When did you complete Netflix this year? For us, it was around Eastertime. And, save for a couple of later dips into the streaming service — The Queen’s Gambit, anyone? — we didn’t look back. Instead, faced with self-isolated summers and long, locked-down evenings, we turned to our bookshelves instead.
From horror to historical fiction, essay collections to autobiographies, we flicked, turned and tore through more books this year than we ever have before. From the comfort of our homes, we visited fantastical lands, outer space, corridors of power and Nigel Slater’s walk-in larder. Below are the best of the best-sellers we read in 2020…
The Sentinel, by Lee Child and Andrew Child
If there’s one thing we’ve missed above all others this year, it’s the pulpy poolside paperback. You know, the sort of book bought on a whim in the airport; destined to have its pages splashed with suncream and midday mojitos.
But not all bestsellers are born equal. The 25th novel (count them!) in Lee Child’s acclaimed Jack Reacher series stands testament and chapter to that. Written in partnership with Child’s younger brother, Andrew, this latest story sees former military man Reacher come to the aid of a tech specialist in small-town Tennessee.
Bantam Press, £10
Enter the Aardvark, by Jessica Anthony
Now for something stranger. Very, very much stranger. Enter the Aardvark may have raised many a critic’s eyebrow this year — but it also had the very same critics cracking smiles and laughing out loud in their droves.
The story follows the titular creature — who has been stuffed and delivered to millennial congressman Alexander Paine Wilson — as the politician makes farcical attempts to get rid of it (the animal holds a secret that could ruin him and his re-election campaign). Amazingly, it’s odder than it sounds.
On Anger, edited by Agnes Callard
We’ve all had cause to feel the rage rising this year — but Agnes Callard’s masterful collation of essays and ideas on the subject has given us a chance to revise and revaluate why and how we lose our tempers.
With contributors including Judith Butler, Paul Bloom and Callard herself, this is less a leisurely read and more a workbook — allowing the troubled to unpick and unwind at once. Is anger righteous? Should you really feel wronged? Will the feeling ever end? It may not offer any definitive answers, but it’s a good cathartic start.
Boston Review, £8.99
The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes
Perhaps our book of the year, Nick Hayes’ magical, meandering deep-dive into the British countryside sees him trespassing on private landholdings including Arundel Castle, Boughton House and the Sussex estate of former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.
It’s a barnstorming read — and looks beautiful also, thanks to Hayes’ own charming, almost-abstract black-and-white illustrations. Highlights? Taking MDMA at Wilderness Festival — and a daring dip into the grounds of Highclere Castle. “Legitimised loitering” at its best.
Bloomsbury Circus, £20
The Russian Pink, by Matthew Hart
We may have been mightily impressed by Lee Child’s 25th Jack Reacher novel above — but, if you’re suffering from ‘same protagonist’ fatigue, Matthew Hart’s The Russian Pink is the perfect fresh-faced debut.
Featuring Alex Turner (no, not he of Arctic Monkeys, but rather a fictional investigator for the Treasury Department and former C.I.A. agent), the novel’s title refers to a large and controversial diamond. The story sees Turner spiralling down a seemingly endless rabbit hole of Russian double agents, presidential candidates and botched sting operations. A real gem.
Pegasus Books, £16
Bent, by Joe Thomas
Another odd one, this. But good odd. Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor was indeed a real person — but Joe Thomas’ mind-bending, truth-altering account of his life story dilutes potent fact with punchy fiction.
The result is as intoxicating as the recipe makes it sound. From the Second World War, where Chanellor was parachuted behind enemy lines into Italy and France, to the ferociously grimy underbelly of 1960s Soho, this is a stylish noir; footed in truth — but ever tipping its rakish trilby to something a little more far-fetched.
Arcadia Books, £9.99
Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey
If you haven’t yet seen, Matthew McConaughey is the latest Gentleman’s Journal cover star. Fronting our Winter 2020 issue, the Oscar-winner has recently released his autobiography — a deep-diving, best-selling, anecdote-fuelled trip through his first fifty years.
But the freshly-inked memoir is more than that. In its pages, McConaughey punctuates larger-than-life tales with philosophical advice, stolen quotes and bumper sticker slogans. It’s hardly Alec Guinness’ Blessings in Disguise — but neither should it be. Rather, it is the finely-distilled essence of the man himself: feel-good, rambunctious and rambling.
If You Should Fail: A Book of Solace, by Joe Moran
Professor Joe Moran doesn’t have the most exciting job. As a social and cultural historian, he has studied, lectured and written — at excruciating length — about the trivialities and minutiae of daily life.
But this has opened his eyes to everyday troubles. And, in his latest book, Moran’s take on failure is illuminating at worst; revelatory at best. Spectacularly covering everything from examination dreams to fourth-placed Olympians, it’s a must-read for those at a low ebb — a frank look at the occupational hazards of being human.
The World According to Physics, by Jim Al-Khalili
2020 may have been the year when nothing seemed to make sense — but this handsome, blue-hued book gives it a good go. Whipped up by quantum physicist Jim Al-Khalili, it’s a deeply insightful exploration into reality itself.
Sound heavy? It is. But there’s no better time than lockdown to grapple with the big questions. Starting with the fundamental concepts of space, time, energy, and matter, Al-Khalili makes these endless idea accessible for everyone — even if you failed GCSE science…
Princeton University Press, £10.99
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