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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
Book Serendipity: 2020, Part I
I call it serendipitous when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such incidents. I also post these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. (The following are in rough chronological order.)
- A Wisconsin setting in three books within a month (Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler, This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner)
- I came across a sculpture of “a flock of 191 silver sparrows” in Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano while also reading Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones.
- Characters nearly falling asleep at the wheel of a car in Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
- There’s no escaping Henry David Thoreau! Within the span of a week I saw him mentioned in The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell, The Snow Tourist by Charlie English, Losing Eden by Lucy Jones and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Plus I’d just read the whole graphic novel Thoreau and Me by Cédric Taling.
- Discussions of the work of D.H. Lawrence in Unfinished Business by Vivian Gornick and The Offing by Benjamin Myers
- That scientific study on patient recovery in hospital rooms with a window view vs. a view of a brick wall turns up in both Dear Life by Rachel Clarke and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones.
- The inverted teardrop shapes mirror each other on these book covers:
- Punchy, one-word titles on all these books I was reading simultaneously:
- Polio cases in The Golden Age by Joan London, Nemesis by Philip Roth and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
- An Italian setting and the motto “Pazienza!” in Dottoressa by Susan Levenstein and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
- Characters named Lachlan in The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson and The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
- Mentions of the insecticide Flit in Nemesis by Philip Roth and Sacred Country by Rose Tremain
- A quoted Leonard Cohen lyric in Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott; Cohen as a character in A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson
- Plague is brought to an English village through bolts of cloth from London in Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell; both also feature a woman who is a herbal healer sometimes mistaken for a witch (and with similar names: Anys versus Agnes)
- Gory scenes of rats being beaten to death in Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and Nemesis by Philip Roth
- Homemade mobiles in a baby’s room in A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson and Sacred Country by Rose Tremain
- Speech indicated by italics rather than the traditional quotation marks in Pew by Catherine Lacey and Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Recommended March Releases: Magnusson, May, Moor and More
March has been a huge month for new releases. With so many authors feeling let down about book tours and events being cancelled, it’s a great time for bloggers to step in and help. I attended two virtual book launches on Twitter on the 19th and have another one coming up on the 31st. I also have three more March releases on order from my local indie bookstore: Greenery by Tim Dee, tracking the arrival of spring; Footprints by David Farrier, about the fossil traces modern humans will leave behind; and The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, a novel about violence against women set on the Scottish coast in three different time periods.
Today I have short reviews of five March releases I recommend (plus a bonus one now out in paperback): a Victorian pastiche infused with Scottish folklore, an essay collection about disparate experiences of motherhood, a thriller about victims of domestic violence, poems in graphic novel form, a novel about natural and personal disasters in Australia, and a lovely story of friendship and literature changing a young man’s life forever. All:
The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
(Published by Two Roads on the 19th)
Like Hannah Kent’s The Good People and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, this is an intense, convincing work of fiction that balances historical realism with magical elements. In mid-1850s Britain, in the wake of a cholera epidemic, there is a drive to ensure clean water. Alexander Aird, hired as the on-site physician for the Glasgow waterworks, moves to the Loch Katrine environs with his wife, Isabel, who has had eight miscarriages or stillbirths. With no living babies requiring her care, Isabel spends her days wandering the hills and meets a strange scarecrow of a man, Reverend Robert Kirke … who died in 1692.
A real-life Episcopalian minister, Kirke wrote a book about fairies and other Celtic supernatural beings and, legend has it (as recounted by Sir Walter Scott and others), was taken into the faery realm after his death and continued to walk the earth looking for rest. It takes a while for Isabel to learn the truth about Kirke – though her servant, Kirsty McEchern, immediately intuits that something isn’t right about the man – and longer still to understand that he wants something from her. “Whatever else, Robert Kirke could be relied on to ruffle this mind of hers that was slowly opening to experience again, and to thinking, and to life.”
This was a rollicking read that drew me in for its medical elements (premature birth, a visit to Joseph Lister, interest in Florence Nightingale’s nursing methods) as well as the plot. It often breaks from the omniscient third-person voice to give testimonies from Kirsty and from Kirke himself. There are also amusing glimpses into the Royal household when Victoria and Albert stay at Balmoral and return to open the waterworks during the “heaviest, windiest, most umbrella-savaging, face-slashing deluge that Scotland had experienced in twenty years.” Best of all, it gives a very different picture of women’s lives in the Victorian period.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
The Best Most Awful Job: Twenty Writers Talk Honestly about Motherhood, edited by Katherine May
(Published by Elliott & Thompson on the 19th)
These are essays for everyone who has had a mother – not just everyone who has been a mother. I enjoyed every piece separately, but together they form a vibrant collage of women’s experiences. Care has been taken to represent a wide range of situations and attitudes. The reflections are honest about physical as well as emotional changes, with midwife Leah Hazard (author of Hard Pushed) kicking off with an eye-opening rundown of the intimate scarring some mothers will have for the rest of their lives. We hear from a mother of six who’s “addicted” to pregnancy (Jodi Bartle), but also from a woman who, after an ectopic pregnancy, realized “there are lots of ways to mother, even if your body won’t let you” (Peggy Riley, in one of my two favorite pieces in the book).
Women from BAME communities recount some special challenges related to cultural and family expectations, but others that are universal. An autistic mother (Joanne Limburg) has to work out how to parent a neurotypical child; queer parents (including author Michelle Tea) wonder how to raise a son at a time of toxic masculinity. There are also several single mothers, one of them disabled (Josie George – hers was my other favorite essay; do follow her on Twitter via @porridgebrain if you don’t already).
What I most appreciated is that these authors aren’t saying what they think they should say about motherhood; they’re willing to admit to boredom, disappointment and rage: “motherhood is an infinite, relentless slog from which there is no rest or recuperation … a ceaseless labour, often devoid of acknowledgment, recognition and appreciation” (Javaria Akbar); “I step barefoot on a rogue piece of Lego and it’s game over. I scream” (Saima Mir). These are punchy, distinctive slices of life writing perfectly timed for Mother’s Day. I plan to pass the book around my book club; mothers or not, I know everyone will appreciate it.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Keeper by Jessica Moor
(Published by Viking/Penguin on the 19th)
Val McDermid and Jeanette Winterson are among the fans of this, Penguin’s lead debut title of 2020. When a young woman is found drowned at a popular suicide site in the Manchester area, the police plan to dismiss the case as an open-and-shut suicide. But the others at the women’s shelter where Katie Straw worked aren’t convinced, and for nearly the whole span of this taut psychological thriller readers are left to wonder if it was suicide or murder.
The novel alternates between chapters marked “Then” and “Now”: in the latter story line, we follow the police investigation and meet the women of the refuge; in the former, we dive into Katie’s own experience of an abusive relationship back in London. While her mother was dying of cancer she found it comforting to have a boyfriend who was so attentive to her needs, but eventually Jamie’s obsessive love became confining.
I almost never pick up a mystery, but this one was well worth making an exception for. I started suspecting the twist at maybe the two-thirds point, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Based on Moor’s year working in the violence against women sector, it’s a gripping and grimly fascinating story of why women stay with their abusers and what finally drives them to leave.
I picked up a proof copy at a Penguin Influencers event.
Poems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry by Julian Peters
(To be published by Plough Publishing House on the 31st)
Peters is a comics artist based in Montreal. Here he has chosen 24 reasonably well-known poems by the likes of e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, Christina Rossetti and W.B. Yeats and illustrated each one in a markedly different fashion. From black-and-white manga to a riot of color and music, from minimalist calligraphy-like Japanese watercolor to imitations of Brueghel, there is such a diversity of style here that at first I presumed there were multiple artists involved (as in one of my favorite graphic novels of last year, ABC of Typography, where the text was written by one author but each chapter had a different illustrator). But no, this is all Peters’ work; I was impressed by his versatility.
The illustrations range from realistic to abstract, with some more obviously cartoon-like. A couple of sequences reminded me of the style of Raymond Briggs. For “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, lines are inlaid on the squares of a painted patchwork quilt. Other sets look to have been done via wood engraving, or with old-fashioned crayons. You could quibble with the more obvious poetry selections, but I encountered a few that were new to me, including “Buffalo Dusk” by Carl Sandburg and “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Peters has grouped them into six thematic categories: self, others, art, nature, time and death. Teenagers, especially, will enjoy the introduction to a variety of poets and comics styles.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
(Published by ONE/Pushkin on the 5th)
“Emergency police fire, or ambulance?” The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Over her phone headset she gets appalling glimpses into people’s worst moments: a woman cowers from her abusive partner; a teen watches his body-boarding friend being attacked by a shark. Although she strives for detachment, her job can’t fail to add to her anxiety – already soaring due to the country’s flooding and bush fires.
Against that backdrop of natural disasters, a series of minor personal catastrophes play out. The narrator is obsessed with a rape/murder case that’s dominating the television news, and narrowly escapes sexual assault herself. She drinks to excess, keeps hooking up with her ex-boyfriend, Lachlan, even after he gets a new girlfriend, and seems to think abortion and the morning after pill are suitable methods of birth control. Irresponsible to the point of self-sabotage, she’s planning a move to London but in the meantime is drifting through life, resigned to the fact that there is no unassailable shelter and no surefire way to avoid risk.
The title comes from the quest of John Oxley (presented here as the narrator’s ancestor), who in 1817 searched for a water body in the Australian interior. Quotations from his journals and discussions of the work of Patrick White, the subject of Lachlan’s PhD thesis, speak to the search for an Australian identity. But the inland sea is also the individual psyche, contradictory and ultimately unknowable. Like a more melancholy version of Jenny Offill’s Weather or a more cosmic autofiction than Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist, this is a timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.
My thanks to the publisher for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus…
The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
(Paperback published by Bloomsbury on the 5th)
With the Second World War only recently ended and nothing awaiting him apart from the coal mine where his father works, sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard sets out on a journey. From his home in County Durham, he walks southeast, doing odd jobs along the way in exchange for food and lodgings. One day he wanders down a lane near Robin Hood’s Bay and gets a surprisingly warm welcome from a cottage owner, middle-aged Dulcie Piper, who invites him in for tea and elicits his story. Almost accidentally, he ends up staying for the rest of the summer, clearing scrub and renovating her garden studio.
Dulcie is tall, outspoken and unconventional – I pictured her as (Meryl Streep as) Julia Child in the movie Julie & Julia. She introduces Robert to whole new ways of thinking: that not everyone believes in God, that Germans might not be all bad, that life can be about adventure and pleasure instead of duty. “The offing” is a term for the horizon, as well as the title of a set of poems Robert finds in the dilapidated studio, and both literature and ambition change his life forever. Bright, languid and unpredictable, the novel delights in everyday sensual pleasures like long walks with a dog, dips in the ocean and an abundance of good food. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that’s quite like it – how refreshing is that?
I pre-ordered the paperback using a Waterstones voucher I got for Christmas.