Every Book I Read in 2020

It’s that time of the year again where I catalogue all the books I read in the previous year. I like to track my yearly reading list here, and then every year I make a post of all the books I read the previous year. I’m a little bit behind this year, but better late then never right?

Despite all the spare time I had, 2020 was not a good reading year for me. In fact, it was my worst reading year since 2015. But we all survived 2020 in different ways. With everything else going on I found my reading motivation low and instead turned to hiking and baking to keep my spirits up. That said, I did still read 63 books in 2020, which is still a huge success. I wrote less reviews than usual and lost my motivation to write special interest posts (I didn’t even do a top books of 2020 blog!), but I’ve still be plugging along and have been a lot more engaged to date in 2021.

So here’s the compilation list of all the books I read in 2021!

  1. Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook – Ian Brodie
  2. Bloodlust & Bonnets – Emily McGovern
  3. Flamecaster (Shattered Realms #1) – Cinda Williams Chima
  4. Shadowcaster (Shattered Realms #2) – Cinda Williams Chima
  5. Stormcaster (Shattered Realms #3) – Cinda Williams Chima
  6. Dual Citizens – Alix Ohlin
  7. The Giver of Stars – Jojo Moyes
  8. Deathcaster (Shattered Realms #4) – Cinda Williams Chima
  9. The Simple Wild (Wild #1) – K.A. Tucker
  10. Wild at Heart (Wild #2) – K.A. Tucker
  11. The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides
  12. Disappearing Earth – Julia Philips
  13. When the World Didn’t End – Caroline Kaufman
  14. Greenwood – Michael Christie
  15. Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens
  16. The Glass Hotel – Emily St. John Mandel
  17. The Tattooist of Auschwitz – Heather Morris
  18. American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins
  19. The Dutch House – Ann Patchett
  20. Son of a Critch – Mark Critch
  21. Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid
  22. Maybe in Another Life – Taylor Jenkins Reid
  23. Rick Mercer Final Report – Rick Mercer
  24. Anxious People – Fredrik Backman
  25. Cape Scott and the North Coast Trail – Maria Bremner
  26. The Beekeeper of Aleppo – Christy Lefteri
  27. Once You Go This Far (Roxane Weary #4) – Kristen Lepionka
  28. A Very Punchable Face – Colin Jost
  29. The Diviners (Diviners #1) – Libba Bray
  30. Catch and Kill – Ronan Farrow
  31. She Said – Meghan Twohey, Jodi Kantor
  32. Fence: Rivals – C.S. Pacat
  33. Migrations – Charlotte McConaghy
  34. Wade in the Water – Tracy K. Smith
  35. The Last Story of Mina Lee – Nancy Jooyoun Kim
  36. Kim JiYoung, Born 1982 – Cho Nam-Joo
  37. One by One – Ruth Ware
  38. Beyond the Trees – Adam Shoalts
  39. Solutions and other Problems – Allie Brosh
  40. The Pull of the Stars – Emma Donaghue
  41. Check Please!, Book 2: Sticks & Scones – Ngozi Ukazu
  42. The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett
  43. Nevermoor (Nevermoor #1) – Jessica Townsend
  44. Wundersmith (Nevermoor #2) – Jessica Townsend
  45. Hollowpox (Nevermoor #3) – Jessica Townsend
  46. Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi
  47. Conditional Citizens – Laila Lalami
  48. Punching the Air – Ibi Zoboi, Yusef Salaam
  49. Mexican Gothic – Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  50. Hood Feminism – Mikki Kendall
  51. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – V.E. Schwab
  52. The Lifting Dress – Lauren Berry
  53. Betty – Tiffany McDaniel
  54. Tell the Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt
  55. Where the Forest Meets the Stars – Glendy Vanderah
  56. Happily Ever After – Debbie Tung
  57. Rock Recipes Cookies – Barry Parsons
  58. Forever Wild (Wild #2.5) – K.A. Tucker
  59. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  60. Watch Over Me – Nina Lacour
  61. Persuasion – Jane Austen
  62. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
  63. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

Deathcaster

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Feb. 2020)
Series: Shattered Realms #4

I’m a bit torn on how to rate this book and I think I’m somewhere between a 3 and a 4. I still flew through it – loving all the different characters and relationships, but I thought the plot could have been a little stronger. I was still really engaged in the story, I just wanted a more!

It was nice to finally see some resolutions between characters and some new relationships forming. As always, I think Chima writes interesting and flawed, but relatable, characters. Lyss and Hal were probably my favourites of the series, but I also really liked Lila and had a bit of a soft spot for Destin. I liked that he was introduced as a bit of a villain in Flamecaster, but turned out to be really nuanced and even though he’d done some questionable things, you still really wanted to root for him.

So the series still gets full points for characterization, but let’s get into where I thought the plot suffered. I have two main complaints – the first is about pacing and the second is about where the importance of the story was placed.

A lot of information was revealed in this book. Chima holds on to a lot of secrets throughout the series. I think it’s a huge bonus when a series has an overarching mystery that continues throughout each book. But I also think it’s important to provide some answers and closure to other mystery elements as the series progresses. I think Chima held on to a bit too much information and as such, the story felt a little overwhelming at the end, with too many things being tied up too quickly.

For example, we have to wait through this whole series to find out who attacked Ash in the first book, what the Darian brothers are, who was behind the attack on Lyss, and who the mole at court is. When everything is finally revealed, the answers just feel a little anti-climactic. The plot elements weren’t necessarily large enough to carry this mystery through 4 books and I was left feeling disappointed by the answers. I think the individual books would have benefited had Chima given up a little more information earlier in the story.

That said, there were some elements where I think it made sense to string along your readers for 4 books, namely with the mystery of Celestine and her relationship to Jenna, Breon, and Evan. Which brings me to my second criticism – how Chima chose to frame the story around these 4 “casters”, but then didn’t really give their story the airtime if deserved.

The books are named for 4 individuals. I’m assuming that Celestine was ‘deathcaster’. Every thing about Celestine and the north islands and her dynasty is shrouded in mystery. We don’t know who she is or what her tie is to any of the other characters. We can tell she is seeking more power and represents a big threat to the realms. But Chima holds out on the significance of these individuals until the very last minute and then throws in a couple of (in my opinion) poorly cobbled together explanations of their relations and then quickly defeats the empress in a chapter. I was left not really understanding who the empress was or why she was so powerful, and then disappointed at how easily she eventually seemed to be defeated. It just left me wondering what bearing she really even had on the story, except providing enough of a threat to the realms to finally mend the relationship between the Fells and Arden. I just wanted SO MUCH MORE.

Like I said, overall I still loved the series. It just felt rushed and I felt we were still left with some unanswered questions. It wasn’t totally clear what happened with Raisa and Han and I would have loved a little more time devoted to Aedion and the healing of this family the reader has grown to love. Still a fan though and I am planning to read Chima’s first series, which I’m pretty sure is now the only one I have left. 3.5 stars overall – disappointed I never got a 5-star book out of this series.

The Golden Compass

Rating:
Author: Philip Pullman
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: 1995 (read on Audible Sep. 2019)

The Golden Compass was a re-read for me. I started the series back when I was in University, but I never finished it because University is just a huge giant time suck that doesn’t allow you to read for pleasure. I read the first two books, but never got around to the final book.

I had heard lots of great things about the series and my husband raved about it, so I expected to love it, but ended up being very underwhelmed by it. I think I would have been unlikely to return to it had I not stumbled upon the full cast audiobooks and known there was a tv series coming out later this year. But I’m so glad I made a second attempt at the series because I have been absolutely loving it on Audible!

The Golden Compass is set in a world similar to ours, but with some substantial differences. In this world, everyone has a daemon, which is a sort of animal companion that is bonded to you. Children’s daemon’s can change and take any animal form, while adults daemon’s eventually settle into one form. The story starts with our protagonist Lyra, a young girl whose age I can’t recall (let’s say ~10 or 11), hiding in the retiring room at Oxford and overhearing a very interesting discussion surrounding the concept of Dust.

Lyra is an orphan who grew up at Oxford, surrounded by scholars and street urchins. She’s a bold girl who’s not afraid to boss the other children around and has a terrible habit of lying. She doesn’t know what Dust is, but the scholars are fascinated by this Dust and are enthralled to learn that Lyra’s Uncle, Lord Asriel, has been able to photograph it in the North. Lyra’s curiousity is piqued and she becomes desperate to explore the North and see the Dust and magnificent aurora for herself.

At the same time, mysterious things are happening at Oxford and children start disappearing. To explain the disappearances, the other children blame the mysterious Gobblers, who are said to kidnap and eat children. Suddenly Lyra finds herself engulfed in the plot and travelling to the North to save her friend from the Gobblers and find out more about Dust and why everyone is so concerned about it.

The first thing I’ll say about this book is that I’m a bit shocked it’s a children’s book. I know children read all kinds of horrific stuff without being affected by it, but this book has some seriously crazy shit in it. But more impressively, it has a seriously convoluted plot, which is what impresses me more about it as a children’s book.

I will always maintain that the best children’s books are the books that appeal to both children and adults. The Golden Compass is definitely one of those books that is sold to children, but really targets adults. There are so many levels to the storytelling that it can really be enjoyed at any age. Children enjoy it for its strong protagonist and fantastical elements, like flying witches and armoured bears, while adults will enjoy it for its mature themes about religion and the church.

Yes, you read that right, the underlying themes of this book centre most prominently on the church and its power. Pullman explores other themes like the loss of innocence, morality, and the existence of souls, but at its core this is a book about the role religion plays in our society and how religious doctrine has snuck its way into our governments and legal systems.

The religious overtones are subtle for most of The Golden Compass, but it becomes more clear towards the end of the book where Pullman plans to take this series. There’s a great air of mystery throughout most of this book – what is dust, who are the Gobblers, what is the Magisterium doing – but once we start getting answers to some of these questions, it becomes clear how far the power of the church reaches. They have a great fear of sin, which causes them to commit unspeakable atrocities.

The church, or Magisterium, is strongly reminiscent of the catholic church, however, I think Pullman’s themes apply to really any branch of the christian church. I’m about halfway through the second book now (or I was at the time of writing this – I’ve since finished the series) and I do find Pullman a bit heavy handed at times, but sometimes exaggeration is required to make a point and do I think he makes several relevant arguments. The “church” in general is a very powerful institution, and no matter what religion you look at (christianity, islam, hinduism, etc), it has very much infused itself into modern governance. The question is, does the church belong in our governance systems?

Personally, I think no. The core message of most religious texts is simple – love others. If that was as much as we tried to infuse into our government, I’d say sure, but unfortunately the church is much more caught up in control, and that’s where it gets dangerous. The christian church in America (and yes Canada), is very caught up in controlling everything from women’s reproductive rights, to marriage rights, to access to healthcare, to scientific freedom, and what can be taught in schools. Then if you look further into institutions like the catholic church, they’re also interested in controlling families by keeping women out of positions of influence.

But why is the church so interested in this control? If your mandate is to love others, why does any of that other stuff matter. For me, everything that the right-wing christians are selling in America right now is about protecting the long held power and privilege of straight, white men.

One of the best ways that I think they do this is through misdirection. One example is the anti-choice movement. They would have us believe that they’re all about fetus rights and the sanctity of life, but it’s really about power and control. If the anti-choice supporters actually believed in the sanctity of life and protecting women and children, they would support access to birth control, healthcare, welfare, and sex education. There is no wealth and power without poverty and those in power want to maintain all the privileges they’ve become accustomed to.

But a lot of it leads back to this notion of “sin”. The church condemns women who want abortions as immoral, gay marriage as abhorrent, and science as the loss of faith. But this fear of sin is what drives the need to control it. Religion generally acknowledges that everyone sins, but all these additional rules and restrictions just make it that much easier to “sin”.  The theme of sin is only introduced at the end of The Golden Compass, but I’m interested to see where Pullman takes it in the rest of the series because the word “sin” means different things to different people and part of the problem is that we all have our own definition of what constitutes “sin”.

In Lyra’s world, the magisterium wants to eliminate sin from the world, and in their quest to do that, they cause incredible harm. Not unlike the way the church still alienates everyone who is different or who does not fit within their narrow view of what is “right”.

Anyways, I didn’t expect to get into such an in-depth discussion on religion, but these are issues that I do spend a lot of time thinking about. I do want to keep the ideas of the church (or organized religion) separate from spirituality though because I do think they are two completely different things. You can condemn the church as an institution, without condemning the idea of spirituality and the existence of a greater being.

So I did like this book a lot more on the second read through and I’m interested to see where Pullman takes these themes in the next two books. The full cast for this audiobook was fantastic. Lyra drove me nuts sometimes because she can be really obtuse and made a lot of stupid decisions, but she’s a child and she has a lot of spunk, so I can forgive her for that. Mrs. Coulter was deliciously evil, Lord Asriel enraging, and Iorek endearing.

But mostly what I liked was how wild the plot was. I truly never knew what was coming in this book. There were so many twists and turns and it had a huge amount of depth. I love stories that have a lot of balls in the air and maintain several different plotlines at the same time, while weaving an air of mystery under the whole story. Pullman did this very well and when we arrive at the conclusion of the novel, it really just feels like the beginning.

The Fellowship of the Ring

Rating:
Author: JRR Tolkien
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: 1954 (re-read in Jun. 2019)
Series: The Lord of the Rings #1

So I first read Fellowship of the Ring when I was around 10 or 11 years old. My Dad played a big role in fostering my love of reading and encouraged me to read the series before the first movie came out. I have to admit, I’m a little impressed that I read this whole series as a pre-teen and actually loved it. I’ve always remembered the books (and heard them described by others) as being super dense and descriptive, and for some reason I was totally intimidated to re-read them.

I’m a huge fan of the movie franchise and I re-watch the whole trilogy every couple of years. I recently re-watched it with my friends and convinced two of them to re-read the trilogy with me. I’m a little embarrassed now at how much I was actually intimidated by this book, because while it is a little indulgent in the descriptions, it’s nowhere near as dense as I had built it up to be in my head and I really had no problem reading it.

I’m going to skip the synopsis because we all know what the Lord of the Rings is about. It’s a classic good-versus-evil fantasy story that puts everything else in the genre to shame. It was fun to re-read and compare what lines Peter Jackson lifted right out of the book and what liberties he took with the characterization (I’m looking at you, Arwen). This is our introduction to hobbits, middle-earth, and the fellowship and re-reading the first book only cemented my love for all of Tolkien’s characters. ‘Hobbits really are amazing creatures’ and I loved Sam, Merry, and Pippin for being so willing to follow and support Frodo, no matter where he went or what challenges they faced. Even hobbits like Farmer Maggot and Fatty Bolger went out of their way to support the hobbits without asking anything in return.

I’m giving this 4 stars instead of 5 stars because there were parts of the story that dragged. It felt like it took forever to actually get out of the Shire and Rivendell and Lothlorien went on a little too long for my tastes. I was really impressed with how Tolkien wrote Gollum in this book. He dogs the fellowship for the entire second half of the book without them ever putting a name to what’s following them and it was pretty creepy. It takes a while to get to know each of the nine in the fellowship as well, but slowly Tolkien starts to tease out their personalities and develop each of them into more fully fleshed out characters.

The action definitely translates differently then it does on the screen, but the book had me on the edge of my seat for most of the second half. I thought things picked up a lot once to the fellowship left Rivendell. There were a few parts from the book that weren’t in the movie that I did remember, like the old forest and Tom Bombadil, but there were other parts I didn’t remember at all, like the fellowship getting attacked by wolves. Overall, I still think Peter Jackson did a great job on the adaptation and I can’t wait to re-watch the series again and get started on Two Towers!

A Bend in the Stars

Rating:
Author: Rachel Barenbaum
Genres: Historical fiction
Pub date: May 14, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)

Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Hachette sent me a bunch of books back in January and I haven’t had the best luck with them, but this one definitely stood out. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, but I’ve been finding myself a bit intimidated by it lately. I thought this book sounded really cool, so I was excited to read it and thrilled to find it was really easy to get into, despite having a heavy-sounding topic.

I’ll admit, A Bend in the Stars wasn’t at all the plot I was expecting when I picked it up, but it was really interesting and focused on WWI from a completely different perspective than any other historical fiction I’ve read. Like I said, I love historical fiction, but I’m a bit fatigued with fiction about the world wars because the market is just over-saturated with it and there’s only so much heartbreak I can take. But A Bend in the Stars is set in Russia and while the setting of the story takes place during WWI, it’s not a book about the war.

A Bend in the Stars focuses on brother and sister, Vanya and Miri, just prior to the start of WWI in 1914. They are both Jewish and were raised by their grandmother after the death of their parents. Vanya is a theoretical physicist working at the university, trying to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Miri is a young female doctor working at the local Jewish hospital and is engaged to another Jewish doctor at the hospital, Yuri. They all live in Kovno, a small Russian town that is now known as Kaunas in Lithuania. Miri is about to be named a surgeon, but struggles to be accepted as a female doctor and Vanya is determined to prove Einstein’s theory, but must work against powerful men at the university who want to claim his scientific discoveries for themselves. But the looming war threatens the dreams of both Miri and Vanya and rising tensions against Jewish people threatens their safety.

The science is definitely what peaked my interest in this book. I love a good book about boundary-breaking women who challenge the gender norms of their time, and I was really intrigued about the race to prove relativity, which is something I didn’t know much about. As a story, there were some parts I didn’t really love. I think the author could have done a better job at plotting the story and in developing her characters, but I learned a lot in this book and I really appreciated this different historical perspective.

Like I said, this book is a WWI book that isn’t really about WWI. The fact that war was about to break out is critical to the story because it created a huge sense of urgency and tossed the entire country into chaos, but it’s really only the backdrop for a greater story. I’m still a little fuzzy on the history of general relativity, but my understanding from this book is that Einstein had developed his theory of general relativity, but didn’t have the equations to prove it. Vanya was working to develop the equations and believed they could be proved using a photo of a solar eclipse that catches the bending of light. Vanya is a fabricated character, but there is real history behind the work he did.

At the same time that tensions were mounting between Germany and Russia, a solar eclipse was scheduled to occur that placed Russia in the line of totality (complete eclipse). Vanya believes that if he can find a photographer, he can develop the equations to solve relativity. Harvard believes in him as well and offers him a position if he can solve relativity. With war looming and tensions rising against Jews, it becomes even more important for him to solve relativity in order to get his family out of Russia.

But war breaks out just before the eclipse and Vanya decides to enlist before he is conscripted so that he can request his locale. Yuri agrees to travel with him and aid him while Miri will remain at the hospital. After the eclipse, they plan to meet in St. Petersburg to immigrate together, but things don’t go according to plan and Miri is forced to flee Kovno as well.

I think my favourite part of this book was the exploration of what it meant to be Russian and Jewish during this time period. I think we tend to think of antisemitism as something that was born with Hitler and WWII, but a hatred and distrust of Jewish people was around for a long time before Hitler arrived. Jews were used as a scapegoat for the country’s problems and were viewed as expendable soldiers when WWI broke out. Even before WWI, Jewish people in Russia were the victims of Pogroms, which were violent anti-Jewish riots that have been occurring in Russia since the mid 1800’s.

So I did really like the history in this book and I did learn a lot. But I do think the story suffered a little bit from the writing. I think the author relied a too heavily on plot for this book when I would have preferred to see more character development. We are constantly propelled forward from location to location with the story taking us all over Russia. I struggled to believe some of the drama in the story, particularly how persecuted each of the characters were. War is tearing the country apart and I thought it would be easy for characters like Miri and Vanya to slip through the cracks, but they were pursued all over Russia and I just didn’t think they were important enough to warrant it. I also felt like the author tried to force these emotional, cathartic moments, but they fell a little flat for me because I struggled to bond with the characters.

Vanya was insanely driven to the point that he was totally blinded to everything else happening around him, at the expense of his own personal safety. Yuri seemed interesting enough, but I never felt I really got a sense of who he was and he came across as a bit of an emotionless robot. Sasha and Miri were interesting characters, but I think their story was a little over-dramatized as well. However, I loved that this book had a genuinely upsetting love triangle. I think I’ve said this before in other reviews, but I live for love triangles where you love each of the characters equally. Often there’s one person you don’t like as much or two of the characters have better chemistry, but I love it when you like all the individuals because it really makes you empathize with the main character in deciding who to be with. It was genuinely upsetting when Miri had to choose.

The ending of this book is all kinds of drama. Personally I didn’t really love it. The author packs a lot of stuff into the end and much of it is shocking. I really didn’t anticipate the story going the direction it did and I felt it kind of lost its historical value at the end and became and bit more of a soap opera. I was sad to learn Vanya wasn’t actually a real person, but it did inspire me to do some research into when and how relativity was actually solved, which is also pretty interesting.

Overall I think this is a solid 3-star read. Even though I didn’t love the story, it was still very engaging and I do really appreciate this historical perspective, which was the highlight of the book for me. As a debut novel, this is pretty impressive and I will be interested to see what else Barenbaum publishes in the future.

A Bend in the Stars is available for purchase in stores May 14, 2019.