I hope reading provided a well-needed escape for everyone this year. I know I would've been lost without my books. 2020 may have been a shit show, but it was a great time for cozying up and getting lost in a good story. Choosing only 10 out of the 70 I read was no easy task. Trying to put those chosen few into some kind of order was harder still. But Here goes...
10. Watchmen by Alan Moore
I read Watchmen for the first time over a decade ago. I’m usually a little hesitant when revisiting things from the past that meant a lot to me. There’s always the fear they won’t hold up. But there’s a reason Alan Moore’s masterpiece is hailed as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. It may have been written in 1986, but it’s still groundbreaking by today’s standards. A lot of people credit Christopher Nolan for propelling the superhero genre into adulthood. But what happens on-screen is often miles behind the written word. Comics grew-up in the 1980s. Comics grew-up in Watchmen. Moore dove deep into the psychology of the broken people behind the masks. He took these fantastical ideas and thrust them into a world much like our own, where nothing is black or white. The breath-taking illustrations by Dave Gibbons add to the gritty realism of this multifaceted story. Together, they created complex character profiles that are still being analyzed and studied to this day. I enjoyed this story, even more, the second time around. It was just as powerful and relevant. I’m not going to wait another decade before returning for a third helping.
“In an era of stress and anxiety, when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past.” ― Alan Moore, Watchmen
9. Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam
This book is a lyrical free verse masterpiece. Meet Amal Shahid, artist, poet, prisoner. At just 16 years old, Amal falls prey to America’s biased legal system. When a confrontation in a gentrifying neighborhood has tragic consequences, Amal’s childhood is stolen. He’s forced to grow up fast and face the harsh injustice of his country. This story carries a painful truth. Yusef Salaam of the exonerated five provides an authentic insight into this nightmarish reality. The strength and beauty of Amal’s spirit outshine the ugliness of the world he inhabits. He refuses to be broken and discarded. He will use his voice and his art to tear down the lies that incarcerate him. These stories need to be told, and read, and shared, and believed. Profound. Heart-breaking. Inspirational. I can’t recommend it enough.
“At the center of Amal’s story is a cycle of racial violence that continues to plague this country. But this is not just a story about a crime or race. Punching the Air is about the power of art, faith and transcendence in the most debilitating circumstances. It’s our hope that readers will experience the journey of a boy who finds himself in a heated moment where one wrong move threatens his future, and how he uses his art to express his truth, the truth.” – Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam
8. Not That I'd Kiss a Girl by Lil O'Brien
This one grabs you from the very first page. It's a coming of age/coming out story set in good ole Aotearoa! At the age of nineteen, Lil unintentionally outed herself when her mother overheard her talking about her sexuality to a friend on the phone. Lil is not met with the love and support every queer person hopes they receive from their parents. Instead, she is thrown out. She is told that she may return to pick up her belongings the following day, but that she is no longer welcome in her own home. This is every queer person’s deepest fear. But what follows is an inspiring story about a brave young woman learning to embrace her sexuality and find her place in the world. It’s one of those stories that break your heart and then put it back together. There aren’t enough queer kiwi voices in the literary world, and there aren’t enough queer female voices in literature in general. So, I was here for this book! This heart-wrenching memoir is infused with wonderful kiwi humour. This is such a refreshing combo. I had the pleasure of celebrating the launch of this book, and Lil is the real deal. She’s funny, honest, and brave, and I really hope this book receives all the love and success it deserves.
7. Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown
"True belonging doesn't require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are." - Brené Brown. This book was exactly what I needed this year. Any of her books could have taken this spot. Every time I read Brené Brown or listen to one of her talks, I feel so much lighter, and find myself standing a little straighter in self-assurance. In Braving the Wilderness, she examines true belonging. Through research and personal accounts, she encourages practices and thought processes that help us to be kinder to ourselves and to others. Turning on the news or even just scrolling through social media can be quite overwhelming at the moment. If like me, you're feeling bogged down by all the divisive debate and political rhetoric, this book is for you. It will give you the courage to brave the wilderness, and the tools to understand those around you better, creating stronger connections. This book inspired me to write about my own experiences with belonging, feel free to check that out in the 'My Life's Junk Drawer' section.
6. The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
I feel like this book was written especially for me. It’s a feminist vampire story with a silly name… and it’s set in the ‘90s! I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess Grady Hendrix is a fellow Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. I was sold on the title alone. I was practically salivating (Homer Simpson style) when I read the synopsis. It was described as Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias meet Dracula! Yup, yup, and more yup. Hurry up and take my money! I need to devour this immediately. The plot is in the title. Basically, a group of southern housewives take on a bloodsucking fiend. When local children start disappearing, Patricia Campbell suspects their mysterious new neighbor James Harris has something to do with it. Luckily, she’s learned a thing or two about monsters from her true-crime loving book club. This parasite has met his match. Never mess with a southern belle. Clearly, I had high expectations of this one, and they were pleasantly met and exceeded. I expected the comedy, drama, and supernatural thrills, but I never anticipated the level of horror this story delivered. There were some truly gruesome passages. I mean, retch inducing! It put a crime thriller spin on the vampire genre, and it worked beautifully. It also put the monster back in vampires. Because let’s not forget, they’re serial killers! James Harris felt more like Ted Bundy or Charles Manson than a member of a teen boyband. There wasn’t a hint of romance or sparkling skin to be found. And it was so fricking refreshing! I’m a fan, and I can’t wait to read everything else this author has written. Subversive horror is his forte, and My Best Friend's Exorcism is next on my list. *Trigger warning: There’s a graphic sexual assault scene in this book. This story takes a sharp turn, and it gets dark fast. It's heavy on horror, supernatural and otherwise.
5. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
In December of 2019, I fell in love with the blunt but loveable curmudgeon, Olive Kitteridge. This holiday season, I was even more smitten with Elizabeth Strout's superbly crafted sequel "Olive, Again". Grappling with a plethora of new challenges in the latter half of her life, Olive is as quick-witted and complicated as ever. She comes to understand that no matter how old we get, there is always more to learn about ourselves and the world around us. Strout continues to prove there is no such thing as a simple life, and in the end, Olive is left with more questions than answers. I'm certain I'll come back to Olive Kitteridge at various stages of my own life, and undoubtedly experience something new each time. Profound, hilarious, heartbreaking, and beautiful. One of my fave reads of the year/ever.
"I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing." - Elizabeth Strout
4. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
This is my top recommendation for aspiring writers. Through some form of wizardry, he manages to educate, entertain, and empower, without ever coming across as preachy. Part memoir, part invaluable writing advice, this is a gift for readers and writers alike. I didn't want it to end, which is rare when reading about writing. Usually, I'd much rather be reading fiction or actually writing. But King's down to earth narration and witty recollections make learning feel like leisure. "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut." - Stephen King
3. Under the Rainbow by Celia Laskey
This one gave me all the feels during quarantine. If you follow me on any form of social media, you’ve heard me rave about it. You can also check out my full review for this title and an interview with the author in My Life in Books. I can't recommend it enough. Honestly, it's one of my favorite books. When Big Burr, Kansas, is voted the most homophobic town in America by a national nonprofit, its citizens are outraged. As a social experiment, Acceptance Across America sends a queer task force to live in the town for two years. They hope their presence in the community will open minds and change hearts. This story is told with so much compassion and dry wit, it's impossible not to fall in love.
2. The Belljar by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar is another modern classic I'd been meaning to read forever. This semi-autobiographical masterpiece not only provides a fascinating insight into Plath's life and mental health struggles but also takes a darkly comedic look at society in the 1950s. It was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963, just a few weeks before her suicide. It's a real shame this is Sylvia Plath's only novel because it is superb. I also binged all of Plath's poetry in lockdown, and her gripping short story, Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom. "Because wherever I sat - on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok - I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air." - Sylvia Plath
1. 1984 by George Orwell
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - George Orwell. My first classic of 2020; the definitive dystopian, George Orwell's, 1984. I'd been meaning to read this book for years and I'm so glad I finally did. It may have been written in 1949, but it’s just as relevant today, if not more so. It is unquestionably the most terrifying book I have ever read. You really feel the claustrophobia and horror of life under a totalitarian government. I physically squirmed in parts. Without a doubt, one of the best books I've read. It will get under your skin. "Being in a minority, even a minority of one,
did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad." - George Orwell