I managed to read a decent pile of books in 2020, despite being busy finishing one of my own and working on loads of corporate projects that kept wolves away from the door during what we can now say with absolute certainty were ‘uncertain times’. Many books that came out in 2020 languish in my Kindle still. This is the annoying things about e-readers – with no physical to-be-read pile (or the TBR as book types like to call it) looming over you precariously at your bedside and intimidating you into reading them, you’re more inclined to hit BUY and add to the hordes. But I will get to you eventually.
I actually enjoyed almost all the books I read in 2020, and didn’t throw ANY of them across the room. Now I’m an author, with two books under my belt – I didn’t feel like one before the second came out – I’m even more conscious that it’s a nice thing to do to show interest in other people’s books as well as my own. Nobody wants to be that guy who spends all his time in his Mentions column on social media and never out there in the wild soaking up conversations that don’t involve him. So, as it’s my birthday today, I picked my three favourite ones. I know they are my favourites because I give every book I read a score as soon as I finish, keeping a record in my Notes app, which is where almost everything I write starts off. I’ll not reveal the scores here because I like to leave that thing to Amazon and Goodreads and toilet walls, but these are my three top-rated books and very deserving they all are too!
This Lovely City – Louise Hare
This Lovely City was the first hardback I bought in 2020. I walked into a shop, the weekend after lockdown lifted, and wandered round in awe at being outside, but inside, again. They say you should never judge a book by its cover – a stupid thing to say, as everybody does that – but luckily This Lovely City has the most gorgeous cover to match its wonderful contents. It’s the author Louise Hare’s debut, and I was especially excited to read it as I’ve actually met Hare a couple of times at a literary event – the much-missed The Riff Raff, an evening specially for debut authors and writers hoping to be published. She’d told me about this book and that it was coming what seemed like years ago – publishing takes ages, it’s a drag, sorry – and now here it was! Set in London in 1950, although zipping back and forth in time a a bit, This Lovely City tells the story of Lawrie Matthews, one of the first passengers on the Windrush, which brought hundreds of hopefuls over from the Caribbean to London after the war. Although Lawrie is regarded as something of a curiosity in his new hometown, he manages to get a job as a postman, and spends his evenings as part of a jazz band, playing in Soho. He’s even managed to rustle up a romance with his pretty next-door neighbour Evie, and while times are hard in postwar London, things couldn’t be going better. Everything changes when Lawrie makes a grisly discovery on his rounds – the body of a young toddler of unknown parentage. To further complicate matters, the child is Black and with very few other Black people living in London at that time, Lawrie finds himself a suspect as both the child’s father and potentially their killer. I won’t give too much away because This Lovely City is full of twists and turns, but the characters are so beautifully drawn and you’re quickly rooting for Lawrie as he tries to clear his name, and Evie as she stands firm to protect the man she loves. The scenes of racism in the book feel, sadly, pretty up-to-date, and Hare writes so descriptively and with such clarity that you feel you are right there with the characters – sometimes you want to lay a hand on their shoulder and warn them of what’s to come. There are tense moments and joyful ones and it all feels very in the moment; the flashbacks add richness and colour rather than jolting you out of the story, and even the side characters are given their own space to breathe, and feel very authentic. London itself deserves a place on the cast list too, a smoggy and foreboding place, yet teeming with life, snatches of light everywhere. I read this book quickly, as I was enjoying it so much – I’m going to go back and read it again soon, I think – and would recommend it as a gripping read with warm and complicated characters, and, above all, a book that has something to say.
This Lovely City, by Louise Hare (HQ ) at Waterstones, Amazon, and on Bookshop.org
Indelicacy – Amina Cain
I like all kinds of books and I read all kinds of books – I don’t stick to specific genres, which might explain why my own books don’t particularly slot into a specific genre either, unless you count the very nebulous ‘LGBTQ’ shelf. Is ‘has LGBTQ people in it’ a genre like crime, or horror, or comedy? Doesn’t feel like it to me but we are where we are and without it I might not get on any shelves at all. One class of book I like that defies genre is ‘weird’. I like slightly odd, brilliantly written books which might not appear to be saying much, or are ostensibly saying one thing while they mean another, or just exist as a piece of art, and have a story, and characters, but are excellent without ever trying too hard. I would love to write one one day if I ever get good enough. One book that fit the bill for me in 2020 was Indelicacy, by Amina Cain. I picked it up in a local bookshop because the cover looked kind of… mischievous. A bit nothingy on first glance – just some old painting of a woman next to a chair – but, I could tell, loads of potential within. It’s a slim volume, which also appealed as huge bonkbusters or epics absolutely terrify me, and the synopsis – ‘In an undefined era and place, a cleaning woman at a museum of art aspires to do more than simply dust the paintings around her’ – instantly intrigued me. A book with no specific time setting? I’m in. It’s a simple enough story. A nameless character (for the majority of the book at least) works as a cleaner in a museum. She doesn’t have much money, or many friends, it would seem; she lives a simple life, not entirely without joy but lacking in enough money to allow her to follow her dreams and sit and write all day. I am a huge fan of eviscerating rich people who implore you to ‘think big’ and ‘follow your dreams’ and, I guess if I’m honest, if I’d come from a wealthier background I may well have not had to wait until the age of 40 before I got my first book deal, so this appealed to me immensely. And then, as if by magic, and with tantalisingly (and frustratingly) little explanation, the character marries a rich man and her problems seem to be solved… dont they? Anyway, this is a weird book. It’s very short, some of the chapters are barely two pages long and the language is sparse and stark at times – although you don’t feel you’re missing out too much as every word is loaded with meaning, straining at the buttons – while in other chapters, the main character wangs on about paintings she’s looking at with a kind of wistfulness. I was never quite sure what was going to happen other than ‘not much’ and this is perhaps Indelicacy‘s greatest trick. It was a comfort to me to read something with a character who wasn’t that relatable or likeable yet was still interesting enough to keep me reading. The main character is quick and withering and so wonderfully cold at times – you can’t help but hope she thrives.
Indelicacy, by Amina Cain (Daunt Books) at Waterstones, Amazon, and on Bookshop.org
Whites – Otegha Uwagba
Although it certainly isn’t anything new, and doesn’t look to be going anywhere, racism was a big story in 2020, dominating headlines in summer following global protests against racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Black squares appeared on Instagram, #BlackLivesMatter found itself at the forefront of many conversations, and there were some mortifying takes on the matter from various viewpoints. Books about racism rocketed up the bestsellers list, lots of empty promises were made by politicians, many white people became very indignant and defensive, and racists somehow managed to become emboldened by this new wave of resistance – remember the pathetic takeover of central London by the fuchsia-faced, aggressive manbabies and their stringy, bellicose molls? Gross. There is a view that many books Black people have written about racism and dealing with it have to act partly as educational or instructional to white people if they want to be successful but Otegha Uwagba’s book makes it very clear from the off that this is not what she’s here to do. Uwagba is compelling and forthright as she talks about the state of the world, and her experiences with racism before and after George Floyd’s death – her weariness from hearing way too many stupid opinions, or dealing with people who want a cracker for doing the very least, or frustration that Black writers’ time is taken up with writing about racism rather than all the other things they could be discussing. Whites is not aiming to jolt you into reality by positing brand new theories or saying something that any person who walks about with their eyes open doesn’t already know; Uwagba is not claiming to have reinvented the wheel – and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, far from it. In fact, this is part of Uwagba’s frustration, that all this knowledge is available to us, it shouldn’t be up to Black people to sit down and explain everything very slowly, like we are children. This is the kind of honesty you don’t often see elsewhere, in national newspaper columns for example. And if you did, there would be an ever uglier than usual below-the-line backlash from (usually) white people centring themselves in the discussion. Here, though, online reviews notwithstanding, Uwagba is free to express, with no obligation to make her point more palatable or accommodating, a compromise much writing about bigotry has to make. For example, often, we’re asked to view victims of racist murder through their relationships to others – their now childless mothers, or fatherless daughters – the horror of the extinguishing of a human life never enough. This is what makes Uwagba’s book refreshing. Whites is the kind of book that people call vital, or urgent, or important, and while it is certainly all of those things, it’s also a piece of art, expressed in beautiful writing, by a talented woman who would, perhaps, much rather be having a different conversation.
I don’t think bundling the fights against racism and homophobia together is right or fair to either cause, as they are both very different systems of oppression, but when Uwagba talked about the watering down of allyship, and the positioning of whiteness as the default, and the way white people talk about Black people in front of her, I recognised similar punches to the gut. Uwagba deftly articulates things I’d had snatches of less developed thought about myself but, of course, have never had to fret too much over because I’m white. Uwagba’s Whites isn’t interested in guilting white people into action, or making them reassess their own behaviour – although it should – this is not an explanation of racism, or an educational supplement. It’s a statement of intent, unflinching and brilliant. I’m always a fan of Uwagba’s writing when I read it elsewhere – she is sharp and funny and hyper-talented, and this extended essay is an excellent read; I tore through it. Do not read this book, however, thinking that reading it and feeling slightly uncomfortable and challenged is enough – as Uwagba points out, white privilege is ‘an exceedingly comfortable perch to occupy’ and true allyship means losing ‘the privileges that are as integral to their lives as breathing’. Our black squares on Instagram are not wands that will magic away the bigotry; it’s not enough to scooch up and make a tiny bit more room at the table – white people must give up their own seats.
Whites, by Otegha Uwagba (Harper Collins) – at Waterstones, Amazon, and on Bookshop.org
This post contains some affiliate links. I bought all these books and was under no obligation to review or be nice about them. Just so you know.