For the past few years, I have begun my annual favourite things post by talking about what a hard year it has been and how glad I am it’s over. You would not be wrong in expecting me to start this year’s post the same way. After all, it is 2020. But although it’s been a difficult year (perhaps the most difficult), I have found much for which I am grateful.
My small family has always been close. We’re separated from our relatives by continents and oceans, and so used to celebrating holidays alone. To being three of us against the world. We didn’t, therefore, find isolation all too hard. We had moments of friction, as all families do, but I’ve never been more grateful for my husband and daughter. We held each other up this year. We forgave more easily, learned to communicate more clearly, and have almost mastered the art of letting each other exist in their own space for a while. (Or I have. Sometimes.)
I’ve also been amazed and delighted by the joy others have found over the past year. The news has often been universally bad, and yet someone, somewhere, has always had something to share. The wonder of small things has never been more true.
The other aspect of being home all year has been more time to devote to my hobbies. And what I read and watched and listened to is a reflection of that.
As always, we’ll start with what I read.
I read fewer books this year, having recorded 190 at the time of this post. I started the year with the intent to read fewer books, though, as I wanted to spend less time tuned-in. I didn’t do so well in that respect, but what I do find interesting about this year’s reads are my choices. I read a lot of really good books this year, which has made selecting my favourites rather challenging.
I can’t choose between these two books, both of which started life as webcomics. I read Check, Please (books 1 & 2) online for free, first, then ordered the paperback compilations for my keeper shelf. Nimona, I ordered as a gift for a friend’s daughter and ended up reading myself. (I had to order another copy for the gift!)
What both books have going for them are their fresh perspectives. Nimona is all about deceptive appearances and the fact that, sometimes, the only difference between good and evil is who you ask. Check, Please is utterly delightful. I loved all the hockey content without the expected toxic masculinity. The love story between Eric (Bitty) and Jack is super sweet and not bogged down by the usual romance novel tropes.
Always the Last to Know by Kristan Higgins (Contemporary Fiction)
After reading If You Only Knew, I waited a year to read a second book by Kristan Higgins because I was afraid it wouldn’t be as good. I wanted to preserve that first experience in amber. Leave it forever undisturbed. Thankfully, I came to my senses because she releases a new book every year, and they are ALL as good as the first.
Always the Last to Know could be the best book she’s ever written, though. I laughed, I cried, I laughed again, and then I sobbed until my head hurt. Then, as has become my habit, I ordered a copy for the Higgins shelf of my library, a spot I revisit whenever I want a story combining family, friends, and just the right amount of romance.
I also very much enjoyed Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano.
The Trouble with Peace (The Age of Madness #2) by Joe Abercrombie (Fantasy)
A Little Hatred (The Age of Madness #1) was nearly my favourite fantasy novel last year. The Burning White (Lightbringer #5) won because it was the end of a very good series and a very good book. But it was a close thing, and so I’m not at all surprised that Abercrombie’s second Age of Madness book is the winner this year. It’s brilliant. Probably one of the best books I’ve read.
Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to the third book in the series.
I also finished the Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb and loved how the author expanded upon her already wide world. Hobb’s ability to plot forward blows me away, it really does. I look forward to reading the Rain Wild Chronicles in 2021.
Garden of Beasts by Jeffrey Deaver (Mystery/Thriller and Historical)
It’s a two for one and another new to me author. I don’t know how Garden of Beasts ended up in my library, and at the beginning, I wasn’t sure it would be my thing. But I quickly became sucked in by the characters and the plot.
I’ll be looking for more from Jeffery Deaver.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb (Non-Fiction)
I read so much great non-fiction this year, and Maybe You Should Talk to Someone was the best of the bunch. Scanning reviews for it, I came across one stating the reader didn’t get the point. After spending the final hundred pages sobbing and laughing and almost having to take a nap to recover, I had to wonder if the reader had gotten past the first page. Or the cover copy. The book IS the point.
You can read the rest of my thoughts on this one at Goodreads (I had many).
I also very much enjoyed The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert and The Unwinding by George Packer.
The Happy List by Briar Prescott
I read a lot less romance this year than I have in quite a while. I’m not sure why, but when I ponder the question, I think it has to do with wanting not so much to escape this year as to occupy my mind with deep thoughts—hence my many excellent non-fiction reads.
When I did want a happy ever after, I mostly reached for authors I already knew and loved. So, my pick for best romance this year is another surprise, because Briar Prescott is new to me. What I loved most about The Happy List was just how much fun I had reading. It’s a lovely story, and I look forward to reading more by the author.
The Player of Games (Culture #2) by Iain M. Banks (Science Fiction)
I have discovered the Culture, and I get it now. Why these books have such a devoted following. They’re all kinds of amazing. For my science fiction pick, I did have a hard time choosing between Use of Weapons and The Player of Games and eventually came down on the side of Games simply because the novel was deceptively easy to read. It’s very linear and super easy to follow (which is always a plus). But still brilliant.
I also enjoyed The Last Policeman by Ben Winters, mostly because it was utterly absurd—and meant to be. The premise is one I wish I’d thought of and the world one I’d love to write in.
The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg (Young Adult)
Should we just reserve a spot now for Bill Konigsberg for next year? Right beside Kristan Higgins and Joe Abercrombie? I mean, I’m prepared to be surprised, to discover new authors who also do it well (really, really well), but… Okay, maybe I’m not all that prepared.
I have loved without reservation every book I’ve ever read by Bill Konigsberg. I’ve consistently listed them in my monthly and yearly reading recaps. What sets his books apart, I think, is the quiet way they have of listening. Stay with me—this is hard to explain. So many young adult novels feel as though they’re designed to communicate with the idea of a young adult. Konigsberg’s books feel as though he’s saying, “I’ve listened, I’ve heard, and this is what I think.” They’re conversations, and they’re, well, simply wonderful.
I have a Konigsberg shelf in my library too.
For all my thoughts on The Bridge (again, there are many), read my review.
I fell out of love with going to the cinema a couple of months before social distancing and lockdown restrictions closed cinemas. It’d been a while since I’d gone out to see a movie and thought, wow, this was worth leaving my house. It’s a shame, in one sense, as my Friday afternoon movie outings were special. I love the cinema and the experience of going to the movies. Of experiencing films on the big screen. But my enthusiasm for those films has waned lately. It may be where I live, but there has been a lack of anything new and thought-provoking.
Thankfully, there’s never been a better time to stream, and I streamed a LOT of movies this year. 110, to be exact. And, likely, you’ll only have heard about one of my favourites.
Movie of the Year: A Hidden Life
The summary is simple: Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter faces the threat of execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II.
The story is so much more than that. It’s about how one chooses to live their life, and whether they’re willing to accept the consequences of that choice. It’s about love and family. It’s also the most heartbreakingly beautiful movie ever filmed. My review on Letterboxd reads: This movie is a coffee table book. Freeze any frame and it’s beautiful.
The other movies I enjoyed this year were Blue Ruin, Cargo, Midnight Special, and Parasite, which I watched three times and loved more with every viewing.
As always, I watched a lot of TV. I’d be ashamed of the time I spend in front of the tube, but there is so much to watch, and most of it isn’t useless.
Best Complete Series: The Wire
What can I say other than “Wow.” The Wire is amazing. It’s brutal and wonderful and had the very best characters. At times, I couldn’t wait for it to end but when it was done, I missed it. Probably the best television has to offer.
Other complete shows I enjoyed this year were Star Trek: The Next Generation (which I blogged about), The Untamed, Kim’s Convenience, and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures.
Best New Series: Raised by Wolves
It’s weird, but it’s Ridley Scott. What I loved about this story was the androids, particularly Father and how he cared about everything. I also liked all the weird.
Metro: Last Light was one of the hardest games I’ve played, but I persisted because I really liked the story. Also, I’d read Dmitry Glukhovsky’s books and thought the game developers had done an excellent job of bringing his vision of a post-apocalyptic Soviet Union to life.
Metro: Exodus is even better.
What I love about these games, and what makes them eternal favourites is the storytelling. Many games err on the side of offering the player everything from soup to nuts, and the essence, the story, becomes diluted. The story is always in the forefront of your mind in Exodus, and not just because you can spend time interacting with every NPC, having conversations that deepen your absorption.
Exodus is also beautiful and emotionally compelling. I played the last half hour while sobbing and pretty much had to take a nap afterward. (Yes, I know this a theme with me. But isn’t it wonderful to feel so engaged?)
I highly recommend Exodus and all the Metro games. The books, too. I’m very much looking forward to the next installment in the series.
This year I also enjoyed playing Elder Scrolls Online (which you can read about here), which I have only recently put aside to play Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Cyberpunk 2077. Both have been tons of fun so far.
I turned back the clock to listen to music that soothed this year, and one of my favourite songs of all time is my 2020 song of the year.
I listened to the album on repeat throughout May and June. I’d queue up the record (yes, I have this on good, old-fashioned vinyl), relax back into the comfy chair I have in my library, close my eyes, and let the music wash over me, teasing out all the knots and kinks. After forty-four minutes, I’d feel almost able to cope.
“Wish You Were Here” has long been one of my favourite songs, but this whole album is a treasure.
In new-to-me music, I discovered Manchester Orchestra.
2020 was the year of needing comfort food! I munched my way through bags and bags of potato chips and gummy bears, realized my jeans were getting tight, made a few salads, and then bought more chips. But what I enjoyed most this year was making a big pot of soup to keep me company all week.
So, so good!
I also started cooking beans from dried, using black beans for a soupy chili I can’t get enough of—it’s the chipotles in adobo, they make the dish—and a pinto bean recipe that has me swearing off canned pinto beans for life.
I’ve always enjoyed jigsaw puzzles, but 2020 is the year of the puzzle. I did quite a few this year, and some of them were challenging! I usually listen to audiobooks while I puzzle. This has the added benefit of layering the puzzles with scenes from the books, so when I look at these pictures, I remember what I listened to.
All in all, it’s been a pretty good year, eh? Challenging, yes. But while I acknowledge the fact I’ve had it relatively easy (I’m housed, fed, and healthy), my takeaway is an appreciation for the resilience of the human spirit, and that when we put our minds to it, we can do anything.
I hope 2021 brings health, good fortune, and better times to all.