I think we can all agree 2020 has been, erm, interesting.
Thankfully there’s at least one thing that will end this year on a positive note and it’s this blog post right here, with the ABC Staff’s Favorite Reads of the Year! These are books we read this year – not necessarily published this year – and that we can recommend wholeheartedly to you.
We hope you’ll find some new gems to add to your to-read list (or your Wish List right here on your ABC account!) and that 2021 will be a lot less interesting. Keep reading!
Ailish, ABC The Hague
The Mirror and the Light – Hilary Mantel
I’d loved the first two parts of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series, so this finale coming out at the beginning of lockdown was truly perfect timing. The series is set during the Tudor Era in England, and follows one of Henry VIII’s most powerful advisors, Thomas Cromwell— from his rise to his fall. Somehow, despite being almost 900 pages long, it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go.
The Time of Our Singing – Richard Powers
Powers is also a repeat favourite of mine— last year I read and loved The Overstory. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that somehow, this book is even better. Powers tells the story of two mixed race brothers, Jonah and Joseph, who embark upon a successful career in opera in 1960s America. The book jumps back and forward through time, and we slowly see the brothers grow into themselves and away from each other.
In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado
In the Dream House is a memoir, but it’s also about queer history, fairy tales, and archival silence. Machado describes her relationship with a charismatic but ultimately abusive woman, and infuses it with references to legal proceedings, archival traces, and Disney villains. The book is basically an attempt to write herself into history, to make sure that stories like hers are added to the canon. I’d never read anything like it before, both in terms of format and subject matter, and it really blew my mind.
Salt on Your Tongue: Women and the Sea – Charlotte Runcie
This is another memoir, but this time infused with mythology and nature writing. Runcie writes about her journey to motherhood, all the while exploring legends about women and the sea. The book is based in Scotland, and it was wonderful to travel in my mind to the hills and rocky beaches there through this book.
The Stonewall Reader – The New York Public Library
The Stonewall Reader is a selection of memoirs, pamphlets, interviews, essays and articles written by queer people before, during and after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. They’re all quite short— a couple of pages at most— but by bringing so many voices together, you really get a good introduction to what was happening in queer history in the US at this time. It was fascinating to see how the same event was understood so differently by various people, and also how it affected people of colour very differently from white people, for example.
How to do Nothing – Jenny Odell
I might be cheating with this one, because I read it for the second time this year— but it’s SO GOOD. Odell writes about the attention economy, and argues that our attention is our most valuable resource, worth putting elsewhere than the screens of our phones. This book is really different from any other books on social media: it’s got lots of bird watching and nature walks inside, as well as a constant connection to social justice work.
Sigrid, ABC Amsterdam
Little Eyes – Samanta Schweblin
Actress – Anne Enright
The River Why – David James Duncan
He Is Mine and I Have No Other – Rebecca O’Connor
Natalia, ABC Amsterdam
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – V.E. Schwab
A beautifully written story about a girl in 1714 France who desires to truly feel alive and to be remembered. On the eve of her wedding she makes a Faustian bargain to live forever. Of course her deal with the devil is not without consequence and she realizes what her strongest desire truly means, because her deal with the devil means that no one will remember her after meeting her time and time again.
For 300 years Addie tries to leave her mark upon the world, but seems to fail every time. Until she meets the bookseller Henry and her life is turned upside down.
I’ve always been a fan of V.E. Schwab’s writing, but I definitely think this is one of her best yet! With her beautifully written prose she pulls on your heartstrings throughout the entire novel. This story is one I will remember for a long time to come.
The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin
I’ve read a lot of speculative fiction, but I’ve never read anything like this one. I was warned that this book is an intense read that requires a good amount of focus, because rushing through this one might make you miss a lot of important details.
The world-building in this first installment of the Broken Earth trilogy is amazing and original! The magic system in the world of Stillness revolves around the ability to control (kinetic) energy – those who harness this power pull their energy from the earth. They are called “Orogenes” and are able to prevent or cause earthquakes. When angered and without proper training their power can cause a ripple effect of destruction. Imagine X-Men’s Magneto but then on a much larger scale.
Besides its original world-building, this book also deals with themes such as gender, sexual orientation, and race, especially with emphasis on what happens to those who are deemed different, outcasts, and misunderstood, and end up being demonised by their society. While this is all set in a world different from our own, the climatic & societal events in this book feel and sound all too familiar.
It is refreshing to read a sci-fi / fantasy book that deals with the fluidity of gender and sexuality.
All Boys Aren’t Blue – George M. Johnson
I’m forever thankful that George M. Johnson has written this [YA] memoir — his personal story. With amazing depth, vulnerability and raw honesty, GMJ writes about what it was like growing up as a queer Black man in the US. He touches upon heavy subjects such as bullying, masculinity, gender expectations, sexual abuse, police brutality, and having to play Abraham Lincoln in a school play.
He not only tells us his story, but also asks us serious questions about compulsory heterosexuality, gender performance, and exploring your sexuality. Just to name a few.
I also thoroughly loved his stories about his family, especially about his Nanny. I can relate to having a grandmother that makes you feel seen.
I wasn’t necessarily the intended audience for this book, but while I was reading I kept thinking about my own personal experience growing up queer and how I was often questioning my femininity.
The First Sister – Linden A Lewis
– It’s a super queer space opera (and that’s usually all I need to hear to pick up a book, who am I kidding);
– It features three LGBTQ protagonists who are all on their own journey of shaking off their past: a space comfort woman called First Sister, a non-binary assassin gone rogue called Hiro, and a Venus born soldier called Lito – I loved all of them;
– Complex relationships;
– The world building is really good, including excellent fight scenes;
– It’s fast-paced, dark, and filled with political intrigue;
– It contains plot twists that I definitely did not see coming;
– Soldiers wearing neural implants that are reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim’s drift compatibility;
– I love this cover way too much!
Juliet Takes a Breath – Gabby Rivera
Cute young adult coming-of-age novel about the young Puerto Rican Juliet who is trying to figure out her sexuality, gender, and what she wants out of life. As she meets her idol, Harlowe Brisbane, who has written her favorite feminist book, she learns that there are many different aspects to feminism. She learns that a lot of the feminist ideas in her idol’s book are very much based on “white” feminism and not all of those ideas feel familiar or relatable to her.
What I loved most about this book, is that it portrays the struggles of growing up and realizing that you might be Queer very well. It is not always as black and white as a lot of people might think. So I can definitely relate to Juliet’s (teenage) struggles.
Martijn, ABC The Hague
Peace Talks & Battle Ground – Jim Butcher
Only had to wait for – like – 5 years for this, and hell’s bells did it not disappoint!
It is really one big book split in two parts.
Still my favorite fantasy series ever, so please do yourself a favor and start with book 1 (Storm Front – see staff choice in the details) tomorrow.
Heroes – Stephen Fry
After Mythos – which I absolutely adored – I had to read this book!
More of the Greek myths in his own inimitable style: funny, exiting, well paced and very informative.
Can’t wait to start on Troy.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
I Reread Gaiman once in a while – my favorite author, I think – because…… I must.
This book takes our childhood fears and manifests those as something genuinely scary and evil.
I can’t begin to put this in words, it’s just something Gaiman can do so very, very well.
Big theme, wrapped up in a small, scary, wondrous and hopeful story.
Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovich
I wanted to read some thing Jim Butcher-ish/urban fantasy-ish and tried this one.
It’s very British, so less macho and very understated, but I liked it altogether and think it showed potential for the rest of the series when the characters get a chance to grow.
An Obvious Fact & The Western Star – Craig Johnson
Walt and his posse of friends end up in this list every year. Because it’s really, really GOOD!
I’m nearing the end of what Mr. Johnson has written so far, though, so I’ll have to take it slow on this series.
Modern-day Western with action, humor, family, loss… basically life.
Jitse, ABC Amsterdam
The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa
A bleak dystopian novel set on an Island where Things and the memories of them disappear overnight. Strictly enforced by the Memory Police the Island’s inhabitants are forced to discards all things associated with the wiped memories. As the story progresses more Things are disappeared, but the protagonist keeps remembering things.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe – Thomas Ligotti
I was pleasantly surprised to read this collection of short stories by Thomas Ligotti. Reminiscent of the Weird fiction stories that Poe and Lovecraft wrote, Ligotti has a style quite of his own. Dark, brooding, and nihilistic horror with plot twists that grab you by the throat just when you least expect it.
The Eternals – Jack Kirby
Marvel finally reissued the Eternals stories by Jack Kirby, in time for the new Eternals film due out somewhere in 2021. The film is based on The Eternals by Neil Gaiman, who in turn based them on the Jack Kirby stories. This reissue collects all the story arcs written and drawn by Kirby. All the stories have been recolored, and I must say that it stays true to the original exuberant, dramatic coloring. Loaded with explosive splash pages.
The world is not what you think what it is: humans have been engineered by the Gods, know as the Celestials, and are guarded by powerful god-like humanoids called the Eternals. These Eternals fight agains the Deviants, mutants that live below the earth and ocean in the remains of old Lemuria. The old battles are fought again, will the Earth suvive?
Norse Tales: Stories from Across the Rainbow Bridge – Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jeffrey Alan Love
Another beautiful collaboration between Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jeffrey Alan Love. A collection of Norse tales from the Viking era with valleys swept by glacier winds, forests where mountain giants and forest trolls roam and the gods spread their magic. Wonderful illustrations by Jeffrey Alan Love complete this great book. A wonderful companion to the earlier Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki.
The Letter for the King – Tonke Dragt
A Dutch classic and still a great read today. Rereading this book to my kid was a wonderful experience. We were both fully immersed in Tiuri’s quest to delivery the mysterious letter to the King of Unauwen, and keep it out of the hands of his enemies. A tale of trust, bravery and doing what’s right set in a vivid medieval world still worth visiting today.
IrisW, ABC The Hague
The Near Witch – V.E. Schwab
I was on the fence about V.E. Schwab for a long time and for no real reason, as I hadn’t read anything by her. But then I picked up her Shades of Magic series and greatly enjoyed it, because, not surprising to anyone, she’s actually a great writer. Even so, I was mostly drawn to The Near Witch because of its gorgeous cover and the incredibly cool sprayed edges. But then I read it, and fell in love with the story. It’s mysterious, witchy, and more than a little dark. Definitely something to read by the proverbial fire (or, you know, an actual fire) on a stormy night.
Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo
A New England campus novel featuring a somewhat cantankerous young woman with a troubled past? Not-so-secret societies that practice actual magic? Ghosts and murder mysteries? A ragtag group of unlikely allies? Yes, please! It took me a little while to get into this book, but when I did, I could not put it down. My only complaint is that the next instalment isn’t here yet!
This book definitely deals with some pretty dark topics and should probably come with content warnings for murder, sexual assault, violence and a lot of gore, but it should also be said that all of these further the story and aren’t just there for shock value.
So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo
Books on antiracism have (rightfully) gained quite a lot of popularity this year; certain titles were quite hard to keep in stock for a while there! This one, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, is definitely not the only one I read on the topic, but it’s one that stands out to me. The writing is extremely accessible and presents a good balance between the author’s personal experiences and cold, hard facts, backed up by data. I also really appreciated Oluo’s focus on intersectionality: she frequently talks about not just race, but its conjunction with gender, sexuality, wealth, ability, and all kinds of factors that contribute to someone’s experiences in life. A highly recommended title for anyone looking to start their antiracism education.
Loveless – Alice Oseman
This book is an asexual awakening campus novel featuring lots of queer characters, references to Shakespeare and pop culture, and a resilient houseplant named Roderick. Stories featuring ace folx (especially as main characters!) are rare and I was a little nervous – what if I didn’t like the way Oseman handled it? But good news: I absolutely loved this book and finished it in one day.
The campus vibe, the theatre nerds and the importance of platonic relationships (while also being sex-positive) really spoke to me. I love the way Alice Oseman writes a diverse cast of characters without becoming preachy or rubbing your nose in it. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in any of the above as well as Scooby Doo shenanigans & a bouncy castle sword fight!
The Relentless Moon – Mary Robinette Kowal
This story has so much going on (space travel, politics, espionage, sabotage, gender and racial inequality, ageism, trauma – not to mention the impending END OF THE WORLD), but somehow it all ties together into this fast-paced alternate historical sci-fi story that focuses on the settlers in a newly established Moon colony. The Relentless Moon is the third part in the Lady Astronaut series, but there is little overlap between storylines and the author has said she tried to write it so that it would work as a standalone (although I highly recommend the first two parts in the series, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, as well!).
Lynn, all of the ABCs
A Column of Fire – Ken Follett
The Individual and the Nature of Mass Events – Jane Roberts
Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell
Too Much and Never Enough – Mary Trump
JeroenW, ABC The Hague
Exhalation – Ted Chiang
How many books have a blurb by Barack Obama and Alan Moore on their cover? At least one: this one. I would gladly have provided one myself, but they didn’t ask me. A good book for fans of Black Mirror and other human beings.
No Longer Human – Osamu Dazai
Our protagonist Yozo doesn’t understand human beings and by extension also not himself. He is as alone as anyone or anything could be in this
universe. Pure existential horror. Got under my skin.
The Glass Hotel – Emily St. John Mandel
Thanks to this book I think I finally understand how a Ponzi scheme works. I also learned that the concept wasn’t named after ‘Potsie’ from Happy Days. I mean, it could have been, right? It sounds the same…
Mordew – Alex Pheby
A dark, melancholy story that most reminded me of Bloodborne and Studio Ghibli. Nasty, bloody and cruel. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.
Men to Avoid in Art and Life – Nicole Tersigni
The author combines the horrible things that men say to women perfectly with classic works of art. It made me laugh out loud. Give it as a gift to anyone you know who regularly interacts with men.
Charlotte, ABC Events
I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This – Nadja Spiegelman
The Complete MAUS – Art Spiegelman
Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne du Maurier
The Prophet – Khalil Gibran
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
MariaS, ABC Amsterdam & ABC Amstelveen
Burn – Patrick Ness
A book I was not expecting to be so good. I have read Patrick Ness before and this book felt so different from his other books. It takes the premise of a young girl who was prophesied to save the world and turns that trope upside down. The ending had me blown away!
The Lost Puzzler – Eyal Kless
This book’s name fits very well. It is a bit of a puzzle, in more ways than one. You follow 2 perspectives, one in the future and one in the past, the first learning about the second and about what happened to them. I loved this concept because it made the book feel like a mystery.
The Faithless Hawk – Margaret Owen
A great sequel to The Merciful Crow. The writer delves more into who Fie is and if her choices were the right ones. I wasn’t expecting this sequel to have so many twists, turns, or mysterious plots and I’m happy it did!
Realm of Ash – Tasha Suri
It was really great the return to the world of Ambha. This book was romantic and dark and it takes its time to learn the characters. It sets the atmosphere of the world perfectly. I didn’t want to put it down.
Sywert, ABC Amsterdam & ABC Amstelveen
The Preserve – Ariel S. Winter
A murder mystery set in a world where humanity has been almost wiped out by a plague. The remaining humans live in designated robot-free areas called preserves and the rest of the world is filled by robots/AIs. The robots try to use a murder as a way to get rid of the human preserves all together. And our friendly human detective has to solve it before that happens. Quick read too.
The Living Dead – George S. Romero and Daniel Kraus
Final zombie novel by Romero and Kraus. Gory zombie horror mixed with some great characters. It’s big (600+ pages) but worth it. Crosses half the United States and well over a decade after the first outbreak.
Tender is the Flesh – Agustina Bazterrica
After a virus outbreak that leaves the meat of (other) animals poisonous, mankind starts a new industry: human meat. This is a weird little horror book and could turn any die-hard meat eater into a vegetarian. Or just makes you accept that human meat might be a thing.
Ammonite – Nicola Griffith
Science Fiction meets a bit of linguistic anthropology. A virus has killed off all men and altered the surviving women. Weird but fun.
Axiom’s End – Lindsay Ellis
First contact! Area 51! Strange Aliens! Also the alien is called Ampersand which might be a bit on the nose but it still made me laugh.
Klaartje, ABC Amsterdam
Redhead by the Side of the Road – Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler gives me the feeling that I could read what happens inside the head of Micah Mortimer. He is a bit odd and funny and halfway through the book it dawned on me what kind of mental disorder he probably has. For example: people in the sky will applaud when he parks his car in a neat way.
Underland – Robert MacFarland
Everything you need to know about what happens under your feet, on our planet and in the universe! I liked the chapter in the catacombs and subways under Paris best.
Braiding Sweetgrass – Robin Wall Kimmerer
She gives you detailed stories on plants with explanations on how the miracles around the plant actually work. I still read pieces in the book randomly.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures – Merlin Sheldrake
This new and already popular book is very positive in tone. There are many possibilities with fungi that we can use to solve problems we have with pollution and making a durable way to treat the planet.
Walden – Henry David Thoreau
This book was first printed in 1856 and is still in print. Gives an impression on what it will be like to live a minimalist life. It is a good book to read in your own home, in a quiet spot.
Pleun, ABC Amsterdam
The Only Good Indians – Stephen Graham Jones
Sometimes you read a book that leaves you in total awe. The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones was bone chilling and terrifying, beautiful and scary as hell. It’s about good people who made a bad call when they were young and now have to pay for it. It’s about Native Americans who try to make a life outside the reservations and their place in society. If you want to read an amazing horror novel that goes way deeper than your average slasher story then read this amazing book!
The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is an absolutely heart-breakingly beautiful book. I fell in love with the main character, Elwood, in the first chapter, with this beautiful, smart and proud young boy and his struggles. The injustice he and all these boys had to go through not only at the Nickel Academy but also in their lives on the outside. It made my blood boil and my eyes tear up. Colson Whitehead is an amazing writer. It’s a true page turner with a twist at the end I did not see coming.
The Sun Down Motel – Simone St. James
My oh my THE SUN DOWN MOTEL by Simone St. James is definitely one of the better crime books I’ve read this year. Both timelines are equally interesting and well written and the supernatural part is so damn scary. The book had me at the tip of my seat and actually made me scream ‘get the f@#k out of there!’ out loud, my boyfriend looked at me kinda funny after that 😁 At the end I started reading it slower to savour every page.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper – Hallie Rubenhold
What an interesting read this was! The Five by Hallie Rubenhold digs into the lives of the five victims of Jack the Ripper. A lot of times the victims of serial killers are forgotten. They are just a name on a list, a Jane Doe, a prostitute or a number. They are dehumanised, and who they were is of no importance to the killer and often also by the media. We forget that these victims were real women with hopes and dreams, struggles and challenges. Hallie Rubenhold gives every victim of The Ripper her own chapter and shows us that only one of his victims was a prostitute, something a lot of people don’t know. It is a dark and sometimes heartbreaking read but an important read if you want to know the whole story of Jack the Ripper.
Home Before Dark – Riley Sager
I just loved HOME BEFORE DARK by Riley Sager!
It has such a supernatural vibe and there are major twists and turns throughout the book. The story, why the Holt family left Baneberry Hall in the middle of the night 25 years ago, is told as a book within the book written by the father of the family. Maggie, who was 5 at the time, inherits the house and believes her father wrote a fake account and goes searching for the truth. Every time you think you know the story it turns into something completely different. Edge-of-your-seat material and a definitive must-read!
The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett was a absolutely fascinating read. It’s a slow book that had me hooked at the first page. I loved the two sisters but also all the other characters. Brit Bennett is an exceptional writer and the plot and prose are perfection. The book deals with racism, domestic violence and gender identity in such a way that has you thinking long after you read the last page. I can not praise this book enough! This is one of the books that lives up to the hype. Buy it, read it and I’m sure you will love it.
The Fisherman – John Langan
Can I just say WOW! what an amazing book this is. The prose is exquisite and the story is dark and gloomy and absolutely beautiful, this is horror at its finest. The two story lines complete each other and won’t let you go. I can highly recommend this one, for me the best book I’ve read in 2020.
Emma, ABC The Hague
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of The World – Haruki Murakami
I had heard raving reviews about this author before but must say I was taken aback by how much I liked his writing style. All the chronicles of fantasy and real worlds converging with one another in the most stunning way. With adventurous spirit, mystery and incredible imagination. Begging fearsome questions of who your mind and thoughts belong to and more of such existential meditations.
Ways of Seeing – John Berger
Easily digested and prompt but simultaneously highly critical and reflective. A complete eye opener on the world of art critics and the conventions around images in general. With an academic philosophical understanding Berger reveals the unconscious aspects of our visual language. Completely enlightening.
Het Leven Speelt Met Mij – David Grossman (not yet translated into English)
A beautiful story reconciling memories and promises made long ago. Revisiting a family tragedy whose entire origin can be traced to the happenings on one dreadful island. A tale questioning to what ends one goes for the preservation of one’s loyalties. A tarnishing trade off of fates. With gripping historical charge.
De vreemdelinge – Claudia Durastanti (not yet translated into English)
Fantastically moving, sensitive autobiography. As well as writing a very fragile Durastanti references very universal themes in touch with modern times. Discussing vulnerable subjects of isolation and feeling of being an outsider as much as subjects of family welfare and social climbing. Captivating and endearing.
Tiemen, ABC Amsterdam & ABC Amstelveen
The Ministry for the Future – Kim Stanley Robinson
Probably the most harrowing first chapter I’ve read, not only because it describes the death of millions of people during a heatwave in India literally being boiled alive, but it is an all too plausible scenario in our own near future. This is science fiction grounded in the reality of the homemade climate disaster humankind is facing right now. Climate fiction has been steadily gaining in popularity the last few years, most of them focusing on the disaster part. The Ministry for the Future, while not shying away from how monumentally screwed we are at this moment, is a story about how we can actually fix this problem. It is hopeful and audacious in its imagination of a better and liveable world.
The City we Became – N.K. Jemisin
Basically a love song to New York and urban fantasy at its finest. N.K. Jemisin is on her A-game once again.
The House in the Cerulean Sea – TJ Klune
This fantasy book is really an antidote for depressing 2020. It’s a story about love and finding your family. It literally brings color in a world that can often feel drab and gray and that is something everyone can use this last year.
How to Think Like A Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius – Donald J. Robertson
Philopsophy, history and pyschology all in one book. Robertson describes the life of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and how the philosophy of stoicism helped him rule during his reign. Filled with practical advice on how the teachings of stoicism can help in living a well-lived life.
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Futures from the Frontiers of Climate Science – Paul Behrens
If you are interested in climate change in the slightest this is a book you should read. Behrens is a scientist working at the university of Leiden. In this book he explains all the challenges we face at the moment regarding our planet. All of those problems mostly created by ourselves, but because the environment is a complex system of feedback loops we might soon create a future that we can no longer adapt to or live in. Alternating between chapters describing the worst case scenario and the best case scenario it is the kind of science book that tells you unflinchingly how it is but at the same time also shows us that if we make the necessary changes we can still preserve the world for future generations.
Want to hear Paul Behrens talk about his book? Watch him in conversation with scifi author Malka Older at our ABC Online Book Events!
Jouke, ABC The Hague
December 1st, 2020
29,669 pages read over 75 books
♥ Fantasy recommendations:
The Forgetting Moon (The Five Warrior Angels #1) – Brian Lee Durfee (2016 debut)
The Blackest Heart (The Five Warrior Angels #2) – Brian Lee Durfee
This blend of grimdark and high fantasy blew me away so hard it is just insane. How is this a debut series and not written by a veteran? And how is this so criminally underread?? Durfee is a hybrid of Tolkien, Stephen King, George R.R. Martin and more. Tropey and wonderfully antitropey at the same time, this is a massive tale about ancient prophecies and their fickleness, mystical weapons, religion, conquering armies, youth, love, and flesh-eating mermaids.
I cannot remember the last time I have reread a book, but I am looking forward to rereading both these behemoths (763 and 960 pages) before the third and final book The Lonesome Crown (1200+ pages) will be released late 2021.
Warbreaker – Brandon Sanderson
Two sisters, captive gods, an ingenious magic system featuring breath and colors, and a talking sword.
I love Warbreaker and I have no idea why I waited 11 years to read this and I will devour its sequel Nightblood immediately upon its (alleged) release in 2025. Bonus: this can perfectly be read as a standalone novel.
The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home – Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
A historical mystery, interwoven with horror and spanning centuries. A compelling story of betrayal and vengeance. “Part The Haunting of Hill House, part The Count of Monte Cristo” with a very tasty ending.
Dancer’s Lament (Path to Ascendency #1) – Ian C. Esslemont
Deadhouse Landing (Path to Ascendency #2) – Ian C. Esslemont
Kellanved’s Reach (Path to Ascendency #3) – Ian C. Esslemont
Co-created by two Canadian authors – Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont – and 28 books and counting, the Malazan series defines ‘epic fantasy’. However, it takes an effort to get into it. After abandoning Erikson’s series in book 2 quite some years ago, finishing Esslemont’s later published and more accessible prequel trilogy has resparked my drive to continue on in 2021. It also helps that nowadays there exists an extensive wikia for Malazan. Featuring a well-thought-out magic system, top-notch characters and world-building, and more than a couple of very angry gods, Malazan in its entirety is, as I am finding out for myself, deservedly hailed as a fantasy reader’s dream series.
♥ Crime Fiction recommendations:
Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker (2016 debut)
The disappearance of a three year-old boy in a small rural community inhabited by quirky characters. Reminiscent of ‘Twin Peaks’, but with endearing qualities.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton (2018 debut)
“Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day”. Any additional detail I might add will take away from the surprise factor, so I’ll leave you there and urge you to just dive in. All through the book I was trying (and failing) to wrap my head around the possible denouement. Most original.
My Lovely Wife – Samantha Downing (2019 debut)
An engrossing as well as disturbing page turner about a married couple of serial killers.
A Dark Matter (The Skelfs #1) – Doug Johnstone
Three generations of women whose family home in Edinburgh doubles as a funeral parlor and triples as a private investigation agency. This is a book featuring strong lead characters navigating relationships and multiple mysteries, at times philosophical, occasionally macabre, and always crisp in style.
Born in a Burial Gown (DI Avison Fluke #1) – M.W. Craven (2015 debut)
Body Breaker (DI Avison Fluke #2) – M.W. Craven
The Puppet Show (Washington Poe #1) – M.W. Craven
Black Summer (Washington Poe #2) – M.W. Craven
The Curator (Washington Poe #3) – M.W. Craven
Two solid whodunit / police procedural series starring flawed main characters and memorable and fun secondary characters, taking place in Cumbria, one of the largest and one of the most sparsely populated counties in England. Well-written, well-paced and well-plotted.
Voices – Arnaldur Indridason
Jar City and Silence of the Grave are parts 1 and 2 of the Inspector Erlendur series, leading up to Voices, volume 3. Erlendur’s private life and his work tend to overlap somewhat, and his personal troubles with parents, siblings and children are issues that come up in his cases as well. In Voices, these themes are so much at the forefront that I was really moved by all the emotions involved, which doesn’t happen very often with me, reading crime novels.
Leaving the World – Douglas Kennedy
Kennedy writes extensive, intense novels that can transport you to another world for quite a few hours. There are some recurring themes in the novels, so if you like one, you are bound to like others, too. I particularly enjoyed reading this one, which deals with a woman who takes some drastic steps in her life, after certain events force her to change her path. It is inspiring to see how she controls her decision making, and how she can mould her own future.
Heresy – S. J. Parris
Well, here I thought I didn’t like historical fiction when this series by Parris ended up on my bookshelves. In 1583 Giordano Bruno, once a monk in Italy who fled from the Inquisition, starts a new function as a gatherer of information for highly placed figures in England. The country is dealing with clashing loyalties to different faiths and leaders, there is the Pope in Rome (still there) and Queen Elizabeth on the throne in England (also still there), so the scenery is not that different from today after all. Well, there are spies in cloaked robes, some quartering, and use of the guillotine… I thought historical novels had too much historical fluff (ref: Dan Brown), but this is not the case for Heresy! You are straight away engaged in the character of Bruno and his detective work. Find of the year!
Outline – Rachel Cusk
Outline is one of those delicate novels that require a bit of extra time, to soak up the atmosphere, the language, the details of the interactions. This is part one of a trilogy (Transit and Kudos follow), and I am quite sure I will try another one of her novels, such as The Bradshaw Variations.
Deception – Jonathan Kellerman
I have read just about every Alex Delaware novel; they have grown on me over the years. Most titles in this series are quite chunky, so a good long read for each of them. This one, about a tormented teacher at a prestigious prep school, is a good example of the solid, entertaining Delaware novels.
Lília, ABC The Hague
This year I concentrated more on my sewing practice, thus the publications I liked the most are so (sew!) related.
Threads magazine is a wonderful resource for more advanced sewists, and those who want to really sink their teeth into good technique. It is a beautiful glossy magazine, full of tips.
BurdaStyle magazine is a great resource for sewists of all levels, and it comes with lots of patterns. You have to trace them, that’s true, but it’s a good start for someone still learning. Nowadays they also have nice articles showing some of their techniques and a sort of sew-along for a pattern or two, which helps.
The Great British Sewing Bee: Sustainable Style by Caroline Akselson and Alexandra Bruce is a great resource for sewists who want to try their hand at sewing in a more sustainable way.
And last but not least, a book I discovered last year but is still one of my favourites:
Mending Matters by Katrina Rodabaugh is a great source of inspiration for visible and invisible mending, a more sustainable way of making things and looking at the world. She’s one of those people who live what they preach and does it with simplicity.
Maarten, ABC Amsterdam
The Gospel of the Eels – Patrik Svensson
Darwin Comes to Town – Menno Schilthuizen
Levensberichten – Sander Kollaard
Een man met goede schoenen – Rob van Essen
IrisM, ABC Betty the Book-Making Machine team
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – V.E. Schwab
A dark and lovely fairy tale that deals with art and immortality and love and the price we are willing to pay for those things. It is both classic and current and I loved it! I also read V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series this year and if it wasn’t for Addie, it would’ve been one of those on my list. So this is a sneaky recommendation for that series as well 😉
Let them Eat Chaos – Kae Tempest
So technically I read this last year, but after the staff picks had been published. I am not a poetry reader at all and normally I would shy away from recommending a poetry book. I discovered Kae Tempest as a musician, but they are also a poet and spoken word artist (next confession: I know next to nothing about spoken word either). This book accompanies the album of the same name. It is a social commentary, a window into contemporary life in the city – the strangeness of living so close together, yet somehow apart. It is harsh and grating and strangely hopeful at the same time.
So… Cards & Three-Dragon Ante
Since these are not books, I felt I could cheat a little and put them together/
The So… Cards are conversation starters. In this weird year, I’ve had very little opportunity to see my friends. Even when we could (safely) meet, we’d have trouble moving away from current events. I brought the So… Cards one evening and many after that. These cards are great for starting conversations that might be more meaningful, or just different, than usual.
Three-Dragon Ante is a poker inspired card game that comes with beautiful cards and a lot of tokens. The cool thing is: you can play it as ‘just’ a card game, or it can be ingrained into your Dungeons & Dragons game through optional rules.
Kings of the Wyld – Nicholas Eames
If you’re looking for a fantasy novel that has that D&D party feel without actually being a D&D novel, then pick up this one. Eames does a very good job showing just how silly fantasy and RPG tropes can be, while still telling an engaging story. If you’re like me, then you’ve probably burned your hands on supposedly funny fantasy novels – don’t worry, Kings of the Wyld actually delivers!
The Lonely City – Olivia Laing
While writing this list, I noticed how all of my picks this year deal with loneliness or how not to be lonely. Addie La Rue is starving for a lasting human connection. Let them Eat Chaos describes how a random event momentarily unites seven sleepless strangers. The shifting place of lifelong friendship is a central theme of Kings of the Wyld. The games are one of the ways I’d like to connect with friends. To learn about each other, to make stories together.
Loneliness is a subject that is often uncomfortable to regard – yet it is so pervasive. The Lonely City is part memoir, part art history. The author’s personal notes (and they are very intimate) tie together what would else be separate lives of artists. It is a painful read, this one, but very recommended.
Sophie, ABC The Hague
Uprooted – Naomi Novik
Simply enchanting. I didn’t think I liked fairy tales, but this story gently spun its magic round and round about me until I couldn’t stop reading. I loved the heavy Polish influences, the engrossing action, the strong ties to nature, and main character Agnieszka stole my heart (the Dragon did, too, what with him obviously being a fellow Virgo).
Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo
This was a beautiful group of stories showing the length and breadth and – above all – depth of the lives of Black women in the UK today and in the past century or so (but mostly today).
I don’t think I could have read about and learned from a more diverse group of girls/women/others: feminists, traditionalists, young, old, struggling, successful, recent immigrant, xth generation… And every single one of them contained such a wealth of details and back stories; I couldn’t believe Evaristo managed that level of depth in 30 pages per person. I loved how they were all connected, too, and how everything combined into one loose but coherent story.
This was one of the books I read for the Feminist Book Club that has been meeting bi-monthly in ABC The Hague (and now over Zoom) since 2016, and once again I want to give a shout-out to that reading list (as well as all the amazing folks that meet-up there!).
The Wild Laughter – Caoilinn Hughes
I love it when a poet writes a novel. Each sentence is so plump full of great images: a pelican jaw, a Tetris goatee, someone panthering down a driveway. And no unnecessary filler paragraphs, either; everything has been pared down to the core and almost every sentence packs a wallop. It makes for an intense and graphic read. So be warned, despite its slim 190 pages The Wild Laughter will leave you wrung out, in a good way.
On the surface this is about Doharty (Hart) Black, a young Irishman who tries to keep sane in a family featuring a booksmart pain-in-the-arse brother, an emotionally absent mother, and a beloved, ailing, broken father who asks the impossible of them all. But really this story is about so much more: family, faith, promises, the economic crisis, brotherly strife, love in various guises, desperation.
At the center, however, stands Hart, and it can’t be a coincidence his name sounds like ‘heart’ and ‘hard’. He is so vivid. I loved him, just like I loved Gael from Hughes’s previous book Orchid & the Wasp. Whole human beings, with flaws and halos both, conjured up by mere ink on paper. So, so impressive.
The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon
Here be dragons, and mages, and warriors, and alchemists, and queens, and sacred trees, and more mythical beasts than you can shake a stick at. All wrapped up in a quick-moving tale that spans an enormous and wonderfully conceived world. Shannon borrows from various cultures and mythologies around the globe and manages to give them her own twist, a little like I find Leigh Bardugo does in her Grisha world.
I also LOVED how there were so many women in this book. Epic fantasy full of epic women, MORE PLEASE! Not that there were no men; this is no inverted Tolkien or anything. But the girls kicked the butt here, in every sense. Ead, Tané, Sabran, Kalyba, the Golden Empress, Margret, all of them fleshed out and worthy of fan-art and fan-fic.
The only teeny gripe I have is that the ending somehow felt rushed – although that might also have been me who simply couldn’t stop reading!
Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell
I don’t know any writer who can ensorcel me quite like Maggie O’Farrell can. I was lucky enough to discover her around her 3rd book and have been an absolute fan-girl ever since, impatiently waiting for new work and Staff Choice-ing every single one of them as they came out. There’s just something in the way she captures moments and presents them to you like perfectly preserved insects in amber, to investigate and savor from every angle and in every light. Nobody paints scenes with words quite like she does.
Hamnet is another intricately imagined novel. I find it quite daring because she jumps into history and takes, of all people, William Shakespeare and his family as the central characters. While she shares his point of view, most of the book is given to Agnes (Anne), his wife. You see them falling in love and trying to find their footing in life, you see the children thriving and struggling, you feel the endless grief as one of them is buried.
I laughed as the apples in the apple shed jounced, I cried endless tears as the child was sewn into their shroud, I fell in love with Agnes (everyone will fall in love with Agnes), I walked around in 16th-century England. I was transported, in other words, and am still mourning the end of this book a little. I hope many more people will discover her writing.
Wij slaven van Suriname – Anton de Kom
The best non-fiction book I read this year, hands down, and sadly without an English translation, currently.
This book was first published in 1934 and, with impeccable prose, describes the Dutch colonial rule in Surinam in all its awfulness. De Kom did a lot of research and presents uncountable examples of the mistreatment of Surinam slaves, how the Dutch governors had no knowledge of the country and climate they were put in charge of, what the names were of the marrons who fled into the jungle and offered resistance (Baron, Joli Coeur, Bonni). How the neighbouring colonies got rid of slavery many years before the Netherlands, how the former slaves were forced to work for 10 more years after their ‘freedom’ came, how they received nothing – absolutely nothing – in compensation or training or plots of land. I finally understood a little bit more about the contentious relationship between the Netherlands and Surinam. This book should be required reading in schools here, and that it hasn’t been shows how ostrich-like our attitude has been towards our colonial past and its reverberations in society today.
This Is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
What a glorious little book. It manages to be both very strange (in the way the main characters communicate, for example, and the various time travel strands and threads) and a thoroughly gripping love story that builds and builds and builds to a fantastic and breathless finish.
The coded missives between the characters are funny as well as a beautiful demonstration of saying “I love you” without using those words.
I’m so impressed this was written by two authors because the whole book really feels like one whole. I loved the language, I loved the longing, I loved the ending, I loved that some things will stay fuzzy and unclear.
Friday Black – Nana-Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Reading a short story collection is like a visit to a museum: you’ll have a bunch of “mmmkay” moments but you are also always guaranteed a “wow what is THIS!” experience that shifts your perspective.
For me the WOW story in this collection was the very first one: “The Finkelstein 5”. I found it an incredibly strong piece, putting me into the skin of a young Black man continuously forcing himself into a whiter version of himself in order to adapt and survive. It really demonstrated how soul-crushing it is to always live a diluted version of yourself.
I also found “Light Spitter” very good, showing both sides of a school shooting, “Through the Flash”, a horrible vision of the future and being caught in a loop, and “Zimmer Land”, about a very twisted amusement park.