Books of 2020
Starting small with a powerful novella. My German friend said it was required reading at school, and to be honest that should be the same for the UK too. A demonstration of a demonstration at how herd mentality and blindly following orders can have disastrous results. I remember waiting excitedly for the 2008 film release based on the same true story this book took its material from.
Carmen Maria Machado
This beautiful, heartbreaking book. Told in flashes and snapshots, Machado recounts a two year abusive relationship in glorious prose and I would have read it in one sitting if it wasn't so painful to do so. I did cry when I finished it though, which was awkward because I was at work. I'm going to be recommending it to people for the rest of the year.
Sharon Huss Roat
This is definitely for teenagers, and I wish I'd read it when I was one because Roat captures the irrational panic of anxiety. Vicky is both sympathetic and frustrating; you just want to shake her out of her freeze/flight responses. It's also a good story of how social media can help us hide, help others and entirely tangle us in its web.
I'm never one to pass up a book about a woman quitting drinking, but this book of essays didn't do it for me. A lot of it feels like filler, and some chapters are just lists and fake 'interviews'. It gets repetitive, like the author wrote three good articles and then ran out of steam.
Wow, is this the bleakest book I've ever read? Sure, McCarthy's The Road and Saramago's Blindness are horrific, but this book manages to pack in a tonne of existential despair without anything much happening. How could walking for twenty years manage to evoke such poignant feelings? Read if you can cope with unsatisfying conclusions.
This is a polarising little novella about an aging professional who is accused of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harrassment, and his longtime female friend who struggles to reconcile their relationship with this claims. It's seems to challenge the #MeToo movement, asking "are these creepy old dudes just caught in the crossfire of changing attitudes?" Well, too bad. Q isn't eccentric; he's manipulative. We've all known the type to manipulate and leverage power over us through putting us in uncomfortable situations that tread on the wrong side of sexual where we're forced to laugh it off. The novella was an interesting character study, but provoked no asympathy from me.
This is a slow-burn story; intentional, teasing. It's a depressing look at a depressing life, and Moshfegh just keeps feeding you these extra little hints of awfulness. Eileen isn't a hero; she's actually a pretty gross person to follow, even if you can understand why she is the way she is. You can argue that nothing especially happens until the last handful pages in the book, but Moshfegh's writing is so compelling that it doesn't seem to matter.
I'm not the romcom type, but I know Rachel and was very excited to find out she'd published a book! WLTM drew me in, until I was invested in the outcome of Evie's chaotic life, and even shed a little happily-ever-after tear on the bus as I finished the story.
Wendy C. Ortiz
An intense look at the relationship Ortiz had with her teacher from junior high, which spanned five years and a lot of chaos. It's a well-written memoir and a relatable portrayal of problematic relationships where adults completely fail to step in. Why do they never step in?
I was looking forward to Queenie based on word of mouth alone, and didn't even read the blurb. The front of the cover however, completely misled me. "Hilarious"? This was completely depressing for a long time! Luckily, this just makes the realistic arc of the story feel more empowering.
The beautiful writing creates a troubling, claustrophic and confusing atmosphere to the novel. It's fragmented, which is tough to adapt to at the beginning but once I found my footing I was hooked. The Lia chapters were so affecting. I read this for my book group and we enjoyed speculating about the world this story put us in.
Three stories each feautiring a female narrator and an unsettling circumstance. I loved the first one, which the collection takes its name from, and was disappointed when it ended. That feeling of unfullfillment stayed with me, and whilst I enjoyed Ogawa's writing, all three stories ended vaguely which I wasn't in the mood for.
This was everything I wanted from a true crime book. As a memoir, Maggie Nelson revisits her past as her family relive the murder of Jane, Nelson's aunt, when the case is reopened thirty-some years later. Nelson wasn't even born when Jane was killed, which makes this book even more interesting. I could read Maggie Nelson's diaries for hours.
Technically this was in the Poetry section at work, but I'm going to treat it as a novella as its written in prose. Balancing academic studies and discussions of the colour blue with her own current and past experiences, Bluets is really interesting; as ever I just want Maggie Nelson to tell me all about her life. Her descriptions of heartbreak are on point.
What a collection. These stories are short, some are even a few pages long, but excellently written and leave you with a little less air in your lungs. Unsettling, odd, darkly funny. I finished it on my lunch break and felt WEIRD for an hour afterwards.
The second book for our book club, and I feel guilty for choosing it because I didn't enjoy the novel! It's entirely 'telling' and not 'showing', and I found the language surrounding rape and the body really abrasive at times. A lot of the book is about the central family and their issues, and I went into the story expecting it to be about Kate, the supposed protagonist. Meh.
This is a book about a woman trying to save everyone, and quietly unravelling in the process. It's a book about anxiety. That's all I can do to sum up this fragmented, poignant novella. I tweeted that it was "like Bluets but for mums", and in a way I wasn't far wrong. I wish I hadn't read it at work on my Kindle and just let it absorb me alone in one sitting.
Grady Hendrix helps me break my reading-less days during lockdown with his excellent novel about a housewives' book group forced to become vampire hunters when a creepy dude moves into the neighbourhood. I finished it and wanted to immediately read it again.
A crazy fever dream of magic, paranoia and writing workshops. I went into this thinking it would be like Mean Girls for post-grads and got so much more than I was expecting. Dark and funny, strong recommend.
Skipped to the end of this trilogy for a riveting read on bad relationships and addiction. Tove writes honestly, and isn't afraid to paint herself in an unflattering light. Really enjoyed it, but it ended very abruptly.
Short novella about a children's nurse, the details of which are even more harrowing considering Emma Glass is apparently a children's nurse. I liked the bits rooted in reality, but struggled to get into the book due to the dream chapters. I really just don't like dreams in stories, I think.
I read this book ten years ago and have been meaning to read it again for almost as long. It's so dark and sinister, told from the perspective of a woman with a reality so warped that she's so much worse than you originally suspect. Love it.
Emma Jane Unsworth
Initially, this awful protagonist put me off. I know that's the point, but the "modern" narration, the Extremely Online mimicry was jarring. Then I proper got into it. This book is funny, and Unsworth has such a fantastic turn of phrase. It's cringy as fuck and I couldn't put it down.
Like all his novels, I found myself completely absorbed in this narrative of a compelling female character. My only peeve was that it escalated so quickly that it felt as though there were a couple of chapters missing. It's a novel structured around a fictional album and it jumps straight into the mythology before you realise what's going on. But it's Daisy Jones & The Six for heavy metal, and I am here for that.
After months of coveting a copy of this and seething with twitter #fomo, my lovely colleague sent me a box of proofs and I immediately started with this. Read it in a day. A dark, dark scream into the void. So compelling. Gender roles and sexual violence. Patrick Bateman in a see-through dress.