Fatima Bhutto, Avni Doshi, Amir Khan, and three other Penguin authors smile in a 2020 photo collage.
Fatima Bhutto, Avni Doshi, Amir Khan, and three other Penguin authors smile in a 2020 photo collage.

What makes a book truly wonderful will always be a cause for debate: Is it how gripping it is? How much you learn from it? The plot? The prose?

This peculiar year, that debate was further complicated by the effects of the pandemic. Suddenly, escapism had a shiny new context, and a host of classics bubbled up with new relevance to our current situation. And, of course, a series of newly released books captured our imaginations and showed us new worlds, situations, and ideas.

As 2020 comes to a close, we asked a host of Penguin authors to cast their mind back to the book (or books) that stirred them most this year. Here are their picks.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey (and more), chosen by Fatima Bhutto

I read Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease at the start of the year and have not stopped thinking of it since – it’s a book about insomnia, grief, love. Carolyn Forché’s What You Have Heard Is True, about the poet’s time in El Salvador, was a perfect read as it appealed to my lifelong fascination with South America. It’s beautifully written and haunting. I loved Helen Garner’s second volume of diaries, One Day I’ll Remember This. I would read Garner’s grocery lists; she’s one of my favourites. I must have underlined something on every page. And lastly, I read an advance copy of Sonia Faleiro’s The Good Girls, a true crime investigation of the murder of who young girls in India. It’s a damning exploration of caste and power and how both forces act upon women. It’s out at the start of 2021 and I very much recommend it.

Fatima Bhutto is the author of The Runaways.

Piranesi by Susannah Clarke, chosen by Isabel Greenberg

While some people seem to have spent this strange year reading, I found myself hopelessly unable to finish a book. However, being an enormous fan of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I bought Piranesi anyway – and found myself finally, blissfully, gripped by something. It’s a very different novel to Jonathan Strange, being as claustrophobic as the former is sprawling. But the world it depicts is just as vivid and well-drawn. It is fantastic, weird and utterly compelling.

It is impossible to describe the plot without giving anything away, and the joy of this book is the clarity that slowly descends on you as a reader, just a few steps ahead of the optimistic and naïve narrator, Piranesi, who inhabits a beautiful but lonely world. The world is a house of endless rooms of statues and tides that sweep through empty halls. He is its sole inhabitant, but for a mysterious character called The Other. Who is Piranesi, what is this world, and how did he come to be there? Nothing in this book is predictable, and Piranesi’s quest for answers makes for a compulsively addictive read.

Isabel Greenberg is the author of Glass Town.

If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton, chosen by Donal Ryan

A bit of a cheat because it’s from 2019, but I first read Stephen Sexton’s debut poetry collection, If All the World and Love Were Young, earlier this strange year. Stephen maps his grief for his late mother to the linear topography of Super Mario World, his childhood gamer self flickering in and out of the screen of his family’s “huge block” of a television while his adult self flickers, 8 bits at a time, between love and anguish and the most sublime remembrance.

The precise, definite angles of the game’s whimsical worlds melt and meld and reform in the blurry temporal plane as the poet pastes the unreal to the real through the medium of his Nintendo – the “apparatus of love” that his mother drove seat-belted home to him. While he progresses through the houses and islands and bridges and firmaments of the game and of his grief we’re gifted a work of art of immeasurable beauty and power.

Donal Ryan is the author of Strange Flowers.

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo (and more), chosen by Tara Wigley

I loved The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. I was in the height of my early-lockdown funk, and I totally escaped into the world of Marilyn and David and their four daughters and newly-discovered grandson. I loved the drama, I loved the tears, the gossip, the sibling sarcasm. All the characters arrived fully formed on the page and Lombardo’s ability to switch between character point of view, as well as past and present, was inspiring. I spent the rest of lockdown trying to find the next book to get lost in. I flailed about for a while until I discovered Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid which was another great big wow. And for a cookery book? I was on countdown for the arrival of Nigella’s Cook, Eat, Repeat and devoured every word when it came. 

Tara Wigley is the co-author of Falastin and FLAVOUR.

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, chosen by Avni Doshi

Frances Cha’s If I Had Your Face is a dark and disturbing story about surfaces and the depths they conceal, and I found myself thinking about it for months after I closed the book. Cha confronts the casual misogyny at the core of Korean culture, and cracks open its obsession with beauty. The novel follows four young women living in Seoul, each facing her own crisis. I was riveted by the compelling characters and Cha’s beautiful prose.

Avni Doshi is the author of the Booker Prize-shortlisted Burnt Sugar.

Writers & Lovers by Lily King, chosen by Maggie Shipstead

Lily King’s novel Writers & Lovers would have made for exceptionally good reading at any time, but since it appeared in March, just as I was anxiously entering into coronavirus lockdown, it felt like an especially precious morsel of pleasure and escape. In the late 90s, the narrator, Casey, is 31 and poised at the moment when young adulthood becomes plain old dreary adulthood; she’s reeling from the death of her mother and the end of a passionate affair, drowning in student debt while she tries to finish a novel, working a grinding job as a waitress, and torn between two very different men.

Reading, I felt transported, which has been my fondest wish during 2020, and I found myself deeply invested in whether Casey would find her way into the bright future I adamantly believed she deserved. This book reminded me that I could read my way out of quarantine, and I’m grateful.

Maggie Shipstead is the author of the forthcoming Great Circle.

Fear Less by Pippa Grange, chosen by Rangan Chattergee

My top book recommendation for 2020 is Fear Less: How to Win at Life Without Losing Yourself. Pippa Grange has worked with the England Football Team and it is easy to see why. She is able to get to the core of what holds many of us back in our own lives: fear. Through wonderful storytelling, she helps us see ourselves in others, which gives us the gift of awareness – and, without awareness, change is impossible. Fear is almost certainly holding you back in some aspect of your life. I highly recommend you read this book to understand it and move past it.  

Rangan Chatterjee is the author of Feel Better in 5.

Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez, chosen by Derek Owusu

Beautifully written with touching detail and honesty. I read this early in the year and every now and then I still think about Jesse, the main character, and imagine how he's doing. I wonder how the wedding was, what album is he currently into, how’s his writing going, is he happy? A character hasn't come alive like this for me in a long time.

Derek Owusu is the author of That Reminds Me.

In Bibi’s Kitchen by Hawa Hassan and Drinking French by David Lebovitz, chosen by Sami Tamimi

In Bibi’s Kitchen is a beautiful book. I love the connection between the generations, and the stories of the grandmothers, their traditions of cooking and the food of East Africa. The book takes you on a journey to a place you wish you could visit soon. As for Drinking French, I have been a fan of David’s writing for some time now and it’s lovely to see how he managed to get into the nitty-gritty of the French and their social drinking. There are so many drinks in this book that I want to make. 

Sami Tamimi is the co-author of Falastin.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin.

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