A year of books: every title I read in 2020 (Jan-Mar)


Every year is a year of books for me. I am an unashamedly committed bibliophile.

However, I rarely review the books I read, preferring to make recommendations in conversation with other book lovers.

This year is different. For those who don’t already know, the UK (like many countries) has been under a kind of lockdown since the end of March this year, due to the COVID19 pandemic. Although I’m still kept fairly busy, I’m making a conscious effort to post blogs & articles more regularly. With that in mind, I have decided to provide a quick summary & review of all the books I read in 2020.

Obviously, since it’s already April, this first installment will be looking back at the year (more or less) to date. I’ll post follow ups every couple of months throughout the year, with a pick of my favourites as 2020 draws to a close.

Picture taken from this interesting article by Literary Hub.

So, without further ado, here’s what I have read from January to the end of March, this year…

The book smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English (2017, William Collins)

The subtitle to this book, the quest for this storied city and the race to save its treasures, sums up the book perfectly. This once fabled city in Mali was home to thousands of manuscripts on poetry, history, religion, science and all manner of learned subjects. The takeover of the country by jihadists in 2012 threatened these ancient libraries.

The book weaves two threads in alternating chapters. The first chronicles the efforts made to smuggle as many texts to safety. The second is a history of Timbuktu, seen through the eyes of Western Europe’s expeditions to locate it, starting in 1788, and ending in 2003, almost bringing us up to date with the first narrative. Part history and part account of an ongoing operation, English brings the main protagonists to life, and provides enough historical detail to make you feel you’ve learned something. Highly recommended.

The accidental further adventures of the hundred-year-old man by Jonas Jonasson (English translation by Rachel Wilson-Broyles) (2018, HarperCollins)

This is the sequel to Jonasson’s hilarious comic novel The hundred-year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared. It’s funny and entertaining to meet the title character again, a cantankerous old man, Allan Karlsson, with a penchant for explosives and a knack for meeting (and enraging) a large cast of world leaders from recent history.

Where this sequel falls down is that it takes place roughly within one year, while it’s predecessor featured flashbacks through Karlsson’s long life, giving the book a fast paced feel which is still full of interesting detail, this follow-up feels a trifle forced. Jonasson said he felt compelled to write the sequel because he felt Karlsson’s voice talking to him about current events, such as Russian interference in worldwide elections and social media. While there is opportunity for humour and warning on this subject, story about Karlsson’s further adventures suffers slightly as a result. Best left for the enjoyment of die-hard fans of the original story.

The Popes: a history by John Julius Norwich (2011,Vintage Books)

A superb history of the papacy, from it’s Apostolic and Ancient Roman origins, through to Benedict XVI (this book was published in 2011, two years before Pope Benedict’s abdication, and the subsequent election of the Vatican’s current incumbent, Pope Francis).

Sometimes very detailed when discussing ‘dark ages’ popes, and on occasion it was difficult remembering who was who (there are a lot of cardinals, popes, kings and pretenders with the same name in some chapters), it nonetheless provides a thrilling insight into this millennia-old institution, the political crises it has faced – both within and against the rest of Europe and the world – as well as how it has survived and evolved over the centuries.

Norwich had an impressive career as a author of history books. This book is just one of many where he has skillfully brought his subjects to life. Also, despite having access to the Vatican library as part of his research, Norwich does not shy away from the seedier aspects of the papacy – a fitting subtitle might well have been Schism, simony and sodomy. However, it rises above gossipy, ‘Lives of the Caesars’ style titillation, and presents a fair light, good, bad and worst, on the men (and possibly one woman) who have held the position of Pontifex Maximus since St Peter. Worth a read, but only if you’re interested in the subject – casual fans of European Medieval history might prefer another of Norwich’s tomes, such as  Four Princes, which is on my to-read pile, awaiting me…

How to stop time by Matt Haig (2017, Canongate)

Haig is carving something of a niche in fantastical novels which certainly don’t qualify for a place in the Fantasy genre. This book is told from the viewpoint of a man of abnormally long life, one of a very small and secretive group known as ‘Albatrosses’. Frequently moving around the world to avoid arousing suspicion, not getting too close to others, having lost lost loved ones centuries earlier, what should happen if he fell in love again? So far, so Highlander, but told with Haig’s usual warmth and wit. It’s also very easy to read. I found myself finishing it almost before I was ready to. However, I found myself making comparisons to one of Haig’s earlier books, The Humans, which similarly deals with a man on the outside learning to love (or in that case, an alien sent to prevent humans progressing before their time). Of the two, I prefer the earlier novel, but How to stop time stands up well on it’s own merits, and is well worth a read.

Africa: by Richard Dowden (2008, Granta Books)

A well-written history of modern Africa, told by a journalist who has lived and returned to the continent several times in his life. At times delving into nearly-memoir, Dowden is able to pull back and maintain a journalistic eye on the wider events taking place in various countries through the later end of the 20th century onward. The book covers the Nations of Africa’s stories of post-colonialism, civil wars, economic growth and failings, as well as the AIDS epidemic, all told fairly and engagingly. The only downside was that no one book (even a 600+ page tome such as this) can truly cover the full history – even of just the 20th century – of such a large continent. Dowden’s book left me yearning to know more, and already I have more books on Africa ready in my to-read pile!

Any others?

Five books doesn’t feel like very many, even if two of them (The Popes & Africa) were quite long reads. However, my therapy work is (and must be) my priority, and there have been a few work-related books taking up my time this year too. As part of my work, I’ve been researching mentalisation and dissociation, specifically in relation to therapy with children, and have been dipping in and out of three or four very helpful books on these subjects recently. However, these titles are best left for an entirely separate article, one centered around music therapy and child psychotherapy. Expect that later in the year!

The next installment will cover April to the early summer [UPDATE – you can now read the April-June installment here]. It may well cover only the ‘lockdown months’, depending on how long that period turns out to be. Until then, stay safe and keep reading…

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