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!


REVIEW!! The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

The QuickeningAn infamous seance. A house burdened by grief. A secret that can no longer stay buried.

England, 1925. Louisa Drew lost her husband in the First World War and her six-year-old twin sons in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Newly re-married and seven months pregnant, Louisa is asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex to photograph the contents of the house for auction. Desperate for money after falling on hard times, she accepts the commission.

On arrival, she learns Clewer Hall was host to an infamous séance in 1896, the consequences of which still haunt the family thirty years later. Before the Clewer’s leave England for good, the lady of the house has asked those who attended the original to come together to recreate the evening. Louisa soon becomes embroiled in the strange happenings of the house, unravelling the longheld secrets of what happened the night of the séance… and discovers her own fate is entwined with Clewer Hall’s.

Those who have followed the blog for a while will know that I love a well-turned mystery, have a fondness for historical fiction, and delight in the spine-tinging chill of a gothic ghost story. Combine the three together and add in one of my favourite authors and you’re well on your way to a winner with me!

Rhiannon Ward may be a new name but you’ll probably recognise Sarah Ward. I’ve featured her accomplished police procedural series, set in modern-day Derbyshire, on the blog a few times before and she’s definitely one of my favourite modern crime-fiction authors. Rhiannon Ward is a pseudonym for launching The Quickeningher first foray into historical fiction, although fans of Sarah’s previous novels will be pleased to find another well-turned mystery, albeit one filled with the gothic and supernatural, at the heart of this latest work.

Set in the afternmath of the First World War, The Quickening is a novel suffused with grief and its aftermath. Having lost her husband in the trenches, and her two sons from Spanish Flu soon after, Louisa Drew has resigned herself to be thankful for a life of dutiful wifehood – and a second chance at motherhood – with her staid and emotionally repressed second husband Edwin. But when her former employer offers her a lucrative commission amidst the faded glory of Clewer Hall, Louisa can’t resist one last chance to live the life she thought she’d lost.

Packing her camera equipment, she heads for Clewer Hall, another house in mourning for people and opportunities lost. But are the Clewer family all that they seem? Why does no one talk about the child seen in the garden? Or the piano that Louise can hear playing within long-deserted room? What happened during that infamous seance and why does it haunt the house still? And, most importantly, what does it want with Louisa and her unborn child?

The Quickening is packed to the rafters with so much atmosphere that it lifts off the page, enveloping the reader in it’s grasp. I could immediately envisage the faded glamour of Clewer Hall – from the remnants of the wisteria clinging to crumbling brickwork through to the sadness of a long-unused nursery with its broken chairs and barred windows, reading the book had me walking alongside Louisa as she gradually uncovered more and more of the house’s secrets.

Ward absoutely nails the atmosphere too. Clewer Hall, with its greatly reduced serving staff and impoverished family both still sticking rigourously to pre-War notions of social hierarchy, feels as if it is stuck in a time-warp, forever trapped on the evening of the seance in 1896. It lends a gothic tone to a novel that has a distinctly modern protagonist – Louise is forthright, determined, and has a refreshing lack of propriety that carries through Clewer Hall like a breath of fresh air.

Despite this modernity, Louisa doesn’t feel out of time or place. Having developed a successful career during the war, it makes sense for Louisa to yearn to retain this freedom, whilst also hoping to regain some of the stability she has lost with the death of her husband and sons. I really got a sense of the period as a time of change through Louisa – caught between the possibilities now afforded to her as an educated and capable woman in a world where war has upset traditional hierarchies, and Victorian attitudes that still demand a level of respectability and conformity from her, even at the expense of her own happiness. It’s fair to say that, as the book went on, I definitely became as invested in Louisa’s own personal dilemmas as I was in the resolution of Clewer Hall’s many mysteries, so much did I come to identify and empathise with her!

Without giving away any of the plot, which unravels with the skill and elegance demonstrated so ably in Ward’s previous novels, I will say that The Quickening infuses a very human tale of personal folly and family tragedy with a chilling slice of the supernatural. The spooky elements aren’t overplayed but, in the manner of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions or Sarah Waters The Little Stranger, something haunts the narrative and the characters, causing both them and the reader to question their sanity and actions. It’s brilliantly done and I raced through the book, desperate to know what happened back in 1896, and what would happen to Louisa and the Clewer family as a result.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely loved The Quickening. Combining a country house mystery with a classic ghost story was always going to be a winner for me, especially when its as well-written and atmospherically evocative as this. Fans of Laura Purcell and Stacey Halls will enjoy the lush atmosphere, supernatural happenings and chilling gothic overtones, whilst fans of Ward’s modern day procedurals will find a novel that retains Ward’s knack for strong characters and precision plotting whist transposing them onto a new era and genre.

The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward is published by Trapeze Books on 20 August 2020 and is available 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.