first, some personal news: Some friends and I are starting a podcast about the works of John le Carre. It’s called Tinker, Tailor, Podcast, Spy. You can follow it HERE.
I’m loathe to engage in personal blogging, so I’ll just say that 2020 has been a difficult year. Nevertheless, there have been numerous bright spots both personally and professionally. One such bright spot was that after a lengthy bout with depression in 2019, I got back into reading voraciously again. Extended periods in lockdown helped, as did the desire to beat my Goodreads challenge (for some unknown reason, several books are counted multiple times on it. I swear I didn’t do this on purpose!!).
I don’t read very many newly-published books – I find it difficult to keep up with new releases. So my personal best books of the year are hopefully much different than other lists. With all of this being said, here they are, in roughly chronological order from when I read them. I’ll link each title to Goodreads because that’s where I sort all my reading, and I think it’s the most useful book website out there. Just don’t trust the ratings on Goodreads because most people on there have dog brains.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
For those who ignore all of my Ligotti-posting: Thomas Ligotti is a mildly obscure, reclusive horror writer who writes in a genre referred to as “weird fiction.” His works center around the central tenets of philosophical pessimism and existential horror. Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is a Penguin Classics edition of two short story collections by Ligotti, and contains some of his finest work.
True Grit by Charles Portis
True Grit is a matter-of-fact narrative by Mattie Ross as she recounts her childhood journey to avenge her father’s murder by the scoundrel Tom Chaney. If you’ve seen the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of this Western novel, you’ll be delighted to learn it was exceptionally true to the book. Portis had a singular ear for dialogue and a way of sketching extremely vivid characters that makes every page sing.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Wolf Hall trilogy covers the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s fixer, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was born in relative obscurity and rose to dizzying heights as Henry VIII’s chief minister before his execution in 1540. An integral proponent of the Reformation in England, his dogged advocacy for evangelical Christianity (evangelical in the historical sense, not the American interpretation!) turned out to be his undoing, as did his failure with Anne of Cleves. This series captivated me for months and turned me into the kind of person who gives impromptu Ted Talks on Cromwell and Tudor history to other people, which is a shameful but inevitable consequence of mainlining these novels.
Solaris by Stanislas Lem
I’ll admit I haven’t seen the Tarkovsky film yet since I watch like, three movies a year. However, Solaris is one of the best examples of the science-fiction genre out there: something that truly grapples with what it would mean to come in contact with the unknown and the truly unknowable. It’s a science fiction novel wrapped around an exceptionally poignant meditation of grief and memory, and an excellent reminder of what genre fiction can be at its best.
The Lost Writings by Franz Kafka
The Lost Writings is actually a 2020 release! It’s the first English translation of some of Kafka’s fragments. Each of the fragments are in the kind of strange, dissonant, and irreverent tone you would expect. A lot of translations tend to read as wooden, but this is beautiful and clear.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
This book is an extended dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo that takes the form of Polo giving short descriptions of imaginary cities. Every city is beautiful, distinct, and written in prose I can only describe as “crystalline.”
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
It is extremely difficult to summarize this series, but I’ll try my best: Warhammer 40k for lesbians. The first book is an intricate, locked-room mystery with a wide cast of characters that takes place on a mysterious planet in a far-future version of our solar system, where an Emperor known as the Necrolord Prime has resurrected the universe after an unknown catastrophic event. 10,000 years later, this has resulted in an Empire of necromancers and the planets they seek to conquer, along with decaying aristocratic houses. The second book in the trilogy is impossible to summarize without spoiling the first book, but it’s even better and you’ll read it immediately after finishing Gideon the Ninth, anyway. The third book has unfortunately been postponed to 2022, something I try not to think about.
Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout
Fer-de-Lance is the first book in a 33-novel detective series by Rex Stout. It was published in 1934, and the final Nero Wolfe mystery was published in 1975. The series features a brilliant but eccentric detective, Nero Wolfe, who lives in a brownstone in NYC and refuses to leave his home on principle, preferring instead to eat meals made by his personal chef and spending hours a day tending to his collection of thousands of orchids. To conduct his detective work, he relies on a confidential assistant, a young wise-cracker named Archie Goodwin, whose job is to do the legwork and fetch witnesses, experts, and run errands for Wolfe. These books are essentially comfort reads. They usually follow the same pattern, but what sets each one apart is the quality of the banter between Archie and Wolfe and the delight of reading something so firmly grounded in the period: the very first scene of the books deals with Wolfe’s distaste for bootlegger beer. As the series goes on, the times change around Archie and Wolfe, but the heart of the series never does: their deep respect and rapport with one another.
The Tyrant Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
I am on a lifelong mission to get people to read this series. The Baru Cormorant books are one of the most skillful, nuanced, and thoughtful explorations of empire in science-fiction/fantasy out there. After the brutal Empire of Masks colonizes Baru Cormorant’s home island, she vows revenge. The form her revenge takes is by turning herself into one of the Empire’s finest subjects and eventual agents, all with the goal of freeing her homeland. But how far can she go and how many people can she betray in service of this goal without crossing the line into collaborator? Will she ever be able to undo imperial expansion as just one person, or is she doomed from the start? Dickinson will break your heart over and over in this series. It’s not for the faint of heart—the first two books are relentlessly bleak. But the third book is where Baru truly shines and the series comes to a point where the reader can be satisfied with Dickinson’s answers to some extremely complex questions. Dickinson is frank with readers in the afterword to the third book: he struggles with depression and is unsure if the series will continue. However, the third book is enough of an answer to the question of the series that readers will be satisfied with it even if the fourth book never arrives. And his frankness with readers (I have corresponded with him on the Something Awful forums) is refreshing.