This New Year I’ve decided to share the best five books I read in 2020 – not the best books ever, but books that changed the way I see things or introduced me to a time and place I would never have thought of reading about. Books that transformed my perception of both history and other cultures. These are the good books, the books that change you for the better. The books that live on in your mind long after the covers are closed and the book is put away on the shelf or returned to the library.
- Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
I’d heard so much about Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy that I thought I’d give it a go. This is the first in the trilogy and is a long, dense book packed full of stories about Henry VIII’s court and the machinations to annul his marriage to Catherine so he can marry Anne Boleyn. That the book is told from Cromwell’s perspective makes it more engaging, somehow, than if it had been written from the King’s perspective. This is because Cromwell is the man behind the scenes of the royal machine, making things happen through long legal battles and political maneuvering. There are a lot of people to keep track of in this book, and many are named Anne, Henry, Catherine, Thomas, etc. So it can be tough to keep everyone straight. But it’s a fabulous book, the kind that drops you right into the setting so that you feel you’re in the 1520s with the characters themselves.
2. Gun Island, by Amitav Ghosh
I haven’t read much about India or Bangladesh, so this book was an introduction to an entirely new landscape. Add to that the representation of the perils of climate change (Ghosh describes the increased flooding in Venice, for example), and the globetrotting adventures of the main character, Deen, as he goes to India, Los Angeles, Venice, and back to his home in Brooklyn to try and solve the mystery of an abandoned temple he visits in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal. The book is full of intrigue and supernatural occurrences that Deen tries to explain away with rational thought. This makes it a gripping read as you try to solve the mystery of the temple with Deen, while also learning about refugees from the global south trying to make their way to Europe, and the human trafficking that this flood of refugees engenders. Ghosh makes the present day reality of climate change and human trafficking key parts of his story, showing that fiction can imitate real life.
3. A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings: A Year of Keeping Bees, by Helen Jukes
This is a quiet book that works its way into your mind stealthily and without fanfare. Jukes moves to a new house and starts a new job, then decides to keep bees. She reads up on bees and beekeeping history, the best type of beehive to build, where to get bees, how to look after them, and how to check on them. Then she’s ready to take the plunge, as a group of friends gets together and buys her a bee colony for Christmas, for pickup in the spring. This unassuming story is one of connection not just with the natural world of bees, but with new friends and partners. It’s about how starting a new hobby can help you make friends, and can give your days purpose beyond just going to work and coming home and collapsing.
4. The City We Became, by NK Jemisin
I have always like Jemisin’s work. Her fantasy novels are unique and each series is completely different from the others. I’ve read her “Broken Earth” trilogy and her “Inheritance” trilogy, and was impressed by how she can write so many books while still retaining maximum originality. The City We Became is no exception – it’s completely different than her other trilogies, but it’s still classic Jemisin. I was particularly impressed that, even though the book centres heavily on the five boroughs of New York (the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens) and I don’t know anything about those regions, Jemisin makes them sing through the characters that represent each borough. I don’t need to know a lot about each one because Jemisin carries me along with her characterization of each borough’s “persona.” This book is different than Jemisin’s previous books in that it’s set in the present day/present world – she hasn’t created a new world for the reader. I particularly enjoy this type of fantasy that’s set in real life.
5. The Weight of the Heart, by Theresa Kishkan
I wrote about this book previously on the blog, and I have it again here because it was such a good book. I loved it because it covers the geography I know by heart, the landscapes of British Columbia, and it includes books I know well – by Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson. The main character explores the landscapes of southwestern BC while marking locations where Watson and Wilson travelled and while also coming to terms with her brother’s death in a kayaking accident. It’s a small, short novella but it packs a big punch. Plus it’s Canadian literature, which I’m always happy to support.
Other books I enjoyed in 2020 were The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman, Melissa Barbeau’s The Luminous Sea, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Jenny Offill’s Weather, and Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies.
Looking forward to more good reads in 2021!