Monday, January 4, 2021

Best Reads of 2020

Looking back at 2020, it was one of the most “beach read” years--ever. With COVID breaching our understanding of normal and making life more serious, the desire to escape pushed me to read more relaxing, easily digestible books than usual. I took a giant bite of the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, knocked out a massive chunk of C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series (but still not enough to catch up in the 20+ book series), took on two pieces of Christopher Ruocchio’s huge space opera series The Sun Eater, read all five books of Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger & the Coin series, read a Jack Vance trilogy, and re-read all four book of his Tales of the Dying Earth compendium. Hell, I even read a Star Wars trilogy of books. And there were several one-offs of core-leaning, genre material. Overall it was a plot-centric, relaxing reading year. But only mostly. There were still a number of exceptional books, regardless of year published, that I had a chance to read which were not only entertaining but possessed more. (The breakdown of books published in 2020 is here.) Possessing not only escapism but substance, in no particular order here are my favorite reads this year:

The Visible Man by Gardner Dozois – If there were an award for most surprising read of 2020, Dozois’ The Visible Man would be it. Full of mature, sophisticated, dark, and sometimes uncomfortable speculative fiction stories, it’s a rich but heavy collection. Most stories possessing multiple layers, the collection lingers in afterthought while changing the reader’s impression of Dozois as “only” an editor. This is a hidden gem of yesteryear speculative fiction.

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain Banks – The last published novel in Bank’s Culture series, it is yet another unique, quality tale of AI mindships overseeing the galaxy. About a human culture that has collectively chosen to sublime (euthanize themselves to exist in a digital universe), complications arise when a couple of aliens fight to be the first to pick up the leftovers. Rather than in Hawaiian shirt and togs, this is space opera in Armani suit and tie.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – A transcendent novel, Piranesi is a perfect combination of tale, authorial voice, imagination, and allegory. What the allegory is, however, is largely up to the reader. Suffice to say there are a handful of rich directions interpret this tale of a man whose job is to catalog the statue-strewn halls and corridors of a tide-soaked, abandoned city. This is the best book published in 2020 I read—and 2020 was a strong year.

Cugel’s Saga by Jack Vance – While technically a re-read, the sheer joy of experiencing Jack Vance’s duology again is too wonderful not to mention. Featuring the greatest rogue ever to appear on page, Cugel accidentally bungles and cleverly slips his way through a journey of fantastical proportions, his own ego and the egos of those he meets providing the tac in his tic-toe story. Possessing both colorful imagination and a finger on the pulse of humanity’s basest instincts, the two books represent, for me, the heights of delightful, joyful reading.

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson – A combination of the Italian astronomer’s biography and mild, speculative tangents upon it, Robinson turns what could have been dry material into a wonderful story that is as informative as it is engaging. Featuring a clash of religion and science, Galileo’s situation remains relevant today despite the goalposts having moved.

Afterland by Lauren Beukes – Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean is sometimes mentioned in tones of wonder regarding the fictional representation of an all-female society. In Afterland, Lauren Beukes pulls the rug out from under that book’s feet by showing women are not entirely different than the men who are taken from them in this near-future, post-apocalyptic setting. Both sexes’ tendencies toward benevolence and malevolence similar, it’s a gritty story following a mother and “daughter” on a cross-country journey of evasion and escape. I have read some on the left critiquing the novel for ‘not digging deep enough’ into the book’s feminist possibilities, something which I take to mean ‘the book should not have portrayed an all-female society as it does’. To be clear, this book is more complex, more realistic than the superficial injection of identity politics would have it. While I risk getting too syrupy, Afterland is beyond good and evil from a gender perspective, telling an entertaining story in the process.

Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughn by Alan Paul & Andy Aledort – This biography is not only the story of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s life, it’s also a powerful testament to the power of the human spirit—a Hallmark card statement, I know, but a cliché that rings true in this case, and made all the stronger for being real. For those who want it, there is a level higher than living the blues to sing the blues, as Vaughn tragically proved.

Empire Dreams by Ian McDonald – One of the best debut science fiction collections ever released, Ian McDonald spun a couple of these stories into novels, and majority of the rest could still be. Content varied yet in focused, singular fashion, McDonald proves style is as important as story, substance often a natural byproduct. While a few decades old, the collection is still worth seeking out, only a couple of stories ageing poorly.

The Knife Thrower and Other Stories by Steven Millhauser – Millhauser almost as consistent as the sunrise, The Knife Thrower doesn’t inherently offer a collection of stories miles above or below any other collection he’s published. It’s all just damn good. Certainly an off-center hit, but for those who jive with Millhauser’s straight-faced, precise, subtly human presentation of non-realities, this is worth a read.

The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier by Ian Urbina – This is not only one of the best pieces of journalism I have read this year, but of all time. In The Outlaw Ocean, Urbina traversed our world’s first and last frontier, finding stories that are not only socially, politically, personally relevant, but also just damn interesting. Military platforms turned into their own countries (with passports!). An abortion boat that travels to countries which outlaw said activity, helping women in need. Whaling wars, slavery, pirating, and on and on are the stories our oceans hold. The Earth essentially 70% unregulated, what happens at sea stays at sea—except for Urbina’s reporting.

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison – While Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is the best novel I read published in 2020, Harrison’s mega-minimalist Lovecraft is so delicate as to be a close second. Any other year it would have been #1—and I dislike Lovecraft. Something of the Sartrian distance from existence permeating each and every page, story evolution does occur, its portents subtle and enticing, and other-worldly in this tale of an on-again, off-again couple’s personal lives and relationship. If only H.P. himself could have been as literary in technique, as human in character presentation, and as subtle with theme...

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelly – While this biography will be of most interest to fans of jazz and piano, that doesn’t mean there isn’t more for other readers. Growing up in the early 20th century, a time when race relations had a different scene than today, Monk’s path through life, friends in music, and life in the clubs and halls of the world’s great cities is potentially something of interest for people beyond, all the while the focus remains exactly these details of the pianist’s eccentric life.

The Drowned Life by Jeffrey Ford – One of if not the best from Ford, this collection showcases the writer's strengths. Wonderfully varied, there are stories from everyday reality to realities only in the imagination, all complemented by Ford's flexibility with style. “In the House of Four Seasons”, “Present from the Past”, and “The Manticore Spell” are all some of the very, tip-top best Ford has ever written, and a handful of others support the podium. Ford will likely never be considered a man of American letters, but to me he embodies the idea.

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne Valente – Myth and legend turned on its head (before it was all the craze to deconstruct colonial, patriarchal narratives by retelling classics), Valente retells the Grimm Bros. fairy tale in the wild west, powering the story with Native American coyote fuel and colorful, dynamic diction. You know the story, but never told like this.

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