Hello book friends! It’s been SO long since I’ve written anything for the blog, but seeing everyone’s best books of 2020 posts inspired me to come back on here and share my faves from this year with you all. Honestly, it’s been one of the absolute best years for reading I’ve had in a long time, so whittling my favourites down to just ten was hard, but the ten that have made it are all truly amazing reads. Being a wait-for-the-paperback sort of reader for the most part, many of these weren’t published in the last year, so think of this as the books I’ve enjoyed most this year rather than an award ceremony for the 2020 publishing schedule!
Anyway, down to business – drumroll please, for my top ten books of 2020!
As I said, it was a head-achingly difficult decision, but here’s a rundown of my top ten and why I choose them.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
When I saw the live announcement of this novel’s Booker Prize win I actually teared up, partly because I’d been so moved by it and partly because I knew a win would bring it to the attention of thousands more readers, who I hoped would fall in love with it as I did. A book with this subject matter should be a bleak, painful read – and it was, but the genius lies in the fact that this almost unimaginable tragedy is tempered by a sense of hope in the form of unconditional love between parent and child, taking it to a place where it’s not merely readable, but somehow inspiring.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
This novel had some of the best characters I’ve come across all year: complex, authentic and as alive as if they were standing in front of you, an achievement echoed by the vividness of the backdrop, again so expertly created you can almost feel, see and smell it. And on top of this, it’s a cracking page-turner and one of the most engaging stories of 2020. It lifts the lid on some uncomfortable issues around racial discrimination and abuse – some sections left me both shocked and immensely saddened – and does so in a very clever way.
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
From two books published in 2020 to a classic from last century now. I’m including it in my top ten because it’s one of those novels that, when you’ve finished it, you feel as if you’ve spent a lifetime with the characters and they’re almost part of your own family. It was a fascinating window onto the world of Japanese marriage culture in the first part of the twentieth century, and also an affectionately written family saga pervaded by a subtle sense of sadness at the disappointment of lives that have not played out in the way people would have hoped.
This is Happiness by by Niall Williams
If I was going to award a prize for beauty of writing alone, then this novel would win hands down: the prose is, quite simply, exquisite, and I think unsurpassed by any other book I’ve come across this year. It’s matched by the quiet charm of the story itself, a coming of age tale mirrored by the coming of electricity to a rural Irish community, a progressive step that brings about change for the inhabitants in ways they could never have predicted.
Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
This novel brought something really different to the table and I loved it. It was macabre, anarchic and completely ruthless in its attack on the corrupt, patriarchal society against which the heroine Janina wages subtle war. I haven’t come across many books with such a well-realised older female protagonist, and it was really refreshing to have a main character who stood out from the pack with such impact. If there was any character I was cheering for in 2020, it was this smart, compassionate and unbreakable woman.
Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy
Chernobyl is the only non-fiction book to make my top ten, which surprised me a bit as I’ve read more non-fiction than usual this year, but then again it’s a tough shortlist to crack! It’s not an easy read, partly because of the very obviously harrowing nature of the subject matter and also because the machinations of various government agencies are so complex it can be tricky to keep track of who’s who – but I promise you it’s worth it. We all know the very basic history of the tragedy, but I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which the authorities were prepared to sacrifice the lives of civilians in order to maintain the illusion of a flawless, blameless Soviet state. It also raises the question for me of whether we really have moved past such times to an era where this level of state corruption could never happen again. Terrifying and extremely sad, but a must-read.
Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
I gobbled up this novel like the Christmas turkey. The fact that it’s presented almost entirely as a series of interviews with the story’s key players gives it a magazine-like feel, and keeps it rattling along at an unrelenting pace. Given that the novel revolves around the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll excesses of a 70s band I thought it was going to be quite a flimsy, if enjoyable read, but it turned out to have emotional depths that I really didn’t see coming. One I’ve been recommending to lots of people this year for sure.
Pine by Francine Toon
This is the first of three books on the list that share a common theme: they all freaked me out in different ways! From the cover I assumed this was a thriller, albeit one with a gothic tinge, but in fact it’s more of a troubling character study melded with a supernatural tale. The mix of the very real story of alcoholism, grief and a father’s relationship with his daughter, and the ghostly goings on in the very creepy setting of the Scottish Highland forests was a really interesting combination, and unlike any other book I’ve read in the way it juggled both sides of the story. I have to say, for every person who enjoyed it I’ve met another one who really didn’t so it’s a bit of a Marmite one I think; it’s not flawless to be sure, but there’s just something about it that made me feel I wanted it in my top ten.
Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley
If Pine was creepy, this scared the pants off me to the point where I had to keep it at work because seeing it on my coffee table unnerved me so much! Granted, I am definitely at the fragile end of the spectrum when it comes to being scared by books, but I’m reassured by talking to others who were just as freaked out by it as I was! Someone I know said it had an M R James feel about it, and I think he’s right; it’s a full-on tale of the paranormal but grounded in some very eerie local folklore that gives it a hint of an old-fashioned feel. The mood-building is superb, right up until the shocking climax….. and you’ll never look at a hare the same way again.
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
This is my most recent read on the list, so recent in fact I only finished it a couple of weeks ago; just in time for it to sneak into my top ten! A bit like Pine, it’s here because of the way it not only got under my skin at the time of reading, but haunted my mind afterwards, almost disturbing me more the longer I thought about it. Any author who can burrow into your psyche in this way is undoubtedly incredibly skilled, and hats off to Mr. Vandermeer for managing to pack such an immense amount of atmosphere, fear, tension and dread into what is a relatively short novel. I read part two, Authority, right off the back of Annihilation, and am about to start part three, fervently hoping the trilogy’s conclusion lives up to the skillful mind games of part one.
So there’s my top ten reads of the year! Only one question remains: is there an overall winner claiming the top spot of Best Book of 2020? Well, yes, there is. As soon as I decided to compile my top ten (and even before actually) I knew there was one book that’s stood out among all the others in the past year; and that book is Shuggie Bain.
I suspect it will be a long time before I read anything that touches me as deeply as this novel did, or anything that explores a tragic subject in such an unequivocally beautiful way. If you haven’t discovered it yet, why not make it your first read of 2021?!
If you’ve read any of the books on my list I’d love to hear your thoughts, both good and bad, so please do comment below and join the bookish chat 🙂
Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year to you all!