2020. The weirdest year ever. The world turned upside down. But for a moment let's try to ignore Covid-19, Brexit and politics as much as possible. For me 2020 was:
Mrs PlacesandBooks and I working from home - WooHoo! No more commuting. And I get to cook, which I was usually too late home for when travelling to London every day.
Both daughters contending with Covid and restrictions whilst trying to study at university.
Passing 30,000 followers on Instagram (!)
New shelves built in the shed - now known as the home office.
Ludicrously busy and moderately successful at work.
Had to cancel a trip to the US in May (New York, Concord, Cape Cod, Boston, etc) because of the lurgy.
Some great minibreaks in the Lake District, Peak District, Llangollen and Llandudno.
A sunny week in Devon, and a tour of Cornwall.
2020 reading summary
It was also my most prolific reading year. I finished 109 books, surpassing my previous best of 85 books. I read a mixture of poetry, plays, non-fiction and fiction, much of which was very good indeed. Nearly all of my reads were for the first time that I only managed ten re-reads, an unusually low amount for me.
In the middle of this year, largely due to the unsettling influence of lockdowns, mad work pressures and pandemics, I had a big reading slump. I read my way out of it with thrillers and cosy murder mysteries, then wrote a blog about it: "How to read your way out of a reading slump".
Whilst I consciously set out in 2020 without a specific plan, it ended up being a year in which I read a lot of George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie. Next year I am aiming to focus on two authors, Iris Murdoch and Stefan Zweig, and decide on what else to read as I go along. No other New Year’s resolutions for me.
Eliot, Woolf and Christie
I read four George Eliot's: Romola, Daniel Deronda, Adam Bede and Silas Marner. I read Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, Books and Portraits, Flush, and Genius and Ink.
I read thirteen Agatha Christie's, which I won't list, but from which I will pick out the following as favourites: The Man in the Brown Suit, the Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Death on the Nile, the ABC Murders and A Murder is Announced.
Reading diversity My reading diversity was not too bad:
58 male writers and 48 female writers.
Books from 15 different countries, including: Pakistan, Austria, Scotland, USA, Russia, England, Turkey, Finland, South Africa, Portugal, Iceland, Jamaica, Chile and China. I was disappointed to find I had read so little from Asia and Africa, and nothing from South America. I’ll try to rectify this next year.
LGBT. I'm never sure about classifying LGBT. I honestly don't notice. Is it by author or subject matter?
My 2020 Book of the Year
Deciding my favourite read was DIFFICULT! To make it a little easier to explain I have broken down my reading to three categories – new fiction, non-fiction and re-reads. I’ll start with new fiction…
New works of fiction
Starting with the best:
1. Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf. Absolute genius writing, modernist of course, but engaging and full of such powerful and exhilarating prose. Nothing I can say could do it justice. My favourite Woolf.
2. Madonna in a Fur Coat, by Sabahattin Ali. This could easily have been number one. It’s a beautiful and haunting, melancholy and profound story. You really should read it.
3. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. I am still yet to read a book by Cather that is less than 5*. This one has a less obviously likeable protagonist, but is perhaps all the more amazing for that. A female John Steinbeck?
4. The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley. A simply joyful elegy to books, booksellers and bookshops, which somehow manages to incorporate a thriller and a romance within its covers as well.
5. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Political and philosophical by turns this is primarily just utterly charming. It has some heavy subject matter but it is a fun read.
6. The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson. A strange, beautiful and uplifting tale of a grandmother and her precocious granddaughter on a small island.
7. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens. A little uneven, but still brilliant Dickens, full of his trademark amazing characters, great scenes and atmospheric London settings.
8. Sonny’s Blues, by James Baldwin. A very short novella, or a short story, strong throughout but the final few pages were just breath-taking.
9. Silas Marner, by George Eliot. Just the most gorgeous story, and perhaps the most accessible Eliot novel.
10. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon.
It was such a strong year that I have to list some of the books just outside the top ten, any of which I would recommend. They were:
11. The Bridge at San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder
12. The House Without Windows, by Barbara Newhall Follett and Jackie Morris.
13. The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, by Charlie Mackesy.
14. A Rage In Harlem, by Chester Himes.
15. Burning Secret, by Stefan Zweig.
16. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman.
17. Under the Glacier, by Halldor Laxness.
18. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie.
19. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde.
20. The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler.
On top of those, there were a couple of books that had an impact, and which may have been great but which I need a little longer to digest before I decide what I think of them, namely: The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, and The Silence by Don Delillo.
I had a lot less re-reads this year, only ten, so I'm listing them all:
1. Therese Raquin, by Emile Zola. I cheekily put this above my all-time favourite book, Lord of the Ring, as I had forgotten just how good Zola’s writing is.
2. Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien. Nothing more to say. Love it every time.
3. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. Oh my goodness how I love this book. My favourite Dickens with two of my very favourite literary characters in: Betsey Trotwood and Wilkins Micawber.
4. Henry IV, Part 1, by William Shakespeare. My first reread since school of one of my two favourite Shakespeares. It did not disappoint.
5. Leave it to Psmith, by PG Wodehouse. Psmith is my favourite Wodehouse character and this is his finest moment.
6. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. A perfect little parable but it could do with being a little less hurried.
7. Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Gentle, beautiful and calmly told.
8. Clarice Bean, That’s Me, by Lauren Child. So much fun. Found it in the little free library. It was a favourite of my daughters when they were younger.
9. Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte. Great writing but the plot is too weak.
10. The Invisible Man, by HG Wells. Groundbreaking, influential and powerful, but not quite as readable as I remembered.
It was another strong year for non-fiction, with plenty of wonderful books:
1. Montaigne by Stefan Zweig. This book completely transported me. Zweig is informal, erudite and passionate by turns but he gets to the essence of Montaigne and puts that across brilliantly. I’d recommend reading this before reading Montaigne.
2. When we cease to understand the world, by Benjamin Labatut. Science, History and Philosophy reimagined. A compelling read.
3. The Amazing Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, by Mary Seacole. An extraordinary life.
4. Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, by Robert Louis Stevenson. A classic.
5. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, by Sojourner Truth. Astonishing.
6. The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd. The biography of Cairngorm.
7. Who Cares Wins, by Lily Cole. The book that surprised me most this year. I don’t know what I was expecting but it was not this.
8. Seasonal Suicide Notes, by Roger Lewis. Not always pc, but always hilarious and often moving.
9. Changing my Mind, by Zadie Smith. Brilliant essays.
10. Jew(ish) – A primer, a memoir, a manual, a plea, by Matt Greene. Essential reading.
Just outside the top ten were: Penguin by Design by Phil Baines; The Art of War by Lao Tzu; The Boy Between by Josiah Hartley and Amanda Prowse; and Genius and Ink, by Virginia Woolf.
So which book wins the big prize?
So finally, out of all this lot, the toughest decision. My BOOK OF THE YEAR 2020 is…
Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf.
Just a stunning achievement and a worthy addition to my book of the year winners. Do comment below what your favourite book of the year was.
And in case you are interested, here are my books of the year from when I first started keeping records:
1982 Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien, England
1983 Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger, USA
1984 To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, USA
1985 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, USA
1986 Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, France
1987 Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy,England
1988 A Room with a View, EM Forster, England
1989 Middlemarch, George Eliot, England
1990 Villette, Charlotte Bronte, England
1991 All Quiet on the Western Front, EM Remarque, Germany
1992 The Scarlet and the Black, Stendahl, France
1993 Crime and Punishment, Fyedor Dostoyevsky, Russia
1994 As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Laurie Lee, England
1995 Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, Russia
1996 The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte, England
1997 Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, France
1998 Kim, Rudyard Kipling, England
1999 The Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournieres, France
2000 Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan, France
2001 Catch 22, Joseph Heller, USA
2002 The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, USA
2003 A Secret History, Donna Tartt, USA
2004 David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, England
2005 Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte, England
2006 A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, USA
2007 White Teeth, Zadie Smith, England
2008 The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, Australia
2009 A Fraction of the whole, Steve Toltz, Australia
2010 Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, England
2011 Any human heart, William Boyd, England
2012 The Road, Cormac McCarthy, USA
2013 We, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Russia
2014 The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, USA
2015 Quicksand, Steve Toltz, Australia
2016 Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbons, Scotland
2017 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey, USA
2018 Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, USA
2019 Underland, Robert Macfarlane, England
2020 Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf