Books I Read: 2020

What a year that was, huh? I did not think I’d be hunkered down under stay-at-home orders for pretty much all of 2020. I’ve struggled with accepting this fucked up “new normal” and I’ve grappled a lot of disappointments this year. Lockdown does provide the ideal conditions for doing a shit ton of reading though, so there’s that. But it also means seeing no friends and family in person ever, all socializing relegated to Zoom, and full blown germ paranoia insanity when I do tentatively venture out of my dwelling for “essentials” like Doritos and root beer.

I didn’t mind the first few months. It felt like the gently mandated reset we all needed. I was expanding by the day, my belly swelling with hormones and the aforementioned root beer, and it gave me lots of free quiet time to myself. I savoured that time, I truly did. We did as much baby preparation as we could and I spent lots of time on the couch absorbed in books. Any time feelings of anxiety and impending doom started to surface I just crammed them back down, deep inside my psyche where they couldn’t be noticed, and it was pretty nice. It was alright. It was fine. Fine fine fine.

This year’s reading list would easily be twice as long had I not produced a new human life in May. The first few months of Spring and Summer were a major adjustment. That really cut into my reading. But by the end of Summer I was back in the groove, and by Fall I was unstoppable. We figured out how to get the baby napping regularly and I found little pockets of spare time throughout the day for reading again. And when he started sleeping in his own room, I got reading before bed in my own room back!

In total I managed to read 38 books this year. I’m proud of that output, I think it’s a solid number. Not nearly as high as the number of diapers we’ve gone through, but respectable nonetheless. And it’s a solid list.

Here’s the official visual for anyone who would like to see the actual list of books I read in 2020:

And here’s the official list for those of you whose Operating Systems no longer support cursive writing:

  1. Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chobosky (January 5th)
  2. Full Throttle by Joe Hill (January 12th)
  3. The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (January 18th)
  4. Elevation by Stephen King (January 19th)
  5. Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom (January 21st)
  6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid (January 26th)
  7. Gwendy’s Magic Feather by Richard Chizmar (January 29th)
  8. The Dirty Book Club by Lisi Harrison (February 7th)
  9. My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (February 23rd)
  10. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (March 6th)
  11. Swan Song by Robert McCammon (April 11th)
  12. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (June 27th)
  13. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (July 8th)
  14. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (July 13th)
  15. Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage (July 19th)
  16. The One by John Marrs (July 27th)
  17. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King (July 30th)
  18. Duel by Richard Matheson (August 18th)
  19. Acid for the Children by Flea (August 20th)
  20. The Nice Guys by Charles Ardai (August 27th)
  21. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (September 7th)
  22. Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth (September 10th)
  23. The Institute by Stephen King (September 27th)
  24. The Cider House Rules by John Irving (October 7th)
  25. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (October 15th)
  26. The Dark Half by Stephen King (October 22nd)
  27. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff (October 27th)
  28. Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman (October 27th)
  29. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (October 30th)
  30. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (November 7th)
  31. Lisey’s Story by Stephen King (November 17th)
  32. The Green Mile by Stephen King (November 22nd)
  33. Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick (November 27th)
  34. The Colorado Kid by Stephen King (November 29th)
  35. You by Caroline Kepnes (December 2nd)
  36. Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes (December 6th)
  37. The Best of Roald Dahl by Roald Dahl (December 14th)
  38. The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish (December 15th)

Quite a varied list, but you can see some patterns too. I generally stick to fiction, but there were two autobiographies, by Flea and Tiffany Haddish. I’d say Flea’s was the better of the two, by far. Haddish was entertaining and I really felt for her at times, but Flea’s writing was much more literary and compelling. Although not as explicitly autobiographical as the Flea and Tiffany Haddish books, Molly’s Game and Black Klansman were highly enjoyable real-life retellings of an interesting period of their lives from Molly Bloom and Ron Stallworth. It’s not all supernatural, murderous dystopias for me, I do read real things too. Sometimes.

You know I tackled a bunch of S.K.’s stuff this year too, I always do! Lisey’s Story was absolutely abysmal. I don’t know how that even got published. It could have been a great novel, if not for all the nonsensical supernatural elements that just weren’t necessary. I bought into the story of a famous writer’s widow being terrorized by a psychotic fan, I wanted more of that and less of the ridiculous imaginary world and so so so annoying made up “inner marital language” the couple shared. I get it, all couples do develop their own shorthand over time, but the reader didn’t need to be beat over the head with it on every single page. It got to the point where I was literally rolling my eyes every single time I had to read the word “smucking”. Just use the word FUCKING loud and proud like normal people do! I guess maybe he wanted to be certain it wasn’t just Misery again but dressed up in different clothes? The Institute, The Green Mile, The Dark Half, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon were wonderful though. I loved every minute of those stories. If you’re not on a quest to read all of King’s works, then save yourself the headache and skip Lisey’s Story.

You’ll also notice I took on some heftier books this year. Imaginary Friend, Swan Song, The Goldfinch, and The Institute all fight in the heavyweight division. I started reading Swan Song at the beginning of lockdown. It’s a 1000+ page epic about a handful of plucky characters (and some despicable villains too!) figuring out how to restart life after a nuclear attack decimates America. You know, very fitting lockdown reading content.

And of course Neil Gaiman makes two appearances as well. I just admire his mind and his creativity so much! I know that if I pick up a book with his name on the cover I will not be disappointed. It’s impossible for him to let me down. I read Fortunately, The Milk and The Graveyard Book because I bought them for Woody. I know it’ll be a long time before he’s able to read chapter books, but I look forward to the days when I can introduce him to one of my all-time favourite authors and maybe read these ones to him, if he’s into it.

There was lots of great short fiction too. You know I love Joe Hill and Richard Matheson, they’re always a good time. But the book that really wowed me this year was The Best of Roald Dahl. I don’t think there’s anyone else on this whole entire planet, past or present, who can craft a short story as masterfully as him. Every single story in that book impressed me. So many delightful surprises, dark unexpected twists, and uncanny happenstances converge in these stories.

Looking back over this list, I’ll say it again, it’s solid. But out of all the great reads I had this year, these ones were the absolute best of the best (in no specific ranked order):

  1. The Best of Roald Dahl by Roald Dahl
    I hope I don’t oversell this book, but if you love good, well-crafted stories and sharp, witty writing you have to read it. If you aspire to be a writer, or if you’re already a writer and you want to up your game, read this book. You cannot go wrong. We all know and love Dahl for his whimsical children’s fictions like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, etc. Even if you don’t think it’s possible to love him more than you already do, you will. Your appreciation for his talent will deepen significantly when you read his short stories.
  2. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
    I love stories that take me back to the ’90’s. I love stories that have characters facing coming-of-age dilemmas. I love stories that are rife with interpersonal drama and tension. I enjoyed getting lost in 1997 again with Pearl and Moody and Mia and Izzy. And I had just gotten Amazon Prime and wanted to do my due diligence, reading the book before watching the miniseries. I like knowing the source material first.
  3. Swan Song by Robert McCammon
    This book is a lot like The Stand by Stephen King, so if you liked that book, then you’ll probably like this one too. Disaster annihilates pretty much all of the population and the handful of remaining survivors try to navigate their new post-nuclear strike worlds. Heroes and villains emerge, good clashes with evil, all that great stuff. Now is the time to pick up a giant book and immerse yourself in an epic tale. You’ve got nowhere else to go and no one to see, take a chance on a good long story.
  4. The Institute by Stephen King
    Just a really great Stephen King story where he does what he does best. I’ve read a lot of King, a lot. Not all of it yet, but I’m getting there. I find that modern era King books have been some of his best work. 11/22/63, Under The Dome, The Outsider, Sleeping Beauties, and the Bill Hodges Trilogy are all excellent, in my humble opinion. These stories are more action/adventure and exciting thrillers than they are outright horror stories. And I like that a lot about his writing lately, King gives good action. If you’re in agreement, then you’ll like The Institute too.
  5. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
    I started reading this book before my son was born, but I didn’t get that far into it, maybe 100 pages or so. I didn’t have any time or energy for reading in the very early weeks of Woody’s infancy, but I eventually circled back to it. And oh look at this, it’s a story about a boy whose mom dies when he’s thirteen and his entire life is thrown into complete chaos. Jesus Christ! I felt like an exposed nerve the whole time I was reading it. I’d just had a baby boy and the dynamic duo themselves, postpartum depression and pandemic anxiety, came out in full force, wreaking total havoc on my soul. This book was a gut punch to me, but in such an incredible way. It was serendipity that this would be the first book I finished as a new mother. Having a baby is paradigm shifting in its own right, I know that. But reading this book at this exact time in my life in these exact circumstances made me realize how incredibly important it is for me to raise a good and decent man. I had some profound moments with it. I’m so glad I read this frigging book when I did.
  6. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
    Mixing and melding the sci-fi/horror/fantasy genres with the openly racist 1950’s America? How’s that going to work? Can it be done? Oh it can be done, alright. The cunning way all of the individual character’s stories are woven together at the end, marvellous! It’s brilliant. I devoured it, couldn’t get enough. I can’t wait to watch the show based on this book when I finally decide to spring for a streaming service with HBO content.
  7. Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman
    Did you grow up with a dad who always had a ridiculous response for everything you asked? Who liked to embellish and make up ludicrous stories about the most mundane things? Who wouldn’t ever admit that Santa Claus is make believe? Even after you and your sisters caught him red-handed hauling in gifts from the garage one night? And even now, when you’re in your 30’s and he still insists that he was just picking those gifts up from his annual Parent-Santa conference? Seriously, he still will not give up that ghost! Then this book will remind you of him, and of all the fantastical far-fetched things he told you when you were growing up. Keep that magic alive, read it to your kids, you’ll have so much fun together.

I’m so grateful that even though I’ve gone nowhere and seen nobody, this year wasn’t a complete and total waste. I have all this reading to show for my lockdown life. (And my beautiful son too, of course!) I went on a lot of incredible journeys, and I saw the world in so many wonderful iterations. I escaped lockdown every time I opened a book. I fucking love reading, man. And I’m so glad that it’s one thing this pandemic hasn’t been able to take from me.

Summer Reading Roundup

I fucking love reading. I love it so goddamn much.

When I was younger I practically consumed books. The newest R.L. Stein was lapped up hungrily, then washed down with a healthy double digest of Archie. When I wasn’t acting a total nuisance to my parents, wreaking havoc on the household with my sisters, I was quietly stowed away in some corner of the house with my nose buried in a book. You name it, I read it. Dr. Seuss, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley Kids, Roald Dahl, Goosebumps, Tales of Redwall, Hardy Boys, Pippi Longstocking, and The Chronicles of Narnia. All present and accounted for.

I especially loved books in which teachers were aliens, people turned into animals, or ventriloquist dummies came to life at night. Those were the best books. Filling my head with fantastical stuff of that variety is probably why I’m such a weirdo today…

I’d even read at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping. It was stealth reading. I’d stand by the window, balancing precariously on the nightstand, and push the blinds aside. I pinned them against the glass with my shoulder to keep them out of my way. Then I’d tilt my book in just the right way, letting the glow from the streetlights outside illuminate the pages. And I’d stand there reading until I was tired. I’d have to be careful not to lose myself completely in my book, otherwise I might not hear my parents checking up. I couldn’t get caught, that would be big trouble. But it was worth the risk, and I loved every minute of it because I was greedy for reading.

And to this day my greed for reading has not yet abated.

I tend to read a lot more in the summer. Seems odd, I know. But there’s something about a spectacularly hot summer day that drives me to read. Summer is hardly even underway, but I’ve already burned through a bunch of awesome shit on my summer reading docket. The stuff I’ve been reading lately has been so fucking rad. So good that I’m reading on the subway to and from work. Which I normally wouldn’t do because its not enough time to really immerse yourself in the story. And you always get cut off, having to leave the train, at the most ill-timed moments. But I can’t help myself! The stuff I’m reading is too good. I just can’t wait another second to get back into the thick of it.

I have to share it. I can’t keep all this goodness to myself, that just wouldn’t be right. So if you’re looking for something really rad to read this summer, then I’ve got just the thing for you. Providing your tastes run a little oddball like mine, naturally.

SMASH’S SUMMER READING ROUNDUP

1) American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods

American Gods

This one is going to take you for a wild ride. It’s the story of Shadow, a man whose life is irrevocably changed by a chance meeting with a mysterious stranger. A stranger who introduces him to a motley assortment of Gods who were brought to America by the immigrants of our history books. Belief in these archaic gods has dwindled dangerously, putting them at odds with the gods of our present day. A war of epic proportions is brewing, the outcome of which could be catastrophic.

It’s riveting. Written in such a way that reader is directly deposited into Shadow’s shoes from the start. We meet our protagonist, and we immediately sympathize with his plight. When his journey begins, it’s confusing and weird at first. You’re confronted and confounded by a number of strange characters. You’re not sure what’s happening or why, but you know that all of it is totally illogical, nonsensical. Through the myths, legends, and tales of the immigrants that brought their gods to America which are interspersed with Shadow’s narrative, you begin to see. You’re awakened. Things start to click, and you start to believe. You see, you experience, you learn, and discover the power of faith right along with Shadow.

It’s strange and quirky, brimming with intrigue. It keeps you hanging on, worrying and wondering how it will play out. Simultaneously surprising and amusing, it’s worth your time. Gaiman is a masterful storyteller, and if you’re not familiar with his work then you need to get familiar.

I loved it. I give it a 9/10.

2) Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game

Ender’s Game

Ender Wiggin is taken from his home and all that he knows at the tender age of six. Because it is believed that he is the militaristic genius who can save earth from impending doom. He’s taken to battle school where he is mercilessly trained by his superiors in the art of war. The world government believes that they need to groom remarkably bright and capable children for a life of military success to protect earth from alien invasion and the subsequent domination or annihilation of the human race that is sure to follow. And they are coming, it’s irrefutable. A child of staggering strategic genius is our last resort. Will he rise to the occasion or get crushed by the onslaught of challenges heaped upon him at battle school?

I mean, come on. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? This is the quintessential work of science-fiction. Space travel, aliens, intergalactic war, cutting edge weaponry, null gravity fight sequences, and more! This book has got it all. It’s fast paced and exciting. Ender is an awe-inspiring character. His brilliance knows no bounds. But for every soaring success he experiences, Ender is met with shattering lows. His success comes at the cost of his innocence. Earth’s safety is insured through the manipulation and exploitation of a little boy whose been robbed of his youth, forced to grow up way too fast. Literally, the weight of the world is on his shoulders. You want him to succeed, but you pity him. And you’re appalled by the measures taken by the commanders to groom Ender to perfection.

I simply could not put this book down, it is an absolute treasure. And I’m really looking forward to the movie adaptation later this year. Perfect score, 10/10.

3) Desperation by Stephen King

Desperation

Desperation

There’s something evil afoot in Desperation, a small town in Nevada. More evil than you could possibly imagine. One by one, road weary travellers are picked up on interstate 50, just outside of town, and taken into the custody of the town sheriff. A family on vacation, a young married couple, an aging writer, and the town drunk are tossed into jail cells and terrorized by the maniac sheriff. But little do they know, he’s the least of their worries.

It’s everything you’d expect of a King novel. Grisly and gripping, sparing not a single gory detail. It’s frightening, but you can’t stop reading. There’s a creepiness about it that really burrows into you. I read this book over the course of two weeks. I do the bulk of my reading at night before bed. Which probably isn’t wise with horror fiction, but I couldn’t stop myself. And it had an impact, that’s for sure. Every night for the two weeks that I was reading this book, I had nighttime episodes, completely unbeknownst to me. It was only when D commented on it that I found out it was happening. He asked me what was up, said I’d been weird at night lately. When I asked him weird how, he told me a number of bizarre things. I was screaming bloody murder in my sleep, flailing my arms wildly. A couple of times I also leapt out of bed in a panic, pulling back the curtains and screaming at the bedroom window. I’d have a total freak out and then go back to sleep like nothing had happened. It was Stephen King, working his creepy magic on me. As soon as I finished the book, the nighttime episodes stopped.

It’s thrilling, it’s chilling, it’ll literally get inside of you. It’s not my favourite work by King, a little too heavy-handed on the God and prayer stuff, but it was a worthwhile read. If you can stomach horror fiction, then go for it. I’d say it gets a 7.5/10.

BONUS: D and I watched the made for T.V. movie version once I’d finished the book. It was spectacularly cheesy. The only real scares coming in the form of creepy crawlies. Snakes, tarantulas and scorpions. Watching that shit wriggle around on-screen scares the bejesus out of me!

4) Batman: Haunted Knight by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Batman: Haunted Knight

Batman: Haunted Knight

This is a compilation of three Batman Halloween Specials written and presented by the iconic Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. While working on these three tales of Halloween in Gotham City, Loeb and Sale were inspired to create The Long Halloween, which is my favourite Batman story to date and one of the most beloved works in the Batman canon. My favourite of these three stories is the second one, “Madness”, in which Batman squares off with The Mad Hatter, a psychopath whose moniker is derived from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He’s a challenging enemy for Batman because the reference to Carroll reminds him of his mother. Fighting Mad Hatter dredges up painful memories. The flashback sequence of Bruce reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with his mother just hours before her untimely death is gut-wrenching. We see the charming and precocious Bruce interacting freely with his mother, the emotional barriers we are accustomed to with Bruce Wayne have yet to be constructed. It makes you wonder what might have been, and if you love Batman as much as I do, it tears at your heart.

The artwork is sublime, and the stories are highly enjoyable. Easily, 8.5/10.

5) Y: The Last Man Vol. 1 Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and Jose Marzan Jr.

Y: The Last Man Vol. 1 Unmanned

Y: The Last Man Vol. 1 Unmanned

A mysterious plague has wiped out every single mammal with a Y chromosome on the planet. All of the men and male animals, dead. All of them except two. A young man named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand. For some reason they survived, as did all of the females. Yorick is now the last man on earth, and that is some serious shit to deal with. He’s got to keep his ass safe while trying to figure out what happened. It’s not exactly the repopulation fantasy some would think. It’s a hellish nightmare, every day a struggle to survive in an unfamiliar world. A world overrun by unruly, grieving, angry females trying to cope with what happened. Feminist extremists, power-hungry female politicians, and deadly secret services agents are engaged in a power struggle of epic proportions. And word’s just gotten out that there is a live human male roaming around…

This is a newly discovered series for me. I had been hearing nothing but good things about it, and I can happily say that all of the praise is warranted. It’s original and unique. The first volume in the series setting up what’s sure to be a remarkable adventure.

I can’t wait to rush out and grab the remaining volumes! Undoubtedly, 9/10.

So there you have it. The best of what I’ve been reading this summer. I can only hope that maybe there’s something there that piques your interest. Or maybe you’ve already read some of these titles. That would be even more rad because if you have we can chat all about it!

Or maybe you’ve got some totally awesome recommendations of your own that I can add to my list?