Books I Read in 2020

2020 was a good year for reading.

Madeline Ashby, Company Town (2016)

One of a number of books on this list that I found browsing through the ebooks available thanks to my local library system. A mystery that replaces a proper detective with a young woman skilled in martial arts on a floating futuristic industrial rig.

Julia Abe, Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch (2020)

Come for the echoes of other magical fictional universes, stay for the community-building, the secondary character backstories, and more.

Max Barry, Providence (2020)

An engaging read, that doesn't quite escape the gravity of other texts that have mined the same territory, but Barry does create some unique combinations out of the "small crew" + "big ship" + "fighting aliens" + "AI" tropes, with an interesting dash of "influencers in space." Big extra-textual points for not being satisfied with, say, a book trailer or marketing site: check out the experience.

Max Brooks, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre (2020)

Horror characters often have to act a certain way in order for the plot to develop as required. Brooks is a sensitive author, and manages to find a way to root the same range of reactions inside character-building that has them make sense. To pick one secondary character, you see how the characteristics that make one an archetypal tech founder would play out in this scenario.

Peter Brown, The Wild Robot (2019)

Almost all of this young adult novel is set on an island, involving the relationship that a castaway robot creates with the island's animal denizens. I would not have imagined that an author could portray the relationship between organic and inorganic life so powerfully.

Robert Olen Butler:

My first encounter with Butler was in the 1990s, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992). He's an amazing stylist and observer of human behavior and desire in the short story and novella form. I was intrigued by these more recent ventures into an arguably less obviously literary genre. I'm not sure how well-covered the early twentieth-century "Great Game" setting is for thrillers, but these are very enjoyable. From just these two, I do find myself wondering whether I've seen enough to really understand the Christopher "Kit" Cobb character. There's a certain absence of the feelings and prejudices that one would tend to imagine for a man of his experience and vocations in this particular time - almost like what Hemingway would be without the sexism.

Orson Scott Card, the Ender's Shadow series:

I read the Ender novels when I was much younger. I bought these around ten years ago, when I was stuck on a long trip with no physical books but had recently bought a Kindle. When I read Rich Larson's Annex (q.v.), I was reminded of some similarities with the first novel, and downloaded it again. One thing led to another, and so these four end up here as re-reads.

James S. A. Corey, The Expanse series:

I wasn't really reading science fiction much when this series began, being perhaps more occupied with the transition out of academia. Once I started watching (and loving) the show, I wasn't sure that I wanted to encounter the source texts just yet. But at some point in 2019 I bought Leviathan Wakes and enjoyed it a lot. Through the pandemic months, I went through each of the rest, then started over.

Colin Dickey, The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained (2020)

How to write serious nonfiction about the paranormal and mysterious...

Jesse Dougherty, Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story of How the Washington Nationals Won the World Series (2020)

A good weekend read, although would have benefited from more meticulous editing at the sentence and paragraph level.

David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (2019)

One way in which this year was different was that I read so much more fiction than nonfiction. I think my usual approach to nonfiction is more transactional, in that I'm trying to be sure that I'm picking up things I could apply or that I would benefit from knowing. I took lots of notes on this one.

Rodrigo Fresán, The Bottom of the Sky; translated by Will Vanderhyden (2018)

A recommendation via the great folks at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. The variety of homage/borrowings from classic science fiction gave it some appeal, but the bigger picture of "two boys striving with each other for the attention of a girl who remains largely silent and without agency" made it fairly tiresome - even when she got her time to drive the narrative.

Malaka Gharib, I Was Their American Dream (2019)

Memoir is one of my favorite literary forms. I prefer them far and away to biography. This one, a graphic novel, is Gharib's vivid account of growing up in two and more worlds in the USA: her mother's Filipino culture and Christian faith, and her father's Egyptian culture and Muslim faith. Looking forward to more and more from her.

Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri, Ghost Work: How To Stop Silicon Valley From Building A New Global Underclass (2019)

Although they rely rather too much on the idea of an API as an engine of oppression, there is a lot here about the ways in which the gig economy has reshaped economic relations in late, late capitalism - perhaps even presciently, given how the Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped the service industry in 2020.

Homer, The Odyssey; translated by Robert Fagles (1996)

With children at the age to explore Greek mythology, it was a pleasure to take this one off the shelf and read - both to myself and aloud, to all.

B.J. Hollars, Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians, and the Weird in Flyover Country (2019)

The parts where Hollars recounts the unexplained events are quite well-done, although they are too often outweighed by a sort of travelogue-style recounting of his secondhand conversations with the experts and the (more or less) informed. A little more action, a little less conversation, please.

Kameron Hurley, The Light Brigade (2019)

Another I found via browsing DCPL's available ebooks, I'd remembered seeing some buzz about this one on Twitter last year. Placed a hold, waited a number of weeks, and hey presto! An engaging narrative reminiscent of The Forever War, Groundhog Day, and Kindred.

Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019)

Wow. African and Diasporic folk heroes and archetypes fighting and screwing their way across a spirit-haunted landscape, chasing a kidnapped child through reversal after reversal. The landscapes and settings of this book are amazing. Apparently the first in a planned trilogy.

N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became (The Great Cities Trilogy #1) (2020)

Another first installment in a planned trilogy, I found Jemisin's most recent novel to be a moving experience with global, even cosmic ambitions. Imagine that cities achieve a certain level of intensity and then spawn an avatar - or, occasionally, spawn multiple avatars that represent cities within the city. In this case, New York City achieves this milestone, and a single person becomes avatar to each the five boroughs. They have a Big Bad to deal with, too, who is hoping to wreck the City's next phase of growth.

Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle (1986)

Narratives of magical worlds are big in my household lately. This one has its own rules. Perhaps a little slow to get going, but along the way Jones figures out how to subvert familiar tropes that were already setting up in the literature when she wrote. A lot of fun.

Mary Robinette Kowal, the Lady Astronaut series:

Alternate history: an asteroid hits the eastern seabord of the USA in 1952. The long-term effects spell doom for humanity on the planet, although at a time scale that humanity's difficulty seeing the consequence of long-arc effects make it very difficult for NASA to do its job: figure out how to move enough people off the planet within a few decades that we won't go extinct. Props for the way Kowal makes race a central issue over each of these books.

Laura Knetzger, Bug Boys (2020)

I just love this book. Stag B and Rhino B are boys, bugs, and best friends.

Rich Larson, Annex (The Violet Wars #1) (2018)

I forget how I came across this one, but I enjoyed the small scale, stealthy alien invasion mode that Larson chose. Also what felt like a well-developed narrative for a main trans character. Plus the aliens are inventively grotesque.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

I read LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy when I was in my teens, and remember it fondly. But I never continued into the rest of her writing. What an oversight. I had heard so much about this one but was still not at all prepared for it. The interior worlds of her the two point-of-view characters are so coherent and deep. I wish I had read this decades ago. All of her stories of this universe have been collected in two Library of America volumes - which will most likely show up on my 2021 list twelve months from now.

Wendy McLeod MacKnight, The Copycat (2021)

Although my bookselling days are long behind me, every so often I reconnect with friends still in the industry and get a glimpse into future via a review copy or two. This book has an unusual setting (St. John, New Brunswick) and a very specific set of powers in question. The protagonist starts the novel thinking she hasn't inherited the shape-shifting abilities from her father's side of the family, although she may not be quite right about that. Family history is both a vehicle and a theme in this one.

David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue (2020)

I was ready to give up in the first chapter. Mitchell faked me out, made me think he had created a magnetic well-drawn character only to put him through a series of sitcom trials (getting robbed, getting fired, getting evicted, etc.) - but then the music started. Oof, you got me. You really got me now.

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti (2015)

I read Okorafor's Who Fears Death (2010) some years ago, and although it was perhaps not the best time (recovering from a traumatic injury), the book stuck with me. So when browsing through DCPL's ebook offerings, I saw Binti and gave it a try. I can't recall an author who managed such a masterful demonstration of how to imply an entire fictional universe in the opening pages of a narrative. Agog.

Ellen Raskin, The Westing Game (1978)

One of the earliest novels I remember reading. I still have my 1980-ish edition. When I unearthed it a few months ago, I had to read it again. A nifty mystery, set along Lake Michigan in Wisconsin.

Kim Stanley Robinson:

Of these two, New York 2140 had the clearer stakes and the better-drawn characters. It also had the advantage of remaining largely in its signature setting throughout, rather than shifting from Earth to the Moon and then back.

S.M. Stirling, Novels of The Change:

I remember seeing the original trilogy in this series in bookstores, which details the mysterious end of industrial and electrical technology on a March day in 1998. Those novels involve the first generation to survive what they simply call The Change. They create feudal societies with certain modern traits, such as exploiting what technology does work to the utmost and stripping the hollowed-out cities for raw materials. These later novels cover the experiences of the next generation, those either too young at The Change to really feel that the old world was theirs, or who are born after it altogether. They also start off more or less in 2020, so there's definitely a kind of disaster echo effect. On the one hand, unabashed page-turners the pages of which I often turned quite quickly. On the other hand, it's definitely true that Stirling seems to have had a very long game in mind for what he wants this fictional world to turn into. Points for going for it, and sticking to it.

John Szwed, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (1998)

The biographies I've most enjoyed have typically been those of musicians. I think it's because I can read the life story and experience the recordings in tandem. Biographies of writers require a little too much intertextual work to have the same effect in the same economical way. Sun Ra is a singular figure and I'm glad this bio gave me a reason to explore his wide-ranging compositions.

J.R.R. Tolkien:

Classics, reading them aloud with the kids.

Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy #1) (2014)

Haunting and weird. The library has me wait-listed for volumes 2 and 3.

Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys: A Novel (2019)

A tremendously affecting work, rooted in historical fact. Whitehead is a master of the novel at any length, but pair this one with Apex Hides the Hurt (2006) if you want to see what he can do with the form at its most compact.

Jin Yong, Legends of the Condor Heroes:

I first heard about this series in a 2018 article in Quartz, then in some commentary elsewhere. These first two volumes are great fun while also rising to the challenge of rooting the theory and practice of wulin in the character's emotional lives. It's no small task to take a setting where the spiritual are the martial are not meaningfully distinguished from each other, while also staying rooted enough in everyday life that you're not asking the reader to mistake aliens for humans. There's also an interesting understatedness to the narrative technique in any scene where characters are exchanging fighting moves. In order to move as they do, perception, reaction, and intellect all have to be moving at a speed and with an efficiency that is not materially possible. As I write this post, I'm about halfway through the third volume, A Snake Lies Waiting translated by both Holmwood and Chang (2020). At this point, the originally serialized form of the narrative is wearing a little thin: Guo Jing and Lotus Huang face off against more combinations of masters and scoundrels! Why won't the world just leave them in peace!