There’s really no pithy way to sum up 2020. It’s the year that stretched on forever, but seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. The world changed minute-by-minute, but we spent altogether too much time stagnant and bored. On the whole, it was a pretty shit one – for me and for most people I know. The only silver lining, as far as I can see, was a huge crop of truly great books to read. Here’s my reading year in review: the best books of 2020.
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Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum
Rabbits For Food was one of the first books I read in 2020 – back when the year was new, and the pandemic was but a distant threat. I was barely a third of the way through it when I decided I would make it my year’s mission to thrust this underrated book into more readers’ hands. This story of depression, breakdown, institutionalisation, and (maybe?) redemption is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Even if you scroll no further, you’ve already found a winner.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Sayaka Murata has won multiple literary prizes in Japan, she was named one of Vogue Japan’s Women Of The Year in 2016, and yet Convenience Store Woman is the first of her ten (ten!) novels to be translated into English. It was translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator), and it has gone on to make Murata a literary superstar in the Anglophone world, as she has long deserved to be. Anyone who has felt a little on the outer, who has wondered whether the roles society has deemed fit for them were worth inhabiting, will find Convenience Store Woman a delightful – if searing – comfort. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.
See also: Earthlings (warning: it takes everything from Convenience Store Woman and turns it up to eleven!)
Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain
I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong (it’s rare, but it does happen). I took one look at Big Lies In A Small Town and thought “ugh, another domestic thriller pot boiler, snooze”. Lies are the new Girls in book titles, after all. But, once again, there’s something to that whole not-judging-a-book-by-its-cover thing. This is a fascinating story about art, racism, integrity, and faith – one that I’ve breathlessly recommended to just about everyone I’ve encountered since I turned the final page. Consider this your annual reminder not to write off a book that’s “not for you” – it might just knock your socks off. (In fact, I’m still looking for mine…)
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Before this year, I knew David Sedaris mostly by reputation, and his audio-essays I’d heard on This American Life. It was reading his brilliant essay on his failed attempts at panic-buying that finally cinched it for me, and I plucked Me Talk Pretty One Day down from my to-be-read shelf. It was the perfect antidote to everything that was happening in lockdown. It had me wheezing with laughter (no mean feat in those lean times). It was hilarious, honest, and heartfelt – and I recommended it immediately to everyone who was struggling to read as the world fell apart. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.
Bonus: I also named Sedaris one of the authors I’d most love to share a house with in lockdown.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
In The Dream House was the most hotly-anticipated memoir coming into the year 2020. Machado’s white hot writing talent is one thing, but the way she has structured and presented this memoir is just truly mind-blowing. Not only does she write deftly, vulnerably, beautifully, and devastatingly, the story she tells is a crucial and timely one: a formative and abusive relationship with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. This book is destined for the queer canon, where it most certainly belongs.
See also: Her Body And Other Parties, Machado’s brilliant debut short story collection.
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
When the year 2020 dawned, I was but a humble wide-eyed graphic novel virgin. I didn’t have anything against them, per se, I just figured they weren’t “for me”. Then, a friend read and recommended Good Talk by Mira Jacob, and I figured I’d give it a go (not sure I want to know what that says about my ability to stand up to peer pressure, shhh). It was amazing, the best first-time a girl could ask for. It is a remarkably accessible book about incredibly complex topics, one that will make people of colour feel seen and heard, and make people who are white or white-passing re-evaluate their conversations and interactions. Read my full review of Good Talk here.
The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay
The Animals In That Country definitely goes down as my spookiest read of 2020, for a number of reasons – not the least of which being that it’s a book about a global pandemic, coincidentally released in the midst of a global pandemic. You can’t buy free publicity like that! It’s an eerily prescient premise, right down to the conspiracy theories that proliferate on Facebook and the government ads that encourage people to “keep calm and stay indoors”. At the centre of it all is Jean, the hard-drinking foul-mouthed granny who works at a remote wildlife park and will do anything to keep her family safe.
The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans
My reading this year wasn’t all doom, gloom, and viruses: one of the best books I read in 2020, The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project, was an unadulterated delight. It’s one for the word nerds and book geeks, a literary critique dressed up as light fantasy. Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a sub-type of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. He lives in TropeTown where he hangs out with all the other trope characters until they’re summoned by an author for a role in a book. The problem is, not all of the tropes are willing to play by the authors’ rules… Read my full review of The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project here.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
If certain books are to be considered “up my alley”, I must say Piranesi is so far off that the GPS co-ordinates take a full minute to update. For the first hundred pages (about half the book), I wasn’t sold at all. And yet… by the end, I was breathless. This is a peculiar and enigmatic book, one that raises philosophical and psychological questions I would never have expected from its length and blurb. I truly relished the opportunity to spend time with a narrator who was unreliable but not unlikeable. If there’s a single book that sums up the 2020 mood – stuck in a house, alone, with no idea how you got there or who you can trust to get you out – Piranesi is it.