Hidden Bookshelf 2: The Best Books of 2020…and Five to Look Forward to in 2021!
Without a doubt, 2020 has been one of the weirdest years that we, as a planet, have ever encountered. First, we had the Australian bushfires and Donald Trump trying to start World War Three, and then…what was it? Coronavirus? The pandemic has had all of us stuck inside for months on end, and I don’t know about you but reading has been one of the only things (apart from Taylor Swift releasing TWO albums) to get me through it all. A huge number of great books have come out this year, and there have been some which truly transported me away from everything that’s been going on.
So without further ado, here are my top five reads of 2020 (plus an honorary mention)! Those of you who know me will also know that I’m seriously into funny, feminist reads which take a look at female relationships and their complexities – if any of that sounds appealing then this is the list for you.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. This was by far my favourite book of 2020. It came out in deepest darkest lockdown back in May and I was so excited that I even pre-ordered it. O’Farrell takes us back to Shakespearean times, whose namesake had a young son named Hamnet. He died very young of the plague and was of course the inspiration for Hamlet itself; this novel tells the story of his life and death. Honestly, O’Farrell’s writing here is at it’s most touching; she perfectly encapsulates the feeling of losing a loved one. Reading this book centred around another pandemic during our pandemic was certainly interesting; in a weird way, it definitely took my mind off coronavirus!
As well as focusing on the loss of a young child, O’Farrell also uses this book to discuss how clever women have historically been treated as witches. This recommendation is, of course, spoiler-free, but it’s a great piece of historical feminist literature which will sweep you off your feet.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson. Johnson’s Sisters is a book which I read towards the end of 2020, and I wish I’d picked it up sooner! It tells the story of July and September, two eerily close sisters who have moved from their school as a result of a mysterious incident which occurred. As the book goes on, we discover more about the relationship between the two, and the complexity of the self.
The most electrifying book I’ve read this year, Johnson does amazingly at slowly building tension throughout the novel, resulting in a sensational ending. If you liked Jacqueline Wilson’s Double Act as a child or were a fan of the creepy twins in The Shining then this is the perfect book for you!
All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraouiwas published for the first time in English this year, and I’m so glad that it’s happened. Autobiographical, it tells the story of Bouraoui’s youth, split between her childhood in Algeria and her life as an eighteen-year-old in Paris. Through these splits, we see the racial tensions that drove her to leave Algeria and an exploration of her own desires as a young woman in Paris. I love anything to do with female sexuality and sensuality, so this was a great read for me. It gives such a great insight both into Paris in the 1980s, and into the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, something which I actually wrote my postgraduate dissertation on!
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. Doshi’s novel was of course shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and I’m not surprised. This is another book which tackles the difficulty of mother-daughter relationships, telling the story of Antara and her mother Tara, and their fractured bond through their lives in India. It moves between the past and present, constantly switching to show the depth of their struggling relationship.
Something which I really love about literature which tackles difficult relationships is the realism that comes with it. Doshi perfectly encapsulates the feeling of growing up and realising that your parents are, in fact, not perfect, like you, and pours that emotion into her writing.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Café by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. This year I started my bookstagram, and I’ve seen this series all over it, so wanted to give it a whirl. I loved these! They’re the perfect escape from lockdown. The scene is set in Tokyo’s Funiculi Funicula, a café which allows you to travel back in time. Comprised of a series of short story-esque chapters, each focuses on a different scenario: The man who goes back to see his best friend who died 22 years ago; the son who was unable to attend his own mother’s funeral; the man who travelled to see the girl who he could not marry. Equally funny and heartbreaking in parts, this is the perfect light read to get you through the year.
An honourable mention goes to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I know that it was published quite a while ago, but I re-read it for the first time since I was fifteen this week and was honestly blown away by how good it was. For anyone who either hasn’t read it or is looking to get more into reading in 2021, this is a great place to start! It tells the story of Richard Papen, an unsuspecting student who is drawn into an elite circle at his college. When he realises the terrible crime that they have committed, he is drawn to helping them keep their secret, no matter what the cost.
Next, we move onto the books to look forward to this year. 2020 had some stellar reads, but with 2021 hopefully looking brighter than the year before, maybe the books will be even better too!
Luster by Raven Leilani. An amazing sounding debut novel, Leilani’s Luster tells the story of Edie, a young woman looking for love in all the wrong places and navigating the racial and sexual politics of day-to-day life. When she meets Eric, a white, middle-aged man with a wife and an adopted black daughter, she finds herself becoming caught up in his family with nowhere else to go.
This has already got great reviews from authors such as Candice Carty-Williams, who wrote 2019’s Queenie, and Leilani looks set to follow in her footsteps in terms of its success. I always love reading debut novels and this one sounds great!
The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing by Sonia Faleiro. It was an ordinary night when Padma and Lalli, went missing from their tiny village in Uttar Pradesh. The next morning, their bodies were found hanging in an orchard. Faleiro’s narrative reportage shines a light on sex and violence in different communities, and the standards that women are held to.
Although I usually lean far more towards fiction than non-fiction, this is such an important story to be told. It looks fascinating and I can’t wait to read, definitely perfect for anyone with an interest in feminist studies and campaigns.
This One Sky Day by Leone Ross. Set in a fictional archipelago called Popisho, where everyone is bored with the magic that they already have, this novel takes place over one day. Two lovers walk across the island towards each other after a rift has separated them. On their journeys, they will each meet people who can encourage them to be ready to accept each other once again.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m a fan of any book which can take me away from where I am when reading it, and this looks like it’ll do just that! Emotive but humorous, this is certainly one for my 2021 reading list.
Ariadne by Jennifer Saint. As a lover of feminist retellings of Greek mythology, I’m so excited to read this. Saint takes the forgotten women of one of the most famous Greek myths, focusing on Ariadne’s choice to help Theseus, and betray her family and country. In a world ruled by gods, Ariadne knows that the wrong decision can cost you everything – will her choice made in the name of life get her what she wants, or will she be sacrificed for Theseus’ own ambition?
This is maybe my most looked forward to publication of the year. Greek mythology has really had resurgence throughout the past few years, with great feminist adaptations coming from writers such as Pat Barker and Madeleine Miller. At the moment I’m reading Natalie Haynes’ Pandora’s Jar and it’s giving me some great feminist Greek background information, so if you’re hoping to read Ariadne then this could be a great one to read while we wait until April!
Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux. Fitzcarraldo Editions always deliver great literature, and this looks to be no exception. An anonymous narrator attempts to chart her relationship with a married foreigner and within the relationship’s aftermath, she begins to piece together shards of a life lived wholly for somebody else, hoping to find some truth within her own existence.
I’m so excited to read this. It reminds me of a Rebecca-esque tale in which there is a clear imbalance within the relationship itself, right down to the anonymous narrator!
So there you have it. The best of last year, and some great new publications to look forward to. I can’t believe I’m saying this but hopefully, in 2021 we’ll have slightly less time for reading (although not too much less with books this exciting!) I’m always looking to expand my reading list, so if any of you have any great recommendations for me then please do drop them, I’d love to hear!
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