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Twelve books for 2020

So, here we are, the final day of 2020. What a strange and awful year it has been. I wonder whether in years to come I will be able to quite believe just how many months I shielded or worked from home, how few weeks I actually spent at school. In some ways it has seemed as if I have blinked and the year just disappeared – probably because so many of my days, weeks and months were so featureless. What with the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the US election it has been a year that has seen many of us distracted from our books, some of us with more reading time available actually reading less. I am not going to try and predict what 2021 might hold for us all – however, wherever you are, I hope it is a much better year.

Perhaps because of the above – I have found it even harder to come up with my twelve books of the year. I excluded re-reads but have chosen both newer and backlisted titles as always.

Putting these in order proved impossible, so in alphabetical order by title my twelve books of 2020 are:

Abigail by Magda Szabó (1970) translated by Len Rix. Read right back at the start of the year in January. Hungary 1943 – A senior army General in Budapest decides to send his fourteen year old daughter Georgina Vitay, across Hungary to a boarding school in Árkod. What starts out as a brilliant boarding school novel, becomes in time a taut, WW2 thriller – with Gina in danger.

A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman (1983) – the founder of Persephone books. Read very recently, in mid-December. A Persephone reissue of her 1983 book of literary criticism, which I have sat on for a year because I read so little nonfiction. I absolutely loved this book, such a celebration of the kinds of books I love. Rarely do I love a nonfiction book this much.

Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim (1919) Read in April. Such an absolute delight from beginning to end. The Christopher and Columbus of the title are the two Annas; Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas von Twinkler, seventeen year old twins. The uncle of these innocent half German young women arranges for their passage to the US, and thus are the two Annas thrust upon the United States.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson (1929) read in October, this is the kind of novel I love. Politics, feminism, and a faithful portrayal of the working classes.  Clash is a novel about the General Strike of 1926, its aftermath, and the terrible conditions that miners families were living in.

Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay (1921) Read in August, Rose Macaulay is a writer I have enjoyed exploring in the last few years. This edition from the British Library Women Writers series, is a thing of beauty in itself. In this novel Rose Macaulay examines four generations of women within one family, each of them at a different ‘dangerous’ stage of womanhood.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009) translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Read back in February, and this is a novel I had no idea would end up on this list – yet it has stayed with me – and I came to appreciate the brilliance of the novel the more I thought about it later. Examining traditional ideas of ‘madness,’ animal rights and the hypocrisy of religion.

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose (2016) Read in April, it is a novel which captured me and captivated me from word one. One of those I was sorry to finish. This is a novel firmly rooted in the Suffolk landscape, a novel of a father and son, grief, guilt and how we find our way home. Beautifully written and deeply heartfelt. It is really quite haunting, honestly if you haven’t already, just read it.

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013). Another one from earlier this month, this one and a Very Great Profession totally upset the apple cart in terms of this list! It is just a joy of a book. In this novel we meet Barrington Jedidiah Walker, or Barry to his friends. His voice is immediately engaging, warm, funny, vulnerable a little defensive and often outrageous – he pulls us into his world. Barry is very loveable. If you haven’t already met Barry – I suggest you do so. I smiled all the way through.

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier (1957) read during my reading week in May. The kind of novel Daphne excels at, I just could not put it down. An identity swap novel with plenty of intrigue and drama. Two men, one English and poor one French and rich but from a troubled family, meet by chance and swap identities. You have to suspend your disbelief but it is still brilliant.

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns (1962) read in May, one of my favourite writers, I was delighted to find a copy of this one reasonably priced. The narrator of this novel is a typical Comyns narrator – Frances a child of ten from a family plunged into poverty upon the sudden death of her father. An interfering aunt and some cousins live nearby – and there are several other strange or sad characters who she becomes involved with. This wonderfully quirky Comyns novel that describes an adult world through a child’s eyes is full of odd and surprising images.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947) read in February. My second Patrick Hamilton set in a boarding house. 1943 and the middle of the Second World War, Miss Roach formerly of London, has taken shelter from the bombings in London at the Rosamund Tea Rooms boarding house, run by Mrs Payne. Here she lives alongside a group of equally grey and invisible souls, who struggle to fit in comfortably anywhere in the world as it currently is. Vicki Kugelmann comes to the Rosamund Tearooms bringing with her tension and trouble for Miss Roache.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (2020) read in June, a novel worth the hype – a brilliantly compelling read – it is a story of race, of colour, exploring the American history of ‘passing.’ However, it is also a story of belonging – of finding your place in the world. Moving from the 1950s to the 1990s – from Louisiana to California and New York – it is a pacey, thought provoking novel that becomes increasingly hard to put down.

So, that’s it my 2020 dozen! I love seeing everyone’s books of the year posts at this time of the year, so in case I missed it – what have been your reading highlights of 2020?

Happy New Year to you all.

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Twelve books for 2019

It’s always difficult to come up with a ‘best of’ list, and this year was as difficult as ever. I haven’t read as many books this year as in previous years. Finishing on 108 I’m eleven behind this time last year – and more than twenty behind where I would have been a few years ago. Still, the quality of books has been fairly high, so choosing a final twelve wasn’t easy. I’m not up to going around the house pulling books off the shelves to photograph, so I’m afraid a book collage of covers will have to suffice.

As always, I have chosen books that fully captivated me, in which I became fully involved and have stayed with me since I finished. So here they are, in reverse order.

12 A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns (1967) – This was a book that took a bit of tracking down. Comyns is such a unique writer, especially in the way she writes about difficult, dysfunctional childhoods. A Touch of Mistletoe is a coming of age novel which follows the changing fortunes of two sisters from their teenage years to middle age. They grow up in a household similar to those other Comyns households. We follow them through various relationships, jobs and homes – a novel told in Comyns unique voice, which is always thoroughly engaging.

11 The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (1969) – One of three books I read for #DDMreadingweek in May, The House on the Strand is so compelling, I simply gulped it down, and was sorry when there was no more. Dick Young has been loaned an old house in Cornwall for the summer. Kilmarth belongs to Dick’s friend Professor Magnus Lane. The Professor let’s Dick into a secret – he has been experimenting with a new drug, a drug that will take the user a world away from any problems they may have. Magnus offers Dick the chance to be his guinea-pig – the drug is stored in three bottles in Magnus’s basement laboratory at Kilmarth – Magnus gives Dick his instructions over the phone – and Dick takes his first dose. The drug will take Dick back to the fourteenth century – to the world of Roger Kylmerth steward to Sir Henry Champernoune.

10 Milkman by Anna Burns (2018) A booker prize winning novel that I read with my book group right at the start of the year. It is a quite extraordinary book, a beautiful, complex novel with a strong sense of place in its portrayal of a community under immense pressure. In an unnamed city Middle Sister likes to read nineteenth century classics while walking, she is eighteen, and all her mother can talk about is her getting married. Middle Sister is hiding two secrets, her burgeoning relationship with Maybe-boyfriend from another area, and her recent encounter with Milkman. Milkman is older, married and a known paramilitary leader. There are eyes everywhere, and soon her brother-in-law and other local people spot Middle-Sister in the unwanted company of Milkman, and gossip is rife.

9 A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore (1996) A beautiful, haunting novel I was blown away by Dunmore’s writing. The novel opens in the early twentieth century, some years before the First World War. Narrated by Catherine, the youngest of two siblings. Young siblings Rob and Catherine don’t understand why they have been abandoned by their parents while they are living in their grandfather’s house. Their grandfather; the man from nowhere – is a remote, closed off figure – who won’t have the children’s mother so much as mentioned. All they know is that she left.

8 The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill (1924) First published in 1924 The Call is a novel of women’s suffrage – among other things. It is also about the struggle for a young woman to be taken seriously within the scientific field. The author’s stepmother was the physicist Hertha Ayrton, and many of the struggles described in this novel were endured by Ayrton. The Call is a brilliantly compelling feminist novel thoroughly involving and an enormously important testament of the struggle for women’s suffrage and for a woman to be taken seriously in the world of science.

7 I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam (1938) A novel I read quite recently, I’m not Complaining is a novel set in a working class area of Nottinghamshire during the depression, portraying the lives of women who work in a primary school. Our narrator; Madge Brigson is a Nottinghamshire primary school teacher in the 1930s, a neighbourhood dominated by large factories and increasingly plagued by high levels of unemployment.

6 Two Days in Aragon by Molly Keane (1941) Molly Keane has featured on my best of lists before. I often think she is very underrated as a writer. Two Days in Aragon is set in the rural Ireland that Molly Keane is known for portraying so beautifully. It is the 1920s, and the Anglo Irish aristocratic Fox family live at Aragon. A Georgian house standing among rhododendrons and azaleas which bears testament to centuries of gracious living. As ever, Keane’s depiction of the landscape she clearly loved is gorgeous, but this novel could also be seen as a memorial for a way of life that was coming to an end. With this, there is also a recognition for the political tensions and deadly allegiances that were gathering against the Anglo Irish landed gentry in Ireland. Beautifully written, and hugely compelling this is Molly Keane at her best.

5 The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West (1935) A collection of four brilliant short novels (or long short stories) set in Europe and the US. These stories straddle the period dominated by the Wall Street crash of 1929. Rebecca West had travelled to America several times, and in these four brilliant pieces – three of which are set in the US – she perfectly recreates an American voice. Through these stories we see something of the America that Rebecca West experienced during the 1920s.

4 Mary O’Grady by Mary Lavin (1950) The story of a woman from soon after her marriage when she moves from the country to Dublin to her old age. The novel opens in around 1900, Mary, a young woman from the country has not long married her Tom, who she met on her one visit to Dublin. She married him shortly after and moved to Dublin, carrying with her the memory of her beloved Tullamore – where she hopes one day to take her sons and daughters. Tom works on the trams, and Mary loves to walk down to the tram sheds to take Tom some hot food every dinner time, walking home past an expanse of vacant ground, covered in long grass – that reminds her of home. Tom and Mary adore one another, but it isn’t long before they have little ones to share their little house. Five children are born; Patrick, Ellie, Angie, Larry and Rosie. Mary is a good, sensible mother. Gradually, Mary’s memories of her country childhood fade – as her life revolves more and more around her own family – providing a warm and stable home for her children.

3 Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018) Warlight captivated me from the first page – and never let me go. It’s a gloriously literary novel – but one full of intrigue and captivating characters, exploring tenderly the question of memory. 1945 the war has ended, and the London landscape is changed almost beyond recognition. In Putney fifteen year old Nathanial and his sister Rachel have been abandoned by their parents and left in the family home in the care of a couple of strange guardians. Initially the bemused siblings rather assume their guardians are criminals of some sort – though in time, they worry about this far less than one might imagine.

2 Girl, Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019) The joint winner of this year’s Booker Prize. This is a fabulous novel for the times we are living in. A novel of modern Britain and some of the women who make it – their voices ring out clear and strong from every page. Twelve wonderful humans, mainly women, mainly black, scattered across the UK in town and country, who call this nation home.  The author weaves their stories together in a way that produces a glorious feeling of connectedness, some characters are connected slightly – other connections are more significant. Through these characters, we see everything we are as a country and all that we have been.

1 National Provincial by Lettice Cooper (1938) Ever since I first read South Riding by Winifred Holtby I had been searching for another novel with similar themes. National Provincial ticked all the boxes I wanted it to. A novel of Northern politics, social class and subtle feminism, I loved it. It definitely embraces many of the themes explored two years before by Winifred Holtby and also by Elizabeth Gaskell almost a century earlier. There is a large cast of characters and several story strands – I could probably write far, far too much about them all. Probably the fattest book I read this year – it is hugely immersive providing a fantastic portrait of England in the 1930s.

And that’s it. Lots of Virago and Persephone as ever – well I like what I like. Just time to wish you all a very happy New Year.

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