or something stronger, and join me as I look back on a very unusual year in books.
I have to start this reflection with a shoutout, nay, a genuflection before the app that has been as central to my quarantine reading as giant burning wicker statues are to pagan cult rituals. I am not exaggerating when I say this app has been life-changing. For the uninitiated, Libby is a free app run by the people who brought you Scribd, that allows you to connect your US Public Library Cards to your account. You can then borrow audiobooks and eBooks from your library, and have them sent directly to your devices. I cannot fathom why I didn’t get on board with this sooner, because at least 80% of the books I’ve read this year were from Libby. The several week wait times on more popular titles may seem off-putting, but they honestly fly by when there’s so much to read. I’m particularly fond of the ability to push your holds back week-by-week almost indefinitely so that you can remain at the front of the queue without having to scramble to read a book when you’re not ready.
I bought myself my beloved Kindle Paperwhite, ooh, almost two years ago now while I was at university. The idea was that since I travelled so much, flying back and forth between home and university every two months or so, and I already had a surplus of books given my degree was English literature, the Kindle would be a handy space-saver and more travel friendly option. Of course, surrounded by cosy bookshops and libraries at university, this worked out much better in theory than in practice. As it turns out, the Kindle really got its chance to shine for me while I’ve been at home during lockdown. Paired with Libby, the vast majority of my reading has happened on this handy device. I’ve been lucky enough to accrue quite a few ARCs this year, almost all of which I’ve been reading on Kindle. I even discovered that, with my recently purchased subscription to The New Yorker, I can get weekly issues of the magazine downloaded straight to the device! It’s been a massively convenient and money-saving way to read all year, though never you mind, I’ve still bought my fair share of physical books from independent bookstores. All in the name of civic duty, of course.
Despite the fact that I haven’t set foot in a cinema since March, I realised that this has actually been a pretty stellar year for page-to-screen adaptations all things considered. My favourites, in the order I watched them, are:
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Dev Patel. Period costume. End of review. In all seriousness, Armando Ianucci’s adaptation of this Dickens classic is off-the-wall, funny and screwball in all the best ways. It revels in the eccentricities and quirks of Dickensian Victoriana, and makes the sometimes convoluted and sprawling landscape of Dickens come to life with imagination and verve.
Autumn De Wilde’s feature film directorial debut, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn, is a sharp, pretty, funny, and palpably romantic confection of a film and became an instant favourite the moment I watched it. It’s performances are winning, I could write essays about the score, and the romantic beats are like a chocolate box of sheer delight upon delight. That dance scene is a winner in the Period Drama Hall of Fame.
Everyone’s favourite early-quarantine drama binge, this adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestseller is gorgeous. It’s a measured, unhurried and intimate look at the relationship between two people who orbit each other’s lives, and it luxuriates in the small, excruciating, realest details of a relationship. Silences that range from awkward to charged, careful touches, meaningful stares — you’re allowed to marinate in the chemistry between breakout stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal and feel breathlessly, painfully close to the relationship between their characters, Marianne and Connell.
I won’t say too much about Shonda Rhimes’ big Netflix debut, a big budget Period adaptation of Julia Quinn’s bestselling novels, because I have a full review up already. For now, let me say only this: good adaptations bring books to life; great adaptations make them better. This is a great adaptation.
The Queen’s Gambit
Yeah, no one should be surprised that ⅘ of my list consists of period dramas and ⅖ of it contains Anya Taylor-Joy. I committed a cardinal sin and only read the Walter Tevis novel upon which this series was based after watching the show. The adaptation was pretty beat-for-beat, and whilst it didn’t plumb all the subtleties and vulnerabilities of the novel, it was slick, addictive, and marvelously performed.
And now the meat of the matter. At the time of writing this book, I have read 140/150 books for the year and am adamant about my ability to finish before 2020 does. With a list this unwieldy however, I refused to force myself to pick a Top 5 or something similar. Instead, I’m breaking my recap and reflection into categories. It’s kind of like the Goodreads Choice Awards, except with even more arbitrary genre breakdowns and only my opinion matters.
Everyone and their mother has written a think-piece about what people want to read in quarantine and why, but for me personally, the genre I’ve delved most fervently into over the last year has been Romance. I’ve always enjoyed romance in books, always drawn to ships and romantic tension, but this year, the promise of a genre that dedicates itself to exploring these relationships and with the promise of familiar tropes explored new ways, but always with a happy ending? Well that’s been a kind of joy and comfort that’s been in short supply elsewhere. My favourite romance of the year has to be Emily Henry’s Beach Read, with honourable mentions going to Casey McQuiston’s Red White and Royal Blue and Lyssa Kay Adams’ Bromance Book Club series.
Favourite First Book in a Series
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong. I’ve already raved about this 1920’s Shanghai-set retelling of Romeo and Juliet to anyone who will listen, including in my review and in an interview with Gong herself, so I won’t spend long on this. I will just reiterate — I’m something of a connoisseur of retellings, and this is one of the best. Decadent, heartbreaking, tense — I was enraptured, and I cannot wait for the sequel in 2021!
Favourite Sequel in a Series
Jade War by Fonda Lee. I discovered the Green Bone Saga after enthused recommendations from friends this year, and I was instantly swept away. The series follows the Kauls, a family of “green bones” — users of the magical properties of Jade — in the city of Janloon, and is a heart-pounding, tense, richly realised combination of 70s Gangster media and Wuxia films, with a compelling family saga at the heart of it. Jade War does what all the best sequels ought to do and expanded the world and the conflict set up in the first book, Jade City, whilst drawing you further into the characters and their relationships. The Kaul family have a hold on my heart that I don’t see being loosened any time soon, and I await the conclusion of their story in the final book, Jade Legacy, with bated breath — roll on 2021!
Favourite Final Book in a Series
The Burning God by R.F. Kuang. I had a hunch I would love this one, both because of my love for The Poppy War trilogy in general, and because my conversation with Kuang left me practically breathless in anticipation. But wow, this book still blew me out of the water. It was thrilling, devastating, and powerful in the way that the conclusion to such an explosive trilogy surely had to be. I go into more detailed raptures about the book here, but safe to say, it’s an ending that cements this trilogy’s enduring place as an all-time favourite.
Favourite Standalone Fantasy
The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V.E. Schwab. Those of you who’ve been following me on twitter know that my battle to get my hands on an ARC of this book was one of the most gruelling and dramatic sagas of 2020, but by fair means or foul I eventually did secure a copy of what was probably my most hotly anticipated book, well, ever. Seriously, I’d been hyping this one up in my head for well over a year, ever since the author shared what her upcoming projects were. And this did not disappoint. Every so often, you find books that feel like you’ve read them before, because they so quickly suffuse themselves into your mind that they feel like beloved favourites. This was one of those. Again, I have already rambled about my love for this book in great, great length, so let me leave you with a simple directive: Read. This. Book.
Favourite Surprise Read
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. I hadn’t heard of this book before coming across it on a list of mythology inspired books, and borrowed it from Libby on a whim. Well, it was love at first sight, and this book remains one of my favourite reads of the year. The story follows Chava, a Golem, and Ahmad, a Jinni, as they navigate life as outsiders in New York City, 1899. It delves into the immigrant subcultures of the city at the time, specifically the Jewish and Syrian communities, as well as exploring their religions and mythological traditions. Moreover, the novel is a beautiful exploration of a relationship between two outsiders who find an understanding and unique sense of belonging with each other. I found myself thinking about this book constantly throughout the year, and I was delighted to learn that Wecker has a sequel, The Hidden Palace, expected in 2021.
Favourite Nonfiction Read
Educated by Tara Westover. This memoir was one of my first reads of the year, but it has stuck with me profoundly ever since. Westover details her experience growing up with her family, extremist Mormons in rural Idaho, and how she found freedom from an increasing abusive and cultlike uprbinging through the channel of education. It’s a powerful and sensitive meditation on abuse and ignorance, and makes the power and value of education and curiosity come to life in a devastating and personal way. As someone fortunate enough to have attended an elite institution of higher education, it really put into perspective the privilege that such institutions represent, and the kind of opportunity they offer if you apply yourselves to them passionately.
The Mediator series by Meg Cabot. I was obsessed with this series in middle school, and after years of fervent hoping, we finally received the news that Netflix is adapting the whole series to film! The stories of “mediator” — a communicator with Ghosts — Suze Simon and her Ghostly crush/roommate Jesse de Silva are just as chaotic and fun and addictive as I remembered, and my friends and I devoured the series again for our frantic celebratory rereads, which marked one of the most deliriously fun reading experiences of the year. An honourable mention in this category has to go, however, to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South, the basis for THE GREATEST PERIOD DRAMA EVER MADE (a point I will not, not now, nor ever, be arguing) — revisiting it as a lovely, wintery read back in January, I found it as intimate and powerful and engaging as ever.
Favourite Guilty Pleasure
The Four Horsemen series by Laura Thalassa. Okay, so a New Adult romance series featuring each of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the leading roles is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea; to be honest, I didn’t think it was mine. I picked up the first book semi-ironically during my brief free trial of Kindle Unlimited, and actually really enjoyed it for what it was. I guess this year is the one to romance the apocalypse since we don’t seem to have a lot of other options. I have since forced several of my friends to join me in admitting their begrudging but genuine enjoyment of this series, so now a legion of us await Book 4, in which the Love Interest is LITERALLY DEATH (how metal is that?!) eagerly.
And so we have it, this year is finally, blessedly drawing to a close. New series have launched, old favourites have concluded, debuts have been released into the wild, Ariel Bisset has picked next year’s Goodreads Challenge colour, discourse has ceaselessly flooded the timeline in true book community fashion. As 2021 comes nearer, we can turn to a fresh page and hope that the new year is better and brighter than this one (because seriously, the bar is not high).
- To read more nonfiction. At least 1 nonfiction book a month would be great.
- To read more poetry, especially by contemporary female poets
- To write at least two book reviews on my blog each month
- To pitch articles about books and culture to professional organisations
- To participate in at least on read-a-thon or reading challenge
10 Most Anticipated Releases of 2021
- People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry
- These Violent Delights #2 by Chloe Gong
- Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee
- The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker
- Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
- All the Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter
- Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
- Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
- Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
And with that, I wish you all a very Happy New Year! I hope your 2021s are wonderful and fulfilling, both based on your reading and otherwise.