Best of 2020: Fiction and Poetry

I’ve managed to whittle down my favorite releases of 2020 to 17 in total: six each from nonfiction (that’s for tomorrow) and fiction, plus five poetry volumes. Plenty more books from all genres will turn up on my runners-up list, due Tuesday.

Let the countdown begin!

 

Fiction

  1. The Group by Lara Feigel: A kaleidoscopic portrait of five women’s lives in 2018. Stella, Kay, Helena, Polly, and Priss met as Oxbridge students. Now 40-ish, they live in London and remain close, though their lives have diverged. Fast-forward a Sally Rooney novel by 20 years and you have an idea of what to expect. This sexually frank and socially engaged story arose from the context of the #MeToo movement and fully acknowledges the privilege and limitations of its setting. The advantage of the apparent heterogeneity in the friend group is that it highlights depths of personality and subtleties of experience. Absorbing and relevant.

 

  1. Real Life by Brandon Taylor: Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways; sex and violence are uneasily linked. I so admired how the novel is constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.

 

  1. Monogamy by Sue Miller: After 30 years, Annie and Graham are forced to scrutinize their marriage anew. Annie is a photographer; Graham owns a Cambridge, Massachusetts bookstore. Around them swirl a circle of family, friends, acquaintances, and former and would-be lovers. Miller knows her characters and how they interact intimately, and each viewpoint is thoroughly believable. Even in what seems a conventional story, she managed several proper made-me-gasp surprises. A beautifully observant novel about ambition, ageing and grief, reminiscent of Julia Glass, Sigrid Nunez, Maggie O’Farrell, and Carol Shields.

 

  1. Writers & Lovers by Lily King: Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. Between waitressing shifts, she chips away at the novel she’s been writing for six years. Life gets complicated, especially when two love interests appear. We see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. Thanks to the confiding first-person, present-tense narration, I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her. I came to think of this as an older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say.

 

  1. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: Mandel’s characters are rootless people stuck in literal or figurative states they don’t fully understand. Addiction is its own country for Paul, as is money for his half-sister, Vincent, who unexpectedly takes on the role of trophy wife to an older New York financier named Jonathan Alkaitis. Shuttling between the concrete (the shipping industry) and the abstract (even imaginary money can pay for luxuries), and laced with music and visual art, the novel explores liminal spaces, finding the fairy tales and nightmares that nip at the heels of real life. A satisfyingly layered story.

 

  1. The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld: There’s no avoiding violence for the women and children of this fictional world. It’s a sobering theme, certainly, but Wyld convinced me hers is an accurate vision and a necessary mission. The novel cycles through its three strands in an ebb and flow pattern appropriate to the coastal setting, creating a sense of time’s fluidity. Themes and elements keep coming back, stinging a little more each time. An elegant, time-blending structure and an unrelenting course – that indifferent monolith off the coast of Scotland is the perfect symbol. Looking back, this is the novel that has most haunted my imagination.

 

Poetry

  1. How to Fly: In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons by Barbara Kingsolver: The opening segment, “How to Fly,” is full of folk wisdom from nature and the body’s intuitive knowledge. “Pellegrinaggio” is a set of poems about accompanying her Italian mother-in-law back to her homeland. “This Is How They Come Back to Us” is composed of elegies for the family’s dead; four short remaining sections are inspired by knitting, literature, daily life, and concern for the environment. The book gives equal weight to personal and collective losses, and Kingsolver builds momentum with her salient natural imagery and entrancing rhythms.

 

  1. Moving House by Theophilus Kwek: This is the Chinese Singaporean poet’s first collection to be published in the UK. Infused with Asian history, his elegant verse ranges from elegiac to romantic. Many poems are inspired by historical figures and real headlines; others are about the language and experience of love. I also enjoyed the touches of art and legend: “Monologues for Noh Masks” is about the Pitt-Rivers Museum collection, while “Notes on a Landscape” is about Iceland’s geology and folk tales. Highly recommended to readers of Mary Jean Chan and Ocean Vuong.

 

  1. Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt: This debut collection is alive with striking imagery that draws links between the natural and the supernatural. Sex and grief, two major themes, are silhouetted against the backdrop of nature. Fields and forests are loci of meditation and epiphany, but also of clandestine encounters between men. Hewitt recalls travels to Berlin and Sweden, and charts his father’s rapid decline and death from an advanced cancer. The whole is capped off with the moving words addressed to the poet’s father: “You are not leaving, I know, // but shifting into image – my head / already is haunted with you”.

 

  1. Passport to Here and There by Grace Nichols: Nichols’s ninth collection is split, like her identity, between the Guyana where she grew up and the England which she has made her home. Creole and the imagery of ghosts conjure up her coming of age in South America. She often draws on the natural world for her metaphors, and her style is characterized by alliteration and assonance. Nichols brings her adopted country to life with poems on everything from tea and the Thames to the London Underground and the Grenfell Tower fire. (My full review will appear in Issue 106 of Wasafiri literary magazine.)

 

  1. Dearly by Margaret Atwood: A treasure trove, rich with themes of memory, women’s rights, environmental crisis and bereavement and by turns reflective and playful, melancholy and hopeful. I can highly recommend it, even to non-poetry readers, because it is led by its themes; although there are layers to explore, the poems are generally about what they say they’re about, and more material than abstract. Alliteration, internal and slant rhymes, and neologisms will delight language lovers. Atwood’s imagery ranges from the Dutch masters to The Wizard of Oz; her frame of reference is as wide as the range of fields she’s written in.

 

(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)

 

What were some of your top fiction and poetry reads of the year?

 

Tomorrow I’ll be naming my favorite nonfiction books from the year.

25 responses

  1. You know I’m delighted to see Monogamy on here although we’ll have to agree to disagree about The Group

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, you liked it well enough to feature it 😉 It hit the spot for me.

      Like

  2. Has to be The Mirror and the Light for me – Hilary Mantel is an absolute genius. I also loved Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.
    Looking forward to hearing about your non fiction choices.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldn’t get through the third book of the trilogy, but perhaps I’ll try again someday.

      Piranesi might make it onto my runners-up list; I haven’t finalized it yet!

      Like

  3. Bass Rock is on my reading list, thanks for the reminder. Monogamy looks good also, I’m glad you had so many thought provoking reads this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting! I still haven’t managed to read The Glass Hotel or Writers and Lovers yet from my shelf.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re in for real treats!

      Like

  5. […] yesterday’s list of my top fiction and poetry reads of 2020, I have chosen my six favorite nonfiction works of the […]

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  6. I’ve only read The Bass Rock, but I’m afraid it didn’t make my top ten list (which I’m publishing on Tuesday).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries, we all have different tastes and the book blogging world would be boring if our favorites lists were identical 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have a copy of The Glass Hotel which I might pick up next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’ll be right up your street.

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  8. I don’t know yet as I’ll only trawl through on Thursday! I think I’ll allow myself a top 15 this year, though …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mine ended up being a random top 17 (6 fiction+ 5 poetry + 6 nonfiction) 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. These are all either in my log for this year or on my TBR. I’ve not figured my favourite reads for this year yet. I do keep a record through the year, so that I don’t get distracted unfairly by books I’ve read later in the year, but I haven’t peeked at it for months. Even though I really enjoyed both the Mandel and the Wyld, I know there were others that I loved and admired too. Did you have a hard time getting them to 5/list?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was surprisingly easy to narrow down this year: I’m so stingy with 4.5- and 5-star ratings that there were only six in total for 2020 fiction and nonfiction releases. Poetry I read less of in general so, again, it was easy to pinpoint standouts.

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  10. […] were first released in 2020. (Asterisks = my hidden gems of the year.) Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 12% of my year’s […]

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  11. I can’t put my finger on why The Glass Hotel got to me so much, but it really did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A very hard book to summarize or conjure up with short descriptions. I never thought I’d love it so much. It’s one of those where I have to say “Just read it.”

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Saving this list–as I received a book of the month subscription for Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. […] Bookish Beck had the Booker Prize shortlisted “Real Life” by Brandon Taylor at number 5 on her list. This also impressed me and just missed out on my Top 10, Beck makes comparisons thematically and linguistically to Virginia Woolf which I must admit passed me by although I was moving towards that direction looking back at my review as I said “Although this is most definitely a highly detailed contemporary novel this attention to detail and constant internalising gives the characters a closer feel to a Victorian novel- say the works of Henry James or Jane Austen even though it is a modern campus work.” So I was on the right lines, maybe this is a book which would benefit from a re-read at some point. Bookish Beck also had another strong contender for the Top 10, “Memorial Drive” by Natasha Trethewey in her runners up list and her number one choice was another author who has been recommended to me, Evie Wyld. “Bass Rock” is the choice here and its coastal setting and “elegant time-blending structure” haunted the imagination. […]

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  14. What a great list! I want to read all of your fiction choices (The Glass Hotel I’ve already read). And, of course, I love to see Dearly on your poetry list, although I have yet to read it myself!
    Monogamy is coming up on our Literary Wives list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Monogamy is a great pick for you guys!

      Liked by 1 person

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