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Favourite books of the year

27 November 2020

The Church Times invited a selection of avid readers to choose a book that made a particularly strong impression on them in 2020

Jane Williams

Piranesi by Susannah Clarke (Bloomsbury £14.99 (£13.50); 978-1-526-62242-6)

I WISH I could read this again for the first time. Its atmosphere of beautiful, sad loneliness is the perfect lockdown companion. There are so many things to note about the book, but here is just one: Piranesi looks with loving attention at the world in which he finds himself, caring for everything that he encounters, and receiving everything as loving gift. Other forces see it very differently. The book is deeply satisfying, with a depth of sadness — or is it joy?

Dr Jane Williams is the McDonald Professor in Christian Theology at St Mellitus College.



Peter Stanford

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-526-61497-1)

The Dutch House takes sainthood and places it in a 21st-century setting. What is the price paid — the prize-winning, cradle-Catholic, American author asks — when a mother of two young children has to choose between her offspring and her vocation to walk in Jesus’s footsteps? It is elegantly done, beautifully crafted, compelling from page one, and a novel that, while not marketed as “religious”, is profoundly and challengingly spiritual.

Peter Stanford is a writer, journalist, and broadcaster.


Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Endell Street: The women who ran Britain’s trailblazing military hospital  by Wendy Moore (Atlantic Books, £17.99 (£16.20); 978-1-78649-584-6)

ANY book about a strict, women-run institution with beds in rows is innately readable, I find. Wendy Moore’s superb Endell Street tells the true story of a First World War hospital in Covent Garden — the first hospital to be run entirely by women. I’m haunted by the images that Moore conveys: bell ringing at 3 a.m., nurses pulling on their uniforms and lining up in the chilly courtyard; gates creaking open as another convoy of severely wounded soldiers arrives from the Front. The driving forces behind the enterprise were two hardened suffragette doctors, Flora Murray and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: unflagging, heroic, humourless battleaxes who lived together as a couple and spoilt their dogs.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is a critic and writer. Her latest book is British Summer Times Begins (Little, Brown, 2020) (Books for Summer, 17 July).


Richard Harries

A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths by John Barton (Penguin, £12.99 (£11.69); 978-0-141-97850-5)

HOW might an intelligent and open-minded person understand the Bible today? John Barton is a sure-footed guide in answer to that question; for not only is he a distinguished scholar, he writes with exemplary clarity. His book is entitled A History of the Bible, but it could easily have been A Guide to the Bible; for not only does he give us a history of how the variety of books within it came to be written, put together, and accepted as canonical, but how they have been interpreted down the ages, and how, in the light of sceptical modern scholarship, they might be used by a religious believer. The subtitle, The book and its faith, is crucial; for he is concerned not only with how Christians have understood the Bible, but no less with how Jews view the Hebrew scriptures. John Barton’s very substantial book is not a Noddy guide. It is a serious book for serious readers, but they will find here all they want and much more, lucidly set out and explained (Books, 5 April 2019).

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is Seeing God in Art (SPCK, 2020) (Books, 9 April).


Paula Gooder

Jack by Marilynne Robinson (Virago, £18.99 (£17.10); 978-0-349-01181-3).

IN THIS fourth and final novel in the series by Marilynne Robinson, a series which also includes Gilead, Home, and Lila, we finally hear the voice of Jack — John Ames Boughton — whom we have met throughout the other novels as the troubled but beloved son of Robert Boughton, and godson of John Ames, and learn the story of his love for Della, an African-American teacher from St Louis. Robinson’s genius lies her ability to inhabit the voices of her very different characters so completely; this book is no different, and I loved it.

Read Richard Harries’s review of Jack here.

Dr Paula Gooder is a writer and lecturer in biblical studies, and Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. Her latest book is Parables (Canterbury Press, 2020).


Hannah Malcolm

Underland: A deep time journey by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin, £10.99 (£9.90); 978-0-141-03057-9)

IT MIGHT seem odd to choose a book that looks earthward, in the claustrophobia of lockdown, but Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A deep time journey is an invitation to see the worlds beneath our feet as deeper and stranger than we have imagined. Macfarlane’s geography is both ancient and immediate, and unapologetically human even in hostile places: the labyrinthine journey is encountered through the stories of those living, dead, or not yet born. In this shut-in year, Underland was a cathartic turn to horror, nausea, love, and praise.

Hannah Malcolm is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham, a Ph.D. student. She won the 2019 Theology Slam competition. She has a new book out next month, Words for a Dying World (SCM Press, 2020).


Dave Walker

Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez (Vintage, £9.99 (£9); 978-1-78470-628-9)

I WAS in a loo queue the other day. Men contemplating joining the queue were incredulous that, owing to distancing restrictions, there was a queue for the Gents but not for the Ladies. But why should it be normal for women to have to queue? This incredibly well-researched book explores the many aspects of our everyday lives which are biased towards men in ways that I certainly hadn’t considered. Our world is designed by and for men, forgetting 50 per cent of the population, and this needs to change.

Dave Walker is a cartoonist.


Martin Warner

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, £14.99 (£13.50); 978-1-529-01927-8)

DOUGLAS STUART’s Glasgow novel Shuggie Bain was the best challenge of 2020. Like Irving Welsh and James Kelman, Stuart gives voice unflinchingly to the rawness of life on the margins. There is no sentimentality; but deeper virtues of affection and loyalty persist against the odds. It made me laugh and cry. Its concluding scenes quietly subvert binary notions of human identity. And here is its challenge: would Shuggie Bain ever feel at home in Anglican congregations or as one of their clergy?

Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.


Jessica Martin

Motherwell: A girlhood by Deborah Orr (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-1-474-61145-9)

DEBORAH ORR’s memoir Motherwell: A girlhood, is the book which has gone deepest. Its author, who was my exact age and who died last year, sets out with forensic honesty the good and the bad of a working-class Scottish childhood in the 1960s-70s. Her unsparing eye, mental suffering and impassioned judgments stay with me — along with a haunting picture of her, aged 14, sitting on her home-made Snoopy cushion, weeping at her grandmother’s death. There, then gone.

The Revd Dr Jessica Martin is a Canon Residentiary of Ely Cathedral. Her latest book is Holiness and Desire (Canterbury Press, 2020) (Books, 7 August).


Micheal O’Siadhal

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power by Shoshana Zuboff (Profile, £10.99 (£9.90); 978-1-78125-685-5)

MY FAVOURITE book of the year is The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It is a brilliant, meticulously researched book which describes a new internet-based capitalism. Starting with the ideal of making knowledge available, the multibillionaires of surveillance capitalism began, without permission, spying on our internet habits and selling the information for targeted marketing, and then turned to shaping our desires. More frighteningly, some of the internet “priesthood” aspire to control our world in the name of improving it. A book well worth reading.

Micheal O’Siadhail is an Irish poet. His latest is The Five Quintets (Canterbury Press, 2019) (Books, 2 August 2019).

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