2020: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

We’re still a month away from the end of the year, but my reading will probably consist mainly of Christmas books in December, and I hope and pray that life won’t come up and throw anything else at me in the final month of the year, either.  So I might as well post my “Year in Review” post now, taking the relevant “Festive Tasks” topics as my cue.  Only my  2020 reading stats will have to wait until the actual end of the year.

 

The (Mostly) Good

24 Festive Tasks: Door 23 – New Year’s Eve, Task 2:

Your 2020 reading year in review: How was it? All told, are you satisfied / happy or not? What worked – and what didn’t?

In four words: Too much comfort reading. 

It’s just been that kind of year, I guess.  I managed to add a number of new countries to my Around the World challenge, the gender balance is solidly in favor of women authors (as things currently stand, I’ve read 2 1/2 books by women for every book written by a man … in fact, I’ve even reread more books by women than the total number of books by men I’ve read to date), and my Golden Age Mysteries / Detection Club reading project is proceeding nicely as well — duh, of course it is, since Golden Age mysteries, to me, are comfort reading no matter whether they’re new to me or rereads.  So it’s not all bad.  In fact, I liked or even loved most of the books I read this year — including most of the new-to-me books –, so that was definitely good, too.  But I’d also been hoping to be further along with the Around the World challenge by the end of this year, my Freedom and Future Library has received less attention than I’d been planning to give it, and as a result — and because virtually all Golden Age mystery writers were Caucasian, of course — well, let’s just not talk about the ethnic spread among the authors I read in 2020.  This definitely will have to change in 2021.  (I know, I know.  I already said that back in July, with regard to the second half of 2020.  Well, there we go.)

 

24 Festive Tasks: Door 18 – Thanksgiving, Task 2:

List your 5 favorite books of 2020.

The one stand-out book of 2020, to me, was Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.  I listened to the audiobook version (though I do own a print copy as well), which made it somewhat easier to follow, because Evaristo’s fragmented approach to building sentences and paragraphs isn’t in evidence there; but bottom line: Run, don’t walk to get this book.  (Especially if you’re white and / or a man.)  For once, the Booker jury got it exactly right when they awarded the prize to this book in 2019 — in fact, I hope and expect that looking back, it will come to be regarded as one of the most influential books of the 2010s (or even the first quarter of the 21st century).  It’s not perfect (the “surprise” ending is blatantly telegraphed about 10 miles ahead of its arrival), but whatever comparatively minor flaws one might find, this one-of-a-kind canvas of a group of women from different ethnic, social and professional backgrounds, who — each for herself — define and mark out their place in life and society, is by far one of the most prescient and insightful contributions to the current debate on race and gender relationships and is sure to stand the test of time. — Review (of sorts) HERE.

My other favorite books of the year fall neatly either into the (mostly: Golden Age) mystery or into the Patrick Leigh Fermor fangirl bracket (and since I can never seem to be able to break this sort of thing down to a total of just five, I ‘ve decided to split it up into fiction — 3 authors / 4 books — and nonfiction — 3 authors / books):

Dorothy L. Sayers: Love All
A delightful drawing room comedy that was, owing to its completion during WWII, only performed twice during Sayers’s own lifetime and never again thereafter, which is utterly unfair to both the material and its author — topically, this is the firmly tongue in cheek stage companion to such works as Gaudy Night and the two speeches republished under the title Are Women Human?  I’d call it feminist if Sayers hadn’t hated that term, but whatever label you want to stick on it, its message comes through loud and clear and with plenty of laughs.

Christianna Brand: Green for Danger and Fog of Doubt
Christianna Brand’s books were one of the discoveries of this year’s foray into the realm of Golden Age mysteries. Green for Danger is an eerie, claustrophobic, psychological drama revolving around several suspicious deaths (and near-deaths) at a wartime hospital in Kent during WWII.  Brand excelled at closed-circle settings featuring a small group of people who all genuinely like each other (and really are, for the most part, likeable from the reader’s — and the investigating policeman’s — perspective, too), and in this particular book, the backdrop of the added danger arising from the wartime setting adds even more to the tension.  It’s also fairly obvious that Brand was writing from personal experience, which greatly enhances every single aspect of the book, from the setting and the atmosphere to the individual characters.

Fog of Doubt, by contrast, is set in Brand’s own Maida Vale home (as she explains in the preface), where a murder happens during a particularly vicious example of a London “pea-souper” (aka “London Particular”, which in fact was the book’s original title).  

Michael Jecks: The Malice of Unnatural Death
A veritable page-turner, one of the highlights among both this year’s Halloween Bingo reads and Michael Jecks’s Knights Templar series, and, never mind its occasionally gut-wrenching scenes, darned near perfectly crafted in virtually every respect: A medieval mystery with supernatural overtones set in Exeter and Tavistock / Dartmoor, concerning the activities of a necromancer — an assassin claiming to be in league with the devil and using powers bestowed on him by the devil in order to carry out his murders.  

Patrick Leigh Fermor: Between the Woods and the Water
The second volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s justly celebrated trilogy chronicling his spur-of-the-moment-going-on-three-year-long walk across virtually all of Central Europe, from the Hoek of Holland to Constantinople. This volume chiefly covers Hungary and Romania and is easily as engaging as volume 1 (Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia).  PLF’s narrative style is a perfect blend of humor, contemplation, erudition (entirely devoid of arrogance), curiosity, insight, and downright lyricism — he must have been one heck of a raconteur, the kind of person who would even have made the proverbial phone book sound like something absolutely spellbinding.  What a privilege it must have been to enjoy his narrations in person … and how lucky for the rest of us that he decided to share his gift with the wider world in book form, too.

W. Stanley Moss: Ill Met by Moonlight
The book I’ve wanted to read ever since I visited Anógia village, high up in the Cretan Mount Ida (or Psiloritis) massif, several years ago: The first-hand account of the WWII abduction of German Major General Heinrich Kreipe near his home in Heraklion, by a mixed group (led by Patrick Leigh Fermor and this book’s author) of British intelligence officers and Cretan resistance fighters, who marched Kreipe all the way up the mountain and, ultimately back down again to the southern coast of Crete and, from there, into English captivity in Egypt for the entire rest of the war: A ripping great read and then some; not just because it’s all true (what need for fiction if reality can write this sort of story?!), but also because Moss’s narrative style is tremendously engaging; affable and charming, understated, and straightforward at the same time — it’s easy to see how he and Patrick Leigh Fermor came to be such close friends.

Agatha Christie & Mathew Prichard (ed.): The Grand Tour
Christie’s letters and photos from the ten-month-long British Empire Expedition in which she and her husband participated in 1922, and which took them to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada.  Endearing, astute and funny — and Christie’s ability to sum up a person quickly and in very few pointed words, or to pinpoint their character by a pithy description of their behavior, is on great display.  (Also, read this if you ever want to find out the background of the “Surfer Girl Agatha” thing.)  It’s easy to see that this is the young, exuberant Agatha Christie who brought us the early Tommy & Tuppence adventures; there was probably quite a bit of this incarnation of Christie herself in Tuppence — as well as in Frankie Derwent, in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, and in Bundle Brent of The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery.

 

24 Festive Tasks: Door 18 – Thanksgiving, Bonus Task #1:

2020 was a difficult year for many of us – all the more reason to appreciate the good things in life. List of 5 things that you are grateful for, either this year or generally.

My mom and the fact that, at 82, she is still around and doing well enough again to keep house for herself.  2019 was a difficult year in which she was hospitalized several times and spent months on end recovering and unable to care for herself, and where I ended up seriously fearing that we’d have to move on to calling in professional home help or something of the sort.  Fortunately she has overcome all that, and while she is no longer able to ride her bike (as she used to do for 1-2 hours every day until the spring of 2019), she has gone back to driving her car (safely, on routes with which she is very familiar), doing her own shopping, taking long walks every day … and setting out breakfast for me every morning (!).  I am unspeakably happy and relieved about this development.

My friends, not least the BookLikes Community — and the fact that it has managed to stay together (at least for the most part) despite the demise of our book-and-blogging home in mid-2020.

My books, which this year perhaps more than ever before have been my primary source of comfort and joy.

The fact that my closest family and friends, as well as I myself, have (so far) been spared a personal encounter with the Corona virus.  (Though we did have a Corona-related death in the extended family earlier in the year.)

Last but definitely not least: my cats!

 

The Bad and the Ugly

(Take your pick which is which.)
24 Festive Tasks: Door 20 – Festivus, Task 1:

The Airing of Grievances: Which were the 5 books you liked least this year and why?

Ruth Rendell: A Judgement In Stone 
Rendell unforgiveably frames dyslexia as a class issue (which it patently is not and never has been) and — what is infinitely worse — as the trigger that causes a psychopath who is secretly morbidly ashamed of her lack of literacy to fatally lash out at others.  Shame on you, Baroness.  You ought to have known better.

Anne Perry: Defend and Betray
Pointlessly convoluted as far as the actual investigation is concerned (basically Monk and Hester run around headlessly without getting anywhere, except that in a completely superfluous tangential subsidiary plot Monk gets to allay one of his personal ghosts), and the conclusion is not only hopelessly reverse-anachronistic; much worse, it’s ludicrously nonsensical, psychologically speaking.  Perry is taking a joy ride on one of her hobby horses here, and her hobby horse has bolted wildly (for however much Perry might be pretending she’s still in control).

Ellery Queen: The Roman Hat Mystery
The first Ellery Queen book, and it shows in manifold ways.  What really p*d me off, however, was the solution, which is based on a matter of blatant everyday racism.  And while the book, in this regard, may actually be reflective of the society at the time in which it was written, I never felt that the authors disagreed with the racist attitude portrayed, which might well have might a difference in my response to the book. — For an example how, in a book from the same period (in fact, even from a year earlier), the same issue could have been treated with at least an attempt at greater empathy and understanding, take a look at Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson’s Enter Sir John.

Christianna Brand: Tour de Force
While Brand’s books overall — and particularly so, Green for Danger and Fog of Doubt (aka London Particular), see above — were among this year’s great positive discoveries, I found that she was also capable of enormous bloopers; and that is apparent no more obviously than in this book, where anti-gay stereotype, English exceptionalism and clichéd anti-Mediterranean bias run rampant.  This is a pity, not only because Brand should have been above this sort of nonsense to begin with, but also because without these elements this could have been quite an entertaining mystery, and all the nauseating elements mentioned are purely there for purposes of “color”, not because they’re essential to the mystery’s solution … yet Brand chose to include them, so there we are.

Alan Melville: Weekend at Thrackley
Melville’s sense of humor worked well for me (mostly, anyway) in Quick Curtain, but Weekend at Thrackley is not merely very obviously an early book, Melville also seemed to be taking huge delight in things I couldn’t for the life of me find funny … in addition to which, people were chiefly behaving as the author’s whim dictated (not as they might have in real life); and I couldn’t bring myself to care for a single one of them, including the protagonist, who is obviously intended — but fails to give a convincing performance — as a copycat edition of Bertie Wooster.

 

24 Festive Tasks: Door 1 – Winter Solstice (Yule – Dōngzhì – Soyal – Yaldā Night), Bonus Task #1:

Tell us: What book did you read this year that felt like it was never going to end?

Joint honors for this one go to Anne Perry’s Defend and Betray (see above) and Gladys Mitchell’s Death Comes at Christmas (originally published as Dead Men’s Morris).  Both essentially had me screaming “move on already” more than once, and both featured more unnecessary and pointless plot twists and turns than you’d have been likely to find in the (in)famous Gordian knot.  (And things weren’t exactly helped by the fact that both books also included a number of other supremely annoying features.)  Perry’s William Monk series gets exactly one more shot at getting things right in my book before I’ll be bowing out … Mitchell has (as I expected her to do) in the interim amply redeemed herself by way of the other Mrs. Bradley books that I read this year.

 

24 Festive Tasks: Door 2 – Guy Fawkes Night, Task 2:

Many of us would probably like to burn the whole year of 2020 in effigy. If that’s true for you, now is your chance! Tell the world (or us, anyway) what you hated about this year and why it should be blasted off the calendar forever.

The pandemic played a role, of course, but more long-term and as a sort of depressing “background music” to my life.  (As does world politics, and has for the past several years — though I know I’m blessed not to have had to experience the hell brought on by the likes of Trump and Brexit first-hand, but rather as a worry with regard to my friends, as well as with regard to geopolitics as large.)

The one major downer directly experienced by all of the BookLikes community was, again of course, BL’s demise when the year was barely halfway over, and I still go from anger to depression and back merely thinking about it … or accessing my BL blog, as long as I still can, in order to salvage and recreate as much as possible elsewhere. 

Chiefly, however, I’ve rarely experienced as pronounced and lengthy a display of competing alpha male egos as I did in one particular major case this year for months and months on end, as a result of which I was basically on the verge of a burnout even before the pandemic had ever hit, and I have essentially been trying to keep things together ever since.  (The worst of the bullies seems to have been kicked out by the others in the interim, but I’ve been in this case too long to cheerfully believe life is going to be significantly easier solely as a result of that one fact anytime soon.)  It absolutely also doesn’t help that I haven’t had a vacation in over two years now — I’m seriously in need of a change of scenery and of having my brain and nerve cells exposed to some sort of fresh breeze; but of course that isn’t happening, either, for the foreseeable future … I very much hope that once there’s a certain level of confidence in a COVID vaccine traveling will be possible again (next year, if we’re lucky) — and of course, I hope that my mom’s health is going to allow me to travel again next year to begin with, because if it doesn’t, I really don’t want to think about where I’ll be a year from now.  But, hey, let’s be optimistic, shall we? 🙂

 

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