The Best Books We Read in 2020

Amid the many challenges of 2020, the Duke University Press staff took solace in—what else?—reading. Here are some of our staffers’ favorite books they read over the past year. We hope you’ll find a few picks for yourself to enjoy in the coming months.

Copywriter Chris Robinson recommends The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition by Ursula K. Le Guin. “I started this massive illustrated collection of all of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels and stories at the start of October, when I needed some good escapism from the election. It did the trick. Her language is comforting, like a warm blanket. Wizards and dragons? Yes please.”

Dan Ruccia, Marketing Designer, enjoyed the first two books in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb Trilogy. Her debut, Gideon the Ninth, “was the first book I was able to successfully read during the panicked early days of the pandemic, devouring it in a matter of days,” he writes. “Muir’s tale of necromancers is equal parts gothic fantasy, space opera, and whodunnit, all cast in nacreous, sepulchral tones with more words for ‘bones’ than you can shake a gnarled, ossified pile of knucklebones at. It’s also absurdly hilarious. The second volume (Harrow the Ninth) takes everything you learn in the first book, rips it apart, and reassembles it into some horrifying skeletal construct that is totally befuddling and somehow even more satisfying. I’ve read them both twice already, and I’m sad that I have to wait until 2022 for the series’ concluding volume (Alecto the Ninth) to be released.”

Michael McCullough, Senior Manager for Books Sales and Marketing, recommends The Summer House by Alice Thomas Ellis. “Three very different women—the bride-to-be, her mother’s old friend, and her prospective mother-in-law—tell the story of an ill-advised wedding. If I kept a commonplace book, it would be filled with quotations from The Summer House, because the writing is brilliant.”

Digital Content Manager Patty Chase writes, “The most enchanting book I read this year was Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke. I was drawn into its surreal landscape immediately, and I let the uncertainty of what was happening wash over me. The unwinding of the story was entirely satisfying all the way through. This book was a welcome escape during these trying times.”

Book Designer Aimee Harrison’s favorite book this year was Masande Ntshanga’s Triangulum. “A blend of near-apocalypse science fiction and post-apartheid South African coming-of-age novel, Triangulum propelled me into history books and debates about whether change comes from destroying the machine or manipulating it, while I was still sitting beside the ghosts of the very real characters Ntshanga has created. This is Ntshanga’s second novel, and draws on elements of research and triptych friendships developed in The Reactive, but pushes language and genre even further to tie together disparate conspiracies and revolutions, environmental and governmental catastrophes, and histories of friendships and families.”

Charles Brower, Senior Project Editor, writes, “I think it’s fitting for 2020 to pick a horror novel as my read of the year: Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians, which is tragic, funny, blood-curdling, and illuminating and sharp in its portrayal of contemporary Indigenous life on and off the reservation. And it climaxes with the most suspenseful basketball game between a Native teenage girl and a vengeful elk demon that you’ll ever read.”

Journals Marketing Manager Jocelyn Dawson’s pick is The Housekeeper by Natalie Barelli, a psychological thriller that she listened to as an audiobook. “It’s definitely better to read in print, because the last third of the book is impossible to put down and there’s only so much time that you can politely spend walking around with headphones in when you live with other people. If you like suspense, this is one to add to your list.”

And lastly, Editor Elizabeth Ault writes, “Two books that hit my quarantine sweet spot of exceptional writing, settings and characters I hadn’t seen a million times before, and just sheer joy in reading were Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors and Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks. Both told deeply emplaced stories (Washburn on Hawaiʻi and Oahu, Barry on the North Shore of Massachusetts) about places very unlike Durham, NC, so that certainly helped!”


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