Best Reading of 2020

I have read 28 books in 2020, a mix of non-fiction, graphic novels, science fiction, crime and social drama. Five of these were published this year, while most were published within the past few years and a few are classics several decades old that I’ve only got around to reading now.

The five books from 2020 were all quite good and worth mentioning:

  • The Last Emperox by John Scalzi: This is the third and highly satisfying conclusion to the action-packed “The Interdependency” space opera trilogy which I’ve briefly referred to in a post a year ago. In the far future, the human race has built a galaxy-spanning empire called The Interdependency, with faster-than-light travel made possible through a mysterious network of wormholes called The Flow. The various human colonies are sustained by intergalactic trade which is controlled by a number of Houses (not dissimilar to those in Frank Herbert’s Dune series), all under the rule of a benevolent Emperor. When the Flow pathways start collapsing one by one for reasons unknown, it sets off a series of political machinations, as one of the Houses (House Nohamapetan) tries to overthrow the Emperor and monopolize whatever resources it can. Through the first two books, I became highly invested in the lead characters – the recently crowned Emperox Grayland II, Lord Marce Claremont, the son of the scientist who predicted the collapse of the Flow, and Lady Kiva Lagos, the foul-mouthed but brilliant member of House Lagos, which is loyal to the throne. Together, these three must foil House Nohamapetan and save the empire!
  • The End of October by Lawrence Wright: Widely reviewed when it came out in April, due to the uncanny similarities with the ongoing global Covid pandemic, Pulitzer-winning author Lawrence Wright’s fast-paced global thriller contains many plot points that will seem all too familiar to us today, although Wright started work on the novel well before the pandemic hit. The factual, journalistic writing style is very accessible, and will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed books by Frederick Forsyth, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown or Tom Clancy. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Netflix or a major studio picked up the rights to the book, although I suspect no one will be in the mood to see something so close to reality for some time yet.
  • Afterland by Lauren Beukes: This is South African writer Lauren Beukes’ fifth novel, and continues her run of speculative fiction, which has previously covered the sub-genres of time-travel, cyberpunk and contemporary magic. Afterland depicts a world three years into a pandemic which has wiped out virtually all men (a very similar premise to the graphic novel series Y: The Last Man). The few remaining human males are kept in government facilities as a precious resource, for experimentation and of course, procreation. The novel focuses on a 12-year-old boy Miles and the desperate efforts of his mother Cole to keep him out of the hands of the US government and gain safe passage to the mother’s native South Africa. The story is primarily written as a road trip/thriller, but Ms. Beukes uses the narrative to shine a light on gender dynamics, specifically the psyche of this preteen boy forced to disguise and behave as a girl, having to get away with the subterfuge while constantly surrounded by women.
  • The New Wilderness by Diane Cook: This is Ms. Cook’s debut novel (she had previously published a collection of short stories) and was long-listed for the Booker Prize this year. In the near future, nearly all available land has been urbanized and people live in polluted cities. One small community is given permission by the government to participate in an experimental project, living a nomadic life in the last available stretch of wilderness, with strict rules in place to minimize the impact of human habitation on the pristine land. The story chronicles the evolving social dynamics within this community, as experienced by one of the families, comprising a woman Bea, her partner Glen (one of the originators of the project) and her young daughter Agnes. It is a depressingly realistic depiction of how social niceties progressively disintegrate when people are faced with the harsh realities of survival and scarcity. If ever we needed encouragement to preserve our current way of living through sustainable practices, this story should do the trick!
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: I am a big fan of Ms. Clarke’s debut novel from 2004, the dark and extraordinarily inventive, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This year she released her second novel, Piranesi, another work of astonishing creativity and world-building. The novel is named for its title character, and is presented as a series of Piranesi’s diary entries over a period of years, while living in a place called The House. There is only one other person in the House, who Piranesi refers to as the Other. Like peeling the layers off an onion, the narrative slowly reveals who Piranesi is, and how he came to be in the House. I couldn’t say more without giving away it’s extraordinary plot. Unlike Ms. Clarke’s first novel which was a brick at 782 pages, this is a brisk read of only 272 pages. I cannot recommend this novel enough, especially for fans of fantasy/speculative fiction.
Piranesi (2020), a novel by Susanna Clarke

Among the other books I read, the four non-fiction books were all outstanding:

  • The Body by Bill Bryson (2019): I have long been a fan of Bill Bryson’s travelogues and memoirs since I first read A Walk In The Woods in 1998, but hadn’t read anything of his since 2007. The Body is a remarkable guided tour of the human body that is equally informative and entertaining.
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2015): Originally published in German, this is an insightful book based on Mr. Wohlleben’s observations of trees and forest ecologies, accumulated during his career as a forest ranger/manager. This is a fascinating read for any lover of nature who wants to know more about the synergy that exists among different types of trees and between trees and other living beings in the forest. There’s a strong link between this book and a novel I read this year, Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-prize winning The Overstory (which is an amazing work of fiction, but I haven’t included in this list of my favourite books of the year as it was just a little too abstruse for me).
  • The Seine: The River That Made Paris by Elaine Sciolino (2019): Journalist and author, Elaine Sciolino’s loving ode to the river Seine is a true delight, deftly weaving together information about the history, geography, food and commerce of Paris and other parts of France through which the Seine flows. This fascinating book describes how the Seine has played a role in the evolution of the French people and during the same time, how the people living on its banks have literally changed the course and nature of the river.
  • Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light by Mort Rosenblum (2006): In Ms. Sciolino’s book about the Seine, she makes a reference to Parisian chocolatiers and in that context, to Mort Rosenblum’s book on chocolate. Naturally, that became the very next book I read! Although less structured and more subjective than the book on the Seine, it was no less informative and entertaining. Rosenblum takes us back to the history of chocolate as a highly valued ceremonial drink among the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec cultures of Mesoamerica, to its “discovery” by Europeans in the 16th century and subsequent transformation over the next three centuries to the globally popular confectionery product it is today. He also throws light on the sad plight of many cacao growers in Latin America and West Africa, who earn a pittance in comparison with the prices commanded by the finished product around the world.

And that brings me finally to the notable books of fiction I read this year, but not published in 2020:

  • The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (1956/57): Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 and this multi-generational story of an upper middle class Cairene family during the period between the two World Wars is perhaps his best-known work. The first book in particular, Palace Walk, is virtually unputdownable, so fascinating is the story of respected merchant Al-Sayyid Ahmad ‘Abd al-Jawad and his family who live in central Cairo. Al-Sayyid Ahmad lives two lives; a pious but tyrannical patriarch at home, a beloved companion and voracious lover when out in the evenings with his clique of friends and courtesans. So imposing is Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s character in Palace Walk that the lives of his sons and grandsons pale in comparison in the subsequent books. In particular, I found the long conversational passages involving religion and politics among the youngsters of the al-Jawad family to be quite tedious. Nevertheless, taken together, the books are full of melodrama, humour, irony, pathos and tragedy, providing an unvarnished insight into the cultural, political and religious topography of Cairene society in the early 20th century. An interesting bit of trivia – the books were translated into English only in 1990, and the editor assigned by the publisher Doubleday for the translation was none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
  • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (2013): I’ve written a full review of this book soon after I read it in April this year. There’s no doubt this will remain one of the best works of fiction I have ever read.
  • In The Market for Murder by T.E.Kinsey (2016): This is the second of the Lady Hardcastle Mysteries that I’m reading and I’m certain it won’t be the last. British author Tim Kinsey has so far written seven of these ‘light-hearted’ murder mysteries featuring Lady Emily Hardcastle and her intrepid maid/assistant Florence Armstrong, set in the early 1900’s. Having served the British government in some secretive capacity abroad, Lady Hardcastle rents a cottage in the country and settles down for a quiet life. But her natural intelligence and sense of adventure draw her into helping the local police when a serious crime is committed. I love these “countryside” crime stories, like James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries and Louise Penny’s series of 16 novels involving Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Enjoying these stories does require some suspension of disbelief as it’s quite difficult to imagine such a high murder rate in these small villages!
  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (2018): This novel is the second work of fiction I’ve encountered in the past year which presents an alternate history of the US space program in which women play a much more significant role – the other is the web series For All Mankind on Apple TV+. The premise of Ms. Kowal’s novel is much more extreme – in 1952, a meteorite smashes into the coast off Washington DC resulting in calamitous loss of life, but also triggering an extinction event predicted to take place over the next 50 years, due to the greenhouse effect caused by the vaporization of millions of tons of water. This threat results in a global effort to accelerate the colonization of outer space. After initial resistance, women are grudgingly accepted into the astronaut corps and the novel chronicles the experiences of mathematician and pilot Dr. Elma York as she becomes a “Lady Astronaut”. Dr. York is a very human protagonist, determined, capable and intelligent, but not heroic in the conventional sense. Eventually, circumstances and her own sense of obligation to humanity, cause her to take on increasingly significant roles in the International Aerospace Coalition. Ms. Kowal has written one short story and three novels in the Lady Astronaut series and I’ve already started on the sequel, The Fated Sky.

That concludes a rundown of the best books I’ve read in the past year; there’s something for every interest – space opera, murder mystery, dystopian, alternative history, fantasy, family drama and non-fiction.

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