Top Ten Books of 2020
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
This list was, somehow, both easier and harder to make than last year's - I think, in terms of reading, the books I got through in 2020 made for less of a stellar list to pick from. While the 10 books (and the 5 honorable mentions!) on this list are all excellent and I highly recommend all of them, there weren't the few that made me shout about how good they were and immediately add them to my favorites-of-all-time list (like last year's The Reckless Oath We Made, The Weight of Ink and The Narrow Road to the Deep North). Of course, having said that, December was a great month for me and four of my December reads made it into the list.
Sidenote - I wanted to include Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccoló series, but I was told it was cheating to include a whole series as one book and I couldn't pick one of the 8 to include, so I will just flag once again that House of Niccoló is brilliant and everyone should go read it immediately.
Just to quickly remind everyone of the rules before we get started - my top 10 books of 2020 are books that I read in 2020, regardless of publication date; and my criteria for 'best' is a combination of quality of writing and an enjoyable reading experience. Usually if I close the book and wish it had been longer, that's a good sign that it's going to be considered for this list. Lastly, there is no order to this list - if there is any it's chronological, as I work on the list throughout my reading year.
Now, it goes without saying that every single one of the books on this list is one that I highly recommend. I'd go so far as to say that you can add all of them to your TBR piles forthwith. Now that I have sufficiently piqued your interest, read on for the best books I read last year.
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
This was an absolutely phenomenal book. It is a searing, poignant critique of how intertwined anti-black racism is with the criminal justice system in the southern states, and every single word in this short novel is pitch-perfect. Colson Whitehead is a brilliant writer, and everything he does in this novel is a testament to some of the most perfect writing and pacing I have ever read: the emotional climaxes and punches hit you right where they're going to hurt the most, the characterization is flawless, and the story is gripping, horrific, impossible to look away from. A must-read for everyone.
Tender is the Flesh, by Agustina Bazterrica
I've already gushed about this book in a review here, so I won't go too much into it again - suffice it to say this is a brilliantly well-done horror novel, with a gripping story and some precise, clear writing that does both the plot and the fantastically crafted characters justice. The world building is great and the story is fully immersive - to the point where I needed a shower afterwards. An excellent way to trickle into the horror if you're like me and a bit of a wuss.
The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel
I've got nothing new to add to how brilliant this book is from what I already said in my full review. I will probably be rereading the Thomas Cromwell trilogy in its entirety this year just because I love them so much and I want to revisit this brilliant work of historical fiction, the magnificent writing, the magisterial way Hilary Mantel completely subsumes her voice to that of her narrator, the glorious richness of the narration and the characterization, how everything combines seamlessly into some of the best writing of the twenty-first century.
Soif, by Amélie Nothomb
This was Amélie's Nothomb first novel up for the Goncourt and oh boy was it deserved. This is a very short novel that puts us in Christ's head the night before the crucifixion, and provides a fascinating, thought-provoking rethink of the Bible stories and the Christ myth in Nothomb's usual sparkling, fizzy, pithy, hilarious way. I loved how human and real Jesus appeared in this book, and I loved how interwoven so much of the story is with stories that you think you know so well you almost forget them. This is one of those books that I can see myself rereading regularly and getting something new out of it every time - I'm even looking forward to the first of the rereads later this year. You can pre-order an English translation here.
Civilizations, by Laurent Binet
An imaginative blend of genres, about what would happen if the South American indigenous populations had reversed historical trends and been the conquistadores of Europe. I've reviewed it in full already, so I'll be brief here: this is a fun, clever, thought-provoking book that I massively enjoyed reading, and I still think about this story and all the different directions it could have gone in. It's also soon to be available in an English translation, so you have no excuse for not reading it!
Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell
This is one of those books that has just grown in my estimation the more I've thought about it since I finished it. It's an achingly beautiful look at grief, the compromises made in the name of family, motherhood and womanhood and the complexities that entails, with some elements of magic and fun Shakespeare bits in there for the historical nerds (me) among us. The layers of exploration about identity, the mysticism, the folklore - everything blends together into a book of outstanding, bittersweet beauty. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and it's definitely one of those books that gets better and more clever the more you think about it. Reviewed in full here.
Beach Read, by Emily Henry
A brilliant, clever work of metafiction, with a lot of scathing critique and commentary about publishing and literary pretensions. There's also a wonderful love story, great banter, a heartbreaking tale of father-daughter relationships, and a lot of other goodies. I've gushed about this book a lot already, so I won't go into too many details again, but this novel is a great example of how simple writing and simple storytelling can add up to a beautiful book that is simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful. This book was so good that it singlehandedly solidified Emily Henry as one of my auto-buy authors.
Les roses fauves, by Carole Martinez
A philosophical, mystical that blended a lot of different things. There wasn't so much one overarching storyline or narrative, but a lot of meanderings that took me to enjoyable different places. The writing in this book was absolutely marvelous, and the commentary Carole Martinez offered on her journey as an author and how difficult it can sometimes be for her to straddle the mundanity of reality and the imaginary world of her novels. This was a perfect book to curl up with under a blanket on a rainy day and just enjoy the journey, and the beauty of the writing itself. Reviewed here.
Enter the Aardvark, by Jessica Anthony
Utterly bonkers, utterly brilliant. I've very recently reviewed this book, so in the interest of not making this a 10-minute read blog post I'll try not to double down on my gushing. This book does an awful lot in a very short 180 pages, but nothing ever felt overdone or badly handled - not a word out of place, all the musings effectively folded into a wild ride of a story that was absolutely delightful from start to finish. I will eagerly read whatever Jessica Anthony publishes next.
Un aller simple, by Didier van Cauwelaert
Another book that packs one hell of a punch in a very short 120 pages. The amount that van Cauwelaert can convey in such crisp, concise writing is a testament to the talent and skill that he's got - an exploration of race, identity, nationality, politics, second chances and the importance of fable and legend in our lives with such a deft, compassionate touch that the message is never allowed to take precedence over the excellence of the writing and the narrative and the cynicism of the three main characters never grated, but just made me sad. This is the story of a sans-papier Romany in the Marseille region who is deported back to Morocco (since his fake passport is Moroccan) after he is falsely accused of stealing, and his relationship with the French bureaucrat and failed author who accompanies him on the repatriation journey. There are also long stretches of dialogue in this book where I was absolutely laughing out loud - and that ending was so unexpected, and so beautiful, and so sad that I legitimately started crying. The fact that the author was able to bring me through such a gamut of emotions without a single sentence de trop - of course this book won the Goncourt in 1994. Unfortunately not available in English, but if anybody is interested in this absolute gem I will take a whack at it.
The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo
A hefty, introspective family saga with sex scandals and heartbreak - literally my favorite. Well-written, with real, richly nuanced, well-drawn characters and some seamless interweaving of different points of view. Fully reviewed here, and only narrowly missed out on the top 10 list. This is (somehow) a debut novel - and I will purchase and eagerly read Lombardo's next novel with true delight.
The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson
One of two nonfictions to be in contention this year. This is a hefty look at Churchill's first year as Prime Minister under the start of the Blitz, and did an excellent job of bringing home the reality and terror of that year while being meticulously well-researched and brilliantly written. I highly recommend for anybody who wants to learn more about this period. Reviewed here.
Anxious People, by Frederik Backman
A hilarious, occasionally gut-wrenching tale of a bank robbery gone awry and the burdens that everybody bears to the best of their ability. This book was hilarious and heartbreaking and you go through the rollercoaster of emotions within one paragraph, and feel so strongly for every character, so every punch lands perfectly. Frederik Backman is one of my favorite writers of all time and I highly, highly, highly recommend everything he's ever written - an auto-buy forever and always for me, for sure. Only narrowly missed out on the final top 10 list.
So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson
Hilarious, compassionate, thoughtful, definitely thought-provoking, and oh-so-topical. I inhaled it in one sitting and I'm still thinking about it weeks later. Ronson has got an absolute knack for tackling difficult topics and accurately representing all the shades of nuance while remaining laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
One of the best things I've ever read, hands-down. I wanted this to last for 400 more pages so I could keep going on the crazy adventure with Aziraphale and Crowley, and as far as a fantasy debut (for me) goes, this was perfect. I could not stop laughing and I had so much fun with this book (an angel and a demon team up to stop the Apocalypse) that I want to keep revisiting the world over and over again.
I hope some of these books spark your interest, and you can use this list to help you find your first great reads of 2021! As ever, please do let me know if you pick up any of the books on this list and what you think of them.