What were our favourite reads of 2020?
Note: if you prefer to listen rather than read, head to episode 85 dedicated to our favourite books of 2020.
2020 brought some stand-out reads, with some obvious choices that could have topped our best of the best list, including Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and Shuggie Bain. We loved both books – along with everybody else!
So, better we thought to choose books more off the well-beaten literary track. Here, in reverse order, are each of our three favourite (non-obvious) reads of 2020.
Kate’s third favourite book of 2020
The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart Smith
Kate loved this fascinating non-fiction book by psychiatrist and amateur gardener Sue Stuart Smith. In it Smith combines her own love of nature and connection with gardening (she is married to the celebrated garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith) and her clinical work in the NHS, to explore the way that gardening and proximity to the natural world has a positive impact on people’s mental health.
In the midst of Covid-19 lockdowns and pandemic anxiety reading this felt like a balm and helped Kate understand many of the things people instinctively turned to at that time, whether it was growing vegetables or tending a pot-plant. The book weaves in Smith’s own family story of her grandfather, once a prisoner-of-war, and how he overcame his traumatic past through his love of gardening. She also looks at various schemes in institutions such as prisons to see how they have affected the outcomes for those involved. ‘If we put energy into cultivating the earth’, she writes, ‘we are given something back. …When we sow a seed we plant a narrative of future possibility. It is an action of hope.’
Weaving in poetry, philosophy, psychiatric theory and Smith’s own gardening experiences, Kate found it a unexpectedly riveting read, and the perfect foil to her own worries during a memorably difficult year.
Laura’s third favourite book of 2020
Himself by Jess Kidd
A debut novel that was shortlisted for the Irish First book awards in 2016, Laura loved this magic-realist murder mystery meets comic caper with madcap characters and ghosts. The handsome and charismatic Mahoney returns to the village of his birth to try to discover what happened to his mother, who disappeared twenty-five years earlier. He has the ability to see the spirits of the dead, who alternately try to help and hinder him. As do the villagers, who are unwilling to reveal their secrets.
Gradually Mahoney does find some allies, and the truth starts to come out. Very dark, with a quality to the writing that seemed to Laura distinctively Irish, an unusually sensitive crime novel, inventive and brilliantly written with a compulsive quality guaranteed to keep you turning the pages until late into the night.
Kate’s second favourite book of 2020
Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony
Life as a Republican Congressman agrees with Alexander Payne Wilson. He has two passions: collecting Ronald Reagan memorabilia, and getting re-elected. He feels threatened by his main adversary, Nancy Beavers, who seems to have an unfair advantage in that she’s married with children. Wilson himself is gay, but he doesn’t mean to let that affect his electoral ambitions and has a marriage of convenience lined up and waiting. Everything seems to be going his way until, one day, a FedEx employee delivers a box containing a large stuffed aardvark.
The story flips back and forth between Wilson’s present-day attempts to get the anomalous aardvark out of his carefully ordered life, and the 19th-century story of the taxidermist who created it.
Part sharp political satire, part dark love story, Enter The Aardvark wasn’t quite like anything else Kate had ever read. She loved the detailed sentences and ingeniuous plot. Both a satire of the contemporary political climate in the US, and a sideways look at male-power structures, this was a bright spark in an otherwise fairly downbeat reading year.
Laura’s second favourite book of 2020
West With the Night by Beryl Markham
A classic much loved by those in the know, West With the Night tells the story of Beryl Markham, who grew up in British East Africa, now Kenya. She befriended the local tribespeople who taught her how to hunt and to live in harmony with the natural world. Her adventurous spirit led her to stay and become a successful racehorse trainer when her father lost his money and left for South America. She also went on to be a famous aviatrix, successfully becoming the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from Europe to North America. Markham doesn’t divulge the details of her three marriages and children, but for Laura this made her story more interesting, not less, leaving more space for her incredible adventures. A wonderful read, and easily one of Laura’s top books of 2020.
Kate’s favourite book of 2020
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
This unusual memoir tells the story of an abusive lesbian relationship. It has many different themes, one of which is laying bare something that the author suggests the lesbian community prefer not to acknowledge, that absusive relationships can and do exist between women. The central focus of the book is ‘the dream house’, the house in which the author thought she and her partner were going to build their lives. In fact, though, each chapter takes on a different possibility, ‘the dream house as …’. Sometimes they relate details about the events that took place, sometimes they bring in literary or feminist theory, sometimes they play with pop culture references such as Star Trek or choose-your-own-adventure. Each is very different, some short, some long, but they build up to an utterly engrossing whole.
There is a tenderness here as the author lays her heart bare that makes the reader feel protective, and angry on Machado’s behalf. Will she find the inner strength to break free? And what will become of her if she does? A brilliant and original delight that stood-out in Kate’s 2020 reads and was an easy winner for her book of the year.
Laura’s favourite book of 2020
A Drop of Patience by William Melvin Kelley
Deceptively simple, William Melvin Kelley’s novels are powerfully affecting and Laura came to A Drop of Patience after first reading his novel A Different Drummer.
A Drop of Patience tells the story of Ludlow Washington who is born blind, and left in a brutal state-run institution for blind African-American children. The children are taught to play instruments and at the age of 16 Ludlow is bought in order to play in a jazz band. He becomes hugely successful, travelling to New York. The story is told from the perspective of a blind person which Laura found incredibly effective. There’s also the thread of music which Kelley explores; Ludlow has a different relationship with music than the people who hear him play. And there is also the issue of race, which due to his blindness Ludlow also experiences differently.
A phenomenal classic that has been forgotten and shouldn’t be, Laura recommends this to everyone. It was the best book she read in 2020.
What were your favourite books you read in 2020? Comment below and let us know.