It’s been a funny old year for reading. I got off to a great start, but I definitely read fewer books during the lockdown(s) as my powers of concentration dwindled to almost nothing.
Still, one highlight of this weird year for me has been a renewed focus on new releases. I normally rely on the library for these, and then buy anything I really like in paperback, but I bought lots of 2020 releases when the library closed and it became apparent that indie bookshops and publishers need our help more than ever. And that’s not to mention the authors who had the bad luck to have their latest works come out in a year when they can’t do their usual publicity events.
So, to that end, here are my favourite books of the year (divided into new releases and older titles), with links to the small presses and bookshops you can buy from to help support this crucial part of the publishing industry (if you can’t/don’t want to borrow from a library, of course – they still need our support). Blackwell’s is my bookshop of choice here, but go forth and buy from other bookshops if you want!
(Note: There are no affiliate links in this post, so I won’t make any money if you click through and make a purchase.)
Favourite new releases of 2020
Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud
This is by far the novel I’ve recommended the most this year. I first heard of Ingrid Persaud through her excellent prizewinning short story The Sweet Sop. When I heard that her debut novel was being published this year, I just had to give it a go.
Reader, I adored it. Set in Trinidad and New York, Love After Love tells the story of an unconventional household and the physical and emotional journeys that the three main characters go on. Persaud is just so good at creating characters who leap off the page, and her descriptions of place and food are simply fantastic. If you’re looking for a novel full of heart and warmth, this is the one to go for.
Goldilocks by Laura Lam
I haven’t read an awful lot of science fiction this year, but this quiet thriller about a group of women astronauts who hijack a spaceship bound for an exosolar Earth-like planet is definitely my favourite 2020 read from the genre.
This extraordinarily well-researched and thoughtful novel follows Naomi, an astronaut who joins her adopted mother on a risky adventure away from a near-future Earth that is battling climate change chaos and a sinister, misogynist agenda in the US to strip women of their hard-won rights. It’s not an action-packed story as such, but I found Naomi’s story incredibly compelling, and I devoured the book in days.
Exit Management by Naomi Booth
I signed up for a subscription from indie publisher Dead Ink early in lockdown. I raced through Exit Management not long after it landed on my doormat and just can’t praise it enough. It’s a haunting, intense story about two people thrown together by the vagaries of the London property market, with recurring themes of class, xenophobia and the consequences of trauma.
Naomi Booth has a wonderfully unique, urgent writing style with short sentences and a creative approach to denoting pauses (using spaces rather than an ellipsis). Her writing is powerfully descriptive, but never seems overwrought or too try-hard. I’m desperate to read her previous novel, Sealed, now.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
There was a lot of hype immediately before the release of Such A Fun Age. Happily, it delivered! The story begins with a tense scene in a shop where a 25-year-old black woman, Emira, is accused of kidnapping the white toddler she babysits. This event sparks off all sorts of intrigue as we learn more about Emira and her employer, Alix Chamberlain.
It’s every bit as good as the rave reviews say – funny and compulsively readable with complex, flawed characters who attempt to navigate race, privilege and power with what they think are the best of intentions. I couldn’t turn each page fast enough.
Keeper by Jessica Moor
I don’t read much in the crime genre, but Keeper caught my eye because Jessica Moor is a graduate of the master’s course I’m taking. This dark and gripping story is told from the perspectives of a young woman called Katie, the policeman investigating her apparent suicide, and the women who Katie worked with in a shelter for those fleeing domestic abuse.
I loved this novel, as dark and disturbing as the subject matter is – I could hardly put it down! The writing is terrific and the novel raises many important issues about how domestic violence is perceived, tackled and enabled in the UK in a compassionate, thoughtful manner.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
I loved this short but thoughtful fantasy story about a non-binary cleric, Chih, who visits the house where a former empress was once sent into exile. Chih discovers that the house is still inhabited by the empress’s old servant, who gradually tells them the real story behind the ‘official’ version of the empress’s rise to and fall from power – and her eventual resurgence.
The story focuses on those seemingly unimportant objects and details that can be overlooked by historians to highlight the ways in which women’s voices are removed and hidden in historical records – something that’s very pertinent to the real world too! This is a wonderful story with some memorable characters fuelled by love, grief and fury.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz
Dominicana is a gripping story set in the 1960s about a teenage girl, Ana, who is sent from her home in the Dominican Republic to a new life in New York with her recently acquired husband, who is twice her age. Loosely based on the life of the author’s mother, the novel paints a stirring picture of the reality of immigrant life for those with very little who aspire to a better lot.
I absolutely loved this novel and found it very difficult to put down. Ana is a compelling character and it’s hard not to empathise with her plight. But she isn’t just a victim; bit by bit, she tries to make the most of her situation. Angie Cruz does a brilliant job of describing immigrant life, as well as the 1960s setting.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
This Booker Prize nominee seems to have divided readers, but I personally loved it. Burnt Sugar is an incredibly well written and disturbing story about an Indian woman’s fractured relationship with her mother, who is starting to lose her memory as the book opens. The novel can be unsettling to read at times, with some vivid imagery illustrating Antara’s often strange-seeming thoughts. Yet it also says a lot about the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, and how things change when a child is born.
I was drawn into the story from the first sentence, and it kept me reading even through some of the more disturbing parts of the novel. I really felt an affinity with Antara even while feeling conflicted about some of her thoughts and actions, which for me is the sign of a great storyteller!
Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen
Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Comedy Women in Print Prize, Big Girl, Small Town is a darkly funny character study of Majella, a woman who lives with her alcoholic mother in the Catholic side of a fictional Northern Irish border town, and works in one of the two local chippies. There isn’t much in the way of plot; the novel is structured around Majella’s routine over the course of a week. This focus and some of her habits – like flicking and sucking her fingers – suggests that Majella may be autistic.
I really enjoyed getting to know Majella. She’s a flawed yet likeable character, and I also loved the various portraits of the other inhabitants of the town, many of whom are struggling with alcoholism, unemployment and general despair. This is one to read if you don’t mind a story that isn’t plot driven, and you enjoy deadpan humour.
Boy Parts by Eliza Clark
Another subscription book, this time from Influx Press, Boy Parts has made it into quite a few ‘best of’ lists this year – and it’s no wonder. This is one of the darkest, most violent novels I’ve read in quite some time, but it’s also incredibly readable, blackly funny and thought-provoking.
We follow the story of Irina, an attractive photographer living in Newcastle who takes weird and disturbing photos of men she scouts on the street. When she is asked to take part in a London exhibition, she is forced to dig through her archive for pieces to display, taking us into her murky past as a result. I do love a story with a flawed/damaged protagonist, and this is definitely one of them. You won’t be able to stop reading even as the discomfort level inches higher and higher…
Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth
Emma Jane Unsworth is another graduate of my master’s course whose previous novel, Animals, I read and loved earlier in the year (see below). Following a hugely flawed but relatable 35-year-old, Jenny, Adults is a slightly more grown-up affair than Animals, but it’s just as funny and readable. Jenny’s obsession with social media hits new heights during and after a long-term relationship with a high-flying photographer. She also has an unstable writing job with the hilariously named Foof website.
There are many laugh-out-loud moments throughout the story, which jumps back and forth through time and is told through prose, emails, texts and WhatsApp messages. While there are some elements of the plot that might have some readers rolling their eyes, this is an excellent novel that echoes some of the thoughts and feelings I’ve had as a 30-something woman in the last few years.
Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe
I picked up Reasons to be Cheerful when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed by bad news, and I’m so glad that I did. Set in 1980, the story follows teenager Lizzie, who moves away from her home village to a flat in Leicester so she can take up a job as a dental nurse with a xenophobic dentist. The novel also explores Lizzie’s blossoming relationship with dental technician Andy and her more complicated relationship with her mother.
I’ve had my fair share of dental trauma so I was a bit worried I’d find the ‘work’ storyline hard to stomach, but I needn’t have been! It’s a lovely, funny and very British story full of warmth and odd characters.
The Abstainer by Ian McGuire
I’ll get the disclaimer out of the way first: Ian McGuire is one of my MA tutors. I haven’t read his previous novel, The North Water, but I wanted to read The Abstainer because I can’t resist a Manchester setting. This slow-burning, evocative thriller begins in 1867 and follows James O’Connor, an Irish policeman on the trail of Stephen Doyle, a member of Irish secret society the Fenians. Doyle’s perspective makes up some of the novel, making for an interesting read as we learn about his past and his motives.
I absolutely loved the way 19th century Manchester is brought to life, and could visualise most of the streets that the characters walk along. The plot twists and turns in between quieter moments where we delve into O’Connor and Doyle’s psyches, and the writing is pared back but with some absolute gems of phrasing. It really is worth reading if you enjoy historical fiction. And I’m not trying to suck up to my tutor – honest!
Favourite backlist reads of 2020
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow
The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a wonderfully written love letter to storytelling with a plucky heroine who strives to write her own story instead of others writing it for her. The writing is beautiful and fable-like, and made me rather envious of Alix E Harrow’s way with words.
The plot is a little slow at first, but I didn’t mind that so much in the face of such a brilliant concept for a portal story, with themes touching on racism, sexism and the perils of allowing unimaginative oppressors to rule the world. I definitely almost cried a couple of times and closed the book with a satisfied sigh. What more could you ask for?
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth
Animals tells the story of Laura, an aspiring author whose ambitions are somewhat curtailed by her hard-partying lifestyle courtesy of flatmate and best friend Tyler. Both women are in their late 20s/early 30s and take full advantage of the drugs and drink on offer in Manchester in 2012.
I loved so many things about this novel that I’m not sure where to begin. Laura herself is a wonderful character. I loved the interplay between Laura and Tyler as they get wrecked in various venues around Manchester – and I LOVED the way that Manchester itself is written throughout the novel. The novel is definitely laugh-out-loud funny, but only if you’re not easily offended/disgusted and are happy to stick with characters who might seem unlikeable/unpalatable at first…
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
I’ve been meaning to read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for years, and I can’t believe that I put it off for so long! This is a huge, labyrinthine novel set in Regency England that explores the changing relationship between magician Mr Norrell and his pupil, Jonathan Strange.
I fell in love with the novel pretty much straight away. The combination of Austen-style writing and humour with inventive magical fantasy is irresistible, and I loved many of the characters, especially Stephen Black, a long-suffering black servant descended from slaves who is unwittingly pulled into the world of Faerie and groomed to become a future king. If you too have been meaning to read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but haven’t managed it yet, get on it!
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The only other Neil Gaiman novel I’ve read is Good Omens, which is funny and pacy and thoroughly enjoyable. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a different beast entirely, but no less enjoyable. The novel recounts one man’s memories of a strange chapter in his life, when he was seven. The story begins with the suicide of a miner and features a family of women with mysterious powers, an evil housekeeper and a pond that’s more than it seems.
Gaiman captures the experience of being a wide-eyed, bookish seven-year-old so well, and I absolutely loved the weirdness revolving around the titular ‘ocean’. This is a beautifully written, haunting and fantastical story about the shifting nature of memory and how children perceive the adult world around them.
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Oh my. I LOVED this book. The Woman Upstairs delves into the interior life of Nora, a teacher and artist in her late 30s who becomes obsessed with the Shahid family, particularly the mother, Sirena, but also her son and husband. Not much really happens in the book, but that’s okay, because the story is propelled by Nora’s pulsating rage at what we think at first is societal expectations of how women are supposed to be. We realise that there is more to this rage than meets the eye, and this device kept me reading to find out exactly what.
I was completely gripped by Nora’s distinctive voice. The characters around Nora are also strongly drawn and felt like real people to me, or at least like Nora’s impressions of what they were like. I’d never heard of Messud before reading this, but I definitely want to read more of her work (as well as the suggestions for ‘further reading’ in my edition).
The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Graeme Macrae Burnet is best known for his Booker Prize-shortlisted His Bloody Project, which I loved. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is completely different, but I loved it just as much. It’s a well-written and precise novel that is ostensibly a mystery, but is really a study of the flawed, repressed and not entirely likeable character of Manfred Baumann, a creature of habit who quickly becomes upset whenever there’s any change to the usual way of things.
When the waitress in the restaurant he regularly frequents goes missing, everything changes for Manfred. While the story seems to focus on Adèle’s disappearance, we also discover through flashbacks and through the POV of another character, Inspector Gorski, that Manfred’s own backstory is not entirely what it seems. It’s hard to say more without giving too much away, but the characters are excellently drawn, and Burnet is incredibly deft at using small details to set a scene or portray emotion.
Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan
I haven’t read much non-fiction this year, apart from a small pile of writing-related tomes. I’ve wanted to escape into fiction even more than usual this year! But Hormonal is a fantastic book that should be read by any woman in their 20s or 30s who wants to know more about how hormones impact on our lives.
Morgan, who is training to be a psychologist, does a great job of explaining the science behind the menstrual cycle and why we feel the way we do at different points of it, drawing on studies to back up her explanations without using lots of jargon. Although this book is a largely white and cis perspective, and menopause is only dealt with briefly (as Morgan is in her 30s), I would recommend it to pretty much any woman who would like to demystify the workings of their cycle.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler
This novel perhaps cuts a bit close to the bone in this year of all years, but it still thoroughly engrossed me. Published in 1993, Parable of the Sower is an eerie, unsettling and yet somehow hopeful near-future dystopian novel set in California in the mid-2020s, told from the perspective of black teenager Lauren through diary entries. Lauren lives in a gated neighbourhood, and climate change has made the necessities of life scarce and expensive. Events force her to leave her home and embark on a journey towards a better future.
It was quite something reading this during a pandemic, in a time of inept, selfish government! Yet, most importantly, there’s still a thread of hope running through the narrative. It’s a gripping novel, and one that will stay with me for some time. There’s a sequel that picks up Lauren’s story again, which I do want to read soon.
This Paradise: Stories by Ruby Cowling
I’ve read quite a few short stories this year, but This Paradise has to be my favourite short story collection of all time. Yep, you read that right! The stories are hard to pin down to any one genre, but there’s a constant theme of climate change and being on the edge of destruction throughout that had me gripped all the way through. I honestly couldn’t get enough of this collection.
The best thing is that Ruby Cowling is working on a novel that I absolutely cannot wait to read! You can read my full review of This Paradise on the Sabotage Reviews website.
Did you read any of these books? Or does your own best of list look completely different?!
Here’s to a happy Christmas and new year in this weirdest of years…