2020 was a bewildering ordeal of a year, one in which it felt like every day was telling the previous day to hold its beer. It's safe to say we are all delighted to see the back of the year that never was. But before we bid farewell once and for all, let us not forget to admire the silver linings therein, especially those that come in the form of literary recommendations. Because literary recommendations mean new books to add to our to-be-read piles, and who doesn't love new books?
With recommendations and TBR piles in mind, we are excited to have a sneak peek at Blackwell's Books of the Year. Blackwell’s, founded in 1879, is one of the UK's best independent bookstores with an impressive catalogue to suit all bookish types. Their annual Books of the Year list has been the result of our expanding bookshelves. It plays host to four categories: fiction, non-fiction, debut novel and children's, and it is not to be missed.
Fiction: Boy Parts by Eliza Clark
Debut Novel: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Non-Fiction: Humankind by Rutger Bregman
Children's: A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll
Winning the Blackwell's Fiction Book of the Year 2020 is Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts. The novel follows the life of female protagonist Irina, who spends her days searching the streets of Newcastle for men whom she persuades to model for her. However, when she’s offered a job that will provide an escape from her world of drugs, alcohol and extreme cinema, her life turns upside down. The debut novel is packed with “pitch-black comedy both shocking and hilarious, taboo regions of sexuality and gender roles in the 21st century.” Therefore, it is no doubt why Clark’s novel stole the hearts of many and found its way to first place in the Fiction Book of the Year category.
Winning the Debut Novel category is Irish writer and Oxford graduate Naoise Dolan with her Sunday Times best-selling novel Exciting Times. Dolan combines her experiences growing up in Ireland and living abroad to create a novel that follows protagonist Ava in her move from Dublin to Hong Kong. There, she meets two romantic prospects, emotionally unavailable banker Julian and enthusiastically unapologetic lawyer Edith. Praised for its razor-sharp wit and astute social commentary, this already well-loved book is a light-hearted take on contemporary fiction, so it’s no surprise Exciting Times has ended up as a Blackwell’s Book of the Year.
Dutch historian and author Rutger Bregman’s title Humankind (A Hopeful History) found its way to the winning spot in the Non-Fiction category. In this best-selling book, Bregman takes some of the world's most famous studies and events, such as the aftermath of the Blitz and the hidden flaws of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and reframes them, providing a brand new perspective on human history in the last 200,000 years. Bregman advocates for human kindness and altruism as a new way of thinking as well as the foundation for achieving effective change in today’s society. Without a doubt, being a strong, thought-provoking read is what allowed this book to be labelled as the Non-Fiction Blackwell’s Book of the Year.
Stealing the prize for both best children’s book and overall book of 2020 is Elle McNicoll’s A Kind of Spark. Through the protagonist (11-year-old Addie), McNicoll explores themes of friendship, empathy and ableism in this wonderfully nuanced book. Set in a small Scottish village near Edinburgh, Addie’s character demonstrates a powerful depiction of adversity, and the societal need to combat it. McNicoll uses Addie’s desire to combat prejudice towards the witches of the historic witch trials in her village to make wider assertions regarding ableist prejudices that she has endured.
Not only does this novel offer a truly inspiring depiction of childhood autism, from which young readers can learn, understand and feel seen, but this novel also acts as a wider, powerful learning experience across readerships, regardless of age. What is profoundly obvious from reading this novel is the disconcerting absence of disability representation within children's books. McNicoll herself further depicts the empowering nature of A Kind of Spark, as she herself is neurodivergent and thus offers an honest and comprehensive depiction. This compact novel achieves all of this in no more than 192 pages, a succinct and impactful feat. It is no wonder why this debut has been named the Blackwell’s Book of the Year, and why many are excited for where McNicoll’s writing takes us next.
It would seem that the Books of the Year have been chosen thoughtfully and with a particular notion in mind: telling stories less told in new and refreshing ways. Boy Parts examines the taboo world of sexuality, while A Kind of Spark explores autism prejudice and ableist adversity; Exciting Times tells a unique LGBTQ+ inclusive tale, while Humankind persuades us all of a need for social kindness. We praise Blackwell’s for choosing books that not only win due to their writing quality and page-turning factor, but also due to the important messages they send out into the world.