2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2020 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2020, not necessarily first published in 2020.

Highly Commended

I was hugely impressed by Akala’s Natives, which interweaves his personal experience of growing up as a working-class black boy in Britain with the country’s history of racism and colonialism, and is particularly good on the way that schools oppress black children. The only thing it falls a bit short on is gender, but for that reason, it’s the perfect companion read to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which was one of my top ten books of 2019.

Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel gradually crept up on me as I read it; it’s almost impossible to summarise, but essentially focuses on the fallout from a Ponzi scheme alongside the relationship between two estranged siblings. It’s very different from her hit pandemic novel Station Eleven, but is haunting in similar ways.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection How To Pronounce Knife, which focuses on the lives of Lao immigrants and their children in Canada, was so clever and insightful. Unlike most short story collections, it explores a range of disparate themes, showcasing Thammavongsa’s range. I was thrilled when it won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. I reviewed it here.

I usually struggle with historical fiction, but this year was an exception. Three standouts were, firstly, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which immersed me so fully in the 1918 flu pandemic that I forgot to draw comparisons to Covid-19; I reviewed it here. Secondly, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies, set in the early seventeenth century on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, managed to completely reinvent the rather familiar plot of false witchcraft accusations; I reviewed it here. Finally, Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child really cleverly pulled together a number of different, disparate stories, centring on an ambitious engineering project at a Scottish loch in the 1850s; I reviewed it here.

Science fiction and speculative fiction is probably the genre I’m loving the most at the moment, so there’s lots to choose from, but I wanted to highlight three very different books. Octavia E. Butler’s time-slip story Kindred doesn’t need any further introduction from me, but I admired how she made her protagonist’s journeys feel both so real and emotionally grounded, and how she used this conceit to ask questions about inheritance and culpability. I reviewed it here. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was a structural mess, but so utterly different and memorable; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bigtrees’s Floridian alligator-wrestling theme park. I reviewed it here. Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, the first in an alternate-history trilogy about female astronauts in 1950s America, is still the novel I think everyone needs to survive the Covid-19 pandemic; I stand by my statement in my review that I’ve ‘never read a post-apocalyptic novel that is so comforting‘.


In crime and thriller, I was very taken with Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke, a novel that turns a good number of cliches about adolescence on their head while still being completely compelling; I reviewed it here. I’ve been disappointed by a string of Attica Locke’s novels, which for me haven’t lived up to their fantastic premises, but Bluebird, Bluebird, which follows a black Texas Ranger torn between duty to his community and his responsibility to his job, finally hit the sweet spot; I briefly reviewed it on Goodreads. Finally, Lottie Moggach’s Brixton Hill is a grim but gripping thriller that is centrally concerned with the way that prison wears inmates’ lives away; I reviewed it here.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by two boarding-school novels, a sub-genre that I’m obsessed with, that didn’t work for me for very different reasons. Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson was beautifully written, but told an overly familiar story about female hysteria in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing was just not very good at all, totally failing to conjure atmosphere, and hampered by awkward dialogue. I reviewed both books here. (Fortunately, 2020 wasn’t a total write-off for campus novels: I loved Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House!)

I found Mary North’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenhugely frustrating, because it was full of original ideas but frequently undercut itself by spelling out the message of a story too clearly. I reviewed it here. Ivy Pochoda’s LA-set and cliched These Women was primarily disappointing because I thought her Visitation Street was so subtle and so good, but also didn’t really deliver on its promise to tell a story about a serial killer from the point of view of his victims. I reviewed it briefly on Goodreads. Finally, I’m a huge Garth Nix fan but his latest, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was just too silly for my liking.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2020!


19 thoughts on “2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

  1. We don’t overlap on our book tastes very often, yet five of these have ended up in my year-end posts, too. (Plus I love Swamplandia!) Switch our feelings for the Donoghue and the South and we’re pretty much on the same page 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, I was surprised to clock the amount of overlap as well! Even with the South, I found it disappointing because I felt that it had potential – I don’t find books that I really didn’t like ‘disappointing’, and I know you were similarly ambivalent about Donoghue.


  2. I share your enthusiasm for Mandel’s The Glass House, which was one of my top novels of the year. It’s such a fascinating and well-written story of how our identities shift with circumstances; Vincent’s journey from trophy wife to ship’s cook was totally believable and compelling. Akala’s Natives sounds most intriguing; I’d like to check it out if I have time/energy after finishing up Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which is more focused on the U.S. How to Pronounce Knife has been floating around on my radar for a few months now; judging from your remarks it lives up to all the favorable reviews.
    I was interested to see that you liked Catherine House, which didn’t seem to get that much attention (I found it through a review of recent horror novels; perhaps the “horror” label turned off some readers). I liked it quite a bit myself, although I did think it sagged a bit in the middle. Too bad about Garth Nix; I too am a fan and was disappointed to learn that his latest is a disappointment!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve just checked out Wilkerson’s Caste; it definitely seems like a similar approach to Akala’s, but US rather than UK focused.

      I agree about Catherine House, it wasn’t perfect, but it reminded me fondly of the sort of supernatural boarding school novels I read as a teenager! I’m surprised it’s been listed as horror; it definitely has horror elements but I wouldn’t class it as a horror novel (then again, there aren’t many books I’d class as straight horror novels).

      How much you’d like Left-Handed Booksellers probably depends what you like about Garth Nix’s writing. I came to him through his Abhorsen trilogy (and the extras since) and his debut Shade’s Children, but I know he’s written some more lighthearted books as well. I just don’t get on well with funny fantasy!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Since I came to Nix the same way (Abhorsen & Shade’s Children) I suspect my reaction to his latest will probably be very similar to yours.
        I know what you mean about Catherine House; it’s as much a closed society (a little like Tartt’s Secret History)/coming of age tale as anything else. The NY Times stuck it in under “new horror” novels to watch out for, then wimped out a bit by describing it as “literary Gothic” (I also thought it had some mild elements of social satire — all those wildly competitive, over achieving kids!) I thought Catherine House was a very interesting debut and will definitely check out any of Thomas’ subsequent works.


  3. You had me at ‘ambitious 1850s engineering project on a Scottish loch’ – I’ll be adding The Ninth Child to my wishlist. Interesting to see the Garth Nix here; it was one of those books I expected to see everywhere, but which seemed to drop without any fanfare. Your comments may be the key to why (at least amongst the blogs I follow!)


  4. The point about Akala’s book is interesting – I have this and Brit(ish) to read so might well put them close to each other in the schedule. I have recommended The Calculating Stars to my husband as that sounds right up his street. And I heartily approve of you saving your best of until the last day of the year – I posted mine yesterday!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brit(ish) and Natives work eerily well together, with Hirsch reflecting on her privilege as middle class and lighter skinned in conversations with her working class, darker skinned boyfriend, but then exploring the intersectional oppression she experiences as a black woman. I set chapters from both to my undergrads this semester.


  5. Ah, I really need to get to The Glass Hotel!! And The Pull of the Stars. Happy to see both ranked so highly for you, and The Mercies as well, which was also a standout for me this year. And I am relieved to have dodged the bullet with The Illness Lesson; it was an anticipated release for me but then saw the underwhelming reviews rolling in and jumped ship, with no regrets.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Oh that’s interesting, and encouraging to hear! Helpful to know I should just avoid this title, and not necessarily nix the author from my list altogether.

        Liked by 1 person

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