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January 2020 Blue
Illustration Callum Abbott

All the books you should be reading in 2020

Elena Ferrante returns to Naples, Chelsea Manning unpacks everything in her powerful memoir, and thrillers get feminist in the year ahead

It’s the first full week of January and for many the first week back to work – that means some good old Jan blues, a neverending unread inbox hitting triple figures, and maybe some identity crises for good measure. To plug the gap between meetings that could be emails and the thrum of existential thoughts, there’s plenty of books to get excited by and escape into throughout 2020. From unflinching fiction in the era of #MeToo to dark thriller set against post-war Hollywood, a deep dive into South Korea’s cosmetic surgery craze and profoundly moving memoir – we’ve got you covered.


From the author of the wondrous A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing comes a piercing rumination on life, desire, and painful memories across nondescript hotel rooms in various capital cities. As the nameless woman enters new and unchanged hotel suites she stayed years before, she’s forced to reckon with the turning tides in her life she’s tried desperately to run away from. Will home ever come calling? Eimear McBride is a stellar master of language and pitch-black humour, elasticating it out and constricting it back in like a warren of endless lobbies and hallways, to explore the darkest depths of the woman’s mind. My heart throbbed and ached with this one. (AC)

February 4, Faber Books


Vanessa Wye was 15 years old when she first had sex with her English teacher. Now 32, and amidst the backdrop of the Me Too revolution, the teacher, Jacob Strane, has been accused of sexual abuse by another former student. What follows is a disturbing unravelling of memory and trauma as Vanessa is forced to redefine her first love as rape, and their relationship as abuse. A powerful and nuanced take on the emotional complexity of consent and manipulation, My Dark Vanessa is a gripping debut by Kate Elizabeth Russell, and goes to the centre of this age’s discourse surrounding power dynamics and abuse. (GY)

March, 4th Estate


Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is already an award-winning poet in her home country of the Netherlands, meaning lyrical language and lasting imagery come as a given in her debut novel, The Discomfort of Evening. Published in the original Dutch in 2018, the story follows a young girl, Jas, that lives on a dairy farm – where Rijneveld also lives and works – and how her world is warped by the death of her brother in an ice skating accident. You see the effects of the tragedy through her unflinching eyes: how it affects her family, and the strange, erotic, sometimes gruesome rituals she develops as a result. Good for a bit of light reading? Probably not. But this is an account of loss and its effects that will stay with you for some time. (TW)

March, Faber Books


Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet will come to its much-anticipated conclusion in July this year, after first being published in October 2016. Launched with Autumn – considered the first post-Brexit novel, dealing with issues raised by the EU referendum – Summer is the last of the four standalone works. Though each novel tells a completely different story, they are linked by the timing of narrative – each are written and published in real time. Where Autumn addresses the tragic murder of Labour MP Jo Cox four months earlier, Winter references a recent speech by Donald Trump. Though little is publicly known about the plot of Summer, it’s set to be a compelling conclusion to Smith’s innovative quartet. (BD)

July 2, Penguin


You don’t need to look to fiction to know that doomsday is coming, but you might need to read Jenny Offill’s third novel, Weather, to figure out how to continue ploughing on with the small stuff when the world is inevitably set to implode. Brooklyn-based protagonist Lizzie Benson is grappling with just that – librarian by vocation, Lizzie also spends her time as a ‘fake shrink’, tending to her recovering addict brother. During a rare period of calm, Lizzie reconnects with her old mentor, Sylvia Lillier – now famous for her prophetic podcast, Hell and High Water – who wants Lizzie to answer mail she receives. Diving into the polarised world of Sylvia’s listeners – left-wingers worried about the climate crisis and right-wingers concerned with the decline of western civilisation – Lizzie becomes convinced that doomsday is approaching, and obsesses over preparations. Set against the trials and tribulations of modern-day New York – over-crowded schools, the 2016 presidential election, meditation classes – Offill’s novel is magically cynical. (BD)

February 13, Granta


The former Irish Laureate for Fiction and Irish Booker winner offers up a captivating fifth novel, where one woman traces her relationship with her mother, a legendary Irish actress. It’s a delicate, knotty reflection on familial relationships, the gendered fug that hangs over Irish society, the corrosiveness of celebrity, and sexual power dynamics. As daughter Norah moves out of the wings of New York and Dublin stages from which she watched her mother to unpack her past and unknown paternity, she uncovers some startling hidden truths of the actress and saddles herself with her own. Enright – author of the beautiful Green Road and The Forgotten Waltz – is so brilliant at constructing her characters, and painting evocative pictures of glamorous post-war America and shaggy 70s Dublin. It’s packed full of twists and turns, from bloody crime to battles with sexism, fame, and reality itself. (AC)

February 20, Jonathan Cape 


No matter how #woke you think you are, Dr Pragya Agarwal’s Sway will probably prove you wrong. Exploring unconscious bias in a society that largely believes it’s egalitarian, behavioural scientist, activist, and writer Agarwal unravels how our individual biases affect the way we communicate and perceive the world, as well as impact our decision-making. Through case studies, interviews, scientific research, and personal experience, Agarwal looks at bias expressed via ageism, appearance, accents, sexism, and aversive racism, and takes on the question: if we don’t know about our own bias, are we really responsible for it? Helping readers reflect on what’s shaped them, Sway will encourage understanding about why we act the way we do, and open our eyes to our own bias. (BD)

April 2, Bloomsbury


Journalism lost a shining, vital light when Lyra McKee was murdered by paramilitary gunfire in Derry riots last year. McKee was astute and passionate when writing about Northern Irish politics, mental health, and LGBTQ+ issues. Later this year, Faber & Faber will release an anthology of the formidable journalist’s writing, both unpublished and previously released articles. Her spirit lives on in her fast-moving and fierce works, her tone of voice deeply political and radically empathetic. One of McKee’s most widely known pieces, on post-conflict Northern Ireland’s concerning rates of suicide and mental health for The Atlantic, is startling, important journalism: “we were the Good Friday Agreement generation, spared from the horrors of war,” she wrote. “But still, the aftereffects of those horrors seemed to follow us”. (AC)

April 2, Faber & Faber


Elaine Feeney debut novel As You Were is a woman's story about women’s struggles. Set in the confines of modern-day Ireland, where it was until only recently that patriarchal systems controlled women’s rights over their bodies, Sinéad Hynes, a young property developer, finds herself in an underfunded hospital, and carrying a big secret. 

Through its effortless weaving of voices and histories, and hilarious observations about life on the ward, Feeney’s novel highlights the importance of discourse between women, and their eagerness to open up and trust each other – all while critiquing the institutional sexism faced by them on a daily basis. (GY) 

April 16, Vintage Publishing


In her timely fourth novel, American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins humanises the migrant crisis. After the death of her journalist husband and 15 other relatives at the hands of a Mexican drug cartel, Lydia Quixano Pérez and her eight-year-old son Luca are forced to flee their home city of Acapulco. Finding themselves worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence, Lydia and Luca are transformed into migrants, desperately searching for safety in the United States. Traversing the cruelty and kindness of strangers, the mother and son quickly realise that everyone is running from something, with no idea where they’re running to. Offering a heart-wrenching insight into the experiences of displaced people looking for sanctuary for their loved ones, Cummins subverts widespread misconceptions about migrants. (BD)

January 23, Headline


The dystopia of Gish Jen’s The Resisters is, unnervingly, quite familiar. In a near future US – renamed AutoAmerica – society has been divided into the “Netted” and the “Surplus”: rulers and consumers, respectively, in an AI-driven surveillance state. The former occupy the high ground, while the latter live in swampland or on water, thanks to half of the country disappearing under rising tides. When AutoAmerica rejoins the Olympics though, Gwen – a baseball prodigy born to Surplus parents – gets a chance to rise above her assigned place. This is a book about class mobility and its consequences that could look all too real in the near future. (TW)

February 4, Knopf Publishing


Praise be, more Ferrante! Though it’s another Naples-set novel, we’re forgoing our familiar heroines of the Neapolitan trilogy – Elena and Lila – to focus on Giovanna, a complicated 12-year-old who overhears her father comparing her to his very unliked estranged sister. From there, the Italian teenager cycles through the sweet-sour contradictions of adolescence, the emotional turbulence and surliness we’d all love to forget if Ferrante would ever let us, to unravel a complicated family history and internal war. The novel, already out in Italian, is due in English this coming June, but has already been deemed explosive by longtime fans. Expect the wonderfully complex, unabashed writing Ferrante is loved for, and a multisensory reflection of the Italian city she loves. (AC)

June 9, Europa


On New Year’s Eve, Chelsea Manning tweeted a breakdown of her decade, revealing that she spent 77 per cent of it in jail, and 11 per cent of it in solitary confinement – but asserted she spent 0 per cent of the last ten years backing down. In her as-yet untitled memoir, Manning details how her appeal for increased institutional transparency and government accountability ran parallel to her fight for rights as a trans woman. After exposing classified documents – revealing American subterfuge against its own citizens and the killing of Iraqi civilians – while working for the US military in 2010, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but was freed by Obama in 2017. The day after her initial conviction, she publicly declared her gender identity as a woman and began transitioning. In her powerful memoir, Manning recalls her childhood, what led her to join the military, and the details of her WikiLeaks involvement. Despite having her sentence commuted, Manning has spent the last year in and out of jail, telling Dazed in February: “There are some people who call me a hero. But things are worse now. Even worse than they were in 2010.” (BD) 

July 21, Farrar, Straus & Giroux


Cha’s mesmerising debut novel takes place in contemporary Seoul – a place where plastic surgery is a common playground, K-Pop stars are subject to obsessive fans and ancient social hierarchies determine much of South Korean life. Against this backdrop, we meet four young women with interconnected lives: Kyuri, who has a job at an exclusive bar entertaining businessmen while they drink, her roommate, Miho, a talented artist, down the hall from them Ara, a hairstylist, and one floor below Wonna, a newlywed trying to get pregnant. Their stories weave together the complexities and contradictions of modern-day Seoul, in an ultimately uplifting story of women living in defiance of oppressive customs. (DS)

April 21, Ballantine Books


“The moment I got my job at Virago in 1978 I knew it would be a long time before I would leave,” writes Lennie Goodings, the chair of the trailblazing feminist publishing house. “I had found my home: where books, ideas, politics, imagination, feminism, and business was the air we breathed.” A Bite of the Apple is part personal memoir, part history of the iconic Virago Press, told by a woman who has been with it almost since the beginning. Over her career as a publisher and editor, Goodings has worked with extraordinary authors who shaped the literary world and defined the feminist conversation, including Magaret Atwood, Marilynne Robins, and Maya Angelou. Following the chronology of Virago’s titles, Goodings explores her thoughts on reading, writing, and breaking boundaries, celebrating all that can be achieved when women empower each other to make their voices heard. (PC)

February, OUP


When Deborah Orr died at age 57 last year, tributes poured in for the warm, incisive, witty, headstrong writer. Orr’s posthumous memoir, Motherwell: a girlhood is her final masterpiece: a tumultuous, scintillating journey through growing up working-class in Motherwell, south-east of Glasgow, the daughter of John, a factory worker, and Win – a strict, enigmatic woman Orr battles to reconcile with. With unflinching honesty and razor-sharp insights, the book mediates on what it means to ‘mother well’, scrutinising not just her mother’s parenting, but also her own. 

Beyond a retelling of delicate familial relations, Motherwell also provides illuminating social commentary on Britain. From the introduction of council homes to the reign of Margaret Thatcher, to the miners’ strikes and the move away from streaming in schools to mixed-ability education, Orr reflects on the impact each of these political decisions have had on people’s lives with clarity and boundless empathy. (DS)

January, Weidenfeld


With Instagram-perfect, ‘feminist’ co-working spaces like The Wing more prevalent than ever – among the rich, of course – it’s about time there was a book set against the backdrop of one. Andrea Bartz’s The Herd is set in New York’s exclusive women-only workspace, The Herd, where in-the-know creatives desperately fight for membership. Among these hopefuls is Katie Bradley, a writer with a way in: her sister Hana is the best friend of the community’s founder, Eleanor Walsh. Just as she’s determined to make Eleanor the subject of her next book, Katie is shocked to discover that The Herd’s founder has vanished without a trace. What unfolds is a desperate search for the truth, as Eleanor’s husband, colleagues, and closest friends become suspects in her mysterious disappearance. (BD) 

March 24, Ballantine Books


Kevin Nguyen’s New Waves is a different kind of heist novel, not only because the heist goes wrong pretty much at the outset, but also because the object in question isn’t money, or diamonds, or art. Dissatisfied with their jobs in a tech startup (where else?) Lucas and Margo, the company’s sole and frequently-talked-down-to black employee, plot to steal its userbase as an act of revenge. But then Margo dies in a car accident and Lucas, shaken, is left to look for answers on her computer (again, where else?). Secrecy, friendship, and the idiosyncracies of online life all figure into what he finds, raising questions about whether we can really know anyone at all, deep down. Like snooping through people’s phones when they’re out of the room? This is probably one for you. (TW)

March 10, One World


What would happen if you took a group of queer activists and dropped them into “the most homophobic town in the US”? That’s the question Celia Laskey asks in Under the Rainbow. The novel follows various characters as a nonprofit sends a “task force” into the fictional community of Big Burr, Kansas, the town they’ve awarded the aforementioned label to. Is it a coincidence that this is also the home state of the Westboro Baptist Church, which has driven away residents with homophobic hate speech? Probably not. 

The idea is that the task force will live among the community for two years, bringing new perspectives, but of course new tensions as well. In a world where discourse seems to be getting increasingly divisive, a generous, witty book about encouraging more open minds doesn’t sound like a bad option. (TW)


In Warhol, art critic Blake Gopnik attempts to unpack the legend and lore surrounding the cult artist, whose name alone is enough to conjure images of Campbell soup cans, the notorious Silver Factory, brightly-coloured celebrity silk screens, tales of amphetameme-riddled parties, and his brush with death at the hands of Valerie Solanas.  

Despite this, the misinformation surrounding Warhol’s life has made it difficult for biographers to accurately reflect the man behind the wigged persona, and Warhol, drawing on years of archival research and interviews with hundreds of the New York artist’s surviving friends, lovers, and rivals, tracks the idiosyncratic artist’s life from his working-class upbringing in Pittsburgh as the child of Polish immigrants, to his twenties as a successful commercial illustrator, and his ascent into global stardom. (GY)

February, Allen Lane


Diane Keaton has had a successful fifty years in Hollywood, starring in many films since her first major role in The Godfather, but maybe most popular for starring in Woody Allen films. Brother & Sister, however, is a memoir that explores the other side of her life, examining the close relationship she shared with her younger brother, Randy, when they were kids, and how they drifted apart as he became alcoholic and reclusive in adulthood. Alongside Keaton’s prose it contains photographs, poetry, letters, and diary entries from the family – including Randy – to reflect on sibling relationships, mental illness, and ultimately the regret that comes with mortality. (TW)

February 4, Knopf


The exciting debut of Maggie Doherty brings together the important yet untold stories of five women that came together in the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. The institute, at Radcliffe College in Harvard, offered women postgraduate study opportunities at a time when women were expected not to step out of the domestic sphere. Doherty, a lecturer at Harvard, traces the history-making steps and lives of painter Barbara Swan, writer Tillie Olsen, sculptor Mariana Pineda, and poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. It’s a rich tapestry brought to life by Doherty’s access to their personal notes, recordings, letters and works, weaving her own strong voice in with the individual women to tell stories of art, radical politics, relationships, and unfettered ambition. Though her eye is on the past, it’s most certainly a story to inspire our futures.

May 19, Knopf


Dare’s debut novel tells the story of Adunni – a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl looking to escape the life of servitude imposed on her. She soon learns that the only way to develop what her mother calls a ‘louding voice’ – the ability to speak for herself and determine her own future – is through education. But Adunni’s father has other plans for her, removing her from school and selling her on as the third wife of a local man. Despite being instilled with a belief that her worth amounts to nothing, Adunni refuses to be silent, resolving to stand up not just for herself, but the generations of lost girls who came before her and those who’ll inevitably sucede her. (DS)

March 5


When faced with the prospect of impending ecological collapse, it’s easy to slip into overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and despair. In their book, Digueres and Rivvet Carnac – two principle creators of the Paris agreement – offer an alternative narrative: that we can and that we will survive. At a critical moment for the future of humanity, the authors outline what we can do to safeguard our world with practical steps, willing us to face the crisis head on in this rousing call to arms. (DS)

February 25, Manilla


Following the groundbreaking, wildly successful first Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible in the summer of 2018, Adegoke and Uviebinené are back with an anthology follow-up. Featuring over 20 established and emerging black British writers, the anthology gives space to votes made largely invisible in the publishing sphere. Contributors write with wit and sharp insight on navigating life as a black woman today, amid political chaos and uncertainty with Brexit, the rise of the far right, and beyond to look to a future in which black women thrive brightly. An absolute must-buy for understanding and making your way in the world.

June 25, 4th Estate