One of my goals for 2020 was to read 20 books. I’m going to give myself a little pat on the back because I reached my goal! In this post, I share my reviews of the books I read in 2020. In a “normal” year, this might have been a difficult task, especially considering that I started a more demanding job and got a puppy. However, 2020 gave me the gift of free time. During lockdown, I read a lot and I use reading as escapism. It was enjoyable to be able to have the time to read this many books, and I’ve become re-invested in reading as a hobby.
As well as reading books on my personal “to read” list, we started a virtual book club at work. It’s been great chatting about books socially with my colleagues. I also fell down the rabbit hole of Book Tube, i.e. YouTubers who make videos about books. One of my favourite cathartic pastimes is listening to other people talk about books. I recommend: Ariel Bissett, Jen Campbell, Jean Bookish Thoughts, and Savidge Reads.
If you’re in the UK and want to buy these books new, try: Bookshop.org. For used books, check out World of Books, or used via Amazon or Ebay. If you like to read e-books, you can try the App Libby, which lets you borrow e-books from Public Libraries. Without further ado, here are my reviews of the books I read in 2020. Have you read any of these books? What were your favourite reads for 2020?
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
This psychological thriller pulp fiction was the perfect easy read for starting 2020. The writing was genuinely creepy! The protagonist is a psychologist who suffers from agoraphobia, and therefore hasn’t left her New York townhouse in ages. This is one of those books where the journey is better than the destination. I didn’t find that the conclusion was particularly well-written, it was… deflated. Yet, the plot twists and turns really connected me with the main character and her psychological distress. I think a movie version was due to come out soon!
Tinkers by Paul Harding
This novel is about an elderly clock tinker named George Washington Crosby and his father, Howard. On his death bed, George remembers his childhood and the struggles his peddler father had with epilepsy. George recounts his family’s difficulties with poverty in rural early 1900s Maine. While I think the writing was worthy of it winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I found the extracts of clock manuals interspersed throughout disruptive to the narrative’s flow. Tinkers is essentially a book about mortality, and is worth reading if you’re in the right mood.
Thrifty Science: Making the Most of Materials in the History of Experiment by Simon Werrett
This academic history of science work examines practises of reusing, recycling, maintaining, and repairing in England from the 17th Century in relation to the circulation of scientific knowledge. Werrett claims that thrifty science (his term) was a way in which people understood and utilised domestic objects to perform experiments. Moreover, many of these materials were multipurpose or secondhand. The book’s central argument is that experimental activity involved making use of existing household things and domestic spaces. Given my background in the history of domestic medicine and science, it’s always a pleasure to keep up-to-date with new research in this field, especially when it focuses on the important role of the household and oeconomy in early modern science.
The nerd in me loved the etymological history of various words for garbage. For instance, “trash” meant twigs and wood bits, “garbage” was offal, “rubbish” was debris from ruined buildings, and “refuse” was reserved for items deemed worthless or refused. I also liked that Werrett’s conclusion highlighted the importance of understanding the history of reusing and recycling in the home and in experimentation as a framework for present sustainability objectives. For me, this book united two of my passions: historical of science, and sustainability, and it was therefore a fascinating read for me!
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
You can read my review in Spring Favourites 2020
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David. R. Montgomery
I came across this non-fiction work as a recommendation for understanding the role of soil in climate change. Honestly, I found it disappointing. Several of the chapters were dry and descriptive, but at least it’s more accessible than a standard scientific textbook as it rarely used jargon, figures, and equations. Montgomery’s argument is that the two issues of soil degradation and accelerated erosion will determine the fate of modern civilization. The book chronologically surveys soil erosion owing to unsustainable agricultural practises spanning Ancient Rome, the US Dust Bowl, to modern humanitarian crises of over farming, droughts, and crop failure. Montgomery uses these historic examples to argue that soil degradation indirectly contributed to the fall of ancient societies.
In his conclusion, Montgomery observes that modern agricultural reliance on fossil fuels and fertilizers parallels ancient practices that led to salinization in semiarid regions, and soil loss with agricultural expansion. As a solution, Montgomery suggests a way to ensure food security is to give small local farmers the tools, knowledge, and resources to sustain themselves and grow marketable surplus. Although this book fell short, the topic of soil erosion is extremely important in sustainability and climate change solutions.
Click the link for reviews of the Books I Read in Lockdown, which were:
- Underland by Robert Macfarlane
- The Break by Katherena Vermette
- All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison
- The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
- Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun
- A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A Washington
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
This is a rich story of interconnected characters living in the UK, and is set over several decades. Most of the characters are black women and some of the intersectional themes of the book are: racism, feminism, patriarchy, otherness, and sexuality. It was at times difficult to keep track of the characters, but I enjoyed the different perspectives. The book centres on a play that one of the main characters is directing, and all of the other story lines are tangentially linked, with the characters coming together at the end for the play’s debut.
I read this as part of my work book club, and it received mixed reviews from my colleagues. It isn’t an “easy” read because you need to keep track of how all the characters connect, and it also deals with some difficult themes like racism and sexual assault. For that reason, it might not be for everyone, but I thought it was wonderfully different, and so important to read this year in light of the black lives matter movement.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This is a coming-of-age novel about a girl named Kya Clark who lives alone in remote marshlands in the 1960s American South. It’s also part murder mystery, with elements of To Kill a Mockingbird. I also read this as part of my work book club, and what drew me in is the beautiful cover! While I enjoyed the naturalist elements of the book, and the narrative surrounding Kya’s troubled family life, I couldn’t connect with the love story plot. I did, however, think that the ending was cleverly written. I enjoyed reading this book, but it didn’t “wow” me.
Solar by Ian McEwan
I stumbled upon Solar in a round-up of the best books of the past decade. I initially bought it thinking my dad might want to read it, but I wasn’t entirely sure so I decided to read it first. The synopsis was admittedly a bit misleading, as I thought it was primarily about a Nobel-winning physicist working in the Arctic on a solution for climate change. It was so much more.
This is a dark comedy about Michael Beard, possibly the best “horrible human” protagonist I’ve read to date. Michael is a womanizer, self-absorbed, basket case who does briefly go to the Norwegian arctic. Actually, most of the novel is about his personal life, his work in a physics laboratory in the UK, and subsequently his work on solar energy in the US. I thought it was brilliantly written, and I couldn’t put it down! If you’re interested in climate change, it’s a good option if you want to contextualise the socio-political mood surrounding climate science a decade ago. It’s also hilarious!
The Familiars by Stacey Halls
This historical fiction is set in the late 1600s and is loosely based on true accounts of the Pendle witch trails in Lancashire, told through the perspective of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the young mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. It was an engaging story about Fleetwood’s infertility and her relationship with her midwife Alice Gray. I found the writing style a bit simplistic, but I guess that makes it accessible to a wide audience. This is a good bet if you enjoy reading early modern historical fiction, and if you like female centred plots. The Familiars is an inspired approach to re-telling local history, and was an overall solid debut novel for Halls.
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
I picked up this book thinking it was mainly about climate change, and found out it’s actually a beautifully written individual’s story. Set in the rural, impoverished Appalachians, Flight Behaviour tells the story of Dellarobia Turnbow, a wife and mother deeply unhappy with her unremarkable life. When a colony of migratory monarch butterflies are discovered on her in-laws adjacent land, it causes huge disruption to Dellarobia’s family and community. A team of scientists wind up living on Dellarobia’s land, and she finds herself questioning her beliefs and her life’s purpose. It was such a wonderfully-written human approach to understanding climate change, and prejudices along class lines. I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which the scientific explanations about the butterflies were expressed through dialogue between Dellarobia and the scientist, Dr Byron. Kingsolver’s writing is wonderful, and I’m keen to read more of her books.
The Secret World of Og by Pierre Burton
I read this book as a child, and my dad seems to recall reading it to me when I was little. It is a child’s chapter book about siblings who discover a secret world underground, beneath the floorboards of their playhouse. The venture into the world of Og to rescue their infant brother. The writing is very dated, but I enjoy the illustrations and I just felt like reading something nostalgic.
The Innocents by Michael Crummey
This novel is about a young orphaned brother and sister living alone in the wilds of Newfoundland in the early 19th Century. The descriptions and acclaim for the book describe Crummey’s writing style as akin to William Blake. I never read Blake, but I’d describe Crummey’s writing style as poetic and atmospheric. Unfortunately, I found the temporal colloquialisms and regional dialect awkward to read, and they ruined the flow of the narrative. I did enjoy the way in which Crummey told the story by alternative between Everard’s and Ava’s perspectives. I did not enjoy nor expect the main theme being uncomfortably sexual. I also didn’t understand the point of Everard’s white hair. Moreover, as a nitpick, I really don’t like when books include a plastic coating on the cover, which makes it non-recyclable. In the end, this book wasn’t for me.
Cunning Folk Magazine: The Re-Enchantment Issue
Is it cheating that I am including a magazine? I don’t know, whatever. I treated myself to this beautiful little magazine for my birthday. I read a fair amount about early modern magic and the occult during my masters and PhD, and the medicinal/magical qualities of botanicals features heavily in my research on 18th Century domestic medicine. While I wasn’t into the poetry, and some of the articles were a bit too “modern witchy” for me, it was nonetheless an interesting read, and I loved the illustrations. It’s also nice to support a small publisher as they’re getting going, especially given 2020.
This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
One of my big personal development goals is to learn as much as I can about climate change, and share that knowledge with you. This Changes Everything examines capitalism and the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. I started reading this book in early summer and I kept putting it aside to read fiction. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, it’s incredibly informative and important, but it’s a book that requires full attention and time to digest.
Klein’s comprehensive work covers several topics including: climate change denial, greenwashing, political connections with the fossil fuel industry through investments and lobbying, the importance of indigenous groups fighting to protect their land rights, and geoengineering. I was drawn in by Klein’s concluding chapters which related the period in which she was doing her research to her infertility struggles. This was namely the destruction of aquatics fertility cycles in the wake of oil spills.
I’ll discuss Klein’s work in future posts, but for now I’ll say this is one of the most important climate change books written in the past decade.
So there you have it, 20 books for 2020! What are you planning to read in 2021, and what do you recommend I read next?