Books of the Year 2020
In time-honoured tradition, we're here to announce our Xmas picks: click on the titles below to browse and buy, with a 10% automatic discount at checkout. They're chosen by our staff, and by our brilliant guest booksellers.
Our 2020 Book of the Year is Caleb Femi's outstanding poetry collection Poor. You can hear Caleb chatting about the aesthetics of urban living on our podcast Isolation Station, and find out which six books most inspired the writing of Poor here on the blog.
As well as our books of the year, we recommend a plethora of gift ideas: our poetry and fiction subscriptions, our board games and zines collections, our antiquarian and secondhand selection, and – if our recommendations aren't official enough – we still have the 2020 Booker longlist and shortlist, with 10% off when you order the whole list.
Guest Booksellers Books of the Year
In the best of 2020 fashion, some brilliant writers, editors and critics joined us via Twitter to inspire you with #YourNextBook – and we've asked them all back to share their pick of the year. Click on their names to find all their recommendations!
Kit Caless picks his top three
Rachel Long's My Darling from the Lions was far and away my favourite book of poetry published this year. I love the simplicity of her language, it does brilliant work carrying heavy emotion and atmosphere. Long sets scenes with the minimum of fuss and leaves her poems with inordinately satisfactory flourishes. Her voice is wonderfully distinctive, her words will linger in your head long after you have finished reading. I'm still dipping in and out of this book, which is always a good sign. Also, and this sounds a bit spurious, there are lots of poems to read! So many collections feel too light, but this is a perfect length.
Carl Neville is one of the greatest authors of my generation and criminally overlooked. His new book, Eminent Domain is a masterpiece. The novel is set in an alternative history where communism had taken over the entirety of Europe after WWII, with a silicon curtain across the Atlantic sepating commie east from capitalist America. The People's Republic of Britain is set to host a big event celebrating 20 years as a republic, but... as you would expect, things are not quite as they seem. It's a fantastic satire, dark thriller, political thesis all rolled into one. I have yet to find an author at work in the UK who is so tuned in with left-wing thought and able to idealise and satirise in equal measure.
Obama's autobio.... who am I kidding, I'm not paying £35 for that. Instead I recommend reading The State of Secrecy by Richard Norton-Taylor. Having spent the best part of 50 years as a journalist reporting on MI5/6/GCHQ and Whitehall, Norton-Taylor has written a dynamite memoir that exposes the relationship between the clandestine sectors of the British government and the media. There are many jaw dropping moments in this book which show you how cosy everything is, but also the lengths Whitehall will go to suppress information. A vociferous campaigner against Official Secrecy, Norton-Taylor was described buy a former senior intelligence official as a 'long-term thorn in the side of the intelligence establishment'. After reading this book, it's clear to see why.
A glorious little book about the creative impulse and the joy of making. Baume explores the blurred lines between being an amateur and professional artist, and the changes of the seasons in the lives of animals and humans alike. Perfect if you like fragmentary, autobiographical books about the creative process; I think of Kate Briggs' This Little Art as a close companion to this book.
Andy Miller picks his top new title and reissue
Andrew Hankinson's Don't Applaud. Either Laugh or Don't., at first glance the story of an influential New York comedy club, turns out to be the best book I've yet read about freedom of expression and the so-called "culture war".
Sam Selvon's The Housing Lark, his neglected 1965 novel about a group of friends trying to buy a house together in West London, was republished this year as a Penguin Modern Classic. It manages to be simultaneously sad and joyful - brimful of life.
A remarkable, epic novel on a lesser known part of history. Set during Italy's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, it centres the African women who went to war, fully bringing them to life in a complex, triumphant re-imagining. This is a masterpiece from one hell of a writer.
Caleb Femi is a gift to us all from the storytelling gods… a poetry of truth and rage, heartbreak and joy… It’s a landmark book for the UK, and Caleb is our Blake.
Books of the Year
Top 2020 picks from Enya Nolan, Sam Fisher, So Mayer, Antony Hurley and Dan Fuller, for all your fiction, poetry, non-fiction, zine and Arsenal manager memoir needs.
That Old Country Music is a collection of stories about connection, intimacy and the mess that is living and sometimes loving other people. There is a lack of cynicism in the stories which is refreshing, not bogged down by overt philosophy or grand themes, it is like a great storyteller sat down and decided to tell you a bit about their lives. Even in its fiction it is very much real. Kevin Barry, author of Night Boat to Tangier, once again gives us some much needed humour and earnestness of an Irish grandfather, a feeling of home and out of place.
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori [EN]
A refreshingly dark story about society, being an outcast, trauma and being an alien(?). Sayaka Murata (writer of Convenience Store Woman, another amazing book) grapples with societal pressures in a much more intense story in which Natsuki, a shy young girl, falls in love with her cousin Yuu who believes he is an alien. Natsuki also has her best friend Piyyut, a Hedgehog plushie from planet Popinpobopia who has gifted her magical powers. Things quickly escalate from there (like, really escalate) and adult Natsuki begins another trial of fitting in and becoming herself. This story is not for the faint of heart.
In the Kitchen by Daunt Books [EN]
A collection of essays by various writers welcomes you into their kitchens, to warm your bones and inhale the savory and sweet fumes. Rather than essays I would describe the book more as a series of love letters to the heart of the home. Where we begin days, gather together, share stories, drink too much wine, nourish our bodies. The place we grow up and grow old.
For both chefs and novices, In the Kitchen is a wonderful ode to food and love. To how we consume food, how it’s made even in its simplest forms. Some essays go into history, others into personal tales, usually combining the two.
An Artificial Revolution: On Power, Politics and AI by Ivana Bartoletti [EN]
An Artificial Revolution: On Power, Politics and AI by Ivana Bartoletti delves into not so much as to what AI could be but what it is now. Why should we be concerned with the collection of our data to be fed into machines? How will they combat racism, sexism and other bigotries when we do not question who gets to choose what data is important and unimportant? Bartoletti perfectly sums up these issues and how we can possibly combat them in the future. A great book for those interested in AI and power-dynamics.
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell [EN]
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell follows an American in a restless Bulgaria, teaching students about poetry, hoping to leave some kind of impression. Not of himself but the encouragement to broaden what you are and can be. Greenwell avoids this sentiment being cliche or corny, the sincerity of the narrator is reflected in his own doubt. Cleanness is a study of national and personal identity and when those two things do not coincide. How there is a sense of detachment for many characters in Bulgaria and our American narrator who holds no national pride himself. What does it mean to leave your homeland for education and never come back? Is returning failure? It is all a matter of perspective.
The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder [EN]
The Memory Police, located on an unnamed island, cause things to disappear. Once disappeared the memory of them fades and any sign of their existence destroyed in fires or released into the wild. The novelist, our protagonist, and everyone around her, seem to have settled into the routine of disappearances, because even if you wanted to remember you cannot. The names are difficult to pronounce, the smell or feeling, there is nothing. Yōko Ogawa (excellently translated by Stephen Snyder) handles the concept with such care and perfect eeriness.
Trafalgar by Angelica Gorodischer, translated by Amalia Gladhart [SF]
Imagine if Dr Who had been dreamt up by Roberto Bolaño. If you like black coffee, unfiltered cigarettes and space travel, this will be right up your street. Presented as a series of short stories, in which our eponymous hero regales the author with one of his escapades, we are presented with a dazzling sequence of anthropological salads. A planet where you wake up on a different year each day. A planet ruled by an elected oligarchy of the 5000 most beautiful women. A planet where… well I don’t want to spoil it. This is a romp and a half, strap in.
No-Signal Area by Robert Perišić, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać [SF]
Set in Croatia, in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars, this black comedy follows a pair of entrepreneurs when they buy up a defunct turbine manufacturing plant. They blow into the town on a wave of nostalgia, carrying the promise of a return to pre-war plenty. What results is a brilliant and bleakly hilarious portrait of a society in flux. Pitting hustler capitalism against the fading Soviet socialist dream, No-Signal Area probes at what is forgotten and what is remembered between generations, and in communities, at a moment of epochal change.
My Life in Red and White by Arsène Wenger [SF]
The publishing event of the year, the decade and the century. The charming autobiography by the most charmed Alsacian to ever grace the streets of North London takes us from his parent’s bistro in the mountains, through his early career as a player and young manager in France and then Japan, to his triumphant period as manager of the greatest football team on the planet. He doesn’t read books. He doesn’t watch films. Despite that, it’s a cracking read. It’s all football. Football, football, football. There’s poetry in the transcendent intensity of his obsession.
For Now by Eileen Myles [SF]
In this book, the latest in a series of essays from Yale in which writers write about writing, the self-proclaimed ‘last poet in the East Village’ describes, in her beguiling roundabout way, about her writing life. By which I mean she writes about home (finding one and losing one), about inspiration and time. About coincidence and fairness, archives and books that were never written or were lost. It’s a knotty contemplative joy, and a perfect one to sit with as we try and figure out: OK. What’s next?
Ottolenghi Flavour by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage [SF]
It wouldn’t be Christmas without a new cookbook from North London’s resident taste maker, and Flavour doesn’t disappoint. In this new book he takes a more pared-back approach, so any who may have been put off in the past by his occasionally baroque and obscure ingredient lists will find the recipes here much more attractive. Broken down into Process, Pairing, Produce it’s the perfect book to break you out of any humdrum habitual meals/ways of cooking that may have developed and ossified in this endless year in which we’ve all been stuck inside. Flavour packs a punch!
Rendang by Will Harris [SF]
RENDANG, the debut collection from Will Harris, has the atmosphere of Louis MacNiece and proceeds with a dream logic that is reminiscent of John Ashbery. It’s a collection about London: about growing up here, about the emotional geography of a city with such a long and contested history. It’s also a collection about love and the notalgia of loss. I loved the balance of the longer, more narrative poems alongside the shorter, condensed ones. It has a breadth and maturity that is completely at odds with the fact that it's a debut. It’s a massive, gently ruminative, achievement. It’s already picking up gongs and is destined for more!
It Takes Blood and Guts by Skin [SM]
From a childhood in a legendary Brixton shebeen to going spa-hopping in New York with Grace Jones via the shocking story of violence behind Skunk Anansie’s era-defining smash hit “Weak,” Skin’s autobiography is as hugely hooky and heartfelt as her music. If you’re interested in the biz, it’s full of sound (haha) advice on facing down both shady deals and racism and sexism; if you’re here for the gossip, HOLD ON. It’s a ride. Skin’s voice is as unique on the page as on stage and record, and she has the stories. Through it all is an account of becoming and being an artist: the hard graft, the honing of talent, the difficult decisions (including recognising and addressing addiction), the highs of connecting with audiences, and doing it all while staying human. Plus a happy romantic ending 😍😍😍.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine [SM]
Martine’s debut mashes up the Alexandria Quartet with Star Wars. Honestly all that’s getting me to 2021 is the promise of a sequel to this stunner, which combines a sprawling late imperial vision (think Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy) with cutting-edge neuroscience (maybe the best I’ve read since Neuromancer). Few novels that include poetry competitions can live up to them, but Martine’s breathtaking writing does, whether depicting the movement of unthinkable ships in deep space, or electrical impulses in the nerves of one young diplomat thrown in at the deep end. Murder, mayhem, military coups, and the brilliant, tender mind of Mahit Dmzare, where she may not be entirely alone…
The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn, translated by Martin Aitken [SM]
If you love plot-heavy, character-driven SFF, look away now. The Employees is set on a spaceship staffed by humans and humanoids looking after some objects found on the planet New Discovery. Are the objects sentient? Are the humanoids becoming more human through contact with them? Is working the same as living? What is the light in the corridor? Working on a spaceship turns out to have a lot in common with lockdown, including the suspension of touch and time. Olga Ravn's elliptical and evocative novel builds deep effects – threat, desire, grief – from restrained means. It gets under your skin.
Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie [SM]
Don’t take it from us: one standout story from this collection, ‘Grace Jones’, won the RKO Caine Prize 2020. Across the whole book, language writhes and transforms and insists on itself as if superpowered by Jones, the goddess of reinvention and style. Like a rewriting of Ovid’s Metamorphoses from the point of view of those metamorphosing, Nudibranch is a non-stop rollercoaster of the sensations of change. It’s a high-wire thrill.
Large Animals by Jess Arndt [SM]
Starting a press during a pandemic is a hell of a thing – and Cipher Press have done it in style and glory with their smash of a first book. Jess Arndt's dreamy short stories swerve through the forgottener parts of the US from losing Las Vegas to desert diners to Atlantic City strip clubs, like a queer Hunter S. Thompson looking for the heart of a Saturday night. Arndt's narrators are so full of yearning that it manifests, in the title story, as dream walri – just one unforgettable image among many.
Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman [SM]
The prequel to the prequel to Practical Magic goes full Salem witch hunt. Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins puts in an early appearance but, as you’d expect from Alice Hoffman, it’s super-brief because this book is alllllllll about the Owens women and their famous curse. From Hannah Owens, the Essex wise woman who finds her as a baby in a snowy field, Maria inherits a surname, a grimoire and a powerful sense of justice: she vows never to see another woman burned. Travelling to Curaçao, Massachusetts and New York, she encounters a settler culture built on genocide, and determines to defy it, even when her heart betrays her.
Apsara Engine by Bishakh Som [SM]
The most beautiful graphic novel I’ve read in years, Apsara Engine is a truly Borgesian dreamscape, a magic adventure in time, space and narrative. It’s made up of short stories that slip into each other, matching up at tangents. Many of the stories concern the magic of love, desire and deep friendship to change the world, and the power of trans and queer recognition to remap how we see and feel. Reading it is like dipping your finger in a glass of fine wine, drawing the city you dream of on the wall & then finding yourself there.
Equilibrium by Tonino Guerra, translated by Eric Mosbacher [AH]
Antonio Guerra, the screenwriter for Fellini, Antonioni and Tarkovsky, was also a novelist. To mark the centenary of his birth comes this republishing of his novella ‘Equilibrium’ from MOIST. A graphic designer leaves Milan for the rural countryside to design a landmark font and live in isolation. The trauma of his imprisonment in WW2 resurfaces between vivid episodes of creativity. These range from creating a marketing campaign to sell stones collected from a riverbed, to reminiscing on his life among the affluent Milanese, to drawing a labyrinth of arrows and signs around his house that send him spinning out of control. At times wildly funny and at others disturbing, ‘Equilibrium’ gives insight into the mind behind the screenplays of such movies as Blow-Up, La Notte and Amarcord.
Middlemarch - George Eliot [AH]
If you’re looking for a classic to hunker down with this Christmas, look no further. Eliot’s exploration of family, art, love and politics in English society is a reading experience to behold. It feels like a slow moving camera that catches every detail with beauty and humour, the rhythm never faltering and the narrative only deepening with each page. Sublime and masterful.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart [AH]
Hard-hitting and relentlessly sad but beautifully written, Shuggie Bain follows the plight of a family living among the slag heaps of 1980s Glasgow. It digs deep into the mining communities that the government left for dead and presents a portrait of addiction and poverty that will live long in the memory. A scathing reminder of the policy-inflicted cruelty waged against marginalised families, especially children, across the U.K. both in the past and present moment. Shuggie Bain attempts to make a life for himself whilst navigating a broken family, bullying, starvation, abandonment and a love for his mother who he refuses to give up on. A remarkable book and deserving Booker Prize winner.
Gathering Evidence by Martin MacInnes [AH]
This may be the most suitable and the most disturbing novel to read at the moment. Pitched between sci-fi and slow-burn horror, MacInnes‘s second novel gives us a dose of anthropology and coding, mycological communication and surveillance anxiety, postpartum depression and... viruses. A research scientist investigates the behaviours of a troop of bonobos on a high-risk field trip whilst her partner, a data programmer, recovers from a serious head injury in enforced isolation. Both characters are trying to get closer to the new truth of human existence, the central theme being whether the development of technology is inextricably bound in with evolution, but they also just want to get back to normal life...!
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake [AH]
‘Some trends go viral. I started to reflect on what it would mean to go fungal.’Step into Merlin Sheldrake’s magical mycelium world. ‘Entangled Life’ takes you on a journey through one of the most neglected kingdoms in western scientific study: fungi. The book is both exploration and rumination on the mycelial networks that compose and dictate so much of the world as we know it. From truffle hunters in the hills of Bologna to a history of psychedelics, Sheldrake teaches us that the critical role of fungi has commonly been misunderstood. Merlin Sheldrake is certainly mad about mushrooms (he drew all the illustrations in his book using ink collected from inkcap mushrooms), and we reckon you will be too. You might even start wondering - when you bake a loaf of bread, are you using yeast… or is the yeast using you?
The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Jamey Gambrell [DF]
Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy is a strange chimera of a book. Charting the trajectory of a millennial cult from its inception amidst the tumult of the Russian Revolution through to a stunning climax in the chaos of post-Soviet desolation, The Ice Trilogy inhabits the skins of at least five distinct Russian literary styles. From its initial acid Chekovianism to the pomo flourishes of its stunning finale, it depicts awakened beings of light (unfortunately shackled to the human frame) infiltrating the NKVD at the height of the Great Purge and disillusioned drug addicts happening on a very real conspiracy. Both a meditation on the development of Russian literary modernity and the dangerous nature of aboslute belief, this is an essential primer for an age of confusion and dismay.
Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani [DF]
Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia begins with a tantalizing position: what if the Middle East is alive, a self-aware organism created from the constituent bodies that make it up? In this Lovecraftian piece of ‘theory-fiction’, Negarestani creates a lush world of Deleuzian neologues and Occult schema to meditate on the nature of the most volatile region in contemporary geopolitics. Read this if you want to go insane.
A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing by So Mayer [DF]
So Mayer has provided us with the finest counter-history of the year. It is a book about erasure, and the fight to reclaim forgotten memories. A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing begins with an act of brutal destruction; the nazi Entarte Kunst exhibition, their collection, exhibition and destruction of artworks deemed to be ‘degenerate’. But the book blossoms into so much more: an LGBTIQ+ story of loss, told as a triumph. This tome manages to be moving, thought-provoking and deeply fun without any compromise to the horror which necessitated its writing. Only So Mayer could pull this off: what other writer could queer Hegel without breaking a sweat?
At once a celebration and an utterly timely statement of righteous indignation, A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing has to be read to be believed. Absolutely essential reading.
The English Heretic Collection by Andy Sharp [DF]
Andy Sharp’s English Heretic Collection is the culmination of a multimedia project decades in the making. Throughout this tome Sharp takes us on a countercultural tour of the British landscape. Drawing from old-timey hippies George Macdonald Frazier and Robert Graves, this book plumbs at the absolute depths of our shared history. Wild, bold and absolutely far out, this tome boasts an extended passage which places everyone’s favourite reactionary, Winston Churchill, in a bardic tradition of warrior-poets. Sharp is a psychedelic tour guide, taking you through the landscape and histories that school doesn’t want you to go, then across the bridge of swords into the Otherworld. Dope.
Hellebore: 3 issue bundle [DF]
Hellebore is a magazine at the very forefront of the New Folk Horror scene that has recently captured the imagination. This selection of delectable ‘zines are cover a broad swathe of folk culture, from the films that did so much to encode a British identity rooted in the occult borders of the imagination, to the mythic wonder of the island landscape and its secret gods. With insanely beautiful design, these ‘zines bring out currents of the British psyche long since hidden. An antidote to the crass nationalism of our lamentable age. Up the Pagan Wilds.
We have ONE unbundled copy of Issue 3 remaining… Snap it up!
New Adventures by William Kherbek [DF]
William Kherbek’s New Adventures is an audacious attempt to remix Don Quixote for the age of Influence. In the hands of an author with less wry intelligence, such ambition would be itself Quixotic. Kherbek manages to pull it off with panache, taking the gentleman of La Mancha and placing him in the body of a vacuous vlogger. This remake loses none of the original’s humour and life; one of our funniest cult writers at his very best.
Unknown Language by Hildegard of Bingen [DF]
Keeping up the trend of wild rides into the unknown, Unknown Language is a primer for our 21st Century written by the 12th Century Abbess and Mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, with Huw Lemmey (read our interview with Huw), and Bhanu Kapil. Using Hildegard’s words as its guiding torch, the book is a hybrid novel of poetry, prose and the contemporary essay into a timeless allegory. Taking her writings and placing it into a symbolic city of our schizoid contemporary, this book stands proudly in the tradition of Visionary Literature. Come here for apocalyptic visions of a world at the precipice.