For all its many, many faults, 2020 was a great year for reading. I had plenty of time for it, meaning I got through a whopping 107 books. I rediscovered a love for audiobooks. And a glut of incredible new titles meant that I already had something exciting and fresh to read (and a great selection on my library’s Libby meant that there were always new ones coming in on my hold lists, so I read more newly-released titles this year than in some other years), along with my endless list of to-reads from years past.
In fact, I read so many great books this year that I found it really hard to narrow down my favourites. I’ve decided to split my list into two parts: books published in 2020, and books published earlier than 2020.
So whether you’re looking for something hot off the press or a modern classic, here are my picks for best of the year, starting with books newly released in 2020.
To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss: I love everything Nicole Krauss has written. Her debut novel, The History of Love, is one of my favourite books of all time (I still buy every copy I come across in used book stores just so I have extras to give away to friends). The short stories in this collection are connected by theme, exploring moments of growth and vulnerability, and what it means to be a woman, to be a man, to be a person. Honestly, no single story stands out, but together they mirror each other and create a complex and poignant picture of humanity.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab: I was so anticipating this novel, and it lived up to my every expectation. Addie LaRue is immortal but cursed; she moves through time a shadow, with no one remembering her as soon as she leaves their sight. Until, someone does. Although it drags a tiny bit in the middle, the story is so rich and Addie such a compelling character, you won’t be able to put it down. I read this just after another fantasy novel that had equally good worldbuilding but lacked the emotional resonance, and this book showed what the other was missing.
Piranesi by Susannah Clarke: I was very curious to read this book because Clarke’s other novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is a hefty tome of over 700 pages, while Piranesi doesn’t even crack the 300 mark. I had just assumed her style was dense and verbose, but clearly this book said otherwise. And what a gem it is. Piranesi is an immensely satisfying and magical read; the prose is so tight but so vivid, and it’s almost hypnotic in its qualities. Everything that happened felt well-earned, like each puzzle piece finding it’s place.
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson: I read a brief synopsis of this, I believe in the results of a Buzzfeed quiz, and hoo boy did it catch my eye. A witchy story of a cult-like, puritanical society that is part Salem and part Gilead, The Year of the Witching is a dark, atmospheric chiller that’s a perfect cold-and-stormy-autumn-day read, which is exactly when I read it. While the novel feels overly allegorical in parts and there are elements (the romance) that felt unnecessary, it’s an excellent, eerie debut from an author I’m definitely looking forward to reading more work from in the future.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan: This is a polarising book. There’s another Irish author who Dolan is often compared to, and if you hated her books you’ll probably hate this one. But I happen to love her books, and I also loved Exciting Times. Despite the comparisons, Dolan has her own, strong voice. And despite the title, the times in this novel are not particularly exciting, but the ennui and introspection is the point, and the author renders her rudderless protagonist’s non-adventures in a sardonic style that is witty and charming to read.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor: It’s been a ridiculously good year for debut authors, and Brandon Taylor may be the best of the best. Real Life is the exquisitely-crafted study of a character who is a cascade of emotions: vulnerable, angry, lonely, frustrated, weary, intelligent, caring. The prose is beautiful in the way it flows but also sometimes cuts. Taylor draws on his own background to create a protagonist and a story that feels, as the title suggests, incredibly real.
Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey: Natasha Trethewey is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former Poet Laureate, and her poetry background is clear in this heart-wrenching memoir that sings and sobs as it tells the story of a woman and her mother. Trethewey’s stepfather murdered her mother, and decades later, Trethewey uses this work to reclaim her memories of her mother and journey through her grief. It’s incredibly powerful and heartbreaking, and a difficult read, but an absolutely worthwhile one.
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb: Kalb tells the story of four generations of women in her family through her late grandmother to whom she was very close. Beginning with her great-grandmother’s emigration from Belarus to escape Jewish persecution, and following through to Kalb’s own life and the loss of her grandmother a few years ago, it’s all interspersed with love and humour and transcripts of the voicemails and letters her grandmother had sent her over the years. A charming and moving memoir that brings laughter and tears.
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall: In this thoughtful, incisive book, Kendall explains how feminism often excludes women on the fringes because it doesn’t recognise the ways in which things like food insecurity, lack access to education, and low wages inhibit people from being included in feminist issues that are given more prominence. “For a movement that is meant to represent all women,” she writes, “it often centers on those who already have most of their needs met.” Even if you already know a lot about intersectional feminism, you can still learn from this one.
The Rural Diaries by Hilarie Burton Morgan: In a tough year, it’s nice to have some lighter fare on the reading list, and former TRL VJ/teen drama One Tree Hill actor Hilarie Burton Morgan’s memoir about moving to a farm in upstate New York fits the bill perfectly. While it’s not all fluff—she writes candidly and poignantly about loss, sexual harassment, and her experiences with infertility and pregnancy loss—it’s a sweet, charming read about love, friendship, and stepping out of your comfort zone.