I keep an appointment diary, but it's basically a combination of to do and have done lists, here is where I keep something like a record of what I'm interested in and thinking about, so coming up with this years list of best books has been a recap of 2020. January, February, and the beginning of March feel like both a lifetime ago and a different world. One where theatre trips were possible (I really miss the theatre, and the privilege of cheap rush tickets which let me see so much over the past couple of years) and a year that started with hope and a conviction that this was going to be the start pof an exciting new phase. It didn't turn out quite like that.
There was the optimism of early lockdown where it all seemed like a chance to step back and smell the roses whilst spring erupted around me in a part blessedly free of alcoholics, followed by the pessimism of never getting out of lockdown during a summer marred by a park full of alcoholics (if it wasn't so intimidating having to walk past them there would be something almost heroic about the dedication this group of drinkers have to being out in all weathers to drink cheap lager together from sunrise to sunset). And then onto our current phase of uncertainty and Covid burn out.
I read more than I thought I had this year, but a lot of it has been old detective fiction and tales of the weird. All of those books have been excellent, and I'd recommend every single one of them, but whilst they haven't melded into one, it's hard to look back and say this one, or that one, are the ones that have stayed with me. It's also been a brilliant year for food related books with a coupe of things that feel like they ought to become classics.
I know there's a camp that says books of the year ought to be ranked - and I might agree (I wouldn't agree) if they were all in the same genre, but they're not. These are books which have defined my year and which I've really enjoyed.
Georgette Heyer's A Civil Contract is my choice from the good chunk of Heyer I've re read this year. She's an author I find an equal mix of comfort and challenge in, and who has seen me through a variety of hard times over the decades. A Civil Contract shows her at her best - just staying within the confines of the romance genre to write a book which shows that relationships are hard work and complicated, and worse. Heyer is a snob and sometimes it grates. If you're new to Heyer and doubtful about historical romance start with the detective fiction - if you like it you'll enjoy the majority of her writing, if you don't there's no need to carry on. There's a brilliant Heyer readalong group on Twitter and some excellent Podcasts if you catch the bug.
Sylvia Townsend Warner continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. Her novels are getting some smart looking reprints in Penguin Modern Classics so if you don't have a guilty stack of unread old Virago Modern Classics 2021 will be the year to stock up. Better yet are Handheld's reissues of her fairy stories. Of Cats and Elfins is so good I've given copies to a few people. It's unexpected, funny, sad, charming, spikey, and altogether brilliant. A really good introduction to Sylvia in her many moods and just wonderful.
I bought David Lebovitz's Drinking French assuming I'd get a fun summer drinking Vermouth and making classic cocktails. I did not, but it's still an excellent book even if it now feels like it belongs to a part of my life which is over. I'm still not sure if I miss the wine trade or not, I definitely miss being able to sit in a summery garden with a few people chatting over something good to drink. The reality of Brexit probably won't help with this particular miss either - but I can still dream of trips to France and bringing back interesting aperitifs.
Gill Meller's Root Stem Leaf Flower is probably my favourite cookbook of the year against some really stiff competition, including Olia Hercules' Summer Kitchens. Both are 3rd books, both feel like by far the best work from either author, both are exciting, but in the end I've cooked from Root Stem Leaf Flower more and it's quickly become a go to book for inspiration. I wouldn't be without it now and just writing this is making me think about broccoli - which no other book has ever done for me before.
The Accidental Countryside by Stephen Moss felt particularly timely. I think it was the last book I bought before non essential shops closed, and was the perfect thing to read stuck in a city centre and really noticing the variety of wildlife - especially bird, plant, and insect life, around me. I haven't read Richard Mabey's The Unofficial Countryside yet, but it's on my list for the coming year. There's a lot to think about with this one, specifically in how we think of the countryside and the value of brown field sites. Urban and suburban places can do a lot to make space for a little wildness which is a benefit for all and everything concerned. This year has really shown how valuable that can be.
If I could literally hoist a flag for any publisher it would probably be Handheld Press who keep producing interesting and unexpected books. Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford was an other favourite. Mostly light and funny but with real heart, I really enjoyed this book whilst recognising far to much about the world of retail in it. Mostly though it was the humour that I loved about this that made it so memorable and is also making me wonder if I should just retire for the rest of the day and read it again now.
Patrick Baker's The Unremembered Places is the book with the concept that really caught my imagination. Baker explores parts of Scotland which haven't exactly been forgotten - the physical remains of the history are there, and findable, but they're not well remembered or celebrated either. Everywhere has places like this, I've been researching a couple in Shetland (including the first phone box my dad restored) and realizing how many stories can exist around a place, and how easily they can be lost. It's a book to question the history we remember and why. This book just wins out for me over David Gange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge and Sean Lysaght's Eagle Country only because it is Baker who made me think about looking for these stories and places on my doorstep (lockdown friendly) rather than on the grander scale. Again, all 3 are excellent books, and the latter two arguably have a lot more to offer the armchair traveller right now).
Of all the classic crime I've read this year, Julian Symons Progress of a Crime feels like the most memorable (I guess I won't really know until this time next year). The British Library Crime Classics have been a feature of this years reading for me, and I've been lucky with all of them so far with lots of what I feel are series highlights. This one isn't so much interested in the affect a murder has on the victims family, but how it affects those around the accused. Written in 1960 it captures a moment in history that we sort of overlook now I think. Sandwiched between the war and the swinging 60's there's opportunity and prosperity for some but a hard reckoning with the recent past too.
Miranda York's The Food Almanac is the book that's made me realise I'm convinced there should be a K in almanac. Again it was a tough call between this one and Kate Young's The Little Library Christmas both write about so much more than food, and Kate Young's book is the first Christmas one I've come across which doesn't assume a conventional family Christmas or really having a lot of money (I'm thinking of the Nigel Slater Christmas book which earnestly discusses which £80 candle to light on Christmas morning - it's a lovely book, but not quite for me). In the end it's the almanac not because it's a better book, but for the variety of writers and writing in it and the fact hat Christmas has passed.
Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese Ghost Stories are my final choice as a representative for all the weird I read in 2020. He was a writer I'd never heard of, and then found around very corner once I started reading this. If ever there was a time to take comfort in something weird or other worldly this does seem to be it and I've found it really helpful for mentally boxing up some of the uncertainty. There have been brilliant collections from Handheld, and the British Library which I've read with enthusiasm. I've a little stack of more scholarly texts on the subject which I honestly mean to read too (good intentions quail at 300+ pages of small print and footnotes when there are so many tempting stories to be read). Hearn's combination of Japanese and Irish influences has to be fairly unique and his life story is as interesting as his work.