If anything good can be said to have come out of 2020, it’s that I had more time to read. I made a concerted effort to read from my own shelves last year (though I did still buy and read plenty of new books, in the end – but when the only pleasure I was seemingly allowed for much of the year was going to a book shop, how could this have been helped?!), which has meant I’ve got around to reading a lot of stuff I’ve had knocking about for years. Some of these books I loved, some I didn’t, but either way, I enjoyed the experience of exploring my shelves, discovering new authors, and feeling the weight of guilt lift ever so slightly off my shoulders as I no longer had to look at shelf after shelf of unread books. I did have ambitious plans of reading literally all of my unread books, but obviously this was a laughable goal and very much did not happen. I did however make it through to L in the alphabet, which is pretty much half way, so not bad. I plan on continuing this project into 2021 – I’m scaling back on the new book buying (largely as I have run out of space, again) and really want to get through to the end of the alphabet. I’d also like to make more time for re-reading – I’m particularly hankering after revisiting all of my Dorothy Whipples.
So, what were my top 10 reads of 2020? Here goes (in order of reading, not rank order), and I hope they’ll give you some reading inspiration!
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
This is an absolutely fascinating exploration of the Jack the Ripper murders, taking a fresh look at such well-trodden ground by focusing on the lives of the female victims rather than their deaths or the possible identity of their murderer. By repositioning our gaze onto the women as people, and not as corpses, Rubenhold not only gives them back some dignity, but also produces a wonderful and absorbing piece of social history. Working class women’s lives are so little recorded in the history books; even if you have no interest in the Jack the Ripper story, this is worth reading for the many insights into nineteenth century working class women’s experiences alone.
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
This is the book I’ve been lending out and buying for everyone I know this year. As I turned each page, my anger grew. Criado Perez’s forensic analysis of how the world is set up to favour men and discriminate against women, from minor annoyances (did you know that mobile phones are designed to fit the span of male hands, which is why so many women struggle to hold them comfortably?), to the downright dangerous (women and pregnant women are routinely excluded from medical trials, with men’s bodies used as a default, despite our numerous biological differences), is absorbingly written, factually sound, and scrupulously fair in its ability to understand and explain why these differences exist, rather than seeking to blame. If you need to prove to anyone who doesn’t want to listen that inequality is embedded into every area of our existence – then pass this book on. The more people who read it and make a fuss, the better!
Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts
This was the last book I bought before we went into lockdown, and it’s what got me through those difficult first few weeks. Sophy Roberts is a remarkable woman, who carried out several journeys into the incredibly inhospitable Siberian landscape to search out the stories behind – and find the remnants of – the pianos brought to this region over the last couple of hundred years. Used by the Tsars and then the Communists as a penal colony, sparsely populated and seemingly on the edge of the universe, one would be forgiven for thinking that there couldn’t possibly have been any musical or cultural life in Siberia to discover. But you would be very wrong, as this wonderful book demonstrates. On her travels, Roberts is welcomed into so many homes and institutions by people desperate to tell the stories of pianos once loved, and through their tales of Siberian life, she – and we – learn so much about what music has meant, and still does mean, to Siberians. I loved every minute – how could I not love a book that combines two of my passions – pianos and Russian history – and it left me desperate to go and sledge my way across Siberia myself. Highly, highly recommended!
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
A work of total genius that had me weeping like a child at the end; a heartbreaking finale to what has been a remarkable series of books. If you’re not a Mantel fan, I know I won’t convince you otherwise, but if you’ve never started the Wolf Hall trilogy, and need distracting from the world and its weariness right now, then get stuck in now and thank me later!
The Sea Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard
I very much enjoyed discovering Elizabeth Jane Howard’s back catalogue this year, and this is the best of the bunch I read; a lyrical, evocative account of a very complicated love triangle set in 1960s New York, London and Greece, it’s worth reading for being transported so fully to another world alone, though the characterisation is also marvellous. I loved it!
Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
I’d had this forlornly sitting on my shelf for years, and wasn’t really sure why I’d ever bought it when I picked it up to read. What a pleasant surprise I discovered inside, when I realised how hilarious Isherwood is, and what a wonderful, perceptive and economical writer – with a fantastic ear for dialogue. Set in Berlin in the days leading up to Hitler’s rise to power, the menace in the air makes the city throb with nervous expectation, and British expat William Bradshaw finds his life taking a very strange turn when he bumps into fellow countryman Mr Norris on the train, who, as it turns out, isn’t quite the gentleman he seems…
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
I’d dismissed this Booker Prize winner as not being my cup of tea, until I gave it a go on a friend’s recommendation and found it utterly absorbing. An exploration of the interweaving lives of various different black women living in London across the decades of the mid 20th century to the present day, Evaristo creates a patchwork of vivid voices that opened my eyes to so many different female experiences outside of my own. There is so much richness in here, and it is so well written – it was definitely my fiction discovery of the year.
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
I fell in love with Gloria Steinem after reading her wonderfully warm, generous and wise autobiography, in which she tells of the many lessons she has learned in her decades of travelling across the US to support women fighting for change within their communities. She tells of her childhood, of her experiences struggling to make a name for herself as a journalist in a male-dominated industry, of the many enriching friendships she has made throughout her life with inspiring women – and men – and of her discovery that her power is not in speaking, but in listening – because when people feel heard, that’s when they feel empowered. I’ve since gone on to read everything I can get my hands on by Steinem – she’s my heroine.
Summer by Ali Smith
I’d heard of the Ali Smith seasonal novels, but hadn’t given any of them a go until I saw the newly released Summer in a book shop in Scotland this summer. Written and published so quickly that it references the coronavirus pandemic, I felt strangely drawn to it despite knowing nothing about its contents. I devoured it over a couple of days, finding in this tale of interconnected modern lives, a voice that reflected my own thoughts and feelings in a rather uncanny way. When I finished reading, I felt buoyed up, purged, somehow, of my own negative emotions in knowing I was not alone – it was a wonderful experience. Smith is an incredibly clever, innovative writer, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work this year.
Square Haunting by Francesca Wade
This is a wonderful account of the lives of five remarkable women who lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square during the early part of the nineteenth century: famous novelists Virginia Woolf and Dorothy L Sayers, as well as now largely forgotten historian Eileen Power, classicist Jane Ellen Harrison and poet H.D. Rather than straightforward biography, Wade is interested in looking at what brought them to Mecklenburgh Square at different points in their professional and personal lives, and what living there, at the heart of Bloomsbury, meant to them. It’s an impressive piece of scholarship, though written in a pleasingly accessible way, and I discovered much I didn’t know, and would like to explore further. If you’re interested in women’s history, or the history of Bloomsbury, I know you’d love this.