Fave non-2020 books of 2020

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.

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.

Fiction

  • 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).

My favourite non-2019 books I read in 2019

It always feels unfair to only document my favourite books I read during a year that came out that year, so I’m also listing my favourite catchily-named-non-that-year books, as I did last year and the year before. This year my comments on each may have become a little more facetious, as the actual books got more heavy-going.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor – The version I read was technically published this year, but seeing as it was published before it’s going here. This is Ovid for the modern day: a 90s LGBT culture shapeshifter story with a picaresque vibe.

The Arsonists by Max Frisch – Thanks to watching Philosophy Tube this year, I discovered not only works of philosophy, but also some more-modern-than-my-early-modern-degree plays, and this one had me sat up reading it in one go. In short, don’t play with fire.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – I live-tweeted my response to reading the book I had never read due to irrational dislike until the BBC adaptation tempted me to give it a go. On here because it was actually an enjoyable, if occasionally digressive, experience.

No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre – I said I’d got into 20th century plays (that aren’t just Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus – Yes, really. Was it not a year for the absurd?

To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov – I keep recommending this or bringing up concepts from it to everyone so it has to go on here. Why finding tech solutions to everything isn’t always the answer.

Hello World by Hannah Fry – My year really was all existentialism or technology. Fry’s account of how algorithms shape our world and what we can do about it is engaging and deeply interesting. Plus it helped me shape some of the articles in our online Digital Wellbeing course.

Radical Technologies by Adam Greenfield – Another one, I know. Each chapter is about a different technology and how it has or might change our world, and it is surprisingly possible to even understand the chapters on blockchain and cryptocurrency (mostly).

My favourite books of 2019

That time again: for reading through lists of books and thinking ‘oh yeah, I did mean to read that this year’. My list seems shorter this year, possibly because I read a lot of decent books that came out this year, but not that many which count as favourites (and you can see the Spite List for the other end of the scale). My favourite books that came out in 2019, in order of when I read them (links to full reviews where written):

Fiction

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – Another female retelling of the Trojan War, but this time epic in scope and style.

Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy – Eerie heatwave coming of age gothic set in 70s Wales.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn – Set between Jamaica and America, this novel tells the story of Patsy and her daughter Tru and their struggles with identity, sexuality, and finding a home.

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson – Winterson’s retelling of Frankenstein to feature AI, gender, and what is life and death – not always nuanced, but interesting.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong – Lyrical prose about telling your story in Vuong’s debut novel, about trauma, addiction, and growing up.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – Two rival agents fall in love across the battlegrounds of time in this short novel that seems to have made a lot of people fall in love with it and its two female protagonists, ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’.

Meat Market by Juno Dawson – If you’ve read her previous novel Clean, you won’t be surprised that this is a sharp, sometimes shocking look at the fashion industry, abuse, and teenage models, aimed at but not only for a YA audience.

Birthday by Meredith Russo – Part of this made me cry on a plane, but it’s okay because it has a happy ending – a YA novel about Morgan and Eric, best friends whose love story is told through their shared birthday each year.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – A tense novel about a reform school’s corruption and abuse, combining the history of a real institution with a well-plotted narrative.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston – What would happen if the son of a female US president realises his rivalry with the Prince of Wales might not be about dislike after all? Everyone raved about this feelgood read and eventually I overcame the monarchy aspect to agree that it is very sweet and funny.

Nonfiction

Underland by Robert Macfarlane – My real surprise of the year was enjoying this account of subterranean travel and thought as much as I did.

The Creativity Code by Marcus du Santoy – What AI can (and can’t) do with creativity, but written in a way that is pretty accessible.

No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference by Greta Thunberg – Must be on so many lists, but it really is powerful and short enough to just give to everyone to read.

Mindf*ck by Christopher Wylie – The story of Cambridge Analytica, from the inside. Brings it all together in a terrifying way (I should add that’s the actual title, I didn’t censor it).

My 2018 in reading: the awards

I’ve done my top books that came out in 2018, and my top books I happened to read in 2018, but what about some more specific and dubious honours? I didn’t really have a good enough selection for a simple spite list this year (though if anyone’s interested, I can share my least favourite reads of 2018), but have gone for a few random categories and some anecdotal justification.

The ‘finally read it this year’ – tie between Don Quixote and The Odyssey

Apparently 2018 was the year I sat down with some famous journeys. Homer was the greater omission, having read and studied The Iliad in translation at undergrad, and it was thanks to the Emily Wilson translation that I finally got around to it. Don Quixote was more impulsive, but I do now understand references to Don Quixote (and I managed to spill quite a lot of Vimto on my copy of it). A bonus mention to both Metamorphosis and The Trial, as I finally read some Kafka this year, motivated by going to Prague, though it felt less of an achievement.

The ‘oh hurry up and finish’ – Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin

Summed up above, really. I thought Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, which I read not long before this, was slow (it really does take a long time to get to Udolpho), but Maturin does impressively well at making a narrative within a narrative within a narrative that just takes forever. Not an experience I enjoyed (Sarah Perry’s rewrite is worth a read, though).

The ‘thank god the sequel was worth waiting for’ – The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The first book, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, may be my ideal fun read: a YA historical romp across Europe by a bisexual eighteenth century young aristocrat, taking liberties with the bounds of possibility and throwing in a lot of adventure tropes like pirates and highway robbery. The sequel, focused on his sister intent on becoming a doctor, was worth the wait, a novel which kept the fun, adventure, and travel, but wove in more issues around gender and race in the period. Bonus mention to the novella that was a preorder bonus with the sequel, because it was joyous and proves how wonderful Lee’s characters are that you just want to keep reading more of them, their flaws and their triumphs.

The ‘gamble on the sequel of a book I didn’t enjoy’ – Kill ‘Em All by John Niven

I really don’t like Kill Your Friends. I found it boring, trying to be the British American Psycho or similar without really saying or doing anything interesting. I liked another Niven novel slightly more, so thought I’d gamble on this sequel to Kill Your Friends, set in the modern, post-truth world. I found it clever, darker, and more satirical than the first book, no longer just about excess and murder, but about how you can frame excess and murder in new ways.

The ‘knew it wasn’t for me, was vindicated when I was right’ – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Despite its prize winning, the plot of Lincoln in the Bardo never appealed, and that was before I knew what the structure was. A colleague leant it to me because she didn’t like it (always a great way to come to a novel) and despite odd flashes when I was engaged with what was going on, I mostly just didn’t care.

The ‘YA that made me wish I actually could read it as a young adult’ – Clean by Juno Dawson

This is quite a tough category because there’s some great YA I read now that would’ve been great to read as a young teenager (at which point I mostly read Point Horror and books about teenage spies). However, Clean wins for 2018 because it is an honestly brilliant balance between suitably hard-hitting and grown up in its topics (kinds of addiction predominantly) and full of teenage drama amongst mostly rich, messed up young people. It would’ve been the kind of book that felt exciting to read, but was also bringing new perspectives.

The ‘how was it so actually bad when it could’ve been trash enjoyable’ – The Vampyre by Tom Holland

I know, it’s shocking that I didn’t enjoy the novel with the premise of Byron’s life, but he was actually a vampire. However, it was just…not fun. Too long, too slow, didn’t actually do much justice to any character except Percy Bysshe Shelley who was suitably busy talking about revolution. Better to just read Fiona MacCarthy’s Byron biography and then use your imagination.

The ‘most called out by its satire’ – Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

Are the categories getting more facetious? Possibly. Anyway, Burton’s focus on hipster bars and stupidly specific tea blends felt very much an attack on some of my more hipster habits (I drink a lot of a flavoured tea and do enjoy themed cocktails in themed bars). Though thankfully I don’t use Instagram even vaguely as much as her protagonists.

[Side note: If you fancy seeing everything I read this year (not quite sure why you would), take a look at my Goodreads reading challenge for 2018.]

My favourite non-2018 books I read in 2018

It’s hard to do end of year ‘best of’ lists without making arbitrary divisions, so I did my top books that came out in 2018 already, and now it’s time for those I read in 2018 but that came out earlier (how much earlier does vary). Again, didn’t restrict numbers, so have ended up with a top seven.

  • Letters Written During A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft – Wollstonecraft’s account of travelling with an infant daughter on the business of a man who was ultimately to desert her, and which famously made her later husband William Godwin say “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” It covers varied topics including mocking tourists and lamenting her own mental state, as well as reflections on the self and nature.
  • Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu – A gripping and at times heart-wrenching novel about Lucky and her husband Krishna, who are both gay but married to appease their Sri Lankan-American families. A look at families, truth, and what happens when an illusion needs to be shattered.
  • If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Sappho, trans. Anne Carson – One of the perks of working in a university was that I could take this out of the library just for fun. There’s not much to say about it: it’s the fragements of Sappho’s poetry, translated by Anne Carson in a punchy, Anne Carson way.
  • A Gothic Soul by Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic – The first of two Czech books on this list (can you tell I went to Prague this year?), A Gothic Soul is a Czech Decadent book that is lyrical, almost without plot, and about a nihilistic protagonist seeing his situation reflected in Prague, which he calls a dead city. Even in translation, the atmosphere comes through incredibly well (and there’s a great little edition of the English translation, which is also true of the following book).
  • May by Karel Hynek Mácha (in translation) – I have on good authority Mácha is the Czech Romantic poet, with his dramatic life cut short, epic poetry, and liking for Byron. May (Máj in Czech) is a four canto long narrative poem with an opening that Czech schoolchildren learn to recite and it is very much worth a read for its description and Byronic narrative.
  • S.T.A.G.S by M.A. Bennett – I had to have something from my favourite genre, privileged group at a university/school/similar do terrible things, on this list. This is a refreshing YA version, in which a scholarship student uncovers a sinister secret relating to a weekend of shooting and drinking that happens every year at a fancy private school. It has a good dose of mystery solving, teenage angst, and class issues.
  • Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson – I didn’t intend to end up with two Anne Carson books on here, but in that case I shouldn’t’ve read multiple Anne Carson books this year. Autobiography of Red is a poem about a modern version of an ancient Greek character, a novel in verse that plays with mythology, love, and sexuality.
The author reading May in front of a statue of Czech author Mácha.
Me, reading Máj (well, pretending to, as it’s the Czech edition) in front of the Mácha statue on Petřín Hill in Prague.

My favourite books of 2018 (in order of when I read them)

Instead of narrowing them down any further, I’m just saying there’s something for everyone. Links to go my full review where they exist, mostly all on this new shiny blog except a couple the import missed that go to Goodreads.

Quick book picks for July

A powerful bunch this month, which all feature memorable and distinctive characters and interesting narratives. I’ve cheated and put a graphic anthology that came out in June on the bottom of the list as I only got my copy a couple of weeks ago and I wanted to share it with more people.

  • Hold by Michael Donkor – A fantastic debut novel about two very different teenage girls coming of age, Hold tells the story of Belinda, who is summoned from Ghana to London to try and bring Amma out of her shell. Full of memorable characters and vividly accurate south London description.
  • Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg – Metafictional historical romp through the life of Jack Sheppard, thief and gaolbreaker, that tackles gender, oppression, and the truth in the archive.
  • The Life and Death Parade by Eliza Wass – An eerie YA novel about a travelling occult group, a weird rich family, and the power of love and loss.
  • Oreo by Fran Ross – Reissued this month but originally published in 1974, Oreo is a clever, satirical tale of a girl looking for her dad.
  • We Shall Fight Until We Win by 404 Ink and BHP Comics – A graphic anthology published for the centenary of the first wave of women in the UK, it tells the stories of political women, both well- and lesser- known. A powerful read and one to gift people in your life.

Quick book picks for June

Only a few books this month, mostly a very modern and relevant selection, as well as one mostly set in flashback in the nineties. They all look at some intense situations in different ways and styles, making them engrossing reads for ignoring the sun/World Cup/anything else.

  • Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton – An emphatic recommendation for anyone who likes literary thrillers like American Psycho or The Talented Mr Ripley, but wishes they were more female-led and up to date. Social Creature presents a New York millenial hell as Louise is pulled into the money- and party- filled world of Lavinia and then things start to go wrong.
  • Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue – Another one this month exposing the modern world, as the London workplace is dissected and its effects upon mental health and upholding a male-dominated culture are shown through Jane’s sudden promotion at an advertising job.
  • Run, Riot by Nikesh Shukla – This is a young adult book that tells the story of twins Taran and Hari and their fight to expose the injustice in the system that is putting them, their friends, and the tower block they call home at risk. It is like a British version of The Hate U Give, showing that YA fiction can highlight racism, gentrification, and police corruption sometimes more powerfully than novels aimed at adults.
  • A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better by Benjamin Wood – A distinctively written novel that tells the story of trauma and how it continues to affect an individual, as Daniel looks back on the violence of his father during an erratic road trip.

Quick book picks for May

Only a few for this month, but a good bunch of fiction featuring some historical, some globe-spanning, and some very focused on the personal.

  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer – A bittersweet comic novel about a struggling writer who takes up invitations to strange events around the world in order to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding.
  • House of Gold by Natasha Solomons – Europe poised on the cusp of World War One is the setting for this historical novel, about the Goldbaum family and how rebellious Greta attempts to reclaim her own life. Mixes the personal with the large scale history surprisingly well.
  • We Are Young by Cat Clarke – Another tense YA novel from Cat Clarke, this one focuses on how a car accident can bring various issues in a community to the forefront, from the perspective of the girl whose new stepbrother is the sole survivor.
  • The Pharmacist’s Wife by Rebecca Tait – A dark historical novel set in Victorian Edinburgh, where  Rebecca Palmer’s pharmacist husband tries to control her using heroin and manipulation.
  • Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey – This novel tells the story of a girl who goes missing and then is found a few days later, unwilling to discuss what happened. Told from the perspective of her mother, it looks at depression and how a biased viewpoint can lead to assumptions.