My year in books: what I read and what I loved in 2020

Stacks of old books. Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash.

Is 2020 done yet? No? Maybe this blog post is just wishful thinking then. But I’m planning to coast to the end of my reading year on a gentle sea of escapist froth, and so don’t think I’m likely to read anything else that would make me change my overall assessment of the year’s reading, so let’s do this.

Here are the books I loved the most, the book I liked the least, and just some general thoughts about how reading kept me going during this garbage year.

The best books I read in 2020

I liked a lot of the books I read this year, but only 8 that made me want to yell “AAAAHHHH!!! I love this so much!!!” and force everyone else I knew to read them.

Apparently what really gets me hyped are slightly wanky literary novels with dark themes and interesting narrative structures. Also I like it if they are funny, although many of these are definitely not funny.

Alternatively, I also love Victorian pastiches about dragons.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

An incredible, one-of-a-kind book – part memoir about surviving an abusive partner, part metatextual analysis of abuse in queer relationships. It also has a unique narrative structure and digressions about Star Trek: The Next Generation. None of this would work if Machado wasn’t a phenomenally talented writer, but she is – my God she’s good, I would dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench to read more of her writing – and the book is brilliant. I read this in one sitting.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Another book that I had no choice but to devour in one go. Ghost Wall‘s protagonist, Sylvie, is the teenage daughter of a man obsessed with pre-Roman Britain. When her family joins a group of historians for a summer-long re-enactment of Iron Age village life, darker reasons for his obsession soon begin to emerge. The result is a visceral 150-page marvel that touches on themes of nationalism, class, and gender without ever feeling overloaded. Just writing about it now makes me want to read it again.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman‘s protagonist is a young woman just trying to keep her head down during the Troubles. But in her claustrophobic society, nothing you do (or don’t do) escapes the notice and judgement of the rest of the community. When a local paramilitary enforcer develops and interest in her, things begin to spiral out of control. The unnamed heroine has a unique and engaging voice, and the novel’s dark content is spiked with surreal twists and unexpected humour. I loved it.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor

The year is 1993. Paul Polydoris is a student with multiple bartending jobs, a zine (“Polydoris Perversities”) and a secret – he’s a shapeshifter, changing his physical form and gender at will. Paul uses this ability to explore the early 90s queer scene across America, from punk shows and leather bars to Act Up protests and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. The result is entertaining, funny and sexy, with an excellent soundtrack that I had to dig up on Spotify later.

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Recommended to me by a friend as “extremely dark and horrible”. It is, but it’s also really good. This novel is the memoirs of Dr Norton Perina, a disgraced researcher accused of molesting his many adopted children. Those children came from the same islands where Perina made his name as a scientist, whose people have discovered the secrets of eternal life, but at great cost. This is a twisty, unnerving story that will haunt me for a long time.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Reading this book felt like making a new friend, as its titular heroine is one of my favourite characters of the year. This immensely readable novel follows Queenie during an especially difficult year of her life, as she struggles with everything from painful breakups and the London rental market to institutional racism. I was completely absorbed in her story, and its focus on mental health and celebration of female friendship even made me shed a tear. (Queenie, please let me join that groupchat because I have opinions about some of these trash men!!!)

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

What if Victorian marriage plot novels were about dragons instead of people? Jo Walton was probably the first person to ask this question, and then answered it herself with Tooth and Claw. The result is an unexpectedly charming and funny book about country parsons, disputed inheritances, and devouring the weakest young.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

This episodic novel focuses on the interwoven lives of 12 Black women and non-binary people living in the UK, from artists and student activists to a great-grandmother on a remote Yorkshire farm. Each chapter focuses on a single character’s inner life, and while I was always sad to say goodbye at the end of a chapter, the next one always drew me in immediately. It’s hard to summarise, but it’s really good.

The book I liked the least

It’s… Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey.

I’m not saying this is a bad book – I just didn’t vibe with it at all and found it a real slog to get through. (Also I have to throw a Booker winner under the bus so I don’t look like too much of a snob after that favourites list.)

What else?

I actually read a lot of genres which aren’t represented on this list.

Despite making up a sizeable chunk of my 2020 reading, poor sci-fi doesn’t get a look-in at all, and fantasy is only represented by Tooth and Claw. I did discover some authors this year whose work in these genres I really enjoyed – notably N. K. Jemisin, Kim Stanley Robinson and Nicholas Eames – but nothing that knocked my socks off enough to make the list.

In the early days of lockdown, a chance purchase of The Flatshare sent me down a romcom rabbit hole, and since then I’ve spent many hours enjoying various meet-cutes and will-they-won’t-theys. My favourite of these was probably One To Watch, by Kate Stayman-London, about a plus-size fashion blogger who becomes a contestant on a Bachelorette-style reality TV show. (Also, reality TV shows? Great structure for a novel. Justifies all the artificial twists and drama you could want.)

I also read some self-help books, which gave me a few good ideas, all of which are hard to put into practice when you are depressed.

But overall, this was a good year for reading, and when things got rough I often found that books felt distracting and fulfilling in a way that other media often didn’t. Maybe it’s something about the active act of reading – unlike watching a film, I have to be present and focused for the story to continue. But at the same time, books also engage my imagination in a way that video games don’t always manage. No shade to these other mediums, of course. I guess I’m just trying to say that in 2020, books were good for me.

Thanks, books!

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