Books of the year lists are an annual highlight. Oh yes. I usually consume them with a competitive eye, scanning the covers in The New York Times and Globe & Mail like they could be baseball cards, thinking “read that, read that, never was going to read that, read that but kind of wish I had stopped earlier because it really wasn’t worth staying up that late for.” I agree with their general assessment that Obama’s memoir was terrific and that The Vanishing Half was a remarkable read – I felt so connected with those characters that I turned right back to page one and started again. I also agree with every list out there that says Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel was outstanding but looking back over this year there were other standout titles that sustained me. So, I am sharing my out-of-the-ordinary-best-of-2020-book-list.
Taking the spot for Best YA Series That Should Be Read By and Can Be Enjoyed By Adults is Maureen Johnson’s captivating mysteries set in a private Vermont boarding school built by an eccentric millionaire. Each book in this detective story/unsolved kidnapping from the 1930s/modern murder mystery was so cleverly plotted it was crucial to re-read the previous novel to feel suitably prepared to begin the next. The incredible twists built into the story about true-crime expert and reluctant student Stevie Bell make these three books contenders for any mystery-loving adult looking for a crossover pick. The author has also shared the fantastic news that she will publish a standalone novel in April of 2021 featuring Stevie solving another cold case while she participates in a true crime podcast – a dream come true for new and old fans in Johnson’s The Box in the Woods.
There were many possible entries for Most Distracting But Not At All Scary At a Time We Truly Needed Diversion, but one of the last books I checked out before the library closed down in March was a time travel book that I can’t stop thinking about. An engaging debut novel called Oona Out of Order with a main character who had an experience of travelling through time that perfectly aligned with those feelings of uncertainty we had during the early days of the pandemic. I’ve continued to suggest it to customers all year because it has an uplifting tone, despite the ongoing uncertainty of her ‘life’. Oona is resigned to never knowing which decade she might move to next but she is able to approach the changes with a sense of adventure instead of despair. She experiences real heartache in the novel and the reader isn’t shielded from those emotions but there is more joy than sadness. Her travels are linked to her birthday, New Year’s Eve, and they begin in the early 80s so there is a vivid sense of decades of super fun pop culture as each of Oona’s lives unfolds. As the clock counts down to midnight Oona will be an ideal companion, in any year, but definitely this one.
Every year the crop of new picture books is uplifting but, in a year as dark as 2020, it really did feel as if each delivery of new books was carrying something designed to make tiny pinpricks of light in the world. Picture book beauty helped brighten every week here at the library. The Fan brothers added to their list of masterpieces by creating a book with a third brother called The Barnabus Project and Jillian Tamaki’s inclusive story of a community kitchen is a heart-warming treat that you could house in a bedroom or a kitchen. Among this year’s treasures was an enchanting book by Nova Scotia author-illustrator Lauren Soloy. When Emily Was Small was my pick for Best Picture Book to Read Aloud Over and Over. Soloy is telling the story of a young Emily Carr as she explores her backyard and the marriage of words and illustration is just perfection. She used Carr’s writing as a springboard for her story and a palate of glorious greens and greys surround this strong young person in the brambles of her backyard. As Emily – she refers to herself as “Small” – starts to enjoy her relationship with nature, it’s impossible not to want to head outdoors yourself. Each page of this picture book is asking to be read aloud, shared with someone special, and will encourage a love of the world in your own yard, sidewalk, or park. Lauren Soloy’s next book will focus on Henrietta Darwin, the eldest daughter of Charles Darwin, and should publish in the spring of 2021. Mark your calendars to look ahead for this one!
Like many readers, I would occasionally find it hard to focus on full-length novels in 2020 and turned to short story collections like the gift that was Madeleine L’Engle’s The Moment of Tenderness or Jack Wang’s We Two Alone. Turning the last page on something shorter felt a tiny bit like an accomplishment, don’t you think? Another enjoyable option for me were the novels for middle grade readers. Shorter, of course, but also so vibrant. I had so much fun reading things like Remy Lai’s Fly on the Wall and David Robertson’s The Barren Grounds. I can’t imagine I’ll be more pleased by anything than the talking squirrel in Robertson’s story and the way that the children worked with the animals. I’m thankful it’s the beginning of a series. Remy Lai had already proven herself to be more than capable of writing a mix of funny and poignant stories with Pie in the Sky and her second book was just as meaningful.
The shelves in our Children’s Departments are filled with so many stories that will captivate young readers (or readers who like to read books written for a younger audience). It’s impossible to choose a favourite but I’ll vote the Kids Express Book Bundles (we have them for adults too!) as the Favourite Library Idea of 2020 due to their popularity. Some of our days seemed devoted to the pleasure of filling customer requests for books that would suit specific needs and it was a highlight for staff to be able to sort through the treasure trove of material we had on the shelves and gather them together for families who would come to pick them up. A small bright spot.
And another small bright spot for me was to find that, finally, among all of the wonderful cozy mystery series I read in a year, someone has taken notice of the strain that finding multiple dead bodies places upon a character. Most Aware of Character Needs Cozy Writer of 2020 goes to S. C. Perkins, the author of Murder Once Removed. It’s the first novel in a charming series centred around a genealogist who finds herself investigating murders that are inconveniently connected with her successful professional ancestry business. The mysteries are tricky and her writing is top-notch, with all of the action set in the vibrant area surrounding Austin, TX. After the violence and mayhem in the first novel, she has her genealogist attend counselling, self-defence classes and a CPR course. It’s so logical. This should be happening to every amateur sleuth. It just rocked my world when I read about this in the second book, Lineage Most Lethal, and saw that her life was a little more balanced from having processed the grief of finding a dead body and better managing the stress. These two books were sensational and the author will publish her third book in the “Ancestry Detective” series, Fatal Family Ties, in July 2021 and I’m sure she will continue to amaze (and her characters will find dead bodies).
My holds list for 2021 is already quite promising. In March I’m counting on being one of the first to read a debut novel by Indigenous author Angeline Boulley called Firekeeper’s Daughter, and I’m also looking forward to spending time in any world created by Kevin Sylvester, especially as he has teamed up with one of his children to write a novel about a non-binary teen called The Fabulous Zed Watson! It will also be the year of big books like those from Joan Didion, Kazuo Ishiguro and Jhumpa Lahiri but I think that of the many books I have on hold right now the one I am most excited about is Dial A for Aunties. Publisher’s Weekly suggests it will be like a “K-drama meets telenovela with a side of rom-com” so if even half of that is true, it will be a highlight of 2021. Let’s raise a cup of tea in celebration of the authors and illustrators who entertained and delighted us in 2020 and to those who will find their way to the library’s shelves next year!
— Penny M.