2020: A Year In Books

(Previous Year-in-Review posts: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016)

At the end of each year, I like to look back and highlight some one my favorite books of the year. These were selected from books I read in 2020, not necessarily what was first published in 2020. First, the numbers:

This word cloud of my Goodreads shelf names gives a good idea of my usual reading fare
  • Books read this year: 103
  • Did Not Finish: 2% (man, were they dreadful)
  • 3-Star Ratings: 16%
  • 4-Star Ratings: 35%
  • 5-Star Ratings: 49%
  • Number of Audiobooks: 39
  • Pages Read/Listened To: 24,242

(I’ve explained elsewhere why there’s usually no 1-star or 2-star ratings, and why my ratings skew higher.)

That’s enough of that. On to the good stuff! As it turned out my favorite books of the year easily broke down into categories: m/m romance and urban fantasy. Four of my top five m/m romance books/series were set in Australia, and three of those have an asexual/demisexual main character. The latter is a lot easier to explain than the former: I identify as a gray-asexual/demisexual (homoromantic) man, and representation matters. That aside, with the quality of their writing and descriptions of the locales, all of these authors have made a powerful case for visiting Down Under!

My absolute favorite book of the year is one that I recently reviewed here, The Gentle Wolf (Perth Shifters #2), by Pia Foxhall. I urge you to ignore the fact that it’s #2 in the series – it can be read as a standalone. Great worldbuilding and relatable characters (not just the main characters – the entire cast!) elevate a strong story into something really special. Read my full review here.

Continuing on the theme of Australian shifters, Furborn by Isabelle Rowan was a delight. The setting, in the sheep country of Victoria outside of Melbourne, was new to me and the descriptions of the area were fascinating. This is a story of fox shifters slowly being forced into hiding by the encroachment of modern living, and of one fox who befriends a farmer’s son who would rather be anywhere else. It takes its time and allows the relationship between the two to slowly develop, and I found the conclusion wonderfully satisfying.

Moving on to contemporary stories, I enjoyed N. R. Walker’s Upside Down very much. No one writes adorkable like Walker, and it is always quite endearing. Sidney resident Jordan is a lovable goof, but also a complete mess as he tries to reconcile his asexuality with his attraction to Hennessey. I can identify closely with coming to terms of where you fall on the asexual spectrum, and as such this book really spoke to a lot of my experiences. This is a lovely, low-angst story that is well-worth your time. Here is my full review of the book.

Keira Andrews’ Honeymoon for One is an adorable collection of romance tropes – hurt/comfort, friends-to-lovers, and probably a few others – in a single story. Ethan finds his fiancé in bed with another man the night before their wedding, then says to hell with it and goes on their (pre-planned, pre-paid) honeymoon by himself. There are complications, of course, including the fact that Ethan is losing his hearing. I thought this aspect was handled thoughtfully, and really felt for Ethan’s struggles trying to navigate a world where full hearing is taken for granted. The book turns into a bit of a travelogue as the tour bus he had booked travels from Cairns to Sidney, all while Ethan and Clay, the tour bus driver, fall for one another. I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was a case where the performance by the narrator (the ever-talented Joel Leslie) really enhanced the experience. He does accents and dialects so well, and I appreciated how the effect of Ethan’s hearing loss came across.

Finally in my Top Five are the first two books in Lily Morton’s Finding Home series: Oz and Milo. These take place in the Cornish countryside in the UK, and are a fine example of how compelling great characters can be. Oz is from a working-class Irish/English family and somehow winds up with the job of Estate Manager for the Earl of Ashworth (but please, really, just call him Silas). Oz is delightfully snarky and all of the dialogue is so much fun! The chemistry between Oz and Silas is so good. Milo, on the other hand, grew up in an aristocratic family. He is sweet and shy, and usually has good control over his stutter unless flustered. He is definitely flustered by his older brother’s best friend Niall, a brash and coarse man who was always protective of Milo. The blossoming relationship between the two made me smile. There’s one more book in the series; I’ll be starting off 2021 with that!

Moving on to my other favorites, these fell neatly into the urban fantasy genre. The market is a crowded field, and it seems that some get tucked away into the m/m romance niche because the main characters happen to be men who love other men. This spins into a big rant for me about book marketing and genres and institutionalized homophobia that I’m not going to get into right now. Anyway, here are five urban fantasy books/series that I think are worthy of note.

I’ll start out with Hailey Turner’s Soulbound series, and oh my gosh! This is one of those series where I want to buy a bunch of copies of Book 1 to shove into people’s hands, saying “Just read this. You’ll thank me.” The worldbuilding here is fantastically intricate, interweaving magic users as part of the military, direct intervention by gods from all possible pantheons (and what a pain in the ass they can be), and all variety of supernatural beings. Multiple plotlines are woven through the series, and Turner keeps everything going at a breakneck pace in all five books (and Book 6 is coming in March 2021!). Patrick Collins, former Mage Corps soldier and now federal agent is reluctantly in the vanguard against the demonic forces of hell (in all its incarnations), accompanied by Jonothan de Vere, his smoking hot (and badass) werewolf boyfriend. Each book takes us to a different locale, with some, um, impressive collateral damage (the events in Chicago are pretty epic). There are a lot of characters involved and a lot of action, but I never had any problem following what was going on. Turner has done an amazing job with the plotting and character arcs here. I listened to all of these as audiobooks, and Gary Furlong is masterful in keeping the different character voices separate and easy to follow. If you like audiobooks, these are a great choice!

Keeping with the action/adventure theme, K.D. Edwards’ The Hanged Man (The Tarot Sequence Book 2) was every bit as good as its predecessor The Last Sun, which was one of my Best of 2019 choices. Great character development, some surprising plot twists, and hints of ever more sinister goings-on ratchet up the tension. Here is my detailed review of The Last Sun.

Turning to a very different setting and tone, we have T.J. Klune’s House in the Cerulean Sea. This is one case where the blurb says it the best:

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

The descriptions of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth immediately put me in mind of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. This contrasts starkly with the idyllic Marysas Island Orphanage. There’s a lot going on in this book beneath the obvious, and the hints of how Linus’ demeanor changes throughout the story are a lot of fun to follow. This was different from any other book I’ve read in recent memory (although there are some interesting parallels that could be drawn with Klune’s The Bones Beneath My Skin).

Finally, a series that is plain ol’ mainstream [heterosexual] urban fantasy. Given its success, it is not a great surprise that Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson universe has given rise to a whole genre of action-oriented urban fantasies with strong female protagonists (which is pretty awesome, I think). Some series have been less than successful, but K. N. Banet’s Jacky Leon books are a whole lot of fun. The setup is intriguing: modern-day society, but the existence of werewolves (whose wolf looks more like a dire wolf) is known to the public. What is not known is the existence of the rest of the supernatural world – vampires, fey, and other werecreatures. Jackie Leon is a werecat (whose cat looks more like a saber-toothed tiger). She’s trying to lay low and live a quiet life, running a dive bar in Jacksonville, Texas. Fate has other plans for her, of course. I’ve read (well, listened to) the first three books of the series, and I’ve been really impressed. The plotting is tight and the action moves along at a good clip. The cast of characters is great fun, and the political intrigue adds an additional tension to the events that I like. I look forward to reading the other books in this series!

Finally, although I like to use these wrap-ups to highlight great books of the year, I have a dishonorable mention: Anne Bishop’s The Others alternate-history series. The first two books were interesting, if written a bit archly, and quite slow-moving until the final act. The third book is when it all comes crashing down, though. Some egregious retconning and flat-out stupidity on the part of the main characters left me sorely disappointed, feeling like the first two books were a waste of time. I’m out.

Anyway, to end on a happier note, here are some of the honorable mentions from this year:

My goal in 2020 was to read 100 books, which I just slightly surpassed. I’m setting the same goal for 2021, but I am hoping to beat that! We’ll see how the year plays out. Happy New Year, all!