A year in books or, What I read in 2020

This year, for the first time, I kept note of the books I read for pleasure or curiosity. As ever, it was mostly fiction. It’s been an odd year and, given external events, I tended towards books I thought I’d enjoy. That means there are a lot of new (to me) novels by authors I’ve read before because I wasn’t feeling terribly adventurous. I’ve got to the point when I can be certain I’ll love almost anything by James Robertson, for example, and am mildly annoyed he’s not written more books.

On the whole, my new reading this year skewed modern. There are a lot of recent books, a good many from the twentieth century, but only David Copperfield plus a couple of translated classics to represent older work. Several novels were enjoyable, undemanding books to pass the time on the train during my commute, back in the days when travelling to work was still something one did. There’s a fair amount of historical fiction; I was slightly surprised, however, how little new science fiction and fantasy I read this year, although several of the historical novels tended towards the fantastical (thinks of The Heavens, which is fantastic in at least two senses of the word, and Hamnet).

Of the novels that I read for the first time, the two I enjoyed most were Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Stefan Hartman’s The Convert. The Mirror and the Light was wonderful – I’ve reread it twice, trying to see how Mantel does it – but not a surprise, given my response to the first two books in the Cromwell trilogy. The Convert is a novel I picked up simply because I liked the cover and then pounded through in a mad rush. It’s an historical novel set in a time and in a set of places I knew little about, but it’s also a book about the author’s experiences writing that novel. The focus zooms in and out, fragments of the past are woven into fiction. In that way, it’s comparable to Laurent Binet’s HHhH, another book I think wonderful and urge on people whenever I can. It’s notable that both HHhH and The Convert are translations (from French and Dutch, respectively) and thus written outwith the mainstream sweep of UK/US fiction.

The rereads were mostly done in those times when I wanted familiarity. Many of the books on that list I count as old friends. No matter how often I pull them from the shelf, Sutcliff, Renault and Lively never fail me and were I to make a similar reckoning next year there would be something by all of them on the reread list. Alas, not all rereads offered the reassurance I sought. Revisiting two books by P.D. James proved a disappointment, despite I’d been impressed with them years back and kept a place for them ever since. Each was a careful evocation of a rather melancholy milieu and finely drawn character studies, and then both mood and mode were abandoned in the final third in favour of idiotic sensationalism. I reread all the Little House books this year, spurred on by reading around the lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. I reread Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, because I’ve been watching the adaptation and wanted to compare other people’s images with my own.

The Nonfiction list is a mix of research for a novel and books that caught my fancy. The standout on that list is Hadley Freeman’s House of Glass, an account of her Jewish family’s experiences in pre-war and wartime Europe. It’s compassionate, thrilling and heartbreaking in equal measures. Recommended.

New to me fiction
Ayobami Adebayo Stay With Me 
Oyinkan Braithwaite My Sister, the Serial Killer 
Max Brooks Devolution 
Max Brooks World War Z 
Octavia E. Butler The Parable of the Sower 
Octavia E. Butler The Parable of the Talents 
Graeme Macrae Burnet The Accident on the A35 
Susanna Clarke Piranesi 
Moray Dalton One by One They Disappeared 
Moray Dalton The Body in the Road 
Moray Dalton The Night of Fear 
Abi Daré The Girl with the Louding Voice 
Charles Dickens David Copperfield 
Jane Dougherty Thicker than Water
Alfred Duggan The Little Emperors 
Alfred Duggan Winter Quarters 
Alfred Duggan Besieger of Cities 
Lucy Ellmann Mimi 
Anne Enright Actress
Michel Faber The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps
Samantha Harvey The Western Wind 
Stefan Hertmans The Convert (trans. David McKay)
Homer The Odyssey (trans. Emily Wilson)
Christopher Isherwood A Meeting by the River 
Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa The Leopard (trans. Archibald Colquhoun)
Colum McCann Apeirogon 
Katharine McGee American Royals 2: Majesty
Hilary Mantel The Mirror and the Light 
Andrew Miller Now We Shall Be Entirely Free 
Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty 
Liane Moriarty Nine Perfect Strangers 
Benjamin Myers The Offing 
Justin Myers The Last Romeo 
Sandra Newman The Heavens 
Maggie O’Farrell Hamnet
Philip Pullman Serpentine 
Ian Rankin A Song for the Dark Times 
James Robertson To Be Continued… 
James Robertson 365 Stories 
Marilynne Robertson Jack
Meg Rosoff The Great Godden
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
A.F.E. Smith Dawn Rising
Judith Starkston Of Kings and Griffins 
Noel Streatfeild The Circus is Coming (republished as Circus Shoes)
Noel Streatfeild Curtain Up (republished as Theatre Shoes)
Adrian Tchaikovsky The Dogs of War 
Walter Tevis The Queen’s Gambit 
Virgil Aeneid Book VI (trans. Seamus Heaney)
Winifred Watson Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day 
Carlos Ruiz Zafon The Shadow of the Wind 

Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Laurent Binet HHhH (trans. Sam Taylor)
Craig Brown Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret
Agatha Christie Crooked House
Agatha Christie Death Comes as the End
Agatha Christie Peril at End House
John Dickinson The Widow and the King
Michel Faber Under the Skin
Michel Faber The Book of Strange New Things
Penelope Fitzgerald The Blue Flower
Ian Fleming On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Georgette Heyer These Old Shades
P.D. James A Taste for Death
P.D. James Devices and Desires
M.M. Kaye The Far Pavilions
Ursula K. LeGuin A Wizard of Earthsea
Ursula K. LeGuin The Tombs of Atuan
Ursula K. LeGuin The Farthest Shore
Ursula K. LeGuin The Other Wind
Penelope Lively Cleopatra’s Sister
Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel Bring Up the Bodies
Philip Pullman Northern Lights
Philip Pullman The Subtle Knife
Philip Pullman The Amber Spyglass
Mary Renault The Persian Boy
Dorothy L. Sayers Have His Carcase
Vikram Seth A Suitable Boy
Rosemary Sutcliff Blood Feud
Rosemary Sutcliff Blood and Sand
Rosemary Sutcliff Sword at Sunset
Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House in the Big Woods
Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder On the Banks of Plum Creek
Laura Ingalls Wilder On the Shores of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder The First Four Years

Nick Ashton Early Humans
Julian Barnes The Man in the Red Coat
Mary Beard Pompeii (reread)
Tracy Borman The Private Lives of the Tudors
Shaun Bythell Diary of a Bookseller
John Drinkwater Nero: Emperor and Court
Richard Fortey Trilobite
Caroline Fraser Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Hadley Freeman House of Glass
Roy K. Gibson Pliny: Man of High Empire
Anne Glenconner Lady in Waiting
Stephen Jay Gould Bully for Brontosaurus (reread)
Stephen Jay Gould The Flamingo’s Smile (reread)
Stephen Jay Gould The Lying Stones of Marrakech (reread)
Stephen Jay Gould Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (reread)
Isabel Hardman Why We Get the Wrong Politicians
Adam Higginbottom Midnight in Chernobyl
Robert Knapp Invisible Romans
Diarmaid MacCullough The Reformation
Helen Macdonald Vesper Flights
Robert McFarlane Underland
Emily Maitlis Airhead
Hilary Mantel Mantel Pieces
Pliny the Younger Letters (trans. B. Radice; reread)
Adam Rutherford How to Argue with a Racist
A. N. Sherwin-White The Letters of Pliny
Will Storr The Science of Storytelling
Hugo Vickers The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys Deacon – Duchess of Marlborough
Wynne Williams Pliny: Correspondence with Trajan from Bithynia
Rex Winsbury Pliny the Younger: A Life in Roman Letters

This entry was posted in beloved books, fantasy novel, novel, thoughts, Twentieth Century Fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to A year in books or, What I read in 2020

  1. Ritchie Valentine Smith says:

    That’s an impressively long list of books!
    And – as you say – folksong and fantasy are a good fit. I’ve used ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ in ‘Words of Fury’ …

  2. Calmgrove says:

    Like Jane I don’t know how you achieve this level of consumption — I can skim read but really suck at speed reading! — but there is a fair variety of genres there, so I’m impressed!

    • Speed reading does seem to be a family trait. Not sure if it’s nature or nurture. My mother, sister & one child share it but my partner & the other child read at more normal speeds. One thing though, none of us fast readers form pictures as we read (I learned the term this year is aphantasia). It’s all words. I’m wondering if there’s a connection. Need a bigger sample size, though.

      • Calmgrove says:

        Oh, aphantasia, I must remember that! I’m almost the polar opposite: while I love words in themselves I can’t do sequences (rubbish at remembering speeches and songs except those learnt at school) and I read slowly because I need to form pictures.

        In fact, I often remember roughly where I saw a description or a definition on a page even if the actual quote escapes me; and I was hopeless at remembering student names despite surviving 35 years in teaching at secondary level!

        Difficulties in sequencing (I can rarely remember the punchline to a joke or vice versa) is one of the traits common to some who are on the autistic spectrum, and helped me in my self-diagnosis. I’m now intrigued by aphantasia…

        • Oh that is interesting. We’re near opposites, in processing at least (I remember voices more easily than faces, so often match names that way).
          It’s fascinating how different the process of reading can be. I have no visual imagination and had no idea other people saw books unwinding almost as films until an enlightening conversation with a writer friend. ‘The inner eye’ is only a metaphor to me.

  3. When do you find time to eat? Breathe?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s