I read 66 books this year, second only to 2014’s high water mark of 70, when I was willfully unemployed for the first six months and had a two-hours-per-day London tube commute in the second half. I might have assumed that as a Melburnian undergoing one of the world’s longest lockdowns – personally greatly extended, as I have a vulnerable partner, into a period of self-isolation that lasted from about March to November – to have increased my reading even more than that. But I suppose I don’t actually do a lot of reading at home; I do it on the tram, or on my lunch break out of the office, or on the beach. At home I generally only read before bed, and the unique stresses of 2020 meant I also upped my evening drinking and wasn’t typically in the mood for half an hour of literature before sleep.

So 66 will have to do, and it’s a shame that from that I could only winnow eight books I thought worth writing about. Maybe next year we’ll get back to the magic number of 10. And on a similar note, looking ahead to 2021, even though I don’t much review books anymore I may shift Grub Street to another site – if the formatting of this post looks completely haywire to you it’s because WordPress has become increasingly unusable in recent years, particularly with the forced rollout of its “block” editor, and even though I’ve been blogging here for 13 years I’m ready to walk away from it with the same attitude of somebody leaving a toxic marriage. (Minor insult: I note in the preview window that even though the platform no longer has any way to introduce a simple line break, in either the HTML or visual editor, they will absolutely change “WordPress” with a lower-case P into ~*~WordPress~*~. Get your fucking priorities in order.)

8. Kindred

“I’d rather see the others.”
“What others?”
“The ones who make it. The ones living in freedom now.”
“If any do.”
“They do.”
“Some say they do. It’s like dying, though, and going to heaven. Nobody ever comes back to tell you about it.”

Suddenly and inexplicably, a successful writer in the 1970s is teleported back in time to an antebellum slave plantation in Virginia. What would be an exciting time travel adventure in the hands of Octavia E. Butler’s contemporaries is transformed by the fact that, like her author, Butler’s protagonist is a black woman. It’s not a particularly radical notion today to re-examine history through the eyes of the oppressed, but I imagine it was fairly fresh ground in the 1970s science fiction scene, and Kindred held a place in the American school curriculum for decades for good reason. It’s a compelling, easily readable novel with a raft of well-sketched characters – particularly Rufus, the plantation’s heir, whose half-hearted gestures of occasional compassion are nowhere near enough to overcome the selfishness bred into him by power and privilege.

7. Blind Lake

Out in the darkness the fire had already been reduced to smouldering embers in the wet snow. A couple of people had died here, and they had died, it seemed to Chris, in order to communicate a message to Blind Lake in the bluntest possible way. You may not pass. Your community has become a cage.

At a federal research facility near Blind Lake, Minnesota, scientists use highly advanced computer technology to study intelligent life on another planet: observing the daily movements of a creature they dub “the Subject,” a chitinous alien who leads a repetitive life in a vast city. On the same day that Blind Lake undergoes a sudden lockdown and quarantine of both people and data, sealing several thousand scientists and their families inside the campus with no explanation forthcoming, the Subject departs his city and ventures into the wilderness. These dual mysteries, and the question of whether they might be related – or the assumption that they must – are the driving heart of a sci-fi mystery thriller that kept me engrossed all the way to the end.

6. The Reverse of the Medal

With one movement hundreds of broad-brimmed tarpaulin-covered hats flew off and the cheering began, the fierce full-throated cheering he had so often heard in battle.

Patrick O’Brian’s phenomenal (and phenomenally long) historical fiction series about Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his friend the physician/naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin was already one I’d started to ration. Last year I read only three of them almost back-to-back while travelling in Europe, and this year I read just two. I’ve decided they’re the kinds of books one ideally reads on holiday: not because they’re what you might think of as an easy “beach read,” but because you want to read them near the ocean, feeling the sun and smelling the brine, in a location outside of your ordinary routine, with the thought of what it might be like to experience a new land not as a white-collar drone on a one-week vacation but rather a young midshipman at the beginning of his career on the adventure of a lifetime. And reading them in my one-bedroom apartment through the long, gruelling and mostly wintry Melbourne lockdown just didn’t feel right.

I have little to say about the two that I did read other than that they serve as a continuation of a long story which is one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Neither are among the greatest entries in the series, though The Reverse of the Medal does culminate in what is very possibly the series’ greatest individual scene.

5. The ’40s, The ‘50s, and The ‘60s

When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.

Three books, and this is cheating a little because I finished The ‘40s in 2019, but these three collections from the New Yorker were fantastic slow-consumption reads that I worked my way through over the course of about 12 or 16 months. Selected and edited by the current staff to showcase some of the best writing the magazine produced in the decades each volume represents, they contain pieces as varied as long-form journalism about the D-Day landings or a Southern lynching or the now-quaint youth gangs of 1950s Brooklyn, profiles of figures ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Albert Einstein to Marlon Brando, reviews of contemporary films, books and architecture, short fiction, poetry and more. It was a wonderful way to grasp the feeling of those thirty years (representing a classic age in New York City’s history) as well as seeing how those decades were different from how pop culture has trained us to think of them. An excellent concept executed brilliantly, and it’s a real shame the New Yorker apparently decided to stop with these volumes rather than carry on with the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and – why not? – the ’00s and ’10s. We are, after all, adrift on the currents of history – currents which have become alamringly white and churning – and what’s written right now may very well come to be seen as an artefact of the past before too long.

4. Dark Matter

“Are you happy with your life?”

This is the kind of book you want to go into blind, which makes it virtually impossible to talk about. Suffice to say that on a typical evening in Chicago our humble family man protagonist is abducted off the street by a mysterious masked figure and launched into one of the most page-turning, pot-boiling, compulsively readable sci-fi airport thrillers I’ve ever read. I was enjoying it well enough already when a seeming moment of triumph instead threw the main character into even deeper shit, beginning a very clever third act, as the inevitable consequences of the well-established rules of this world finally, shockingly, manifested themselves. Maybe sharper-minded readers might spot that twist ahead of time, but I didn’t, and found it to be a hugely compelling ending to an already excellent thriller.

3. Crisis Zone

“This is really fucked up and excessively gratuitous. But also weirdly beautiful.”

This is being released in book form in 2021, but I’ve already read it, because almost every day this year – from when the coronavirus exploded in March all the way to the end of December – Simon Hanselmann published about ten panels per day on his Instagram of Crisis Zone, an off-the-cuff Meg, Mogg and Owl serial story in which they cope with the pandemic lockdowns, the BLM protests and Seattle anarchists’ autonomous zone, the West Coast wildfires, unexpected Netflix stardom, their own insanely spiralling hijinks and, ultimately, a family unit which eventually arrives at something like functioning dysfunction. I’ve long been a fan of Hanselmann’s work, with some of his volumes taking out the number one place on this list in years past, but Crisis Zone not only continued to combine Hanselmann’s winning mixture of gross-out comedy with a carefully restrained tendency towards occasional gravitas – Owl gets at least one moment of fist-punching heroism in this – but delivered it in a truly perfect medium for 2020. In a year when so many of us spent countless hours doomscrolling increasingly bleak news on our phones while lying in bed or sitting on the couch, it was always a pleasure to open Instagram and read another entry in an ongoing serial of chaos and catastrophe that seamlessly blended real world events into Hanselmann’s unique universe of quotidian sharehouse squalor (both physical and moral). God bless this house of degenerates as we blast into an uncertain 2021.

2. Piranesi

“You haven’t seen anyone else in the labyrinth, have you?”

Fourteen years after the incomparable Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susannah Clarke gifts us the very different but equally brilliant Piranesi. In a vast and beautiful labyrinth of rooms filled with ornate staircases and marvellous statues, lower floors claimed by the ocean and higher floors lost in the clouds, the titular Piranesi makes a pitiful living eating seaweed and drinking rainwater – yet he is happy, entirely at peace with himself, extolling to the reader the self-evident glories of the House and the World (to him, they are the same). It’s soon apparent to the reader that Piranesi is an amnesiac who does not understand how he came to be in this strange place or the cruelties which were inflicted upon him, and the gradual revelation that comes to him and to us throughout the book is one of the best uses of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever read. Piranesi is another fantasy masterpiece by Susannah Clarke, and it’s society’s loss that her chronic illness prevents her from being more prolific.

1. The Stand
the stand 2 (3)
By dawn they were running east across Nevada and Charlie was coughing steadily.

In the year 2020, could it be anything else? I re-read Stephen King’s magnum opus for the first time in years because of the pandemic, of course, but it’s taking out the top place because I was surprised by how genuinely good it still is. The Stand is a gripping odyssey from the very first moment, as a soldier wakes his wife and baby in the middle of the night to flee a top secret base where the US government brews up biological weapons. Neither that soldier nor his family will survive very long, but their actions spread repercussions across the whole world, and The Stand takes us inside the heads of very ordinary people and their ordinary problems right before they all just have one big problem, together.

I ordered a copy of this just as the pandemic became truly global – and, obviously, because of the pandemic – in March, when there was a palpable sensation of the ticking clock, of day-by-day changes, of the sense that every individual human being on the planet was about to be impacted by something in a way that hadn’t happened since World War II, and (in Australia, at any rate) an urgent sense that things had to be done soon to protect us. The Stand’s first act deeply embodies that feeling, with King never losing sight of how bizarre it is that one summer morning you can be leaving a one-night-stand’s apartment in beautiful sunshine in a normal life, and two weeks later you’re in the same city but in a very, very different world; it’s a book which is very fundamentally about how the rock beneath your feet can be suddenly yanked away. Perhaps this is true of all post-apocalyptic novels, but The Stand excels at it. From Frannie burying her father to Nick watching the streetlights go out in a rural town to Larry wandering through a desolate Manhattan, the first act of The Stand is a masterpiece in illustrating the wrenching shock that comes to individuals at the end of the world.

The Stand certainly has its flaws – chief among them a wheel-spinning middle act and the story really being two very different kinds of stories – but it’s still a big, bold, weird, imaginative brick of a novel (1439 pages in the uncut edition) that’s a 10/10 tour de force and indisputably the best book I read all year. It’s the quintessential Stephen King book, a classic of mid-20th century popular fiction, and one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written.

My full, long review