The Deepest Grave by Harry Bingham (2017). This is the sixth book about Fiona Griffiths, a police detective in Wales who is complaining when the book begins about how long it’s been since she had a murder to solve. She is thus thrilled to learn an archaeologist has been found murdered and decapitated, plunging Fiona into a complicated quest to find the criminal. Fiona’s erstwhile-criminal father, a fascinating character, plays a bigger role in this book than usual. I love this series and wish it had a bigger audience. Start with Book 1, Talking to the Dead. I keep lending my copy to people, which is dangerous.
A Great Reckoning (12) and Glass Houses (13) by Louise Penny (2016 and 2017). I read a lot of Louise Penny during the pandemic and could have chosen more than two for my top ten list but I thought these were mesmerizing. Even when I was done I went back to reread and to savor. When I read the first book, Still Life, in 2013, I thought it was fine but the characters slightly annoying. It wasn’t until I was planning a trip to Quebec in 2019 that I wanted to read something set there and got the second book on audio to listen to as I drove home. By the time I got home, I was an Armand Gamache groupie.
Dark Saturday by Nicci French (2016). Psychotherapist Frieda Klein shows little emotion (which annoys both friends and readers) and takes ridiculous risks with her safety. It is hard to explain what makes this 8-book series, set in London, so fascinating but it may be the battle of wits between Frieda and the archvillain, as well as her uncanny deductive powers. This sixth book was the best one. Start with Blue Monday.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson (2020). This book shows Churchill’s perspective and approach to the war just as Citizens of London by Lynne Olson (for which I am an evangelist) told the story of the Americans working behind the scenes for FDR. It was the best book my book group read all year as well as one of my top ten. What really made the book was the way he used diaries to show what people were thinking and doing.
A Strange Enchantment by Mabel Esther Allan (1981). My library had a dozen but she wrote many more, which I have been collecting over the years. The lockdown gave me the chance to catch up on some I had never read. I particularly like this one about 16-year-old Prim, who lies about her age to sign up as a Land Girl during WWII. I would last about one day on a farm but I enjoyed the description of her work, especially as I know it was based on MAE’s own experience as a Land Girl.
On the Wasteland by Ruth M. Arthur (1975). It's unlike me to have only one orphan book in my top ten! Betony’s life at the Brackenbury Children's Home in Suffolk is bleak, alleviated by long walks where she experiences a timeslip to a Viking settlement. Nobody juxtaposes evocative scenery and unnerving atmosphere like Ruth Arthur! I did a mini-review here.
Leith and Friends by Clare Mallory (1950). Leith is the proverbial new girl at girls’ day school in England, eager to make friends and fit in. When she finally finds the perfect friend and becomes a school leader, her possessiveness may risk everything she has achieved. My review.
Simon by Rosemary Sutcliff (1953). I was delighted to find a book by Rosemary Sutcliff for my mother she had never read. This is set during the English Civil War about two boys who find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict; both appealing characters. Sutcliff is such a skilled writer she can even make Oliver Cromwell sound appealing! She reminds me of the Emily Dickinson quote hung in my first-grade classroom: "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away." My review.
Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte (2020) This historical novel about a deaf girl living on Martha’s Vineyard in 1805 was so well done I went on thinking about it for months. I was reminded of Jean Little in its vivid depiction of disability and giving the reader a glimpse into the brave heroine’s mind. My review.
Settings of Top Ten: Massachusetts (1), Canada (2), UK (7).
The Game: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968 by George Howe Colt. My book group enjoyed this for the historical perspective on the 60s, even those who are not as big football fans as I.
The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker. I think my favorites of her books are Act Like It or Pretty Face (my review) but this was also great fun with a heroine cast as Lydia Bennet and a brooding hero.
More Louise Penny! The Beautiful Mystery (#8, 2012) – I'll admit, I got a little tired of chant but the last chapters were so amazing that I wept. How the Light Gets In (#9, 2013)
Good Girl, Bad Girl (2019) and When She Was Good (2020) by Michael Robotham. Fascinating characters and great storytelling! I was enthralled, although I did guess the killer in the first book, and it was painful reading about a child who had been sexually abused. I will look forward to more from this Australian author.
The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan (2019) – more original than The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, which I also enjoyed (my review), about the self-appointed queen of her English village, who takes on London when she feels insulted at home and her daughter goes missing.
YA Historical Fiction
Poppy (2014) and Poppy in the Field (2015) by Mary Hooper. Two well done YA historicals about a young girl in service who becomes a nurse in WWI. My mini-review.
A Certain Courage by Gordon Cooper (1975), illustrated by Robin Jacques. I loved Cooper’s two books, An Hour in the Morning and A Time in a City about a girl named Kate who goes into service as a maid at 12. In this book, Hilary, also 12, is evacuated during WWII from London to the country with her school and is taken in by the Collier family, which turns out to be Kate, grown-up!
The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable (2005). On a school trip to Russia, Sophie and her friends find themselves on the wrong train. Mara Kay’s wonderful books set in Russia.
Fifteen by Beverly Cleary. My review.
Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (2004). When twelve-year-old Annika, a foundling living in late nineteenth-century Vienna, inherits a trunk of costume jewelry, her aristocratic mother suddenly reclaims her.
Wintercombe by Pamela Belle. My review.
And here are some stats, primarily only of interest to me. The number is higher than usual because I read more children’s books from my collection than in usual years and they are shorter.
Total books read - 211 in 2020 vs. 163 in 2019 and 178 in 2018.
Fiction – 203, Nonfiction - 8
Personal copy or arc - 97, library – 114 (once curbside pickup began, I was back in business)
Rereads - 17; audiobooks - 13
Most (3 or more) by same author – Mabel Esther Allan (6), Gwendoline Courtney (3), Nicci French (5), Elly Griffiths (5), Lorna Hill (10 – and I am now determined to visit Skye), Louise Penny (9 – I have saved the new one for 2021), J.D. Robb (3 – I like Roarke, okay?), Andrew Taylor (3), Elfrida Vipont (5)
Favorite character – who else but Armand Gamache! I read or listened to nine books about him in 2020, after all.
Best book group book – The Splendid and the Vile
Books by Category:
Clearly, I am a genre fiction reader. This is a little skewed because all my reviewing for PW is in romance. I combined Contemporary Romance/Historical Romance/Romantic Suspense/Chick Lit and also combined Historical Fiction/Historical Mysteries. Children's Historical Fiction and Children's Mystery are included with all Children's books. Otherwise, the Historical Fiction percentage would be quite a bit higher.
Breakdown by gender: 174 by Women, 32 by Men, and 5 by H&W team (this surprised me because I have no preference)
Did you share your Best of 2020?