My favourite books of 2020

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.
  • The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeki Emezi – An entrancing novel about whether parents really know their child.
  • Boy Parts by Eliza Clark – Perhaps very predictable of me to love this, an artsy Northern female take on the aesthetic antihero, but it was thrilling, very dark, and brilliant.

Poetry and Drama

  • Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt – Lyric poems combining nature and modern, like moving from a walk to a Berlin club and back again, and beautifully describing tiny moments.
  • My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long – Short, storytelling poetry with vivid images and messages.
  • Underground, Monroe, & The Mamalogues by Lisa B. Thompson – Three very different plays looking at the black middle class and elements of race, gender, and respectability.
  • 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.

Non Fiction

  • 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).

Poor by Caleb Femi

Poor is a collection of poetry and photography exploring a Peckham estate and what it is like to grow up as Black boy surrounded by concrete. It is a powerful, fast-paced collection split into sections and broken up with photographs taken by Femi to illustrate the estate and the people found throughout the poems.

So many of the poems have really memorable lines and turns of phrase, witty and cutting deep to the truth of reality on topics like class, race, and gentrification. The ongoing theme of the impact of concrete and the design of estates is really interesting, whether in found poetry or through a clever look at the make up of concrete. 

Reading Poor, you get a real sense of the importance of the world you grow up in, the good, the bad, and the mythologising. It is a brilliantly written collection that feels immediate and emotional and explores how where you live can live and breathe too.

The Girl and the Goddess by Nikita Gill

The Girl and the Goddess is a novel in (mostly) verse that tells the story of a girl growing up in India, discovering herself, and finding support from gods and goddesses. It tells the story of Paro, a girl who is born in Kashmir, moves with her parents to Delhi, learns how being female changes things when her brother is born, and looks for friends and love as a teenager and into adulthood. Along the way, stories and Hindu mythology teach her how to deal with the light and darkness in her life: trauma, sexuality, and the legacy of colonial rule. 

Gill combines poetry, prose, and illustrations to tell Paro’s story, and the result is a book that is compulsive and readable, bringing different fragments of Paro’s life and also interweaving the stories that inspire and comfort her, as gods and goddesses appear to her. It has a great cast of characters and the format gives you real insight into Paro’s thoughts, particularly by having poems that are ‘written’ by Paro and thinking about what we create and when writing about something isn’t easy. The pieces covering her working out her bisexuality and then telling stories from Hindu mythology that show that sexuality and gender aren’t as rigid as might seem are particularly powerful, but the whole book is emotional and compelling.

There’s a lot of great novels in verse coming out at the moment, and The Girl and the Goddess  shows how the form can be used to think about storytelling and mythology whilst also telling a hard hitting coming-of-age tale. I read it as an ebook which worked well, but I imagine the hard copy looks particularly good with the illustrations. I’d heard of Nikita Gill but not read any of her writing before, and from this I’ll definitely be reading more.

My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long

My Darling from the Lions is a debut collection of poetry full of short, storytelling poems that are vivid and clever. Split into three sections, the topics range from family to race, sexual politics to growing up, and a range of other moments, with some hilariously sharp lines and insightful ways of phrasing things that’ll make you think ‘oh yeah, that’s it’. Some of the imagery and comments from the poems will stay with me for a while, particularly ‘Sandwiches’ and ‘Interview with B. Tape II’.

The poems are approachable and readable, making this a great collection to read and share, and they create a real sense of person and life even within very short poems. Powerful messages are combined with witty storytelling to bring a really enjoyable collection of poetry.

Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

Tongues of Fire a collection of poetry that focuses on viewing life through nature, on physicality and reality but also the sacred and untouchable, and on grief, loss, and illness. The poems are mostly short lyric poems, weaving together ideas of nature, belief, and personal connection. What is particularly vivid as you read the collection is the ways in which the natural world is returned to, and offers an escape from the world, and how the poems show this through moments and details of plants and settings as ways of encapsulating feelings, from sex and desire to sadness and grief. This felt particularly notable in poems like ‘Adoration’, which moves from a nature walk to a Berlin club and back again, and it really gives a sense of how the personal can also be part of something much larger about life and earth.

These poems feel like an escape into the tiny details of outside, a kind of mechanism of looking for the natural and the meaning when things seem random or difficult. This was a great collection to sit down with and become immersed in the senses and physicality, but also the emotions of the poems.

The Martian’s Regress by J.O. Morgan

The Martian’s Regress is a book of poetry about a single Martian who returns to Earth, focusing on origin stories, future, and the environment. It is split into separate short poems, but it is also a single work exploring the martian’s present life and the previous history of his people. This is poetry that tells stories and reflects on the stories told by others, and on how you keep going when alone. The martian’s exploration of the now broken and empty Earth is a highlight, as various poems/sections consider the reality of the emptiness.

There are obvious modern themes, from the environmentalism and look at the future of the planet, to the currently weirdly relevant look at being isolated, and the collection has an eerie sense at times, as if you’re also with the Martian. At the same time, it can be light hearted, and also shows how poetry and science fiction can come together in interesting ways to create certain atmospheres. It is a book to read all at once, rather than taking in separate poems, to fully immerse in the story and setting.

Poetry and me: a love/hate story

Lots of people love poetry. Lots of people hate poetry. It’s something you’re forced to read (and often try and write) at school and something that might not seem to come up often after that, except in greetings cards. Poetry is great, but it is also about finding the poems that work for you. Whilst it can be argued that almost anything with words can be poetry (as my undergrad English class tried to do with the category ‘literature’ when made to investigate the term), even the writing more typically termed ‘poetry’ can vary a lot and, though it can be off-putting for many reasons, there’s a lot of different poems out there to try.

I used to think I couldn’t ‘do’ poetry. In secondary school, we studied poems and sometimes they made sense, sometimes they didn’t. People were often too busy chatting or messing around for real discussion of the poems, so it could be difficult to be taught how to approach them, and they weren’t always ones that might interested thirteen year olds.

At GCSE (aged 15-16) there was quite a lot of poetry to look at, all housed in a handy anthology that someone had ill-advisedly decorated with black and white pictures that we used to colour in instead of reading the poems. We went through some of them in more depth and there were definitely some I connected with (thanks Simon Armitage for writing a poem—‘Kid’—about Batman and Robin that I read post-The Dark Knight and therefore thought was great). However, these were short and usually quite simple to pick techniques out of. The older poetry was usually awkwardly thrown at us so nobody really understood the point of say, Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’, other than having written ‘dramatic monologue’ at the top of the page at the teacher’s insistence.

By A level (aged 17-18), the English Lit class was much smaller, and there was more time to look at poetry. We did Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife and mostly it introduced me to the stories and myths she was retelling rather than give any poetic insight. We did the metaphysical poets and they were okay, but still, a headache. Too many conceits, really. By that point, maybe the teachers assumed we knew how to read metre, or there just wasn’t time to spend more than the time it took to remind us Shakespeare mostly wrote in iambic pentameter. I remember once being told about iambs and dactyls and mostly thinking it sounded like the dinosaurs I loved when I was five.

I did find, though not through school, the next poem that was ‘mine’, one that I loved the sound and meaning of and would attempt to analyse because somehow it felt like it made sense. This was ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot, quite an obvious choice, but at the time it felt like a revelation. All the line breaks and separate sentences were chunks I could follow and the huge ambiguity of the poem appealed to teenage me. I printed it off the internet and reread it a lot.

When I got to university to study English, though, I still felt poetry was something I just didn’t understand. It was too hard and nobody had showed me how to read it properly. Faced with a lot of poetry, I tried, I tried hard, but sometimes it was the week we did Gerard Manley Hopkins in our Victorians paper and I had to try and write an essay about political stuff in his work because I didn’t understand it enough to write about the poetic techniques he was using. At times it felt like it must have been going to a state school that had done it, that I’d not been taught how to ‘get’ poetry and was now paying by desperately clawing my way through tutorials about scansion in Victorian poetry.

Luckily, the Victorians didn’t last forever. In second year I discovered Elizabethan narrative poetry and Milton that wasn’t the hell bits of Paradise Lost and then, after the headache of Middle English,  we got to the Romantics and I picked up Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ and loved it and discovered Keats is worth his reputation. By finding poems that made my brain go ‘this is incredible’, I could believe I could read and understand them, and discuss them in essays and tutorials without everything being a hesitant guess.

Of course, it might not be the Romantics or Milton who help you realise some poetry is for you. It could be twentieth first century stuff with modern references, or poems that relate to your own identity and experiences, or lines that are spoken or sung not read. There’s a lot of options. And poetry might seem pretentious or irrelevant, but when you find the lines that speak to you, that make you go ‘oh, yes, that’s how to describe that’, it helps make poetry seem worthwhile. And after all my insistence I can’t do poetry, I now love reading it, write it with varying degrees of success, and have had a poem published (admittedly one about swearing). Poetry isn’t for everyone, but give it a chance.

Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward

Poetry that strikes: Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward

Bone is a striking and moving collection of poetry that focuses on growing up, love, sexuality, being different, and working through inner thoughts and feelings in stark ways. Daley-Ward’s poems vary from telling vivid stories in a tiny space (‘the not quite love’) and addressing concerns like growing up religious in a concise, direct way (‘liking things’) to longer, heartbreaking stories like ‘some kind of man’. There are poems that will strike a chord with teenagers and adults about love not being with the right people (‘emergency warning’, ‘I’ll admit it, I’m drawn to the wolves’) and poems that can offer advice, optimism, and blunt suggestions of regret (‘things it can take twenty years and a bad liver to find out’, ‘mental health’).

Her writing is distinctive and offers stark stories and emotion. Many of the poems in the book have particular endings, a couple of lines or so that hit you right in the chest. A number of pieces near the end also consider the act of writing poetry and where creation and truth come from, highlighting storytelling and using words to work through difficult things. It is hard to talk about Bone without wanting to go through and point out the best lines in everything; it is a collection of poetry to savour in its blunt emotion and careful expression.