2020 might’ve been garbage, but at least the books I managed to read over the past 12 months weren’t. Here are my top 10 reads from this year, featuring (fairly) recent work by two of my faves (Carmen Maria Machado and Eimear McBride), as well as new authors and voices I can’t wait to hear more from.
Best of 2020 // In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
This book is such a gift. I’ve had my eye on In the Dream House since its release in late 2019, but somehow I haven’t picked it up until now — shortly after ending an emotionally abusive relationship. This stunning memoir, written in an inventive, genre-probing style that’s both wildly impressive and quietly revelatory, cuts straight to the heart of emotional and physical abuse in ways that have slapped me in the face from page to page. I’m not religious by any means, but I genuinely believe the universe kept this book from my hands until now for a reason. I will read anything Machado writes.
Buy it now from our Bookshops in the US or UK
Favorite New Author // Sayaka Murata (Earthlings and Convenience Store Woman - both translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
I read both of Sayaka Murata’s novels this year (Convenience Store Woman back in April and Earthlings more recently in November), and I’m just so damn excited to read anything that emerges from her incredible oddball brain in the future. Weird, wonderful, and surreal, both of these works explore themes of self-awareness and self-actualization within restrictive societies that attempt to stifle difference and divergence. While both are excellent, the unbelievably strange and shocking Earthlings is my favorite of the two — and it’s much, much darker than its predecessor.
Cult Favorite I Only Just Now Read // A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Oh, man. I loved this beautiful book so much. A Tale for the Time Being was my first (and remains my only) Ozeki, though I’m hoping to read more from her in 2021. An exquisite meditation on death, memory, and time, this novel calmly explores many of our most daunting existential questions: how much agency do we have over our own lives? What does it mean to die? And what, for that matter, does it really mean to live? If you’re at all intrigued by the concept of death (I’m fascinated by it), this gorgeous work will be unforgettable.
Most Emotional // The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Eimear McBride’s writing style is strange, fragmented, and enchanting — but it’s also polarizing. A blend of stream-of-consciousness, thought snippets, and “normal” prose, it’s very much love-it-or-hate-it, and I’m so glad I love it. The Lesser Bohemians tells the story of an affair between an 18-year-old Irish girl and a much older British actor, and it’s a goddamn gut punch in the way it chronicles the absolute agony of obsessive love. This one had me holding back sobs on the bus.
Most Inexplicably Unputdownable // My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
How is it that a novel with such an utterly unlikeable lead feels so compelling and propulsive? Is it because so many of us millennial women see ourselves in her disillusionment, her depression, her desire to retreat from the world? Whatever the reason, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a remarkable character study — a deep dive into a traumatized psyche that’s constantly in conflict with itself. An utterly absorbing look at depression and mental health, cloaked in a critique of mindless consumerism and a frank, unvarnished portrayal of vice and addiction.
Most Provocative // My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
The one that was on everyone’s Most Anticipated of 2020 lists. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel is a story of obsession, abuse, and psychological trauma framed in the context of a relationship between a 15-year-old girl and her 42-year-old English teacher. It asks hard, painful questions about agency and power while challenging, interrogating, and confirming widely held notions about the nature of emotionally and sexually abusive relationships. Immensely powerful and deeply unsettling.
The “Finally Read It” // Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Yes, I majored in English, and no, I hadn’t read Wuthering Heights until this year. I love the prose characteristic of classics of this era (see Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice) and thoroughly enjoyed sifting through Emily Brontë’s skilled exploration of the intersection of love, obsession, ownership, and violence. Also found it fascinating that much of the book’s descriptors point to Heathcliff being Black, and yet he’s seldom depicted as such in the myriad film and television adaptations of this novel.
The One that Lived Up to the Hype // Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
In book land, there are few things worse than being disappointed by a story you thought you’d love, so I’m always a little hesitant to pick up novels with a hype train like that attached to Where the Crawdads Sing. Luckily, this one deserves the praise. A gorgeously told, sorrowful story of love, isolation, betrayal, and belonging, this is a richly detailed exploration of the toll that loneliness takes on the soul and psyche. Atmospheric and absorbing.
Best Under-the-Radar // In the Distance by Hernán Díaz
In the Distance was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer, but to this day, I’ve still only seen one review of it on Bookstagram. I put it on my list immediately after reading said review, and I’m so glad I did. Relentlessly brutal, quietly and explicitly cruel, and achingly sad, this beautiful piece of writing recounts one man’s journey across the American frontier. A plaintive tale of loss and love, it is, at its core, resolutely and heartbreakingly lonely. Hernán Díaz writes of a broken America — one that rewards wealth and greed, dashes dreams and falls short of expectations, and takes everything and gives nothing. It felt to me like a fitting fable for our times.