I hope you’re having a lovely end to your December!
I’m back today with another installment of Top Ten Tuesday, a series of prompts hosted each week by That Artsy Reader Girl. Today’s theme is “Top Ten Books of 2020.”
I read so many new authors and amazing books this past year, and I can’t wait to share them all with you! From gods to spies to JELL-O and mushrooms, these ten reads had the funniest imagery, the fluffiest romances, and the most striking themes. Though they all hold my heart, I’ve ordered them down from 10 to 1. For suspense purposes.
Let’s get to it!
10 | Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.
I got to re-read Americanah for school this year, and the experience reminded me once again of how much I adore Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s writing (and her cameos in Beyonce songs!) The book follows the life of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman living in the US, and her love affair with her childhood friend. Adichie writes with the length, excitement, and betrayals of a sprawling epic, yet Americanah is simultaneously relatable, raw, and timely. So good!
9 | Layoverland by Gabby Noone
Beatrice Fox deserves to go straight to hell. At least, that’s what she thinks. On her last day on Earth, she ruined the life of the person she loves most–her little sister, Emmy. So when Bea awakens from a fatal car accident to find herself on an airplane headed for a mysterious destination, she’s confused, to say the least. Once on the ground, Bea receives some truly harrowing news: not only is she in purgatory, but she has been chosen to join the Memory Experience team. If she wants another shot at heaven, she’ll have to use her master manipulation skills to help 5,000 souls suss out what’s keeping them from moving on.
There’s just one slight problem. Bea’s first assigned soul is Caleb, the boy who caused her accident, and the last person Bea would ever want to send to the pearly gates. But as much as Bea would love to see Caleb suffer for dooming her to a seemingly endless future of listening to other people’s problems, she can’t help but notice that he’s kind of cute, and sort of sweet, and that maybe, despite her best efforts, she’s totally falling for him. And to make matters worse, he’s definitely falling for her. Now, determined to make the most of her time in purgatory, Bea must decide what is truly worth dying for–romance or revenge.
I LOVE this book. Gabby Noone is such a funny, talented debut author, and I adored her take on purgatory and the afterlife: an airport terminal whose residents reside in an outdated hotel and who have no choice but to eat food covered in JELL-O. The book, (like Noone’s amazing twitter feed) is goofy yet clever, and the caring yet fraught relationship between the protagonist and her sister was a true highlight. Layoverland is the best — no book this year has made me laugh more!
8 | The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein
A German soldier risks his life to drop off the sought-after Enigma Machine to British Intelligence, hiding it in a pub in a small town in northeast Scotland, and unwittingly bringing together four very different people who decide to keep it to themselves. Louisa Adair, a young teen girl hired to look after the pub owner’s elderly, German-born aunt, Jane Warner, finds it but doesn’t report it. Flight-Lieutenant Jamie Beaufort-Stuart intercepts a signal but can’t figure it out. Ellen McEwen, volunteer at the local airfield, acts as the go-between and messenger, after Louisa involves Jane in translating. The planes under Jamie’s command seem charmed, as Jamie knows where exactly to go, while other squadrons suffer, and the four are loathe to give up the machine, even after Elisabeth Lind from British Intelligence arrives, even after the Germans start bombing the tiny town…
Elizabeth Wein is a master in making me cry. Her thrillers (including Code Name Verity) deal in courageous young women who fly planes, learn code, and dance with danger during WWII. And Wein’s latest novel, The Enigma Game, is no exception! It follows three points of view: Louisa, a Jamaican orphan living in London; Jamie, a flight-lieutenant at the onset of the war; and Ellen, a volunteer at an airfield who comes from a family of Scottish travelers. I loved the focus on these varying perspectives, and Wein’s writing and research are always on point. The book is so engrossing, and it places a strong emphasis on friendship and courage. Plus, it takes place in the winter!
7 | Rebel Spy by Veronica Rossi
Rebellious Frannie Tasker knows little about the war between England and its thirteen colonies in 1776, until a shipwreck off her home in Grand Bahama Island presents an unthinkable opportunity. The body of a young woman floating in the sea gives Frannie the chance to escape her brutal stepfather–and she takes it.
Assuming the identity of the drowned Emmeline Coates, Frannie is rescued by a British merchant ship and sails with the crew to New York. For the next three years, Frannie lives a lie as Miss Coates, swept up in a courtship by a dashing British lieutenant. But after witnessing the darker side of the war, she realizes that her position gives her power. Soon she finds herself eavesdropping on British officers, risking everything to pass information on to George Washington’s Culper spy ring as agent 355. Frannie believes in the fight for American liberty–but what will it cost her? Inspired by the true “355” and rich in historical detail and intrigue, this is the story of an unlikely New York society girl turned an even unlikelier spy.
Speaking of cool girl spies, another book I adored this year was Veronica Rossi’s (fittingly titled) Rebel Spy. Rossi tackles the story of the agent 355, a woman operative during the American Revolution whose true identity is currently lost to history. Yet in Rossi’s book, 355 is Frannie Tasker, a poor immigrant girl already caught up in the intrigue of a stolen identity. This book definitely snuck up on me; I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did! Yet the central romance was WINNING, the plot exciting, and Rossi’s writing and research sensitive and interesting.
6 | The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender. While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light.
The Downstairs Girl was SUCH a good book, it led me to go and read every other novel Stacey Lee has ever published. It chronicles the life of Jo Kuan, a young woman of Chinese descent living in Georgia in the mid-19th century. Jo, having taken on the role of lady’s maid for a vain white society belle, finds creative solace in the mantle of “Miss Sweetie,” a newspaper column she pens anonymously. Lee’s novel addresses important, weighty topics such as racism and poverty as well as intersectionality and cultural heritage, and it’s also SO sweet and heartwarming. As Jo learned to harness her words and find her courage, I couldn’t help but cheer!
5 | The Queens of Animation by Nathalia Holt
In The Queens of Animation, bestselling author Nathalia Holt recounts the dramatic stories of an incredibly influential group of women who have slipped under the radar for decades but have touched all our lives. These women infiltrated the all-male domain of Disney Studios and used early technologies to create the rich artwork and iconic storylines that would reach millions of viewers across generations. Over the decades–while battling sexism, domestic abuse, and workplace harassment–these women also fought to influence the way female characters are depicted to young audiences.
Based on extensive interviews and exclusive access to archival and personal documents, The Queens of Animation tells the story of their vital contribution to Disney’s golden age and their continued impact on animated filmmaking, culminating in the record-shattering Frozen, Disney’s first female-directed full-length feature film.
I don’t read too many nonfiction books, but Nathalia Holt may have convinced me to pick more up! Her book (its full title is Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History) is a fascinating look at the work of women animators, artists, and writers at Disney Studios throughout the 20th century. Holt writes with the descriptive flair of fiction, yet her research and factoids don’t shy from the truth of life working at “the Happiest Studio on Earth.” Plus, the book highlights so many of my favorite things! (Animation! Feminism! History! So cool.)
4 | Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.
Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.
Guys, this book was WILD. I read it in one sitting (there were just so many twists! and turns! twists *and* turns!!) and I still think about it so, so often. Mexican Gothic details socialite Noemí Taboada’s experience visiting her cousin at a decaying English mansion in the Mexican Countryside in the 1950s; while there, she discovers that the family her cousin married into is rather sinister, haunting dreams and shunning the outside world. The book is a brutal, suspense-filled takedown of eugenics, racism, and privilege, and it also features romance, folklore, and *great* clothes. Silvia Moreno-Garcia rules.
3 | The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
Madrid, 1957. Under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Spain is hiding a dark secret. Meanwhile, tourists and foreign businessmen flood into Spain under the welcoming promise of sunshine and wine. Among them is eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of an oil tycoon, who arrives in Madrid with his parents hoping to connect with the country of his mother’s birth through the lens of his camera. Photography–and fate–introduce him to Ana, whose family’s interweaving obstacles reveal the lingering grasp of the Spanish Civil War–as well as chilling definitions of fortune and fear. Daniel’s photographs leave him with uncomfortable questions amidst shadows of danger. He is backed into a corner of difficult decisions to protect those he loves. Lives and hearts collide, revealing an incredibly dark side to the sunny Spanish city.
Ruta Sepetys is another new favorite author I discovered in 2020! I ended up reading all of her published books this year, but The Fountains of Silence stood out to me most. Taking place in Madrid during the rule of dictator Francisco Franco, the book takes a look at the lives of various young people, both from Spain and from abroad. Sepetys wrote the book in a style I love (multiple points of view + short, poetic chapters? Yes, please!!) and I loved that the central romance was slow, sweet, and striking. The novel celebrates human connection in a time of strife, and it might just make you cry. (In the best way possible!)
2 | Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.
Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.
In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia features on this list more than once (deservedly so!) but I had to talk about Gods of Jade and Shadow, which has become one of my favorite books EVER. The novel draws on indigenous Mexican folklore, following 18-year-old Casiopea Tun after she releases a god of death from captivity and travels across Jazz Age Mexico in search of magical, ancient relics to restore his power. The book has one of the LOVELIEST romances/friendships/general meaningful relationships I’ve read (it so reminds me of this quote from director Hayao Miyazaki) and, no lie, I tear up whenever I think about it. Gods of Jade and Shadow is the best!
1 | All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry
Four years ago, Judith and her best friend disappeared from their small town of Roswell Station. Two years ago, only Judith returned, permanently mutilated, reviled and ignored by those who were once her friends and family.
Unable to speak, Judith lives like a ghost in her own home, silently pouring out her thoughts to the boy who’s owned her heart as long as she can remember—even if he doesn’t know it—her childhood friend, Lucas.
But when Roswell Station is attacked, long-buried secrets come to light, and Judith is forced to choose: continue to live in silence, or recover her voice, even if it means changing her world, and the lives around her, forever.
This book. This book!! I had read Julie Berry’s other works (Lovely War and The Passion of Dolssa are flippin’ amazing) and loved them, but I was SO struck by the poetic nature of All the Truth That’s In Me. The action takes place in a nondescript Puritan-esque setting as we follow Judith, a teenage girl who was captured, lost her ability to speak, and then escaped and returned to her village. Berry styles the book with a second-person narration, as Judith – isolated, ostracized, and seemingly without a voice – addresses the son of her kidnapper. The plot is dark, but the book is not without moments of lightness. Courage, feminism, and found family are central themes. It’s more beautiful and poetic than I can describe.
Have you read any of these books? What was your favorite 2020 read? I’d love to know! ❤ ❤