I think we can all agree that 2020 hasn’t been the greatest year, but at least books, unlike theatre, cinema and exhibitions, have been available throughout. When you can’t go places, books can take you away. Here at Bookstoker we have been to a stormy Scottish loch, the poop deck of a 17th century tall ship, a senator’s mansion in Tennessee and the alehouses of 16th century Stratford-upon-Avon and many other places. As always, our annual Christmas list have fantastic fiction, interesting non-fiction, mind-bending poetry and loads of wonderful children’s books. So this year, more than ever, books really are the best gift. When you do buy them, please consider sacrificing the convenience and slightly lower prices of Amazon to make sure your local bookshop will still be there on the other side of Corona. Most local bookshops have good online or phone ordering systems now and if not Bookshop.org, an online bookshop supporting the local bookshop of your choice, is here to help.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Our favourite book of 2020, Hamnet is O’Farrell’s take on ‘what might have happened’ around the death of Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet. It’s her first foray into historical fiction and an ambitious choice of subject matter, but she pulls it off triumphantly with this poignant tale of grief, love and motherhood. The backdrop is rural Warwickshire where people keep hens and pigs, gossip in the village alehouses, get sick, fall pregnant, give birth and ply their trades as millers, glovers and farmers. The writing is lyrical and nature-infused. If you read one book this year, let this Women’s Prize for Fiction winner be it.
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton. Set in the 17th century on a ship crossing from Batavia (Jakarta) to Holland, Turton’s book is packed with wild storms, betrayals, demons, murders and a plot to make your head spin. If you enjoyed Ian McGuire’s The North Water or indeed Turton’s last book The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, this book will be for you.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which just won Booker Prize, is an autobiographical novel based on Stuart’s childhood in Glasgow in the 1980s. Shuggie, the youngest of three children, grows up in poverty with an alcoholic mother and a violent philandering father. The bond between Shuggie and his flawed mother is the main focus of the book along with a raw portrayal of the brutal economic consequences of Thatcherism.
Summerwater by Sarah Moss. In a row of cabins along a Scottish loch, families are trying to enjoy their summer holiday. It’s been bucketing down for several days and claustrophobia is setting in. Siblings are bickering, parents’ tempers flare. (Been there?) Bored, they observe each other through the ‘French doors’ of their cheaply built wooden cabins. Some venture out and some are sent out, mostly to relive the tension building inside. Summerwater by Sarah Moss, is a quietly unsettling little book that deals with family life, secrets and conflict, set in an ominous world, which I consumed in one sitting.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. Amanda and Clay – a successful, liberal New York couple – have rented a smart summer house in the Hamptons for a family holiday. When the phone and internet connections go down and a black couple, claiming to be the owners of the house, knock on the door asking for shelter, Amanda and Clay’s proclaimed tolerance is put to the test. Who is this couple? And why has the communications network broken down? Cyberattack? Terrorism? War? Catastrophe looms in the background in this dark, apocalyptic novel which feels frighteningly believable. Rarely have I read something as unsettling. Soon to be made into a film starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson is a near impossible sell. With its dreadful cover (really??) and odd sounding storyline (twins who catch fire when they get agitated) my go-to-bookseller struggled to convince me. Luckily, I succumbed because this is an utterly surprising, funny and moving novel. It’s the story of the Lillian, an aimless loner, who’s hired by her glamorous friend Madison as nanny for her twin stepchildren. There’s a catch: the twins combust when they’re upset. If you find this plot implausible, you won’t be alone, but somehow Wilson succeeds in making it credible and what seems like a shallow novel turns into something much weightier.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Sixteen people at a family birthday party are mowed down by gunmen in the shocking opening scene of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The sole survivors, Lydia and her 8-year-old son Luca, flee towards ‘el norte’ with Acapulco’s most feared narco baron, Javier Crespo Fuentes, and his henchmen at their heels. Sounds like an action film? Yep. That’s what this gripping Mexican refugee novel is like.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. There comes a time in life, usually around puberty, when you wake up to the fact that your parents are not the infallible heroes you thought they were. Moreover, as Giovanna in The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante discovers, they lie. White little lies to cheer you up and, sometimes, dark, destructive lies that can ruin marriages and lives. Ferrante’s latest book, like her best-selling Neapolitan quartet, is also set in Naples, but this time in a middle-class academic home. The deceptions, passions and betrayals are the same, however, as is Ferrante’s extraordinary ability to inhabit the mind of someone else.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Kya Clark lives with her family in a shack in the North Carolina marshes until her siblings and parents leave one by one and she is left at the age of 7 to raise herself. Abandoned to this solitary life with just herons and gulls for company she learns to cook, grow vegetables and eek out a living, but she has few friends and shuns society. Some years later a handsome young man is murdered and The Marsh Girl is the obvious suspect. Unfolding slowly in dual timelines, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is an immersive and captivating read.
V2 by Robert Harris. A Second World War thriller by the master thriller writer, V2 is based on the Nazi’s desperate attempts, towards the very end of the war, at making a ballistic rocket which would travel three times the speed of sound. The problem was, it didn’t work. Harris’ fast-paced, page-turner is perfect for cuddling up with in front of the fireplace.
Surge by Jay Bernard is a poetry book composed of many different voices. At times confidential, at others longing, prophetic or lyrical, it weaves together the voices of the past, allowing the dead and forgotten to speak to the present. Through it all we hear the clear voice of Bernard, fearless, tender and unflinching.
Poems from the Edge of Extinction by Chris McCabe – Poems from the Edge of Extinction edited by Chris McCabe is a small cross-section of world poetry with a difference; every poem in this collection is written in a language that is endangered, at risk of extinction. It began with the idea to collect poetry written in the world’s dying languages and became an exhibition at the National Poetry Library in 2017, The Endangered Languages Project.
A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough. Over the past decade, Attenborough has turned from being the world’s most famous nature documentary presenters to one of the most effective communicators on climate change and biodiversity loss. His films and books reach millions and A Life on Our Planet (and the accompanying film) is his most urgent appeal yet for humankind to take drastic action to avert catastrophe. Attenborough is in prime position to document the changes he’s seen over his long career. As one reviewer put it: I’t’s possible that no human being, alive or dead, has seen so much of the natural world.’ A book for every household.
A Promised Land by Barak Obama. Expect 700 pages of measured, honest and self-searching reflections of Obama’s upbringing and first term in office up until the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in the first volume of his memoirs. Coined by The Independent’s reviewer as ‘probably the best volume of autobiography from a former president in modern times’ this tome will tower under many a Christmas tree this December.
Sapiens – A Graphic History by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari has made his gazillion best-seller into a graphic history book for the instagram generation. It’s a clever and interesting full-colour illustrated version of the history of humankind that will appeal to anyone over the age of 10. I quickly got sucked in and stayed. Brilliantly done.
Feline Philosophy – Cats and the Meaning of Life by John Gray might sound like a whimsical self-help book but is actually a subtle, engrossing and revealing read about what it is to be human. People suggest that that there is no instruction manual to life, and you would be better served discovering Meaning (with a capital M) in the great works of literature. John Gray thinks there is no such thing as Meaning. An eminent author, he has spent his career trying to rubbish the idea that there is any “meaning” to life. A perfect gift for the philosopher in your life.
More Than a Woman by Caitlin Moran comes nine years after her bestselling How to Be a Woman which I, and many of you, absolutely loved. Can she pull it off a second time? Yes, I think so! More Than a Woman is a slightly more serious book and has fewer scream-out-loud-laughing moments (or perhaps it’s me) than its predecessor but is still very funny. Life for Moran, as for most of us, has got a bit more serious with age. She too has got wiser with time and has some very worthwhile reflections around womanhood, parenting, feminism and marriage that are not only entertaining but ring true. Perfect comfort reading.
Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power by Sophie Swire. Swire, married to a Tory MP and best friends (now possibly ex-best friends) of ex-Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha, throws caution to the wind and tells it all in this ‘thrillingly indiscreet’ political memoir. Anyone into political gossip will love this book.
Lady in Waiting – My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown by Anne Glenconner. And while we’re on the topic of gossip, Anne Glenconner, lady in waiting to Princess Margaret has plenty of it in this hugely entertaining memoir. Married to Lord Glenconner, the owner of the Caribbean island of Mustique, Glenconner has seen her share of wild parties and scandals. Her own life has been marred by personal tragedies and betrayals but she has somehow managed to keep her wit.
Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald. Remember MacDonald’s multi-prize winning book H is for Hawk from a few years back? She’s back and whereas, last time, MacDonald dealt with the personal loss of her father, this time she’s dealing with the loss of nature. The book is a collection of essays written over the past decade and vary from migration patterns, the magic of birds nest construction, farming ostriches and picking mushrooms. A beautiful, meditative read.
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. A book about mushrooms, yes, mushrooms! Whose lives are so much more complicated and sophisticated than anyone could imagine. Apparently, ninety per cent of all plants depend on fungi for minerals and fungi can eat most rubbish, and even oil spills. Want to know more or know someone who does?
This Too Shall Pass by Julia Samuel. The perfect title for 2020. We loved Samuel’s Grief Works from a few years back. This time the psychotherapist and grief councillor deals with all sorts of life changes: job related (new job, losing a job, maternity leave), health (illness, menopause), identity, relationships and suggests ways of building resilience. Samuel’s wise and compassionate voice will be a comfort to anyone going through major life changes.
Where Snow Angels Go by Maggie O’Farrell (5-8 years). When did you last make a snow angel? Can you recall the powdery chill of the snow and the sweeping of arms and legs ‘back and forth, back and forth?’ Maybe you witnessed it thaw and dissolve, and mused on the ephemeral nature of snowflakes. Well, Where Snow Angels Go by Maggie O’Farrell holds no truck with temporary magic. In this tender story of salvation, we encounter the notion that an angel made in the snow remains in service to its creator forever.
Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright!: An Animal Poem for Every Day of the Year by Fiona Waters and Britta Teckentrup (5-8 years). As firm believers in the power of poetry and art, we were thrilled to discover this gorgeously illustrated collection of animal verse. Co-published with the National Trust, Waters’ thoughtful curation ranges across the globe, from translated Aboriginal and Japanese poetry to household names of today and yesteryear. With cloth binding and a ribbon marker, this sumptuous treasury presents readers with a poem for each day. A captivating gift, surely destined to be handed down through generations of bookworm families.
How to Be More Paddington by Michael Bond (5-8 years). ‘Now what would Jesus do?’ is a phrase you often hear invoked in times of strife. The late great Michael Bond preferred instead to consider what Paddington would do and ‘mentally take note of his advice.’ The little bear from Darkest Peru has encountered many a sticky situation (often marmalade related) and in this lovely compendium, he dispenses life lessons with customary warmth, kindness and wisdom.
Code Name Bananas by David Williams (8-11 years). There’s no proper Christmas without a new David Walliams book, so here we go. Having languished in the British Intelligence vaults for eighty years, this TOP SECRET file is about to be revealed to wide-eyed young readers. Set during the darkest days of the London Blitz, it tells of one brave orphan’s battle against the might of the Nazi regime, with only an escaped gorilla and his tin-legged great-uncle Sid for company. Be prepared for espionage, a plot to bring Britain to its knees, and an awful lot of tickling, in Code Name Bananas by David Walliams.
Fearless Fairy Tales by Konnie Huq (8-11 years). Fearless Fairy Tales by Konnie Huq is a welcome shake-up of the dusty old world of traditional fairy stories. In this anthology for extremely modern children, we encounter, among others, Sleeping Brainy, the princess who aspires to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Trumplestiltskin, a very timely US presidential riff on the original Rumplestiltskin’s ‘greed, gold and ridiculous hair.’ Funny, irreverent and refreshing.
The Book of Hopes edited by Katherine Rundell (8-11 years). The Book of Hopes edited by Katherine Rundell is balm for the bruised spirits of 2020. Borne of the Covid-19 crisis, it is Rundell’s brainchild, an original anthology of stories, poems and illustrations, designed to ‘kickstart the engine of delight inside the human heart.’ From poignancy to humour and often both combined, over 100 contributors present us with a chocolate box of literary delights.
Children’s Literary Christmas edited by Anna James (8-11 year). Early December is delicious for its ‘glimmerings and promise of special things,’ a feeling that gathers a gladly expectant momentum as we approach the home stretch towards December the 25th. In A Children’s Literary Christmas edited by Anna James, all the sparkle of Yuletide is captured in a charming and thoughtful selection of festive writing. Whether its significance to you is religious or cultural, James has a story or poem in mind. From beloved classics to contemporary tales, this British Library gift book contains more delights than a box of Harrods’ crackers.
Kay’s Anatomy: A Complete (and Completely Disgusting) Guide to the Human Body by Adam Kay (8-11 years). Adult readers may be familiar with Adam Kay and his brilliant diaries on life as a junior doctor. In this, his first kids book, he unveils the fascinating and often gruesome secrets of the human body. Find out whether bogeys are safe to eat, why we stop growing, and how much of your life will be spent on the toilet. Funny and fascinating.
Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan (11-13 years). A meditation on the nature of human and animal urban co-existence, Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan is a darkly beautiful work. Lustrous and evocative paintings accompany Tan’s surreal creaturely tales, as he asks us to consider the myriad ways in which city dwellers are entwined with the natural world. An artistic and philosophical triumph and the very worthy winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration 2020.
Why Your Parents are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It by Dean Burnett. A marvellous title that delivers on its promise. In a world full of books advising parents on how to deal with their troublesome teenagers, how refreshing to discover a manual for dealing with parents, ‘…literally the most annoying people in the world.’ Covering potentially volcanic issues, from school to social media, to leaving wet towels on the floor, advice is on hand from a friendly neuroscientist.
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (Teen/ Young Adult). Our favourite YA read of 2020, Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam, has been applauded for its depiction of what it means to be young and black in America today. It tells the story of poet and artist, Amal, convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. Ground down by a brutal and racist system, Amal must call upon his artistic powers in a bid for survival. A free verse novel that blazes with style and integrity.
Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin (Teen/ Young Adult). This gleefully implausible high-octane novel is one of our YA highlights of the year. An audacious spin on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it tells the story of Jade, hellbent on revenge after a brutal assault. Together with her ‘coven’ of best friends, she embarks on a mission involving disguise, manipulation, seduction and sheer bloody murder. Preposterous, visceral and utterly gripping, we loved it. Suitable for older teens only, this would make a great stocking filler for the drama queens in your life.
Happy Christmas from all of us at Bookstoker!
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