I have read over 350 books in 2020 and it is, therefore, quite a challenge to come up with a short list of favourites. I’ve been planning this list for a few weeks now and the content has changed from day to day. Sooner or later, however, you have to fix on a final set of books and this is it !
This is my list of the 15 books I read this year that I most enjoyed. It’s not a list of books published this year but books which I read for the first time in the year (quite a lot of my reading is rereads which I am not counting here). It comes from various genres, although history and historical novels do predominate. There is literature in translation, crime, autobiography, biography, thrillers, classics and science fiction. Only one author gets two entries in the list. Do look at some of my older posts to get a full view of the variety of books I read – there is plenty of good stuff in there which there isn’t room for in this post. Where I have reviewed the books during this year I have included a link to the original post.
I recommend all these books and more. Keep reading !
Most of my literary consumption is novels of all kinds (I have a weakness for romances and cosy crime as well as literary fiction). Four out of five of these books are stand-alone and they are set in Italy, Russia, Japan and the UK over the past two thousand years or so.
- Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot). A book about time travel with very specific rules set in a Japanese café and told as a series of short stories. Clever and moving
- A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is set during the Soviet era and features an aristocrat sentenced to live his life confined in the Metropole Hotel and living in the attic. It is a book about endurance and love and is very beautiful. It made me cry in places.
- Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is set during the sixteenth century in Stratford upon Avon and is an imaginary telling of the death of William Shakespeare’s only son and the life of his family. It’s fiction NOT history and this book has elements of magical realism but it’s gloriously written and a delight to read.
- The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths is a crime novel but an amusing and absorbing one where the main protagonists are immigrants and older people trying to work out why their friend may have been murdered. A fun read.
- Pompeii by Robert Harris is set in the town of the same name just before the eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed it – but, of course, the characters in the story don’t know that ! It’s a crime mystery with a touch of romance, a lot of social comment and an action filled plot (you also get to know a lot about Roman water engineering !). I was riveted.
Five Non-Fiction Books
I aimed, as I aim most years, to make 25% of what I read non-fiction. As ever I have failed in that ambition but a sizeable proportion of this year’s reading has been factual. This list’s books are all centred on people’s experiences and how the events of history or of their lives have affected them. All of these are, in my opinion, compulsive reads.
- Between the Stops by Sandi Toksvig is a sort of biography of the author. She tells bits of her life story whilst describing the journey of the bus she catches into central London from where she lives. This means that she also tells the story of the places she passes and the people who once lived there. It’s an odd way of telling the story but I found it amusing and interesting – and different !
- Our Land Before we Die by Jeff Guin is an incredible history story. The book tells of how runaway slaves fled to Florida and lived alongside the Seminole Indians. The fate of these two people became intertwined and the Black people found themselves relocated, exploited and betrayed as they tried to establish their own land and place to live. This is a brilliant telling of their story and the modern fight to keep the memory of these injustices alive.
- The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger is the story of an amazing storm which took place in October 1991 off Nova Scotia. It concentrates on the story of the Andrea Gail a fishing trawler and explains what exactly happened to it and its crew as well as to others caught in the hurricane. A book which helps you understand what life is like as an off shore fisherman as well as how vulnerable we still are to the forces of nature.
- Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker is the biography of one family of twelve children of whom six have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The book concentrates on the family dynamics and the impact of the illness on the individuals and the group as a whole but it also explores the treatment of serious mental disorders during the past century and how little we still know of how to handle them. In places a terrifying read.
- The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding tells the history of modern Germany by studying the history of one house built as a summer home beside a lake outside Berlin. The story of what happens to the house and its various inhabitants from the 1930s onwards is a totally engaging and easy to grasp narrative which illustrates how the events of the twentieth century affected real people.
I didn’t read as many audiobooks as usual this year because I spent most of my time working from home and missed the daily commute which is where I listened to the majority of them. All five here are novels despite the fact that I always tell people how ideal audio is for listening to non-fiction – all of them have excellent narration which enhances the experience.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and narrated by Tim Robbins. A science fiction novel set in a dystopian future where books, and knowledge, are banned. Guy Montag is a fireman – he burns books. But Guy starts to rethink what is important to him and finds himself in danger. A classic of the genre and rightfully so – but chilling in places
- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins narrated by Peter Jeffrey. A crime classic featuring the mysterious disappearance of a precious jewel. It is all great fun and includes elements of Eastern mysticism, hypnotism, hidden secrets and young love. The book is told in a series of long statements by various protagonists and the author and narrator delightfully distinguish between the voices.
- The Third Man by Graham Greene narrated by Martin Jarvis. This is set in Vienna immediately post WW2 and is a tale of the black market and murder. It is a dark but cleverly written tale and beautifully written. This is a short but excellent story.
- Conclave by Robert Harris (yes, that’s the second time he appears on this list) narrated by Roy Mcmillan. This is a political thriller set in the closed world of the conclave of cardinals which has been gathered to elect a new pope. I was captivated by the story and the way it is told. This is a clever and brilliantly written book and probably my favourite of the year.
- Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell narrated by Prunella Scales. A delightful tale of a small English town and the maiden ladies who live there. A novel of manners but which also contains a lot of social comment. I loved it.