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2020: The year in books

  • Published at 02:56 pm December 25th, 2020
2020: The year in books

Books & Blurbs 

Due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, not only book publication but also book distribution has been drastically affected. Although publication resumed slowly after the initial shocks that came in the form of lockdown, important events e.g. book launches and literary festivals that boosted sales moved online. The smartest move was adopted by many publishers when they increased the volume of publication in online marketplaces i.e. Kindle, Lulu. Yet publishers all over the world took a huge hit. Albeit considerable delays in publication or hiccups in distribution, freshly published titles appeared in physical marketplaces. Owing to strict lockdown rules, however, they couldn’t travel as comfortably as they usually do. Therefore, it is more important than ever that we keep our readers posted about the books that were given a warm reception by reviewers and readers alike in 2020.

Fiction

Low by Jeet Thayl (Published by Faber)

Thayl’s third novel is about an Indian poet named Dominic Ullis. He attends the cremation of his wife, Aki, who has killed herself, not so much out of depression as of fulfilling her lifelong dream of suicide. As he makes a trip to Mumbai to scatter her ashes, he starts looking for a solution to his insomnia, anxiety, hepatitis, and heroin addiction that have afflicted him in the past. Soon he takes to a new and unsafe drug known as “meow meow”, which fills the user with an extreme sense of alienation. As is characteristic with Thayl, this book is a bold take on the darkest sides of life in a city, told in a biting narrative zinged with both sarcasm and poetry. 

A Burning by Megha Majumdar (Published by Knopf)

In this National Book Award Longlist honoree, Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party, and finds that his own ascent becomes linked to Jivan’s fall. Lovely—an irresistible outcast has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear. Majumdar writes with dazzling assurance at a breakneck pace on complex themes that read as the components of a thriller: class, fate, corruption, and justice. An extraordinary debut.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshie (Hamish Hamilton)

In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, endured a brief stint as a beggar (mostly to spite her affluent parents), and spent years chasing after a dishevelled “artist”—all with her young child in tow. Now she is forgetting things, leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a woman who never cared for her. Sharp as a blade and laced with caustic wit, in this Booker-shortlisted novel, Avni Doshi tests the limits of what we can know for certain about those we are closest to, and by extension, about ourselves.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Grove Press)

1981 Glasgow. Poverty is on the rise. People watch the lives they had hoped for disappear from view. Agnes Bain had always expected more. She dreamed of greater things: a house with its own front door. When her philandering husband leaves, she and her three children find themselves trapped in a mining town decimated by Thatcherism. As Agnes increasingly turns to alcohol for comfort, her children try their best to save her. Yet one by one they have to abandon her in order to save themselves. The Booker 2020 winning Shuggie Bain is a blistering and heartbreaking debut, and an exploration of the unsinkable love that only children can have for their damaged parents.

The Glass Kingdom by Lawrence Osborne (Hogarth Press)

This New York Times Editor’s Choice has been described as a tense, stunningly well-observed novel of a young American on the run, from Lawrence Osborne, “an heir to Graham Greene”. Talking about its thrilling narrative, Booker Prize–winning author Hilary Mantel summarised it thus: “Bangkok is the star of this accomplished novel. Its denizens are aliens to themselves, glittering on the horizon of their own lives, moving—restless and rootless and afraid—though a cityscape that has more stories than they know.” 

Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez (Dialgoue)

A raw, essential and revelatory coming-of-age narrative from a thrilling new voice in queer black fiction, with shades of James Baldwin, Kei Miller and Moonlight. Rainbow Milk is Dialogue's lead debut for 2020.

Each of us Killers by Jenny Bhatt (7.13 Books)

At the heart of these 15 stories, spanning the US, India, and England, are characters who find themselves balancing deeply felt emotions with their professional lives. While these laborers, including bakers, engineers, journalists, and domestic servants, pursue money, power, love, or all three through their careers, they grapple with the challenges that arise around the clash of class, gender, and nationality.

The Heartsick Diaspora And Other Stories by Elaine Chiew (Myriad Editions)

From Singaporean sisters running a French restaurant in New York to a writers’ group in London, the characters in this collection of stories sweep readers into the world of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas in cities across the globe. The people in each story navigate friendships and family relationships as they confront the muddled space between cultures.


Translations

Hellfire by Leesa Gazi, tr. by Shabnam Nadiya (Eka, Westland Books)

Hellfire tells the story of a family of four—two sisters and their parents. Yet it does not read like a trivial story with limited literary and interpretative scope. Quite the contrary, unexpected twists and turns are woven into the narrative in a way that it turns out to be as engaging as a thriller with an ending that will shock you to the core. It is a scintillating novel that will keep you engrossed from beginning to end while you ride the waves of surprise, pity, laughter, empathy, fear, and shock.

Moustache by S Hareesh, translated by Jayasree Kalathil (HarperCollins India)

This year’s JCB Prize for Literature winner, Moustache, translated from Malayalam, is about a lower caste man from Kuttanadu who grows out his moustache, much to the chagrin of upper caste men. The juxtaposition of numerous folktales, harvest songs and myth-making presents readers with an amazing narrative that also leaves you shocked at the ecological damage and annihilation of crocodiles. Historical figures—Tipu Sultan, Sree Narayana Swamy—and events—famines, cultural upliftment—add more dimensions to the narrative.

Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, tr. by Michele Hutchison (Faber & Faber)

Jas lives with her devout farming family in the rural Netherlands. One winter’s day, her older brother joins an ice skating trip. Resentful at being left alone, she makes a perverse plea to God; he never returns. As grief overwhelms the farm, Jas succumbs to a vortex of increasingly disturbing fantasies, watching her family disintegrate into a darkness that threatens to derail them all. A bestselling sensation in the Netherlands by a prize-winning young poet, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut novel is a world of language unlike any other, which Michele Hutchison’s striking translation captures in all its wild, violent beauty.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, tr by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)

Giovanna’s pretty face is changing, turning ugly, at least so her father thinks. Giovanna, he says, looks more like her Aunt Vittoria every day. But can it be true? Is she really changing? Is she turning into her Aunt Vittoria, a woman she hardly knows but whom her mother and father clearly despise? Surely there is a mirror somewhere in which she can see herself as she truly is. Another multi-layered novel by Ferrante. 

A Ballad of Remittent Fever: A Novel by Ashoke Mukhopadhyay, tr. by Arunava Sinha (Aleph)

In the early years of the 20th century, Calcutta is grappling with deadly diseases such as the plague, cholera, typhoid, malaria, and kala-azar caused by viruses, bacteria, and other infectious organisms. The populace is restive under British rule, and World War I looms large on the horizon. Set against this tumultuous backdrop, A Ballad of Remittent Fever is an indelible tale of loss, hope, love, and mortality.

Lake Like a Mirror By Ho Sok Fong, tr. from Chinese by Natascha Bruce (Two Lines Press)

In precise and disquieting prose, Ho Sok Fong draws her readers into a richly atmospheric world of naked sleepwalkers in a rehabilitation center for wayward Muslims, mysterious wooden boxes, gossip in unlicensed hairdressers, hotels with amnesiac guests, and poetry classes with accidentally charged politics--a world that is peopled with the ghosts of unsaid words, unmanaged desires and uncertain statuses, surreal and utterly true.

 

Nonfiction

Azadi by Arundhati Roy (Haymarket Books)

The chant of "Azadi!"—Urdu for "Freedom!"—is the slogan of the freedom struggle in Kashmir against what Kashmiris see as the Indian Occupation. In this series of electrifying essays, Arundhati Roy challenges us to reflect on the meaning of freedom in a world of growing authoritarianism.

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