Reading List: Fourth Quarter 2020
In a year when few things went as planned, including losing all of the time I spent on business travel, in airports, and on beach vacations where I’d be reading, I managed to finish 47 books in 2020. I ventured into much more music, business, and new author territory. I also focused on reading authors who aren’t like me — cis, white, straight, male and American — and discovered some superb new worlds, real and imagined.
To conclude the plague year, this list goes to eleven:
37. “Tropic of Kansas,” sci fi, Christopher Brown, Finished October 8.
Dystopian novels are hitting close to home — in this case, a far right government led by Al Haig, New Orleans turned into a toxic waste zone that makes the Cayuga River fire in Cleveland seem like a sparkler, and pockets of private militia and armed protests. A little too familiar, and a little too graphic, but the extrapolation from current events makes this the perfect sci-fi novel — it’s not predicting the future as much as hinting at several possible scenarios. This goes far beyond the “America is broken” into “America has become Yugoslavia”
38. “Rule of Capture,” sci fi, Christopher Brown, finished October 15.
A minor character who appears on a legal billboard in the closing pages of “Tropic of Kansas” comes to life in a “bet your life” story that tests the legal system in a country that is on the verge of lawlessness. Even closer to home than “Tropic of Kansas,” set in the same future America, and even more terrifying, it is a legal thriller worthy of Scott Turow and a set of legal constructs that blend the Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Cory Doctorow’s “Homeland.” The rule of capture — one of the English laws of property and possession — is interpreted and remixed into a strangely familiar (grifters in government for $800, Alex) context that adds true legal weight to the book.
39. “Attack Surface,” sci fi, Cory Doctorow, finished October 22.
I eagerly await each new Cory Doctorow book with true fan boy passion; for “Attack Surface” I pre-ordered the Kindle version and have two autographed copies from online Q&A events Cory hosted on the virtual book tour. It’s that good, and worth three prices of admission to his just slightly distant vision of the future foreshadowed in today’s CNN broadcasts. Doctorow extends some of his recurring vamps — big tech’s enabling of a surveillance state amplified by the moral and ethical boundaries fuzzed and smudged by building “bigger, better, cheaper, more consumed” for the sake of adoption over implication. He follows Masha, a character from the Little Brother prequels as she has a moral reckoning with what she has and has not done with her technology career, her friendships, her family and her real-time written personal history. It’s eerily close to home and current times, and it’s also an understatement of the potential for scalable misuse.
40. “Do You Feel Like I Do,” music/biography, Peter Frampton, finished October 29.
Easily the best musician biography I’ve read out of the last dozen or so, and the whole book feels like an extended Frampton concert — it’s fast paced, poignant at times, incredibly insightful as to the when, how and why of how he feels like he does. The book is filled with nice insights into Frampton’s musical heroes — his awe at singing into the same microphone Lennon used for “Imagine” is palpable, while he also fawns — with British politeness — on the other Beatles and Stones. Running through the book is the strong theme that Frampton is a guitar player first and foremost; he eschewed the teenybopper looks and promotion and just wants to play guitar. I believe Frampton is a hugely underrated songwriter and guitar player, and he captures that tension without veering into an explanation or excuse of imposter syndrome. There are plenty of poignant moments, Bob Mayo and John Siomos’ deaths, his relationships with ex-wives and his kids, but the sheer joy he describes when touring with Bowie, in playing small venues as he restarted his live music career, and the absolute musical heaven of the Guitar Circus take this from a chronology or philosophy of music book to a true portrait by and of the artist. I wrote about Frampton’s retirement 18 months ago, and now we know the full backstory.
41. “Dead Lies Dreaming,” sci-fi, Charles Stross, finished November 9.
Ostensibly the 10th book in the Laundry series, Stoss’s latest installment picks up in UK where the government has been replaced by the eldritch horrors of previous book. A plot to further mentally subvert the populace through a lost book of incantations plays out through three intersecting points of view with the usual humor, snark and eerie constructs that are the hallmarks of Stross’s writing. I missed Mo and Bob Howard so took the time to read Stross’s explanation of how the Laundry Files have run their tortured and tortuous course and that “Dead” is either a jumping off point to a conclusion or something new . Honestly, I found the last two Howard-infused Laundry Files books disturbing, so this is a (nice? reasoned? calculated?) departure.
42. “Dystopian Lawyer,” sci-fi, Christopher Brown, finished November 22.
Completing the hat trick of dystopian future/eco disaster books, I found this one harder to follow than the other two in terms of discerning motive, plot and sequence. Building on the ideas of his other books, it’s less of a Scott Turow style legal thriller than an exploration of the failure and recovery modes extrapolated from current climate and party politics. I didn’t quite figure out the moral of the story — about the higher order ethical ground, about pursuing justice without vengeance, or about choosing the appropriate targets for prosecution, personal and professional.
43. “Autonomous,” sci-fi, Annalee Newitz, finished December 2.
An exploration of what “ownership” means from drug discovery to personal freedom. Disturbing, sometimes touching, thought-provoking as Newitz digs into what it means to be truly autonomous if various social strictures — availability of food, water, healthcare, and work — are limited. I alternately thought about Bubbles, the defense robot who appears in Jeph Jacques’ “Questionable Content” as a love interest, Cory Doctorow’s “After the Siege” story about the inefficient distribution of public good patents, and our attempts to put gender labels on everything. Discovered her work through a panel she did with Cory Doctorow and I’ll be consuming the rest of her catalog.
44. “Off The Back Of A Truck,” non-fiction/TV, Nick Braccia, finished December 12.
I expected to be reading this like a Quentin Tarrantino film — choppy, with lots of jumping back and forth as I crammed chapters in between flights or waiting for cars to meetings. Instead, I read it from cover to cover, and loved it. There is homage in the Sopranos of which I was blissfully ignorant; there are cinematic techniques and parallels that were and remain ground breaking television. And there’s a moral, cultural, and self-reflective imperative captured in these analyses that will make me watch the entire series again, even knowing how the 90-odd deaths and hierarchies play out. It’s like Spark notes for adults, and you want to watch and read and listen again.
45. “Orders of Battle (Frontlines Book 7),” sci-fi, Marko Kloos, finished December 16.
Shorter, pithier, less space opera explosion and more single character development — told completely through the perspective of Andrew Grayson whom we’ve followed for six previous books. I was expecting this to wrap the Frontlines series, but it’s clear there is at least another, if not 2–3 more books to come, and the future plots lines are set. I’ll admit to being a bit bored with the series in some of the middle books, but I get the feeling Kloos has an ending in mind that will be more insightful than we’re expecting. He writes military sci-fi incredibly well; capturing the alternate terror and boredom of battle and the dread of not knowing.
46. “The Blade Between,” sci-fi/fantasy, Sam Miller, finished December 23.
Sam Miller’s writing is oddly creepy yet comforting; you want his weider, tortured characters to succeed despite their faults (real and imagined). Some of the same themes from “Blackfish City” re-emerge — cities and their long term residents under duress, saviors in multiple guises, giants under the deep. Like Neil Gaiman’s “Ocean At The End of the Lane,” or Jo Walton’s “Among Others” there is a sense of otherness, a sense of not-fitting-in at home, that makes this both heroic and tragic in alternating chapters. I found myself also thinking of the 1980 John Carpenter movie “The Fog” (featuring Jaime Lee Curtis, Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau, among others).
47. “The Future of Another Timeline,” sci-ifi, Annalee Newitz, finished December 28.
Great man versus collective action; time travel versus future history; radical edits versus crowdsourced convergence to truth. If history was truly extruded through Wikipedia, then one of its stories would be Newitz’s book. There are shadows of the axolotl tanks of Herbert’s “Dune,” accurate historical references, local rooting that is personal and palpable and enough research to make you read the author’s note to see how and why they took liberties with recorded history.