The BookBrunch team, and contributors to our Q&A series, reveal their reading highlights of the year
My books of the Year this year include Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell (Tinder Press), a moving, vivid, fascinating immersion into the world of the family of a well-known Elizabethan playwright; Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud (Faber), an astonishingly warm and tender story about an unconventional family in Trinidad, and Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury), a forensic dive into the history and significance of what gets left on a river's foreshore.
A few standout novels I read this year; I'll start off with two not published in 2020. First, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail). I loved the scope and ambition of her novel, and emotionally, it pulled me in every direction. Another book that left me a blubbering mess was Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton).
Next to titles from 2020 and I'd like to highlight a few memoirs: Catherine Cho's Inferno (Bloomsbury), a shocking account of her experience of postpartum psychosis; Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai by Nina Mingya Powles (Emma Press), a delightful morsel of a book; and Lennie Goodings' A Bite of the Apple (Oxford University Press) about the birth of Virago and feminist publishing, which was basically catnip for a books journalist like me.
I'd like to mention How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang (Virago), a lyrical adventure telling the lesser-known story of the Chinese in the American West and, finally, I must carry out my annual shout out to Anita Brookner, this time for Undue Influence (Penguin).
Two authors of breakout hits brought out new novels that were even better. Louise Candlish followed Our House with The Other Passenger (Simon & Schuster), a noir thriller located on the faultlines of contemporary London. Lucy Foley (The Hunting Party) again put unpleasant, entitled young people in a remote location, where murder ensued, in The Guest List (HarperCollins): I couldn't look away. The emotions were more restrained, but no less affecting, in Clare Chambers' Fifties-set drama Small Pleasures (Weidenfeld).
I've had ups and downs with reading this year, reading feverishly or not at all, but there have been some books that have really stood out. Endell Street by Wendy Moore (Atlantic Books), an account of the first military hospital run by women, was the sort of compelling non-fiction I'd like to read more of. A Snowfall of Silver by Laura Wood (Scholastic) and City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (Bloomsbury) were perfectly escapist, and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (Dialogue Books) and Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell (Tinder Press) are the novels I bought for everyone for Christmas - both were gorgeously vivid on the inner lives of women. Other favourites from this year include American Wife and Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (Transworld), a reread of Robin Hobb's The Farseers trilogy (HarperCollins), a number of books by the incomparably funny Mhairi McFarlane, and of course the absolutely wonderful Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton).
Looking back at my reading choices over 2020, a clear theme emerges: escapism as history, historical fiction and obscure non-fiction feature repeatedly. Book of the Year for me was Small Pleasures, by Clare Chambers (W&N). A detective novel and a love story set in a brilliantly-realised outer London of the 1950s, it managed to be both funny, sad and well observed - and also immensely readable. It is also a long way from today. My other particular favourites were The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (Picador) - witchcraft in early Norway - and Hallie Rubenhold's The Five: The untold story of the women killed by Jack the Ripper (Doubleday) - grim but fascinating. Also, an honourable mention to Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls (Penguin). Again, transporting.
For contemporary fiction, Weather (Granta) by Jenny Offill surprised me on page one and had me spellbound in admiration on every subsequent page. For non-fiction, Craig Brown's One, Two, Three, Four (Fourth Estate) which was just a pleasure all the way for this Beatles fan. The prize for making me choke on my coffee goes to discovering W.E. Bowman's hilarious The Ascent of Rum Doodle (Vintage), first published in 1956. And in the classics catch-up that I try and do every summer, Middlemarch (Penguin Classics) by George Eliot lived up to its omnipresent appearance on every best-ever list. Then last week I read Shuggie Bain (Picador). This year's Booker Prize winner by Douglas Stuart is totally engrossing and set in Glasgow where alcoholic mother Agnes is losing her children one by one. Her resilience, poise and relentless attempts to rise are only matched by her ability to plunge deeper to new lows. Her youngest son Shuggie has to look after Ma from the age of seven, and suffer being mercilessly bullied by neighbours as well as fellow schoolkids for being 'different'. It sounds depressing and bleak but that's not the emotion it gives you at all. It really is an amazing achievement, and a stunning debut.
And here are the favourites of some of our Q&A contributors...
Nigel Wyman, Gardners - This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
David Burnett, Left Field Editions - Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
Rebecca Ikin, Cornerstone - The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker
Jon Woolcott, Little Toller Books - Melissa Harrison's All Among the Barley.
Alastair Giles, Agile Marketing - East West Street by Philippe Sands
Alastair Horne - Lois Austen-Leigh's The Incredible Crime
Meera Ghanshamdas, Moon Lane Inc CIC - An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Geoff Duffield - The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
David Hicks, BTBS - The Dirty South by John Connolly
Fiona McMorrough, FMcM - Girl by Edna O'Brien
Malcolm Edwards, Andre Deutsch - When These Mountains Burn by David Joy
Rosie Glazebrook, PLS - Tom Holland's Persian Fire
Jennie Ertle, Ransom Publishing - How To Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
Oliver Gadsby, Rowman & Littlefield International - An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Cassie Chadderton, World Book Day - Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeleine Miller
Lesley Whyte, BDS - A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Chris Hollifield, TS Eliot Prize - Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls