There are lots of reasons why 2020 has been an unusual year. One of them is that several books I have both read and enjoyed have won major literary prizes this year – more often than not, my longlist or shortlist preferences don’t get as far as taking the big cheques home with them. However, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize this year – a debut novel about a young boy growing up in 1980s Glasgow (and I’m still feeling smug about including it in my predictions post back in July before it was even longlisted). Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for its moving portrayal of the death of William Shakespeare’s young son. And One Two Three Four by Craig Brown was awarded the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction – a brilliantly original and comic biography of the Beatles told in 99 short chapters.
My other favourite non-fiction books of the year don’t exactly fall into the category of comfort reading but are still well worth your time. Fake Law by The Secret Barrister is an excellent if terrifying follow-up to the anonymous author’s first book, continuing his or her mission to demystify the English legal system for the general reader with a focus on the perils of misinformation. I finally caught up with East West Street by Philippe Sands from 2016 which intertwines the author’s family history during the Holocaust with the lives of those involved in the prosecution team at the Nuremberg trials. As part of an alternative Not The Wellcome Prize blog tour, I read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez which is a rage-inducing piece of research exposing gender data bias in the modern world where everything from mobile phones to crash test dummies are designed for men.
In contrast with much of the non-fiction I have read this year, my favourite novels have generally been more easygoing in subject matter, with the possible exception of Summerwater by Sarah Moss – a short and sinister novel which follows the lives of various characters who are staying at a Scottish holiday camp. Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is an intriguing piece of speculative fiction about the path Hillary Clinton might have taken in life if she hadn’t married Bill. Finally, last year’s word-of-mouth success Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession proved to be excellent lockdown reading – an understated gem of a book about the everyday lives of two introverted friends. Lovely.