Five of Ashley's Favorite Reads from 2020 (Part 2)
by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)
I was lucky to read so many amazing books this year! Consequently, I had a really hard time with coming up with my list for this post. It's a good problem to have, I suppose, but I'm realizing that it's really tough for me to pick out "winners" for the year when it comes to reading. Like Jen, I tried to pick books that represented the range of the kinds of reading I have done this year, and that is part of what I considered when I made my final picks. I did not include the ones I mentioned in our Unabridged Awards episode, and I didn't include any that Jen or Sara already listed. AND I had to sneak in a few extras at the bottom of the post. I couldn't help myself. (For reference, here is my post with my five picks from the first half of the year.)
Akwaeke Emezi's The Death of Vivek Oji
From the publisher:
"What does it mean for a family to lose a child they never really knew?
"One afternoon, in a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric, at her feet. What follows is the tumultuous, heart-wrenching story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. Raised by a distant father and an understanding but overprotective mother, Vivek suffers disorienting blackouts, moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As adolescence gives way to adulthood, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the warm, boisterous daughters of the Nigerwives, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. But Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence masks a guarded private life. As their relationship deepens—and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis—the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.
"Propulsively readable, teeming with unforgettable characters, The Death of Vivek Oji is a novel of family and friendship that challenges expectations—a dramatic story of loss and transcendence that will move every reader."
Why it made the list: I loved Emezi's powerful exploration of gender and identity. This novel reveals the way that people must work through the complexities of love, especially in the face of unexpected loss. Emezi avoids easy answers and reveals why secrets are kept and what revealing them can do, but the masterfully told story ultimately resonates with healing and hope for those left behind after Vivek's death.
Karina Van Glaser's The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
From the publisher:
"From New York Times best-selling author Karina Yan Glaser comes one of Times' Notable Children's Books of 2017: 'In this delightful and heartwarming throwback to the big-family novels of yesteryear, a large biracial family might lose their beloved brownstone home, but win it back with an all-out charm offensive.'
"The Vanderbeekers have always lived in the brownstone on 141st Street. It's practically another member of the family. So when their reclusive, curmudgeonly landlord decides not to renew their lease, the five siblings have eleven days to do whatever it takes to stay in their beloved home and convince the dreaded Beiderman just how wonderful they are. And all is fair in love and war when it comes to keeping their home."
Why it made the list: I chose this one because as my girls are starting to love chapter books, I'm finding myself reading a lot more middle grade books, and I'm finding such joy in the stories. I absolutely love each member of the Vanderbeekers' family, and their collective passion to find a way to stay in their beloved home resonates with the readers. I also loved the humanizing of Mr. Beiderman, the antagonist in the story, and the way that Van Glaser shows that there are many reasons why people withdraw from the world around them. I will definitely be continuing this series!
T.J. Klune's The House in the Cerulean Sea
From the publisher:
"A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.
"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.
"An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place―and realizing that family is yours."
Why it made the list: I loved everything about this book. I immediately loved Linus, whose quirky disposition makes him an unlikely protagonist. I also appreciated the fact that his life-changing adventure comes about at a point in his life when he felt like he knew who he was. And then there is the island and the house—and I loved everything and everyone there. Such a rich, heartwarming story! I was so sad when it was over. I will be reading that one again for sure (and would rejoice if there were a sequel!!!).
Tommy Orange's There There
From the publisher:
"One of The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year and winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, Tommy Orange’s wondrous and shattering bestselling novel follows twelve characters from Native communities: all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected to one another in ways they may not yet realize. Among them is Jacquie Red Feather, newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind. Dene Oxendene, pulling his life together after his uncle’s death and working at the powwow to honor his memory. Fourteen-year-old Orvil, coming to perform traditional dance for the very first time. Together, this chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American—grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, with communion and sacrifice and heroism. Hailed as an instant classic, There There is at once poignant and unflinching, utterly contemporary and truly unforgettable."
Why it made the list: This brilliant book shows the long range impact of the ethnocide of Native culture in America and the way that devastation from an earlier era continues to damage individual lives. I loved Orange's style of writing, and I found the structure of the novel absolutely captivating. I'll be thinking about this one for a long time to come. Don't miss our book club episode discussing this phenomenal book.
Sofía Segovia's The Murmur of Bees
From the publisher:
"From a beguiling voice in Mexican fiction comes an astonishing novel—her first to be translated into English—about a mysterious child with the power to change a family’s history in a country on the verge of revolution.
"From the day that old Nana Reja found a baby abandoned under a bridge, the life of a small Mexican town forever changed. Disfigured and covered in a blanket of bees, little Simonopio is for some locals the stuff of superstition, a child kissed by the devil. But he is welcomed by landowners Francisco and Beatriz Morales, who adopt him and care for him as if he were their own. As he grows up, Simonopio becomes a cause for wonder to the Morales family, because when the uncannily gifted child closes his eyes, he can see what no one else can—visions of all that’s yet to come, both beautiful and dangerous. Followed by his protective swarm of bees and living to deliver his adoptive family from threats—both human and those of nature—Simonopio’s purpose in Linares will, in time, be divined.
"Set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution and the devastating influenza of 1918, The Murmur of Bees captures both the fate of a country in flux and the destiny of one family that has put their love, faith, and future in the unbelievable."
Why it made the list: This epic story covered so much fascinating history about Mexico in the early 1900s, and I loved the magical feel of the story and the tenderness of Simonopio's character. This was a beautiful novel and one I would not have read without my reading challenge. I chose this as a work in translation to read, and I'm so glad I did! See my full review here.
Other Favorites from 2020
It pains me so very much to narrow it down to ten books. I want to include a quick list of a few others that I couldn't bear to omit (which is STILL not a complete list, but makes me feel a little better...).
Fredrik Backman's Anxious People
Stephen Graham Jones's The Only Good Indians
Thanna Lai's Inside Out & Back Again
Kiese Layman's Heavy: An American Memoir
(A note to our readers: click on the hashtags above to see our other blog posts with the same hashtag.)
Interested in what else we're reading? Check out our Featured Books page.
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