“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. And if you haven’t read my books, please stop using my quotes.”
I’ve read a lot of books this year (see: lockdown) and I have some strong opinions about them. But what’s the point in having strong opinions if you can’t share them with people who vehemently disagree with you on the internet? It would be such a waste of strong opinions. That’s why I’ve written this blog.
Here are all the books I read in 2020, with grades from A+ to U. If you want recommendations, check the top of the list. If you want to see me throw shade at some books which I think are actual pieces of shit, scroll straight to section D and below. If you want to start a fight, leave a comment.
I tend to only read 4–5 books per year which are truly outstanding. Everything in this group meets that criteria.
Iris Murdoch — Under the Net
This is the best book I read this year. It follows a young writer in London who starts investigating a mystery in the seedy underbelly of the film industry. It’s funny, exciting, imaginative, I can’t recommend it highly enough. You can find my short review here. 100/10.
Paul Beatty — The Sellout
A close runner-up for book of the year. Absolutely biting satire, to the point of being uncomfortable. Love it.
Akala — Natives
The best non-fiction I’ve read this year, and especially important reading right now.
Also in this category:
Rohinton Mistry — Family Matters
John Steinbeck — The Grapes of Wrath
Olga Tokarczuk — Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead
Kurt Vonnegut — Cat’s Cradle
These books are all really good and I would happily recommend them to most people.
Paul Auster — 4 3 2 1
The longest book I read this year, at over 1,000 pages. But it’s a page turner, and well worth it. A marvel that he wrote something so good, considering how much I hated his more famous book (see the F grades below).
N.K. Jemisin — The Fifth Season
Excellent, gripping and imaginative climate sci-fi. Really enjoyed it. Can’t say the same for the sequels (see below, again).
Benjamin Myers — Pig Iron
I did not think I would be reading a book about traveller culture in Durham this year, but it turns out it was well worth it. This book is hilarious and touching. Best to read it in a Geordie accent.
David Wallace-Wells — The Uninhabitable Earth
This non-fiction book is absolutely brutal to read. It’s not fun — but it’s a crucial wakeup call. The chapter on the ethics of climate change action and the ways we talk ourselves out of doing anything is excellent.
Also in this category:
Margaret Atwood — Oryx and Crake
Lauren Beukes — The Shining Girls
Oyinkan Braithwaite — My Sister, the Serial Killer
Mohsin Hamid — Exit West
Nathan Hill — The Nix
Hanif Kureishi — The Buddha of Suburbia
John Lanchester — Capital
Ken Liu — The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
Hilary Mantel — Wolf Hall
Ian McEwan — On Chesil Beach
China Miéville — Perdido Street Station
Ali Smith — Autumn
Emily St. John Mandel — Station Eleven
Good books which I enjoyed reading. I’d recommend them to some people, depending on your tastes.
Jennifer Egan — A Visit from the Goon Squad
If you like dark, tragicomic books, set in New York, with lots of disconnected characters and a whole chapter displayed in Microsoft PowerPoint, this is the book for you.
Ottessa Moshfegh — My Year of Rest and Relaxation
If you like dark, tragicomic books, set in New York, with no likeable characters and zero reference to Microsoft PowerPoint, this is the book for you.
Han Kang — The Vegetarian
If you like dark, tragicomic books, set in South Korea, with no likeable characters but some who only want to turn into trees, this is the book for you.
Also in this category:
J.G. Ballard — The Drowned World
Bill Bryson — A Short History of Nearly Everything
Octavia E. Butler — Kindred
Sudhir Hazareesingh — Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture
Zoe Heller — Notes on a Scandal
Doris Lessing — The Grass is Singing
Cixin Liu — The Three-Body Problem
Maaza Mengiste — The Shadow King
Haruki Murakami — Men Without Women
Yewande Omotoso — The Woman Next Door
Ruth Rendell — Live Flesh
These are all decent, well-written, above-average books. Not all of them will work for everyone. A passing grade.
Angela Carter — Nights at the Circus
A lot of people love this book, but I thought it was… fine. Imagine Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ magic realism, but through the prism of 1980’s second-wave feminism. Everything is just a magical vagina.
Michel Houellebecq — The Map and the Territory
I actually really enjoyed most things about this book, except for the misogyny. Is it the flawed narrator, or is Houellebecq a scumbag? Definitely both. I can’t give it a better grade in good conscience — I don’t want to get #cancelled.
China Miéville — Three Moments of an Explosion
I read several books by Miéville this year — this gets a middling grade from all those I read. Some of these short stories are very good, but the collection does make it very obvious that his method for coming up with every single plot is: “what if [insert inanimate object] was alive?”
N.K. Jemisin — The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky
The Fifth Season is SO good — why couldn’t these two live up to it? They’re worth reading if you’ve done the first part of the trilogy, but I was expecting a bit more. Sidenote: in the audiobooks, Schaffa the Guardian has the most atrocious Scottish accent you’ve ever heard.
C.S. Lewis — The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair
I read 5 of the 7 Narnia books this year. These two are the best — especially The Silver Chair. Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle is Narnia’s MVP. See below for scathing thoughts on the worst.
Virginia Woolf — Orlando
This is the best Woolf I’ve ever read, and it still only gets a C-grade. Fight me.
Also in this category:
Richard Ayoade — Ayoade on Ayoade
Andre Brink — Philida
Omar El Akkad — American War
E.M. Forster — A Passage to India
Han Kang — The White Book
China Miéville — This Census-Taker
Yoko Ogawa — The Memory Police
Ian Rankin — Black and Blue
Claire Robertson — Under Glass
Jon Ronson — The Men Who Stare at Goats
Sally Rooney — Conversations with Friends
Meg Wolitzer — The Wife
These books were nothing special. Some people might enjoy them, others won’t. I probably wouldn’t recommend them.
A.S. Byatt — Possession
If you boil this book down, it is really lovely. But Byatt is so caught up in proving she can write convincing Victorian letters and poetry that I got incredibly bored. Of the ~500 pages, about half is Byatt the excellent writer, and half is Byatt the wanky academic with a bloated vocabulary. Apparently she was good friends with Iris Murdoch (certified queen)… why didn’t she use the same editor?
John Gay — The Beggar’s Opera
This is a play-script for a comic ballad opera in three acts from 1728. Apparently it was very popular at the time. I (predictably) didn’t enjoy it, but it’s my own fault for reading it, so I can’t be mad.
C.S. Lewis — The Horse and his Boy and Prince Caspian
These are acceptable entries into the Narnia canon, but not that great. I’m not opposed to the Christian analogies, but they were laid on a bit thick in some places. Also, maybe a bit racist?
John Steinbeck — The Pearl & The Red Pony
I really love Steinbeck (see The Grapes of Wrath in the A+ grades), but these novellas are not his best work.
Colson Whitehead — The Underground Railroad
It’s not bad, but I’d recommend Kindred (Octavia E. Butler) before this, which is also a magic realist slavery story, but better.
Also in this category:
Jamie Bartlett — The People vs. Tech
Raymond Carver — What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Panashe Chigumadzi — Sweet Medicine
Rachel Cusk — Arlington Park
F. Scott Fitzgerald — Tender is the Night
Arthur Golden — Memoirs of a Geisha
D.H. Lawrence — Sons and Lovers
Jack London — The Sea Wolf
Robert Macfarlane — The Wild Places
Beth O’Leary — The Flatshare
Michael Ondaatje — Warlight
Max Porter — Grief is the Thing with Feathers
C.J. Sansom — Winter In Madrid
Muriel Spark — The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Ivan Turgenev — Fathers and Sons
I was disappointed with everything in this category. I never regret reading books, but my time would have been better spent elsewhere.
Margaret Atwood — The Testaments
I’ve heard Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo is excellent (haven’t read it yet). So it’s totally beyond me why they jointly awarded the Booker Prize to Atwood for this limp effort in the same year. It’s lame, the main character is a total brat, probably the worst Atwood I’ve read. It’s a total cash grab because of the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale TV show.
Becky Chambers — A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
Did you ever watch Star Trek and think, “this isn’t diverse enough?” Enter Becky Chambers, with the world’s most toothless sci-fi tale for the snowflake left.
Philip K. Dick — The Man in the High Castle
I don’t think Philip K. Dick knows what a woman is.
Will Self — Dorian
Do you like words, but hate understanding them? You’ll love Will Self.
Stuart Turton — The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
The premise of this book is actually really fun — it’s an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, but with time loops and body-swapping. But the conceit is so imaginative and the mystery is so convoluted that there’s no satisfying way to end it, and so the final chapters just dissolve into nonsense. YOU TURNED THE TREADMILL SPEED UP TOO HIGH, TURTON.
P.G. Wodehouse — Carry On, Jeeves
I like Wodehouse, but this collection of short stories is super repetitive. It actually puts me off Jeeves & Wooster, because reading these stories back-to-back just shows how formulaic the plots are (even though the jokes are still good).
Also in this category:
Elena Ferrante — My Brilliant Friend
Dambudzo Marechera — The House of Hunger
China Miéville — The Last Days of New Paris
Ijangolet S. Ogwang — An Image in a Mirror
Rebecca Roanhorse — Trail of Lightning
James Salter — A Sport and a Pastime
Flora Thompson — Lark Rise to Candleford
Zoe Wicomb — You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town
These are the books I found genuinely bad.
Paul Auster — The New York Trilogy
Post-modern, masturbatory philosophy from a big-brain MFA bro. Get in the bin.
Kim Stanley Robinson — 2312
I expected more from the favourite author of sci-fi nerds everywhere. If you want hard sci-fi, you should read Cixin Liu instead. This was an unexciting slog with low stakes and no tension. I wish I could give you spoilers so you wouldn’t have to read the book, but I have literally no memory of anything interesting that happens.
Vladimir Sorokin — Day of the Oprichnik
I actually don’t know whether I hated or loved this book. It’s like A Clockwork Orange meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, set in Russia, and yet despite that incredibly promising intro, NOT GOOD. The highlight is surely when all the guards strip naked in a sauna, eat goldfish that make their penises glow neon, then form a closed-circle human centipede and walk around singing work songs like a Snow White dwarf orgy. I WISH I WAS MAKING THIS UP.
Jules Verne — Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
“But Captain Nemo… I have espied such a strange occurrence beyond the submarine window! Please enlighten me as to its origins and properties.” x1000.
Also in this category:
David Lodge — Changing Places
Olumide Popoola — When We Speak of Nothing
U is for unreadable. This category is for books that are actual pieces of shit, and I’m about to tell you why.
John Bolton — The Room Where It Happened
For all the media hype, I cannot discourage you from reading this book strongly enough. It’s recounted without any real wit or intrigue, just 600 pages of ‘he-said-she-said’. It doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know about Trump — okay, so he’s whiny and indecisive, thanks for the big reveal. It’s transparently written to absolve Bolton in the historical record. I’m glad I borrowed the book rather than putting money into his pocket by buying it outright. He should be paying me to read it.
C.S. Lewis — The Last Battle
Man, Lewis really fucked up to get a book entered into the ‘scum level’ of the grade system. I’m horrified that this was seen as an acceptable children’s book. I’ll give you the worst bits, so you don’t have to read it yourself: it’s a metaphor for Judgment Day, where all the good characters from Narnia get to go to Heaven with Aslan, and everyone else (including morally neutral, atheist, or Muslim characters) go to eternal hell. EVERYONE DIES. Including the Pevensie children in the real world, who all die in a horrible train crash. The only one spared is Susan, who doesn’t get to go to Heaven because she is a teenage slut and doesn’t believe in Aslan any more. So now she is condemned to live in a world where her whole family has died, and C.S. Lewis is just… fine with that. And MVP Puddleglum doesn’t even make an appearance as a consolation prize. 0/10
Jordan Peterson — 12 Rules for Life
The more I think about this book, the more I realise how bad it is. Peterson capitalises on a crisis in male attitudes to mental health to advance his hateful and reactionary political beliefs. But because it’s disguised as ‘helping young men to find meaning and purpose’, he can shrug off criticism as over-reaction. Behind anodyne advice like ‘stand up straight’, ‘respect yourself’ and ‘get rid of toxic friendships’ though, he’s also telling young men that feminism has gone too far, that identity politics (read: non-heterosexuality) is evil, that capitalism is morally right, and a whole host of other Fox News talking points. He’s been extensively debunked by better academics, journalists and psychologists than me — the book is full of contradictions and logical fallacies if you scrape below the surface. But it relies on directionless, young, straight men taking him in good faith at face value, and swallowing the political propaganda along with the banal life advice.
Tom Robbins — Jitterbug Perfume (did not finish)
Considering the rants above about books which I managed to finish, the fact that I couldn’t even get through 1/3 of this racist shit-rag should tell you all you need to know.
That’s all for 2020. Please tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.