The best books of 2020 so far

The best books of 2020 so far
The best books of 2020 so far

From a smart satire about race to a memoir of a Scottish girlhood, and the finale of the Cromwell trilogy, BBC Culture picks some the must-read books to hunker down with.

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Penguin Random House)

Weather by Jenny Offill

A series of episodic vignettes, the widely acclaimed novel Weather is narrated by librarian Lizzie, who speaks with frankness about her daily preoccupations and ordinary anxieties. These include worries about her troubled mother, her recovering-addict brother – and the climate emergency. “Weather achieves a rare triumph… it’s an uncannily realistic portrait of what it’s like to be alive right now,” says the Telegraph. In its musings, jokes, and snatches of memory, the book “zooms from the micro to the macro”, according to the New Statesman. “Weather captures the anxiety and absurdity of the 21st Century.”

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Penguin Random House)

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Real Life tells the coming-of-age story of Wallace, who is studying for a Biochemistry degree but is at odds with the midwestern university town he finds himself in. A shy young man from Alabama, he has left his family behind – but not his troubling childhood memories. Then come confrontations with colleagues and a surprise encounter with a classmate. “Brandon Taylor emerges as a powerhouse with this artful debut,” says Newsweek. “In tender, intimate and distinctive writing, Taylor explores race, sexuality and desire with a cast of unforgettable characters.” 

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Bloomsbury)

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

When 25-year-old Emira Tucker is wrongly accused of kidnapping the child in her care, a series of events unfolds that raises questions about class, race, parenthood and morality. Yet this debut novel is written with a light touch, and makes for a witty, if uncomfortable, social satire. “Charming, authentic and every bit as entertaining as it is calmly, intelligently damning,” was the Observer’s verdict. The Atlantic, meanwhile, describes Such a Fun Age as “a funny, fast-paced social satire about privilege in America”.

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Orion)

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

The acclaimed journalist Deborah Orr died in November 2019, and earlier this year her remarkable and unflinching book Motherwell was published. In this candid and occasionally humorous memoir, Orr recalls her 1970s, working-class upbringing in Scotland, and her complicated relationship with her mother. Motherwell is, says Andrew O’Hagan in the Guardian, “a masterpiece of self-exploration”, and its “greatness lies mainly in the psychological dimension, in the vivid portrait of her parents’ narcissism and the just-as-vivid portrait of her own”. As the Scotsman observes: “It is disconcertingly honest and self-revealing. You are unlikely to forget it.”

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Bloomsbury)

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Two men, one Israeli and one Palestinian, had a daughter killed in in the conflict. Then they become friends. Apeirogon by Colum McCann is based on the true story of this friendship, and has been widely praised. It is “a masterpiece” and “the kind of book that comes along only once in a generation” says the Observer. “Brilliant… powerful and prismatic,” says the New York Times. “Apeirogon is an empathy engine, utterly collapsing the gulf between teller and listener… It achieves its aim by merging acts of imagination and extrapolation with historical fact.”  It is a “profoundly human” novel, says BBC Culture.

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Macmillan)

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

Greenwell’s second novel Cleanness follows his acclaimed debut What Belongs to You. He continues the story of a US teacher living in Bulgaria, and explores his memories and sexual encounters through a disordered narrative. The Washington Post calls the novel “quite simply, a work of genius that will change the way you understand the world and your place in it.” The New York Times, meanwhile, says: “[Greenwell’s] writing about sex is altogether scorching… Greenwell has an uncanny gift, one that comes along rarely”.

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Bloomsbury)

Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall

While dissecting white feminism, this book also focusses on productive solutions and a hopeful approach. Refinery 29 describes Hood Feminism as “blistering… A fresh new and necessary black voice in feminist literature”. The book is a “much-needed reality check”, says inews: “The author has a canny ability to take heavy, complex subjects and translate them into concrete, sound arguments, offering practical resolutions”.

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Fourth Estate)

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

The much-anticipated finale of Mantel’s trilogy about King Henry VIII’s right-hand-man Thomas Cromwell has been well received. Mantel’s Cromwell is a complex, consummate player, more powerful in many ways than the king himself. The Mirror and the Light charts his downfall, and as The Atlantic points out, “Cromwell’s charisma is never allowed to dissipate”. The Guardian hails the book as a “masterpiece” and as “a novel of epic proportions [that is] every bit as thrilling, propulsive, darkly comic and stupendously intelligent as its predecessors…The trilogy is complete and it is magnificent”. 

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Harper Collins)

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

In House of Glass the journalist Hadley Freeman uncovers her family’s secrets, focussing on the life story of her grandmother, who escaped the horrors of Europe during World War Two to live in the US, as well as the contrasting lives of her great uncles. “It is the product of 20 years of research, and it amounts, by sheer cumulation of detail, to a near-perfect study of Jewish identity – of Jewish being – in the 20th Century,” says the Telegraph. Or, as Kirkus puts it: “Frightening, inspiring, and cautionary in equal measure”.  

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Penguin)

Actress by Anne Enright

Irish author Anne Enright’s new novel Actress has been longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize, and is a tale of fame, power, and a daughter’s quest to understand her mother. It is, says the Washington Post, “brilliant… the deceptively casual flow of her stories belies their craft, a profound intelligence sealed invisibly behind life’s mirror”. The Observer also praises the author, who has previously won the Booker: “Enright triumphs as a chameleon: memoirist, journalist, critic, daughter – her emotional intelligence knows no bounds.” 

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Headline)

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel was inspired by the true story of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who died aged 11. “Hamnet is a novel apart. It shares the page-turning verve of its predecessors,” says the Observer, and has “the power of letting a story appear to tell itself”. The Sunday Times describes Hamnet as “powerful” and “an intense poetic exploration of parental grief”.

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Tilted Axis Press)

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Matsuda Aoko

This collection of stories, translated by Polly Barton, are inspired by traditional Japanese mythology, but with a feminist twist and a modern setting. The stories feature demons and ghosts, skeletons and spirits, but the original tales are all imaginatively up-ended by Aoko, and told from a contemporary, female perspective. Where the Wild Ladies Are is, says the Guardian, “funny, beautiful, surreal and relatable – this is a phenomenal book”.

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Serpent's Tale)

The Death of Comrade President by Alain Mabanckou

Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize. Now his new book The Death of Comrade President, translated by Helen Stevenson, has also been well received. It is a coming-of-age tale set in the 1970s in Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, where young Michel is negotiating everyday life, until the brutal murder of the president. Bookshybooks says: “Starting as a tender portrait of an ordinary Congolese family, Alain Mabanckou quickly expands the scope of his story into a powerful examination of colonialism, decolonisation and the dead ends of the African continent.”

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Penguin/ Random House)

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

The poet Cathy Park Hong examines Asian-American identity in Minor Feelings. “It bled a dormant discomfort out of me with surgical precision,” writes Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker of the collection of essays that explores identity, race and neoliberalism. “Hong is writing in agonised pursuit of a liberation that doesn’t look white – a new sound, a new affect, a new consciousness – and the result feels like what she was waiting for.” 

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Bloomsbury)

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

A ship takes 2,000 refugees from the Spanish Civil War to Chile in 1939. “This exodus is the basis for Allende’s riveting new historic saga, which has echoes in today’s global refugee crises – and parallels to Allende’s own life,” says Jane Ciabattari on BBC Culture. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson, Allende’s latest novel is, according to the Telegraph, “a gripping tale of love in exile”.

The best books of 2020 so far View image of (Credit: Particular Books)

Our House is on Fire by Greta Thunberg et al

This family account of Greta Thunberg’s Asperger’s diagnosis has been hailed as a must-read environmental message of hope. Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis  is co-authored by Thunberg’s mother Malena Ernman, who is the primary narrator, her father Svante, and her sister Beata. It is, “an urgent, lucid, courageous account,” says David Mitchell in the Guardian. “Everyone with an interest in the future of the planet should read this book. It is a clear-headed diagnosis. It is a glimpse of a saner world. It is fertile with hope.”

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.