Six Month Stack-up: Some of My Best Reads This Year

The first six months of the year have been tumultuous, to put it lightly. Returning to the US from Germany, I read voraciously--listening to audiobooks on my way to class, turning pages sitting in an armchair in the library. As the pandemic quickly consumed Seattle and the rest of the US, reading in quarantine became more of a way to pass the time. Reading made my world a whole lot bigger than my bedroom, where I now spend 99% of my time. Not unlike the experiences of others in the pandemic, many of these books deal with difficult topics and overcoming great strife and oppression. Needless to say, this is a rather long list, but I’ve only included the best of the best.

  1. 1. "If We Were Villains" by M.L. Rio

    My year started out strong with If We Were Villains being one of my favorite all-time reads. This book has everything I could ask for: a dynamic group of friends, murder, and dual timelines. The close cohort studies Shakespearian theatre at an elite art school in Ohio, where the pressure to succeed is high and Shakespeare becomes a matter of life and death. I came for the murder; I stayed for the characterization of each friend. You can see how the group dynamics heavily drive the plot of the book, which I appreciate. Read this book if you are into murder mysteries, strong friendships, dark academic settings, and betrayal.

  2. 2. "Pretty Girls" by Karin Slaughter

    This was my first foray into suspense and thriller books. I’m almost sad because this book was so good, and I can’t find anything that hits quite the same as Pretty Girls. This book features a missing sister, a murder, dual timelines, and family dynamics. You follow two estranged sisters’ lives as they are haunted by the memory of their eldest sister, who suddenly disappeared during their adolescence. When another missing girl brings their sister’s case back into the spotlight, they reunite to try and chase ghosts from their pasts. Again, the characters are well-developed, and the relationship between the two sisters is just as appealing as the actual mystery. I will say, this book is messed up. It’s creepy, and it reflects the real-life epidemic of girls going missing, the horrors of the dark web, and the lengths people will go to cover up humanity’s worst atrocities. If you want a real page-turner, this book is the one that will make you say, “What the absolute hell?”

  3. 3. "A Study in Scarlet" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

    Pre-pandemic, I wanted to read every single Sherlock Holmes story published this 2020. After libraries closed, I had to suspend my goal, but A Study in Scarlet served as a great preview for the rest of Doyle’s stories. I love the modern take on Sherlock Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch, but there’s something about the setting of Victorian England that adds charm and drama to the mysteries Sherlock and Watson investigate. If you do watch the BBC show, you may be surprised to find that the original Sherlock is likable, even jovial at times, and Watson is more of the brooding type, writing about his life post-war. Read this if you want a quick, classic murder mystery featuring one of the most iconic duos in literature.

  4. 4. "Stone Butch Blues" & "Drag King Dreams" by Leslie Feinberg

    I’ve paired these two books together not only because they have the same author, but also because they deal with very similar themes. Stone Butch Blues is about the butch/femme lesbian club scene near Buffalo, New York, specifically following a character named Jess through labor and queer politics circa the 1970s and 1980s. Drag King Dreams takes place post 9/11, following Max Rabinowitz and hir friends as they navigate lives fraught with violence and discrimination, learn about new youth movements, and recall their histories in activism and queer politics. Both books are an exploration of gender, activism, race, class, sexuality, and real-life historical events. These books are hard to read, and they deal with many different types of violence, but you will remember these books for a long time after you put them down.

  5. 5. "Walk Two Moons" by Sharon Creech

    This was a reread of a book I was given as a child, so it would fall more into the YA/middle-grade genre. Even at 21, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I was surprised not only by how emotionally moved I was, but how much I still got out of this book a decade later. This book follows Sal, a 13-year-old girl who is driving with her grandparents on the way to see her mother who previously had left her and her father to travel cross-country. Along the way, Sal tells stories about her mother, her family, her best friend, and their encounter with “the lunatic”. Walk Two Moons is an emotional book about American Indian representation, storytelling, and the powers and limitations of love.

  6. 6. "Herculine Barbin" by Herculine Barbin with notes by Michel Foucault

    This book is a brief memoir about a French person in the 1800s, who today would likely be referred to as an intersex person but is labeled a Hermaphrodite at the time of publishing (FYI: this label has gone out of fashion and can be seen as offensive). It is a mix of Herculine’s complicated experience of being intersex at a time when it was very unknown (you could argue this is still true), and Herculine’s tender romance with a girl at the boarding school she works at. Herculine Barbin is, among other things, a meditation on gender, sexuality, and the way those two intertwine and contradict.

  7. 7. Bonus Graphic Novel: "The Imitation Game" by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis

    The Hollywood movie The Imitation Game with (again) Benedict Cumberbatch is one of my favorites but contains several historical inaccuracies. This graphic novel goes deeper into Alan’s difficult childhood as a bullied, exceptionally smart young boy who has to hide his homosexual affections for his only friend. His childhood is contrasted with his success as a chemist and a mathematician who is credited with cracking the Enigma code--which has been estimated to cut years off of World War II and saved countless lives. The graphic novel gives us a beautiful yet difficult look into Alan’s emotions, thoughts, and reflections regarding his life. Read this if you want to learn more about gay historical figures, World War II, and an emotional book of triumph and tragedy.

Overall, these books reflect some of my favorite things to read: female, gender non-conforming, and gay characters, and meditations on complex family and friend dynamics. Each book isn’t exclusively happy or sad, but rather gives an unflinching look into the best and worst of life. Characters are morally grey, relationships are both toxic and supportive, and life is both beautiful and horrifying.

A lot of these books feature a great deal of emotional upheaval, which I think is very representative of the world as a whole and my own personal life. In these 6 months, I went back to therapy/sought treatment for depression, packed up all my things in about 7 hours to suddenly move back home when COVID-19 hit Seattle, and witnessed the energy of protestors and the grief for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Anthony McClain, and countless others. While I did read a few books authored by Black women and women of color, I hope for the second half of the year I can find more diverse authors and stories (especially BIPOC) that end up on my favorites shelf (and definitely some nonfiction/memoirs too). Hopefully, there’s something on this list that ends up on your favorites too!