This has been a crazy year, to say the least, and during our time in quarantine, many of us have turned to books. Books have been both a source of enjoyment, a place of solace, and an escape from hectic times. Our staff writers have taken the time to reflect on books that were meaningful to them this year for all of these reasons and more. From fiction to nonfiction, old to new, there is something on this list for everyone. Everyone here at the Spellbinding Shelf wishes you a Happy New Year and (hopefully) a longer to-be-read list!
Staff Writer Rikki Tremblay
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma—Bessel van der Kolk. Dr. van der Kolk is a leading expert on trauma studies, and this book is a must-read for academics, professionals, and laypeople alike. You get a thorough and grounded definition and discussion of what trauma is—not just mentally, but physically, emotionally, and spiritually as well. Van der Kolk then covers various paths to recovery beyond just the orthodox approaches to trauma. You’ll learn how to use new techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), acting, and yoga in the treatment of trauma.
As someone with cPTSD and recovering from past trauma myself, this book was such a gift. My copy of the book is heavily dog-eared, underlined, highlighted, and scribbled with notes, break-throughs, and revelations throughout. It’s not always an easy read because it will unearth ancient hurts and spark painful—but cathartic—connections at times. I’m happy to have read this book at the beginning of 2020 because I felt better prepared and equipped to survive the collective trauma we’ve all experienced the rest of the year!
Staff Writer Abhilasha Mandal
The Turn of the Screw—Henry James. This book is a horror novella published in 1898. It’s unique due to the psychoanalytical angle it takes on the main characters of the story—Miles, Flora and their governess. It is also largely open to interpretation.
Bly Manor, where they live, is haunted by two insidious spirits who seek to consume Miles and Flora. The governess learns of this and puts all her energy into protecting the children. But is what she’s seeing really there? There are several moments in the story that make you question the governess’s mental disposition. Also, even though she is very descriptive of her protective feelings for the children, some parts of her interactions with them suggest she is not disclosing her innermost feelings for them, especially the boy, Miles.
There is, in fact, much debate among scholars on the hidden meaning of this book. It has also received a lot of critique because it is suggestive of some things that are now inexcusable. But it is a gripping read, and it is best to read it and interpret it for yourself. The thrill doesn’t diminish upon rereading. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes psychological thrillers or gothic drama.
Staff Writer Melanie Wilson
The Alchemist—Paulo Coelho. My favorite book of 2020 has been The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I read it for the first time this year and I can understand why it’s a classic. My favorite quote from the book was “This is what we call love. When you are loved, you can do anything in creation. When you are loved, there’s no need at all to understand what’s happening, because everything happens within you.”
Staff Writer Lauren Kuhman
The Hobbit—J.R.R. Tolkien. There are a plethora of good books—all of which were strong contenders for the title of my favorite book of 2020. However, I think that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit stands out the most. I have never really read any fantasy novels, and whenever I approached any of Tolkien’s most famous works I was offered a slew of positive, yet cautionary advice on how some of them are lengthy, uneventful reads. Nevertheless, I was (and am) determined to begin the adventure that is The Lord of the Rings series. Since I had never before read these books—or even really watched the movies—I thought it would be appropriate to start at the beginning. While I have yet to begin any of The Lord of the Rings books, I still loved The Hobbit. It was an engaging read that, while being classified as a children’s book, was as exciting and mysterious as any adult novel I’ve read. Additionally, as a novice fantasy reader, I thought it to be a good introduction to the genre and incited me to seek out similar novels. 2020 has been an absolute whirlwind of the year with travesty, drama, some thrills, and complete horrors, so having the ability to tumble down waterfalls in wine barrels was a welcome relief from the very unique and complicated year that has been 2020.
Staff Writer Jaycee Graffius
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—Douglas Adams. This book had me laughing for days! I would sometimes have to put the book down and just giggle nonsensically at the matter-of-fact way in which the book would make absolutely absurd assertions. Each character was delightfully relatable, which is an impressive feat seeing as one of those characters was a hippie/former galactic president with five heads, and they each brought their own comedic flair to the story without feeling redundant. This book reminded me a lot of my favorite podcast, “Welcome to Night Vale,” which also uses absurdist humor to create a peculiar world. I’ve already purchased the entire series and cannot wait to explore the galaxy with my trusty towel!
Staff Writer Amanda Thomas
Shadow and Bone Trilogy—Leigh Bardugo. Young Adult Fantasy had always been my favorite genre, but when you’re deep into your English major, you learn to sample other genres like contemporary and speculative fiction, which leans towards more mature and controversial themes than fantasy and romance. Not to mention how monotonous the YA genre can get when there is a certain trope that authors tend to trend towards. It had been so long since I’d read a YA novel that when I came across this trilogy by Leigh Bardugo with the brilliant cover design, interesting titles, and intriguing summaries, I decided to give it a try. Let’s just say, this trilogy sparked my love of YA fantasy again. While it has its shortcomings, the introduction into the “Grishaverse” detailed a rich fantasy environment with political intrigue that truly felt engaging and unique. I was drawn into this world and fell in love with its characters and the structures of magic that were utilized. It has also inspired me to continue to read into this universe created by Bardugo as the stories and her writing has continued to improve. While I’m still thankful for being able to expand my horizons and read more “adult” types of fiction, reading YA feels like coming home to the type of reading and fantasy worlds that made me into the book lover I am today.
Staff Writer Sharon Enck
Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers: 1852-1923—Edited by Leslie S. Klinger and Lisa Morton. If Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe had a book-baby, it would be Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers: 1852-1923.It is my favorite read of 2020 because it mixes three of my literary loves: the horror genre, the short story, and narratives from a female perspective. Combining the beautiful turns of phrase a la Austen, with the spine tingling, teeth gnashing grittiness of Poe, Weird Women gives the reader lushly written tales of horror and the supernatural.
There is definitely something jolting about having topics like cruelty, murder, and loss being described as though they belong between the covers of Pride and Prejudice. And if you thought that Louisa May Alcott was only sugar and spice and everything Little Women, you would be deliciously wrong. I was pleasantly surprised to see that that particular author has a dark side as well as a heartwarming one. Among the distinguished list of female writers is Charlotte Perkins Gilman (yes, “The Yellow Wallpaper”) along with some new voices that I am thrilled to have discovered.
Communications Coordinator Roxanne Bingham
A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes—Suzanne Collins. This is the prequel to The Hunger Games and I loved getting a look at the mind of President Snow. It was really interesting to see how much The Hunger Games had changed between his mentoring and the games we know. I love villain origin stories, and seeing exactly how he became a villain was so satisfying. I hope she writes more prequels of some kind because I want to know more!
Managing Editor Jade Stanton
What We Owe To Each Other—T.M. Scanlon. This book provides a possible answer to some of the complex questions at the heart of morality and ethics: how should we judge whether an action is morally right and wrong? Why should we concern ourselves with morality in decision making? Scanlon posits that our conception of morality should be based upon what actions could not be reasonably rejected by others. In this way, what we owe to each other—and, by extension, our views of morality—are ever-evolving and depend on the specific circumstances of individual situations.
Full disclosure: I heard of this book by watching The Good Place, which aired its fourth and final season this year. While I will caution readers that this is a very (very) dense read, I found the ideas it presents to be very relevant to 2020. Between the pandemic and the civil unrest we have seen this year, it’s hard to deny the importance of morality and decency in today’s world. My favorite thing about this book, however, is that it’s underlying assumption is that, by the very nature of our shared humanity, we owe each other something. To quote The Good Place’s Chidi Anagonye, “we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.” This sentiment, while always important, feels especially poignant given the turbulence of this year. While we may not know what next year holds, let this be the message we carry into 2021.
Editor-in-Chief Mackenzie King
Tess of the Road—Rachel Hartman. This is probably one of my favorite books of all time, not just 2020. It is set in the same fantastical universe as Hartman’s other books, Seraphina and Shadow Scale (which I also recommend!) but it follows the protagonist’s younger half-sister. It has the main features of any vaguely medieval fantasy novel, with dragons and kings and mistresses, but Hartman’s take on the genre is refreshing and unique. Fantasy has always been my favorite genre, so it was a breath of fresh air to read a fantasy novel that did not fall into the usual tropes.
Tess is suffocating under the weight of her past “failures” and believes, in the words of her father, that she is “born bad.” Tess’s rebellious streak is highly relatable and her emotional responses draw you even further into the story. Even though I have not personally experienced all that she has, Hartman’s beautiful prose makes you completely understand the complexity of her character as she struggles to accept her past, her mind, and her body. All of the characters are remarkably human and real—even the non-human characters! The mystery of Tess’s past unfolds throughout the book, working through her traumas and disappointments until she eventually accepts them. I would have never thought a book about the main character simply travelling would be so compelling, but it is utterly fantastic! Also, the sequel, Tess of the Sea, will be released soon!
It’s hard to believe how quickly this year has flown by! Before we head out to celebrate the new year and make those New Year’s resolutions, we thought we’d take a moment to reflect on 2019 and the gorgeous reads we’ve discovered. Each of our bloggers and editors have reflected on all the books—both old and new—they’ve read in the last 12 months and have chosen one book to highlight that impacted them most this 2019 calendar year. We hope this list inspires you to pick up a new book for your 2020 TBR list. Until then, The Spellbinding Shelf wishes you all another fantastic year filled with happy memories, adventures, time with family and friends, and—of course—lots of good books!
Staff Writer Roxanne Bingham
Harlan Coben’s Run Away follows Simon Greene as he tries to find his eldest daughter, Paige, who has become addicted to drugs and her terrible boyfriend. When her boyfriend winds up dead, Simon and his wife team up to find Paige and encounter danger along the way. With two other stories interwoven, the mystery complicates and leads the reader to wonder why Paige spiraled and how the characters are all connected. As the mystery unravels, so does Simon’s life as he knows it, with secrets about his wife coming to the surface.
I love everything Coben writes, but I really enjoyed this one because it highlights familial love and what one is willing to do to save their child. We receive clues as the characters do, making it a real page turner to get to the heart of the mystery. For any crime novel or mystery lovers, I definitely recommend Run Away!
Staff Writer Abhilasha Mandal
Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 is about two people in Japan, Tengo and Aomame, who are pulled into a dystopian world parallel to the year 1984, where a series of inexplicable events envelops them and they are left wondering if time itself isn’t a loop in the world they nickname 1Q84.
It is so rare to find a book written for an adult audience that employs elements of fantasy that I recoiled in surprise when I first reached the page that revealed the supernatural theme of the novel.
The story is so captivating and unpredictable that for two whole chapters I found myself questioning which of the two worlds was “real.” This is a must-read for fans of fantastical thrillers.
Staff Writer Brandi Martinez
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous presents a letter to a mother who might never read the message’s contents because she cannot read English. This makes the outpouring of Vuong’s heart even more poignant. In this exposed and emotional account of the author’s life growing up with a single mother, he examines their relationship and how these experiences have shaped his view of the world. The author knows that he may never receive answers to the many open-ended questions which he asks his mother throughout the work, but his need to voice these questions is laced through the memories which he recounts.
Vuong utilizes the beauty of the poetic language to weave together the pieces of his youth. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is at once urgent in its need to find meaning in the memories, and languid in its wandering quality which relishes the moments for their own unique beauty. I was entranced by both the beauty of Vuong’s words as well as the sincerity and openness of his self-perspective. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to swim in a sea of haunting beauty and fearlessness.
Staff Writer Jade Stanton
Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time provides an summative explanation of the history and theories behind our current understanding of the universe. Hawking’s aim was to create a book to explain complex theories that could be understood by anyone with an eighth grade understanding of math and physics.
Hawking’s book, although published in 1988, is my staff pick for the year mainly because of the advancements made in our understanding of the universe in recent times, specifically the first photographed picture of a black hole taken on April 10th of this year. It is these advancements that show just how important it is for all people to have a basic understanding of the theories and concepts at work, so that they can better understand the importance of the discoveries being made today. Although Hawking has since passed, his work in the field (and in our lives) has remained extremely relevant, and we owe him so much for our current understanding of the world around us.
Staff Writer Edward Dolehanty
Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, In the Dream House, explores Machado’s experience in a same-sex relationship that featured domestic abuse as well as the cannon of domestic abuse in lesbian relationships. Full of emotional depth and imaginatively told, this story attempts to show an aspect of the underbelly of modern queer culture through Machado’s personal story, literary and film criticism, and through the dissection of pop-culture.
I love this book because like Machado’s previous work, Her Body and Other Parties, it is unlike anything that I have read before. As soon as I was finished reading it I wanted to start reading it again. The world which Machado creates and so elaborately and seamlessly weaves together is equally impressive and immersive. While the story comes from her distinctly queer perspective, that is not to say that there is not something in this book for everyone as it shines light upon the emotional traumas that unfold in our everyday lives.
Communications Coordinator Makenna Knighton
Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward follows a girl named Spensa who wants nothing more than to be a pilot and clear her father’s name. However, she almost misses the test to get into flight school because she finds M-Bot, an abandoned starship, while exploring—and Spensa’s challenges only get more difficult from there. While juggling escapes with M-Bot, tensions with her classmates, and her own impulsiveness, Spensa discovers important truths about herself and her surroundings, making it through to the surprising future after an engaging journey.
I love how this novel blends the science fiction and young adult genres, like Ender’s Game and How to Train Your Dragon combined at Star Trek’s Starfleet Academy. With perfect pacing through the pleasantly long and thought-provoking narrative, you won’t want to miss Spensa’s riveting adventure—and the sequel, Starsight, released last month!
Managing Editor Payton Kline
Wendy Webb’s Daughters of the Lake begins when a perfectly-preserved body washes up on the beach near Kate Granger’s childhood home along the North Shore of Lakes Superior—but, the body has been dead for nearly 100 years, and Kate’s family had something to do with it. Through a series of dreams and stories told through Kate and the murdered woman, Addie’s, eyes readers see this chilling story unfold in the most unexpected and deliciously uncanny ways.
For those of you who have read the blog before, you know that I adore the Minnesotan author Wendy Webb—so it will come as no surprise that my absolute favorite read of 2019 was her newest book, Daughters of the Lake. With characters that still cross my mind to this day, a setting so gorgeous yet so ominous, and a plot so compelling that I often read into the early morning hours, I cannot sing high enough praises for this newest novel from the queen of Northern Gothic herself. For those of you looking for an entertaining, yet thought-provoking book to kick off the new year, look no further than Daughters of the Lake.
Editor-in-Chief Rachel Hagerman
Tara Westover’s Educated traces Westover’s journey from living with a survivalist family in the states without any formal education to earning a PhD from Cambridge University. This memoir reflects on Tara’s childhood working alongside six siblings in a dangerous scrapyard managed by her domineering father and learning from her talented healer and midwife mother. From here, it follows her departure from home into the seemingly secular world for education at BYU followed by Cambridge.
I heard numerous wonderful things about this popular memoir while I waited until it was finally available for pickup at my local library. I have to admit that I was suspicious that the book wouldn’t live up to the hype, but I was pleasantly proven wrong. I absolutely loved Westover’s writing style and reflection. I appreciated her brutal honesty about her mental states and her reactions to defining moments in her coming-of-age story. I found her educational journey inspiring and her relationship to faith, and the people who abuse faith, heart-wrenching.
The artwork featured on our blog post above was provided by local artist Bruce Black. You can view more artwork from Black at bruceblackart.com or on Instagram @bruceblackart.
Summer is a time for rest, relaxation, fun, and (of course) copious amounts of reading. This summer, I set a goal to read one novel or short story collection a week. So far, I’ve read wonderful books from authors ranging from Ocean Vuong to Zora Neale Hurston. And while I’ve enjoyed every work, these are some of my favorites.
Bloodchild – Octavia E. Butler. Though it was up against some stiff competition, I think this collection is the standout of my summer reading. Each story is a world in itself where the characters and the stakes come alive. Be warned, each of these tales are bound to make your skin crawl (but in the best way possible). One of the highlights of this collection is “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” in which a woman is battling a genetic disorder that leads to self-harm and mutilation. Another highlight is “Amnesty,” which explores a plant-like alien race coming to Earth and becoming the dominant species.
Speak No Evil – Iweala Uzodinma. This story about Niru, the son of Nigerian immigrants, and his white best friend, Meredith, will leave you thinking long after you read the last page. After Niru comes out to Meredith, she urges him to embrace who he is. In turn, they both must suffer the consequences of Niru embracing his sexuality, and a great strain is placed upon their relationship. Speak No Evil takes an outside perspective of the American dream, weighs cultural notions of sexuality, and confronts the challenge of having brown skin in America.
Difficult Women – Roxane Gay. This is a dynamic collection of honest stories that explore the lives of women in modern America. Their stories range from sisters who suffered through the same trauma to a woman who is cursed with making the ceiling leak. These tales are imaginative, powerful, and at times frustrating. One of my favorite stories from the collection is the titular piece, “Difficult Women,” which explores the archetypes of loose women, frigid women, crazy women, and mothers. Another of my favorites is, “North Country,” in which a woman tries to escape the coldness of her relationship, but discovers a new type of cold in the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. I read this book in high school, and for reasons (that I can no longer relate to) I did not enjoy it. This summer, I decided to give it another try, and I am glad that I did. In this futuristic dystopian novel, freedom and knowledge are regulated. At the center of the novel is Bernard, who questions the highly regulated and “civilized” lifestyle of the times because he does not feel as if he fits in. This novel delves into the cost of both individuality and authenticity and puts them to test against the collective well-being of society.
Watchmen – Alan Moore and David Gibbons. I am new to graphic novels, with my introduction being Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home earlier this year. While researching the genre, Watchmen came up over and over again as a great read, and it proved itself to be just that. It follows a group of washed up superheros in an alternate world where Richard Nixon was never impeached and the world is on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The story concludes with a great moral question that will leave the reader contemplating long after you have put the book down.