📚 2020 ~ A Year In Books 📚

2020 has been a year like no other and through its ups and downs I have really enjoyed some anchoring and calming reading. With 55 books in total, I have read more this year than I ever have before (except maybe in the childhood years when I was flying through Famous Fives and Jill’s Gymkhanas!) – amazing what a few months of lockdown can do! I have done a fair bit of re-reading (one of my very favourite comforts) with 17 books either read for the hundredth time – proper old friends like Bridget Jones or Anne Shirley – or revisited for the first time since a distant memory, like The Secret Garden and Little Women, both of which I rediscovered this year. There have however been 38 books new to me, and among them some new absolute favourites.

I’ve read nine book club books, finding myself so very grateful for our book club finding a way to continue despite the library’s closure for most of the year. We covered such a variety of books I would never otherwise have come across, from Dolly Alderton’s memoir Everything I Know About Love to John Lanchester’s chilling dystopian novel The Wall. As well as opening me up to new types of books, it’s led to so many new favourites too. We discovered together a shared love for Sophie Anderson’s magical stories; Old Baggage had me fall completely in love with the formidable Mattie Simpkin (I now have two more Lissa Evans books now bought and waiting to read with a birthday voucher earlier in the year); and Eleanor Oliphant is a character I took so much to my heart and just rooted for so desperately all the way.

I’ve read nine crime or mystery books, Val McDermid’s Insidious Intent probably top of that list, my first Tony Hill & Carol Jordan, and more reading from her to come early in 2021 as I have a short story collection already started and a retelling of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey I’m very keen to get into on the shelf.

Twelve of the books I’ve read have been typically children’s books, so often I find the most captivating of all – some old favourites including four of my beloved pony books (that actually seems low looking back on it for such a favourite escape, I’m sure will manage more in 2021!!!); but some new to me – like Sophie Anderson’s lovely The Girl Who Speaks Bear, which is set to be followed by her new book The Castle of Tangled Magic, which arrived with me at Christmas and is high on the list for the new year! I always seem to love children’s books so much and am often reminded of a quote I read by Philip Pullman:

““There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.”

There have been seven parenting books, from Sarah Ockwell-Smith and Dr Laura Markham’s handbooks to Giovanna Fletcher, Izzy Judd, Sarah Turner and Mindy Kaling’s reflective musings on their lives with their children; and eleven memoirs or biographies – Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm and Michelle Obama’s Becoming my favourites among some amazing stories; with some old-friend books of that genre returned to too, The Unumumsy Mum Diary and Tom Cox’s The Good the Bad and the Furry (my very first book of the year). And I’ve ended the year with a run of five Christmassy novels, which has been the most warming way to draw 2020 to a close.

My top five books of the year new to me have been Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage, following Mattie, a former Suffragette, adapting to older age and life after the cause; Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, revisiting the magic of discovering books; Louisa May Alcott’s Good Wives, taking Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy into the next chapters of their lives; Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, an incredible story of resilience and strength of character; and Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, a truly lovely novel set in the North Carolina marshlands following a young girl Kya as she grows up amongst the birds and nature.

My most-read era has definitely been the Victorian, finding myself lost in Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, The Secret Garden, Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes and A Christmas Carol all set within fifty years of each other around the end of the nineteenth century. Some had been long-standing favourites but I was so swept up in the ones new to me and found them so absolutely captivating and transporting that I really want to explore more in 2021, starting with Wuthering Heights on my list after making Jane Eyre my first Bronte, and A Little Princess too after loving rediscovering The Secret Garden so much.

My most-read author has been my very favourite, L.M. Montgomery, and I hope to read more from her in the new year too, returning to the Emily books which I’ve only read the first of a few years back; re-reading Rilla of Ingleside which I’ve been wanting to do for a while, and following that with The Blythes are Quoted, the final Anne book, only released in its complete form in 2009 and the only one I’ve never read.

I have had a wonderful time reading this year, and have been transported to so many different times and places in spite of spending much of the year in our own little home. Some have made me laugh, cry, feel such comfort or such inspiration – and some of the best all of those! So many of the books I’ve read too have been leant, gifted, recommended or passed on between the family and friends I’ve missed so much this year and have been a connection between us I’ve been so grateful for. I am so glad to have discovered so many wonderful books, and to have had so much fun journaling them too, and am forward to many more in 2021. A very happy new year to you all! 📖📚📚📖

March Books ❤️

Apologies in advance for the length of this post! The beginning of maternity leave, quieter days and a few very compelling books already had March off to a strong reading start – but since isolation and Coronavirus lockdown have been upon us, books have become one of my lifelines and I just haven’t been able to get enough of them. They’ve provided such a wonderful escapism in an uncertain time and I’ve so enjoyed everything I’ve read this month, which has been a real variety; so have written at least a little about each one just the same, just in case they’re any inspiration to anyone else coping with this crisis in the same way as me!

Letters on Motherhood – Giovanna Fletcher

This month started with an evening out on the 1st with my lovely friend, to the big city for a rare child-free drink, dinner, catch-up and then to Giovanna Fletcher’s launch of her beautiful new book, Letters on Motherhood. It was a wonderful night, and a privilege to hear her talk with warmth and humour about parenthood in general and about this book in particular. I thoroughly enjoyed both our night and reading the book afterwards. 

Unashamedly sentimental, this is a collection of thoughts and essays gathered in letter form, mostly to Giovanna’s three sons and husband, but to many others too, from her own parents, to another struggling mum in a waiting room, to her body itself as its role has changed over time; touching on so many aspects of life as a parent and writing with warmth, honesty and tenderness about each one.

Killing Floor – Lee Child

Despite having always loved crime fiction, I had never actually read a Jack Reacher novel before – although had been meaning to such a long time as my dad and grandad are both big fans and have read every one. For my last birthday my dad had given me this book, the very first in the series, published back in 1997, and I’d been really looking forward to finding time to read it.

Killing Floor was action-packed, pacy and full of twists I didn’t see coming that had me swinging from one chapter to the next without pausing to take a breath: – and Jack Reacher is a character I’m very glad to have met and can imagine would really grow from book to book. I did struggle a little with some of the more violent parts (I realise I make myself a very tricky customer for the genre because I love all the thriller aspects so much but struggle sometimes when it gets a bit grittier!) but I really enjoyed the style (despite Child being English a very American one that reminded me a lot of Karin Slaughter, one of my longest-standing favourites); and as a long-awaited introduction to one of crime fiction’s biggest characters, I really enjoyed it.

Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan

A truly special book and one I can’t express how much I loved, Bookworm is a beautifully written and heartfelt tribute to the books of Lucy Mangan’s childhood – and of mine. Leant to me by my mum, who knew as soon as she read it how much I’d enjoy it, I felt reading it as if it could have been written just for me – or in fact even by me, as so very many of the books she’d chosen to highlight were those that had defined my own growing-up years.

The great achievement of this book might be that somehow Mangan has achieved this for most of her readers, and has done so with such passion and such vivid nostalgia that this is a book that cannot help but be read with the same drive and the same child-like abandon that all those classics she covered were once read with. It’s no exaggeration to say that this book transported me back not just to all the wonderful novels it reminicses over but also to what it is to really, single-mindedly and devotedly read. I honestly could not have enjoyed this more and would recommend to anyone who grew up loving books.

Mostly, the titles Mangan looks at are those I’ve never forgotten, still on my shelf and in many cases still frequently re-read; but even more special were those that came up that I’d all-but forgotten – and definitely won’t again, having been given this wonderful reminder of what it is to really and truly love the books that shaped us.

A few well-loved favourites from my own shelf that cropped up in Lucy Mangan’s memories too

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

I went straight from Bookworm to one of the many wonderful books it covered – Little Women, which I hadn’t actually re-read since childhood, and had been very keen to, especially since watching Greta Gerwig’s beautiful and fresh 2019 film adaption of it a few months back. Returning to it now, I found it everything I’d remembered and more, and I so enjoyed reading such a sustaining and inspiring novel of perseverence and dignity just as our world took an unsteadying jolt. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are both comforting and inspiring company, and I plan to read through the other books in the series – actually for the first time, having realised I’ve never got beyond this first volume before – in the coming months too. 

My Sister, The Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

This was my library book club book for this month, and is a quirky, captivating and fast-paced novel encompassing family, crime and loyalty – set in Nigeria with a strong sense of culture and place. I really enjoyed it, powered through it very quickly, and really look forward to getting into discussing it in our now online book club “meet up” at the beginning of April.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor – Adam Kay

Another book I’d heard and read so much about and had been looking forward to reading for a while, Adam Kay’s poignant but funny memoir lived up to its reputation for being utterly full of both humour and heartbreak, giving a very real no-holds-barred insight into life as junior doctor – a book that is as important and relevant as it is engaging, and one I’d definitely recommend.

A Modern Family – Helga Flatland

A Modern Family is a resonant and sensitively-written portrayal of a very ordinary family caught in what becomes a moment of great personal change for all of them, collectively and individually. Reflective and considered, its insight into the minds and lives of the different characters is subtle and moving, and its descriptions of family dynamics so startlingly on point. Translated from Norwegian by Rosie Hedger, its painting of the Norway in which it is set, as well as rural Italy where the novel opens, are also beautifully written and add to this intricate and captivating novel.

Anne of Avonlea – L.M. Montgomery

I have ended the month and gratefully begun a new one at last in the company of one of my truly all-time favourite characters – and kindred spirit ❤️ – Anne Shirley; breathing in the world of Avonlea once more, smiling at the gossip of Rachel Lynde, falling a little more in love with Gilbert Blythe in every scene, taking solace in the rough warmth of Marilla Cuthbert and gazing in wonder with Anne at the shining, glittering scenery of Prince Edward Island. Returning to this series, one of my most beloved of all (and of course one covered at length in Bookworm too, as it would naturally have to be ❤️) was such a wonderfully comforting retreat in this dystopian world, and can definitely see myself working my way through this series again over the next little while.

Hope this finds you all safe and well, take care all. Xx

January Reading ❤️

Decided to try to use this little space to keep up with my reading among the other bits and pieces I scribble – I’ve enjoyed writing book reviews on here in the past and always love reflecting on those stories I love best, but thought it would be good to keep track of my reading month by month as the year goes on.

The first of my books this year was a beautiful present for Christmas from my lovely sister that I couldn’t wait to read, opening its pages for the first time on Christmas night in the peaceful lull that settled when the busyness of a boisterous extended-family day was over and the little one was tucked in bed; and going on to read slowly, chapter by chapter, over the next few weeks.

Last Christmas – curated and introduced by Greg Wise & Emma Thompson

Sometimes a book is so special, a collection-type like this especially (I remember being exactly the same with Tom Hanks’ beautiful short story collection Uncommon Type), that I keep putting off reading it until I’ve got the time to really enjoy it, never wanting to miss a word, and ending up taking forever to finish but loving it nonetheless. Made up of over 50 different pieces on the subject of a Christmas from such a wide variety of contributors – including many from those who’ve spent time as refugees – and written in aid of Crisis and The Refugee Council; it is a unique and poignant gathering of essays and memoirs, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. It provides a valued insight into the memories and values of many well-loved figures – Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Caitlin Moran, Graham Norton, Victoria Coren Mitchell included (the latter moving me to tears in the last lines of her piece and, as it happened, of the book); balanced with some sometimes harrowing, raw and always moving documentations of Christmases in the Calais jungle, in war-torn countries, or in more peaceful ones – safe at last but heart-achingly far from home. This is a book that cuts to the very heart of Christmas, my favourite time of the year, and provides so much food for thought on the simplicity of what really matters during a festival that can be so huge and so anything-but-simple for many of us. I really loved reading it and know I will return to it next year as the season approaches again.

The Good, The Bad and The Furry – Tom Cox

Re-reads will definitely feature heavily in my reading lists and always have. Despite all the wonderful books there are in the world still to discover, I just can’t seem to help myself picking up old favourites over and over again and comfort reading those “old friends” books is one of my favourite ways to unwind. For years now I’ve enjoyed Tom Cox’s gentle humour and observations about many aspects of life in his varied books and blogs, but it’s his “cat books” I’ve loved most, particularly this one and the next, Close Encounters of the Furred Kind. Warm, fond memoirs on life with his cats, he captures perfectly for me what it is to love the pets we share our lives with, the vital role they play in our homes and the deep bond we form with them. This was the book I found myself picking back up from the shelf to head away for the night on Hogmanay, and so it was the one I was enjoying reading as we saw in the new year, making the most of the slow pace of life in the holidays and the comfort of favourite characters and stories.

The Gentle Discipline Book – Sarah Ockwell-Smith

I wasn’t sure whether to include this in my monthly round-up, being more of a reference book than anything else, but it’s one I really enjoyed reading and good to have a record of alongside the rest. The idea of a book about discipline sounds on paper a very dry one at best and a difficult read, but this was a book I was looking forward to getting into as our little girl hit the age of two and entered a whole new phase of her childhood and therefore us of our parenting journey too. I really enjoy all Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s writing, her perspective on child development and her focus on “gentle parenting”; and this book, like her others I’ve read, is thoughtfully and accessibly written and a common-sense approach to the psychology of a young child and the strengthening of the bond between parent and child. Far from focusing on any kind of authoritarianism, this is a refreshing and empowering study of discipline in the sense of teaching and guiding, and is a handbook that feels as though it arms any parent with a deeper understanding of just what their children are going through at the various stages of their growing-up and how best to help them through all its ups and downs.

Old Baggage – Lissa Evans

The main novel I read in January was Old Baggage, our book for the month at my book club – a lovely one in our local library designed for parents, where we gather of an afternoon to chat about our most recent book over a drink and cake while the little ones play. Over the last year and a half I’ve found being a member has been a much-appreciated anchor to the world of books and has kept me reading during some times I could’ve otherwise let months slip by without finishing a single one. One of the things I really enjoy about the concept of a book club is reading the types of books I wouldn’t normally and being opened up to different genres. Very occasionally, however, it leads me to exactly the type of book I love most, and Old Baggage was an example of that rare gift – I knew even as I began that I was holding a future favourite in my hands.

We are first introduced to Mattie Simpkin as she strides across the Heath in what very quickly establishes itself as her usual no-nonsense way, keeping everyone she comes across right as she goes. Her appeal is evident from the very first sentences of the book, a character I knew I would find myself smiling at throughout. Reminiscent of Three Things About Elsie‘s Florence and Elizabeth is Missing‘s Maud, two other all-time favourites of mine, she has a quality – a wisdom, a sense of humour and a strength of character – that I loved from the off.

It is 1928, and Mattie lives with her friend Florrie in the “Mousehole”, a house named for its role as a base during the Cat and Mouse Act some fifteen years before – both are former Suffragettes, now in their late fifties, and both for their own reasons feel a stirring still to be fighting, and making their voices heard where needed.

I read this almost in its entirety without being aware that it was in fact a prequel, and that the inimitable Mattie had featured already in Lissa Evans’ previous novel Crooked Heart, set even further down the line looking back from elderly years – by then struggling with the onset of dementia – at the days gone by. I definitely plan to get hold of a copy and can’t wait to add it to the reading list very soon, but as a book in its own right, Old Baggage was a wonderful read, and I loved its vibrant characters and unfolding tale of perseverance, strength and hope for a better future.

Happy Friday and Happy Valentines’ Day all, have a lovely weekend. X