Me, looking back at 2020: well… that happened.
It feels like this year has happened both very slowly, and very, very fast. Time whirled past me in a blur of images and colors, and sometimes, it fell away like petals from a blown flower, numbingly unhurried. But always, the inexorable tides of time receded into nothingness when I was lost inside a book.
There were many days this year when it seemed like the world was falling down around me, when I felt unmoored, hideously lonely and unsteady as a reflection in boiling water, missing home and my family and feeling sick with it, but stories always dulled the edge of my despair, even if it were only for the space of a few hundred pages. They took my mind out of its iron cage, and let it swim in a pool of make-believe wonders and terrors. They coaxed me from my sulks, and threw my troubles into the air, leaving them to be carried off by the winds. Stories found me sinking beneath the surface of a cavernous gloom, slowly dropping out of sight of heat and light and air, and stretched out to me, offering me a life buoy.
This post is a thank you to the stories that kept me sane and kept me company. Stories that I honestly cannot imagine surviving this year without. So, without further ado, here are my favorite books of 2020.
P.S. Books with LGBTQIA+ representation have a little rainbow flag emoji next to the title! (Disclaimer: it’s like, pretty much all of them.)
✾ A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan #1) by Arkady Martine 🏳️🌈
Release date: March 26, 2019
I am alarmingly obsessed with this book. If someone were to ask me, “hey, what’s your type, like, in fiction?” I won’t need to painstakingly describe what I usually like and don’t like, I would just point at A Memory Called Empire and that would be answer enough. This is a masterful jewel of a novel. Seriously. I can’t get over how unbelievably good it is. So, if you want to read the book version of “what if I were an ambassador who finds herself deplorably lonely in the heart of an empire that is fearfully determined to set its jaws upon itself, and you the political attaché I’m developing an unfortunate crush on… and we we were both girls?” I beg you to stop being your own worst enemy, and pick up this book ASAP. Juts trust me.
✾ Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse 🏳️🌈
Release date: October 13, 2020
I really didn’t think a novel could fit so perfectly into the jagged contours of my heart, but Black Sun manages it so easily. It’s everything I love in fantasy, all neatly knotted up in a bound bundle of dead tree: the kind of absorbing storytelling that leeches the world around you pale as mushrooms; a story that subverts the wearisome Eurocentricity of fantasy and is set in a world you’ll want to spend a thousand pages in; tenderly-rendered characters who will burrow deep into your heart; a strong thematic force that will hit you like a gravity well, carrying questions that will haunt you like ghosts; and SO MUCH CASUAL QUEERNESS. So, do yourself a favor and retreat into this book: you’ll find yourself in the enthralling company of an exiled bisexy mermaid/sea-captain, the superbly goth god-vessel on her ship, and a severely underestimated priestess with a price on her head—it’s an adventure and a half!
✾ Raybearer (Raybearer #1) by Jordan Ifueko 🏳️🌈
Release date: August 18, 2020
Raybearer is nothing less than stunning. I stepped inside this book as easily as stepping through a door, into a scintillating West-African inspired world, and as my mind gleamed with sweeping tales of revenge, betrayal, warring powers, found families and bonds that transcend romantic love, and the stinging weight of destiny, I wished I could never leave. I’m frankly still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that this is a debut (surely, I must’ve just missed the 20 other novels that came before it, right?). It really is That Good. If I could venture out into the world right now, and press this book into every single reader’s hands with gentle but unwavering insistence, believe me I would.
✾ The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson 🏳️🌈
Release date: August 4th 2020
The Space Between Worlds is a novel that gathers one of science fiction’s oldest and most enduring tales (alternate worlds, stacked beside ours like sheets of paper, and the people who can dip like hummingbirds from one to another), puts an intricate, clever spin on it (you can’t travel to a parallel universe where your doppelganger is still alive without great cost) and wrings it for all the thematic and emotional gravity it can get. There’s a deep, wounded familiarity to the main character that snagged in my heart, and the sapphic romance at the heart of the story—drenched with a bruised, unthwarted longing and filled with endless distances—still strikes a dreadful pang of yearning in my chest. Whatever Johnson decides to write after this, she has a fan for life!
✾ You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, (audiobook narrated by Alaska Jackson) 🏳️🌈
Release date: June 2nd 2020
I can’t hold enough of this book in my hands. I listened to the audiobook, and it was excellent. Alaska Jackson’s narration called to me like a long night’s dreamless sleep after months of fitful nightmares, and I listened to it everywhere until I emerged from my trance. This is a deeply compassionate and strongly felt story about existing in the world in a way that is unpalatable to others, and being unafraid to take up space, to participate in the world, to reach out and grasp its beating core with bare hands, to be awake. It’s about friends that break your heart like fine china and those who shore you up and wrap up the hurt. It’s also an ineffably tender sapphic love story between two rivaling prom queen candidates, and I still yearn to find some way to hook myself to their story, to their soft moments together, and never leave.
✾ Drowned Country (The Greenhollow Duology #2) by Emily Tesh 🏳️🌈
Release date: August 18th 2020
Drowned Country is the perfect conclusion to a wonderful tale, and I still feel its absence like an itch in my heart. A story that bears the cadence of an old, timeless fairy tale but also carries the breath of the new about it, featuring: an ancient forest kingdom, a no-nonsense dryad, a sulking demi-god who will make you want to put your head down on a table and possibly bang your forehead against it a few times, his sweet-hearted monster-hunting ex-boyfriend, the mortifying ordeal of loving and being loved in return, and endless bucketfuls of gay yearning! If you have yet to read this duology, I invite you to step inside, and you might feel less like a reader and more like a lost wanderer in an enchanted wood…
✾ Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender 🏳️🌈
Release date: May 5th 2020
Felix Ever After made a mess out of me. It’s a novel that probes achingly at gender identity like it is a loose tooth. It’s an honest and open discussion about how gender identity can be as amorphous and shifting as a cloud caught in the wind, and how a lot of us can feel lost in its wake, with nothing to hold on to, no arms to reach or hands to grip. A story that felt deeply personal to me in so many ways. Kacen Callendar writes their story like they’re facing it head-on, sinking deep, never cruising past anything—and the novel is all that much better for it. I really hope every queer teen—and every queer adult, for the novel’s themes transcend its categorization—find their way to it, so they too might sink into its steady warmth, like a blanket drawn around their shoulders.
✾ Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas 🏳️🌈
Release date: September 1st 2020
Cemetery Boys is one of those stories that feel so impossibly familiar, a thing already part of yourself, and I warmed with the simple joy of stumbling across characters whose desires and fears are shaped so closely to my own. But it’s also a lot of fun along the way, full of magic, ghosts, mystery and romance! An unmissable debut!
✾ Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
Release date: January 21st 2020
Equal parts love and rage, Riot Baby smolders more intensely than a pyre, and it lit a hellfire in me. This is the kind of novel you tumble over slowly and carefully in the back of your mind, feeling the edges of it like you would a coin. The kind that remains behind like an echo that refuses to fade, or a shadow outlasting its caster. A stirring story of resistance, where hope blooms on the pages like fungi after rain, and a call to action. To make war against that old instinct the characters have to make war against—the instinct to freeze, to retreat, to cradle your anger in your hands until the flame went out safely—and to stand up to darkness, to fear, to injustice. To stand up for each other, arms entwined like a net to carry the heaviest burden. Onyebuchi accomplishes so much in so few pages, and it’s breathtaking.
✾ The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune 🏳️🌈
Release date: March 17th 2020
I think these days more than ever, with a pandemic ravaging every corner of the world, it is necessary to find the escape hatch in reality, to seek out a pleasant corner and while away the hours inside a book. And there is no better one I can think of than this one. Charming and endlessly tender, this is story about a governmental agent who grows acutely, achingly aware of the empty place at his center, magical children with tragedies already packed in their suitcases, and the kind-hearted man who becomes the soft place they can all land, the grass between the nettles. A story that doesn’t believe that blood makes a family, but that kin is the circle you create, hands held tight—and is all the better for it.
✾ The Midnight Lie (The Midnight Lie #1) by Marie Rutkoski 🏳️🌈
Release date: March 3, 2020
In starkly beautiful language, Rutkoski writes about a girl who worked to fit herself inside the narrow confines of her life, the words “it is what it is” like a mantra, like fingers reaching into her mouth, keeping her from crying out. That is, until she meets a mysterious sea-faring schemer whose eyes fastened on her across a low-lit prison cell as though she meant to strip a secret from her soul, and whispered of magic left like a door, ajar onto a new and undiscovered world. It’s a story about deception, privilege, greed, and the truths we conceal from ourselves until one day we surface and find them waiting. It’s also a sapphic love story—or at least, the slow, tremulous unfurling of one. Rutkoski has undeniably cultivated fertile ground for the next books in her promising series to grow, and I will be counting the days until the sequel!
✾ Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo 🏳️🌈
Release date: May 5, 2020
So much about this novel tugged at my heartstrings: a story two sisters who, before their father’s abrupt death, hadn’t known of each other’s existence, and are now both desperately pawing for the truth of their father as they might paw at beach sand in hopes of finding a shell, hunting in the rubble of his life for answers, and trying to find their way to each other across the Rubicon that divided their two worlds. It’s tender, patient and raw as a wound, a novel that explores the wrenching depths of grief and longing and identity, and resurfaces with the beauty of hope.
✾ Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall 🏳️🌈
Release date: July 7, 2020
The experience of reading “Boyfriend Material” felt like talking with an old friend by the hearth of a fire on a rainy day. It’s sweet, tender, and raw as a confession. Luke’s narration—with its chafed vulnerability and aching honesty–opened up something in me. It had taken me several days to finish this book because I kept turning his words over and over, like tumbling a stone inside my mouth, letting them sink into me, even as I sank with the weight of them. The romance between Luke and Oliver tastes of softness and the joy of being known, and it blew through my heart like a sweet wind, pouring sunshine into every nook and crevice. The last romance I’ve read that affected me this wonderfully and this wrenchingly was Red, White & Royal Blue.
✾ Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings
Release date: July 28, 2020
Jennings melts the raw materials of fairytales and Australian folk-horror and melds them into a coruscatingly original assemblage of tales that are at once tender and terrifying, beautiful and profoundly upsetting, intimate and as precisely attuned to the perils and sorrows of our times as stones in a mosaic. I still find myself circling back to my favorite passages, running my fingers over the words, letting them sink into me, like a stone sinking soundlessly into deep water. Sometimes, I thin about the lines: “don’t remember limping home through the trees, believing them empty. they were always full of ghosts. you were already becoming one” and I want to go feral.
✾ Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Release date: July 23, 2019
Gods of Jade and Shadow is a story about love as fragile as the finest porcelain, myths and the power held within them, and people who yearn, and hunger, for the vastness of all there is. A story that is not robbed of its sharp edges, and is all the better for it. If you’re looking for a book that will delight you, pain you, and enchant you at every turn, I cannot think of a better answer than this novel.
✾ The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht 🏳️🌈
Release date: September 24, 2019
It’s a wretched thing, this book, sharp as shattered glass and filled with teeth. And something else too, something that slides into your neck like a talon, demanding your attention. Holding you in place. Something utterly, utterly captivating. This is a story about monsters, but it’s also a story about two monsters seeking to know each other, even if the knowing might cut at their skin like pinpricks of ice. Florian and Johann’s dynamics made this book such a rewarding, unforgettable experience for me, because at the end of the day, a monster’s bruised, unthwarted longings are not so much different than ours: we yearn for someone to whom we can reveal the awful ruins of our hearts, and we hope they might see it, and understand.
✾ Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell 🏳️🌈
Release date: February 2, 2021
The high concept of “a wayward, scandal-magnet prince and a seemingly uptight, duty-bound scholar are drafted into a political marriage and forced to work together in order to prevent an interplanetary war” tells you all you need to know about this book, but it only scratches the surface of the story’s unstinting delights. I read this novel while trying to meet college deadlines and life deadlines, and it was like a rope thrown into a wrathful sea, mooring me to some semblance of sanity. Definitely put in your pre-orders for this one!
✾ The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab 🏳️🌈
Release date: October 6th 2020
A story about a girl who kneels in the woods on the eve of a wedding she does not want, the devil she prays to for freedom after the dark, and the boy born with a broken heart who remember her. I’ve read many of Schwab’s books, and I can confidently state that this is undoubtedly the single best piece of writing she’s produced. And the questions the novel probes, painstakingly, at—Will you always drift through life more than you walk, feeling less like yourself and more like a kind of lost and wandering mist? Will your heart always hurt for the wanting of someone? What will survive of us?—will doggedly fall you off the page.
✾ The Empress of Salt and Fortune (The Singing Hills Cycle #1) by Nghi Vo 🏳️🌈
Release date: March 24th 2020
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a ravishingly beautiful book, a graceful, incandescent story like absolutely no other. Nghi Vo takes you deeper into a world of strife, where wars are “won by silenced and nameless women”, and “angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves”, and words rise from their ink-and-cotton cradles to swirl into the air again, reshaping the true face of history. And deeper you go, every step bewitching you further. The longer you stay here, the harder it is to remember anywhere else.
✾ Real Life by Brandon Taylor 🏳️🌈
Release date: February 18th 2020
We live in a culture that makes such little effort to understand the experiences of queer people of color, let alone help us understand our own. “Real Life” offers itself up, bare and vulnerable, for its readers so they don’t have to take on the daunting task of finding language to make sense of what they are feeling. The novel is a scream that ensures visibility. It rings a bell deep inside, striking a resonant, vibrating note that makes you nod yes with recognition. A story that will linger long past the last page.
✾ In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado 🏳️🌈
Release date: November 5th 2019
Very few works of writing are more fraught, more tremulous and dauntless, than a memoir. It’s mental self-flagellation: the prying open of one’s life, the splitting of the past like a cracked egg. To trap yourself in the mirrored halls of your own memory. The equivalent of digging a nail into an open sore. Star-bright and exquisitely crafted, Machado’s memoir offers itself up, bare and vulnerable, for queer people in abusive relationships who can’t find language for their wordless agony.
✾ The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang
Release date: February 19th 2019
It is always a pleasure to find a book you could give yourself up to, that you could curl up inside and let the rest of the world flow around you. The kind that leaves you marooned, like a sleepwalker awakened mid-dream wondering what exactly you’d been doing. The Sword of Kaigen is an adventure and a half, and I do not doubt that every single fantasy reader will hungrily devour this novel.
✾ The Bone Shard Daughter (The Drowning Empire #1) by Andrea Stewart 🏳️🌈
Release date: September 8th 2020
“Father told me I’m broken,” the novel begins, and those five words immediately swim through a thousand questions flooding the reader’s mind. The questions will be answered eventually—most of them, anyway—but not before Andrea Stewart makes us at home in the minds of four narrators whose individual stories are imagined vividly enough to make for several rich and engrossing SF standalone novels. I read this book in two settings, hanging tightly each time onto the different threads of the narrative so that I could hold the whole puzzle up in my mind, spin it, look for how it fit together. One of the most ambitious novel’s I’ve ever read!
✾ Heaven Official’s Blessing by 墨香铜臭 🏳️🌈
Release date: June 16th 2017
This is a gay fantasy novel about a fallen god and the ghost king who’s worshipped him in secret for 800 years that will sink its fangs into your heart and wreck your life and you will be grateful for it. It’s 2000 pages of wrenching pain and longing as endless as the ocean—I would do it all over again.
✾ A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Translated by Henning Koch
Release date: July 15th 2014
A Man Called Ove will pull a smile from somewhere deep in its readers, crooked and loose and born of laughter, and a heartbreaking sob too, edged with mourning for someone who doesn’t exist but who will leave an indelible imprint nonetheless. A story about grief, about love and the steady and undemanding affection of it, and the steadfast stream of kindness that lives defiantly in the world and people.
✾ Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow
Release date: October 15th 2019
Catch and Kill is a hackles-raising and spine-chilling story that focuses its beam on victims of assault and the silence they are often coerced into, squeezing them like a tight collar, and one that ambitiously targets a frighteningly wide cover-up culture, enshrined in legal practices and sets of agreements and payoffs, meticulously designed to bind women into submission. Journalists like Farrow offer up their ability to speak to better serve the voices of others, but this is a tale born out of years’ worth of held breath finally expelled, of strong, resonant voices feeding one another. Women, sick of holding themselves in careful, painful suspension, standing defiant and undefeated, like the flag of a rebel army. A must-read!
A colossal shout-out also to all the fanfic writers whose work genuinely pulled me back from the edge. I’m endlessly grateful. And for everyone reading this, I wish 2021 embraces you with ineffable tenderness.
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