For the past few years I’ve kept a list of each book that I’ve read for fun, rather than for study or work, and review it at the end of the year. This year was obviously somewhat different so how did that impact what I read?
UK lockdown reading
As a sedentary and often solitary pursuit, reading had some inbuilt advantages as a lockdown activity. And indeed there was evidence that people were reading more.
In mid-May the Guardian reported that Nielsen Book’s research found that 41% of people (from a sample of 1,000) said they were reading more books since the UK lockdown on 23 March, and the amount of time people spent reading books had increased from around 3.5 hours per week, to six. Despite a surge in apocalyptic fiction sales in February and March, this research indicated that people were reading crime, thrillers and popular fiction – genres with gripping stories, fairly standard formats, and offering escapism.
The annual National Literacy Trust survey reported that children too were reading more during lockdown, particularly adventure, comedy, fantasy and real life stories, and discovering books they’d never read before. The survey found that books were supporting mental wellbeing and enabling children to dream about the future.
Researchers at Aston University found that despite early booms for books about plagues and isolation, many people then moved on to more predictable, formulaic, ‘safe’ stories such as crime and thrillers, while others took the opportunity to try out new things. They also found that a lot of people were re-reading – for some this was a necessity as they couldn’t get to a library – but was also something that also had the advantage of familiarity in uncertain times
“Some of the non-re-readers talked about time as a commodity (for example, valuing reading something new), while the re-readers discussed the ability to travel easily, and with little effort to familiar places, characters and experiences.”
Finally, there has been an increase in sales of big, fat classics – the kind of thing everyone means to get around to reading but often don’t have the time and headspace for, like War and Peace, Middlemarch and Don Quixote.
My 2020 reading
So how does this compare to my 2020 reading experience?
Firstly I have to say that I was EXTREMELY busy this year – my day job ‘exploded’ with lockdown – and I also did a Masters’ dissertation, so despite the fact I wasn’t going to the pictures or the pub, I didn’t really have time to do more reading for pleasure. Indeed I bought The Mirror and The Light – one of those big fat bestsellers – for Easter and it’s still in the ‘to-be-read’ pile.
I managed 60 books this year – compared to 29 last year, 53 in 2018, and 24 in 2017 – but almost half (29) were re-reads.
I read a lot of genre fiction: crime, thillers, historical fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, and a few that managed to combine several of these genres all at once… But that’s actually no different from usual: these are the kind of books I like!
I often re-read books, partly because I know what I’m going to get from it but also because I actually have a very poor memory and often forget the plots or characters, even of books I love. Re-reading is quite rewarding for me. But this year, I definitely re-read more than usual. And I recall very deliberately choosing things I know well and love deeply to provide fulfilling experiences in between the hectic work and study schedule.
I also tend to always have some children’s / young adults’ literature in the list, whether they’re new to me or I’m re-reading. So, even before the pandemic took hold here, I started the year with two crime novels and a sci-fi classic that I had read several times before.
When I finish a book I take a photo of the cover and add it to a Flickr album for the year.
Here’s my full list:
|A Neccesary Evil|
Smoke and Ashes
|Abir Mukherjee||War-scarred Scot Captain Wyndham and keen young Bengali Sergeant Banerjee investigate crime in 1920s Calcutta. I have no clear recollection of the plots for either of the books but I like the characters, their slightly uneasy relationship and the post-WW1/pre-Independence tensions in Calcutta.|
|Mutual Admiration Society||Mo Moulton||A group biography of Dorothy L Sayers and her friends from her Oxford Uni days, how they lived and worked, the choices they made as women in thet 1920s and the impact of the relationships on DL Sayers’ work. Really enjoyed this.|
|Things in Jars||Jess Kidd||I enjoyed Jess Kidd’s earlier books; this one less so – the others have fantastical/supernatual elements to them but that aspect was a bit too central for me in this book and I don’t think it really worked.|
|The Space Merchants||Pohl and Kornbluth||A political sci-fi about a rebellion in a society utterly dominated by ruthless corporate capitalism… I really like it. Probably the 4th or 5th time I’ve read it.|
|The Expendable Man||Dorothy B Hughes||I really, really enjoyed this 1960s American thriller about man on his way to to celebrate a family wedding who gets caught up in a murder. He decides to investigate the crime himself because it looks like he’s going to be made the fall guy. The mystery element is good, but what I really liked was the way she places all of his thoughts and decisions within the overarching context of his situation in early 1960s America.|
|We have Always Lived in the Castle||Shirley Jackson||So, so good! The first Shirley Jackson I’ve read. Very weird and creepy but also touching and sad. |
Book Group choice
|Meet Me at the Museum||Anne Youngson||Epistolary novel about a woman corresponding with a museum curator about a prehistoric bog man. Reasonably nicely done, but too neat in its conclusion and didn’t really grab me.|
|Motherwell: A Girlhood||Deborah Orr||Autobiography by now-deceased journalist Deborah Orr about her difficult relationship with her parents, particularly her mother, and the impact of her childhood on her life. Reviewers loved this; I was very disappointed, finding it lacked depth of insight and was let down by the writing style. But of course, had she had more time perhaps it would have been a much better book.|
|Bad Blood||Lorna Sage||I was so disappointed by Motherwell that I retreated to this book – also a memoir about a family – which is heartfelt, intelligent, elegant, shocking, moving, witty and freeing. And well worth reading.|
|Pure||Andrew Miller||Very engaging story of ambitious, naive young engineer, commissioned to clear out a decrepit graveyard in pre-Revolutionary Paris to eliminate the stench and prevent the spread of disease but who discovers that ‘progress’ is not easy, or painless for the people who live around the cemetery, or indeed for himself.|
|Girl, Woman, Other||Bernardine Evaristo||Marvellous! Brillant set of interconnected stories that delve into the British black female experience with humour, surprise, anger and love.|
Book Group choice
|The Hopkins Manuscript||RC Sherriff||Sci-fi from the 1930s: a ‘found manuscript’ written by an amateur astronomer who learns a secret about an impending apocalypse. It recounts the lead-up to the disaster through his petty and unimaginative concerns, and what happens afterwards when he finally starts to wake up to the important things in life. Very much enjoyed it though rather creaky by modern standards.|
|The King’s Evil||Andrew Taylor||Historical thriller set in London in 1667. Think I enjoyed it at the time but can’t really recall anything about it now…|
|The Five||Haillie Rubenhold||The lives of five Victorian women murdered in Whitechapel by the killer known as Jack the Ripper. The author’s archival research unearths new knowledge about their lives and how they became to be so vulnerable, and enriches it with information about the world they knew and lived in. It’s fantastic piece of work, and very interesting.|
|The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell|
The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge
|Harry Harrison||I have read these several times before. They’re part of series of a comic sci-fi thrillers featuring intergalactic spy/action man James Bolivar diGriz who often goes on crime-fighting / regime-change missions accompanied by his equally adventurous wife Anglina and their twin sons. The Rat has a strong moral code, he is an atheist, leans towards socialism, and fights for intergalactic peace and equality, and the books are a lot of fun.|
|On Chapel Sands||Laura Cumming||A gripping family memoir. Laura Cummings digs into family mystery involving a child being snatched during a trip to the beach. This was a great read and gives a fascinating insight into family relations and dynamics.|
|The Godmother||Hannelore Cayre||Fast-paced, funny, filmic story of an older woman who in Paris who, almost accidentally, becomes a drug dealer to buy a house and pay for her elderly mother’s care home. I loved it; though it presents a slightly heightened version of reality, it also seemed very plausible…|
Book Group – My choice!
|The Road to Corlay|
A Dream of Kinship
The Tapestry of Time
|Richard Cowper||A trilogy set in a future world which has been largely ‘drowned’ by rising sea levels, and is dominated by a repressive church. The trilogy charts the rise of a new mysticism – the Kinship of the White Bird – which the church (rightly) sees as a threat. It’s a lyrical mixture of science and the supernatural with flashbacks/forwards to the 1970s. I’ve read it several times and love it.|
|The Postman||David Brin||Again, I have read this several times and love it. It’s a sci-fi set in the near future America after an unspecified catastrophe. Small communities cling on, some more civilised than others. A wanderer, Gordon Krantz, who has almost lost hope of finding a place to settle and a cause to believe in, puts on a tattered old postman’s uniform for warmth and then inadvertently himself becomes the symbol of hope for survivors.|
|Daughter of the Empire|
Servant of the Empire
Mistress of the Empire
|Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts||I’ve read this trilogy at least twice before. Law of diminishing returns, the first is definitely the best but it’s big, bold, colourful fantasy, full of drama, peril, war, love, passion and intrigue, centred around a young woman called Mara, who is the last of her family and must play the vicious, deadly game of politics in the Tsurani Empire in order to survive. Though I enjoyed quite a lot of it, I think this may be the last time I read it.|
|Whose Body?, Clouds of Witness, Five Red Herrings, The Nine Tailors, Striding Folly, Lord Peter Views the Body, Murder Must Advertise, Strong Poison, Have his Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon||Dorothy L Sayers||I adore the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and though I have read them many times, I decided to read them all again this year. In the process discovered I seem to have misplaced The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and, I’m not sure why, but I didn’t re-read Unnatural Death. I enjoyed them all very much again, especially my favourites – Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night. Unusually for me, these are books where I remember the plots. But the puzzle doesn’t really matter to me; it’s the relationships of the characters that’s most interesting, Plus I love the incidental period details. |
I also listened to the As My Wimsey Takes Me podcast which gave me lots to think about and really enriched my reading.
|Untamed. Stop Pleasing, Start Living||Glennon Doyle||I had never heard of Glennon Doyle but she’d written two memoirs about marriage and raising a family. This third memoir is about her truly finding herself through falling in love with a woman. On reading I had a mean-minded doubt that perhaps the shine will come off and she’ll soon find something else that will be The Answer. Some of it was tedious advice on bringing up children and ‘finding yourself’ without really interrogating how the practices she advocates could play out in different circumstances. But she definitely has a way with words – in fact she bludgeons them into abject submission – and can zip up a complex scenario into a tweet-sized sentence, which is undeniably impressive. |
Book Group Choice
|Bring Down the Duke||Evie Dunmore||This was SO much fun! I’d seen it promoted as ‘the future of historical romance’ and was intrigued. It’s a pretty classic case of a man and woman clashing on first sight but then realising they harbour an unbridled passion for one another. But I liked all the characters, including the secondary ones, the plot was not straightforward, there was realism in areas like money and the struggle of a single woman to make a living in the last 19th century, and it seemed that quite a bit of research had gone into the setting. And it’s somewhat saucy!|
|Hamnet||Maggie O’Farrell||One of the best books I read this year. It’s sensitive, beautiful, moving and tender. And so human; the people are joyous, confused, kind, angry and sad and very real. It’s a beautiful, rewarding, enriching read.|
Book Group Choice
|Terry Pratchett||Two of Terry Pratchett’s best: a story of the emergence of the press; and an unpeeling of extremism and racial tensions. Funny, yet kind, they gently but pointedly expose power and how it works.|
|Dolls! Dolls! Dollls!||Stephen Rebello||The making of the the film of The Valley of Dolls; a eye-boiling tale of sex, money, back stabbing, exploitation and glamour. I haven’t actually seen the film but this delve into the seedy underbelly is both unnervingly enlightening and squirmishly entertaining.|
|Loving and Giving||Molly Keane||I loved this! Molly Keane’s is soooo good at the awkward upper-class woman, dimly aware that she’s not happy but with no capacity to know how to rectify things or even that she should. Loving and Giving is hilarious but also desperately tragic.|
|Figures in a Landscape||Barry England||Purchased in a second-hand bookshop in Callander on one of the few days’ holiday we had this year. I bought it because I liked the cover but I also thought it was a sci-fi. It’s actually a war novel set in an unspecified East Asian country. It follows, in excruciatingly painful detail, the attempt of two British prisoners to escape captivity. I liked all the detail and the relationship that builds up between the older soldier and the young recruit. Quite brutal stuff though. On doing some research it turned out it was nominated for the inaugural Booker Prize, and was made into a film.|
|The Less Dead||Denise Mina||An informed and sensitive fictionalised exploration of the murders of several sex workers in Glasgow in the 1990s through the story of Margo, who was adopted as a child. She makes contact with her birth family and becomes drawn into investigating her mother’s unsolved murder. As well as the crime story, I really liked the dynamic between her and her new family as she gradually gets to understand the world of her lost mother.|
|Scabby Queen||Kirstin Innes||This is a really interesting, ambitious board-brush novel, crammed with characters and ideas. Through the life of a minor Scottish singer/songwiter it explores some of the big political issues of recent years and what it means to be politically active and involved with a community. Great state of the nation stuff!|
Book Group Choice
|The Prince in Waiting Trilogy||John Christopher||This is a sci-fi book I loved as a child. It’s set in a future Britain with a feudal society and no machines. Luke, the prince of the title, thinks his future will be as a soldier but the Seers – who provide spiritual guidance – have other plans. Then personal conflicts play havoc with those plans too. It’s actually a pretty grim journey for Luke who never really reconciles himself to the loss of his soldering life, but it’s exciting, engaging and thoughtful.|
|Blood and Sugar||Laura Shepherd-Robinson||A historic crime novel set in London in the 1780s in which a man investigates the murder of his friend, a campaigner for the abolition of slavery. There were lots of recommendations, she’d obviously done some research, and it sounded like it should be good, but sadly it was exceedingly dull with a cast of cardboard cut-out characters, seemingly created to a checklist.|
|Naming The Bones||Louise Welsh||A literary mystery leavened with a dollop of black magic, and set in Glasgow and the West Coast. This was great. Exciting, a wee bit scary and nicely paced, And full of real people, even as they do stupid or bad things. Recommended.|
|The Fortunes||Peter Ho Davies||Four lives (and deaths) that capture the big story of the American Chinese experience, from the building of railroads to the present day, including Ann May Wong, the 1920s Chinese American film star. Each story adopts a different style, but they all address issues of families and belonging. It’s a brilliant piece of work, very insightful and compelling.|
|Pine||Francine Toon||A spooky Scottish ghost story. I liked the supernatural bits and the glimpse into the wee girl’s rather insecure life at home and school but I was a bit disappointed by the ending. |
Book Group Choice
|Wake||Anna Hope||I thought this was a lovely book. It relates the emotions and memories of three different women in the four days before the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey. The stories explore how people reacted differently to the impact of the First World War and their experiences of personal loss in a sea of collective grief.|
|An Abbreviated Life||Ariel Leve||A memoir about Ariel Leve’s childhood with her volatile, unpredictable, demanding mother. it’s not a straightforward story but the episodic back-and-forth style makes the story even more shocking and engaging, as she starts to truly realise the impact her childhood has had on her as and tries to repair the damage.|
|A Wizard of Earthsea|
The Tombs of Atuan
The Farthest Shore
|I loved this fantasy trilogy as a child. It’s set in an archipelago where Ged undertakes a series of quests. His first is to confront a dark force he released through pride and rage. The second, which was always my favourite, is to find a long-lost mystical artefact in a labyrinth, and in the process he helps a young priestess to a new life. And the third is to stop a mage whose attempt to defeat death means that all life is ending. It’s amazingly imaginative, brilliantly written and immensely thoughtful and life affirming.|
|Outlander||Diana Gabaldon||Scottish time travelling bestseller! I quite enjoyed some of it, and there’s some effective writing in parts but it gets a bit repetitive, and I was struggling by the end to stay interested.|
Book Group Choice
|The Dark Is Rising||Susan Cooper||I read this every year because it’s a wonderful combination of ancient myth, fantasy and a growing up story. This year I read it more or less in the sequence of the story, so started on Midwinter’s Eve and read though Christmas. I love it all, and it’s a magical way to say goodbye to the old year and enter the new one.|
|Burning the Books||Richard Ovenden||An account of attacks on knowledge though the ages and the roles that libraries and archives – and librarians and archivists – have played in protecting and preserving documents, books and digital records.I read it a chapter a week with a glass of wine in the bath so it was lovely to finish on New Year’s Eve with the final chapter which suggests how libraries and archive might continue to perform this role in the future. Informative, clear-sighted and passionate.|
So, there was hardly anything I didn’t enjoy in some way this year, and some really wonderful books too.
Book Group choices
As always Book Group played a big part in making sure I read a bit more widely than I might do otherwise. It was good, after the initial shock of lockdown, to be able to carry on, online. It was interesting to read this article early in lockdown about how book groups served the needs of readers during the Second World War.
We had two face to face meetings before having to go online. A few of us managed to get together in one members’ garden in August to talk about Hamnet – I made special cake for the occasion (right) – but, of course now we’re back online again.
I think we have become more practised at online discussion. We managed distanced, co-ordinated cake eating at our pre-Christmas get-together. And I got squiffy enough to invite Nicola Sturgeon to our next chat…!
We’ve already lined up the Scottish Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain, for our January Zoom, and hopefully we can meet again in person not too far into the 2021.
Before then though, I’m excited to have finally started The Mirror and the Light as my first read of the new year!