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!

Book Prizes · Reviews

REVIEW!! Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

HamnetOn a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London.

Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief.

It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written. 

Oh my gosh, this book. This book. 

So that’s not the greatest opening to a blog post but seriously, you’re lucky to be getting more than just a succession of random letters typed onto the screen. It’s taken a good week since finishing Maggie O’Farrell’s reimagining of the life of Shakespeare’s son for me to be able to form even vaguely coherent sentences about it.

Hamnet is one of those books that lingers in the mind both during and after the process of reading it. It is simultaneously lyrical imagining of life in sixteenth-century Stratford and a profoundly moving depiction of a family being built, torn apart, and rebuilt from within.

I was blown away by Maggie O’Farrell’s vivid depictions of the life and characters that populate Agnes, Judith, and Hamnet’s world. The streets of both Stratford and London are teeming with life, the world vividly recreated and leaping from the pages. From the first few pages, in which the reader follows young Hamnet as he desperately searches for help for the ailing Judith, to the closing scenes amidst the crowds of Shakespeare’s famous Globe, I was utterly absorbed into the sights and sounds of the world that O’Farrell has created.

I was also completely drawn in by the characters themselves. Hamnet himself is a mixture of child-like innocence and precocious intelligence, a picture of a boy moving from childhood to adolescence. But, for me at least, the real star of the show is Hamnet’s mother Agnes. Perceptive and unconventional, the sheer force of Agnes’ personality leapt off the page. Possessing an emotional intelligence that belies her lack of formal education, Agnes’ determination to forge a family for herself, her desperate struggle to keep both her twins alive and her grief at her failure to do so, is the driving force of the novel.

One of my favourite things about the book (because, as you can probably tell already, I utterly adored it) is the way in which O’Farrell has captured the web of complex intrigues that lie beneath the surface of every family. The reason why a son tenses when his father walks into a room, the ways in which a quiet influence can be exerted on household decisions, the undercurrents of family life that spin around all of us. By the end of the novel, I felt as if I’d been allowed to step through time and into this one household to stand by, observing, as daily life played out around me.

This absorption means that Hamnet is a quiet novel. It relies upon the stark contrast between the small interactions that make up life’s daily rhythms and the sudden, devastating ways in which these can be ripped apart without a moment’s notice for its impact. It is a drama played out in small doses, where a decision made one year has repercussions several months or even years further down the line. I imagine some readers may find the pace a little too sedate but, for me, the gentle recreation of family life in the first two-thirds of the novel is what makes the sudden dive into all-consuming, furious grief in the latter third so powerfully affecting.

This might be the first of Maggie O’Farrell’s books that I’ve read but, on the basis of this powerfully imagined novel, it certainly won’t be the last. Hamnet is a beautifully imagined exploration of family, a tender examination of a life cut tragically short, and a profound testimony to the healing power of love and creativity. It’s a well-deserved contender for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and, if you haven’t already read it, I would highly recommend picking it up.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

Don’t forget that although your local bookshop might be closed at the moment, you can also support your local indie bookshops by ordering from them online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop (where I got my gorgeous indie-exclusive signed copy of Hamnet from) The Big Green BookshopSam Read Booksellers, and Berts Books

Hamnet is one of a number of fantastic titles shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. You can find out more about the prize, and about all of the shortlisted titles, on the Women’s Prize website

 

 

 

 

Random Bookish Things

The Stay-at-Home! Literary Festival

Hello, fellow book-lovers. I hope you’re all keeping well and staying safe in these strange and unusual times – and that you’re able to get some reading done.

Just a very quick post today to tell you all about a FANTASTIC online literary festival that is currently being hosted online.

The Stay-at-Home! festival has a packed programme of events going on from now right through until 11 April 2020. There are writing workshops, author Q&As, readings, family sessions, publishing panels and more! The whole programme is FREE and can be joined from the comfort of your living room.

I spent this part of this afternoon listening to the lovely Louise Welsh (whose novella Tamburlaine Must Die I RAVED about when I read it – you can read the review here) talk about her Plague Times trilogy in a live reading and Q&A session. It was fantastic to listen to Louise talk about her work, and a brilliant way of feeling connected in these isolating times.

In anticipation of Louise’s talk, I picked up the Plague Times trilogy on ebook (the books are an absolute steal on Kindle at the moment) so very look forward to reading and reporting back on them soon!

I am also hyped that Maggie O’Farrell will be taking part in a virtual launch party for her much-anticipated new novel Hamnet later in the week – and I’ll also be tuning in for the panel featuring Sarah Stovell, the author of The Home, which I read and reviewed (and loved) earlier this year.

The full programme for the Stay-at-Home! festival can be found HERE so do check it out and share it with anyone you think might be interested!

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