Books of the Year · Reviews

My Books of the Year 2020

Yes, it is that time of year again. As I prepare to kick 2020 firmly out of the door (and good riddance to it indeed), the time has come to look back on my reading year and think about the books that really stood out as highlights for me.

And, on the reading front at least, 2020 really has been an excellent year! Being stuck at home has at least given me more time to read. And, for me anyway, books have provided a solace and support in this otherwise trying and difficult year – you are, after all, never alone with a good book. In a year that has required staying local (and often staying indoors), books have also allowed me to travel vicariously through their pages.

As a result, I’ve had my best reading year for a while – a total of 104 books read! I’ve also found myself much less slumpy this year – possibly as a result of giving myself more freedom to read by whim and allowing more time to savour and enjoy my reading, and almost certainly because of all the lovely book chats that I’ve got involved with on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook! Lockdown might be rubbish but it’s been so nice to be part of the book community during it and to get involved in online book clubs and reading challenges with fellow book lovers.

Continuing in this spirit of freedom – and in an effort to continue spreading the book love far and wide – I’ve therefore decided not to limit my Books of the Year to an arbitrary number. So instead of my usual ’round up’ post of my top 5/6 books, I wanted to share with you ALL of my favourite and recommended reads of 2020, along with a few words about why they’re brilliant and a link to my full review.

So, without further ado and in no particular order, let’s go!!

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

A magical historical romp featuring a child returned from the dead, a photographer, a pub, and – of course – a river. With the story beginning at New Year, this was one of my first books of 2020 – and definitely one of the highlights of the year for me! Full review available here.

The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore

A devastating novel of forbidden love and social hierarchy, the world of the eighteenth-century is bought vividly to life in this sexy, dangerous romp of a novel. With one of the most memorable ending paragraphs I think I’ve ever read, there was no way that Mr Lavelle wasn’t making it onto this list! Full review available here.

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

A book that combines fascinating figures and scholarly rigour with Greg Jenner’s trademark humour, this is the perfect read for anyone interested in celebrity, fandom, and the eighteenth-century. Shelf of Unread catnip essentially! Full review available here.

A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister

Another fascinating non-fiction read, this time looking at the history of sex and sexuality. Kate Lister brings scholarly rigour and deft social commentary to bear on her topic, whilst retaining the wry humour that has made her @WhoresOfYore Twitter account such a joy.

The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

Crime writer Sarah Ward’s first foray into historical fiction provided a page-tuning country house mystery with a pinch of the gothic and supernatural. More Shelf of Unread catnip and a joy to read from first page to last. Full review available here.

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

A historical detective novel with a difference, Things in Jars features a mysterious – and possibly magical – child, a pipe-smoking female detective, and the ghost of a dead boxer. Defying genre expectations and revelling in the playfulness of its prose, this was an absolute treat of a novel and perfect for devouring over a long weekend. Full review available here.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A powerfully imagined exploration of family, love, motherhood and grief, Hamnet is one of the few novels to have made me both laugh and cry in 2020. Just as magnificent as everyone says it is. Full review available here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Honestly the only reason I haven’t reviewed this yet is because I am still trying to find the words for it. A magnificent intergenerational story told from twelve perspectives. Fully deserving of every one of the accolades given to it.

A Tomb with a View by Peter Ross

A surprise hit on audio, this book about graves and graveyards manages to talk about very sad things without ever feeling sad. Instead the book is poignant, touching, and deeply hopeful. Perfect 2020 reading.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

A slice of everyday life encapsulated within pitch-perfect and elegant prose, Sarah Moss’s masterful novella – set in a series of isolated cabins on the edge of a Scottish loch – provided the perfect allegory for lockdown life whilst exploring the tensions and fractures that lie underneath society’s surface. Full review available here.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Smart, witty, and immensely pleasurable, Richard Osman’s first foray into fiction provided the perfect mix of mystery, comedy, poignancy, and compassion. Full review available here.

The Booksellers Tale by Martin Latham

Written by a bookseller, Martin Latham’s exploration of our love affair with books covers an eclectic list of topics. From marginalia to comfort reading, street bookstalls to fantastical collectors, if you love books and bookshops then you’re sure to find this a fascinating and comforting read.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Another genre-bending romp from the author of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Mixing history, mystery, supernatural horror, and suspense, Stuart Turton once again keeps the pages turning as a mysterious voyage goes badly wrong. Full review appearing on The Shelf shortly!

Deity by Matt Wesolowski

The latest in Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series isn’t out in paperback until 2021 (although it’s out now as an ebook) but I managed to get hold of a copy in preparation for the blog tour and let me tell you that it does not disappoint! I devoured this one in about 24 hours – a page-turning mixture of top-notch plotting, compelling mystery, and chilling events. Full review appearing on The Shelf soon!

Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

By turns poignant and passionate, joyful and comforting, Dear Reader is an ode to books and book lovers. Combining memoir with reading recommendations, this was the perfect book about books for 2020. Full review available here.

Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

A pair of riveting mysteries with twists to rival Agatha Christie and a unique ‘novel in a novel’ structure, both of these were diverting and engaging reads. Full reviews available here and here.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The book that got me back into YA! With a gripping plot, a clever mystery, a little light romance, and some fabulous characters, this was a page-turning and entertaining read. I can’t wait for the sequel in 2021! Full review available here.

The Cousins by Karen M McManus

More YA, this time involving a hideously wealthy family, a small airport’s worth of emotional baggage, and an exclusive island home hiding a multitude of dark secrets. Fun, entertaining, and suspenseful, this has made me want to read more of McManus’ work. Full review available here.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

There’s nothing like a good sensation novel to curl up with as the nights draw in and Lady Audley’s Secret has it all – secrets, danger, illicit romance, possible murder, madness, arson! An absolute romp of a book, this classic is perfect for fans of Wilkie Collins.

On The Red Hill by Mike Parker

A beautiful combination of social history and personal memoir, Mike Parker’s On The Red Hill tells the tale of Rhiw Goch (‘the Red Hill’) and its inhabitants: Mike and his partner Preds and, before them, George and Reg. It’s also the tale of a remarkable rural community, and the lush prose and vivid descriptions took me straight back to the Welsh mountains and reminded me of the importance of home.

And we’re done!! Do let me know if you’ve read any of these – or if you have them on your TBR! Here’s to having another excellent reading year in 2021 – and to leaving some of the less pleasant aspects of 2020 far behind us. Thank you for sticking with me and with The Shelf through 2020. Wishing all of you a safe, peaceful and happy new year – see you on the other side!

If you’re tempted to treat yourself after reading this post, please consider supporting a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon A RiverIt was the longest night of the year, when the strangest of things happened…

In an ancient inn on the Thames, the regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open and in steps and injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a child.

Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle? Is it magic?

And who does the little girl belong to? 

Before I get into the body of this review, can we just take a moment to appreciate the GORGEOUS cover for Once Upon A River? I mean seriously, just LOOK at it! The beautiful illustration (by artist Sarah Whittaker) is even prettier on the physical paperback, with the orange and green really standing out against the black background. I was lucky enough to get an e-proof of this novel from Netgalley UK but I’ve still been out and bought a copy of this – it’s just one of those books that, for me, just begs to be read in physical format.

Right, now that the important matter of showing the cover some love is out of the way, I’ll get on with raving about the book itself. Because I absolutely ADORED Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon A River, a magical and moving novel about family, folklore and the power of stories. Definitely an early contender for the books of the year list!

I’ve loved Diane’s writing ever since picking up her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, on a whim some years ago. It was a genre-crossing tale that took a family drama and imbued it with a healthy dose of the Gothic, a dash of mystery, and more than a little tragedy. The result was a spellbindingly gripping tale. Once Upon a River, her third (and latest) novel, has the spellbinding quality of The Thirteenth Tale but the book itself is a very different beast. Where her debut was darkly sinister, Once Upon a River, whilst touching on some dark and difficult subject matter, is filled to brimming with warmth and comfort.

Opening in The Swan at Radcot, an inn on the River Thames famed for its storytelling, the novel follows the aftermath of one winter’s night when a injured man and an apparently drowned child arrive at the inn. When it becomes apparent that the little girl is not only alive but also not the child of the man who bought her to the inn, the question of who she belongs to becomes paramount. Mr and Mrs Vaughan, a wealthy couple whose young daughter was kidnapped some years before, believe the girl to be their beloved Amelia. Robin Armstrong, a young man with both tragedy and secrets in his past, claims she is his bonny Alice. And Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper, is convinced that the child is her missing sister Ann. As Henry Daunt, the photographer who bought the child to the inn, and Rita Sunday, the nurse who tended to her, attempt to find who the child really belongs to, the stories of all involved start to twist and turn like the river itself, merging together like tributaries before being carried forwards in the rising tide.

This is a multi-layered novel brimming with characters but meticulous crafting of the tale meant that I never became confused as to who was who or which strand of the story I was following. The opening, although full of drama, is slow to develop as Setterfield takes time to introduce her cast and set her scene. The pay off is a a set of characters that, over the course of the story, become as familiar as friends (or, in the case of a couple of them, old and bitter enemies) and whose trials and tribulations left me racing to the end, desperate to know if the good got their rewards and if the bad faced the justice they deserved.

Filled to brimming with folklore, this is novel that revels in the art of storytelling, weaving stories within stories and ensuring every strand of the tale has real emotional resonance. As well as providing a thickly characterised narrative, Setterfield’s prose is filled with lush descriptions of the river. Victorian Oxford and the surrounding villages lived and breathed on the page and, in her evocative descriptions of the churning water, I could easily imagine myself sat on the deck of Collodion with Henry Daunt, or tying up a punt at the jetty belonging to Buscot Lodge.

Richly atmospheric and with more than a hint of magic, Once Upon a River is the perfect tale to curl up with on a cold winter’s night. As I said at the start of this review, the novel is filled with heart and warmth, and the extremely satisfying ending left me with all the warm fuzzies. A bewitching tale, dazzlingly told, this is a real treat of a book that is perfect for curling up with and devouring over a weekend – a real cure for those January blues!

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield is published by Transworld (Black Swan) and is available in paperback and ebook now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.