My 31 Favorite Reads of 2020

Favorite Books 2020

This year has been a weird horrific one. A global pandemic that’s killed over a million people. Rampant bigotry that’s risen to a boil. A near-miss with what was starting to look like an autocracy. How could one possibly have the wherewithal to read? And for pleasure?

And in fact, many readers reported that they couldn’t focus on books this year, what with all the anxiety and grief and fear swirling about.

As for me, I found that I could no longer read serious cultural commentaries about how terrible life was for women / minorities / everyone ever. I mean, if I wanted that, I could just look at my various social media and news feeds.

Instead, I leaned hard into genre fiction.

Other than that, it’s been quite the year. My 6-year-old daughter has been fully remote from school since March. I left a long-term part-time editing job — my primary source of regular income — in July. I launched a sex ed site in September. I ramped up my freelance writing again, despite having felt like I was in a writing slump for the past two years. And in the midst of all this, I still managed to read 150 books.

My favorites are below. As per usual, this list includes both new publications and backlist bumps. I hope you discover something new here that knocks you out of your own reading slump!

1. Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff. By now, you’ve probably heard of Lovecraft Country, which was adapted into an awesome HBO series this past summer. (Do yourself a favor and watch this SDCC panel about the show.) But when I first came to the book at the beginning of 2020, the show hadn’t yet been announced. I was just itching for some horror. This dark fantasy-horror story from 2016 didn’t disappoint. It follows a Black sci-fi fan and his family living in the Jim Crow-era United States and, well, things get wacky. But while monsters and magic abound, the real monster is racism.

2. Crosstalkby Connie Willis. I don’t read a lot of romance. In fact, I am the least romantic person I know. Just ask my husband. But this 2016 sci-fi romance about a world in which people can undergo a simple outpatient procedure in order to create greater empathy between partners was just pure fun.

3. The Girl Who Smiled Beadsby Clemantine Wamariya. If I hadn’t received this book in a Feminist Book Club box, it may never have crossed my radar. But this 2018 memoir from a young woman who fled the Rwandan massacre with her sister in 1994 — eventually being granted refugee status in the United States — was so powerful.

4. Giant Days, Vol. 12by John Allison, Max Sarin, Whitney Cogar, and Jim Campbell. Giant Days is one of the first comic series I got super into and, since then, there have been 13 volumes in the series. I haven’t LOVED them all, but Volume 12, which came out earlier this year, really brought on the charm. If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s about a group of friends at university who couldn’t be more different from each other, but who need each other nonetheless. There are… many hijinks.

5/6. Check, Please! Book 1: #Hockey and Check, Please! Book 2: Sticks & Scones, by Ngozi Ukazu.This webcomic-turned-graphic novel is a coming-of-age story about a young man (and fabulous baker) trying to fit in as he goes off to university, joins the hockey team, and falls in love. In the second book, we follow our protagonist in his last two years at Samwell University, during which he grapples with identity and coming out. In the meantime, he learns a lot about family — both the one he was born into and the one he created for himself. Not gonna lie, I was not prepared for how emotional the second book would make me. I’m pretty sure I cried at least five separate times over the course of reading it.

7. Clap When You Land, by Elizabeth Acevedo.  I fell in love with Acevedo’s work when I read The Poet X. When she released With the Fire on High, I was still right there with her. And when her latest came out earlier this year, it didn’t disappoint. Another novel-in-verse, Clap When You Land ping-pongs back and forth between two girls — one in the Dominican Republic and one in New York City — who discover that they’re sisters when their father dies in a plane crash.

8. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: To All the Squirrels I’ve Loved Before, by Ryan North, Derek Charm, and Rico Renzi. Squirrel Girl is the first superhero I fell deeply in love with, and her long-running series stayed strong throughout. This year saw the publication of the last volume in the series and the book managed to keep me laughing while also emotionally destroying me. To give a quick recap, Squirrel Girl is placed in a situation that seems impossible to overcome, giving us the chance to reconnect with all of the characters we’ve met over the course of the series. As always, both humor and heart shine through in this book, making the reader seesaw between laughs and warm fuzzies. And even in the midst of the totally wacky, the team behind this comic manages to impart heartwarming messages about endings and goodbyes and change and moving forward. Pick up a copy for an object lesson in how to perfectly end a beloved series.

9. Exhalation, by Ted Chiang. Aaand this is about the time the pandemic hit and my reading shifted. I began picking up more horror and speculative fiction as a means of distracting myself from IRL horrors. This collection of nine speculative short stories is a delight, offering up to readers time travel and alternate universes, yes, but also questions around second chances, free will, and other complicated conundrums.

10. Sex Matters, by Alyson J. McGregor. When it comes to women’s health, reproductive health gets a lot of play. I should know. I write about sexuality for a living. But women’s health is about so much more than our reproductive organs. In Sex Matters, McGregor breaks down gender disparities in healthcare across all aspects of women’s health, showing how everything from gender bias in research to incomplete medical school curricula lead inevitably to medical professionals who are unprepared to give women the healthcare they need. And while much of this seems out of our control, McGregor also lays out what we can do to ensure we get better healthcare that takes into account who we are. Such an important read.

11. The Hollow Places, by T. Kingfisher. Oh my god, this book was so! much! fun! A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, which leads to madness and terror, and I don’t want to give away too much more than that. Plot aside, I really enjoy Kingfisher’s characters. They have a great sense of humor and, even when faced with the sorts of things that should make their minds snap, it is this sensibility that keeps them together, and also helps cut the tension for readers. Oh, and if her authorial voice sounds familiar to you? T. Kingfisher is a pen name for Ursula Vernon.

12. Good Talk, by Mira Jacob. I was late to the Good Talk bandwagon and only ended up reading it because it came in one of my Feminist Book Club boxes. But when I read this graphic memoir about the author’s experiences with racism post-9/11 — told within the context of the conversations she had with her young son — my heart was broken over and over again. How do we negotiate these difficult conversations with our children? Even though Jacob is winging it, she provides a fantastic example for the rest of us.

13. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, by Grady Hendrix. No one does comic horror better than Grady Hendrix. Both Horrorstor and We Sold Our Souls were a good time, but I absolutely fell in love with My Best Friend’s Exorcism. His latest is about a women’s book club that’s forced to go up against a mysterious newcomer in town… who may or may not be more than just your average terrible, monstrous human. A content warning, though: There was a vicious sexual assault in this book that took me by surprise.

14. Snapdragon, by Kat Leyh. I passed this graphic novel along to my daughter after reading it myself. She’s since read it… well, I’ve lost count. She’s obsessed with it, because: magic. I, meanwhile, love how this sweet story — about a girl who befriends her town’s witch, also finding herself along the way — manages to subtly weave in so many diverse viewpoints, from the single mom who’s worried about placing too much pressure on her young daughter to the best friend who’s exploring her gender identity to the androgynous older lesbian who gave up on love long ago.

15. The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc. This literary horror about a young couple haunted by their new home creeped me the eff out. But the most terrifying thing of all? As the house decays around them, we’re never really sure whether or not it’s all in their heads.

16. Me and White Supremacy, by Layla Saad. When George Floyd was murdered by four white police officers in May, I was just as susceptible as everyone else to the onslaught of anti-racist reading lists. I had already read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, but Saad’s book was new to me. I picked it up so I could get tips on how to talk to my loved ones about how to unpack our bias and privilege. For a straightforward primer, it really fits the bill.

17. We Keep the Dead Close, by Becky Cooper. In this true crime book, the author becomes fascinated by a case involving the unsolved murder of a Harvard archaeology student who is rumored to have been killed by her professor after an affair gone wrong. In seeking to solve the case herself, however, Cooper also uncovers uncomfortable truths about sexism within academia and about the silencing effect of powerful institutions. I couldn’t put this one down.

18. My Riot, by Rick Spears and Emmett Helen. When My Riot opens, it’s 1991 and 17-year-old Valerie Simmons is chugging along through an average suburban life, landing her first job at an ice cream shop and training to be a ballerina. But then, a rookie police officer murders a Salvadorian man, sparking two days of rioting by Black and Latino youth in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and Valerie begins to question the safe little bubble she’s lived in her entire life. At about the same time, she meets the young woman who will become her best friend, and they start their own punk band. The rest of the graphic novel takes readers through a fictionalized accounting of what most groups must have experienced during the Riot Grrrl movement, and it’s total fun from start to finish.

19. The Rib Joint, by Julia Koets. This title caught my eye because of its gorgeous cover, and then the contents were just as quietly beautiful. This lyrical memoir in essays is about growing up in a small town in the South as a gay woman, and the love that women were and weren’t willing to give her.

20. A Map Is Only One Story, edited by Nicole Cheung and Mensah Demary. This anthology contains essays from 20 writers on immigration, family, and the meaning of home. I didn’t love every piece in this collection (which is why I’m usually slow to give anthologies a shot), but there were many beautiful and powerful pieces in here.

21. The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal, by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Travis McElroy, Justin McElroy, and Carey Pietsch. Petals to the Metal is the third book in the Adventure Zone graphic novel series. This series is based on a popular podcast, which is in turn based on Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop roleplaying game. (Whew!) In this third installment, our merry band of adventurers is attempting to apprehend a master thief and reclaim an ancient relic (as per usual). This time, however, the only way to win back the relic is to engage in a high-stakes battlewagon race. I’ll be honest: This one started out slow for me. But it ended up reaching those heights of ridiculous I’ve come to expect from this series… and then surpassing them. And amidst all of the ridiculous and all of the explosions, there’s also a complicated love story that made me cry. So basically: ALL the feels. Get on it.

22. Why Not Me?, by Mindy Kaling. I’m not a huge fan of celebrity memoirs. But then I started to marathon-watch The Mindy Project on Hulu and then I picked up Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and then I got to this one and reading it was just like watching Kaling on TV. Which was satisfying as hell. And involved many belly laughs. So if you like belly laughs…

23. See No Stranger, by Valarie Kaur. In See No Stranger, Kaur — a civil rights activist, lawyer, and filmmaker — writes of her journey as a brown girl growing up in the U.S. who is eventually radicalized by the murders of her fellow Sikhs after 9/11. Over the course of the ensuing years, as she attends law school and fights injustices in American prisons and works with communities who have fallen prey to hate crimes, she comes to believe that the true path to transformation lies in revolutionary love. I struggled with this but, by the end of Kaur’s book, I was sold. This book forced me to ask myself, “What is this story demanding of me? What will I do now that I know this?”

24. Burn Our Bodies Down, by Rory Power. I read and enjoyed Wilder Girls first but, in Burn Our Bodies Down, Power’s horror game is even stronger. A young woman seeking out answers about her mother’s past finds something she didn’t expect. Each unearthed secret confuses our protagonist more. It’s only at the end that she realizes how unnatural her bloodline really is.

25. My Mother’s House, by Francesca Momplaisir. Momplaisir’s debut novel, My Mother’s House (cw: sexual violence, child abuse, predation), is billed as a literary thriller but also has shades of magical realism, mystery, and full-on horror. Sure, it’s about a Haitian immigrant and the home he’s built for himself and his family in America, and for the other immigrants in his community. But it’s also about the house that observes his every move, passing endless judgment, until the protagonist’s darkest secrets are fully revealed. Spoiler alert: The monster in this story is not the sentient house. This disturbing story will stay with you.

26. The Sacrifice of Darkness, by Roxane Gay, Tracy Lynne Oliver, and Rebecca Kirby. This dreamlike graphic novel, adapted from Gay’s short story of the same name, reveals a universe in which the world has been bathed in darkness as the result of a tragic event. The fabulist story that follows is one of guilt and persecution and class and survival. But intertwined throughout is a sweet love story that provides readers with a beautiful thread of hope. I was thoroughly charmed.

27. Plain Bad Heroines, by Emily Danforth. This book was hyped. up. and boy was the hype warranted. This sapphic supernatural thriller is built around a cursed New England boarding school for girls, the deaths that occurred there, and a bestselling memoir that, at the time, seized students’ imaginations. Over a century later, someone decides to make a movie about it all. But it appears the curse still lingers…

28. Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This may actually be my favorite book of the year. Which was something I never expected. I am an indoorsy person. When this book was chosen as the book of the month for Feminist Book Club just this past November, I was not enthused. After all, “the teachings of plants” was in the subtitle. I have killed succulents. But by the second essay in this book, I was transfixed. Kimmerer writes with such lyricism and reverence toward the world we live in. In a loose arc that nevertheless feels intentional, she paints a picture of a time when people behaved with reciprocity toward the land and toward each other… and she shares stories of those who are still doing so. Indigenous people have always known that if they care for the land, the land will care for them. What she asks readers who are not indigenous to this land is to nevertheless move toward that same relationship of reverence and reciprocity and, in saving the land, save themselves.

29. The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz. I was recently telling someone how much I was enjoying this book and, when they asked me what it was about, I floundered. But let me take a crack at it. It’s about a time-traveling woman who’s part of a secret group that’s determined to use time travel to manifest a better future for women and nonbinary folks. At the same time, she has her own agenda. So, like, time travel adventure sci-fi… but feminist?

30. The Undocumented Americans, by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. I had been meaning to read this one for so long and, when I finally sat down with it, I was hooked by Villavicencio’s voice from the very first page. This reported memoir — written in an engaging and conversational tone by one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard — gives an inside look at what it’s like to live undocumented in America. This isn’t just the author’s story, though. In addition to sharing stories of her own life and her own family dynamics, she travels across America, interviewing others and giving us a much more nuanced look at what this life is like.

31. Nightbitch, by Rachel Yoder. I feel almost cruel sharing this one with you, as it doesn’t come out until late July 2021. But as I was reading the egalley this last week of December, the story stuck with me, even as I was tidying up the house in the aftermath of Christmas and prepping my end-of-year posts and scheduling Zoom calls. In this mad rush of a novel, an artist-turned-stay-at-home-mother becomes convinced that she is turning into a dog. As her supposed transformation progresses, the mom — who begins to refer to herself as Nightbitch — gets philosophical, sharing her innermost thoughts about motherhood and obligation and power and an inexorable pull toward violence. I have never before empathized so strongly with a protagonist who may or may not be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Totes worth the preorder.