My 2020 in Books

Like most, a good chunk of my time otherwise not doing anything in 2020 was spent with books and graphic novels. I always feel like I could be reading more, but I actually felt pretty accomplished by the end of the year, reading about 20 novels and non-fiction books (and a bunch more in the comics realm, but more about that in another post). Like anything else, it was a bit of a mixed bag, but I thought I did a pretty good job curating things I really wanted to read, so I thought it might be interesting to run through the list and share some recommendations!

7b2df2f2b8-386a-43fc-b1f0-a3aeab5d9c6a7dimg100Normal People – Sally Rooney

You may have heard about the Hulu miniseries this novel has already become, about the on-again off-again relationship of two very different high school (then college) kids who have more in common than they think, but if you haven’t seen or read either, I highly recommend starting with the book. The miniseries is actually a really good adaptation (likely due to the involvement of the author in the process, not to mention the keen eye of Lenny Abrahamson, who directed half the series (with Hattie Macdonald directing the latter half) and has done good work adapting dramatic novels in the past. So something as thoroughly satisfying as the miniseries may turn you off from also reading the novel, and that would be a shame because it’s a damn fine novel, most likely the best thing I read all year. Plus, going into series knowing the characters of Marianne and Connell intimately added another layer for me. 

220px-jemisin_the_stone_sky_coverThe Stone Sky (The Broken Earth Trilogy #3) – N.K. Jemisin

My relationship with the Broken Earth trilogy and N.K. Jemisin’s writing has been a little bumpy, if I’m being honest. I appreciate her skill as a fantasy writer, and it hits me in flashes when I’m reading her work, but I’ve honestly had trouble putting it all together and getting excited about it as I’m reading her novels. There are moments of brilliance all throughout this trilogy, a climate fiction series about a world constantly ravaged by climate change events and the fantastical “Orogenes” that control energy and cause/prevent earthquakes in order to keep the world from completely self-destructing, and there’s an inherent brilliance to how it’s all structured and how confident Jemisin is in presenting a world that’s both very familiar and very foreign and different. There are excellent, relevant themes about climate change, the destructive nature of white supremacy, and more personal ones about motherhood and family, and these all three books are complex, intricate master classes in modern science fiction and fantasy literature, you just have to put yourself in the right mood for what these are, as I often had a tough time getting into them. 


Devolution – Max Brooks

Max Brooks doesn’t write novels that often, so I was really excited for Devolution, hoping it would do for the monster genre (in this case Bigfoot) what World War Z had done for the zombie genre years ago. World War Z gave us a whole new perspective on what zombie fiction could be, and while Devolution applies a lot of the same principles to this story about a hyper-modern micro-community that gets attacked by sasquatch-like creatures, I can’t say I was anywhere near as enthralled as I was hoping to be. It’s an entertaining horror story, don’t get me wrong, and I enjoyed my time with it, so perhaps I was simply expecting too much. Not every book can be genre-defining, I suppose, but when you write novels as sporadically as Max Brooks does, you can’t blame your readers for wanting more than a generic monster thriller.

915recsxnnl Ask Again, Yes – Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again, Yes is similar in certain ways to Normal People, in that it is a complicated, emotional love story between two characters, but where Normal People charms you and draws you in with the relative simplicity of its premise and plot, Ask Again wows you with a much more complex multi-generational plot-driven epic about love, family, mental illness, class, and so much more. Like Normal People, I can visualize this story as I’m reading it (but I don’t know what brave soul would dare take on trying to film its complex, multi-generational story). It doubles down on the themes of forbidden love a lot more than Normal People, a much more modernistic take on the subject, to the point where even the author accepts the comparisons to Romeo and Juliet. This has all the makings of a novel that could easily become a classic, and it’s one of the best books I read in 2020.

vanishinghalf_3dbookshot_gmaThe Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett

Rounding out my trilogy, of sorts, of family drama and forbidden romance is this multi-generational story about African-American twins who lose each other and wind up living very different lives. Taking place over the course of decades in which America’s racial fabric changed drastically in the 20th century, we follow Desiree and Stella as they go through very different journeys, as one of them leads her life passing as a white person, unbeknownst to her new family, or her old one, who never stops searching for her. I must admit that I had trouble getting into this one, despite its excellent premise and all of its buzz, but there are some twists and turns late in the book that are well worth the setup. I don’t know if I’d concur with those that put it up there are one of the best books of 2020, but it’s definitely worth checking out.


Fall; or Dodge In Hell – Neal Stephenson

I don’t think I have a more complicated relationship with an author than I do with Neal Stephenson. Some of his work has been eye-openingly brilliant to me, notably Seveneves, which may be my favourite science fiction novel of all time. But just about everything he writes is also overwrought and in desperate need of an editor who’s willing to say no to him on occasion. None of that is more apparent than in Fall, which clocks in at nearly 900 pages, which may actually be on the shorter side for him. And just like a lot of his previous work, about a third of it should have probably been left on the cutting room floor. Despite its very apparently and heavy flaws, there’s so much about Fall that I actually liked. The book is about a billionaire game developer (the titular Dodge), whose mind us uploaded to the cloud upon his tragic and sudden death, after which the book follows two threads. The good: how society is affected by the ostensive confirmation of an afterlife, albeit one created by man. This is where Stephenson excels. He portrays a near-future world (particularly America) that becomes different in sometimes subtle, sometimes drastic ways. His willingness to go places other science fiction authors wouldn’t dare with such force and precision is what I appreciate about him. However that also gives us the bad: a meandering, often vague exploration of what the mind would do given a blank canvas to create the universe that lasts hundreds of pages too long. We see what Dodge’s mind sees in the abstract, we see him build his world from scratch and then fight for it in what was clearly an attempt to parallel the bible and works such as Paradise Lost, but it’s just way too much and way too boring when the other half of the story is so much more interesting. Stephenson has been doing this for years and it won’t change, so you can only hope that the next one will be better.

41ztsdtyill._sx331_bo1204203200_The Fifth Risk – Michael Lewis

Hear me out: donald trump is bad. Of course we all know this, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone explain it more succinctly and dramatically than Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk, a book about the clear and present dangers of an incompetent, likely malevolent government that has no interest in running a government and its agencies the way they were intended to be run; for the people, and not the personal gain of the people in charge. I know there’s a sentiment that all politicians in America are bad, but there are things that the government does that most people don’t understand, including those that were put in charge of those things in 2016. Things that would lead to widespread suffering or even destruction if they were mishandled. Lewis demonstrates this through interviews with people are various departments that handle things like maintaining a deadly nuclear arsenal, warning people about natural disasters and even feeding millions of Americans, and contrasts it with the goals of the trump administration, which included weeding out people who believed in climate change from positions within the federal government and using its agencies to amass wealth and power in the private sector. However bad you think it is, it’s actually so much worse. And it was especially eye-opening to read back in the spring of 2020 when those failures were just starting to be on display with the COVID pandemic, a topic which Lewis hadn’t even really considered. But the parallels are right there. If you’re curious about what the government actually does to help you, read this book.

814hgnm33clBest. Movie. Year. Ever. – Brian Raftery

I was skeptical about a book positing that any particular year in movies is the “best” year, but Brian Raftery makes a very strong case for 1999, a year on the cusp of major change in Hollywood with a shocking amount of hits and influential films. I still don’t think you could definitively say any year is the “best” for movies, and I have problems with Raftery’s conclusion that the industry started a long downfall after this, and with how he ignored what was also a tremendous and transformative year for television, but I came out of this book appreciating the topic almost as a style of debate, and would love to see more years in Hollywood broached this way. And entertaining read if you’re into film history.

91bh9jvbrzl Dead Astronauts – Jeff Vandermeer &

Borne – Jeff Vandermeer

It’s hard to put into words the feelings that Jeff Vandermeer made me feel the first time I ever picked up one of his books. Annihilation is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. It’s so unique, and once you pick it up it’s hard to put down. Even its unfortunately mediocre followups, Control and Acceptance. Just look at the Alex Garland film adaption of the book. I thought that movie was nothing like how I envisioned Annhilation, but Garland said that the movie basically came to him in a dream, and I can totally get that. That’s the kind of effect I feel Jeff Vandermeer can have through his work, and I’ve been chasing that ever since. And in certain ways, it’s almost there in both 2017’s Borne, and its 2019 followup, Dead Astronauts, two bizarre, unique post-apocalyptic worlds that feature both advanced technology and seemingly mythical creatures. Both having a lot to say about the direction the planet is heading. But ultimately, both falling short of achieving what Vandermeer did with Annihilation, unfortunately. Neither book made me feel what I’ve been chasing, but they might still be worth checking out.

41zgiz5ujolHumans: A Brief History of How We Fucked It All Up – Tom Phillips

I know we’re a long way’s away from having parties again, but if we were able to get together tomorrow, the first thing I’d annoyingly talk about at some sort of dinner party or get together is the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias I learned about in this book. It’s one of the many anecdotes about human stupidity and the way it repeats itself throughout history that Tom Phillips shares in the book, from Lucy, the early primate that fell out of a tree, to, of course, donald trump, the primate that somehow became an American President, Humans is full of interesting anecdotes presented in a way that’s often laugh-out-loud funny and easy and fun to read. And I will forever be grateful to it for teaching me to be at least 10% more annoying at parties, that is if we ever get to go to parties ever again.



  • A Very Punchable Face – Colin Jost: As an SNL fan, I had a lot of fun reading about Colin Jost’s life and all the behind-the-scenes stories from his many years on the show.
  • The Library Book – Susan Orlean: I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this knowledge I now possess about the Los Angeles Public library and the fire that almost destroyed it many years ago, but I’m glad I have it. If you’re looking for a lighter True Crime style story, this is a good one.
  • Movies (and Other Things) – Shea Serrano: A relatively personal collection of movie essays, I would only recommend it if you’re aware of the author, as I am from the podcast world, but it’s still a fun read about recent pop culture in the world of movies.
  • White Fragility – Robin Diangelo: Among the books that were all the rage in the wake of the latest BLM movement last year, I would say this is a relatively easy read that most people should check out as a starting point to racial allyship.
  • Invisible Women – Caroline Criago Perez: Many of the statistics on the gender gap presented in this book are eye-opening and will make you angry, however the whole thing winds up being pretty dry and statistics oriented and lacks a proper through-line to encourage action or to be accessible to the people who likely need to read it the most. But if you’re interesting in the many, many ways women are screwed over all around our male-dominated capitalist society, I’d recommend it.
  • Calypso – David Sedaris: I’ve been told this isn’t the best starting point for people who want to check out Sedaris, so I’m going to give him another shot, but to be blunt, I wasn’t too impressed with the mostly out of touch perspectives of a crotchety old man who seemingly hates everything. I get that it’s a bit, but perhaps I wasn’t in the right headspace for it when I read it.

The Top 20 Best Movies of 2019

I know it’s late but I realized I never posted my list of the best movies of 2019, so here it is, with a blurb for each movie!

20. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story: I have a weird appreciation for a creator like Vince Gilligan who’s willing to go back to his masterpiece and tinker with it. We didn’t need to see what happened to Jesse Pinkman after Breaking Bad but the character deserved more than he got over the course of that show, and I’m happy Gilligan decided to show that to us. It’s the kind of thing that’s only possible in this modern age of television and filmmaking.

19. Dolemite Is My Name: The biggest Oscar snub this year may have been Uncut Gems, but Eddie Murphy is a close second for his wonderful performance in this great, funny, entertaining retelling of the life of Rudy Ray Moore and the making of the blacksploitation film Dolemite in the 70s.

18. Ford V Ferrari: If you’re doing a period piece about a car race, you already have my curiosity. Cast Matt Damon and Christian Bale as competing Car Dudes who inevitably become best friends and you catch my attention.

17. The Two Popes: This could have been ostensibly a stage play of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce sitting in a Vatican room debating ecclesiastical affairs and it would have still wound up on my list. In actuality, it’s so much more. Perhaps bordering a little on propaganda for the Catholic church, but still refreshingly honest and even a little raw.

16. Booksmart: It’s almost unbelievable that this is Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut. The film is so well-made, the cast is fantastic and the story feels very modern but accessible. Probably the best pure comedy of the year!

15. Ad Astra: The film’s glacial pace might turn you off but I really appreciate James Gray refusing to sacrifice his vision of a single man’s personal journey throughout the vast expanse of the solar system to make a more marketable sci fi action film. And yet this isn’t just Brad Pitt’s space daddy issues, it’s also a really cool vision of a near-future human race that has finally embraced (and commercialized) space travel. There’s a Subway on the moon! How can you eat fresh where there’s no atmosphere!?

14. American Factory: Mark my words – documentaries exposing Chinese culture to Western audiences are going to dominate this decade. For a variety of reasons, films that show us what life for two billion people on the other side of the globe is like is essential, and American factory shows us how that culture is on a collision course with our own so well. This is easily the one documentary of 2019 that’s a must watch.

13. 1917: While I don’t agree with the criticisms of 1917 that paint its storytelling and character development as thin or vapid, it’s undeniable that what really sells the story that Sam Mendes inherited from his grandfather is the marvel of how it was made, from the cinematography to the production design to the music and everything in between. People have unfairly compared this to Call of Duty, when more fitting, narrative driven video game comparisons such as Uncharted and God of War exist.

12. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: With this and Can You Ever Forgive me?, Marielle Heller is quickly becoming one of my favourite directors, able to see past the flashy nature of the headline of a story and get to the nitty gritty of what makes the people it’s about tick. ABDITN could have easily been a shallow retelling of the life of Fred Rogers. Instead it’s a deeply moving story about the struggles of a man who happened to come across him in a time of crisis to interview him, and how his life was affected by their interactions. And what better movie about Mr. Rogers could there be than one where the effect he had on people is on prominent display, rather than the man himself?

11. Little Women: I experienced reticence going in to Little Women because Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird didn’t have the effect on me that it did on most. But her skill as a writer and filmmaker finally clicked with me about halfway through this film, at which point it becomes crystal clear how she’s able to bring characters and their motivations and struggles to life. Little Women has a brilliant, unique screenplay (for a film based on a book that’s been adapted countless times already) and a phenomenal cast that make it memorable and modernizes its message for present day.

10. Knives Out: I’ve been watching a lot of old movies lately, including noir films and murder mysteries, so Knives Out really hit the spot. I already liked Rian Johnson’s work, but any writer/director who recognizes an under-appreciated genre and decides to revitalize it (and also modernize it in fun ways) gets bonus points from me.

9. The Farewell: I feel like I have the same points to make about The Farewell as I had about American Factory, as it goes to great lengths to expose its audience to Chinese cultures and traditions (albeit in this case about family rather than work ethic). But this is also a phenomenal movie about family that anyone can relate to even if they can’t wrap their heads around the idea of keeping an illness from a loved one. In that sense The Farewell justifies itself really well and makes itself very accessible to audiences that might not share those customs, without sacrificing its uniqueness. Also, Awkwafina delivers one of the best performances of the year and should have been up for the Oscar.

8. Marriage Story: Marriage Story has been memed to death at this point since everyone got to see it on Netflix in December, but I think that’s really taken away from all the great aspects of the movie. The performances are what shine, of course (in another year or perhaps a parallel dimension we’d be talking about Oscar Winners Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson on top of Laura Dern), but the film also features fantastic writing and direction from Noah Bombauch, who not only finds a way to tell a very difficult story in an entertaining and moving way, but also manages to sneak in an adaptation of Sondheim’s Company in the middle of the film.

7. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum: Instead of ranting and raving about all the reasons I loved the 3rd John Wick, how about we just watch the knife museum scene again?

6. Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood: Similarly, my appreciation for Quentin Tarantino’s latest film could probably be best expressed by the gif below. But to be honest, there’s so much more to love about OUATIH. It’s much more fun than Tarantino’s last few films without sacrificing his trademark violence or what he’s learned in this late stage of his career as a filmmaker. He gets some of the best performances of of the careers of his actors and Brad Pitt was entirely deserving of the Oscar he won. And the way he recreated this era of Hollywood is a marvel to witness. But also, the gif.


5. Uncut Gems: Objectively the Oscars’ worst snub of the year, perhaps of the decade. A performance of this caliber from Adam Sandler is as rare as the jewel he’s after in the movie, and the tension and realism crafted by the Safdie Brothers was unmatched this year.

4. Avengers: Endgame: Every year gives us a new reason to stop being pretentious about superhero movies. You can have a legitimately good scifi movie like Logan, socially evocative films like Black Panther and Wonder Woman, but it’s also nice when one of them doesn’t lose sight of what they are, and manages to bring comic books to life better than any movie before them. Endgame is that movie. I will never not nerd out watching any number of scenes from this film, notably when all the heroes return and gather around a battered and bruised Captain America. I’d say that we’ll never see anything like it again, but this is Marvel we’re talking about.

3. Rocketman: Everything the objectively terrible Bohemian Rhapsody did wrong last year, Rocketman did right. It involved the agenda-less artist to tell as accurate a story as possible but also gave the film the flair and panache that artist has always deserved. This isn’t a biopic, it’s a musical. They actually put effort into the music and making this movie fun, and it’s actually Taron Egerton singing the entire time. Why this movie got left by the wayside last year will leave me perplexed for a long time.

2. Midsommar: I saw Midsommar late in its theatrical run completely alone in a dingy local theater and it was perhaps the best cinematic experience I’ve had in a good long while. The film is unnerving and scary despite being super bright, the violence is well-timed and perfectly gory, and Florence Pugh delivers a pitch perfect performance in the most disconcerting breakup movie of all time.

1. Parasite: You don’t need me to tell you why Parasite is good at this point, just go watch it. Instead I’ll just marvel at the fact that the Academy managed the seemingly impossible feat of awarding best picture to the consensus best movie of the year. The fact that they did it with a South Korean movie entirely in a foreign language is even more impressive. Question is whether is this the exception to the rule or the start of a new era. Hopefully the latter!

Best of the Rest: A list of all the other movies I enjoyed to a certain extent or another in 2019 and want to shout out but naturally didn’t fit in my top 20!

Us, Jojo Rabbit, Yesterday, Always Be My Maybe, The Last Black Man in San Fransisco,  Late Night, Spider-Man: Far From Home, The Lighthouse, The Report, One Child Nation, Apollo 11, Glass,  Cold Pursuit, Pokemon Detective Pikachu, Shazam!, Long Shot, Rambo: Last Blood, Aladdin, Alita: Battle Angel, Between Two Ferns: The Movie, High Flying Bird, Fighting With My Family, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Stuber