While 2020 was, in many ways, an extraordinarily challenging year, it was, for me, a good year for reading. Once again, new books make up a smaller portion of my 2020 lists, with only a few from this year or last. Instead, I continue to enjoy exploring classics, the crime genre canon, and working through a favorite author’s backlist. Here are the best books I’ve read in 2020.
10. Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby
Blacktop Wasteland is an old-fashioned heist novel ripe for the big screen staring a modern Steve McQueen style lead. Beauregard “Bug” Montage is the archetypical getaway driver gone straight that gets pulled back into one last job that is too sweet to pass up in difficult times. There is nothing too new in the plot, following typical heist tropes. What Cosby does deliver is plenty of action and character with depth and a good backstory in Bug.
9. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
I never thought I’d be an Ann Patchett reader. But, a coworker frequently brought up Bel Canto when we discussed books and told me on multiple occasions I should read it. Since this same coworker badgered me into reading A Gentleman in Moscow, which turned out to be one of the best books I read last year, I figured I’d give Bel Canto a shot. A book that was so excellent; that even with a trash ending, it still ended up on my top ten list. This may sound like faint praise given the “trash ending” portion of the comment, but don’t let that ruin what is otherwise a sublime book for you, and you might even enjoy the ending.
8. Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
I enjoy travel and nature writing, but often I get annoyed with the author’s peevish or moralistic insight or their lengthy rapturous prose capturing the awe-inspiring world we all inhabit. Macfarlane skews hard toward rapturous prose, and clocking in near 500 pages, Underland is lengthy. With that said, Macfarlane does an amazing job making you feel the underworlds he visits. There is one passage that portrayed such a profound sense of claustrophobia that I was unsure if I was going to be able to finish the chapter. Another chapter exploring the catacombs of Paris is among the most fascinating pieces of travel literature I have ever read. Also, the cover art was fantastic, and the sole reason I picked up the book in the first place.
7. Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse #8) by James S.A. Corey
I wouldn’t have thought that the eighth book in a nine-book space-opera series would be my favorite one yet. The Expanse has been a remarkably consistent series, both in quality and publishing schedule (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin). More than any other book, the next book in this series is the one I’m most looking forward to reading next year.
6. Monstress, Vol 5: Warchild by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda
Each new collection of Monstress continues to blow me away. Foremost because Takeda’s art is stunning. I’ll continue with this series for as long as Takeda does the art. Though progressing unhurriedly, the story continues to excel as well. War arrives early in this volume, and the inevitable devastation follows. This series remains complex, and I’m considering a reread to refresh myself on the early storyline. I am envious of anyone that gets to jump into the series now and can read multiple volumes without having to await the next release.
5. The Likeness (The Dublin Murder Squad #2) by Tana French
I read Tana French’s In the Woods two years back and loved it. However, I couldn’t imagine enjoying The Likeness as much with only some of the characters returning for this book. Needless to say, since it’s on my Best Of list, that I needn’t have worried. A few elements to the storyline seem rather unlikely. For example, Cassie is a perfect doppelganger for a murder victim. However, the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can focus on the engaging characters. I learned my lesson with The Likeness and didn’t wait long before picking up Faithful Place, also very enjoyable, the next in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series.
4. The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
I’m still working through the oeuvre of Don Winslow, so it’s too early for me to argue that you should read everything by him. However, having read three more of his novels read this year, I have yet to be disappointed with any of his books. The Winter of Frankie Machine and The Death and Life of Bobby Z, to a slightly lesser extent, were a lot of fun, and I would highly recommend them. However, it is Winslow’s Power of the Dog, a fictionalization of the war on drugs, that leads the pack.
3. Dead Soon Enough (Juniper Song #3) by Steph Cha
Read everything by Steph Cha. There aren’t as many books by her as I’d like, only four, but they’re all phenomenal. Three Juniper Song Marlowe-inspired PI novels, revitalizing the LA noir tropes in interesting and intelligent ways. Dead Soon Enough being the final of the Song novels. The fourth book is the lauded and award winning Their House Will Pay that revolves around the 1992 LA race riots.
2. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They by Horace McCoy
I had heard of marathon dance competitions, but until reading They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, I never considered them much and certainly not as bleak and miserable experiences. Robert and Gloria, two strangers with nothing to lose in depression-era California, meet and enter a marathon dance competition as partners. They battle extreme physical and mental exhaustion and producers with schemes to create hype and excitement in order to bring in crowds – at the expense of the contestants.
1. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
At the onset of World War I, Paul Bäumer and several of this high school classmates enlist in a rush of patriotic fervor, incited largely by their teacher’s impassioned jingoistic speeches. Their enthusiasm is bombarded as soon as they reach the trenches of the front. Remarque masterfully writes the German counterpart to Wilfred Owen’s English poem Dulce Et Deocrum Est. “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” (Dulce et Decorum Est)