A flatlay of covers of books that shaped 2020, on a red background

The books that defined this year. Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

So, 2020. It's been a year like any other, in that it's consisted of 365 days, four hemispheric seasons, some bank holidays and a heatwave. But that's about all it's shared with any of the others in living memory. Everything else about it, to clunk out what must by now be a frontrunner for Cliché of the Year, has been... “unprecedented”.

It's been a year defined by one thing, really: an invisible virus that shatters reality and kills people. Though, within the swirl of fear, desperation and grinding ennui that coronavirus brought with it, there have been a handful of other hot-button events that impacted this most discombobulating year.

So here, from prize winning novels to thought-provoking journalism, cookbooks to the year's best-sellers, are 15 of the best books that shaped, defined or reflected 2020.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama (17 Nov)

As the world watched America with matchstick eyes as the most chaotic and confusing US presidential election unfolded, a certain ex-president put out a memoir that became the publishing sensation of the year.

In its first week alone it sold 1.7 million copies in America, making it the fastest-selling presidential memoir in history. A searchingly introspective account of Barack Obama's first term, it charts America's 44th president's path to the White House in 2008 to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Tomorrow Will be a Good Day by Captain Tom Moore (9 Sep)

It would have taken a heart of pure ice not to be moved by the sight of Captain Tom Moore – zimmer frame in hand and war medals on chest – doing laps of his garden for the NHS last April, ahead of his 100th birthday. In doing so, he raised £33 million.

With the nation in dire need of something happy to hold on to as COVID-19 ravaged normality, it was the uplifting story everybody craved. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge called him “incredible”. He made Piers Morgan cry on national television. The Queen gave him a knighthood. And his subsequent memoir became the feel-good book of the year.

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Loo roll? Check. Pasta? Check. Albert Camus' masterpiece about a terrible plague that drives a town to the extremities of suffering, madness and compassion as it explores mankind's eternal battle between humanity and inhumanity, and our innate fear of death? Check. 

It's not surprising, really, that the Algerian author's 1947 classic became the defining book of the crisis. In the weeks leading up to the summer lockdown, UK sales of the novel soared by more than 1,000 per cent. And by April, it had become the panic-buyer's book pick of the pandemic.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

In 2017, Reni Eddo-Lodge published a book that argued how she was fed up of engaging with “the vast majority” of white people about race because they “refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms”.

It sold consistently well in the years that followed. Then, on 25 May 2020, a Black man named George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, sparking protests around the world.

Suddenly, Eddo-Lodge's book took flight once more, becoming one of the defining texts of the global outrage surrounding racism and white privilege sparked by the killing. Then in June, in a bittersweet moment for the Eddo-Lodge, she became the first Black British author to top the UK book charts.

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy (Oct 2019)

This year needed a pick-me-up what with all the talk of viruses and bubbles and lockdowns. And of all the heart-warming books that came out in the past 12 months, Charlie Mackesy's soothe-a-thon about friendship, kindness and connection came closest to transcending its own medium. It felt like a hug. It felt like medicine.

Less a narrative than a collection of gentle musings between four unlikely pals as they contemplate life's most important lessons. It was the surprise hit of the year, selling more than half a million copies in its first four months, encouraging, inspiring and soothing readers up and down Britain.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (3 Sep)

It was the feel-good crime caper of the lockdown, a positive story about the elderly at a time when Britain's elderly were having the most difficult time of all. It became the fastest selling debut crime novel, and the second fastest selling adult debut novel in history.

Set in a sleepy retirement village, a group of ex-pros – an ex-spy, an ex-psychiatrist, an ex-nurse and an ex-trade union leader – kill their Thursday afternoons investigating cold cases over tea and cake. But when an actual body is discovered right under their noses, they pick up the scent, falling headlong into a real-life game of Cluedo that will put their nerves, wits and creaking bodies to the ultimate test.

A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough (1 Oct)

With all this fuss about “the virus”, we almost forgot about the looming environmental catastrophe that's threatening to destroy our planet. Luckily, David Attenborough never forgets. And the release of his memoir was not only a deep dive into one of the most extraordinary and interesting lives on the planet, but also the sobering reminder the world needed that the climate crisis is going nowhere.

“A Life on Our Planet is my witness statement, and my vision for the future,” he writes. “It is the story of how we came to make this, our greatest mistake - and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right.”

That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu (12 Nov)

Despite the lockdown, 2020 was a great year for debut fiction. But at the top of the pile was Derek Owusu's magnetic and lyrical semi-autobiographical exploration of masculinity, identity and belonging.

The coming-of-age “verse novel” – published by Stormzy’s #Merky Books imprint – won the Desmond Elliott Prize for the year's best new fiction for its moving portrayal of a childhood in foster homes and a mental health crisis.

“Owusu has given us a unique, profound and transcendent work of literature," said judge Preti Taneja. "We want as many readers as possible to discover it - once they do they will return to again and again.”

Cook, Eat, Repeat by Nigella Lawson (29 Oct)

“The world believes that the vaccine is what will save us from Covid-19,” wrote the Independent in November, “but after a weekend of Nigella’s ‘Cook, Eat, Repeat’, Sophie Gallagher (an editor at the paper) is pretty sure the Domestic Goddess is actually our pandemic hero.”

Nigella Lawson finished the book during the first lockdown, and it was published just in time for the second, as an accompaniment to her BBC2 show of the same name. It was a cookbook, like all of Nigella's creations, grounded in nourishment, memory and comfort – just the kind of food that makes life feel that little bit better.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

Bernardine Evaristo's magnetic novel about the twist-and-turn lives of 12 (mostly) black British women, and one non-binary character, was the novel that kept giving. Ever since it won the Booker Prize in 2019 it never left the literary conversation. And its paperback release in March only added sparkle to its star.

It was important not just because it gave a voice to those who, until really recently, have been little represented in British fiction, but also because as a vital celebration of British diversity that makes the entire nation, as she says in her dedication, 'members of the human family.'

The Roasting Tin Around the World by Rukmini Iyer (30 Apr)

Back in April, at the peak of lockdown, more than a fifth of us were cooking every meal from scratch according to a research conducted by Tesco, and 35 per cent of us were getting better at using leftovers to avoid food waste.

With restaurants closed and supermarket shelves sparse, we needed recipes without frills or faff, just simple, delicious, soul-soothing food. And Rukmini Iyer's sumptuous selection of 75 easy-to-make recipes designed for “minimum effort, maximum flavour” using only “lockdown larder ingredients” was the cookbook that, for many stuck-at-home Brits, saved dinner.

The Sentinel by Lee and Andrew Child (27 Oct)

Loner, drifter, hard-bitten wrong-righter... for 27 years Jack Reacher has been an avenging angel for our age. The 6ft 5in former military policeman, with hands as "big as a supermarket chicken", has attracted an army of famous fans since his inception in 1997 with Killing Floor, from Kate Atkinson to Haruki Murakami and Dame Margaret Drabble.

But this year came the news no thriller fan wanted to hear: his creator, Lee Child had retired. It was bad news indeed until, that is, Child revealed he'd handed over the reigns to his kid brother, Andrew. The Sentinel was that book, an edge-of-your-seat gripper that grabbed Reacher disciples like a headlock, safe in the knowledge that Reacher is going nowhere, not while there's still life in the old Child imagination.

Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens (6 Aug)

Robin Stevens’s wildly successful Murder Most Unladylike detective series, which has amassed a passionate teen following for its twisty period flavour, intrigue and focus on friendship, came to an end this year with this ninth and final story.

Set in the 1930s and inspired by Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, youth-sleuths Daisy and Hazel are back for a final time, now in Egypt where they are thrust into a dark world of a Pharaoh-worshipping death cult. It proved a beautiful end to a meteoric detective series that's enchanted readers, young and not-so-young, for a decade.

Poor by Caleb Femi (5 Nov)

If there was one burning issue to the top of the coronavirus bonfire this year, it was poverty. And Caleb Femi's “stunning” and “revelatory” ode to life on society's fringes captured that social struggle, as he explored the “trials, tribulations, dreams and joys of young Black boys in twenty-first century Peckham.”

“Oh my God, he’s just stirring me,” said screenwriter and actor du jour Michaela Coel of the collection of poems about the south London estate on which Femi grew up. “Destroying me.” Endorsements don't get much better than that. 

Afropean by Johny Pitts (5 Mar)

In May, Johny Pitts won the prestigious Jhalak Prize for British writers of colour for his debut book about his five-month journey across the continent examining the lives and communities of Black Europeans.

A biracial journalist, writer and photographer from Sheffield, has said he was inspired to write the book after noticing “a growing racism from some of [his] white working-class friends and a growing anger from [his] black friends” in the build up to Brexit.

It proved a huge hit at a moment when the conversation about race and racism was exploding around the world, shining a light on the corners European culture so often swept under the carpet of mainstream media.

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