Best books I read this year

2020 may have been a hell year by most standards, but it was a banner year in terms of books I read. I’ve been trying to read as many books as possible published in 2020, and boy are there a lot of good books that came out during the year.

Reading in any genre consists of mostly decent, average books. Books you enjoy reading but which don’t make you think or change your life. The authors do their best to put feelings in there (hopefully) but you may or may not actually feel them at all while you’re reading. This year I read a lot of “she felt sad” and most of those times I didn’t really feel anything. Some of the descriptions were great and some of the plots were tense and some of the premises were thought-provoking. But most of the books weren’t “take a second, look up from the page, digest just how good this is” good. That’s fine, I still enjoyed most of what I read this year.

But a few were so good I couldn’t put them down. Or at times so good I had to put them down for a second just to contemplate the feelings they inspired. Some of them made me despair of my ability to write, because I know I’m not writing as good as these.

Without further ado:

Red, White, and Royal Blue

The cover of Red, White, and Royal Blue, showing a man in jeans and a man in a red coat with gold buttons

I don’t read much romance, not because it’s a bad genre but because they don’t tend to have spaceships in them and I really prefer books that do. But I wanted to read this one because I knew it was a best-seller and people were saying good things about it on Twitter. And, I mean: gay. It really doesn’t take much to get me to read a queer book, any queer book.

It’s set in a parallel 2019-2020 where a woman is in the White House, together with her half-Hispanic kids. (Everyone living in this terrible timeline can enjoy imagining we all lived in that, much better one. “Come on. I don’t think this election is gonna hinge on an email server. . . . Maybe if it was 2016.” PURE COMEDY GOLD.) The First Son is a cool guy in college who’s Definitely Straight and Definitely Hates the prince of England. As a person who finally figured out I was bi at 27 years old, I could relate to his self-discovery.

But man, the parts that really got me were the romance itself. You think romance is about meaningful looks and sex scenes and stuff (which, I mean, were there) but this one went deep. What if we shared our deepest insecurities and loved each other for the real self hardly anybody knows about? And we were both boys? Haha jk unless….?

It just filled me with this burning desire for every single gay romance to go smoothly. Love is so precious and so hard to find. Someone who actually gets you and wants you more than anything, just as you are. And I think about how unnecessarily hard some of those romances have been . . . loves that died in the cradle because it was just too hard or because people couldn’t even reach the point of imagining what it would be like to make it work. Because society picked some kinds of relationships that counted and some that didn’t.

Five stars, would make required reading.

Vanished Birds

The cover of Vanished Birds: an abstract set of twisted lines on a black background

This is a book of pure poetry, briefly disguised as a science fiction novel but really not fooling anybody. Not that it doesn’t have science in it, but it mostly has feelings and yearning and beautiful descriptions of planets or people’s hands.

In the book, faster-than-light travel takes years but it’s contracted into short periods for the people traveling. So a main character visits a planet every few months (for her) and every fifteen years (for her lover on the planet).

There’s a little traumatized boy who shows up out of nowhere and needs protection, and an engineer who turned down the love of her life to make space stations instead. It’s achingly sad. It makes you think about time, and chances that don’t come back, and colonialism. It’s not a light book at all.

The Space Between Worlds

The cover of The Space Between Worlds, showing two landscapes on the left and right, each with a woman walking

I found out this was a debut during the worst year one could possibly debut in, so I read a sample. That was so good I made a mental note and actually bought it when it came out, instead of hoping it would show up at the library like I usually do.

The first thing I like about it is that the style is easy and snappy. There’s some flirty banter between two women in the first chapter and I was like “hmmmm is it maybe ENEMIES TO LOVERS aka my second favorite trope???”

Well, I won’t tell you that. It’s about a post-apocalyptic world divided between comfortable cities and the poor people left outside in a parching hellscape. Our hero comes from the outside, but she’s made it into the city because she travels between parallel dimensions.

You can go to any dimension so long as you’re not alive in it. The main character has died in almost every timeline, which makes her perfect for the job. Unfortunately, her past is full of skeletons and there’s this horrible gang lord she dated in several timelines who would definitely like to kill her more times.

This book made me think about my life, the choices I’ve made, the roads not taken. Is there a timeline where I’m a horrible person? If so, does it mean I’m horrible deep down and just got lucky?

Harrow the Ninth

The cover of Harrow the Ninth: a woman in black with skull face paint and a corset made of ribs.

I liked Gideon the Ninth fine, till the end, when I almost threw it and resolved never to read the sequel unless someone could promise me the end of book one didn’t really happen. It had a great voice, a bangin’ main character, and an intriguing world. Unfortunately, the world wasn’t built out that much. There’s a house on a planet, and there are some people that are obsessed with a locked tomb, and some people can use magic on bones. But everything else was vague. What’s the governmental system? There’s a war, who’s it against? What’s the Tomb for? Are the characters as confused as I am?

Well, Harrow the Ninth fixed all these complaints with a lot more worldbuilding and a big, confusing surprise. Honestly the main emotion through the entire book was confusion, and I kept fingers in different parts of the book because I flipped back so often. But I had to know what was going on and I was GRIPPED until I did. And then gripped more because more stuff happened.

I still don’t know whether the body in the Locked Tomb is good or bad. I don’t know if either of the main characters are dead or alive. I don’t know who the bad guys are (I have a good guess). But I’m invested in everyone. I felt their feelings. I wish I knew how the author did it.

I wish I could read four books this good every year. People need to keep writing amazing books so that I can.