This was an eclectic and low-brow year, with a lot of hardcopy mixed in that I'm not sure I'll capture properly.
For what it's worth, my e-book list has half-again as many books on it as it did in 2019, at 101 vs 72 for the year previously. I also cancelled my Netflix subscription, because we just weren't watching it any more.
I have a fondness for the idea that under stress people become their truest selves, and while this hasn't been a super-stressful year for me, it's also true that when given large stretches of time to fill my go-to recreation is reading.
I wanted to read more popular fiction this year, and sampled the past century pretty eclectically. I'll start with e-books because I'm going to have to wander around the house staring at shelves and things to figure out what paper books I've read.
Looking over the year there were a few fairly clear categories. I read a lot of mid-20th century pulp, if we say the 1920s to the 1960's count as "mid-20th century".
This included Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" in hardcopy, C.L. Moore's "Jirel of Jorey" stories, some Andre Norton ("Time Traders" and "Star Soldiers", and "Voorloper" in hardback, with really bad illustrations). Also some Clarke Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard (the "Renegade Swords" collection of sword-and-sorcery classics, which is not a genre I read much of as a kid.)
I was curious about these genres, trying to figure out what the authors were doing and what the appeal to their readership was. Jason Colavito's "The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Popular Culture", which got me thinking about the pseudo-fictional ecosystem that mid-20th-century authors were writing in, was part of my motivation for this excursion. Fiction creates narrative bubbles that fans find themselves inhabiting even in their everyday lives. This is how religions start.
Colavito's book makes plain that the Lovecraft mythos was deliberately crafted to take on a life outside of the pulp magazines that gave it birth, and my goodness did it ever, priming the pump for convicted criminals like von Daniken to slap a big fat "FACT" label on a the idea that the Lovecraft Circle packaged as fiction. There was good money in it.
I've been interested in the role of stories in the real world and how they percolate out of fiction and into faith for a long time, and this was an interesting case study in the process.
Some of the stories are pretty good, though, and interesting exercises in almost purely atmospheric writing. Strip the atmospheric style from Lovecraft or Howard, in particular, and you get pretty pedestrian narratives. Which is fine: dressing up pedestrian narratives in fancy clothes is a lot of what story-tellers are paid to do.
But when we ask "How do these stories create value in their reader's lives?" the answer almost always involves an element of "They support some more-or-less ideological narrative that bolster's the reader's identity or core beliefs about the structure of the real world." Many of these ideas would be considered "problematic" by the kind of person who is so bereft of creativity that they spend most of their time finding things "problematic" here in the early 21st century. But it's simplistic and totalizing to think that reader's narratives in the mid-20th-century period can be reduced to simply "colonialism" or anything like it. People are complicated. Dead people especially so.
One of the stranger books I read from this period is "Black No More", by George Schuyler, who was sometimes called a "black H. L. Menken", although I have no idea if he was a flaming anti-Semite, which was one of Menken's defining characteristics. It's a cynical, satirical look at a world in which skin colour becomes malleable, which is an idea I've long expected to become a reality. The difference between the melanin in my pasty white skin and a black person's skin is practically trivial, and I'm a little surprised that no biohacker has yet to come up with an otherwise-innocuous virus that flips the optically-inactive melanin of white people into the optically-active form that everyone else has. I doubt very much Schuyler's take would turn out to be accurate under those circumstances, although it is striking the degree to which the racial politics of the 1920s still resonates with headlines we see today. I can't precisely recommend it, but it definitely made an impression on me with regard to the diversity of black voices in American fiction.
Moving forward in time I also read some late-20th-century pulp, mostly Clive Custler and Laurence Saunders, two authors that don't have much in common other than period. These are books where the value to the reader is very little more than entertainment and distraction from the everyday, although I have to wonder at what people find suitable distractions. Custler is writing bad science fiction in the guise of adventure stories, and is more of a direct descendant of the Lovecraft Circle than I had appreciated before writing this sentence, which is one of the reasons I produce these yearly summaries of my reading: they force me to think of something intelligent to say.
Custler is feeding the mythos of the ruggedly individualistic American male who is... checks notes... a former military officer now serving as a bureaucrat in a government agency, who has family wealth and power from his father, who is a US senator. Dirk Pitt, Custler's hero, is resourceful beyond words, but also has the full might of the American government to pull on should he need to. He's emotionless, almost sexless, and in most respects quite dull. His side-kick has slightly more character than he does--it would be impossible to have less--but is likewise defined primarily by what he lacks: fear, the capacity to err, doubts, and so on.
The setups are morally bankrupt. One book is literally built around precisely the kind of anti-trans diatribe that critics have ascribed--apparently incorrectly--to JK Rowling's most recent novel.
The question I asked myself while reading these books--some of which are genuine page-turners, some of which are just awful slogs--was: could I write anything that would appeal to this audience? Maybe. I like adventure stories, and these are adventure stories. But there's a lot in them that I couldn't ever do, and a good deal more that I wouldn't. My audience is, at best, sideways from there. Which is too bad, because Custler's audience is large.
Laurence Sanders is an author I read a bit of in the '80s. I couldn't even remember his name--I had tried--until I stumbled upon one of the McNally books at the local ReStore. It was OK, but Saunders has a penchant for unlikeable characters that leaves me cold. If Custler is selling a bankrupt morality, Sanders is simply amoral, and therefore dull.
Which brings us to the modern world, more-or-less. Indie authors like Andrew Mayne, small press fantasy and SF by T. Kingfisher and others.
Some of these were quite good.
Andrew Mayne is a magician and self-promoter whose books vary from excellent ("The Girl Beneath the Sea", the Jessica Blackwood novels) to OK (the Station Breaker books) to not very good (and badly in need of an editor.) My response may be in part be a reflection of the very different character of the stories, but he really does seem do better with police procedurals and women protagonists than science fiction and male protagonists. He has a talent for mystery.
I read Ian Whates "Dark Angels" books and enjoyed the first one a lot, the others less so. They appeared to fall into the "Firefly genre", which of course has a long history before Firefly but which was given new life by it: small independent trader/smuggler/whatever crewed by a gang of misfits and oddballs get into adventures while trying to pay the bills and "avoid Imperial involvements".
Becky Chambers' "A Long Journey to a Small Angry Planet" is a lovely addition to the same genre, but I couldn't make it through the sequel, which got lost in the twisty passages of character backstory and turned on one of the main characters from the first book doing something fairly vile on multiple levels.
In the same general genre, "Junkyard Pirate" by Jamie McFarlane is entertaining, and Suzanne Palmer's "Finder Chronicles" books are worth a look, although the hyperbaric physiology--or lack thereof--in the second book was such that I had to just treat it as fantasy.
In the "galactic empires" genre, John Scalzi's "Interdependency" books are OK, although I think the last one suffers from being made up on the spot (that's how he describes it in the afterword). Garreth Powell's "Embers of War" books start off OK, but fail to hold up: the second book again turns on a bad choice by an nasty character, which barely even makes sense.
Character choices that are based on blind faith in something the character has been told but has no particular reason to believe are neither very plausible nor very interesting. If a story depends on a character simply taking someone else's word for it about some huge life-changing thing, I'm not going to get very far with the story. People like that just don't interest me.
On the other hand Powell's "Ack-Ack Macaque books are amusing, although the ultimate reveal is sufficiently well-telegraphed to not be much of a reveal. It was still some mix of disappointing and irritating, I'm afraid, one of those cases where you spend most of three books wondering, "Is this all gonna turn out to be..." and yeah, it does.
Arkady Martine's "A Memory Called Empire" was quite good, although it felt at times that the author was struggling with the scope of the story. Or maybe that's just me projecting, as it's something I struggle with a lot.
David Barnett's "Gideon Smith" books were quite delightful. Solid steam-punk with a side of magic. Highly recommended.
I also enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson's "Last Year". It's a well-told adventure story that like most of Wilson's work simply couldn't have come from anyone else. He writes genre fiction but imbues it with his own personal ethos. It's a powerful combination.
Which brings us to fantasy. Mostly what I think of as "small fantasy" as opposed to epic: individuals doing their thing against the background of a larger world in which they may not play a particularly important role. T. Kingfisher figured prominently, although some of her stuff suits my taste more than others. I enjoyed "Minor Mage" a lot, and I've just finished the Clocktaur War books which are without question some of the best fantasy I've read, ever. Well-drawn characters, high stakes, high-jinks, and other high things.
Even better is "A Deadly Education" by Naomi Novik. It's a "magical school" story that draws almost nothing from Harry Potter, and features a heroine who is made to be evil but too damned contrary to take the easy road, which I can relate to a lot. I'm really looking forward to the next book, and have picked up her "Spinning Silver" but not read it yet.
"Made Things" by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a nice little fantasy-underworld story, and the Foundryside books by Robert Jackson Bennett are also very good. On a slightly more epic scale, Charles de Lint's "Wildings" books were fun, but I read the last two and was not motivated to read the first.
In (somewhat) more realistic fiction, Carl Hiassen's "Squeeze Me" is as entertaining as you'd expect, and I'm really enjoying Watler Mosley's "Easy Rawlins" novels, which are noir detective stories set in post-war LA with a Black protagonist. I've only read the first couple, but am looking forward to more.
I also enjoyed the first couple of Mick Herron's "Slough House" books, although the humour is a bit too black for me, especially at the moment.
Hilary and I read the first book of "Middlemarch" together, but haven't proceeded further. I'm still not a fan of George Elliot, although I have little more insight into what people see in her work now.
Finally, I read some non-fiction. A slew of Medieval history, including the Gies' books on life in a medieval village, city, and castle, and "Voices of Morebath", by Eamon Duffy, a fascinating look at an English village through the eyes--and notes--of the parish priest between the 1520s and the 1570s, which gives us a remarkable view into the effects of Henry VIII's reformation in the late 1530s, as well as insight into the transformation of the village from a (very) late Medieval communal conclave to a more (early) modern entity closer to a municipal corporation. In the former, political power was distributed, consensus-based, and very, very, very inefficient. In the latter, political power was more formal, hierarchical, consolidated, and effective. Both had their virtues, but I'm personally a lot happier to be living well on the modern side of the divide.
I also read "The Washing of the Spears" by Donald R. Morris, which is a history of the rise and fall of the Zulu nation. I've been exploring fantasy as well as science fiction in my writing, and modern fantasy is extremely European, unsurprisingly. I've seen the genre described as "microwaved Tolkien". Fantasy tends to draw from Medieval European society, and being familiar with a diversity of pre-modern societies allows for the creation of more eclectic fantasy worlds. I hope.
In any case, the book has opened my eyes to some of the history of southern Africa between the 1600s and the late 1800s, and the chapters on Zulu social and military organization under Shaka Zulu and his successors provides a look at how human beings might end up organizing themselves that differs considerably from the European model. It bogs down a bit in the actual battles, with far too much detail as to who was precisely where, when, which can become confusing and burdensome although no-doubt the core reader of this kind of book revels in it. But it is also full of interesting anecdotes and strange tales: who knew the the Prince Imperial of France, the exiled son of the deceased Napoleon III, was killed in a minor skirmish during the Zulu War of 1879? Not me, that's who.
Books are among my favourite things, and my go-to entertainment when the press of time does not otherwise occupy me. I've found the pandemic to be reasonably easy going, overall. I'm a deeply introverted person on the autism spectrum, and being alone has never been a problem for me, especially when I have a book or two (or three...) to read. I've found this year to be enormously restful, and even healing, although for the sake of all our lives I hope the vaccines now in the pipeline are as successful as preliminary reports indicate, and that next year when I'm writing this review I'll begin by saying, "I didn't read as much this year because I was involved in these other things..." Because while I enjoy my alone time, and find it deeply restful, and this year for me has been profoundly healing, I also find the hard--very hard--work of being sociable has its own rewards.