2020: The good books

This is a list of the books I read in 2020 that I still remember with enthusiasm and about which I have something to say. As if we were browsing together in a bookshop, and I’m the irritating one who keeps breaking your concentration to say ‘You must read this, it’s so good … Oh have you read this? It’s tremendous …’ And so on.

I began January with Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle, which is still my favourite Pym, the first of her novels that I read and which I still find perplexing, challenging, irresistible and desperately funny. I long to get into a huddle with an Anglo-Catholic to go over the church bits that I relish the most, to reassure myself that I’ve understood every nuance that can be scraped from her layers of implication of meaning and joke. I enjoyed Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? because who can not enjoy reading words and pictures at the same time? But it’s not as genre-busting and devastating as Fun Home, and has way too much expositional psychoanalysis for the plot to survive.

The first barnstorming candidate for Top Novel Read In 2020 was Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, which I reread in January in a jealous hurry after I extracted it back from friends who had borrowed it for rather too long, just to be sure it was all as fabulous as I remembered. A gorgeous, perfectly plotted world-building triumph, feel-good, and surprising and never glutinous, even if the tears threaten to prickle when someone is nice to the hero who has never had anyone be nice to him before he became the Emperor. An absolute triumph.

I definitely enjoyed the first volume of Dame Laura Knight’s memoirs, Oil Paint and Grease Paint, which were so interesting for showing what young women could achieve in the 1880s and 1890s when they were learning to be painters. You could never call Laura and her sister missish, good heavens no. Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades is still, on the Nth rereading, absolutely perfect, and its sequel Devil’s Cub (both recently discussed in the peerless Georgette Heyer podcast) well-nigh perfect too, both diamonds of the finest water. T H White’s England Have My Bones (another reread, but after an interval of twenty years or so) is a good scrapbook of autobiography, which you read when you want to discover how the author felt about wanting but not getting. But don’t read it if you’re not in the frame of mind to stomach White’s snobbery. Linda Grant’s The Thoughtful Dresser was a surprise and a joy, about the ways that fashion and dressing create our places in the world.

Connie Willis is my current queen of plotting (after Heyer, of course), because I read her novels with great enjoyment (except for the annoying dog one) and each time the denouement hits me like a shining light of Truth Unexpected. She disguises her plot twists impeccably, an absolute mistress of the art: Uncharted Territory is a very good one. I loved Sarah LeFanu’s Dreaming of Rose (her memoir of writing Rose Macaulay’s biography) so much that I bought the rights so we could republish it in 2021. Another happy reread was Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry which is superb for showing what poetry is and does, though it does make me feel like a non-driver being asked to admire how well the engine runs.

Skipping past a week of rereading – lockdown gave me more solitude than usual – the next new book that I thoroughly enjoyed was Liz Williams’ Miracles of Our Own Making, her history of paganism. She so clearly knows her stuff, yet is restrained in not over-burdening the reader with esoterica when it’s not needed. Rereading Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World. How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are was a great pleasure, because it had disappointed me when I first read it. The second time round I found it so much more absorbing and illuminating. The sheer range of his sources is what impresses me most, because the popular history/archaeology I’ve read on this subject before is resolutely anglophone, whereas Pye gives us Dutch and German and other northern European research to chew on as well.

James Lees-Milne is an author I’d been meaning to read for years, but somehow had not yet come across in the bookshops. Ancestral Voices gave me all that I wanted and probably enough for the next twenty years. I don’t think I’ll be going back for more of his diaries, but I did buy Michael Bloch’s biography James Lees-Milne. The Life to fill out the details that I felt I didn’t quite understand. A perfect pairing of books, but very rich meat. Margaret Kennedy’s biography Jane Austen was excellent, though I disagree with her on Lady Susan. I wonder if we should republish it alongside Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of Austen, as a gift to Austenites? Penelope Fitzgerald’s group biography The Knox Brothers was probably my Top Biography of the year (sorry, Mr Bloch), for style and sensibility, and impeccable biographing. Richard Holmes’ Footsteps is a classic of biography that I had never heard of, so I came to it thirty years late and a bit embarrassed, but it was good, and I learned a lot about how one responds to biography if one knows the culture the subjects live in, or not.

I read a swathe of Bryher this year, but would only choose The Heart to Artemis as the book whose flaws do not overcome her magnificent writing. When she forgets herself, she is a great writer; less so when she is thinking of herself as the Great Writer. At the other end of the grandiose-humble scale I discovered Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, which is a jewel of a novel, pure and deep and joyous, my second candidate for Top Novel of 2020. Also joyous were Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters edited by William Maxwell, a volume whose pages got covered in sticky notes to remind me to note down what she said about this or that, or to squirrel away a phrase and a paragraph relevant for some writing I was doing of my own. She is inexhaustibly inspirational, and she would terrify me if I had ever met her.

Now we come to my winner for Top Novel of 2020: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. I reviewed this for Strange Horizons, and loved it so much that I began rereading it straight away: a fairly rare occurrence, as I usually want to digest my novels a little before reconvening. But Piranesi is so glorious and complex that I wanted to swim in those waters again immediately.

Beryl Gilroy’s memoir Black Teacher was an unexpected find, suggested by a friend who thought that we might want to republish it. I was convinced by halfway through, and tried to open negotiations, but was pipped to the deal by another, more fortunate publisher who I hope will be republishing more of Gilroy’s works. She was a fine writer and an invaluable memoirist of 1960s inner-city London. Another pipping occurred over Margaret Irwin’s Still She Wished For Company, which has gone to a publisher with deeper pockets than ours. Good luck to them with it, I say with gritted teeth and a jealous heart. I loved this novel as a teenager, and was wholly misled by the cover of my 1950s edition, not realising that it was first published in the 1920s.

For solace I tried Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, and finally see what all the fuss is about. He is a highly competent writer and storyteller, with a refreshingly masculine depiction of the eighteenth century. I can’t see myself rushing to buy the sequels, though I’d definitely read one if I found it in a holiday cottage or a charity shop. Staying in the sea, I enjoyed David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge, another sideways look at Britain from the historical perspective of the sea, and its least fashionable coastlines.

I’ve been working through Mary Stewart’s 1960s romance thrillers, and have finally found another one that’s good enough to keep. The Ivy Tree (Northumbrian inheritance plot with mystery girl double) had a delightfully twisting and turnabout plot to keep me guessing until the end, and The Moon-Spinners was almost as good (Cretan criminals and English thieves), both with classic 1960s paperback cover art, all minidress and beehive. Ben Aaronovitch’s latest Rivers of London magicotec was False Value, and he keeps the pot boiling impressively well. The world-building has continued across comics and novellas, and Peter Grant is as thumpingly good as ever. I yearn for more Nightingale in the plot, naturally, but we can’t have everything.

Two of the most anticipated sequels I read this year were disappointments, the distended The Secret Commonwealth, and the overwritten plod The Mirror and the Light. But both novels are very good indeed in the two-thirds that their editors should have persuaded the authors to keep while throwing out the extraneous stuff, and I did enjoy being in those worlds again.

Onward to 2021!


8 thoughts on “2020: The good books

  1. I have not read those last two disappointments, a pity about the editing! I think I’ll give them a miss.

    You should definitely read more O’Brien, at least the next two — they’re better than Master and Commander, in my memory. I enjoyed several more in the series, but lost momentum at some point. I’d read the first 3-5 again though.


  2. Yes, you should definitely reissue Kennedy’s Jane Austen! You have so many interesting titles coming up but it never hurts to add yet another entertaining book to the catalogue, especially one that appeals to such a loyal (and plentiful) group of readers.

    There are so many intriguing titles here alongside favourites (delighted to see you read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s letters). I picked up Leonard and Hungry Paul on your recommendation and found it just as wonderful as you promised so I can’t wait to look into the titles you’ve mentioned that I haven’t yet read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Still She Wished For Company: what a great book. It sits in my mental pigeon hole system alongside A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley and The Twilight of Magic by Hugh Lofting.
    I think my favourite Mary Stewart is Madam Will You Walk but it was The Moonspinners that convinced me to plant a garden full of old roses.
    I’ve really enjoyed the Rivers of London series too.
    Sorry – I only discovered your blog today.

    Liked by 1 person

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