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  • Writer's pictureAlice Spencer

Another Literary Year: Alice's Favourite Reads of 2020

Christmas and New Year festivities on Soneva Jani were big and noisy, sparkly and fun. All the normal over indulgence was happily done and New Year was celebrated with performances from fire throwers, acrobats, musicians, dancers, a magician and an opera singer.

New Year often brings reflection, and I’ve been thinking a lot about all of the books I’ve read this year. Like lots of us, I’ve had the opportunity to read a lot more than usual. I started writing down all the books that I’ve read as I often find I’ve forgotten what I’ve read when I go to reflect on the books that I love.

And so, these are my favourite reads of 2020, not necessarily published in 2020, but it’s the year I came to love them, even if there wasn’t a lot to love about the year as a whole!

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan

We Are All Birds of Uganda is publishing on 21st January 2021 but I was lucky enough to read it at the beginning of last year. The author Hafsa Zayyan was one of the first co-winners of the #Merky Books New Writer’s Prize in 2019 and won a publishing contract for her novel.

I was Hafsa’s book publicist until I left for the Maldives in November, it was an absolute joy to work with her and I’m so excited to see the book out in the world and everyone loving it as much as I do!

The story follows Sameer, a young, successful London lawyer who begins to lose his footing in life and so he looks back through the history of his family to try and discover how he might feel grounded. The other narrative voice is Hasan, who is living in Uganda during in the 1960’s having been one of the thousands of Indians who migrated there in the early 19th century.

We Are All Birds of Uganda touches on themes of migration, racism between white, black and Asian communities and is essentially a love story at its heart. It is at once cinematic, brave and an incredible read.

10 minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

This was the first book I read in 2020, when we were taking down the Christmas tree, gearing up for work and the world seemed relatively normal.

Leila has been killed and her body is laying in a rubbish bin. For every moment of the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after her death, her very being slips away. But each moment is filled with sights, sounds, smells of the life that she has led, from childhood to her life as a sex worker in Istanbul.

Shafak paints a vivid picture, where you truly feel like you are walking in the bright and busy streets of Istanbul yourself. You can smell the sheesha bars and see the packed streets when the sailors have docked in the port.

The way she confronts sexual violence in the book, when she was under investigation for writing about sexual violence in Turkey is brave, bold and to be applauded.

Milkman by Anna Burns

It is set during The Troubles in Northern Ireland but brings a human story of a teenage girl living through it and all the real problems she faces, whilst she does her best to ignore the violence around her, walking around with her nose in a book. “This would be a 19th-century book because I did not like the 20th century.”

We don’t know the protagonist’s name, or anybody’s name, with characters being given names like First Sister, Second Sister, Somebody McSomebody, Maybe-Boyfriend and milkman. Milkman we know is a senior paramilitary person whose advances on our protagonist are unwanted, threatening but dangerous to refuse.

Though it takes a few pages to get into the rhythm of the prose, I savoured every page of this brilliant novel and was at a loss when I finished it.

Tess of the d‘Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

When I’d exhausted all other books that were in my parents’ house over lockdown last year, I turned to the cabinet which held my mums treasured classics that she read when she was a teenager. The leather-bound hardbacks needed a good dusting off and I pulled out Tess of the d’Urbervilles to read.

I think a marker of a good book is the strength of emotions it evokes in you and by the end of this book I was absolutely furious! Appalled at how Tess, a poor girl living in rural England, was treated by the men in her life and ready to rant about it to anyone who would listen (which was only my poor mum).

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Another book that I inhaled over lockdown, when I was on furlough leave I made the most of the empty days by ploughing through some thick books!

Middlesex is an epic novel that spans three generations of a Greek family, the first which have moved from a Greek village and fled to America to escape the Greco-Turkish War. The youngest generation in the story includes a little girl called Callie who we follow as she grows up and discovers that she isn’t a ‘normal girl’. It’s a brilliantly in-depth novel on the rarely told story of a teenage discovery of being born with a chromosome disorder and going on to live as an intersex person.

The book took Jeffrey Eugenides nine years to write which is reflected in the incredible research and the prize of the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. The Sunday Times called it, ‘Superb. Warm and beautifully written. Illuminates part of the human soul.’

Today I finished my first book of this year and am looking forwarding to tucking my nose in to so many more. As I’ve started 2021 in the Maldives, I already know this year is going to be very different for me and I’m keeping everything crossed for things to turn up for the books for everyone across the world.


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