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The Best Books of 2020

By Kayleigh Donaldson and Dustin Rowles | Miscellaneous | December 31, 2020 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson and Dustin Rowles | Miscellaneous | December 31, 2020 |


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KAYLEIGH:

For the sake of fairness, I have not included books that I gave full reviews to, but rest assured that titles like Hidden Valley Road, Axiom’s End, and Seven Devils all get my seal of approval. Make sure to share your own choices in the comments below. As if I need any more books to buy. Don’t tell my mum…

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

11-year-old Addie is a young Scottish schoolgirl with autism. She’s feeling somewhat adrift since her oldest sister, who is also on the spectrum, left home to go to university. Overwhelmed with school, a nasty ableist teacher, and a former best friend who ditched her for being ‘weird’, she finds a new cause to fight for. Her hometown was the location of some of the most brutal witch trials in Scotland, and Addie wants to memorialize them. I devoured this middle-grade novel in record time and cried quite heavily while doing so. It’s a startlingly fresh and empathetic story (written by an author with autism) that aches to be read by people of all ages. Seriously, you’ll cry. A lot.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven is one of my all-time favorite books, so of course I was on tenterhooks waiting for the new novel by Emily St. John Mandel. This one has a similar structure, seemingly disparate until it all neatly comes together, tight as an apple skin. The plot has a vaguely apocalyptic note to it, but not to the extent of Station Eleven. Instead, the oncoming catastrophe is the stock market crash and the individuals it envelopes, including a bored trophy wife, her troubled half-brother, and the bankers driving the world to ruin. St. John Mandel’s best books are puzzles that slowly reveal the full picture far beyond the initial expectations of the reader. The Glass Hotel isn’t quite on the level of Station Eleven but when you set the bar for yourself that high, writing a follow-up that is merely excellent is hardly a failing.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Charles Yu won the National Book Award with this fascinating satire about race, pop culture, and how on-screen representation has defined the lives of billions of people. Willis is yet another Generic Asian Man on the set of the painfully trite cop procedural Black and White. His job is mostly to be background dressing for cliched Chinatown scenes, but he hopes to one day become the top role available for an Asian man: The Kung Fu Guy. Wu blends form and function in a stirring manner, showing the limiting and often soul-sucking restraints put upon Asian men and women in real-life and fiction. As hilarious as it is bleak, Interior Chinatown is incredibly inventive, sneaking in scathing condemnations alongside laugh-out-loud jokes. As the book itself says, ‘Working your way up the system doesn’t mean you beat the system. It strengthens it. It’s what the system depends on.’

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

I previously described the work of Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin as the literary version of Salvador Dali’s paintings. That remains true for her latest novel, Little Eyes, but make sure to add a hefty dose of cyberthriller to the equation. Kentuckis are the new craze sweeping the globe. Adorable stuffed animals in appearance, they have cameras for eyes and can be controlled to move around one’s home. The catch: You either buy the kentucki itself or the control, and you have no idea who’s on the other end. Compiled like a series of short stories, Schweblin depicts the various ways that people around the world interact with this new technology, whether it’s through finding simple friendship with a stranger or seeing the unknown through fresh eyes. This so easily could have been yet another diatribe about the overreach of technology in our daily lives but Little Eyes has more pressing concerns about human trust and its value in a context that simultaneously craves and derides it.

Mexican Gothic and Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I was depressingly late to the trend when it came to discovering the work of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, but luckily for me, she released two wonderful books in 2020 that proved her range, style, and distinct approach to familiar genres. Mexican Gothic did exactly what it said on the tin by creating a lush gothic melodrama with heavy notes of Crimson Peak and the sisters Bronte. Untamed Shore is a grimy ’70s thriller set in a small fishing village that also feels like it’s very inspired by Crimson Peak (hey, pick from the best.) Moreno-Garcia has a canny eye for grimy details that build into a multi-layered narrative of suspense. Even though there’s a decent amount of connective tissue between Mexican Gothic and Untamed Shore, it’s striking how different they are in every other way. If you like your books languid yet unnerving and chock full of detail, this is the author for you.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I tend to avoid the most loudly hyped books of any given year, mostly because I’m allergic to that kind of marketing but also because I never feel like such works can live up to those lofty expectations. Well, here’s the exception to my rule. Susanna Clarke made an incredible splash with her debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a doorstop of Regency-era detail and magical battles that sold well, won all the awards, and spawned a solid TV adaptation. Then she disappeared for several years, struggling with both the sophomore slump and her own chronic health issues. Piranesi is a very different book to her debut, not least because it’s about a quarter of that weighty read’s length. Inspired by C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, Piranesi is best experienced with no prior knowledge of its plot or surprises. Clarke’s prose is so elegant and not a word is wasted in this beautiful exploration of solitude and identity. If we must wait another nine years for a third book, it’ll be well worth the wait.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

One of my favorite literary discoveries of 2020 was the work of short story and novella writer P. Djèlí Clark. His award-winning works are a fascinating combination of fantasy, social commentary, and pulpy adventure. He’s releasing his first full-length novel next year, but Before that, you have to check out Ring Shout. Clark taps into a fascinating historical ‘what if’ that’s so genius, you can’t help but wonder why dozens of writers hadn’t tried it before. What if D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was a demonic spell used to incite further hatred in racists across America, all with the intention of creating a force powerful enough to unleash literal Hell on Earth? It’s up to Maryse and a group of fellow bootlegging demon hunters in Georgia to take on the Ku Kluxes. Ring Shout has its obvious Lovecraftian influences as well as some Buffy-esque badass action and a few moments of top-notch body horror, but its real potency lies in its dissection of hate and the unrelenting bombardment of institutional racism. Clark walks such a narrow tightrope and makes it look easy. If you’re a SFF fan and haven’t read his stuff yet, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Reading the title for this book and seeing the kitschy cover gave me the assumption that Grady Hendrix’s novel would be cutesy, maybe even parodic. This is, after all, a new title from Quirk Books, the publisher responsible for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. More fool me, because The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires ended up being one of the real surprises of 2020. Patricia Campbell is a smothered stay-at-home mother whose sole respite from the crushing monotony of her life comes with her book club and a shared love of tawdry true-crime novels with fellow housewives. Her new neighbor is clearly a bad guy but what can one woman do when the world won’t listen to her? What this book does best is capture the overwhelming fear of being gaslit, both by the world at large and those who claim to love you. This is ultimately a story of domestic terror that includes a vampire, although it also touches deftly on issues of gender, race, and gentrification (big honking content warning: the vampire mostly preys on children, particularly Black kids.) The best vampire books use said creatures as metaphors to explore contemporary concerns, and this one did a damn good job with that. Don’t let the novelty title put you off.

Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

While it’s hard for me to make a judgment call on what my absolute favorite book of 2020 is, this one comes pretty close to claiming the title. Argentinian writer Agustina Bazterrica’s novel lingered with me in a major way this year, and not just because its subject matter of state-sanctioned cannibalism proved to be equal parts fascinating and unnerving. After a worldwide pandemic has infected all animal meat and made it inedible, it takes shockingly little time for the planet to reconcile itself to ‘special meat’ and the transition to human processing that turns one of our last societal taboos into the default mode of consumption. The power of Tender is the Flesh comes in its matter-of-fact style combined with its canny awareness of language’s power to deceive. How do you make something so inexcusable mundane? You euphemize it into oblivion. By the end of the book, you feel hopelessly resigned to this new world, but its shock never wears thin. It’s an ugly book, deliberately so, but one that feels horribly prescient.

DUSTIN:

In addition to the books below, I join Kayleigh in praise of two of the books on her list that I also read in 2020, Interior Chinatown and The Glass Hotel. During the height of pandemic anxiety, I also read several nonfiction books about the history of TV sitcoms, which brought me a weird amount of comfort (in addition to the month I only read Tana French novels). I really have to single out The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History by Andy Greene. Similar terrain was covered in Brian Baumgartner’s podcast, but I actually liked Greene’s book better for the same reason that Baumgartner slighted it: It wasn’t an inside job. It was a much better, less fawning journalistic effort. (Not to the same degree, but I also liked Modern Family: The Untold Oral History of One of Television’s Groundbreaking Sitcoms by Andy Greene. I read one about Friends, however, that bored me to tears.)

One more honorable mention, too, for Jeff Hobbs’ compelling Show Them You’re Good: A Portrait of Boys in the City of Angels the Year before College, a non-fiction account of four high-school seniors of different backgrounds (including, interestingly, the son of the co-creator of Modern Family) navigating college entrance and their futures the same year Trump was elected.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid — Published on December 31st, 2019, I’m counting this as a 2020 book, nevertheless. It’s about an affluent suburban blogger, Alix, who asks her African American babysitter, Emira, to take her daughter to a grocery store late one night to distract her while Alix deals with a family emergency. Emira is subsequently accused of kidnapping the child, and the novel tracks the fall-out from that evening for both Alix and Emira. Reid has such a fun, infectious writing voice that it’s easy to forget that Such a Fun Age traffics in heavy themes while assailing performative white progressivism, as the white people in Emira’s life (her boss, her boyfriend) use their proximity to Emira to shield themselves against accusations of racism.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley — Foley’s whodunit is exactly what I needed in the midst of the lockdown. It’s about a wedding set on an isolated island, where everyone is trapped with a bunch of people with whom they have a history. Someone ends up dead, and we have to track the petty jealousies and unknown connections to find the murderer. It’s a very 21st-century Agatha Christie-like suspense novel, and my favorite murder mystery of 2020, making up for the slight disappointment of Mr. Nobody by Catherine Steadman, who wrote my favorite murder mystery in 2019, Something in the Water.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman — Every once in a while, we find those authors whose voices seem to match our own, and while Backman may not be the best novelist today, he is the one with whom identify the most. Anxious People continues to illustrate why, although Anxious People is a slight departure from his novels about lonely people whose lives are upended by events that shake up their routines. Anxious People is set in an open house that becomes the site of a hostage situation after a failed bank robber seeks to hide from authorities inside the apartment. There, eight anxious strangers open up to each other, and none are who they appear to be. That sounds more sinister than it is, because Anxious People — like Backman’s other novels — is another stirring, compassionate, and heartwarming novel about ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

Midnight Library by Matt Haig — Haig’s How to Stop Time has been on my to-read list forever, and I loved Midnight Library so much that I read Time immediately after gorging on Midnight Library. It’s about a depressed woman on the brink of taking her own life who gets an opportunity — via a “Midnight Library” — to see what her life looks like in thousands of alternate universes where she made different decisions. It’s a brilliantly written, immensely enjoyable, life-affirming sci-fi novel.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare — Another powerful, life-affirming novel, Louding Voice is about a 14-year-old Nigerian girl with big dreams despite being trapped in a life of servitude. A determined Adunni, however, uses her “louding voice” to speak up for herself and those around her. While there are a lot of consequences, Adunni refuses to be silenced, and eventually, her efforts find purchase. It’s a novel that is equally heartbreaking and inspiring, a loving and lovely novel about the power of perseverance.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.



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