The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Fans waited eight years for the final instalment in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy and Mantel delivered, leading King Henry VIII’s chief minister from the heart of power in Tudor England to the executioner’s block in a propulsive, and at times dizzying, end.
What we said: Not since Bleak House has the present tense performed such magic … this is a masterpiece that will keep yielding its riches, changing as its readers change, going forward with us into the future. Read the full review.
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell
In this ingenious novel, the Argentinian author conducts an unnerving thought experiment: if an individual could be virtually inserted into the life of a random stranger, anywhere in the world, what effects would it have on them both? And what hidden truths would be revealed?
What we said: Little Eyes has much to say about connection and empathy in a globalised world. On a personal level, its investigation into solitude and online experience becomes only more poignant in a global lockdown. Read the full review.
Weather by Jenny Offill
In this darkly funny and often terrifying fragmentary novella, a woman begins working as an assistant to an environmental podcaster, and starts to unravel as the psychological burden of the climate crisis and political anxiety takes its toll.
What we said: Reading Weather made me grind my teeth at night, just like its narrator – but it is certainly a brilliant exemplar for the autofictional method. Offill pulls us in close in order to make us worry about things outside us; mirrors the self to show us what we are selfishly ignoring. Read the full review.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo, translated by Jamie Chang
Named for the Korean equivalent of Jane Doe, this novel about a woman who plays by patriarchal rules but can never win, was a huge bestseller in South Korea, where it has become a touchstone for conversation around feminism and gender and a lightning rod for anti-feminists who view the book as inciting misandry.
What we said: The character of Kim Jiyoung can be seen as a sort of sacrifice: a protagonist who is broken in order to open up a channel for collective rage. Read the full review.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Named after Shakespeare’s son, who died at the age of 11 in 1596, the beating heart of this novel is the boy’s mother, whom O’Farrell renames Agnes. Underneath the historical detail of everyday life in the household of a very famous man, this is a book about grief and the means by which people find their way through it.
What we said: Hamnet is evidence that there are always new stories to tell, even about the most well-known historical figures. Read the full review.
Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez
This original, sharp debut novel explores what it means to be a young ambitious black man in Britain through two stories: ex-boxer Norman, who arrives in the Black Country from Jamaica in the 1950s, and former Jehovah’s Witness Jesse, who falls into sex work and loveless hook-ups in modern-day London.
What we said: A novel of huge power and emotional impact, written in language that is sharp, distinctive and often beautiful. 2020 has been a year of superb debuts and Rainbow Milk is among the best. Read the full review.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Girl meets boy. Girl meets girl. Girl doesn’t tell boy or girl about each other. This deadpan debut following an Irish twentysomething in Hong Kong is about so much more than millennial dating – it is a pithy, caustic take on how external forces such as homophobia, class and economic insecurity can damage individual lives.
What we said: Exciting Times is a fun, snappy read – ordinarily, I’d say its short chapters could be torn through on your commute, but it’ll brighten lockdown too. Read the full review.
A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry
Following Barry’s Costa-winning Days Without End, this surprise sequel follows Winona – the adopted Native American daughter of cross-dressing soldiers Thomas McNulty and John Cole – as she seeks revenge for a sexual assault, donning men’s clothing to move undetected in their world.
What we said: The idea of a middle-class white male writing in the voice of a cross-dressing teenage lesbian Native American might feel out of step with its times, but prose this good is a kind of enchantment, transcending the constructs that are supposed to define us to speak in a voice that is truly universal. Read the full review.
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
A tiny uninhabited Scottish island, the Bass Rock looms in the lives of three women who are affected by male violence in very different ways: Viviane, who is sorting through the family home before it is sold; Ruth, who moves into the house with her widowed husband and his children after the second world war; and Sarah, a teenager fleeing for her life in the 1700s after she is accused of being a witch.
What we said: Wyld is a genius of contrasting voices and revealed connections, while her foreshadowings are so subtle that the book demands – and eminently repays – a second read. Read the full review.
Two Blankets, Three Sheets by Rodaan Al Galidi, translated by Jonathan Reeder
A funny, maddening, sometimes absurd reckoning with the pettiness of the Dutch immigration system as seen by Samir, an Iraqi refugee who is stuck in an asylum centre for nine years. A bestseller in the Netherlands, the novel is openly autobiographical while the Dutch stand in for all entitled westerners and bureaucrats.
What we said: This vital, eye-opening work is essential to our collective education, as a history, as a call to action, bringing one person’s suffering vividly to life in the imagination of strangers. Read the full review.
Warhol: A Life As Art by Blake Gopnik
This splendid biography of Andy Warhol claims him as the most influential artist of the 20th century and isn’t shy of exposing his private life – balancing fantastic anecdotes with meticulous research based on Warhol’s huge archive of diaries, love notes and tax returns.
What we said: Gopnik persuasively assembles his case that Warhol has … “overtaken Picasso as the most important and influential artist of the 20th century” … over the course of this mesmerising book, which is as much art history and philosophy as it is biography. Read the full review.
Putin’s People by Catherine Belton
A fearless, fascinating account of the emergence of Vladimir Putin’s regime from the ashes of the Soviet Union. Journalist Belton lays out how a coterie of former KGB officers used state institutions to carve up the country and interviews Kremlin insiders, intelligence officers, mobsters and oligarchs for an end result that sometimes reads like a John le Carré novel.
What we said: A groundbreaking and meticulously researched anatomy of the Putin regime, Belton’s book shines a light on the pernicious threats Russian money and influence now pose to the west. Read the full review.
Difficult Women by Helen Lewis
A history of the victories secured by 19th and 20th-century feminists that many of us take for granted, including the right to divorce, vote, study, work, enjoy consensual sex and compete in team sports. The women who made these things happen often used unorthodox, underhand, illegal and sometimes violent tactics. Few were thanked or rewarded for their efforts; many were punished.
What we said: Lewis isn’t trying to repackage her subjects as heroines or rebels or badass babes. Her point is that pioneering or high-achieving women are multidimensional and are apt to be a pain in the arse. Read the full review.
One Two Three Four by Craig Brown
Marking 50 years since the Beatles announced their split, this is not so much a biography as a group portrait in 150 vignettes. Satirist Brown documents the rise and fall of the band, and measures their legacy while exploring the fan industry that has agglomerated around them.
What we said: Even if some of the best stretches of the book fall short of being revelatory, they are often so well told that they acquire a new freshness. Read the full review.
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell
In this engaging and well-timed book, O’Connell considers how the world might end, spending time with “preppers” purchasing bunkers in South Dakota and disciples of Elon Musk who believe that our best hope of survival is to colonise Mars, all the while documenting his growing hope for humanity.
What we said: O’Connell has a gift for channelling the “sense of looming crisis” that characterises our times, but is able to step outside it, to bring it into focus. Read the full review.
The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive by Philippe Sands
Otto von Wächter was a Nazi war criminal who mysteriously died in Rome while waiting to be trafficked to Argentina along “the ratline”, a shadowy pathway used by Nazis to get out of Europe. Tasked with discovering the truth by Von Wächter’s son, this mesmerising biography explores the life of a devoted husband and father who had blood, including that of Sands’s own family members, on his hands.
What we said: In Sands we have an incomparable guide who finds a kind of redemption on every road of the human experience, though never at the expense of responsibility or truth. The outcome is a feat of exhilarating storytelling – gripping, gratifying and morally robust. Read the full review.
Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
The celebrated – and feared – French economist is back with an ambitious and optimistic work of social science, which argues that as societies distribute income, wealth and education more widely, they become more prosperous – laying out how regressive ideologies, class, race, gender inequalities and huge wealth disparity are stopping our economic progress.
What we said: Capital and Ideology is an astonishing experiment that defies easy comparison … it is occasionally naive (it will bug the hell out of historians and anthropologists) but in a provocative fashion, as if to say: if inequality isn’t justified, why not change it? Read the full review.
House of Glass by Hadley Freeman
An engaging and highly relevant family memoir by the Guardian journalist, uncovering the true story of her grandmother Sala Glahs and her three older brothers, and the very different lives they led in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
What we said: Freeman’s captivating family memoir inscribes itself in the pantheon of family stories that connect the grandchild to the generation of the grandparents. Read the full review.
A History of Solitude by David Vincent
This new study of why we all sometimes seek to be alone and the differences between beneficial “self-communion” and loneliness, ranges from the poetry of John Clare to the modern phenomenon of “self-partnering”.
What we said: A History of Solitude calls for a “quiet history of British society”, or “a history of doing nothing at all”… a remarkably versatile study. Read the full review.
Dear Life by Rachel Clarke
A doctor specialising in palliative medicine, Clarke spends her days working in a hospice where people come when all hope of a cure has gone. In her heart-wrenchingly tender and candid account of being alongside people at their ends, she shines a light on the world of the dying and what it teaches us about being alive.
What we said: Clarke is unerringly good at telling stories and Dear Life is full of them, opening with her father’s diagnosis of cancer and closing with his beautifully managed ending, at home with his family around him. Read the full review.
Viper’s Daughter by Michelle Paver
Returning to the world of her classic Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series after a decade, Paver sets her Stone Age heroes Torak and Wolf on a quest to find their former companion Renn in the icy, forbidding north – a place full of deceit and dangers, not least woolly mammoths.
What we said: Meticulously researched, atmospheric and relentless, this instalment deservedly introduces Paver to a new generation of readers. Read the full review.
Monstrous Devices by Damien Love
After sending 12-year-old Alex a small tin robot in the post, his mysterious and dapper grandfather whisks him away on a breakneck chase through Europe to discover its terrifying secret, as assassins – both human and machine – hunt them down.
What we said: A superbly assured debut … an effortless, atmospheric evocation of place and history combine in an unforgettable, immersive reading experience. Read the full review.
The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by LD Lapinski
When Flick walks into a dilapidated travel agency and befriends Jonathan, its teenage proprietor, she makes the intoxicating discovery that the suitcases lining its walls are gateways to other worlds. But energy is draining from Five Lights, the world at the centre of everything – can Flick somehow save it from collapse?
What we said: Assured, witty, riotously inventive, this debut has “future classic” written through it like Brighton rock. Read the full review.
The Highland Falcon Thief by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli
The first in a new series by Beetle Boy superstar Leonard and Sedgman, this novel follows Harrison Beck, who reluctantly joins his uncle on the last journey of royal train the Highland Falcon – but a stolen brooch, a stowaway, a cabin full of samoyeds and a race against time make for unexpected fun.
What we said: A pacy and intensely satisfying mystery, boasting a sparkling golden-age crime fiction sensibility despite its contemporary setting. Read the full review.
Burn by Patrick Ness
In 1950s America, the cold war is raging and an uneasy human/dragon truce has been in place for hundreds of years. When her farmer father hires a dragon to clear some fields by burning them, teenage heroine Sarah comes to befriend the creature – and sets in motion a prophecy.
What we said: Ness is on tip-top form here, deftly propelling a complex plot. Read the full review.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power
On the island of Raxter, the Tox – a deadly virus that causes mutations and savagery – has kept the girls of Raxter school quarantined for 18 months. As the outside world forgets them, the survivors forge fierce bonds; when her best friend disappears, Hetty will break all the island’s rules to find her.
What we said: Body horror meets boarding school in a moving, terrifying thriller. Read the full review.
Run, Rebel by Manjeet Mann
In a tightly crafted series of punchy, often heartbreaking narrative poems, we meet Amber Rai, an ambitious runner who must challenge her abusive father’s expectations in order to keep her freedom and avoid an arranged marriage.
What we said: Mann’s brilliant, coruscating verse novel lays out the anatomy of Amber’s revolution, and the tentative first flowerings of hope and change. Read the full review.
Good Girl, Bad Blood by Holly Jackson
Pip Fitz-Amobi, schoolgirl star of Jackson’s bestselling debut, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, is back, now running a hugely popular podcast. She is determined not to be a detective any more – but then her friend Connor’s brother goes missing.
What we said: As nail-biting, taut and pacy as her first book, Pip’s second outing confirms Jackson as a homegrown thriller writer to watch. Read the full review.
Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt
An inspirational, uplifting and assured debut, reflecting on nature and mortality.
What we said: It is extraordinary to encounter a debut collection that feels as established as Seán Hewitt’s – and not in a willed or derivative way. Read the full review.
How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil
This brilliant and subtle collection sees a migrant talk to her white, middle-class liberal host, a stand-in for the nation state that consigns immigrants to the role of constant guest.
What we said: In this series of precise, destabilising poems, Kapil skilfully amplifies the pressured immigrant heart, showing how precarious it is to exist in colour in a white space. Read the full review.
Zonal by Don Paterson
Inspired by The Twilight Zone, this latest collection by the prize-winning poet is a witty, wily hall of mirrors, by turns funny and unsettling.
What we said: I love the collection’s minutely wrought originality and the way that even dismaying subjects – loneliness, insecurity, botched relationships – have hilarious side-effects. The book made me laugh aloud. Read the full review.
Rendang by Will Harris
A sharp and assured debut that meditates on the multiplicity of identity, spanning London to Jakarta with formal expansiveness, encompassing accomplished prose-poems, concrete poetry and lyric sequences.
What we said: Harris suffuses the everyday with a mythic dignity. Read the full review.
Homie by Danez Smith
A deeply personal collection from the youngest winner of the Forward prize and author of viral sensation “dear white America”, and provocative and moving meditation on friendship, sex and blackness.
Arias by Sharon Olds
This exploration of intimacy and estrangement is the American poet’s most moving yet, showing her trademark compassion for all her subjects – from her mother to murdered black teenager Trayvon Martin.
What we said: Olds writes to find out what she thinks. She is ingenuous and wise and there is no way of knowing where she is going before she gets there. Read the full review.
Killing Kanoko/Wild Grass on the Riverbank by Itō Hiromi, translated by Jeffrey Angles
A new dual edition of Itō’s most lauded collections that intertwines the sensual and the grotesque in poems about postpartum depression, sexuality, infanticide and the isolation engendered through migration.
Wing by Matthew Francis
This shimmering collection dissects the natural world with a wondering, meticulous eye, by a gentle and quiet poet who occasionally recalls Dylan Thomas.
What we said: Francis’s gifts are quiet but his name deserves to be broadcast loudly … we need poetry of this quality more than ever. Read the full review.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, read by Carrington MacDuffie
With the print edition pushed back to August by the pandemic, you can get a head start on this alternative history, imagining what Hillary Clinton would have done with her life if she had never married Bill.
The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch, read by Richard E Grant
Grant delivers this new recording, released to mark the author’s centenary, with the expected pomposity and aplomb, making the narrator Charles Arrowby, a retired actor and theatre director and dreadful bully, even more delicious and terrible.
The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey, read by the author
The novelist’s examination of her year-long struggle with insomnia is poetic and inventive. Her hushed reading adds to the atmosphere.
Ramble Book by Adam Buxton, read by the author
The much-loved comedian and podcaster has written his memoirs, which are naturally best enjoyed in audio form. Warm, rambling and self-aware – and yes, it has jingles.
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, read by Rachel Botchan and Cassandra Campbell
If you liked the Netflix dramatisation, this new recording of Feldman’s 2012 memoir about leaving behind her ultra-religious Jewish community in New York is as compelling as a true crime podcast.
Actress by Anne Enright, read by the author
The Irish author’s performance of her novel, about a daughter unpicking her famous mother’s life, brings out all the mischievous empathy of her writing.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, read by Stephanie Ellyne
This stream of consciousness inside the mind of an American woman made headlines for its huge length, but it is perfect for an audiobook and Ellyne’s wry warmth lasts the whole 45 hours.
Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women by Christina Lamb, read by Antonia Beamish
Hard, but extremely worthwhile listening about how rape has been used as a weapon of war. Lamb’s emotive reading of her own introduction sits alongside Beamish’s clear and sharp voice.
MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman by Ben Hubbard, read by Robert Petkoff
If you struggle to keep track of details like dates, figures or members of the Saudi royal family in nonfiction works, audiobooks can help – and this study of the kingdom’s crown prince is full of chilling detail.
The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, read by the authors
A passionate and optimistic call to arms from the former UN executive secretary for climate change and her chief advisor, who deliver dynamic readings of alternating sections for an almost-conversational audiobook.
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