Cannonball Read is here to tell you that even among the craziness of this year, there’s still good out there: good books. Unfortunately, there are also some bad books, but never fear, Cannonballers have slogged through thousands of pages this year and know where to warn you away. Take a look at what 2020 brought in reading to the Cannonball crew, and see how they weigh in.
Feel free to comment below if you’ve read any of these, and if you agree or disagree. If you have lots to say about what you’ve read, consider signing up for Cannonball Read 13,
and put those words to good use fundraising for the American Cancer Society. The 13th year of this annual book challenge to read and review books in the memory of the late, great Pajiban, AlabamaPink, begins on January 1, 2021.
The Stone Sky by NK Jemisin
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Mrs. Lincoln & Mrs. Keckley: The Remarkable Friendship Between a First Lady & a Former Slave by Jennifer Fleischner
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Giant Days by John Allison - Struggling to read actual books I took the plunge on Comixology Unlimited (Amazon) which gets you access to a substantial library of graphic novels for $6/month. I dove into Giant Days (currently 12 in this series) which tells the stories of 3 very different young women who become fast friends as they navigate various challenges at a university: managing school, romance, first apartments, first jobs, etc. It’s a delightful read with a lively cast of supporting characters that never detract from the fact their friendship which shines throughout.
The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black - The third book in The Folk of the Air series, this book wraps up an excellent trilogy where a human changeling, Jude, navigates the magic and evil of the Faerie Court. Holly Black has always done a masterful job of worldbuilding and Jude is a strong, edgy protagonist who you rarely see in YA novels. This is not a genre I read routinely but this series is fantastic.
Emerald Blaze by Illona Andrews - Book 5 in Hidden Legacy series focusing on the Baylor sisters (note: books 1-3 focus on Nevada Baylor and books 4-5 on Catalina so while it looks like one long series it reads more like 2 separate series focus on the same characters/world). Illona Andrews are longtime cannonball favorites for a reason and their books get even better over time. The Hidden Legacy and Inkeeper Chronicles are the best fantasy books out there. While they have strong romantic elements they’re primarily fantasy novels with romanic themes. Strong protagonists, propulsive action, excellent smolder. Je adore.
Truthwitch by Susan Dennard - So this is not the WORST book in that it is a well-written book in an original world, and I enjoyed reading it. This is book 4 in an ongoing series and at each turn I have enjoyed each book enough to continue on with the series. But it has completely lost the thread. And I do mean completely.
Book 1 started with 2 talented albeit mischievous best friends who are separated in what one would expect to be a story of how they overcome obstacles, learn and grow as people, and are ultimately reunited. Four books later they’re still lost in the wilds. Instead of resolving plotlines each book introduces more POV characters so now there’s 5-6 protagonists floating about (I’ve lost count). There’s 5 books available to date and no sense that the story will end … ever? The eternal series (see also: Mistborn) appeals to some but not to me.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell - this novel left me raw and furious, and that is NOT a complaint.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado - Over half a year has passed and my pulse still starts to race when I think about this one. Carmen Maria Machado is a voice unlike any other.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - Yes, a re-read! Station Eleven hit harder this year; reading it in the early stages of our pandemic and then discussing it with the Cannon Book Club deepened my love for this book and strengthened my hope in humanity. No, YOU’RE crying!
Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today by Rachel Vorona Cote - Not my worst reading experience of 2020 (looking at you, Lolita!) but definitely my biggest disappointment. Also, it’s a 2020 release! A promising title was actually hiding the author’s thinly veiled memoir. Ugh.
Also: shout outs to Becky Chambers, James Shapiro, and John Hodgeman for all writing books that made me feel better about the world at large!
Gideon the Ninth/Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir - There is possibly nothing that brought me more pure joy in 2020 than the double whammy of Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth. The first is delightful, fun even when it slaps you across the face, a wild ride of WTF with a fresh and fun voice.
The second is possibly the bravest sequel I have ever read: it takes everything you loved about the first book and puts it into a blender, feeding you back a strange version of Book 1 where everything is wrong plus a new narrative that is told entirely through the 2nd person. It is one of the most daring books I have ever read and I loved every moment of it. Just acknowledge that you’re going to be confused for 90% of the book and sit back and enjoy the ride.
Also—the audiobooks are absolutely amazing. Moira Quirk has such wonderfully distinct and characteristic voices for the characters.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia - Continuing my trajectory of my favourite books of 2020 being the ones that were completely bonkers, Mexican Gothic was a superb mix of Shirley-Jackson-style Gothic and its own innovative use of setting and history to bring an extra creepy factor to this excellent slice of horror. I don’t think I’ve eaten mushrooms since.
The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty - The Empire of Gold is a perfect end to one of my favourite trilogies from the last few years. Chakraborty’s storytelling has only improved since the first, and she manages to weave together the perfect combination of plot, worldbuilding, and character growth to make a compelling (and emotional!) sequel.
Dune by Frank Herbert - Dune just goes to show that just because something’s classic, doesn’t mean it’s good. The writing is incredibly clunky and the characterization enormously lazy (the evil guys are fat and effeminate, the only two descriptors of them you will ever need to know!). Sorry, maybe this was still cool in the 1960s, but in 2020 I just don’t want to read about any more bland, white-bread messiahs/Chosen Ones. Especially when they’re named Paul.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb - This might be my favorite book of the year WHICH MAKES ME HAPPY. I’m presently in therapy and think everyone could benefit from it. If you are similar, than you’ll likely take to this book like a duck to water. However, if you raise a skeptical eyebrow at therapy but have a hankering for some self discovery, then dip your toes into this pool and let the authenticity, warmth, and truth nuggets wash over you. And obviously, this is my Cannonball Read Bingo "Happy" pick because this book truly filled me with lightness and joy.
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite - HOLY GUACAMOLE THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD. Like, so so good. I heard a lot of good things, but it was so little an unassuming it sat on my bookshelf for over a month, having snagged it from the library. The cover is intriguing, with its big bold green font, but I figured I’d get around to it. Well, one night about 20 minutes before I wanted to be asleep I figured eh, I’ll crack this one open. One hour and half of the book later, there I was. And then I finished it the next day. (So what I’m saying is, set aside a block of time, make sure you’ve got a snack and water, because you aren’t going to want to go anywhere until you’re done).
The Lost Man by Jane Harper - So! The book! (Searches the far recesses of her mind). Ah Yes: The Lost Man. (More like lost woman…amiright?) Anyhoodle, what’s it about? Well, the tagline on the cover says “three brothers, one death, no answers.” This book is about family, estrangement, and the mysterious death of one of the brothers where they call home: a piece of the stark and underpopulated Australian outback. As far as my favorite pandemic reads go, this one gets to the top of the list. I either want to read things that will bring me laughter and joy OR things that fill me with schadenfreude, i.e., pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. So I get the opportunity to say, “well, at least I’m not a) murdered in the outback, b) live in a remote village where everyone is mad at me c) in love with my sibling’s partner d) a young widow e) an older widow, who was married to an abusive a**hole. And the list goes on!
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard -
Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy -
Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John -
The Seep by Chana Porter
Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen - These are in no order. This was just a funny and intelligent read.
The Screaming Hairy Armadillo and 76 Other Animals with Weird, Wild Names by Matthew Murrie - Come on! Screaming Armadillos? Yeti Crabs? Vampire Squids? Ocean “snow”? This book rocks!
The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman - I had to limit it to three, so picked three. I have more, though.
Bonnie & Ben Rhyme Again by Mem Fox - The review I wrote for this book included Cuddle Monkey by Blake Lilane Hellman. I believe they are two of a very small group of 1 stars.
Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow - One I wish I had read all in one sitting.
Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia - I want to say it’s a smart Ready Player One but that feels mean and not entirely right, but that kind of set up. (Rich dude leaves clues to fortune.)
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Super Powereds (Series) by Drew Hayes - When things get difficult, we often turn to things that make us comfortable and happy. And this year was certainly difficult! I reread (relistened to) my favorite series by Drew Hayes, and while I may have prioritized the books over sleep, it was well worth it!
Super Adjacent by Crystal Cestari - A great story published in 2020!
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston - This is definitely worth all of the hype it has received in the past year!
Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven by Beth Deitchman - This was bad fanfiction, both in that it was poorly written, and it didn’t really fit in with the universe of the fandom. If the author wanted to write an outlandish Regency story, she should have left Jane Austen out of it!
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab - A Faustian deal for freedom that comes with the price of living an invisible life where others immediately forget your existence, you can’t say your own name, or even write down a single word. The ending had me in tears, not because it was sad (though it was bittersweet) but because of the overwhelming emotion I was feeling.
Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell (author) Faith Erin Hicks (artist) - If you like Rainbow Rowell’s other books, I don’t see how you wouldn’t like this one. If you like stories of friendship and ‘one last night’ before change happens, you’ll like this book. If you enjoy all the fun that an excellent pumpkin patch can offer you’ll like following along on Deja and Josie’s journey. I could probably keep going, this book is pure delight and I can’t recommend it enough!
The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells - Murderbot is a Security Unit (SecUnit) construct made of organic and inorganic parts. After hacking it’s governing module, Murderbot needs to figure out what it wants out of existence (beyond consuming vast quantities of media and shirking responsibilities to consume said media). Over the course of The Murderbot Diaries novellas, as Murderbot develops new relationships between bots/constructs and humans it begins to understand it’s own feelings and desires. Moving further away from it’s standard SecUnit beginnings and forming into an individual. Wells delivers an amazing character study in The Murderbot Diaries.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James - Child rape, unwilling circumcision, genital mutilation, and what seemed like an unending barrage of sex, bodily fluids, violence, and disparaging remarks about boys who are actually girls and vice versa. All this in the first 36 pages and that was when I threw in the towel.
Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag - A delightfully unnerving short novel from an acclaimed Indian author. You could finish it in an afternoon but it will stay with you a long time.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker - I am a sucker for novels that retell classics and/or give the spotlight to a minor character from a classic. Madeline Miller showed us The Iliad from Patroclus’ point of view (The Song of Achilles) but Pat Barker now imagines the same story from the view of Briseis, a Trojan slave. This is a much darker story but also more rooted in realism.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead - It’s sad and hard and heartbreaking but I couldn’t put it down. Whitehead is just an amazing writer.
The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis - The characters felt flat and poorly developed. I was disappointed.
In Pieces by Sally Field - The theme for all three of my best books this year is just, “books that made me happy.” A tall order in 2020 but these books did it.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
The Next to Die by Sophie Hannah - Another in Hannah’s endless series about the most unlikeable people in Great Britain.
Once again I had to randomly choose between my many favorite books of the year.
A Heart of Blood and Ashes by Milla Vane - Milla Vane was new to me, but others may know her as Meljean Brook. A Heart of Blood and Ashes fed the part of my soul that loves Conan, The Beastmaster and all those terrible 80s sword and sandal movies. But it also feels the grown up feminist part of my soul. It was high angst, a hand job lubricated by the blood of an enemy, and some spectacular groveling.
The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk - The Midnight Bargain is like an embroidered dress. At first you look at it and think it’s pretty, but the longer you look the more you see the intricacies and skill that went into creating the design. Polk wondered what Jane Austin would be like if Africa and India had discovered Europe and the world economy was based on trade, not colonialism and then threw in some magic.
The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan - Courtney Milan gave us a surprise gift this year with The Duke Who Didn’t. In addition to being peak Courtney Milan goodness, it also has one of the best “only one bed” trope moments. It also had one of the most romantic lines of the year,”I like all of your worst qualities.”
To Eat and To Drink, Volume 2 by Guillaume Long - I really wanted to like this, a graphic novel about French cooking. Unfortunately, Long hit me early with an unnecessary jokey story about Paul Gauguin (noted lover of young girls) and then he kept going with middle aged white guy humor and it wasn’t for me.
Honorable Mention this year goes to Romance Twitter. Following the fallout of the RWA Implosion at the end of 2019 I frontloaded a lot of romance novels by writers on the frontline of inclusive, feminist writing who were battling it out on Twitter (where if you don’t follow Romance authors, you should, they are amazing). Some of my favorites this year came from that decision and while not the three best of the year, they helped get me through this adjective year of 2020 when my reading mojo came and went: Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade, Headliners by Lucy Parker, Luck of the Draw by Kate Clayborn, They Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite, Hot Rabbi by Aviva Blakeman and Hearts on Hold by Charish Reid plus the two dozen other romance works I read simply got me through the year.
Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory - My main concern with Royal Holiday is that the characters could be anyone, which is a big problem when you’re in the fourth book of a series. On the whole the writing is bland and the characters are underdeveloped, a big let down from an author who had impressed in her earlier works.
Women, Race, and Class by Dr. Angela Davis - In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, there was a run on anti-racist works. Ijeoma Oluo, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Dr. Robin DiAngelo all got repeated shoutouts. But many black writers and commentators were lifting up the work of Dr. Angela Davis, who has been at the frontline of academia since the 1960s. I was finally able to procure a copy of her legendary work and would say this is as good of a starting point as any because it’s firmly rooted in a historical argument of anti-blackness and patriarchal violence. It came out in the 70s and is still relevant for today.
The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch - You ever read something that just took your breath away? This one did it for me. I usually don’t like genre mash-ups but Tom Sweterlitsch straddles the line perfectly here. This is the kind of book people are always telling me Blake Crouch writes, only it’s actually good.
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley - Down with moralism! I’m so exhausted of this need to shoehorn characters in digestible archetypes: the antihero, the morally ambiguous wild card, the good guy who breaks bad, the bad guy who breaks good. I don’t need characters to be likable or not likable. I need them to be readable.
Stripped of sentimentality and asking nothing of the reader to curry favor, Walter Mosley has created such a character in Socrates Fortlow. Through fourteen vignettes, Mosley also creates a realistic world around Fortlow. It’s a powerful book but its power is in its simplicity. It’s not about making Fortlow likable, it’s about making him readable. And this one hums.
Rage by Bob Woodward - There were other worse reads this year but Woodward’s gossipy rehash of the failed Trump administration was a colossal waste of time. Finishing the book as the Covid pandemic broke out in the States, he comes to the reluctant conclusion that Donald Trump is unfit for office. Good job, Bob. Here’s a cookie.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab - Great book by a wonderful author. Interesting twist on the sell your soul to the devil plotline.
Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - I stand by the title of my review: This is the most beautiful book about the end of the world you’ll ever read.
Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston - Grammar geeks, prepare to be delighted.
The New Homemade Kitchen by Joseph Shuldiner - I’m biased, but I can’t say enough wonderful things about this cookbook. A delightful book written by a man who loved food and loved life.
And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer - I can handle stupid, but stupid and boring? No. My only DNF of the year.
Honourable mentions to Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall and Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews
Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
Dark Lover by J.R. Ward
Dune by Frank Hebert - Although it was a re-read for me, I am always able to glean something new from Dune. This is the first time I have read it since my kids were little but now, as the father of two teenage boys, I saw the work much differently, The actions of the Duke, which I had glossed over when I read it before, were much more profound to me. Dune is one of the foundations of modern science fiction and a must-read if you have not done so already
Station Eleven by Emily Saint John Mandel - Reading a book about a post-pandemic society is arguably masochistic in today’s world (and probably reveals more of my character when I admit I cannot wait for The Stand to come out on CBS All Access) but this is a refreshingly optimistic take on a post pandemic world. There are no motorcycle gangs (although I would not have complained if someone brought out the flame spewing guitar from Fury Road), no Randall Flagg emerging to torment mankind. Humanity survives and people begin to rebuild. Arts and culture may seem trivial to some, but Mandel shows how they are crucial when we lose so many other aspects of society.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nahesi Coates - Coates is a genius. You do not have to take my word for it, his MacArthur grant confirms it. He is also a massive science fiction/fantasy geek and this novel of speculative fiction is brilliant. He shows slavery in all its horror but also emphasizes the small acts of beauty and kindness that became so important when the white slaveowners tried to strip away every shred of humanity and dignity from their slaves. An important and powerful read.
Elric Volume 3 The White Wolf by Michael Moorcock (sorta) - Taking an existing work and translating it to a new medium is difficult. However, when one is bringing a novel to a graphic novel medium, one should take care not to shit all over the original work and rewrite scenes that go completely against the author’s original intent. This series started out strong and added some scenes and interpretations to the character of Elric that enhanced the story. Then, they went off the cliff and decided to turn the tortured, introspective albino ruler of Melnibone into a bloodthirsty maniac. That was the point where I quit the series. Avoid this one, especially if you love Elric.
Bruny by Heather Rose - “Because to live on an island isn’t just a location. It’s a sense of belonging. It’s history and sacrifice. It’s a choice to be remote. It’s a kind of metaphor.”
Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett - Another book about my home state. 2020 had me feeling nostalgic for family and home. This one made my cry on the plane.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel - I’m going to miss Thomas Cromwell.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher - The Cannonballers assured me that the series does get better, but this formulaic forgettable genre mashup soaked in sexism didn’t do it for me.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The Haunting of Brynn Wilder by Wendy Webb
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD
Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky
The Liveship Traders Trilogy (Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship, Ship of Destiny) by Robin Hobb - This series completely surprised and ensorcelled me. Counting all three here even though I’ve only reviewed the first one so far. If you want your emotions wrenched, this series is for you.
Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson - I can’t not pick this book, which is possibly the best book in Sanderson’s best series, who is one of the best living fantasy authors.
Beach Read by Emily Henry - I read a lot of great romances this year, but this one made me cry so I’m going with it. Don’t let the title fool you, it takes on some pretty hefty human emotions and is in many ways about coming to terms with grief, as well as what it means to be a writer.
The Foxhole Court by Nora Sakavic - Didn’t really read anything egregious this year! I didn’t one star a single book, and only two-starred a handful, this being one of them. It’s just a hot unedited mess that wastes its premise and is occasionally thoughtless and cruel. The series redeems itself by book three, but I had to push myself to get that far.
Honorable Mentions: The Searcher by Tana French, Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, Ace by Angela Chen, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green, Slippery Creatures by KJ Charles, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Network Effect by Martha Wells, The City We Became by NK Jemisin, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Way Station by Clifford D. Simak, and the first three books in the Terra Ignota series by Ada Palmer.
If I remain on pace I will have read about 208 books this year, so it was really hard to narrow down to twenty books let alone three. I’m a bit upset I won’t get to count the books I’m about to read because I have a feeling Shit Actually by Lindy West is going to be a great time.
Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis
The Reckless Oath We Mad by Bryn Greenwood - Not a day has gone by since I finished this one that I haven’t thought about it. I haven’t had a book surprise me like this for years.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo - Ninth House takes place in a world just like our own, except for in this world, magic — used for both good and evil — is real. And the secret societies at Yale, and it’s famous and successful alumni, are the keepers of this magic and secrets. The eight secret (Skull & Bones, Scroll & Key, Manuscript, etc.) societies are overseen and policed by another group, Lethe, otherwise known as the ninth house. This is not Rory Gilmore’s Yale. This Yale is dark and upsetting and often violent. And yet, I couldn’t get enough of it. Glad to know it is the first in a series.
A Load of Hooey by Bob Odenkirk - Because I really needed a good laugh this year, and Bob never lets me down.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins - Controversy aside, I just didn’t think this was very good.
Honorable Mention: the second story in If It Bleeds by Stephen King — The Life of Chuck — is one of the best things he’s ever written.
She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Don’t You Forget About Me by Mhairi McFarlane
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides - Overhyped and disappointing.
Fire in His Blood by Ruby - Dragon shifter falls in love with his sacrifice sounds like it should be right up my alley. I gave it 3 stars because the humans suck and the main character is a bit whiny.
Wall of Silence by Tracy Buchanan - This was a really well done, gripping mystery that didn’t go in the cliched direction I was expecting.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman - Although I didn’t find this book as hilarious as a lot of other readers, I appreciated the complexity of Eleanor, and in general it’s just a well-written novel.
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston - I loved the humor in this and how Alex and Henry’s relationship unfolded. And the peripheral characters were great.
You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle - This book really doesn’t deserve the label “romantic comedy” that it has somehow garnered. The characters are so mean to each other.
Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall - The perfect antidote to the hellscape that was 2020. The book itself is tops, but the audio narrator took it to another level.
The Falling in Love Montage by Ciara Smith - More coming of age story that happens to be queer than a romance, though there are romantic bits. Funny, flawed, extremely human characters stumbling through life and trying to make connections. Listen to the audio for the Irish accents.
We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper - Deeply empathetic true crime by an author who really knows how to ramp up tension and intrigue. If you read this, resist googling!
Well Played by Jen DeLuca - It pains me to name this as my least favorite book because I LOVED Well Met and I’m sure I’ll love book #3. I just couldn’t bring myself to invest in a character who spent half the book catfishing the other main character. Maybe if the situation had been handled differently by the author, but it would have required much more care than it was given. We didn’t even get halfway decent character growth outside of the romantic relationship, so I was left wondering why the book even existed.
If you’ve stuck it out throughout this whole, long list, intentionally increasing the length of your own to-be read pile, then you’ll love Cannonball Read. Sign up for 2021’s Cannonball Read 13, and you too can stick it to cancer, one book at a time.
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