“Each Christmas spawns its ubiquitous festive pop jingle, its tearjerking advert, and its eccentric bestsellers,” said Jane Shilling in The Daily Telegraph. “Miscellanies, almanacs, amusingly pedantic grammar books – all go down nicely with a glass of sloe gin and a mince pie.” This year, my money’s on Pottering: A Cure for Modern Life by Anna McGovern (Laurence King £12.99). It’s a charming paean to “the small, practical, but satisfying occupations for which the demands of everyday life leave little time: deadheading window boxes, rearranging spice racks, replacing missing buttons”.
In a rather grave year, people may appreciate funny books more than ever, said Justine Jordan in The Guardian. For those who haven’t come across the deadpan comedy of David Sedaris, a new selection, The Best of Me (Little, Brown £16.99), makes an ideal introduction. He will make you “laugh, wince and sob”. Another veteran genius of observational comedy is Jilly Cooper, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer. InBetween the Covers (Bantam £14.99), a collection of her columns from the 1960s and 1970s, she reminds us that, before she became a novelist, she was a “perky, clever and rather wise” journalist.
Also recommended is Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops (Profile £7.99), said Mark Mason in the Daily Mail – a slim volume by Shaun Bythell, the owner of Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop. From the Expert who wants “to impart rather than obtain information”, to the Aspirational Parent convinced of young Tarquin’s readiness for War and Peace, Bythell’s portraits are amusingly misanthropic.
In Notes from an Apocalypse (Granta £14.99), Mark O’Connell describes a series of journeys to the “places where the end-times seem closest”, said Michael Kerr in The Daily Telegraph – luxury, nuclear bunkers; boltholes in New Zealand; the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. “Fretful, wise and funny”, it’s a book suited to the anxiety of our times.
Best books of 2020
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Booker Prize winner)
It is 1981. Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive. Agnes Bain has always expected more from life. She dreams of greater things but Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and soon she and her three children find themselves trapped in a decimated mining town. As she descends deeper into drink, the children try their best to save her, yet one by one they must abandon her to save themselves. It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest. Judges of The Booker Prize were “bowled-over by this first novel, which creates an amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage and love”. While the Observer’s Alex Preston adds: “Douglas Stuart has written a first novel of rare and lasting beauty.”
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
Bea’s five-year-old daughter, Agnes, is slowly wasting away. The smog and pollution of the overdeveloped, overpopulated metropolis they call home is ravaging her lungs. Bea knows she cannot stay in the city, but there is only one alternative: The Wilderness State. As Agnes embraces this new existence, Bea realises that saving her daughter’s life might mean losing her in ways she hadn’t foreseen. Emily St. John Mandel, the New York Times bestselling author of Station Eleven, calls it “a virtuosic debut, brutal and beautiful in equal measure”.
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Dangarembga channels the hope and potential of one young girl and a fledgling nation to lead us on a journey to discover where lives go after hope has departed. Here we meet Tambudzai, living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare and anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job. At every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point. In her review for The Guardian Lara Feigel says This Mournable Body “provides a powerful finale to the Zimbabwean author’s trilogy”.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her arranged marriage to join an ashram, took a hapless artist for a lover, rebelled against every social expectation of a good Indian woman – all with her young child in tow. Years on, she is an old woman with a fading memory, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a mother who never seemed to care for her. This is a poisoned love story. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter. Francesca Carington of The Daily Telegraph says: “There’s a lot more to praise in Burnt Sugar: a concern with corporeality and illness, smells and shrieks erupting through the feverish prose. It’s a corrosive, compulsive debut.”
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Ethiopia. 1935. With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employer, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilise his strongest men before the Italians invade. “The star of the novel is Mengiste’s gorgeous writing, which makes The Shadow King nearly impossible to put down,” says Michael Schaub of NPR. “Mengiste has a real gift for language; her writing is powerful but never florid, gripping the reader and refusing to let go.”
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
In this brilliant debut novel, described as “psychologically compelling” by the Observer, Wallace spends his summer in the lab of lakeside Midwestern university breeding a strain of microscopic worms – a life that’s a world away from his childhood in Alabama. His father died a few weeks ago, but Wallace didn’t go back for the funeral, and he hasn’t told his friends – Miller, Yngve, Cole and Emma. For reasons of self-preservation, he has become used to keeping a wary distance even from those closest to him. But, over the course of one blustery end-of-summer weekend, the destruction of his work and a series of intense confrontations force Wallace to grapple with both the trauma of the past, and the question of the future. Lucy Knight of The Sunday Times calls Real Life “an elegant take on the ‘campus novel’ and a deeply moving study of race, grief and desire”.
Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower
Tom Bower is a veteran journalist who is famous for his scathing unauthorised biographies of powerful men, said Rachel Sylvester in The Times – among them Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn. You’d assume that with his latest effort he would have repeated the trick, but instead he has produced an “oddly sympathetic” portrait. It’s not that Boris Johnson: The Gambler is a whitewash. Bower is alive to his subject’s “faults and mistakes”: Johnson is portrayed as “obsessed with money, incorrigibly disloyal”, dishonest and “riddled with insecurities”. But rather than holding him responsible for such failings, Bower presents them as the “inevitable product” of a chaotic, disturbing and deeply unhappy childhood. For him, “Boris” – as he is chummily described throughout – is primarily a victim.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale
In 1938 Alma Fielding, a housewife from Thornton Heath in south London, apparently became possessed by a violent spirit, said Lucy Lethbridge in the Literary Review. A six-fingered handprint appeared on a mirror; a glass spontaneously shattered; visiting reporters saw eggs fly through the air and a fender tumble down the stairs. Kate Summerscale’s great coup is to have discovered the notebooks of Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian journalist sent to investigate these events by the International Institute for Psychical Research. Months of rigorous tests led Fodor to believe that while Fielding had certainly faked some of the manifestations, she was indeed possessed by some kind of uncanny force. Summerscale, the author of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, has “an enviable nose for events, once briefly notorious, that are still singular and disturbing”. She places this story in its historical context: the craze for spiritualism brought about by the memory of the First World War and the threat of renewed conflict. “All over Britain,” she observes, “domestic furniture seemed to be bristling into life.”
Jack by Marilynne Robinson
For the past two decades, the American writer Marilynne Robinson has devoted herself to a single novel sequence, exploring the world of a small group of characters from the fictional Midwestern town of Gilead, said Erica Wagner in the FT. Beginning with Gilead in 2004, and continuing with Home (2008) and Lila (2014), this “remarkable” series of “companion pieces” has rightly won “countless awards”. Jack, the fourth instalment, tracks the life of the young Jack Boughton, who in earlier novels was known mainly by his reputation: he was the “black sheep” son of Reverend Robert Boughton. In this latest outing, Jack is living a footloose life in postwar St Louis, and having a relationship with a black woman named Della, which falls foul of the period’s anti-miscegenation laws. As complex and fluidly written as its predecessors, this work “fits beautifully into the subtle weave of Robinson’s Gilead books”.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
With The Mirror and the Light, Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage. The Atlantic’s Judith Shulevitz says: “In The Mirror & the Light, which closes the trilogy, we witness Cromwell’s fall. This is not a spoiler. You can Google his fate in eight seconds. Mantel’s job is to make the inevitable suspenseful, which she does by turning her protagonist into a tragic hero.”
Nightingale by Marina Kemp
A “sultry, soapy, literary novel”, Nightingale is a bit like “the bastard offspring of Ian McEwan and Shirley Conran”, says The Times. It follows a young nurse as she moves from Paris to rural France to be a live-in carer for a tyrannical dying businessman. Queue “village jealousy, rows and sexual passion”, in an exciting debut novel filled with dramatic plot turns and juicy villains, says the newspaper.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Telling the imagined story of the short life of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, O’Farrell’s book follows him as he goes in search of help for his gravely ill twin sister. The novel “builds into a profound exploration of the healing power of creativity”, The Guardian says. O’Farrell won the Costa Novel Award in 2010 for her book The Hand That First Held Mine, and her other work includes After You’d Gone, The Distance Between Us and Instructions For A Heatwave.
The Sphinx by Hugo Vickers
A gripping account of the life of Gladys Deacon, a famously beautiful young American who dreamed of marrying an English aristocrat, and did, only to end her long and curious life in a mental asylum. The story of the Duchess of Marlborough, told by the British writer and broadcaster Hugo Vickers, is “a tale of upper-class scandal, misery and madness”, says The Times.
Here We Are by Graham Swift
The 1996 Booker Prize winner (for his novel Last Orders) sets his newest book in Brighton in 1959. In Here We Are, Swift looks back on the lives of three young “end-of-the-pier” performers, telling the story of the “off-stage drama between a magician, his assistant and a compere”, says the London Evening Standard.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Wiener’s “darkly funny and perceptive” memoir details her disillusionment with the world of tech after spending several years working for start-ups in New York and San Francisco, said The New York Times. She explores what it was that motivated her former colleagues, and how the tech industry has reshaped San Francisco in particular. “If you’re already skeptical about tech and its implications for society, this book may confirm your worst fears,” says the newspaper.
Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride
An enigmatic book, Strange Hotel follows a nameless female protagonist from country to country, from one hotel room to the next. “Even the plushest hotel room can lack soul”, said the BBC, and for her, each holds complex and often painful memories. This is the third novel from Eimear McBride, who made an award-winning debut in 2013 with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, about a young woman’s complex family relationships, and followed it up with The Lesser Bohemian, about a relationship between a young student and a 38-year-old actor.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
McCann, who won the US National Book Award in 2009 for his novel Let the Great World Spin, takes on the Israel-Palestine conflict in a work that is “both spectacularly inventive and grounded in hard, often brutal fact”, said The Guardian. Telling the story of two fathers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, bound together by grief for their daughters, this is a highly ambitious novel in both form and themes. “If you can read it without sobbing, you’re a monster,” the Guardian adds.
Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr
A moving memoir left behind by the celebrated journalist Deborah Orr, who died in October. Recounting growing up with brutal honesty, Orr tells of “trying to escape from a working-class, anti-bookish upbringing” in Scotland, in the shadow of the steelworks at Ravenscraig, said The Times. The book also explores her painful relationship with her domineering mother – Orr concludes: “My own life had really been about two irreconcilable things: defying my mother and gaining her approval.”
House of Glass by Hadley Freeman
Guardian writer Hadley Freeman says it took her 18 years to research her latest book, House of Glass, which digs into the extraordinary life of her Jewish grandmother Sala Glass and her siblings. “It is written in a different register from her whip-smart journalism and indeed her previous books,” says the London Evening Standard. “She is loving but sceptical towards her family, managing to break down the self-mythologising of her great-uncle Alex while also exploring the dangers inherent in the stereotype of Jewish passivity.” The newspaper adds that while at times “heartbreaking”, it is “not a bleak book”.
Amnesty by Aravind Adiga
From the author of The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize, comes the tale of a young Tamil trying to avoid deportation from Sydney, Australia. “Maltreated by police in Sri Lanka, he has come to Australia on a student visa, only to find the glossily advertised college he had enrolled at is a tawdry swindle,” explains The Sunday Times. The newspaper describes it as a “reverse-pattern companion piece” to White Tiger. “Brimming with empathy as well as indignation, this novel engagingly extends Adiga’s fictional concern with deprivation and injustice,” concludes the paper.
My Wild and Sleepless Nights by Clover Stroud
This motherhood memoir lays bare the all-encompassing everyday detail of bringing up five children, ranging in age from newborn to teenager. “How brilliant for someone to write about the blankness as well as the beauty; the lust, the exhaustion, the hypocrisy, the failure and the soaring joy”, says Nell Frizzell at The Telegraph. “What a relief to have someone report from the frontline of this essential human endeavour.”
This Lovely City by Louise Hare
The city in question is London, 1948, seen through the eyes of Jamaican Lawrie Matthews, after disembarking from the Empire Windrush, although it is “war-damaged, shabby and often openly hostile to black immigrants such as him”, explains The Sunday Times. This “hotly anticipated debut”, set in Brixton, south London, is a tale of young love and striving for a better life, which sees Lawrie under suspicion of a crime he didn’t commit.
Box Hill by Adam Mars-Jones
Chronicling an abusive gay relationship in the 1970s, this slim volume (just 128 pages) packs a punch, “with a pleasure or peculiarity on every page”, says The Guardian. It opens with a blow-by-blow account of an open-air blowjob at the eponymous Surrey beauty spot. Subtitled “A Story of Low Self-Esteem”, it’s a recollection by the character Colin, “who is ‘short and fat and tired of being bullied’ and grateful for the attention of good-looking Ray”, says the newspaper, which calls it a “a sparky yet sad vision of gay subculture”.