Continuing my countdown of my top 10 Books I read this year. For numbers 10-6 click here and to see the full review just click on the highlighted title.
5. The Glass Of Time – Michael Cox (John Murray 2008) Read and reviewed in December
This is the second year running that Michael Cox has been at number 5. Last year a re-reading of “The Meaning Of Night” (a former Book Of The Year) was also in this position. This is the sequel that I didn’t even know existed and although it might not be quite as good it does form an exceptional two books series, and sadly, novel-wise, that was it for Michael Cox who passed away within a year of this publication. It can be read as a stand-alone but would be so much better tackled soon after the debut. The author was excellent at getting an authentic Victorian feel and a kind of shadowy, elusive atmosphere pervades his work which I find really impressive.
4. The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (Harvill Secker 2019) (Read and reviewed in January)
I finished reading this on New Year’s Day 2020 and it left an impression on me which has lasted throughout the year. Of course, I didn’t know when reading it how its dystopian flavour would resonate with me through our world events. This is an English translation by Stephen Snyder which originally appeared in Japan in 1994. I said of it; “It’s a fascinating set-up. An unspecified island location where from time to time things completely disappear, the memory of the object, be it a hat, a rose, birds completely goes and the people feel compelled to destroy any left hanging around. If they don’t do this pressure will be exerted by the sinister authoritarian Memory Police who remove all the forgotten objects as well as those people who can still remember.” It’s also a rare thing of a dystopian novel where people are actually nice to one another as ” here there is warmth and friendship which makes the underlying terror within their lives hit home more powerfully. And all this is written in a deceptively simple, straight-forward style which makes Ogawa’s extraordinary concepts enthralling.”
3. Case Histories – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday 2004) – Read and reviewed in April.
Kate Atkinson is an author who just seems to miss out on my end of year Top 10 (apart from 2016 when she got the runner-up position with “Life After Life“). I thoroughly enjoyed the other three books I’ve read of hers and I thought I’d give this previously 4* rated book another go. The whole of this year’s Top 3 was read in the sunny first lockdown outside in the sunshine which may have just influenced my decisions a little or more likely show how appreciative I was of good fiction at that time. Second time round for this book I absolutely loved it and I can’t think why 15 years ago I didn’t give this a five star rating. Still, I’ve put that right now and it marks a second appearance for this author in my end of year Top 3. I said; “What stands this novel above much crime fiction is the sheer quality of the writing, a richness of cultural references which makes the events feel totally real. There’s so much in Atkinson’s writing, an ability to turn from humour to tragedy in a couple of sentences in a way which feels so plausible and convincing. ” I re-read this because I wanted to get cracking on the Jackson Brodie series but to date I still haven’t got round to reading more. I should make that a reading goal for 2021.
2. London Belongs To Me – Norman Collins (Penguin Modern Classics 1945) (Read and reviewed in June)
This was another re-read, but not since I was a teenager. It was one like “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” that made a big impression on me at the time, but unlike that novel hasn’t sat awaiting re-reads on my shelves for decades. I read a library copy at the time and memories flooded back when I saw this Penguin Modern classics edition on a Book Bus bookshop during the Ventnor festival in those innocent festival-going days of 2019. I described it as a real warm hug of a book which made it a very valuable book in a year when hugs were pretty non-existent. True, it has a soap-opera feel and there is the odd expression and viewpoint which would jar with the modern reader but this account of a group of residents of 10, Dulcimer Street, Kennington from December 1938- December 1940 brought me a lot of pleasure this year.
1. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (Fleet 2018) (Read and reviewed in April)
For the second year running it is an American woman who takes the top prize. What was I thinking of reading this during the most tense part of lockdown? I read a book about a cruel disease which decimated communities in the midst of a pandemic! Perhaps not the best reading choice I could have made but perhaps it intensified what I read and what I read was superb. Two parallel narratives with one set in mid/late 1980’s Chicago and the other in Paris in 2015 with a handful of characters who feature in both. Excellent characterisation and I said of this book: “The AIDS crisis is pushing them together as much as it is tearing them apart and the repercussions of this are ever-present in the later narrative and that is why this is such an excellent work.” The investment I had with the characters was very powerful; “you will laugh with them, be totally frustrated by their actions as well as egging them on and will cry with them and for them and for all that to happen convincingly as far as I am concerned everything needs to be top-notch and here it is.” A very deserved Book Of The Year win for Rebecca Makkai. I must seek out her three previous novels in 2021.
As I enter her name into my special Hall of Fame, here are the other books which have made the top spot going back to 2008.
2020 – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018) (USA)
2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)
2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)
2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)
2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)
2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)
2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)
2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)
2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)
2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)
2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)
2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)
2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)
This year there were more five star reads than I could fit into my Top 10 so special mentions go to the three books who missed out on the list – “The Recovery Of Rose Gold” by Stephanie Wrobel (2020), “Blonde” – Joyce Carol Oates (2000) and “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” – Shirley Jackson (1962)
Happy New Year to you all, let’s hope for a less challenging year and that there will be lots of great reading in 2021!