These days, I feel like every blog post and personal essay starts off with some variation of “my, what a crazy year we’ve been having”.
Keeping it real with you, my 2020 has made me reconsider the meaning of words like procrastination, purpose, and free time. My world view has turned quite nihilistic.
Over the last 5 months, something that has simultaneously kept me grounded and let me escape reality was books. When I became stressed and anxious about my professional future, I relished in medieval fantasy kingdoms whose kings & queens faced problems that I will never have to deal with. When my personal life was shot to shit, I turned to stories about loss and grief. And when all my summer plans were canceled, I lived vicariously through books about summer camp antics.
25+ books into the year, I’ve been itching to share the experiences and lessons I had discovered between the pages. So here’s my take on the 2020 mid-year book freak-out tag… a little post mid-year.
1. Best book I’ve read so far in 2020
And the Oscar goes to … The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo! Taylor Jenkins Reid was not a new author to me, having read Daisy Jones & The Six last year and loved it not only for its exciting characters but also for the captivating writing style that clearly shows the author doesn’t underestimate the reader’s intelligence.
Ever since I have looked into the bookstagram community, Evelyn Hugo was on my dashboard at least three times per week. But a book so adored and praised by the masses tends to build up a certain inhibiting threshold for readers. You don’t just start reading it on a whim or if you need a quick literary kick. No, Evelyn Hugo deserves the right time and place. Luckily, social distancing made that easy.
The story takes place over several decades, mapping out the life, career, and romances of Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo. Framed by a journalist writing Evelyn’s memoir, and told in episodes divided by husbands, the book features an extensive catalogue of tragic but authentic characters with self-serving, often scandalous motivations. As the main narrator, Evelyn’s vunerability and brutal honesty takes this story as far away from cliché as you could imagine.
5/5 stars, easily.
2. Best sequel I’ve read so far in 2020
By default, the only sequel I have read this year has to be the best one. Girls of Storm and Shadow is the second instalment of the Girls of Paper and Fire series by Natasha Ngan. If you are a fan of medieval fantasy but are sick to death of the same Euro-centric knights-and-queens-in-castles stories, this one’s for you. (Spoilers ahead!) GoPaF takes place in a fantastical world inspired by East Asia in which eight girls of the lowest caste (aka Paper Girls) are kidnapped and brought to the royal palace to serve as courtesans to a violent, hot-tempered king. To the backdrop of a budding revolution, led by members of the Paper caste, a secret romance unfurls between the protagonist and another courtesane. In the sequel, the two Paper Girls have escaped the royal palace and are on a mission to secure allegiances with various clans throughout the land.
I was not the biggest fan of this sequel, likely because the mostly new cast of characters fell completely flat. I don’t enjoy characters whose only personality traits are impulsivity and cracking jokes, even in life-or-death situations, because they feel about as three-dimensional as a piece of paper (no pun intended). Unfortunately, GoSaS is chock-full of them and when they kicked the bucket, I felt nothing.
So although I have to call it my favorite sequel of the year so far, it’s not without pain that I do so.
3. New release I haven’t read yet but want to
If I were to follow bookish release dates, I would probably die of FOMO because I’m a slow-ass reader and there is just too much literary goodness out there. Among the few novels I know to have been released in 2020, My Dark Vanessa is probably the most interesting one.
15-year-old Vanessa has a ‘romantic’ dalliance with her much older English teacher. Almost 20 years later, she is confronted with a woman’s claims that the very same man had sexually assaulted her. Vanessa is forced to question her own past and acknowledge the reality of her old relationship.
The novel sounds complicated, ugly, and frustrating in all the right ways and I’m thoroughly intrigued.
4. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year
A poetry book, for a change, is my most anticipated release yet to come in 2020. We’re all aware that celebrities, actors for example, tend to dip their toes into other creative fields every now and then. And more often than not (*cough* James Franco) their projects are mediocre at best, dripping with self-aggrandizing sage wisdom – haphazardly hidden by thin metaphors, of course. When I heard that Lili Reinhart of Riverdale fame was releasing a poetry collection called Swimming Lessons, I was equal parts curious and skeptic. Only one or two snippets have been made public so far on her insta and, surprisingly, they were fairly decent.
On an emotional level, reading poetry is such a subjective experience that I would never presume to judge a reader for liking what they like. But linguistically, stylistically, and in terms of its evocative abilities, the quality of poems can differ greatly. We shall see where this collection falls.
What has caught my attention in the description of Swimming Lessons was its promise of an exploration of “the inevitable heartbreak that stems from passion”. The book will be realeased on September 29th.
5. Biggest disappointment
A Lesson in Thorns is the clear Razzie winner of my 2020 reading list. There are a number of reasons I tend to stay far away from erotic novels and this one checks all the boxes. We start off with a prologue, naturally, that introduces the main cast of 6 characters. Almost all of them have awful artsy-fartsy names that make me want to roll my eyes all the way around.
The protagonist is called Proserpina and another friend of the group is St. Sebastian. I’m not kidding, the narrator actually refers to him as goddamn SAINT Sebastian. But not because as a kid he went to catholic school and that was a clever nickname, nope, it’s just his name and you’ll have to deal with it. Proserpina returns to her childhood friend group and immediately fails to keep her heart-eyes and submissive sexual fantasies in check when she admits to having been in love with her friend for the past twelve years despite having no contact with him. And don’t even get me started on the repetitive prose.
I quit after 35 pages because smacking my head against the table started to hurt.
6. Biggest surprise
Typically, science fiction as a literary genre annoys me because of the tendency to conflate inventive new gadgets with proper worldbuilding and prioritize surprise twists over character/plot development. However, that seems to be an issue more so in space-related sci-fi than in those stories where virtual reality becomes the (sometimes literal) arena of the plot. Warcross by Marie Lu is such a story.
Similar to Ready Player One (though not to the same extent), VR has taken over the ‘real’ world to the point of replacing it in many areas. One of them is a tournament in which teams from around the world are battling one another in what I can only describe as Mario Cart-style races with added puzzle solving. The book was fast-paced and fun to read, although the final twist was predictable from the start. I was pleasantly surprised to have found a sci-fi book I actually enjoyed, even if it was not particularly deep or thought-provoking.
Warcross is part 1 in a duology and gets 4/5 Stars from me.
7. Fave new author (debut or new to me)
A debut I wasn’t aware of prior to dicking around on Goodreads during quarantine was Braised Pork by An Yu. It is the first full-length novel I have read in the surrealist fiction genre, previously having experienced it only in the form of short stories. I adore the whimsical yet devastating nature of surrealism and the way its imagery escapes rational analysis entirely. You have to re-read such a story several times before you’ve even scratched the surface of what it could mean to you. Braised Pork is exactly that – impenetrable and bottomless with an elusive promise of desolate beauty.
Jia Jia finds her husband dead in their bathtub, the only message he left being a sketch of a fish with a man’s head. While Jia Jia has to reorient herself financially, romantically, and personally now that she is an unemployed widow, her quest to find out the meaning behind the fish-man takes over her life. What is dream, what is ancient legend, what is reality, and do these distinctions even have a purpose?
Braised Pork is unlike anything I have read before. An impressive debut for sure.
8. New fictional crush
One of the more light-hearted books I read in 2020 is the coming-of-age novel Loveboat, Taipei. Ever Wong grew up in a strict Chinese immigrant household and has to shoulder her parents’ expectations and impossibly high standards while leaving behind her own passions. And she had made peace with such a caged future before being sent to summer camp in Taipei. What was supposed to be a summer of learning Chinese and brushing up on her medical knowledge before college, turned into a rousing adventure featuring clubbing, nude photoshoots, romance, and more in the sticky, sweaty summer heat.
One of Ever’s suitors is Xavier Yeh, the son of one of China’s most successful families. (Spoilers ahead!) At first, he seems like your average cocky play boy with a brooding side that’s just oh-so impenetrable. But the better Ever gets to know him, the more it becomes evident that he doesn’t exactly fit the bad boy cliché. He is open and vulnerable with Ever in absolutely swoon-worthy ways and the interplay of his insecurities and his father’s omnipresent disappointment is nothing short of heartbreaking. Plus, my inability to resist a pretty boy in an unbuttoned shirt has firmly cemented Xavier as my No. 1 fictional crush of 2020 (sorry, Diego Hargreeves ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).
Loveboat, Taipei gets 4/5 Stars. And apparently there will be a sequel.
9. Newest favorite character
Rarely is there ever a character that I truly love to hate. For that to be the case, they must be terrible either in a staggeringly charming or a unique, creative way. The latter rings true for Vera Nielsen, or Gram, in Burn Our Bodies Down. Margot is stuck living with her abusive mother and can’t see a way out of her situation because mom is all she’s got. Until she stumbles upon evidence that there is more family out there. Meeting Gram seemed like a dream come true.
Finally a mother-figure who stands up for Margot, takes her in and makes her feel appreciated. Though things quickly change when Margot finds out that parental abuse runs in the family, even if Gram is much more sneaky about it. Reading about a character who draws her granddaughter in with Southern sweetness and then breaks the innermost parts of her identity out of jealousy and hardened self-righteousness – I was baffled by the cruelty.
I hated Gram, but she’s a character I love to hate. Overall the book was a 3/5.
10. Book that made me cry
After a tormentful experience I had this year, I went through a period of numbness. Life seemed so bleak that I could rarely even bring myself to feel something. Luckily, I had received a stack of books in the mail a week prior. In order to distract myself from the Void™, I picked the shortest novel of the stack, which was We Are Okay by Nina LaCour. I knew next to nothing about the story and just began reading.
Marin self-isolates after the loss of her only remaining family member but when her former friend/girlfriend comes to visit, the familiarity of depression into which Marin has settled is shaken up. Learning to accept love after loss and understanding that feelings have no ties to the concepts of time and distance are key themes in this short novel. What drew me in was the sombre, careful atmosphere of the writing. At the time, I was glad to have found a book that embraced my heart with a feather-light touch. A book that seemed to tell me it’s okay to breathe and it’s okay if breathing is the only thing I could do for a while. Crying at the simplistic, profound wisdom was cathartic and for that reason alone, I recommend it.
11. Book that made me happy
On the flip side, time passes and we build back up our tools to deal with difficult emotions. We allow ourselves to authentically feel happiness and joy without guilt. And one ‘book’ that made me laugh out loud was Vol. 2 of the Jughead comic book collection. Yes, that is Jughead of the Riverdale universe, but the comic book version is so much more sarcastic, clever, and hilarious than his Netflix counterpart.
Canonically asexual Jughead only has one love: food. Especially burgers from Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe. So when Pop hires a girl to become his hamburger-shaped mascot and hand out flyers advertising even more burgers, Jughead is faced with some very confusing feelings. And little did he know that the girl inside the burger is none other than Sabrina the teenage witch. Shenanigans ensue.
12. Most beautiful book I’ve bought so far this year
I have no qualms with Reese Witherspoon’s book club, I’m sure it’s a fine community. But dear god, do I hate that their sticker of approval has ruined so many book covers for me. One of them is The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo. Even the picture on Goodreads has that goddamned sticker on it. Why, publishers, why?
The Night Tiger explores the fates of “a dancehall girl and an orphan boy” in 1930s Malaysia, where superstitious legend and unfulfilled wishes form an unlikely framework for storytelling. The cover’s color scheme is made up of aquatic blue and green tones, broken up by pale yellow text and a soft red flower tentatively placed on the very edge of the picture. To me, it calls forth images of a hot summer evening full of possibilities, where experiences feel nostalgic even as they are being made.
Haven’t looked into it yet, but it feels like a book best read in the summer time, for some reason.
13. Books I need to read by the end of the year
My ToBeRead list is long and, probably, never-ending.
One book I quite literally need to read this year is Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. It serves as my literary intro to modern-day racism (so far, I have mainly stuck to essays, articles, and visual media for more information on the topic) and is thus relevant to my personal development as well as my master’s thesis.
Two books that I am very excited about purely for my own reading pleasure are the two sequels to Crazy Rich Asians. The covers are damn cool and the titles almost a dare you to get offended (China Rich Girlfriend & Rich People Problems). I adored the lively ensemble cast and the setting that is unadulterated luxurious wish-fulfillment. With the pandemic, there is no telling when the cinematic sequel will be released and ya girl needs her fix!
What is your #1 pick of 2020 so far? Have you found a new fictional crush or favorite character? Or do you have any special recommendations for us?
Tagging all of you lovely readers in the 2020 Mid-Year Book Freak-Out Tag 😉