Our top ten favourite reads in 2020
Pandemics are great for catching up on your reading
B&C is thrilled to welcome Georgia from @avirtualbookshelf as our first contributor to the blog! Georgia is a book lover, avid reader, insightful reviewer and all around fantastic person who agreed to do this despite probably having many better offers. If you enjoy the below and are looking for more recommendations, check out her fab Insta account (linked above).
In between adapting to working from home, working out from home, Houseparty calls, far too many online pub quizzes, planning when and how to get your next booze fix, and moaning about what a long and hard year it’s been, I think it’s fair to say that one of the greatest privileges of a bizarre, Covid-marred year has been the welcome distraction of a good book. And in that department we have been exceedingly blessed.
So with that in mind, here’s a list nobody asked for of ten fiction books that have topped bestseller lists and been pervasive across social media throughout the year!
1. Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens
Have you even lived through the global pandemic if you haven’t read Crawdads? Put simply, you could not scroll through any social media platforms in 2020 without coming across the pink/orange seaside landscape of this novel’s front cover – a tranquil scene that disguises Delia Owens’ complex, ultra-absorbing plot:
An isolated girl abandoned by her family living in a swampland in North Carolina (where she is most content in the company of her friends – the birds and the insects), her tentative interactions with the outside world, a first love, a suspicious murder of a posh boy from town and then, a trial that is about as tense and surprising as you could imagine. 10/10 would recommend.
2. Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid
Arguably my favourite read of the year, and one that really made me think. When Emira Tucker, a young black woman, is accused of kidnapping the white child she is babysitting at an upmarket grocery store in Philadelphia, her employer, Alix Chamberlain (a 33-year-old mother/influencer/feminist) is inspired to “wake the fuck up” and “befriend” Emira, though the lengths she goes to in her pursuit of this friendship is obsessive and ultimately, deeply problematic. Kiley Reid’s voice is fresh, exciting and authentic and she explores serious, relevant issues with wit, and a dual sense of empathy and humour. Quite simply, a must read.
3. Normal People – Sally Rooney
No surprise that we’ve included this title following Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal’s outstanding performances in the BBC and Hulu’s adaptation of this novel, which was released to a hungry, romance-deprived audience mid-pandemic. In a story that spans the protagonists’ adolescence and early adulthood, Sally Rooney elegantly explores the excitement, confusion, intimacy and brutality of first love. The evolving relationship dynamic between Marianne (a rather abrasive, anxious, intelligent girl with a low self-esteem) and Connell (a more popular, supposedly self-assured footballer who battles with his mental health during his university years) generates the central tension of the novel, and it is all at once heartbreaking, unnerving and comforting. A reviewer featured in The Guardian described this novel as “a future classic”, and I couldn’t agree more.
4. Girl, Woman Other – Benardine Evaristo
It’s not often that an author can compile 12 separate stories of individual characters in a way that is interesting, enticing and memorable, and yet, Bernardine Evaristo has pulled off exactly that, brilliantly. In this novel, the author weaves a subtle string between 12 chapters, each one about a unique character with a story. The characters are mostly black women living in Britain, navigating their very different, but interconnected worlds. They have some things in common, all but one are women of colour, all but one identify as so, and most of them are related to one or two other characters, divided by generations. In lieu of an overriding plot, each character has a life story I would choose to read an entire book about, and a more vibrant, thought-provoking and authentic tribute to black womanhood in contemporary Britain would be difficult to imagine. This novel should be compulsory reading.
5. Three Women – Lisa Taddeo
I challenge you to identify a book that was more highly anticipated than Three Women – wow. It generated huge hype, and I understand why. Author Lisa Taddeo travelled across America six times in search of women with remarkable stories, three of which she tells in this book. She spent eight years immersing herself into Maggie, Lina and Sloane’s lives, moving to their towns to experience their lived reality firsthand. The result is a detailed exploration of sex and desire, and the accompanying shame that taints these three women’s internal worlds. We are introduced to Lina, a wife and mother who leaves a loveless marriage, finding release in a purely physical relationship with an ex-boyfriend; Sloane, a restaurant owner whose sex life with her husband frequently involves third parties; and Maggie, a 23-year-old woman dealing with the traumatic aftermath of a relationship she had with her high school teacher. Three women is a real rollercoaster ride of a novel that explores sex and lust and love in a fresh, compelling way.
6. The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett
Debuting at number one on the New York Times Bestseller list, this novel was set to triumph. Brit Bennett tells the multi-generational tale of identical twins Desiree and Stella, light-skinned black sisters raised in Louisiana who flee to New Orleans after watching their father’s lynching. Separated at age 16, they are reunited once again decades later, when Desiree’s young daughter in Los Angeles recognises a woman she believes is her mother’s doppelganger, who has been “passing” as white. An adept, compassionate exploration of identity and close relationships.
7. The Testaments – Margaret Atwood
Following the immense success of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood blessed readers with a sequel to her iconic novel (and scooped up the Booker Prize in the process). Alternating between the perspectives of three central characters: Lydia, a former judge-turned-“Aunt” in Gilead; Agnes, a commander’s daughter whose struggles in the wake of her mother’s death; and Daisy, the daughter of a Canadian family that play a central role in the resistance movement, smuggling women out of Gilead, Atwood expands upon her narrative on the oppressive, twisted world of Gilead. This time however, she emphasises hope as the underlying premise of the novel, and the result is a dynamic, powerful follow up that will not disappoint fans.
8. Daisy Jones & the Six – Tayor Jenkins Reid
I am already counting down the months until Reese Witherspoon’s adaptation of this book is released! Taylor Jenkins Reid presents the reader with an oral history compilation of a fictional band (apparently loosely based on Fleetwood Mac) that rose to fame in the 70s and separated abruptly and mysteriously while on a highly successful world tour in 1978. As the threads of each character’s versions of events are aligned and intertwined, an enticing, fast-paced love story unfolds. This is one of the most exciting novels I read this year (I practically inhaled it). If, like me, you’re a sucker for a historical account, and enjoy honing in on situations through a multifocal lens, I urge you to buy/borrow (steal if you must) Daisy Jones and the Six.
9. An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
Here’s a fantastic, devastating book; one that made me think about how much of life is about circumstance and timing, and how, somewhat naively, we develop our hopes and aspirations so rigidly in spite of it. In this novel, Tayari Jones tells the story of Roy and Celestial, a young, talented African-American couple starting their life together when Roy is accused and imprisoned for a heinous crime he did not commit. Although Celestial knows that he has been wrongfully convicted, she finds herself drifting, unable to hold on to the love she had for Roy as the years go by, and as her relationship with Andre, her childhood best friend, deepens and evolves into a romance. This novel deals with the aftermath and the impact of major, life-changing miscarriage of justice, and it makes for a thought-provoking and moving read. (Also, you can’t really go wrong reading a recipient of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, praised by both Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, right?)
10. American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins
When Lydia Quixano Perez’s husband Sebastián publishes an expose on one of the leading members of a Mexican drug cartel, Lydia’s worst fears come to light, and she has no choice but to flee with her son Luca to America, where a distant cousin in Colorado offers some prospect of safety. What follows is an action-packed account of their treacherous and terrifying journey. In the words of Oprah Winfrey, “Jeanine Cummins accomplished a remarkable feat, literally putting us in the shoes of migrants and making us feel their anguish and desperation to live in freedom.”
What a year it’s been folks. The only major light at the end of the 2020 tunnel is that there will be more amazing literature next year, and the year after that, and the year after that – and you know what? If that’s the case, roll on 2021.
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