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

REVIEW!! Summerwater by Sarah Moss

On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents.

A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others.

Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.

Whilst I had my reservations about Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall, it was a haunting novella and it’s lush prose lingered in my memory long enough to make me want to pick up her latest novella, Summerwater on release. Considered a spiritual successor to Ghost Wall, Summerwater shares both its dark lyricism and oppressive tone with its predecessor but, for me, conveys the airlessness and suffocation of its characters and location much more successfully.

Set over the course of a single day, Summerwater is set in an isolated holiday park in The Trossachs. With the rain lashing down and no sign of sun on the horizon, the inhabitants of the cabins are forced into contemplation, both of each other and of themselves.

In a series of finely crafted pen portraits, we enter each cabin in turn and peer into the heads of twelve very different narrators. From the unhappily married mother of two who runs without realising what she’s fleeing from, to the retired doctor refusing to recognise his wife’s increasing frailty, Sarah Moss has captured a cacophony of voices and situations, each layered upon each other to create a picture of a community thrown together in isolation.

Thrown into the middle of this ‘community’ is a household without a voice – an Eastern European woman and her child whose cabin transforms at night into a place of loud music and raucous voices. The voicelessness of this mother and daughter pairing – and the reflections of the other characters upon them – provide a subtle commentary upon our divided times, and on our capacity for both building and destroying the communities around us.

Moss’ writing is beautifully lyrical whether revelling in glorious descriptions of the Scottish landscape, or in exploring the interior landscapes of the human mind. This makes the rare moments of intense anger and cruelty felt by many of the characters even starker. There was one particular moment, during a seemingly harmless children’s game, that hit me like a punch in the gut and provided an unpleasant reminder of both how much children can absorb from the adults around them. These seemingly random explosions of feeling within each narrative made the devastating ending all the more poignant for me. It’s as if the all the tension in the book finally finds its release.

This makes Summerwater sound like an unremittingly bleak book but it really isn’t. The novella might be infused with the grey drizzle of one Scottish summer but it is also a testament to the human condition in all its forms. The characters are, above all else, human. Whether eating, drinking, walking, kayaking, washing the dishes, or having sex, they are almost mundane in their ordinariness. Any of these characters could be us and I’d be surprised if readers didn’t find themselves resonating with aspects of nearly all of them, whether it’s the tired mother who squanders her precious hour off by fretting about how to spend it, or the teenager who only realises the security offered by home once he’s floating in the middle of the lake with a fierce wind threatening to capsize him.

There are also regular flashes of a wry humour and some laugh out loud moments. Having been a teenage girl myself, I laughed at the hormonal rage of a daughter being made to do the washing up, distraught at being torn from her friends back home. And it was impossible not to chuckle at the interior monologue of a bride-to-be, thoughts spiralling around colonialism, the environmental crisis, and the best colour for the flagstones in her new house, whilst her partner attempts to pleasure her. From the sublime to the ridiculous in the space of a few sentences, the writing here is so thoroughly imagined and of the moment that it’s impossible not to be drawn along with it.

Summerwater is a brief fable but no less accomplished for its brevity. In the space of just a few pages, Moss has conjured a tale brimming with life that offers a delicate and dark reflection on our times.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss is published by Picador and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.

If you can, please support 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!! Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost WallTeenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology.

Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of Iron Age life.

Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax.

I mentioned in my post on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 longlist that I had read and was still processing Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss’ strangely sinister novella about teenage Silvia and an experimental archaeology exercise that goes badly wrong. If I’m completely honest, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it.

Ghost Wall is a strange story. The novella has a haunting lyricism that lingers long after the final pages but, despite its many excellent qualities, I can’t help feeling that there was something missing from my reading experience with it.

The undoubted strength of the book is the writing. Moss has a beautiful sense of style, creating stunningly lyrical sentences from deceptively simple prose. Her descriptions of the natural world; the landscape of the moor and the beach, is majestic, and there is a northern lyricism to the novel in the cadence of Silvie’s voice and her connection with this landscape. Take, for example, this passage, in which Silvie and some of her fellow students go foraging:

“We followed the green-signposted Public Footpath along a stone wall and over a stile towards the moor. As the hill rose, we could see Hadrian’s Wall drawn across the next rise as if it was made of something different from the rest of the landscape, as if someone had drawn it in marker pen on a photo. Dad and I had walked its whole length, Newcastle to Carlisle, at Easter the previous year, and I knew we were near the best bit now, the section where steep ground and sudden drops made a millennium’s worth of northern farmers not bother themselves to pull down milecastles and miles of dressed stone to build sheep-pens and byres. I half closed my eyes, imagined hearing on the wind the Arabic conversations of the Syrian soldiers who’d dug the ditches and hoisted the stones two thousand years ago.” 

The interconnection between past and present is a strong theme of the novel, as Silvie and her fellows become ever more intertwined with the lives of the Iron Age settlers they are supposedly interpreting. Amidst the beauty of this desolate landscape, lie hidden acts of violence that threaten to play out in the modern day.

This should make for a tense and claustrophobic reading experience, as the past and the present become ever more blurred, yet I found Ghost Wall strangely flat at times. At the start of the novel, as Silvie’s relationship with her difficult father and troubled mother becomes apparent, you could cut the narrative with a knife. Yet after a violent explosion at the midpoint of the novel, all that tension deflated and I felt that the story never really regained its former momentum – it seemed by turns meandering and then racing, rushing towards a conclusion that was both inevitable and strangely unsatisfying.

If this review seems a little vague, its because I really don’t want to give away any of the plot. At just under 150 pages, Ghost Wall is a spare novel and, for anyone thinking of reading it, it really is best enjoyed without spoilers. And it will most definitely wrap you up whilst reading it – I read it over two sittings, then spent about a fortnight digesting what I had read before I felt I could form a coherent opinion about it.

Because, for all its flaws, Ghost Wall is a mesmerising and accomplished book. As I said at the start of the review, it has a lingering quality that is hard to pin down. Yes, the ending is hasty and the characters occasionally little more than pencil sketches, but the overall effect retains a surprising force and impact. The overall moral of the book may be a little heavy-handed but the depiction of a complex father-daughter relationship, marred by both a strange kind of love and violent oppression, is one of the best I’ve read. Ghost Wall certainly deserves its place on the Women’s Prize longlist – like the ghosts that flitter through its page, it haunts the reader long after you’ve turned the final page.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and published by Granta Books is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Book Depository

Book Prizes · Reading Horizons

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019

Womens PrizeGiven how busy I’ve been with university work recently, I’ve tried not to set myself too many reading goals. I get my MA reading done and I keep on top of my blog tour reading but, after that, I read according to whim. As a result, a lot of the book prizes of the past year have passed me by.

That might have to change however with the announcement of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. Because this list looks absolutely AMAZING!! There are so many titles on here that have been lingering on my TBR, calling out for their turn to be read. So, whilst I don’t think I’ll read the whole longlist, I did want to discuss the longlisted titles and the ones that I’m hoping to read.

I already own, or have borrowed, ten of the sixteen shortlisted titles but have only read two of them – Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, a strange but haunting novella that I’ll be reviewing in the next couple of weeks, and My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, which I enjoyed but didn’t love. The characters were fantastic and it’s definitely a quick read with a great narrative voice, but I found the ending a little lacklustre and I was left with a sense that nothing had really changed for the characters, despite the events of the book.

The other books that I own are:

Circe by Madeline Miller

I absolutely loved Miller’s debut, The Song of Achilles, which gave an evocative voice to an over-looked character from Greek myth. I’ve heard only excellent things about Circe so I can’t wait to see what she has done with this complex mythological woman.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Myth re-tellings are having a bit of a moment at the moment. This re-telling of the Trojan War promises to give voice to the women of Troy. Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women was the high point of my undergraduate classics module so I am looking forward to seeing what Barker, author of the evocative Regeneration trilogy, does with the story.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney seems to be the author of the moment – is there a shortlist that Normal People hasn’t been on this year? I have to admit to being a little worried that this won’t live up to the hype but I’m reassured by her short story, Mr Salary, which I read and very much enjoyed earlier this year. If Mr Salary is anything to go by, Rooney has a real eye for detail and for capturing the idiosyncrasies of human interaction.

Milkman by Anna Burns

I’ve had this one on my shelf since it won the Man Booker Prize last year. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’ll like it – I’ve heard that the style can be rather inaccessible and it seems to be quite the Marmite book. I’m hoping that the Women’s Prize will give me a push to try it so that I can decide for myself one way or the other.

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenburg-Jephcott

Okay, so this one was a random NetGalley download that has lingered on my Kindle for far too long. I downloaded it after my book group read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which I found fascinating as much for its author’s compelling voice as anything else. So when I heard about a book centred on Capote, and the literary grenade he detonated amidst an elite circle of Manhattan socialites, I put in a request. I freely admit that I’d almost forgotten that I’d downloaded this but it’s definitely one I want to get around too.

Since the longlist was announced, I’ve also bought An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Ordinary People by Diana Evans, as well as Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton (which is currently one of the featured reads for NB Magazine so available for an absolute steal on their website), all of which sound right up my reading street.

Out of the remaining titles on the longlist, I am hoping to borrow Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive & Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies from the library. Both sound like they could be enjoyable but I’m not 100% sure whether the style is going to be for me – they seem like more literary titles and, whilst I do enjoy literary fiction, I do find some books can be a little too ‘high’ in their style.

I have heard amazing things about the remaining longlist titles – Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, The Pisces by Melissa Broder, Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, and Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn – but they don’t immediately grab me and, with eight books to read already, I think I’ve got my work cut out for me as it is!

I would love to hear from any of you who have read any of these books though, as I am open to being persuaded which I should read first. At the moment, I’m inclined to start with either Swan Song or Circe – both have been languishing in my TBR for far too long. So please do drop me a comment down below, or come say hi over on Twitter and, until next time…

Happy Reading!