Thank God for fiction in 2020.
With many of us spending more time indoors this year than normal, books offered a welcome escape from both the walls of homes and the nightmarish news cycle. I was no exception, and I got a lot of reading accomplished by year’s end.
At the beginning of the year, I challenged myself to read more fiction by women and minority voices. Looking back at my previous end-of-year lists, I found them to be primarily written by white and male authors. If you’re looking to expand your worldview and empathy, I strongly recommend placing a priority on reading books written from different perspectives and life experiences than your own. Doing this in 2020 blessed me immensely (and led to some of my favorite reads of the year).
Without further ado, here’s my list of the best fiction books I read in 2020.
The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon
After Will transfers from a private Bible college to a public university, he meets Phoebe, a carefree spirit who appears to be everything Will is not. Both seeking an escape from past traumas, the two young college students begin a physically-charged and emotionally-intense relationship.
However, as Will deconstructs his fundamentalist Evangelical upbringing, Phoebe gradually falls into the orbit of a secret Bible study group led by a charismatic former student. After an abortion clinic is bombed in the city, Will suspects Phoebe’s Bible study group may be involved, and he vows to expose the group’s leader as a fraud.
Told in chapters that alternate between Will and Phoebe’s points of view, R.O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries is a powerful meditation on religious extremism and the ways in which ordinary people can be primed for violence. On top of all that, Kwon perfectly captures the inevitable arc of a co-dependent relationship – and finishes it off with a morally devastating finale.
Americanah – Chimamanda Adichie
At its core, Americanah is a love story, and it follows the young-love romance of Ifemelu and Obinze in Nigeria before their lives spiral into completely different directions. Separated by circumstance and opportunity, Ifemelu heads to America to receive a college education where she begins a wildly successfully blog on racism, and Obinze ends up in London where his life is further complicated in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Though their lives eventually intersect again, part of the joy (and tension) of Americanah is watching how it all unfolds.
Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does a remarkable crafting memorable characters, realistic dialogue, and compelling observations designed to challenge the reader’s perceptions of race, immigration, and culture in America and abroad. And, though Americanah is mostly plotless, the dueling storylines crackle with enough suspense, sexual tension, and an ever-escalating series of moral dilemmas that you’ll have you turning the pages as quickly as you would any thriller.
The Only Good Indians – Stephen Graham Jones
Four Native American friends make a terrible mistake during an elk hunt on a modern-day reservation. Ten years later, the past has come to collect its due. I have a soft spot for a well-spun horror tale, and The Only Good Indians feels like old-school Stephen King in all the best ways.
Author Stephen Graham Jones – himself a member of the Blackfeet tribe – infuses the story and the horror with Native American folklore and superstition, which results in a one-of-a-kind and chilling revenge story. One of the best aspects of Jones’s story is the way in which he constantly redirects the narrative into uncharted territory to surprise the reader. Featuring complicated characters, well-earned (and jaw-dropping) moments of carnage, and a couple of shocking perspective shifts, The Only Good Indians also doubles as a biting social critique of what it means to be Native American in modern-day America.
Daisy Jones & The Six – Taylor Jones Reid
One of my biggest surprises in 2020, Daisy Jones & The Six tells the story of the eponymous rock band as they hurtle toward international stardom and break up under mysterious circumstances against the backdrop of the 1970s music scene. Written in an “oral history” format (interview/documentary-style), each character in Daisy Jones & The Six – the band members, producers, record label execs, spouses, etc – offer a unique perspective and (sometimes contradictory) accounts of how and why the band broke up at their height of their fame.
From California dive bars to international arenas, when author Taylor Jenkins Reid describes the sound of a new folk-rock hit single, lovelorn duet, or crunchy guitar solo, you can hear it in your head (and begin to wish that Daisy Jones & The Six was a real band). But where the story really shines is its fascinating and intimate deconstruction of the songwriting process and the ways in which a band consciously shapes their identity through album-making. And it’s made all the better when the novel ends on a surprisingly sweet and life-affirming note.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Ian Reid
It’s hard to talk about this novel without spoiling the pleasures of reading it, but a one-sentence synopsis would go something like this: A young woman travels with her boyfriend to meet his parents for the first time, despite having doubts about their relationship.
While I’m Thinking of Ending Things often feels like a horror novel (it’s not), it’s truly a testament to author Ian Reid’s storytelling prowess that so many mundane moments in the book – a meandering conversation on a long drive, a stop at a Dairy Queen’s drive-thru, an awkward dinner with your partner’s parents, etc – feel so laden with existential dread that you’re fully expecting some unknown terror to unmask itself at any moment. And, when that ending arrives, get ready. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is one of those rare novels that I wanted to re-read the second I finished the final page – something the book literally tells you to do.
The Son – Philipp Meyer
From the plains of Comanche territory to modern corporate boardrooms, The Son is a masterful historical epic that spans more than 150 years of Texas history. The story is structured around three interweaving narratives that follow three members of the same family across three time periods.
In the first storyline, 12-year-old Eli McCullough is abducted by Comanche Indians after they kill his family in the 1850s. Eli is eventually adopted into the tribe and learns to fight alongside the Comanches against the onslaught of white settlers that threaten their way of life. In the second storyline, Peter McCullough (Eli’s son) struggles with his family’s violent legacy as his father cements himself as a Texas oil baron in the early 20th century. And, in the third storyline, Eli’s great-granddaughter takes command of her family’s oil business in the latter half of the 20th century and makes a name for herself in a corporate world ruled by men.
The Son is unflinching in its brutal and complicated portrayals of the men and women who “tamed” the Texas frontier. As someone who was born and raised in Texas for most of my life, I learned more about Texas history from this book than I ever did in my public school education. And the novel is so beautifully written and constructed I found myself remorseful when all the storylines reached their inevitable and tragic conclusions.
Magpie Murders – Anthony Hor0witz
I love a good high-concept mystery novel, and Magpie Murders delivers on that front – twice over. Alan Conway, a bestselling crime novelist, has been found dead at his estate. And he may have hidden clues to his unexpected demise in the storyline of his newest novel, which he delivered to his editor a few days before his death. Therefore, you effectively get two books for the price of one – a 1950s Agatha Christie-style murder mystery set in a cozy English village with sinister secrets and a modern-day conspiracy whodunnit set in the (literally) cutthroat world of international publishing.
Magpie Murders is a murder mystery novel for book lovers, and – perhaps more than any other mystery story I’ve read – it invites the reader to become an active participant within the narrative. You’ll be flipping back and forth between Conway’s manuscript and the modern-day plot, making connections and trying to decipher clues alongside the protagonist in order to unmask the real murderer(s). And, the fact that author Anthony Horowitz is able to pull off not one but two satisfying endings is nothing short of miraculous.
Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom follows Gifty, a Ph.D. student at Stanford, as she studies reward-seeking behavior in the human brain and how it relates to addiction. The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Gifty was raised as an Evangelical Christian in Alabama, but a series of tragic childhood events culminated in the dissolution of her faith and her current devotion to neuroscience. On the eve of a breakthrough in her research, Gifty’s clinically depressed mother decides to move in with her in her Californian apartment, triggering an avalanche of memories and reflections on her tumultuous upbringing and the scars they’ve left on her personal life.
Transcendent Kingdom is a beautifully written novel, and – while it’s not a “Christian” book by any stretch of the imagination – it goes places few preachers are brave enough to tread, and it captures the contradictory interplay between faith, doubt, science, and tragedy better than almost anything I’ve ever read. It’s also a magnificent example of how literary fiction can respectfully engage with issues related to faith without cynicism, caricature, or hyperbole.
The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson
I picked up The Way of Kings as a treat to myself in the aftermath of the beyond stressful 2020 Presidential Election – I felt as if I needed a thick fantasy novel to get lost in. And, boy, did The Way of Kings absolutely deliver.
The Way of Kings is epic fantasy in the grandest scale possible. Set on the continent of Roshar, Sanderson has crafted a living breathing world filled with different cultures, religions, hierarchies, histories, weather patterns, biomes, and customs. I would give a synopsis for The Way of Kings, but I think it’s best for readers to go in as blind as possible for the most immersive experience. Just know there are massive battles, shocking betrayals, an ancient threat, rich backstories, high court intrigue, and some ingenious combat sequences aided by a brilliant magic system. And all of this is beautifully accomplished without relying on shock value, graphic violence, and explicit sexuality – just good old fashion storytelling.
The Way of Kings is an absolute stellar opening to a series that will surely be spoken in the same breath as Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Harry Potter when people discuss the best (and most influential) fantasy series of all time.
The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents – Octavia Butler
Civil unrest. Climate change. Rampant disease. Kids in cages. Christian nationalism. Out-of-control wildfires. Roving bands of armed vigilantes. A fascist presidential candidate who wants to “Make America Great Again.” No, this isn’t a novelization of 2020; this is the world of Octavia Butler’s Earthseed duology, originally published in 1993 and 1998.
Set in mid-2020s/early-2030s California, the United States has been wracked by a series of debilitating natural, economic, and sociological crises. The two novels are told from the point of view of Lauren Olamina, a Black teenager who lives with her family in a walled-off community. Lauren’s father – a Baptist preacher and pillar of stability in their community – tries his best to keep the people under his care vigilant and armed. One day, the wall is breached, and in the chaotic aftermath of the community’s demise, Lauren must lead a small group of survivors north through a dangerously transformed America.
Author Octavia Butler is best known for her Antebellum time-travel thriller Kindred, but the two novels in her Earthseed series are undoubtedly her masterpiece – and have only grown more disturbingly relevant with time. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Lauren carries with her the seeds of a new faith – a logic-based belief system called “Earthseed” that defies easy categorization – that she hopes to plant among a new community of followers and skeptics. But, like all religious beliefs, it will be tested to an extraordinary extent by outside forces and circumstances. Parts of these books are really hard to read, and Butler casts a brutally realistic dystopian vision that rivals anything found in The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984. Though, above all else, the Earthseed novels are about hope and the ways in which religious belief can be used to justify extreme cruelty or promote loving kindness – depending on the heart of the messenger.
Honorable Mentions: Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby, A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Polllock, Barkskins by Annie Proulx, and The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
What fiction books helped you get through 2020? Let me know in the comments below!
(Also, don’t forget to read about the top nonfiction books I read in 2020!)
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