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XX Notes: The Year in Books

Published on: 1 Jan, 2021
Updated on: 5 Jan, 2021

Maria Rayner

Maria Rayner‘s observational, fortnightly column from a woman’s perspective…

Three months to read one book? Anyone who’s been in a book group with me wouldn’t believe this fact, but that is what happened in 2020.

I’m the English/History graduate, the English teacher, the bookworm everyone turns to when they want to know what to read next.

According to The Reading Agency, over a third more people in the UK turned to books during lockdown, so why did my reading habits reverse? Why am I attempting an article about a year in books? You’ll find out when I get to August.

2020 started with an amazing read: The Wych Elm by Tana French. After watching Dublin Murders (also French) on TV, the characters’ dialect was in my head. The twists in this psychological whodunnit, and the unreliable narrator, have you guessing right up to the end.

How do I know what I read and when? Despite working part-time in a library, I’m a kindle fan, so there’s an electronic record. Next up was Our House by Louise Candlish, another thriller and multi-award winning. An entertaining choice, with the bonus that it’s tipped to come to the small screen and it’s nice to be ahead of the crowd. Richard Harris’s The Second Sleep was a pre-coronavirus joy: speculative, post-apocalyptic and one for the anti-tech brigade.

Then there’s a gap in the kindle record. Initially, I scratched my head, then remembered. Around February I was helping with the refurb of Guildford Library and boxes of new books had been ordered to refresh the shelves as well as the paintwork. When lockdown hit, in common with many library members, I maxed out my card (20 for those not in the know).

My library card history tells a sad tale: scrolling down the list there are some travel guides. I can put a tick against Eyewitness Brussels and Top Ten Brussels (a weekend in February half term), but Rough Guide to Vienna never reached its destination. Mind Map Mastery didn’t fulfil its potential as my son didn’t take his GCSEs.

There’s the sport autobiography, grabbed for my Library Direct client, but not delivered until considered Covid-safe to do so in the summer. Then the young adult novel Gone by Michael Grant – you’re right, my YA didn’t fancy reading a book about a global pandemic that spares children leaving them parentless… no matter how well recommended by his sister.

Finally some books I did read. Different Class by Joanna Harris – third in a trilogy and I hadn’t read the previous two but no less entertaining. The Restoration of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer – clunky and pedestrian but the theme of looking back on one’s life’s work was interesting to ponder mid-lockdown. Slade House by David Mitchell – characteristically spooky and weird from the writer of Cloud Atlas. The Summer of Impossible Things by Rowan Coleman – fun if you liked The Time Traveller’s Wife. Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler – I know I read but remember nothing about (odd as her We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was one of those books that sticks in your head).

The next category of books is those I stockpiled as the library was closing then couldn’t face reading: Hystopia, The Fear Index, The Wake… when the number of cases started to rise I wanted to read something more cheery. Then my account shows two puppy training handbooks and I know that I was back welcoming people through the library doors by then.

Back to the kindle record for the remainder of lockdown:

Two books stand out as uplifting choices. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, a historical work by Andrew Miller, was bleaker than it sounds. Nina Stibbe’s Reasons to be Cheerful was as tragi-comic as her first: Man at the Helm – if you like a TV tie-in, track down Love Nina, a comedy-drama about her later life as a London nanny.

And I must have been feeling less in need of soothing by July to read The Silent Patient, a thriller by Alex Michaelides. Where the Crawdads Sing is a magnificent book and Delia Owens is worthy of all the acclaim.

Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing – a magnificent book

At last we’ve reached August. So what happened? Why did it take three months to read one book? Actually, that’s a slight bending of the truth. I started a new job and had to read three books in a week – it was like being back at Uni when I read Gulliver’s Travels, Tristram Shandy and Pamela in two and a half days – it’s an Arts’ student’s superpower, like adding up in your head for mathematicians. But I digress.

Dear Hilary Mantel. I know you are in love with Thomas Cromwell, but 754 pages? Just to kill him off? Ok, I know that Henry VIII ordered his death (joint history honours and all that) and the executioner took “three blows of the axe” to finally sever his head [link to Tower of London official history: https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/thomas-cromwell/#gs.pekbvu] but really?

I was entranced by Wolf Hall and enjoyed Bring up the Bodies, The Mirror and the Light is one for fans of Mantel and Tudor history. The plot is dense, even though you know where it’s ultimately going, and I thought my head would explode if Henry gave out any more patronage, meaning yet another name change. If you don’t like hard books, just watch the excellent Mark Rylance playing Cromwell for the BBC.

The antidote to all this brain work: I read my next book in three days! Step forward Jojo Moyes, patron saint of romantic novelists. The Giver of Stars has been claimed as her best yet. I can’t confirm this as a first-time reader, but I loved it. Read it, especially if you work in a library.

Since then I’ve been reading two books at the same time: The Library Book by Susan Orlean, an extremely readable account of the fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library, which went massively overlooked because it happened on the same day as Chernobyl; and American Dirt by Jeanine Cummings. The latter is the gripping story of a Mexican family forced to flee to the USA when they fall foul of ‘narcos’.

If you want to know which one I’d read again, then I’d be tempted to say The Wych Elm but would probably settle on Where the Crawdads Sing, for the natural justice. If there’s a film, it won’t compare.

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