Jessica's Best Books of 2020

This post is late. I’m sorry. But that’s because 2020 was a bit of a shit year for lots of reasons. And do you know what must have been really shit? Spending years of your life working on a book, and then it being released in a year where you can’t have a book tour, can’t go see it in book shops, can’t even have a launch party with more than a handful of friends inside. I can imagine this was really especially shit for debut novelists.


So this isn’t the ‘best of 2020’ post I planned to write. I actually didn’t even plan to write one because I read a lot of older books this year, thanks to an overflowing virtual TBR pile I created from the ‘best of the decade’ posts from last year. And, you know, 2020.


Instead, this is a celebration of ALL of the books that I read that made it into bookshops in 2020, most of which were debuts. (Except for the 4 I didn’t like. My resolution for 2021 is to be nicer, so I didn’t feel the need to call those out. I said ‘nicer’ not ‘less petty.’)


‘Best of’ posts are incredibly helpful, but we all scan through them looking for nuggets that appeal to our personal sensibility. So I’m going to do my top 3 books of 2020, and then shout out the best of the rest in a chaotic list, with some thoughts on who might love them. So you can still scan this list looking for what calls out to you.


Happy reading in 2021, and support your favourite authors. Pre-order, review, follow and share on social media. (And of course, shop local and small.)


MY TOP 3 OF 2020




1. Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam


I was tempted to just do a top book of the year and leave it at that. This book shook me in ways I don’t think a review can do justice to. But I know this is technically a review so I’m going to have to try. It’s more of a congratulations than a review at this stage, I guess, or a Knighthood. Congratulations, Rumaan Alam, on your flawless book, and the fake Knighthood I have given you in response.


I don’t want to give too much away because this book thrives on its weirdness and the surprises it throws at you. But if you like uncomfortable social dynamics, deep family observations and eerie hints towards the end of life as we know it, this is for you.


I’ve recommended it to so many people. (Most recently, I enjoyed a series of 5am texts from a friend who’s not a huge reader of more than internet websites but had just finished it in two sittings.) And my most frequently used phrase to recommend it was ‘this is great for people who usually go for a bit of dystopia but can’t face the full apocalypse because currently it’s too close to home’.


Please read this. The end.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



2. Luster by Raven Leilani (debut!)


Look I don’t know if this book came out this year. I really don’t. I read it in October and recommended it to a tonne of people here in the UK, and they said it wasn’t available. I didn’t even have a review copy, I just preordered it on my Kindle.


Sidenote: support authors. Pre-order books. It’s a huge help as it shows publishers and bookshops that it’s in-demand. And you get a fun gift from past you, and maybe you read a book that people say isn’t even out yet. Do it.


Okay logistics aside, this book is sexy as hell, even when I wasn’t sure I was meant to find it sexy. It’s got one of those deeply uncomfortable social dynamics at the centre of it that makes you squirm but turn the page regardless. The discomfort comes from race, from sexuality, from age, from expectation—all masterfully packaged up in a story that’s compulsive and strange, and told with exceptional prose that makes even the most modern, mundane observations a beautiful read.


A big fat recommend from me.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



3. Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid (debut!)


Okay again, no idea if this book came out this year? Google says December 31st 2019. But realistically we all read it in 2020 so it makes my list.


I’m not sure I need to write a single sentence about this book because I believe every single person in the world has read it? I was put off at first because of the title. I, a 30 year old married woman, find books that are probably about children off-putting because that feels like something people older than me do. I am wrong about this fact, and I was wrong about the book.


Big shout out to a book that’s deeply accessible but manages to reveal so much about race and psychology and gender without feeling like you’re reading theory. Big shout out, too, to the cutest toddler I have ever found in the pages of a book.


And would you believe it, this book also has an uncomfortable social dynamic centred on race and age at the centre of it. I think I may have a type? Please recommend me other books I would love based on this trend.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK


WRITER’S NOTE: I am being INCREDIBLY strict with this top 3 and not numbering the rest. But I really recommend all of them or they wouldn’t be on this list. I hope you find something you love here and give 2020’s authors some appreciation, broken down into categories for ease.



BOOKS ABOUT WOMEN WHO LIVE IN LONDON AND WORK IN THE MEDIA AND ARE QUITE LIKE

ME AND MY FRIENDS




Ghosts by Dolly Alderton


Sometimes I just like reading books about people with lives exactly like mine and my friends, in small London flats with jobs in media that our parents don’t understand, with disappointing men on dating apps. If you like those things, too, this is a very good take on that genre. A standout for me was the parent/daughter relationship in this.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Olive by Emma Gannon (debut!)


Another great example of ‘books about people with lives exactly like mine and my friends’. This one particularly made me miss running around London and going to dinners and pubs and parties with different groups of friends but ultimately always discussing whether or not we should have children—which is what this book explores so well.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue


Oh look, another wonderful example of ‘books about people with lives exactly like mine and my friends’. This one’s about a girl who lives in London but is actually set on a remote island in Ireland and has a spooky family mystery running alongside the lovely and relatable protagonist’s own personal discoveries. Recommended for anyone on a creative career path that isn’t quite leading in the direction you want, or people who like depictions of cute dogs in books.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth


Okay I *think* this is the last one in that genre I just made up. But it’s also a very, very good one. If you’ve ever been on an Instagram spiral, particularly in the wake of a break up or a bad day at work, then this is very much the book for you.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Boy Parts by Eliza Clark (debut!)


Okay this is the last one. I’m putting this one here although the protagonist has left London for Newcastle by the time the book starts. When I say I devoured this, I mean I gave myself insomnia because I had to stay up to finish it. Never have I related so much to a character who is almost certainly psychopathic. Never has a book’s punctuation so closely reflected that I use in my daily life. It’s about an artist who takes fetish pictures of men for a living and that’s all I’m telling you.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the UK

BONUS: If you love reading about Women Like Us in London, you probably won’t mind hopping over to New York. I did that a few times this year, with Jamie Attenberg’s All Grown Up (2017) and Places I Stopped On The Way Home by Meg Fee (2017).



BOOKS ABOUT SEXUAL ASSAULT




True Story by Kate Reed Petty (debut!)


An accessible genre-mash of the ripples of a sexual assault on a girl in college. It’s more than its experimental gimmick and should definitely be adapted for screen.


Read my full review here.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth (debut!)


Set on the backdrop of a hot summer that is so well written the pages feel sticky to turn, this is a compulsive read about what happens at a school when a girl goes missing told mostly from the perspective of her teacher and family friend—with layers of motherhood, friendship, lust and obsession underneath.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (debut!)


A book that you both don’t want to put down and want to read through your fingers. It’s about a girl who was groomed by her teacher, and then grows up and tells her story. So many layers of psychology and sexuality and trauma, that combines for a dark but gripping read seeped in 00s nostalgia.


Read The Book Slut roundtable.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Men Who Hate Women by Laura Bates


A nonfiction book about the cesspit hidden parts of the internet that plays host to incels and pick-up artists and other associated subgroups of men who are often described as ‘harmless’ or ‘the minority’ by the media, but are actually incredibly dangerous and abundant. This book will make you mad and scared but it is nothing short of essential reading.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK

BONUS: While not explicitly about assault, I also read Machine by Susan Stenberg (2020) which is an unconventional novel with more semicolons on the first page than I’ve correctly used in my whole life about the aftermath of a drowning and the teenagers it impacts, and covers similar themes and stylistic experiments.



BOOKS ABOUT TECH



Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner (debut!)


This book reads like a novel and stings like a fully-fledged takedown of one of the most corrupt industries the world has seen. A first-person look at the inside world of tech that I devoured at super speed and was probably my most-recommended read of the year.


Read my full review here .


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism by Wendy Liu (debut!)


Another genre I really got into this year, books about Silicon Valley told people who lived it and left. This one, as the name suggests, offers more of a solution-based critique of the capitalism that drives the tech industry, and I recommend reading this and Uncanny Valley together.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Self Care by Leigh Stein


A book about social media and startups and the wellbeing industry and influence that makes you despise all of it and question all of your own behaviour, and then post about how that makes you feel on Instagram before returning to your endless scroll.


Read my full review here.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK

BONUS: The Cambridge Analytica scandal would make a helluva novel, if it wasn’t all real. I read a few books about this in 2020 for research on a project, and Christopher Wylie’s Mindf*ck (2019) was definitely the most gripping and exhaustive.




BOOKS ABOUT COMING OF AGE AND CAMPUS-ISH NOVELS




Real Life by Brandon Taylor (debut!)


A poetic coming-of age story about a queer, black man studying biochemistry at a midwestern university that will probably break you but in the kind of way that you get completely lost in and cannot put down.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames (debut!)


A very special book that will stay with me for a long time, for lovers of poetic and mysterious campus novels, and complicated female relationships that evolve and change as we do.


Read my full review here.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Wonderland by Juno Dawson


OBSESSED with this modern retelling of Alice in Wonderland, with Alice as a trans schoolgirl and set in the seedy secret world of London’s elite high society. I read this in a day and bought it for many people as Christmas presents because it was so fun and charming. (Not really a campus story as it’s about a school girl and mostly takes place at a party, but ultimately what is elite high society if not a perpetuation of campus stereotypes? Close enough.)


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the UK

BONUS: Lots of my reading this year was obviously inspired by forcing my husband to read The Secret History (“I just don’t get it. Why is this everyone’s favourite book?”) I read The Truants by Kate Weinberg (2019), The Furies by Katie Lowe (2019) and Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas (2019) and these will scratch the same reading itch. Which sounds grosser than I mean it to.



BOOKS ABOUT MAINLY

SAD WOMEN




Sat Janet by Lucie Britsch (debut!)


You know how everyone spends a lot of time arguing about whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas film? Well I spent a lot of time arguing with myself about whether or not this is a Christmas book. I think it is and it isn’t, so the good news is you can read it now. It’s the funniest book about depression you’ll ever read, about a woman who works in a dog shelter and goes on an experimental Christmas-themed antidepressant.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Jillian by Halle Butler


This came out a while ago in the US but got a UK release in 2020 after the success of The New Me a couple of years ago, so I’m putting it in here. It’s about two women who work in a doctor’s office and ignore each other in favour of self obsession, as their lives gradually spiral.


Read my full review.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (debut!)


Note to critics: just because a book is very good and about an Irish woman in her 20s who experiences emotions, you don’t have to compare it to Sally Rooney. This is a book about an Irish girl teaching English in Hong Kong and her psychological state and the relationships she forms, and I liked its dry humour and linguistic interrogations very much.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK



Death in her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh


Okay this is about a woman in her 70s who is struggling with various issues, one of them being sadness. It’s crime book you can get lost in for a couple of days that isn’t a crime thriller and is more a psychological interrogation of the narrator, and it’s gross and intimate but also lovely.


Read my full review here.


Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK

BONUS: My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), also by Ottessa Moshfegh, was my favourite re-read of the year. It was the subject of the drunkest The Book Slut book club which was a highlight of lockdown 1. And I also forced my husband to read this and he loved it.