Here at FYA, it’s no secret that we live for books. But 2020 really gave new meaning to the phrase, as we all became more thankful than ever for the escape and joy of reading. Amidst a very dark year, these literary stars were the brightest of bright spots, whether they were guiding us to romance or adventure or LOLs or just all of the feels, and even after the sun has risen on 2021, we’ll remain grateful for the dazzling light of these remarkable reads.
And to each and every writer listed here, it’s no exaggeration to say that you’re a lifesaver.
Note: This post contains affiliate links. Learn more about our affiliate policy here.
I’ve come to expect bold, feminist storytelling from Siobhan Vivian, but damn, this book packed a punch that left me reeling. Whether you’re a Sporty Spice or more of an indoor kid like me, the story of the West Essex Girl’s Field Hockey Team will gather you up in a fierce bear hug that hurts so good. Managing multiple POVs can be tricky, but Vivian paints rich portraits of this dynamite group of girls, all of whom are navigating the savage waters of adolescence while discovering that their beloved coach is actually a toxic piece of shit. As I wrote in my review, the girl power of the Wildcats is intoxicating, like a double shot of whiskey for the soul.
Nobody does Mysterious Loner Dude quite like Sarah J. Maas, and the “dark and brooding” hottie in her new adult series is literally a fallen angel so… yeah. While the swoon definitely reaches panty-melting levels, it’s actually the world building that landed this book on my list. Crescent City is an electrifying mashup of mythologies, paranormal creatures, and modern day technology, and I can’t wait to head back when the sequel comes out.
I’m a big fan of Emily Henry’s YA books–she writes with a beautiful poignancy that never fails to leave my heart full and tender–so I had high hopes for her first adult romance novel. And y’all, girlfriend delivered. Not only do we get some smokin’ hot tropes (the enemistry alone is FIRE) and, you know, actual S-E-X, but we also get Top Quality Emily Henry Writing, which means the emotional layers of the story are rich and nuanced. I fell in love with everything about this book, from its extremely relatable heroine (a phrase I feel is often abused but I really mean it) to its charming little beach town setting to its superb blend of humor, smarts, and sizzling swoon.
(Seconded by Rosemary and Mandy C.)
It seems like an impossible feat to write the fourth and final book in a beloved series and avoid disappointing your readers. It’s even more challenging to leave them satisfied even after a few more swift kicks to their guts. But Sabaa Tahir has done it, folks. The last installment of her Ember in the Ashes series, which I have swimfanned over since it began, was everything I wanted it to be and more: intense, heart-shattering, sexy, imaginative, and freaking EPIC. As the pages (rapidly) turn, Tahir sharpens the book’s themes like weapons, which transform an already insanely compelling story of brave, fractured people into a powerful tale of humanity and the evils of war. And if it’s not already clear, I CRIED LIKE A BABY.
This portrait of Lizzie’s most misunderstood (and overshadowed) sibling is as charming as it is inspiring. While Hadlow masterfully captures Jane Austen’s style and wit, she infuses Mary’s story with insightful commentary on the gender politics of the time as she dives deeper into some familiar faces (um, I kind of like Mr. Collins now?!). Though I’ll never tire of reading Pride & Prejudice over and over again, this novel was a wonderfully refreshing way to revisit the Bennets and discover a new favorite sister.
Mandy C.’s Picks
I’ve loved this series since I first discovered it a couple of years ago, and this last book in the trilogy 100% did not disappoint. Wolf mixes fantasy and meta aspects to great effect, and there’s no other YA main character as sarcastic(ly wonderful) as Zera. Plus, even when they’re not exactly getting along, the main squad in this book is one I’d throw my lot in with in a hot second.
Sarah clued me into the beauty of this graphic novel, and I can’t thank her enough for “pushing” it on me. (It wasn’t very hard.) This book packs a lot into a seemingly small package—Nguyen covers identity issues, a coming-out story, immigration feelings, and makes time to include some lovely fairy tales. The art is stellar, too, and even if you’re not a young gay son of immigrants, there’s something in this book to connect with and love.
Title: Miss Meteor
Authors: Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore
McLemore is an auto-buy author for me, specifically because of their deft hand at mixing magic and real-life LGBTQ+ issues. Miss Meteor continues to prove my “they’re amazing!” belief correct, and has made me want to read more of Mejia’s novels, too. Mixing a small-town beauty pageant, identity struggles, and a girl who is literally made of star stuff might seem like a big ask, but these two made it work in the most heart-warming of ways.
Aurora Rising, the first book in this trilogy, was on my Best Of list in 2019, so it’s likely no surprise that this book is making an appearance here. Kaufman and Kristoff are at their best together, writing about crazy space adventures and a team of misfits that are the only people crazy enough/hard-headed enough to save the galaxy. I’d go on an adventure with these jokers any day—and I mean both the authors and their characters.
I always feel like I’ve just woken up from a strange and beautiful dream after reading one of Tucholke’s novels, and this reimagining of the King Arthur myth from the perspective of a young not-yet-warrior woman gave me just the right amount of “is this real life” vibes.
Title: The Shadows Between Us (The Shadows Between Us #1)
Author: Tricia Levenseller
Series: The Shadows Between Us
Stephanie’s review of this book, which mentions that Levenseller described it as a “Slytherin romance” intrigued me enough to grab a copy to read in my spare time—which I tried to do more of this year, but it can be hard when I’ve long chosen books to review with an eyes are bigger than stomach mentality. I’m glad I gave it a chance, though, because it immediately rocketed up my Best Of list thanks to its sex-positivity and morally ambiguous chracters who are so MFEO it hurts.
(Seconded by Stephanie and Sarah)
Mandy W.’s Pick
Real talk: I actually haven’t read very many new releases this year, so I’m working with a teensy sample size. But even if I had read more, I’m confident that Little Universes would have topped my list because it absolutely SHATTERED me in that way that you’re like, YES PLEASE MORE. Heather Demetrios has long since been one of my faves, but her latest connected with me on such a devastating level. (Like, literal nonstop sobfest from someone who typically does not cry over books.) I still owe all y’all (and her) a review (spoiler alert: it will be GLOWING), and Heather’s already graciously provided a bunch of fun content that I really need to share with y’all, so watch this space for much more Little Universes stanning!
I had heard through the grapevine that Mindy McGinnis’ new survivalist YA book was bananas, and even knowing that was the case, my jaw dropped time and time again while I was reading it. McGinnis puts her main character, Ashley, through the ringer while she tries to find her way out of the Smoky Mountains, but if we know anything about Mindy, it’s that she can craft a tough-as-nails character that you can’t help but root for (even if that character scares you a little bit). I didn’t trust McGinnis to get Ashley out alive, and I was absolutely consumed with this story as I waited to find out how it ended.
Iva Marie Palmer’s main character, Susan, reminded me a lot of a 1970s version of Jessica Darling. Which is, IMHO, the highest honor I could bestow. I loved reading about the challenges of starting the first girls’ soccer team at a Chicago high school, about Susan’s crush on her new soccer coach, the budding friendships with her new teammates, and her new friendship-or-maybe-something-more with mysterious punk rocker Joe. But most of all, I was BARKING with laughter all the way through at Susan’s brutal honesty about sex and sexuality.
(Seconded by Sarah)
I’m usually all about the contemporary YA rom-com, but this year, I found myself craving different types of books. Despite that, Coombs debut reminded me just why I love the genre. It had everything: a quirky-cool (but not annoying) main character named Chuck, a romance that was part fake-dating, part friends-to-lovers, part enemistry, and a high-stakes hustle that got Chuck in way over her head. Also: bowling. What’s not to love?
(Seconded by Stephanie)
Jenna Evans Welch is very, VERY good at writing books that manage to pack an emotional gut punch, a swoony romance with an international cutie, and an extreme case of wanderlust into every page. Her newest features a girl reconnecting with her long lost father as he hunts for Atlantis on the island of Santorini, and it had me looking up plane tickets before I even finished the book.
I accidentally spent one Saturday morning to Saturday night on the couch with this book. I say “accidentally” because I fully intended to read a chapter or two and get up and be productive, but all of a sudden, whoops!, where did the time go because I HAD to know what would come next. I love it when a historical novel not only gives me great characterization, but also an amazing sense of place, AND teaches me real facts about a moment in time or an event I’m not super familiar with. It’s like FUN learning! While there was nowhere near as many tears shed as when I read Code Name Verity, I would put this up there with that book as one of my faves on WWII.
Contemporary YA, which often follows the rules of the real world, can start to look a little same-y after a time (couple falls in love and faces the challenges of transitioning from high school to adult life), which is why when you find a writer who can capture the magic of a contemporary moment, you take notice. Solomon gave me good swoony bits, travel porn I could vicariously live through (so important this year), and a relatable and poignant coming-of-age story.
I feel like in the almost year since I read this, I’ve seen a lot of people ragging on this book because of the way it portrayed Rhen, and it almost got me second-guessing myself, but I re-read my review and I have faith that Kemmerer will make it all make sense (she does hint at the reason for his issues at the end of the book, anyway). I don’t stay up half the night for just ANY book. Rhen was always a complicated character, even in the first book, but this story wasn’t about him; it gave more time to Grey and Lia Mara, who were both worthy of being in the spotlight for once.
(Seconded by Mandy C.)
Okay, this is one of those books I had to check Goodreads to make sure I actually read it THIS YEAR. And yup, I did, it was just pre-pandemic, so AKA at least five years ago. But if I strain myself, I can think back that far and recall that this zombie thriller definitely packed a serious political punch (which became even more relevant than it already had been after the BLM discussion this summer) and gave me a satisfying, if surprising, ending in a strong, alt-historical Wild West setting. Bonnets off to the biting wit and strong friendships between the main characters.
There is an apparent theme with my top faves, and it’s “books I could not put down and tried my darndest to read in one sitting.” This debut snuck up on me, because I was not expecting to be so charmed by a sweet little contemporary, but it was the kind of book I finished and wanted to, like, give it a little pat to thank it for hanging out with me that day. I certainly needed more hopeful and happy-ending stories like this during 2020.
I really enjoy a good modern day reboot (that’s my next project, look for a big announcement in 2030). Several very talented authors give their modern take on classics such as “The Tell Tale Heart,” “The Raven,” and “The Premature Burial.” A nice way to breathe life into some old classics.
Ever since I saw Doug Hennon saw a woman in half when I was five, I’ve been in love with stage magic. This was a great story about a has been escape artist and his clinically depressed daughter, Ellie, trying to revive their past glory by recreating his biggest failed student. It’s also a heist book, with Ellie having to steal back some of her father’s equipment. Good escapism, if you need it this year for some reason.
In 1918, the Spanish flu ravaged the world, killing millions. When I read this back in March, I had a bad feeling, but it was nice to see that none of this is new. I learned a lot about the century-old pandemic from this graphic novel. It was weird to see reports of how the government was forced to close public places, how the hospitals were overwhelmed, and how people rebelled against social distancing and mask wearing. And how it was called the “Spanish flu,” simply because World War I was raging and neutral Spain was the only nation that accurately reported its disease casualties.
Amber is delighted to win a scholarship and happily shows up to the awards banquet with the other five winners. She’s less delighted when they’re locked in a room with a bomb and are informed they must kill one of their number or they will all die in the hour. A bit of a modern take of And Then There Were None for a modern audience.
Miriam’s boyfriend Caleb dumped her just before her freshman year in college. Depressed and bored, she signs up for a virtual dating service: all dates happen in a VR setting, via anonymous avatars. Much to Miriam’s surprise, Caleb is one of her top matches. Well, here’s a chance to win him back under the guise of ‘Sienna.’ Hey, what could possibly go wrong? A nice look at dating in the information age.