Best of 2020 | Books

Like most people I spent a lot of time reading this year, even though it was hard to concentrate at times. It felt like I read an awful lot, but struggled to remember what I had actually read; only the most intense and exciting stuff stuck in my head.

I walked past County Hall last week, and the whole building was deserted except for emergency medical tents set up in the car park as a walk through test site. It looked a lot like the start of a 1970s BBC dystopian sci-fi show, the kind that ends with middle class people in bad jumpers arguing about who gets the last potato. On the news a group of rich English holiday makers staged an escape from an expensive ski resort to avoid a lockdown. A Government Minister declined to condemn them, while trying to explain why he had handed out lucrative contracts to his mates.

No surprise that there is quite a bit of sci-fi and weird fiction on this years list.

Patient X, David Peace.

A biography of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Japan’s master of weird fiction and author of Rashomon. I love Akutagawa and I love Peace, so a big hit for me. Fab fact – Rashomon was the first story I actually read in Japanese.

William Gibson, The Peripheral

The 2nd part of Gibsons near future trilogy. Set in 2 parallel universes – one in which Trump lost and Brexit didn’t happen, the other devastated by a global pandemic, called “the Jackpot”. Gibson as always is better on ideas than characters, but this is science fiction that says more about today than the future. This is Gibson’s 2nd book that features “the Jackpot” a plague that makes the rich very rich, and cements of power of oligarchies over the West world.

Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson

A global agency set up to stop climate change brings about profound shifts in politics. Another book which uses speculative fiction to talk about contemporary society. When we talk about the future we talk about the present, I found MFTH oddly hopeful.

Sunken Land Begins to Rise, M John Harrison

Odd, brilliant, almost impossible to describe. Creepy but not horror. Hauntological and psychogeographical, but in a good way

The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell

A chance encounter by the banks of the Zambesi in the early days of British colonial rule links together 3 families in past present and future. Loads of fun, and brings Africa to life as it becomes independent of colonial rule. Yet more great writing from Africa.

The Zambian Space programme that features in the book was an actual thing – an attempt to beat the Americans into space by landing a Zambian mission on Mars.

Rage, Bob Woodward

The 2nd volume of Woodward’s biography of the Trump presidency in all its chaotic narcissistic glory. Trump gave Woodward 18 interviews, which he uses to explore Trump weirdness, and insecurities. You can sense Woodward becoming more and more frustrated as he watches Donald make crass mistakes handling Covid. The sequence where Woodward tries to explain to Trump the significance of Black Lives Matters, and Trumps inability to understand it is utterly brilliant.

Ivo Andric, Bridge on the Drina

An old book, and the only Nobel Prize for literature from the former Yugoslavia. A fictional biography of a bridge on the borders of Serbia and Bosnia as Empires rise and fall. Beautifully written, from a part of the world I know embarrassingly little about.

Letters from Iceland, Louis McNeice and WH Auden

McNiece and Auden, like 2 original hipsters decide to go on holiday to Iceland. On a fishing trawler. And write letters to their literary mates. You can probably pick up a nice edition with maps and photos cheap on Abe Books. Lots of fun

Gideon Falls, Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino, Dave Stewart

Creepy horror graphic novel, parallel dimensions haunting a small US town, great writing and art.

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