Wednesday, January 6, 2021

2020 Reading Review

 Books Read in 2020


A Little Hatred Joe Abercrombie

Atonement Ian McEwan

Mythos Stephen Fry (collection/mythology)

Matilda Roald Dahl (children’s novel)

Orange World and Other Stories Karen Russell (collection)

Machines Like Me Ian McEwan

Stone Mattress Margaret Atwood (collection)

Hunger Joyce Carol Oates (novella read in The Female of the Species, originally in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine)

The Overstory Richard Powers

Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar Ed. Richard Ford (anthology)

In Sunlight or In Shadow Ed. Lawrence Block (anthology inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper)

Ghost Empire Richard Fidler (history)

The Trouble with Peace Joe Abercrombie

Magic for Beginners Kelly Link (novella read in The Wrong Grave. Originally published in the collection Magic for Beginners)

Norse Mythology Neil Gaiman (collection/ mythology)

Half a King Joe Abercrombie

Tau Zero Poul Anderson

Half the World Joe Abercrombie

The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures Christine Kenneally (Expository)

The Female of the Species Joyce Carol Oates (collection)

Sputnik Sweetheart Haruki Murakami

The Silent Land Graham Joyce

The Wrong Grave Kelly Link (collection)

Bridge Burning & Other Hobbies Kitty Flannagan (memoir/humour)

Kindred Octavia Butler

Ready Player One Ernest Cline

Bagombo Snuff Box Kurt Vonnegut (collection)

Sleep Donation Karen Russell (novella)

The Country of the Blind H.G. Wells (collection)

Welcome to the Monkey House Kurt Vonnegut Jr (collection)

The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror, 2014 Ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene (anthology)

Changing Tides Ed. Jaynie Royal & Michelle Rosquillo (anthology)

One Hundred Years of Dirt Rick Morton (memoir)

Eidolon 1 Ed. Jonathan Strahan & Jeremy G Byrne (anthology)

He-Man and the Masters of the Multiverse Tim Seeley (author) Tom Derenick & Dan Fraga (illustrators) (graphic novel)

Over to You Roald Dahl (collection)

Half a War Joe Abercrombie

488 Rules for Life: The Thankless Art of Being Correct Kitty Flanagan (humour-expository)

Glitter Rose Marianne de Pierres (collection)

Dirty Beasts Roald Dahl (children’s poetry)

Astercote Penelope Lively (children’s novel)

Laughable Loves Milan Kundera (collection)                                                             


Highlights with Brief Commentary (Not Reviews)


I read more books than I have in a while in 2020, yet only two disappointed, so many that I loved have not received a mention here. I’ve decided to stick to a max. of four favourites in the genre I most consumed, and one to three in the remainder. Brutal, I know.




Could have easily gone for more here with Joe Abercrombie, and also added Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler and Graham Joyce – and then the list would continue...


A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie

I devoured five Abercrombie novels this year. His novels remind me of the thrill I once got when I was 10 through to 14 when I read high fantasy – only Abercrombie, like his fellow grimdark writer, George RR Martin, adds adult elements, and the wit and humour and prose far surpass what I read in my young teens. 


A Little Hatred is set a few decades after The First Law trilogy. As usual, Abercrombie cheekily borrows storylines from history, and in A Little Hatred, Abercombie incorporates elements of the Industrial Revolution, and I suspect the French Revolution too. Like always, every scene amuses, every page has you craving more. But this time around, Abercrombie stays away from his deliberate late twists and flips, and the work felt better for it. 


In a thematic sense, Abercrombie makes salient points regarding gender (there are more focalised female characters), as well as exploring industrialism and emerging capitalist economics within a largely feudal society.  And as per Abercrombie’s norm, his characters exhibit all of our human frailties, especially that of ambition, guilt, and confused motivations. 


Atonement Ian McEwan

As good as the critics claim. I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of McKewan (especially Nutshell) but for me this is the best so far. SPOLIER ALERT It would be a fantastic historical novel without the ending, but the meta elements in the last part make it absolutely superb. 


Machines Like Me Ian McEwan

Reading this so close to Atonement revealed distinct thematic similarities: the controversy and the lies surrounding a sexual encounter, the deception of others and self-deception, the old moral dilemmas that McKewan adores exploring. 

Machines Like Me is an alternative history, a bit like PK Dick’s A Man in the High Castle. This time it’s set in Thatcher’s England. I liked this aspect the most. Most AI I’ve read is set in the future, so the change was especially refreshing. My book club, an astute bunch, believe there are some incongruences and anachronisms within the alternative world, but I enjoyed the ride. The moral ambiguity of AI, the inevitable arguments as to whether AI can possess a soul, whether they can be higher beings than ourselves, and also their potential displacement of humans, are all touched on in an intelligent manner. And rather than paint things in black and white, McKewan offers a more open approach here. As always, his prose is at a standard few writers rival. 


The Overstory Richard Powers

To be honest, The Overstory is incredibly vexing at times. The opening series of vignettes in ‘The Roots’ all end with hyperbolic melodrama; the novel’s ending borders on being frustratingly open without the satisfaction of all the threads meeting. But then again, you’ll pensively pause after you've finished the tome in the same manner as a great short story. 


So why is it here? Because when Powers is on song, he astonishes: the intelligence, the allusions, the characters and relationships, are all so vividly drawn. And the initial story lines do come together, for the most part, in the middle. ‘The Trunk’ and ‘The Crown’ sections contain some of the most captivating work I’ve read. So despite the frustration, which may also be an integral ingredient in making Powers uniquely brilliant, it’s worth reading for the parts in which Powers simply scintillates. And even within the parts that don't entirely work for me, there is still plenty to admire and reflect on.


The Overstory is also a reminder that we are environmental custodians of the world, and how we are failing this stewardship in numerous respects. Powers quite deliberately has written this to drive change, there’s even an analogy within the novel about stories influencing change more than facts (makes sense, look at the tragedy of COVID in the US and the fact that many still blindly believe that Trump has excelled, while the objective facts state the exact opposite). 


But I don’t see this imperfect-yet-remarkable work being the catalyst for a new wave of environmental conservationists. The depressing reality is that Power’s ambitious novel most likely only preaches to the already converted, or the believers, like myself. 

While The Overstory won’t be everyone’s cuppa tea (and at times it wasn’t mine) the world benefits from rich, explorative writers like Richard Powers.  

ReadingThe Overstory is an unforgettable experience––as long as you’re willing to take the challenging climb up to the canopy. 




Matilda Roald Dahl

After all these years, I’ve finally read Matilda. Tim Minchin’s musical version of Matilda is also genius, one of the best I’ve seen, so I don’t know how I missed out on reading Matilda until now, especially as Dahl played such a role in my younger reading. Who doesn’t love The Twits, George’s Marvellous Medicine, Fantastic Mr Fox, Revolting Rhymes, Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches and The BFG? Won’t say much about Matilda other than I treasured it. Nobody writes children’s fiction like Dahl.




Orange World and Other Stories Karen Russell

Another superb collection from Karen Russell. I’ve listed recommended stories from Orange World on both my 2019 & recent 2020 beloved story lists. I'm enthralled by Karen Russell’s writing and worlds. Russell courageously blends genre and realist elements, and as such, Russell is my go-to short story writer. 


The Stone Mattress Margaret Atwood

I’ve found Atwood’s writing more imbued with humour of late. These stories are fantastic. Many play with genre, often subverting it with meta elements. Funny, witty, and simply fab prose. 


The Female of the Species Joyce Carol Oates

I started this years ago, and although I delighted in many of the stories, I’d abandoned it. The return lived up to my expectations. Oates has plenty of fun here with highly suspenseful, playful, dark, and often deliberately melodramatic stories. Once again, I’m a fan. 


The Wrong Grave Kelly Link

Exuberant, clever and fun and, unlike Oates’ cold but effective suspense and horror, there’s a wonderful warmth to Link’s stories, even with those which lean to the darker side. I especially enjoyed the title story, and a novella (see the novella highlights). I’ll certainly read more Link. 




Two completely different takes on retelling myth here. Gaiman’s beauty is in the parred back simplicity, while Fry’s humour and erudite commentary enhances the tales. Fry has added, while Gaiman has deliberately gone the other direction. 


Mythos Stephen Fry


Myth retold by the Philhellene. Fry’s passion for the Hellenic world comes through, he even mentions in a footnote in Heroes how he was studying Ancient Greek at eight years of age. Fry supplies a commentary throughout with wry quips, along with playful and informative ways Greek myth relates to the contemporary world.  The early generational God-chronology is always a challenge, and Fry pulls it off as well as anybody, and after that the great narrative tales take hold. The footnotes are well-worth reading. 


Norse Mythology Neil Gaiman

Unlike Fry’s mythology, rather than additional commentary, there is little new here. And although I appreciate the criticism that Gaiman has added little to the genre, I actually feel as though it is one of Norse Mythology’s strengths. Via the use of simple rhythmic prose and maintaining a purity to the tales, I think the stories themselves are given the spotlight.  So, if you’re new to Norse mythology or want a gentle return to some great tales, this is a great place. I’ve always loved Norse mythology, and I loved this. Although not as rich or witty as Fry, Gaiman’s strength is that he allows the Norse tales to shine in their own right. 



Hunger Joyce Carol Oates 

(novella read in The Female of the Species, originally in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

A racy novella that will have you on your toes throughout. 


Magic for Beginners Kelly Link

(Read in The Wrong Grave. Originally published inThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) Wonderfully whacky and will take you back to your childhood.


Tau Zero Poul Anderson

Old school, compelling hard SF. 



(as per the norm, I’m not including works I have stories in)


Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar Ed. Richard Ford 


I won’t lie, a couple stories were a bit bleh, but I find this in most anthologies, so please hang in there, because this anthology is marvellous. Some of the best works I’ve read. And many I loved weren’t included on my list of favourite yearly reads when they normally would have but (but I felt an icy cut-off had to occur somewhere). Only problem is that Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar will seriously add to your reading list of writers to pursue further. I've already bought ZZ Packer, Edward P. Jones, Elizabeth Strout, Charles D'Ambrosio, and will be hunting down more...


In Sunlight or In Shadow Ed. Lawrence Block 

(An anthology inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper)

Such a beautiful idea and production. It impresses in an aesthetic sense with a coloured pic of the Hopper painting before the inspired story, and although (like in Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar) a couple didn’t wow me (and that’s the subjective nature of reading) there’s still plenty to cherish here.         


The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror, 2014 Ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene

Wish these were still around, along with The Best Australian Stories.




Ghost Empire Richard Fidler


Like many Greeks, I’m fascinated by Byzantine history, and Fidler frames this within a touching trip to Istanbul/ Constantinople with his son. Yet although Fidler repeats how advanced and civilised the Byzantines were compared to the rest of the world at the time, he ironically focusses on the uncivilised parts: on the shocks, the violence, the regicide, the intrigue, the savagery. I understand this, it helps with narrative drive and the captivation of the reader––and the work is captivating. 


There is also a weird mistake, which after I read it lingered around like one of those annoying bedtime mosquitoes. Fidler states that 'Sophia' is a Latin name, and although used in Rome too, the name is Greek– in fact it's iconic to the Greek world. 'Sophia' means wisdom and the Haghia Sophia means Holy Wisdom, or Church of the Holy Wisdom, and has no meaning at all in Latin. But Fidler does confess that unlike most Byzantine historians he doesn’t possess any Greek, so I’m being a bit of a pedantic prick. 

And this is here as a highlight read– Ghost Empire is a thoroughly enjoyable easy-to-read history. The father-son trip tugs poignantly at the heart strings, and the history itself fascinates. Mind you, my mother hated the gore…


The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures Christine Kenneally

I’m uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘race' in a contemporary sense unless it's within an historical context or finding fault with racism, both past and present. The notion of race is incredibly outdated. Afterall, you can’t have racism without a belief in ‘race’. But Keneally does contextualise and explore this topic too. I found the first part of Keneally’s work, which concentrates on the history of family trees and tracing lineage, quite tiring, but after that Keneally’s work intrigues. The many historical interludes and new scientific innovations and revelations are absorbing. The subject itself is a juggling act, especially as the dangerous notion of eugenics has returned with DNA and genetic science, and the tragedy is that some of the science gives fuel to toxic supremist groups (who manage to twist the data into their own twisted world views). But Keneally navigates this quagmire better than The Argonauts. For those interested in science and history, it’s well worth the read.                                                         



Bridge Burning & Other Hobbies Kitty Flanagan


A fun humorous self-take by a charismatic comedian. Plenty of the old Australian self-deprecating humour too. I’m a Flanagan fan


One Hundred Years of Dirt Rick Morton


I wasn’t entirely convinced of the structure, but One Hundred Years of Dirt is brave and comical (facetious too at times) while covering dark issues regarding poverty, inequality, masculinity, substance abuse, and homophobia. It also straddles the line of being overly didactic, but it’s worth the read, and having binged on Vonnegut in high school I’m not frightened of a bit of well thought out moralising. Morton’s writing reminds me of another Queensland journalist I enjoy reading: Trent Dalton. It’s loud and playful and entertaining throughout. 


I keep personal things out of my rarely used blog, but I do hope 2021 is a better year for the world. After a flurry of pressure from medical experts, our Premier Mark McGowan changed his initial rhetoric about 'staying open' and closed the borders by locking down hard and early. He's shown wonderful strength here in Western Australia (WA) as well as a flexible mindset. I realise that not all places are capable of this type of shutdown, but some able nations have been myopic in their desire to keep the economy 'afloat' at all costs, and, ironically, all they have succeeded in doing was sink the economic ship and cause long term economic woe, not to mention the tragic loss of lives, along with the many other lives affected as an outcome.  

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, but also meaningful, 2021!