by Eris Young
I had a couple opportunities to write ‘best books of 2020’ lists this year, so I wanted to do something a little different for this blog post (also it’s a bit late for a retrospective considering 2020 is over!) So here are twelve books that I’ve been meaning to read for way too long, or that I had planned or wanted to read in 2020 but couldn’t for whatever reason.
One factor you might see reflected in the following list is that in 2020 I set myself a ban on reading books by straight white cis guys. As a result, my choices were narrowed down slightly in 2020 - and I ended up readings some fan-fucking-tastic books! I highly recommend this method.
I was never hard-up for options, and leaving behind white male mediocrity felt pretty freeing. On the other hand, it also made me realise that straight cis white guys have, in fact, written some pretty good books! So I got to thinking about not only what I wanted to read but why I wanted to read it. Did I honestly think this white dude book was going to be good, or did I just want to read it because of the hype? This is a good mental exercise when it comes to reading, period.
On to the list…
Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
A classic of science fiction, obviously. I’ve been meaning to read this one pretty much since I first heard about it. The same goes for Earthsea, which I’d known about since high school but didn’t read until 2019. With Left Hand of Darkness, I think because it’s considered such a mainstay of the genre, and also because it’s science fiction rather than fantasy, I was a little intimidated. To counteract this, I’ve picked up a cute, approachable little copy from somewhere: pocket-sized and smelling of old paper glue, and no thicker than my pinkie finger.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
See above! This is another classic sci fi novel, and like Left Hand, Ancillary Justice also does very interesting things with gender. I tried to start reading this one late last year, but it was a bit too cerebral for my mindset at the time, and other commitments got in the way of me really sinking into it.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Kind of a pivot here, or maybe not - one of the things I really enjoy about science fiction is the different fields in which the authors have technical knowledge. The best science fiction I’ve read has demonstrated the author’s deep understanding or research into a topic, be it political science, biotechnology or linguistics. Melville deeply understood whaling and shipboard life, and I’m attracted to the technical minutiae of maritime life. (One of my favourite books from 2020 was Outlaw Ocean, a quite technical but also thrilling journalistic deep dive into the world of illegal fishing!)
The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Tsing
Speaking of technical minutiae, I’ve been meaning to read this book since it came out a few years ago! I’ve always been fascinated by fungus, both to eat and to study, and likewise attracted to books that explore supply chains and the ramifications of global capitalism on other areas like ecology and sociology. So this book seemed like the perfect marriage between subjects I’m interested in! I meant to borrow this one from a friend, but didn’t get there in time, and the friend had lent it to someone else! So it’s time to lay hands on a copy for myself.
Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames
Now it is time for a pivot. This one is pure fun. I read Kings of the Wyld a couple years ago and loved it, it’s a classic “get the band/crew back together for one last gig/heist” storyline, which I’m a total sucker for, and it played with fantasy tropes and cliches to hilarious effect. The sequel features a woman protagonist (book one was a bit of a sausagefest), so I’m all in.
Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
I read Annihilation over the course of like a single day, and it thrilled and utterly terrified me. I remember standing at the till at work of a slow sunday (sorry, day job), and racing through it, unable to hold in my visceral reactions to what was happening on the page (sorry, coworkers). But one of the best things about Annihilation was the all-female cast of characters. It made the book feel fresh and exciting since most “group of scientists travel to X to do Y” books are male-
led, but it also meant that when I cracked open Authority to start it right off the back of Annihilation, I saw the word “he”, went “ugh”, and put the book down. But I’m willing to give it a go this time round, and hope that there will still be at least a mixed-gender cast.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
I loved this book when I read it in high school, and I’m excited to re-approach it much older and (hopefully) a bit wiser. I remember loving the gothic atmosphere of the story, and the fact that it incorporated (at least to my young mind) speculative elements, when most of the books we had to read for school were boring realism. I don’t remember if the book actually is speculative fiction, but I’m excited to find out. Also, the publisher put out a gorgeous new edition last year, a small hardback in pink and black, with a memento mori on the front, so I just had to treat myself.
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
This one has been on my radar ever since it came out: I’m very interested in reading a fantasy take on the Opium Wars, especially from a Chinese (or Chinese-American) perspective (I mean I’d never read a book on the subject by a White British person…) Almost all of my favourite books combine speculative literary devices with a deep understanding of a technical or academic subject, so if it lives up to the hype, I know I’m going to love this one.
The Unquiet Heart by Kaite Welsh
A friend book! Kaite is an author I look up to so much: she’s driven, energetic in pursuit of her goals, and not to mention an excellent writer! She’s also a friend who has supported me ever since I moved to Edinburgh and started building my writing career. I absolutely loved Kaite’s first novel, The Wages of Sin (I mean, lady detective in Victorian Edinburgh, what’s not to love!) and had pre-ordered Unquiet Heart but there was some supply issue and my book never came! So I
didn’t manage to read this one last year as I’d intended.
Bitterhall by Helen McClory
Helen is another author I look up to, and am proud to call a friend (not trying to name-drop here, I swear!) Her prose is always rich, precise, evocative and perfectly calibrated to create an atmosphere that can be sultry, arcane, uncanny and always dark and mysterious. Her short fiction (see Mayhem &Death and On the Edges of Vision) is masterful, so I’m excited to sink my teeth into an entire novel of it!
The Power by Naomi Alderman
This one made such a huge splash when it first came out, I think I was actually put off. Or maybe I thought I’d missed the boat on it after everyone scrambled to read it, and then figured it wasn’t worth it. Whatever happened, it took me until last year to get hold of a copy, and until now to get round to it. I’m finding lately that I’m interested in violence: the different forms it takes, where it comes from and where it takes place and what its effects are, and I’m especially interested in women’s capacity for violence: there’s so much historical baggage around who is expected or even allowed to do violence, and the reversal of this specifically was one thing I loved about Annihilation. I’m also interested in power structure reversals (when they’re done well: I’m not about to read Save the Pearls), which is inherent in a lot of stories about female violence. So it’s definitely time to finally pick this one up!
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
This is a bit of an odd one. I’ve had it on my radar for ages because it seems to be both structurally interesting and extremely queer. I’m a huge sucker for queer historical fiction, and queer historical speculative fiction is like gold dust to me. On the other hand, one of my favourite speculative fiction authors and critics, Bogi Takács, who is intersex, had some issues with the way the story handles the intersex-ness of its protagonist. So I still plan on reading this one, but
I’ll be doing so with an eye specifically on these issues, and an ear open to criticism from intersex readers.
All these and more are available to buy from Lighthouse! What are you reading this year? Do you have a plan? Let us know!