1 January 2021 Susannah

My 2020 Favourites

Favourite books

It has been my custom to start a New Year’s newsletter with a list of my 10 favourite books of the old year (please just take it for granted that my list always includes Jane Austen’s six novels). So … here is my list (alphabetical, according to author’s surname) and forgive me for a bit of cheating by including more than ten books.

  • The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables by David Bellos. I wrote in detail about this book during the year. I was fascinated by every page and the one friend that I know of who took up my reading suggestions also loved it (so glad you did, Lyn).
  • To Serve Them All my Days by R.F. Delderfield. This book begins at the end of WWI and starts at the beginning of WWII, and looks at the effect of the wars on a generation of young men. After reading the book, I watched the series and wondered why I had never come across this fabulous book before.
  • Elly Griffiths, the Dr Ruth Galloway novels. This series of crime novels set in Norfolk and featuring an archaeologist and a police officer, really helped me to survive Covid. I just devoured them and am longing for the next one in the series (due out 4 January). Thank you, Elly Griffiths, for the amazing therapy that your novels provided. The series begins with The Crossing Places, and you MUST read the books in the right order.
  • Thanks to my son (who has delighted me by reading more than 60 books this year) I read and found utterly engrossing three books by Thomas Harding – The House by the Lake, Hanns and Rudolf and Legacy: One Family, a Cup of Tea and the Company that Took On the World. History at its best!
  • Miss Austen by Gill Hornby. I am not a keen reader of Jane Austen sequels, but this novel about Jane’s adored sister Cassandra was moving and beautifully written. It made me think about the Austen family in new ways.
  • J.K. Rowling’s Troubled Blood. She is a master of plotting, characterisation and just damn fine story-telling!
  • Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy by Ben Macintyre. This was the remarkable true story of a German Jewish woman who spied for the Soviets. I had no idea so much spying went on!
  • The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim. This novel was published in 1922. I listened to it on audio, read superbly by Eleanor Bron – I was transported to a castle in Italy in the month of April. Gorgeous! My BEST AUDIO Book of 2020.
  • Because I have not travelled to Britain this year and am feeling homesick for it, I’ve been reading several books about walking through the landscapes and about the English climate. I really loved Weatherland by Alexandra Harris, a history of English weather and how attitudes to it have changed and also been reflected in art and literature – a fabulous book! As was Olivia Laing’s To the River, following the river Ouse through Sussex. I also loved Ramble On: The Story of our Love for Walking Britain by Sinclair McKay, and Walking Through Spring by Graham Hoyland, who walks north from the south coast in March with the start of spring there, to the border with Scotland which he reaches with the spring in June.
    Oh, to be in England again …. Well, a Covid-free England anyway.

I think Covid has had one benefit – people have been reading more. I hope your reading has been as therapeutic and satisfying as has mine and I hope that 2021 is packed with wonderful books for you.

Did your reading alter with Covid 19? I’d love to know. Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay
Body image credit- Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge, 2009 Walt Disney Pictures computer-animated adaptation, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1067106/
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Comments (33)

  1. Lois Cubbin

    Thank you, Susannah for your suggested readings, the recommendations of other friends who also just LOVE living, through reading, about the beautiful UK countryside. Can’t get enough of it, so will contact our book shops and keep my fingers crossed.
    A happy new year to you. Keep up the enjoyable work. Lois

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am missing England so much at the moment, so the enxt best thing is reading about it and watching films set in the English countryside. I am so glad you are finding my recommendations helpful.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I thought it was an absolutely gorgeous book – do hope you enjoy it too. Oh for a castle in Italy at the moment (Covid-free, of course)!

  2. Eileen Fraser

    Hello Susannah,Thank you for all of your book recommendations. They form the basis of my projected reading list, although one year behind you!
    As you are longing to get back to England I would recommend to you THE OFFING by Benjamin Myers. His descriptions of the English countryside are so reminiscent of my childhood, you can almost smell the meadows and wildflowers which grew there in such abundance.
    With best wishes for 2021.

    Eileen Fraser

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so very pleased that you enjoy my recommendations. The Benjamin Myers book sounds good – and there’s nothing as glorious as an English meadow with the wildflowers out! I do so hope that this year I can safely get back to England!

    • Jennifer Graham

      The Offing was my favourite book for 2020 and now “Dark, Salt, Clear” Life in a Cornish Fishing town by Lamorna Ash is leading the pack in 2021 and it is only January!

      • Susannah Fullerton

        I love the sound of the Cornish book especially – thanks for the recommendations.

  3. Margaret Debenham

    Hello, Susannah – it has taken me a while to make up my 2020 favourites list, as, unlike you, I am insufficiently organised to keep a list of books read. So some on my list may actually have been late 2019, but – near enough? Like you, I have really enjoyed a number of books about the English landscape, which is easily my favourite walking landscape – loved Weatherland, and also Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison (also very appropriate given current Sydney weather), Landskipping: Painters, Ploughmen and Places by Anna Pavord, and The Fens by Francis Pryor (this may have something to do with being descended from an East Anglian family). I also love books by people who are attempting to farm in the old ways, so really enjoyed James Rebanks’ follow-up to The Shepherd’s Life, English Pastoral, about his efforts to return his Lakes District hill farm to a more natural, sustainable existence (a similar project is described in Native by Patrick Laurie, who raises Galloway cattle in Galloway – but that book is perhaps not for vegetarians). Like Angela Rodd I loved H is for Hawk (and Vesper Flights), as I love birds of prey (one of the most memorable experiences I have had is learning to fly a hawk at a raptor centre in Moreton-in-Marsh – we were also allowed to hold a number of the birds, including Wotan the bald eagle – an amazing experience. And did you know that vultures are natural comedians?). Consequently this year’s reading included Raptor by James Macdonald Lockhart and Looking for the Goshawk by Conor Mark Jameson. However I didn’t spend the whole year on English landscape or birds – I particularly enjoyed Circe by Madeline Miller, which rather puts Odysseus in his place, Ottoman Odyssey by Alev Scott which looks at nationality, ethnicity and places of the heart in the context of the former Ottoman Empire (and ties in very nicely with one of my favourite books, Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres). Loved Sandi Toksvig’s Between the Stops, about her trips to work on the No. 12 bus, which is both very entertaining and very informative. And because I am badly missing Italy, I read Francis Mayes’ See You in the Piazza, which made me miss it even more (I can’t believe the amount of food and wine she and her husband consumed on their travels!). But I think my Book of the Year was Becoming by Michelle Obama – a wonderful read, and very impressive for its wisdom and humanity.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh you have given me some good suggestions, Margaret. I loved Weatherland and adored James Rebanks’ book, but the ‘Rain’ one sounds fabulous and also the Fen country one. And the Galloway cattle book, and the bird books all sound intriguing too. I have also visited a raptor centre, but didn’t get to hold one. You were lucky!
      Michelle Obama’s book is also on my list for this year. I’d like to get the audioversion so I can listen to her voice. So many books and not enough reading time!

  4. Robyn Gooden

    I read the Delderfield series many years ago and have kept them. Would like to see the series if you could tell me from where they are available. Thanks

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Happy New Year, Robyn.
      You can actually watch ‘To Serve Them all my Days on youtube. The colour seemed a bit faded, but I did love it.

  5. Angela Rodd

    I’ve just finished listening to the actor Ben Miles reading The Mirror and the Light on Audible. I think it’s a superb novel. I am a too-fast reader, and often miss details or skim over important passages, so it was a wonderful way to keep me engaged with every word of Mantel’s brilliant prose. Ben Miles has played Thomas Cromwell on stage and in the television series, experiences which deeply inform his interpretation.
    Thank you Susannah and everyone who has added their comments to the discussion. So many recommendations to take up! Here’s mine: Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights, a collection of essays inspired by English natural history. Helen won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction a few years ago with H is for Hawk. Like Susannah, I yearn to see England again one day. This book is an intriguing substitute until we can return in person.
    With good wishes to all for 2021,
    Angela Rodd

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Happy New Year to you too, Angela. H is for Hawk has been on my ‘mean to read’ list for ages, so this year I must read it. And it sounds like listening to Hilary Mantel is an excellent way to approach her books. It is so easy for the eye to skip when we read, but an audio reading means you get every bit of it, and I do love a well-read book. I’m starting the eyar by listening to Pride and Prejudice, read by Emilia Fox – BLISS!

  6. A good list. I too greatly enjoyed Gill Hornby–I introduced her at a reading in Cambridge just before my own novel Don’t You Know There’s A War On? was to be launched in the same place–sadly cancelled. My novel is set primarily in changing post-war Britain and its writing reminded me of a half-forgotten book I once found profoundly moving –Raymond Williams’s Border Country. I recommend it highly for its treatment of the past and memory. This book, as well as Gill Hornby’s Austen novel, set me off on my own Austen and the past novel, Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden–what else to do in lockdown with no sewing and painting skills?
    Some wonderful nature books still to be read, including the latest Richard Mabey. However, I yearn to stop reading and writing for a few days –and go for a long walk…. Soon?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Good to hear that you have been busy writing during this year, Janet. Your new book sounds intriguing. If we are ever allowed to travel overseas again, maybe you will consider coming to Sydney and talking to the Jane Austen Society about your new book? We’d love to welcome you here. Happy New Year!

  7. margaret graham

    Hi Susannah,

    I had just joined a Classics Bookclub at the local library and had been to two monthly meetings just before COVID hit…and then we moved to Zoom monthly meetings. It has been great to hear other people’s opinions on various books.

    We have read Middlemarch, The Harp in the South, Candide, My Brilliant Career, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The Secret Garden, Wake in Fright, Kim, Barchester Towers.

    On the agenda for this year are: The Great Gatsby, Excellent Women and Far from the Maddening Crowd. All books are vastly different and I have had a wonderful time each meeting swapping opinions and reactions.

    I have really enjoyed your monthly Notes from a Book Addict. They are invaluable.
    Kind regards,

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Joining a book club makes you read books you might not otherwise get around to, and then discussing them with a group brings many new perspectives. I love book groups! You might like to get some of my Readers Guides (for just $4 each) which have covered some of the books you’ve done, and might give you ideas for future choices. They come with discussion questions for book groups. Happy New Year!

    • Deb

      I also read The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, really heartbraking. Coincidentally, I also have The Secret Garden on my shelf but have not read: but will! I also read Camus’ The Plague: very apt; they used hotel quarantine!!!!

      • Susannah Fullerton

        I read Camus’s The Plague ages ago, but don’t think I could bear to read it during these pandemic times – I need more uplifting books at the moment.
        Happy New Year.

  8. PS I should have added: HAPPY NEW YEAR and thank you for a year of the good drum on books and all things literary! Looking forward to a better year ahead for all of us.

  9. On the advice of a friend, who knows I love southern England, I bought The Salt Path by Raynor Winn as a Christmas present for myself. She loved the book and I’m looking forward to reading it. It’s about a couple who, having lost everything, decide to walk the 630 mile South West Coast Path from Somerset to Dorset via Devon and Cornwall, a transformative journey apparently, and named by The Times as ‘the most inspirational book of this year.’ I haven’t started it yet (I’ve been bingeing on medieval crime novels during Covid) but will report back, but thought you might like to try it as a cure for homesickness!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I read a review of that book recently and thought it sounded really interesting.I will add it to my “To Read’ list.
      I have also been reading some crime novels recently – they are somehow the perfect Covid-year therapy!
      Happy New Year, Felicity, and let’s hope this new year is a vast improvement on the last one.

  10. Leonie Egan

    My late husband’s biography has been taking up most of my time this year, going through diaries, boxes of memorabilia, photographs etc. So I have devoured Lucinda Riley’s six books “The Seven Sisters’ and can’t wait for her to finish with the 7th sister. She has used a female historical figure to base her stories around 6 adopted children. Each has been given clues to their beginnings and as they find their way, the reader is taken to a different country, a fascinatingly different culture and a ‘can’t put down to go to sleep’ read. I highly recommend this writer and her slavish devotion to researching the women. I also reread Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey for joy.
    Love your pages. Happy NEW Year!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Well, you really can’t go wrong if you have reread 3 Jane Austen novels. And it sounds like you have been really busy with the biography – good on you!
      The Seven Sisters sound intriguing, so I’ll look out for that.
      Happy New Year and good luck with finishing the book.

  11. Jan Merriman

    Thank you Susannah for your list of recommendations, some, like Elizabeth Von Arnim, are familiar from the Virago editions of ‘neglected’ women writers of the first half of the 20th century that came out in the 1980’s which I devoured then. My reading for leisure has been extraordinarily limited this year because of my book on Philadelphia Hancock (nee Austen), now 120,00 words and still to get her to France! I loved the Delderfield TV series back in the day (I see my house in Baulkham Hills in Sydney and babies around when I watched that)and think I read the book then. Enchanted April was made into a film not that long ago. Looking at my scanty list of leisure reads I see Stella Bowen’s memoir which I found very interesting. I will take up by my bed side one of your recommendations, and perhaps even get to finish The Mirror and the Light, which has been such a disappointing slog. All the best for 2021
    Jan Merriman

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Don’t feel bad about not doing as much reading – you have been writing, and I’ve done no writing at all in the last year. Can’t wait to read your book on Philadelphia and launch it at JASA.
      I watched the film of ‘Enchanted April’ and really enjoyed it. Slight changes at the end but otherwise faithful to the book. I’ve just got another of her books called ‘Love’ on audio so will try that soon. Yes, I also read lots of those Virago books – they did an amazing job of bringing out women writers who had been neglected.
      Happy New Year – may it bring a finished book, good health, good JASA meetings, and lots of good reading.

  12. Ruth Wilson

    I managed a few of your recommendations Susanna: enjoyed The Crossing Places but not tempted to continue the series; two of the Thomas Harding books which I found compelling, both for the dedicated and dogged research and the understated emotional investment in it; and the moving story of a man’s life told by R.F. Delderfield.

    Another area of interest for me this past year was the substantial body of books written by women writers in the feminist transition from the Edwardian to the World Wars period, influenced by but rarely able to approach Virginia Woolf: for example, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann and Elizabeth Jane Howard. I have a dozen or more of their ilk on my shelves, waiting to be re-read and re-considered.The often introverted and sometimes over-indulged heroines make a telling counterpoint to the heroines I was reading and writing about in 2020: Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse; truly worlds apart, and therein lies the interest of their stories.

    I wonder whom of the mid century female writers (before Dorris Lessing, Margaret Drabble and A.S. Byatt) you and your readers find most illuminating, Susannah?

  13. I am just about to finish reading Agent Sonya – now I must re-read John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. The character of Connie Sachs was based on Milicent Bagot, who seemed to be the only one who twigged to what was going on, or wanted to! How many other Le Carre figures can be identified now?

    My favourite novel for last year was Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words. Highly recommended.

    I hope that you will be able to resume your travels soon.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Happy New Year, Ros. May 2021 be filled with good books.
      Interesting about the Le Carre character being based on Millicnet Bagot.
      I also really enjoyed The Dictionary of Lost Words and it nearly made my Top Ten List.
      Yes, I’m hoping that travel will happen, but the current little outbreak is making thins doubtful again.

  14. Honey

    I am surprised that I have been reading less this year.

    I read Wilfred McClay’s gorgeous book Land of Hope – it is a perfect answer to the scurrilous N.Y. Times 1616 Project even though it was written earlier. It is a warts and all History of America that teaches that we made many mistakes but we learned from them and in the end we remain a Land of Hope where everyone want to come here and few want to leave. It is beautiful to look at as well as to read.

    I have been taking Hillsdale courses. I have completed ten of them including some Shakespeare., Twain, C.S. Lewis, overview of great Books, Aristotle, Genesis, and Children’s Literature.
    I have been watching a lot of National Theatre, Asolo Theater, Shakespeare productions and other things.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It sounds like you have still been getting lots of exposure to literature in interesting ways, even if you have not read as many books. ‘Land of Hope’ sounds interesting – thanks for the recommendation.

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