My Top Ten Books of 2020

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

In the order I read them…

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  1. Spinning Silver: Naomi Novik. Novik hits it out of the park with her second folktale retelling, telling three equally compelling stories about three very different women in the fictional kingdom of Lithvas, loosely inspired, according to Novik, by Lithuania, Poland and Russia. I’ve always believed folk/fairytales are fiendishly and perhaps deceptively difficult to turn into full-length novels, because they operate with a logic and a pace that breaks a lot of our conventional ‘rules’ of storytelling (I can’t recommend Kate Bernheimer’s essay ‘Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale’ enough if you’re as interested in this as I am). Novik’s approach is to tell a series of miniature stories that magically combine together. Perfection. I reviewed it here.

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2. Minor Feelings: Cathy Park Hong. This series of essays on making art while considering your own cultural and historical position now feels especially relevant given the issues that were ever more strongly highlighted by black activists during 2020, but is also vital for anyone who’s ever given a thought to how artists should and can use their own experience. I’ve yet to read something better on the idea of writing both within and outside your lane; Hong, who is Korean-American, argues that even when we are apparently writing from our own lived experience, we are always ‘speaking nearby’ ourselves, because no one person can tell everybody else’s story – or even their own. I reviewed it here.

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3. Ice Diaries: Jean McNeil. There’s a whole sub-genre of memoirs written by writers-in-residence in Antarctica, but McNeil’s is in a class of its own. She brilliantly evokes how spending four months on an Antarctic base affected her sense of her own selfhood, while also interrogating the human fascination with empty spaces on the map. If you liked Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Iceyou should read this next – however, I think this is also one of those rare Antarctic books that would appeal to readers who otherwise have no interest in the farthest south. I reviewed it briefly here.

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4. The Butchers: Ruth Gilligan. I recently named this as one of the novels I thought had been most unfairly overlooked this year, and I still don’t understand why it hasn’t received more critical attention. Set during the BSE crisis in Ireland in 1996, it moves between four narrators to tell a story of cow-smuggling and cattle-slaughtering that feels infused with folktale. Read it if you’re a fan of Fiona Mozley or Cynan Jones. I reviewed it here. (Published as The Butchers’ Blessing in the US).

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5. Broken Stars: ed. and trans. Ken Liu. This collection of short Chinese science fiction in translation, the second such collection edited by Liu, gives the Western reader an insight into a literary world that is otherwise not accessible to them. The inclusion of three essays on Chinese SF and its fandom is particularly inspired, giving ignorant readers like me some context for the development of the genre in China. And the book is stuffed full of original and exciting stories, with my favourites including Han Song’s ‘Submarines’, Baoshu’s ‘What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear’, Hao Jingfang’s ‘The New Year Train’, Ma Boyong’s ‘The First Emperor’s Games’ and Chen Qiufan’s ‘A History of Future Illnesses’. To top it all off, the UK edition has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen, though you have to see it in its real-life gold-foiled glory to fully appreciate it.

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6. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: Natasha Pulley. I’m a massive Pulley fan, and this sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street didn’t disappoint (indeed, I thought it was better than the first, though not quite as good as The Bedlam Stacks). We now follow the clairvoyant watchmaker Keita Mori and his friend and lover, Thaniel Steepleton, to late nineteenth-century Japan, where Mori disappears on a mission of his own as electrical storms brew across the country. Before I read Pulley’s fiction, I worried her books would be a little twee, but I was totally wrong; they’re eerie and intelligent and funny, all at the same time. And having wrestled with a time travel novel for several years, I can only admire her ability to centre her plot around a character who has the gift of precognition, which makes figuring out cause and effect EVEN MORE CONFUSING. I reviewed it here.

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7. The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel. I’m not sure what else I can say about this magnificent conclusion to the Cromwell trilogy, other than that it was delightful to find myself finally falling in love with a much-praised sequence of books that I’d always had ambivalent feelings about before (though, typically for me, this happened just when everybody else seemed to decide this one wasn’t as good as the others). For me, this was the best in the trilogy, and should have won everything going. I reviewed it here.

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8. My Year of Meats: Ruth Ozeki. I would never have picked this book up if I hadn’t loved A Tale For The Time Being so much; the story of a Japanese-American documentarian, Jane Takagi-Little, who exposes the illegal use of hormones in the American meat industry back in 1991 didn’t immediately appeal to me. However, although this novel goes to some bizarre places, it really works; it’s held together by Jane, who feels real in a way that few characters ever do. I reviewed it here.

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9. New Suns: ed. Nisi Shawl. It’s very unusual for me to like one multi-author SF anthology enough to put it in my top ten books of the year, let alone two! But Shawl’s edited collection of short speculative fiction by writers of colour delivered hit after hit, and gave me lots of new names to look out for. I especially loved some creepy contributions: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’. I reviewed it here.

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10. Hild: Nicola Griffith. Having abandoned this book twice before finishing it, once in 2017 and again in 2018, it’s safe to say I never thought it would make a top ten books of the year list. However, when I finally committed to Hild, I found myself completely inhabiting her sixth-century world. It’s a book that demands a lot of time and attention, more so, I’d say, even than The Mirror and The Light; but I thought about it for such a long time after finishing it, and wished I could walk back in. (Interestingly, Griffith is now two for two in my books of the year; her SF debut Ammonite was in my top ten in 2019. I’m about to read So Lucky, so we’ll see if she can keep this up!). I wrote a little more about Hild here.

Reading Stats

I read 150 books in 2020. I’m a little surprised by this – it’s less than I read in 2018 and 2019 – as I felt I was reading much more during the pandemic. However, I have to remember that as recently as 2017, 127 books still felt like a massive number. I suspect what has happened is that I’ve read a lot of very long books because I had more time to concentrate, which have dragged down my stats (The Terror, The Mirror and The Light, Hild and The Wise Man’s Fear, I’m looking at you). In 2021, I’ll again set a target of 150.

I read 120 books by women, 28 books by men, and 2 books by an author who identifies as non-binary. This was, again, the worst year ever for men, dwindling to 18% of the books I read – and, interestingly, a few male authors appear several times (I read three books apiece by both James Smythe and James S.A. Corey) – meaning that the number of individual male authors I read was even lower.

I read 46 books by writers of colour and 104 books by white writers. To my huge surprise, the percentage of writers of colour (31%) is the best I’ve ever managed, and actually quite close to my target of 33%! I’m surprised because I felt I was really failing on this target this year, so something must have gone right. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2021.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

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23 thoughts on “My Top Ten Books of 2020

    • I think there are always ones that slip through the net. I only realised after writing my most anticipated 2021 reads post (up tomorrow) that I forgot to add Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, not sure how that happened! Hope you enjoy the Ozeki and Novik.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve not read any Novik; do you think I’d like her (this book or another one)? It’s so funny how the paperback of Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver copies this cover!

    I’m definitely keen to read the McNeil after seeing her play a big part in an online conference I attended in November. Her work sounds quite varied and interesting.

    Book serendipity: Two novels with cattle slaughter ended up in your top 10 😉 I’ll have to check out The Butchers.

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    • I’m honestly not sure if you’d like Novik or not! Have you read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey? Spinning Silver has something of the same feel, but IMO I’d much better. Her other adult standalone is Uprooted, which I had much more mixed feelings about. And yeah, that’s definitely a cover lookalike! It’s weird because they’re very different books.

      I think you’d really like Ice Diaries. I have an e ARC of McNeil’s latest, Day for Night.

      Haha I didn’t spot that about cattle slaughtering! Both books are quite graphic but that wasn’t the reason I liked them so much!

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  2. I had no idea that Antarctic memoirs was a whole subgenre haha! That’s so intriguing. Definitely something I want to check out.

    This is such a great and varied list! I too adored Spinning Silver, and I’ve been wanting to try out Natasha Pulley for a long time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, it definitely is, though perhaps only Antarctic obsessives like me are aware of this! My other favourites include Gavin Francis’s Empire Antarctica, and also one of the original Antarctic explorers’ memoirs, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World.

      I can’t recommend Pulley enough, she’s just such an interesting writer.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. im so glad you enjoyed Hild and The Butchers!! needless to say theyve just shot up my TBR lol. I also have The Watchmaker of Filigree Street on my TBR and will definitely be getting to it when im in the mood for some historical fiction (which i always am)

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    • I hope you enjoy all of them! I really liked Watchmaker, but I also think it’s the weakest of the three books I’ve read by Pulley. So if it works for you, there’s even better to come IMO 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Until I read this compiled list, I hadn’t realized how much speculative fiction you read! I’m glad you liked Novak’s book. I’ve picked up and put down Spinning Silver so many times because folks on Goodreads cut her to pieces. The way you describe it, Spinning Silver sounds similar to Katherine Arden’s books, and I truly enjoyed those.

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    • I’m not sure what the percentages work out as… I do read quite a lot of spec fic but I’m also predisposed to like it, so it’s probably over represented here! I know Novik caught a lot of flack (rightly IMO) for romanticising an abusive relationship in Uprooted, but I can’t imagine what there is to object to in Spinning Silver, will have to check out GR.

      I couldn’t get through The Bear and the Nightingale because I didn’t take to the writing, but I agree that the two books have much of the same feel.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I read and loved the Ozeki many years ago, however I don’t think I could read it now, with the themes of infertility and the slaughterhouse bits! I must be getting less resilient over the years. I have added the Antarctic one to my wishlist and wonder how I didn’t see that before as that’s a major obsession, erm, collection development focus, of mine.

    I read more than the last two years but a lot of it WAS quite light fiction for comfort purposes! My top ten is finally done and is a top sixteen …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hope you enjoy Ice Diaries! I felt it went above and beyond most Antarctic memoirs.

      I find that some books bother me now that didn’t in my teens, and vice versa!

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  6. Nice list! Minor Feelings is firmly on my TBR for 2021, and I’m suddenly very tempted by Ice Diaries though I’ve never been particularly interested in books about Antarctica before- not necessarily disinterested, but it’s a setting I’ve not really explored or even considered and maybe I’d like to after all.

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  7. I’m so happy to see Ice Diaries on here. I was really tempted by it when it came out and then it kind of fell off my radar – so I’m happy to have the reminder and well as your good opinion about it!

    Liked by 1 person

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