Books read in 2020

Anne Youngson Meet Me at the Museum

Stella Martin Currey One Woman’s Year

Nikki Crutchley No-one Can Hear You

Jan Morris In My Mind’s Eye

Rajeev Balasubramanyam Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss

Ann Patchett The Dutch House

Aleksander Hemon The Book of My Lives

Kerry Greenwood Murder and Mendelssohn

Anne Tyler The Clock Dance

Janice Hadlow The Other Bennet Sister

Graham Norton A Keeper

Nigel Slater Toast

Ben MacIntyre The Spy and the Traitor

Olivia Hayfield Wife after Wife

Linda Burgess Someone’s Wife

Hadley Freeman House of Glass

Hilary Mantel The Mirror and the Glass

Jane Harper Force of Nature

Anthony Quinn Freya

Deborah Feldman Unorthodox

May Sarton The House by the Sea

Deborah Orr Motherwell

Graham Swift Here We Are

Joanne Drayton In Search of Anne Perry

Martin Cruz Smith The Siberian Dilemma

Tony Mole The Secret Life of Books

Suajata Massi The Murder on Malabar Hill

Shirley Hazzard The Evening of the Holiday

Curtis Sittenfeld Eligible

Nikolas Butler Little Faith

Hunter Davies Happy Old Me

Charlotte Wood The Weekend

Kerry Hudson Lowborn

Billy O’Callaghan My Coney Island Baby

Nikolas Butler Shotgun Love Songs

Alexandra Shulman Clothes and Other Things that Matter

Markus Zusak The Messenger

Susan Ertz Madame Claire

Anne Tyler The Redhead by the Side of the Road

Donna Leon Death at La Fenice

Sam Bourne To Kill the Truth

Owen Marshall Pearly Gates

Artemis Cooper Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence

Nikolas Butler The Hearts of Men

Gill Hornby Miss Austen

Linda Grant A Stranger City

Curtis Sittenfeld Rodham

Anne Enright Actress

Bernard Myers The Offing

Amy Bloom White Houses

Lars Mytting The Bell in the Lake

Raynor Winn The Salt Path

Shaun Bythell Confessions of a Bookseller

Carl Nixon The Virgin and the Whale

Carl Nixon Settlers’ Creek

David Sedaris Calypso

Emma Donoghue The Pull of the Stars

Caitlin Moran More than a Woman

Drusilla Modjeska Second Half First

It’s always easier to identify the books one definitely wouldn’t recommend than to decide which of the 60 books one has read in a year are the best. Of this year’s list, the ones I wouldn’t bother with if I were you are: A Keeper by Graham Norton (this was a disappointing read after I had enjoyed his autobiography last year), the Kerry Greenwood (again disappointing because I enjoy the Australian TV series starring Essie Davis) and Madame Claire by Susan Ertz (I picked this up in a Penguin paperback edition as a joke because my daughter’s name is Claire but it is dated and at times, shockingly racist).

Of the non-fiction I’ve read this year, I can highly recommend Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn, which is a compelling account of her poverty-stricken and violent childhood and adolescence and how she overcame these seemingly insurmountable obstacles to live a productive and happy life. It is heartening that she is an advocate for the poor and dispossessed. I also enjoyed Artemis Cooper’s biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard, who is one of my favourite writers. It was interesting to review her writing in the context of her long and complex life. I still feel sad that there will be no more fiction from her. But the best non-fiction of the year for me was House of Glass by Hadley Freeman. I admit to being partial to Freeman – I enjoy reading her columns and listening to her in various podcasts. This book is not to be missed if you have an interest in how the complex events of the 20th century affected the lives of ordinary people. Freeman’s grandmother’s life was affected in profound ways and her experiences are the basis of the book, which also fleshes out the lives of her great-grandparents and their other children. You cannot read this book and fail to reflect on those who happened to fall on the wrong side of history through no fault of their own.

A new writer for me this year was Nikolas Butler and I’ve read three of his novels, the best of which was Little Faith, though they are all worth a read. He is a native of Wisconsin and his stories explore rural life in the American Midwest. The development of his male protagonists is profound and nuanced – I found this encouraging in a year when many high-profile American men (the most obvious example being the outgoing president!) seem unrepentantly amoral, self-aggrandising and misogynistic. I also enjoyed the two Jane Austen-linked novels (The Other Bennet Sister and Miss Austen) though neither is unmissable. My stand-out novel this year was Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. I have read some of her other books, one this year, and enjoyed them but Rodham is head-and-shoulders better in my view. It is very difficult to say anything about the plot without giving it away – read it and see if you don’t find it satisfying, particularly after four years of the present (but soon to be past) White House incumbent.

Looking over my list, I observe that I have read very few New Zealand authors this year, which surprises me somewhat. There is Nikki Crutchley’s whodunit, which was a good read but not unmissable. Owen Marshall’s Pearly Gates was very good and well worth the read, and I’ve read two novels by Carl Nixon. This was partly because I heard him speak at the Christchurch Word festival in November about his new book The Talley Stick (which I haven’t read yet) and it reminded me of his competence as a writer.

According to My Year in Books on Goodreads, I read a total of 19,372 pages during 2020, with the shortest book being The Evening of the Holiday (138 pages) and the longest The Mirror and the Light (757 pages). The most popular of the books I read was The Dutch House, along with 518,567 other Goodreads readers, and least popular Settlers’ Creek, which was read by only 80 other Goodreads readers. Sixty-two percent of the books I read in 2020 were written by female authors and 38 percent by male authors. Sixty-five percent were novels and 35 percent non-fiction, of which 76 percent were biography and/or memoir.