I read an absurd number of books in 2020, with audiobooks, novellas, and graphic novels helping boost the numbers. Quite a few long epics, too, though, which I don’t go near too often, so it wasn’t all quick fixes. Anyway, I got through so many, it’s taken me a month to get around to putting together a Best Reads of 2020 article. But better late than never, yes?
Out of a total 150 reads, I’ve whittled the list down to about 40, all of which I highly recommend. Ordered mostly by the order I read them. You can use the anchors to the side to skip to your favourite sections.
Best Reads by Genre
Fantasy remained by highest-read genre, but I got in substantial numbers across all genres, and it was a particularly strong year for horror. Also non-fiction – I didn’t read huge numbers there, I’d happily re-read all my picks in that category, and I almost never re-read books.
Fantasy / Urban Fantasy
- The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark – an evocative steampunk Louisiana, high-speed action, all tightly told.
- The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark – steampunk Egyptian noir with supernatural twists, a lot of brilliance in a short space.
- A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark – yes, all the Djeli Clark! I would’ve probably put Ring Shout on here too if my preorder didn’t vanish into the ether.
- The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke – all the magic, quirkiness and fine detail of the Jonathan Strange world condensed into a collection of absolutely charming short stories.
- Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Gothic lesbian swordfighters in space, with a compellingly irreverent voice. Brought wonderfully to life in audio by Moira Quirk.
- Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett – a standalone Discworld military fantasy focused on gender politics. Was worried to read this as I’m writing something similar, but no, mine is nothing like this.
- Spit and Song by Travis Riddle – well-natured fantasy in a world of truly weird creatures and alluring foods, laced with some dramatic action and horrors.
- Heroes Die by Mathew Woodring Stover – is it cyberpunk, is it portal fantasy, maybe dystopian? Never mind trying to pin a label, it’s brutal, brilliant fun.
- Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – the Gideon sequel, more of the same, yes please! No, actually, Harrow doesn’t play it safe in any way, shape or form. A marvel.
- Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – about as different a beast from Jonathan Strange as you can get; short, contained, puzzling and unusual – excellent.
- The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow – an epic tale of three sisters bucking against the man in a time of suffragettes and witch trials. Fun, fast, full of character.
- My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris – should this be horror, something more literary? All I know is this lovingly crafted graphic novel about identity, adolescence and monsters is a unique, substantial achievement.
- The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie – all Abercrombie’s standard tricks a good book make. Not my favourite of his, purely because it didn’t tread any new ground, but still one of my most enjoyable reads of the year.
- Saga (Books 2 & 3) by Brian Vaugan and Fiona Apple – expansive, beautifully drawn, weirdly varied and superbly-humoured space opera graphic novels.
- All Systems Red by Martha Wells – Murderbot
- Artificial Condition by Martha Wells – More Murderbot
- Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells – The most emotional Murderbot
- Exit Strategy by Martha Wells – More Murderbot
- Network Effect by Martha Wells – Murderbot gets a novel. Seriously, Murderbot is most of my sci-fi list because they’re all so good. I hadn’t seen the hype when Tor.com randomly gave me the first four for free, so I was pleasantly surprised by this amazing series about a socially awkward killing machine.
- This is How you Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone – I found this short, sweet abstract romance highly original, engaging and charming.
- The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson – this took me by surprise too; not having realised Tade had done a sci-fi thriller, when I happened upon it and saw it was super short, I jumped at the chance and discovered a gripping, great ride.
- Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi – another short read that packs a huge punch; there’s a lot to think about in this tale of superhuman powers in the context of minority America. Haunting, harsh, powerful and expertly realised.
- The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera – not sure which category this belongs in as it’s kind of post-apocalyptic/dystopian but could easily be contemporary; a hard-boiled, no nonsense tale, full of atmosphere.
- Bone China by Laura Purcell – one of my first great reads of 2020, it seems forever ago now, but I don’t need a good memory to know everything of Purcell’s I’ve read I’ve loved. She hits all the right notes with her Gothic horror mysteries, and Bone China is no exception.
- The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones – my first exposure to Graham Jones and I loved it; I could imagine the rough and colloquial style might not be for everyone, but I found it excellent – an unusually structured, different kind of creeping horror.
- The Good House by Tananarive Due – a quintessential haunted house story with added racial tension; this is a pretty big book that manages to stay consistently tense and engaging.
- Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth – this totally grabbed me. It’s a horror of haunted schools and evil wasps, but it’s also a meandering, quirky tale of Hollywood and lesbian romance, and it hooked me right into that.
- The Hunger by Alma Katsu – a broad-scoped, consistently nasty story of an expedition into the never-friendly American West; brooding, horrible fun.
- The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson – an isolated community with a history of really sinister, really creative witches and their minions, and a story with a strong social message.
- Infidel by Pornsak Pichetshote – it’s hard to do really scary in the comic form, but this one works – a haunted apartment block with a xenophobic past, with panels that’ll make your skin crawl.
- Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley – this might belong in literary or historical or I don’t know; what I do know is this modern translation of the epic poem is a lyrical masterpiece. Bro!
- The Changeling by Victor LaValle – a slow burn, but it kept me invested, even though I wasn’t sure at all where it was going. For a book that’s almost 90% contemporary psychological thriller, I respect it’s closing weirdness a lot.
- Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – a nice cultural twist on the haunted mansion vibe, with a good central character but a bit lacking in tension. The final third or so was suitably creepy though.
- The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
- Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson
- The Road Through the Wall by Shirley Jackson
- Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson – all the Shirley Jacksons; I gush about the lot in this article, but in short, just beautifully written, enthralling and ambiguous stories.
- Ormeshadow by Priya Sharma – this could almost come under horror but not quite. A poetic, superbly told tale.
- The Copper Road by Richard Buxton – this isn’t literary fiction either, but I didn’t want to create a separate section for historical fiction and it’s close enough. Evocative, epic Civil War drama, another triumph from my friend Richard.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jemsyn Ward – a simple story made complex by a depth of emotions and troubled pasts; haunting, harsh and honest.
- The World’s War by David Olusoga – a thoroughly eye-opening read (not having seen the show myself) about exactly how diverse the Great War was, and what it meant for the lesser powers involved.
- The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich – a unique perspective on soldiering; the experiences of women of the Second World War who fought on the Eastern Front, told in fascinating themed accounts.
- Why I No Longer Talk to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge – the best of a handful of race-related books I read this year; they all had their merits but I felt this hit home for me most.
- Underland by Robert Macfarlane – an incredibly varied, expansive book that explores everything from wildlife to deep time through the context of underground spaces; I am hugely jealous of Macfarlane for the research that went into this.
- The Philosopher Queens by Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting – biographies of women philosophers by women philosophers; a really interesting look at an under-represented field of study that I had the pleasure of backing in a crowdfund, really worth a read.
- Word Slut by Amanda Montell – language geekery, feminism and vulgarity; this book was written for me, I swear.
- Letters to Alice by Fay Weldon – a great collection of thoughts on literature from one of the masters; there’s some really insightful perspectives in here, worth reading for any budding writer.
- The Madman’s Library by Edward Brooke-Hitching – collected analysis of strange and wonderful books throughout history, with great pictures and even better stories. Everything from books written in blood to a book that doubles for a toilet.
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Snoot – as much a social commentary that looks at the lives of America’s impoverished communities as a thriller-esque chase for answers in the case of how one woman’s DNA changed science. A diverse and thoroughly interesting read.
And that’s your lot! If you’ve got any thoughts on any of these reads or want to share some of your own favourites, let me know – and onward to 2021!