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Favourite Books 2020

Books are one of my great passions. There’s always a towering stack on the bedside locker, my ‘to read’ list never ends and I’m constantly seeking more shelf space.

On average I read 40 books a year. For me, books are doors into other worlds and other minds and especially this year, I’ve savoured the escapism. Whilst I’ll download some books, nothing beats the weight, touch and smell of a book in my hand, not to mention the sound of the page-turning and the creak of the spine.

Every month, I review a business or personal development book in my ezine Next Steps (distributed to members of my community.) In this article, I share some of the novels and biographies I’ve enjoyed in 2020. If you are seeking a good book to get stuck into this Christmas, or are thinking about getting some books as gifts, then hopefully this blog gives you an idea or two.

 

Biography

 

Books. Shoe Dog – by Phil Knight

Shoe Dog – by Phil Knight

This autobiography by the founder of Nike is no boring business book. Phil Knight takes us from when he founded his running shoe business in the early 1960s, with a 50 dollar loan from his father, to when Nike went public in 1980. His business skills are matched by his ability to tell a fascinating story starting when he sold trainers from the boot of his car and made $8k in this first year. Today Nike sales top $30 billion.

If you are interested in entrepreneurship and what it takes to succeed, this is one to check out. It’s told in a candid and engaging way, rich with humour, insight and wisdom. Warren Buffet says it’s one of the best business books he’s read. I tend to agree.

Books. Margaret Thatcher – Herself alone by Charles Moore

Margaret Thatcher – Herself alone by Charles Moore

This is the third volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. It comes in at a meaty 860 pages and covers her final years as Prime Minister and her life post-politics, up to her death in 2013. Charles Moore is an incredible biographer. The depth of research is only matched by the quality of his writing. Thatcher was and remains a polarising figure.

This book sheds light on the high drama of the challenge to her leadership and fall from power in 1990, as well as her melancholic final years. Having had access to more verbal and written sources than any other historian, across the three volumes, Charles Moore has produced a definitive biography.

Books. More Myself – Alicia Keys

More Myself – Alicia Keys

This autobiography had me at the subtitle ‘the honest journey of how I found my way to becoming who I am, as opposed to being what I’ve been told to be.’ The book begins when Alicia Keys was 7 and follows her path to stardom, challenges and all. She speaks in a human, vulnerable and honest way, reflecting on life events including her father’s absence and the shame she felt, at 19, when she was manipulated into posing provocatively for a magazine.

This inspirational autobiography reminded me of Gary Barlow’s autobiography ‘A Better Me,’ frank and full of heart. I downloaded one of her albums after finishing this book. Knowing her story, the lyrics were even more meaningful.

Books. The Chiffon Trenches – Andre Leon Talley

The Chiffon Trenches – Andre Leon Talley

This is the autobiography of a true fashion trailblazer and someone who has led quite an amazing life. I read this book during the first lockdown and was delighted to escape into Andre Leon Talley’s glamorous world. From his humble beginnings in racially segregated North Carolina to working with Andy Warhol, the Studio 54 days, covering the Paris fashion collections and ultimately being an editor with Vogue, this book has it all.

It’s a companion piece to the recent documentary ‘The Gospel according to Andre.’ He speaks about the racism he endured whilst also sharing his forthright views on a range of topics and people. What I admire most about him though is his work ethic, expertise and his burning passion for art, culture and style.

 

Novels

 

The Mirror and the Light – Hilary Mantel

Books.The Mirror and the Light – Hilary Mantel

This book was many people’s go-to read during the first lockdown, (whilst practising yoga and making banana bread!) I’d read the first two instalments of this mammoth trilogy, ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies,’ both of which won the Booker Prize, and was like a child on Christmas Eve waiting to collect this tome from my local Bookshop.

All three books are set in the Tudor court of Henry VIII and focus on Thomas Cromwell, his Chief Minister. This book opens in May 1536, at the moment the executioner has struck off Anne Boleyn’s head.

As a writer myself, I marvel at Hilary Mantel’s skill. Her ability to capture the events of the time, whilst rendering those events comprehensible and dramatic to contemporary readers, is breath-taking.

If you know your history you know how the story ends, but somehow she creates suspense and apprehension where none should exist. In the final chapter, when I knew what was coming, my heart was pounding.

An engaging book starts in the imagination of the author and finishes in the imagination of the reader. This was never more true than with this book. More than one reviewer has called the trilogy the greatest novels of the century.

The Water Dancer by Ta Nehsi Coates

The Water Dancer by Ta Nehsi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of America’s most incisive thinker about race. He’s written several books of nonfiction and this book, his first novel, was eagerly anticipated.

Set largely on a tobacco plantation in Virginia during the middle of the 19th century, it’s about one black man’s experience of slavery and the underground railroad. The main character, Hiram Walker, is a sensitive young black man born into bondage. His mother was sold at auction, and he clings to his scant memories of her. Harriet Tubman, the American abolitionist and activist is featured in the book as the character Moses (an interesting name if we think of Biblical history,) and the drama builds when Hiram Walker becomes part of her missions to rescue slaves.

Books. Oliver Ketteridge – Elizabeth Strout

Oliver Ketteridge – Elizabeth Strout

Whilst it’s a novel, this book is comprised of 13 stories all set in a small town in Maine. It’s the presence of Olive Kitteridge, a maths teacher and the wife of the town pharmacist, that links the 13 stories. She has an opinion and is not afraid to voice it. Her intentions are noble, she’s misunderstood and not always socially or politically correct.

Initially, she comes across as not a very loveable character, but that changed as I continued reading and by the end, I’m firmly in her corner. This book was published in 2008. There is the sequel ‘Olive Again’ was published in 2019. It’s on my ‘to read’ list!

Books. A little life - by Hanya Yanagihara

A little life – by Hanya Yanagihara

This is not a happy book, but it is a brilliant immersive read. It received rave reviews and was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2015. Another big book it weighs in at 720 pages, but when the book grabs you, I say, the bigger the better. At the start, four young men, friends from college, set about establishing their adult lives in New York. They are a diverse group – Willem who works as a waiter but aspires to be an actor; Malcolm an architect; Jean-Baptiste the child of Haitian immigrants, who works at an art magazine and Jude a lawyer, whose background is slowly revealed to us. We discover that he was a foundling, left by a dumpster and raised by monks.

Fifty pages in and out of the blue, Jude self-harms and then the book becomes his story. At times, it’s not an easy read, with scenes of abuse, but it’s never sensationalist or excessive. I know a book is good when I’m trying not to skim ahead and I’m hoping the characters find happiness. I believe great books should challenge you and widen your view of the world which this book certainly did for me.

 

Books. The Handmaids Tale and The Testaments – by Margaret Attwood.

The Handmaids Tale and The Testaments – by Margaret Attwood.

I admire Margaret Attwood and I’ve read several of her books over the years. I wanted to read ‘The Testaments’ the long-awaited sequel to the ‘The Handmaids Tale,’ but as I hadn’t read ‘The Handmaids Tale,’ first published in 1985, I thought I better start there.

In Margaret Atwood’s tale of a dystopian future, environmental disasters and declining birth-rates have led to a Second American Civil War (and with current US politics that’s not as farfetched as we might have thought.) The result is the rise of the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime that enforces rigid social roles and enslaves the few remaining fertile women. Offred is one of these, a Handmaid bound to produce children for one of Gilead’s commanders. At once a scathing satire, it’s also an ominous warning. It was a chilling read.

The sequel, ‘The Testaments’ is set 15 or so years after The Handmaids Tale. The story unfolds through three overlapping narratives. One is told by Nicole, a young woman of 16 living in Canada and part of the resistance movement. Another by Agnes Jemima, who has grown up in Gilead with her foster parents. The third is told by Aunt Lydia, an enforcer, who has imposed Gilead’s draconian rules on the Handmaids. It read like a thriller, a real page-turner and of course with Margaret Attwood the writing is sublime.

If you’ve read anything recently that you would recommend, do let me know, either in the comments below or email me at james@jamessweetman.com There’s always room on my ‘to read’ list!

If you want some more recommendations for books do check out this episode of my podcast and in case you did not know I have written some books that you may be interested in purchasing here.

I wish you a wonderful Christmas and a very Happy and safe New Year.

James