Today, we have a little treat in the form of a “Best of 2020” list from one of my favorite fellow Nerdy Girls, Mary! This deep dive into best books she read this year (which didn’t all come out in 2020) feels like a perfect way to introduce her to all of you, since Mary and I met working at a library back when we were baby fangirls still talking about Twilight. I trust Mary’s thoughts on books more than I trust my own, so I hope all of you enjoy this beautiful summary of a year in literature and a year in the life of an honest, open-hearted woman I’m lucky to call my friend.
There’s nothing like a global pandemic and unbridled anxiety to reignite a lost love of reading! We all know this year has been a lot, to put 2020 in the most reductive framing possible. I’ve been mostly stuck inside for month after month, feeling the walls closing in, physically and mentally. At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were mostly thinking this would be done in a few weeks while we all baked bread and became experts in the fields of big cats and true crime, I was not thriving. My spouse and several of my family members work in healthcare. I have a sister-in-law who works as a teacher, another as a social worker. Too many relatives were vulnerable. My nieces, nephews, and my friends’ children all seemed SO young and SO fragile all of a sudden. My sleepless nights turned into weeks then months. I was not doing well. I felt like I was walking around a room inside my head, and every day the walls were closing in a little bit more. My brain was thinking too much and too fast, and I needed an escape.
Confusingly, while I felt like I was losing my mind, I was also feeling really…bored. None of my usual hobbies could keep my attention. So I charged up my Kindle, installed the Kindle app on my phone, got a second library card, signed up for Kindle Unlimited, and even signed up for Audible. I was off like a shot. I was a desperately unstoppable reading force! By the time December rolled around I realized I had read a whopping (as of writing this sentence) 85 books. Friends, I have NEVER read this many books in my entire life. Even during my book-crazed youth! So what does one do, exactly, after reading 85 books in one year? They ask their friend if they can hijack their blog to write a top 10(ish) list of the books they read!
Before I begin the list, I’d like to make it clear that I can’t in all honesty say books alone saved me. But they opened the door I needed. By escaping into fictional worlds like I used to when I was young, I got to breathe. I could open a book with certain expectations, and watch them unfold. Watch the heroine win the hero’s heart. Watch a great evil crumble. See justice played out. Look back in time and be reassured things have been this bad (or worse!) before and we persevered. So then I reached out to friends and told them honestly that I was Not Okay and we’d commiserate. I talked with my boss about my struggles to have any motivation or focus. I got in touch with a therapist. I listened to folklore a lot. (A LOT). And slowly, I began to adjust. So, without any further ado, here are the books that I’ve fallen into—the books that became my flashlight in a very dark year.
10 – The Bride Test by Helen Hoang: Do you want a book that feels like a hug? That features language and cultural differences, a neurodivergent hero and immigrant heroine written by an own voice author? The Bride Test is a sequel to The Kiss Quotenet, and this was one of the books I read earlier in the pandemic. Khai and Esme are genuinely some of the sweetest characters I’ve had the pleasure to read. Esme lives in Ho Chi Man City and works as a cleaner in a hotel. When her paths cross with Co Nga, our hero’s mother, in a hotel bathroom, she is presented with an interesting offer: move to America and marry her son. And while I’m normally not much for books where one character either doesn’t realize or doesn’t acknowledge they are in love, it made so much sense within the context of this story. Khai has autism, but Esme never sees that as a negative, instead seeing him as a whole person right from the beginning. Esme is a strong woman, but her strength is never her only characteristic. She is smart, driven, loving, vulnerable, kind, scared, focused, and shy. I cannot stress enough how utterly charmed I was by this book. The next book in this series, The Heart Principle, is expected in 2021. Read this book if you like fun contemporaries, friends to lovers, POC representation, or descriptions of a really good dress.
Quotes: “It wasn’t loneliness if it could be eradicated with work or a Netflix marathon or a good book. Real loneliness would stick with you all the time. Real loneliness would hurt you nonstop.”
“In a split second, she redefined perfection for him. His standards aligned to her exact proportions and measurements. No one else would ever live up to her.”
9 – Well Met by Jen DeLuca: What do Renaissance Faires and romance novels have in common? THIS BOOK. Wow, friends, this book brought me JOY. Well Met tells the story of Emily and Simon, the new volunteer and the organizer of a fictional Renaissance Faire. They butt heads after Emily gets pushed into volunteering for the Faire along with her niece and Simon rebuffs her offers to help organize the Faire. I loved the descriptions of Faire life and what felt like a behind-the-curtains look at how an event like that gets pulled off. This book made me long for hot summer days and group activities (Wow, 2020 really has changed me). It also made me wish I had paid attention when my mom tried to teach me to sew; maybe I could have been making my own wench gowns by now, who knows! The second book in this series, Well Played is also a delight, and I eagerly await the third book, Well Matched, due out in 2021. Read this book for a fluffy contemporary, enemies to lovers, nerds to lovers, well portrayed family dynamics, and a handsome pirate king.
Quotes: “And someday, I wanted someone who would love me. Not for what I could do for them, but for who I was to them.”
“Simon and Emily.” I blinked up at Chris, surprised to hear our names being used. She dropped a wink at me. “As your hands are bound together now, so your lives and spirits are joined in a union of love and trust. Above you are the stars and below you is the earth. Like the stars, your love should be a constant source of light, and like the earth, a firm foundation from which to grow.” I couldn’t think of a better way to start a relationship.”
8 – The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams: I have five brothers and absolutely zero sisters. I also love fake books within books that reflect the action of the main story. Based just on those truths, there was no way I could not love this book. Even though “marriage in trouble” is a tricky trope, this book played it out so well. Gavin and Thea have been married for a few years, but over the years of marriage, they’ve drifted apart. Two small children, a demanding baseball career, and just…life…had driven a wedge between them. When Gavin finds out that Thea had been faking orgasams in bed for years, he is hurt and confused. While Gavin processes that truth, Thea comes to grips with the fact that she is unhappy in her marriage. A story like this could have played out in a very insular fashion, as Gavin and Thea work through their respective issues and find their way back to each other. But instead, what this book did, was create a whole group of MALE friends for Gavin! That’s right, a group of men supporting each other and teaching each other how to express their feelings and confront toxic masculinity, as they read and discuss romance novels together. As heartwarming as this story is, read it for some funny and thoughtful conversations between male characters that I can’t help but wish happened more in real life. Read this if you love second chance love stories, well-rounded secondary characters, fake stories in books, dual POV, or men reading romance novels.
Quotes: “Don’t be ashamed for liking them. The backlash against the PSL [Pumpkin Spice Latte] is a perfect example of how toxic masculinity permeates even the most mundane things in life. If masses of women like something, our society automatically begins to mock them. Just like romance novels. If women like them, they must be a joke, right?”
“Romance novels are primarily written by women for women, and they’re entirely about how they want to be treated and what they want out of life and in a relationship. We read them to be more comfortable expressing ourselves and to look at things from their perspective.”
7 – North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Have you ever read Pride and Prejudice and thought, ‘Cool, I wonder what this book would be like if it focused on class structure and workers rights rather than rich people parties?’ Then boy do I have a book for you! I am an avid fan of the 2004 BBC miniseries based on this book, but I had never bothered to read the actual book it was based on. So, with nothing but time on my hands over the summer, I realized there was no time like the present! It didn’t take long to be whisked back in time to Victorian England as Margret Hale and John Thornton fell in love. This book has everything: parents questioning religious beliefs, women dying essentially from sadness, an over-involved mommy dearest, workers rights and strikes, a heroine realizing that you really and truly can never go back to your childhood home, and one of the most pining heroes ever written. I’ll admit: Classic literature isn’t for everyone, and some of it can be really overrated. But if you’re looking for a good entrance to classic literate, I’d say give this book a go! Or Jane Eyre. Or Northanger Abbey. Or Bleak House. Because if you’re going to suffer through classic novels, at least pick a fun, dramatic option. Read this if you want a book chock full of drama, murder, enemies to lovers, mistaken identity, secret relatives…It’s the equivalent of a Victorian soap opera!
Quotes: “He shook hands with Margaret. He knew it was the first time their hands had met, though she was perfectly unconscious of the fact.”
“Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used—not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless.”
6 – The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Kline: I’m from the Harry Potter generation. We were fed a story about the power of love, of finding your family, and fighting against a great evil. So when it turned out that the author had some transphobic views, and the racism and antisemitism in the Potter books was given the attention it should have received sooner, lots of us were very let down. But for those of us who missed magic but wanted a magical world that felt more inclusive, there is The House In the Cerulean Sea. Our very own Nerdy Girl Katie suggested this book to me, telling me what a great found family book this was. Linus works as a case worker for a (vaguely creepy) government agency, overseeing the wellbeing of magical children in orphanages. When he is sent to evaluate the conditions of the children at a particular orphanage, what he finds is so much bigger than just a group of magical children. I mean, he does find the son of the literal devil, that’s a pretty big deal. Read this book if you desperately need an escape and like really (REALLY) funny kids, bellhops, found families, LGBTQ+ representation, middle-aged heroes, and I’ll stress again, the son of the devil.
Quotes: “Just because you don’t experience prejudice in your everyday doesn’t stop it from existing for the rest of us.”
“Regardless of what else he is, he is still a child, as they all are. And don’t all children deserve to be protected? To be loved and nurtured so that they may grow and shape the world to make it a better place? In that way, they are no different than any other child in the village, or beyond. But they’re told they are, by people such as yourselves, and people who govern them and our world. People who put rules and restrictions in place to keep them separated and isolated. I don’t know what it will take to change that, if anything. But it won’t start at the top. It’ll start with us.”
5 – Get a Life, Chloe Brown! by Talia Hibbert: More like get a life and read this book! Hahaha, no, seriously, this book was a de-LIGHT. Chloe is not a heroine you will easily forget. She is a fat, chronically ill woman who has a near death experience and resolves to stop wasting her life. She enlists the help of her very cute apartment handyman, Redford “Red” Morgan, to help her through the list she crafts with her sisters to help her get a life. Chloe so clearly communicates her limits and what she can and can’t do, and Red is always flexible and willing to do whatever Chloe needs. I’m not praising the book just because a chronically ill woman can ask for and receive help, but also because this is how supportive partners should treat each other! I loved how they both encouraged each other to become the best versions of themselves. I loved how Red never downplayed Chole’s health struggles or asked when she’d be “better.” He sees her and loves her, just as she sees and loves him. I’ve also had the delight to read the next book in this series, Take A a Hint, Dani Brown, and look forward to the third sister’s book (due out in early 2021), Act Your Age, Eve Brown. Read this book if you want a thriving family dynamic, chronically ill representation, plus-sized representation, British BIPOC representation, or one of the sweetest camping trips ever written.
Quotes: “You think this is a big deal because, no offense, you’ve had a lot of people in your life who claimed to care about you but didn’t act like it. That’s not me. I can cook, and right now, you can’t. So I’m doing it for you because that’s how people should behave; they should fill in each other’s gaps. Don’t think about it too hard.”
“You always say such lovely things to me, Red. Do you say them to yourself?”
4 – The Beast of Beswick by Amalie Howard: What if Beauty and the Beast was…spicy? What if instead of the Beast holding Belle prisoner, she marched into his lonely castle and demanded he marry her to protect her younger sister from an unwanted marriage? What if Belle saw herself as unable to attract a husband, and the Beast was a scarred veteran of the Napoleonic Wars? Astrid is a heroine with fire in her soul. Nathaniel is a reclusive veteran who has no interest in marrying anyone, let alone a woman like Astrid. His time in the war has left him with visible scars all over his body. Astrid’s parents have died and left her and her beloved sister in the care of conniving relatives looking to get their hands on their fortunes. Our hero and heroine have amazing chemistry from the first meeting—and all throughout the book, to be honest. This is a spicy book. And I loved it. And as someone who isn’t usually much into reading historicals, I was so surprised to find myself loving this Regency-era book as I did. I finished reading this book and wanted to reread right away! Maybe I liked it because, while it is a book in a historical setting, it feels very modern. Nathaniel has a therapeutic heated swimming pool in his house! Astrid talked openly about women’s rights and the importance of educating women. So if you like strictly historically “accurate” (Though if I may say, what IS accuracy? Why not add modern ideas and representation?! It’s just fiction, after all.) historical novels, this might not be the best for you. But if you like loose fairytale adaptations, modern heroines in historicals, fake marriages, broken artifacts, or sarcastic valets, try this book!
Quotes: “Because sometimes a girl doesn’t need a hero to save her. Sometimes she needs the opposite.”
“Just because something is fractured doesn’t mean it has lost its value.”
3 – From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L Armentrout: If you read any of the books in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series but wanted them to be more violent, spicy, or bonkers, get this book. Penellaphe (Yes, I know her name is silly, but she mostly goes by Poppy or Princess.) was chosen as The Maiden from birth. Chosen to live a secluded life, never looked upon, never touched, never spoken to. Chosen to live a life controlled by others, and ultimately given up for others. But a chance run in with her new guard Hawke sets off a series of events that make her question all she has ever been told, Poppy has to decide how much of herself she is truly willing to give up. This is a fairly typical “chosen one” fantasy story, but just because it’s typical doesn’t mean it isn’t a good time! I loved falling into this story. The adventure was thrilling. The romance was intense. The cliffhanger was exciting! Then, I read the sequel, and boy howdy, was THAT a cliffhanger! A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire came out this year, and A Crown of Gilded Bones is due out early next year, thank goodness. I can only say so much without giving away some massive spoilers, but read this book if you want a fantasy story that’s equal parts fun and bonkers, chosen one stories, heroines who like stabbing the hero, ridiculous fantasy names, and heroines (not heroes for once!) with massive facial scars.
Quotes: “When you listen to me, I think the stars will fall.”
“It doesn’t matter if I want–”
“And you do want.” His whisper danced over my cheek. “What you want is me.”
My breath caught. “That doesn’t matter.”
“What you want should always matter.”
2 – You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria: I’ll say this upfront: This is one of the best romances I’ve ever read. And I have read a LOT of good romances. Jasmine is a soap opera star in need of a refocusing of public attention following a public break-up. Ashton is a telenovela star looking to reinvigorate his career after his character was killed off, leaving him questioning how to move forward. After being cast in a show alongside each other and an unfortunate meeting with a spilled coffee, they realize they can help each other out. Ashton helps Jasmine with her Spanish, since their show is bilingual, and Jasmine encourages Ashton to let his walls down and trust the people around him. The show that Jasmine and Ashton are starring in is part of the book, with scenes from the show reflecting the action of the main story. It is such a fun device that I think every single book needs to do—no matter if it makes narrative sense or not! I loved seeing Ashton and Jasmine be SO drawn to each other. Their chemistry is electric; they as characters are electric! Jasmine is constantly described as drop-dead gorgeous, outstandingly talented, and dealing with the combined weight of pressure from her family and the public at large. Ashton is devoted to his family and making sure everyone around him is safe at all times, while not dealing with trauma from his past. The arc of their relationship is so well-written. These are people who care about their careers and don’t want a burgeoning relationship to distract them. They care so deeply about each other, but they have to address issues from their past in order to have a full and healthy relationship. This is a book for anyone looking for a steamy romance, fun family dynamics, open discussions about therapy, Latinx representation, and a great karaoke scene.
Quotes: “1. Leading Ladies only end up on magazine covers with good reason. 2. Leading Ladies are whole and happy on their own. 3. Leading Ladies are badass queens making jefa moves. And then there was the fourth mental item she hadn’t dared write down: Leading Ladies do not rebound with their new costars.
“Jasmine did trust easily, and look where it had gotten her. She could see now it was a direct response to feeling ignored and misunderstood by her parents and siblings. It was why she’d readily given her heart to every semi-attractive man who’d even shown her an ounce of attention. She sought her parents’ love by securing romantic relationships, because in her family, that was what made you a success. But that wasn’t healthy. And trust wasn’t meant to be given in one lump sum. It was earned, little by little.”
1 – Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin: The first Jane Austen novel I read was Pride and Prejudice, likely in middle school. It did not take long for me to be OBSESSED. I began to devour Jane Austen content as quickly as I could find it. I read the Austen canon; I read spin-offs/sequels/prequels…anything. Most was of…variable quality (I’m something of a snob). I was also consuming modern adaptations of Austen novels. Modern adaptations of novels published in England the 1800s can be a bit…difficult. Authors end up relying either too much on the tropes of the original story or taking so little from the original story that there is nothing left of the original. So I was content to love the original stories without finding a good echo of those stories. And I was ok with that. Until, at last, I found Ayesha. Ayesha at Last is a BRILLIANT modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that WORKS. It has found the balance of homage to the original work that doesn’t overshadow or feel out of place in the modern world. How does it accomplish this? By moving the action from ballrooms to mosques and turning the focus from wealth and poverty to conservative and modern approaches to religion. Ayesha is our Elizabeth: a modern Muslim woman living in Canada working as a teacher but dreaming of being a poet. Mr. Darcy isn’t a wealthy member of the aristocracy, but instead becomes Khalid, a deeply traditional Muslim man. This story’s Lydia isn’t a soldier-obsessed sister, but is Hafsa, a younger cousin who Ayesha covers for—a lot. This version of Wickham isn’t a soldier creeping on teenage girls; Tarik is in fact worse! The character representing Lady Catherine de Bourgh is just as obsessed with controlling the lives of people around her. The beats of Ayesha at Last do follow Pride and Prejudice well overall, and the deviations serve to update the plot beautifully. Ayesha meets Khalid at a meeting to help raise funds for their local mosque. They disagree about how to best raise money and attract more youth interest in the mosque. Though there is a pretty serious case of mistaken identity, they are drawn to each other. Arranged marriage tropes can be tricky to pull off in contemporary fiction, but it works in the world of this book. That being said, I don’t want to sound like I’m tokenizing this book and making it sound good just because it focuses on a Muslim community. The action could have focused on a conservative group from any religion grappling with life in the modern world. I love this book because it really is good. Even knowing the bones of the story didn’t make me any less captivated by the storytelling and characters. Read this book if you want a wonderful new take on a classic story, a poetic heroine, a shy and devout hero, Muslim representation, close-knit families, and a really sweet roti making scene.
Quotes: “Because while it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations are of secondary importance.”
“It’s not enough to find someone you love. You have to be ready for that love, and ready to make changes to welcome it into your life.”
Time to come clean: I am really bad at picking favorites. The previous books are my top shelf suggestions, but I also couldn’t leave off these books!
Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade
Because in big ways or small, this is every fan’s dream. It’s also good if you hated the end of Game of Thrones.
The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V.E. Schwab
If you wanted The Night Circus to be a bit…sad or poignant? Read this.
Waking Up With the Duke by Lorannie Heath
I understand if books with cheating are a hard no for you; they are for me too…But trust me on this one…
Lovely War by Julie Berry
Greek gods and goddesses play with the lives of mortals in World War I.
Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuinston
It lives up to the hype!
And there we have it. My list. But before I go, for anyone else having a Hard Time right now, for anyone else who is Not Okay, I am right there with you. If you need an escape, try any of these escapes. I hope they help you find some joy right now. Or don’t read these, and read something else—or read nothing at all. Find your own escape, take care of yourself, and hang in there.