What a Year … my Top Ten reads for 2020

To be honest, a large part of me just wants to move on and not dwell on this utter horror of a year – but then I remember that it is books that have played a large part on keeping me sane. And there have been many, many awesome books I’ve enjoyed so much. Making this list has actually reminded me of lots of lovely moments I’ve had – some of these were read in the summer holidays, when it felt like we had a few months of respite from everything (I’m conscious that’s been not the case for everyone, I know, but as a teacher the summer was a chance to refuel and stop thinking about bloody Teams). Others have been read as the months (and news) got darker again, and although it’s a bit of a cliché, reading was an escape. So – here’s my favourite books of this year. Some were published in 2020, others are older but read for the first time. I haven’t put The Dark is Rising in – that would appear in every yearly list because it’s an annual favourite.

At the Pond is a recent read, and one I’ll dip into again (sorry – that wasn’t intended). Essentially, it’s a series of essays about the Hampstead Ladies’ Pool and the women who swim in it. It charts the pool and its visitors throughout the year – I particularly enjoyed the stories of the (probably mad) winter swimmers – and is such a joy to read that you want to charge out and find your nearest open water (one of my resolutions for this coming year is to find somewhere if I’m brave enough). I’m missing the coast terribly this year and I’m very jealous of my mum who has taken to leaping in the sea whenever she can. I have no doubt that it would do me a lot of good. In the meantime, I have this book!

The Lost Spells is the follow up to the marvellous Lost Words and is also wonderful. Smaller, it is easier to carry round for when you need it. Jackie Morris’ illustrations are just so beautiful and, like At the Pond, I’ve been dipping back into it as the light has faded. I’m looking forward to spring now, taking this with me on my walks as the days get longer.

First published in 1931, Elizabeth Von Armin’s Father is one of my favourite of The British Library’s Women Writers series that I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on (they’re all great, btw!) and I’ve bought it as presents this year. Jennifer is a heroine you cheer on to escape her overbearing father – it’s one of those novels which makes you laugh out loud and whose characters stay with you. Marvellous stuff.

Shuggie Bain was a well-deserved winner of this year’s Booker Prize – I think I managed to call it this year once I got over my Hamnet-huff – and listening to interviews with Douglas Stuart after reading it made it all the more powerful an experience. It’s a tough read because of the unrelenting challenges of this boy’s life, but it is so good, so well-written that Shuggie becomes a hero of our time. This is going to be a classic.

One Woman’s Year is a wonderful collection of writings by Stella Martin Currey about food, family, clothes, flowers, and everything else making up a middle class life in the mid-20th Century. It is now part of the brilliant Persephone catalogue – I read it back in February (which now seems to date it more than the fact the book was first published in 1953) and I’m going to re-read each month again this year as it arrives.

A Thousand Ships is Natalie Haynes’ retelling of the Trojan War and its’ aftermath. In turn funny and deeply tragic, this is another one I’ve bought in spades for presents. Had it not been for the marvellous Hamnet (you’ll see a thread developing here, perhaps) I would have pegged this as a worthy winner for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Hamnet. My book of the year. I still can’t believe it didn’t make it to the Booker shortlist but it did get the Women’s Prize and that was some consolation. It is just incredible. Amazing. Moving. Agnes (Anne Hathaway) moves centre-stage and O’Farrell gives us Shakespeare’s wife as she deserves to be seen. If you only read one book …

Ali Smith’s Spring was always going to make it onto this list – it wasn’t the one published this year but I read it in early spring and Summer, which I read later, was great but not my favourite of the Seasonal Quartet. Spring, like Autumn before it, had an energy and anger which blew my mind. It brought to mind that sense of possibility, of not taking any nonsense because you don’t have to settle for things that early in the year. Ali Smith is pretty much awesome, whatever time of year it is, tbh.

I’m going to cheat now and go for a new series instead of a single book. I’ve read the first two Bronte Mysteries this year and loved them both. In The Vanished Bride and The Diabolical Bones, Bella Ellis (a pseudonym of Rowan Coleman) has given the Brontë sisters (Branwell helps out a bit) new roles as detectors. Devotees of the writers don’t need to fear that this is a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-style travesty – the writers are brilliantly and warmly brought to life in Ellis’ stories, and given a humour and verve that makes their short lives seem even more tragic. These are also cracking crime reads.

Summerwater is Sarah Moss’ latest novel and, in my humble opinion, her best yet. I raced through it yesterday in one sitting and images of it keep coming back to me. Set in the summer in a Scottish chalet park, it nevertheless felt timely to be reading it during grey December during Lockdown number-whatever – Moss is excellent at capturing domestic details in times of restraint (she also does this brilliantly in her earlier Bodies of Light). As I say in my review, I think she’s one of the best writers today.

I want to stick to ten, but there’s also inevitably one or two others I wanted to include: Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures was a recent read which I loved for its understated tone and sense of repressed emotion. Elisabeth Hobbes’ latest novel (with new publisher One More Chapter), The Secret Agent, is set in occupied Nantes in 1944 and captures superbly the fear and tension of the time. Being Alert is Charlie Laidlaw’s excellent satire on the early days of the Government’s response to the Pandemic – I’m hoping he’s now working on the sequel. Goodness knows we need it.

Whatever 2021 brings, I know it will involve good books. I’d love to know which ones you’ve enjoyed this year – and which ones you’re looking forward to read next year. Stay safe x

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