Season’s Readings everyone! Well, 2020 has been quite a year, and not simply in terms of fiction and non-fiction titles. With the continuing pandemic, the natural disasters, and the civil and political unrest, the need for diversion and windows into differing perspectives has never been more important. I feel honored to share with you the books that I feel are the most remarkable books published in 2020. I’m hopeful that these books will, as they did for me, not only provide the ability to take a respite from reality, but also understand our world better, both in how we choose to see it and how it is experienced differently by others.
As I’ve done the last few years, I’ve listed these books in alphabetical order, by title, until the last entry, which is, in my opinion, the best book I’ve read in 2020. Also, as in previous years, you will find interviews with the authors of many of these titles on the LAPL Blog and more in-depth reviews on LAPL Reads, which I hope to be able to continue to provide in 2021. For now, stay safe and be well.
N.K. Jemisin is a multiple award-winning speculative fiction writer. Currently, she resides in Brooklyn, New York, and, as evidenced by her new novel, The City We Became, she LOVES the “Big Apple”.
In The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin has written a love letter to New York City. It is a portrait of one of the world’s most dynamic and exciting locations, and Jemisin takes the time to describe the cultures and quirks present in each borough, providing a glimpse into not only what makes each one a unique community but how they all work together to make New York the city that it is as she describes how the city itself “evolves” into a living entity.
Readers of Jemisin’s earlier works will want to read this new novel. And The City We Became may be a wonderful entry point for those unfamiliar with her earlier novels. But both groups should be warned: reading The City We Became very well may leave you wanting to take a trip to New York to experience the city described for yourselves when that becomes possible.
Dr. Kathryn Harkup, a UK based scientist and the author of A is for Arsenic and Making the Monster, returns with a fascinating look at Shakespeare’s life, the world in which he lived and wrote, and the many deaths he created for his plays. Harkup examines, from a scientific perspective, the poisons, potions, bites, and wounds Shakespeare unleashed upon his characters. The result is a fascinating, informative, and enjoyable read.
In The Devil and the Dark Water, Stuart Turton, author of 2018’s excellent The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, presents readers with a decidedly different, and yet equally challenging, mystery to solve. Except for a few occurrences, everything takes place on board a 17th century sailing ship, providing a claustrophobic environment for the events to unfold. The mystery presented is engrossing. It incorporates superstition, hidden identities, political and societal brinksmanship, and, lusts of all kinds, including riches, power, and revenge.
The Devil and the Dark Water is an absorbing tale that will keep readers guessing to the very last page.
What if Sasquatch is real? What if there actually is a large, hair-covered hominid that lives in the undeveloped areas of the Pacific Northwest and is occasionally sighted by unsuspecting humans? In Devolution, Max Brooks, author of 2006’s World War Z, which became a world-wide phenomenon, returns with a chilling and nerve-wracking read. As the novel progresses, and threats are increased, readers will continually wonder how a group of ill-prepared individuals will deal with the challenges with which they are faced, culminating in the revelation that they are not alone in their forest! The utilization of the Bigfoot/Sasquatch legend is brilliant and seemingly long overdue. The attacks by the Sasquatch are brutal and Brooks leaves little to the imagination, but does not glorify the violence.
Devolution is a brilliant, thought provoking and terror-inducing read.
In Eight Perfect Murders, author Peter Swanson pays homage to the classic mystery literature he uses as a foundation for his clever and compelling new crime novel. The characters are likable, if not reliable, and the circumstances, a serial killer using a book list from an old blog post as a blueprint for murder, is simultaneously old school and contemporary. Swanson paces the novel perfectly, revealing just enough information about the crimes and characters to keep the plot moving along with just the right amount of jolts to derail speculations about “whodunit.” Eight Perfect Murders is an intriguing puzzle of a novel.
In Hella, David Gerrold takes readers on an exploration of discovery, both external and internal. He creates a fantastic world, filled with longer days, extraordinary landscapes and dinosaur-like creatures. Imagine if the films of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, and Peter Jackson, among others, were translated into a world where the fantastic creatures presented were scientifically accurate and their existence made sense in their ecology. Gerrold also comments on a wide range of contemporary topics, including politics, wealth inequalities, the ways that privilege manifests and is culturally transmitted generationally, and the fluidity of gender and sexuality if it is free from our cultural constructs.
Hella is a novel that is exciting, infuriating, adventurous, wondrous and romantic. It shows us the absolute depths of the myopia to which we can sink and the type of people that most aspire to be. Hella is an adventure in every sense of the word.
In her debut novel, Natalie Zina Walschots takes a critical look at the concepts of heroes and villains, and how they are wielded in our culture. Simultaneously, like the greatest of the graphic novels that surely were an inspiration, she also comments on contemporary cultural issues like the plight of the temporary worker (and others who are under-employed with low pay, no benefits, and little to no security in the positions they hold, which can be, and often are, eliminated in a moment). However, Walschots IS dealing with superheroes and villains, so all of this is done with a wink, a nudge, and a wicked sense of humor.
Emily Levesque, a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, recounts her pursuit from a young age to become an astronomer. She also describes the challenges she and her colleagues have faced and overcome to spend the night observing at telescopes all over the world. These challenges include, but are not limited to, working through the night from sunset to sunrise, long, arduous travel to remote locations, the potential for altitude sickness, inclement weather, which can ruin even the best laid plans, and the local residents (both human and animal) who can interfere with observatory data collection in any number of surprising ways.
The Last Stargazers also provides readers with a recent history of astronomy, the technological developments that have advanced our study of the night sky and how those same technologies may have dire effects on the field as capabilities increase commensurately as funding disappears forcing difficult, and often unnecessary, choices.
The Last Stargazers is engaging, personal and personable, sprinkled with fascinating science and an enticing look at a field about which most people know little or nothing. Levesque clearly intended it to be a fun read, noting one of her motivations was to share “the quirks and hijinks and wacky stories that come from the odd type of work we do.” The Last Stargazers is an unqualified success.
Jody Armour is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California. He studies issues of race and legal decision-making as well as torts and tort reform movements. He also studies and teaches on the intersections of language, the law and ethics. His latest book confronts directly law enforcement and our legal system’s failures and culpabilities in the mass incarceration of people of color.
In N*gga Theory—how he refers to his work in Critical Race Theory and the title of his new book—Armour systematically identifies and dismantles how our legal system is supposed to work, based on the founding principles upon which our system of jurisprudence is based, and illustrates how those principles are unequally distributed to, and enacted upon, people of color. His arguments, supported by previous legal precedents and the work and results of other researchers, are challenging, compelling, and, in many cases, impossible to ignore.
As our culture struggles with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, to name only a few, and people continue to protest for change and question their own culpability in systemic racism, N*gga Theory could not be more timely. Armour has done the work and given us his findings. His work deserves to be read, shared, and discussed. What we choose to do with it is up to us.
In Pretty as a Picture, Elizabeth Little provides readers with an enjoyable, top notch mystery, focused on a 25 year old unsolved murder that is the subject of a new motion picture, along with a skewering of the entertainment industry.
The true star of Little’s novel is Marissa Dahl, a film editor who has worked primarily with her graduate school roommate who is now an up and coming film director. Marissa is simultaneously brilliant and oftentimes plagued with debilitating self-doubt. She has a near encyclopedic knowledge of film and film history and claims that she processes her own emotions in the language of film. The result is a continuing series of references, some direct and some very subtle, to films from the entire range of motion picture history.
The plot is complex with clues, and red herrings, sprinkled throughout the continued attempts to get the production back on track. The conclusion is both surprising and satisfying.
Pretty as a Picture is a marvelous read for both mystery and film fans alike.
In Ring Shout, P. Djeli Clark, author of the excellent The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, tells a story that is simultaneously fantastic and firmly rooted in terrible truth.
Ring Shout is a bit difficult to classify. It is a bit of history, relaying a description of the US south in the early 1920s, complete with bootlegging and the first blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation. It is a bit of a window into the lives of African Americans at that time in our history, with descriptions of their lives, their vibrant cultures, Gullah, Creole, and others, and the challenges and inequities that governed their lives then (and now). Woven through all of this, is an element of the fantastic, with alternate dimensions, those who wish to help, monsters intent on harm and a champion to deliver the world from that harm.
P. Djeli Clark is a fantasy writer to watch and Ring Shout is a must read.
In Riot Baby, Tochi Onyebuchi provides an unflinching and unvarnished look at life for people of color in the US with just a touch of fantasy. While there are brief sojourns to the past, the novella primarily takes place within the last three decades and moves briefly in the near future. Instead of music, television or other cultural references, Onyebuchi frequently uses the death of yet another young black man at the hands of those charged with their, and our, protection to let readers know the year they have moved into (it is both a shocking and sobering reminder of the number of these deaths that have happened, and continue to happen, and of how long this has been occurring).
Riot Baby is a difficult but powerful read. It is grim and, at times, tragic, but it also gives voice to a rage that, as history illustrates, silencing and/or repressing will get us nowhere. It reminds us of the inequities that must be addressed before we can begin taking the steps to create a better world for everyone. This is a journey worth taking.
"The old gods may be great, but they are neither kind nor merciful. They are fickle, unsteady as moonlight on water, or shadows in a storm. If you insist on calling them, take heed: be careful what you ask for, be willing to pay the price. And no matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark."
In The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, V.E. Schwab, the author of Vicious ,Vengeful, and The Darker Shades of Magic series, weaves a tale that, at first glance, seems to be simultaneously cautionary and encouraging. But, as the story unfolds, readers may find themselves questioning what they thought they knew when they started the novel. Schwab tells the story of a young woman, Adeline LaRue, who, when faced with being forced into an unwanted marriage, strikes a deal with “the devil.” Of course, the deal is not exactly what she thought it would be, and the remainder of the novel follows Adeline, who claims the name Addie, as she lives her life according to the terms of the deal. Culturally, we have all been told that Faustian bargains, like the one Adeline makes with the Darkness, are wrong. They are bad and no good can come from them. In Schwab’s deft reworking of this cultural myth, she paints a picture of a woman who strikes such a bargain and, through her own cunning and strength of will, molds the bargain into mostly what she wanted. Addie has the time to explore, live, learn, and experience all of what the world has to offer. To do so, she makes sacrifices, but what gains come with no costs? Schwab makes the deal, Addie’s deal, seem workable and livable.
The real emphasis of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is an encouragement to live life to the absolute fullest and fill every moment with as much as possible. While this may seem ironic, that a woman with limitless time provides the exhortation to live each moment as well as possible, one only has to remember the original incentive for Addie’s bargain: the time and freedom to explore the world. Reading the novel during the global pandemic, when we are all forced to live our lives with unwanted restrictions, we can all take a lesson from Addie (and Schwab) to live each and every moment as well as we can.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is Schwab’s strongest work yet and given her earlier novels, that is really saying something! It is also my favorite book of the year and I’m hoping it will become a favorite for you as well.