Books of the year 2020

My reading has been desultory this year. I’m sorry. Changes in work patterns and getting out of the habit of listening to audiobooks – it’s cost me.

So this year’s Best Books list is a little thinner this year. Not that the books I’ve enjoyed have been any worse than they have in previous years – the recommendations are as strong as ever – just that I’m drawing from a shallower well. Mea culpa.

But still, without further ado…

My eleven favourite reads of 2020, in rough order of reading:

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man – Rod Duncan

The third book in the Map of Unknown Things trilogy sees Elizabeth Barnabus travelling across America in search of her missing family. Crossing the border into the wilds of the Oregon Territory, she discovers a mustering army, a king who believes he is destined to conquer the world, and a weapon so powerful that it could bring the age of reason crashing down.

The future of the Gas-Lit empire rests on the back of a conjuring trick.

A superb finale from Rod, which explores ideas of gender and gender-identity, of family and missing mothers; and the intrigues of court-politics and the essential glamour and fakery of magic.

Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir

The Emperor needs necromancers.
The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.
Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.

I didn’t like this at first. There just weren’t enough empathetic characters – every was bitchy and snarky and, whilst fun, I didn’t feel like I was going to fall for it as I did. Just as the enemies-turned-lovers(?) trope turns, so did the alienation-turned-admiration work in the reader, and, by the end, I was rooting for the characters to solve the mystery.

It’s not perfect and won’t be for everyone. It relies on roguery rather than humanity. But it won me over and earns its place on this list.

The Gutter Prayer – Gareth Hanrahan

The city has always been. The city must finally end. When three thieves – an orphan, a ghoul, and a cursed man – are betrayed by the master of the thieves guild, their quest for revenge uncovers dark truths about their city and exposes a dangerous conspiracy, the seeds of which were sown long before they were born.

A beautifully-written and imaginative dark fantasy in which the city is a real character in itself and which brings genuinely new ideas into the genre.

Small Robots – Thomas Heasman-Hunt

Well, how to write about this? If you’re not following the @smolrobots Twitter-feed this might not make sense to you.

Part art, part therapy project, this is simply a collection of Very Useful Robots (apart from the ones that aren’t), who are resolutely monopurpose, often to the point of being faintly (or gloriously) ridiculous. Simple drawings filled with character and humour, it’s just a lovely thing.

The Last Emperox – John Scalzi

The final part of John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, this is a wonderful finale, filled with shocks and revelations and a conclusion that is utterly convincing. aPlus there’s the benefit of Scalzi’s effortless prose that keeps the pace moving throughout. He’s simply a very good writer, damn him.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Okay, I really don’t get why this exists.

This is the ‘literature’ entry in this year’s list, and it suffers from the problems of all its type: just…why? It’s the tale of three generations of a family, from their forced migration from Greece to America, their growth into solid, prosperous citizens, and the final emergence of the intersex character to whom the title belongs.

As I said, I don’t really get it. There’s no real purpose to it, no great challenge to overcome (save one of identity, in which case why not focus on Callie/Cal and drop the preceding generations?); I just don’t understand the purpose behind writing this story in this way?

But I can put this down to being a genre writer, and, more specifically, a genre-reader. This book is here simply because it is so beautifully written. It carried me with it through its sections, ages and many, many pages because the prose is lovely and effortless in the way that good writing should be; not drawing too much attention to itself, just picking the right words at the right time.

The Fun Stuff – James Woods

Another book I found beautiful in its prose and yet wouldn’t recommend unreservedly. This is a collection of essays written by critic and columnist James Woods. You might find it heavy going; for me the subject matter was all a little too worthy – I’d not read a single one of the reviewed authors save for a single book my Ian McEwan. Oh, and I’ve seen the TV adaptation of War and Peace.

Even so, I now feel I can have a conversation on any number of the featured authors – or at least nod along intelligently – because Woods constructs his arguments so well. As I said, his writing is virtually faultless and I find myself swept up in admiration for the author. Maybe if I exposed myself to counter-arguments I may re-evaluate this, but I’m not especially likely to and so this stands as a uniquely elegant book of criticism.

Composite Creatures – Caroline Hardaker

Ah, this is a wonderful, heartbreaking piece. It won’t be out until 2021 (thus neatly escaping the HellYear) and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for.

It’s a simple tale, all told. In a hostile world (though no obvious dystopia) the rich can buy themselves exclusive medical treatment and – for some – this means matching you with your exclusive genetic partner and getting your own little bundle of joy which will… what?

That’s the beauty of this novel; the gradual unrolling of the details both of what Norah and Arthur have signed up for and the gradual reveal of what Norah has given up to get to this point in her life. And what she continues to lose.

A beautiful, haunting novel that is wonderfully written and will not leave you alone.

Flame Riders – Sean Grigsby

Ah, Sean Grigsby; top chap and top writer of dragon-based action. Flame Riders is the third third-in-series book in this list and it’s certainly involves the kicking of most ass. Another novel set for 2021, the story revolves around the misadventures of a New United States Army deserter and possible smoke eater (one immune to the effects of dragon smoke and partially resistant to flames) in a world where smoke eaters are persecuted and the army little more than mercenary thugs.

Of course, wouldn’t you know it, but the scene is set for a brutal confrontation between the NUSA and the smoke eaters… plus dragons. Always dragons.

Witty, sarcastic and inventive, with excitement aplenty. What’s not to like?

Oh, and if you want to hear me and Sean chatting (a long, long time ago now), check out this link.

Doors of Sleep – Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt has never let me down. After his Axiom series, upon which I had the fortune to do a small amount of work, I was shown a pre-release version of his latest, The Doors of Sleep. It is a wonderfully inventive tale of a man who wakes up in a new universe every time he sleeps. All is transient: utopias, dystopias, rural paradises or urban nightmares: all are gone after a few days maximum.

Accompanied by the wonderful Minna (human, plant, or something in-between?) – the real star of the show, along with the AI Vicki – Zax is desperate to stay one step ahead of the maniacal Lector.

Always moving forwards, sometimes isolated and never able to build more than one relationship at a time, this as much a study in loneliness as it is an adventure. A wonderful tale.

Within Without – Jeff Noon

Let’s finish on the weird, shall we? Jeff Noon does weird well. Another 2021 release, this is the fourth book in the Nyquist series of fantastic adventures. The previous one Creeping Jenny was set in a small village where every day was a saint’s day, which had its own actual, physical ‘law’ that must be obeyed. This is set in the city of Delirium, a place defined by borders, each one different and shifting.

Nyquist has been hired to find an actor/musician’s ‘image’; his glamour, the thing that gives him that extra 20%, that has been torn from him. Thus begins a tangled tale that sees Nyquist confronted by rogue enchanters, kingdoms within kingdoms, his own literary self, and always, always, the boundaries that separate them.

Magical, mad and magnificent, that’s Jeff Noon for you.

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And there you go. Hope that’s given you some inspiration for those last-minute Christmas presents, even those ones labelled for yourself, as well as some things to watch out for in 2021. I’m off until the new year now; have a great holiday, those of you who get one, and have a great few weeks those of you who don’t. See you in a little while; be well x

PS: I nearly forgot: feel free to add this to your Christmas lists as well…