What makes a book truly wonderful will always be a cause for debate: Is it how gripping it is? How much you learn from it? The plot? The prose?
This peculiar year, that debate was further complicated by the effects of the pandemic. Suddenly, escapism had a shiny new context, and a host of classics bubbled up with new relevance to our current situation. And, of course, a series of newly released books captured our imaginations and showed us new worlds, situations, and ideas.
As 2020 comes to a close, we asked a host of Penguin authors to cast their mind back to the book (or books) that stirred them most this year. Here are their picks.
Piranesi by Susannah Clarke, chosen by Isabel Greenberg
While some people seem to have spent this strange year reading, I found myself hopelessly unable to finish a book. However, being an enormous fan of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I bought Piranesi anyway – and found myself finally, blissfully, gripped by something. It’s a very different novel to Jonathan Strange, being as claustrophobic as the former is sprawling. But the world it depicts is just as vivid and well-drawn. It is fantastic, weird and utterly compelling.
It is impossible to describe the plot without giving anything away, and the joy of this book is the clarity that slowly descends on you as a reader, just a few steps ahead of the optimistic and naïve narrator, Piranesi, who inhabits a beautiful but lonely world. The world is a house of endless rooms of statues and tides that sweep through empty halls. He is its sole inhabitant, but for a mysterious character called The Other. Who is Piranesi, what is this world, and how did he come to be there? Nothing in this book is predictable, and Piranesi’s quest for answers makes for a compulsively addictive read.
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo (and more), chosen by Tara Wigley
I loved The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. I was in the height of my early-lockdown funk, and I totally escaped into the world of Marilyn and David and their four daughters and newly-discovered grandson. I loved the drama, I loved the tears, the gossip, the sibling sarcasm. All the characters arrived fully formed on the page and Lombardo’s ability to switch between character point of view, as well as past and present, was inspiring. I spent the rest of lockdown trying to find the next book to get lost in. I flailed about for a while until I discovered Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid which was another great big wow. And for a cookery book? I was on countdown for the arrival of Nigella’s Cook, Eat, Repeat and devoured every word when it came.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King, chosen by Maggie Shipstead
Lily King’s novel Writers & Lovers would have made for exceptionally good reading at any time, but since it appeared in March, just as I was anxiously entering into coronavirus lockdown, it felt like an especially precious morsel of pleasure and escape. In the late 90s, the narrator, Casey, is 31 and poised at the moment when young adulthood becomes plain old dreary adulthood; she’s reeling from the death of her mother and the end of a passionate affair, drowning in student debt while she tries to finish a novel, working a grinding job as a waitress, and torn between two very different men.
Reading, I felt transported, which has been my fondest wish during 2020, and I found myself deeply invested in whether Casey would find her way into the bright future I adamantly believed she deserved. This book reminded me that I could read my way out of quarantine, and I’m grateful.
Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez, chosen by Derek Owusu
Beautifully written with touching detail and honesty. I read this early in the year and every now and then I still think about Jesse, the main character, and imagine how he's doing. I wonder how the wedding was, what album is he currently into, how’s his writing going, is he happy? A character hasn't come alive like this for me in a long time.
In Bibi’s Kitchen is a beautiful book. I love the connection between the generations, and the stories of the grandmothers, their traditions of cooking and the food of East Africa. The book takes you on a journey to a place you wish you could visit soon. As for Drinking French, I have been a fan of David’s writing for some time now and it’s lovely to see how he managed to get into the nitty-gritty of the French and their social drinking. There are so many drinks in this book that I want to make.
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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin.