Best Books I Read in 2020

Evening at home
       Edward John Poynter (UK, 1836-1919)

I think I’ve been saying this for three years in a row now, but I have to say it again – this wasn’t a great reading year. Looking over the list of books I read, most would say I didn’t pick many duds but unfortunately, I still didn’t like them. Of the books I’ve read, I found 60% disappointing and underwhelming, a few even quite bad. That’s possibly why I reviewed so little. I just didn’t want to write one negative review after the other, although some books would deserve it and I may still do it (“Queenie” I’m looking at you). Once you stop reviewing, it gets hard to get back into it again and so, sadly, I also didn’t review some of those I liked a great deal.

Leaving all the books that annoyed me aside, I was still left with something like thirty that I enjoyed, seventeen of which I loved. So maybe that’s enough? None of them made it onto the “all-time favourites” list though. That’s always a bit disappointing.

Best literary fiction

  

Cormac McCarthy – The Road – I read this early last year. Before the pandemic. I liked it more than I thought I would. Liked the style, the mood, atmosphere. I did, however, hate that it was so anthropocentric. The loss of animals isn’t mentioned or mourned. I can’t say that I found the thought that humans survive while all the other animals are gone uplifting or hopeful.

Richard Russo – That Old Cape Magic – One of the books that surprised me the most. I expected something more lyrical, which it wasn’t but instead it was witty, funny, and just brilliant.

From my review:

When I started this book, I expected something different. Something more lyrical, more atmospheric. But that’s not the way Russo writes. There’s a subtlety here but its more psychological, sarcastic, and humorous. I think it says a lot about a book when someone like me, who prefers lyrical, atmospheric books, ended up enjoying this as much as I did. It’s not only funny but says so much about family dynamics, marriage, broken dreams, family rituals, coming to terms with the past, and also the bond between parents and children and between spouses.

Angela Carter – Love – I loved this. One of the best Angela Carter books I’ve ever read, and I haven’t read anything bad by her so far.

From my review:

Opening an Angela Carter novel is like entering an opulent, sumptuously decorated room. It’s lush, it’s whimsical, it’s anything but minimalist. Love is no exception; it might even be one of the lusher ones I’ve read. Heroes & Villains has always been my favourite because of the imagery. Love has similar elements. The landscape, the apartment, the people, they are a bit wild, a bit mad, and reflect Angela Carter’s very distinct aesthetic. The book also reminded me of one of Le Douanier Rousseau’s paintings. He used to be my favourite painter as a child.

Molly Keane – Time After Time – My second Molly Keane. A delightful story about an eccentric and very dysfunctional family who lives in an old house that has seen much better days.

From my review:

In her foreword Emma Donoghue compares Molly Keane to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The book combines, as she says, social comedy, grotesque descriptions and plot twists. I’m not so fond of comparisons like that, but I agree, Time After Time, has all these elements, combined with a terrific writing style, that’s very much her own. For some people these characters might be a bit over the top, but I liked them very much. They are eccentric and mean, but tragic in their own way. And, most importantly, never dull.

Elizabeth Taylor – The Soul of Kindness – While this isn’t one of my favourite Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, as it focuses on too many people, it’s still in many ways a typical Taylor and therefore had to be on this list.

From my review:

There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel but I don’t think it’s as good as others. I believe it doesn’t succeed at being the portrait of one central character like Angel for example, but that’s how the beginning reads. All the initial chapters place Flora at the centre but this cohesion eventually fizzles out. As if Elizabeth Taylor had realized too late that Flora wasn’t a big enough character to carry a whole story. I could be totally wrong, of course, as critics have called this one of her, if not her best book.

Best classics

Hermann Hesse – Knulp – Three short stories about the life of the vagabond Knulp. They tell his story chronologically and from different points of view. I absolutely loved this and would urge anyone to read it, especially if you like Hesse anyway. For others, it’s a nice introduction to his writing.

Henry James – Daisy Miller – Daisy Miller is one of many of Henry James’ tragic heroines. It’s cruel to watch how she moves towards her undoing.

From my review:

The society James describes in this novella, is very cruel. They have their rules and if you don’t play by them you get shunned or ostracized. No matter how rich you are.

Daisy Miller is highly readable and very accessible. Even though the end is tragic, it’s neither sombre nor depressing as so many of James’ other books.

Gustave Flaubert – Un Coeur Simple – This impressed me because Flaubert manages to capture a whole life in a few pages.

From my review:

It’s a story that is famous for the way Flaubert handles time. It’s masterful. In sixty pages, he manages to tell the story of a whole life, alternating between fast-forwarding and slowing down. At the end, we almost think, we’ve read a novel because, thanks to his writing style and technique, there’s so much to find in this novella.

Eduard von Keyserling – Am Südhang (not translated)

From my review:

It’s a beautiful novella. Rich in emotions and descriptions. Nature and the weather always play important parts, mirroring the feelings of the protagonists. In this story, the garden descriptions are so very lush. Von Keyserling paints with words. He captures scents and sound, colours and forms. We sit next to Karl Erdmann in his carriage and feel the cool shade under the trees, hear the soft rustling of the dew in the leaves. We can see the family waiting for Karl Erdmann’s arrival, the women in their white summer dresses standing on the stairs.

André de Richaud – La douleur (not translated)

Albert Camus said that André de Richaud’s novel La douleur  – The pain – inspired him to become a writer. When it came out in 1930, it created a scandal. The author was just twenty-three years old and had sent his manuscript to the Jury of the Prix du premier roman of the Revue Hebdomadaire. The jury was so shocked but impressed by the writing, that nobody won the price that year. While they considered La douleur too shocking for publication, it was clearly the best book. Despite the risk of a potential scandal, Bernard Grasset published the novel anyway that year, as he liked it so much.

From my review:

Edith Wharton – Summer – This was not what I had expected. I knew it was called the summer version of Ethan Frome and for some reason that made me assume it was more light-hearted. It isn’t. It’s just as tragic as Ethan Frome, only takes place in summer. As usual, I was impressed by Wharton’s style.

Best YA

Jacqueline Woodson – If You Come Softly – This moved me so much. It’s a love story with a tragic ending. It shows that if you’re an African-Americaa, one tiny little mistake can have fatal consequences.

From my review:

As I said before, this is a short book but it’s powerful and tightly written. You won’t find a superfluous word or passage. Only key scenes that manage to move and touch.

Best crime /sadly none of them reviewed)

At the beginning of the pandemic, I couldn’t read any crime anymore. Crime usually works as escapism, but not in this context. From May on though, I read one after the other and several were very good, some more than just good.

Good

Jane Harper – Force of Nature

Emily Barr – The Sleeper

Nicci French – The Lying Room

These three books have a lot in common. They were highly readable, absolute page turners, each with a striking premise but sadly, all three of them with a slightly implausible denouement. In each case, I found the perpetrator unbelievable, but since they were so well written and gripping, they still deserve to be among the best of.

In Force of Nature, a survival workshop goes very wrong. One woman doesn’t return.

In Emily Barr’s The Sleeper, a woman who usually takes the sleeper train to London, disappears. The first parts, told from the POV of the woman who uses the sleeper train was so good. It gave me a great idea of what it must be like to commute like this every week.

In The Lying Room an adulterous woman finds her dead lover and tries everything to cover up the relationship.

Very good

Benjamin Myers – These Darkening Days – I regret that I didn’t review this as I found it amazing. It’s obvious that Myers is way more than ‘just a crime writer’. He’s a stylist. His writing is impressive, and the story and characters were convincing too.

Megan Abbott- The Song is You – The Song is You is historical crime fiction based on a true story, the disappearance of. the starlet Jean Spangler in 1949. She left for a night shoot and never returned. Abbott is a wonderfully atmospheric writer, and this was as good as some of the noir it was inspired by.

Max Billingham – Lifeless – This book has been on my piles for ages. Last year, I read an interview with Billingham and liked what he said about writing. Remembering that I got this on my piles somewhere, I picked it up and finally read it. The book is set in London among the homeless community. The detective who works on the case goes undercover and investigates among the homeless. It’s a chilling read. We learn a lot about what it means to be homeless. After a while, I forgot that this was a crime novel. I was far more interested in the social commentary. That it was suspenseful was just a bonus.

*******

I hope your year has started well and wish you all an excellent reading year ahead.

35 thoughts on “Best Books I Read in 2020

  1. I’m sorry reading wasn’t more of a solace for you last year, but I’m impressed that you found such a good group of books anyway. I do hope this year brings a bit more peace of mind and good books for you.

  2. I think it was a difficult reading year for many, so I sympathise with your frustrations. Lovely to see Elizabeth Taylor getting a mention, I think The Soul of Kindness is quite brilliant. I think I liked it better on my second reading. That Molly Keane is one of the few of hers I haven’t read, but thankfully I have tbr. I hope 2021 is a better reading year for you.

    • Thank you, Ali. It was very frustrating. In some cases I blame the books but mostly I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Elizabeth Taylor us always good even when it’s not one I like the most. Time After Time us such an eccentric book. I know some readers don’t get along with it but I loved it. I hope you will too.

  3. I feel for you, Caroline, I really do. If ever there was a year when we needed to pick the ‘right’ books, 2020 was it. Nevertheless, I’m glad you enjoyed some of your choices, albeit a minority…

    It’s great to see Summer and The Soul of Kindness on your list, two very good novels in any year of reading. Of the books I’m less familiar with, the Russo sounds excellent. One for me to check out, I think – the cover looks great too. I’m also interested in the Myers, having loved The Offing so much. He’s definitely an author I’d like to read more of, everything else permitting.

    Wishing you all the best for 2021 – it’s good to see you back on the blogosphere!

    • It was frustrating. Hopefully it will be better this year. Both Wharton and Taylor are so reliable, aren’t they?
      I noticed I spelled Myers wrong. Corrected that immediately. He’s a terrific writer. I think this is the second in the series though. Not sure he plans to write more and it’s possible to read it as a standalone. I was so surprised by Russo and will read more of him.
      Thanks for the kind words and all the best to you as well.

  4. 2020 was a year one would like to forget but unfortunately can’t. 2021 hasn’t started for me, any better. Thanks for mentioning these books. I am esp interested in the Hesse, a writer I have been planning to read for some years now.

  5. I did not have a great reading year myself. One of my issues was that I did not read enough..

    You certainly read some impressive books.

    I have stayed away from The Road because I fear that it might be too disturbing.

    I love Hermann Hesse but I have not read Knulp. I will probably do so soon.

    • Same here, Brian. I didn’t read a lot at all. Many of the titles were novellas. Not many novels, hardly any nonfiction.
      I’m sure you will like Knulp.
      Right now, The Road wouldn’t be the greatest choice. I read it last January when things hadn’t started yet.
      I wish you a much better reading year in 2021. And a very good year overall.

  6. I was looking forward to your favourites post, Caroline 😊 I liked the film adaptation of The Road, but haven’t read the book. I remember your review of Keyserling’s book. I want to read that. Hope it gets translated. So nice to see two of your favourites Elizabeth Taylor and Nicci French there 😊 Thanks for sharing! Hope you have a wonderful reading year this year! Happy reading!

    • Thank you, Vishy. I haven’t seen the movie The Road but would like too. Everything Keyserling wrote is wonderful. He deserves to be widely translated.
      Old favorites are so reliable 😊
      I hope you too will have a wonderful reading year in 2021.

  7. I hope 2021 will be a better reading year for you.

    I’ve read this Jane Harper too and enjoyed it. Daisy Miller is great and I loved the two Russos I’ve read (Empire Falls and Mohawk)

    I’m intrigued by La douleur. It makes me think of Maurice Sachs.

    • Thank you, Emma.
      I didn’t like The Dry but really enjoyed this one.
      Thanks for the Russo suggestions. I’d like to read Empire Falls.
      La douleur is very special but I can’t compare it to Sachs as I’m not sufficiently familiar with him.

        • When you know it’s based on his childhood, Ka douleur is even more poignant.
          Im surprised to hear the landscape in Harper‘s novel isn’t realistic. I didn’t like the parts in italics.

  8. Happy New Year, Caroline! Sorry to hear you had a bad reading year. These highlights sound great, though. I read The Road years ago and loved it. That spare, bleak writing style worked so well for the story. I don’t think I picked up on the anthropocentrism at the time, but looking back, I can see exactly what you mean.

    • Happy New Year, Andrew.
      Even though it wasn’t a great reading year, it had its moments.
      I was surprised about the writing in The Road. I saw so many negative reviews saying his style was overwritten.
      Im highly sensitive to anything relating to animals. I’m glad you know what I mean.

      • Wow, that’s interesting! It’s been a VERY long time since I read the book, but I remember the style being the opposite of overwritten – quite spare and terse. It’s interesting how people have such different responses to the same book. Glad you enjoyed it anyway, and here’s to some good reading in 2021!

  9. I devoured all the Frieda Klein books but did not like The Lying Room as much, possibly because I had just read a book called The Guilty Wife with a very similar plot. I thought House of Correction was more original and interesting.

    I used to work for Signet (it’s part of Penguin) and had that very copy of Summer. It is not my favorite Wharton but I enjoyed it. I live not far from her summer home which made it sort of fun.

    • I do prefer the Frieda Klein novels but still liked this one very much. I’m glad to hear the next is even better. I’ll get it as soon as it’s out in Paperback.
      How great that to know you live near Wharton’s summer home. That gives reading something a whole new dimension. She’s one of those authors I’d like to read everything of.

  10. It can be so hard sometimes to summon up the energy to write a review, especially if you’re not that engaged by the book (negatively or positively).

    My niece has pressed a copy of “Queenie” on me – your reaction has me thinking it will go well down the priority list for reading

    • Those are the worst books. Something one really doesn’t like is actually more interesting to review. I very rarely say that a book is bad but I think Queenie is. An Emperor’s New Clothes Phenomenon. Heavy handed structure, at times like a pamphlet, borderline anti-Semitic, full of clichés. The part about mental health and how Caribbean and African cultures feel about it were the most interesting. But who knows? Maybe you would like it? I’m a minority.

  11. Wharton is alleged to have called Summer “the Hot Ethan”. Its certainly not light. The scenes on the mountain are macabre.

  12. This was a tough year. You did read a wide range of good books though, even if you feel it was not as many as you would have liked or hoped. Some of these strongly appeal to me, like the Russo, the Hesse and Molly Keane. I tend toward wanting to read more uplifting or lighthearted books at the moment. I want to read Summer at some point, but maybe not yet. Ethan Frome is one of the most depressing stories I have ever encountered.

    • The range of books was nice but I normally have better concentration. A tough year indeed. I feel like you, Lory. Nothing too dark for me.
      Those you mention are all wonderful. Russo was such a discovery. Summer is almost as dark as Ethan Frome.

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