END OF YEAR REVIEW: The best books from 2020
Stratford Literary Festival (SLF) folk and other local reading enthusiasts share their favourite reads from
Gill Sutherland, Herald arts editor
Wine Girl by Victoria James made very interesting if dangerous reading.
Subtitled “A sommelier’s tale of making it in the toxic world of fine dining”, James gives amazing insight into what goes on behind the scenes in fancy restaurants.
Her love of wine is contagious and made me really appreciate the treat of a good bottle with all the homemade food being prepared during the spring lockdown.
It should come with a warning though – it does make you into a bit of a wine-guzzling bore!
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig saw the popular author deliver another engrossing page-turner. At a time when mental wellbeing has become all the more important, it tells the story of Nora Seed, who feeling useless, tries to kill herself. She ends up in limbo in the Midnight Library where thousands of books tell different versions of her life. Simple and uplifting.
Two brilliantly ace books that were written by local authors this year deserve special mentions. Children’s book Knight Sir Louis and the Dreadful Damsel by The Brothers McLeod is a hilarious and riotous romp that sees Louis embroiled in medieval mayhem as he attempts to save the day.
At the other end of the spectrum, our learned chums at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Sir Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson, have produced a groundbreaking book, All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, which looks at the poems and sonnet-like extracts from the plays in chronological order and divine more wisdom about the playwright and his work. Best enjoyed with a glass of wine by a crackling fire this festive season.
Gregory Doran, Artistic Director, Royal Shakespeare Company
Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is breathtaking; and Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro is an absolutely stunning analysis of Shakespeare in this present moment. That’s what is so brilliant about Shakespeare: he articulates the present and constantly surprises you.
Sarah Hosking, founder of Hosking Houses Trust – the Clifford Chambers-based charity that supports women writers
Let’s Do It, the authorised biography of Victoria Wood. Like thousands of people, but mainly women, we know this television entertainer from her distinctive looks and material but this superb biography tells us how she did it.
From being a fat, shy teenager at the back of her classes at drama school (where the slim, blonde girls at the front got the parts) she became internationally lauded before dying of cancer in 2016 aged 63.
This intriguing book is detailed but bats along, showing the evolution of her wit and panache, but it was her stamina and sheer hard work that made it all happen and influenced the nature of humour.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo: rightly this won the Booker prize last year and it opens to us the lives of black women who have been living amongst us within our society for generations, and here we are able to know intimately about their values, issues, processes, problems and solutions.
It is one of the most revealing and funny books I have ever read and it follows the lives of 12 black women – some second generation and successful, some recently arrived in the UK and struggling – and tell us how it is for them.
This is the way that ignorance and prejudices are revealed and banished. Like Victoria Wood, the effort and commitment over decades of self-discipline and work become self-evident.
Felicity Cloake, Guardian food writer, New Statesman columnist and author of six cookbooks
Where There’s a Will by Emily Chappell is a beautifully written story of human endurance – not just for cyclists!
Oats in the North, Wheat from the South by Regula Ysewijn. Meticulously researched and deliciously photographed story of British baking.
Carpathia by Irina Georgescu. A fascinating introduction to a rich, colourful cuisine I knew absolutely nothing about.
The Pastry Chef’s Guide by Ravneet Gill. Don’t be fooled by the gorgeous cover. This book means business, patiently taking the reader through the techniques and recipes required for perfect patisserie, before building on them in Gill’s inimitable, flamboyant style.
Josie Richardson, manager of Stratford Waterstones
My Garden World by Monty Don: What else to see you through the cold winter months than Monty’s personal account of the natural year, month by month and season by season. Dedicated as it only could be to “Nigel”.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 and shortlisted for the Waterstones Book of the Year.
The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes:The perfect book in a year when more of us got out into the great outdoors, only to realise how little was truly accessible. By law we are excluded from 92 per cent of the land and 97 per cent of the waterways, and Nick Hayes examines the social history of how this came about.
Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani, illustrated by Dana Tanamachi: Beautifully illustrated, pocket-sized compendium of fiction and nonfiction compiled by the former chief book critics of the New York Times.
The Book of Hopes by Katherine Rundell (Ed): An idea started by Katherine Rundell during the first lockdown, these are stories written by children’s writers and illustrators to make people (not just kids!) “laugh or wonder or snort or smile”.
Proceeds from the sale of the book go to NHS Charities Together.
Alex Preston, journalist, fiction reviewer for the Observer, award-winning author and SLF interviewer
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: A peculiar year for the Booker but this is a worthy winner. It may be bleak, but it will lift your heart and marks the arrival of a brilliant new voice.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam: In a great year for dystopian fiction, this was the pick. A smart, dark, funny novel about our warped relationship with technology.
The Madman’s Library by Edward Brooke-Hitching: His books are always beautiful; this one doubly so as it contains images and stories about the world’s greatest and weirdest libraries.
War by Professor Margaret MacMillan: An important book from one of our greatest thinkers. It was such a pleasure to speak to her at this year’s Stratford Literary Festival – this is a book that stays with you.
The Moth and the Mountain by Ed Caesar: I can see this book being under every Christmas tree this year. A ripping yarn told in luminous prose.
Caroline Sanderson, Associate Editor of the Bookseller and SLF interviewer
Burning the Books by Richard Ovenden
Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink
Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair
The Little Library Christmas by Kate Young
Dame Hilary Mantel, twice winner of the Booker Prize and SLF guest
Island Dreams by Gavin Francis
Essex Girls by Sarah Perry
A Tomb with A View by Peter Ross
The Haunting of AlmaFielding by Kate Summerscale
The Voice in My Ear by Frances Levisto