Daniel Carpenter: The big shame of 2020 is that with so many bookshops unable to open to browse, so many great titles have gone under the radar. I was incredibly happy to see Douglas Stuart’s incredible Shuggie Bain win the Booker, not least because so many more people now will pick a copy up. Elsewhere, I loved Alex Pheby’s grimy, horrible world of Mordew published beautifully by Galley Beggar Press, Anna Vaught’s short story collection Famished from Influx Press, Kate Reed Petty’s meta-exploration of unreliable narrators, True Story, and MT Hill’s bizarre The Breach. But, my novel of the year is easily Agustina Bazterrica’s sublime and horrifying Tender is the Flesh. A serious masterpiece of dystopian horror with a completely devastating final page. I’m not going to forget it anytime soon.
Richard Clegg: It’s good when you can choose the books that you want to review. In no particular order these are the books I’ve enjoyed. Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, a gripping narrative of the Ethiopian struggle by women warriors for independence from Italy, was a book with many twists and turns. Tyll by Daniel Kelman, a mythical, historical tour de force, soon to be published in paperback, in which a figure from the Middle Ages moves through the conflicts of Central Europe with the agility of an acrobat, was a favourite too. More contemporary were Will, the memoir of Will Self and the shorter fiction of James Kelman Tales of Here & Then and his What I do (Memoirs). I liked the social comedy of Jewish North London and Self’s Oxford viva as much as the miserable aspects of his addiction. The humour came from the chasm between his expectations and the often self-inflicted disasters of his life. He brought some of the modernist techniques of his recent trilogy to his writing. Kelman reminded me what a great writer he is in fiction and in fact and that he is perhaps our greatest living writer. Finally, the social, political geopolitical Rummage by Emily Cockayne which was brilliant in every respect, interesting, surprising, and informative. The bones of our rag and bone man from the mid-sixties were explained with clarity.
James Doyle: My favourite books of the year have been Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels. Each one a chapter in one long, flowing drama (over 75 novels) as Maigret ceaselessly wanders Paris, drinks and eats, while thinking about murder. He rarely seems to investigate, merely standing around his suspects and observing their unravelling lives. Eventually, the guilty are almost desperate to confess. Each novel is gripping, written (and newly translated) to keep us within Maigret’s sensibility. My favourite, so far, is The Yellow Dog.
Carola Huttmann: My unexpected literary discovery this year has been the Irish crime writer, Nicola White. Her trilogy, featuring DI Vincent Swan and his sidekick, Gina Considine, is set in and around 1980s Dublin. White steers clear of many of the traditional literary devices that often make crime writing feel clichéd and predictable. I reviewed A Famished Heart on Bookmunch in February. The first book is In The Rosary Garden (2013). The third is yet to appear. Other favourite reads were: Beneath the Trees of Eden by Tim Binding, The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy and Find Me by André Aciman.
Jackie Law: I’ve been recommending Cat Step by Alison Irvine to many readers – a thriller of sorts but with pleasing depth. I’ll also add How Pale the Winter Has Made Us by Adam Scovell – although elusive in places it has lingered. I’ve been trying to read more poetry; Vertigo to Go by Brendon Booth-Jones is both accessible and affecting. A couple of micro story collections that offer humour in spades: Postcard Stories 2 by Jan Carson and You Ruin It When You Talk by Sarah Manvel. In non-fiction, My Second Home by Dave Haslam – fans of Sylvia Plath will enjoy this short work. I’ll also join the chorus singing the praises of A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa – it deserves all the accolades it has received.
Valerie O’Riordan: I’ve read a lot of excellent books this year, but the one that really stands out is Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, a novel that explores queer life in Iowa, Provincetown and San Francisco in the early 1990s, in the shadow of the AIDS crisis – it’s critically intelligent, very poignant, but also extremely funny. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Special mentions must also go to Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble, and Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light.
Joe Phelan: Rosewater by Tade Thompson. Book 1 of the Rosewater Trilogy. Set in Nigeria 2066, Rosewater chronicles the exploits of Kaaro a telepath who works for the Nigerian government. This novel just bursts with ideas and concepts which will assure Tade Thompson’s position in the future of Sci-Fi. The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. A man sets out to follow peregrine falcons over the course of a year. There’s no dialogue, no narrative but the writing is electric. One of the most memorable works of non-fiction books I’ve ever read. The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson. A young reporter washes up in Puerto Rico in the 1950s. Initially he’s fuelled with idealism and enthusiasm for his trade, by the end he’s consumed with bitterness. The doctor at his brilliant best. Into Thin Air by John Krakauer. The chronicle of a disaster. In 1996 Krakauer was part of a commercial expedition to climb Mount Everest. What followed resulted in loss of life and inhuman suffering. Krakauer paints a warts and all picture of the mountaineering scene and its rush into commercialism.
Fran Slater: 2020 has been a strange old year when it comes to my reading list. Stuck in the house and with the world crumbling down outside my walls, I have found that my usual diet of non-fiction books about generally depressing subject matter have not really been the thing. Unable to actually escape, I’ve looked to books to take me away. But I have also largely relied on things that feel safe to me – revisiting the whole of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series for example, revelling in the world of gunslingers and billy-bumblers. So despite this being the most I have read in many years, it is probably the first year in a long time when I have barely read any of the year’s big releases. My highlight from the 2020 books that I have read was definitely Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, as she once again demonstrates a rare and unrivalled ability to meld different stories together to complete a powerful and involving whole. As well as that one, I was also finally convinced to spend some time with the Sally Rooney books – both had me absolutely hooked. And in Lot by Bryan Washington, I enjoyed one of the best short story collections I have read in years. So while I may not be able to make comment on some of 2020’s biggest releases, I can recommend all of the books mentioned here if you, like me, have needed some really gripping writing to get you through the grind this year.
Peter Wild: In the midst of all the craziness, books have, as ever, been both solace and challenge. The books I’ve loved with all the fervour of my six year old self have been Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams, How To Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak, Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam and – if I was pushed to name just a single book, just one I’d urge you to read if you haven’t already – When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (a book that I read with all the joy I experienced reading Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy for the first time many, many, many years ago).
And that’s all from Bookmunch for 2020! See you in 2021, you lovely people! Have a splendid break, be excellent to each other and, if other people can’t see beyond their blind hatreds, be the one who is the bigger person, who is the adult in the room, who is the difference, you know? It’s how we make the world a better place to be.