My top 10 reads of 2020

So here we are at the end of 2020. What a year it’s been. I don’t need to go into it. We all know what it meant for the world as a whole, and for us as individuals. I haven’t found it easy to read this year. I’ve wasted untold hours doom-scrolling on my phone and gorging myself on Facebook and Twitter. I didn’t seem to really have it in me to settle down with a book and concentrate. According to Goodreads, I did somehow manage to read (or listen to) 44 books, although last year I read 51. However, I don’t seem to have taken them in very well – when I looked back at my Goodreads I could barely remember some of them, and it was quite a struggle to pick out my 10 favourites. And I’ve got so many different books that I started and put down that if I go back to them all I will have a huge total next year!

As you’ll see from my top 10, it seems I was quite drawn to darker subject matter this year – a preposterous three out of the 10 concern school shootings, one is about a paedophile and another is about a massacre. I don’t want to delve too deeply into what that says about the state of my subconscious in 2020….

Counting down from 10 to one…..

10. The Organised Mum Method by Gemma Bray

The strapline to this book is “Transform your home in 30 minutes a day” and its sensible advice makes tackling even the biggest messes seem manageable. I’m aiming to try to stick to my adapted version of her plan this year and wrangle my house back into shape – and keep it that way. There’s a lively Facebook group for fans of the method and the book includes some very handy and tasty recipes to throw in the slow cooker.

9. The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths

This is the 12th book in the fabulous Dr Ruth Galloway series, which I first discovered in 2011 during long nights spent breastfeeding my oldest son (who is the same age as Ruth’s daughter, Kate). I feel the same way about forensic archaeologist Ruth and her friends as I do about The Archers – the characters are so well-written that I feel I know them personally now. In this book, Ruth has moved away from Norfolk to start a new life with Frank in Cambridge, but she’s called back when a convicted murderer offers to reveal where further bodies are buried – but only if Ruth will lead the digging. Even 12 books in the series is still fresh and I can’t wait to read the next one, which is due out in February.

8. Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

Described as “the most chilling and twisty read of 2020”, Magpie Lane was an atmospheric and at times creepy thriller-whodunit centring on the disappearance of the selectively mute young daughter of the Master of an Oxford college. The tale unfolds as Dee, the child’s Scottish nanny, answers questions in a police station about the girl’s disappearance. I really enjoyed reading this at the time (although I felt a little let down by the ending) but it’s one that I don’t remember all that well. I’ll happily re-read it though, particularly as I loved all the references to Oxford and places I know well.

7. Instructions by Neil Gaiman

I picked up this short picture book in a charity shop for my children but I love it way more than they do. It gives you poetic guidance for what to do if you find yourself in a fairy tale, but really it’s about kindness, being brave and life itself. You can read the text here but you’ll be missing out on the wonderfully fitting illustrations in the book. And if you can read to the end without a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye, you’re a stronger person than I am.

6. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

I knew nothing about Jim Jones until I watched the excellent two-part Storyville documentary Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle on BBC4, and then I wanted to know more. This book contains more than 500 pages of exhaustive research, but reads like a page-turning horror-thriller. It’s an eye-opening exploration of how people get sucked into cults and end up going to horrendous and unimaginable extremes.

5. Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

This was a re-read of a book I first read in 2017, when I had it on Kindle, hard back AND audio version so I could read it wherever I was. I was hooked and devoured the 600-plus pages at every opportunity. It’s the story of a high school shooting told from multiple perspectives, including the shooter himself, a judge who is the mother of one of the students caught up in the attack and a detective investigating the crime. The first time I read it I guessed the twist about halfway through but it didn’t spoil the pleasure of finding out how it all tied together – and even on this second read I was still gripped.

4. Columbine by Dave Cullen

Another re-read, this time from 2011. It’s a fascinating but horrifying account on the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999 – what led up to it, the awful events of the day itself, and the aftermath of the killings and the effects on the community. Dave Cullen explores the myths surrounding the attackers but doesn’t forget to talk about the victims as people too.

3. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

This is a controversial and unsettling story about a 15-year-old girl who is groomed by her teacher and the shadow the abuse throws over her whole life. Vanessa has always seen her “relationship” with Mr Strane as a great love affair but when she is 32 he is accused of sexual abuse by another student, making her question everything she believes about herself and her life. I could not put it down.

2. Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

The third school attack in my top 10, this is an intense thriller set in Somerset about a school under siege. It was ridiculously tense and well-structured, and I kept having to stop and tell my husband what was happening in it. The ending was bit unsatisfying (if anyone knows anything about the mysterious third terrorist, please tell me!) but I can overlook that because the rest of it is just so, so good.

  1. The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

I’m not going to lie; I struggled to decide which book should take my top place. Did I really enjoy Arnold Bennett’s 1908 masterpiece The Old Wives’ Tale more than Three Hours or My Dark Vanessa? Will I re-read it like Nineteen Minutes or Columbine? Probably not. But nonetheless it has had a big impact on me, not least because of the enormous sense of achievement I felt when I finished it. It’s a very long book – 644 pages – and I’m not going to say it was a page-turner. However, I was completely invested in the lives of sisters Constance and Sophia, who we follow from their youth in their father’s drapers shop in Bursley, Stoke-on-Trent, through their different adult experiences – Constance remaining in the same shop in Bursley, Sophia in Paris – to their reunion as old women. It’s so full of Bennett’s attention to detail and his skilful and subtle turns of phrase that Constance and Sophia really become alive to the reader, and I felt quite sad when the book reached its inevitable conclusion. So while I didn’t guzzle it down like some of the other books on the list (I managed to finish it off thanks to an audiobook version on a long solo road trip during the summer!), it’s a genuine classic which has stood the test of time, written by an author from my hometown whom I greatly admire.

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