6 Best Books of 2020

I seem to have recurrent amnesia for how much I love writing about books I’ve read. Since I’ve been in a bit of a dry spell regarding my fiction, please excuse me while I belatedly celebrate my 2020 reads.

I should amend the title of this post to the 6 best books I read in the year of 2020, not the 6 best books of 2020. Most of my favorite reads were blacklist, but I am also reviewing 7 2020 releases, with some, ahem, possibly controversial opinions.


**Look out for my upcoming reviews on these 2021 releases: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab, and Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell. I have much to say.**


2020 Releases I Read

Amazon.com: In a Holidaze (9781982163631): Lauren, Christina: Books

In a Holidaze (Romantic comedy) by Christina Lauren

Release date: October 6, 2020

A cozy Christmas romance a la Groundhog day. Christina Lauren has done it again. Initially, I was not interested in reading this 2020 CLo release because of the gimmicky/holiday wrapping, but I did and I don’t regret it one bit. I snuggled so deep in the found family and friends-to-lovers tropes that I was blissfully lost in its cozy folds for the six hours it took to consume this piece of transportable Christmas spirit.

Memorial (Contemporary) by Bryan Washington

Release date: October 27, 2020

When I was writing my graduate thesis on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, there was a quote I kept coming back to:

“In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence…in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinship.”

All this to say, Washington bequeaths his characters and their every moment, triumphant or tragic, with an optical democracy. Each horrific reality is given no more or less weight than any beautiful revelation. This works to elevate the beauty of the work as a whole. I was not expecting what I got with Memorial, which is neither good nor bad. It is exactly what it is, which is kind of what it felt like Washington was trying to say.

Amazon.com: A Deadly Education: A Novel (The Scholomance Book 1) eBook:  Novik, Naomi: Kindle Store

A Deadly Education (Fantasy) by Naomi Novik

Release date: September 29, 2020

You know I had to review my girl Novik’s newest–a lush original take on the magic school genre where the school is…well, essentially trying to devour the students. After Uprooted and Spinning Silver, Novik can do no wrong with me. A Deadly Education throws you into some heavy world-building right off the bat, which settles comfortably into place as the plot gains speed. The characters totally slap. And the promise of budding, forbidden romance in the next book of the trilogy sweetens the deal of course.

Loveless (YA) by Alice Oseman

Release date: April 30, 2020

I did not particularly care for this book, which surprised me given how much I adore Heartstopper, I Was Born For This, and Radio Silence. I am not entirely sure whether the  opinion I walked away with was mostly due to seeing Oseman’s struggle so hard with creating this novel on social media. I’m not saying artists shouldn’t be transparent about creation or illuminate how hard the process can be, but I feel as though seeing her suffering regarding this book may have made me see all the faults with it. Despite its faults, the characters were thoroughly filled in, and the dynamic between Rooney and Pip was FIRE–peak sapphic sexual tension.

Book Review: Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

Boyfriend Material (Romance) by Alexis Hall

Release date: July 7, 2020

This was 2020’s sweetheart release, a cuddly romance we all desperately needed. I loved these two characters. Mostly Oliver if I’m being honest, but to be fair, Luc is a self-admitted berk. This story was just the right timbre of sweet for which I was aching. The build-up of the romance and the construction of the characters’ lives—mostly Luc’s, with his work mates and group of friends, was spot on and hilarious.

But sometimes you read a book and it’s not at all what you thought it would be from the blurb. Boyfriend Material was this for me, which was partly a good thing and partly a teensy bit disappointing, only because it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. From the premise, I expected a strangers-to-friends-to-lovers scenario in which there was a painful slow burn saturated in miscommunication. And *there was all of this*, but because these characters Arc and Grow, they reveal their hands a lot sooner than I expected. They play off of this place of mutually acknowledged interest in being more than fake boyfriends from almost the halfway point in the book. Which was actually refreshing for the genre, rather than the story’s tension riding on the MCs’ complete ignorance of each other’s feelings.

…Let’s talk about the sex.

Wait. There wasn’t any, aside from the slow fade out before anything really happens (You know what I’m talking about). Let me be clear; I am not decrying this book over its woeful lack of sex. I was merely caught off guard after the other five Alexis Hall books I had read. 

Thank you NetGalley for an Advanced Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.



Without further ado, here are my

 

6 Best Books of 2020

Piranesi (Fantasy) by Susanna Clark

Release date: September 15, 2020

Synopsis

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.


Piranesi is a labyrinth of a tale, breathtaking in scope, told by a heartbreakingly human narrator.

A fantasy to give you the exact feeling you’re hoping to find when delving into a fantasy read. At least that’s what it was for me. This was my first foray into Susanna Clarke, and I can say with supreme confidence that I will be giving her other work a read very soon.

 

The Goldfinch (Contemporary) by Donna Tartt

Release date: October 22, 2013  

synopsis

After losing his mother in a horrific bombing, Theo Decker embarks on an urgent odyssey through survival, love, and far too many goodbyes. Tartt presents us with a modern day bildungsroman that destroys and rebuilds in equal strokes.


God, this book. A book about art and humanity that Tartt says began with the intertwining of a dark New York and dark Amsterdam mood, and I *clap* was *clap* here for it. Definitely one of my all time favorites. Others have decried this book for its wanderings, but I loved every single word of its 771 pages. I basically got my master’s in English–not to intelligently discuss moving literature, no–but to ecstatically absorb and find myself muted in the face of their greatness. For me, The Goldfinch rivals The Secret History. 

“Caring too much for objects can destroy you.”

Yes, Ms. Tartt. It certainly can, as I am writing this from the grave.

 

The Queen of Nothing (Fantasy) by Holly Black

Release date: November 19, 2019

I don’t want to put the synopsis here for anyone who has not yet read the first two books, but let’s just say this was the close of a expertly woven, completely transporting trilogy, in my humble opinion. It is important to note that I’ve put the Barnes & Noble Exclusive Edition here, and with good reason. *Whispers* It includes the letters Cardan wrote to Jude while she was in the mortal world, drowning in feels.

All hail the queen of faerie, Holly Black. That is all. 


 

We Contain Multitudes (YA) by Sarah Henstra

Release date: May 14, 2019

synopsis

Jonathan Hopkirk and Adam “Kurl” Kurlansky are partnered in English class, writing letters to one another in a weekly pen pal assignment. With each letter, the two begin to develop a friendship that eventually grows into love. But with homophobia, bullying, and devastating family secrets, Jonathan and Kurl struggle to overcome their conflicts and hold onto their relationship…and each other.


Look, I didn’t even know what to do with myself while listening to this book. Stunning. Heavy. Shattering. Euphoric. I listened to it on audio (a few times), which might bias my experience here, because the voice actors were legit phenomenal, and so real, and it just felt so tender and devastating hearing them right in my ear. 

I’ll Give You The Sun (YA) by Jandy Nelson

Release date: September 16, 2014

synopsis

At first, Jude and her twin brother Noah, are inseparable. Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude wears red-red lipstick, cliff-dives, and does all the talking for both of them.

Years later, they are barely speaking. Something has happened to change the twins in different yet equally devastating ways… but then Jude meets an intriguing, irresistible boy and a mysterious new mentor. The early years are Noah’s to tell; the later years are Jude’s. But they each have only half the story, and if they can only find their way back to one another, they’ll have a chance to remake their world.


Another amazing art book. And romance book.  And sibling book.  And family book. I had no idea this book would beat me up and steal my lunch money, but here we are. If you enjoy experiencing exactly what it feels like to have hearts in your eyes while simultaneously ugly crying, then read this book. 

Radio Silence (YA) by Alice Oseman

Release date: February 5, 2016

synopsis

What if everything you set yourself up to be was wrong?

Frances has been a study machine with one goal. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside. Then Frances meets Aled, and for the first time she’s unafraid to be herself.

So when the fragile trust between them is broken, Frances is caught between who she was and who she longs to be. Now Frances knows that she has to confront her past. To confess why Carys disappeared…

Frances is going to need every bit of courage she has.


I had to give the Oseman a fair shake. Though I did not enjoy Loveless, I loved this book. Coincidentally, I had concurrently discovered the fictional podcast Welcome to Night Vale, so this book had an extra layer of gravity. The novel was like a blanket to wrap around your heart to cushion it against the feels of friendship and resurgent teenage angst. 


 

What do my fellow readers think? Love any of these? Disagree that The Goldfinch rivals The Secret History? Let’s duke it out in the comments discuss.

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It’s Okay to Say No

“Today is the first day of November and, so, today, someone will die. –The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater

Not to be dramatic, but I always feel a side of fear with my excitement on
November 1st. Yes, you’ve guessed it. This is yet another post about NaNoWriMo, where writers world-wide converge into one collective unconscious creation amoeba and delve into a 50,000 word-writing sprint over the course of November’s 30 fall-flavored days.

20201101_145653

Since I started doing NaNoWriMo in 2013, this will be the first time I will not be participating[1]. Learning to manage expectations is just as much a part of a writer’s growth as learning the mechanics of writing. As I sit beside my writing and critique partner, whom I am also fortunate to have as a best friend, and she clacks away at her brand spanking new novel, I realize, for once, I do not feel envious of her ability to jump into new worlds with such ease. This is how she writes. She enjoys world-building, the excitement and possibility of beginnings, while I fear beginnings and yearn, from the outset, for the delicious center, where all the secrets begin to surface like bodies rising in the Dead Marshes. I’ve also been fortunate enough to view Maggie
Stiefvater’s seminar on writing
(which she’s offering for half off today!), and it has reinforced my instinct to hold off on putting this project down into words; the seminar teaches temperance as I hold my novel baby in the realm of perfect forms in the furnace of my brain and continue weaving it like candy floss in this space, safely hidden away from the imperfect translation of thought-to-word.

I completed an exercise from Stiefvater’s seminar to explore the mood and test which point of view this novel might work best in. As I wrote, I was freshly astounded at how stories are woven: an image that creates a story in your head and takes off on its own if you’re lucky or practiced. It seems like a random image that ignites a random movie that plays on your brain screen. However, both that seed of a story and the resulting array of Power Point slides stem from an infinite combination of stimuli and memories that make your unique map of synapses and the sparks traded between them like paper
fortune-teller predictions in grade school. So don’t discount the experience of just writing to write, without feeling like it has to fit in anywhere or be applied to any tangible Work or Project. Even if it never finds permanence in your body of work, it has done important work in your brain and exercised that story-telling instinct with which humans, in all of our pattern-seeking wiring, are born.

I used to think of myself as a procrastinator, when actually I am afraid to commit something to paper before I have an idea of what I’m setting out to do. Not necessarily an entire outline, but as Stiefvater beautifully puts it in her seminar, it is integral to the writing process to know what kind of book I want to hold in my hands at the end of it all, what kind of emotions I want the reader to feel during and days after reading it, and what I want them to remember, years later, about how they felt when they see it on their shelves. We are, after all, conductors eliciting a mood in our readers; we need to know the mood before we can adequately translate it. This has given me the peace to refrain from writing while I fill out its form in my head, letting the rain build before ripping the cloud apart. This takes less time for some people, like my writing partner who asked me to assign her a genre[2] and had a solid idea, characters, and pages of plot and dialogue in 24 hours. For me, it takes more.

I thought this would be a pep talk so that I didn’t feel some type of way about skipping NaNoWriMo, but it’s more of an affirmation that this is the right decision. And if this speaks to anyone else, then welcome to my kumbaya circle. I’m not a particular fan of Kenny Rogers, but I find myself returning to and adhering to the advice of “The Gambler” again and again. The chorus is as follows:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run

All this just to say ‘intuition’ in a quirky, entertaining manner. Intuition isn’t some mystical otherworldly place you can only touch with meditation and burning sage (but our kumbaya circle does meet on Tuesdays to do this). Sometimes it takes practice, like anything else, to listen for its voice and know when to follow it. This little seed of a novel isn’t done germinating, so I do not yet know the shape of this very emotional, personal project. Therefore, I will continue slowly curating my playlist and Pinterest board–which has been overrun with wolves somehow–and cheering you all from the sidelines, whether you’re endeavoring to write 50,000 words this month or saying no to NaNoWriMo.

1Not including 2015, when my twins were 2 months old, but I wasn’t even human then, let alone a writer, so it doesn’t count.

2After reading through this for coherency, aforementioned writing partner/best friend wanted me to mention that I also gave her the idea for her main character and his goal, so as not to downplay my part in her NaNoWriMo project. *smirk*

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8 Black Voices to Read for Pride Month

To uplift black voices as much as possible in light of George Floyd’s murder, a new hashtag was created for PitMad today: #BVM for Black Voices Matter. As I was trying to think about what I could possibly do to help, I realized books were the answer for me. Racism trains people to not see a certain group of people as fellow human beings, whether in almost unconscious ways or blatant, intentional ways.

As author Matt Haig has eloquently stated,

reading “is how human merge. How minds quietly and deeply connect and expand. Empathy. Understanding. Escape. Reading is love in action.”

Hearing black voices and “merging” with their experiences is so important as we fight to overcome racism (This is an eye-opening thread on the development of racism in a baby’s brain). While I was thinking of doing a list of recommendations for pride month, I tried to think of black voices I’d read in this genre, and I was disappointed in how little there were. So I’ve compiled this exciting list of books to read representing black voices in LGBTQ literature.

1. The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum

I read The Wicker King by Ancrum–another great book for Pride Month–and was blown away by what Ancrum captures in such short, breathless chapters. I don’t read as much f/f as m/m books, and that needs to change. So why not start with a delinquent-meets-loner enemies-to-lovers romance with space themes? And it’s only 2.99 on Amazon right now!

2. Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I am a sucker for mental health books. This Stonewall Book Award Winner with Suzette returning home from boarding school to be there for her bipolar step brother and—not intentionally—fall in love with his crush had me even before that gorg cover. Nicola Yoon calls it “beautifully insightful, honest, and compassionate. Brandy’s ability to find larger meaning in small moments is nothing short of dazzling.”

3. Real Life by Brandon Taylor

An introvert Southern black queer trying to eke out his post secondary education in biochem has his walls unexpectedly broken down by his community of classmates and friends. Goodreads says Real Life has been “named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment WeeklyHarper’s BazaarBuzzFeed, and more.” I need this book in my life immediately.

4. By Any Means Necessary by Candice Montgomery

by any means

Stories about kids trying to rise from their rough beginnings will always have a special place with me. Throw into that a late beloved uncle’s bee farm at risk for foreclosure and a boy navigating first love while trying to pin down a college major, and I am THERE.

5. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Black

Nominated for the Lamda Award, best horror novel for the Locus Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Speculative Fiction (Ray Bradbury Prize), this African history and myth-inspired novel appears to dispense universal messages while providing an engrossing adventure. I can’t believe I haven’t already read this book.

6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Color Purple

I wish I had explored more novels by authors whose short stories I loved in school. “Everyday Use” had such a powerful effect on me—I haven’t read it in years and my throat just got tight thinking about it. I had no idea this novel had LGBT themes though!

7. Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Go Tell it On the Moutain

Another one of those authors who I wish I had checked out their novels after reading their short fiction. I loved “Sonny’s Blues”, like exactly every single other person who has ever read the story, right? I am eager to read this passionate coming of age classic about a 14 year old stepson to a minister, exploring his identity in 1935 Harlem.

8. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Invisible

I picked up this novel years ago and was absolutely engrossed by Ellison’s prose. I never  got as far as the horrifying sequence of the narrator’s story, however, so I will be changing that and picking this book up again.  In researching, there is some intriguing literary criticism regarding homoerotic undertones depicted in the novel. I look forward to unraveling it all. I think the novel’s difficulty renders it indispensable to this list.


Have you read any of these? Or do you have another favorite LGBTQ novel by a black author? Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments! 

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2019 Book Awards

I read 50 books in 2019. I rated many of them 5 stars, which is kind of a rare situation for one who avidly reads. I think it just means that in my advanced years, I am able to gauge what I will like. While I’m sure you’d love to hear me talk about all 50 of them, I will merely forcefully recommend all of the awards winners here with gorgeous cover thumbnails and vague categories that leave you salivating for more, and of course, my favorites at the bottom. A fellow Instagrammer inspired the Oscars-style roundup layout, without which, this would have been a much longer post.

 Longest Book & Best Worldbuilding

Strongest cast & Most Unique

Best Female Lead

Alice Proserpine, The Hazel Wood
or
Cassie Maddox, Into the Woods and The Likeness

Best Male Lead

Sean Kendrick, The Scorpio Races
or
Declan Lynch, Call Down the Hawk

And the winner, for my

Best Read of 2019

is

scorpio races

“It’s the surf in your face, the deadly magic of November on your skin, the Scorpio drums in the place of your heartbeat…it’s life and it’s death or it’s both, and there’s nothing like it.”

 

That’s it. That’s the book.

 

My favorite thing about this stunning fantasy is that you can reach out and feel the November iciness of the break, the steam rising from the horses’ flanks. It’s legend breathed to life. If this wasn’t already featuring as my favorite novel last year, it would be boasting the award for most atmospheric with Stiefvater’s fictional island, Thisby, and all of its traditions and prejudices. In an interview, Stiefvater said she traveled to cliffs all over the world to find the exact ones she saw in her mind:

 

“I went to four sets of cliffs. You didn’t believe me when I said I was obsessed. California, Yorkshire, and Dover, England are the other three. And then last year, I was in Paris with my husband in December, and it was snowing. It was the first time it had snowed in Paris in years and years. I’m with my husband, without the kids, in the City of Love. I have a day off from doing author things and I told him, ‘Rent a car. We’re driving to the cliffs in Normandy.’ “

 

 

That is serious dedication to building atmosphere. Like my favorites of Stiefvater’s novels, if you go into it a little bit blind, you’ll reach the end seeing in technicolor.

 

 

Other 2019 favorites

  • The first four in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad Series
  • Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron
  • Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer

 

What were your favorite reads last year? If you read any of these, what did you think? Any special 2020 reading goals?
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If you want to write, write

I doubt myself as a writer a lot. Despite knowing this is part of the fear-before-leaping process after finishing a project, I doubt myself anew each and every time. After all, who do I think I am to write a novel? To create lives and conversations and homes and tragedies? These questions do not go away; no book gets easier. How could it be easier to splatter yourself on the page for not only others to see but yourself? Even if your work is not about you or your life or anyone in it, your work is still you. Every time you create, you are confronted with the shape of your soul and brain. Whether you’ve done it once, or seven times, or twenty-five times, it does not get easier.

20191215_173642 (1)

So last night, when I was keenly feeling this doubt, I did what I always do. I turned to books. I opened the door on my bookshelf and knelt before my little writer self-help section (see above). The first book I opened was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I have been reading this on and off for a couple of years, and every time I pick it up, whatever section I open is exactly what I am going through. I opened it to “Doubt is Torture”, and read:

“If you want to write, write…have a tenderness and determination toward your writing, a sense of humor and a deep patience that you are doing the right thing.”

I immediately got a pen and sat back down. As I read, looking for guidance on how to keep pushing through this, on how to write when I absolutely did not want to plot but when I knew I needed a road map, my doubt was soothed. Inspiration would come in time. And it did.

Here is something I’ve learned: I found that I am inspired by nonfiction more than fiction. I have read a ton recently and while my best friend always wants to write after reading beautiful language, I remain a fat, happy voyeur–a reader. To be inspired to write, I need the left side of my brain stimulated. Another writing buddy told me that she loves the way I write about writing, and I think this is because dissecting writing gives me my life-force. During my drought after my last completed novel, I’ve been turning to other means of creativity to try and loosen that muscle, like attempting guitar and piano (ha) and drawing, which I don’t really do anymore, because it’s less of a struggle for me. I can look at something I’ve drawn and see the flaws and how to fix them. With drawing, I can tangibly see that practice makes (an approximation) of perfect. Writing is harder, and unfortunately, more gratifying for that exact reason. I learned last night that while some people like writing because they know they are good at it, I like it because it’s harder for me than most other things. Here is something else I’ve learned: my writing process is not linear or in any way organized. Here is something else I’ve learned: Everyone does this differently. Here is something else I’ve learned: The act of writing itself will not get easier.

What does get easier is understanding your process, which allows you more compassion with yourself. Goldberg assures the writer that “each [book] will get better because you have all the more practice behind you.” But I affirm that the more you write, the more your understand how you work and how you’ve grown with each terrifying leap into a new book.

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