Monday, 4 January 2021

Best of 2020

 I haven't been able to settle and read as much this last year. A much higher number of books than usual have been abandoned part way through because they didn't grab my wandering attention, but it means I was left with lots of really good reads. Out of those, here are the ones I'd really push onto people, saying 'read this!

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan - Moll Gladney runs away from her home in rural Ireland, leaving her parents distraught. One day five years later, she just as unexpectedly returns, not long after followed my a husband and small son. I've loved all of Ryan's books, but this is a tie for favourite with The Thing About December. As always, his storytelling is full of compassion and warmth. seeking to understand those who might not quite fit into society, and the writing is lyrical and beautiful, capturing the lilt and cadence of his native Tipperary.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow - One day January Scaller discovers an old book in which she reads of doors to other worlds. This can't be true, can it? but among half-forgotten childhood memories is one of a door which did exactly that. Pure escapism, which we all needed last year, and possibly will this, not though to a sunlit beach somewhere exotic, but to a myriad of other worlds. A mesmerising tale of romance and adventure, loyal friends and evil societies. I just wish I could have found a door to take me away from this past year.

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell - speaking of plague years, Maggie O'Farrell's first venture into historical fiction takes the reader to Stratford on Avon, to the home of Will and Agnes Shakespeare, their son and two daughters, in the year that plague spread through England. O'Farrell is spot on at capturing the period, the characters, and the all-encompassing emptiness of grief and loss. 

We've all been forced to live like hermits this year, but Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini takes things a stage or two further - an elderly man living in self-imposed isolation high on a mountain, is slowly losing his grip on reality. As winter's snows thaw, he uncovers a human foot, and his state of mind finally slips, muddling current events with those of the war. 

The Girl With The Louding Voice by Abi Dare - a coming of age story told in the words of its fifteen year old Nigerian heroine, Adunni. A disturbing tale, spotlighting the treatment of girls and women as commodities to be traded, in a society where men are all-important, and the gap between rich and poor is astronomical. It's a stunning debut novel told in a highly original voice, as through everything that happens Adunni keeps her cheerfulness and a belief that things will one day be better, not just for herself but for all Nigerian women.

Another African author I discovered this year (via her online Edinburgh Book Festival event) was Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, billed as 'Uganda's First Woman of Fiction'. Her novel The First Woman is both the story of Kirabo, a young girl finding her place in the world through the discovery of her family history, and that of the wider history of Uganda, its culture and way of life.

It's a long way from the heat of Uganda to the setting of my next pick. Sarah Moss's Summerwater is set in the Scottish Highlands on a day of endless rain. Through close observation and dipping into their thoughts, the author follows the visitors at a holiday park - bored with the weather, tired of trying to entertain the kids, curious about the other holiday-makers - as the day unwinds and tragedy waits to strike. It's a brooding, atmospheric novel, reminiscent of Jon McGregor's If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things in that nothing in itself seems remarkable, until the ending.

Carys Bray's latest novel, When the Lights Go Out, has, I feel, slipped under the radar a bit - its original launch a victim of the first lockdown, a re-scheduled date overshadowed by the autumn lockdowns. It tells of Chris and Emma, and the gradual breakdown of their marriage due to something bigger than them both - climate change. Once, they both were equally concerned about saving the planet, but whereas Emma, weighed down by juggling a job, family and income, has compromised her beliefs, Chris has become more focused, preparing for the end of the world-as-we-know-it. Something, somewhere has to give.  

I'm going to end on a cheerful note with Kate Spicer's autobiographical Lost Dog: a love story - a happy ending because he's no longer lost. You might, like me, have followed Wolfy's story on social media when he went missing, leaving Kate in disbelief and despair, and was eventually found, with much rejoicing. What I didn't know then was the impact Wolfy had had on Kate's life - bringing meaning and purpose to a life which was beginning to seem empty and aimless, turning alcohol-fueled late nights and subsequent hangovers into cosy snuggled-up evenings and early-morning walks. It's a story which speaks of the bond between dogs and men, and the unconditional love our furry partners offer. 

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