2020 has been a long and hard year. During these unprecedented times, books have provided me with a much needed escape and below, in no particular order, are some of my very favourites out of the one hundred and ten books I’ve managed to read this year. In order to make choosing a bit easier, I’ve limited myself to books which were published in 2020. I hope that you feel inspired to pick up at least one of these books and that it can bring you some of the same enjoyment that it brought me, as we move into 2021.
Naomi Novik is one of my favourite fantasy authors at the moment and when I heard she was releasing a new series of books set in a magical and highly dangerous school, I was so excited. A Deadly Education is set in the Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted that is infested with vicious and deadly monsters that love feasting on students. Our heroine is El, a young witch who has an incredible affinity for dark magic and is the subject of the prophesy that says she will bring untold doom and suffering to the entire magical world. For the moment she’s just trying to keep her head down, make a few friends and survive until the epic graduation bloodbath but this becomes more complicated once she meets Orion. He’s the Scholomance’s resident hero type and he is determined to save as many students from dying as he possibly can, even if it means putting himself, and everyone else, in danger. This book has a wicked sense of humour and brilliant world-building, you find yourself getting lost in the Scholomance right along with the characters. I’m eagerly anticipating the next book in this series.
Some people say the market for novels about young women in their early twenties making terrible decisions, having crap sex and finding themselves is oversaturated. To those people I say, bugger off. Luster by Raven Leilani is an extremely confident debut novel that centres around Edie, a young black woman who becomes embroiled in the life of a suburban white couple and their adopted black daughter after she begins an affair with the father. Leilani has an incredible talent for expressing the angst of the modern twenty something. She embraces the humour and melodrama of the situations that Edie finds herself in but we never lose our sense of empathy for her, in spite of her self-destructive tendencies.
I was a latecomer to Curtis Sittenfeld’s work but now I find myself a firm fan. I initially felt uncomfortable about a novel taking such an intimate look at a real person’s private life, particularly someone like Hillary Clinton, who goodness knows has faced more scrutiny of her choices than most people would face in twenty lifetimes. However, Sittenfeld’s examination of what Hillary’s life might have been had she not married Bill Clinton was one of the most compelling reads of my year. She examines both the personal and political ramifications of this choice and the result is a real page turner that pulled me out of a difficult reading slump. Sittenfeld clearly knows her subject inside and out and while her characterisation of Hillary is not always sympathetic, it feels true to the complex woman who has done so much to shape modern American politics.
Caitlin Moran is one of my favourite authors of all time and my love affair with her books began with her fabulous memoir How To Be A Woman which came out in 2011. So imagine my excitement when she announced she would be releasing a sequel in which she tackles getting older, raising teenage girls and managing a never ending to-do list. Moran, as always, is fabulously and hilariously funny while still being open and vulnerable about the sort of things that are hard to talk about. Both she and her daughter are so brave for sharing their experience of her daughter’s eating disorder and subsequent treatment and recovery and I have no doubt that these chapters will mean a lot to parents and teenagers alike. There is something for everyone in More Than A Woman and it is my fervent hope that Moran will continue periodically publishing updates to her memoirs so that I will always have the benefit of her wisdom as I face different stages of life.
In an age where fake news and distortion can create confusion and discord amongst citizens, it’s reassuring that there are intelligent and articulate people like the Secret Barrister writing books to help us all understand what the hell is going on. The Secret Barrister is an anonymous blogger and junior barrister whose aim is to make knowledge of how the law and legal system works more accessible to the average person. Their most recent book tackles the sort of ‘fake law’ that we often see perpetuated by certain media outlets and politicians which aims to capitalise on public ignorance to win support for degrading the legal system. The Secret Barrister debunks common myths and misunderstandings about some of the most infamous legal cases of the last few decades thoroughly and does so entertainingly and in language that anyone can understand. I’d recommend this to everybody who is seeking to better understand how the law works and wants to be able to see through the obfuscation that so often surrounds some of the most important legal matters of our times. Once you’ve read this, you’ll be seeing fake law everywhere.
Naoise Dolan is often compared to Sally Rooney. I assume this is because they are both young and talented female Irish authors who write compellingly about complex relationships. But what often gets lost in that comparison is how singularly witty Naoise Dolan is. Her debut novel, Exciting Times centres around Ava, a young Irish ex-pat working as an English teacher in Hong Kong who is caught between two relationships, one with Julian, a wealthy, entitled British banker, and one with Edith, a thoughtful, Hong Kong-born lawyer. The novel fizzes with the Dolan’s dry humour which leaves the reader wincing as well as laughing. Dolan has written widely about how her autism has informed and strengthened her writing because it forces her to think carefully about people’s motivations and meanings when they speak. This is absolutely reflected in Exciting Times, which brims with sharp and thoughtful insight into complicated relationships between complicated people.
This book made me so happy. N.K Jemison is best known for her Broken Earth trilogy but in The City We Became she turns her imagination to a location that it at once more fantastical and mundane than her other fantasy settings: New York City. After the human avatar of New York is overcome by a hoard of Lovecraftian horrors, five previously ordinary New Yorkers find themselves transformed into the embodiment of each of the city’s five boroughs. This book is a weird and wonderful love letter to New York City and the people that make it the greatest city in the world. The characters are all brilliantly and vividly drawn and I cannot wait to see where they all go next when the second book in the series comes out.
My Dark Vanessa was probably one of the more controversial books that came out this year and from its’ subject matter it isn’t hard to guess why. It tells the story of Vanessa Wye, a teenage girl who is groomed and sexually abused by her much older English teacher but who doesn’t see herself as a victim at all. She instead considers their relationship to be a passionate love affair that society is too small-minded and puritanical to understand. But as the Me Too movement gains momentum and other former students of her teacher begin to come forward with disturbing stories, Vanessa is forced to confront the fact that the reality she has constructed for herself is actually nothing but a delusion. Russell expertly inverts the Lolita narrative to create a compelling narrative that lays bare the vulnerability of adolescence and the fragility of lies we tell ourselves. I’ve written about this book in much more detail here.
Finally an author who appreciates that a novel with literary value doesn’t necessarily need to be a total misery. Kiley Reid’s debut novel, Such a Fun Age, is a witty and sharply clever page turner that neatly skewers the hypocrisy of those who convince themselves that they are the heroes of their own story while actually doing a tremendous amount of harm. The novel begins with a confrontation between Emira, a young black babysitter, and a security guard who believes she is kidnapping her young, white charge. In the aftermath of this incident Alix, Emira’s well-meaning but utterly clueless boss, vows to befriend her. However, an unexpected connection between Alix and Kelley, Emira’s new, white boyfriend, sets off a chain of events that wreaks havoc on the lives of all concerned. This book was a joy to read and it kept me flipping the pages at a pace right up until the end.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a depressed nerd locked up in her flat must be in want of a Pride and Prejudice rewrite to keep her going. This enormous book centres around one of the more neglected Bennet sisters, the awkward and bookish middle child, Mary. Hadlow creates a realistic and moving heroic journey for this lesser thought of character, weaving elements of the original text into a new story that felt authentic and in the spirit of Austen while still feeling fresh and exciting. This was the perfect comfort read of quarantine and will please fans of Austen as well as fans of good books generally.
Ok, I’m cheating. This book came out in November 2019, not 2020, but I read it in January 2020 and it was honestly too good not to include in my round up. In short, it is an account of the author’s experience of an abusive relationship, but in reality this book is so much more. Carmen Maria Machado is such an exciting author who is doing such innovative and innovative things with genre and In the Dream House is a brilliant example of this. You may have noticed by now that I read a lot of books, but I’ve never read anything else like In the Dream House. I can’t wait to see what this author does next.