Jayne’s Best of 2020
Doing a rough count of my 2020 reading journal, I read a little over 200 books last year. I also started but DNF a number of books that I didn’t count in that total. So … I read a lot. There are many B+ grade books that for various reasons didn’t make my “Best of List” along with some wonderful A ones released in previous years. But I recorded only ten A grade ones released this year. Five of them are children’s picture books which might be a result of needing comfort reading in this COVID dominated year. Three authors are are ones I’ve read before (one author has two books on this list) while six authors are totally new to me. In an “alternate children’s books with adult books” order – here we go.
Elvis Puffs Out by Georgia Dunn
Breaking Cat News fans rejoice! This is the second book in the series out this year. All of our favorite characters are back – Elvis, Lupin, and Puck – the intrepid cat reporters who report on all the news that is important to cats, happy Tommy – friendly cat about town and his housemate Sophie the introverted artist who works with “found objects,” Burt the barnyard AV tech, Baba Mouse – the great, great, great … grandcat, Tabitha and Sir Figaro Newton – the ceiling cats who report for Gatos de Noticias, plus someone new! Lost polydactyl kitten Beatrix joins the series.
Take It Away, Tommy by Georgia Dunn
The blurb might say these books are for middle grade readers but I have been a fanatical fan and loyal daily reader of the strip since stumbling upon it when I got a chance to review the first book “Breaking Cat News” four years ago. Since then, the strip has gone into syndication and creator Georgia Dunn has been gradually reworking some of the older material for the new format. However, some of the story arcs just weren’t going to work as well. This book has some fan favorites such as the long requested “Ghost Cat in the Big Pink House” and the original Pucky’s Perfect Christmas Tips that introduced the four incorrigible Robber Mice. Then there is the beloved “Our IX Lives” cat soap opera (brought to you by Yummy Nom Nom Kitty Treats) complete with heroic and roguish Kit Chase trying to win the paw of the rich Angora Taggart (cue DRAMATIC MUSIC). Puck has been addicted for a long time but Elvis is only slowly beginning to watch it. The Ceiling Cats as well as cat-about-town reporter Tommy in his trademark Hawaiian shirt plus his friend artist Sophie (who works in mixed modern media style with “found objects”) and AV cat Burt are all there, too. Dive into the world from the cats’ point of view but for best understanding, starting back at the beginning is probably best.
The Big Finish by Brooke Fossey
Of all the – ahem – difficult residents, Duffy clearly takes the cake. Forthright, outspoken, with opinions he doesn’t hesitate to give he is the picture beside the word “Curmudgeon” in the dictionary. He freely confesses to us his past sins – and they were many – as well as his anger at what his roommate is asking him to do in helping hide Josie on the premises. The longer Josie stays, the more things occur that (in the opinion of the assisted living center owner) push Duffy closer to the line in the sand which will send him to Simmons.
But by golly, Duffy has got grit. When the chips are down, he’s there and he’s going to stay there for this young woman. In fifty years, he doesn’t want her to reach the point he has – looking back at a life wasted, choices lost, and no family. This is his chance – although Duffy never quite comes out and says that – to fix this, to do something big, to do a thing that means something, that will have lasting value.
I did not see the ending coming. It made me cry but also smile. It’s uplifting but avoids twee or cutesy. It fits the book and the characters created. I love this book and when I finished it, I was hugging it to my chest.
More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood
There’s a lot in this story which is wrapped up with humor as well as insight. No one is perfect, the stereotyped model South-Asian super achiever is avoided, and Danyal made me cheer for him with his self-deprecation yet determination to follow his dream. His friendship with Zar and Sohrab is fun to read about but also shows the differences in the community. Zar is more freewheeling and wants to date before marriage while Sohrab is becoming more and more religious. The desi immigrant community plays a large role in the book and in the boys’ lives with many being the children of first generation immigrants. Danyal and his friends might at times chafe against the strictures of their parents and the Uncles and Aunties but they don’t openly rebel nor do they want to.
Danyal does a lot of self discovery before the book ends. His father has always lectured him but as Danyal comes to discover, his father has always believed Danyal could do anything just that Danyal didn’t want to. For the first time, Danyal feels that his father doesn’t believe that Danyal is capable of pulling off the risky decision Danyal makes about the thesis topic. One person who does is Bisma who drags Danyal into a library (his conversation with one of the librarians about this “Bookflix” is hilarious).
Their journey of discovery about each other is slow yet lovely. It’s Bisma who puts her finger on the reason why Danyal was unable to put aside the topic he decides to risk talking about. There is, however, a danger for Bisma in falling for Danyal. She knows the chance of any happy ending with him is scant and to glimpse a faint hope only to see it fade away will destroy her.
But is Bisma who Danyal really wants? He’s spent years mooning after “the perfect girl” and when he’s put on the marriage mart and confronted by his parents with the awkward conversation about what he wants in a bride, Bisma wasn’t who he described. Now, she’s all he can think of but the barrier between what he wants and what his parents will accept is sky high. Charged by Bisma’s feisty younger sister to fix this, Danyal pulls it out in spades. I agree with Bisma’s sister – “Fuck yes!”
Will there still be some issues with the desi community and Bisma’s past? Probably. Did I believe how much time the French chef spent talking with Danyal about his love life while they’re in the restaurant kitchen? Frankly no. Did I want to reach into the book and punch Bisma’s father in the throat? Oh, so hard. Did I get a happy smile when Danyal “fixes it” and his father announces his pride in his son? Yeppers.
Kitty and Dragon by Meika Hashimoto
Meika Hashimoto has written and Gillian Reid has illustrated three adorable short stories about pals Kitty and Dragon. When Kitty decides the barn is too noisy for her, she goes looking for a new home. Everyone warns her that the dragon is fierce and has claws but Kitty isn’t afraid. In fact, when she gets to Dragon’s cave, he’s delighted to get a new friend. He makes her a rug and brings her milk. In return, Kitty trims those long claws and chases away the mice (Dragons are afraid of mice). The two take care of each other when they’re sick (reading “Caring for Kitties with Colds” and “Caring for Dragons with Colds”), brewing some nice tea (served in a cat mug) and fixing delicious noodle soup. When Kitty gets frustrated with Dragon’s messiness (he doesn’t clean his dirty dishes and leaves toothpaste on the mirror), she tries to fix it but first asks Dragon’s permission to spritz him with a drop of magic potion. Kitty is polite that way. When she discovers she likes Dragon the way he was, they work together to keep things clean.
The illustrations are bright, colorful, and cute. The little touches like the “Mew, Mew Tissue” box are fun to spot and their developing friendship is a joy. I’d love to see further Kitty and Dragon stories.
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle Book 2) by Nghi Vo
Yes, there is a great deal of dry humor here as well as a fascinating view of the art of storytelling. With their lives on the line, mammoth scout Si-yu interjects at times to ask questions and make sure things are clarified to her satisfaction before sitting back in attentive listening as all listeners do during long nights as stories are retold.
As Chih and the tigers – mainly the Queen but with some asides from her sisters – tell the story of the poor scholar on her way to take the imperial exams (in the terrifying sounding Hall of Ferocious Jade) when she comes across a fierce tiger who takes a fancy to her, the PsoV switch back and forth depending on who is talking. It’s easy to see how things get muddled and details deleted depending on how important things are to different sides.
I had a feeling that cleric Chih would somehow manage to spin their tale out long enough for salvation to appear but as with the initial encounter with the three tigers, the rousing finale had me riveted. I do hope that there will be further tales of Chih – and hopefully Almost Brilliant plus more mammoths including young Piluk who is rightfully smug about her part in the episode.
It’s Halloween, Little Monster by Helen Ketteman
This is so cute. Little Monster is going out on his first Halloween and he’s dressed like a Martian all in green. Things out there are scary but Papa is with him so everything will be fine. Plus Little Monster gets spider cupcakes and worm juice! Yum. The illustrations are wonderful and yield fun new details the more you look at them. Now I need to go back and read the rest of Little Monster’s books.
Once Upon a Winter Wedding by Jeannie Watt
There are so many ways that this could have tripped and staggered down Romance Trope Lane but didn’t. Each time I thought “here it comes” it didn’t go there. Over the course of the book, I had perked up when these things didn’t occur and as it rounded the turn for home, I was holding my breath and mentally pleading “please don’t crash and burn down the homestretch.” The final conflicts didn’t come from nowhere, the family didn’t get obnoxiously pushy into Brant and Stevie’s business, and the two of them make decisions not only for love but also for themselves, too. I finished the book elated that I had another A grade book to add to my Best of 2020 list and looking forward to the next one in the series.
Rain Before Rainbows by Smriti Prasadam-Halls
This is a book I needed. This is a book that we all need. Frankly last year sucked. Every time I pulled up the news or talked to friends about the various situations in the world, I felt depressed, sad, and dispirited. But this book, with its message of hope that there is “rain before rainbows, cloud before sun” reminds me that we have to slog through the bad before we can more appreciate the good that is coming. Okay, after reading it, I feel hopeful. I feel we can get through this and emerge on the other side. Thanks.
Take a Look at the Five and Ten by Connie Willis
After all the wonderful novellas and short stories of yours that I read and reviewed last year, I didn’t think one could be better. I was wrong. This one is boss. This one is awesome. This one made me want to start reading it the moment I finished reading it the first time. It’s that good.
Amazingly an entire world is packed into this novella. I felt I was there at the table with Ori’s stepfather’s latest wife’s newest ghastly dinner food – the calamari salad complete with tentacles was the one I voted most likely to make me retch at the table. I could hear Aunt Mildred pointedly going on about how things were in her day and how bad they are now – as she glares at Ori as if it’s that poor girl’s fault. Then there’s Sloane – one of the outwardly beautiful people who always gets her way just because she always has.
But Hark the Herald Angels Sing, things are going to be different this year. By the time I finished reading the story, I felt that I had worked in that Woolworth’s along with Grandma Elving and I also felt that I was watching Ori fall for Lassiter. Lassiter is much too kind and sweet – shown in how careful he is with fragile, eighty year old Grandma Elving as well as Ori – for Sloane. Okay we all know that. But what will happen? Will Lassiter break free from Sloane’s tentacles? Does he see in Ori what she – hopelessly, she thinks – sees in him? And why does Grandma Elving have picture perfect recall of that Christmas season so many years ago?
I won’t give away any more details or clues but the tentacle dinner finale, the Mylar balloons and stuffed penguins in the elevator, plus the scene in the car parking lot had me laughing and cheering. I adored this story!
Okay so you’re not interested in children’s picture books? I understand as not everyone is. Here then is a list of romance, thriller, and historical fiction books I read this year, though which aren’t all 2020 releases, which I gave an A or B+ grade to. Four authors were new to me while eight are old friends. One author has a book in this section and in the top reads. Another author has two books here.
Business as Usual – Jane Oliver – 1930s British ownvoices fiction
London in Chains – Gillian Bradshaw – historical British fiction
The Sun Down Motel – Simone St. James – dual timeline mystery thriller
The Bachelor’s Wedding – Betty Neels – British romance
Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower – Tamsyn Muir – fantasy
The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Nghi Vo – historical fantasy fiction
The Hidden Moon – Jeannie Lin – historical Chinese romance
Nowhere Man – Sheri Cobb South – historical fantasy novella
All Stirred Up – Brianne Moore – contemporary British romance
Matilda Next Door – Kelly Hunter contemporary Australian romance
More than Neighbors – Shannon Stacey – contemporary romance
Brother Can You Spare a Crime – Sheri Cobb South – historical mystery
Flavor of the Month – Georgia Beers – contemporary f/f romance
Blue Skies – Anne Bustard – Post WWII juvenile fiction
I’m actually more interested in children’s picture books now that I have great-nieces and nephews. I always give books as presents (I’m rather infamous in family circles for that–I’ll never get the “fun auntie” moniker like my late aunt who filled her basement with used pinball machines) and I appreciate reviews from a trusted source.
As far as the romance novels go, I still have many of these on my TBR stacks/Kindle queue so it’s good to get a reminder to read them soon. Thanks for the round-up!
I feel better just reading your reviews of the children’s books, Jayne, precisely because they are hopeful, gentle and fun all at once.
I loved the Fossey book, and the others you mentioned are either in the TBR or on hold at the library. You’d think with all this time on my hands, I’d get more reading done. And I have, except for the last several weeks, when my concentration moved to an undisclosed location. But I am still hopeful and you’ve reminded me of things I am eager to read, so we carry on.
@Darlene Marshall: Ah, you and one of our other readers – Random Michelle – are both book gifters. My favorite people!
@Darlynne: That’s why I love children’s books, too. The Fossey book was such a wonderful read. I hope she’s hard at work on her next one.
Just in case anyone wants to check more children’s books out – https://dearauthor.com/tag/picture-books/
@jayne, I enjoyed seeing your favorites; thanks for sharing them. I also enjoyed those Sheri Cobb South books this past year.
Not only did the Hanukkhah book get mentioned in the thank you (written by mom but with additions from the 2 & 5 year-olds) but I got pictures of the older girl hugging her Christmas books–especially the Hanukkah book. :D
For her birthday she and her almost-twin got “Ella Queen of Jazz” and Lon Po Po; I couldn’t find a good Chinese New Year book–hopefully next year. (The ones that were recommend to me were out of print.)
@Random Michelle: You are such an awesome aunt.
@Janine: Well, how could I not adore pictures of small people hugging their books, and want to make more of that happiness? :)
@Random Michelle: Book happiness! Yay!