A Year in (Book) Review: The 2020 Spooky Awards

Another year, gone. But the end of this year is especially momentous, as it also marks the end of a decade. A very, very long decade. Probably the longest I’ve lived through yet, personally.

However, along the way, I’ve accomplished so much. One of the successes I’m most proud of is the rekindling of my life-long love affair with reading books. At the beginning of the decade, it was a miracle if I read one book at all in any given year. As of writing, in 2019, I’ve read 65 books.

Image courtesy of Goodreads, which is unfortunately owned by Amazon.

And I’d like to share the highlights of my year in reading with the Second-Annual 2019 Scaredy Ghost Spooky Awards, or Spookies, for short.

Let’s begin!

Best in Fiction: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I would think this award will surprise no one who’s known me for more than a few seconds. I love Margaret Atwood and have been anticipating the Handmaid’s Tale sequel since Atwood first announced it. I even pre-ordered the ebook. On Amazon. That’s how much I wanted to read it.

And it did not disappoint. Atwood’s writing style reads like it was tailor-made for me and she did a masterful job expanding the world of Gilead while also teaching the very important lesson that even the worst things in the world end sooner or later. Even vicious totalitarian empires.

Best in Nonfiction: Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft

I read a lot of very good nonfiction this year, partially due to my recent discovery that I can, in fact, pay attention to audiobooks under the right circumstances (like while I’m driving). Any of the nonfiction I read this year would be worth checking out but Why Does He Do That? stands tall above the rest.

Do That is written by psychologist Lundy Bancroft, who specializes in treating abusers, particularly abusive men. In his book, Bancroft deconstructs the abuser’s psyche and examines it piece by piece, using the perspective of abuse victims as his point of reference. It’s both a great psychological survey of abusive behavior but also, and far more importantly, a guidebook for victims of abuse to understand what is happening to them, why it’s happening, and how to get away from it.

Some books are simply good for humanity and, in my not-so-humble opinion, should be required reading for anyone aspiring to be a person who exists in the world. In fact, I have a Goodreads tag filled with my suggestions. This book tops the list.

Best Graphic Novel: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata

I read a lot of manga this year, particularly series. They all went by in kind of a blur, especially those I read in the first half of the year, so I had to look back through my read list to see what stood out. In a funny twist of fate, of my top two choices, neither of them was a series at all; both were one-shots. And one of them was Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness.

There are a lot of reasons to enjoy this manga, but mine are both extremely biased and highly personal. Nagata’s anxiety, isolation, and self-destructive behavior mirror my own. Granted, I did not ultimately hire a sex worker to finally break my intimacy barrier (at least not yet; it’s not the worst idea), but Nagata’s struggles in navigating normal adulthood felt so raw and honest that I had to read this in shifts to keep myself from spiraling in my own similar thoughts. It was a story that came to me at the right time and told me things I needed to hear.

Best Biography: Becoming by Michelle Obama

Last year, I started reading Becoming but didn’t finish it in time to give it the Best Biography award in 2018. It felt unfair then because it was so good and I worried that it would seem like bad form as a white person to snub a black woman’s memoir in my admittedly obscure book awards.

Well, fear not, because I finished that book and, even if I’d read a dozen other memoirs, Becoming would still be my favorite.

As it turns out, not only is Michelle Obama a great person, she’s also a phenomenal writer and storyteller. She’s got a way with words that only adds to her aura of intelligence and grace. She just exudes class in a way I’ve never seen in anyone else. I admired Michelle Obama before I read Becoming; I outright adore her now.

Best Series: Warriors by Erin Hunter

I missed a lot of juvenile fiction when I was, well, a juvenile. I’m not entirely sure how it happened—I don’t know what the hell I was reading as a kid that made me miss things like Animorphs—but I at least knew those books existed, even if I’d never read them.

Warriors, on the other hand, soared right past my consciousness without a word or a whisper. I’d never even heard of these books until the internet was kind enough to set me right. It seemed like every internet person I like and admire obsessed over these books as a kid. So, I grabbed the first book (note: there are multiple Warriors series; I only read the original) and gave it a try.

Then I blew through it and the other five books faster than I could check them out at the library. I think I even ended up pirating one just because I didn’t wanna wait to read it. These books may have been written for a younger audience but they are not childish. The series is Game of Thrones with cats, but with less sex and more valuable life lessons. Just as much violence, though. Holy shit.

Best Recommendation: The Ruins by Scott Smith

I follow a fella on Twitter by the name of Trevor. He’s something of a horror fan. And among his prolific efforts to spread the Slimy Swamp Ghost Gospel across the digital landscape include talk of horror novels. In fact, in July, he piloted a Twitter book club, which I affectionately dubbed the Slimy Swamp Book Club. During that pilot month, we read The Ruins by Scott Smith, a book I’d never heard of by an author I’d never heard of. By the time I finally got my hands on a copy, I knew two things about it:

  1. They made a movie about it at some point.
  2. Something something body horror.

As it turns out, that was a very good amount of stuff to know about The Ruins, particularly that latter point. I had a bit of a slow start getting into it—perhaps my own fault for reading about a book that takes place in the middle of summer within a Mexican rainforest in July—but once the first horror beat dropped, I knew I was hooked. The Ruins was the best horror book I’ve read in a while. And it was absolutely “something something body horror” as hell. Tread lightly if you’re squeamish.

Best Impulse Read: The Book of Dragons by Edith Nesbit

I have a problem with not shutting up about the Serial Reader app. I’ve been a dedicated user of it for a few years now and have read all sorts of classic books, including many I might not have read otherwise.

The Book of Dragons is one of those books. Not only had I no interest in reading it when I found it, I’d never even heard of it or its author. But I felt like something short and mythological, and Nesbit’s book fit the bill.

I expected, perhaps foolishly, dry fairytale-like stories about dragons. I would be only partially right: Fairytales about dragons? Yes. But they were anything but dry; Nesbit’s sense of humor is endearing and earnest, bordering on outright ridiculous. She has a way of making the most preposterous claims with such a matter-of-fact seriousness that it makes her silliness that much funnier.

The stories were cute (though largely unmemorable) but the writing style tickled me in a way that lingers even now, months after reading it.

Most Surprising: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

When Stephen King recommends a book, I take notice. When he recommended A Head Full of Ghosts on Twitter, I immediately put a hold on a copy at the library. When it came in, I started reading… and immediately felt a sense of dread that I’d made a mistake.

You see, the horror genre has this obsession with making mentally ill people the “monsters” of stories. It’s something I’ve always found distasteful, partially because I am one of those mentally ill people that get exploited for cheap scares so often. So, when I realized that Ghosts was very much going to be a book where a schizophrenic teen was the enemy, I felt a little disgusted and extremely annoyed, and put the book down out of protest for several months, thinking it would fade from my consciousness once people stopped talking about it.

But people didn’t stop talking about it. Ghosts had really blown through the horror community and people were insisting I read it, regardless of my views, or even in spite of them. Ignoring its existence was simply out of the question, I realized, so I picked it back up and started over.

I understand now why people were so persistent. Ghosts is technically a book about a mentally ill girl being “a monster,” but it’s less of another iteration of that trope and more of a deconstruction of it. Ultimately, the book is more about the breaking down of a family in the wake of being confronted with things beyond their control, like the debilitating mental illness of their oldest daughter.

It featured some of the best writing I’ve come across this year, too; I suspect Paul Tremblay will feature prominently on my 2020 reading list.

Biggest Disappointment: Dracula by Bram Stoker

This one might come as a shocker, so let me explain. I actually really enjoyed Dracula; Bram Stoker really built a great world with fantastic characters (MINA HARKER 4 EVER) and I was completely absorbed by his writing.

The book itself did not disappoint me: the ending did.

Why? Well, because… there really wasn’t much of one. Stoker spent the entire second half of his book building up what I expected to be a glorious battle between the Fab Five and Dracula. I expected action, drama, all the bells and whistles!

But what I got was basically: We went to the castle. We killed Dracula. Quincey got knifed during a scuffle with some Romani and died. It was very sad. The end.

The ending was so dull and lifeless (pun… slightly intended?) that I was actually shocked. I thought maybe I’d missed something. But nope, that was it.

I’m not mad, Bram Stoker. Just… disappointed.

Favorite Book of 2019: Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft

There’s nothing I can say about Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft that I haven’t already said a million times on Twitter, Reddit, to random strangers, and earlier in this blog post. Bancroft has produced one of the most powerful and necessary books I’ve ever known to exist and I personally think it should be on every bookshelf, every library, and every hotel room in the world. Do That should be required reading for teens and young adults as they learn to navigate romantic relationships for the first time. Every adult should read it, too, both to recognize the signs of abuse within their own relationships as well as within others’.

The origin of every major societal problem is ignorance. We do not know how to stop abuse because we don’t all agree on what it looks like or what can be done once we recognize it. Do That covers all that and more. Read it. Tell everyone you know to read it. Full. Stop.

5 Honorable Mentions

Roadqueen by Mira Ong Chua: I didn’t read as many graphic novels as I would have liked but I knew I didn’t want to miss Mira Ong Chua’s blockbuster hit Roadqueen. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t; I didn’t think I’d enjoy it nearly as much as I did! It’s not my favorite of her works—that would be My Very First Vampire Blood Drive—but it was still a super fun and endearing ride… pun intended!

So You Want to Talk About Race by Injeoma Oluo: I read a lot of good nonfiction this year and, had I not read Why Does He Do That this year, Injeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race may have been my favorite nonfiction read this year. As a white person, I know I have serious racial blind spots to recognize and unlearn to help create a space where everyone feels welcome and safe, and Oluo does a fantastic job introducing racial issues to people like me who are willing to be better but just don’t know exactly how.

Feeling Good by David Burns: Another “if I hadn’t ready Why Does He Do That this might have been in the top” nonfiction book of this year was Feeling Good by Dr. Burns, who has a TEDx Talk of the same name. The book is a guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a form of therapy designed to help people with mood disorders like depression and anxiety. It’s written to be a guidebook specifically for patients looking to try CBT for themselves, or with the help of a therapist, and a study showed that people who read the book and did the exercises benefited from them the same way one might benefit from traditional talk therapy.

Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Carmilla was another impulse read. The draw was that there are lesbians and vampires, the former of which I found especially interesting, given the book was published in 1872 (making it almost 30 years older than Dracula, by the way). I thought maybe the internet was overexaggerating the lesbian-ness of the two main characters but, no, they’re pretty gay! They just couldn’t call it that. The lesbians and vampires were great but the story itself was superb, too.

The Moomins and the Great Flood by Tove Jansson: Moomin was one of those things I completely missed growing up. When the internet suddenly assaulted me with Moomin images and merch, I got curious the way I always do when I’m presented with something cute and mysterious. One thing led to another and I began reading the books. The Moomin books are all like a literary bath; they’re warm, relaxing, and comforting to read. But the first one, The Moomins and the Great Flood, is my favorite. It’s the “how it all began” story and considered a prequel to the main series, but features one of my favorite characters that has not been heard from or seen since: Tulippa. She is so rare, in fact, that I had to literally make her a Moomin Wiki page myself just so I could link you to it here. And that’s a damn shame, in my opinion.

Here’s to Another Great Year of Reading!

I’m very much looking forward to diving head-first into my 2020 reading list. For the past two years, I’ve challenged myself to read 52 books: 1 book a week on average. This year, I’m (mostly) doubling my goal to 100 books. I also plan to try my hand at the 2020 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge, mostly to keep me from being overwhelmed by choices.

What books did you love this year? Let me know in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter!

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