Well. This has been a year, hasn’t it? Looking over the books I’ve read this year was a strange experience – anything I read before March feels like it was twenty years ago. Here’s hoping 2021 is an improvement. I’m personally looking forward to enough people having been vaccinated for hugs to be legal again. In the mean time, while we’re all stuck indoors, thank goodness for books. This year, I’ve oscillated wildly between reading constantly and being completely unable to concentrate on anything, which means that I’ve ended up reading 77 books – last year it was 90, but the few years before that I struggled to hit 50 (thank you, PhD), so it’s still pretty good going for me. A decent chunk of them were rereads of old favourites – of which The Edge of Sadness was probably the one that held up best. I always discount rereads when I’m picking the books I loved most in a year, but I read plenty of great new-to-me books this year too. In no particular order:
- Red Joan by Jenny Rooney
Red Joan is the first book I finished this year, and it’s the one that really feels like it was eons ago. I have memories of listening to this audiobook while in a packed-to-the-rafters John Lewis, trying to buy photo frames in their January sale. Wild to think that’s something that used to be pretty normal. Anyway, I loved this novel, which explores the life of a British scientist who was approached to spy for the Communists just after university, beginning when she is finally apprehended in her 80s. It’s loosely based on the life of Melita Norwood, who was the longest-serving KGB spy, and it takes a hard look at how so many bright, educated people were convinced that spying for the Communists was the best way they could serve their own country.
- The Good Mothers by Alex Perry
I’ve thought frequently about this non-fiction study of three women, all former mafia wives who turned state’s evidence to protect their children, ever since I finished it. It covers a lot of topics, but I think that what has stayed with me is the chilling exploration of the role domestic violence (and, to a lesser extent, child abuse) plays in keeping people in thrall to the mafia. Just a warning: don’t read this one when you’re feeling fragile.
- Dressed for a Dance in the Snow by Monika Zgustová
Another non-fiction read for me – this one takes a look at the lives of several women sentenced to the Gulag in Russia. Again, not a book for reading if you’re feeling fragile, but this is an extraordinarily hopeful book given the content. The touches of humanity that these women experienced in an incredibly inhumane environment have stayed with me ever since I read it.
- Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford
It’s impossible to know how I would feel about this light, funny epistolary novel if I’d picked it up at another time. I mean, that’s true for all books, but I can certainly see a world in which I would find Business as Usual intensely irritating, rather than charming. As it is, though, I loved this book, which explores the world of a 1930s upper middle-class young woman who suddenly decides to move to London and get a job as a shopgirl.
- Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett
I love Terry Pratchett, and he almost always knocks it out of the park, but Lords and Ladies is really on another level for me. I’ve read twelve Discworld novels so far, and this is certainly in my top two or three. I wouldn’t recommend starting here, but it’s such an interesting look at the magic system in the world he created, combined with Pratchett’s usual exceptional understanding of human beings. Also, Midsummer Night’s Dream references everywhere, which always improves any book.
I’m currently partway through Anna Karenina – which I’ve tried to read umpteen times over the years, and which finally seems to have taken – so it’s possible that I might end up having a secret sixth entry to my favourites list this year. Even though I really don’t think any novel ever needs to be 950 pages long, I’m enjoying it enormously, so if I finish this before midnight on 31st (this seems unlikely), maybe I’ll have to come back and edit this post. As it stands, though, I’m very happy that there are already so many good books on my favourites list this year.