As with most things, this blasted hellscape of a year 2020 has finally come to an end. Not everything was bad, though. For many, thanks to quarantines and lockdowns, this year was a year of unprecedented numbers of books read. BBE was no exception and we are here to recap some of our absolute favorites from the year.
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: This was a re-read for me this year – courtesy of the Movie Magic bonus episode theme of Season 2 – and it did not disappoint the second time around. The story of Henrietta Lacks is as compelling as it is horrifying. What a gift her cells were to the world, but at what cost? With such an inconceivable loss for her family, how can we possibly justify the means with which those cells were taken today? What also emerges is how Henrietta’s story illuminates how race relations have affected medicine in the US, and why the medical field has lost the trust of communities of color. Skloot does a phenomenal job weaving together so many different story lines, though her eventual success in publishing this story is due in great part to the tireless efforts of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks.
- The Devil in the White City: Couldn’t tell you how many times I have read this book, but it doesn’t get old. It might be kind of odd that I turn to a book in large part about a serial killer for comfort, but here we are. Larson’s narrative nonfiction style really sings to the best of its ability in Devil, I can almost hear the hiss of oil lamps, see the soot drifting down from the sky like ashen snow. Not usually a misty sentimental, this book makes me nostalgic for a time and place that no longer exist. What is most amazing of all is the fair itself; one of those brief moments in time where the hope and possibilities of the future are on full display, a dream of human potential that faded away on the shores of Lake Michigan as if it never was.
- Mexican Gothic: This isn’t the best book I read all year, but I can say that it was one of the books I enjoyed reading the most, staying up well into the early morning hours one November night, the glow of my kindle illuminating my face. I have never been one for horror, HOWEVER, thanks to Silvia Moreno-Garcia, I find that maybe it’s okay? Mexican Gothic was a gorgeous introduction to the genre, and given that I stayed up into the wee hours, I could say that the writing itself was immersive and compelling. The first two-thirds or so were amazing, so why I didn’t find it to be quite five stars? Well, I didn’t find the twist in the plot to be super believable – it actually took me right out of my suspension of disbelief and I never really recovered. However, up until that point, the horror and suspense were absolutely on point.
- Educated: By far and away one of the best memoirs I have read to date. It reminded me a lot of my experience reading Jeanette Wallis’ The Glass Castle, where you spiral from one horrific example of parental neglect downwards to another of parental abuse. Even after leaving home, Westover is still haunted by her old world view, which has been etched deeply into her psyche. The traumatic events that Westover endured are shocking, but what is even more astonishing is her resilience and perseverance through her childhood and young adult years. Cried actual tears over this one, not for the faint of heart, but an excellent choice nonetheless.
- Things in Jars: And here it is, my number one pick of the books I read in 2020. I read it all the way back in those early days of March which feels like twenty years ago now, but I’ll try my best to sum up why I feel it deserves to top this list. What a delightful mix of creepy, eerie, gritty, and mysterious. If you are at all familiar with Victorian curiosity cabinets, this book is like the living embodiment of one. I absolutely loved Bridie Devine as a protagonist, and the ending was both triumphant and heart-breaking. I don’t always love magical realism, but the true genius of this book was that it had me guessing what was real and what wasn’t all the way up until the end. 10/10 recommend Things in Jars.
- The King of Vodka: Number five on my list is a biography of Pyotr Smirnov, the founder of the vodka company that we all know so well. This dude rose up the social ladder to become an official supplier of vodka to the Czar himself. He was placed in a turbulent and interesting time in Russian society as well, so by reading this book you learn a lot about Russian history at this time. If you like alcohol, history, and pop history books, this is a good choice for a read.
- The Silmarillion: I have come to see Tolkien’s books in a new light since our reread in Season 1, and I have to say The Silmarillion was probably the best of the bunch. It is filled with interesting worldbuilding, intriguing stories, and significantly less songs than his other books. Reading it made me want to read more of his stories so I totally understand people who study Tolkien for a living. And now I need to rewatch the movies again.
- Binti: This is a short read, but one that blends cultures in a really interesting way. Binti is the first member of her people, the Himba, to be accepted at Oomza University, an extremely prestigious school. She defies tradition to go, but on her way the spaceship is attacked by the Meduse people who have a bone to pick with Oomza. Binti finds herself in the middle of their conflict and has to figure out a way to survive. I really loved the worldbuilding in this story and am already making my way through the rest of the series.
- The Murderbot Diaries series: The first book in this series, All Systems Red, basically hooked me in the first few pages. Murderbot is a security unit (SecUnit) robot that is owned by “The Company” and loaned out to anyone who pays. Normally SecUnits are controlled by a governor module which prevents them from disobey orders, but Murderbot doesn’t have one of those. What do they do with all this freedom? Watch TV. Yeah, they are basically me as a robot. Murderbot has to try to protect a bunch of humans who act in ways that will likely cause them harm, deal with their intense social anxiety, and somehow work in some time to catch up on the best serials. It’s funny, interesting, and most entries in this series are novella sized so perfect for a quick afternoon read.
- Gideon the Ninth: If you didn’t see this one coming, you haven’t been paying attention. This is the story of necromancers in space. Title character Gideon becomes the Ninth House’s cavalier primary and must protect the Ninth House’s necromancer, Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Except they hate each other. The story is great and the writing style is amazing. I was laughing out loud from start to finish. Gideon is extremely endearing as a character and the banter between Gideon and Harrow was top notch. This is LITERALLY my new favorite book. 15/10, would recommend.
And that is a wrap on Big Book Energy’s Best Reads of 2020. Did we include any of your favorite reads from the year? Have any that we absolutely must read? Post a comment down below to let us know!