One (the only?) good thing about a pandemic is that it certainly frees up time in the long empty evenings and weekends for reading. I will have read 100 books during 2020, breaking my previous records by a significant percentage. (I know this because I’m a fully signed up book nerd and log all my books on Goodreads.)
My top 10 reads, in terms of enjoyment/grippingness rather than admiration alone (they’re not always the same thing!) are listed here, in no particular order.
Broken April by Albania’s most famous export, Ismail Kadare, is not a new book, but it was new to me, and its mixture of melodrama and fable really grabbed me when I read and reviewed it in the winter.
The Shadow King by Ethiopian-born writer Maaza Mengiste provided an insight into a chunk of African history I knew nothing about. I reviewed it just before the pandemic hit and found it thrilling and moving. The novel was later shortlisted for the UK’s Booker Prize, so I must be getting something right.
Prolific US author T. C. Boyle’s LSD-laced novel Outside Looking In provides a vicarious, reimagined insight into the living experiment embarked upon by charismatic showman shaman Timothy Leary and his followers in the 1960s, and I could not put it down.
Argentinian-author Samanta Schweblin, whose novella Fever Dream is highly regarded (reviewed by me here), followed it up with an even better book, Little Eyes. Longlisted for the Booker International Prize, I would have been tempted to read it based on the cover alone (see above), but it really brings the boys to the yard. It’s a speculative novel based around the concept of a kind of newly designed Furby with a consciousness. The conceit works!
The astounding Second World War memoir When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains by Venezuelan-born writer Ariana Neumann is part detective story, part boys’ own adventure and part devastating family memoir. I tore through it and my review is here.
The Bass Rock by British-Australian writer Evie Wylde (2020) is cleverly structured like a Russian doll, a bit Gothic, and a totally gripping – and often very witty – tale of female subjugation and endurance throughout time.
The nastily compelling novella You Should Have Left by the phenomenal German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann was polished off in less than a day, but has stayed on the edges of my consciousness ever since. A book that makes a self-aware nod to Kubrick’s The Shining, it really gave me the creeps.
I was also enthralled by the devastating Trinidadian family tale Golden Child by Claire Adam, a book that any parent will find hard to forget, and the winner of the Desmond Elliot prize for debut novelists in 2019. I reviewed it here.
I reviewed American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins early in the year. It tells a gripping and thrilling tale of the treacherous journey many Mexican would-be migrants feel compelled to take, though some thought that as a US citizen Cummins wasn’t the right person to be telling this story (I don’t agree).
And I was charmed by Miss Austen, published in 2020, by British writer Gill Hornby, which told a enormously enjoyable fictionalised tale of the fate of writer Jane Austen’s real life missing letters (and, if you’re keen on audio books, the audio version is read by the engaging Juliet Stevenson).
Finally, here are a few more honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the top 10:
Tove Ditlevsen’s amazing and engrossing ‘Copenhagen trilogy’ (published in English in 2019, and read and reviewed by me in 2019, too early to make the cut for 2020, but I didn’t do a round-up last year, so here it is).
Italian novelist Claudio Morandini’s Snow, Dog, Foot, published by Peirene and reviewed on the blog in February, was another unexpected joy.
The Sickness by Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka was thankfully Covid-19-free and another great read.
What are your top reads of 2020? Have you read any of my favourites?