I’m cheating a bit with my favorites list this year; I read so many books (124 in total) that there’s no way I can choose only ten, so I’ve separated things out. This is going to be my list of favorite non-fantasy (or, more broadly, non-speculative) reads.
10. You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle
I cannot believe a romance novel made this list, especially one that is apparently rather divisive, but I loved this. From the first page I thought it was so much fun, and I appreciated that rather than being focused on sex/lust/attraction it was all about the two main character becoming friends again. All the childish hijinks and silliness and pettiness were so entertaining. The main thing I need you to know about this book is how goddamn funny it is. There’s few books that will make me stop reading to literally laugh out loud, but this is one of them, and that’s due to the hilarious internal monologue of the main character, Naomi. I don’t normally enjoy first-person, but it worked so well here, because Naomi is such an interesting character: witty, deadpan, somewhat self-centered and yet oddly self-aware, and vaguely contradictory. Perfect rom-com fluff.
9. The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
I hadn’t expected this novel to land on this list, because I had issues with the writing style (I thought it was a bit overwrought and sometimes exhausting to read) and I only gave it four stars, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I read it way, way early in the year. Here, Frannie Langton, accused murderess, tells her story, from birth to death, or near enough to it as she can remember, and her life is one filled with the horrors of slavery, incest, and medical experimentation. It’s a sad, harrowing tale, made more so by the way Victorian London comes to life in an unsettling way: it is the dark underbelly put on view here, not the glittering echelons. It’s a gut-punch.
8. One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London
Another romance book! And this one is basically the literary equivalent of The Bachelorette, a show I can’t watch without cringing. And yet, somehow, I adored it. I cried. I read it for seven hours straight without putting it down for a second. There’s a lot of commentary about how the main character, a plus-size blogger, is treated for her size. The writing is excellent, particularly when it comes to describing different locales. Again, I think I liked this because the focus wasn’t so much on the romance/lust/sex but rather on the main character’s internal conflicts and the various hijinks on the reality show.
7. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Obviously, this is a much beloved book, to the point where it was included on some major prize lists (the Booker, I think?). I don’t know that there’s anything particularly innovative about this book that makes it deserving of being on the Booker list, and it definitely feels like a book with commercial appeal, but for me, something about the writing style really clicked with me! Yes, there’s a lot of telling, but it doesn’t come across heavy-handed; rather, the observations that are spelled out for the reader feel like they’re being said wryly, as though it’s a shared secret we’re all in on. I also really loved how all the characters were so gray, particularly the white characters; the portrayal of microaggressions and unacknowledged racism on their part was so spot-on.
6. Don’t Tell a Soul by Kirsten Miller
This book actually doesn’t come out until the end of January 2021, but I read it a couple of months ago and loved it. I’ve been reading a lot more YA horror/thriller recently, and this book was an excellent one. It’s very mature, definitely on the older end of YA (my preference), with a strong coming-of-age theme; the main character has a lot of her childhood conceptions shattered as she discovers secrets and family history. There’s also a powerful found family theme, which I love. The mystery is tantalizing, with a rather subversive reveal, and the setting is very atmospheric.
5. Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
There is a very specific genre of books that I adore, and that is fictional books about Americans traveling to Europe. There is reason I’ve watched that stupid Lizzie McGuire movie about them going to Italy like fifteen times. There’s just something about seeing people bask in the beauty and history of Europe. This book is no different; you can see the clear love the author has for Florence. The way the city comes to life through the main character’s experience is absolutely magical; I felt like I was there. Add to that a subtle and cute romance, a family mystery, and a theme of found family, and this was overall a sweet, wholesome, and just very happy book that made my whole summer.
4. Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This year everyone has been talking about this author’s other release, Mexican Gothic, which means that this book, published by a very small indie press, has gone under the radar, and that’s a shame, because it’s a powerful, rich, coming-of-age noir novel. It’s a languid, character-driven story, but no less enthralling for that. The narrative traces the development of Viridiana’s arc, from clever but sheltered girl to clever and ruthless young woman. There is a quiet but heavy tension running throughout the story, exacerbated by the author’s dense descriptions of small-town Baja California in 1979.
3. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwake Emezi
There is something so visceral and raw about Emezi’s writing. They have this ability to craft literary novels that feel epic and timeless; I felt the same with their debut, Freshwater. Vivek Oji is an entirely different tale, but still utterly heartbreaking, about identity and sexuality and non-normative love and bucking tradition. The last page of this book is one of the most gut-wrenching things I’ve ever read.
2. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
This book is an absolute gut punch, a deeply disturbing and unsettling look at a girl’s experience of grooming and sexual abuse by her teacher. One of the best – and simultaneously most disturbing – things about this book is how it gets Vanessa’s mindset as a young teenager so right, which only makes her subsequent grooming by her forty-two year old teacher so much more unsettling. This novel has a lot to say on victimhood and abuse and how we define both of those things. There is also a lot of commentary on culpability and certain societal norms contribute to “relationships” like this (a frankly disturbing number of people in Vanessa’s life are nowhere near horrified enough at what happened to her). Overall, this book is evocative, bleak, and so powerful in its interrogation of the complexities of sexual assault and trauma.
1. You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce
I’m cheating a bit with this, as the book walks the line between speculative and not; that is part of its mystery. Is Cassandra Tipp crazy or does she really see fairies? This questions is never really answered convincingly. Cassandra’s life has been consumed with her visions of Pepper-Man, a fae creature who literally sinks his teeth into Cassandra’s flesh and feeds off her, but who…loves her? She certainly loves him. There is an intriguing co-dependence and toxicity to their relationship that calls to some villain romance tropes, which of course made me love it all the more. I loved how dark and heavy the story was, and how it flitted between the fantastical and the real and left the reader questioning the whole time. And the significance of the title? Damn.