Sunday 27 December 2020

Five books I read in 2020 that I loved

 It's been, to say the least, a strange year. Between work and supervising the kids as they studied at home, there's been precious little time to sit down and read. Still, to my surprise, I hit my Goodreads reading challenge goal - and there really were some gems that I enjoyed through the year. And goodness knows, if these were able to transport me away from the world of 2020, then they might just bring you joy too. So without further ado, here's five books I loved this year, starting - as it happens - with my latest read. 

A Christmas Twist, by Brent A Harris

Do you ever read something and think to yourself gosh, I wish I was as clever as this? That's how I felt reading A Christmas Twist. It's a sequel to A Twist In Time, in which Brent A Harris took the character of Oliver Twist and reinvented him as a steampunk hero in his adult years, travelling through time with the aid of a mysterious pocket watch. With this sequel, he bounds into Scrooge territory, as the secrets of the watch and the nature of those ghosts of Christmas past, present and future - time traveller themselves of a fashion - are revealed to be intertwined. 
Layer after layer of the story unfolds as Oliver travels through time alongside Scrooge to meet those spirits - discovering alternate forms of Oliver himself, from a suave swordsman to a clockwork cowboy. Whose journey is this? Scrooge's, or Oliver's? And what will it mean for him in the end?
At every turn, just when you think you know where things are going, things take another... well, Twist. Then it all comes together at the end so neatly and delicately it seems like a finely-honed watch mechanism. Perhaps that one in Oliver's hand, tick-tick-ticking time away. 
There are surprises, there are punch-the-air moments, and there is a reminder, in this year of all years, that while we cannot control all things in our world, we must never stop trying to find the best outcome. 

AI Rating: 5/5
A Christmas Twist is available on Amazon

Beneath The Rising, by Premee Mohamed

Who knew Lovecraftian horror could be such a joy?

Premee Mohamed has gleefully snatched up two fistfuls of Cthulhu Mythos, dropped it into the modern day and proceeded to ruin the lives of her two lead characters with it. Possibly while giggling manically.

But while she creates a canvas from that mythos, it's the story of those characters that will draw you in. Johnny and Nick are two survivors of a childhood tragedy that bound them together. Johnny is the superstar, a genius inventor with money and talent. Nick is her devoted friend, trailing in her wake, struggling to manage work shifts and helping his family while she soars ahead like a shooting star.

Things change, though, when Johnny needs help. A door has opened, and she might be to blame, and things that should not be are creeping through it.

The real delight of this book is the relationship between the two lead characters. Johnny is a star, and Nick is locked in her orbit, drawn to her and in love with her in so many ways, but more than that a friend. The two have their shorthand ways of talking, the banter that goes with people who have been friends forever, even as they struggle to deal with things at the heart of their relationship that they cannot tell one another. They are broken in so many ways, and lean on one another to get through because trying to fix things would hurt even more.

All this continues as the world starts to unravel - and it turns out that two people who have nothing in the world except one another might be the world's only hope for survival. There are secrets revealed, bad bargains, and the kind of regrets that leave the taste of ashes in the mouth.

A fantastic book. I heartily recommend it. 

AI Rating: 5/5

Beneath The Rising is available on Amazon

The Ascension Machine, by Rob Edwards

This has been a real joy to read. Take a hero in the vein of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat, give him a Scooby gang in the vein of Joss Whedon's Buffy or Firefly crews - and give it all a superhero spin.
This is a really fun adventure - starting off with a drifter, thief and misfit who comes to be known as Grey, our hero. He gets a most unusual offer to impersonate a rich man who doesn't want to take up the place at a superhero academy his connected family has arranged for him - and so Grey finds himself heading to a school full of aliens, with only the thinnest of lies to protect him.
All this makes for some soaring space adventure - but there's also a depth here. Grey, a loner for so long, unexpectedly finds friendship. One of the things about the academy is that people find their perfectly ordinary abilities on their own worlds might just make them superheroes elsewhere - even if their ability is as mundane as the ability to be a good farmer. For Grey, he suddenly finds himself unexpectedly with a home - and, perhaps, with the chance to be a hero himself.
Until it all comes crashing down.
By turns witty and thoughtful, Rob Edwards creates a universe that's a delight to visit, and to which I hope we shall return. 

AI Rating 5/5

The Ascension Machine is available on Amazon

Becoming Superman, by J Michael Straczynski

Joe Straczynski is the creator of Babylon 5. I mean, you may know him from many other things. You may know him as the pen behind Sense8 on Netflix. You might know him from The Changeling, the Angelina Jolie movie directed by Clint Eastwood. Or Jeremiah. Or Spider-Man comics. Or... well, you get the idea. He's been involved in writing for TV and movies for far longer than many writers manage to stay in the ring.

This is his autobiography - and while you might think it's a happy trip through the successes he's had over the years, it's far from that. Indeed, it's far more intimate and personal than that.

This is the story of the young boy Joseph, and his abusive father, who tormented his whole family. It is a story that tells of Nazi sympathising. Of murder. Of a boy trying to grow up sane with a family life that was far from stable, moving from town to town and skipping out whenever people showed up to collect money.

Sure, it tells how he went through the early cycle of writing stories that turned out to be not so great, then writing more, and more, and banging his head against the door of rejection. There's the glimmers of encouragement, such as when the stranger who read his work at a school event and said there was promise in there turned out to be Rod Serling. But this is a story of a boy who fought to be a man free of his father, of a man who fought to get his stories accepted, and a TV writer who fought against the restraints imposed by executives all too often - to the point of his agent's exasperation.

He describes one moment in his youth - in which he gets the shit kicked out of him by a bunch of kids only to stand up and taunt them so they came back and did it again as, in retrospect, being the perfect preparation for becoming a TV writer.

There's a great deal of insight in here to the projects he worked on - from the Real Ghostbusters cartoon, to Murder She Wrote. As a Babylon 5 fan, I particularly hung on the material to do with the show - even the saddest notes with the death of some of the cast members over the year. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Peter Jurasik from the show, and the poignancy of those moments came across in two voices mourning old friends, the writer and the narrator.

More than anything, though, this book tells the story of Mr Straczynski's relationship with his father. So determined was he not to be like his father, his life in some ways seem to have been defined by purposely choosing to be the thing his father was not, the shape of his life being dictated by non-conformity to the monster he grew up with.

It's a brutal story to tell. There are no end of truly shocking moments. And yet, despite what he had to endure, he ultimately defined himself, who he would be, and rose to the success his father said he wouldn't reach. Is it inspirational? I'm not sure that's the word. That's like those moments when you see what people have gone through and pat them on the head and call them an inspiration. That's not quite right. No, but it is admirable. With a stubborn streak a mile wide, he managed to achieve things that had never been done before. And he did it with a sharp wit and a ready pen.

This book has been nominated for a Hugo Award. It certainly deserves it. 

AI Rating: 5/5

Becoming Superman is available on Amazon

The Books of Earthsea, by Ursula K Le Guin

I'll freely admit this is a re-read rather than a new read - but in such a wonderful new edition. Illustrated throughout by Charles Vess, this is a magical book to open. 
I remember reading an article by Ursula K Le Guin about how unhappy she had been over the years with the covers to her Earthsea books. I owned one cover she particularly hated with its pale, white version of Ged, who is anything but that in her books. 
So it is a treat to see the world conjured up anew through the art of Mr Vess. A single image from him would be a joy, but this is a book full of his work. 
I have loved the Earthsea saga since I was a kid. And now, with this book, I have a version of it that my own kids can fall in love with. It is, quite simply, magnificent. 

AI Rating: 5/5

The Books of Earthsea can be be bought on Amazon

Oh, and while you're here... let me give you a gift. The first two books of Tales From Alternate Earths are FREE until December 20. Pick them up at the links below:

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