31 December 2020

My Top 5 Books of 2020

This is the last of my 2020 round-up posts, and highlights my favourite five books that I've read this year. My reading habits changed as much as my travel habits this year, and I've read far fewer books than last year: 94, in total. I used to read for pleasure mainly on my bus ride into the office and when travelling. I've technically had more time this year, but I've tended to use it for other hobbies, like writing (my own novel is now technically finished after I wrote the final 30,000 words this year) and doom-scrolling. I also got stuck on Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light for several weeks, which I did enjoy but felt it should have been 200 pages shorter. Il Decameron is a pretty hefty read too, even in English, rather than the Italian original I studied at university, but its Black Death setting and black humour felt apt for this year. 

Spotted in Rye, Sussex

I've also tried read books from a more diverse range of authors, and in particular to read more works by Black authors. As I read a lot of crime novels, I'm grateful to a colleague who pointed me in the direction of the Crime Writers of Color website, as well as to Sisters in Crime, which promotes women crime writers. 

Before I jump into my top five, I'd like to point UK readers to a website called Bookshop.org, which allows you to support independent bookshops with your purchase — particularly important during these tiered times in which bookshops may not be open.

1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Of all of the novels I read this year, Brit Bennett's is the one that has stayed with me the most. The Vanishing Half tells the story of light-skinned Black teenage twin sisters growing up in 1950s Louisiana, one of whom runs away and 'passes' as white, marrying a white man and having a blonde, blue-eyed daughter. Set across the United States, from the South to the Midwest, and California to Manhattan, Bennett's novel is powerfully told and with convincing characters whose agonising choices resonate down the generations. [You can read my longer review here.]

2. The Burning by Jane Casey
Earlier this year, I highlighted some of my favourite detective novel series, and Jane Casey's Maeve Kerrigan books were a welcome new discovery at a time when I'd finished all of my existing favourite series. The Burning is the first in the series, and features a victim with the same name and job as me, who lived very close to where I live, so how could I not be intrigued? Joking aside, the plotting and character development are both very good, and I love how the various neighbourhoods of London in which the novels are set really shine through.

3. Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith
A haunting but beautiful love story, Whiskey & Ribbons is another book that really stayed with me. It tells the story of a former ballerina living with her brother-in-law and young son, which is interwoven with the stories of her brother-in-law and her husband, a police officer who was murdered in the line of duty. Leesa Cross-Smith's prose has a wonderful rhythm to it, and the novel is cleverly and thoughtfully constructed, with great care place on every last word and sentence. [A longer review is here.]

4. The Ruins by Mat Osman
Music also features prominently in the debut novel of Mat Osman, who happens to be the bassist of one of my favourite bands, Suede. Set in London in 2010, The Ruins sees the introspective Adam Kussgarten trying to get to the bottom of the unexplained death of his estranged twin brother Brandon (yes, twins again), the lead singer — and enfant terrible — of a once popular rock band. Set in 2010 in a version of London that is at once familiar and somehow not quite right, Osman's novel is mysterious, darkly comic, and with witty dialogue and, as you might expect, shrewd observations about the music industry and its interconnected underworlds. [A longer review is here.]

5. Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Continuing in the theme of the uncanny, Anna Wiener's memoir describes her years working in various Silicon Valley start-ups. It's a cautionary tale that pulls back the gloss, the hubris, the endless snack bars and the incredible share options, and reveals the hollowness and eeriness of the industry underneath. Wiener, an arts graduate, starts her career in publishing and is tempted first by a book-related startup, before moving into customer support roles at other tech companies, providing a much-needed human touch to an industry whose humanity is often questioned. The journey is not pretty, but Wiener's insider story is extremely compelling. I enjoyed it for the same reasons I love David Fincher's The Social Network: it reminds me that no, that definitely wasn't a route I wanted to take in my own career.

I also really enjoyed the following five books, which didn't quite make my shortlist but which I highly recommend:

The full list of books I read this year is as follows (repeat reads are marked in italics):
  • The Second Sleep — Robert Harris
  • Friends: A Reading of the Sitcom — Simone Knox and Kai Hanno Schwind
  • Where the Crawdads Sing — Delia Owens
  • You Are Not Alone — Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
  • The Nanny — Gilly Macmillan
  • I Know You Know — Gilly Macmillan
  • The Faithful Place — Tana French
  • All the Rage — Cara Hunter
  • Someone Is Lying — Jenny Blackhurst
  • The Other Wife — Claire McGowan
  • The Pact — Amy Heydenrych
  • The Killer Inside — Cass Green
  • The Dilemma — B.A. Paris
  • Through the Walls — Caroline Corcoran
  • Haven't They Grown — Sophie Hannah
  • Uncanny Valley — Anna Wiener
  • The Night She Died — Jenny Bathurst
  • Three Hours — Rosamund Lupton
  • Bunny — Mona Awad
  • Long Bright River — Liz Moore
  • The Guest List — Lucy Foley
  • The Better Liar —  Tanen Jones
  • Il Decameron — Giovanni Boccaccio
  • The Holdout — Graham Moore
  • Wife After Wife — Olivia Hayfield
  • Before We Were Yours — Lisa Wingate
  • Saint X — Alexis Schaitkin
  • Broken Harbour — Tana French 
  • The Lantern Men — Elly Griffiths
  • Like Mother, Like Daughter — Elle Croft
  • Doomsday Book — Connie Willis
  • The Burning — Jane Casey
  • Coal Black Mornings — Brett Anderson
  • The Reckoning — Jane Casey
  • The Last Girl — Jane Casey
  • The Stranger You Know — Jane Casey
  • Love and Poison — David Barnett
  • The Kill — Jane Casey
  • After the Fire — Jane Casey
  • Let the Dead Speak — Jane Casey
  • Cruel Acts — Jane Casey
  • The Cutting Place — Jane Casey
  • Magpie Lane — Lucy Atkins
  • The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read — Philippa Perry
  • Exciting Times — Naoise Dolan
  • The Ruins — Mat Osman
  • Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn — Brett Anderson
  • Little Disasters — Sarah Vaughan
  • White Fragility — Robin DiAngelo
  • Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race — Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • Whiskey and Ribbons — Leesa Cross-Smith
  • The Unquiet Dead — Ausma Zehanat Khan
  • Silver Sparrow — Tayari Jones
  • Grace Is Gone — Emily Elgar
  • Rodham — Curtis Sittenfeld
  • The Stolen Girls — Patricia Gibney
  • His and Hers — Alice Feeney
  • The Silent Wife — Karin Slaughter
  • The Flight — Julie Clark
  • The Curator — M.W. Craven
  • Such a Fun Age — Kiley Reid
  • Perfect Remains — Helen Fields
  • Across the Water — Ingrid Alexandra
  • A Window Breaks — C.M. Ewan
  • The Vanishing Half — Brit Bennett
  • The Other Mrs — Mary Kubica
  • Skin Deep — Sung J. Woo
  • The Roommates — Rachael Sargeant
  • The House on Fripp Island — Rebecca Kauffman
  • The Bluest Eye — Toni Morrison
  •  The Searcher — Tana French
  • How To Be an Antiracist — Kendi X. Ibram
  • Black Dog — Stephen Booth
  • Forty Acres — Dwayne Alexander Smith
  • Troubled Blood — Robert Galbraith
  • When No One Is Watching — Alyssa Cole
  • Dancing with Virgins — Stephen Booth
  • The Book of Two Ways — Jodi Picoult
  • One by One — Ruth Ware
  • Leave the World Behind — Rumaan Alam
  • Ghosts — Dolly Alderton
  • Based on a True Story — Delphine de Vigan
  • The Mirror and the Light — Hilary Mantel
  • Perfect Prey — Helen Fields
  • To Tell You the Truth — Gilly Macmillan
  • Keep Him Close — Emily Koch
  • A Double Life — Charlotte Philby
  • Before the Coffee Gets Cold — Toshikazu Kawaguchi
  • The Search Party — Simon Lelit
  • Little Threats — Emily Schultz
  • House of Correction — Nicci French
  • Hidden in Plain Sight — Jeffrey Archer
  • She Lies in Wait — Gytha Lodge
  • Black Water Rising — Attica Locke

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