I read 79 books in 2020.
Weirdly, this was 21 less than the year before, but then we didn’t go on holiday or travel at all (I usually read a lot on trains). I worked long hours and I often found it hard to concentrate – especially in those anxious months of the first lockdown.
I frequently found myself reading several pages, then having to go back and read them again. Or lying on the sofa at night watching Netflix, constantly refreshing newsfeeds on my iPad. (Wonder how I put on so much weight?)
I’m not even going to list the music I listened to, because so much of it was old. I think this was for the same reasons. There was something comforting about listening to dub, and classic reggae albums like The Heart of The Congos. Marvin Gaye and Aretha, classic house tracks, Bjork, Florence Welch, Nick Cave and Benjamin Clementine were also on heavy rotation.
But there were two clear albums of the year, both by the prolific and mysterious UK collective Sault. If you haven’t already heard Untiled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is), I highly recommend them.
Here are my favourite books of the year.
To be clear, these weren’t all published in 2020. They’re just books I read in the last 12 months. The links below will take you to Amazon, and if you decide to buy, I get a tiny payment to help with the costs of running this site. If you’d rather order from independent UK bookshops, I’ve also created a page where you can do that.
This short, magical novel lingered with me long after reading. It invents an entire world, and does it so convincingly that you totally believe in a house with infinite rooms filled with marble statues, a sea in its basement and clouds on its upper floor. It’s an intricate puzzle in which the lonely narrator slowly uncovers who and where he really is.
In a year when I hardly went to London, Evaristo bought it to me: teeming with life and energy, with injustice and opportunity, diverse and thrilling. This was a rightful winner of the 2019 Booker prize, and just a joy to read, jumping into the heads and lives of various, loosely interconnected but very different women living (mainly) in the capital. All of Evaristo’s books are great, but this felt like she’d stepped up another level. I can’t wait to read what she does next.
Though still brilliant, I didn’t enjoy this monumental novel as much as the previous two. Mainly because I knew it was going to end, and I didn’t want it to. And we all knew how it would end: with the axe on Cromwell’s neck. But Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and his complex relationship with Henry VIII will stand as a milestone in 21st century literature, an extraordinary combination of imagination, historical research and a writer at the peak of her powers.
The finale to Smith’s breath-taking seasonal quartet didn’t disappoint. Weaving political commentary with fictional characters, these are books for our time: angry, poetic, experimental, brimming with flawed and beautiful humanity.
A lonely outsider adopts an unloved, neglected dog, One Eye, and they find companionship, and even finally, a sort of freedom. But this dark, foreboding novel set on the Irish coast and in its countryside is much more than that. It’s a lyrical hymn to nature, full of vivid descriptions, dog-like snufflings and smells, brilliant and original.
One of the joys of being late to discover a good writer is that there is lots more to read, immediately. Vine’s psychological thrillers are brilliantly structured, drip-feeding information about the crime, while withholding crucial details to keep you reading. If you’re looking for page-turners, I also enjoyed Claire McGowan’s crime series set on the Irish border. I binged on all six over the summer: they were a great escape.
Feisty, funny, and proudly opinionated, this book is part-memoir, part self-help manual, but mainly a manifesto for the independent woman who wants to make a really good living online – while expressing her own unique voice. Packed full of actionable tips, it’s also just a great read. Ambirge earns her main living as a copywriter, but any creative will find things they can apply.
Very few books about productivity and getting things done are much use to creatives. This one is. If you’re someone who starts multiple projects and rarely finishes any of them, or if your working day lacks any real structure or focus, this will help. I’ve use the downloadable planning sheets every week since reading this, and they’ve helped me know what to focus on next, while keeping the flexibility I need.
I’m not one for productivity hacks and filling every waking moment with doing, but I enjoyed this. Bailey set out to live a year of maximum productivity, blogging along the way. This book is about what he learned, and it’s funny, wise and far more about deciding what you really want to achieve than about being constantly busy.
Having watched the BBC series, I wasn’t expecting to learn much more in this well-researched but very readable book. I was wrong. It’s full of great stories, intriguing glimpses of people of colour throughout our island’s history as far back as the Roman era, as well as Olusoga’s own memories of a childhood scarred by racist attacks. This is our shared history. It’s important that we know it so that we can move forward, together.
Full disclosure: Charlie is a good friend, and lives near me in Deal, on the Kent coast, looking out over the Channel to France. The book focusses on that body of water, and the people that lived on both sides of it, swam it, went over or under it. Like his earlier best-seller The Shipping Forecast, it’s a beguiling mix of travelogue, history, interview and anecdote, woven together with wit and style. It’s full of fun facts, stories that will make you laugh out loud, and memorable characters. I interview Charlie about his books here.
If there’s a theme in my favourite books this year, it seems to be about a sense of place, and finding your personal place within it. Westover’s family lived in isolation in the Idaho mountains and were deeply suspicious of the outside world. She grew up without schooling or access to conventional medicine. This beautifully written memoir is about violence, love, loyalty, her struggle to educate but also to define herself – and to finally find a sense of belonging.
Before reading Patti Smith’s latest book Year of The Monkey, I re-read her other two. I love everything she writes, but this is her best. An intimate memoir of her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, it’s also a vibrant portrait of 80s New York and a roadmap for anyone who wants to live a creative life.
Beautiful vignettes of the lives and work of various 20th century British landscape painters, this introduced me to many artists I was unaware of or hadn’t properly appreciated before. I now have a whole list of new paintings to explore when galleries reopen properly. But more than that, Neve’s friendships with many of the artists enables him to give a real insight into their creative processes.
Sheryl Garratt is a writer and a coach helping creatives to get the success they want, making work they love. Want my free 10-day course,Freelance Foundations: the secrets of successful creatives? Click here.