The best books of the year, according to our books editor

·8-min read
Photo credit: Good Housekeeping
Photo credit: Good Housekeeping

This emotional roller-coaster of a year has brought home to many of us just how important reading is as a source of comfort and escape. Book lovers have certainly been spoilt with a veritable feast of fantastic fiction and non-fiction over the last 12 months, from literary gems to moving memoirs. Picking just 20 books wasn't an easy job but I loved every single one of the books on this list. If you haven't read them yet, enjoy!

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny

Heiny’s previous novel Standard Deviation is one of my all-time favourites so I had high expectations for this – and I wasn’t disappointed. When Jane moves to a small town in Michigan and falls for charming Duncan she soon realises that he has a bit of a playboy past and has dated most of the women in town. She’s only planning on a fling but then an accident changes everything. This finely observed book about love, unconventional families and the glorious mess that is life is pure bliss.

Sorrow And Bliss by Meg Mason

Often the sign of a good book is that you’re still thinking about long after you’ve finished it. I felt this way about this wonderful book which follows Martha, a 40-something woman an undiagnosed mental illness and shows how her struggles affect her relationship with her family and husband. While there are tragic moments, it’s also a bitterly funny read.

Still Life by Sarah Winman

I love that there’s always something a bit magical about Winman’s books (she’s best known for When God Was A Rabbit). Set in Italy in the years after the Second World War, this joyful book about love in all its forms tells the story of Ulysses and how a chance encounter with a woman named Evelyn changes the course of his life. The cast of characters are unforgettable and the gorgeous descriptions of the sun-baked Tuscan landscape and food will warm your soul.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Taking place over 24 hours, fifty-something Elle Bishop looks back on her marriage and near-misses as she decides whether to stay with her husband or pursue a relationship with her childhood sweetheart. The descriptions of Cape Cod, with its sticky beaches and cool backwater swimming ponds are mesmerising. A promising debut from a talent to watch.

My Phantoms by Gwendolyn Riley

The caustic bond between a mother and daughter is at the heart of this stunning novel. Bridget, a 40-something academic meets her mother Hen once a year and their awkward encounters are excruciating to read. A deeply insightful read that’s both sharply funny and full of passages about family dynamics that will strike a chord for many. I highly recommend it.

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

This brooding, unusual novel follows 50-something twins, Jeanie and Julius, who have led unconventional lives living with their mother in a cottage untouched by modern conveniences. After their mother dies, they struggle to cope and their lives start to unravel and the truths they’ve believed for a lifetime are not what they seemed. These memorable characters will worm their way into your head and heart the descriptions of the landscape are beautiful.

Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

From The Remains of the Day to Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro has written many memorable novels of the past 30 years. In his latest he explores the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence in his trademark insightful way. Klara is an Artificial Friend, a robot designed to replicate human behaviour, who is bought by a mother as a companion for her sick teenage daughter. Klara is designed to offer unconditional love but can she make the sacrifice she's asked to make? Both fascinating and deeply moving, this is a must-read.

Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz

This stood out among the many thrillers published this year because it focuses on the victim and her life rather her killer. With echoes of The Lovely Bones, it's narrated by Alice, a teenage girl found dead in the Hudson and Ruby, the woman who discovered her body.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

In 1972, three lighthouse keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. Mysteriously, inside the lighthouse the table is set for only two, two clocks have stopped at exactly the same time and the door is locked from the inside. 20 years later, a novelist interviews the women left behind are interviewed try to finally understand what happened. The fact it’s based on a true story makes this atmospheric mystery all the more intriguing.

Assembly by Natasha Brown

A wry, electrifying debut that's powerful, ambitious and really packs a punch. An unnamed female narrator is preparing for a garden party on her boyfriends family estate, while dealing with a cancer diagnosis. In shop, sharp sentences, it paints an eye-opening portrait of what it's like to live as a Black British woman today.

Girl A by Abigail Dean

Lex and her siblings grow up in captivity, abused emotionally and physically by their parents, until she manages to escape. After her mother dies in prison she returns to the family home to confront the past. This haunting, slightly bruising psychological drama has a gut-punch of a twist.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Some writers seem unable to writing a bad sentence and Cusk is one of them. This new novel, about a woman who invites a famous artist to stay at her remote coastal retreat, sings with luminous prose. The language is rich and dense and poignantly explores ideas about art, the power imbalance between the genders, motherhood and identity.

Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor

I was gripped by the thrilling opening pages of this novel, as three men on an Antarctic expedition find themselves in grave danger. The second part of the novel is gentler but just as enthralling and explores the relationship between Robert, who suffered a stroke on the ice, and his wife Anna after he is airlifted home.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

I’ve admired Shipstead’s writing since her debut Seating Arrangements. This wonderful novel weaves together the story of two women: a female aviator who goes missing in the 1920s and the Hollywood star playing her in a film in the present day. At over 600 pages it’s a commitment but one that rewards with memorable characters and vivid storytelling.

I Couldn’t Love You More by Esther Freud

Inspired by the author’s own family history (her father is the painter Lucian Freud), this is the story of three women: Aiofe who looks back on her long marriage as her husband lays dying; their daughter Rosaleen who has an affair with an artist in 1960s London; and Kate, a generation down, who is struggling to find her identity in an unhappy marriage. I loved this deeply moving story about mothers and daughters, which explores the treatment of women by the Catholic Church for an unplanned pregnancy.

The High House by Jessie Greengrass

A deeply moving novel set in a near-future where a climate crisis is no longer just a possibility but an imminent disaster. Francesca, a scientist, is one of the few to foresee it and has prepared her former holiday home as a sort of ark for herself, her step-daughter Caro, son Pauly and locals Sally and Grandy. This is so grounded in reality and the ordinariness of the lives of this disparate group, that I had to read parts of it through my fingers.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Sometimes you know from the first pages you have a special book in your hands and this is one of them. Recently widowed Theo is raising his emotionally unstable son Robin. When Robin is expelled from school, he’s put forward for a scientific study where his dead mother’s brain patterns are used to help him manage his emotions. A beautiful, thoughtfully written novel and the father and son relationship at its heart is deeply affecting.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

It’s such a pleasure to be reunited with Lucy Barton, much loved heroine of two previous books, as she helps her ex-husband to deal with a revelation about his mother’s past. In sparse, elegant sentences paints a recognisable picture of a long marriage’s highs and lows.

Paul by Daisy Lafarge

Poet Lafarge is one to watch if this dazzling debut is anything to go by. With cinematic descriptions of the French countryside where this novel is set, it explores the relationship between student Frances and a man twice her age under whose carefully woven spell she falls.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

This is a bit of a doorstop at nearly 600 pages but don’t be put off as this is a wonderful, immersive book. Franzen takes us into the heart of the Hildebrandt family – pastor Russ, wife Marion, well-behaved eldest son, Clem, high school queen bee Becky and rebel Perry.

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