Here’s an overview of the books I’ve read in 2020. This is not a countdown, nor is it a series of reviews. Just some thoughts on the books I’ve read over the course of the last bizarre 12 months in chronological order.
Just a quick note — despite all the apparent free time we’ve all had this year due to a certain development, I have actually read fewer books this year than usual. It’s probably because I’ve spent more time wondering what the hell was going on than sitting down to read.
One final quick note — perhaps again due to the weird circumstances we’ve all found ourselves in, this is probably the ‘worst’ year in my book choices. Make of that what you will.
Preamble over, let’s get to it.
The Last Wish (Andrzej Sapkowski)
I got on the Witcher bandwagon in light of the Netflix series and thought I’d give this a go. I’d never (and still haven’t) played any of the games either. As a complete noob in this universe, I found myself quite lost in the beginning, but slowly got used to its style. Not sure I’m itching to read the further installments, but I’m sure I’ll pick them up at some point.
Serotonin (Michel Houellebecq)
Despite the fact that I opposed pretty much everything about Houellebecq’s politics, I can’t help but be in awe of his writing. He’s never subtle, but there is a violent and virulent energy to his novels that make them compelling reads. His latest novel, however, was quite tame by comparison and its story of a man slowly accepting his demise wasn’t as engrossing. Having said that, it is still an uncanny look in contemporary life (whether I agree with it or not).
The Last Days of New Paris (China Miéville)
The latest novella by the king of the weird is a stunning piece of concept — an alternate universe where the WWII is still raging on and Paris is haunted by the physical manifestations of surrealist art. It’s bizarre, touching, and lightly humorous as usual. The ending was a bit too pale in comparison to the rest of it. Perhaps I wanted to read more.
The Secret Commonwealth (Philip Pullman)
The second book in The Book of Dust is, to be quite honest, a huge disappointment. Seemingly in love with the characters, it’s a directionless, plodding yarn that doesn’t know how to fill its wonderfully realised context. It’s sad to see one of my all-time favourite literary characters losing all of the qualities that made her such a compelling protagonist to become a listless fodder for a non-plot.
The Killing Moon (N. K. Jemisin)
I was in search for a new fantasy series to immerse myself and the Dreamblood sounded like a good one. This first book in the duology has an interesting concept with some larger-than-life characters. However, it felt a little too claustrophobic in its exploration of its world. Also, I think there is far too much emphasis on the mythology that underlines it all that the story suffers greatly (more of which later on).
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (Neal Stephenson & Nicola Galland)
Neal Stephenson is an author I love to hate and this is the second novel I’ve read by him co-authored with somebody else. It’s a time travel novel that involves secret government agencies, martial arts, prostitutes from Ye Olde Englande, and many dead-ends. Sadly the story just runs out of steam about a third of the way in. This might be due to my general antipathy for epistolary fiction as the form distracts from content.
The Collector (John Fowles)
Finally got round to this and similar to my previous forays into John Fowles’s work, I got extremely bored. Though the writing is crisp, it felt extremely superficial despite its first-person narrative of a kidnapping and mental and physical torture of a young woman. The structure made it all the more insufferable. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I didn’t like it — it’s meant to be the favourite book of many serial killers after all.
Forty Signs of Rain (Kim Stanley Robinson)
The first book in Robinson’s Science in the Capital series, this environmental disaster novel is more interesting for its subject matter than the plot itself. The disaster wasn’t really looming as most of the characters just went by their daily lives, but I guess that’s the whole idea. The impending doom we’ve created for ourselves will hit us without us realising.
The Three-Body Problem (Liu Cixin)
A wonderful science fiction novel that has more brains than most, this was such a brilliant read that involves computer simulations, intergalactic travel, unsolvable orbital mechanics, and the end of the world. It’s the first in a trilogy, so I’m looking forward to exploring it further … possibly choosing to overlook its author’s apparently controversial political opinions.
Skyward (Brandon Sanderson)
The first book in this young adult duology, this was without doubt the best fiction book I’ve read all year. It’s a story about a teenage girl who wants to become a fighter pilot to help save her people and also to come out of the dark shadow her father cast upon her. Brandon Sanderson is my favourite fantasy author and this new (at least for me) chapter in his Cosmere was really something.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (Robert A. Heinlein)
A science fiction classic off the bucket list, this was more interesting in style than content for me. The slightly modified ‘future’ language in which it was written really added to its vision of a colony gone bad on the Moon. Though I get the political message behind it, I didn’t feel for any of the characters. And I also get why it was (and still is) considered a classic.
The Shadowed Sun (N. K. Jemisin)
I read virtually every book I start all the way through, even if it feels like a waste of time. This one, unfortunately, will be one of the infamous ones where I had to give up. Even though the first book piqued my interest in this new world (see The Killing Moon above), there was nothing offered here to justify my time. And I feel bad about it, but what can you do?
A Sultan in Palermo (Tariq Ali)
The fourth book in the Islam Quintet, this is slightly lighter than the previous three I’ve read, but still took me only a few hours because I couldn’t put it down. It takes place in Palermo of the 11th century where two seemingly contrasting religions co-exist, but the precarious balance is about to shift. How it transitions from historical intrigue to heartwarming family drama in the final third is pure genius.
How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy (Julian Baggini)
A loose census of non-Western philosophy, this is intended to shed light on concepts and thinkers mostly overlooked in the West. However, the majority of it still seemed to be framed from a Western perspective and that, for me, diluted its impact somewhat. Still some very interesting insights, especially considering how starkly different the East and the West handled the pandemic. Baggini, in more than one place, inadverdently foresees 2020’s main event.
What is Populism? (Jan-Werner Müller)
Does exactly what it says on the tin, this brief essay outlines what populism is and shows its real-life manifestations all around us. It’s a clickbait topic, considering the current political climate, but has plenty of things to say about what’s going on and why it’s going on. And why it’ll happen again and again.
Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea (Gregory Claeys)
An exploration of the idea of Utopia through the ages, in literature, science, politics, and economics. There were some really interesting bits of history I wasn’t aware of here. But did it really enlighten me more about Utopia as a concept? Probably not.
The People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations Are Laying the Foundations for Socialism (Leigh Phillips & Michal Rozworski)
Strangely enough, the title of the book is probably longer than the section about Walmart. Still, once you put aside that disappointment, it’s a rather fascinating read (though I had to question a few stretches here and there). Long story short, capitalism becomes so capitalistic that it becomes socialist. Or something like that.
Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People (Julia Boyd)
This was a great read indeed. We’ve heard enough about how the locals didn’t foresee what was about to hit them in 1930s Germany. Or what the governments of the world failed to see. But what did ordinary non-Germans make of it all? The answer, sadly, is the same. But this review of letters, interviews, and diaries is still a fascinating view of people’s inability to see the obvious around them.
Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World (Alastair Bonnett)
This would be the perfect book for a geography enthusiast like me and there were quite a few of these places that I hadn’t heard before. It covers the entire world with a broad stroke, but that meant it felt a little too light. Perhaps that’s a good thing — I could explore these further. So, all in all, a bit of a tease.
Heineken in Africa: Multinational Unleashed (Olivier van Beemen)
There is nothing new here: a massive Western corporation is using nefarious methods to expand its business to the detriment of the local populace. However, now I know how big beer consumption is in Africa. And it gave me further ammunition to hate on Heineken.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Bill Bryson)
What can I say about a Bill Bryson book that hasn’t been said before? It’s the same wit, storytelling nous, and trove of amazing factoids. Take care of your bodies, people. They are wonderful machines.
Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (Brian Greene)
This was the most melancholic book from Brian Greene (not surprising when you look at its title) and unlike his previous work, I really struggled to get my head around as to what this was about—entropy, yes, but it reads more metaphysical than that. I think there appears to be more theoretical musings here than pure, hard science fact. It’s still a purely scientific work, of course, but it feels less so somehow.
The Witches: Salem, 1692 (Stacy Schiff)
Less a historical census than I was expecting, this is more like a daytime TV pseudo-documentary. It jumps back and forth between historical characters like Tarantino on acid and it feels like a novelisation of events that … well, don’t feel like events. By the end of it I felt like I knew far less about the Salem witch trials than before.
Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (Norman Davies)
I love hidden histories and I thought this would be a fascinating read about little-known political entities of Europe. It turned out to be a very glossed over namechecking of states that no longer exist. And some of them aren’t quite as half-forgotten.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
This could have been a blog post. Or a New Yorker article. Its idea that improbabilities happen more often than we think is fascinating. But not sure I got more out of it after reading the introduction. Still, Taleb has a very quirky writing style and his varied professional background makes for some interesting tidbits.
The Map of Knowledge: How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found: A History in Seven Cities
So good it has two colons in the title! Joking aside, this was a great book following the writings of Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy across the Mediterranean and the Middle East through history. It also turned out to be a complementary piece to A Sultan in Palermo (see above).
The Secret Lives of Colour (Kassia St. Clair)
We go through a journey of a selection of colours: their origins, various uses in history and in contemporary society, and, occasionally, what they mean. A patchy collection of articles, the really fascinating bits were few and far between. Don’t expect a theory of colour, but rather an opportunity for some trivia knowledge.
Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors (Matt Parker)
Mathematics is everywhere, of course, and so it’s prone to be done wrongly on many occasions. Some of these, it turns out, can be catastrophic. Some turn out to be humourous. And some could have been far worse. It’s a fun read that should either put you in existential dread or be thankful that some people know what they’re doing. Some.
New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop (Fatima Bhutto)
Part light sociological study, part glossy magazine article (more of the latter, unfortunately), this was an uneven foray into three of the biggest mass-production cultural phenomena in the world. If you’re after real insights, look elsewhere. Especially for K-Pop as it’s relegated to an honourable mention in the epilogue only.