Has this been a good year for reading? You would think that being forced to stay at home might help reduce the ‘to read’ pile, but I found it hard to choose the right book during that long enforced lockdown of the first wave of coronavirus in spring. Dystopian fiction seemed too close to the bone, contemporary fiction was irrelevant; in the end I settled on comedy and some old classics to see me through.
Best re-reads/ classics
- Memento Mori by Muriel Spark. What better time than during a pandemic to re-visit the work of Muriel Spark? In 2018, Edinburgh celebrated the centenary of her birth, so I’d been meaning to have another look at those slim little paperbacks which I’d not touched since my teens and early twenties. What a joy. Everyone knows about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie of course, but after my April splurge I would definitely recommend A Far Cry from Kensington; set in a boarding house in 1954, it is deeply funny but also brilliantly evocative. However my favourite turned out to be Memento Mori. Anonymous phonecalls to a group of elderly upperclass Londoners, telling them, “remember you must die.” The characterisation is brilliant. Totally on the nose.
2. Grown ups by Marian Keyes. Definitely a year for losing yourself in a funny book, so thank goodness for Marian Keyes. What I love about her books is that they make me laugh out loud, but also the stories are dark, unpredictable, and always leaving me thinking about ‘stuff’ – human issues type stuff. She is a genius and every human being should be forced to read everything she writes. Probably even her shopping lists are brilliant. Oh, and thank you Edinburgh International Book Festival for hosting an online event with Marian being interviewed by Jenny Colgan. It was a lovely hour and I do hope at some point the book festival makes it available for everyone to watch.
3. The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce by Paul Torday. Finding this book was serendipitous; the book nerds among you will recognise this chain of events. Piers Torday (see below) ran an amazing workshop at the SCWBI conference, during which he mentioned his father, Paul, author of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which I have not read, but I did enjoy the film and so I decided to try something else of his. I wouldn’t say that the Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce was necessarily funny; it was whimsical in that very English way, similar perhaps to something Richard Curtis might have written. As far as I remember though, it’s only the second time I’ve read a book which was written backwards, and that does make it an interesting experience.
Best historical fiction
Another good way to avoid the horrors of 2020 was to escape into historical fiction. An interesting selection grabbed me this year; here are my favourites.
4. Longbourn by Jo Baker. This is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants in the story. Remember Mrs Hill? And the odd serving girl who doesn’t even get a namecheck in the book as far as I recall? Well Longbourn is their story, and actually they don’t really care if Elizabeth marries Mr Darcy or anyone else except in as far as it might impact their chores such as the muddy petticoats and the trimming of ball gowns. But in a brilliant mirroring of P&P there is a mysterious stranger, a love triangle, and the impact of the Napoleonic wars on the community. I adored it.
5. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargreave. The beautiful cover grabbed my attention, and then, on reading the back cover blurb, the setting sold it to me. Finnmark, Norway, in 1617, a retelling of the 1620 witch trials. I adore stories set at the edge of the world, in those cold dark places (see my previous blog for more recommendations) and this one did not disappoint.
Best sci fi/fantasy
And of course sci fi/fantasy was another way to escape the horror of pandemic life, as long as you steered clear of the dystopian. I majored on funny or otherwise uplifting as far as possible.
6. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronvitch. Hard to categorise this one really. It’s a whodunnit but the newly qualified detective is assigned to the magical crimes department as he’s able to interrogate eyewitnesses who happen to be dead. In the process of solving crimes he gets mixed up in the competitive world of river deities. It’s a fun romp – and if nothing else you’ll discover quite a bit about the real life rivers of London.
7. Life after life by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson has always defied categorisation so I wasn’t surprised to find she’d written a time slip novel. What is unusual about this one is that we see all of Ursula’s possible lives lived over and over. Some of the lives are less than a page long, some are several chapters, but in each we get to see how the smallest event catapults Ursula into such a different life. (And if you liked this, have a look at How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. This plays with time travel as a concept and as a genre, but manages also to stay human and a bit weird.)
Best thriller/ horror
As lockdown lifted, I escaped into the sun for a few weeks, and finally allowed myself to read some darker stuff.
8. Pet Semetary by Stephen King, This is a book I’ve avoided reading because I assumed it was full of horrible things happening to beloved pets, but actually it’s nothing like that at all. In fact it’s a deeply moving and sad story about love and loss. With horror and supernatural weirdness in there, of course – this is Stephen King after all. I actually think it’s one of the most emotional and caring books he’s written. (Oh and I’d always assumed this was an American spelling of cemetery… I didn’t realise it’s actually a child’s mis-spelling!). I also had a go at Sleeping Beauties this year… here’s my review from Goodreads.
9. Chosen by Lesley Glaister. If you felt claustrophobic this year and want to re-live that sensation then get stuck into this book. It’s a parallel narrative 1970s/ current day thriller about a family caught up with a religious cult. It’s a brilliant, gripping read. A much better way of evoking that trapped feeling we all had than the much hyped Lockdown by Peter May, which honestly was just a bit overdone and silly. The hype this year about Peter May’s book was because it was rejected when first submitted for publication as, “London in lockdown after a virus wasn’t believable” but to my mind it was probably rejected at the time because the plot wasn’t believable, and even now, when we’ve experienced lockdown and viruses, I still don’t think it works.
10. Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike 5). I have to admit I didn’t think I was going to read this after being a bit bored by the fourth in the series Lethal White, which felt much too long, especially as Troubled Blood runs to 900 pages! Well, reader, I loved it so much I read it twice. It is clever, twisty, and like the best Agatha Christie, a whole host of suspects and a truly satisfying and unpredictable ending. Her (or his, if you prefer) best yet. (Other good crime novels read this year were Haven’t They Grown by Sophie Hannah, which if nothing else has the cleverest title, and The House of Dolls by David Hewson, a brilliantly atmospheric whodunnit set in Amsterdam).
Best young adult fiction
Publishers are apparently not buying young adult fiction at the moment, or at least not home grown YA, relying instead on US imports, but there is some fantastic stuff getting through the tiny gap in the door, all of it miles away from the stereotypical vision of YA.
11. Bearmouth by Liz Hyder. Fortunately I read this early in the year while lockdown was still a remote idea, because it is the most claustrophobic book I’ve read for a long time. Newt has lived in a mine since the age of four and knows nothing other than this dark and dangerous life. The setting is well imagined, the pacing tense and grabby, but above all the voice is amazing, told in the dialect of someone who is just beginning to learn to read and write.
12. Burn by Patrick Ness. Ok anything by Patrick Ness is going to be on my list, but this does really deserve it. It’s got dragons, cults, parallel worlds…. oooh, can say no more without spoilers, but trust me, it is really really good.
13 The Sharp Edge of a Snowflake by Sif Sigmarsdóttir. The voice of this is back to the more traditional type of YA book, but the setting and genre is not; a whodunnit set in Iceland. The blurb describes it as ‘feminist nordic YA thriller’ and yep, that sums it up. I like the mix of crime, thriller and also the theme of the pernicious influence of social media. (If you like this I’d also recommend Beauty Sleep by Kathryn Evans for a similar reason – YA voice, relevant themes, and an edgy, twisting, thought provoking plot.)
Best middle grade
14. The Frozen Sea by Piers Torday. Remember I mentioned this author earlier? Honestly if you have to buy any books for pre-teen readers of either sex, you can’t go far wrong with him. The Frozen Sea is the sequel to The Lost Magician (which featured in last year’s top reads and is a re-write of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.) The Frozen Sea is probably closest in plot to Narnia’s The Silver Chair, which to my mind was a pretty damn good book, but this one surpasses it. Apart from anything else, it has a cool hamster called Fizz.
15. Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian was written in 1982, but this was the first time I’ve read it. Goodness but it’s good. A difficult and upsetting read, but so full of heart. Totally deserving of all the prizes and accolades it’s collected over the years.
16. Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce. And at the other extreme is this. Again not a new book, but boy is it funny! Damian is a loveable, believable character who finds a million pounds and decides to spend it. I’m totally with him all the way, and you will be too.
17. I Am, I Am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. At the beginning of the year I read Me, which is Elton John’s autobiography, and I thought – yep – that’s going to be the best non fiction I read this year, but then I finally picked up I Am, I Am, I Am… Well, as a way of tackling an autobiography this is unique and utterly brilliant. I challenge you to be able to put it down after you start reading it. It is moving and heartfelt and personal – as was Me, to be honest… you know what? Read both of them. you won’t be disappointed.
Best general fiction
I’ve saved the best till last. Three amazing books which will blow you away. I cannot praise them enough.
18. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Our protagonist has tried to commit suicide and instead finds herself in a library where it isalways midnight, and the only other occupant is her school librarian. In each book is a different version of her life – roads not taken, if you like. She has the chance to try them out to find one that would have suited her better. It is a moving, thought provoking, beautifully written book.
19. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. A well deserving winner of the Booker Prize (which should NOT have been split – Testaments is nowhere near as good as this, even though I mentioned it as one of my top reads last year). Here is my review of Girl, Woman, Other on Goodreads.
20. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I’ve just had a look at my Goodreads’ review and I still feel exactly the same, so I’m going to post it here in full:
This book is amazing. Incredible.
I read an interview with Maggie O’Farrell about the writing of this book, and I remember her saying that she felt it almost impossible to write about Shakespeare – imagine writing the line “Shakespeare ate his breakfast” or even “William had a shave” etc – and the way she portrays him, characterises him is so well done. I kept getting little shivers thinking – this is Shakespeare here! It was like looking through a portal into the past and seeing him in the flesh. Brilliant.
And the other characters are so well drawn, the grief at the death of a child – even in a time when there were many child deaths – feels so authentic and moving.
Obviously this is fiction, but I am willing to believe it all. It also helped that I visited Stratford recently and could picture it all happening in a real place.
Honestly even if you know nothing about Shakespeare or Stratford or Anne Hathaway, you will love this book.
Best overall? It’s a close thing, but Hamnet does it. I cannot imagine what she can write in the future that will surpass this.
Publishing has been hit hard by the pandemic. No book launches, no book festivals. It’s meant I’ve not bought as many books as I might. I feel desperately sad for all those authors launching their babies onto a world which was largely looking the other way. It’s easy to forget that books launched now have been several years in the making, and so what we are reading today was the product of the zeitgeist three, four, five years ago, It will be interesting to see what appears in a few years time; it’s been hard enough to choose the right books to read this year, so which type books will have been written during 2020?