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Lara Barry, Librarian, Phibsboro Library shares her favourite reads from the year ...

Lara Barry's top 10 reads of 2020

I didn’t make sourdough bread this year. I didn’t learn a new language. I didn’t even stick with the online fitness classes for very long. But what I did do LOTS of in 2020, was read! I 2020 was my bumper reading year. I read to escape the tedium of lockdown, the smallness of a 2km loop, the craziness of home schooling. I read to travel to places that I couldn’t go to in reality. I read for the fun of it. So, here’s my top ten…

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I have passed this book onto so many people this year. They all, bar none, loved it. Part mystery, part romance, part courtroom drama; this book tells the story of Kya, known to locals as the marsh girl. Kya is left to fend for herself in the marshes of North Carolina after her family abandons her. She grows up to know everything about the natural world, but very little about the human one. As she becomes a young woman, she attracts the attention of two very different men and her world is turned upside down. She becomes the main suspect in a murder trial, and suddenly, the town’s eyes are upon her. Beautiful descriptions of Kya’s life in the wild combine with a gripping storyline to make this a real page turner.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. This book tells the story of Lydia, and her eight year old son, Luca, who are forced to flee their home when a drugs cartel open fire on their family at a birthday celebration in Acapulco. The pair undertake a terrifying and dangerous journey across Mexico to try and cross the border into the United States. This is a tense and fast-paced read, and heart breaking in places. The book shines a light on the horrific situations that people find themselves in and the journeys they endure in the hope of a better future for themselves and their children. It stayed with me for a long time after I charged through the final pages.

Heaven, my Home by Attica Locke. I’ve developed something of an obsession with Attica Locke this year. This book was recommended to me by our library attendant, Martin, and I tore through it. It is the second in her Highway 59 series, both starring a black Texan Ranger called Darren Matthews. In this novel, Matthews is called in to investigate the disappearance of a white boy on Lake Caddo, where the chief suspect is an elderly black man. As Matthews soon discovers however, nothing is what it seems in this deeply divided part of the south. Locke is a superb writer, covering issues of race, history, and politics, all wrapped up in gripping thrillers. I have now worked my way backwards through all her novels, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. This beautiful memoir tells the story of what happened when Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, decided to walk the south west coastal path in England. Their lives had hit rock bottom. A bad investment had left them homeless and broke. Moth had just been diagnosed with CBD, a terminal illness. With nothing more than a tent, cheap sleeping bags, some meagre possessions and a couple of pounds in their pockets, the pair headed off into the wild. This book is a testament to the power of love and the healing qualities of nature. I loved it, and am looking forward to reading Winn’s second book which has just been published.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Hamnet was the winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. A fictional account of the lives of Shakespeare’s family in Stratford-Upon-Avon, it concentrates on the life and death of his only son, Hamnet. His wife, Agnes, is reimagined as a strong, independent healer who falls in love with the young tutor and writer but lives apart from him for long periods of time while he works in London. I found this book exceptional, the writing is beautiful, the sense of place and time is expertly created, and it was fascinating to read about how the plague affected society at this time – parts of the novel almost mirror the restrictions that we found ourselves living with this year.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. I think this book had one of the best opening lines I’ve read this year: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” Jones has the reader hooked from there. The book opens with Dana – the unrecognized daughter, the family who live in the shadows as James’s secret family – and we see the world through her eyes. But where the novel really worked for me, was the choice that Jones makes to switch perspective half way through to the legitimate daughter and family. No-one comes out unscathed when the secrets of the past spill into the present. Tayari Jones is a very talented writer, I found this a thought-provoking read.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. I was very excited when I heard Curtis Sittenfeld was writing a novel about Hilary Clinton. Her novel, “American Wife”, told a story that was loosely based on the life of Laura Bush, but “Rodham” takes it a step further by putting a real person into a work of fiction. The novel asks the question, what would have happened if Hilary had never married Bill? It’s a fascinating premise for a novel. At times, the use of Hilary as an actual character jarred (particularly in the early courtship scenes between Bill and Hilary), but I found that as soon as Bill left the scene, I was hooked! Such is Sittenfeld’s skill as a novelist, that by the time I got to the end of this book, I had to remind myself that it was a work of fiction. She paints a convincing portrait of an intelligent and driven woman, striving to break through barriers in a conservative male world. A really interesting read.

The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes. 1816 was apparently known as the year without a summer. An ash cloud covered much of Europe, leading to freezing temperatures, thick fog, and visible spots on the sun. Against this eery backdrop, Irish writer, Andrew Hughes sets his gothic mystery in Dublin city where religious fervour is on the rise. A nursemaid is arrested for the murder of a baby, but is herself found dead days later. A second body is found in Blessington Basin. Enter our feisty heroine, Abigail Lawless, only daughter of the city coroner. Curious, clever, and a scientist at heart – not characteristics that were prized in a woman at this time – can Abigail find the killer before the net closes in on her? This is an excellent page turner with a superb sense of time and place.

Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain. I was introduced to Diane Chamberlain a few years ago by Jean in Ballyfermot Library. Her books are varied and thought provoking; her latest offering is a real page turner. Set in North Carolina, it weaves the stories of two women together. In the present day, Morgan Christopher is released from prison on one condition – that she restore an old post office mural in the southern town of Edenton. Morgan discovers that the mural hides a darker story of jealousy, madness and murder. Switch back to 1940, when a young woman called Anna Dale wins a national competition to paint a mural in a post office. It’s a gripping yarn full of twists and turns.

Dirt Music by Tim Winton. This is not a recent publication, but Tim Winton was another author whom I discovered this year. A legend in his native Australia, he writes beautiful, poetic novels, often set in Western Australia. “Dirt Music” tells the story of Georgie Jutland and Luther Fox, two lost souls who stumble on each other while running away from the world. Georgie is forty years old, living in a fishing town called White Point, with a widower whom she doesn’t love, and his two children. She’s been sleepwalking through life, but her meeting with Luther Fox turns out to be a catalyst for her to start living. Fox is running too – from family tragedy and human contact. Can they save each other? The book is just gorgeous, full of wide open spaces and sun bleached landscapes. Winton captures the simmering relationship between his two main characters perfectly. You need time to really savour Winton’s novels – they are slow burners but worth the effort.

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