2 things I love about the end of the year: the holidays, which allow me time to live life a little slower and read more, and the inevitable end of year reflecting. Mix those together and this blog post magically appears (yes it’s January now, but bare with me). I love reading blogs recommending books – in fact, many books I read are the result of blog or instagram recommendations – so maybe this post will help you find your next favourite read! Here are some of my top reads of 2020: adult fiction, non-fiction and children’s fiction. I’m a primary school teacher, so read a lot of children’s fiction, but honestly I’d recommend these to adults too!
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (adult fiction)
This had been on my radar for months, but it wasn’t until it was chosen for my book club that I got round to reading Dolan’s breakout novel. In the press, Exciting Times has been compared to Sally Rooney’s Normal People – one of my favourites – and I can see why. But Exciting Times should be praised in and of itself too.
It sees Ava, an overthinking, young, Irish millennial, move to Hong Kong. Ava’s intimacy issues and anxieties are the main focus of the novel, but Dolan intertwines themes of politics, class and gender into her pages. I particularly enjoyed the references to a westerners life in East Asia, many of which I could laugh along with, or at least recognise from my visit to Hong Kong. With razor sharp lines, sarcasm, subtle humour, social commentary and a dash of relatable neuroticism, this was everything I look for in a read.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (adult fiction)
Girl, Woman, Other presents twelve women, of differing ages and from different times across the 20th and 21st centuries, each on their own path and with their own difficulties. Yet these twelve characters are interconnected, though how isn’t always clear. That’s one aspect I particularly liked.
These characters vary in class, sexuality and gender, but most are black British women, and so this book was an education for me. It brought up issues of race, sexual discrimination, gender insecurity and societal structure which I needed to learn about, and am continuing to do so. This book is cleverly written. It explores the depths of each character well, making them relatable despite differences, and gives each woman their own space while tying them all together. An insightful and important read.
We Are The Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer (non-fiction)
Following his previous non-fiction book, Eating Animals, this focuses our attention on the impact of our diets on the environment. Cutting down on our meat eating – at least before 6pm – is the argument made by Jonathan Safran Foer in his latest non-fiction book, ‘We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast’. This five-part book seamlessly interweaves scientific facts and his own musings to explore the difficult decision our planet requires us to make.
Yet this isn’t done in a preachy way. Foer grapples with his own reluctance to turn down that burger despite being aware of the impact of our diets on the environment. He raises questions that will linger long after you put the book down.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (adult fiction)
Matt Haig has received high praise for The Midnight Library, and for good reason. To be honest, my purchase of this book came at just the right time, providing me with a lot of thoughts when I was feeling a bit lost. Matt Haig is known for his work and writing on mental health, and his experiences are so evident in his writing.
The Midnight Library is a place somewhere between life and death, a place where anyone who finds themselves there can pick one of infinite lives based on the choices they have made in the past. Nora, the protagonist, must figure out which one of these will be better than the life that got too much for her. As she ‘tries on’ a number of lives, she – and the reader – must work out what is fulfilling, important and worth living for.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (adult fiction)
This is an excellent book that raises so many important issues. Born in 1940s Ireland to a teenage mother, out of wedlock, we meet Cyril Avery, and follow his life to the (almost) current day. As years pass, we follow Cyril’s life as he struggles in his childhood home, realises that he has no interest in girls, obsesses over his best friend and ultimately has to leave the country he calls home in order to be himself.
Adult life brings its highs and lows for Cyril, and John Boyne seamlessly ties in some key sagas and developments of the 20th century, in Ireland and afar. This book is emotional, amusing, interesting and heartbreaking. It’s around 600 pages, so won’t be a quick read, but it’s a powerful and important one. Grab yourself some tissues.
Stay Where You Are and Then Leave by John Boyne (children’s fiction)
Another John Boyne novel has made it to my best books list, and this time it’s children’s fiction. Stay Where You Are and Then Leave follows Alfie Summerfield who turns five the day World War 1 is announced. Unsurprisingly, his father heads to fight, and Alfie and his mother are left to continue their lives as best they can. We join Alfie as he grows older, confused about where his father might be, a question that is answered thanks to Alfie’s curiosity and persistence. Yet what he is met with isn’t what he expected.
Though aimed at younger readers, it’s a satisfying and emotional story for adults too. It tackles a number of social and mental issues from WW1 within its pages and is well worth a read.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (children’s fiction)
We actually study this text in my Year 4 class, and it’s one of my favourite children’s books. Edward Tulane is a self-absorbed china rabbit who can think. The book follows his journey, one filled with twists and turns that ultimately teach him – and the reader – a lot about love, loss, friendship and family. It might be aimed at children but it had me in tears, and the ending received a huge cheer and applause from my class. Worth a read!
Homefire by Kamila Shamsie (adult fiction)
This is a modern reimagining of Antigone (though, I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t been told – my knowledge of greek literature isn’t strong, despite my name sake…), focusing on the Pasha family. British Muslims growing up in London, the Pasha family consists of Isma and her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, who have been brought up by Isma since their mother and jihadi father died. Now in their late teens, the twins stay in the UK whilst Isma studies abroad, and we witness the build up of a disaster caused by clashing societies, faiths and families.
This is an evocative read, and the ending is climatic. Though it isn’t a true story, it could so easily be, making this a poignant and powerful book.
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata (young adult fiction)
This is the only book I’ve read in one sitting this year. I’d never heard of it, but Ol brought it home for me one day and I enjoyed it on a cosy weekend away. Kira-Kira explores a Japanese-American child’s life growing up in 1950s Georgia. We follow Katie Takeshima as she grows from an innocent 4 or 5 year old to a young teenager, witnessing how her perspectives change as external changes impact her life and understanding of the world.
Kira-Kira explores racial divides, alongside juxtaposing Japanese family culture with the impact of financial struggle on their lives. ‘Kira-kira’ is the Japanese term meaning ‘glittering,’ and this is a story full of hope, reminding us all to focus on the little joys that sparkle throughout life’s challenges.
First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung (non-fiction)
Back in January 2020 – though it seems like years ago to be honest – I went to Cambodia with my family and boyfriend. Before and after the trip, I wanted to learn more about the Cambodian history, and read a number of books including Diving Deep, Going Far by Menno de Block and Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick (telling Arn Chorn-Pond’s story). I’d recommend them both, but as First They Killed My Father was the first one I read, it was the one that hit hardest. This is a first hand account of the Cambodian genocide, written by Loung Ung, who was only five years old when the Khmer Rouge took over the government. I don’t think enough of us know much about Cambodia’s recent history (this took place in my parents’ lifetimes) and – if you can’t travel to the country and visit the sites – I think it’s important to read these books.
A few honorary mentions that I also loved:
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig (adult fiction)
The Party by Elizabeth Day (adult fiction)
Sisterhood by Daisy Buchanan (non-fiction)
Failosophy by Elizabeth Day (non-fiction)
Olive by Emma Gannon (adult fiction)
Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur (poetry)
What were your best books of 2020? Do you have any suggestions? Let me know! I’ll soon be writing a list of books I pledge to read this year (inspired by Michelle @ Daisybutter) and though it’s getting long, I’m always searching for new ideas!