A Year in Books

It’s by no means unusual for me to spend much of my time around books. I always have one on the go for bedtime reading and the first cuppa of the day is normally accompanied by a chapter or two, propped against the pillows. Plus in normal times I can often be found helping to keep the stacks shipshape in Kinver Community Library and promoting their use … but this year has been far from normal and temporary library closures meant more time for my own reading.

As it happened, just as we entered 2020 I’d made a resolution to keep a reading diary – not full-blown reviews but a list and the gist to help me keep track of the basics, with a view to referring back if I couldn’t remember which characters appeared in which book, who wrote what and how I’d felt about the plot, the setting, the writing. Ideal for helping to give recommendations or for follow up searches for other works by favoured authors. It’s proved a totally achievable habit and I now have 38 neat little write-ups, making for some of the happier reminders of, and escapes from, an otherwise abominable year.

But how to summarise? Looking back, I can group the books into broad categories, with one of the most striking and far-reaching being authors I’ve read for the first time. Just before Lockdown 1, I borrowed Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata from the library, attracted by the apparently musical theme, a particular interest of mine. In a way the music was incidental, so to speak, but I immediately wondered why I hadn’t read her before – what a fabulous, sensitive writer! I’ve since had from BorrowBox – the library service’s e-lending facility; how would we have survived without that this year?! – Music and Silence, a compelling saga set in 17th century Denmark with some seriously nasty characters and the recurring motif of the contrast between music and its absence, and my favourite of the lot so far, The Road Home, a positive, well-spun yarn with themes of identity and sense of home from the point of view of an outsider who you can’t help rooting for. There was even an unexpected musical thread to the cleverly-woven plot! Luckily for me, she’s written plenty more.

Other unfamiliar authors featured in a tower of titles that I hurriedly grabbed off the shelves just before shutting the library up the first time around, back in March. This gave me the impetus to delve into genres that I wouldn’t usually be attracted to, with varying degrees of success. I was quite prepared not to enjoy Laura Purcell’s darkly gothic mystery The Silent Companions but was soon hooked by the unusual device of havoc-making inanimate objects and the well-paced suspense that was strung out right up to the final twist. Less satisfying was P. Z. Reizin’s Happiness for Humans; I wouldn’t normally choose light and fluffy rom-coms although this was enjoyable enough with an intriguing interface between the human protagonists and their Artificial Intelligence buddies and baddies, but the bright pink cover belies the extremely laddish parlance of the leading lady which didn’t ring true and got on my nerves. Pandemic times may become the stuff of historical fiction, I guess, and this year I’ve delved into more of that genre too, particularly enjoying Caroline Lea’s Icelandic saga The Glass Woman and Stella Tillyard’s The Great Level, an interesting take on the 17th century  female perspective spanning settings in the English Fens, Amsterdam and early America.

This year has also given me time to return to old favourites amongst writers of great literary fiction, such as Anne Tyler, taking in Morgan’s Passing from years ago as well as her most recent Redhead by the Side of the Road and her contribution to the series of Shakespeare retellings, Vinegar Girl. Unsurprisingly for the master of conjuring up the quirks of dysfunctional families, her take on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is built on humorous speech patterns  and spot-on character development reflecting the shift in the central relationship. A very comical book but with a serious undercurrent about issues like being taken for granted and lack of communication. I’ve been delighted to happen upon a much younger author, Leah Hager Cohen, also American, whose Strangers and Cousins was immediately reminiscent of Tyler. We’re thrown into the rough and tumble of family life in the context of an unusual modern-day wedding  and a parallel personal tragedy from the past, with themes of belonging and identity weaving their way through the skilfully-rendered dialogue.

Some of my choices have left me disappointed to some extent, especially if they came highly recommended. I decided to fill a classics gap by reading Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which I found underwhelming. More recent bestsellers which were very readable and laudable in many respects left me irritated by plot holes: just a small one in the case of Jessie Burton’s The Confession and a glaring one in Lucy Foley’s The Guest List. For fear of spoilers, I’ll refrain from elaborating!

Not everything has been fiction. Two of my favourites have been Raynor Winn’s intensely personal memoirs with a strong thread of nature writing; she has an amazing talent for conveying the senses. The start of The Salt Path felt too sad for words and I wondered whether I’d be able to stick with it. I was glad I did. It’s the epitome of triumph over disaster and life-affirming in its positivity. The Wild Silence exceeded expectations as a sequel; incredible sense of place and connection with the natural world, and all the trials of dealing with humanity thrown in for contrast. Beautiful imagery.

There are several diary entries that begin along the lines of why have I never read this before? or possibly the best book I’ve read this year. Contenders include: Christy Lefteri’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo, a thoughtful tale of love, loss and survival against the odds; Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, set in wartime Germany with the masterstroke of Death as narrator and deep themes including the power of words (for better or worse) and the importance of writing and reading; The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes, a fantastic story set in 1930s America – required reading for anybody who thinks running a library is difficult! – which again depicts reading as a literally life-saving force; Laura Imai Messina’s The Phone Box at the Edge of the World, with superb character development and geographical descriptions based on a real Japanese location, its history heart-rending but ultimately optimistic; and finally Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, a book that’s difficult to define as it’s a murder mystery and coming-of-age novel all wrapped up within a nature treatise, but more importantly a gripping story sensitively told. The court scenes reminded me of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – which, unusually, I haven’t re-read this year; too busy discovering new gems.

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