Books we enjoyed reading in 2020

Compiled by Stella Perrott

In soliciting book reviews from our Yorkshire Bylines writers and friends, I half expected to see a surfeit of recommendations for The Plague by Albert Camus or A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. Neither appeared, nor did any of the books that were published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu – just in time to shed light on the current pandemic. Curiously too, there are no recommendations for any books on Brexit. Perhaps we’ve all had enough.

Yet, all of the books are very topical and touch on current anxieties about the environment, right-wing populism, religious and racial identity, mental health, and current politics and economics. There is also hope, warmth, optimism and practical suggestions. This is, by no means, a gloomy reading list!

Non fiction

The Narrative of Trajan’s Column by Italo Calvino

Review by Nick Buckley

This volume collects twelve brief and arrestingly vivid reflections, prompted by Calvino’s visits to monuments, exhibitions, shrines and texts. The Italian writer and journalist (1923–1985) has been described as an “experimental fabulist”, but never fear, here Calvino surveys the imaginative constructions of others and the journalist’s voice is audible throughout. Each short chapter in this eclectic text is fascinating. A review of 18th century clockwork automata is historical, informative and slightly scary. In the title essay, Calvino climbs 40 metres of scaffolding around Trajan’s Column, examining and discussing the spiral of bas-reliefs, invisible from the ground, that record Trajan’s Dacian campaigns. ‘The Archipelago of Imaginary Places’ illustrates an astonishing selection, from Rabelais to Tarzan to the 101 nights (in the Diamond Islands, imprudent travellers are captured by carnivorous diamonds). A volume to read before switching off the light. Your dreams will be suffused with things rich and strange.

Paperback, 112 pages. Published September 2020 by Penguin Classics.

The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein

Review by Edward Mitchell

In nearly 500 pages of closely argued text, Klein weaves together a compelling synthesis to explain what’s happened across the globe as the apostles of Milton Friedman exploit crises for profit. Disaster capitalism moves in to ‘cleanse’ (privatise) a state, while its citizens are still reeling from the shock of floods, political upheaval or war. State corporatism erases the boundaries between Big Business and Big Government by transferring public wealth into private hands. The book covers the US occupation of Iraq, the New Orleans floods, Thatcher’s Britain and political upheaval in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Klein’s thesis has lost none of its relevance for today. The UK faces an uncertain future, with perhaps years or decades of economic decline as it ‘cuts free’ from the fetters of Brussels.

Paperback, 576 pages. Published May 2008 by Penguin.

The Anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple

Review by Michael Hindley

The East India Company was the prototype multinational corporation which bribed, cheated and actually fought (it even had its own army) to conquer India. MPs were in its pay and organised government bailouts when the company ran into serious financial problems. Dalrymple draws parallels to the present day corruptions of global multinationals. But the book is as much about the Indian resistance to the takeover of their land. It is a well-told antidote to the tales of Imperial glory which many of us grew up with.

Paperback, 576 pages. Published September 2020 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Wake Up by Piers Morgan

Review by Emily Horner

The ITV’s Good Morning Britain presenter, notorious for his outspokenness, has written a history book for the future with an account of contemporary events. From his controversial musings on Meghan Markle, to his admiration for Captain Sir Tom Moore, Marcus Rashford, the Black Lives Matter movement, and of course, our NHS frontline workers, he laces all these moments of 2020 with how “wokeism” is corrupting social media use. In a series of humorous diary entries, he excoriates the “illiberal, fascist liberalism” and the “woke brigade”, those who use social media as their battleground, and engage in the “cancel culture” of those with whom they disagree. Piers pleads that in order to protect free speech, we need to accept different opinions to our own and not jump to such harsh assumptions – and admits to where he has gone too far with his own assumptions of others. I just have one question: why finish the book in July, Piers? The Covid-19 vaccine and the Brexit deal which occurred at the end of the year would have been a much tidier way to end the book – so can we expect a second volume?

Hardcover, 352 pages. Published October 2020 by HarperCollins.

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist by Kate Raworth

Review by John Cole

Doughnut Economics attempts to shift dramatically the world’s economic thinking, to deal with the climate crisis, extreme inequality between and within nations and recurrent financial crises. For Raworth, the ring of the doughnut represents the planet’s safe and virtuous space with the outer boundary of the doughnut representing the ecological ceiling – currently being breached in a number of places. Raworth is in favour of small-scale micro ‘patch’ changes alongside macro changes such as weaning ourselves off our obsession with economic growth and short-term decision-making. Whilst the analysis of the problems is stark, Raworth is confident that there is time (but only just!) to address these issues and that the challenges themselves provide rich opportunities.

Paperback, 384 pages. Published April 2017 by Random House Business.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum

Review by Lord Newby

The book describes the rise of right-wing, nationalist populism in Eastern Europe, the UK and US. Anne Applebaum is ideally placed to write about this from personal experience. A journalist and historian, she was born in the US, married a Pole (who became the country’s foreign minister) and has studied and worked in London. The book is short, trenchant and compelling. And should persuade anyone of a liberal disposition why they’ve got to get involved in politics to preserve liberal democracy.

Hardcover, 224 pages. Published July 2020 by Signal Books.

Gordon Brown: Prime Minister by Tom Bower

Review by Dawn-Maria France

I love this book because it takes you the reader into the heart of government, the broken promises the sound bites, the deals done with the media to present media opportunity to fool the public into trusting politicians. The book deals with the obsession and drive for power by any means necessary, even if it means ignoring the voters’ wishes and concerns. This well-researched book lifts the lid on the backroom deals – it shows the public and political faces of our so-called leaders and their personality flaws. I would recommend it to political and non-political friends and associates – it’s truly gripping!

Paperback, 528 pages Published December 2007 by Harper Perennial (first published February 2005).

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman

Review by Anne Vetch

Unorthodox gave me a timely and fascinating insight into a faith, culture, and way of life of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, whose traditions are rooted in Old Testament beliefs and values, so unfamiliar to our western way of life. The sect follows centuries-old customs, traditions and laws with little or no formal education arranged marriages, and separation of the sexes. Married women shave their heads and wear wigs and menstruating girls and women must attend ‘cleansing rituals’ at a communal bathhouse and show rags bloodied or otherwise to the rabbi. Feldman prompts the reader to consider if the faith is part of the rich tapestry of a multi-faith, multi-cultural and diverse society which we respect and honour, or an oppressive, damaging and limiting way of life where we need to intervene and offer paths to freedom. Feldman draws us into a rich and fascinating world of challenging behaviours, strong characters, beautiful prose, unfamiliar ritual, and hierarchical relationships.

Paperback, 272 pages. Published October 2012 by Simon Schuster (first published February 14th 2012).

Gut – the inside story of your body’s most under-rated organ by Giulia Enders

Review by Salli Martlew

From your mouth to your bum, bacteria is busy dealing with whatever you consume – good food, bad food, medicines and alcohol. Giulia Enders writes as a medical doctor and an enthusiast, and her book is engaging and amusing as it leads us through our bodily functions. She tells how our propensity for certain foods, attitudes and actions is influenced by both our human genes and our gut bacteria, and how the gut-brain axis influences our thoughts, moods and activities. Her sister provides entertaining illustrations of the different bacteria in their territory within us, as well as a cartoon strip of how to sit on the toilet for the best results! This positive and enlightening read shines a light in all the nooks and crannies of our internal workings and bacteria co-operation. In the final chapters, she offers realistic advice on what we can do to improve matters within ourselves, to benefit both mind and body. Brace yourself for this short, friendly and highly digestible book. 

Paperback, 288 pages. Published June 2017 by Scribe Publications.

The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us, by Nick Hayes

Review by Andrew Leach

The Book of Trespass, beautifully written and illustrated by the seemingly multi-talented Nick Hayes, is my Book of the Year for a multitude of reasons. It is a history book, a nature book, a book about England and Englishness, a book about property and probity. It takes in both past and future, examining the whys and discussing the possibilities of what might be, eloquently pulling apart how it is that 92 percent of our land is denied to the vast majority of us. And at its core, the “hows” are its heartbeat. How has land been privatised, bought, stolen and divided? How have the myths been created that allow us to forget we once had a stake in a landscape that we still refer to as ‘our’ green and pleasant land? How might things be improved? Through at times almost poetic prose, and with vivid illustrations that are both traditional and completely modern, Nick Hayes is teacher and guide, laying out the state of the nation’s property laws and encouraging us to be bold, to be radical and to dream of change. A fascinating book that ultimately becomes a message of hope. And in this of all years, we all need a bit of that.

Hardback, 464 pages. Published August 2020 by Bloomsbury Circus.

Net Zero – How we can stop Causing Climate Change by Dieter Helm

Review by Charles Mack

Helm asks, “When the historians look back in 2050 and judge whether we fulfilled our duties to the generations to come, will they say we did our bit, and tackled climate change before it got out of control. Or will they condemn us for our selfishness?” Decarbonising our economy and our lives will require rapid change, in the technologies we use and to our lifestyles. If we are to survive as a species we have to up our game. This important book outlines how we can do this and still retain a sense of optimism in the future.

Hardback, 304 pages. Published September 2020 by William Collins.

How to Live a Good Life: A guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy edited by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary and Daniel Kauffman

Review by Helen Davidson

For those who want to ‘thrive’, not merely ‘survive’ during coronavirus but have never studied philosophy, this volume of essays is a useful starting point. In 15 short, easy to read chapters, the book helps the reader consider if and what ‘philosophy for life’ might be appropriate for them. It explores the wisdom of ancient philosophers (East and West), religious traditions and modern philosophy. Each chapter is written by a philosopher who provides an outline of the underlying beliefs, theory and principles of each discipline, alongside examples of their application in day-to-day practice. Neither a self-help book nor a philosophical exposition, it is very much an overview and a starting point for further exploration.

Paperback, 295 pages. Published January 2020 by Vintage Books.

The Art of Disruption by Magid Magid

Review by Andy Brown

It takes some skill to write a book about politics that reduces cynicism instead of increasing it. Magid, who came to the UK as a child refugee from Somalia, has an infectious enthusiasm for life that engages the reader from the first. Following his thoughts and his experiences as he becomes mayor of Sheffield and then MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, makes for a really fun read. I defy anyone to read the section about the old lady he befriends on the bus and not believe that we need political practitioners of his sincerity. I read two books the same week. This was one. The other was a psychological study of Donald Trump written by his niece, Mary Trump, which forced me to spend rather too much time contemplating a truly sick and unpleasant character. I was fortunate that I could keep going back to Magid’s work and re-familiarise myself with the way a truly healthy mind functions. Enjoy!

Hard cover, 288 pages. Published September 2020 Bonnier Books.

Andy also recommended The Garden Jungle by Dave Goulson; Why the Germans do it Better, by John Kampfner; and Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake.


Emma by Jane Austen

Review by Maggie McCarthy

In the year that has seen our need for comfort food like no other, Emma is the ultimate comfort read. Whether you are a first time reader of Jane Austen or are returning to an old friend, this book takes on the additional poignancy in its depiction of a small village community, insular rather than isolated, but redolent with lockdown parallels. At the same time, the attitudes expressed by the author are very much of its historical context of the early 19th century. Emma’s passage from naïve hubris towards empathy, humility and self-awareness is joyous. Her journey takes her through a series of misunderstandings and errors of judgment, treated by the author with both humour and sensitivity. The characterisation draws the reader into the individual households generating both warmth and amusement, gentle but thought-provoking escapism for the time of covid.

Paperback, Penguin Classics, 474 pages. Published May 2003 by Penguin Books (first published December 1815).

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Review by Charlie McCarthy

Glasgow 1981. Thatcher is at the height of her power and the local economy is in the process of being restructured. Shuggie Bain, youngest child of Agnes, is trying to cope with the collateral damage. As Agnes’s dreams atrophy, she turns to alcohol for solace and her children suffer in this economic and political experiment. They have to carve their own futures and desert the family home to save themselves. Shuggie Bain is a first novel masterpiece and Booker Prize winner that should be on the reading list of every schoolchild in the country. This is not a tale from a long-forgotten corner of the UK in terminal decline, but a prophetic treatise on the post-covid, post-Brexit world that may be coming our way.

Hardcover, 430 pages. Published 11th 2020 by Grove Press.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Avaristo

Review by Anabelle Levins

Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker prize-winning novel, is a vibrantly written, feminist narrative that weaves together the stories of a number of black women, set in past, present and future Britain. Using an unconventional structure with a disregard for accepted punctuation, the book flows and creates tangible characters, each with differing backgrounds but all with obvious and not so obvious connections with one another. This many-voiced novel takes a dynamic look at black British womanhood, whilst going far beyond each individual’s social identity markers; delving into their own histories to understand how, in adulthood they move through society in the ways that they do. I would recommend this book to anyone looking to read a joyous, fun, sexual and racially diverse read, which addresses some of the key issues of our time: gender identity, education, racism and social media.

Hardcover 453 pages. Published May 2019 by Hamish Hamilton.

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

Review by Sam Wray

Set in the vast, hot, waterless outback of Western Australia, we meet Jaxie, still in school, but already being educated by the hard knocks of life, and we experience every lesson with him. His Mum has died, and he wishes that had been his Dad. When it comes to decision time, he makes a run for it. Then you can’t put the book down. Winton’s writing is tense, brutal and unique. We follow as Jaxie uses every ounce of knowledge, nous and gut instinct to survive, survive and survive again. To keep him going he just has hope and the love of a long-missed girl from his past young life. We meet him as a troubled boy, he leaves us as a survivor, a man.

Hardcover, 267 pages. Published March 2018 by Hamish Hamilton.

Sam also recommended Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Review by Stella Perrott

At 850 pages, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot requires a strong arm and several long evenings in front of the fire. Written in 1876, the novel is an extraordinary feat of empathy and intellectual labour as the (culturally) Christian Eliot draws us towards Jewish renewal as a separate race with its own homeland – two decades before the state of Israel was even articulated as a goal and some 60 years before its realisation. Although decidedly Victorian in style, the novel pulls, uncomfortably, at modern-day tensions of race, religion and identity. Her chilling depiction of ‘coercive control’ within marriage is not bettered in current literature. The novel, Eliot’s last, was unpopular then, and may not be popular now, but deserves the attention of the modern reader.

Paperback, 796 pages. Published 2002 by Modern Library (first published 1876).

Life and fate by Vasily Grossman

Review by Anthony Robinson

This is a formidable book. In the introduction, Guardian columnist Linda Grant says she first read Life and Fate in 2003. It took her three weeks and another three to recover. I can understand that. It’s a searing experience. Grossman, a Soviet Jewish journalist who covered the battle of Stalingrad and the liberation of the Treblinka extermination camp, died in 1964 before this novel was smuggled into the West. It follows Viktor Shtrum and the Shaposhnikov family during The Great Patriotic War (WWII). Something profound leaps from every page. Stalingrad, with all its horrors and inhumanity, is just one of the canvases on which Grossman paints an intensely vivid picture of what he calls ‘The furious joy of Life.’ The terrible journey of Sofya and the boy David to the gas chamber stands out as the most harrowing piece of writing I can ever remember reading. It is not just a glimpse, but a crushing examination of the human soul seen through the eyes of Hell. Life and fate is one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, if it doesn’t affect you deeply – you need help.

Paperback, 864 pages. Published October 2006 by Vintage Classics (first published 1980)

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