My books of 2020

Following on from my Top 50 albums of the year last week, here’s a list of the favourite things I’ve read this year. No Top 50 though as I don’t read at the same pace as I listen! A lot of music books in here but also spans across other non fiction and fiction books I’ve read this year. I’ve added links to the books where they’re stocked at bookshop.org, a new site that aims to provide a strong online presence for local independent bookshops and a portion of sales can go to your nominated bookshop. Most but not all the books came out in 2020.

Pete Pephides – Broken Greek
Top of the book pile this year has to be this wonderful childhood memoir, which moved me more than than any book I can remember in such as long time. I grew up in the 70’s and the book reaches back to those times effortlessly. It allows us to see Pete’s pre-teen eye on the world. It has connected with 1000’s of readers – I’ve never seen such an outpouring of love for a book on Twitter.

It’s a book that covers so much, because growing up is complicated, messy and confusing . Music is Pete’s compass, a place to project, finding his place in the world. The book makes you look at the role of pop music in your life anew, feel less self conscious about what music really means something to you and why. The woven theme of Abba throughout the book being a great example. As well as some deep thinking about my own childhood, the book made me laugh out so many times – so many places I could point to – particularly the section about which band names he wrote on his canvas bag and his moment of discovery that Paul McCartney was in the Beatles. Wonderful memories of dial-a-disc as well.

His very different relationships with both his Mum and Dad are central to the book and a warm portrait of his older brother Aki. In a very calm way the book also conveys the life of an immigrant family in the UK in the 1970’s – and whilst prejudice is highlighted in the book, the other thing that resonates is the sheer hard work of his parents to establish a business when they arrived with nothing. How this shapes the family is central to the book.

The book also reminded me how big a thing Grease was! (and how some of those lyrics passed me by at the time). Whilst reading, I suddenly had a memory of the girl next door coming round to play tennis after the Wimbledon Final of 77 and insisting we took tennis player names – She was Viginia Wade of course. I was having none of it, I was John Travolta. So we ended up with a JT Vs VW tennis match. Not sure I would have openly recalled this without Broken Greek.

Speaking on Twitter, Guy Pratt probably had the best line about the climax to the end of the book. describing it as ‘Norman Mailer meets Grange Hill’.

This is a book about how achingly hard it can be to find out who you are, what will define you and what your guiding lights will be in life. It all comes crashing together when you start secondary school and music is Pete’s guiding light.

And of course I felt a little proud when Pete’s first single was the same as mine – The Baron Knights’ Taste of Aggro (mine bought in Knight and Lee’s Department store in Portsmouth).

Pete remains fairly enigmatic about whether another volume will be forthcoming, Understandably so, as I can imagine how much this one took to craft and how much time he wants to spend looking back. But I hope the time will be right for it one day and we can learn more about his journey onwards and how he travelled deeper into the world of music in the 80’s and how his music writing developed further.

I also passed the book over to my wife, who was intrigued by my regular laughs and reminisces the book was provoking. She was a little suspicious about whether she’d like a memoir by a music journalist but she too absolutely loved it.

Should you want to listen as you read, there is a great spotify playlist available as well.

David Mitchell – Utopia Avenue
As a collision between music and fiction this book was right up to my street (geddit…). David Mitchell will be well known to many already for his lyrical, deeply imaginative books such as Cloud Atlas.

In Utopia Avenue David has taken a deep dive into the musical world of London in 1967 and a fictional band called Utopia Avenue. They play folky, bluesly pysch rock, and their members evoke the different worlds that were colliding in the mid to late sixtities pop world – both class and gender. You can see echoes of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, early Pink Floyd in the bands’ fictional sound and members. You are a little a unsure about the name dropping at the start e.g bumping into Jimi Hendrix, Syd Barrett etc but once the core characters take hold the whole book hangs together perfectly. The last 100 pages are amazing and David Mitchell at his imaginative best.

Some critics have strongly taken against this book – screw ’em.

Hilary Mantel – The Mirror and the Light
The final book in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy fully delivered. I loved the first two books. They are historical fiction like no other books in this genre. The emotional depth and insight behind the character of Cromwell is amazing. It is all based on great attention to research and immersing herself in the time. Hilary’s writing never comes across as overburdened by the knowledge she accrues. This final novel is about politics, class, power, gender, and heading towards a stark and inevitable end. Project what you will into today.

Ali Smith – Autumn
Summer, the final part of Ali Smith’s four-book suite, each one based on a season, was published in 2020. I was little late to this, starting with Autumn that came out in 2016. Set in a backdrop of the events of 2016, but not over dominating, this book weaves a great narrative about that year, set against some amazing prose and imaginative passages that brings autumn completely off the page and into your mind. I’ve headed straight on to Winter.

Bob Stanley- Yeah Yeah Yeah
This stunning 700 page magnum opus, released over seven years ago, is an amazing history of pop – from the 1950s to the new millennium. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read on this horizontal theme.

The chapters on the early roots of rock n roll and soul are masterful pieces of writing that join many lines right through the music as the book progresses through the decades. Bob writes forcefully about what can be unfairly neglected from the history of pop, especially if a rock music lens over- dominates. Bob explains what role black music must play in the history of pop and what great music is missed if we don’t open our ears.

A book full of great anecdotes and stories – I never knew that Jimi Hendrix channelled the Coronation Street theme into Are You Experienced! The book has also had me reaching back to listen to artists like Little Richard, Sam Cooke and the Supremes. I’ve also relistened to Jimmy Webb and The Monkees afresh, to name to just a few.

There is also a great Spotify playlist for this book as well. A mega 67 hours worth…

Dylan Jones – David Bowie – A life
I stumbled by this oral history of David Bowie’s career by Dylan Jones. It is built up completely from quotes and passages from other books and articles, and so compelling is Bowie’s story – his false starts, experimentation and finding his way to Ziggy, that this style works really well to tell the story. I loved two thirds of the book but as story falls away into 80’s the insight become less interesting, in parallel with Bowie’s music at that point. But well worth reading.

Craig Brown – One Two Three Four
I’ve read so many books on the Beatles over the years, adding such a range different insights and great stories, that I wasn’t sure I had space in my life for another one. But Craig Brown has managed to weave another unique narrative about the Beatles story. His own voice and wry observations, good selection of key moments (not always the obvious) deliver a worthy new Beatle book. It never tries to be comprehensive but in honing in on key moments from a different angle it really adds something to the huge library of Beatle books out there. There are some great parts looking at Paul McCartney and influence of Jane Asher, and Lennon and Harrison’s first LSD trip at the hands of their dentist.

(Neatly tides me over whilst awaiting the second volume of Mark Lewishon’s three part Beatle history. As a complete story I doubt this will be beaten. The first volume, Tune In, will always be the Beatle book for my desert island.)

Robin Turner – Believe in Magic: 30 Years of Heavenly Recordings
Not a book to read through end to end in a linear way but this is a brilliant overview, in full vivid colour, with memorabilia and stories. You get a real sense of how Heavenly have managed to maintain their excellence as a record label over the last 30 years – passion, a great sense of the right package between the music, live events and the physical products. This has led them to find the unique, trailblazing records that always seek to make a difference. The book takes you back through it all perfectly.

Kai Strittmatter – We have been harmonised – life in China’s Surveillance State
China will be a key player in the story of the 21st century. That is already clear. But what how might China’s style of surveillance government impact the rest of the world as they export more digital services and products and seek more global influence? To understand we have to dive deeper into the China of today and how President Xi is playing a key role in reshaping China using surveillance and a new form of Chinese nationalism. Kai Strittmatter is a German journalist who has studied China for 30 years and he spells out what he’s observed in a clear and accessible narrative and you come away from this important study more informed and better equipped to debate how the West should engage with China. Sometimes the book can come across a little presumptive that a European model of human rights is perfect and flawless compared to China but overall there much to gained from his analysis.

Peter Crouch – How to be a footballer
At a point this year I just wanted something quick, funny and light. Peter Crouch’s book amply fitted the bill. As a Pompey fan there are also some great stories about his time there. In time honoured football memoir tradition this is ghost written, but this doesn’t reflect badly on it – Crouchy has a unique voice and some cracking stories about what makes football great, footballers daft, and a good sense of perspective of what all that money does, or doesn’t, buy.

Emily Maitlis – Airhead
I enjoyed this walk through Emily’s BBC career as a key BBC interviewer and journalist. You get some unquiet insight about how set piece interviews come together, the planning and thinking that lies behind the questions. You get to see how serendipity, quick judgment and taking opportunities often lead to the best stories and interviews. You also get a feel how relentless the world of TV news can be when you have a young family and how the world of news has sped up over the last 5 years.

And finally, not forgetting Steve Carr’s Every Record Tells a story – a paean to record collecting. Reviewed on the blog back in October.

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