For the past three years, The Masters Review has published a short round up of the best stories, novels, collections, memoirs, essays (etc. etc.) that our readers enjoyed over the past year. 2020, more so than most years, this reading seemed urgent. Reading was an opportunity, and a luxury. A chance to learn, to grow more compassionate in a world that desperately needs more compassion. To challenge ourselves, to makes ourselves uncomfortable by confronting truths it’s always been easier to ignore. And sometimes, reading was an escape. This round-up collects the highlights for our readers over a year where there were seldom highs.
Brandon Williams — Little Gods, Meng Jin—I have not stopped talking about this book since I read it (in a single day, with a 100-degree fever, the backstory of which might be why this novel so quickly took on mythological proportions to me). The use of point of view is complicated and perfect, and the way that so many of the characters miss each other, talk at each other without hearing, have concerns that have nothing to do with the actual concerns of the “main” character, manages to reveal theme in just about every scene without needing to hit us over the head with it. Gorgeous writing, an incredible conceit (“an immigrant narrative told in negative,” as the book jacket states), and a deep reflection on time and memory and culture and all the things that we can so easily miss, this book takes the traditional cliche storytelling idea of right-place-at-right-time and upends it entirely to create a novel as real as any I’ve ever read.
Courtney Harler — Chapter One of The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi reads, in its entirety: “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.” Thus begins a suspenseful unfolding of the “how” and not the “what” of the story. Set in Nigeria at the end of the last century, Vivek attempts to reconcile their true identity with the expectations of family, friends, and society. In the end, readers are ultimately not stunned by Vivek’s demise, but rather by the tenacity of Vivek’s brief existence in a hostile world. Vivek Oji is a unique, pure soul, and despite the novel’s title, readers are gifted intricate glimpses into an extraordinary life. I was left mourning the loss of such an individual, but also celebrating the very fact of this eponymous character, the very fact of this book.
Cole Meyer — Like the last few years, I tried to keep a list of all the books I read over the year. Last year, I tried to track all the individual short stories I read, as well, a task that failed miserably. What I’m left with is a list of novels and collections and a lengthy list of stories that captivated me. It’s not complete, but it is a good reference point for something like this, when I’m returning to find the “best.” There were many “bests,” as there always seems to be. Some that stand out are Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, a fantastic magical realist/ecocritical debut novel, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (a major crime that I had not yet read this in its entirety), The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was a close call between Coates and what I’d call my stand out favorite of the year: Lot by Bryan Washington (whose Memorial just arrived in the mail for me, and can you tell that I’m drawn to collections of linked stories?). Washington’s collection explores the myriad of identities of its narrator: an Afro-Latino teen discovering his own sexuality amidst the turmoil of his home life. It’s a collection about identity and family and all of the complications that come with both. But it is equally a collection about the city of Houston. It’s always a joy to find a book that colors its setting as vividly as Lot.
Jennifer Dupree —There’s nothing I love more than talking about books. In my day job, I’m a librarian, so I get the opportunity to talk about books a lot. This year, there were a half dozen books I recommended over and over again: A Burning by Megha Majumdar, We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans, Animal Spirit by Francesca Marciano, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and Bass Rock by Evie Wyld. What I love about each of these books is that they surprised me. A Burning for its searing honesty, We Ride Upon Sticks for its tenderness and humor, The Office of Historical Corrections for its direct challenge, Animal Spirit for its simple strangeness, Hamnet because it is perfectly imagined and so well-written I wanted to copy it, and Bass Rock for the intricate plotting and just flat-out brilliance. I’ve read close to a hundred books this year, and these are the ones that float to the top.
Melissa Hinshaw — Did everyone read Luster by Raven Leilani? I held out for a while because it seemed too cool and hip but it truly was one of my favorite reads of the year. I also read sophomore novels of two authors I’ve enjoyed before: The Mothers by Brit Bennett and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom. This summer I got on a Lidia Yuknavitch kick and read her memoir The Chronology of Water, her new short story collection Verge, and quick little rebel guide The Misfits Manifesto in like two weeks. I just finished the year reading Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma, another sophomore novel that took me a minute to get into and has been sitting on my desk since 2019—but wow I’m glad I didn’t let it slide from my list. Do not sleep on that one. Lastly, in the nonfiction arena, Fenton Johnson’s At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life could not have come at a better moment for a pandemic year where I had a lot of time alone wrestling with my creativity and identity.
Melissa Madore — Feels like we have been stuck in The Never Ending Story.
When I read this year, it had to matter—a lot.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang. Old questions—what makes us human? What desires line the fabric of humanity? Chiang’s stories deal with time travel portals, love of digital pets, children raised by mechanical nannies and so on. It feels all too possible; all too real. A necessary reflection considering what the future holds.
Get in Trouble by Kerrie Link. Clever, imaginative, fun, a tad spooky. And like Chiang, Link’s stories can leave you with the metallic taste of a (too) modern future. If you have kids, you probably know all about the interactive and lifelike pets, the dolls that eat and ask for more etc. etc. Toys are becoming smarter and smarter. In the story, “The New Boyfriend,” young girls buy lifelike boyfriend dolls. When those hit the market, we can’t say we didn’t see it coming.
The Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. With the world coming to a halt, a lot of us were forced to take deep breaths and reassess ourselves. In this novel, Keiko, a thirty-six years old unmarried woman, finds purpose working in a convenience store. It’s funny and smart, reminds us that we don’t have to fit the society mold and that there can be sanity, even fulfillment, in aligning tins of peas.
Rebecca Williamson — While I only read thirty-eight of fifty books for my Goodreads challenge, each book was unique and riveting. Among that list were many 2020 releases, and I want to highlight two of them. One of my favorite fiction books was The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim. The book showcases a complex mother-daughter relationship between Mina, a Korean immigrant, and her daughter Margot, born and raised in America. The book is told from both their perspectives: Mina’s point of view in the past just after she arrived in Los Angeles’ Koreatown and Margot in the present after she discovers her mother’s dead body in the opening scene. The plot unfolds as Margot learns more about her mother’s life while reconciling her relationship with her mother, her Korean-American culture, and herself.
I also made it a mission to read more nonfiction books. My favorite was Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall. This book sheds light on the disparities faced by women of color in the feminist movement. It questions everything the mainstream feminist movement teaches by acknowledging how issues such as gun violence, poverty, and education impact women of color in America. This book is for someone who wants to learn and be challenged to do better.