Best Books 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year:

On 21 March 2020, I started keeping a daily journal to record and process these “unprecedented” times. I use these quotes ironically as one of the papers I did for my degree was The History of the Plague and although our scientific understanding of disease has advanced, our social responses still have a lot in common with medieval times. In New Zealand, we have been fortunate so far to avoid the worst of the COVID pandemic but I still monitor the daily stats, much like Samuel Pepys did with the bills of mortality in 1665 London.

Apart from scuppering my planned visit to Ireland, COVID also had a distinct effect on my reading for 2020. Less reading overall as trying to concentrate during the lockdown was futile and less non-fiction — there was more than enough reality in the news.

I haven’t included a couple of comfort re-reads (Katherine by Anya Seton and Sing to me Dreamer by Shonagh Koea) that were both just as good the second time, but my top books for 2020 were:


Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: A heart-breaking story about William Shakespeare’s son, who probably died of plague aged 11. Rather than being a footnote to history, the central character is Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes, reclaimed as a witch-like herbalist. It brings to life their marriage, the grief, and imagines how the play Hamlet came to be written.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: Despite her alcoholism, Agnes Bain is such a feisty, distinctive character and Shuggie, her devoted and vulnerable son, does his utmost to overcome the grim 1980s Glasgow setting. The blurb says ‘laying bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride,’ I shed tears over this one too.

Ripiro Beach by Caroline Barron: A memoir by a NZ author which includes an ancestor hunt, discovering distressing family secrets and coming to terms with a traumatic near-death experience. Gripping, I read this in one sitting.

The Dickens Boy by Tom Keneally: Charles Dickens’ youngest son, Plorn, has never read any of his famous father’s books and is sent off to the colonies (Australia) to learn how to apply himself. Written in a style that’s a homage to David Copperfield and Great Expectations, I loved it.

Gilgamesh by Joan London: A mother’s search for the father of her child spanning rural Australia during the depression and Armenia during WWII. An epic quest narrative, London’s debut novel was published in 2001.

Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall: A well-observed character study of a small-town NZ mayor who is well-meaning but a bit pompous and self-important. The culmination of a morally questionable decision and an accident at the 125th school reunion leads Pearly to re-evaluate his life.

Fake Baby by Amy McDaid: I’m not usually a fan of split narratives, but the characters in Fake Baby were so well-drawn that I had no trouble keeping track of them: a grieving mother who steals a life-like doll, a suburban chemist who makes a pharmaceutical error, and a homeless person on the verge of suicide. With just the right balance of humour and empathy, and a recognisable Auckland setting.

The Year Without a Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd: Six separate stories connected by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 and the effect of this climate disruption on social change. Famine, political unrest, and creative inspiration for Mary Shelley and John Constable.

Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem: An obsession with searching the banks of the Thames for Roman, medieval, Tudor and Victorian artefacts expands into quirky historical detail, environmental causes and personal fulfilment.

Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book by Lucy Moore: A biography of Ann Fanshawe, whose husband was a royalist diplomat during the English Civil War. Structured around her book of herbal remedies, it’s an absorbing insight into uncertain times. Her recipe book is online at the Wellcome Library and includes Dr. Burge’s Directions in tyme of Plague — probably about as effective as some of the remedies touted by Trump for COVID.

One thought on “Best Books 2020

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  1. Thanks Cathy. It’s always good to get your recommendations. I haven’t read any of these. Some are already on my list, others I will add. Interesting, I had the opposite reaction to lockdown and ended up reading a lot more than usual.


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