Books of the year 2020: editors on their favourite novels and non-fiction

Publishers and editors across Penguin Random House pick the books that they loved this year, and the books they wish more people had read.

The book covers for Breath, Keeper, Love in Colour, Redhead by the Side of the Road, White Tears/Brown Scars and Inge's War on a blue background, with 2020 written down the vertical edge.

With the joy of browsing in a bookshop put on hold for many months, it was easier than usual to miss out on gems for your to-read pile in 2020.

To help, we've asked editors and publishers to pick their favourite books from the past 12 months, as well the books they loved and wish more people had read. 

Katy Loftus, publisher at Viking:

"My favourite book of the year (I won’t choose between my authors because every one of them is exemplary in their own way) is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, from Dialogue Books. It’s about two sisters who decide to live their lives on opposite sides of the colour line, one passing as a white woman and one as a black woman. It’s the definition of brilliant storytelling; captivating and emotionally resonant, and it’s inspired by real events, which always gets me.

"Keeper is a stunning debut I published by one of the most exciting writers to emerge this year, Jessica Moor. It published on week one of lockdown, when no one was even remotely interested in buying books, and I will never forgive the pandemic for it. It’s one of those novels that changes you. You’ll never think about relationships or desire or justice in the same way again."

Andrea Henry, editorial director at Transworld:

"I’m a huge Anne Tyler fan and each book she writes will always be my favourite book that year, so in 2020 it’s Redhead by the Side of the Road (Vintage). Admittedly, now that I’ve been introduced to Ann Patchett, Tyler’s got competition. The Dutch House (Bloomsbury) published in paperback this year comes a close second. But there’s something about Anne Tyler’s effortless storytelling and pitch-perfect prose that’s unmistakable, and it makes my heart sing. She’s one of the few authors I buy in hardback – I even pre-order. I’ve read every single one of her novels (though, unfortunately, they do seem to be getting shorter and shorter), and long may she continue to produce these quiet stories that offer powerful insights into domestic life. This little gem, about an easy-going IT guy who doesn’t know what he’s got until it’s gone, is delightful.

"I don’t read historical fiction, but a friend whose taste I trust recommended Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (Quercus), which was shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. It’s set loosely in the 1600s and translated from the German, so there’s a lovely timbre to the writing. It’s a curious, playful, immersive story about Tyll Ulenspiegel, a character lifted from German folklore, so there’s a strong element of magical realism. The narrative is pretty involved, eventually taking in the Thirty Years’ War with all its political machinations, but essentially it’s about a village boy who wants to be more than a pawn in the lives of the powerful. He wants to be free, and he travels the country as an entertainer, defying death, defying time and defying the social constraints into which he has been born to become a legendary figure, a hero. The fusion of fact and fantasy is incredibly clever."

Mireille Harper, editor at Square Peg:

"My favourite book of this year is Bolu Babalola’s Love in Colour (Headline). I’ve read this countless times and each time, I find something new and exciting. Bolu’s writing is so visceral and beautiful that you feel transported into the world of each whirlwind romance. From gorgeous, sumptuous depictions of folklore and mythology to cleverly-adapted 21st-century retellings of tales, Bolu writes with unabashed passion and emotion. With each mystical world, Bolu both deconstructs and decolonises our notions of love, whilst celebrating the true essence of love – in its most pure and original form. The perfect book for exploring a new world, whilst escaping reality.

"The book I wish people had read this year has to be White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Colour by Ruby Hamad (published by Trapeze). In the wake of the conversations around feminism, allyship and white supremacy, I found white feminism often missing from the conversation. The incredibly astute and interrogative journalist, author and academic, Ruby Hamad, who wrote the viral Guardian article, 'How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour' goes deeper in this provoking and potent historical/cultural criticism. From investigations into settler-colonialist stereotypes and labels have gone on to shape how Black and Brown women are viewed in society today, to the growing weaponisation of ‘white tears’, to the fragility of ‘white womanhood’ that allows white women to abuse women of colour, but also limits and thus, harms white women, this is an explosive and revelatory argument for deconstructing and confronting the entrenched white supremacy and superiority that still reign today."

Andrew Goodfellow, publisher at Ebury:

"Maybe not the best, but undoubtedly the most useful book I read this year was Breath by James Nestor. I bang on about it all the time. It has fundamentally changed the way I do a lot of stuff from sleeping to swimming to emailing! 

"The book of ours I wish more people had read is Inge’s War by Svenja O’Donnell. Like Ebury’s Costa-winner The Volunteer, it is a piece of writing that is both sweeping in its historical drama and incredibly intimate in its telling. A lot of debut books found it particularly tough to breakout during the pandemic, but I like to think we will find Svenja the wide audience her writing deserves in paperback next year.”

Frankie Gray, publishing director, commercial fiction at Transworld:

"Since all of our lives changed in ways we could never have imagined possible back in March, I have found myself reading more non-fiction than ever before, often seeking solace in the solidity of an expert helping me to make sense of the world. Much of the non-fiction - and fiction - that I read allowed me to take myself far beyond the limitations of my current situation, to escape to a world outside my four walls. And I welcomed that chance to run away! But my favourite book of the year was, in actual fact, one that forced me to confront what I was feeling, as it speaks to the heart of something that we were all grappling with this year: change.

"This Too Shall Pass by Julia Samuel, a leading psychotherapist, asks why, if change is the natural order of things, do we struggle with the huge milestones in our lives? It looks at times of personal crisis and change in the realms of work, health, love, family and identity. Drawing on the experiences of her patients, Julia Samuel writes with huge compassion and empathy about the pain and difficulty that change can cause but also shows how positive and redemptive it can be. I found it uplifting and inspiring, empowering and powerful and took great comfort from the wisdom therein. Many of the phrases and ideas, and - of course - the title itself have come back to me many times since I first read. There has never been a year where I have needed to know more definitively that yes, this too shall pass.

"Many people did read The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley this year but I've chosen it as my book that I wish more people had read because I think everyone should read it! Joyous, escapist, uplifting and oh-so feel-good, this is a story about community, about human connection and about the beauty of being our true selves, letting others know and love us for all that we are. The central conceit, namely that we all keep parts of ourselves secret and perhaps don't always tell the whole truth about what we're going through, is beautifully brought to life through the authenticity project itself - a small green notebook which encourages strangers to tell 'their truth' - and the six wonderful, unforgettable characters who find it - and pour themselves into it. Like the very best novels, it takes you out of your own life for a time, affording welcome escape and joy, but also stays with you long after you finish reading. Whenever I think about The Authenticity Project and Clare’s brilliant characters, I have a warm fuzzy feeling - and its message of hope, solidarity and honesty is one to remember forever."

Mary Mount, publisher at Penguin General:

"My book of the year is You People by Nikita Lalwani. The novel revolves around three characters who work at an ordinary looking pizzeria on an ordinary British high street in the 21st Century. Through their lives Nikita tells an incredibly dramatic, moving and very original story about escape and loss, love and exile and home. It manages to be both provocative – who gets to decide what is right and wrong, what is legal and illegal? – and very tender. It says important things about the country we live in whilst also just being a completely propulsive read.

"[I wish more people had read] Love after Love by Ingrid Persaud (published by Faber). I’m thrilled to see that it’s been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award as it is such a powerful novel and the characters live with me still, long after I first read it. It is a brilliant book about how to form a family from unsteady ground. It got lots of great reviews and in any other year would have been a big hit. I hope it will fly when it comes out in paperback."

Simon Prosser, publishing director at Hamish Hamilton:

"My favourite book of the year is Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman – first published in English in 1985 and now a Vintage Classic. It’s something of a miracle the novel exists at all: the Russian manuscript was confiscated by the KGB in 1960 and the author was told there was no chance of it being published for another 200 years. Eventually a secretly microfilmed copy was smuggled to the West, translated by Robert Chandler and so we have the gift of this extraordinary, epic, immersive and painfully human novel. On the scale of Tolstoy, but with the subtlety of Chekhov, it holds a mirror up to Stalinist communism and shows that its reflection is identical to that of its supposed enemy, Hitlerian fascism. And despite the horrors the individuals in this novel endure, the author clings to the seemingly-impossible belief that the flame of human freedom can never be extinguished.

"The book which I wished more people had read is probably the same one: for some reason, Life and Fate doesn’t seem to be that widely known, and I’d love to be able to talk about it with more fellow readers. Plus, its defence of liberty remains unfortunately as necessary and as relevant as ever."

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