I didn’t just read the best books of 2020. I read a lot of other things, too! Many of these were still good, just not the best of the year. Others… weren’t the best.
Odd and the Frost Giants
by Neil Gaiman
Is it sad I don’t remember anything about the plot of this book? I remember enjoying it. The book itself as an artifact is beautiful. (There’s just something about a well-bound book, isn’t there?) I usually love Gaiman’s writing, and I do recall being charmed by this story. But I read this book about six weeks ago and… nothing.
So it was charming but not memorable? I guess there are worse things for a book?
When the Waker Sleeps
by Ron Goulart
This take-off of “When the Sleeper Wakes” was honestly more fun than I thought it would be. A group of people are tricked into a medical experiment where they sleep for fifty years, awaken for about a month, and then sleep another fifty repeatedly. The author clearly enjoys making up ludicrous situations and torturing his characters. I’m glad it was a fast read; going through the cycle numerous times would get old fast. Thankfully, it’s a short book.
The Gunsmith: The Rat’s Nest
by J. R. Roberts
There we go. Fastest review ever!
[I can’t find a cover for this one!]
The Identity Plunderers
by Isidore Haiblum
He wakes with no memory of who he is. He’s in a prison in some futuristic world. He must escape.
This other guy, he’s just a PI tracking down a missing persons case in modern-day New York.
This is another slim book that knew exactly how long to be. The end is piled up with thrilling twists ad turns. This is another one I recommend!
by Robert B. Parker
She’s a good girl caught in a terrible world, having to do terrible things to survive. Spencer’s bothered by it. There’s no payday involved, but it’s the right thing to do. So the PI goes to rescue her and gets in a boatload of trouble.
Though science fiction and fantasy are always my personal favorite genres, I constantly try to expand my repertoire of what I read. I’ve never read a hard-boiled detective novel, so this was a good experience for me. I enjoyed it. I realized as I was reading it that the novel is part of the novel series that the TV show Spencer for Hire was based on. My dad watched that show. I don’t remember much of it except Captain Sisko was in it… (Or, rather the actor who played Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)
The Drowning Eyes
by Emily Foster
I want to read more about this world. Pirates, weather witches, and a lived-in setting with engaging characters that made me want to know so much more. This book is a novella. If you’re looking for a fast read in a good fantasy islander setting, check this out.
I need to find out if this author has done more!
Thrilling Adventure Yarns
edited by Robert Greenberger
I backed this project on Kickstarter. It’s a great collection of pulp-style short stories. Like any anthology, there are highs and lows. Unfortunately, there’s a few… real duds that soured the experience for me, but for the most part it’s solid. I enjoyed that it’s sorted into different kinds of thrilling stories – anything from pirates to detective to thrilling romance. I understand that there’s a second volume in the works, and I’m planning to back it.
by Vivian Vande Velde
Imagine you could go back in time, but only 23 minutes. Imagine you can do it a total of ten times. And imagine you witness a brutal bank robbery. If you use your ability, can you do anything with just 23 minutes?
The book is a fast read aimed at younger teens, but it doesn’t shy away from the intensity of the situation. The heroine is a fast-thinker and immediately likable, though her character is strong. This was another positive reading experience.
The Land of Forgotten Girls
by Erin Entrada Kelly
Her mom died. Her father remarried to get them out of the Philippines and to the States. And then… her dad leaves, abandoning her and her little sister with their cruel stepmother.
And then her little sister starts saying their aunt is coming to take them home to the Philippines. Their imaginary grandmother.
This was a heartbreaking children’s novel, filled with beauty and hope. This is one that I hope teachers will take note of – it should be read in classrooms.
Out of the Soylent Planet
by Robert Kroese
So, Starship Grifters is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Imagine Han Solo with no redeeming value having misadventures trying to find fortune, and you’ve got the basic idea. I highly recommend it. Its sequel, Aye, Robot, had the usual sequel problems. It’s still good, but not as good as the original. And then… then we get to this book in the saga. It’s still funny. It’s still got a pretty good narrative. Unfortunately, though, it just doesn’t hold up to the hilarity of its predecessors. If you’re looking for comedy sci-fi, please, please check out Starship Grifters. This one you can get to if you’re curious, but don’t start here.
Crucible of Gold
by Naomi Novik
It’s the next Temeraire book! I tend to read one novel in this series a year, and now I’m getting a little depressed. See, this was book seven in the saga, and there are only nine books. I’m getting close to the end!
This book was clearly setting up for the end of the series. It’s good for what it was, but it mostly served to make me eager to move on to the next book. Look, if you like tall sailing ships, if you like dragons, well, you need to read this series. It is solid.
Swords Against Wizardry
by Fritz Leiber
I’d never read Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. I thought it was time.
These are fun classic sword-and-sorcery tales. There’s a reason they’re considered classics; in many ways, these books helped define the genre.
That said, I didn’t feel any need to come back to read more about these characters. Because it’s a classic, I’ve unknowingly read a lot of what’s come after. People have riffed on this theme long enough that the classics, while still feeling classic, seem… almost watered down. I dunno. It’s good. I’m glad I read it. I just don’t feel the need to go back.
Edited by Sumiko Saulson
I wanted to like this so much more than I did. So, I backed this project on Kickstarter. They’re all speculative stories written by authors who are disabled in one way or another. These stories were written with real passion, and many with skill. I’ve worked in group homes and come to love many people with disabilities, so I wanted to support the project. After all, so often in speculative fiction disabilities simply don’t seem to exist.
And yet… sigh.
There are a few real gems in this collection. Most of the stories, though, just didn’t hit me. Like I said, I just wanted to like this so much more than I did.
Under Her Black Wings
Edited by Kandisha Press
It’s another anthology! One of my friends appeared in this one, and I have a thing for supporting small press publishers. This collection of short horror stories are all written by women! I didn’t have any nightmares after reading through them, but many were of good quality. Horror isn’t really my genre usually, so I can’t say how this compares to other horror anthologies, but I enjoyed it.
The Log of a Cowboy
by Andy Adams
I mentioned before I’m trying to expand my horizons genre-wise. I’ve started with westerns, and here I read some fictionalized non-fiction. Andy Adams really did ride the cattle trails several times. In this book, he combines all the interesting things that did happen to him into the space of one drive. The original book came out in 1903, and this printing preserved all the original spellings and wordings, which gave a real atmosphere to the text. I learned a lot about how things were with real cowboys, and Adams knows how to keep the attention of the reader. If you’re interested in more historically-accurate tellings of cowboys, this is worth your time.
Broadswords and Blasters issue 12
Edited by Cameron Mount and Matthew X. Gomez
So, I’m in this issue of Broadswords and Blasters. I like the story I have in it. But what shocked me as I read the rest of this issue…
This magazine was made for me.
It’s so over-the-top with action, and yet solid in character and world building. I want to read more of many of these stories! I need to go back and get some of the older issues.
Shadows of Sanctuary
Edited by Robert Lynn Asprin
So Thieves’ World was huge for me growing up, but I never read it. See, the only bookstore around was the B. Dalton’s in the local mall. I’d often hang out in the Star Trek/ Star Wars aisle, which would also have a few other speculative series. One of them was… Thieves’ World. At the time, it was a revelation: a world shared by a number of authors. Every book was a collection of short stories and novellas taking place in a seedy fantasy setting.
I enjoyed the collection as my first taste of Thieves’ World. The thing was… it didn’t feel unique. I’ve read so many “gritty fantasies” at this point that though this was supposedly the first (or at least one of the first), it didn’t feel like there was anything overly new in it. For what it was, I enjoyed it, and I’ve got two more of the anthologies I’m planning to devour in the next year or two. It’s just that gritty fantasies aren’t that unique anymore!
[no cover available]
Zane Grey’s Greatest Animal Stories
Edited by Loren Grey
Another western?! In fact, it is another western! This time, my first foray into Zane Grey. It’s a series of stories centered on horses and dogs.
So, there’s this whole genre of children’s books that focus on horses and dogs, and I never got into them. At all. I tried back in gradeschool, but they just bored me to tears.
I think the difference is that Grey never talks down to the reader. It’s not, “Golly, look at this nice horse!” but “He had to win this race no matter what.” I’m not sure I loved these, but they certainly didn’t bore me. I made it through the book fairly quickly.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
by Eiko Kadono, Translated by Lynne E. Riggs
Oh, this was just a delightful and light book. Kiki needs to make her way as a witch. This novel chronicles her first year away from home, how she figures out what to do, and the adventures she has on the way. I know there’s a Studio Ghibli film based on the book, but as I’ve not seen the movie, I can’t tell you how close the two are. I can say that this reminded me in all the right ways of the Mary Poppins books, and that’s never a bad comparison.
A Texas Cowboy
by Charles A. Siringo
I read two cowboy autobiographies this year! Siringo’s writing did not capture me near as much as Adams’ book did. He covers a lot of space by simply saying, “And then we did this for five months.” As a result, this isn’t nearly as compact a narrative. It does cover the bulk of his life. I do love his honesty, though. In the foreword, he says that he noticed people were making money writing about cowboys, so he figured he might get some money writing his own story. +1 for honesty!
Dorothy of Oz
by Roger S. Baum
A few years ago, I read Lion of Oz by this same author, a descendant of L. Frank Baum, the original author of the first Oz stories. That book felt saccharine and just bland at the exact same time. Then I received this book for Christmas.
I’m grateful that this book, while still nowhere near as good as the classic books by Baum or the even better books by Ruth Plumly Thompson, it does hold its own as an Oz narrative. I was annoyed more than once that this felt more like a sequel to the MGM movie and not the books (they are not the same), it was at least passable.
Iron & Blood
by Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin
I’ve been wanting to read Gail Martin’s works for a while. Unfortunately, I never seem to find book one in any of her series. Books two or three? All the time! Well, at least I came across this, the first book in a series. It was steampunk, too, a genre I’ve rarely read but always enjoyed when I did.
And… I enjoyed this. It wasn’t “Wow!” or anything, but it was decent. And… I’m sorry to say, that was about it. It didn’t arrest my attention the way I wanted to.
I’m not sure if it’s because she was cowriting or I’m just not made for that style, but… man. I wanted to like this more.
That said, I am planning to continue looking for her books to give her another chance!
Edge of Oblivion
by Joshua A. Johnston
Sometimes you read the first chapter of a book and you say, “This book is going to be good.” I had that experience here.
A massive unknown object is utterly obliterating planets. The Federation scrambles every single ship they can to stop its rampage. However, a long-shot chance links the object to a rare metal. One ship is sent to track down what it can find about the metal and figure out any weaknesses.
And the metal is found in a certain ink on ancient documents that talk about the coming of a destroyer.
The novel is Christian fiction, and I really enjoyed a lot of the characters and setup. The action ratchets up. And then… then… a deus ex machina ends the book. Arg!
That said, this is book one in a trilogy, and I am planning to read the next book. As I said, the characters were great, and there’s no preaching going on in the book. And that first chapter, when then unknown object attacks the first planet, there’s a palpable sense of menace. I’m very willing to go back and read more in this setting!
It’s another Han Solo setup! The crew is running low on cash, the captain doesn’t have any morals, and really just wants a good payday. And then a time traveler shows up. Time travelers are illegal. They always cause trouble. And his second-in-command keeps on having dreams that come true. Oh, and a beautiful bounty hunter is on his trail. And then the captain is chosen to compete in the deadliest game show in the galaxy. Is anything ever going to go right?
The first novel in the trilogy was a lot of fun. The books that follow aren’t as good, but still worth the time. This is another Christian fiction series, but in this case, it’s just that one character happens to be Christian. Again, no preaching, which I appreciated. It’s a clever series, and one I recommend.
The New Doctor Who Adventures
Timewyrm: Exodus by Terrance Dicks
Timewyrm: Apocalypse by Nigel Robinson
Timewyrm: Revelation by Paul Cornell
Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible by Marc Platt
Cat’s Cradle: Warhead by Andrew Cartmel
Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark by Andrew Hunt
Classic Doctor Who went off the air, but the fans clamored for more. The New Doctor Who Adventures was the answer. The showrunner of the last season outlined what he’d had planned, and that formed an outline for the novels. I read the first two sets within the series. The novels are all at least decent, with a few being really, really good. Timewyrm: Exodus and Cat’s Cradle: Warhead in particular were just fantastic. If you’re a Who fan, particularly of the secenth Doctor, these are well worth your time.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library
by Chris Grabenstein
My older son insisted I read this. It was a lot of fun! Imagine Willy Wonka meets Westing Game and you’ve got a pretty good feel. Lots of riddles and competition between kids in a zany setting!
by K. W. Jeter
At the end of The Time Machine, the narrator goes forward in time, back to the Morlocks to rescue his beloved. But what if the Morlocks captured him and used the time machine to go back and conquer the past? The book is a lot of fun with steampunk sensibilities.
Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz
by Ruth Plumly Thompson
I usually love Thompson’s Oz books even more than the original. She’s got more wit than Baum by far, and her characters are usually even more unique. That said, this one… just didn’t click for me. It was certainly a good Oz outing, but nothing “stuck” the way it has for a lot of her other books. If you’re looking for a good one from her, I recommend Handy Mandy in Oz.
The Tapestry: The Hound of Rowan
by Henry H. Neff
Do you remember when there were all the Harry Potter rip-offs? Some were honestly unique settings that used Pottermania to sell their wares. Others were blatant rip-offs. I can’t figure out which this is. I wanted to like the book so much more, but the plodding pace just didn’t hold my attention. I own most of the rest of the series, but I don’t know if I’ll be returning.