2020 – a bad year with some good books

I read on my commute. It’s a sentence that could be past or present tense, but of course it’s been past tense for nearly twelve months now. 2020 for me was a year without commutes; it was a year of disrupted reading and often of comfort reading. I read a lot of genre, a lot of lighter fiction and not so much of the serious stuff.

On the positive side of 2020, when I did get breaks I mostly read in them. I couldn’t travel after all. The result was that overall I actually read more than usual. 86 books compared to my usual 60 or 70. I also discovered some great new authors (Elizabeth von Arnim, Anne Charnock who didn’t quite make this list for her 2013 debut novel but who I’m a definite convert to, Eley Williams, Zoe Gilbert, Melissa Harrison, Sarah Perry, keepers all of them – interestingly I didn’t realise until I wrote that sentence that they were all women).

Anyway, enough preamble. Here’s my rather late best of 2020 list, in essentially random order.

Best novel that deserved the hype: this could be a few on this list, but it’s Sarah Perry’s marvellous The Essex Serpent. Everyone told me this was great. Everyone was right. It’s a meaty historical novel (a genre I normally ignore) full of life, love, friendship, the relationship between faith and reason and lots more. Plus, just as I was getting a bit tired of how everything seemed to revolve around the lead character so did all the other characters which I thought cleverly done.

This was actually my last read in 2020 and it was a great one to end on. It’s an absolute pleasure from beginning to end, packed with ideas and character and some really good evocation of place. It also has probably my favourite cover of any recent publication. Sarah of A Fiction Habit gave this a really good thorough write-up here.

Best I don’t even really know what genre this is novel: So it looks like I’m a Villalobos fan. I loved his Down the Rabbit Hole, which made my end of 2017 list, and now I love his Quesadillas too. It’s a wonderfully odd cross-genre tale of politics, gentrification and perhaps alien abduction. And Other Stories have a real knack for finding these gems that don’t fit in neat boxes (Rita Indiana’s extraordinary Tentacle is another one). I wrote a little more about Quesadillas here.

Best novel with a postcard cover: this has of course to be Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. It’s a haunting novel which combines an exploration of gender, body image, food, othering and more. I’ve risked making it sound a bit of a slog there, but it’s also highly enjoyable and extremely readable (take that Booker Panel 2011!). Grant wrote about it here and Jacqui here. Highly recommended. Also, fabulous cover. Daunt Books Publishing have done Dusapin proud.

Best short story collection that I should have read sooner: While I loved Eley Williams spritely and funny Attrib. (I really did), James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man had to win in this space. It’s an extraordinary collection, beautifully written and with real emotional range. I always had the impression of James Baldwin as a slightly worthy writer – I couldn’t have been more wrong. Emma at Bookaround wrote about it here and it was that review which persuaded me to try it. Thanks Emma!

Best end to a trilogy: has to be Olivia Manning’s Friends and Heroes (which is a bit harsh on William Gibson’s Zero History which I also read in 2020, but book blogs are brutal beasts). Manning picks up in Athens after Guy, Harriet, Poor Yaki and various other characters flee the fall of Bucharest. Manning continues to add depth to the characters, tests Guy and Harriet’s marriage and brilliantly shows the fatigue and uncertainty of life during wartime. I’m eager to read Manning’s Levant Trilogy which follows on from this. I wrote a little more about this one here, and Jacqui wrote a very good piece about it here.

Best novel that shows execution is everything: stories about a young working class person broadening their horizons through an unlikely friendship with someone older aren’t exactly new. Kudos then to Ben Myers for taking such a well-worn topic and making it as rich and fresh as he does in his The Offing. This is a novel with shades of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (and there’s no higher praise than that) and it was a strong contender for my book of the year. Myers writes beautifully and it’s a nice mix of the pastoral, personal and political. Jacqui did a good write-up of it here.

Best political novel that’s actually good despite being a political novel: I hate state of the nation novels as a rule, they tend to be a bit didactic. Brexit though has inspired some very good fiction. Anyway, this was a strong field not least as I actually really liked John Lanchester’s The Wall (not subtle, but I thought very good) and Luke Brown’s excellent Theft. For me though the winner was Melissa Harrison’s marvellous All Among the Barley. Barley is on its surface a pastoral novel set in rural 1930s England featuring an intelligent young woman struggling with growing up. From there though it goes into issues of incipient fascism, nationalism and gender and makes some telling points about now without overselling its parallels. It’s extremely well written and made me a definite Harrison convert. One to look out for if you’ve not heard of it.

Best climate change novel that still works as a novel: while I liked Amitav Ghosh’s The Gun Merchant more than I expected, this has to be Madeleine Watts’ simply brilliant The Inland Sea. Watts draws a clever (and not overworked) parallel between a young woman’s own self-destructive behaviour and our wilder self-destructive behaviour as a species. This is genuinely clever stuff and I highly recommend it. On reflection, Lanchester’s The Wall could have fit into this category too. I’ve robbed that man.

Best novel that would make a great play: well, it has to be The Wind that Lays Waste doesn’t it? Written by Selva Almada and translated by Chris Andrews. A searing short novel/novella that packs in family and faith and a serious amount of character and drama. Hugely impressive and came very close to being my book of the year. I wrote a bit more about it here.

Best sequel that possibly isn’t: is of course Rita Indiana’s Made in Saturn, translated by Sydney Hutchinson. Ostensibly a sequel to Tentacle (mentioned above), it’s left quite open as to whether this is actually a sequel or if most of Tentacle was just a drug-induced hallucination of the main character. This gets into meaty father-son dynamics as well as addiction and post-revolutionary politics. Rita Indiana is now on my list of authors that I’ll buy any new releases from without bothering about little things like reviews. There’s a bit more on this in my February round-up post here (same link as above for Wind).

Best monastic fiction: is Donald E. Westlake’s Brothers Keepers – unworldly monks battling unscrupulous property developers, with a little romance on the side. It’s a wonderful comic caper of the sort Westlake is so very, very good at. It’s light and fairly silly, but also well written and plotted. Classic Westlake.

Best continuation of a series: should probably be the Manning to be honest, but Giorgio Bassani’s The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is also very good. I read the Penguin edition, translated by Jamie McKenrick, and for me it was the strongest of the Ferrara series so far. It’s the tale of the ruin of a doctor, Jewish and gay, his life wrecked by restricted choices and rising prejudices. Stu did a nice write-up of it here. So far I’d liked the Ferrara stories but hadn’t been blown away. This changed that and now I’m definitely in for the long haul.

My best book of 2020: drumroll please! Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April has basically no conflict and very little plot. It is charming, well written and altogether lovely. I don’t know how von Arnim made something so slight also so effortlessly good. As I said back in July, it’s wonderful.

I also read von Arnim’s Elizabeth’s Enchanted Garden this year. It’s good, but it doesn’t hit the same heights for me as Enchanted. Even so it’s clear to me that von Arnim is a hugely talented writer and I plan to pick up her The Caravaners next. The Penguin edition below is the one I have, but I do rather like the Vintage cover that I’ve also attached.

And that’s it! Before I go, I would like to say that while I’ve not had time to post here or even comment on other people’s blogs, I am still reading a lot of other bloggers reviews. The book blogging community has been great for me, introducing me to a lot of writers I’d have missed (von Arnim!) and while I wish I could interact more I’m still enjoying the updates.

Finally, in case anyone wants to know, here’s the full list of what I read in 2020:

Water Shall Refuse Them, L M Hardy

Theft, Luke Brown

Zero History, William Gibson

The Godmother, Hannelore Cayre

Galactic North, Alastair Reynolds

Wind That Lays Waste, Selva Almada

Quesadillas, Juan Pablo Villalobos

Made in Saturn, Rita Indiana

Friends and Heroes, Olivia Manning

A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds

Provenance, Ann Leckie

Brothers Keepers, Donald E. Westlake

By the Pricking …Thumb, A Roberts

No Tomorrow, Jake Hinkson

The Gun Merchant, Amitav Ghosh

Household Gods …, Tade Thompson

The Bishop’s Bedroom, Piero Chiara

The Lighthouse, Alison Moore

Man who went up Smoke, S&W

Enchanted April, E von Arnim

Man who Saw Everything, D Levy

All Among Barley, Melissa Harrison

The Last Astronaut, David Wellington

City Middle Night, Charlie J Anders

Wild Swims, Dorthe Nors

Dark Tales, Shirley Jackson

The Overhaul, Kathleen Jamie

The Wall, John Lanchester

Going to Meet the Man, J Baldwin

Winter in Sokcho, Elisa Shua Dusapin

Paintwork, Tim Maugham

The Offing, Benjamin Myers

Some New Ambush, Carys Davies

Cathay, Ezra Pound

Wretchedness, Andrzej Tichy

The Mussel Feast, Birgit Vanderbeke

The End of October, Lawrence Wright

Always North, Vicki Jarrett

Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, Bassani

Moontide, Colin Campbell

Last Night in Montreal, Emily Mandel

The Second Sleep, Robert Harris

Devolution, Max Brooks

World War Z, Max Brooks

The Postman, Bi Yu

Folk, Zoe Gilbert

The Peacock Cloak, Chris Beckett

Transit, Anna Seghers

Dreams of the Space Age, Ian Sales

Attrib., Eley Williams

Two Tribes, Chris Beckett

The Train was on Time, Heinrich Böll

The Iron Tactician, Alastair Reynolds

Rosewater, Tade Thompson

The Dark Angel, Dominique Sylvain

The Inland Sea, Madeleine Watts

Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole

Sisters of the Vast Black, Lina Rather

The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley

Feebleminded, Ariana Harwicz

Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, K Boo

Rawblood, Catriona Ward

Minor Detail, Adania Shibli

Ten Poems from Russia, Boris Dralyuk

Agency, William Gibson

Tender Shoots, Paul Morand

Elizabeth … Garden, E. von Arnim

Crow, Ted Hughes

Zama, Antonio di Benedetto

To Walk the Night, William Sloane

Permafrost, Eva Baltasar

Spring Tide, Chris Beckett

The Reddening, Adam Neville

Les Belles Amours, Louise de Vilmorin

Survivor Song, Paul Tremblay

Scarfolk, Richard Littler

Storm Birds, Einar Karason

The Horla, Guy de Maupassant

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry


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23 responses to “2020 – a bad year with some good books

  1. Reading on the commute was what help me when I first started this blogging lark. Usually I was getting around 3.5 hours a day sitting on buses and trains (and standing around waiting for those connections). Once I moved office, that cut three hours off the journey, but also three hours’ reading time. So I totally get it!

    I did wonder if you’d abandoned the blog as there hadn’t been a post for a while, though I did see the occasional tweet.

  2. Looking through your entire list for 2020, I realize there are many, many authors that I am unfamiliar with.

  3. Also, how did you find Crow? I had a stab at it at some point last year and, like most poetry, it just didn’t have an entry point for me.

  4. We certainly missed you – and I know what you mean about reading on the commute. Although it’s much warmer reading in bed in the garden than on an isolated station platform. Isn’t The Enchanted April utterly delightful? Humorous and tender, but with a slight undercurrent of seriousness too.

  5. Hi Max. It’s nice to hear from you.
    A lot of books on your list are unknown to me, I’ll have to look them up.
    I’m glad you enjoyed Going to Meet the Man and thanks for the mention.

  6. You’d never know to look at the cover that the Westlake had any redeeming quality at all – unless, of course, you’ve read Westlake. I love his Dortmunder capers!

  7. Yes a bad year with a lot of good books indeed. There are some here to add to my TBR which I’ve managed to shrink a bit.

  8. Pingback: All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. What a terrific list! I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the von Arnim so much. It’s my go-to recommendation for readers looking for something charming and escapist, especially when virtually everything else in the world feels so grim. The Caravaners is a delight, so I hope you’re able to get hold of it at some point. Otto is one of the most pompous characters you’ll ever have the pleasure of encountering in literature – utterly insufferable in real life no doubt, but great fun to observe on the page.

    Lovely to see the Dusapin and the Myers here too. Funnily enough, The Offing could have appeared in your ‘best political novel…’ category alongside the Harrison. I’ve seen Myers describing it as anti-Brexit novel disguised as a story about tea and scones, which is a great way of looking at it.

    As for your others, I’d like to read the Almada. (It’s been on my radar since Grant recommended it a year or two ago, so it’s great to see that it comes with your seal of approval too.) The Baldwin sounds excellent. I’ve read others by him — Another Country and If Beale Street Could Talk, both excellent — but not the stories. Something for the future, I suspect. Oh, and I want to read some more Westlake at some point. Somebody Owes Me Money was a great recommendation of yours from a few years ago, so thank you for that!

    (PS, I’ve just posted a piece about Harrison’s All Among the Barley which I finished at the weekend. Such a beautiful book! You were right in predicting I would enjoy it…)

  10. Well done, Pechorin – great reviews.

  11. Lots of titles I’ve got my eye on there, so you’ve further increased my appetite. Just read Jacqui’s post on the Harrison – sounds very good. Bad year and not a great reading year for me: too much distraction and anxiety I suppose.

  12. lizoksbookshelf

    I loved All Among the Barley and couldn’t agree more about the political element being handled very effectively. I’d already been planning to start on Manning’s Balkan Trilogy later this week but am now looking forward to it even more!

  13. A good way to sum up the year, and thank goodness for books. I must move on to the second Manning trilogy. Ah, Poor Yaki – what a character!!

  14. The year may have been dismal but your reading certainly wasn’t! I just added several titles to my list (The Inland Sea; The Wind That Lays Waste & Winter in Sokcho). Although I haven’t read The Essex Serpent, I have read Perry’s Melmoth, which was great; she’s definitely a writer to follow. I totally agree with you as well about Olivia Manning; it’s been a long time since I read her Balkan trilogy (it’s due for a re-read) but I remember its brilliance; I liked the Levant Trilogy a great deal but . . not quite as much. At the moment I’m “sort of” in the process of tracking down and reading some of Manning’s many other novels. I’ve had a copy of Myers’ The Offing since I read a review in The Guardian, but, sad to say, it’s gatherig dust. I noticed you read Benedetto’s Zama and Visitation; I read the first (which I liked) and have the second literally on my TBR — well, I could prattle on & on! A most stimulating post!

  15. A wonderful, diverse range of books! The Dusapin made my year end list too, and the Balkan Trilogy was a big favourite of mine in 2019. I loved The Levant Trilogy just as much.

    You have convinced me to read The Essex Serpent. I had bought this very same edition some years ago and forgot about it. Time to dig it out. I have the von Arnim too so that’s another one to look forward too.

    What were your views on Minor Detail and Zama? Have been tempted by both recently but haven’t taken the plunge yet.

  16. So many good things here! I’m keen to read many of them (including von Arnim, somehow missed her so far) but the Baldwin, the Westlake, and Inland Sea are the ones that most pique my interest.
    Funny about commutes–I read more without mine, because I live in a place without any public transportation to speak of…

  17. I always love your end-of-year categories, Max. Would that I could be so creative.

    I am so glad you have found von Arnim, though I wouldn’t call Enchanted April her best, so if you loved that you are sure to like some of the others. I’ve read five or six of hers, but not Caravaners, My next TBR one is Vera, which I desperately want to read.

    I have noted Westlake for my son, who loves those old hard-boiled crime books.

  18. BTW It was a bad year for reading for me – less books read, but that was more elder care related than COVID.

  19. Hi all,

    Stuart, I’ve not intentionally abandoned, but I get very little time to update so it’s lain fallow. I thought an end of year still worth doing though. The thing with commuting is it did shape what I read too, not just when. Books that could be read in neat 30-40 minute chunks got preferenced because that’s what I had.

    I’m afraid I really didn’t like Crow. The Guardian has a Poem of the Week section hosted by Carol Rumen which might be worth looking at. There’s a different poem every week, loads of different styles, and some good explanation of it. I’ve found it sometimes quite interesting.

    Tony, wouldn’t it be terrible if there weren’t many, many authors we were unfamiliar with?

    Marina, utterly delightful and yes, I agree there’s an undercurrent of seriousness. I think trains are one of my favourite places to read on reflection, but trains going somewhere, not commuting trains…

    Emma, I was blown away by Going to Meet the Man. I’m really pleased you wrote about that. It’s remarkably good. Giovanni’s Room is my next Baldwin.

    Debbie, I actually rather like the Hard Case Crime covers. They’re so unapologetically pulp. Interesting on the Dortmunders – I have the first but wasn’t sure what a series by Westlake would be like so good to have the recommend.

    Sorry for the TBR Guy, but you’ve certainly added to mine over the years!

  20. Jacqui, the Dusapin and Myers are both great. The Myers could have come under the political heading, but then quite a few books this year could have. Bad times often make for good fiction. The politics in Offing are pretty evident I think and though I hadn’t seen Myers’ description but it makes sense to me. At the same time Myers doesn’t let the politics swamp the character, prose and story which is vital. He balances.

    The Almada and the Baldwin both I’d recommend to you.

    Nick, the reason for the post titles harks back to the old infrastructure award dinners we used to go do, where the organisers made their money by selling tables so the awards were sometimes oddly specific so people would buy tables confident they’d won something. Best Eastern European Bond Financed Toll Road (how many Eastern European toll roads were financed that year?), Best Hybrid Telecoms Financing or whatever. I always found the specificity of some of them amusing.

    Simon, Jacqui’s post captures the Harrison very well. Definitely worth reading. My year has been mixed – distraction and anxiety and all that – one of the reason many of the authors on the long list at the bottom may be unfamiliar is there’s a fair bit of genre fiction there. It’s been a tough year.

    Liz, the Balkan trilogy is great. It’s a really good portrait of a marriage and of a society in collapse. It grows too as all good series do – I really liked the first but the third is stronger. Agree on Barley. Have you read any other Harrison?

    Karen, Poor Yaki, I know. Up there with Widmerpool for those who’ve read Powell’s Dance sequence, but much more likeable. And yes, thank goodness for books.

  21. Janakay, glad to hear re Melmoth as I plan to pick that up before too long. I highly recommend The Inland Sea. It’s hard to believe it’s a debut novel. I did wonder if Levant might be a bit weaker than Balkan since it gets less discussion, but glad to hear you still liked it. Zama and Visitations both I liked and had definite merits, but neither quite enough to make the list.

    Radz, glad to hear though that you liked the Levant as much. Definitely worth reading then. I think the Dusapin made a lot of end of years. Essex Serpent I think you’d enjoy. It’s rich and very readable. Zama is very good, I just didn’t quite love it and I’m not sure why. Grant wrote a very good review of it over at 1streading I think. Minor Detail very nearly made the list and on another day might have done. It’s slim, punchy, well constructed and clever. I liked it a lot.

    Banff, I just saw that you’ve put your end of year up. I’d missed it. Lonesome Dove and To the Lake – interesting. I’d definitely recommend Inland Sea to you also. There’s a lot to digest there. The Baldwin is great and the Westlake very funny.

    WG, upthread I mentioned to Nick where they come from. This year is unusual in that I had two categories (best political and best climate change) that more than one book could have fitted into. If I had a film blog last year I’d also have had Best Scottish Zombie Christmas Musical. I’m easily amused (though that is actually a pretty decent film). Which von Arnim’s would you recommend out of interest? I’m sorry it was a bad year, I think experiences of 2020 are much more varied than media commentators sometimes realise. There were many different ways it wasn’t a great year.

  22. Maybe a little late to be reading a best of 2020 post, though you have some of the best awards.

    I’d go for best monastic novel and pair it with the best “female monastic” novel (maybe nunastic?) Good Behavior also by Donald E. Westlake and also very funny.

  23. Never too late! As my timeliness in responding to comments shows…

    I’ll definitely look out for Good Behaviour.

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