For me, one thing to come from 2020 has been extra time for reading. I’m also not sure what I would have done without books this year – especially as it’s been a great year of new releases and excellent debuts. I’ve found my reading tastes have veered a little towards fantasy, magical realism and gothic fiction, where my tendency in years before has been more sci-fi or dystopia…I suppose I was in need of some more fantastical escapist stories this year!
While it’s hard to choose between so many great books, I’ve narrowed down to my Top 20 reads in 2020, (in alphabetical order as it was impossible to pick between them all). Also to note, not all of these books were published in 2020, but a number of them were new releases.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
A powerful and moving novel telling the story of the Trojan war from the perspectives of the women involved. This was beautifully written, with rich characterisation and setting. I liked that it was structured to feel almost like a series of interconnected short stories and vignettes, but it still came together in a cohesive way. I would recommend for fans of Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood or Circe by Madeline Miller.
Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo
An intelligent, heartbreaking and at times darkly funny satirical story that is told as an inversion of the transatlantic slave trade. In this alternate history, it follows Doris as she is taken from her English countryside home and forced into slavery. The writing has a stylistic flair that makes it both moving and powerful, and is at times uncomfortable to read (which it should be). It’s the first book by Bernardine Evaristo that I’ve read and I plan to read more from her in my picks next year.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
One of the most inventive sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. This came recommended by so many and it certainly lived up to expectations! In a future where humans have destroyed Earth and have begun terraforming planets, we find a planet where something else intelligent has evolved to rule the land – and it is now at odds with humanity as they look for a new home. I loved the way time passed in this, and how I was gradually drawn into caring about characters in unexpected ways. I don’t want to say more to spoil it, but let’s just say it helped me cure a certain phobia. The sequel Children of Ruin is now on my must-read list!
Circe by Madeline Miller
This book follows the story of Circe, who, appearing to be born without the powers of her deity parents, is underestimated – but she has something within her that sets her apart. This felt both like an epic and a closely-drawn character story about finding yourself amidst an unwelcoming world. Spanning hundreds of years, it has crossovers from other commonly known Greek myths and characters like Odysseus, Penelope, Hermes, the Minotaur, and many others. I particularly enjoyed the edge-of-the-world atmospheric setting, which made it the perfect escapist read. Magic, fierce and powerful.
Eden by Tim Lebbon
Featuring creepy orchids, cli-fi themes, and a setting that reminded me of Annihilation, I found myself gripped from start to finish. Set in a future where humans have designated zones given back to nature, it follows a group of extreme adventurers racing across one of them: Eden. But some members of the group have different motives for being there, and it quickly becomes clear they aren’t prepared for this deadly world. Tense and full of action, it’s a survival story that leaves you unsure who to root for.
Fleet of Knives by Gareth L. Powell
I LOVED the first book in the Embers of War series, and this one was just as brilliant, thrown straight into a turbulent post-galactic-war world. It’s hard to say much without spoiling the first book, but what I love about the series are the characters and the way they’re all brought to life so realistically, giving you someone to cheer for throughout. I love Trouble Dog especially and I enjoyed how the story built in moral dilemmas and political themes throughout. I have book three on my shelf and I’m conflicted about reading it because I don’t want it to end! (It’s on my Christmas reading list this year!) A good thing that Gareth has lots more exciting work in the pipeline.
Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women by Sharon Blackie
This is an excellent collection of enchanting, feminist, and beautiful stories centred on folklore across Europe. With themes of wilderness and becoming more in tune with our natural world, it reimagines a mix of well and lesser known characters, including Baba Yaga, Cailleach Bheur, and the Snow Queen. With shimmering and compelling writing, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
Goldilocks by Laura Lam
Presenting a haunting dystopian view of a near future, this cli-fi set in space is a pacy, tense and prescient story that had me gripped throughout. Following a group of female astronauts who steal a spaceship in an attempt to save the future, it centres on Naomi Lovelace, the ship’s botanist. But Naomi will soon uncover that someone on the ship is hiding a terrible secret. Full of moral ambiguity and well executed twists, the book is an excellent sci-fi/thriller genre mashup, and I loved it from start to finish. It felt so real (almost too real at times!) that it left me thinking about it long after I put it down.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Protagonist Noemí travels to her cousin’s new family’s house after receiving concerning letters, but finds a situation more sinister than she could ever have expected. Anyone who has spoken to me recently will know how much I ADORED Mexican Gothic. It was gripping, tense, unsettling, and so well written. Noemí was confident, sarcastic, extremely likeable and a real force to be reckoned with. It’s no wonder that it has gained so much attention this year – one of the best horror books I’ve read!
Orfeia by Joanne M. Harris
Orfeia is part of a series of novella retellings by Joanne M. Harris. I read Blue Salt Road at the end of last year and loved it, so was excited to find out there was a retelling of Orpheus – one of my favourite stories in Greek mythology. The story still felt new, and the characters were so complex and fantastical that I found myself devouring this in a single evening of reading. It had an eerie feel about it too, and I always love the evocative settings that Joanne Harris writes. Loved it! I’ve added her other novella Pocketful of Crows to my ‘to read’ list for 2021.
Pine by Francine Toon
An atmospheric, eerie and unsettling read from start to finish. I loved especially how the author wrote in different POVs in a way that made you question your perceptions about the characters throughout. I particularly loved this book because I grew up in a small highland village so a lot of this setting and world was so recognisable. The setting also gave a feeling of claustrophobia which really kept the story tense and fast-moving. I’m not surprised it went on to be the first debut novel to win the McIlvanney Prize this year. An especially excellent read for winter!
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
I still find it very difficult to describe this book in the best possible way – it was unexpected, beautiful, atmospheric, and felt both like a fantasy and science fiction book, with a mystery at its heart. The narrator is intriguing throughout and I really enjoyed unpacking their story. I don’t want to say much more because it’s the sort of book that I loved not knowing much about before diving in – I saw it described as a puzzle box of a book, and it certainly is that!
Seven Devils by Elizabeth May & Laura Lam
A feminist space opera about seven resistance fighters in a dystopian far-future galaxy. It had lots of classic space opera elements – action, exciting battles, inventive worldbuilding, unexpected twists, and intrigue – as well as pushing those boundaries with added smashing the patriarchy in space and queer rep. I really loved this book, its characters, and can’t wait for the sequel to see what happens next!
The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Kiran Millwood Hargrave features twice on my list, with this YA novel and her adult novel The Mercies. Both have fantastic writing, enchanting settings, female-centred stories and complex and believable characters. The Deathless Girls is a re-imagined story of the three brides of Dracula, and it had everything I love in a book: folklore, dark themes, strong female relationships, well-executed twists, atmosphere, mystery and rich storytelling and settings. I know I’ll be first to pick up her future books.
The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
I love Kirsty Logan’s writing (Gracekeepers is one of my all-time favourite books, and I equally recommend Things We Say in the Dark which was one of my top books last year). The Gloaming follows the story of Mara, a young woman living on a small Scottish island, that has her perceptions of home, family and identity challenged when she encounters the enigmatic Pearl. Their relationship is beautiful, and the story itself unravels in an authentic and moving way. It had a magical feel throughout, but I also found myself quickly absorbed into what felt like a real world.
The Loop by Ben Oliver
An excellent start to this pacy, inventive and exciting YA trilogy. The Loop is set in a futuristic death-row prison for teenagers who are subjected to awful treatment and isolation (yes, it was a bit weird to read a book like this mid-lockdown!) But it’s what’s happening outside the prison that causes the story to unravel. Protagonist Luka is likeable and complex and I found myself hooked from the start. It’s also full of believable twists that I didn’t see coming. Looking forward to book 2!
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Another fantastic book by Kiran Millwood Hargrave in her gripping, haunting and beautiful adult debut. Set on a small Norwegian island in the 1600s, it tells the story of what happens to the women there after all the men perish in an accident at sea. When a man involved in the witch trials in Scotland arrives with his wife, intent on ridding “evil” from the island, the story takes a sinister turn. The novel was both heartbreaking and moving, and I was easily drawn into the main characters’ stories. I loved everything about it!
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
This book was unique, lyrical and innovative. Told in epistolary format, it shares the correspondence between two agents from battling sides in a time war. It’s both a tour through history (alternate and the one we know) and the future it’s leading to. The story left me thinking about it long after finishing. It’s also something I imagine I’ll reread at some point. I saw a review on Goodreads describing it as ‘Killing Eve but they’re time travelling pen pals’ and I feel that description is perfect.
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
I was instantly sold on reading the blurb for this book: “The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.” And it really lived up to expectations. I loved the alternative future angle, with an interesting dystopian wild west setting. The central character is strong and likeable and it was a beautiful exploration of relationships, identity and politics, with a pacy plot to boot. The author also packed a lot into the space of a short novella which is a real skill!
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
A tense, creepy, gothic, and bewitching book full of mystery, weird occurences, and hints of magic. The main strength was the writing which was absolutely beautiful, and the author has such a great way of creating an atmosphere that you can really get sucked into. Though it’s not a plot-driven book – with more of a slow-burn story behind it – I still found it very readable. Miranda Silver, the main character, is interesting and someone to really root for as she grows up with a strange family history and an unusual obsession.