2020 Reads

1. Bloodchild by Octavia Butler ★

Book 1

Men very much get the better side of the pregnancy deal. The impact of this and Kindred make me think I’m going to read everything Butler has written.

2. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Book 2

Procedural set in Johannesburg with a Pullman twist.

I can’t decide if I like procedurals. For the first 80% I race through them, enjoying the pulpiness and trying to second guess the plot. They genuinely quicken the pulse and delay bed time. But as denouement approaches I get turned off and start to rationalise away my enjoyment. Probably being a snob again.

3. No one is too small to make a difference by Greta Thunberg

Book 3

Collection of essays from the impressive teenager. Leaves you feeling the planet is f■■■ed. F■■■.

4. Brand New Ancients by Kae Tempest ★★

Book 4

Updated Greek tradegy, complete with warrior half-brothers, an Amazonian landlady and a vile father God. A poem that has to be read aloud. Hugely inappropriate bedtime story for a baby, but she’s pre-verbal and enjoys the cadence.

He wakes up beside her and watches the shape of her,
breathes in the air that she breathes out.
The world is as vast and as small
as this bed, these four walls
it’s as if other than this there is nothing at all.

There’s even a YouTube link so I can watch Kae perform it and I can see how far away my interpretation was.

5. Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals by Derek Wall

Book 5

Pleasingly this book has a section pointing out that the tradegy of the commons was always a lie, told by imperialist Garrett Hardin. Rather than argue like a pub bore, Ostrom has the data to refute it.

Wall summarises her work as a set of rules:

  1. Think about institutions
  2. Pose social change as problem solving
  3. Embrace diversity
  4. Be specific
  5. Listen to the people
  6. Self-government is possible
  7. Everything changes
  8. Map power
  9. Collective ownership can work
  10. Human beings are part of nature too
  11. All institutions are constructed, so can be constructed differently
  12. No panaceas
  13. Complexity does not mean chaos.

Wall does a good job of boiling a life’s work into thematic chapters, rounded off with a bit of Marxist critique. The ideas are front-loaded, so I felt I got more out of the earlier chapters, but on review I’ve highlighted at least one section in every chapter.

6. How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand ★

Book 6

Notionally a book about buildings, but one that is often shared by the Web design community for the inchoate idea around layers and paces of change which Brand goes on to flesh out fully in The Long Now.

It’s a book that’s been on my wishlist for a few years, along with a few other design classics, so I was pleased to find I enjoyed it immensely. His advocacy of the vernacular and avuncular chime with my Jane Jacobs inspired views. And there’s many a good quote to nick:

All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong.

7. The Cockroach by Ian McEwan

Book 7

Too shallow a narrative with flat characters rather than caricatures. Mean-spirited rather than satirical. There’s no purpose or exploration of the reverse Gregor Samsa, beyond saying that those that disagree with McEwan about Brexit aren’t really human.

8. The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Book 8

My least favourite of the Lyra books so far. Veering into, dare I say it, being not very good.

On the plus, it was nice to stray into Middle Eastern mythology. But the characters—never massively likeable in any of the books—are mostly unlovable. The refugee and oil references, whilst good to see in a teen (?) book, were heavy-handed. Bit like The Cockroach in that regard. And Pullman can still only write love by declaring it from the mouth of another character.

I’ll read the last one when it comes out, and hope it’s this trilogy’s Subtle Knife.

9. The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Reijneveld ★

Book 9

Starts by reflecting the title; sadness wittily told. But morphs into an escape story.

She had eyes that always shone, as if there were battery-powered tea lights behind them that lasted a long time.

But the escape never comes. The pressure keeps building as the family fall apart, but there’s no release or chance of it. The community outside the family aren’t set-up to help either. Once the rot of sadness is allowed in, there’s no cure.

Ants can carry up to five thousand times their own weight. Humans are puny in comparison — they can barely lift their own body weight once, let alone the weight of their sorrow.

10. Dune by Frank Herbert ★

Book 10

Herbert does all of the, Paul, as you well know, explanatory world building bit.” which is a naff trope in Sci-fi. And he explains the plot in advance of it happening.

So it’s weird to say neither matters. The quality of the read is enough to ignore those tropes. The gender roles haven’t aged well, but the ecological ideas are still interesting as is the of-it’s-time religous interpretations.

For more deep thinking reviews of 50 year old classics like that, don’t forget to hit like and subscribe below.

11. After These Things by Jenny Diski

Book 11

Just floating this idea, but I don’t think Diski has forgiven God.

12. You can’t kill me twice (so please treat me right) by Charlene Yi

Book 12


My partner reads the newspaper
first because I always wet it
with my tears.

Just kidding,
I don’t have a partner
but I’m slowly building one out of


There are two glasses that are half empty,
that think they can complete each other

But every time they go into each other’s glasses,
they lose themselves completely.

That’s the catch: you can’t be anyone else’s half.

You need to fill yourself up, so you can be two glasses
clinking and toasting, enjoying one another.


Stop pouring breath
into the mouths
of the monsters
we won’t let die.

13. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Book 13

Lot of examples of the disparity. Some I knew, but too many I didn’t. Too many lethal ones that I didn’t.

The reality that gender-neutral does not automatically mean gender-equal would be an important start.

I read this during the peak of Black Lives Matter in the UK and found out that Perez had an unfortunate interaction with Reni Eddo-Lodge on BBC 4, (which she’s since apologised for) that highlighted that this book is light on intersectionality—race, class and biology. I’ve Angela Davis on reserve from the library and I’m interested to see how that can add to Perez’ work.

14. The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa ★

Book 14

There’s a verbosity in English which belies the sparsity of (my imagined version) the Japanese. You can feel when sentences are trying to convey a double-meaning which is lost in translation. Paper thin imagery of loss.

15. Girl, Woman, Other by Berndine Evaristo ★★

Book 15

Brilliant. A novel that could only be written by someone who’s lived. The conceit of meeting a character telling their story, only for them to appear as support in others stories is a delightful way to show the full person; inside and out. And the prosody of the book let’s you in to the not-so-secret fact the she’s primarily a poet. A 21st Century one at that.

Evaristo isn’t afraid to include unlikeable characters too (Carole and Shirley for me), but letting you see the fullness of their lives and how it’s shaped them so that none are irredeemable.

16. Paper Girls, Volumes 1-6 by Brian K Vaughn ★

Book 16

In the absence of Saga, another Vaughan comic. This time about time travelling paper girls from the 80s.

17. Walking Dead, Volumes 1-32 by Robert Kirkman

Book 17

Starts well, dips as Kirkman looks for places to take his characters and ends well enough.

I can’t shake the feeling that an actual apocalypse would be populated with nicer people behaving differently, but it’s a decent series with enough beats to keep me going through 32 volumes.

18. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Book 18

That one. You’ve possibly heard of it.

Robin Ince has voiced a theory on Book Shambles that this should be re-read once a decade and that your allegiances and interpretation will shift with age.

19. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Book 19

Whereas I found Graham Greene’s manliness trite and uncomfortable, Cormac McCarthy gets away with it. His books are superb and this is no different.

I’d seen the Coen brothers movie first, and it’s a faithful enough retelling that my brain wasn’t left the space to imagine the characters. Chigurh remains a remarkable villain.

20. Attrib by Eley Williams

Book 20

Puntastical wordplay runs through all the stories. Not quite poetry, but not quite prose. A diverting collection, albeit one I couldn’t warm to completely.

I’ve struggled to pin down why, but my best guess is that the punning is too arch. Not contrived, but not straight out funny enough either. All humour is personal, but I’d take Ben Moor over this.

21. Wilding by Isabella Tree ★

Book 21

Straight up wildlife porn for me. Isabella Tree certainly has a view of what a wild UK should look like—less forested than I’ve thought—but which is compellingly argued.

I was surprised how uncomfortable I felt at the idea of starvation culling a herd and the carcasses being left out. The lack of land bridges” sounds like starvation is too harsh, but it does happen in wild” Africa too. Maybe too much city in me.

Pasture-fed meat sounds like a delicious way to avoid vegetarianism. Charcuterie pony. Mmmm

22. Octopus Pie by Meredith Gran

Book 22

Read as part of her rerun. Thorough explanation of the art of comics by someone dedicated to her craft.

23. Difficult Women by Helen Lewis

Book 23

I like Lewis. Which puts me in a uncomfortable place online (and off). She cuts against the left-consensus on Trans-rights and that brings out legitimate complaints, but also an army of trolls. I disagree with her position (her actual position, rather than the cartoon demon), but find her writing engaging and thought-provoking. And funny.

It’s too trite and cute to call her a Difficult Woman for this and I’m still questioning my own lack of catholicism in side-lining this aspect of her public views.

24. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin ★

Book 25

No Country for old men all over again. A beautiful novel and beautiful film, met in the wrong order for my brain. And it is beauty, even though the subject matters are ugly.

25. Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis

Book 25

This sentence shows up in the opening paragraph:

But amidst all this scholarly activity, the special intuition of the female slave remains unpenetrated.

At that point you know your in the company of someone who understands the power of meaningful words.

Davis develops the idea that industrialisation diminished women’s rights by removing productive work in the home. Which corollaries 21st century automation and the collapse of swathes of (traditionally) men’s work. A loss of economic importance.

31 December 2020


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