Books of the year

My favourite books of 2020

Happy New Year everyone! I know we are all excited and hopeful that 2021 will be happy, healthier and more normal than 2020, but before we step into a brand new year I wanted to look back at what I read over the past 12 months.

I read 83 books in total, which is roughly what I read most years, the only difference being that most of the books were published in 2020. (GoodReads has helpfully listed them all here.)

I don’t normally read so many shiny new books, but in 2020 I went out of my way to support my local independent bookshop (big shout out to New Edition in Fremantle), which bravely kept its doors open all year, including during our first (and thankfully only) six-week shutdown in March/April. I made it a regular habit to visit once a week and to never leave empty-handed! (What a tough challenge — hehehe.)

Also, I think I’m still enjoying the thrill of being able to buy newly published Australian fiction after being unable to do so when I lived in London for two decades! As a consequence, I did buy a lot of  #OzLit, including everything on the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction shortlist and the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist.

My love for Irish fiction didn’t go away either. As per usual, I read all the books on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist — although I abandoned one and had previously read another in 2019, so this wasn’t a particularly difficult “challenge” to complete.

It wasn’t all new, new, new though. In the first half of the year, I embarked on a plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June in a project I dubbed #TBR2020. I actually managed to complete this — which reminds me I really ought to have done a wrap-up post.

I also participated in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer for the fourth time. And while I didn’t quite hit target, I did manage to read 17 books from my TBR — all listed here.

But that’s enough about my projects. What were the books that left a marked impression on me? Without further ado, here they are, all arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Snow’ by John Banville (2020)
Set in County Wexford at Christmas in 1957, Snow is a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House. Evocative, atmospheric and full of brilliant characters, this is historical crime fiction at its finest.

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry (2019)
This story about two 50-something Irish gangsters recalling the ups and downs they have weathered over the years as drug dealers in Cork and Spain is darkly comic but with a mournful undertone.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2020)
Booker-shortlisted novel told in the second person about a well-educated Black woman from Zimbabwe who has fallen on hard times. One of the most powerful pieces of fiction I have ever read.

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan (2020)
I am yet to review this one properly, but it’s an exquisitely written tale about preserving human life at any cost at a time when everything in the natural world is being killed off. A novel full of irony, ideas and issues but is not without humour — or hope.

‘The Butchers’ by Ruth Gilligan (2020)
Unexpectedly immersive, compelling and SURREAL novel set in Ireland during the BSE crisis of 1996. It made me, a fussy carnivore, look at beef consumption in a whole new light.

‘A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline’ by Glenda Guest (2018)
Possibly my favourite book of the year, this richly layered story follows one woman’s journey from Sydney to Perth by train when she discovers she has Alzheimer’s. In Perth she hopes to make amends for a past sin. Along the way we learn about her life.

‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (2020)
Wholly original dystopian tale about a flu pandemic that allows infected people to understand what animals are saying. Terrifying, deliriously strange and blackly comic.

‘The Last of Her Kind’ by Sigrid Nunez (2006)
A totally immersive story set in New York in the late 1960s which follows the ups and downs of an unlikely friendship between two women from different ends of the social spectrum who are roommates at college.

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu (2020)
This seriously impressive debut novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out. Brash, sex-obsessed and memorable.

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ Anne Tyler (2020)
Perceptive and warm-hearted tale of a 40-something man whose dull, predictable life gets turned on its head. Tyler is a genius at writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations and this one is no exception.

I trust you have discovered some wonderful books and writers this year despite everything that has been going on around the world. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2020, I’d love to know?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2020 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

37 thoughts on “My favourite books of 2020”

  1. What a great selection, and I am so pleased to see Cassandra Aberline in there, that was such a beautiful book and a rare example of an older woman character in control of her life despite the most challenging of circumstances.
    I’m pleased to se Mournable Body there too: I’ve had this on reserve at the library for ages (me and a gazillion other readers I suppose). So that’s something to look forward to, the other Bookerees from 2020 have been a variable lot IMO.
    LOL we are back to hard borders… every time I think, oh hell, why don’t I just get on a plane and visit Kim, wham! The door shuts. Don’t tell Nathan but I have a secret plan to be there at his book launch so they’d better have the border open by then!

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    1. Thanks, Lisa. I have you to thank for introducing me to Cassandra Aberline, because I remembered your review so when I saw it in a local second hand store here in Freo I just had to buy it. What an unexpected treat it turned out to be… a near perfect novel I reckon – the structure, the character, the descriptions, the back story gently fleshed out as the train moves towards Perth and the wonderful resolution at the end!

      The Mournable Body is not an easy book to read (or like) but there was something about it that really appealed to me, it was quite unlike anything I’ve ever read and the sense of injustice documented in its pages made me livid! I borrowed my copy from the library too and had to read it in record time because someone else had put a hold on it.

      Be wonderful if you did come to Perth, but as I keep saying to T, I’m not leaving the state any time soon because the WA premier has a penchant, rightly of course, to slam the border shut and I don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of it!

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  2. I thought ‘Night Boat to Tangier’ was excellent. However, I am a fan of Anne Tyler going way back to the beginning of her career, but I didn’t think ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ quite measured up to her past career.

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    1. I think we’ve had this discussion about Anne Tyler before 😂 I’ve read almost all her books (most of them pre-blog) having discovered her when I was 17 and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was a set text at school. I reckon Redhead is high up there in terms of her style, themes etc. I loved it.

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  3. Great list kimbofo. I’ve read the Glenda Guest (a shame it didn’t get more profile I think), and Anne Tyler. I’ll be reading This mournable body with my reading group next year. I gave The animals in that country to Daughter Gums for Easter but am not sure I ever heard whether she liked it or not. I nearly wrote in my reading highlights the fact that I don’t think I read one dystopian novel this year, which had nothing to do with my avoiding them but with their just not coming my way for some reason.

    I’d like to read the Flanagan and the Tu also. In fact nothing in your list looks like something I’d eschew so good choice!!

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    1. Thanks, Sue. I seem to have read more than my fair share of dystopian fiction this year… I read a lot of pandemic stuff in March/April/May… goodness knows why but at the time it was kind of comforting in the sense that humans have always gone through pandemics and got out the other side safely in due course… I think the issue is that now we travel so freely, right across the world, and that’s really caused a lot of problems that probably wouldn’t have been the case at the time of the Spanish flu.

      The Flanagan and Tu are highly recommended. Ditto for The Mournable Body. I reckon that would be a great one for a book group – there’s so much to discuss in it. When I finished it I wanted to talk to someone about it but didn’t know anyone who had read it! I’m keen to read the previous two in the trilogy but I think I am going to have to place a special order to get them…

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  4. Great post. You have prompted me to read ‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay because I recently stumbled upon ‘The Last Circus on Earth’ by B P Marshall and enjoyed its dystopian spec-fic drama. Happy new year reading!

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    1. I just looked up ‘The Last Circus on Earth’ by B P Marshall — it sounds amazing. I don’t much like books set in the circus, but I might make an exception for this one. How did you hear about it?

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    1. The Butchers was such an intriguing read… I’ve recently been watching “The Chef’s Table” on Netflix, a documentary series about chefs from around the world and the backstories about how they got into cooking and their food philosophies etc and the episodes I’m most interested in are about the chefs who are really into MEAT and BUTCHERING, which is kind of odd because I haven’t eaten red meat in 30 years, but the whole way they treat the animals etc is just fascinating. And it soooo reminds me of Gilligan’s novel.

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  5. You read some wonderful books, you’ll have me reading contemporary fiction one day. And I’ve had a reminder to chase up This Mournable Body for some time.
    I finally got out of iso and down to Freo on the 24th, talk about last minute shopping. I’d been recommended a shop I didn’t know about, around the corner from New Editions – Paper Bird, which is supposedly for children but actually has a wide selection of Indigenous Books. Worth a look!

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    1. I think I read more than my fair share of contemporary lit in 2020… my resolution for 2021 is to read more backlist stuff! Glad you finally got out of iso… you have done more than your fair share of that this year… and that you discovered Paper Bird. I bought Christmas presents for my nieces there in 2019 and was surprised to discover it was such an Aladdin’s Cave. I can’t recall seeing the indigenous books, but then I wasn’t looking for them at the time.

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  6. Sigrid Nunez has popped up a few times this year, so I’m glad to see her on your list of favourites. She sounds like my kind of writer, and the 1960s setting definitely appeals. One for the future, for sure.

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  7. I haven’t read any of these books, mostly because I wait for books to be in paperback before reading them.

    I’ve seen this Richard Flanagan several times and I should read him. I just don’t know if I should read him in translation or if I can read him in English.

    I’ll read the John Banville, I’m sure I’ll like it.

    Happy reading for 2021!

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    1. Thanks, Emma. We don’t tend to get hardcovers here, so all the new books I read were large format paperbacks, which I am not a huge fan of. That said the Flanagan was published in hardcover and they did a beautiful job of it… underneath the dustjacket was a beautiful imprint of bird feathers in a gorgeous green and blue.

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  8. A lovely list, different from mine but fascinating. I will be reading Anne Tyler’s Redhead next December at the end of my year of reading all of Anne Tyler (re-reading all but the last two, but after sometimes decades!). Happy 2021 reading and bookshop-visiting!

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  9. Thank you, thank you yet again, for a brilliant year of reviews. Many of the book choices I make are based on your recommendations – and Jennifer Johnson, (and much Irish fiction) – has always been a favourite. You write so succinctly, yet capture the essence of books, which is helpful and admirable. I’ll continue to devour your words throughout 2021.

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    1. Thank you, Heather, that’s a lovely thing to say. Sometimes I write these reviews and wonder if anyone is actually read them or cares that they can occasionally take me days and days to put together! It’s nice to know my efforts are appreciated. Hope you have a wonderful year of reading ahead of you 🙂

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  10. Thank you for sharing your favorites and for blogging! I love reading your reviews. I have not read any of these but will definitely soon. My favs of 2020 include: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel (Wendy from Canada)

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