December 2020 books, and 2020 books roundup

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

Lockdown having hit again, I did not go very far this month except to nip across the border to France for a haircut. However I did have the satisfaction of comiling a video about science fiction predicitons for the year 2021 – probably a little too long, but I did love the Moon Zero Two opening titles.

And I kept up my ten-day updates in plague times.

And on Christmas Day I managed to get a rare picture of the family all looking in the same direction and all looking happy.

I read 27 books that month.

Non-fiction: 4 (2020 total 50)
Our War: Ireland and the Great War, ed. John Horne
Utopia For Realists, by Rutger Bregman
House of Music, by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason
Explaining Humans, by Camilla Pang

Fiction (non-sf): 3 (2020 total 38)
Terms of Endearment, by Larry McMurtry
Tono-Bungay, by H.G. Wells
The Prisoner of Brenda, by [Colin] Bateman

Scripts: 2 (2020 total 2)
Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer
A Belgian Christmas Eve, by Alfred Noyes

sf (non-Who): 15 (2020 total 114)
After Me Comes the Flood, by Sarah Perry
Ash: A Secret History, by Mary Gentle
“The Persistence of Vision”, by John Varley
The Children of Men, by P.D. James
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre
The Company Articles of Edward Teach, by Thoraiya Dyer/Angælien Apocalypse, by Matthew Chrulew
2010: Odyssey Two, by Arthur C. Clarke
Above, by Stephanie Campisi/Below, by Ben Peek
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville
Planetfall, by Emma Newman
Macrolife, by George Zebrowski
The Anything Box, by Zenna Henderson
Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma
Palimpsest, by Charles Stross
Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Doctor Who: 2 (2020 total 18)
All Flesh is Grass, by Una McCormack
Tales of Terror, no editor given

Comics: 1 (2020 total 45)
Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor Volume 1: A New Beginning, by Jody Houser, Rachael Stott, Giorgia Sposito, Enrica Eren Angiolini

8,200 pages (2020 total 70,400)
14/27 (2020 total 77/266) not by men (Henderson, Kanneh-Mason, Perry, Gentle, James, McIntyre, Dyer, Campisi, Newman, Henderson, Sharma, Clarke, McCormack, Houser et al)
3/27 (2020 total 25/266) by PoC (Kanneh-Mason, Pang, Sharma)

Several really good books this month, and I’m going to single out the RTE history Our War, which you can get here, and Priya Sharma’s short Ormeshadow, which you can get here. On the other hand I completely bounced off Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood, which you can get here.

2020 books roundup

I read 266 books in 2020, the ninth highest of the nineteen years that I have been keeping track, and 70,400 pages, eleventh highest of nineteen, so pretty much in the middle.

Books by non-male writers in 2020: 77/266, 29% – fifth highest absolute number, eighth highest percentage of the last nineteen years.

Books by PoC in 2020: – 25/266, 9% – fifth highest in both absolute numbers and percentages, higher than any year before 2018.

Most-read author of 2020: Kieron Gillen, as I read all nine volumes of The Wicked + The Divine.

1) Science Fiction and Fantasy (excluding Doctor Who)


114 (43%), fifth highest total and percentage of nineteen years.

Top SF book of the year:

The first book I read in 2020 was Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation, which included some old favouites and a couple of brilliant new stories, both of which got on the Hugo final ballot. You can get it here.

Honourable mentions to:

Tade Thompson’s The Rosewater Insurrection, a BSFA finalist, in which near-future Nigeria (like other parts of the world) has been subject to an alien intrusion; this plays out on the ground in micropolitics, including sexual politics, for an interesting and intelligent exploration of what it actually means to be human in an unforgiving and rapidly changing world. You can get it here.

Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on CatNet, a Lodestar finalist, a cracking good read, with conscious AI, dysfunctional family, a courageous road trip across the northeastern USA, and a hilarious robot sex education scene. You can get it here.

The ones you haven’t heard of:

The BSFA long-list included several stories from two anthologies which I consequently sought out and enjoyed, Distaff: A Science Fiction Anthology by Female Authors, eds. Rosie Oliver & Sam Primeau, which you can get here, and Once Upon A Parsec: the Book of Alien Fairy Tales, ed. David Gullen, which you can get here. Sadly none of them made it to the short-list.

The one to avoid:

The worst book I read all year, with some stiff competition, was A Woman in Space, by Sara Cavanaugh (probably a pseudonym). Our heroine is twenty-six, and already a spaceflight veteran. The entire plot lacks any credibility even in its own terms. The sexual politics is awful, and the sex is pretty badly written as well. It’s so bad you have to finish it once you’ve started. (It’s only 192 pages.) You can get it here.

2) Non-fiction

50 (19%), bang in the middle of the historical range.

Top non-fiction book of the year:

From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull. More on this below.

Honourable mentions to:

Two biographies of women. The first is Felicitas Corrigan’s biography of the Ulster writer and historian Helen Waddell, looking at how her star rose and fell – she was invited to lunch at 10 Downing Street with J.M. Barrie and Queen Mary, but died in obscurity. You can get it here.

The other is a finalist for the Hugo for Best Related Work, Mallory O’Meara’s biography of Milicent Patrick, a Hollywood designer who rose and fell much more quickly than Helen Waddell; after the triumph of creating the Creature from the Black Lagoon, she was basically fired for not being invisible enough. You can get it here.

The one you haven’t heard of:

Philip Winter’s personal account of co-ordinating the internal peace process within the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000-2002, a fascinating view of implementation of peace agreements at the sharp end with many lovely glimpses of detail and a real sense of time and place. You can get it here.

The one to avoid:

A Popular History of Ireland, by Thomas D’Arcy McGee – chloroform in print (as Mark Twain said of the Book of Mormon). You can get it here.

3) Comics

45 (17%), highest ever percentage, total number only exceeded in 2021, due to Hugos and Retro Hugos, and because of more Doctor Who comics coming through the system.

Top comics of the year:

Two of the Hugo finalists which were standalones, LaGuardia, written by Nnedi Okorafor, art by Tana Ford, colours by James Devlin, which you can get here, and Mooncakes, by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker, letters by Joamette Gil, which you can get here.

Honourable mention:

The second half of Leo’s Survivants series, continuing the Aldebaran cycle. You can get them in English translation here, here and here.

The one you haven’t heard of:

Rick Lundeen’s glorious adaptation of The Daleks’ Master Plan, not on sale anywhere but you can find it in the darker corners of the internet.

The ones to avoid:

The ending of Marc Legendre’s Amoras, an adult reworking of classic Belgian kids’ comic heroes Suske en Wiske, fell pretty flat for me. You can get the last two volumes here and here.

4) Non-genre fiction

40 (15%). In the middle of the historical range, though higher than 2021 or 2022.

Top non-genre fiction of the year:

The triumphant conclusion to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. We’ve always known where this wasa going to end up, but the journey is a tremendous achievement. You can get it here.

Honourable mentions:

I found myself enjoying Larry McMurtry’s Terms of Endearment, on which the film was based, much more than I expected – funny and also humane. You can get it here.

Michael Morpurgo’s Listen to the Moon is a sensitive and effective story about wartime in the Scilly Isles for young adult readers. You can get it here.

The one you haven’t heard of:

A wee jewel from a family member, Muddy Lane by Andrew Cheffings, about men loving each other in a lost corner of England. You can get it here.

The one to avoid:

Bruges-la-Morte by George Rodenbach. Very silly and over-written. Ends with the protagonist strangling his lover with a lock of his dead wife’s hair. There, I’ve saved you the bother, but if you still want to, you can get it here.

5) Doctor Who

Novels, collections of shorter fiction, etc excluding comics: 18 (7%), lowest since 2005.

All Who books including comics and non-fiction: 25 (9%), also lowest since 2005.

I took a bit of a sabbatical from Who reading in 2020.

Top Doctor Who books of the year:

Una McCormack’s novel All Flesh Is Grass, featuring the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Doctors, which you can get here, and Jody Houser’s graphic novel Defender of the Daleks with the Tenth and Thirteenth (marketed for some reason with a very similar cover to Una McCormack’s novel, showing Eight, Nine and Ten, rather than Ten and Thirteen), which you can get here.

Honourable mention:

Paul Cornell’s Third Doctor story Heralds of Destruction is true to the spriti of early 70s Who and takes it a little further. You can get it here.

The one you haven’t heard of:

Already mentioned under comics: Rick Lundeen’s graphic novel adaptation of The Daleks’ Master Plan.

The one to avoid:

The 2020 Official Annual is a poor piece of work. You can get it here. Glad to say that the 2021 version is better.

My Book of the Year

No hesitation at all in naming my Top Book of 2020 as From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull, the account of a life punctuated by the 1979 bomb which killed his 14-year-old twin brother, along with their grandfather Lord Mountbatten, their other grandmother and another boy. As one might expect, Knatchbull’s relationship with Ireland is very complex. It was a magical place of childhood holiday memories, which turned to horror in an instant. He has found a way of making sense of the terrible thing that was done to his family, and it is a truly compelling read. I’d had it on the shelves for years but only now got around to it, and I should not have waited. You can get it here.

All Books of the Year:

2003 (2 months): The Separation, by Christopher Priest (review; get it here)
2004: (reread) The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (review; get it here)
– Best new read: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, by Claire Tomalin (review; get it here)
2005: The Island at the Centre of the World, by Russell Shorto (review; get it here)
2006: Lost Lives: The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles, by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea (review; get it here)
2007: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel (review; get it here)
2008: (reread) The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition, by Anne Frank (review; get it here)
– Best new read: Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, by William Makepeace Thackeray (review; get it here)
2009: (had seen it on stage previously) Hamlet, by William Shakespeare (review; get it here)
– Best new read: Persepolis 2: the Story of a Return, by Marjane Satrapi (first volume just pipped by Samuel Pepys in 2004) (review; get it here)
2010: The Bloody Sunday Report, by Lord Savile et al. (review of vol I; get it here)
2011: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon (started in 2009!) (review; get it here)
2012: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë (review; get it here)
2013: A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf (review; get it here)
2014: Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell (review; get it here)
2015: collectively, the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist, in particular the winner, Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel (get it here). However I did not actually blog about these, being one of the judges at the time.
– Best book I actually blogged about: The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Claire Tomalin (review; get it here)
2016: Alice in Sunderland, by Bryan Talbot (review; get it here)
2017: Common People: The History of an English Family, by Alison Light (review; get it here)
2018: Factfulness, by Hans Rosling (review; get it here)
2019: Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo (review; get it here)
2020: From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull (review; get it here)
2021: Carrying the Fire, by Michael Collins (review; get it here)
2022: The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell (review; get it here)