2020 has been a tumultuous year for obvious reasons. I’ve read somewhere in the region of 100 books – most of them in the first half of the year while on furlough during the national lockdown. A stressful time for many of us, I’m sure; but it did give me the chance to read some excellent books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.
This time, I’m spreading my books of the year across a couple of posts – novellas and non-fiction in this first piece, with my favourite novels to follow next week. With the exception of some of the memoirs, most of these books were first published several years ago – a factor that reflects the types of books I tend to enjoy reading. So, if you’re looking for the best *new* books published in 2020, this is not the place to come – there are many other literary blogs which cover that territory very thoroughly…
So, without further ado, here are my favourite novellas and non-fiction books from a year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.
The Dig by Cynan Jones
A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion, beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose. The narrative focuses on Daniel, a recently widowed sheep farmer struggling to cope with the lambing season deep in rural Wales. In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world – and yet, there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past.
The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark
The gloriously off-kilter world of Muriel Spark continues to be a source of fascination for me. I loved this novella; it’s wonderfully dark and twisted, characteristically Sparkian in its unconventional view. Dougal Douglas is a particularly sinister character, a mercurial individual who brings chaos into the lives of those he encounters. There is a touch of the dark arts about this novella with its slyly manipulative protagonist. If you liked Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, chances are you’ll enjoy this too.
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)
A haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery.
The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr,
Earlier this year, I read Carr’s excellent ‘football’ novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup in which a team of plucky underdogs overcome the mighty Glasgow Rangers to scoop the much-prized trophy. It’s a book that shares something with the author’s earlier novella, The Harpole Report, which takes another British institution – in this instance, a Church of England Primary School – as its focus for a most amusing satire. In essence, the book constructs a picture of a term at St Nicholas C of E, during which George Harpole – who has taught there for some time – is appointed as the school’s Temporary Head. This is a very amusing book that perfectly captures the preoccupations and absurdities of state-funded education in the early 1970s. A marvellous period piece imbued with nostalgia.
Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)
This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the unnerving feel of the novel as a whole. One for book groups and individual readers alike.
Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr
Ostensibly a memoir exploring Orr’s childhood – particularly the fractured relationship between Deborah and her mother, Win, a formidable woman who holds the reins of power within the family’s household. Moreover, this powerful book also gives readers a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the steel industry’s demise – especially on Motherwell (where Orr grew up) and the surrounding community. This is a humane, beautifully-written book on how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.
Square Haunting by Francesca Wade
A fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf. What I love about this book is the way the author uses this particular location as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In short, an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book, highly recommended for anyone interested in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once. At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation. Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, she explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. A fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.
Broken Greek by Pete Paphides
Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares. In writing Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too. I read this during lockdown, and it lifted my mood considerably.
How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher
Another excellent lockdown read, but for very different reasons to those for Broken Greek. Initially published in 1942 and subsequently updated in the 1950s, How to Cook a Wolf is a terrifically witty discourse on how to eat as well (or as decently) as possible on limited resources. In her characteristically engaging style, Fisher encourages us to savour the pleasures of simple dishes: the delights of a carefully cooked omelette; the heartiness of a well-flavoured soup; and the comforting taste of a baked apple with cinnamon milk at the end of a good meal. The writing is spirited and full of intelligence, a style that seems to reflect Fisher’s personality as well as her approach to cooking. A rediscovered gem to dip into for pleasure.
The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey
Harvey’s book is something of a companion piece to Insomnia, Marina Benjamin’s luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. The Shapeless Unease brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this interminable condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another. Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. One to keep by the bedside for the long white nights when sleep fails to come.
House of Glass by Hadley Freeman
I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s Jewish grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century. It’s a book that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility – topics that remain all too relevant in Europe and the wider world today, where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.
So, that’s it for my novellas and non-fiction books of the year. My one regret is that I never found the time to write about Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling, a book I adored. Join me again next week when I’ll be sharing my favourite novels from a year of reading.
Wonderful selection, Jacqui! Agree with you on The Dig and Love – both brilliant books. Like you, I also loved Winter in Sokcho, which made it to my best of the list as well (I put mine up last night).
Alas, I haven’t read much non-fiction this year, but I am keen to correct that. The Olivia Laing, particularly, is calling out to me. I am also interested in the Fisher, the only book of hers I’ve read is The Gastronomical Me, which I really liked and would recommend as well.
Ah, great. I have a copy of The Gastronomical Me in the TBR pile for next year, so it’s good to hear you liked it so much. And yes, Winter in Sokcho was excellent, It’s a book I still think about a lot, six or seven months on…
I’m rather behind with blog posts at the mo, but I will catch up with your highlights post. Thanks for the nudge.
This is an impressive list of shorter books.
I am jealous of the overall number of books that you have read. I have been working a lot of hours this year and it has seriously cut into my reading time.
Thanks, Brian. My reading rate has fallen off a cliff in the last couple of months as we’re very busy at work in the run-up to Christmas. So, I can understand your position all too well!
I’m glad you’ve enjoyed such a varied reading year, Jacqui, despite all that’s been thrown at us. You’ve added several non-fiction titles to my list this year, something I’m often not good at picking up on. Thank you for that!
That’s good to hear, Susan. I’ve definitely read more memoirs than usual this year. Possibly a sign of the times along with the emergence of so many interesting non-fiction writers in recent years.
Lovely post, I am beginning to compile my own list. I have read very little non fiction this year. But I did acquire a kindle copy of Broken Greek following your great enthusiasm for it.
Ah, yes – the Birmingham connection! I think you will love Broken Greek, knowing as you do the area that Paphides grew up in. Such a generous, warm-hearted book, it’s virtually impossible not to fall a little bit in love with it. :)
Your post reminded me that I haven’t even begun to formulate my Best of Year list. Last time I thought about it, I realised there would be a mental tussle to keep the list reasonable. Might try the J.L Carr
Cool. I’ll be interested to see how the Carr translates, particularly as it’s a very British (or English) style of humour.
PS I tried to post a comment on your recent review of the Wallace Stegner, but it may have ended up in your spam folder as it included a link. (I read and loved his Crossing to Safey a few years ago, so your comments on his understated style definitely resonated with me!)
I’m British and the cultural sense of humour is really difficult to replace even as an expat.
I didn’t know that!
Fascinating selection, Jacqui! I loved Square Haunting too – such a great book. And so happy to see the Carr in there!
I think it was your review of Harpole that prompted me to pick it up! And it’ll be good to see Square Haunting coming out in paperback early next year, hopefully I can encourage a few more people to read it then.
I’m always interested to see what you’ve found compelling enough to pull off the shelves and this list has a lovely combination of old favorites and some that I want to get to (Olivia Laing and Francesca Wade in particular).
Lovely! I have a feeling that you will enjoy both of those very much. Laing has such a thoughtful, reflective style – she’s the kind of writer I could happily read on pretty much anything!
I love the sound of all of these Jacqui and haven’t read any of them! Broken Greek and Square Haunting are the two I must read first
Broken Greek will resonate with pretty much anyone who has a love of pop music. Plus, it’s imbued with a wonderful sense of nostalgia – those memories of our childhood that we find so comforting, especially in these unsettling times…
I would love to read your review of Ma’am Darling.
Thank you, but I fear the time has passed! :)
What a great variety of reading Jacqui. Square Haunting is on my list, and thanks to you I have read my first A L Carr this year: A Month in the Country. He is a gem.
He sure is! I’ll be interested to see how you get on with his other books, should you decide to read more of him. In some respects, his humour is very British, so I wonder how it might translate to other cultures… As for the Wade, that strikes me as being right up your street – and the way it teases out the connections between these occupants of Mecklenburgh Square makes it such a fascinating read.
Always more to look forward to!
Great list Jacqui, I have read some of them and made notes of others. Look forward to reading your novel list soon.
Thanks, Moira. That’s great to hear. :)
I’m really keen to read Broken Greek. I have Stillicide by Cynan Jones, but The Dig also sounds really good.
I’m pretty sure you’ll love Broken Greek, especially with all its references to music!
Great pile, Jacqui! I also read & loved The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Love, and Square Haunting this year. And I am curious about The Shapeless Unease… :)
Thanks, Juliana. That’s great to hear. I think you’d love Square Haunting. It right up your street from a number of different perspectives – the era, the location and the residents themselves!
I’ve only read a couple of these, the Spark and Laing, and love those. I really must read Square Haunting, mustn’t I?
Yes, you must – especially as it sits smack bang in the middle of your favourite era!
Great list, as others have rightly said.
The Sokcho will likely be on my own end of year list, as likely will Stillicide be (I have The Dig but haven’t read it yet). The Harpole Report I don’t have but is clearly a must-read.
I’ve decided that I’m not Spark’s reader, and given I admired but disliked The Driver’s Seat Ballad isn’t for me.
Shapeless Unease I do plan to read, but perhaps once I’m sleeping better than I have been of late (lockdown…).
I’m looking forward to your novels list!
Ah…thanks, Max. I’m glad you’re thinking of putting together a best-of-the-year list and hopefully you’ll get a chance to do a post about it in the new year. (I miss your recommendations!) Winter in Sokcho is great, isn’t it? So dreamlike and haunting for such a slim book. I think you’d also like Ørstavik’s novella, Love, as it has a similar ‘under-the-skin’ kind of feel.
Great to hear you rate Stillicide so highly as I definitely want to read more by Jones. It’s impressive to see how much emotional depth he manages to convey in his prose is spite of the spare, poetic style. I shall look forward to seeing your take on his latest in your 2020 highlights piece (lord knows we need some highlights in such a grim and challenging year).
Stillicide I actually listened to as a radio series, which I think is how it was originally written. It works well in that format, though it’ll still be interesting to see how the book version compares.
I’m kicking myself for having missed that when it was on Radio 4 a year or so ago….and it’s no longer available on Sounds, of course. Oh well, one to read as a book at some point, I think.
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Nice list! I have Square Haunting to read and I need to read Pete Paphides’ book but feel slightly odd about it as I know him tangentially (and live quite near his dad’s chip shop, though not as near as Ali does!). I’ve read quite a lot from 2020 this year thanks to NetGalley, but I also really prefer the older books!
Ah, yes – I recall you mentioning the personal connection with Paphides before! That does make it more difficult to view a book objectively, but I’m sure you’ll really appreciate it nonetheless. You know, it’s funny – I feel as if I can picture the area of Birmingham where it is set, even though I don’t think I’ve ever actually been there. It’s a testament to Paphides’ skill as a writer in making the location feel so vivid and easy to visualise in the mind!
They all sound so good. I have only read one, The Lonely City, back when it came out but didn’t review it. I often prefer shorter novels, so I will keep these in mind.
Thanks, Caroline. You should steer clear of The Dig as it contains explicit references to badger-baiting, and I know you would find it very distressing to read. Winter in Sokcho and Love might be more suited to your tastes – plus, they’re beautifully written.
Thank you, Jacqui. That would distress me indeed. The two you mentioned appealed the must anyway.
Really appreciate your ‘best of ‘ posts Jacqui – they sharpen my focus for next year’s reading, but I wanted to follow up on House of Glass in particular. I mainly read fiction however this year seems to have brought a change and I find myself drawn much more to non-fiction. I read Freeman’s book recently and enjoyed it greatly. I loved the way the book traces the life of one family and in the process encompasses such a vast sweep of history. Do you know of any other books that work in a similar way? – that have that added dimension?
Ah, thank you, Robin and Ian – very kind of you to say. I’m glad you find them useful!
That’s such a great question about other books in a similar vein to the Freeman. There are probably quite a few, but one that immediately springs to mind is Mary S. Lovell’s biography, The Mitford Girls, which delves into the lives of the six Mitford sisters. It’s written in a lighter, more gossipy smile than the Freeman, but the content is fascinating, particularly given the different political/ideological standpoints of the various siblings.
Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes is also well worth a look (if you haven’t read it already). In fact, it’s probably much closer to House of Glass in style, approach and subject matter than The Mitford Girls. In The Hare, de Waal traces the story of his Jewish family from the late 19th century, through the defining years of the 20th century to more recent times. From memory, it covers large swathes of European history, particularly those events touching France and the Austro-Hungarian empire. A fascinating read in many respects…
Thanks for your suggestions Jacqui. I have read the de Waal book – and loved it. I agree it has similarities to House of Glass. I haven’t read the biog of the Mitford girls, but I have come across this remarkable gang of girls several times in the last few months so your suggestion brings it to the forefront of the TBR list. Last night I remembered The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding. It relates the story of one house in Berlin and through that it the turbulent history of Germany is revealed. Remarkable. You might enjoy it.
Oh, many thanks for that suggestion. It’s not a book I’ve come across before, but I will definitely take a look. There are various novels that take that kind of approach, exploring history using a particular house as a unifying link; but a non-fiction book feels more appealing, mostly due to the sense of accuracy/authenticity.
I’ve read quite a few of the novellas – Love has long been a favourite, I’ve not read The Dig but I have read Cove which I thought was wonderful.
I definitely want to read more by Cynan Jones, especially given the style of The Dig. Cove sounds suitably taut and powerful, so I shall add it to the list.
Like you, my year-end summaries are always as much about backlisted as current reads, but I do enjoy the mix, so I’m unlikely ever to inhabit only one of those territories. I’m curious if there’s a reason behind your stacking, if you are playing BookJenga or something!? Several of these are on my TBR already, but mostly in that “vague, someday” way, none is in the short “soon” stack even though I do really want to read some of them. But you know well, how complicated the relationships are between one’s TBR residents. Sometimes it’s the strangest detail that catapults a book from the TBR into your hands!
Yes, I do know that feeling all too well…
As for the stacking, there’s no great logic to it, other than it represents the order in which I read the books, with novellas first and the non-fiction second. It really is very arbitrary!
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I’m not sure why I didn’t see these posts either, I wonder if geography has something to do with it, as I’ve noticed that visits to my blog from the UK have diminished significantly. More importantly that blog posts do t always show up. Mysterious.
I live the variety of your novella and nonfiction lists, I’ve not read any of these but recall some of your reviews and that memoir period, I did read On Chapel Sand after reading your review, and almost got Motherwell. I was given House if Glass for Christmas, so look forward to reading that. I’ve read both Orstavik and Laing and Carr, but not these titles, so appreciate seeing them on your favourites list.
I read almost double in 2020 and perhaps a quarter of my reads were nonfiction and I’m looking forward to more this year and following your reads.
WordPress can be very temperamental, so I’ve just resubscribed to your blog via a different reader (one that I tend to use for independently-hosted sites). Hopefully, that will solve the issue, and I’ll be able to see your posts again – fingers crossed!
House of Glass is terrific, mostly because the family stories are so absorbing. I think you’ll like it a lot, particularly as Freeman comes across as very thoughtful and reflective. A style that will resonate with you, I suspect. The Laing would be another good choice, if you’re minded to go back to her in the future. I haven’t been tempted to read her fiction, but the essays and meditations definitely appeal.
Yes, I’ve turned on an individual notification for yours, so we’ll see what that does. It never occurred to me that the wordpress feed might be anything but straight forward, but recently I’ve felt certain absences.
House of Glass is going to be great, I love those kind of stories, a bit of family investigative journalism, something I’ve indulged in myself, so always interested in how such stories are portrayed universally.
I’ve only read To the River and I enjoyed it, though I may have expected more, as I could sense what was being held back, I’d be interested to see how that aspect has evolved, I do enjoy her ideas, concept and voice.
It’s happens every now and again in my feed. For some reason, posts for a particular blog will stop showing up in my WP feed, even though I’m still subscribed. It’s usually something that resolves itself after a couple of weeks; but in your case, I think the posts went AWOL for months. Thanks for turning on a notification for mine – as you say, let’s see what that does at your end. In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye out for yours!
That’s interesting what you say about To the River, a sense of things being held back. Maybe it’s a consequence of the sensitivity surrounding the subject matter at the heart of the book (i.e. the death of a revered writer) that prompted Laing to tread carefully there? I found The Lonely City to be very revealing, quite personal in its disclosures. It would be fascinating to hear your perspective on it, should you decide to read it at some point…
It was the personal aspect that was held back, which may have been due to privacy or self consciousness, it doesn’t surprise me that a subsequent book pushes that further, overcoming a previous hesitancy.
Yes, that makes a lot sense. I’d like to read To the River at some point – another one for the list!
Anyone will find your post useful. Keep up the good work.
Thank you. Glad you found it useful.
A number of these books certainly look interesting, thanks.