TDF Books of the Year 2020
Like any personal best of list, the selections are inevitably limited by what one was able to have the time to read, watch or listen to, and it can in no way be definitive or comprehensive reflection of what was the best out there. As far as books go, there are plenty of literary awards with panels to choose from a wider selection, but for a single reader, the time invested means that you tend to stick with genres you are familiar with and writers who never let you down. Occasionally however, books come your way that are a delightful surprise precisely because you weren't expecting it.
Of the 72 books I read this year, my favourite 5 books (and one graphic novel) consequently consist of three favourite writers who didn't disappoint this year and two authors new to me in the literary genre that I wasn't expecting to impress me as much as they did. If you are looking for book recommendations to get through the current New Year lockdown situation, please consider these.
Borrowed Time - David Mark
It wasn't hard to include David Mark in this list, just difficult to choose one from the many projects he is working at a consistently high level. This year there was a new DS McAvoy prequel (Darkness Falls), the highly acclaimed Suspicious Minds or the hugely entertaining self-published dark thriller Still Waters (which is going to be republished by Head of Zeus next year as Into the Woods) but for me Borrowed Time was Mark's most intense, psychologically probing dark crime thriller outside of his regular acclaimed DS McAvoy series. Discovering he was adopted as a child, a man's search for his roots leads him to find things about his past that it might have been better not knowing, but which might explain some personal issues of his own. With insightful fluid prose that demonstrates a profound understanding of human behaviour and motivations - everything that a good crime thriller should have - the revelations in Borrowed Time are dark and devastating.
Read the full review of Borrowed Time here.
Slough House - Mick Herron
It's a bit unfair to include this one, as it's not actually published until February 2021. It also seems pointless to include Book 7 of the Jackson Lamb/Slough House series because anyone who has been following so far will already have this on pre-order and be eagerly looking forward to it. Anyone else would be recommended to delve back further in the series for an introduction (I came in on Real Tigers, so I can recommend that). Either way Mick Herron is on terrific form here with the unfortunate crew of misfits delegated to the scrap-heap of the Intelligence Service, who nonetheless see more action than most joes in active service. In Slough House the poor saps are put through the wringer once again when it turns out that someone has tipped off the Russian secret service that Jackson Lamb's team are a crack hit squad of international assassins for MI6. Yeah, as if. In the post-truth world of implausible deniability Herron achieves the near impossible in satirising a real-world of politics, business and international affairs that is becoming increasingly surreal everyday.
Read the full review of Slough House here.
The Bell in the Lake - Lars Mytting
Lars Mytting took us to the frozen far north of Norway in 1880 for The Bell in the Lake, the first book in what promises to be a fascinating family saga covered in The Sister's Bell Trilogy. Arriving in Butangen to sketch and prepare the removal of a medieval wooden stave church to be reconstructed in Dresden, a German architect Schonauer brings both exoticism and an awareness of the outside world to the remote village but also the fear and excitement of change. That proves irresistible to 20 year old farm girl Astrid Hekne who also works as servant for the local parson. The first book in what looks like an ambitious project to explore the character and development of the people of a nation, The Bell in the Lake is nonetheless self-contained and in itself relates a beautifully subtle and intimate exploration of human feelings and aspirations and progress though a heart-breaking love story.
Read the full review of The Bell in the Lake here.
My Life is like a Fairy-Tale - Robert Irwin
Infrequent though they are, if there's a new Robert Irwin book out there, chances are high that it's going to feature on my best of list. Thankfully we didn't have to wait too long from the fantastical historical setting during the English War of the Roses in Wonders Will Never Cease in 2016 for My Life is like a Fairy Tale, which was actually published in late 2019. Written as an autobiography by a wannabe starlet of the classic German cinema of the silent era and pre-Nazi Weimar Germany, the setting might be unexpected, but again Irwin finds a rich new world where there are many stories and where dreams turn into nightmares with an almost unsettling inevitability. Irwin brilliantly depicts this fascinating period of invention, creativity and decadence knowledgeably and with a sense of humour, but also with a sense of horror for what we all know lies ahead.
Read the full review of My Life Is Like A Fairy Tale here.
The Slaughterman's Daughter - Yaniv Iczkovits
By far the most unexpectedly entertaining and enjoyable book I read this year, The Slaughterman's Daughter is an epic adventure in the spirit of Gogol set in the town of Motal, in Grodno County (western Belarus) in 1899. The small, isolated and persecuted Jewish community there is scandalised by the disappearance of mother of five Fanny Keismann. She has taken off with the ferryman Zizek Breshov, in a search for her sister's husband who is rumoured to have been seen frequenting the brothels of Minsk. Their encounters with madmen, bandits and the Russian army serve to enhance what turns out to be a journey of near legendary proportions, and Yaniv Iczkovits's dazzling prose and black humour manages to be hugely entertaining, outrageously funny and at the same time filled with thoughtful observations.
Read the full review of The Slaughterman's Daughter here.
Spirou: Hope Against All Odds Part 1 & 2 - Émile Bravo
The graphic novel of the year for me is without question the opening chapters of Émile Bravo's extraordinary new run on the Spirou series. The classic Belgian comic series has been running since 1938, more or less contemporary with Tintin, and it has had some classic writers and artists working on it. None have been more ambitious than Émile Bravo who takes the series back to the period of its original creation and uses it to consider how Belgium dealt with the beginning of the Second World War at that time. Remaining completely faithful to the fun and adventure typical of the children's series, Bravo somehow also manages to deal with the realities of what was endured by ordinary people under Nazi occupation with great insight and subtlety. Projected as a four-volume series of 96 pages each, Hope Against All Odds Part 1 and 2 published so far suggest that this graphic novel is a masterpiece in the making.