I read a lot of books in 2020. Something about a global pandemic and living in Melbourne meant that I spent most of the year in my apartment reading. My usual goal is to read a book a week, but this year I smashed it, reading 55 books.
And every year, I post about my favourite books. If you’ve read this post in previous years, my usual disclaimer applies – these books were not all published in 2020, but a lot of them were. If you’d like to see my year in books, check out my Goodreads profile – and while you’re there, add me as a friend!
What did I read in 2020?
I read a lot of Australian fiction and non-fiction this year, as I coordinated Grattan Institute’s annual Summer Reading List for the Prime Minister. There were some very good Australian books published this year, some of which even made my list. I also got to read two Aboriginal poetry books, which were out of my usual reading genres, but something I enjoyed and will continue to read going forward.
I also tried to read most of the Hugo voting packet and make an effort with voting this year. I didn’t get through all the books and stories, but I got through some.
2020 was a tough year for everyone, and my reading habits ebbed and flowed. Some weeks I would read copiously, other times I would go without reading for days. There were very few books which truly impressed me this year, but here are the best of the best.
The best books I read in 2020
I read The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong as part of a reading challenge I set up to support Victorian bookstores during lockdown. I’d had this on my shelf for a couple of years since I got it signed by Jock at Noir at the Bar. And boy, was I sorry I’d waited this long to read the book.
The Rules of Backyard Cricket follows the rising cricket careers of the Keefe brothers – larrikin Darren, and his more serious older brother Wally. As their fortunes rise, so does Darren’s involvement in the criminal underworld, and his inability to take responsibility for anything slowly destroys his life.
I’ve long thought that Australian crime fiction is some of the best in the world, and this is no exception. It’s the best book I’ve read which disassembles the Australian male identity and its ties to sporting culture, as well as the power of sporting heroes, especially when they fall.
The Animals in That Country is a rare beast, literary speculative fiction that pushes the boundaries of what science fiction can be. And while the book takes its name from an Atwood poem, comparisons to Margaret Atwood are in this case justified. Added to that, it’s an Australian novel which makes it important reading for anyone interested in antipodean SF.
Jean is not your usual protagonist – she’s an aggro, sweary gran who drinks too much. But when zooflu, a strangely prescient illness of pandemic proportions, causes the infected to talk to animals, she must go on a road trip to rescue her granddaughter. Dr Doolittle this ain’t. The animals talk almost in poetry, and it’s understandable why so many people go mad when they commune with the animals. Unforgettable imagery and sharp language make this a compelling read.
I’ve been working my way through the audiobooks of the Witcher series, which has one of the best narrators I’ve ever heard. Toss a coin to Peter Kenny – if you haven’t listened to his narration, it’s well worth the audio edition. His Geralt is 10/10, his mermaid is 100/10 and his Geralt speaking mermaid is 1000/10.
Contained within are some of the best fantasy short stories I’ve ever read, particularly the namesake, Sword of Destiny. Sapkowski’s great skill lies in both characterisation through dialogue, and the management of conflicting and believable desires within the space of a short story. Those who have played the video games will know that Geralt is often faced with impossible choices, where what seems to be a good decision turns out to be terrible. Plus, Dandelion (Jaskier for those more familiar with the TV show).
I felt that the relationship between Ciri and Geralt that was developed through these stories really hit home emotionally, far more than any other media. Highly recommended.
I’ve written more extensively on Fire Front over at the Guardian here, but for me, this book is compulsory reading for all Australians. It’s an exceptional poetry anthology of Indigenous work, including poems, songs, and oral storytelling, coupled with essays on each section. For many of the songs, I played the music while reading through the words. While it’s a short book, take the time to process the meaning behind the poetry – it’s both a rewarding and challenging book, especially for white readers.
Most entertaining books
I’ve always included a most entertaining books section, simply because we all need a bit of fun on our holiday break!
It’s a rare treat when fantasy authors nail a cross-genre mystery – too often they rely on noir tropes such as femme fatales and hard-boiled gumshoes. Not so Titanshade. Dan Stout has written a compelling fantasy noir, a story with shades of Ellroy, Hammett, Chinatown and There Will Be Blood.
Set in the oil boomtown of Titanshade, the books follow the homicide investigations of Carter, a classic jaded cop with a heart of gold. He’s partnered with a fresh recruit – a Mollenkampi named Ajax. And in case you’re wondering what a Mollenkampi is, check out the cover… they have mandibles.
Stout nails the voice of Carter; he thinks like a cop, noticing many details in mannerisms, and has a fantastic black humour which made me laugh out loud frequently. I also liked how Stout drew down on these details in describing the world. The pacing doesn’t let up, and while there are moments enough for reflection on Carter’s history and character, there’s something happening in every chapter.
I finally got around to the phenomenon that is Red, White & Royal Blue when I was in a very dark place this year, and it was everything that it is promised and more. I read it in 24 hours, and now I want to go read it again.
From Cakegate to the touching ending, this is a romance novel about finding your person, even if they are the Prince of England, and you’re the son of the POTUS. If you haven’t read it already, run, don’t walk, and get yourself a copy.
Best Short Fiction
I also read a lot of short stories, as I’m trying to learn more about what makes a short story work.
Thematically, I did a review of several short stories on memory as research for a story I’d like to write. Of these, the two stand outs were Ted Chiang’s The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling from his collection Exhalation (no surprise there) and Darryl Gregory’s Second Person, Present Tense.
As part of the Hugo voting packet, I loved Siobhan Carroll’s For He Can Creep. Being a cat owner with a love of historical fiction, it was perfection, and you can read it for free online.
I read three excellent short story collections – Collision by J.S. Breukelaar, a collection of weird fiction tales, Neon Leviathan by T.R. Napper, a fascinating collection of Australian cyberpunk stories, and of course, Sword of Destiny, which was one of my favourite books this year. All of which are highly recommended.
I tapered off the year with the annual Ellen Datlow anthology, The Best Horror of the Year, and out of all the stories, I was particularly drawn to The Senior Girls Bayonet Drill Team by Joe R. Lansdale, Playscape by Diana Peterfreund, and Adrenaline Junkies by Ray Cluley.
Next year I’ll be reading a lot more non-fiction, as I’m researching a new book. Of the non-fiction I’ve read this year, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff definitely merits a mention, but because I’m only part-way through, it’s likely to be on next year’s list. Same goes for Edward Snowden’s surprisingly touching autobiography Permanent Record.
I also caught up on my classic photographic essays, On Photography by Susan Sontag, and Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. Needless to say, they’re classics for a reason.
What will I read in 2021?
Next year (tomorrow) I’ll be looking forward to getting back into more fantasy and digging through my TBR pile, which has gone lamented after doing so much reading for work. I’m also reading a lot of tech and cyberpunk for my new book, which should keep me busy for the first three months. I’m also going to catch up on a few newer releases from my favourite authors, like the new V.E. Schwab and Naomi Novik novels, and Sam Hawke’s follow up to City of Lies, Hollow Empire.
Goodbye 2020 and good riddance, I say. Bring on 2021 and a new year of good reading.
Which books did you love in 2020? Let me know in the comments below.