Open Water is a novel about two people falling in and out of love, and the impact of race and how you’re viewed in society. A man and a woman with a lot in common—both black British artists who got scholarships to predominantly white private schools—meet in south-east London. They become friends and, slowly, lovers, but their story is tied up with wider realities of race, masculinity, and fear, and the vulnerability of being known.
This is a tender and incisive novel, written in a distinctively poetic second person style with unnamed main characters. It is full of pop culture references and geographical touch points that make it feel very real, though the writing also has a kind of sweeping unreality as you follow their love story. Most of all, Open Water feels like the story of softness in a hard world, and the complexity of love when you must exist in the wider world, and the elements all come together to make it feel like you got a lot from such a short novel.
Caleb Azumah Nelson takes a story of a young man and woman falling in and out of love and gives it a philosophical, political, and poetic edge that feels insightful and exciting. It’s a book you can read in one sitting and deserves to be a hyped debut novel (you can imagine the TV adaptation too).
Plain Bad Heroines is a dual narrative gothic novel about a girls school, a curse, and how to tell a horror story, as well as love between women in both the 1900s and the present day. In 1902, Brookhants School for Girls is struck by tragedy, as students Flo and Clara—madly in love and both obsessed with a scandalous memoir of the day—are found dead in the woods after a wasp attack. And then in the present day, Brookhants becomes the set for a film starring a celebrity lesbian actress and a B movie star’s daughter, but the production seems cursed itself.
I had no idea what to expect from this novel, except a vague awareness it had a blurb from Sarah Waters and having read Danforth’s earlier YA book, and as I was reading an ebook, I wasn’t even aware quite how long it was. Plain Bad Heroines opens with a distinctive, opinionated narrator who gives extra comments in the footnotes (the tone quietens down a little as the novel goes on, but not much), moving between the two narratives and the numerous main characters (three in the present day, and a handful in the 1900s) to set up everything. The present day story is deeply linked to the older one, but refreshingly isn’t focused on the characters finding out the secrets of the past; instead, it makes jokes about the popularity of historical lesbian films and looks at the horror tendency to make the actors go through horrific experiences (often in the name of a ‘curse’).
With dual narrative books, it is often the case that you’ll prefer one narrative to the other, and perhaps controversially (seeing as this is marketed as a dated gothic story) I preferred the present day story, following Harper, Audrey, and Merritt as they become the (partly unexpected) focus of the making of an experimental film. Though some of the humour and satire felt a bit forced, it is a classic story of clashing personalities and unnerving happenings combined with some ideas of what is consent on a film set or for celebrity social media. In contrast, the 1900s narrative was more of a feminist gothic tale, blurring the line between curses and jealousy and students gripped by a craze. The two teachers and lovers, Libbie and Alex, have a fully sketched out backstory, but it felt like the narrative could be a bit slow and not really about the girls school after a certain point.
This is two stories combined with a metafictional twist into one book, and whilst it doesn’t always come together, it is bold and fun and does leave you with a lingering sense of buzzing. Instead of just being one book, it seems like many, and though this may leave you wishing you got more of your favourite (I would read another book just watching Harper, Audrey, and Merritt make bad choices), it makes Plain Bad Heroines feel like something a bit different. One not just for fans of gothic horror, and coming with knowing hints of Bret Easton Ellis and some YA elements, this book probably should come with a warning not to read if you’re scared of wasps.
Luster is a novel about a young woman trying to survive in New York City who finds herself entangled with a family after she has an affair with Eric, a white man whose wife has agreed to an open marriage. Edie is twenty-three, works half-heartedly in a publishing office, lives in a run down, infested apartment, and sleeps with the wrong men. After a virtual flirtation with Eric, a middle-aged white archivist, they meet, and go on a series of dates. He’s in an open marriage and his wife has set rules, but Edie finds herself drawn into the family’s world, not only Eric but his wife Rebecca and their adopted black daughter who has no one to help her navigate race.
This book is a gripping, sharp dive into Edie’s life, cleverly providing commentary on the modern world and the realities of being young and black and having no direction in life, but also unfolding a complicated and weird interpersonal situation with ever changing nuances and rules, as Edie ends up in the family’s home. There’s some really fantastic images and lines, like her beating a pregnant woman to a subway seat or her experiences doing gig economy deliveries, and Edie is a vividly imagined character, from whom you get glimpses of backstory but mostly stay in the present. She can be harsh, but also sweet, especially as she attempts to make Eric and Rebecca’s adopted daughter like her by playing video games and engaging with her fandom interests.
Luster is a brilliantly observed, well written novel about being young, about navigating sexual and racial politics, and about finding a place to be, even just for a while.
Mrs Death Misses Death is a transformative, thought-provoking novel that looks at death, storytelling, and what really matters in the world. Mrs Death has spent eternity doing her job, but things have gotten a bit much, and she finds herself sharing her story with Wolf, a young writer in London who has an acquaintance with death but not Mrs Death. Through Wolf, we learn about past deaths and about what Mrs Death thinks makes life worth living.
This is a difficult book to describe, written in different styles and blending prose, poetry, and script at times. The move between short prose chapters and short poems is particularly good, bringing a sense of seeing into Mrs Death’s thoughts through poetry as well as seeing Wolf’s narration in prose. Despite being a novel, there’s also a lot you can take as have non-fiction elements, with reflections on the common depiction of Death as male and on various issues as they come up, and this makes the novel more powerful, as it becomes not only the story of a strange unreal friendship, but a look at good and bad, life and death.
If you enjoy books that blend prose and poetry and that muse on larger issues whilst focuses on two main characters, this one is for you. It is fast-paced, easy to read quickly, and unlike most other novels you’ll read.
Transcendent Kingdom is a novel about a woman tracing her own history and reckoning with the realities of America and being from an immigrant family. Gifty was born in Alabama, after her parents came over from Ghana with her young brother, and grew up with the struggles that torn her family apart until it ended up just her and her mother. Now doing a PhD at Stanford trying to understand the addiction that killed her brother, her mother comes to stay with her, and she starts to look back at her life and that of her family, seeing the trauma that led them there.
This novel combines a deep look at issues affecting modern America, particularly the opioid crisis and mental health, with an interesting exploration of religion, spirituality, and science, as Gifty’s religious upbringing and scientific academic career come together. The impact of personal emotions and even trauma on scientific research really stands out, as she tries to explain her connection to the mice she’s experimenting on in attempts to understand addiction and work out if anything could’ve been done to help her brother.
The narrative is told a lot through flashbacks, with the present day leading back into Gifty’s memories to flesh out what happens to her and her family, and though some people might find this slows down the present story, it works well to get across how reticent Gifty is to share her past with people. This structure also makes some things, particularly her brother’s addiction, have a horrifying inevitability, as you know what is coming as soon as he gets injured playing basketball and is given painkillers.
Transcendent Kingdom feels more like a novel of reflection than one where the protagonist does a lot in the present day narrative, and through this it touches upon a lot of interesting and powerful topics that affect people in America and beyond. It was also refreshing to have a novel where the main character’s scientific research was going well, and the focus was more on what led them to study that area and other things happening in their life. Sharp and engrossing, the book draws you into Gifty’s life and asks a lot of questions about how complicated and entangled different aspects of life can be.
I usually do a ‘spite list’ or something similar, a list of the books I didn’t enjoy in 2020, but considering the year, and the fact I mostly found a lot of books just okay rather than actively bad, I’ve decided to go for something more like a list of general observations (some complaints) about books I read this year. Not really based on what came out this year, just what I happened to read.
Disappointing sequels – I should’ve expected this one, as I started the year reading The Testaments when I’m not a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale. After that, however, I had sequels to books I did enjoy that were a let down, most notably Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light (which I read a lot of on a transatlantic flight and whilst jetlagged, desperately trying to get through it) and Ali Smith’s Summer (I loved Spring most of the quartet so it was a shame, though a friend reread the other three before reading Summer and said it worked better that way, ready for all the references to the others).
Just not that interesting – In-keeping with the general ‘meh’ vibe of a fair few books I read this year, I found that I kept finding books that just didn’t really grip me in any way: not the plot, or the characters, or the writing. There were a good few let down endings, or books that sounded good but turned out to be hard to be bothered to finish.
A return to horror – This is very much just what I decided to read, but from October onwards I made a concerted effort to read more horror, both some old Point Horror books and a few more recent ones from a library app. As a teenager I’d progressed from Goosebumps to Point Horror to Stephen King, but I’d fallen off reading anything in recent years The Point Horror ones in particular were a joy of how enjoyably trash they are, and it’s been nice to get back into horror even if I’m yet to find new stuff that’s really gripped me.
Really needing to read some less recent books – Thanks to the year there’s been a lot of books to review this year, and it’s been great in a lot of ways (I don’t normally get much poetry or drama to review at all, and I did get some this year), but I’ve had a backlog to review for much of the year. That meant I couldn’t catch up on my other ‘to read’ books and in particular couldn’t read much that wasn’t from this year or next year, except the odd library ebook that otherwise would’ve been returned unread.
Not much that was actively ‘bad’ – I mean, a good thing, but I only gave two books 2 stars this year. One was a naff technology book about digital minimalism and the other was a book about a working class Oxford student befriending an old woman that combined an info dump with some slightly dodgy depictions of class that felt like weird stereotypes. Otherwise, most books were decent, if not mind blowing (the main book in the mind blowing category was Boy Parts, not very original, but as I love the cult American Psycho vibe and the trashy yet pretentious art school vibe, it was wonderful).
What will 2021 bring? A load of pandemic novels? Me buying more secondhand Point Horrors and remembering how little 11-year-old me understood American culture? We’ll just have to see.
White Ivy is a complex novel about family, class, and getting what you want, with a flawed protagonist searching for something elusive. Ivy Lin is a Chinese immigrant to came to America aged five and lives with her parents, younger brother, and grandmother in Massachusetts. She can’t match their expectations, but she does dream of winning the heart of her blond, white classmate, Gideon, a boy with a politician family and seemingly charmed life. Her grandmother teaches her to shoplift, and she gets a taste of what she could have. Now an adult, she meets Gideon and his family again, and it seems she can build a privileged life away from her parents, now with a flourishing business, but stepping into that role might not be so easy.
Susie Yang combines a range of elements in this book, from a look at the insecurities of white New England America similar to that found in books like The Goldfinch to a love triangle with unexpected twists. Ivy is a memorable protagonist, whose thievery I expected to be a larger plot point than it is, but whose personality is complicated and her motivations often questionable. This makes her a great character, suited to the slow pace with underlying darkness, with her actions often coming out of nowhere. One of the most compelling features of the book is the Lin family, especially how the reader sees them from Ivy’s point of view, and the subplot about how they don’t know how to deal with Ivy’s brother Austin was surprisingly moving.
A book that looks at immigrant experiences and seeking success in America, White Ivy is gripping and sits well alongside many other American novels of the last twenty years or so that follow a protagonist growing up and looking for success among those richer than themselves.
As ever, I’m balancing out my top books of 2020 with some books I read in 2020 but didn’t come out then. It was a random year for picking what to read and accidentally this lot is half non-fiction and half fiction (and only that if you stretch the definition of ‘fiction’ to include poetry). Not sure what that says – possibly that I’m catching up with recentish non-fiction after not tending to read much of it.
Shoutout to the Heady Mix book subscription I had as a gift for some of the year, as that introduced me to some amazing books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, and for library borrowing apps giving me the chance to borrow books without going out.
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi – Unforgettable YA about fighting all-too-real monsters when adults are in denial.
Flèche by Mary Jean Chan – Poetry about identity, history, and self.
Girl at War by Sara Nović – One from Heady Mix book subscription, that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. The horror of war, as a woman returns to Croatia after years in America, to face what happened to her and her family during the civil war.
Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch – A book about internet language that is particularly enjoyable if you grew up using different internet sites with different linguistic conventions and are interested in thinking about that.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – Another from Heady Mix, this was a breathtaking multi-generational look at Korean life in Japan and I was gripped in spite of the length and the fact I don’t normally enjoy multi-generational novels.
Superior by Angela Saini – Thorough and interesting debunking of race science.
Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher – Hard to know what to say about this classic on the inconstancies and glitches in capitalism.
Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch – A powerful look at race and identity in modern Britain.
I guess here’s where I’m meant to write that it’s been a strange year and all. Anyway, passing over that, here’s my usual list of my favourite books that came out this year. I’ve been quite picky with what I’ve included (and split into fiction, poetry and drama, and non-fiction) as I’ve read a lot of ‘good’ books this year, but I really wanted to highlight the best ones.
Books not published in 2020 are going to come separately, so my top books I’ve read this year are basically split into ‘stuff I’ve reviewed’ (this post) and ‘other things’ (the non-2020 publication lot). Links are to full reviews if you’re interested.
The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers – Biting look at what happens when two brothers with a big age gap both come out.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed – YA mystery through the streets of Paris as teenage Khayyam tries to solve an art history puzzle (with bonus Byron as my real selling point).
Homes and Experiences by Liam Williams – Email epistolary novel satirising gentrification and millennial culture and guilt, with a bittersweet narrative.
Wonderland by Juno Dawson – The final of her three books in a loose trilogy (following Clean and Meat Market), this one is Alice in Wonderland retold as a fall into an elite world of ‘old money’ teenage parties. Dark, thrilling, and hard hitting, it’s my favourite of the three.
Loveless by Alice Oseman – Working out asexuality whilst adjusting to weird university life and realising there’s not ‘one’ experience for everyone – just the sort of book I’m glad teenagers now have.
Poor by Caleb Femi – Witty and cutting poetry and photography about growing up on a Peckham estate and the reality of geography and gentrification with class and race.
The Girl and the Goddess by Nikita Gill – A novel in verse about a girl growing up in India, discovering herself, and interacting with gods and goddesses, whilst considering the power of storytelling.
The Reality Game by Samuel Woolley – Good primer on online disinformation and technology.
Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein – How to think about data science from an intersectional perspective.
So Hormonal from Monstrous Regiment – Collection of essays about how hormones impact people’s lives, full of a vast range of eye-opening experiences.
White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad – A look at how white feminism affects women of colour and how important intersectionality is (technically this first came out in 2019, but I read an edition out in 2020 so I’m saying it counts here).
Detransition, Baby is a witty, cutting, and clever novel about relationships and motherhood, as three characters try to navigate if they’re having a baby. Detransitioned Ames thought he was infertile, until he got his boss, Katrina, pregnant. Not sure about the role he’d take in parenting, he contacts his ex, Reese, with a proposition—to raise the baby with them. Since their breakup a few years ago, Reese has been lonely and sleeping with married men, feeling a like a trans elder with no one to mother, so this could be her chance for what she’s dreamed of: a child.
One of the greatest things about this book for me was the writing, particularly the tone and detail. It can be blunt and brutal in deconstructing characters’ ideas and lives, but also has a real emotional side (there’s even some meta-commentary on this as characters make jokes at a funeral). This is literary fiction about negotiating relationships given a new breath of life, but also self-aware about the people who aspire towards the directions it takes the narrative, such as how middle class cis women might love the idea of something more unconventional without being able to deal with some of the realities of it (giving much more detail might be giving small spoilers, so I’ll refrain). The ebbs and flows of the three main characters’ relationships are fascinating to be drawn into, especially the connection with Katrina and Reese, and how Ames finds it difficult to navigate his own sense of getting someone pregnant amidst the murky waters of gender and trauma.
From even just the title, it’s clear it’s a book that is taking a bold approach to the age old stories of relationships and motherhood, and Peters does a great job of creating the right, wry tone to pull it off. There is something joyful, even through the issues and self-destruction you see in the characters, in the reading experience, and it might be at least in part just the sense of getting the kind of complicated break up literary novel but with biting trans comedy thrown in. It is refreshing and I hope for more contemporary literary fiction that can bring quite such a combination of spot-on references and commentary, cutting jokes, and emotional reckoning.