The Best Books of 2020: Some Runners-Up

I’ve chosen 25 more cracking reads that 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 reading.

 

Novels:

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity. Light-skinned African-American twins’ paths divide in 1950s Louisiana. Perceptive and beautifully written, this has characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent.

 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: To start with, Piranesi traverses his watery labyrinth like he’s an eighteenth-century adventurer, his resulting notebooks reading rather like Alexander von Humboldt’s writing. I admired how the novel moved from the fantastical and abstract into the real and gritty. Read it even if you say you don’t like fantasy.

 

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan: At 22, Ava leaves Dublin to teach English as a foreign language to wealthy preteens and almost accidentally embarks on affairs with an English guy and a Chinese girl. Dolan has created a funny, deadpan voice that carries the entire novel. I loved the psychological insight, the playfulness with language, and the zingy one-liners.

 

*A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler: Issues of race and privilege undermine a teen romance in a perfect-seeming North Carolina community. This is narrated in a first-person plural voice, like the Greek chorus of a classical tragedy. If you loved An American Marriage, it should be next on your list. I’m puzzled by how overlooked it’s been this year.

 

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi: A more subdued and subtle book than Homegoing, but its treatment of themes of addiction, grief, racism, and religion is so spot on that it packs a punch. Gifty is a PhD student at Stanford, researching reward circuits in the mouse brain. There’s also a complex mother–daughter relationship and musings on love and risk. [To be published in the UK in March]

 

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: A rich, natural exploration of a place and time period – full of detail but wearing its research lightly. Inspired by a real-life storm that struck on Christmas Eve 1617 and wiped out the male population of the Norwegian island of Vardø, it intimately portrays the lives of the women left behind. Tender, surprising, and harrowing.

 

Sisters by Daisy Johnson: Teenagers September and July were born just 10 months apart, with July always in thrall to her older sister. For much of this short novel, Johnson keeps readers guessing as to why the girls’ mother, Sheela, took them away to Settle House, her late husband’s family home in the North York Moors. As mesmerizing as it is unsettling.

 

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd: Kidd’s bold fourth novel started as a what-if question: What if Jesus had a wife? Although this retells biblical events, it is chiefly an attempt to illuminate women’s lives in the 1st century and to chart the female contribution to sacred literature and spirituality. An engrossing story of women’s intuition and yearning.

 

*The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson: Intense and convincing, this balances historical realism and magical elements. In mid-1850s Scotland, there is a move to ensure clean water. The Glasgow waterworks’ physician’s wife meets a strange minister who died in 1692. A rollicking read with medical elements and a novel look into Victorian women’s lives.

 

*The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting: In this first book of a magic-fueled historical trilogy, progress, religion, and superstition are forces fighting for the soul of a late-nineteenth-century Norwegian village. Mytting constructs the novel around compelling dichotomies. Astrid, a feminist ahead of her time, vows to protect the ancestral church bells.

 

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: art consumed and people encountered become part of her own story; curiosity about other lives fuels empathy. A quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings.

 

Weather by Jenny Offill: A blunt, unromanticized, wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life, written in an aphoristic style. Set either side of Trump’s election in 2016, the novel amplifies many voices prophesying doom. Offill’s observations are dead right. This felt like a perfect book for 2020 and its worries.

 

Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward: An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. I was particularly taken by the chapter narrated by the ant. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.

 

*The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts: The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Against a backdrop of flooding and bush fires, a series of personal catastrophes play out. A timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.

 

 

Short Stories:

To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss: These 10 stories from the last 18 years are melancholy and complex, often featuring several layers of Jewish family history. Europe, Israel, and film are frequent points of reference. “Future Emergencies,” though set just after 9/11, ended up feeling the most contemporary because it involves gas masks and other disaster preparations.

 

*Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld: A bonus second UK release from Sittenfeld in 2020 after Rodham. Just three stories, but not leftovers; a strong follow-up to You Think It, I’ll Say It. They share the theme of figuring out who you really are versus what others think of you. “White Women LOL,” especially, compares favorably to Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age.

 

You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South: In this debut collection, characters turn to technology to stake a claim on originality, compensate for losses, and leave a legacy. These 10 quirky, humorous stories never strayed so far into science fiction as to alienate me. I loved the medical themes and subtle, incisive observations about a technology-obsessed culture.

 

 

Poetry:

*Survival Is a Style by Christian Wiman: Wiman examines Christian faith in the shadow of cancer. This is the third of his books that I’ve read, and I’m consistently impressed by how he makes room for doubt, bitterness, and irony – yet a flame of faith remains. There is really interesting phrasing and vocabulary in this volume.

 

 

Nonfiction:

Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho: Cho experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son. She alternates between her time in the mental hospital and her life before the breakdown, weaving in family history and Korean sayings and legends. It’s a painstakingly vivid account.

 

*The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland: DNA tests can find missing relatives within days. But there are troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. A thought-provoking book with all the verve and suspense of fiction.

 

*Signs of Life: To the Ends of the Earth with a Doctor by Stephen Fabes: Fabes is an emergency room doctor in London and spent six years of the past decade cycling six continents. This warm-hearted and laugh-out-loud funny account of his travels achieves a perfect balance between world events, everyday discomforts, and humanitarian volunteering.

 

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones: Nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, but Jones wanted to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. Losing Eden is full of common sense and passion, cramming in lots of information yet never losing sight of the big picture.

 

*Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb: Jewish grandmothers are renowned for their fiercely protective love, but also for nagging. Both sides of the stereotypical matriarch are on display in this funny, heartfelt family memoir, narrated in the second person – as if from beyond the grave – by her late grandmother. A real delight.

 

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty: McAnulty is a leader in the UK’s youth environmental movement and an impassioned speaker on the love of nature. This is a wonderfully observant and introspective account of his fifteenth year and the joys of everyday encounters with wildlife. Impressive perspective and lyricism.

 

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey: Trethewey grew up biracial in 1960s Mississippi, then moved with her mother to Atlanta. Her stepfather was abusive; her mother’s murder opens and closes the book. Trethewey only returned to their Memorial Drive apartment after 30 years had passed. A striking memoir, delicate and painful.

 

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

 

Coming tomorrow: My best backlist reads of the year.

34 responses

  1. So I’ve got to read Piranesi, eh? Even though I made three attempts to read Jonathan Strange, which everyone else loved, before giving up. I know, everyone’s loving Piranesi. Better give it a go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s very different from Jonathan Strange; you’d hardly know it’s the same author (or maybe it’s just that after 14 years my memory of her previous novel is so poor). Worth a try, anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Ninth Child and The Mercies are also on my runners-up list this year! I love the sound of The Inland Sea and I’ve been meaning to read Help Yourself for a while (I loved Sittenfeld’s new Amazon Original short story, Giraffe and Flamingo).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Inland Sea is definitely one of Rachel’s ‘disaster woman’ books, but I really liked it and wish it had gotten more attention this year.

      Help Yourself is a slim volume for the price, but I got it with birthday voucher money.

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      1. The emergency dispatch operator aspect appeals to me – kind of a literal ‘disaster woman’!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes, she hears these awful stories over the phone line and has to try to detach from them (but meanwhile is making terrible choices in her own life).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lots I want to read in your runners-up! I have Sisters, The Mercies and the McAnulty. Would like to read the Brit Bennett too which is everywhere! I very much enjoyed Exciting Times too, and Piranesi… well you know I LOVED IT!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cracking reads, all! It must be a struggle to think how to fit these in when I’m sure you already have 2021 books arriving…

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      1. Don’t know about you but I do have ten 2021 review copies on the shelves already for through to April, so I will try to intersperse them with my own books (and buy fewer new ones, although I feel duty bound to help keep my local indies in business). Particularly looking forward to the new Spufford novel and Claire Fuller’s latest. Would like to get my hands on Ishiguro though.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I have a small shelf of 12 review books through March (mostly proofs, but a few finished copies for January, too), including the Fuller. I’m keen on the Ishiguro and Spufford, too. I’ll do a Most Anticipated releases post early in January.

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      3. I read on Claire’s blog that her book has been put back to March.

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      4. Oh, I missed that. I’ll have to ask Fig Tree when they want a review.

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  4. Basically, if I haven’t already read them, they’re on my TBR stack. Actually, I’ve only read one (Weather) but a bunch will be part of my holiday reading (I’ll probably start with Memorial Drive or the Nunez).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not your average beach reads, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy them 😉

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  5. I missed out on The Vanishing Half thanks to postal problems but I’m still keen to read it. Good to see Transcendent Kingdom on your list although I really ought to get around to Homegoing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t worry, The Vanishing Half will be in every charity shop soon after the whole world has read it in hardback 😉

      Gyasi’s two books are so different, but equally worth reading. I think Homegoing just beats this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I still need to read Vanishing Half. I want to read Transcendent Kingdom, too. Great list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lorilin! Those are both great ones and would be ideal for a book club too.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The Vanishing Half was great. I’m aiming to do a Top 15 which will be just under 10% of what I read this year. I love your list. Diary of a Young Naturalist is going on my wishlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! You’ll love that one.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The Vanishing Half will be on my top ten of the year. I am reading Transcendent Kingdom right now and it’s so good – SO sad, but just so beautifully written and probing. She’s amazing.

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    1. It especially resonated with me because of my religious background, but I think anyone can relate to aspects of the family situation. Gyasi must be one of our best young writers of the moment.

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  9. Can’t decide whether The Bell in the Lake or The Mercies might compliment more my writing of my current WIP set in Finland. Both sound fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They certainly reminded me of each other, though the time periods are different. Both have traces of magic and explore sexual transgression. The Bell in the Lake was a more wintry read if that appeals to you just now.

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  10. I’ve only read To be a Man, but some of these others sound good! Thanks.

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    1. I’ve read all of Krauss’s work now, and this stood out more than a few of her novels (though The History of Love can’t be topped!).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Really? I’ve read them all as well… Agreed about History of Love, but I’m not sure if I can compare short stories to her full-length works that easily. I like how quirky she can be, and that didn’t come through as well in these stories as it does in her novels. But that’s just me! Great to meet another Krauss fan!

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    2. I’ve generally preferred her ex-husband’s works, but that’s probably an unpopular opinion 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Really? I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his books, although I think we have one of them… maybe Everything is Illuminated or Extremely Loud… we just moved house and we need to buy new bookcases so all our books are in boxes now.

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      2. Those are both terrific. I’ve had a couple of disappointments from him, but I’ve read all his books apart from Tree of Codes (which I’m not even convinced counts as a book of his own).

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  11. […] 7.47 saying it was “almost impossible to stop reading” and in the runners-up list from Bookish Beck, but I must admit it was one that I thought I would see on a lot more end-of-year lists and that is […]

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  12. Even the spine illustration for Signs of Life catches my eye! (Although I’m not sure I’m the target audience for that one…many of the others are on my TBR though.) Well done on summarizing these so briefly. Not an easy thing to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love pulling these capsule reviews out of my full reviews. So much fun!

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