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The best non-fiction and fiction books we read in 2020 © Getty Images

28 of the best non-fiction and fiction books we read in 2020

Our books of the year include great titles from Angela Saini, Hilary Mantel and Brian May.

It’s been a long year. For key workers, it involved tiring shifts, keeping our hospitals, supermarkets and livelihoods going. Others found themselves with endless empty hours ahead as the coronavirus pandemic left them furloughed or unemployed.

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Many, then, turned to literature. Research by Nielsen Book, who work closely with the publishing industry, revealed that 41 per cent of people read more during the first UK lockdown, a sixth of whom say they are confident they will continue the trend after the pandemic.

We’re no exception, so we thought we’d share with you our picks of the best books from 2020, along with a few reading recommendations from friends of Science Focus, too. Some are new and shiny, sporting ‘award winner’ stickers, like Explaining Humans. Some are eye-catching collections of fantastic photography, while others are long-awaited novels like The Mirror And The Light. 

Looking for Christmas gift ideas? Check out our list of the best science and tech gifts.

Let us know what your favourite book of 2020 was over on the Science Focus book club Facebook group.

The best non-fiction books we read this year

Life Changing: How Humans are Altering Life on Earth

life-changing

Helen Pilcher

£16.99, Bloomsbury Sigma

The book that has stood out for me this year is Helen Pilcher’s Life Changing. It is a fascinating but complicated topic that necessarily involves bring together a lot of tricky ideas and concepts. Helen’s book does exactly that, and in a brilliantly engaging way.

I had the pleasure of doing a festival event online with Helen over the summer and it was a joy to explore some of the many weird, and often not so wonderful, ways we are altering species.Dr Adam Hart

Adam Hart is a biologist, broadcaster, author and professor of science communication at the University of Gloucestershire. His latest book, Unfit for Purpose (£16.99, Bloomsbury Sigma), explores how our evolutionary heritage conflicts with the modern world we have created, from fake news to violence, via obesity, addiction and much more besides.

Is Free Speech Racist?

free-speech-racist

Gavan Titley

£9.99, Polity

This is a small but mighty book.

Titley shows how racists have capitalised on free speech arguments to “reanimate racist discourses”, and he soberly, succinctly skewers the claim that the big threat to free speech is from those who challenge racism, or any other kind of prejudice, including transphobia. – Angela Saini

Angela Saini is an award-winning science journalist and broadcaster. Her latest book is Superior: The Return of Race Science (£9.99, 4th Estate). She has also co-presented a two-part documentary series for BBC Four about the history and science of eugenics.

Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics

stephen-hawking

Leonard Mlodinow

£20, Allen Lane

This concise memoir of Stephen Hawking swapped back and forth between light-touch biography and personal recollections of a close friendship between Hawking and the author spanning the last fifteen years of Hawking’s life. We think we know Hawking the great scientist but this book highlights the sheer ordinariness of the many daily routines that made up the unseen part of his life.

The stories, told with humour and fondness, mean that I feel I now know Stephen Hawking a little better.Prof Jim Al-Khalili

Jim Al-Khalili is a physicist, science communicator and presenter of The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4. His latest book, The World According To Physics (£12.99, Princeton University Press) is out now.

Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA

some-assembly-required

Neil Shubin

£10.99, Oneworld

Neil Shubin’s book is one that completely changed my understanding of evolution. I understood how small changes evolved – gradually changing colour or brains getting bigger. But it wasn’t until I read this book that I could finally get my head around how the really big changes happened, like moving from the ocean to land or learning to fly.

The things I learned from this book stayed with me – I’m still dropping facts into conversation. Sara Rigby

Sara Rigby is the online assistant for BBC Science Focus Magazine.

What Have I Done?

what-have-i-done

Laura Dockrill

£14.99, Square Peg

Laura has tackled an extremely difficult and often taboo subject with searing honesty and humour. As a person struggling with postnatal mental health challenges myself, reading someone else’s difficulties in print made me feel less alone. A scary number of parents suffer with similar issues but it’s rarely spoken about, especially in such an open way.

I’m so sorry about what Laura went through, but am very grateful to her for sharing her story as it gives me, and I’m sure others, hope, that we can get through it. – Roma Agrawal

Roma Agrawal is an engineer, author and broadcaster. Her first book Built (£20, Bloomsbury) was published in 2018 to glowing reviews. You can listen to some of her amazing engineering stories in her podcast Building Stories.

Horizon

horizon

Barry Lopez

£10.99, Vintage

I’ve been dying to read Barry Lopez’s Horizon, the long-awaited full-length follow up to his 1986 Arctic Dreams, but for various reasons I saved it until the paperback release in 2020, and I’m so glad I did.

This was the perfect 2020 book. With Lopez as my guide, I escaped on six long, inspiring journeys — from the Kenyan desert to Antarctica — that made me gasp, cry, smile and think very differently about the world. My copy is full of notes and scribbles and I know I’ll be returning to Lopez’s magnificent prose and challenging ideas for years to come. – Dr Helen Scales

Helen Scales is an author and marine biologist. Her next book, The Brilliant Abyss: True Tales of Exploring the Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life and Selling the Seabed (£16.99, Bloomsbury Sigma), comes out in February.

Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told about Food is Wrong

spoon-fed-large

Tim Spector

£12.99, Jonathan Cape

Don’t go shopping when you’re hungry. That’s really the only rule I have when it comes to food. But, as I get older, my body is telling me I might need to make a few changes. The trouble is, it seems the more we understand about how food affects our health and mood, the more complicated it is to decide what we ought to put in our bodies.

Prof Tim Spector’s new book is an easy-to-digest guide to all the controversies in the world of diet and nutrition right now. Do diets ever work? Should we all be eating less salt? Are carbs the devil’s work?

Without ever shying away from the complicated science Spector’s book satisfyingly arrives at some simple advice that would probably improve most diets. In short: listen to your body and eat diversely. It’s a breezy read, and I’ll be honest, probably the first book about food I’ve read cover-to-cover that that didn’t have a recipe in it. Daniel Bennett

Daniel Bennett is the editor of BBC Science Focus Magazine.

Women Don’t Owe You Pretty

women-dont-owe-pretty

Florence Given

£12.99, Octopus Books

Ever have that feeling of social anxiety in worrying what the right thing to do or say is? In work, dating, ‘people-ing’? In this day and age it can feel like treading on eggshells, because we want to do the right thing.

I feel less scared after reading Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, and that just by existing I don’t have to apologise for taking up space. From checking different kinds of privileges to identifying red flags, from highlighting gaslighting and to knowing the difference between respect and fetishisation of race and gender, sexuality, and how queer dating sheds a new light on hetero-normative structures.

Having said that, this book isn’t heavy at all, it goes down like milk. It keeps me safe but also empowered, abundant, and confident in my womanhood in navigating the modern world. – Dr Camilla Pang

Dr Camilla Pang is an author and bioinformatician. Her debut, Explaining Humans (£14.99, Viking), won the 2020 Royal Society Science Book Prize.

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

kindred

Rebecca Wragg Sykes

£20, Bloomsbury Sigma

Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes is a sensitive, beautiful and very human view of our ancient relatives, the Neanderthals. Her writing is lyrical, insightful and poignant, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Highly recommended. – Dr Helen Pilcher

Dr Helen Pilcher is a science writer and presenter. Her latest book is Life Changing (£16.99, Bloomsbury Sigma), which explores how humans are altering other life on Earth.  

The Gynae Geek: Your No-Nonsense Guide to ‘Down-There’ Healthcare

gynae-geek

Dr Anita Mitra

£14.99, Thorsons

I’ve followed Dr Anita Mitra, aka The Gynae Geek, on Instagram for a while and always loved her accessible approach to female health. This year, I decided to treat myself to a copy of her paperback book. I have a science-based education and work at BBC Science Focus, so like to think that I have a pretty good grasp of anatomy and biology, but like many people of my age, my school sex education was abysmal.

This book not only gave no-nonsense, non-judgmental advice about ‘down there’ but also left me absolutely gob-smacked by some facts about the female reproductive system. Did you know, for example, that the Fallopian tubes are mobile, and one tube can pick up an egg from the opposite ovary? Nope, neither did I!

It’s also a wonderful form of support for anyone who is worried about pregnancy, polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis or other gynaecological concerns, and can either put your mind to rest or help you decide if you need to reach out to a healthcare professional. – Alice Lipscombe-Southwell

Alice Lipscombe-Southwell is the managing editor for BBC Science Focus Magazine.

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)

a-liberatarian-a-bear

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

£22.99, Hachette

While it’s not strictly an official ‘science’ book, it is nonetheless an alarming, eyebrow-raising and often hilarious true life tale of what happens when a fringe political ideology clashes with the real world, in ways which incorporate economics, conservation, zoology, parasitology, environmentalism, various types of psychology and animal behaviour studies, and more. Dean Burnett

Dean Burnett is a doctor of neuroscience, research associate and international bestselling author. His next book, Psycho-Logical: Why Mental Health Goes Wrong – and How to Make Sense of It (£9.99, Guardian Faber Publishing), is published in February 2021.

A Perfect Planet: Our One in a Billion World Revealed

perfect-planet

Huw Cordey

£25, BBC Books

Published to accompany Sir David Attenborough’s latest five-part series due to air on BBC One in the New Year, this is a book brimming with spectacular photography and great behind-the-scenes details. Each chapter covers a major topic; the Sun, weather, the oceans, volcanoes and humans, and tells the story of how the combination of these five ingredients somehow coalesced to form our perfect planet.

It has all the major bases covered, too. Crocodiles trying to catch birds? Check. Crazy scientist standing next to an erupting volcano? Check. Cryogenic frogs that freeze their blood and later come back to life? Check!

A short review like this (especially in the hands of an untrained picture editor) can’t really do a book justice, but if you love wildlife and appreciate great photography then this is the book you want. James Cutmore

James Cutmore is the picture editor on BBC Science Focus Magazine. He creates collections of great photography for print and online.

Cosmic Clouds 3-D: Where Stars Are Born

Cover of Cosmic Clouds 3D

David Eicher and Brian May

£35, The London Stereoscopic Company

Legendary Queen guitarist Brian May brings us the first book to show cosmic clouds of gas and dust – nebulae – in 3D.

I often think the beauty of the night sky is epic enough to rival the revered art that hangs in major galleries around the world. Now this gorgeous book allows us to see them like never before. Colin Stuart

Colin Stuart is an award-winning astronomy author and speaker. His latest book is Rebel Star: Our Quest to Solve the Great Mysteries of the Sun (£16.99, Michael O’Mara Books).

Drugs Without the Hot Air: Making Sense of Legal and Illegal Drugs

drugs

David Nutt

£18.99, UIT Cambridge

Anyone wanting a clear-headed primer on the science of what drugs are, how they work, and why people take them need look no further than David Nutt’s landmark work.

The second edition was published early this year and includes the latest developments in the science as well as the addition of several up-to-date case studies. There’s a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and research to dig into here but thanks to Nutt’s direct, no nonsense writing style the book also serves as a masterclass in science communication. Jason Goodyer

Jason Goodyer is the commissioning editor of BBC Science Focus Magazine.

Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut

diary-apprentice-astronaut

Samantha Cristoforetti

£25, Allen Lane

Lately, I have become as fascinated by the way that humans relate to science and the natural world, as I am to the scientific breakthroughs themselves. I’ve also, for the first time, realised just how momentous it is to be sending people into space. Having never known a time when this hasn’t happened, it’s taken me a while to get it into perspective!

So, this diary of what it is like to do through astronaut training for a 200-day mission to the International Space Station crossed my desk at exactly the right time. ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti writes with honesty. Her prose is simple and down to Earth, which increased my empathy for her story. – Dr Stuart Clark

Dr Stuart Clark is an astronomy writer with a PhD in astrophysics. His latest book Beneath the Night: How the stars have shaped the history of humankind is published by Faber. 

Lost Cat

lost-cat

Mary Gaitskill

£8.99, Daunt Books

In a year that has been marked by isolation, grief, uncertainty, one book that has stood out for me amongst the many wonderful books published this year is Mary Gaitskill’s Lost Cat. A slender volume, it explores relationships, death, loss in Gaitskill’s typical unsentimental, straightforward way. It made me reflect a lot on which relationships are appropriate and who gets to decide, and which death is tragic and which is not.

I read it in the days after my father’s sudden death and it made me cry but also comforted me at the same time. This year, as so many of us had to redefine what closeness and distance means, this book is an excellent reflection on how we see other people and how they see us, a theme that perhaps also runs closely in my own books that were published this year. – Dr Pragya Agarwal

Dr Pragya Agarwal is the author of Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias (£16.99, Bloomsbury), and Wish We Knew What To Say: Talking with children about race (£9.99, Dialogue Books). Pragya is a freelance journalist, two-time TED speaker, an inclusivity consultant and founder of a research think-tank The 50 Percent Project that examines global inequities.

The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

ash-and-elm

Neil Price

£30, Allen Lane

This spectacular book is more than traditional history, as many of its surprising – often strange – revelations about Viking life come not from texts, but archaeology.

Price guides us through their vast world, studding his grand narrative with extraordinary details: isotopic identification of Scandinavian skeletons in Russia, silk caps from York and Lincoln probably from the same Byzantine bale, and a candle burning until the air inside a burial chamber ran out. – Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes is a Palaeolithic archaeologist, Honorary Fellow at the University of Liverpool, and author of the bestselling Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

How to Argue with a Racist

argue-with-racists

Adam Rutherford

£12.99, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Given the renewed examination of race relations sparked by the tragic death of George Floyd, How to Argue with a Racist is doubtlessly one of the most important reads of the year. But it’s arguably the most interesting too: debunking racial pseudoscience, geneticist and author Adam Rutherford expertly explains how all humans (including white supremacists) share African and Chinese ancestors – and how, biologically, race is near impossible to define.

As a bonus, it also demonstrates the many flaws of your ancestry DNA test results, and why most Brits are related to Edward III. Engaging and thought-provoking throughout. – Thomas Ling

Thomas Ling is the staff writer for BBC Science Focus Magazine.

The Little Book of Cosmology

little-book-cosmology

Lyman Page

£16.99, Princeton University Press

Lyman Page is a professor of astronomy at the Princeton University in New Jersey and his principal area of research has for decades been the heat afterglow of the Big Bang. Incredibly, it is still around us today, greatly cooled by cosmic expansion in the past 13.82 billion years and accounting for a whopping 99.9 per cent of the photons, or particles of light, in the Universe.

I thought this would be just another book by an academic jumping on the popular science bandwagon and short-changing the public with something pretty ordinary. But nothing could be further from the truth.

This ranks alongside Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes as the best book on cosmology I have read. A compact treasure-trove of cosmic insights to be read, mulled over, and read again. – Marcus Chown

Marcus Chown is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. His latest book is The Magicians: Great Minds and the Central Miracle of Science (£14.99, Faber & Faber).

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret

waste_final

Catherine Colman Flowers

£18.99, The New Press

The introduction of the sewage system was one of the revolutionary inventions that changed the world.

This book is a reminder that basic waste sanitation is vital for public health, and is a wake-up call that climate change and rising sea levels will inevitably hit the underprivileged hardest. – Jheni Osman

Jheni Osman is the former editor of BBC Science Focus Magazine. Her latest book is Conceivable: An Insider’s Guide to IVF.

Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Life, Love and Relationships

Explaining Humans

Dr Camilla Pang

£14.99, Viking

If you want to understand how light refracts, or how proteins in the body work, read this book. If you want to make better decisions, or understand how to form fruitful friendship groups, read this book.

It came as no shock to me when Explaining Humans was chosen as The Royal Society’s science book of the year. This book changed my life in many ways. It brought to light aspects of society that I didn’t even know I hadn’t understood, until now. It enabled me to begin unpicking my reasons for doing things a certain way, to start questioning my own routines and ‘rules’ for life. Amy Barrett

Amy Barrett is the editorial assistant for BBC Science Focus Magazine.

Superior: The Return of Race Science

superior-book-cover-0a637ca

Angela Saini

£9.99, 4th Estate

From the British Museum through the WWII and eugenics, Angela Saini expertly outlines the power dynamics underlying race science. With over 30 pages of references, Saini’s Superior weaves personal stories with scientific findings (and failings) to highlight the history of racial hierarchies.

Both educational and personally touching, this was an incredibly important read, not least because it finds its way into further reading. Packed with research, Saini’s words are ones to return to when challenging systemic racism in science and society. Frankie Macpherson

Frankie Macpherson is the intern journalist for BBC Science Focus Magazine.

The best fiction books we read this year

The Mirror And The Light

mirror-and-the-light

Hilary Mantel

£25, 4th Estate

The Mirror And The Light is about the life of Thomas Cromwell, and his rise and fall. I imagine being at the court of Henry must have been a bit like working for Donald Trump; whose administration were quick to fire when deemed necessary (whereas, in the 16th Century, you’d have your head chopped off). Brilliantly written and it feels contemporary. – Dr Michael Mosley

Dr Michael Mosley is a writer, presenter and qualified medical doctor. He presents Trust Me, I’m A Doctor on BBC Two, and has frequent appearances on The One Show. His latest book is Fast Asleep (£9.99, Short Books), which investigates the importance of a good night’s rest and offers tips for helping you boost your sleep. 

My Sister the Serial Killer

my-sister-serial-killer

Oyinkan Braithwaite

£8.99, Atlantic Books

This story drew me in straightaway – unflinching, matter-of-fact and funny (despite all the murdering). It utterly zips along and I swallowed it in two sittings. Maybe buy a copy for a sibling to gauge how willing they would be to help you shift a corpse? – Adam Kay

Adam Kay is a former doctor and multi-million-selling author of books including This is Going to Hurt (£9.99, Picador), Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas (£9.99, Picador) and Kay’s Anatomy (£14.99, Puffin).

Eight Detectives

eight-detectives

Alex Pavesi

£14.99, Michael Joseph

This is a debut novel, so for that reason I found it quite impressive, as it is pretty clever and inventive.

The narrative jumps between several different stories leaving the reader wondering how they all relate to each other. I think I liked it all the more as I haven’t read anything of this ilk before. – Konnie Huq

Konnie Huq is the author of Fearless Fairy Tales and Cookie and the Most Annoying Girl in the World, out now in all good bookshops.

Afterland

afterland

Lauren Beukes

£16.99, Michael Joseph

Okay, so in hindsight maybe it wasn’t such a smart move to add post-apocalypse thriller Afterland to my wishlist of most anticipated books of 2020, but hey, sci-fi geeks are gonna sci-fi, even during a pandemic.

Afterland may be set in a broken world where 50 per cent of the global population (farewell and adieu, males of the species) have been wiped out by a virus, but I’m still recommending it.

It’s a long-suffering genre mantra that science fiction is not predictive fiction (which is why this novel isn’t set entirely on Zoom) but I suspect this quote from author Lauren Beukes will still resonate with anyone who’s been following politics this year: “Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. Those who can’t imagine the future are doomed to f**k it up.” – Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter is director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction book of the year. Read his sci-fi book recommendations from the Award winners.

Miss Benson’s Beetle

miss-bensons-beetle

Rachel Joyce

£16.99, Doubleday

Rachel creates characters with so much love and attention – they are deliciously plumptious and real.

Her writing skill turns the ridiculous nature of human vagaries into something that seems absurdly and inexplicably, logical and normal. – Prof Dame Sue Black

Prof Dame Sue Black is an anatomist and forensic anthropologist. She is currently the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Engagement at Lancaster University. Her new book, Written in Bone: Hidden stories in what we leave behind (£18.99, Doubleday), is out now.

The Blinds

the-blinds

Adam Sternbergh

£7.99, Faber

Perfect lockdown entertainment, The Blinds is a taut murder mystery thriller set in the near future. Like all the best science fiction, Sternbergh’s latest novel takes an almost believable concept and turns it into a riveting thought experiment. Are we the sum of our memories? Can we trust our memories? Can we live in freedom if we have no memories to root us?

A fenced-off village in the middle of the Texas dessert, ‘The Blinds’ is inhabited by a motley crew of amnesiac social misfits, each having chosen to have their memory wiped in return for escaping the punishment for their crimes, or as a witness protection program. Living out the rest of their days in blissfully ignorant safety, to leave ‘The Blinds’ risks certain death.

A series of murders turns this uneasy sanctuary into the setting for an edge-of-your-armchair ‘whodunit’, with each character suspecting their neighbour – and themselves. Dr Stuart Farrimond

Dr Stuart Farrimond is a science and health writer, and food science tutor at the University of Cambridge. His next book is The Science of Living (£15.99, DK) out 24 December.

The best books of all time

For more great book recommendations, check out these lists:

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