I could argue that I have done reasonably well with my reading this year having finished fifty books but I feel, in some ways, that I have cheated. Nine of those books are children’s books and all but one of them less than 200 pages long. These were Tove Jansson’s Moomin series which I would describe as my lockdown comfort reading. I had previously only read Jansson’s adult stories. I found these to be just what I needed – a world where, although there were calamities and upheavals, the characters were determined and compassionate and my favourite character, Moominmamma, always had what was needed (including chocolate) in her black handbag.
To my shame, I have only reviewed six books this year. In 2017, I was reviewing a book almost every week and the following year, fortnightly. In my defence, my reviews are now more comprehensive than those early ones. The best I can promise for 2021 is one a month. My excuse is a mixture of lockdown lethargy and the fact that my working-from-home task expanded well beyond the hours allotted. I had the painstaking pleasure of transcribing recordings of the reminiscences of a group of elderly members of the local history society of a neighbouring suburb. These recordings were made forty years ago and the members have since died. These memories provide the kind of detail of ordinary life that is rarely found in books and would be inaccessible to us if they had not been captured when they were.
I have read more books that are not historical fiction than I usually do but more than half were set well in the past. My top six reads of 2020 are
A Murder By Any Name by Suzanne M Wolfe
This is my absolute favourite – an Elizabethan murder mystery – suspenseful, humourous and compassionate with a delightful main character in Nick Holt. And a great big Irish wolfhound called Hector.
This Is Happiness by Neill Williams
Set around the arrival of electricity in rural village in Ireland, this is something of a coming-of-age novel and a nostalgic look back to a way of life that was passing. The greatest joy in reading this novel comes from its gentle humour and the pleasure of being enraptured by the storyteller’s voice.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel’s final instalment of Thomas Cromwell’s story. Magnificent!
There was Still Love by Favel Parrett
A beautifully written Australian novel of love, family and separation that moves between Melbourne, Prague and London.
Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson
I am including this as proxy for the whole series. It is second last in the series but, confused, I read it last. The Moomin family leave the Valley and travel to a lighthouse on a remote island where, as they explore the island, they each discover as much about themselves and each other. Beautifully written and underpinned with a gentle melancholy.
A Plague on Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift
The second of Deborah Swift’s Women of Pepys Diary series, this novel focuses on Bess Bagwell, the most enduring of Samuel Pepys’ mistresses. It imagines how Pepys came to be involved in Bess’s life and her fortunes in a period racked by plague and the bumpy turn of Fortune’s wheel.
And these are the remaining forty-four books in no particular order of preference. All definitely worth reading.
Fair Play by Tove Jansson
The Moomins and the Great Flood by Tove Jansson
Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
The Exploits of Moominpappa: as described by himself by Tove Jansson
Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson
Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson
Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson
Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson
Springtime : A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser
Loxley: The Chronicles of Robin Hood by John Bainbridge
The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan
A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan
Ten Doors Down: the story of an extraordinary adoption reunion by Robert Tickner
The Black Ascot by Charles Todd
Racing the Devil by Charles Todd
The Gatekeeper by Charles Todd
A Divided Loyalty by Charles Todd
The First Blast of the Trumpet by Marie Macpherson
The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
To Calais in Ordinary Time by James Meek
The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott
Fair as a Star by Mimi Matthews
A Phoenix Rising by Vivienne Brereton
Antonius: Son of Rome by Brook Allen
Antonius: Second in Command by Brook Allen
Antonius: Soldier of Fate by Brook Allen
The Long Take by Robin Robertson
Expectation by Anna Hope
The Beaufort Woman by Judith Arnopp
The King’s Mother by Judith Arnopp
The Heretic Wind: The Life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England by Judith Arnopp
The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie
Weave a Web of Witchcraft by Jean M Roberts
Singapore Sapphire by A M Stuart
The Devil’s Dye by Jeni Neill
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes
Grace by Paul Lynch
Bone China by Laura Purcell
Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan
In June, I decided to reread Ulysses by James Joyce as I read it about 35 years ago and can remember very little about it. I have been told I will be none the wiser at the end of a second reading but I am plodding slowly on and hope to have it read by the end of the year. I am also nearing the end of Thomas Cromwell: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch – as brilliant in its breadth, depth and prose as Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. The books that were sitting on my bedside table and my tablet at the beginning of 2020 are still there – Hag-Seed by Margaret Attwood, The Mermaid and the Bear by Ailish Sinclair, the second book of Marie MacPherson’s John Knox series and The Embroiderer by Kathryn Gauci – for no reason other than they did not match my mood at the time I considered them again. I will read them this year. To them I have added Marie MacPherson’s final installment The Last Blast of the Trumpet, the second and third volumes of Carolyn Hughes’s Meonbridge Chronicles, A Woman’s Lot and De Bohun’s Destiny, Taking the Waters by Lesley Sainty, The Queen’s Almoner by Tonya Ulynn Brown and the Confessions of X by Suzanne M Wolfe. I certainly can’t complain that I don’t have anything to read and I might even achieve my goal of fifty-two books for 2021, a book a week.