My Five Best Reads of 2020 and My 2021 Reading List

In no particular order, my five best reads of 2020 are:

1. The Five: the Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold (published 2020)

This incredible book pulls away archaic misconceptions pertaining to Jack the Ripper and his victims to communicate the truth about their identities. The Five is a harrowing document detailing the vilification of the most vulnerable individuals in Victorian society. 

‘It was generally accepted by all levels of society, without question, that such women would do anything for food and a bed. Because they were desperate, they were there to be used. In some cases, their permission needn’t even be solicited.’

2. The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson (published 2018)

Wilson’s refreshing and trail-blazing translation blows away the dust from old-fashioned interpretations of Homer’s verse. Wilson’s poem is accessible, deeply layered and perhaps less forgiving of the ‘complicated’ Odysseus than previous translations. This much-needed update makes one of the oldest tales tangible for modern readers without losing scope or splendour. Wilson, the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English, is currently working on a much-anticipated translation of The Iliad.

‘Tell me about a complicated man’

3. Beowulf translated by Maria Dahvana Headley (published 2020)

Headley’s bold, rock n’ roll translation of Beowulf captures the ancient Anglo Saxon battle cry of the original poem while updating the language and verse for modern readers. Headley’s feminist Beowulf asks new questions about old heroes and celebrates the often vilified character Grendel’s mother. Often referred to as a ‘feminist’ translation of Beowulf, Headley criticises the poem’s masculine conventions and writes that Beowulf is ‘a manual for how to live as a man, if you are, in fact, more like the monsters’.

‘I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best. Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts, netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea and made sashimi of some sea monsters.’

4. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (published 1968)

I reread this old favorite during the first lockdown. Beagle’s novel continues to blossom and yield with age. The Last Unicorn is a fairy tale that’s no fairy tale. Follow the Princess Amalthea in her mortal form as she seeks out the rest of her kind at the crumbling castle of old King Haggard. Read as an adult, I interpreted this as a riveting and sadly poetic allegory about the nature of womanhood.

‘Drown out my dreams, keep me from remembering whatever wants me to remember it.’

5. H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (published 2015)

H is for Hawk and also for ‘healing’ in MacDonald’s moving memoir about grief and connection with nature. When her father dies, MacDonald realises her lifelong dream of owning and training a goshawk. Through her journey with the goshawk Mabel, MacDonald comes to terms with herself and the changing world around her.

‘In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.’

Ten books that are on my 2021 reading list:

  1. Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold

The inspiration for the TV drama Harlots, Rubenhold documents the legion of sex workers in London in the Georgian era.

Blurb: In 1757, a down-and-out Irish poet, the head waiter at the Shakespear’s Head Tavern in Covent Garden, and a celebrated London courtesan became bound together by the publication of a little book: Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. This salacious work – detailing the names and ‘specialities’ of the capital’s sex-workers- became one of the eighteenth century’s most scandalous bestsellers.

Yet beyond its titillating passages lies a glimpse into the lives of those who lived and died by its profits – a tragicomic opera of the Georgian era, motivated by poverty, passionate love, aspiration and shame.

In this modern and visceral narrative, historian Hallie Rubenhold reveals the story behind Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, and the legion of ordinary women whose lives in the sex trade history has chosen to ignore.

  1. The Aeneid: A New Translation translated by Shadi Bartsch

This fresh translation of the Aeneid promises to be fast-paced and to bring the poem up to date.

Blurb: The Aeneid has remained a key text of university courses since the rise of universities, and has been invoked at key points of human history – whether by Saint Augustine to illustrate the fallen nature of the soul, by settlers to justify manifest destiny in North America, or by Mussolini in support of his Fascist regime.

In this fresh and fast-paced translation of the Aeneid, Shadi Bartsch brings the poem to the modern reader. Along with the translation, her introduction will guide the reader to a deeper understanding of the epic’s enduring influence.

  1. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke, author of the stunning Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, has released a second novel. Set in an alternative reality of endless, labyrinthe-like corridors, reviews suggest that Piranesi is a study of solitude.

Blurb: Piranesi lives in the House. Perhaps he always has.

In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides that thunder up staircases, the clouds that move in slow procession through the upper halls. On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone.

Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?

Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous.

  1. I Wanna be Yours by John Cooper Clarke

Punk poet John Cooper Clarke’s autobiography is likely to be as wry, funny, vivid and characterful as the man himself.

Blurb: John Cooper Clarke is a phenomenon: Poet Laureate of Punk, rock star, fashion icon, TV and radio presenter, social and cultural commentator. At 5 feet 11 inches (32in chest, 27in waist), in trademark dark suit, dark glasses, with dark messed-up hair and a mouth full of gold teeth, he is instantly recognizable. As a writer his voice is equally unmistakable and his own brand of slightly sick humour is never far from the surface.

I Wanna Be Yours covers an extraordinary life, filled with remarkable personalities: from Nico to Chuck Berry, from Bernard Manning to Linton Kwesi Johnson, Elvis Costello to Gregory Corso, Gil Scott Heron, Mark E. Smith and Joe Strummer, and on to more recent fans and collaborators Alex Turner, Plan B and Guy Garvey. Interspersed with stories of his rock and roll and performing career, John also reveals his boggling encyclopaedic take on popular culture over the centuries: from Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe to Pop Art, pop music, the movies, fashion, football and showbusiness – and much, much more, plus a few laughs along the way.

  1. Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Set post-Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Must Die tells of a future where Dorothy and her accomplices have become tyrannical dictators and must be taken down for the good of Oz. A must for fans of the original stories and the musical Wicked. This book is the first in a series.

Blurb: My name is Amy Gumm—and I’m the other girl from Kansas. I’ve been recruited by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked. I’ve been trained to fight. And I have a mission: Remove the Tin Woodman’s heart. Steal the Scarecrow’s brain. Take the Lion’s courage. And—Dorothy must die.

I didn’t ask for any of this. I didn’t ask to be some kind of hero. But when your whole life gets swept up by a tornado—taking you with it—you have no choice but to go along, you know?

Sure, I’ve read the books. I’ve seen the movies. I know the song about the rainbow and the happy little blue birds. But I never expected Oz to look like this. To be a place where Good Witches can’t be trusted, Wicked Witches may just be the good guys, and winged monkeys can be executed for acts of rebellion. There’s still a road of yellow brick—but even that’s crumbling.

What happened? Dorothy. They say she found a way to come back to Oz. They say she seized power and the power went to her head. And now no one is safe.

  1. The Goshawk by T.H. White

Frequently referenced in H is for Hawk, The Goshawk details a troubled English professor’s trials and tribulations of owning a magnificent and strong-willed bird of prey.

Blurb: First published in 1951, T.H. White’s memoir describes with searing honesty his attempt to train a wild goshawk, a notoriously difficult bird to master. With no previous experience and only a few hopelessly out-of-date books on falconry as a guide, he set about trying to bend the will of his young bird Gos to his own. Suffering setback after setback, the solitary and troubled White nonetheless found himself obsessively attached to the animal he hoped would one day set him free.

  1. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes, Joe Layden

Go behind the scenes with the original cast of The Princess Bride for previously untold stories and photos of the making of the cult classic film. Be prepared for more ordeals and derring dos than passing through the Fire Swamp…

Blurb: From actor Cary Elwes, who played the iconic role of Westley in The Princess Bride, comes the New York Times bestselling account and behind-the-scenes look at the making of the cult classic film filled with never-before-told stories, exclusive photographs, and interviews with the cast and crew.

The Princess Bride has been a family favourite for close to three decades. Ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the top 100 Greatest Love Stories and by the Writers Guild of America as one of the top 100 screenplays of all time, The Princess Bride will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come.

    Cary Elwes was inspired to share his memories and give fans an unprecedented look into the creation of the film while participating in the twenty-fifth anniversary cast reunion. In As You Wish he has created an enchanting experience; in addition to never-before seen photos and interviews with his fellow cast mates, there are plenty of set secrets and backstage stories.

  1. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

Classicist Haynes retells the Trojan war from an entirely female perspective.

Blurb: In the middle of the night, a woman wakes to find her beloved city engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over. Troy has fallen.

From the Trojan women whose fates now lie in the hands of the Greeks, to the Amazon princess who fought Achilles on their behalf, to Penelope awaiting the return of Odysseus, to the three goddesses whose feud started it all, these are the stories of the women embroiled in the legendary war.

  1. Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald

Nature writer MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk, explores our complex relationship with the natural world through a series of essays.

Blurb: Animals don’t exist to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves. From the bestselling author of H is for Hawk comes Vesper Flights, a transcendent collection of essays about the human relationship to the natural world. Helen Macdonald brings together a collection of her best-loved writing along with new pieces covering a thrilling range of subjects. There are essays here on headaches, on catching swans, on hunting mushrooms, on twentieth-century spies, on numinous experiences and high-rise buildings; on nests and wild pigs and the tribulations of farming ostriches. Vesper Flights is a book about observation, fascination, time, memory, love and loss and how we make the world around us. Moving and frank, personal and political, it confirms Helen Macdonald as one of this century’s greatest nature writers.

  1. In the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

This has been on my list for some years and I’m determined to finally read it in 2021. This murder mystery is set in a mediaeval monastery.

Blurb: The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective.

William collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, The Name of the Rose is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

What books are have you enjoyed this year and what are you planning to read next year?

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