Books Read in 2020 - The Annual Review

Unlike my scant moviegoing this past year, I did keep up with my reading. On the list for this year were quite a few non-fiction Christian books, as the men's group I belong to started a reading program. We tried to do a book a month that that quickly proved untenable. Covered quite a few, however.

But first, on the fiction front, I read some really good stuff. This year it's tough to decide what my favorite was because I read so many great novels.  But some cream definitely floated to the top of my reading milk... or coffee. The metaphor's gotten away from me, sorry.


Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Here's an example where letting yourself be interviewed by Poets & Writers magazine can lead to a book sale. Found Ms. St John Mandel's interview very interesting and her books and style sounded different enough I had a feeling so... jumped to Amazon and bought Station Eleven, one book for which she got quite a lot of recognition. Nothing like reading a book cold, not knowing much at all about it at all. Jumping back and forth between different time periods, telling the story (one very appropos given what happened last year) through completely different people who are connected only through one central character, and in smaller way one comic book called Station Eleven.

Black Boy by Richard Wright. Knowing another author from England named Richard Wright (Rich, where are you these days? Been too long...) when I discovered there was another best-selling author from the middle 20th Century with the same name I decided some day to check out his work. Have had this on my TBR pile for a while, and just before the BLM movement returned to force I finally picked it up. What a book, from an amazing, very approachable writer. The first half tells the story of Wright's life growing up in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, the nightmarish reality being Black in that time. It's told with such a calm, matter-of-fact demeanor you cannot put it down. This first half should be read by anyone wondering why Black Lives Matter (the movement, not the org which is a little iffy in my opinion) even started. However!... the second half, where he talks of his life post-Mississippi and moves to Chicago, and courted by the communist party is for the other half of the political spectrum. He's very pro-Communist, in an ideological sense, but realizes eventually they are not who they seem and are controlled by some pretty dark forces. This half should be read by my more far-left brethren. Neither side will, of course, because it will make them question their beliefs, and no one wants that, heaven forbid. Just a good book, however, and very timely on both fronts. 

The Expanse Series: Leviathan Wakes (Book 1) & Caliban's War (Book 2) by James S. A. Corey: Such a great book series, especially volume one. Like I said in my review of the stellar TV series based on these books, one of its major pluses is how realistic and gritty it can be The books draw a decent possibility of what space travel could be like in the future, especially when spearheaded by messed up people like ourselves. Over time a lot of characters come and go, but that only adds to the charm. Highly recommend the show as well, but read the books first.

The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency Book 1) by John Scalzi is another book in a new series by an author I've enjoyed a lot over the years, though am way behind in reading his stuff. Like the Expanse series, Empire mixes action with political intrigue, but this series seems more so on the political spectrum. Not in the dry, when is something going to happen way like I find with some of Greg Bear's stuff. The writing here is just as stellar and fast-paced as the Corey's, but I've only read the first volume. Looking forward to reading the next when I have a chance. Like I said it's a little slower paced action wise, but no less interesting. 

Flat Earth by Martin Holman
: my good friend Marty's first novel was released last year, and I served as one of his final editors. We had a lot of fun with this one, mostly because I'd give him comments like, "Marty, you can't say that, you're a pastor." "I'm saying it." "Fine but you can't say this." And on and on. Ironically the Flat Earth theory is just a minor character in the story which follows the dissolution of a couple's marriage, and of our view of the characters. Going backward and forward through time, it's a fast and entertaining read. 

Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson - honestly I bought this book through Amazon's Kindle daily deal on a lark, the first half of the description sounded interesting (I never read a book's full description because they usually give too much away) and I loved the cover and title. But the book was so, so good. Another jump back and forth thru time story, from the dust bowl of early 1900's to a near future space program, a generational story of friendship and love and survival. Amazing read.  

I read a lot more novels than these, of course, and honestly love them all - if I wasn't enjoying a book I simply stopped reading, and they don't usually make this list, with one exception, 3001: Odyssey Three by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, which was just slow and dated and not resonating with me at all, which is too bad because I enjoyed the series. 

The other novels I read and loved were:
The Art of Racing In the Rain by Garth Stein - my wife had read this ages ago and told me I had to read it, so I finally did and loved it. Fun, friendly, uplifting and sad all at the same time.
World of Trouble (The Last Policeman III) by Ben H. Winters - I was finally able to finish this fun and unique series, combining an end of the world narrative with a police procedural. This final volume was perfect, and a great ending to a very cool series.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman - I think this novella was meant to be a YA book but really, Gaiman's YA books may as well be adult, he's that universal. A tremendous writer who is always given such an open canvas to create. This had been too long on my TBD list, glad to finally get to enjoy it.

The Riddle of Firelight: A Most Curious Winter's Tale
by M J Gilbert
- my cousin's first novel and man, was it ever good. Long, for a YA middle grade, but fascinating. I describe it as the love child of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle.
Apocalypse-a-Day Desk "Calendar," Volume 1 by Norman Prentiss - I got all four volumes and read this daily "calendar" almost every day. They're chapters, one per day with very, very short pieces, each a new world apocalypse. All of these were friggin' brilliant, and many were very funny. Highly recommend this series, even given world events. In April this year I'll get back to the series and read volume 2.
Nighthawks by Jeremy Flagg - another long on my TBR list finally got to. Flagg's a great writer (and an awesome guy) and here he creates a series around superheroes. Think a reinvention of the X-Men. Fun story and loaded with action. 
The Unnamed Country by Jeffrey Thomas - I've been a fam of Jeff for decades now. When he released this new story collection, each of them interconnected through events or characters, I jumped in. Darker fare for the author this time around, a bit of an unrelenting existential experience. Still, it's Jeffrey Thomas so well worth the slight case of depression afterward. :) 


Interspersed throughout these novels I also read a large number of non-fiction books, mostly faith-based. Some I read on my own, others alongside the men's group I meet with every week. All of them were very good, though some stood out more than others. In order of my favorites first: 

The Cure: What if God isn't who you think He is and neither are you? by McNicol, Thrall & Lynch - Terrible title, fantastic book. The authors use the analogy of two roads, leading to two ways of living as a Christian, and more importantly how people see themselves. They lead to wither the Room of Good Intentions or the Room of Grace. This completely shattered so many my views and I think opened up the road ahead with so much clarity.
A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World
by Paul E. Miller
- I'm a sucker for a good book an prayer, and this one, though long, never stopped surprising me with its insight. If you want to deepen your prayer life, your connection to God, or if you don't think much about prayer at all, give this book a try. I promise it will change your outlook for the better.

Intimacy Ignited: Discover the Fun and Freedom of God-Centered Sex by Dillow & Pintus - my twenty-five year old daughter Amanda gave this to me and Linda last Christmas, and it's amazing. So many Christian books of any form hide any discussion of sex, and this one talks to Christian couples about how to make sex better. Of course they use the Song of Solomon to do so. If you're married, you can only be helped by this book. Loved it.

Finding God's Life For My Will by Mike Donehey - the former front man for the Christian rock band Tenth Avenue North's combination memoir and Christian living book is a quick, sometimes very deep read. Donehey is very honest about his weaknesses in discussion his walk, and such candidness only adds to the richness of the book. Another high recommendation.

Other books that I enjoyed and got benefit from, like I mentioned there were quite a few this year, so much I just can't get into all of them:

* The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows by James Bryan Smith
* Bo's Cafe by John Lynch, Bill Thrall & Bruce McNicol 
* Identity: Who You Are In Christ by Eric Geiger 
* Victory Over The Darkness by Neil T. Anderson
* In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day by Mark Batterson. This last one I didn't like so much. There was good information in it, and I was excited to read it because I LOVE Batterson's other stuff, but I found this one a bit thin and repetitive. It was his first book, though, so I have him a little grace. Strongly recommend his Circle Maker, however. That one's probably in my top 3.

Two writing books, the first Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury I came lovingly back to. This is my fourth reading. One of my favorite inspirational writing books from my favorite author.  The other was a gift from last Christmas called Burn After Writing by Sharon Jones. This one was interesting - more a workbook than reading. It's full of extremely personal questions, memories, recollections, likes and dislikes. You answer quickly and without reservations and it's meant to job your mind for character and plot generation. I think. It was mentally invigorating, though sometimes i didn't answer because no need to write some of these things down. Ever.

Finally, I discovered a wonderful little memoir from author and creator of most every major soap opera from the 60's and 70's, Agnes Nixon: My Life to Live: How I Became the Queen of Soaps When Men Ruled the Airwaves. Having grown up catching the soaps every day when I got home because Mom was watching, it was fun reading about the life and passion of a woman who was driven to be whoever she wanted to be, in a world that said women should be only one thing. One of my favorite non-fiction reads of the year, and I'd found it for $1 at the Dollar Store. So you never know where the next great read will come from.



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