There’s nothing better than a good book, so the saying goes. And in times of uncertainty, we often find relaxation in escaping our own lives and delving into somebody else’s.
This has never been more true than in 2020, a tough year in which getting some time to ourselves for a good read has never been more important or restorative.
In an attempt to reap the benefits, our Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot committed to a year of books, setting aside quality time for a good read each day and launching the Marie Claire Book Club.
The Marie Claire Book Club aims to help you curate your own 2020 reading lists, from editor recommendations to readers’ disclaimers on the hottest releases of the year.
From Delia Owen’s Where The Crawdads Sing and Women and Power by Mary Beard to Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Before the Coffee gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, there’s something for everyone. And with classics, beach reads and new bestsellers being published on the regular, our Editor-approved book list is growing by the week.
Our Features Editor talks us through all the books she has read this year…
Life in Pieces by Dawn O’Porter
What’s it about? Life in Pieces: Thoughts from a year that changed us all is Dawn O’Porter’s memoir of lockdown this year, broken into themed essays. From recipes and isolation updates as a family of four to bigger life contemplations on grief, parent guilt and spirituality, the diary is a comforting reflection on our collective experience of 2020, leaving us all on a more hopeful note.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘Life in Pieces is an important read this year, and something that everyone will be able to relate to. I found it heartbreaking, hilarious, comforting but mostly reassuring that other people’s minds were going to the same places as my own in lockdown. I came away enlightened, entertained, very hungry (Dawn writes about food so beautifully) and even more in love with Dawn O’Porter than I was before. If we go into a second lockdown, I recommend everyone stocks up on Margarita ingredients (a staple in the O’Porter-O’Dowd home) and gives this a read.’
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
What’s it about? Where the Crawdads Sing is set in Barkley Cove, North Carolina, following the life of Kya, known to locals as the ‘Marsh Girl’. Set in two different time periods, the book chapters alternate between Kya’s childhood fending for herself alone in the marshes, and Kya’s adulthood, where she is made a suspect in the murder investigation of Chase Andrews.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘This was one of my favourite books I’ve ever read. It is a stunning story, and I was extremely invested from the first chapter. It’s impossible not to warm to Kya or fall madly in love with Tate and I was kept guessing plot-wise until the final page. I can’t say enough good things about Where the Crawdads Sing and it is one of the few books that I would honestly recommend to anyone.’
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
What’s it about? Exciting Times is Naoise Dolan’s debut novel following Ava, a millennial Irish expat living in Hong Kong, teaching English to rich children. She inevitably finds herself in a love triangle with a male banker and a female lawyer – both work obsessed and extremely intelligent – and is forced to choose between them.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘I bought this book after reading a review dubbing it a mix between Sally Rooney and Crazy Rich Asians, both of which I’m a huge fan of. I personally think that review misled me as I was expecting a light and easy beach read and it was actually very intellectual. While the only element linking it to Crazy Rich Asians was its Hong Kong setting, it was very Sally Rooney-esque, from the complex female protagonist to the highbrow and politically alert banter – I had to look up a lot of overly complex words and political references, and I’m a writer! I struggled to bond with the characters in section 1 but by section 2, I was completely captivated, and while it took me a while to get into, I would definitely recommend it.’
Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
What’s it about? The Japanese bestseller is set in a time travelling café in Tokyo, following four visitors as they travel back in time to perform an act. Whether it’s to see a sister one last time, confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband who has since lost his memory, or meet the daughter they never got the chance to know. Time travelling however comes with a lot of rules, namely to return to the present before the coffee gets cold.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘I loved this book. It was an extremely relaxing read – short, warm and feel-good. I finished it in two lazy mornings in bed. I’ve read that some people found the translation jarring, something I didn’t pick up on at all. And after recommending it to friends, I can already tell that this book is like marmite. It is strange and fairly predictable, but it’s sweet, comforting and leaves you wanting to cherish the people around you.’
Grown Ups by Marian Keyes
What’s it about? Grown Ups follows the Casey family, three Irish brothers and their big extended family. The book focuses especially on the three Casey wives, Jessie, Cara and Nell. While perfect on the surface, all three couples are struggling behind closed doors. And when sweet and likeable Cara gets concussion and can’t stop telling Casey family secrets, everything unravels.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘This is the most addictive book I’ve ever read. I immediately connected to all three key female characters – especially Jessie – and despite physically being the thickest book I’ve read this year, it was also the one I read the quickest. I was quite literally hooked by the second page and lost a whole weekend. A word of warning though – there’s a family tree in the front of the paper copy that you will need to refer back to (the Casey are an extremely large family). So, if you’re listening to the audiobook or using a kindle, source a family tree to make your life easier. This was my first every Marian Keyes book and it definitely will not be my last.’
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
What’s it about? Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives of 12 women in the United Kingdom over the course of several decades. Divided into four parts, each section focuses on a trio of women whose lives are woven together, looking at how race, sexuality and gender among other themes intersect to shape their experiences.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘Girl, Woman, Other is a very important (and educational) read and one that I have recommended to countless people this year. Raising questions around feminism and race, it is extremely insightful in portraying the casual racism and prejudice that comes with being a black woman living in Britain. I also found this book particularly astute in its take on female relationships – particularly between mothers and daughters – with Evaristo portraying them in an empathetic way I have rarely seen accomplished. If you find page breaks jarring you might struggle at first, but don’t be dissuaded – it’s clever, insightful and easy to read.’
Normal People by Sally Rooney
What’s it about? Normal People follows the friendship and complex relationship between Connell and Marianne, two people who seemingly have nothing in common but understand each other better than anyone. Starting the book as classmates in County Sligo, the characters grow up together, with their on-again off-again relationship spanning school to their university years in Trinity College, Dublin.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘Out of all the books I have ever read, Normal People has made me feel the most emotion. It is a masterpiece, beautifully questioning what it means to be normal and portraying the difficulties of being a young adult. I really related to both characters and relived all of my past relationships through Connell and Marianne. I was particularly surprised by how many of my male friends related to the book, with the struggle to feel a certain way proving to be a relatable point for all. I would also recommend its equally good BBC adaptation that came out this year, but read the book first.’
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
What’s it about? Another Sally Rooney masterpiece, Conversations with Friends follows Frances and Bobbi, ex-girlfriends and now best friends, as they navigate college. When they forge an extremely close friendship with a married couple however, their close bond and honest relationship is tested.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘I heard a lot of negative reviews about Conversations with Friends, with many accusing it of falling short of its successor, Normal People. I read it anyway and enjoyed it. I didn’t relate to the story or connect with the characters as much as in Normal People – I actually found the CWF characters quite unappealing – but it’s worth a read for the trademark Sally Rooney inter-character academic banter and I would definitely recommend it.’
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
What’s it about? The Beekeeper of Aleppo looks at the journey taken by refugees from Syria to Europe, following beekeeper Nuri and his wife Afra as they are forced to flee Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War. The story is fictional, but based on real experiences following author Christy Lefteri’s work as a volunteer at a refugee centre in Athens.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo was a hard read and not always enjoyable or relaxing, but well worth it. I came away with a much greater insight and deeper understanding of the plight of refugees. Christy takes us through Nuri and Afra’s detailed journey so beautifully, that we experience every step with them and feel every heartbreak. It must also be credited for its extremely effective depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. This book should be on the school syllabus.’
Out of Love by Hazel Hayes
What’s it about? Out of Love is a love story told in reverse, starting with the narrator packing up her ex partner’s belongings after their break up and ending with their first meeting. Going back through time, it poses the question, Is love really with it?
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘It took me a long time to get into this book but I liked it more as I read on. The structure was clever and the final two chapters were my favourites. It is extremely well written, but it is also very, very sad and it is impossible not to relive your own break ups through it. It could definitely be cathartic for those coming out of a really hard break up and I would recommend it for the reassurance that I felt in knowing that I wasn’t alone in my negative relationship experiences.’
Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard
What’s it about? Women and Power is a manifesto by renowned classicist Mary Beard. It is made up of two essays, based on Mary’s hit lectures, ‘The Public Voice of Women’ and ‘Women in Power’. Analysing Homer’s The Odyssey and Metamorphoses by Ovid, the feminist classic traces the roots of misogyny back to Athens and Rome, looking into how history has treated powerful women. The updated version includes a new chapter on the #MeToo movement, discussing rape, consent and silencing of victims.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘This is an essential read. I’m a staunch feminist and I think Mary Beard is iconic so I was always keen, but I had no idea how much I would love this book. It is so readable, informative and quite frankly, mind-blowing. Mary’s take on how women in power are feared, especially referencing Hillary Clinton being compared to Medusa, chilled me to the core. She writes in a way that is so inclusive and easy to understand, and it’s only 100 pages. This book should be a compulsory read. I immediately bought copies for all the important men in my life. It’s also great as an audio book with Mary Beard reading it herself.’
Jog On: How Running Saved My Life by Bella Mackie
What’s it about? Jog On follows Bella Mackie’s running journey, prompted by a mental health crisis. After a painful divorce when she struggled to even get off the sofa, Bella was one day compelled to put on a pair of trainers and go for a run. Bella takes us through her journey with running as well as with her mental health, citing studies that link exercise with psychological wellbeing and arming the reader with a glossary of mental health terminology.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘I started reading this book at the perfect time – I was struggling with lockdown-induced anxiety and had just decided to take up running because I was desperate to get out of my house. I found such a comforting and inspiring running hero in Bella, and was genuinely interested in what she had to say. I wouldn’t recommend this book as a relaxing holiday read as it is pretty dense with facts and stats, but if you’re getting into running, struggling with your mental health, or just want to learn more about either, this is a must-read. I came away armed with so much useful information and have quoted this book at least weekly since I read it.’
Educated by Tara Westover
What’s it about? Educated is a coming-of-age memoir by Tara Westover, following her challenging upbringing in Idaho by a Mormon fundamentalist family who fear the end of the world. The only way for Tara to escape is by educating herself.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘After being recommended this book for about the 20th time, I caved and gave it a read. It was one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read and I have now become one of the recommenders. Tara is an inspiration and I was invested in her from page one. Educated was a real insight into a world that I have never known and I came away a lot more enlightened and educated myself.’
This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
What’s it about? This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor is a collection of Adam Kay’s diary entries from his six year medical training. Written in secret amid the sleepless nights and life and death decisions in his 97-hour weeks, Adam’s diary snippets follow his journey from House Officer to Senior Registrar, before he ultimately quit medicine after one heartbreaking incident, becoming a comedy writer.
Our Editor’s verdict:
‘While it was published three years ago, I only got around to reading This Is Going to Hurt this April, inspired by the NHS Clap for Carers over lockdown. I couldn’t have chosen a better time. At a moment when doctors and nurses were on the frontline, I was reminded how utterly the incredible the NHS is and the extent of the difficult of their work. Adam Kay writes so beautifully, and the book is equally hilarious and devastating – my heart broke for Adam and every doctor or nurse who has had to make life or death calls. I even contacted the medics close to me after I had finished to apologise for not previously understanding. I would say that the diary entry format does make it hard to binge-read, but it’s an extremely important read. Plus, to keep his former patients anonymous, he has given them pseudonyms from Harry Potter which is just genius.’
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
What’s it about? The Rosie Project is an Australian novel, following genetics professor Don Tillman on his search for a girlfriend. With his social skills and long list of requirements making it difficult for Don to find the right woman, he creates a questionnaire to assess prospective female partners and their suitability to be his girlfriend.
Our Editor’s verdict: ‘The Rosie Project was such a joy to read – I honestly can’t think of many books that I enjoyed more. It’s the definition of a comfort book – an easy and warm read with a lot of heart, and it made me laugh out loud more than any book before. I would describe it as a lighter Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine mixed with Forrest Gump, which let’s face it is extremely high praise.’
Join us on our MC Book Club journey @MarieClaireUK and send us any recommendations.