I used to read this kind of atmospheric, richly told novel imbued with a hint of magic quite regularly but for every gem like “Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke, “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gower and “Things In Jars” by Jess Kidd there were many others that fell so short that they switched me off and stopped me selecting books of this type as often.
I think this is why I have not read any of Diane Setterfield’s novels up to now, if this, her third novel, is anything to go by I have really missed out.
There is outstanding story-telling here. The novel is set on a stretch of the River Thames between Cricklade and Oxford in the 1880’s centering on The Swan pub at Radcot. It is here that story-tellers meet to regale each other with tales of local folk, events and particularly the mysteries of the river and on a Summer Solstice evening they become part of their own tales when a badly injured man appears with the body of a drowned girl. Nobody knows who they are and things take a momentous turn when the dead girl comes back to life.
The repercussions of this spread along the Thames. The event and the child herself proves a great pull for some residents and this is their tale. It is beautifully rich, imaginative, involving and operates on the thin line between myth and dark reality. I was spellbound by this book. Excellent characterisation of those involved on that night and those who hear about it. This is a confident skilful writer, who, very early on, like the best story-tellers will have readers entranced. A definite five star read and I am looking forward to reading her earlier two novels.
Once Upon a River was published in 2018 by Doubleday and as a 2019 paperback by Black Swan.
For my last retrospective post, looking back over 2021 I like to have a look around the blogosphere and see the books which have impressed other bloggers during the last twelve months. I always expect that there is going to be a modicum of consensus and that there would be the odd book which appears on Best Of the Year lists time after time, but this is rarely the case and it certainly is not so for this year when there’s a wide range of books being recommended but not often the same book in more than one list.
I can usually find one of my Top 10 books in another blogger’s list but this year I have not been successful in discovering this. I might have thought that it was me, that I was out of touch, or that I’d read the wrong books this year but there are so many lists with no overlaps that I am certainly taking nothing personally!
There’s just a couple of titles I’ve seen appearing more than one list, both feature in the Top 5 of Jen at Books On The 7.47, Yaa Gyasi’s “Transcendent Kingdom” and Torrey Peters’ “Detransition, Baby” . Also on this list is one that I’ve highlighted as wanting to read (on my Looking Forward list for 2020), the Women’s Fiction Prize winning “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke (I do it have sat on my Kindle waiting for me) as well as the non-fiction 2021 publication from an author I read for the first time this year, Bernardine Evaristo. and her “Manifesto: On Never Giving Up”. Megan Hunter’s “The Harpy” (I’m not sure if I’m thrilled or appalled by the front cover of this one) makes up a good-looking Top 5 here.
There have been a couple of nods to books that have made my Top 10’s in the past. Jessica at The Bookworm Chronicles has one of my former Books Of The Year “The Count Of Monte Cristo“, acknowledging that it took her 3 months to read in her Top 10, Jacqui Wine’s Journal has selected my 2016 #3 “Black Narcissus” by Rumer Godden, Bookish Beck has “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton (#7 in my 2014 list) on her Backlist reads and Kim at “Reading Matters” has “The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa my 2020 #4 in her list. She also has a couple of books that I read and enjoyed but which didn’t make my Top 10 this year, the Booker Prize winning “The Promise” by Damon Galgut, and “Mrs March” by Virginia Feito. These two are also on the Top 8 New Books list produced by Cathy at 746 Books who also has Ira Levin’s “A Kiss Before Dying” in her Books on her Shelf list. I really loved that when I read it as a teenager and must give that another go, especially as re-reading his “Rosemary’s Baby” was such a good experience. At “Reading Matters” I was also reminded me once again of a book that I’ve wanted it to read since I highlighted it pre-publication back at the start of 2019, Graham Swift’s Brighton Pier set “Here We Are”. There’s also a book from the 1930’s which I haven’t heard of before but which also is acknowledged at Jacqui Wine’s Journal “The Fortnight In September” by R C Sheriff based on a family holiday to Bognor, which sounds like it might be right up my street and worth investigating in 2022.
Margaret at “Books Please” went for another book I really enjoyed which didn’t quite make my Top 10 cut Ambrose Parry’s “Corruption Of Blood“. Also in her list is one which my very good friend and work colleague and Video Blog partner Louise had been recommending I read all this year, (she is always brimming with excellent recommendations as can be seen on our World Book Night YouTube posting which can be found here), I also know this is by Graham Norton’s favourite author, Mary Lawson, and her Booker longlisted “Town Called Solace”.
Many of the bloggers I’ve looked at seem reluctant to pick out their ultimate book of the year. Those that have include Bookish Beck who has gone for “Living Sea Of Waking Dreams” by Richard Flanagan, who I have still never read, Linda’s Book Bag has “Always In December” by Emily Stone, Andrea Is Reading has gone for the book which was also the Daily Telegraph’s Book Of The Year “Crossroads” by Jonathan Franzen, which seems to have generally split those I know who have read it, so it might be The Marmite Book Of The Year (love it or hate it). Fiction Fan’s Book Review’s Literary Fiction pick is Patrick McGrath’s “Last Days In Cleever Square”. There’s a dead heat at “Novel Deelights” between “Wolf Den” by Elodie Harper and “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir.
On JacquiWine’s Journal’s aforementioned recommendations there ‘s one from my Books I Should Have Read In 2021 post “Mayflies” by Andrew O’Hagan as well as one I’ve recently bought “Passing” by Nella Larsen which brings back the quandary I am in as to which I should do first, read the 1929 novel or watch the 2021 critically well-received film adaptation which is on Netflix in the UK. Another that is waiting on my Kindle is a book which made Fictionphile’s Top 4, “Last House on Needless Street” by Catriona Ward together with a book the aforementioned Louise has said really gripped her between Xmas and New Year “The Searcher” by Tana French, an author I must certainly investigate this year.
So many links in this post! I think it’s important to link up some of us who are out there promoting great reads at the start of the year. Right, let’s get on with some reading!!
This is my end of year report, looking back at the 10 titles I had eagerly anticipated last year and seeing how many of them I actually got around to reading as well as picking ten more choices for 2022. In 2020 I got round to reading five out of the ten titles , in 2019 three out of the ten and four out of ten the year before. Let’s see how I did in 2021.
I read this in January, the month it was published, and it was my first five star read of the year and narrowly missed out on my end of year Top 10. I’d read Washington’s prize-winning short story collection “Lot” but this cranked up to a higher gear for me. The central male couple straddle cultures and the set-up leaves Black American Benson with his partner Mike’s Japanese mother, who he had never previously met, whilst Mike goes to Osaka to be with his dying father who had deserted the family years before. Cue much family tension and bonding over cooking.
An astonishing debut which ended up as number 2 in my end of year list with its haunting appeal hanging over me from January for the rest of 2021. I said “it could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.” I hope this becomes a big seller in paperback when it is published later this month.
This was a four star read for me in March. Debut writers are really having to be original and inventive to stand out from the crowd and Gnuse certainly did this with his creepy thriller. 11 year old Elise lives in the space of a house she formerly lived in, now owned by a new family and their teenage boys. Nobody suspects she is there until a younger boy turns up unannounced to the house. This is a high-quality commercial thriller which will really have readers holding their breath.
This is a book that seems to have done quite well sales-wise since I read it in February. I’ve asked a few people who read it their opinion and it feels that it doesn’t quite match the expectations which readers have when starting it. I found it entertaining but it did not blow me away and I gave it a three star rating. The 1970’s lighthouse setting is great, as claustrophobic and intense as you might expect. A modern day narrative strand sets out to explain what is set up as a classic locked-room mystery. I said at the time; “After months of lockdown I think we are all in a better position to appreciate better Stonex’s writing and have stronger ideas of these lives than we would have done a year or two ago, making this a very commercially apposite proposition.”
I rated this three stars in March, an enjoyable urban tale which is very different from the author’s Booker shortlisted debut “Elmet” and I applauded the author for that. Early reviews compared to it to a modern day Dickens, I said of this. “It’s all likeable and in a way I can appreciate those that are seeing this as modern day Dickens but it all feels a little unresolved which Dickens would not be.”
Read this in March and gave it a five star rating with it ending up at number 4 in my Books of The Year. I said “This was the best non-fiction work I have read this year. I’m not sure how ready I am to read about the Covid-19 pandemic, it might still be a little too much too soon but I was certainly prepared to make an exception for this collection of prose poems from a writer I very much admire who nearly became a Covid death statistic.” Moving, funny and with loads of heart from Rosen and those who cared for him.
Kitchenly 434- Alan Warner (White Rabbit)
This one passed me by. It got good reviews so I will hopefully get round to this butler and rock star tale. This year saw a well-received film adaptation of the book of Alan Warner’s I’ve read which I love “The Sopranos” retitled “Our Ladies” which suffered from multiple rescheduling because of the pandemic which I also haven’ t seen but hope to do so.
Like Fiona Mozley, here was an author who did something very different, with this book I rated three stars in September, an understated crime novel which featured on quite a few end of the year lists but I think perhaps my own expectations were a little too high which led to me feeling a tad disappointed. I said “I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.”
People Person – Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze)
This was scheduled for September but didn’t materialise. I’ve seen it listed on the BBC news website “Books To Look Forward To In 2022” and it is now due for publication at the end of May.
Retitled “Are We Having Fun Yet?”, I certainly did when I read it in September and rated it four stars. Written in diary format, I said “It is a very commercial work, written in a genre where fans will be loyal and supportive, it feels fresh and contemporary, so it’s a shrewd move which could sell very well indeed.” The paperback is due in June.
Woo-hoo! That’s 8 out of 10 read and one of those I couldn’t read because it hasn’t been published yet. Here are ten more titles which have attracted my attention pre-publication and I will certainly be looking out for in 2022.
The Heretic – Liam McIllvanney(Harper Collins) ( due out on 20th January)
Follow-up to Scottish Crime Book Of The Year “The Quaker” which I read back in 2018 which introduced DI Duncan McCormack in a late 60’s Glasgow setting. This location was the setting for my current Book of The Year. Could McIlvanney’s Glasgow make it two in a row? This book shifts forward in time to the mid 70’s. Last time round I was impressed by the feel of the period and the character of McCormack so this is certainly one I want to read.
Devotion – Hannah Kent(Picador) (due out on 3rd February)
It’s been five years since Hannah Kent’s last novel “The Good People“. “Devotion” is her third, I’ve read both her others and have given them four star ratings. Set in Prussia in 1836, I’ve found Kent’s previous works to “be saturated with the feel of the times” so expect real authenticity in its setting. We are being promised “a stunning story of girlhood and friendship, faith and suspicion, and the impossible lengths we go to for the ones we love.“
Love Marriage – Monica Ali (Virago) (due out on 3rd February)
This is Monica Ali’s 4th novel. I haven’t read her, inexplicably, since her most famous novel, 2003’s “Brick Lane” ended up as runner-up of my favourite reads of 2004. Featuring doctors as the main characters this is being touted as “a story about who we are and how we love in today’s Britain – with all the complications and contradictions of life, desire, marriage and family. What starts as a captivating social comedy develops into a heart-breaking and gripping story of two cultures, two families and two people trying to understand one another.” That description certainly get the thumbs up from me.
Flicker In The Dark – Stacy Willingham (Harper Collins) (due out on 3rd February)
A debut book already picked up for a television adaptation. This is a tense, edge of the seat thriller. I don’t actually read that many of these but there is something about this Louisiana swamps set serial killer tale which I find very appealing. I like small town mentality in my thrillers, where everyone knows everything about everybody and apparently this book will really deliver on this. Author Jeffery Deaver has said of it; “Author Willingham takes us on an unstoppable journey through the psychology of evil, and of courage (in many senses), all told in a pitch-perfect literary style.”
A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus Books) (due out on 17th February)
Another debut with a big buzz, the first in a British crime series which will feature a character called Pretty Boy and his desire for revenge. It’s being talked about as a British version of “The Wire” and we can expect it to be gritty, brutal yet full of dry humour. The author is currently training to be a solicitor but might find himself needing to change the day job if this book really takes off in the way some suspect it will.
Mother’s Boy – Patrick Gale (Tinder Press) (due out on 1st March)
A Cornish historical novel from a writer who can really impress me and who is a great storyteller. I think, judging by what I’ve read it is a fictional account of the life of poet Charles Causley focusing on his war experiences. His last novel, 2018’s “Take Nothing With You” was the best of his books I have read and featured in my 100 Essential Books strand. I hope this will be as good.
Mouth To Mouth- Antoine Wilson (Atlantic Books) (due out on 3rd March)
Lots of praise for this American author’s first novel already. The story of an author who wants to find out more about a man’s life he saved. Andrew Sean Greer who wrote “Less” which won him both a Pulitzer Prize and a four star review from me says it is; “the best book I’ve read in ages. Narratively ingenious, delicately written, intriguingly plotted, it is literature of the highest quality. I see you now, dear Reader, with this novel in your hand and already losing track of time “ That is an impressive recommendation.
Memphis – Tara M Stringfellow (John Murray) (due out on 7th April)
A debut from African-American writer who here explores three generations of a Memphis family. It comes with a recommendation from my runner up for Book Of The Year author Robert Jones Jnr who describes it as having “an endearing and unforgettable cast of characters who find strength in vulnerability, safety in art, and liberation in telling the truth.”
Young Mungo – Douglas Stuart (Picador) (due out on 14th April)
The author of my Best Book of 2021 looking to make it two in a row. A love story between two men from working class Glasgow- one Catholic and one Protestant. The publishers are promising “a gripping and revealing story about the meaning of masculinity, the push and pull of family, the violence faced by so many queer people, and the dangers of loving someone too much.” Considering how well everything was handled in the Booker winning “Shuggie Bain” I have high hopes for this one.
Theatre Of Marvels – Lianne Dillsworth (Penguin) (due out on 28th April)
A debut from a Black British author. I love a Victorian London setting and anything with a hint of the Gothic and here the author is said to come up with the goods in her tale of an actress from Crillick’s Variety Theatre. The author has an MA in Victorian Studies and early reviews are praising her ability in bringing the setting and location to vivid life. There’s a real buzz about this author and this book which will continue to build up to publication.
That’s 10 books to look out for all in the first four months of the year with that date of 3rd February looking like a good one for book-lovers. Here’s to lots of good reading in 2022!
No stranger to my end of year Top 10, John Boyne wrote my 2017 book of the year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017) was runner-up in 2018 with “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” (2006) and also made it to 4th that same year with his 2018 “A Ladder To The Sky“. These were all very different books and this biting comic satire was also very much a departure and inspired by social media response of his YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica“. This is an author who loves to take risks and I like that. Reviews, have unsurprisingly, because it is such a departure, been a little mixed and I can understand why some people have thought this fell short of what they were expecting from Boyne. I however, stand by my description of it as “a great comic novel of our time which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in“.
This was the best non-fiction work I have read this year. I’m not sure how ready I am to read about the Covid-19 pandemic, it might still be a little too much too soon but I was certainly prepared to make an exception for this collection of prose poems from a writer I very much admire who nearly became a Covid death statistic. His writings on his illness and recovery are interspersed with extracts from a diary those caring for him maintained to show him how much they cared. I said of this “These people were exhausted, often redeployed from their usual job and no doubt stressed beyond belief but they made the time to communicate with this comatose man in this way and these diary entries form an extremely moving section of the book.” There’s much humour in the darkness and when I read this on the anniversary of the first lockdown I felt strongly that; “When we are moaning about lockdown restrictions and posing conspiracy theories it’s important to feel the voice of those affected and Michael Rosen’s experience speaks for the thousands who have been similarly affected and for those thousands we have lost.” This was a title I had highlighted from the start of the year and I did think it would end up as one of the year’s biggest sellers, with numbers comparable to Adam Kay. This hasn’t happened which suggests that maybe we are not all totally ready for this yet but it will be a lasting testament both to the man and the times in which we have been living.
Here’s one I kept flagging up before I got round to reading it. I featured it in my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post and in my “Looking Around” post so I was building up the expectations. It delivered. Two twin girls escape their small time life for a new home in New Orleans. One eventually returns to her home town whilst the other is “passing” as a white woman in a decades-spanning saga. I felt that “There are so many discussion points in this novel regarding identity that one might expect it to feel issue-driven but no, plot and characterisation are both very strong and that together with its immersive readability provides an extremely impressive rounded work.” Over the past year I’ve selected it for reading groups and have recommended it probably more than any other book. I always ask what people think of it and it’s always a thumbs up- however, there are often reservations voiced about the ending, and I do agree with them.
An astonishing debut. When I read it I was convinced that this would be my book of the year and posted it within my “100 Essential Books” strand. It’s a book which has got the odd nod from awards committees but hasn’t swept the board winning awards as I had expected it to. I was convinced a Booker nomination would be assured but it was not even longlisted. The paperback is expected in the UK in late January and hopefully this will generate the serious sales this book deserves. I said this slave plantation-set novel “could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.” Don’t just believe me, check out the Amazon reviews where it has 61% five star and 22% 4 star which is excellent going for a book which is demanding, poetic and at times overwhelming. Extraordinary.
2020 was the year that the Booker Prize judges got it exactly right. I’d become a little wary after the year they awarded it to “Lincoln In The Bardo” (I must stop harping on about that!). I featured this in my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” but this year this book’s reputation has continued to grow as more and more people have fallen in love with it. It’s another I’ve selected for reading groups throughout the year and admittedly, some people are never going to give it a go, put off by its working class Glasgow 1980’s setting but those who do generally praise it to the skies. And deservedly so, as this study of a relationship between Shuggie and his mother has provided us with two of the most memorable characters in modern fiction. I said “It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.” I cannot wait for this Scottish author’s second novel “Young Mungo” which is due in April. This is the first time in nine years I have awarded my Book Of The Year to a UK writer. Douglas Stuart deserves his place in my own special Hall Of Fame. Here are my other top titles going back to 2008.
Special mentions for the three five star reads which did not make it into the Top 10. “Next Of Kin” by Kia Abdullah (2021) just missing out on two consecutive Top 10 recommendations by the narrowest of margins, Bryan Washington’s “Memorial” (2021) and “Love After Love” by Ingrid Persaud (2020).
So, here we go, time to look back on another strange year to see which books made the greatest impression upon me in 2021. This Top 10 is not just based upon books published this year. (3 out of the 10 were, which seems to be par for the course as that has been the same proportion for the last couple of years). If I read it during 2021 it is up for inclusion.
This year I read 64 books which is a typical figure but a bit down on my Good Reads goal of 70. Like last year 13 books have made the five star rating level, which means once again that some of my five star reads will not make it onto my Top 10 of the Year. There were 28 four star reads and 23 books I rated three stars. Like last year there was nothing I rated below three stars. I think with all this reviewing experience I’m less likely to choose to read duff books. Gender-wise, my Top 10 has a 50-50 split. It is perhaps a more diverse list than previous years with 40% black authors and 30% identifying as LGBT+ Like last year there are two non-fiction titles and like last year they are broadly speaking, autobiographical. Three of the authors have featured in previous year Top 10’s. There are two debut novels.
Right, here is the first part of the list, numbers 10-6. If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I’m really prompting you to find out more about) just click on the title.
Good luck with finding this one as like nearly all of this British author’s (1907-82) work it seems to be out of print. It’s the second year in a row for Collins and even though this is not quite up there with last year’s #2 read “London Belongs To Me” (which is more readily available as a Penguin Modern Classics) this tale of lives in a London Department store, the family who own it, the staff who work there is still a captivating read. I’m going to be on the look-out for more Collins to read next year. Perhaps some enterprising publisher could commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death by re-publishing more of his work.
I took advantage of this children’s classic’s 40th anniversary reprint to read this for the first time. I know this is a special book for many people, in my day job at the library we often get adults requesting it to read to their children and I think it is now established as an important book in children’s fiction. I said of it; “It was one of those books where my vague ideas about it had cemented into what I believed was fact but I was often wrong. I knew it was a tearjerker but what I had always thought occurred never actually happens. The twists and turns of the plot were quite a revelation for me.” If you’ve never read it I urge you to seek it out, if you have read it you will know you probably want to read it again.
I’ve now read two Richard Price books and both have made it on to the Top 10, this is another under-rated author. His 1974 debut “The Wanderers” was my 2014 Book Of The Year and 41 years later he is still churning out gems. The title refers to those who have got away with murder which obsess a group of NYPD members past and present. It’s hard-boiled American crime, which I don’t always go for but characterisation here is so strong. Stephen King summed it up perfectly when he described this book as “grim, gutsy and impossible to put down.”
This was a re-read of a book I have read I have read a couple of times before but not for years. I think it is one of the best showbusiness autobiographies, with just the right balance of career and private life and the career is extraordinary. It was written alongside ghost-writers Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus Juilliard but benefits because Mary was a keen diarist and that ability to access details is evident. Tragically, on the day I set aside to post this review the news was announced that Mary had suddenly died (authors and publishers, don’t let this put you off asking for books to be reviewed, the two events are not related!) I did wonder whether that would result in this book being given a new lease of life but that has not happened.
Critically acclaimed in her homeland. Mississippi resident Jesmyn Ward made history with this book when she became the first Black American writer as well as the first woman to win a second National Book Award for fiction. This is a powerful, haunting read. I described it as “a Southern-set contemporary novel enriched with the rhythms and the sense of folklore, rhythms, spiritual beliefs and history of the community”. The reason why this had such a powerful effect on me as a reader is due to the quality of the writing and story-telling which really drew an initially resistant me in.
I was looking forward to reading this. It is an extraordinary debut novel from gay black American author Robert Jones which could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.
It is a historical work set in the Halifax family’s cotton plantation in Vicksburg, Mississippi and over the years the slave plantation is a location I have visited quite a few times in fiction but I don’t think that many have made so much of an impression upon me as this.
In a barn live and work two teenagers, Samuel and Isaiah, who have become lovers. Set apart from both the rest of the slaves and the members of the white household but observed by both they are true outsiders. The response to these boys searching for happiness in such a grim existence is commented on by other characters, often in sections that relate to Books of the Bible. They are also observed by a chorus of ancestral voices who powerfully and poetically comment on proceedings.
The boys, unbeknown to them, have been part of an economic experiment by the white master, Paul Halifax, who has put them in an environment of hard physical work away from the cotton-picking to make studs of them, to provide him with a strong stock of future slaves. The problem is, the boys are only interested in one another. Along comes another slave Amos, granted rights of preaching who uses his sermons to turn the slaves against the boys known to all as “The Two Of Them”. Others in the plantation cannot comprehend what Amos is against thinking that happiness should be taken wherever it is possible to find it. Samuel and Isaiah’s combustible situation is exacerbated by the sexually frustrated white mistress and her son returned from a “liberal” education up North.
The plot, in its bare bones here, seems a tad melodramatic, but oh my, how well Jones brings it alive, developing characters quickly and effectively and by having these two young men at the centre of a love story which feels bound to be ultimately tragic.
Amongst this Jones also superbly intersperses tales from previous generations- of the plantation’s ancestors, of plunder, of slave ships encompassing the black American history to this point into one superb novel.
When reading this it was a comment I had seen by Marlon James which kept coming to mind. He said of this book; “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel should do, and can do. That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.”
What a marvellous thing to say about another author’s book but it is so appropriate. And this is a debut novel! At the end Robert Jones Jnr acknowledges hundreds of people by name, those black writers, educators, public figures, musicians, performers, friends who have inspired him, an awe-inspiring roll-call which might have seemed over the top if Jones did not have the goods to deliver. With this enthralling, heart-breaking, poetic, challenging, very accessible yet difficult novel he certainly has. The only thing I am not totally on board with is the cover which has a self-published self-help book vibe about it but certainly do not judge this by that. It is possible that I may have already read my Book of The Year.
The Prophets was published by Quercus in the UK in hardback on 5th January 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.
It’s time to begin to put this strange old year to rest by having a look back to see which books made the greatest impression upon me in 2020. This was a year when more of us turned to reading as a means to escape from what was going on in our everyday lives. My Top 10 is not just based upon books published this year. (3 out of the 10 were, which is the same proportion as last year), if I read it during 2020 it is up for inclusion.
This year I read 68 books which is certainly up on last year where I slumped down to 56 but mid 60’s is generally the figure so it is not up considerably especially considering the length of lockdown and the time I had to spend working from home this year. Some of that time I was too pre-occupied to really get into my reading, which is something we have also heard time and time again this year. I have read more 5* reads this year, 13, in fact, which means that some of my five star reads will miss out on a Top 10 placing, with 36 4* and 19 3*. Gender-wise, my Top 10 is showing a win for the women as last year’s 60-40 split is reversed. There are 2 non-fiction titles (both autobiographical) amongst the list and two of the authors have featured in previous year Top 10’s.
Right, here is the first part of the list, numbers 10-6. If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I’m really prompting you to find out more about) just click on the title.
I did say about this book ” I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year” and here is the proof with this being the only 2020 debut novel in the list. It is a book which deals with big issues with warmth and humanity and great characterisation. It has just been issued in paperback in the UK and is currently hovering outside the Top 100 in Amazon’s chart. I’m still expecting it to be a big seller going into 2021 in this format. It feels contemporary, commercial and literary which seems to me to be a winning combination.
The best new thriller I read this year. This novel, which has issues of consent at its centre had me finding places to read away from everyone at work during lunchtimes, so can be seen as a perfect book for self-isolation! I found I was using my hand to cover up text I hadn’t read on the page in case it gave something away too soon! This is Kia Abdullah’s second novel. In 2021 I will certainly seek out her 2019 debut “Take It Back”.
I treated myself to a new copy of this book which I first read aged 18 and which had a place on my bookshelves ever since when I spent a day in Lyme Regis in the summer of 2019. Knowing I wasn’t going anywhere in 2020 I treated myself to a re-read just to put myself back into Fowles’ depiction of this Devon town in the nineteenth century. This was one of those books which I encountered at just the right time of my life for it to make a huge impression. I have read it a number of times since my teenage years but probably not for a couple of decades. I said of it this time “It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.” It still very much deserves its place in my Top 10 but not right towards the top which I might have expected when I started to re-read it this summer.
Screenwriter, Oscar-winner, Activist and husband to Olympic Diver Tom Daley revisits his past focusing on his relationship with his extraordinary mother. She survived through sheer determination never letting disability and pain from a childhood bout of polio grind her down. She sought support through the Mormon Church which caused conflict in the young Dustin Lance Black who knew from an early age he would never be accepted by the Church and perhaps by his family because of his sexuality. I said of it “at times I felt tearful, angry, baffled, delighted the list goes on and this is why this book ticks every box for how a memoir should be written. Relationships are complex and this illustrates that perfectly.”
This was the pick of the 2020 published books I read. It works brilliantly as a memoir on two levels -firstly, it catalogues the author’s relationship with food growing up and to read about food seems to transport me back there more successfully than a time machine would and like the previous title it’s a beautifully conveyed record of a family relationship, here especially with her father who begins to slip away with dementia. It is also laugh-out-loud funny throughout. I said of it “I haven’t enjoyed a food-based memoir as much since Nigel Slater’s “Toast” (which has made #3 on my Top 10 list on two occasions) and like that book it is the people fuelled by the food who really are memorable.”
I’ve got round to another of the books I highlighted in my 2019 What I Should Have Read Post. This is a major prize-winner picking up the Carnegie Medal for Outstanding Adult Fiction, also the Stonewall Prize and gained prestigious shortlist nods for the Pulitzer Prize and US National Book Award. In the UK it has remained fairly under the radar, the paperback (which I read) was published in 2019 but that still didn’t lift this book to the commercial recognition it deserves. (Amazon currently has it as #2727 in Literary Fiction with a 4.4 rating from 509 reviews).
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. In the Chicago section the Boystown area is being decimated by the AIDS virus and Fiona is losing those she loved. The novel begins with the memorial for her brother Nico whose lifestyle was rejected by his family causing an irreparable rift between Fiona and her parents as she cannot cope with his lover and friends being excluded from saying goodbye.
In 2015, Fiona, now a mother herself, is searching for her missing daughter last known to be a member of a religious cult in the US before a sighting of her is flagged up in Paris. The Fiona in the later narrative is still clinging to the events of thirty years before which has affected her ability to parent. She is a flawed yet very real character.
In the eighties narrative it is her friend Yale who is central. In a relationship with activist and magazine publisher Charlie. Yale is far more conservative, working in funding for art and following a tip off from Fiona regarding her great-aunt’s collection seeks the acquisition which would make both Yale and the gallery he works for names.
I really enjoyed both plot lines (with a preference for the earlier narrative) which are superbly handled but the strength is really the relationships between the characters. 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.
You will find yourself invested in these characters, 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. Expect me to be recalling this book in my end of the year round-ups. I thoroughly recommend it.
Rebecca Makkai is a straight woman and there could have been potential criticism in this current climate of her immersing herself in a story which is not hers to tell, which should be the province of a gay male writer, especially with so much talk about appropriation but the fact that this has won a major LGBTQ literary award with The Stonewall Prize shows that this is not an issue. This is a novel for everyone, for those whose lives were touched by the events of the time where they will be brought back with chilling clarity, for those aware of them in some degree and perhaps even more importantly for those who were not even born then. It wasn’t easy reading about a killer virus whilst in lockdown due to another killer virus and I really did feel quite purged by the end but with the sense that I had received a tremendous reading experience. Rebecca Makkai has published three novels before this. I would certainly imagine this to be her masterwork to date but I will definitely be looking out for her other titles.
The Great Believers was published in the UK by Fleet in 2018. I read the 2019 paperback edition.
Amazingly the only book I re-read this year, just a couple of years ago I had read enough re-reads to give them their own separate Top 10 but I cannot ignore this book and so my Book Of The Year from 2007 makes it into the Top 5 for this year. It is a strange one, I read it and totally love it but after I finished it the events in the novel seem to rapidly fade from my memory and I struggle to remember what it was about even when I can remember books I enjoyed much less in greater detail. This has happened twice which makes me think there is some kind of ethereal quality to this which causes it to dissipate once finished. It’s a great Victorian revenge novel and I said of it “On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.” Maybe that will happen in 2020.
4. Shadowplay – Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker 2019) (Read in December not yet reviewed)
I highlighted this in my earlier 2019- What I Should Have Read post and managed to squeeze it in before the end of the year. A full review of this will follow but this is a splendid historical novel, shortlisted for Best Novel at the Costas, with Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula the main character and here part of a long-lasting love triangle with actress Ellen Terry and actor and theatre impresario Sir Henry Irving.
I can’t say I’ve ever been tempted to read a novel which has been finished by someone else after the original author had died before completion, particularly one that was completed 150 years later. This was all changed by the ITV adaptation which was one of this year’s television highlights as far as I was concerned and a recommendation from my friend and colleague Louise who felt I should read how it should have ended (well how “another lady” wanted it to end anyway). I always thought the joins between the two authors would be obvious but I thought this was done seamlessly and ended up enjoying this more than when I re-read “Pride And Prejudice” a couple of years back.
Another splendid historical novel with that added bit of quirkiness which I so often find appealing. This is a fictionalised account of the early life of Madame Tussaud. Punctuated throughout with little pencil drawings which adds much to the experience. I said of this “Through a first-person narrative Carey has created an enthralling character I will probably remember forever. Written with gusto and an eccentric energy “Little” will not be beaten down however bad circumstances get. There’s a naivety and optimism which fuels this novel- she is certainly no “Little Nell” yet the skill of storytelling here will suggest comparisons to Charles Dickens.”
This sublime account of the later years of Truman Capote and an act of literary betrayal towards his friends was always going to be in with a strong shot of being at the summit this year. Debut author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s position was further cemented when I went to see her talk about this book at this year’s Isle Of Wight Literary Festival following its publication in paperback. I said of it “I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything. He told everybody else.” It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured.” I can’t remember ever falling for a book written in the third person (by a chorus of the betrayed women) but here it worked just brilliantly.
So Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott joins my Hall Of Fame for producing the book which has given me the most pleasure this year. She becomes the first American author to do since 2014. Here is my list of my favourite books going back to 2008.
Even though we’re not quite at the end of the year I now know that I am unlikely to finish the book I am currently reading so it’s time to look back again to the 10 books which made the most impression on me during the year. These are not necessarily published this year (just 3 out of the 10 were) if I read it this year then it was up for inclusion. The total number of books I finished in 2019 is 56, which is down on previous years where I usually hit the mid to late 60’s mark, apart from the golden year of 2016 when I read 80. I’m not sure why this figure is down so this year probably due to a change of commitments. Out of those 56 nine of them I classed as five star reads which nicely fills up most of my Top 10 places, the spread of the other star ratings is 28 at 4*,15 3* and 4 at 2* (didn’t have any two star reads last year where the spread was (12/32/22)- I must have been feeling a bit stingier this year.
It does seem like quite a bit of my reading has been books which I missed out in 2018, obviously a bit of a vintage year as 50% of the titles were published then. Gender wise the men have pushed ahead with a 60-40 split putting an end to last year’s perfect balance. Nobody makes the list more than once this year and there are two authors who are no strangers to my end of year Top 10. It does seem, however, and perhaps it is no surprise given the state of the world currently, that for much of 2018 I have been rooted in the past as all of the fiction choices are set in earlier times with a significant chunk (4) being set in the Victorian era or earlier. Right, let’s get on with the list. The full reviews for each title can be found be clicking on the link.
My non-fiction pick of the year is this extremely memorable book which works both as a love letter towards libraries and their continued importance and as a true crime work where the author explores the fire which destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. It wasn’t just because I work in libraries that I found this work so inspirational although it was one of the reasons behind me applying for (and getting) a promotion. Susan Orlean reinforces everything I believe about libraries although the systems in place in the UK seem decidedly impoverished compared to the USA. I said “The book itself was inspired by Orlean’s memories of going to a public library with her mother when she was a child and them bonding over their piles of chosen books. This seems to me a valuable inspiration for a fascinating work.”
I’m up to date with Jess Kidd having read all three of her novels and this marks her first time in my end of year Top 10 with her best book yet. This built on the supernatural elements which have been present in all her works yet with its nineteenth century setting it seemed to work better here than it has in the past. I said of this “Here we have the Victorian love of the unusual and freakish and the developments in medicine which attracted the honourable and the disreputable sitting beautifully in with what becomes a gripping mystery peopled with characters about whom I wanted to know so much more.”
We had to wait years for it to arrive but Australian author Zusak manages to get his follow up publication to my 2008 Book of The Year, “The Book Thief” into my Top 10. I would have thought that a publication from an author of a modern classic after a lengthy wait would have been a major literary event but it seemed to creep under the radar somewhat when it arrived in hardback last year and this year in paperback. That made me initially a little anxious but I needn’t have been. I said “Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content. It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel.” I read a library copy and then had to go out and buy it to have it readily on hand for a re-read.
2018 was the year when the New York Drag Balls of the late 70’s and 80’s went mainstream in the UK thanks to TV series such as “Pose” and “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and at least a couple of novels of which this was the best. In my review I compared it to what else was out there (as well as the documentary “Paris Is Burning”, available on Netflix, from where Cassara’s characterisations are developed) and concluded “Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter.”
This marks British author Patrick Gale’s fourth appearance in my end of year Top 10’s out of the nine books of his I have read which must mean that he has settled into being one of my most favourite authors. Previous end of year positions have been 4th for “Facts Of Life” (1995) in 1996, 9th for “Rough Music” (2000) in 2001 and 6th for “A Perfectly Good Man” (2012) in 2013. His latest matches this position and I can’t help but note that the books of his I really like I miss out on at the time and catch up with in the following year. This has the most modern setting of any of the books on this year’s list with one narrative strand actually being set in the present (gulp!) with the main character contemplating his past whilst receiving treatment for cancer, but it was the past that Gale really drew me into with his story of Eustace, the young gifted cellist. I said “I fell in love with the boy growing up in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare in the 1970s with ambitions to be a musical great if only his mother and father and society will let him realise his dreams. It is haunting, nostalgic and sensitive and has all the qualities to make it an essential read.”