Books 2020

You know when you’ve read a book, and you really want to tell people about it?

This blog does claim to be “booky,” and so as the year staggers to its end, I thought I’d ponder and discuss what I’ve been reading in 2020 (not necessarily books published in 2020, although they’re a more recent bunch than sometimes.) You all know that I’ve been reading a bit of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and rereading “The Lord of the Rings.” (Finished Vol 2.  Frodo has been captured!) But in addition…

Spiritual book of the year: Our church recommended us all to read “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry” by John Michael Comer, and I did – I think I’ll do a proper review of it in January. But I may actually have preferred CS Lewis’ “Letters to Malcolm”: a set of fictional letters about prayer, odd concept though that is. Lewis always comes at things with a breezy wisdom. He points out that prayer is actually often tedious. It’s the placing this point near the end that makes it powerful – and through the mouthpiece of his imagined correspondent’s wife, frustrated by the pseudo-holiness of Lewis and Malcolm!

Educational books of the year: The end of the first lockdown and hence my celebratory visit to Waterstones happened shortly after the death of George Floyd, and this influenced my choice of books. There are three books in particular in this category:

“Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez I’m working through. Although it’s as entertaining as a book of statistics can be, it is still a book of statistics (with a stunning cover, graphically illustrating the way society expects the default human to be male.)

“Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo is very enjoyable, less a novel (I felt) than a series of connected fictional lives. Issues of racism affect all twelve of these British characters, told in lively prose, and with compassion for each one, including those it would have been easy to despise. I’m not sure I found it quite as ground-breaking as I might have done if I wasn’t already familiar with the work of Zadie Smith.

However, the challenging winner in this category is “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge. It taught me to revise my private definition of racism from “prejudice that has historically been responsible for many crimes, and still is,” to “prejudice that has been and is responsible for many crimes, and is deeply embedded in our power structures and institutions.”

African books of the year: Last year’s trip inspired me to read “Kintu,” a highly-praised chunky family saga of an unusual type by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. A man incurs a curse on himself in 1750. We don’t then, as you might expect, follow a single line of descendants to the present day: instead the author presents the varied stories of some of his descendants living in modern Uganda, leading up to a huge family gathering to assuage the angry dead by traditional magic.

“Kintu” was reviewed in the Guardian. A novel I actually bought in Lira, north Uganda, is “The Alien Woman”, by local author Laury Lawrence Ocen. It’s a tale of culture clash in modern Uganda (rural versus city, especially in the expectations made of women) that I understand is on local schools’ curriculum. It is written in vivid but very unBritish English. Although not very long, it costs over £100 on Amazon, presumably because of the cost of sourcing abroad. I got it cheaper than that, and I think it wins for me in this category.

Reread of the year (I always do a lot of rereading.) Books I especially enjoyed going back to this year included “The Praise Singer” by Mary Renault (historical novel set in Ancient Greece), and Rumer Godden’s beloved book about nuns “In This House of Brede”, which was this week the subject of a lively Twitter discussion organised by St Paul’s Cathedral Book Club no less.

But I think I’ll just give the prize to “Sarum” by Edward Rutherfurd. This is the first of his doorstopper novels fictionally tracing the history of a single city, in this case Salisbury and its environs, over hundreds or thousands of years. There is quite a lot of explanation in among the exciting incidents. Entertainingly although not very plausibly, family traits pass on through many generations, but with various twists. (If you meet someone called Wilson you know they’re up to no good, but each in their own way.) It was this second read of “Sarum” that made me think how unusual it was to meet a historical novelist who’s not primarily interested in either war (refreshingly) or romance. Considering the amount of fighting there’s been in English history, and its fiction, hem hem, Bernard Cornwell, hem hem, it was pleasant to find a book of 1000 pages where probably only one battle scene covered more than a page. What interests Rutherfurd, it seems, is political development, social change, and cathedral building – and he makes these things interesting for us.


As I said above, “You know when you’ve read a book, and you really want to tell people about it?” Do the second and third “you” in this question really mean “you”? Or do they mean “I, or ‘one’?” Two authors I’ve read this year have made interesting use of the second person voice, something very rare except in “choose-your-own-adventure books.”

I would highly recommend NK Jemisin’s complex, gripping although stark SF “Broken Earth” series, of which I’ve read the first two volumes. I’ve now worked out why one of the main storylines is written from a “you” perspective. It’s not a reassuring reason.

Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon does something very different with “you” – in his “Scots Quair” (classic of Scottish 20th-century literature; again I’m two-thirds through a trilogy) “you” can be the voice of his heroine or else the voice of the village, and I was going to say a lot more about this, but I’d better leave it for another post.


I’ve enjoyed my friend Ian Roberts’ historical adventure stories “Deeper Realms 2”, which includes four independently-available novellas about eccentric and grumpy time-traveller Ravenna Friere and her rather reluctant associates…

But probably the award for Most enjoyable book of the year goes to Becky Chambers’ “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.”

This is such a nice novel, set a long way in the future, in which a ship travels across the galaxy for work reasons, to do a job when they arrive. The crew-members, of a variety of species, each have their own secrets. In a way this also is more of a sequence of connected stories within an overall arc, but it’s just enormous fun (not without serious points, about, of course, tolerance.) So refreshing to have people doing what to them are ordinary jobs in the far future. So refreshing to meet a spaceship commander who’s an actual pacifist.

Extra bonus of course that Becky Chambers was originally a self-published author, who was “discovered,” and has now produced two more in her original series.

I just found this book a delight to read.

Over to you… What have you been reading this year?

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS Apologies for the fact that the blog is one day late. Next post hopefully on 8th Jan.

1 Comment
  • Stephen Hall

    3rd January 2021 at 7:49 pm Reply

    Thanks for the recommendations Penny. I read a lot of environmental/ rural non-fiction, so if I can nominate a title for the vacant Environment Book of the Year, can I offer English Pastoral by James Rebanks. Bought during a wet October week in the Lake District, I devoured this account how farming has changed through three generations on a small Lakeland farm in a couple of days.

    Agriculture takes up most of the land area of the UK, so it is useful to know what is really going on on the other side of the motorway fence. To say the least, it’s not all good, especially if you’re a beastie of the furry, feathered or creepy-crawlie fraternity. This is the book to help you understand why that is in a very human and engaging narrative. It will hopefully also make people to think a little more about where their weekly food shop comes from and how it was produced. And maybe encourage those of us who can afford it to pay a little more for food we know has been produced in a way that we’re comfortable with.

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