Best reads of 2020

2019 favourites | 2018 favourites | 2017 favourites 2016 favourites | 2015 favourites | 2014 favourites

Disclaimer: as always, I’m not including any books where I know the author as a pal!

Top 10 published in 2020

Baking at the 20th Century Cafe: Iconic European Desserts from Linzer Torte to Honey Cake by Michelle Polzine

Throughout her baking career, Michelle Polzine of San Francisco’s celebrated 20th Cen­tury Cafe has been obsessed with the tortes, strudels, Kipferl, rugelach, pierogi, blini, and other famous delicacies you might find in a grand cafe of Vienna or Prague. Now she shares her passion in a book that doubles as a master class, with over 75 no-fail recipes, dozens of innovative techniques that bakers of every skill level will find indispensable (no more cold but­ter for a perfect tart shell), and a revelation of in­gredients, from lemon verbena to peach leaves.

Many recipes are lightened for contem­porary tastes, and are presented through a California lens—think Nectarine Strudel or Date-Pistachio Torte. A surprising num­ber are gluten-free. And all are written with the author’s enthusiastic and singular voice, describing a cake as so good it “will knock your socks off, and wash and fold them too.”

I made almost every recipe in this book this November, during a quarantine lockdown/social media hiatus. Such unique, original recipes I’d never seen before (as someone who reads a lot of recipes!). I love recipes where you can’t picture the flavour by reading it – it’s something new and interesting, that you get to taste for the first time when you make it. I had no idea what anything in this book would taste like. My favourites: Russian Honey Cake, Raspberry Strudel cake, Walnut torte, Sweet Cheese Strudel. The recipes are long, intense and complicated – which was exactly what I wanted during lockdown. 10/10

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house. There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

Wonderful. Lost memories and closed environments and unreliable narrators and untrustworthy companions.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets. There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere. El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

I stayed up until 5am reading this in one glorious burst, and I feel dead today but it was so worth it. If there’s anyone in the world I stan, it’s Naomi Novik (she MADE ARCHIVE OF OUR OWN!! she writes stories which INFECT MY BRAIN! her plot mechanisms are feats of engineering!) so I was incredibly excited for this.
This is a take on the ‘magical school’ trope, which examines the idea that magic is a free, unlimited resource for students who are good enough at casting. Instead, you have to put real effort into collecting enough energy to cast spells (knitting or doing sit-ups are popular choices). Otherwise, you have to take life force from other living things to cast spells. It’s something I examined in my next book The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, where I wanted to examine the source of ghosts’ energy – they have to fight amongst themselves to get the most power, or disintegrate. So this hit me in my sweet spot, in a topic I’ve thought a lot about recently.
It’s the most brutal, wonderfully cutthroat world of death and horror, within the closed environment of an ancient, falling apart school made entirely of metal, under siege by creatures desperate to consume the students’ magic.
The characters are great too: a girl who is destined to be evil, and a boy who is destined to be a hero. Both of them aren’t entirely happy with accepting their fates, and rebel against it in different ways. El’s mum was also brilliant – I love how the truth about her crept in slowly, starting with little references and growing into something really impressive.
The beginning of the novel is a little exposition heavy, but that’s only because once it gets going, it literally does not pause for breath until the final page. Novik is a master at setting up a plot to unfurl in a series of staggeringly well-thought out bursts of action, weaving together into an imaginative climax. This is no exception, and I am so, so excited for the sequel. I want more of vicious El and her lovely, besotted Orion. 

You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle

Naomi Westfield has the perfect fiancé: Nicholas Rose holds doors open for her, remembers her restaurant orders, and comes from the kind of upstanding society family any bride would love to be a part of. They never fight. They’re preparing for their lavish wedding that’s three months away. And she is miserably and utterly sick of him.

Naomi wants out, but there’s a catch: whoever ends the engagement will have to foot the nonrefundable wedding bill. When Naomi discovers that Nicholas, too, has been feigning contentment, the two of them go head-to-head in a battle of pranks, sabotage, and all-out emotional warfare.

But with the countdown looming to the wedding that may or may not come to pass, Naomi finds her resolve slipping. Because now that they have nothing to lose, they’re finally being themselves–and having fun with the last person they expect: each other.

I read a lot of romances in 2020 (it was…..the year for comfort reading) and most of them follow the familiar plot archetypes. Which is kind of what I want in a romance. This? This throws all the rules out of the window. The couple are already together, and have fallen out of love. This is a lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers romance! Magic!
It also has an unreliable narrator, which I’ve never seen before in a romance – just amazing stuff. While most romances I read are instantly forgotten, these distinct characters are still stuck in my mind, six months later. Truly memorable.

The Mirror & the Light (Thomas Cromwell #3) by Hilary Mantel

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

Everyone I know has been going mad for the Wolf Hall books for a decade, but I didn’t see the point in starting until the whole series was complete. So this year I listened to all three audiobooks in a row – which was basically the longest immersion in Tudor culture ever. I didn’t shut up about it to everyone I knew for a month. I was utterly obsessed, and now fully understand why Mantel is a national treasure. (Also, if you are a writer and haven’t listened to her Reith lecture series Can These Bones Live?, do yourself a favour and listen now – she’s an excellent teacher.)

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find–her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

A deeply unsettling, mushroom-filled story, about a woman effectively trapped in a mansion on the top of a mountain with a very weird family. Her cousin is sick, and seems to be dying slowly under the pressure of living in this strange place. This reminded me of so many classics I love: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, of course, but also The Secret History and We Were Liars and We Have Always Lived in the Castle – books where the place is just as much a character as the people.
The writing was particularly beautiful in this. Often I found myself rereading the writing, just because it so beautifully captured the setting. There were some lovely turns of phrase.
This is exactly what I want adult fiction to be: it’s like a YA novel, all grown up. Dark and female-focused and utterly modern in everything except the time period.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel M. Lavery

Sometimes you just have to yell. Daniel M. Lavery has mastered the art of “poetic yelling,” a genre surely familiar to fans of his cult-favorite website The Toast. In this irreverent essay collection, Ortberg expands on this concept with in-depth and hilarious studies of all things pop culture, from the high to low brow. From a thoughtful analysis on the beauty of William Shatner to a sinister reimagining of HGTV’s House Hunters, Something That May Shock and Discredit You is a laugh-out-loud funny and whip-smart collection for those who don’t take anything—including themselves—much too seriously.

A really interesting look at transitioning gender by a master wordsmith. Filled with humour, honesty, literary references and good taste. I will always love anything he writes, and this is no exception.

Fangs by Sarah Andersen

Elsie the vampire is three hundred years old, but in all that time, she has never met her match. This all changes one night in a bar when she meets Jimmy, a charming werewolf with a wry sense of humor and a fondness for running wild during the full moon. Together they enjoy horror films and scary novels, shady strolls, fine dining (though never with garlic), and a genuine fondness for each other’s unusual habits, macabre lifestyles, and monstrous appetites. Fangs chronicles the humor, sweetness, and awkwardness of meeting someone perfectly suited to you but also vastly different.

A fun, wry and easy-reading comic about a werewolf and a vampire in love. This is basically a series of one-page jokes about the quirks of their domestic life: there’s very little overarching plot. Both characters are absolutely adorable, grumpy-cute in the best way.

Slippery Creatures by K.J. Charles

Will Darling came back from the Great War with a few scars, a lot of medals, and no idea what to do next. Inheriting his uncle’s chaotic second-hand bookshop is a blessing…until strange visitors start making threats. First a criminal gang, then the War Office, both telling Will to give them the information they want, or else.

Will has no idea what that information is, and nobody to turn to, until Kim Secretan—charming, cultured, oddly attractive—steps in to offer help. As Kim and Will try to find answers and outrun trouble, mutual desire grows along with the danger.

And then Will discovers the truth about Kim. His identity, his past, his real intentions. Enraged and betrayed, Will never wants to see him again. But Will possesses knowledge that could cost thousands of lives. Enemies are closing in on him from all sides—and Kim is the only man who can help.

A 1920s romance about an ex-soldier who inherits a bookshop and, along with it, a hidden secret code that the War Office and many gangsters are very keen to get their hands on. The best of KJ Charles, who is on top form here.

Good Girl, Bad Blood (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #2) by Holly Jackson

Pip Fitz-Amobi is not a detective anymore. With the help of Ravi Singh, she released a true-crime podcast about the murder case they solved together last year. The podcast has gone viral, yet Pip insists her investigating days are behind her.

But she will have to break that promise when someone she knows goes missing. Jamie Reynolds has disappeared but the police won’t do anything about it. And if they won’t look for Jamie then Pip will, uncovering more of her town’s dark secrets along the way… and this time EVERYONE is listening. But will she find him before it’s too late?

An intricate, unpredictable and truly modern murder mystery – Gottie would love this one.

Top 5 books published before 2020

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Mosley

Spanning the twentieth century, these magically vivid letters between the legendary Mitford sisters constitute not just a superb social and historical chronicle (what other family counted among its friends Hitler and the Queen, Cecil Beaton and President Kennedy, Evelyn Waugh and Givenchy?); they also give an intimate portrait of the stormy but enduring relationship between six beautiful and gifted women who emerged from the same stock, incarnated the same indomitable spirit, yet carved out starkly different roles and identities for themselves. Nancy, the scalding wit who transferred her family life into bestselling novels; Pamela, who craved nothing more than a quiet country life; Diana, the fascist jailed with her husband, Oswald Mosley, during WWII; Unity, an attempted suicide, obsessed with Hitler; Jessica, the runaway communist and fighter for social change; and Deborah, the genial socialite who found herself Duchess of Devonshire. Writing to one another to confide, commiserate, tease, rage and gossip, the sisters wrote above all to amuse.

I’ve decided to cultivate an obsession with the Mitfords in 2020, and after reading The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, this was my first port of call. Absolutely the right move – I couldn’t stop reading, and fell headfirst into their insane world of celebrity friendships, political squabbles and betrayals and deaths. I now want five sisters to become penpals with.

Crowded Vol. 1 by Christopher Sebela

Ten minutes in the future, the world runs on an economy of job shares and apps—like Reaper, a platform for legal assassination. When the apparently average Charlie Ellison wakes up one day to find out she’s the target of a million dollar Reapr campaign, she hires Vita, the lowest rated bodyguard on the Dfend app. Now, with all of Los Angeles hunting Charlie, she and Vita will have to figure out who wants her dead, and why, before the campaign’s 30 days—or their lives—are over.

A graphic novel series about a crowdfunded assassination target running for her life with her hired bodyguard, and getting into lots of trouble along the way.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken

For the first time ever, an international coalition of leading researchers, scientists and policymakers has come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. All of the techniques described here – some well-known, some you may have never heard of – are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are already enacting them. From revolutionizing how we produce and consume food to educating girls in lower-income countries, these are all solutions which, if deployed collectively on a global scale over the next thirty years, could not just slow the earth’s warming, but reach drawdown: the point when greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere peak and begin to decline. So what are we waiting for?

I read a lot of climate change non-fiction in 2020, as research for a book I’m writing. This was one of the best – comprehensive, without fearmongering, it just lays out in clear terms exactly what needs to be done to fix things. Ignoring the politics, and the drama, and the chaos – this is just pure solutions. Which, I don’t know about you, is very comforting when you feel helpless about the planet’s future.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.

It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.

But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.

Wonderful. Creeping horror that gets worse and worse as the book goes on, with some really gruesome scenes. Richly drawn characters on a mutated island. This is ANNIHILATION for the YA crowd.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martin

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

Takes the ghosts-living-inside-someones-head of A SKINFUL OF SHADOWS and smushes it together with the cultural alienation of the VORKOSIGAN SAGA and the complex courtly intrigue of THE GOBLIN EMPEROR.

And personally, in 2020 I published a novel The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, finished posting a serialised online novel, An Unauthorised Fan Treatise, and had a short story published in an anthology. I also announced two 2021 releases: Green Rising (a climate change thriller, coming with Walker Books in September) and The Deep-Sea Duke (a sci-fi romance novella, coming with Barrington Stoke in February).

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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