I posted my nonfiction reads for 2020. Here’s the fiction list, with totally biased commentary.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey
Wilkie Collins, Jezebel’s Daughter
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground
Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain
Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
Unlike her sisters, Anne Bronte wrote male leads that were worthy of the heroine. (See also The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.) I thought, “He’d better make sure she’s reunited with the dog...” and he did.
Mansfield Park has Austen’s sly wit, romance, and the inevitable scoundrel who gets what he deserves.
Moses, Man of the Mountain is an irreverent (and yet, somehow wholly reverent) retelling of the Moses story. Some of the Bible’s better-known characters do not come off well.
Notes From Underground is only 150 pages, and that’s at least 50 pages too long.
I’d never read Treasure Island before, or seen the movie, but I felt like I had. Every popular image of pirates, from peg legs to parrots to “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum,” seems to come from this book.
Wilkie Collins was an early mystery writer, although Jezebel’s Daughter isn’t strictly a mystery like The Woman in White or The Moonstone. It has a few touches of Collins’s early feminism, including a widow who takes over her husband’s business and informs the scandalized partner that they will be hiring lady clerks. (But she has an annoying tendency to start sentences with “I know I’m only a woman, but...”)
Ann Aguirre, Sirantha Jax series (Grimspace, Wanderlust, Doubleblind)
Isaac Asimov, I, Robot
Isaac Asimov, The Robots of Dawn
Margaret Atwood, The Testaments
Octavia Butler, Seed to Harvest series (Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, Patternmaster)
CJ Cherryh, Foreigner series (Foreigner, Invader, Inheritor)
P.N. Elrod, Ed., Hex Appeal
Paula Lester, Sunnyside Retired Witches series (A Bottle Full of Djinn, Loony Town, Mummy Issues)
Dominick Parisenne & Navah Wolfe, Eds., The Mythic Dream
Terry Pratchett, Sourcery
Terry Pratchett, WintersmithKatherine Vick, The Disposable
Some great comedy/fantasy combos, including the inimitable Terry Pratchett. Sourcery is about the incompetent wizard Rincewind, and his sentient luggage steals the show as usual. Wintersmith is about aspiring witch Tiffany Aching, who inadvertently attracts the Spirit of Winter. The “wee free men” are always a lot of fun. I also recommend Katherine Vick’s The Disposable, sort of a fantasy version of John Scalzi’s Redshirts: the minor characters get fed up with being killed off and otherwise suffering so the heroes can shine.
Paula Lester’s Sunnyside Retired Witches is a lighthearted cozy mystery series set in a retirement home in a town full of witches and magical creatures.
Octavia Butler’s Seed to Harvest series is less satisfying than her Parable books or Kindred. Seed to Harvest has so much violence and incest that it rivals Game of Thrones — and none of the characters are particularly sympathetic.
Asimov’s I, Robot is not so much a novel as a series of puzzles: given the 3 laws of robotics (in descending order: never harm a human or allow them to be harmed, obey humans, protect oneself), what would a robot do with this or that contradictory set of circumstances? (Aside from the premise, it bears no resemblance to the Will Smith movie.) The Robots of Dawn expands this premise to a full-length murder mystery.
The Sirantha Jax series had interesting aliens and some decent plot twists. But I didn’t particularly care for the love interest, and disliked the subplot with the “alien from a species that’s evolved to be slaves, so you have to accept them as your slave even if you don’t want to” trope.
I like CJ Cherryh, and her aliens are always complex and interesting. She tends to front-load a lot of world-building, so the action mostly hits at the end of the book. And like the Chanur series, the Foreigner series assumes that no matter how different the aliens may be, they’ll wind up having sex with humans.
The Testaments was Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. She did her best to make it compatible with the TV series, and glossed over ways the series contradicted the original book (particularly around race). It’s told by June’s now-teenage daughters, and an especially devious Aunt Lydia.
The best book I read this year was probably The Mythic Dream, which reimagined myths as SF/Fantasy stories. A lesbian Persephone wants to stay with her Lady of the Dead. Artemis livestreams her revenge on Actaeon. Kali wreaks holy havoc. each story found something new in the familiar.
Middle Grade/Young Adult:
Dean Gloster, Dessert First
Karen Schwabach, The Hope Chest
Karen Schwabach, Starting From Seneca Falls
Karen Schwabach writes great historical fiction for kids, giving a great feel for the early days of American feminism. (You should also check out her fantasy stories as Sage Blackwood.)
Dessert First is about a teenager watching her little brother succumb to cancer — and it still manages to be warm, relatable, and even funny at unexpected times, never maudlin or manipulative.
Janet Evanovich, Twisted Twenty-Six
Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey
Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train
I love the combination of mystery and humor. Twisted Twenty-Six takes the famously unlucky bounty hunter Stephanie Plum through mystery, murder, lust, and an ill-advised marriage between Grandma Mazur and a local mobster. Bad Monkey has that only-in-Florida flavor with assorted scams, annoying neighbors, and a cop busted down to restaurant inspector. Between the latter and the monkey, there’s more gross-out humor than usual in this one.
Strangers on a Train is very different from the movie Hitchcock made out of it. Darker, if possible.
A.R. Moxon, The Revisionaries
Leslea Newman, She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not: Lesbian Romantic Fiction
Nancy Ryan, The Shape of the Heart
Aline Soules, The Size of the World
The Revisionaries is a very weird, surreal-ish book about the rise and fall of a demagogue (among other things). The Shape of the Heart and The Size of the World are brief collections of slice-of-life fiction, poetry, and (in the latter book) some nonfiction about the author’s Scottish upbringing.
I like Leslea Newman’s love stories, which range from fluffy to heartbreaking. But She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not is a book of the 90’s, where a couple of the stories felt a bit squicky about issues of power and consent. On another level, it’s stunning to remember what a different world it was just 20 years ago, in terms of legal rights, civil unions (remember those?), and the risks of coming out.
Cross-posted at Daily Kos.
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