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Book reviews: Best books of 2020: Jim Higgins’ picks include ‘Homeland Elegies,’ ‘Big Girl, Small Town,’ ‘Warhol’

Jim Higgins
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Jim Higgins' favorite new books of 2020.

Nearly half of my favorite new books of 2020 were science fiction and fantasy. But I don’t see that as escapism. There was no way to escape the anxieties stirred up by the deadly pandemic, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, and the most contentious election of my lifetime.

In reading SFF, I often see determined and resourceful characters facing dangerous and constantly changing circumstances with courage. I wish I saw more of that in the world around me.

As usual, your mileage may vary. My choices are listed in alphabetical order by title.

“Big Girl, Small Town” by Michelle Gallen (Algonquin)

Bright, earthy and funny, Majella works in a chip shop in a Northern Ireland border town, copes with her alcoholic ma and watches “Dallas” DVDs to relax. She’s also on the autism spectrum, constantly analyzing the people around her to know how to respond. The star of Gallen’s novel is my most unforgettable fictional character of 2020.

“Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

An intense fantasy, inspired by indigenous North and Central American civilizations, that pits clans against each other in a battle of magic powers.

“Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey” by Kathleen Rooney (Penguin)

In this historical novel, a carrier pigeon and a gay American Army officer, both based on real beings, alternate in describing the horrors of fighting in World War I. Respect for animals and their experiences is a powerful thread throughout.

“Homeland Elegies” by Ayad Akhtar (Little, Brown)

A hard-hitting semi-autobiographical novel from the Brookfield Central grad and Pulitzer Prize winner, about the unease of being a brown Muslim in the U.S. after Sept. 11, and about the destructive power of unfettered capitalism.

“The Left-Handed Booksellers of London” by Garth Nix (Katherine Tegen Books)

In this witty Young Adult fantasy, punkish Susan in ’80s London learns that booksellers secretly protect our world from evil magic, and they need her help. While marketed as a book for teens, adults will also enjoy this novel.

“Network Effect” by Martha Wells (Tor)

Once again, the self-aware and illegally self-directed SecUnit who would rather binge on the future’s version of Netflix has to save some humans from fatal jeopardy. Wells’ human/AI hybrid is a narrator like no other.

“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw (West Virginia University Press)

In this wonderful collection of short stories, Black women and teens wrestle with their desires and chafe against the ties of church and family that bind them.

“The Thursday Murder Club” by Richard Osman (Penguin)

A lively and humorous debut mystery from a British television presenter, about four friends in a quiet retirement home who go from pondering cold cases to solving an actual murder. An engaging read, but also a book with enormous respect for older people.

“Unconquerable Sun” by Kate Elliott (Tor)

An exciting space opera that’s also a gender-switched version of the Alexander the Great story, with women as powerful warrior leaders. Impressive world-building.

“Warhol” by Blake Gopnik (Ecco)

An enormous, detailed biography of the artist and provocateur that blows up notions that he somehow Zelig-ed his way through life. Gopnik shows that Warhol was a serious student of art history who was always looking for the next edge. The biographer also explores many ways being gay affected Warhol’s work.

Contact Jim Higgins at jim.higgins@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.