Sunday, January 3, 2021

Best reads of 2020

I read and reviewed 68 books this year, quite a bit down on the c.100 I normally read. I did read quite a few others related to work, but the main transfer of reading was to subtitles as I watched a large number of non-English television programs and movies in 2020 (probably over 90% of what I viewed, which was also massively up on previous years as for the first time we ventured beyond the six terrestrial channels). Of the 68 books read, I rated 11 as five star reads and another 9 as four and a half star reads. In part this was because I re-read a number of books that left favourable memories, which I last read over two decades ago.


Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson

A kind of love story for Belfast and its people. The story has a wonderful sense of place and is full of pathos and humour as Chuckie and Jake try to navigate being poor, working-class friends from different religions in a city still riven with sectarian tension and violence. It’s beautifully written and has a strong emotional resonance, with the story switching from laugh-out loud moments to deep melancholy and tears. It has as much relevance for understanding Northern Ireland now, as it did then.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Published in 1984, the tale has aged remarkably well given the centrality of digital technologies to the storyline. It's a cyberpunk thriller that pits Case, a has-been hacker, and Molly, a cyborg, street-smart samurai, against a powerful AI that serves a shady business clan. Along with a whip-smart, intriguing and well-paced plot, the prose is evocative and delightful. It’s easy to see why the book won so many awards and how it became so influential in shaping thinking about networked technologies and the worlds they create. It remains an excellent, engaging, thought-provoking read.


A Capital Crime by Laura Wilson

A fictionalised account of the events at 10 Rillington Place, where two sets of murders occurred in the early 1950s, sending two men to the hangman. The first murderer was convicted in part on the evidence of the second one, casting significant doubt on the initial investigation, trial and guilty verdict. In Wilson’s telling DI Stratton is the lead officer in both cases. The result is a very nicely plotted tale that is very strong on exploring the psychological side of investigating emotive cases with criminals who constantly lie and in charting character development. The pacing, atmosphere and sense of place and time adds to the telling. 

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Deep in the Australian outback Cameron Bright’s body is discovered by his two brothers at Stockman’s grave, a bleak, isolated spot, having perished in the searing heat. Harper’s tale charts Nathan’s faltering investigation into his brother’s death. The telling is nicely evocative, with a strong sense of place, realistic rendering of ranch and family life, and tensions and social relations among an isolated, resilient community, and well-painted characters. The real strength of story is the tight crafting of plot, which is free of awkward or contrived plot devices; mixing reminisce and mystery it creates a slow burn sense of unease and intrigue, leading to an understated and satisfying denouement.  


Black Betty by Walter Mosley

Easy Rawlins has fallen on hard times; his property business has been hustled out from under him and he’s living in rented accommodation with his mute son and young daughter. He’s been asked by a white PI to find Black Betty, famed for turning men’s necks and wrapping them around her fingers. Easy's search for the aging siren quickly leads him into deadly trouble. As well as a compelling mystery, with a couple of nice sub-plots, Mosley does an excellent job at charting the social relations and geography of being black in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. Mosley nicely portrays racial tensions and injustices through a hardboiled style with a tender underbelly. A wonderful, noir read.

The Eye of the Cricket by James Sallis 

Lew Griffin is a some-time English literature academic, some-time detective, and always melancholy with a self-destructive streak, scraping by in New Orleans. Now in his 50s Lew finds himself looking for three missing children. He takes his usual meandering path through bars, restaurants, back streets, shelters, and philosophical reflections, meeting a new love on the way. But as usual he finds it difficult to keep everything on track. Sallis spins out the tale at a sedate, reflective pace, pausing to dwell on the nature and meaning of life and the social realities of being poor in the Deep South. I was captivated for the entire story.


Mucho Mojo by Joe Lansdale 

My introduction to Joe Lansdale, one of my favourite authors. I first read the book in 1996. The tale is told from the perspective of Hap Collins, a middle aged, white field worker, who is best friends with Leonard Pine, a tough, queer black man, as they investigate the disappearances of a number of kids. The style is a kind of porch-told recounting of a mystery adventure, infused with dark humour that is captivating. The nicely spun plot mixes detection, romance and lost love, violent confrontations, and social commentary on race, religion, family and poverty in the Deep South. It has lost none of it vitality or social relevance, and Hap and Leonard are alive on the page. A wonderful, entertaining read.


Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan

Infinite Detail tracks life before and after a catastrophic cyberattack that takes down the global internet and permanently disables every digital technology and system, following two threads, one set in Bristol, the other New York. Maughan nicely juxtaposes life before and after the crash, raising thoughtful questions and observations about a world becoming increasingly dependent on digital technologies. The result is an engaging tale about our digital and surveillance present and future.



Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

Post-apocalypse, the world has been shattered geopolitically into a myriad of cities and wandering tribes. Qaanaaq is a floating city powered by geothermal energy constructed above the Arctic Circle. When a woman riding a killer whale and accompanied by a polar bear arrive  it spawns rumours and unease. For four people her presence provides an impetus to resist the present order, with the story tracking their lives. The world building is very nicely done and blended into the mix is a swirl of climate, gender and bio- politics. The story rolls along at a well-judged pace, building to a strong denouement that provides a glimmer of hope without dimming a dark, stratified future.

The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly

Bosch is on trial for shooting dead an unarmed man, Norman Church, believed to be the serial killer, The Dollmaker. On the opening day of the trial another body is discovered that appears to be a victim of The Dollmaker, but was murdered after Church’s death. Drawing on his experience as a veteran police and courts reporter for the LA Times, Connelly weaves together a well plotted police procedural with a feisty courtroom drama, creating a highly compelling, tense, and expertly plotted tale. There isn’t a single element out of place and the twists and turns keep coming. Interestingly, given present protests against policing culture and methods, there is a strong critical analysis of the police running through the book, written not long after the Rodney King riots.

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