Here’s a list of all the books I read in 2020 and what I thought of them. My goal was to read 40, but I only read 34. I’m not going to be too hard on myself given… well, given it was 2020.
You’d think that in a year as strange and terrible as the one we just lived through, I’d want to escape into fiction even more. That was certainly the plan. But I found it difficult to concentrate on fictional worlds when the real one knocked so loudly at the door. I had to pencil reading time into each day if I wanted to make it stick. I always enjoyed reading when I did it, and felt better (usually) after I was done, so I tried to keep to a reading schedule.
At any rate, here are the books I managed to stuff into that wild ride of a year.
The River – Peter Heller
I wanted to read this book from its promo text, which called it “the story of two college friends on a wilderness canoe trip—of a friendship tested by fire, white water, and violence[.]” I thought it was going to be a thriller with The Call of the Wild overtones. Instead it was a thoughtful and beautiful literary novel with a touch of thriller and some extremely intense emotions. Wynn and Jack came quickly to life thanks to Heller’s deep introspection and lyrical writing. The story itself was gripping. Ultimately it left me moved, even if it wasn’t quite the book I was expecting.
I read Force of Nature first, not realizing it was the second in a series, but it ultimately didn’t matter. Each of these books, starring Australian investigator Aaron Falk, stands on its own. Harper has an elevated style that drew me in immediately, and Force of Nature might be my favourite book of 2020. A group of coworkers head out on a team-building retreat-slash-camping trip in the Australian outback. But when the campers arrive at the check-in point, one of them is missing. I read The Dry afterward because I wanted more Falk, and while it was good, it wasn’t quite as gripping. Both are excellent reads.
The Murderbot Diaries – Martha Wells
The best thing about 2020 was I read the Murderbot Diaries. My husband and I have a tradition of picking a book together and reading a few chapters aloud before bed. I proposed All Systems Red because I heard it was good, and he agreed, and we rapidly read through the entire series in about a month. Murderbot is AMAZING. I changed my mind, this was my favourite book of 2020.
If you really need to know what it’s about, the self-named Murderbot is a “sec unit” living in the future. These sec units (security units) are cyborgs hired to guard stupid humans as they go about their stupid human lives. Murderbot just wants to do a half-assed job so it can secretly watch its television shows in peace, but its stupid humans went off and got into trouble. Now it has to go save them, and they keep wanting to talk to it and make eye contact and ask it about its feelings, and ugh.
UNSUB – Meg Gardiner
This is a thriller/mystery about a serial killer terrorizing San Francisco. Young FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix is determined to track the killer down, both to prove herself and because the killer eluded her ex-cop father and left him a broken shell of a man.
Gardiner used the Zodiac Killer as inspiration for her antagonist, and the research and detail she puts into her book is impressive. I enjoyed the read, and it had a few surprises for me. If you’re looking for a solid thriller with a moderate gore factor, this one was pretty good.
Get In Trouble – Kelly Link
This is the kind of book I love to hate. It’s brilliant, literary, inventive, and I could never write anything like it in a million years. If you like magical realism, short stories, and feeling jealous of someone’s talent, this could be the book for you.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes – Suzanne Collins
I LOVED the Hunger Games when they first came out, so I was stoked to hear Collins was writing another book. I was less enthused when I learned it was a prequel, and less enthused still when I learned young President-Snow-to-be was the protagonist. My fears were founded; this was a terrible book. I strongly disliked it. It’s set in a time before the Hunger Games as we know it, when they’re stripped of their pagentry and glitter and are simply depressing and grim. Turns out without the pagentry and glitter, the Hunger Games books are also depressing and grim.
The Unquiet – Mikaela Everett
This was a weird book. I liked it, but I’m not sure I understood it. It’s about a world where there are two Earths, each one parallel to the other. Every person on Earth has a double on Earth Two, and you can even talk to your twin (or you used to be able to, before the government shut it down). The hero, Lirael, is a sleeper agent from Earth Two trained to find her double on Earth, kill her, and take her place. Eventually, Earth Two will have enough agents in place to conquer Earth. The book was long and mysterious, and while I enjoyed reading it I don’t think I’ll ever read it again.
These books were a trip. Sleeping Giants was a practically perfect novel. I loved everything about it. It obsessed me; I was so invested in this book I told everyone I knew they should go out and read it.
Then I read the sequel, Waking Gods, and I disliked it so intensely I never read the third. It nearly spoiled the first one for me, but I still love Sleeping Giants. It’s about what happens when a little girl falls down a hole in South Dakota and lands on a giant robot hand. Soon, governments all over the world are finding giant robot pieces. They’re obviously alien in origin; were they left for humans to find? Or hidden away to be forgotten? Are they a gift, or a warning?
Read the first one and stop there is my recommendation.
The Expanse (1-6) – James S.A. Corey
There’s not much that can be said about the Expanse that hasn’t already been said, but I liked these books. I wasn’t sure I was going to. I had the opportunity to potentially write something for the Expanse RPG so I speed-read the books over the summer. I never wound up taking the job, but I really liked the books. I started to read book seven and instantly hated the premise, so I dropped it there, but the first six were exceptional. The fourth was kind of weak, though. Honestly, I think the first was the best.
The Shadows – Alex North
I was SO excited to read this book because it was written by the same author as one of my favourites from 2018, The Whisper Man. This one is about a shadowy urban legend called Red Hand who might have come to life and might have killed a child the narrator, Paul Adams, knew as a kid. Now Paul is coming back to his hometown as an adult and learns Red Hand might have returned.
This was an overall good book with an utterly stupid plot twist 3/4 of the way through that nearly made me chuck it off my balcony. Not recommended.
The Guest List – Lucy Foley
A psychological thriller about a wedding set on a rocky, intimidating island off the coast of Ireland. Someone dies—you don’t learn who until the end—and the lead up is told in alternating chapters by the bride, her sister/maid of honor, the groom’s friend’s wife, the best man, and the wedding planner. If you like psychological thrillers, this one was a great, fast read and really well plotted. I liked it.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow
This was a great book, really innovative. A little girl in the southern U.S. has a unique ability. She finds a door and opens it, and she sees another world beyond. Before she can investigate, the door is destroyed. January is certain what she saw was real, but no one believes her. As she grows into a woman, January learns more about her special power and the legacy of her late father. Highly recommended.
Home Before Dark – Riley Sager
I read this because I binged The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix and I wanted more ghost stories. This one’s about a woman returning to her haunted childhood home to renovate and sell. Her father made his fortune writing about their haunted house documentary-style, but Maggie thinks he made it all up. After all, there’s no such thing as ghosts. But then weird things start happening, you know the drill. The book was a little predictable but still a lot of fun. (I saw half the ending coming but not the other half, so I had a good time.)
The Glass Hotel – Emily St. John Mandel
I thought this was a mystery, but it turned out to be a literary novel with a touch of fantasy. Set on Vancouver Island, the story centers around a young woman named Vincent, who goes from hotel receptionist to wife of a billionaire. Her rise and fall and rise again was engrossing to read about, even if I was expecting something else. If you like beautiful books without neat endings, this is a great read.
One By One – Ruth Ware
I adore Ruth Ware and never miss one of her books. This one, about a corporate retreat in the Swiss Alps, didn’t disappoint. The characters were awful people, but sympathetic and compelling. The story was fast and smart. I devoured it in a day.
Perfect Little Children – Sophie Hannah
This psychological thriller starts when a woman drives by the home of her ex-friend. She hasn’t seen the other woman in ten years, and is shocked when she spots her ex-friend in the driveway with her two children. What’s strange about that? The kids haven’t aged a single day, even though a decade has passed.
Sounds good, right? It wasn’t, unfortunately. A wildly unbelievable plot and meandering story made this an unpleasant read. Not recommended.
Ball Lightning – Liu Cixin
I’d heard a lot about this book, but didn’t know what to expect when I picked it up. It was diferent from anything else I’d read, and I was deeply immersed in the world of a Chinese scientist consumed by the desire to understand ball lightning. This book is long, a bit dense, but I loved it. It’s like nothing else out there. His Three Body Problem is next on my list.
Eight Perfect Murders – Peter Swanson
This is another book that I expected to be one thing and turned out another way. It’s about a man who writes a blog for his bookshop on “eight perfect murders” in mystery fiction. Then people start showing up dead, each one murdered in the same way as one of the picks on his blog. It started out like a mystery, but morphed into thriller pretty quick. I still enjoyed it, though.
The Devil and the Dark Water – Stuart Turton
This was a mostly great book with a few weird departures. It’s set on a sailing ship in the 1600s, where a Sherlock Holmes-type figure and his sidekick (main character Arent Hayes) investigate seemingly supernatural happenings and murders on the boat. The book drags a bit in places, and the ending does a sharp turn and veers into unbelievable (though really cool) territory, but overall I really liked it.
Legend – Marie Lu
This dystiopian YA novel had a lot of great parts. The divison between government agent and brainwashed nationalist June and street kid revolutionary Day is cool. The plot is interesting, but predictable. I enjoyed a lot of it, but was left feeling a bit flat by the end.
Old Bones – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
I’ve been a Preston & Child fan since The Relic, and I really wanted to like this book. Archaeologist Nora Kelly is hired to find and excavate the Lost Camp of the ill-fated Donner Party, a task complicated when she learns there could be millions of dollars of gold hidden in the site. Add in some supernatural-ish hijinks, a bunch of murders, and a tenacious FBI agent and things should get exciting pretty quick. Sadly, they don’t. The book meanders along for a few hundred pages, then wraps up super quick. I wished it was better.
All The Devils are Here – Louise Penny
I thought the Inspector Gamache series had finished with the last book, so I was delighted when Penny released this one. The Gamache books are unfailingly beautiful, intricate, exciting, and thoughtful. Some of the most recent ones have been slightly less great than others, but this one brought Gamache back with a bang. I absolutely loved his adventures investigating the attempted murder of a dear friend in Paris.
I’m not with the Amazon affiliate program anymore, so I don’t get one red cent if you buy any of these books. But I hope you find one or two you like among the list, and that you have a great year of reading in 2021!