45 In 2020: My Year In Books

By Megan Thomas

2020 did not go the way anyone expected, and if it did for you, then you probably should’ve warned the rest of us. Not cool. Initially I didn’t think the pandemic had influenced my mood or behaviour too much (other than the obvious), but I’ve realised in retrospect that I had a relatively depressing year of reading. From the Irish Troubles to intersectional racism and other world wrongs in between, it seems the melancholy of 2020 filtered into my reading subconscious.

So, while I heartily recommend a lot of the books I read in 2020, my goal for 2021 is to read 52 books in the year but at least one of them per months has to be a happy/funny book – I’m very open to suggestions, so leave a comment below if you’ve got recommendations on that front.

I’ve listed the 45 books I read in 2020 below, and have featured a quote from my full reviews – if there isn’t one, I’ve not yet released the review, but the rating will hopefully give you a good sense based on the other ratings. If you want to read more, click on the hyperlinked titles.

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1. Quichotte (Fiction)

★★★★

By Salman Rushdie

“Though at times heavy-handed with symbolism, it is what it sets out to be: the Don Quixote of modern times, a journey to the heart of what keeps humanity ticking, and the question of whether modernity and television is rotting its core.”

2. Normal People: Top 5 (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Sally Rooney

“Normal People is the story of Marianne and Connell, their lives weaving together like a strand of DNA. No matter how they drift apart, though, they always end up gravitating towards one another.”

3. The Perseverance (Poetry)

★★★★★

By Raymond Antrobus

“Raymond’s poetry mirrors his experience of growing up a British-Jamaican in East London, of growing up deaf, of growing up with an addict father, of growing up in a world set on insisting he didn’t have a place in it. I read every poem once, twice, thrice…”

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4. Carmilla (Fiction)

★★★★★

By J. Sheridan Le Fanu

“It wasn’t the old-fashioned, impossible-to-finish-due-to-three-page-sentence type of ‘classic’ I was expecting. Rather, it was refreshingly light and poignant – funny, observant, creepy.”

5. What If There Were No Whites In South Africa (Non-Fiction)

★★★

By Ferial Haffajee

“It‘s not so much a question of what if there were never British or Dutch colonisers in the country. Instead, it asks a question that hovered in South Africa at the time the book was being written: should white people be removed from, or take a step back from South Africa for it to move forward, when it has become clear that waiting for progress to happen organically isn’t working.”

6. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (Non-Fiction)

★★★★★

By Nora Ephron

“Who out there can be so witty and compelling that I, a woman in my mid-twenties, can devour a collection of essays on ageing as if reading from a book of my own life? The answer is what the answer should always be: Nora Ephron. Feeling down? Nora Ephron. Things not going your way? Nora Ephron. Feeling great? Nora Ephron. Feeling guilty about feeling great? Nora Nora Nora.”

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7. Good Riddance (Fiction)

★★★

By Elinor Lipman

Review, as published in Buzz Magazine: “With Austenite themes of inheritance, strong but fallible characters, a traditional conflict-resolution structure and a satisfying denouement, Lipman has all the modern understanding of human interaction, dialogue and motivation, and a refreshing grasp of the screwball comedy’s need to be enjoyable without being 100% believable.”

8. Such A Fun Age (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Kiley Reid

“The interwoven relationships in this book are fraught and fascinating, but also shockingly unexpected, so I won’t give away more than that. But I assure you, each character is so fleshed out and complicated, so simultaneously infuriating and empathy-inducing, that after a book-full of side-taking, you realise just how believable each character is that this see-sawing of emotion was even possible.”

9. How To Carry Fire (Poetry)

★★★★★

By Christina Thatcher

Review, as published in Buzz Magazine: “Through the haze of ashes, loss, opioids and trauma emerge poems which are pulsing with life – or perhaps clinging to it. Either way, they are strong, resilient and urgent.”

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10. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (Fiction)

★★★★

By Stieg Larsson

“Lisbeth, Blomkvist, and a merry band of Swedish police and government officials with varying degrees of competency, are back in the third of the Millennium trilogy. […] It’s gripping and fast-paced – as they always are.”

11. The Woman Next Door (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Yewande Omotoso

“This was an absolutely fantastic read. There’s plenty to be said for books about friendship and lovable characters, but there is really something so delicious about a book which centres around loathing and pretty awful people.”

12. Tomorrow’s Woman (Poetry)

★★

By Greta Bellamacina

“Greta has powerful, beautiful imagery, of trees as star-pillars and meteors which rain down like tears, which would be lost without the reader’s ability to subvert their understanding. Abstract as this may sound, they read like images rather than miniaturised stories: they evoke emotion and create a sense of what you’ve seen or read, without requiring you to have noticed every brush stroke or understood every sentence.”

13. Red At The Bone (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Jacqueline Woodson

Review, as published on Babble: “By the last page, refreshingly, you are still not inclined to take sides or judge anyone for their choices, but rather just feel a sadness for every character, their struggles, the repercussions of their choices and the choices they were never offered.”

14. Soho (Poetry)

★★★★★

By Richard Scott

“Some poems you read, and it feels like a painting, drawn on a blank canvas. With others, it is as if the writer is a sculptor, chipping away at a chunk of life to depict the sometimes-exquisite, often-startling intricacy (and intimacy) underneath.”

15. Girl, Woman, Other: Top 5 (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Bernardine Evaristo

“Not one of these characters is a stereotype, nor are they simply emblematic of a societal issue – though affected by these issues, they are all real, complex, contradictory people with hearts pumping through the veins of the sentences, whole histories taking shape on the pages.”

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16. We Are Animals (Fiction)

★★★★

By Tim Ewins

“A story with just the right balance of absolutely bonkers and utterly profound.”

17. The Cave (Fiction)

★★★

By Kate Mosse

“It is set in post-Great-War south west France, in a bizarre French village which seems curiously dated. It is a simple but charming tale.”

18. Milkman: Top 5 (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Anna Burns

“It’s difficult, but it’s important that it’s difficult. How it has been written speaks, in some ways, more loudly than what has actually been written. The key to why this book is so sensational is what isn’t said: the names the characters aren’t called in an unidentified city of an unnamed religion. Though despite what isn’t said, we still know exactly where we are and whose side is being narrated.”

Read more Booker Prize winners

19. Brick Lane Book Shop Short Story Prize Anthology (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Assorted

“What an absolutely wonderful selection of stories and what a fantastic prize for the talent it has been able to showcase.”

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20. The Towering World of Jimmy Choo: Power, Profits and the Pursuit of the Perfect Shoe (Non-Fiction)

★★★★★

By Lauren Goldstein-Crowe

“This business/fashion book is a thoroughly researched and insightful window into the sky-high world of the iconic Jimmy Choo brand, and the towering heels in which key figures like Tamara Mellon (nee Yeardye) took the brand to those heights.”

21. Salt Slow (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Julia Armfield

“I’m still thinking about each and every story, the magical realism still playing over in my mind and offering alternative interpretations as the time after reading passes.”

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22. Conjure Woman (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Afia Atakora

“Through shifting between before and after the Civil War on a Southern plantation, Afia Atakora has conjured the kind of literary magic that takes you back in time with every spellbound sentence.”

23. Intimations (Non-Fiction)

★★★★★

By Zadie Smith

“Six essays observing the world in the Covid-context and the way humanity has responded to the crisis. For [Zadie Smith], it sparked memories of past encounters and experiences, it made her contemplate what was even worth contemplation, it inspired thoughts about the nature of suffering and the virus that is “contempt”, and it is poignantly though never aggressively filled with socio-political commentary and disdain for current world powers.”

24. Isabella Blow: A Life In Fashion (Non-Fiction)

By Lauren Goldstein-Crowe

★★★★

“A marker of excellent non-fiction is its ability to grab people who aren’t necessarily interested in it, and making them interested. All the while talking to them in a way that doesn’t alienate those who are.”

25. You Will Be Safe Here: Top 5 (Fiction)

By Damian Barr

★★★★★

“This book is rife with complex histories and sociological, cultural potholes for Damian Barr to tumble into and yet through immaculate research, he’s sidestepped every one, with only tiny errors here and there which I’m sure I only clocked because I’m South African. Despite how much history is covered, it reads lightly and is never lacking in raw humanity, or overbearing with the research.”

26. The Polygamist (Fiction)

★★★

By Sue Nyathi

“It’s simultaneously devilishly fabulous, unfathomably debaucherous, and oozing with gold rings and gold diggers: a window into the high-baller life that I’ve only heard rumours about.”

27. The Gold Diggers (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Sue Nyathi

“Lyrically written and endlessly rich in details of the terrifyingly brilliant hub of Africa that is Johannesburg, and its reputation as The City of Gold (Egoli), which first put it on the map. While gold bars may not be dug out the ground anymore, the city remains a place where many go to try to change their lives for the better… to varying degrees of success.”

28. A Year In The Wild: A Riotous Novel (Fiction)

★★★

By James Hendry

“Lighthearted and outrageously sarcastic, I thought this was going to be a quick laugh, but there were some tears in there too.”

29. More Than You Were (Poetry)

★★★★

By Christina Thatcher

More Than You Were leaves you feeling raw, like you’ve been licked by a fire but without having to wear the scars afterwards. And then of course you’ve got the balm lined up with How To Carry Fire.”

30. The Strange Library (Fiction)

★★★

By Haruki Murakami

31. A Family Affair (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Sue Nyathi

“In my opinion, A Family Affair is the perfect combination of both of Sue’s previous books and her best yet. It’s a blend of the drama and scandal I loved about The Polygamist, as well as the social, economic and political climate in which the characters exist in Zimbabwe, which I loved about The GoldDiggers.

32. The Magic Feather Effect: Alternative Medicine and the Surprising Power of Belief (Non-Fiction)

★★★★

By Melanie Warner

“Melanie Warner went into this science book with a hunger to explore everything from the placebo effect to spiritual healing practices, and did so with fair and rigorous research.”

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33. How Love Actually Ruined Christmas: (Or Colourful Narcotics) (Non-Fiction)

★★★★★

By Gary Raymond

“I struggled to disagree with a single point made about some of the totally outrageous elements of this film (and frankly unacceptable treatment of its female characters), a lot of which you register but don’t internalise when you’re subdued by the “colourful narcotics” which lull us into the viewing-bliss that is Hugh Grant’s voice in that airport terminal.”

34. Educated: Top 5 and Book of the Year (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Tara Westover

“I’ve never seen the power of determination and overcoming adversity put down so clearly on a page before, and this book is both inspirational and entertaining from start to finish.”

35. The Swallowed Man (Fiction)

★★★★

By Edward Carey

“The plot takes place largely at sea, as it is a reimagining of the story of Pinocchio from the perspective of Gepetto and his time spent inside the shark that swallowed him. […] It’s a quick read and allows you to slip out of reality for a bit. Who wouldn’t want that right now?”

36. Observatory Mansions (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Edward Carey

“It’s a dark and twisted fable of human connection, and it’s morbidly funny. It’ll certainly make you chuckle. Or maybe weep. Or is it both?”

37. Tongues of Fire (Poetry)

★★★★★

By Sean Hewitt

“Rather than writing individual poems which speak to love, grief, regret, longing, heartbreak, youth – which it definitely does cover – Hewitt has crafted an anthology wherein every poem speaks to all of these complex human emotions at once, not in identifiable labels but as an interconnected ecosystem.”

I’ll be interviewing Sean on my podcast, so feel free to submit a question to me at haveyoureadthisuk@gmail.com and I’ll make sure it gets answered!

38. Ghosts (Fiction)

★★★★

By Dolly Alderton

“Though at times the writing was heavy in cliche, there were other times where the sentiments were entirely unique and offered delightfully relatable insight into things you didn’t even realise were things you related to.”

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39. Inferno (Non-Fiction)

★★★★

By Catherine Cho

“Catherine Cho has done something pretty remarkable with time in her memoir. It simultaneously stands still and flies.”

40. Surge (Poetry)

★★★★★

By Jay Bernard

Surge shows the power language can have on consciousness, and is simultaneously a work of remembrance and activism.”

41. Jew(ish) (Non-Fiction)

★★★★

By Matt Greene

“To say Jew(ish) is an exploration of Matt Greene’s relationship with Judaism is a total understatement, because although that’s what he set out to do, he emerges with a book that tackles the intricacies of something much bigger than any one person.”

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42. Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over The American Meal (Non-Fiction)

★★★★

By Melanie Warner

43. The Push (Fiction)

★★★★

By Claire McGowen

“Through the unravelling of the crime by two cops who know something’s up despite everyone’s insistence that it was an accident, we see the dark side of pregnancy: the competition, the judgement, the longing, the regret, the pressure, and all the insecurities and secrets that influence the characters’ behaviour and result in a death.”

44. All The Words Unspoken (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Serena Kaur

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45. Nightingale (Fiction)

★★★★★

By Marina Kemp

“The writing is fast moving but also meandering – it’s as if the plot moves while the writing grounds us in the scenic sleepiness and sometimes repetitiveness of rural existence, which is both stifling and liberating.”

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