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 · Upcoming Books

REVIEW!! The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore

Mr Lavelle CoverWhen Benjamin and Edgar Bowen embark on a Grand Tour of Europe, they are ready to meet People of Quality. They have trunks full of powdered silver wigs and matching suits, a hunger to experience the architectural wonders of Ancient Rome and an ability to quote Voltaire (at length). They will make connections and establish themselves in high society, just as their mother has planned.

But it soon becomes apparent that their outfits are not quite the right shade of grey, their smiles are too ready, their appreciation of the arts ridiculous. Class, they learn, is not something that can be studied.

Benjamin’s true education begins when he meets Horace Lavelle. Beautiful, charismatic, seductive, Lavelle delights in skewering the pretensions and prejudices of their milieu. He consumes Benjamin’s every thought.

Love can transform a person. Can it save them? 

Despite reading The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle back in February (and doesn’t that seem like an age ago given how 2020 has been since then?!), it has taken me quite some time to be in a position to put together my review. It would be fair to say that this book knocked me for six a little. Without giving anything away, the ending has to be one of the best that I’ve ever read – the final few sentences are like a punch to the gut and, if you’re anything like me, they’ll leave you mulling them over long after you’ve closed the back cover.

It was always a fairly safe bet that I’d like The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle. When I’m not raving about books on the internet, my current day job is as a full-time PhD student and my research speciality is eighteenth century literature. I find the period endlessly fascinating and generally enjoy novels set in the era, especially those that are able to capture something of the gloriously snarky chaos that seems to make up much of the rising-middle and upper class social scene at the time

At the start of The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle we’re introduced to brothers Edgar and Benjamin. Bought up by a respectable businessman and his ambitious wife, they have been educated and raised to elevate themselves and, to complete this aim, their mother intends for them to embark on a Grand Tour. They will take in the sights of Europe, demonstrate their talents, education and eloquence, and association with People of Quality.

Unfortunately for Edgar and Benjamin, the People of Quality have other ideas about who makes for a respectable travelling companion. But just as the brothers are beginning to consider heading for home, Benjamin meets the charismatic Horace Lavelle. Beautiful, maddening, and an unrepentant libertine, Lavelle is everything that Benjamin is not. He enjoys life, and doesn’t give two hoots about what People of Quality think about that. As the novel’s title suggests, Benjamin is soon intoxicated by Horace Lavelle, little realising the consequences that this association will have, or the way in which it will change his life forever.

There are so many things I really enjoyed about this novel that it’s difficult to know where to start. Firstly, Neil Blackmore has absolutely nailed his evocation of eighteenth-century life. Whilst it might not be entirely accurate in places (not a criticism – this is a novel, not a history book), it utterly vivid in all its teeming and messy glory. From the salons of the elite to the dingy backrooms of side-street brothels, I got a real sense of the world that Benjamin, Edgar, and Horace inhabited. As with Imogen Hermes-Gower’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (a fantastic novel, and one you should definitely read if you enjoy this!), this is not the polite and refined eighteenth-century of Jane Austen but the raucous society seen in the poems of Swift, Defoe, and Fielding.

What really drives the book though is the characters. Horace Lavelle, in particular, leaps off the page. He reminded me, in many ways, of Lord Henry Wotton from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (the whole novel has something Wildian about it – if you’re a fan of Dorian Gray, I think you’ll enjoy Lavelle), with his pithy epithets and amorality. Lavelle has, however, a strange vulnerability that makes him much more likeable than Lord Henry. This is never more apparent than when he is with Benjamin.

It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that a relationship develops between Benjamin and Lavelle and, in this exploration of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, the novel is at it’s most tender. For different reasons both Lavelle and Benjamin struggle with their sexuality and its implications. For Benjamin, his love for Lavelle threatens everything he has been bought up to believe in. He risks, at best, ostracisation from society and, at worse, prosecution and death. For Lavelle, Benjamin represents a tie that binds, and a security he’s been running from his whole life. From the outset, it is clear that this is a love story with very little chance of ending well.

The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle won’t be for everyone. I imagine some people will want more of a plot whereas this is very much a novel driven by the interconnections of the characters, similar to Andrew Miller’s Pure and Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. Although the novel is set during a Grand Tour, this isn’t a book about where the characters go but about what they do, and how they feel about the choices they are making. And it’s safe to say that a lot of how you feel about the book may rest on how you feel about Horace Lavelle. I found him maddening and mesmerising in equal measure – a fascinating character to spend time with in a novel but, I suspect, an infuriating one to meet in real life!

To say any more about The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle would be to spoil the novel. This is a book to dive into, head first, and immerse yourself in over the course of a weekend. Driven by its characters, and by it’s careful unpicking of the themes of class and social status, love in its many and varied forms, and the discovery of an identity, this is a glorious romp of a book. And, as I said at the beginning, that ending – and the final paragraph in particular – had me reeling.

If you’ve enjoyed Hermes-Gower’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Miller’s Pure or Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, or any of Wilde’s work, I think you’ll adore The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle to the same extend that I did. And for anyone made curious by the mysterious Mr Lavelle by this review, I would urge you to pick this novel up and go make his acquaintance!

The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore is published by Hutchinson and is available now from all good booksellers 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

My thanks go to Laura Brooke from Penguin for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.