I read on my commute. It’s a sentence that could be past or present tense, but of course it’s been past tense for nearly twelve months now. 2020 for me was a year without commutes; it was a year of disrupted reading and often of comfort reading. I read a lot of genre, a lot of lighter fiction and not so much of the serious stuff.
On the positive side of 2020, when I did get breaks I mostly read in them. I couldn’t travel after all. The result was that overall I actually read more than usual. 86 books compared to my usual 60 or 70. I also discovered some great new authors (Elizabeth von Arnim, Anne Charnock who didn’t quite make this list for her 2013 debut novel but who I’m a definite convert to, Eley Williams, Zoe Gilbert, Melissa Harrison, Sarah Perry, keepers all of them – interestingly I didn’t realise until I wrote that sentence that they were all women).
Anyway, enough preamble. Here’s my rather late best of 2020 list, in essentially random order.
Best novel that deserved the hype: this could be a few on this list, but it’s Sarah Perry’s marvellous The Essex Serpent. Everyone told me this was great. Everyone was right. It’s a meaty historical novel (a genre I normally ignore) full of life, love, friendship, the relationship between faith and reason and lots more. Plus, just as I was getting a bit tired of how everything seemed to revolve around the lead character so did all the other characters which I thought cleverly done.
This was actually my last read in 2020 and it was a great one to end on. It’s an absolute pleasure from beginning to end, packed with ideas and character and some really good evocation of place. It also has probably my favourite cover of any recent publication. Sarah of A Fiction Habit gave this a really good thorough write-up here.
Best I don’t even really know what genre this is novel: So it looks like I’m a Villalobos fan. I loved his Down the Rabbit Hole, which made my end of 2017 list, and now I love his Quesadillas too. It’s a wonderfully odd cross-genre tale of politics, gentrification and perhaps alien abduction. And Other Stories have a real knack for finding these gems that don’t fit in neat boxes (Rita Indiana’s extraordinary Tentacle is another one). I wrote a little more about Quesadillas here.
Best novel with a postcard cover: this has of course to be Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. It’s a haunting novel which combines an exploration of gender, body image, food, othering and more. I’ve risked making it sound a bit of a slog there, but it’s also highly enjoyable and extremely readable (take that Booker Panel 2011!). Grant wrote about it here and Jacqui here. Highly recommended. Also, fabulous cover. Daunt Books Publishing have done Dusapin proud.
Best short story collection that I should have read sooner: While I loved Eley Williams spritely and funny Attrib. (I really did), James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man had to win in this space. It’s an extraordinary collection, beautifully written and with real emotional range. I always had the impression of James Baldwin as a slightly worthy writer – I couldn’t have been more wrong. Emma at Bookaround wrote about it here and it was that review which persuaded me to try it. Thanks Emma!
Best end to a trilogy: has to be Olivia Manning’s Friends and Heroes (which is a bit harsh on William Gibson’s Zero History which I also read in 2020, but book blogs are brutal beasts). Manning picks up in Athens after Guy, Harriet, Poor Yaki and various other characters flee the fall of Bucharest. Manning continues to add depth to the characters, tests Guy and Harriet’s marriage and brilliantly shows the fatigue and uncertainty of life during wartime. I’m eager to read Manning’s Levant Trilogy which follows on from this. I wrote a little more about this one here, and Jacqui wrote a very good piece about it here.
Best novel that shows execution is everything: stories about a young working class person broadening their horizons through an unlikely friendship with someone older aren’t exactly new. Kudos then to Ben Myers for taking such a well-worn topic and making it as rich and fresh as he does in his The Offing. This is a novel with shades of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (and there’s no higher praise than that) and it was a strong contender for my book of the year. Myers writes beautifully and it’s a nice mix of the pastoral, personal and political. Jacqui did a good write-up of it here.
Best political novel that’s actually good despite being a political novel: I hate state of the nation novels as a rule, they tend to be a bit didactic. Brexit though has inspired some very good fiction. Anyway, this was a strong field not least as I actually really liked John Lanchester’s The Wall (not subtle, but I thought very good) and Luke Brown’s excellent Theft. For me though the winner was Melissa Harrison’s marvellous All Among the Barley. Barley is on its surface a pastoral novel set in rural 1930s England featuring an intelligent young woman struggling with growing up. From there though it goes into issues of incipient fascism, nationalism and gender and makes some telling points about now without overselling its parallels. It’s extremely well written and made me a definite Harrison convert. One to look out for if you’ve not heard of it.
Best climate change novel that still works as a novel: while I liked Amitav Ghosh’s The Gun Merchant more than I expected, this has to be Madeleine Watts’ simply brilliant The Inland Sea. Watts draws a clever (and not overworked) parallel between a young woman’s own self-destructive behaviour and our wilder self-destructive behaviour as a species. This is genuinely clever stuff and I highly recommend it. On reflection, Lanchester’s The Wall could have fit into this category too. I’ve robbed that man.
Best novel that would make a great play: well, it has to be The Wind that Lays Waste doesn’t it? Written by Selva Almada and translated by Chris Andrews. A searing short novel/novella that packs in family and faith and a serious amount of character and drama. Hugely impressive and came very close to being my book of the year. I wrote a bit more about it here.
Best sequel that possibly isn’t: is of course Rita Indiana’s Made in Saturn, translated by Sydney Hutchinson. Ostensibly a sequel to Tentacle (mentioned above), it’s left quite open as to whether this is actually a sequel or if most of Tentacle was just a drug-induced hallucination of the main character. This gets into meaty father-son dynamics as well as addiction and post-revolutionary politics. Rita Indiana is now on my list of authors that I’ll buy any new releases from without bothering about little things like reviews. There’s a bit more on this in my February round-up post here (same link as above for Wind).
Best monastic fiction: is Donald E. Westlake’s Brothers Keepers – unworldly monks battling unscrupulous property developers, with a little romance on the side. It’s a wonderful comic caper of the sort Westlake is so very, very good at. It’s light and fairly silly, but also well written and plotted. Classic Westlake.
Best continuation of a series: should probably be the Manning to be honest, but Giorgio Bassani’s The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is also very good. I read the Penguin edition, translated by Jamie McKenrick, and for me it was the strongest of the Ferrara series so far. It’s the tale of the ruin of a doctor, Jewish and gay, his life wrecked by restricted choices and rising prejudices. Stu did a nice write-up of it here. So far I’d liked the Ferrara stories but hadn’t been blown away. This changed that and now I’m definitely in for the long haul.
My best book of 2020: drumroll please! Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April has basically no conflict and very little plot. It is charming, well written and altogether lovely. I don’t know how von Arnim made something so slight also so effortlessly good. As I said back in July, it’s wonderful.
I also read von Arnim’s Elizabeth’s Enchanted Garden this year. It’s good, but it doesn’t hit the same heights for me as Enchanted. Even so it’s clear to me that von Arnim is a hugely talented writer and I plan to pick up her The Caravaners next. The Penguin edition below is the one I have, but I do rather like the Vintage cover that I’ve also attached.
And that’s it! Before I go, I would like to say that while I’ve not had time to post here or even comment on other people’s blogs, I am still reading a lot of other bloggers reviews. The book blogging community has been great for me, introducing me to a lot of writers I’d have missed (von Arnim!) and while I wish I could interact more I’m still enjoying the updates.
Finally, in case anyone wants to know, here’s the full list of what I read in 2020:
Water Shall Refuse Them, L M Hardy
Theft, Luke Brown
Zero History, William Gibson
The Godmother, Hannelore Cayre
Galactic North, Alastair Reynolds
Wind That Lays Waste, Selva Almada
Quesadillas, Juan Pablo Villalobos
Made in Saturn, Rita Indiana
Friends and Heroes, Olivia Manning
A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock
Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds
Provenance, Ann Leckie
Brothers Keepers, Donald E. Westlake
By the Pricking …Thumb, A Roberts
No Tomorrow, Jake Hinkson
The Gun Merchant, Amitav Ghosh
Household Gods …, Tade Thompson
The Bishop’s Bedroom, Piero Chiara
The Lighthouse, Alison Moore
Man who went up Smoke, S&W
Enchanted April, E von Arnim
Man who Saw Everything, D Levy
All Among Barley, Melissa Harrison
The Last Astronaut, David Wellington
City Middle Night, Charlie J Anders
Wild Swims, Dorthe Nors
Dark Tales, Shirley Jackson
The Overhaul, Kathleen Jamie
The Wall, John Lanchester
Going to Meet the Man, J Baldwin
Winter in Sokcho, Elisa Shua Dusapin
Paintwork, Tim Maugham
The Offing, Benjamin Myers
Some New Ambush, Carys Davies
Cathay, Ezra Pound
Wretchedness, Andrzej Tichy
The Mussel Feast, Birgit Vanderbeke
The End of October, Lawrence Wright
Always North, Vicki Jarrett
Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, Bassani
Moontide, Colin Campbell
Last Night in Montreal, Emily Mandel
The Second Sleep, Robert Harris
Devolution, Max Brooks
World War Z, Max Brooks
The Postman, Bi Yu
Folk, Zoe Gilbert
The Peacock Cloak, Chris Beckett
Transit, Anna Seghers
Dreams of the Space Age, Ian Sales
Attrib., Eley Williams
Two Tribes, Chris Beckett
The Train was on Time, Heinrich Böll
The Iron Tactician, Alastair Reynolds
Rosewater, Tade Thompson
The Dark Angel, Dominique Sylvain
The Inland Sea, Madeleine Watts
Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole
Sisters of the Vast Black, Lina Rather
The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley
Feebleminded, Ariana Harwicz
Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, K Boo
Rawblood, Catriona Ward
Minor Detail, Adania Shibli
Ten Poems from Russia, Boris Dralyuk
Agency, William Gibson
Tender Shoots, Paul Morand
Elizabeth … Garden, E. von Arnim
Crow, Ted Hughes
Zama, Antonio di Benedetto
To Walk the Night, William Sloane
Permafrost, Eva Baltasar
Spring Tide, Chris Beckett
The Reddening, Adam Neville
Les Belles Amours, Louise de Vilmorin
Survivor Song, Paul Tremblay
Scarfolk, Richard Littler
Storm Birds, Einar Karason
The Horla, Guy de Maupassant
The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry