Top 10 Favourite Books of 2020

As we welcome in a new year (hopefully less ghastly than the last one), I thought I’d take a look back at my favourite books of 2020.

Like so many other people my reading was affected by the pandemic. Though I had more time available to read, I didn’t have the necessary powers of concentration. So I read far fewer books in 2020 than I have for many years. But among those that I did read, there were ten that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

The books that made it to my list of favourites are a mix of fiction and non fiction, of the super-long and the very slim. One thing they have in common: they are books that have left the deepest and more enduring impressions. I will likely forget the plot details and almost certainly forget the characters’ names but I will not forget the sensations and emotions generated by these books.

My favourite books are ones that have distracted me from the frightening state of the world. Not because they are ‘uplifting’ or ‘feel-good’ but because they have given me new ideas to consider and new spaces to explore.

Here are my ten favourite books, in alphabetical order of their author’s surname. Each link will take you to my review or to the relevant Goodreads entry.

Cover images of 5 Favourite books from 2020
Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

My friends reacted with raised eyebrows when I told them early in the year that I was reading a book about a doctor who tends people reaching the end of their life. Not the most cheering of subjects admittedly but Clarke shows that even in these circumstances there can be joy. Hers is a candid yet overwhelmingly sensitive and moving account of her work as a palliative specialist, finding ways to help her patients experience love and pleasure in their darkest days.  

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

I loved every element of this novel about one day in the lives of three women. They live in different decades and different countries but Cunningham weaves them together through motifs and the ways in which they try to find meaning in their life. My favourite character is Laura Brown who tries to be the perfect wife and mother but is desperately unhappy, feeling confined by motherhood and marriage.

The Girl With The Louding Voice by Abi Daré

This debut novel is further proof that there are some wonderfully talented authors emerging from Africa. Daré brings us an unforgettable protagonist, a Nigerian girl who dreams of a life as a teacher but is shackled by expectations that as a woman she has a duty to marry and bear children. Adunni has a distinctive voice that speaks out against domestic slavery and forced marriage.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North is one of my 3 favourite Booker Prize novels but this earlier novel has made an even greater impact on me. The fractured relationship between a father and daughter is painfully evoked in scenes that have a strong filmic quality. I loved too the historical detail of life during the 1950s in Tasmania.

The Mirror And The Light by Hilary Mantel

This third and final title in Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell is memorable for many reasons. It was the last book I purchased in a bricks and mortar book shop before they were all closed by government decree in the UK. It was the book I started reading on day one of the lockdown in March and it took me right through that lockdown, reading the final pages just before the rules were relaxed. It was also the longest book I read this year at more than 800 pages.

Having adored the previous titles (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), I was impatient for Mantel to finish the sequence. She didn’t disappoint me at all. Though the career and fate of Cromwell is a matter of historical record Mantel takes us behind the facts into the mind of a complex man who occupies one of the highest positions in the land but can never shake off the ghosts of his lowly beginnings.

Covers of 5 favourite books from 2020
A Meal In Winter by Hubert Mingarelli

I read this stark tale as part of Novellas in November. Mingarelli uses a narrative of three soldiers who embark on a mission one bitterly cold day to pose complex moral questions about culpability and responsibility of those involved in the Holocaust. A chillingly haunting read that has made me want to read more of Mingarelli’s work.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Shakespeare’s wife Anne (or more correctly Agnes) has always been a shadowy figure in accounts of his life, a person who, in the popular imagination, stayed in Stratford while he swanned about in London and then made to suffer the indignity of receiving only his “second-best” bed in his will. Maggie O’Farrell brings her alive in Hamnet, showing her as a woman with talents of her own and a huge capacity for love. It’s richly atmospheric novel that transports you to a sixteenth century household.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik

In this slim book of 125 pages the Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik provides a tense and completely engrossing tale of one night in the life of a young boy and his mother. He goes out alone, wandering through the snowy streets of his village. His mother goes out too, completely oblivious to his whereabouts. This isn’t a thriller however, but a cleverly constructed and thought-provoking work that forces us to question the mother’s actions and attitudes.

10 Minutes, 38 Seconds In This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Istanbul has long been on my wishlist of places to visit. I almost made it only for my work trip to be cancelled (three times in fact). Thanks to Elif Shafak’s engrossing novel I could at last experience the smells and sounds of the city. It’s a novel of the senses as a woman recalls her youth and the friends she made at every stage of her life, friends who are now searching for her body. An absolutely wonderful novel.

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

This memoir by the award-winning poet trace the injustice he suffered as a child in the hands of the British social care system. He grew up believing – incorrectly – his mother had abandoned him. It’s a damning indictment of the way some children are failed by the very system that is meant to protect them.

i wonder if any of my choices make it to your lists for the year?

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

36 thoughts on “Top 10 Favourite Books of 2020

  • January 14, 2021 at 10:07 pm
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    Congrats on a good reading year! The year that I read The Hours, it was on my favourites list too. Just beautiful and so many layers to unfold and appreciate. Otherwise, I’ve read other books by some of the authors you’ve enjoyed, like Elif Shafak. Her Bastard of Istanbul is also very good (you probably saw mention of it recently on another reader’s blog too–I think it was Ali’s?). Happy 2021!

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    • January 16, 2021 at 9:38 pm
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      You have a good memory, yes indeed it was on Ali’s site that I saw the book mentioned. I’ve now downloaded an audio version using my Audible account before I close it down

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  • January 7, 2021 at 10:49 pm
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    What a nice list — I really enjoyed looking at it. I read The Hours many years ago and enjoyed it very much; I’d like to read more of Cunningham’s work. I’ve seen Hamnet on so many “best of” lists its now on my own “try to get to it this year” list. As for Mantel — she is wonderful, isn’t she? Her work just seems to get better over time. I loved the first two novels in her Cromwell trilogy but must admit I’ve put off reading The Mirror and the Light; we all know what’s coming and I hate to see it happen to one of my favorite fictional characters (I do get so emotional about these things!). Shafak is definitely on my radar (I’ve just gotten a copy of 10 Minutes and hope to get to it soon) so it’s nice to know you thought her book lived up to the hype (also,like you, Istanbul is a place I’ve longed to see). Flanagan, welllllllll . . . I think he’s tremendously talented but The Narrow Road To The Deep North lost a bit of its appeal for me about halfway through (perhaps I should try another of his novels).
    Happy belated New Year, with best wishes for many great reads in 2021!

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    • January 10, 2021 at 5:27 pm
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      Hi Janakay, I do know what you mean about Mirror and Light but just want to reassure you that though we know how it ends, it/s how Mantel gets us there that I found fascinating.

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  • January 4, 2021 at 8:47 pm
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    I went the opposite direction and knocked my goal out of the park, but that’s because I went incredibly lowbrow and enjoyed every minute of it in 2020 😀 I enjoyed The Hours when I read it a few years ago and am looking forward to Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy which I plan to conquer at some point this year. Happy 2021 to you!

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    • January 5, 2021 at 10:53 am
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      Hi Geoff, good to hear from you. I hope 2021 will be a safe and happy one for you. Read whatever gives you pleasure is my motto right now. We have too much else going on to worry that we’e not reading the ‘right stuff”

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  • January 3, 2021 at 7:27 pm
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    I’m very pleased to see The Girl With the Louding Voice on there as it was one of my top books for the year too. What a lovely selection – and happy reading for 2021.

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    • January 4, 2021 at 6:19 pm
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      We had a great discussion about Louding Voice at our book club yesterday – some people loved it, no-one disliked it. Which is very unusual

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  • January 3, 2021 at 1:22 pm
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    read two of the books the Elif novel that was on the booker list i liked that and love which i enjoyed but prefer her other book that peirene brought out the blue room

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  • January 2, 2021 at 11:15 am
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    I have two books I must buy before I go back to work – The Girl with the Louding Voice and This Mournable Body. I hope they don’t lament too long on the TBR.

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    • January 2, 2021 at 6:18 pm
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      Our book club is meeting tomorrow to talk about “Louding Voice” – will be interesting to hear if the other members enjoyed it as much as I did. I think Kim at Reading Matters also loved it

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  • January 2, 2021 at 12:02 am
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    Some of my favourites are here too, what a great (reading) year you’ve had!

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    • January 2, 2021 at 6:21 pm
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      Yes it was a mixed bag of a year really – disappointing not to have read more but at least there were plenty of books that I loved

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  • January 1, 2021 at 11:55 pm
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    Interesting choices, Karen. You say you didn’t read as much this year, but it looks like the ones you did read were pretty good!

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    • January 2, 2021 at 6:22 pm
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      I’m more than happy to sacrifice quantity for quality. It frustrates me to read too many books that are just ‘ok’.

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  • January 1, 2021 at 11:46 pm
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    I haven’t read anynof these but I think about reading the Hours. But , as they are not on my TBR shelf they will all have to wait. 🐧🌻

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    • January 2, 2021 at 6:23 pm
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      Understand you completely. Only a few days ago I said I would try really hard not to buy anything new for a few months but I’m already getting so tempted by books I hear about from other bloggers

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  • January 1, 2021 at 11:25 pm
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    I haven’t read any of these however Dear Life, Love, and Hamnet are in the TBR stack. Initially wasn’t sure about Hamnet (I’m not mad for historical fiction) but my best-IRL-reading-buddy rated it her top book for 2020, so I added it.

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    • January 2, 2021 at 6:24 pm
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      while it’s impossible to ignore the historical context completely it doesn’t get in the way of what is essentially a story of love and grief

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  • January 1, 2021 at 8:30 pm
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    Happy New Year! The Mirror and the Light was the last book I bought in a bookshop in March too, but once lockdown began I found that I couldn’t concentrate on such a long and complex book. I’m planning to start it again soon and am expecting to love it as much as you did!

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    • January 2, 2021 at 6:26 pm
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      I found it did take concentration because there are many characters who keep popping up and I had to check back to the list at the beginning of the book to refresh my memory of who they were. But as the book moved on I found the quality of the prose and the dynamics of the character overcame that

      Reply
  • January 1, 2021 at 6:20 pm
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    Happy New Year! What an interesting list of favourites! About 50% of your picks are on my reading list for 2021 – looking forward to reading them! 😀

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  • January 1, 2021 at 6:18 pm
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    I’m so happy to see Hamnet and Louding Girl on your list! Two of my favs! 🙌

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    • January 2, 2021 at 6:27 pm
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      So happy to hear that we have these wonderful books in common

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  • January 1, 2021 at 6:10 pm
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    I’m impressed that you limited your favourite books of the year to only ten, Karen, for me it would have to be either three or four titles or else half the books I got through in 2020!

    Many of your titles have been well lauded in recent years, and I can see why, and that you also rate them is a further indication of their worth, but I tend to go for books I’m in the mood for and ‘worthiness’ hasn’t been a criterion for me this year, sadly. And I’m not too certain of 2021 either! But we’ll see — I may yet take the plunge…

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    • January 2, 2021 at 6:32 pm
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      At one point I was just going to make a list of 5 books but it proved too difficult !

      Read whatever you want whenever you want is my motto. I know there are some readers who feel they have to be on top of the new releases and be among the first to read them but I prefer to wait …

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      • January 2, 2021 at 7:53 pm
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        I can never understand the rush to be first to enjoy new releases, whether books, trainers or the latest i-phone — and anyway I wouldn’t want to (or rather couldn’t) afford the outlay. (I’ve long stopped asking for review copies.) My motto is the same as your motto, unsurprisingly!

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  • January 1, 2021 at 5:56 pm
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    I’m so pleased to see Mingarelli in your top ten, Karen. My partner has been immersed in The Mirror and the Light all week.

    I was one of the lucky ones who buried themselvs in reading and blogging (and walking) which kept me going through 2020. Let’s hope that 2021 offers better times for all, and some excellent reading.

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    • January 2, 2021 at 6:34 pm
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      The Mantel is very much an immersive novel I found.
      Yes walking has been a great help – we managed to meet up as a Nordic Walking Group for a few weeks during the summer when the restrictions got relaxed but of course I’m now back on solo trips.

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  • January 1, 2021 at 5:40 pm
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    I’ve been meaning to read The Hours for so many years! Must bump it up the pile. Happy New Year to you x

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  • January 1, 2021 at 5:16 pm
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    I’ve seen Hamnet on a lot of lists. Maybe I’ll get to it in 2021. Dear Life has also been on my radar. The rest sound great too…oh dear, so many books!

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    • January 2, 2021 at 6:35 pm
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      I know the feeling Lory – I have to keep reminding myself that I cannot possibly read every book that I come across which sounds good.

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    • January 2, 2021 at 6:36 pm
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      So far the indications are that we’re in for a horrid first quarter. I’m starting to think of projects to keep me occupied.

      Reply

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