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December 15, 2020

2020: Books of the Year

Books of the Year lists are so arbitrary, but they matter because they’re an excellent way to tell the stories of our reading year and also to shine some more light on those titles that moved us. (I also helped compile the Books of the Year list at 49thShelf, and you’ll notice a bit of overlap…)

These are the books that mattered to me.


The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett

A literary highlight of my week away in July was Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, the follow up to her smash-hit debut The Mothers, which was one of my favourite books of 2016. A novel that reaches across lines of race, class and gender, across history, across an entire nation…


Brighten the Corner Where You Are, by Carol Bruneau

Now liberated from her disabled body and her marriage, both of which she describes as cages of a sort, but “What these folks don’t see is that these cages made me the bird I am, made me sing in the way I did…”


How to Lose Everything, by Christa Couture

How to Lose Everything is a gift of a book that sparkles and sings, a sad story that’s also delightful to read, richly told and bursting with wisdom. There is something to marvel at on every single page.”


Seven, by Farzana Doctor

A remarkable balance is required to create a novel about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) that is also a pleasure to read, but Farzana Doctor pulls it off with Seven, a book that is also about marriage, family, motherhood, sexuality, and rediscovering one’s self and purpose at mid-life.


Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuayasi

One more title that I am glad I got to before the year was out was the debut novel by Francesca Ekwuyasi, Butter Honey Pig Bread, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was fantastic, a debut that was so polished and assured, hugely ambitious in its reach and just as successful in execution…


The Searcher, by Tana French

What a gift is any new book by Tana French, and The Searcher is no exception. Set in rural Ireland where a retired Chicago cop has come to make a new life after escaping his old one for reasons he really doesn’t want to get into…but then a kid shows up urging him to pursue a local mystery.


A Bite of the Apple, by Lennie Goodings

This book is everything. A memoir of Lennie Goodings’ 40 years in feminist publishing. The story of legendary Virago Press, which has meant a lot to me and so many other readers. A story of 40 years of feminism too, with fractious debate, changing trends, so much learning and thinking and growing…


Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, by Tara Henley

“Looking back, it was probably L’Engle that made me want to be a writer. The epigraph for Lean Out is about all of this: about the power of stories to uplift, to inspire, to shape lives and, in fact, whole eras of human history. It’s also about the idea that we are all called on to contribute to the greater good—that each and every one of us has a role to play in the fight for the future of humanity. That spirit was something I really needed to reconnect to, and writing Lean Out was my attempt to do that.”


Writers and Lovers, by Lily King

I am unaccustomed to reading about a woman who is flawed and who takes her art seriously, and I am unaccustomed to art that treats such a woman seriously, instead of as the butt of a joke. The book begins in familiar territory but then takes its reader to unexpected places… And there’s a lightness to the tone that is possibly deceptive, that any story that’s such a delight to behold must necessarily be less than profound. That any woman who fails to be a perfect candidate must necessarily fail to triumph.


Santa Monica, by Cassidy Lucas

I was expecting to have fun reading Santa Monica, by Cassidy Lucas, but that the book was so excellently crafted turned out to be the most amazing surprise. Beginning with the end, the much revered fitness coach found dead in his studio, and whodunnit?


Disfigured, by Amanda Leduc

But to say that I did not grow up in a culture steeped in the messages and symbolism of fairy tales, steeped in those stories, would be disingenuous, as Leduc makes clear in Disfigured. Because these stories are everywhere, and yes, they’re only stories… but they’re not only stories. And throughout those stories are representations of disability—hands and heads chopped off in Grimms’ tales that magically grow back, and dwarfs, and women without voices, and witches with crutches, hideously disfigured beasts, and changelings, plus fairy godmothers who exist to reverse one’s fortune.


Monogamy, by Sue Miller

I became interested in her latest novel Monogamy after reading Richard Russo’s review in The New York Times, and I bought the book with my ticket to the Book Drunkard Festival (tonight!). Reading the novel over the last couple of days, and it was one of those books I was disappointed to get to the end of. It was wonderful. Why have I not been reading everything Sue Miller has ever written in the years since The Senator’s Wife? (And why was I waiting for permission from Richard Russo to find her work interesting?)


Polar Vortex, by Shani Mootoo

The novel takes place over the course of a day, and the tension in the text can be excruciating—but in the very best way. The kind of excruciating tension that makes a book unputdownable, that causes a reader to yell at a page. Polar Vortex becomes a book about truth and memory, about how little we know each other, and ourselves. Strange, ominous, haunting, it’s a propulsive read and a deliciously unsettling one.


Hamnet and Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell

…this is perhaps the finest book you’ll read this year. Oh, the writing! The sentences! The scene in the apple store, those pieces of fruit bop-bop-bopping on the shelves to a rhythm. The whole world so magnificently conjured, and yes, it was the universality. It doesn’t matter that this was Shakespeare’s family (in fact the bard himself is not even named), or the century where the story is set—there was an immediacy to the narrative that I so rarely experience in historical fiction.


The Smallest Lights in the Universe, by Sara Seager

Space made news this week with the discovery of possible life on Venus, and what was most exciting for me about this development was that on the team of researchers who’d made this discovery was Dr. Sara Seager, MIT Astrophysicist and author of Smallest Lights in the Universe, which I was reading last week. Can you imagine discovering alien lifeforms and releasing an emotionally powerful memoir all in the same season?


Want, by Lynn Steger Strong

Lynn Steger Strong’s novel Want is packed with the same narrative tension that propelled one of my favourite books of last year, Helen Phillips’s The Need. Both of them, as is apparent from their titles, about desperate yearnings, longings, cravings, desires. For an escape hatch, for example, from the demands of motherhood, the feeding, rocking, soothing, waiting. For a way out of the trap of anxiety, a detour away from the trappings of modern life.


Misconduct of the Heart, by Cordelia Strube

This is not a feel-good comedy at all, but oh it’s so richly funny. Funny in the way the world is, absurd, preposterous, sad and hilarious. “You can’t make this stuff up,” kind of funny, which is funny because Strube does, and it’s wonderful. And even feel-good, because there is hope and there is triumph, and the reader is rooting for every single one of these lovable losers to finally win.


If Sylvie Had Nine Lives, by Leona Theis

Okay, imagine the craft and form of Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces, a premise and scope like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and an attention to the details of ordinary life that recalls the work of Carol Shields? (There’s also a Bronwen Wallace People You’d Trust Your Life To vibe that I can’t quite put my finger on…)


The Abortion Caravan: When Women Shut Down the Government in the Battle for the Right to Choose, by Karin Wells

From the vantage of 2020, it is easy to underestimate the significance of the Abortion Caravan. It took another 18 years for substantive change to Canada’s abortion laws to take effect, and even today access to abortion remains a challenge in many parts of the country. But Wells’s powerful book affirms that such ongoing obstacles to women’s autonomy and reproductive rights are why the Abortion Caravan matters more than ever. “We needed brave, badly behaved women back then,” she writes, “and we always will.”


A Match Made for Murder, by Iona Whishaw

As always with Whishaw’s books, the novel is a delight, charming and funny, cozy and enveloping—by page 7, there are already scones. It’s also a wonderful literary homage to the classics of detective fiction, and I love that Nelson, BC, comes with its very own Baker Street. But coziness is not even the half of it—the series takes on race and racism, and misogyny, rape and spousal abuse all factor in this story, which is strongly concerned with the enormous power that men had at the time (and still have now) to control the women in their lives, and also with their sense of entitlement to that control.


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is one of the smartest, most illuminating and important books I’ve read this year—or ever. A rich, engaging and fascinating text that draws a connection between India’s caste system, the Nazis’ plans for Germany’s Jews, and America’s racial hierarchy—matter-of-factly, she shows that India and America’s hierarchies are parallel, and also how the Nazis drew on America’s example for their own purposes, though there were certain examples where the Nazis wouldn’t go that far (one instance: the one-drop rule.) And just think of it—when the Nazis think you’ve gone too far.


Field Notes from An Unintentional Birder, by Julia Zarankin

What a terrifically woven collection this so, so much more than the sum of its parts, each of which is wholly impressive. Through the lens of birding, Zarankin writes gorgeously about finding herself in her mid-thirties, divorced and having left her career. So what now? And it’s through birding that she finds the answers, to this, and to other questions, including how to stay in love, how to be brave, how to be comfortable in her own skin, to understand her own history as a migratory creature, how to live in the moment, and how to have purpose. How to be.

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