• nancydawkins

The Definitive Top Ten Books of 2020, According to Me.

I know, it’s late. We’re nearly a month into 2021, resolutions have already been broken, this year seems to be catastrophically following in the footsteps of the last, and everyone’s well and truly done with yearly roundups. Enter my late 2020 best books round up, here to remind you that whilst 2020 may have been objectively awful, it also held some really great books. As terrible years go, I think it was one of my favourites for new releases, churning out what I believe will become some of my all-time favourite books, as well as albums, TV series and films…but maybe everything seems good in comparison with the state of the world, I guess only time will tell.

Here are, in my humble (and I’d argue objectively correct) opinion, the ten best books released in the U.K. in 2020:

1) Summer – Ali Smith

You can read my full review of Summer here, but I’ll give you a little snippet. “Summer pulses with the slow heat of an august haze. Smith manages to capture the summer of 2020 with the kind of accuracy that can only have come from writing inside it, without the over-analysis of hindsight”. Reading this book truly got me through the summer of 2020, and I will be eternally grateful for it.

2) Blue Ticket – Sophie Mackintosh

“Somehow fantastical without becoming magical, Blue Ticket feels like a fairy-tale without the fairies. It is soft and hard all at once, like standing on broken glass in fuzzy slippers.” is how I described Blue Ticket in my review right after I’d read it . Occasionally I look back at reviews and think that I over-complimented; very very rarely I think maybe I didn’t do a book justice. With Blue Ticket, thought, it’s a bit of both. This beautiful book deserved every compliment I paid it, but I also described it as not quite as good as The Water Cure, and looking back with hindsight I don’t think that’s true. Blue Ticket has a very different feel to The Water Cure, but is every bit as good. It has already become a solid all-time favourite, and I think about that section in the cabin an awful lot. I simply cannot wait for whatever Mackintosh releases next.

3) Postcolonial Love Poem – Natalie Diaz

Definitely the best poetry book I’ve read in quite some time, and I’d wager one of the best I’ve ever read. Simultaneously moving, sexy, angry, sad and powerful all at once. A book of love and loss, and of the turmoil, both inner and outer, of living the dual life of an indigenous person in modern-day postcolonial America. I think this is a collection that English students will be studying for a long time to come; I know it made my writing better.

4) Recollections of My Non-Existence – Rebecca Solnit

I told everyone I know to read this book before I’d even finished it. I have never read the experience of womanhood in a misogynistic patriarchy explained so perfectly and I described her comparison between PTSD in soldiers and trauma in women to anyone who would listen. I wept profusely during reading, mostly because I felt so truly seen. This book is not an easy read, as it so acutely reminds you of the dire situation we are in, but it also leaves you feeling empowered to change it. The quote “You can’t assume you know why what you’re doing matters. You can’t at least declare failure immediately, because consequences are not always direct, or immediate, or obvious, and the indirect consequences matter.” (p211) will stay with me forever.

5) Funny Weather: Art in An Emergency – Olivia Laing

It would seem wrong not to place this book alongside Solnit’s as both fuelled a similar fire in my belly. After reading Laing’s The Lonely City earlier in the year and proclaiming it “the best non-fiction book I’d ever read”, I eagerly awaited Funny Weather: a collection of essays, interviews and musings on art, music, writers and all things creative. Like Recollections of my Non-Existence, I came out of Funny Weather no longer doubting the importance of what I do. Music, art, writing: it’s all important, it all fuels change, it all matters. I love Olivia Laing’s work because I feel that she, like me, is just into things. She loves art and literature and music and film and cool shit, and it just so happens that people are interested in the opinions she has on those things that’s she’s into. You can feel that on the pages. She loves things, and she makes you love them too.

6) The Illness Lesson – Clare Beams

You can read my writer approved (she messaged me on Instagram!!!) review of this surprising book here. I read this book on a total whim, having seen it in a bookshop and reading the blurb, and I’m so glad I did. A real treasure from 2020, and one I’m sure to go back to in the future. I will slip in this quote from my review, as I’m basically just really proud of it: “Therein lies the beauty of The Illness Lesson: The ominous birds, the ghost story. This novel feels at times like magical realism to be placed alongside Toni Morrison or Angela Carter, and at others like a gothic horror at home amongst Shirley Jackson and Mary Shelley, still others it is reminiscent of the feminist dystopias of Margaret Atwood and Sophie Mackintosh. Yet, the true horror is not magic, ghosts, or a reimagined world, it is the reality of our recent past, and the legacy it has left us with today. The birds, a literal red herring; the monsters, men; the dystopia, reality”

7) Hag – Various Authors

Hag was the last book I read last year, and it finished it off nicely. It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for a retold fairytale or myth, neither is my love of magic and witchcraft. Luckily for me, both retellings and the occult are back in style big time. Enter - Hag: Forgotten Folktales Retold, a selection of short stories written by different women originally to be read for audible, but now written into this collection. Sometimes it’s like a book was written for you. It’s a bit Angela Carter, it’s a bit Carmen Maria Machado, it’s a bit tales you make up as a kid. I was a little worried that, as each story is written by a different writer, that the quality would deviate, but I thoroughly enjoyed all of them. I particularly liked the marrying of tales from various cultures with archaic tales originating in Britain, and its wonderful lack of hamfisted morals. Ambiguity is probably my favourite device when it comes to fantasy stories, as overly moralistic tales are a bore and just don’t work in modern retellings, thankfully ambiguity and amorality was there in spades.

8) Safe Metamorphosis – Otis Mensah

Otis Mensah’s debut poetry collection is phenomenal, and would actually make me hate him a little for being so talented so young if he weren’t also a really nice person. Don’t you hate when that happens? If you follow me on Instagram you’ll have already seen my review of Safe Metamorphosis, but for those of you who don’t, here you go:

Imagine writing a line as good as “this world feeds you so much nothing, only to tell you you are what you eat” and placing it on the second page of your first collection, knowing you’ve got dozens of lines just as good to fill the rest. These genius phrases that simply, yet completely, sum up the human position are scattered throughout Safe Metamorphosis, as is the imagery of being force-fed falsities and the existential weight that this mindless consumption hangs on all of us, especially those who dare to see how things could be different. Contemplating societal “binge-eating disorders, seeking for cause” and asking “What will you eat? You’ll eat your words”, Mensah shows that he is not immune, but is attempting to transcend and no longer “keep feeding an emptiness that is never full”. The poet is not better than us, he is one of us; though he may mock and condemn “socially unsocial media”, he’ll ask himself if he is not “just another internet Confucius”, prey to the same pitfalls as everyone else. It’s dark, and it’s bitter, yet Mensah’s words to not vibrate with misery but with resistance. At the centre of the collection is the function of The Poet, not just Mensah himself but all artists who preach truth: the conduits for the ills of the world, the seer of truth through the lies. Poet as philosopher-king, Poet as metaphysical position, less a role of ego than a burden to bear. And the burden of truth equals loneliness when surrounded by those who don’t share the weight. Nowhere is the solitude of The Poet more obvious than in “No One Here Hears Me”, a soliloquy of solipsism and an exercise in poetic irony – a poem about one’s meaning eternally being lost that is published in a book that is certain to be read and related to by many. Safe Metamorphosis is a hell of a first collection, as sure to be enjoyed by philosophy nerds like myself as by someone who has no clue who Confucius was. Hip hop meets confessional meets radical commentary. Poetry at its finest.

9) Weather – Jenny Offill

This bite sized book of beauty reads like thoughts popping into your head. It is rare to read a book so truly unlike anything else, and I don’t think I’ve ready anything like it. It is a book that feels like thinking, and it is to be consumed in one sitting, and then maybe again. No word is extraneous, all necessary, all poignant, all needed. Terrifying and comforting, mundane and poetic, all at once. I have nothing more to say, you should definitely read it.

10) Death in her Hands – Ottessa Moshfegh

Death in Her Hands was widely anticipated after the triumph of Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Many of the reviews I’ve read seem to think that Death in Her Hands was a let-down, playing on Moshfegh’s now well-trodden tropes without much development. I, however disagree. Death in Her Hands definitely played into the writers strengths: acerbic often unlikeable female protagonist, almost stream of consciousness inner monologue, portrayal of a lonely and unravelling mind. I agree that it may not have quite met the mark of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, yet it didn’t fall prey to the main issue I had when I reviewed it in 2019 that I felt its ending felt contrived. There is nothing contrived about Death in Her Hands’ strange mix of existentialism and murder mystery. It’s like nothing I’ve read before, somewhere between Sartre and Leila Slimani…and that’s a place I’d like to be.

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