When I started Ultimate Reads and Recommendations as a book group on Facebook a couple of years ago I didn’t think I would have readers from all over the world joining in. It started off with just a few people from my local community in South London and gradually spread through word of mouth. Now I have members from as far afield as Fiji, New Zealand and the USA. The aim was to make the group as inclusive and diverse as possible. More importantly, the group is incredibly welcoming, warm and passionate about what they read.

Its diversity shows in the range of books that are discussed. This truly reflects my own eclectic reading tastes (yes, I have read Geri Halliwell’s two autobiographies, but I also love Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and many things in between). From current bestsellers and recent hits to quirky lesser-known titles, I like to think of the group as a treasure trove of new worlds and lives to be discovered. I have certainly come upon titles that I would have never have read before. I recently read Birdy by William Wharton which was recommended on the group. After trawling the local charity shops I found a battered copy and devoured this strange and beautiful book about a boy’s friendships, PTSD and his obsession with canaries. Word-of-mouth recommendations can be a powerful thing.

The most talked-about and praised book was The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. It will make you cry and it will make you laugh and I wholeheartedly recommend it.”

So what was everyone in the group raving about in 2020, one of the strangest years we have ever lived through?

The most talked-about and praised book was undoubtedly The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. Although first published in 2017, it’s been consistently recommended throughout the year and not one person has disagreed with the sentiment that it’s the most enjoyable read. Charting the life of Cyril Avery from birth to death in Ireland throughout the course of the last century, it’s packed with humour, heartbreak and – most of all – the beauty of life. It will make you cry and it will make you laugh and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

There was also unending praise for Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Normal People by Sally Rooney (and lots of love for the TV adaptation), The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins provoked lots of discussion. Most loved it and found it very powerful but it did prompt mixed reviews due to the validity of the author and whether she was best placed to have written this book. 

Other popular books that created much discussion were Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owen (the very definition of a Marmite book) and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (apparently not her best). Perennial favourite Kate Atkinson divided opinions with her most recent books Transcription and Big Sky.

One of the most interesting insights from the group is that so many of us have found it hard to concentrate during this most tumultuous of years. I definitely could relate to this, especially at the beginning of the first lockdown. But ultimately I realised that reading was keeping me sane. Cathartic and transformational, I could escape to so many different worlds without leaving my home.

I was blown away by some incredible non-fiction this year. With Heidi Blake’s From Russia with Blood I kept having to remind myself that I was reading a real-life story and not some well-plotted spy thriller. Sinéad Gleeson’s collection of essays Constellations, about health, gender and politics, are so powerful. Other notable reads were My Wild and Sleepless Nights by Clover Stroud, The Lonely City by Olivia Laing and the extraordinary life of Lady Glenconner in Lady in Waiting.

As for fiction, I adored Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers. A possible virgin birth, a lonely woman searching for happiness, desperate to escape her life with her suffocating mother, the period details of 1950s suburbia set the scene and it’s lonely tone so evocatively.

I also enjoyed various 20th-century classics such as Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell, The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – short reads packed full of humour, compassion and incredible women.

With so many books published every year (600 published on one day in September alone post-lockdown), I think groups like this bring to light the diversity and range of stories on offer. The most pleasing thing for me in Ultimate Reads and Recommendations is that there are many books, old and new, surfaced from our members that get into the hands of readers that might have passed them by. It’s all about the power of the reader, a most gratifying thing.

 

Sonia Weir started the Ultimate Reads and Recommendations Facebook group in December 2018, which now has over 500 members from all over the world. The group is inclusive and aimed at every reader, no matter the books, authors or genre. 
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