2020 was certainly a year of ups and downs, as just about every annual retrospective post will tell you… but today we’re going to focus on the “ups”, particularly as they pertain to books! Because goodness, there was some goodness out there in the booky world: some that uplifted me, some that sent me on harrowing and fascinating journeys, and some that knocked me clean over (see above).
Read on for my favourites that I read this year—novels, graphic novels, and even a smattering of non-fiction. I hope that you find something that sounds fun, because these works certainly brought me joy this year!
Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans
Babs is invisible most of the time, which is why she’s delighted that Iris can see her. Iris was born from a seed in the garden, and routinely hangs out with faeries and dryads, so this is all run-of-the-mill stuff for them. This is a dreamy, welcoming, whimsical story about friendship where magic is delightfully matter-of-fact and the trans characters can just exist and have a nice time.
After being targeted by a transphobic “art installation”, Felix is determined to find the culprit and get revenge. He sets off on a mission of online subterfuge, but his plan goes awry when he realises that not only is this mystery more complicated than he thought it was, he’s suddenly found himself in the middle of a weird digital love triangle. As you may recall from my longer review, this book is a fantastic coming-of-age story about self-love, with some scathing and valuable social commentary and a delightful romantic subplot along for the ride. (CW depictions of transphobia, racism, characters being outed)
Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller
A girl is missing, strange unnamed creatures are moving in the dark… and yet, what’s more terrifying than the claustrophobia of a small town stuck in its ways? A deliciously spooky thriller set in rural Queensland and steeped in Indigenous Australian beliefs and tales. (CW depictions of racism, racist violence)
Nasir “Nax” Hall is going to be a hot-shot space pilot … at least, that was the plan, but he’s just failed his entrance exam. When a mysterious faction attacks the academy, Nax and a group of other intergalactic wash-ups become the only ones who can save the known universe. Pure wild fun, throwing you into a high-stakes outer-space adventure at warp speed and giving you a rag-tag found family to root for.
The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
Amidst the whirl and colour of a traditional Bengali wedding, Nishat finally plucks up the courage to come out as a lesbian to her parents. It doesn’t go amazingly well, but at least she can take comfort in running into Flavia, an old friend who has moved back home and who has grown up to be very pretty. But then Nishat and Flavia find themselves poised as rivals in a business competition at school—can love bloom under such pressure? A lovely, heartfelt story about culture clash, first romance, and staying true to yourself. (CW for depictions of homophobia, racism, characters being outed)
Georgia heads off to university determined to Find Love and Truly Grow Up… only to discover that things are much more complicated than that. An aro-ace coming-of-age story by one of my favourite authors, Loveless was highly anticipated, and did in fact kick my ass (read: resonate deeply, make me laugh and cry, provide a cast of fantastic characters for me to adore) on arrival. (CW depictions of aphobia)
Jess is the daughter of superheroes. Naturally, the best way she could rebel is to take a part-time job with the local supervillains… but what she discovers among secret identity shenanigans is that the ideas of “hero” and “villain” are constructed more deliberately than she might have originally thought. Rollicking fun, letting a bunch of diverse queer kids be heroes, and ultimately reminding me why I like superheroes so much.
Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve
In an alternate, magical 1996, Z wakes up from the car accident that killed their entire family and finds themself reanimated as a zombie. As they try to figure out how to stay “alive”, their only friend seems to be closet werewolf Aysel—especially as anti-monster sentiment amps up and the magic-touched, marginal kids of Salem, Oregon find themselves targeted. Gripping and harrowing in places, very sweet in others, and overall a fantastic exploration of Otherness in its many intersecting forms. (CW for depictions of police violence, homophobic bullying)
Magic is a physical resource, which means big companies can hoard it. However, this also means that a rag-tag group of kids can steal it. But when One Last Job goes awry, the titular spell-hackers find themselves caught in a conspiracy and fighting for their lives, as well as fighting to keep their rowdy found family together. A sparky and fun sci-fi-fantasy mashup with some important commentary up its sleeve.
Under Shifting Stars by Alexandra Latos
Audrey and Clare are twins, though born enough hours apart to have different birthdays and different star signs. The distance between them has only gotten wider after the death of their older brother, and the sisters are left afloat as they try to deal with their own coming-of-age stories: Clare stumbling through an unexpected journey of gender identity, Audrey determined to prove that her neurodivergence doesn’t make her “weird”. This is a lovely, quiet, kind story about growing up and figuring yourself out, told with great humanity.
James and Kat have been BFFs for years, but their communication is fracturing in their final year of high school. Told in alternating timelines—Kat’s chapters going forward chronologically, James’ going backwards—this novel pieces together a bittersweet picture of a platonic breakup, which hurts just as much (if not moreso!) than any romantic one.
Comics and Graphic Novels
How Do We Relationship? by Tamifull (1 volume)
Shy Miwa and outgoing Saeko are both in their first year of college, and, as they discover in a tipsy heart to heart, are both gay. In this moment of alcohol-tinged queer euphoria, they decide that they should totally date each other—what’s the worst that could happen? What follows is a hilarious (but also surprisingly poignant in places) exploration of dating and romance, with the love story flipped topsy-turvy.
I Love You So Much I Hate You by Yumi
An office affair between a manager who feels stifled by her marriage and a young career woman who just wants to be close to someone—it’s a casual, fleeting thing, right? So what happens when these co-workers-with-benefits start to develop serious feelings for one another, and start to wonder if there could be more to this than late-night escapism? Tender and just a little spicy, I Love You was a delightful surprise and ended up making my heart very happy.
Laura Dean is the coolest girl ever, and Freddy is so lucky to be dating her… but Laura keeps finding ways to break Freddy’s heart, and Freddy keeps finding her way to Laura’s arms nonetheless. A heart-aching story about the kind of quietly toxic relationships you can find yourself in when you’re young and desperate to be loved by somebody, and how sometimes happy ever after comes from following your heart away from your dream girl. (CW discussion of age gap relationships and teenaged pregnancy)
This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews
Every year, the townsfolk throw lanterns into the river, to float downstream and away into the stars. So says the local legend, anyway: this year five friends (and one uninvited hanger-on) are determined to follow the lanterns and see where they really go. The adventure doesn’t go exactly to plan, and as the group dwindles to two unlikely adventurers This Was Our Pact takes us on a beautiful, whimsical journey through a starlit and magical space.
Witch Hat Atelier (6 volumes)
Young Coco is fascinated by magic, but can never perform it herself, for magic is only for the elite of society. At least, that’s what everyone thinks, but then Coco discovers that magic is in fact a learned skill kept hidden from the general public for fear of it being misused. After an experimental spell gone awry, Coco finds herself swept up into the apprenticeship of the eccentric witch Qifrey, and into a journey through the inky ins and outs of magic. This series is absolutely gorgeous, the magic system is clever without being overcomplicated (and comes with a great concept—art as witchcraft!) and Coco is a delightful protagonist. If you’re looking to inject some enchantment into your lives, I 100% recommend this series, for young readers and older ones too.
Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serano
Best known for the influential trans text Whipping Girl (which is also fantastic by the way), Serano returns to the topic to tackle trans-exclusionary feminism, lesbian and gay movements that erase bisexuality, and a bevy of other troubles within communities who are ostensibly trying to make progress. She breaks down exclusionary politics wonderfully—this could be a good introductory read for someone who isn’t familiar with these issues, or a cathartic exploration and rallying cry for someone who is.
Life Isn’t Binary by Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi
A user-friendly breakdown of the various presumed binaries that govern everyday life. This works well as an introductory primer to the concept of things like non-binary gender and bisexuality, but also unpacks the harmful nature of other supposed polar opposites like emotional/rational, and the imbalance that these supposedly balanced “both sides” can create. A very accessible read, with some good queer philosophy in (and mediation breaks for when it gets too heavy).
Queer Theory Now by Hannah McCann and Whitney Monaghan
And what the heck is queer theory, anyway? Notoriously abstract and hard to follow, that’s what. But this textbook serves as a very neat breakdown of the evolution of theory and activism, with all the influential players accounted for and explained in nice terms. A good springboard if you want to get into this wild world, but want a primer first.
Non-binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities edited by Jos Twist et al
A collection of essays—some poetic, some more academic, all personal—about the many ways to be non-binary and the many different experiences of gender across the world. As I mentioned in this post, I am particularly fond of the one about Theseus’ Ship and deep-fried pineapple.
Here’s to a 2021 filled with even more literary delights! What were your favourite books you read this year? As always, drop your recs in the ol’ comments!