2020 was the year of staying at home. So, naturally, that meant we all had more time than ever to explore our living rooms, catch up on that Netflix list and achieve our reading goals. Everywhere around me, I heard people talk about how their number of books they had read this year was reaching three digits and how they’d never read more in their lives than in these past few months.
Don’t ask me how this happened, but for me it was the complete opposite. My reading goal is a joke. In January 2020, I promised myself that I would read fifty books, and even though it felt like the entire universe tried to help me reach this goal by forcing me to spend all of my time next to my home library, I only read half that amount.
Still, I managed to come across some real gems this year. These are my 10 favourite books of 2020.
(Warning: this post may or may not turn into a love letter to one specific book. Sorry not sorry.)
E by Matt Beaumont
Lately, I’ve been finding it difficult to harmonise my own beliefs and principles with the ehm… values a lot of big corporations choose to live by. This book was a birthday gift from a friend who knows this and wanted to help make the struggle more bearable, or at least give me something that could help me laugh about it and put things into perspective.
E consists entirely of emails between the employees of a gigantic advertising agency. This concept is risky to say the very least, and it could have gone horribly wrong. It didn’t. It’s fucking brilliant.
Everyone who works at this agency is a backstabbing, power-hungry, two-faced liar, and because you see every email that person A sends to person C about person B and then to person B about person C, you, as a reader, have all of the tea. You can see trouble coming from a mile away before the characters can. My favourite character was David Crutton, the CEO. Every single one of his emails is a treasure trove of iconic insults that are completely and utterly unreasonable, but genius nonetheless. Think: Miranda Priestly on steroids.
Perhaps the best thing about this novel is how frighteningly accurate it is. To those of you whose souls have not (yet) been demolished by the corporate world, the events in this book might seem absurd and hard to believe. To the rest of us, however, they feel like a Monday at the office.
Ghosts by Dolly Alderton
I love Dolly Alderton. Her first book, Everything I Know About Love, was one of my 2019 faves. In fact, it was one of the things my friend Isabella and I bonded over when we first met. I didn’t know anyone who’d read that book and I was thrilled to meet another fan.
The day Ghosts was released, Isabella and I were in Cambridge together and we went to Waterstones to pick it up. Neither of us were disappointed.
I love reading literary masterpieces that make me suspect the author must have supernatural powers because I refuse to believe humans can write like that, but I also love reading books that make me feel like it’s possible to create something similar one day. Ghosts is the latter. That’s not to say that Dolly is not a great writer, but both the story and the writing are accessible and make me feel hopeful that I, too, could write something like this.
Unlike Everything I Know About Love, this is a fiction novel. Although the idea is very similar: a woman around the age of thirty who works in a creative field and lives in London, navigating all kinds of relationships. This book focuses heavily on dating, but once again, the main theme is female friendships. I was here for it when I was reading Everything I Know About Love and I’m here for it now. It poses questions like: What if you and your best friend have chosen completely different lives and you discover that you actually have nothing in common anymore except for some shared memories? In a society that places lives with a partner and children higher on the importance ladder than the ones without, what does that do to our friendships?
Once in a while, I will read something that will almost make me hate myself for not writing it first. In Ghosts, there’s a scene about online dating profiles and how men on these apps can be divided into a number of different categories, that made me cry with laughter on the tube. Most accurate thing I have read all year.
Women Don’t Owe You Pretty by Florence Given
Or, as the girl at Waterstones Cambridge described it to her friends when she entered the shop and saw the book: ‘The Holy Bible’.
This is intense. The book single-handedly destroys every homophobic, racist, fatphobic, ableist and sexist idea society has ever taught you. Once you’ve read this, there’s no way back. It could be described as an introduction to the concept of feminism, in the same way a tornado would be an introduction to the concept of wind. Given does not spend any time trying to ease you into the idea that maybe everything you have ever believed, is a lie. She discusses the male gaze, rape culture, female friendships, and how you are the love of your own life and nobody has the right to tell you that you’re not enough, or that you’re too much.
It’s a highly empowering read that I would recommend to anyone, but especially to men.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Okay. Where do I even begin.
Actually, I decided to just copy-paste my Goodreads review, because I wrote this about a month after I’d finished the book, and I think it sums up my feelings quite well:
There are no words to describe how much I love this book. But let me try and find them anyway. I finished The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue about four weeks ago and I can honestly say I think about these characters every single day. I’ll be feeding my cats or brushing my teeth and my mind will go: ‘I hope my boys are okay.’
This story is set in the 18th century. Henry ‘Monty’ Montague is a teenage boy whose biggest talents include drinking, gambling, and getting himself into sex scandals with men and women. His father is not exactly a fan of these shenanigans and sends Monty on a Grand Tour of Europe so that he can prove himself a worthy heir of the estate. He is joined by his younger sister Felicity – who is supposed to go to finishing school where she will learn how to be a good wife, but she has plans of her own – and his best friend Percy (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) who has a big secret. The tour goes horribly wrong and turns into a manhunt filled with drama, pirates and ships in every sense of the word.
Monty, our story’s protagonist, is one of the most sassy, arrogant, cheeky characters I’ve ever come across in literature. Needless to say, after the first page, I had fallen head over heels in love with him. I literally read the first five sentences and went ‘Yes, this is my boy. He must be protected at all costs.’ As other reviews have already stated, there is something Wilde-esque about him. Tumblr does the best job at describing him by simply referring to him as a ‘disaster bi’, which is…pretty accurate. This guy did something to me that few fictional (and real life) characters have been able to do. Everyone in this book, including Monty himself, considers him a scoundrel. While there’s no denying that he’s a hot mess, I thought he was incredibly lovable. So lovable, in fact, that I named my new kitten after him.
Felicity is a badass bitch.
Percy is the sweetest angel I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about. He deserves the world. We don’t deserve him.
I’d say the main reason that I’m abso-bloody-lutely obsessed with this book is that I actually felt like I knew these characters. It only took me a couple of chapters to feel like I wanted to time-travel to the 18th century, cut my heart out of my chest and give it to these people.
Unlike a lot of YA romances I’ve read, the ending is not predictable. Sure, as a reader you immediately get this feeling of ‘These characters better end up the way I want them to or I swear to God’, but with regard to the actual quest they were on, I was more than halfway through the book and I still had no idea how that whole thing was going to play out.
Even though this is a very easy read (it’s 500+ pages and I read it in one afternoon) it’s still so beautifully written. I found myself re-reading paragraphs three times. It’s easy to underestimate this book. I assumed it would be a cute, fluffy love story. And it is! It’s adventurous and hilarious and sweet. But it’s also so much more. The book manages to deal with heavy topics in the most tender and beautiful way possible. Race, sexuality, women’s rights, addiction, PTSD, child abuse, chronic illness… If you’re a fanfiction reader, think: your favourite fanfic ever, but better.
I IMMEDIATELY ordered the Gentleman’s Guide to Getting Lucky (the little epilogue short story) with same-day delivery and I waited outside for the delivery person. I picked up the Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy (the sequel, Felicity’s story) as well and finished that in two days. I give both of them five stars, 10/10 would recommend, but the first one is definitely my favourite.
One thing I must say, though: This is the biggest example of ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ ever. I really don’t like this cover. I’m not a fan of real-life people on book covers. I’m okay with film covers, but when it’s random faces? That just makes the book look tacky, in my opinion. A bit like those holiday novels you buy at a railway station. And the dude on the cover is so not what Monty looks like in my mind.
I remember I saw The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue on lists of book recommendations, and when I saw the novel in the bookshop, I thought ‘This one, really?’ Luckily, I decided to buy it anyway. I didn’t even read it until two years later. Because I absolutely adore the books, I recently bought hardback copies so that I can get rid of those faces on the flaps. The third book will be released in April, and I’m counting down the days!
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Although this book is fiction, it’s so informative that is almost feels like it isn’t. Set in Nigeria, the US and the UK, this is a love story of two people who are each experiencing these countries, and the written and unwritten rules that come with them, in their own way. The characters in Americanah try to find answers to questions such as: What is ‘home’? What is ‘a good man/woman’? What does being black mean in different parts of the world?
I learnt so much from this book. It doesn’t give you information in a ‘this is what it’s like’ kind of way, rather the characters make observations or have discussions that make you, as a reader, think about these things as well. For example: Ifemelu, the main character, comments on how in America she’s considered the perfect woman because she’s thin, whereas in Nigeria people make fun of her for not ‘looking like a real woman’. Some of my friends were reading the book around the same time as I was, and it sparked numerous conversations.
Reunion by Fred Uhlman
This story is perfection. Once of the best books I’ve ever read. PERIOD. It’s short – my copy is 74 pages – but wow. It’s been a couple of months and I still can’t think of that book for too long without getting emotional again.
Set in Germany in the 1930s, Hans is the son of a Jewish doctor. He meets Konradin, a boy from a rich, aristocratic family. The two children develop a wonderful and pure friendship that’s described so beautifully that, during the first part of the book, I was just smiling like a maniac. There’s a scene in the book where Hans is so overwhelmed with happiness because he got to spend time with his friend. So moving.
Unfortunately, it gets real dark real fast when it turns out both the boys and their parents have very different opinions on the rise of the Nazis. The story is innocent, tender, and will absolutely break your heart.
So many reviews describe books as ‘a punch in the gut’, but I never really understood what that meant. Until now. The last page left me completely breathless, and I didn’t stop sobbing until three hours later. And then I cried some more the next day. Actually, I think that’s enough on this book because I’m choking back tears as I’m writing this. Moving on.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist and Our Lives Revealed by Lore Gottlieb
Lori Gottlieb is a therapist who, after an extremely painful breakup, needs therapy herself. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is about her sessions with her therapist, as well as her experiences with patients.
This book offers a lot of insight into how therapy works, what therapists do and why, and how people tend to behave during sessions and what that usually means (I did feel rather exposed a couple of times). Gottlieb also shares theories on psychology, the human brain and human behaviour in a very fun and clear way.
Over the course of these ‘sessions’ you get to know the patients and some of them turn out to be completely different from their first impressions. One of the patients in this book is the most arrogant, egocentric guy imaginable. I wanted to punch him in the face and I was absolutely astounded that Lori Gottlieb had the self-restraint to not do the same thing. Apparently, he’s a famous television producer, and I did some digging but of course I wasn’t able to find out his true identity. Anyway, he was a first-class dickhead. By the end of the book, he had become my favourite character and his chapters made me cry. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is a great reminder that everyone has a story and things are not always what they seem.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of The Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Oh, Ari and Dante. I must have read this book about five times already. This is a book that you absolutely should judge by its cover, because the cover is gorgeous. It looks good on your bookshelf and it’s a wonderful read. What more could you possible want?
Aristotle is a frustrated teenage boy who’s struggling with his Mexican heritage, with the fact that his brother is in prison, and with himself. He meets Dante at the local swimming pool. Dante hates shoes and loves the world. The boys find each other and, ultimately, they find themselves.
Aristotle and Dante is an easy read and it’s basically the cute coming-of-age love story that I thought The Gentleman’s Guide would be. This book is filled with fantastic quotes as well. “I wondered what that was like, to hold someone’s hand. I bet you could sometimes find all of the mysteries of the universe in someone’s hand.” SWOON.
If you’re looking for an uplifting book that you can read in an afternoon that feels like a hug, you just found it.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Bernardine Evaristo is the first black woman to ever win the Man Booker Prize. This is that award-winning novel about twelve women of colour in the United Kingdom. My friend Isabella and I went to Evaristo’s book event a couple of days before England went into its first lockdown. I already had a copy of the book, but I hadn’t read it yet. Actors read some of the stories on stage, and I liked them so much that I started reading the book the next day.
These stories are about twelve different women at different stages in their lives, but they all have one thing in common: they want to feel like they belong somewhere. Every chapter feels real. Some of the things these women go through were difficult for me to imagine, which is probably the best reason to read this book.
Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness
Of all the books on this list, this is the one that I underestimated the most. We know Jonathan Van Ness as a flamboyant, extremely loud and happy quote-machine. Before I started reading it, I had already heard that the book addressed some heavy topics. Therefore, I knew it wouldn’t just be an episode of Queer Eye in a book. Still, I was not prepared. This book gets dark.
Jonathan talks about how he is the person you see on TV and on Insta, but how that’s just one part of him. Some parts are ugly and scary, but that doesn’t make the part that we know less true. And that’s the excellent thing about this book: no matter how sad and, frankly, messed up it gets, it’s still 100% Jonathan. It’s very well-written too, by the way. And – this is probably not a surprise – it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
My favourite book of 2020:
It’s a tie!
Reunion and The Gentleman’s Guide of Vice and Virtue are my favourite books of 2020. I’m rereading The Gentleman’s Guide this summer, no doubt about it. I’ll probably read Reunion again someday, but I need to mentally prepare for that one.
“We’re not courting trouble,” I say. “Flirting with it, at most.”
– The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Have you read some of these books? What did you think? What are your favourites of 2020? Let’s have a chat in the comments!