Best books of 2020 (published before 2020)

Thanks to Libby and my local library (well, *cough*, the library where I used to live that has an amazing selection), last year I read a lot more brand new books than usual. However, I still picked up plenty of slightly older reads (usually because the hold lists weren’t quite as long). Following on from my Favourite Books of 2020 (Published in 2020), here are my favourites that were published before last year.

Fiction

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: This is an absolutely transcendent novel. Tracing the history of a family—two sisters in Ghana who never meet but whose family lines diverge as one is sent away from her village to marry a British slave trader while the other is enslaved in the same castle where the sister and British officer live as royals. Alternating chapters offer evocative vignettes of their descendants. It’s an incredibly beautiful and powerful novel that is richly complex and vivid.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz: The protagonist of this novel feels like a real person, she is so richly created. Her story is one that many immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, have experienced in real life, struggling to create a new and better life in their new country in the face of discrimination and conflict, but which isn’t often represented in media. This book has such a strong sense of place in both its New York and Dominican settings, and touches of humour and grit lift the book into a coming-of-age and coming-to-America work of art.

Such a Fun Age by Kylie Reid: I read this book early in the year and I’m still thinking about it months later. A social commentary that is incredibly appropriate for everything that has been going on in the last few months/400 years, protagonist Emira is a young Black woman accused of kidnapping a white child that she is actually babysitting. After the event, the relationship between Emira and her employer changes as Alix tries, for mostly self-serving reasons, to make amends. The novel is a smart and incisive critique of performative allyship and casual racism,

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: Quarantine gave me the chance to briefly rejoin an old book club when they switched to zoom meetings, and they kindly let me jump the queue for who got to choose the book. This was my pick, and it was a great one, if I do say myself. Who would’ve thought a story about a gal whose teeny-tiny bad habit is murdering her boyfriends could be so much fun? Witty, satirical, and incredibly clever, this is a fun and fast read that bursts off the page.

Nonfiction

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: This is an absolutely stunning memoir. Machado writes about her abusive relationship and the strengthening of her life afterward through a series of experimental chapters—one written in the style of a romance novel, another as a choose-your-own-adventure, another as a cliche, a demonic possession, a television episode. It’s a perfectly crafted, incredibly artistic book that is both haunting in its content and exciting in its style.

How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi: One of the central points of this fantastic book is that racism isn’t just something you are, it can also be something you do. It’s easy to dismiss a Confederate flag-weilding, slur-shouting Nazi; more difficult to confront the racist actions of otherwise nice people. This is an important thing for those of us who consider ourselves not to be racists to remember; even if we are not racists, we can still have racist thoughts and actions. And the opposite of racist isn’t non-racist, it’s anti-racist. So to fight against racism, it’s not enough just to not actively be racist, we must also fight against it at every turn. An important call to action.

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe: Fantastically researched and reported, Say Nothing follows a host of characters on both sides of the Troubles, with a cold case killing as the frame for a larger look at the sociopolitical strife, creating a book that is less about true crime and more about history and and memory. It’s harrowing in places and intricate throughout. It’s a comprehensive look at a conflict that’s consequences still reverberate today in Ireland’s culture and politics.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold: There’s been a recent shift in true crime as a backlash to the glut of podcasts, documentaries, etc. that breathlessly report on serial killers and other criminals in a way that serves more to glorify their subjects than condemn them. The Five is a great example of this shifted style; Rubenhold explores the lives of the five victims of Jack the Ripper in a way that barely focuses on the notorious killer but instead examines their lives, the falsehoods that follow them, and also the larger societal issues of poverty and addiction that plagued the working class in Victorian England.

Educated by Tara Westover: I’d heard a lot of hype about Educated before I finally took the time to read it, and if I was expecting to be underwhelmed (I had never bothered because I figured it was just going to be another version of The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls), I was completely wrong. The memoir of a woman who was refused education by her abusive, evangelical family and escaped to find her own path in academia and life, I couldn’t put this book down.

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