Welcome to my Book Review of 2020.
Here are a few of the books I read and enjoyed in the last year and which I would recommend.
I don’t usually keep a note of books I’ve read but in 2019 I was a judge for the Saltire Literary Awards, which had a big impact on my reading: this year I wanted to see what I read, and if there were any surprises (there weren’t). I also moved onto a particular stage of the writing of my new book, which I thought might change what I read. Finally, one day I spent a long time trying to remember the name of a book I’d read (it was “Journeyman” by Tom Gallacher) – if I’m going to start forgetting books, I’d better start recording them…
After looking around online, it seems that the average person reads between 8 and 12 books a year. I’m not sure what they then do for the other ten or eleven months of the year, but then I would not say I’m an average reader. I am a writer (I need to read in order to write, particularly when writing non-fiction), and I’m also a reader who used to run a bookshop (among other book-related jobs). I read a fair amount. It’s not about numbers though, it’s about quality, so here are my recommendations:
Just over half the books I read this year were non-fiction, and my favourite non-fiction genre was biography / autobiography. One of the stand-outs was Taras Grescoe’’s “Possess the Air: Love, Heroism and the Battle for the Soul of Mussolini’s Rome”. I’ve read all the books he’s published, and I had this on pre-order from the moment I heard about it: it didn’t make it before lockdown in March, but the fantastic booksellers at Waterstone’s in Inverness had it for me shortly after they reopened. I wonder if other people might have missed it because of the timing of its publication, and if so I would highly recommend looking for it now: Taras Grescoe’s last two books (“Possess the Air” and “Shanghai Grande”) have both been the sort of biography I particularly like – ones that tell you the story of someone’s life but also put it in context and show how many different people are linked together. “Possess the Air” is about Lauro de Bosis but also about Italy and Fascism and writing and culture and many other things besides.
As Josephine Tey’s biographer, obviously crime fiction is another favourite genre: “The House of Lamentations” by S.G. MacLean was the latest in the Damien Seeker series and just as good as the rest, with fantastic historical detail. I also enjoyed Rachel Ward’s highly likeable Ant and Bea mystery “Expiry Date”. But again my favourite crime fiction read was an autobiography – “Three-A-Penny” by Lucy Malleson. Malleson wrote in the Golden Age of crime as both Anne Meredith and Anthony Gilbert, and you can find reprints of some of her books in the excellent British Library Classic Crime series. “Three-A-Penny” shows how writers often don’t lead the exciting lives they write about, but their day-to-day existence is no less fascinating. If you enjoyed my biography about Josephine Tey I think this book might appeal to you.
I re-read a lot as well as looking for new books, and particularly re-read fiction. I enjoy series fiction and characters I can return to, and also collect some classic children’s literature, so an honourable mention for Girls Gone By publishers. I did read an inordinate amount of children’s fiction in the age 2-3 bracket as well: I didn’t count these in my 2020 reading list, though “Each Peach Pear Plum” never gets old… My older child consistently rejects almost all my reading recommendations, though we had a surprise hit with the topical “Winter Holiday” by Arthur Ransome which opened up some good discussion about quarantining for serious illness. For anyone with an interest in children’s fiction and the benefits of reading aloud in general I would also recommend “The Enchanted Hour: the Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction” by Meghan Cox Gurdon.
As well as looking for new fiction, I also picked up some classics: one or two re-reads, but this was also the year that I read the outstanding writer William Heinesen for the first time.
But finally I think the one book above all others that I would recommend from my 2020 reading is “Fanny and the Mystery in the Grieving Forest” by Rune Christiansen. I first heard about this because of this interview (you’ll have to read it right to the end to see what caught my attention). I had a little trouble tracking the book down at first – the original is in Norwegian, and it was translated into English by Kari Dickson and published in Canada by Book*hug Press – but once again the excellent booksellers of Waterstone’s Inverness got me a copy. “Fanny and the Mystery in the Grieving Forest” is the best description I have ever read of what it is like to deal with grief as a teenager. The subject matter is not light – and there was one incident which, the first time I read it, I wished had turned out differently. But this was the only book I read twice this year: on the second time of reading, completely different passages stood out to me, and on both times of reading it felt like a positive book. Something about the attitude or feeling of the book appeals to me greatly: the way the story is written, the forest, the feeling of hidden folklore, the matter-of-factness. Life is overwhelming and difficult, but no one said it was meant to be easy, and, in the middle of it all, there is something moving and beautiful to read about.