The heavy and the light: 2020 books roundup

Favourite books of 2020: Piranesi, Small Island, The Fifth Season, Trent's Last Case, One Two Three Four, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Life in God, Lifting Hearts to the Lord

I’ve been posting the books I’ve read this year at quarterly intervals (Jan-Mar | Apr-Jun | Jul-Sep | Oct-Dec), and now the time has come to sum up the year and identify my favourite books from the past twelve months.

As in previous years, I’ve divided fiction into two categories, to reflect its dominance of my reading (51 books out of 94). This year, I’ve divided it between “literary fiction” and “popular and genre fiction”: an awful division to impose in many ways – the ghost of Ursula K. Le Guin is shaking her head at me in despair – but one which honours the role played by “light” reading in keeping me sane over the “heavy” months of lockdown. I’ve then identified two “winners” from each category, plus some others that were “commended by the judges” – and then a “most recommendable” option, the book which I think would appeal to the widest audience.

Literary fiction

Winners

  • Piranesi (Susanna Clarke)
  • Small Island (Andrea Levy)

The first of these was one of the easiest winners to decide this year. I loved Piranesi, for reasons it is hard to articulate. It’s magical realism – rather than the parallel history fantasy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – but with a genuine emotional warmth rather than the tricksiness into which some magical realism can fall. As I advised before, don’t read the reviews (the Guardian review in particular is very spoilery), but do read the blurb, which captures the spirit of the book without giving anything away.

Deciding on second winner proved trickier, with pretty much a three-way tie between Small Island, The Remains of the Day and the first three volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time. In the end, I went with Small Island, because even having read it longer ago than the others, it still has an atmosphere and characters that resonate in my memory.

Commended

  • The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
  • A Question of Upbringing / A Buyer’s Market / The Acceptance World (Anthony Powell)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
  • Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
  • The Towers of Trebizond (Rose Macaulay)
  • The Girls of Slender Means (Muriel Spark)

As I mentioned above, the first two on this list could easily have been picked as winners. I also loved Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, which I read way back in the Before Times (January). A contrasting trio of novels by early/mid-20th century British women then complete the set, The Girls of Slender Means qualifying partly because the passage about “the Englishly rendered intentions of the sweet singer of Israel” persuaded me to resume use of the Book of Common Prayer, and in particular its cycle of psalms, for my personal devotions.

Most recommendable: Piranesi’s whimsy isn’t going to be for everyone, so my “most recommendable” book from the list above is The Remains of the Day. 31 years after it won the Booker, it remains an exceptional novel, with its layers of narratorial self-deception.

Popular/genre fiction

Winners

  • The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin)
  • Trent’s Last Case (E.C. Bentley)

As mentioned above, “popular/genre fiction” gets a separate category this year because of the role played by “light reading”. The first winner, though, is far from light: N.K. Jemisin’s brilliantly-rendered vision of a far-future Earth, which has become a hostile and seismologically unstable world for humanity, in which centuries of relative calm are punctuated by horrifying “Seasons” as “Father Earth” takes his revenge on those living on his surface. It’s the first of a trilogy which I hope to complete in 2021.

Another theme in my reading this year was “golden age detective fiction”, kicked off by reading Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law. E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, written in 1913, is widely regarded as having created the “modern” detective novel – featuring, as it does, a gentleman amateur solving a murder at an English country home populated by an ensemble cast of suspicious characters – but at the same time takes the genre in a unique direction that wasn’t (indeed couldn’t be) fully imitated by its successors.

Commended

  • Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)
  • Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • The Player of Games (Iain M. Banks)
  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate (Becky Chambers)
  • GBH (Ted Lewis)
  • Three Hours (Rosamund Lupton)

A mixed bag of “commendeds”, here. Tragedy at Law is regarded by many as Cyril Hare’s finest book: its most appealing feature (apart from Hare’s trademark legal nerdery) is the social history it presents of the now-forgotten world of the “courts of assize”, in which judges would tour the towns of England dispending justice in an atmosphere of (by 1940) incongruous ceremonial.

Back in the science fiction corner, Red Mars is the first and best of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: I’m glad to have read Green Mars and (nearly at the end of) Blue Mars, but they are harder going than the first. Becky Chambers’ novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, was an enjoyable and thought-provoking piece of “space exploration” sci fi, in which the usual themes of colonialism and conquest (very much on display in KSR’s epic of terraforming) are replaced by a vision of crowdfunded exploration that seeks to “leave only footprints”, and in which humans “somaform” themselves to each planet’s conditions rather than forcing the planets to change.

Most recommendable: Rosamund Lupton’s intense account of an English secondary school under armed siege, Three Hours, is a gripping thriller full of human sympathy, and also has some interesting thoughts on Macbeth as a study in radicalisation.

Nonfiction

Winners

  • One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (Craig Brown)
  • Something That May Shock and Discredit You (Daniel M. Lavery)

This was the easiest category of all to decide on. While I read plenty of good nonfiction (rather more than in 2019), I loved both these books to bits. What they each have in common is the deployment of a nonlinear whimsy in the service of a clear vision, a story that each author is burning to tell. In Daniel Lavery’s case, it’s the story of his gender transition as an adult (and, indeed, as a widely loved feminist writer). Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four tells the story of the Beatles, not in the usual plodding journey from Quarrymen to Let It Be, but through the lens of the Beatles’ various hangers-on during their careers and the obsessive passion of fans to this day.

Commended

  • Trans Like Me (CN Lester)
  • The Northumbrians (Dan Jackson)
  • From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Shaye J.D. Cohen)
  • Black and British (David Olusoga)
  • Invisible Women (Caroline Criado Perez)
  • Deadliest Enemy (Mark Olshaker and Michael Osterholm)

The Northumbrians is distinguished by being the only book whose author I met this year: Dan Jackson and I have been following one another on Twitter for years, so it was great to get a guided tour of Tynemouth from him while holidaying in the north east during the summer. His book is a passionate and illuminating love-letter to the people of the north-east England, their history and their culture.

Shaye J.D. Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah was recommended as a definitive history of early Judaism from the Second Temple to the early rabbinic period, and didn’t disappoint. The final chapter focuses in particular on “the parting of the ways” between Jews and Christians in the second century CE.

Three books that fitted ongoing themes in 2020: David Olusoga’s Black and British provides valuable historical background to the #BlackLivesMatter and #RhodesMustFall movements in the UK; Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women is a meticulously researched, data-driven protest against “the default male” and his dominance of society from the size of phones to the safety of cars; and Mark Olshaker and Michael Osterholm’s Deadliest Enemy, published in 2017, was a prophetic account of our society’s vulnerability to contagious pathogens.

Most recommendable: CN Lester’s Trans Like Me is the book I’d recommend to anyone wanting to understand the existence and rights of trans people in the UK, both of which have proved strangely controversial in 2020.

Theology

Winners

  • Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology (Matthew Myer Boulton)
  • Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva (Karin Maag)

These might seem surprising choices for a Lutheran, but they reflect my growing interest in the French humanist scholar and theologian Jean Cauvin – as he is called by Marilynne Robinson, who has done more than anyone else to make me reappraise him and his legacy.

Both books are concerned, not so much with Calvin’s theology (not that that can be separated from anything else about him) as with his vision for the Christian life: a vision in which the monastic disciplines of scripture reading, prayer, psalm singing, godly labour and so on were not so much abolished as democratised and made the basis for the life of all Christians. For Matthew Myer Boulton, Calvin’s Institutio is not a systematic theology (“Institutes of the Christian Religion”) but a book aimed at (and more properly translated) “Formation in Christian Piety”. Karin Maag then backs this up with an eclectic mixture of source materials from 16th century Geneva.

Commended

  • Transforming (Austen Hartke)
  • Trans-Gender (Justin Sabia-Tanis)
  • Dazzling Darkness (Rachel Mann)
  • Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol I (John Calvin)
  • God in Himself (Steven J. Duby)
  • Essays on the Trinity (ed. Lincoln Harvey)

I described in my last post how the first three books above helped me reorient myself following some surprising family news. The final three books are obviously more solidly “doctrinal” in content (although see my comments above on misreading the Institutes as merely a book of academic theology), and the last two in particular challenged and stretched my understanding of God himself – always a healthy thing to undergo.

Most recommendable: just as CN Lester’s Trans Like Me is my go-to book for people to orient themselves with the issues affecting trans people in a general “secular” context, Austen Hartke’s Transforming is where I’d recommend people start in understanding an affirming Christian perspective on trans people.

Running the numbers

I try not to get too obsessive these days about the number of books I read, but I did tot up some figures in my notebook at the end of the year:

  • 94 books finished
  • 51 fiction, 21 nonfiction, 22 theology (up from a derisory three in 2019)
  • 32 books by women, 3 by trans men, 2 by nonbinary people – so, yes, a majority still by cis men, but less of a majority than previous years, at a guess
  • 42 books read on Kindle – which is one reason my to-read shelves remain a disaster area. The main reasons are (a) resorting to all that “light reading”, and (b) acquiring both an iPad and a new Kindle during the year, both of which made reading e-books a more attractive option.

Champion of Champions

I don’t normally pick one single overall favourite book of the year. Usually I’d find it impossible to do so, but this year there are two books that have stood out as particular favourites: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, and Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel M. Lavery.

It’s not easy to decide between them, but on balance the book this year that caused me the most delight, combined with depth of insight and emotional weight, is Lavery’s.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You | Book by Daniel M. Lavery |  Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster

Looking ahead

Books on my to-read shelf in January 2021

As usual, my purported aim is to “make real inroads into my to-read shelves – and this year I mean it.” Well, we’ll see.

I am trying to avoid taking on fresh commitments, though, so will focus on finishing the main series I’ve been reading in 2020: N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, KSR’s Red/Green/Blue Mars, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead sequence (which I’ve been rereading en route to reading Jack). I also plan to make further inroads into the Forsyte Saga, having read A Man of Property earlier this year, and eagle-eyed inspection of the photograph above will reveal a copy of Olivia Manning’s Balkans Trilogy waiting for me.

One book I conspicuously didn’t read in 2020, despite the title of this post possibly looking like an allusion to it, is Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. I suppose I should give it a go in 2021, though the consensus seems to be (and my wife’s opinion certainly is) that it’s at least 200 pages too long, suggesting that Mantel rather lost control of her material in concluding the trilogy.

I’ve also set myself the ambitious target of finishing Calvin’s Institutes. 20 pages a week should do it…

So, that’s the outline of a plan. But if there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s to be humble in making plans for the year ahead. So let’s see how we go.

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