You don’t need me to tell you it’s been a long year of lockdown and cloistered existence. We’ve all had to find ways to cope, and for me that has meant escaping into a comfort place of words (not just my own writing, I hasten to add.) I’ve built myself an escapist book-lined nest, mostly fiction with a weird slant or surprising twist that drags me off into a different world.
Turns out I spent quite lot of 2020 escaping to my nest to read: plenty of books I’ve loved, some I’ve had to push through, and a few abandoned before the end. In total too many to mention. Nevertheless, for my final book review of 2020, I decided to share five books that would definitely feature at the top of my list. Here they are, in no particular order, just because I loved them enough to read or listen to them twice. At least twice.
First and foremost comes the tour de force of the year: Hilary Mantel’s final episode in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. I’ve already reviewed this magnificent achievement elsewhere, so here it’s enough to say it still makes it into my top five for this year. And the twist? ( cos we all know what”s going to happen, surely?) It was the sobs that emerged from me as I reached the end by Cromwell’s side. It’s the work of a genius to create this wracking emotional effect, despite his end being so famously known.
I should have said in my intro that I will be cheating in places throughout this blog. Here comes my first cheat: The Secret Commonwealth, the second instalment of the Book of Dust by Philip Pullman. This was one of the most eagerly awaited publishing events of 2019; I have allowed myself to mention it in my 2020 list because I’ve re-read and re-listened to it an unconscionable number of times this year. Those of you gulping down the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials will know that the first three books followed the adventures of Lyra Silvertongue and her daemon Pantalaimon as a child, partly in her own parallel universe, partly with her new friend Will Parry in two others. Nothing less than the fate of all the universes depends on her perilous journey.
Now Lyra returns as an adult, in a journey of no less jeopardy but with a much darker feel. Pullman’s portrayal of the world she travels through, like and yet very unlike our own 1930s, is utterly captivating. At the same time the choices and challenges facing Lyra are emblematic of the world we live in today: a menacing world full of threat, mystery and deep loyalties, where Lyra has to forge a painful lonely path ending on a cliff edge.
The wait for the final part of the Book of Dust is a constant agony to me, and no doubt to millions of other Pullman fans. Hopefully in 2021.
Third up is The Giver of Stars, by JoJo Moyles. Another cheat, as this story is pretty much a straight historical drama about the Kentucky horseback librarians of the Thirties. There has been some controversy about the origins of this idea; I make no comment except to remind readers that there is no copyright on ideas and history. What Moyes has used to underpin this terrific story is somewhat akin to the themes Pullman deploys with Lyra: themes of social division, prejudice against foreigners, the subjugation of females, the kindness of strangers. Her achievement is to show us the power and transformative magic of books, even in this backwoods Kentucky setting during the Great Depression. Not just in the people to whom the books are brought, but to the eclectic horseback librarians too. A wonderfully engaging read with real drama and suspense, seen through the eyes of an unlikely English heroine.
And now a shout out for a name perhaps not yet known to you: the British science fiction author RR Haywood. I discovered his Extracted series when browsing for a new listen on Audible. Here’s what his website says of the opening book of the trilogy:
In 2061, a young scientist invents a time machine to fix a tragedy in his past. But his good intentions turn catastrophic when an early test reveals something unexpected: the end of the world.
A desperate plan is formed. Recruit three heroes, ordinary humans capable of extraordinary things, and change the future
So far, so potentially Hollywood blockbuster. What makes these books different is the deeply British nature of (most of) the main characters. These are no ordinary heroes; they are flawed, sweaty, suspicious and prone to self-doubt. They hail from different years in the 20th and 21st centuries, and their struggles to form a competent team are entertaining and plausible. The antagonists are equally compelling: RR has put as much effort into making the baddies believable and even at times likeable, as the goodies. The pace is awesome, and the stakes stack higher and higher till you hardly dare draw breath. And I just adored the high concept time travel mechanism.
No way can you resist reading the whole trilogy; fortunately it’s all available on Audible and Amazon – there’s even word of an upcoming TV series. Be still, my beating heart!
And finally — I hardly knew how to pick my top choice, especially given my list already features Mantel and Pullman. But maybe this last book is my book of the year.
It’s The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, who has become one of my all-time go-to authors. It features the eponymous library and books – lots and lots of them – and has multiple twists and turns in a defiantly tear-jerking magical structure, comprising a trip into utmost jeopardy. Our heroine Nora is a hopeless young woman of the most banal, who doesn’t live up to any of her nascent talents, or even manage to stay alive beyond her youth. Or does she? Watch and wait while Nora tumbles through life after life, learning about herself, about the people who have passed through her life, and finds out which choices really matter.
Joanne Harris of Chocolat fame says this book is “A rare and welcome light of hope and wisdom in the darkness”. And so it is.
The Midnight Library is the book to heal us after this awful year. That’s why it’s my book of 2020.