Claire’s and Tim’s Best Books of 2020

2020 didn’t turn out to be the year anyone was expecting. Many people found it difficult to concentrate on reading, others, like me and Tim, found reading to be a solace and a distraction. (Not so much with the writing though.) My free little library outside my house got more use than ever over our lockdown periods and continues to do so now. I received some lovely notes from my neighbours, saying how much it helped them especially when the libraries were closed.

This is the sixth year that Tim and I have been tracking the books we’ve read over the previous year and trying to work out which ten we’ve liked the best. We rate all the books we read out of five as we read them, and of course always end up with more than ten 5-star books each. Then the discussions begin!
You can see previous year’s lists here: 2019, 2018201720162015.

I read 96 books this year. Here are some facts and figures about my top ten books I read in 2020:

  • Two books published this year (Writers & Lovers, and The Weekend)
  • The oldest published in 1976 (Bear)
  • One book in translation (Youth)
  • Nine books by women, and one man (The Innocents)
  • Two books set in England (The world Before Us and Expectation), one in Denmark (Youth), four in America (Severance, The Hare, Writers & Lovers, A Crime in the Neighborhood), two in Canada (The Innocents, and Bear), one in Australia (The Weekend)
  • One about a pandemic (Severance)
  • One not published yet (The Hare)
  • One winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (A Crime in the Neighborhood)
  • Three of my books are also in Tim’s list (A Crime in the Neighborhood, Writers & Lovers, and Youth)

All but one of my books are available in the UK. (The Hare is yet to find a UK publisher.) I have created a list on Bookshop.org to make it easy to buy books from my list online in the UK, here. The Hare is available here (currently pre-orders). But please also consider ordering from you local independent – they need our business more than ever. Please try not to buy your books from that other place which really doesn’t need your business – you know the place I mean.

My Best Reads of 2020

Top three (in no order)

Bear by Marian Engel

Controversial and prize-winning, and a masterpiece. Is what I’m going to say now a spoiler? Maybe. This short novel is about a woman who has sex with a bear. There, it’s said. Avoid it, or read it, now you know. But it’s so much more than that – although these scenes are handled expertly. It’s about nature, a woman working out who she is and what she wants, falling in love (yes), feminism, loneliness, connection. Engel writes beautifully, plainly, elegantly. There is nothing lurid or salacious here; it is all part of the whole.

The Hare by Melanie Finn

With The Hare, Melanie Finn has written a powerful story of female perseverance, strength, and resilience. This book has rare qualities: beautiful writing while being absolutely unputdownable, and I will be pressing it into the hands of every reader I know. Teenager, Rosie meets the much older Bennett and for a while is in thrall to him, but when he leaves Rosie and their daughter in a run-down cabin to fend for themselves, Rosie toughens up and fights for her freedom and her daughter.

Writers and Lovers by Lily King

Don’t be put off by the cover – I thought that it was going to be whimsical, a bit too cute for my tastes, but it was almost my perfect read. (I still don’t like that jacket.) It is funny in a downbeat way, brilliantly written, and with such an engaging main character and story. Casey is grieving the death of her mother, juggling debts and gruelling shifts in an upmarket restaurant in Boston (the waitress scenes were so good). And she’s been writing a novel for six years. (All the parts about writing books were spot on.) Writers & Lovers covers the few months where she has relationships with three men and finishes her novel. It’s about creativity and commitment, work and love.

Best of the Rest

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

In The Weekend three female friends in their seventies gather at the holiday home of a fourth friend who has recently died, in order to clear it out. Bitchy, grumpy, private, candid, supportive, loving, these three women are so real, so full of life, I absolutely loved them and the book.

The Innocents by Michael Crummey

This book starts with the death of Ada’s and Evered’s parents and baby sister, leaving the siblings aged 9 and 11 completely alone on a cold and inhospitable New Foundland shore. Ada and Evered – see what Crummey has done there – labour through the seasons only with very occasional visits from The Hope to deliver supplies and take their catch of cod. Ada and Evered know just about enough to survive (and the book is full of the work they do, and the landscape they have to submit to), but like Eve and Adam before the time of the apple, they know next to nothing about the world beyond their cove and even less about their bodies. A brilliant, visceral, evocative coming of age novel.

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

Marsha is looking back to a couple of months in the summer of 1972 when as a child her father leaves her mother for her aunt, and a boy she knows a little, and doesn’t really like, is molested and murdered in her neighbourhood. Hot days and boiling nights make everyone in the claustrophobic suburbs suspicious of strangers until the undercurrent of hysteria bubbles up into a terrible accusation. This book positively simmers. But don’t expect a crime novel; it’s more about asking why we do the things we do, and not always knowing the answer.

Severance by Ling Ma

This was pure enjoyment, even though it’s mostly a book about a world after a virus has killed most people off. I love a good apocalit. But it’s much more than that, and has a lot to say about immigration, consumerism, capitalism, millennial ennui, and office work. It is also an elegy to New York, or cities in general. Candace is an office worker when a deadly pandemic kills people, but not before they repeat the same routine again and again. She escapes New York and finds the scary Bob and a small team of people heading to The Facility in Chicago. The story flips backwards and forwards in time looking at how Candace ended up in New York, and her brief time in China, as well as the immigration of her parents to the US. The more I’ve been thinking about this book in the months since I read it, the more I’ve found to love.

Youth by Tove Ditlevsen (translated by Tiina Nunnally)

Second in Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen trilogy and from the start it was definitely going to be in my top ten reads of the year. Tove is a teenager moving from job to job, longing for love and to have her poems published. The writing is so fresh despite it being first published in 1967 and being set in 1930s. I’m not sure I’m ready to say goodbye to 20 (or so) year old Tove.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

How had I never heard of this book until this year? How have I never read it before? when it is exactly my kind of book. Layered, ambiguous, thoughtful, beautifully written, but with a strong narrative. When Jane was 15, Lily the child she was minding, vanished on a walk. The disappearance has haunted her into adulthood, shaped her decisions about work, relationships and study. Jane is obsessed with two things: a girl known only as N who disappears from the pages of history in a similar location, and William Eliot, Lily’s father. When Jane meets William again after more than fifteen years it doesn’t go as she has always imagined, and forces her into action. Following Jane around is a group of ghosts who talk about themselves in the first person plural and are trying to work out who they are and why they are here. If that sounds ridiculous, it isn’t – I found the ghosts very moving.

Expectation by Anna Hope

While the story might not be particularly new, something about the way Hope writes just pulled me in and I ended up reading this in any spare moment, even standing up cooking the dinner. The author doesn’t show herself in even the tiniest way and so it was as though I wasn’t reading at all, but walking along the London streets with these women, lying in the park in the dusk, smoking in their flat with them. Hannah, Cate and Lissa are in their mid 20s and are best friends living together in London. They have the rest of their lives ahead of them: they can be anything, go anywhere, do anything. The book skips ten years on (and back again) to see how their lives have unexpectedly turned out. For fans of Ann Tyler, Maggie O’Farrell, and Esther Freud.

Tim’s Top Ten Reads of the Year

Tim’s Top Three (in no order)

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

Tim says: Originally published back in 1998, this is amazing. As close as it comes to time travel by reading a novel as you can get. I read it and it was 1972. I read it and the sun pounded down. I read it and I was in the Boston suburbs. Great characters and so much wonderful detail. If you like your books vivid and bright, try this one.

Burning Bright by Ron Rash

Tim says: Raw and honest. Sometimes brutal, sometimes intimate, always just right. I’ve read tons of incredible short stories this year (see Emma Cline and Jeffrey Eugenides in my top 10), but this is something else. Brilliant. Ron Rash is new to me. Claire and I give each other books all the time. She always gets it spot on, or at least that’s what I thought. Then I found out that she asks her Twitter and Instagram friends for suggestions after briefing them on my tastes. I don’t care if that’s cheating, but if it was you who pushed her in the direction of Ron Rash, I thank you. Pushing it back.

Love by Hanne Orstavik (translated by Martin Aitken)

Tim says: Tense, Nordic, and beautiful in equal measure, with a bit of eerie thrown in too. Love takes place over the course of a single night. Jon is locked out of his house. He and his mother have very different journeys. I couldn’t put it down. Makes me want to go back to Scandinavia right now. How do books do that?

Tim’s Best of the Rest

  • Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
  • Daddy by Emma Cline
  • Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese
  • Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
  • Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Youth by Tove Ditlevsen
  • Writers and Lovers by Lily King

***

My fourth novel, Unsettled Ground will be published in March in the UK, and in May in the USA and Canada. Find out more here.

14 thoughts on “Claire’s and Tim’s Best Books of 2020

  1. I always enjoy these posts and am delighted Tim has discovered Ron Rash. I’m a keen fan! My partner spent the first part of the pandemic inhaling crime and thrillers before burying himself in the novels of Vassily Grossman. Pleased to hear that you both found reading a solace: reading, blogging and walking has been helping to keen me sane. Lastly, what a gorgeous cat!

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    • Thanks! I really enjoyed Burning Bright too, it just didn’t make my top list. Definitely going to read some more though. Glad you’ve found reading, blogging and walking has helped. I will pass Alan (the cat) your best wishes.

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  2. I love this post of yours every year! So good to see that Melanie Finn has a new one coming out; I thought Shame was terrific, and very overlooked. Writers and Lovers was also one of my top few books of the year (and I nearly didn’t read it because the cover and blurb screamed chick lit), and the Berne was one of the ones I most enjoyed as I polished off the Women’s Prize winners this past summer and autumn. I was a little put off by Ditlevsen’s detached style, but did appreciate Childhood — memoirs of childhood have been one of my big things recently. Hurrah to you and Tim for all your reading and for spreading the book love with the little free library! I’m going to start Unsettled Ground soon and I’m really looking forward to it.

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    • I really want to read some more Melanie Finn. She’s right at the top of my list now. I was also surprised that Berne seems one of the least talked about Women’s Prize winners and I can’t work out why – it’s wonderful. I hope you enjoy Unsettled Ground! Happy New Year!

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  3. Clare, well done on narrowing down your 96 books of the year to your top ten! I started to look at something similar in December and the jury is still out! 😀 Book posts are my favourite and your offer a wonderful variety here to check out! I’m intrigued by them all, well apart from Bear – might give that a miss! Ahh … how wonderful that you had a mini library outside your home last year and offered many the solace and joy of books during endless isolation! LIke you books have been a comfort to me this year but alas writing has not been so easy in the midst of the global turmoil. Hopefully a more creative year ahead! 😀

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