My 5 Star Top Ten List

2020 has been a year in which I read many trilogies:  Shades of Magic by Schwab, Lady Astronaut series by Kowal, Star Trek: The Janus Gate by Graf, The Broken Earth by Jemisin, and The Dam Keeper by Kondo and Tsutsumi

My top 10 list (in chronological order that I read them)

The Andromeda Evolution by Daniel H. Wilson

(A sequel to Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, which takes the thrills to the next exciting step.)

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

(What makes us the wise man of the ape species?)

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

(Each of the three books in the ongoing series so far are 5 stars in my opinion. I love the alternative history space race that is firmly rooted in real science and math.)

Blacksad written by Juan Diaz Canales with art by Juanjo Guarnido

(This is a film noir detective story with animal characters. It is a bit like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

(The middle volume with a sort of Olympics for Magicians is the peak)

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark

(This is a slim steampunk adventure set in Cairo by a hot speculative fiction writer.)

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

(A classic text of the ’60s Civil Rights era that is still useful for understanding current racial tensions in America.)

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

(A great start to her Hugo Award winning trilogy with a couple nice twists near the end.)

The Dam Keeper: Return from the Shadows by Robert Kondo and ‘Dice’ Tsutsumi

(Perhaps this ending of the trilogy with its community joining together is the best part.)

Citizen Illegal by Jose Olivarez

(This is a poetry book recommended by the virtual book club on this blog as a book to start the conversation about immigration.)

-Byron

Top FifTEeN of 2020 (Heh! No one will notice the extra five, right?)

This has been an unusual year (such an understatement!) and (not shockingly) it’s translated to what I wound up reading this year… (so much insight!) But like every previous year, it was a struggle to decide which books and why. Hopefully you’ll find a new book to try or you’ll have a happy “oh! meeee too!” moment! (Bonus comments in parentheses because you can’t see me doing eyerolls at myself. Enjoy!)

Now let’s get on to the goods, in alphabetical order by author, The Books:

Adult Fiction

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders by Tessa Arlen

It felt like reading an excellent BBC series: engaging characters, smart mystery, and a great WWII time/place setting. The second book in the series will be out before the end of the year: Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers! (Historical Mystery)

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Mr. Backman can write a likable,  curmudgeonly character like few can but this book is really more of an ensemble journey and each character has their own quirky personality. The beginning is a little dark but quickly becomes an uplifting story of how individuals can build their own supportive community. (General Fiction)

Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown

Just like when you hear about any picture of a perfect wife, husband, or marriage, it becomes clear there is no such thing as perfect. Quiet and thoughtful, suspenseful and satisfying, this book was everything I wanted it to be. (General Fiction)

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

I loved Ready Player One and was a little worried the sequel wouldn’t live up to the original, what a waste of a decent worry! All the pop culture references, interesting future-thinking ideas, and plenty of exciting plot twists, this is *chef’s kiss* a delight! Fun extra -the IRL setting is Columbus, Ohio!(General Fiction/Science Fiction)

Weather by Jenny Offill

Odd, quirky, sometimes uncomfortable, and completely engaging. If you’re looking for a book short on pages and long on impact, this might be the one for you! (Literary Fiction)

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts was on my list last year and prompted me to read this older title by the same author. Yep, just as good! It’s a long-game mystery with shades of The Shining suspense. (Mystery)

The Daughters of Erietown by Connie Schultz

The family relationships, the wanting to be a part of something while also needing to be an individual, watching how society’s views on a variety of topics changed with the decades, all made each page of this book a pleasure. If you grew up in a small town, you’ll feel this story that much more deeply. (General Fiction)

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

Mix a little Thin Man, Nick and Nora, with a little Mickey Spillane, add a female Sherlock Holmes and Watson, put World War II espionage into the background, and you’ll get close to understanding why you want to read this next. It’s a debut and I’m typing this with my fingers crossed that the second book will be coming soon! (Historical Mystery)

Mr. Nobody by Catherine Steadman

This author consistently connects her characters and action in smart and surprising ways, with conclusions that are unexpected and satisfying. I’ve only listened to the audio versions of Ms. Steadman’s books, and I don’t plan to change that, it’s like hearing a radio drama with all the sound effects a listener could hope for! (Mystery)

Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson

Charming and insightful, this is the story of a “bot” who has a degree of self-awareness that he needs to seek therapy before going on a journey to fulfill his dreams. It’s not a simple journey as he needs to hide his true nature as our society is prejudiced against AI and are as likely to attack him as help him. You might shed a tear or two along the way, but it’s worth it. (General Fiction)

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

If you like superhero/supervillain movies or you’ve watched The Boys on Amazon Prime, you will love every page of this book. Anna shows some small but special abilities with numbers but she’s tired of being a contract worker for whichever villain needs temporary help. Offered what seemed to be an easy and high paying gig changed everything, just not for the better. With engaging characters, interesting thoughts on how we think of good vs. evil, and some really clever surprises, this book checked all the boxes for me this year. (General or Science Fiction)

Adult Nonfiction

Barnstorming Ohio to Understand America  by David Giffels

The 2020 General Election may have cost Ohio our “bellwether state” title but if you want a better understanding of how one state can represent so much of the entire USA, this book is the one to read. The author uses his own travels to different locations and conversations with individuals to make each experience engaging for the reader. (Nonfiction)

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

I’m embarrassed to say this is the first book I’ve read by Mr. Gladwell but this book sent me off on a “what else” deep dive, and now I’m a die-hard fan. I learned so much but reading the book felt more like I was reading a series of short, connected, stories. If you pick this one up, we can talk about how crazy it is that our brain defaults to what we want to believe even when the facts show a different reality. Just, so good!

The Greatest Love Story Ever Told by Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman

Individually, they are funny and the laughs only increase as they tell how they became a couple. I listened to the audio version and highly recommend this option as Megan and Nick are the readers -it starts to feel like you’re in a candid conversation with new friends.

Teen Fiction

The Darkness Duology: Courting Darkness and Igniting Darkness by Robin LaFevers

The characters and setting are part of the His Fair Assassin series, and it feels like catching up with old friends (who can kick some serious hiney). Sybella must protect her younger sisters from being used as political pawns while also trying to keep the new Queen safe from enemies within the Royal House. The author always provides such strong women as main characters but remembers to give them flaws and quirks so they remain relatable. Ms. LaFevers never disappoints! (Historical Mystery)

Of course, I also think pretty highly of the books I suggested for the RRPL Gift Guide -ya know- and I might be counting those books as part of a bigger list for the year? Anyway… Happy Holidays, with books and snackies, for all!!

-Stacey

Trent’s Top 10 of 2020

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)

Honorable Mentions

My Top 10 of 2020

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I enjoyed the following books in 2020 and hope you find something here for your reading pleasure.

The Daughters of Erietown by Connie Schultz

Engineer’s Wife by Tracey Enerson Wood

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce

Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Morhard and the Boys by Ruth Hanford Morhard

Of Mutts and Men by Spencer Quinn

The Operator by Gretchen Berg

The Paper Daughters of Chinatown by Heather B. Moore

The Queen’s Secret by Karen Harper

Where the Light Enters by Jill Biden

~ Emma