By now it goes without saying that 2020 has been a rough year. From wildfires to a global pandemic there has disruption and upheaval on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in “peacetime”. Pretty much every sector of society has taken a hit this year. And the publishing world, as with much of the Arts community, has not been immune from the disaster that has been this year.
As with our friends in the music and theatre communities, events had to put on hold, move online, or be scrapped altogether. Book launches, book clubs, and other bookish events, if they happened at all, morphed into group zoom calls. Whilst, books kept getting published, and these events continued, if online, a lot of great books got lost in all the noise of 2020.
Lockdowns and quarantines should have been the ideal time to crack open a book or two. But, a lot of people found their attention span was suddenly non-existent. Either that or fictional worlds just couldn’t keep up with the ever-changing situation of the real world. But equally, people have also been rediscovering a love of books. Some publishers have been seeing their best yearly performance in years. Safe to say plenty of people were buying books on sourdough, baking, racial injustice and bulk buying copies of Albert Camus’s The Plague.
Despite all the upheaval 2020 has remained a great year for books; with its own fair share of big publishing events. We’re looking at you Hilary Mantel and Barack Obama. In short, there’s still plenty to celebrate, and plenty to look forward to in 2021.
We in the Books Team have taken a moment to look back on the year’s releases. We’ve compiled a list of our favourite reads published this year. They’re books that have moved us, stuck with us, and helped lighten the load of a dodgy old year. Once again, we’ve come up with a pretty eclectic selection. Though fiction, perhaps understandably leads the way this year.
Here, in no particular order, are our picks for the best books for 2020:
Mammoth – Chris Flynn
Simon: A compelling mash-up of historical, science and ecological fiction, all narrated by a sentient, and justifiably disgruntled, Mammoth skeleton. Think Ice Age but with more adult humour and an even snarkier main protagonist. It’s a fun read, a bit of a romp, but with this wonderfully strong, yet subtle, ecological message buried amongst the Egyptian Mummies, dinosaurs and stuffed penguins. (UQP)
The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett
Emily: It was very hard to narrow down my books of the year for 2020. So I had to force myself to develop a criteria. Did I enjoy a book? Did it expand my worldview? And was I still thinking about it long after I had closed the covers. For someone who reads as much and as quickly as I do, sometimes I don’t remember the content of books I’ve enjoyed as well as I remember the impression that they made.
Not so, the case with The Vanishing Half, which admittedly has been one of the most talked about books of 2020. Following the stories of twin sisters whose lives diverge after they run away from their small down, and exploring the issue of colourism among the Black community in this fictional town, The Vanishing Half has links to Nella Larsen’s classic Passing and is a wonderful, readable, important book. It’s made me track down Bennet’s earlier book, The Mothers, and also Larsen’s Passing to add to my 2021 reading list. Don’t you just love books that lead to more books, because I sure do. (Hachette)
The Rich Man’s House – Andrew McGahan
Jodie: When was the last time you stayed up all night to finish a book? For me, it was The Rich Man’s House. Fast paced, frightening, and compulsively readable. Don’t just eat the rich. Smash them with a mountain. (Allen & Unwin)
The Safe Place – Anna Downes
Lyn: Absolutely packed full of twists, The Safe Place may have been one of the most exciting Australian debuts of the year. A fast paced, tense and compelling page turner full of well realised characters and plenty of secrets to be revealed. (Affirm Press)
Windfall – Ketan Joshi
Jess: I’m not a huge non-fiction reader but this book had me thoroughly hooked! A thorough investigation of the politics that have stifled renewable energy in Australia coupled with an optimistic outlook for the future make this a must-read for anyone engaging in the climate change debate. (NewSouth Publishing)
Buy a copy HERE
The Devil and the Dark Water – Stuart Turton
Simon: Inspired by a visit to the Shipwreck Museum in Fremantle, The Devil and the Dark Water is a clever mixture of detective, historical and adventure fiction. Set in 1634, a ship travelling from the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam. No sooner has the ship set sail, does it run into trouble. A dead leper stalks the ship, strange symbols appear, and the ship’s store of livestock are slaughtered in the night. Meanwhile, the only person who can solve the mystery is locked in the bowels of the ship. The Devil and the Black Water is a real page turning romp; it’s a big book, but you’ll soon find yourself caught up in all the devilish action. Turton takes a few liberties with the history — the female characters play a more active role than their historical counterparts would’ve for example — but, that can be forgiven when the tale is as good as this. A remarkable book. (Bloomsbury)
Buy a copy HERE
Life After Truth – Ceridwen Dovey
Emily: Whether or not this novel will pass the test of thinking about it long after I’ve finished remains to be seen, as I’ve only just read it. But, I’ve already recommended Ceridwen Dovey’s Life After Truth to at least three people. It’s a crime novel, but it’s not. Those comparisons saying that it’s Big Little Lies meets The Secret History feel very accurate to me, as the book incorporates the complexity of Donna Tartt’s social world building with the compelling plot of a Liane Moriarty novel. But there’s something a little bit extra in there too. Life After Truth is funny and current and was exactly what I needed for the tail end of 2020. I think this will prove to be a breakthrough for Dovey, and a well deserved one, because I’ve been a big fan of hers since Only the Animals. (Penguin)
The Song of the Crocodile – Nardi Simpson
Jodie: Beautiful, evocative prose lays out the tale of the Billymils, an Indigenous family trying to make their way in a small town that wants nothing to do with them. Simpson’s writing is stunning, and the whole thing brims with emotion. An absolute must read. (Hachette)
Reprehensible – Mikey Robins
Lyn: An informative and rollicking guide through the shameful behaviour of some of humanity’s most celebrated figures. It’ll leave you well armed for your next trivia night or pub quiz. It also leaves you with the comfortable thought that even the so-called best of us, are all a little bit appalling too. If you enjoy Horrible Histories or Drunk History you’ll love this book. (Simon & Schuster)
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London – Garth Nix
Jess: Urban fantasy is always so much fun, especially when one of your main protagonists is an eccentric young bookseller with a licence to kill. This fast-paced mystery is filled with wit and charm, and for anyone like me who has spent time in London, there is a level of nostalgia perfect for this book. The mixing of old and new, ancient and modern, makes London the perfect setting. (Allen and Unwin)
Buy a copy HERE
How Much Of These Hills Are Gold – C. Pam Zhang
Simon: Set against the backdrop of the American Gold Rush How Much Of These Hills Are Gold is an arresting, visceral powerful debut. The novel tells the story of two orphaned children of immigrants, Lucy and Sam, left to fend for themselves in an unforgiving land. It’s a wonderfully fresh take on the frontier tale, one that explores families, sibling rivalries, alongside Chinese symbolism and ideas of race as a country comes of age. (Hachette)
Buy a copy HERE
Flyaway – Kathleen Jennings
Jodie: Rich, descriptive, and a little bit eerie, Flyaway is part engrossing mystery, part cautionary fairy tale. Cleverly crafted and beautifully layered, this complex novella is a fine example of Australian gothic. (Pan MacMillan)
Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell
Simon: The author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks turns his attention the music scenes of late Sixties and early Seventies Britain. On the face of it, a novel about a fictional band, the titular Utopia Avenue, but at the same time so much more – thanks to nods to Mitchell’s past works. It’s a hefty tome of a book, but such an enjoyable read, especially if you have an interest in the music of that period. Keep an eye out for the cameos, and pine for the fact Utopia Avenue is not a real band. (Sceptre/Hachette Australia)
Buy a copy HERE
The Other Bennet Sister – Janice Hadlow
Emily: Faithful to Austen’s original without being repetitive or boring, a return to Longbourn was just what I needed in 2020. The book was a welcome reminder that if Mary Bennet gets to be the heroine of her own story, so can we all! (Pan MacMillan)
Buy a copy HERE
Thanks to our reviewers Emily Paull, Jess Gately, Jodie Sloan, Lyn Harder and Simon Clark for their contributions to this list.