The less said about 2020 the better, except where books are concerned. For me it’s been a thoroughly atypical year for reading as with everything else. Like many others I lost the ability to focus for at least a month – since then books have been such a comfort, pleasure and respite. I’ve read 70, the lowest number by far ‘since records began’, next to nothing in French (except Le Figaro), far fewer books than usual by men but more by writers of colour – only the last of these has been by choice.
On the plus side, for the first time, I’m pleased that every title in today’s selection has been featured on the blog, probably because I switched to doing round-ups in the last quarter. I’ve been impatient and hard to please but every book I’ve covered on the Sofa has won me over regardless and I’ve enjoyed spreading the word about them in a year that’s been extremely difficult for authors of new releases. I rate them all highly, but these 11 are my personal favourites, the ones that left the deepest mark.
Follow the links to the original coverage for more detail, and please support independent booksellers if you’re tempted by my recommendations.
1. The Codes of Love – Hannah Persaud (Muswell Press)
Yes, there really are three books on this list with ‘love’ in the title, and almost all of my brilliant almost-dozen centre on relationships, whether it’s couples, siblings, parents and children or friendship. There was never any doubt that Hannah Persaud’s bold, sharp debut exploring the complex dynamics of a non-monogamous marriage would make it onto this list. Such a fresh and compelling take on a familiar subject, and for what it’s worth, winner of my personal ‘hottest scene of the year’ award – although there was competition from several of the other books here…
Speaking of intimate moments, it was the gorgeously romantic kind which bowled me over in one of the three strikingly disconnected strands of this novel, which nonetheless knit together in a really moving and unexpected way. I get a lump in my throat thinking about it. I love books which leave me in awe of the author’s inventiveness and imagination – there are too many ‘samey’ ones out there.
It’s always exciting to start a novel and realise it’s going to offer something different to the norm. That’s true of everything about this one: the structure, the use of time, the way it intentionally messes with the reader in a way that feels quite personal. It takes philosophical abstractions and spins them into intensely human and relatable experiences. It’s rare for me to fall for a novel that could be called ‘experimental’ but this genuinely blew my mind.
This literary big hitter takes decades and far more pages than I normally care for to portray not only a complicated friendship between two men and their families, but the British social and political backdrop of the times. An absorbing and satisfying reading experience in which the eloquence of expression and depth of insight hit sublime heights in places.
5. In the Sweep of the Bay – Cath Barton (Louise Walters Books)
From a long book to a tiny one, this novella featured here last week peels away the layers of melancholy and disconnection in a very traditional marriage, with power and emotional clout that had me comparing it to Revolutionary Road and Mothering Sunday. This time I really won’t say more.
6. Daughters – Lucy Fricke, translated from German by Sinéad Crowe (V+Q Books)
I love a road trip on the page or the screen (had almost forgotten they exist in real life – sigh) and this macabre mission undertaken by two very cool and interesting women either side of 40 provided some very rare laugh out loud moments. Full of dark humour and wisdom on friendship and the infrequently examined bonds between fathers and daughters.
7. Love after Love – Ingrid Persaud (Faber & Faber)
One of no fewer than FIVE titles on this list that have an LGBT angle you wouldn’t necessarily have expected – which I hope is a sign that things are changing in the heteronormative book world. I absolutely loved this story set in Trinidad, especially for its warm wit, voices and sense of place. That said, it had one of the saddest moments of any book here, one which tore me up.
8. The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Dialogue Books)
In a year which understandably saw a big move to amplify the voices of black writers, in my opinion this novel about twin sisters, one of whom can ‘pass’ as white, fully deserves the wide praise and recognition it has received. It has a lot to say about American society and the all-pervading effects of white privilege around the world. For a novel that gave me so much pause for thought, surprisingly it wasn’t a hit with my book group but I’ve had great discussions about it with many other readers.
9. My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell (Fourth Estate)
Another very American story with far wider resonance, this gut punch of a novel about an illegal relationship between a high school teacher and female students was no less enraging and disturbing on my second reading. It’s also strong on a theme that interests me greatly, namely the legacy of past trauma in shaping who we become. This book made for one of the longest and most impassioned discussions my book group has ever had, despite the fact they were huddled under a gazebo in torrential rain and I was on speakerphone. Fortunately it’s one we were bound to return to often.
All of the books on this list feature great prose (regardless of genre, style or subject, it’s a dealbreaker if I don’t enjoy the writing) but even in present company, this novel about a heartrending family mystery absolutely soared. It’s a story that succeeded in consuming me during an intensely difficult time at the end of 2019 – looking back, I can see that I was on its wavelength. A lyrical, aching quality heightens the emotion and the sense of Japanese place and culture is immersive.
11. Your Still Beating Heart – Tyler Keevil (Myriad Editions)
As I mentioned when he joined me on the Sofa recently, I was an instant convert to Tyler Keevil’s writing when I discovered it in summer 2019 – it only took one paragraph of his latest release to feel that high, when you just know it’s going to be really good. The unusual combination of a petrifying thriller and a poignant journey of grief and hope – the feedback from readers who discovered this book here has been resoundingly positive.
Have you read any of these? I’d love to hear about your own favourites of 2020. If you’re on Twitter, watch out for my one day competition on Friday 18 December for the chance to win one of the above.
Thank you so much to my guest authors, readers, publicists and everyone who has made it worth the effort of keeping the Literary Sofa going (after a fashion) this year, and to all the authors whose work has kept me going. To find out my absolute favourite book of 2020, come back for my 2020 non-fiction selection in January – how’s that for a teaser? If you’re new to the Sofa, you can enter your email address in the ‘sign me up’ box to get notification of my (in theory) weekly posts.
Until then, I’m not sure what to wish you other than hope, better times ahead and the one thing we can rely on: happy reading.