For me, reading gave the grey clouds of 2020 a vital silver lining. As headlines got worse, cases spiked, and the world shut down, books provided a much-needed escape from the confines of my home.
To pay it forward I’m recommending a handful of the best books I encountered last year. Some were short, others long, and they range across the spectrum of genres. Their common denominator is their ability to make me think, smile, and dream during the long months of quarantine and isolation.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
This incredible book examines the Great Migration—the massive exodus of Black Americans who fled the South for the cities of the North from approximately 1910 to 1970—through the lives of three ordinary people. In the process Isabel Wilkerson peels back the overt (but often subtly coded) racism haunting all facets of American culture.
While the folks who made the brave and dangerous decision to seek “the warmth of other suns” are fading into the past, Wilkerson conjures her subject with warmth and great detail. She’s a master at the height of her powers in The Warmth of Other Suns.
Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed
When I reviewed Shadow Fall for the site earlier this year, the thing that jumped out about the novel was how internal much of the action is. Don’t get me wrong—as I mentioned then, it’s “packed with intricate action setpieces, internal conflict galore, and enough antiheroes to fill the next Game of Thrones book.”
But Alexander Freed is particularly skilled at picking at the psychological wounds left by the wide-ranging galactic war between Empire and Alliance. Shadow Fall easily juggles whiz-bang space battles with the kind of moody, dark-souled introspection you might expect in a Steven Erikson novel. And that’s a good thing!
Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson
Confession time: I saw way too many Disney movies way too many times in 2020. When you’re stuck at home for months with a toddler, sometimes you just have to press play and take a breath. Repeated viewings of Moana sparked my interest in the Polynesian cultures that inspired the film.
That led me to the fascinating Sea People, which attempts to answer how, when, and why ancient humans traveled across and eventually settled the largest body of water on the planet. If you enjoy anthropology and/or sociology (think Charles Mann’s 1491 by way of New Zealand), Christina Thompson’s tome is right up your sea lane.
The Fifties by David Halberstam
The Fifties, the magnum opus of the late, great journalist Dave Halberstam, can be deceptive. It starts and stops, jumping from one subject to another—Harry Truman’s reelection campaign, the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, Marlon Brando’s acting style, the research that led to The Pill, McDonald’s, Marilyn Monroe, ad infinitum—seemingly without rhyme, reason, or descriptive chapter headings.
Don’t sweat that small detail, though; Halberstam weaves an intricate tapestry of American life at mid-century, capturing moments large (the French-Vietnamese conflict that planted the seeds of the Vietnam War) and small (the design choices that went into the design of General Motors’ most popular cars) with cracking prose.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Novik’s Uprooted is a heady blend of Polish folklore, court intrigue, and powerful, almost biological magic. What starts as a tale planted in the Wood—the dark forest surrounding the quiet village of Dvernik, home to our heroine, Agnieszka—blossoms into something much bigger, older, and more sinister.
Agnieszka starts the book as a fish out of water; by the end, she’s grown into a magic user whose supposed master, the Dragon, has become her sardonic sidekick. It’s a rollicking ride, and the faceless dread emanating from the Wood proves to be a worthy foe for Agnieszka’s best efforts.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Ever read a story so fully realized, with a world so completely fleshed out, that it feels like it’s existed for centuries? Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree is an outstanding example of world-building.
With four main characters, a host of different kingdoms, and a seemingly infinite list of languages, names, and cultures, the novel sometimes risks overwhelming the reader. But Shannon’s deft prose skims lightly over the world she’s created, pulling you into her tale—a world split by politics and religion threatened by the return of an ancient evil—instead of drowning you. Never has an 800-page book flown by faster.
The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin
Richard Rubin did something amazing with The Last of the Doughboys: he captured the memories and ruminations of the very last American veterans of World War I. Through interviews with dozens of centenarians, Rubin waltzes through the experiences of the average “doughboy”: enlistment, training camp, the sea voyage across the Atlantic, the terror of battle, and the boredom of life behind the frontlines.
The last doughboys died within the past decade, and the stories they tell in this book serve to emphasize that loss. But reading this is the best way to celebrate the passing of that now-lost generation.