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 Orville Copies Season 1 Plot Point From Star Trek: Discovery in Latest Episode

The battle between the respective fandoms of Fox’s The Orville and CBS All-Access’ Star Trek: Discovery has been raging ever since the two shows premiered within weeks of one another back in September of 2017, but the purported feud may have reached new heights this week when the Seth MacFarlance-created homage/spoof of the long-running science fiction franchise lifted a plot point directly from the first season of Discovery.

In what has to have been a conscious decision, seeing as the episode aired the same night as Discovery’s second season premiere, the plot of The Orville’s “Nothing Left on Earth Excepting Fishes” revolves around Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) taking his new girlfriend, Lieutenant Janel Tyler (Michaela McManus) on a romantic trip away from the titular ship they work on. They are quickly the target of an attack by the nefarious Krill, often the foil for Mercer and his crew. The two are taken hostage and Mercer is forced to give up his command codes to his captors, fearing that they’ll harm Tyler. It’s however quickly revealed thereafter that Tyler is actually Telaya, a former Krill schoolteacher who Ed encountered in the season 1 episode “Krill”, in which he and Lt. Malloy pose as Krill officers in an attempt to recover a copy of their sacred religious text, the Ankhana. The mission goes awry when they learn the ship is in the midst of destroying an innocent colony, so they use the opportunity to kill everyone on board; with the exception of Telaya and her classroom.

Telaya vows revenge and attempts to deliver it in this episode, after being introduced as Lt. Tyler last week, where she begins her catfishing of the captain. Shortly after the revelation and after an alien attack on the Krill warship, Telaya and Ed are forced to take an escape pod to a nearby planet and work together in order to send a distress signal from the top of a mountain. With the Krill’s sensitivity to natural light, they’re also forced to spend a lot of time together in a cave, where Telaya explains how she was radicalized following Ed’s ruthless murder of her shipmates, her brother counting among the casualties, and elaborates on the Krill’s way of life and beliefs.

It’s actually a pretty evocative episode that does the most work so far to build a larger universe for the show and developer Ed as a character. This second season of the show has been a little weak so far, the episodes feeling disparate and somewhat aimless, focusing on relationship drama rather than any of the usual science fiction tropes. “Fishes” feels like the kind of classic episode of The Next Generation that we were always promised with MacFarlane’s show, which falls somewhere between homage and parody.

With “Fishes”, however, you can feel the show falling more into the territory of the latter, as it lifts its plot directly from a season 1 arc in what some fans might consider to be the competition in Discovery. If any of those details about Telaya/Lt. Tyler sounded familiar, it’s because they pretty much align directly with the Klingon Voq’s arc on the latter show.

In season 1 of Discovery, the Federation enters into a war with the Klingon Empire after a fanatical house leader named T’Kuvma starts a confrontation with Starfleet. T’Kuvma dies in one of the intial encounters, and one of his followers, the albino Voq (played by Shazad Latif) vows revenge, and that T’Kuvma and his teachings will be remembered. Voq undergoes reconstructive surgery to take on the identity of one Lt. Ash Tyler, a casualty of the war who appeals to Discovery’s captain, Gabriel Lorca, and finds his way onto the ship as its chief of security and, eventually, a love interest to Michael Burnham. After his true nature is revealed, he and Burnham are forced to work together to stop the war despite his inherent betrayal.


There are of course some differences between the stories. Voq’s memories are wiped when he becomes Tyler, in order to maintain his status as a sleeper agent. And his arc plays out over the course of most of the first season. But the similarities are remarkable, even beyond the obvious clues such as naming both human counterparts Lt. Tyler. In both instances, the alien version of the character is lower on the totem poll in their society, thrust upwards and radicalized by a life-altering event and a perceived slight from the enemy. The Discovery Klingons we see in season 1 and religious fanatics, much like the Krill in The Orville, and both seek galactic domination at the expense of the humans. Both of their human versions seek the favour of their new captain, both seek a relationship (in The Orville both roles are fulfilled by the same person) and both are forced to work with the person they betrayed in order to save the day.

And to be honest, both stories are well-done. The Orville, despite making a strenuous callback to the first season and only spending part of a single episode developing the story, makes the most of its time with Telaya/Tyler and uses it to further Ed Mercer’s arc and character development and contextualize why we should care about this show’s version of the Klingons. And while many might not like the character design of Discovery’s Klingons, I spent a lot of time talking about how, esoteric looks aside, they did a good job of updating the side of the species that we do see to the kind of villain one would expect from a science fiction show depicting a futuristic conflict with allegories to present day problems. To put it more simply, I always saw Discovery’s Klingons as a combination of Space ISIS and white nationalism, and there’s actually a lot of depth to them. Voq/Tyler’s arc also has a lot to say about PTSD, religious beliefs, identity and other things, and of course plays out over a longer period of time.

So I don’t really mean to slag on The Orville because they clearly knew what they were doing here. I do, however, question their motives, because not only are a few too many of the details too similar for this to be an homage rather than something akin to a warning shot, especially with Discovery moving to the same night as The Orville, but “Fishes” was also written by two people known for their work on Star Trek ever since TNG, Brannon Braga and Andre Bormanis.

Funny enough, though, Discovery also featured what had to be a shot across the bow of The Orville’s hull, as a weirdly comedic turbolift scene ending in a bit of physical humour is very reminiscent of a recurring gag from The Orville featuring an alien crewmember named Dan.

With Discovery’s concerted effort to adopt a lighter tone with a little more humour, its dig at The Orville could probably seen as a little more light-hearted than an entire arc lifted from a competing show, especially with a fervent fanbase that is quick to judge these two shows against one another even though they are completely different things. I hate taking a side in this debate because I really do enjoy both shows, but for all the talk among fans of how positive The Orville is and how much more in line it is with Gene Rodenberry’s original vision for Star Trek (allegedly, I don’t necessarily believe that), it kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth to see two writers who are likely bitter that they don’t get to work on the franchise anymore coming real close to actual plagiarism. It almost feels malicious when you really lay it out, or as if they’re encouraging their fans to further bully anyone who likes Discovery. It would have been way simpler and nicer to merely reference something from the show or even straight up make fun of them. If there is indeed a feud between the shows, this won’t help it.

Personally, I choose to continue enjoy both  of them. I think both bring something interesting to the table in this day and age of modern science fiction. The Orville can be an episodic throwback that looks at modern issues from the lens of a well-worn format. Discovery can do what I personally believe is the more “Star Trek” kind of thing and actually push the medium forward by adapting modern storytelling techniques including the more complex serialized storytelling of Voq’s arc. I’m glad that both exist, and I hope that they can find a way to coexist. Fans should be happy to have two shows operating in similar space, yet doing wildly different things in such good ways.

Star Trek: Discovery charts a bold new path for season 2 with ‘Brother’ [Season Premiere Review]


If season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery taught us anything, it’s that, for the most part, each episode is only part of the story. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has witnessed the evolution of storytelling on television over the last twenty years; episodic TV is a thing of the past, and in genres like science fiction especially, serialized storytelling is king. Last season, a lot of people were quick to dismiss what Discovery was trying to do because they only bothered with the first few episodes. But it was over the course of the entire 15 episode first season that the story of Michael Burnham and the war with the Klingons unfolded. It had an arc that didn’t even clearly convey its central thesis (the arrogance of the Federation’s expansionist idea of peace and enlightenment, among other things) until about halfway through.

On top of that, as a serialized show in the 21st century, it took time for it to find its footing. Even discounting the change in showrunners and the added pressure of existing within the framework of an over 50-year-old franchise, and no less as a prequel, that’s a normal thing for TV shows these days. And I really do think it wound up finding its footing. As the season wore in, it become more optimistic, more lighthearted, it featured more technology and exploration, and it made its points, all within the framework of a modern, serialized show, something I think Star Trek in 2019 needs to be.

In season 2, it’s going to have to do all of these things over again, because a subtle promise in the season’s build up and marketing is that this is sort of a soft-reboot of Disovery. The showrunners have changed again (during production, even), fully eliminating Bryan Fuller’s imprint on the show, other than his name as creator in the opening sequence, and making it Alex Kurtzman’s. Some of the pressure has been lifted off Discovery’s shoulders, with the promise of no less than half a dozen other Trek series in the works, including the highly anticipated return of Sir Patrick Stewart to the role of Captain Picard, but the pressure to make Discovery bigger and better persists, all while finding a way to channel that old school notion of what it means to be Star Trek.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Brother”, the season 2 premiere, but I must warn anyone watching or planning to watch that there’s no way that it can satisfy everyone’s desires of what they want Star Trek to be. Watching the episode it was clear to me that Kurtzman and the writers have abandoned the idea of boldly taking Trek into completely new places, instead focusing on balancing this new version of the franchise with a more familiar tone. In season 2, Discovery is funnier, lighter, more positive and brighter. There are times where it’s almost obnoxious, but they always find a way to reel it back.

It’s a premiere and the show is serialized, so it still sets up a story that will play out over multiple episodes if not the entire season, but there are missions within the episode that manage to get resolved, notably a rescue mission on a Starfleet medical freighter thought to have been lost during the Klingon war. The freighter is stuck in an asteroid field where the physics are wonky, due to a mysterious event that the ship is tasked with investigating, but the nature of that event is put on the back burner (since there are seven things they need to investigate) in favour of focusing on the rescue mission, as the crew is forced to take individual pods out to the asteroid where the ship has crashed.


As a result, like the season 1 premiere, it’s an episode with a lot of action. But a different kind of action, as no phasers are fired, and there is no confrontation with an alien species. It’s purely a rescue mission, and you can tell the writers specifically chose this path to differentiate season 2 from what came before.

The effort appears elsewhere as well. As already noted, this is a much funnier, light-hearted episode, and that’s displayed not only in what they find on the ship (where the surviving officer is a dry-witted engineer played by the driest of dry comedians, Tig Notaro), but also in how the crew copes with its new leader, Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount, joining the cast), who commandeers the Discovery in order to complete the mission of investigating the seven synchronized events after the Enterprise sustains heavy damage. The crew is apprehensive, because they don’t know much about Pike and he sort of steamrolls them, and they’re still reeling from not one, but two Mirror Universe evil captain reveals. Pike makes it a point to prove to them he’s not Gabriel Lorca. He jokes with them, he makes it a point to learn their names, he’s even a fan of furniture in ready rooms. And he understands that he’s encroaching on Saru’s territory, so he gives him the space he needs as the ship’s number one and, up to his arrival, acting captain. As much as this episode is about establishing this new threat and saving that freighter, it’s about establishing Pike as the new captain and starting to build new relationships.

I really like the Captain Pike portrayed in this episode. He’s different than the other iterations we’ve seen, but very much in line with what you’d expect the predecessor to Captain Kirk to be like. He’s funny, incredibly charming and a bit of a rogue or a maverick. He comes from a ship on a long-term deep-space mission, so he plays a little more fast and loose with the rules than a Saru, which puts him in a nice spot between Saru and Burnham, the latter of which has her own tendency to bend rules and do things her own way. Pike knows things are different on a ship that experienced the war, and he feels bad for being ordered to sit it out, so he respects and lionizes Saru, but he very quickly bonds with Burnham, between their similarities and their mutual acquaintance in Spock. That makes Pike the perfect addition to this show, even though some might continue to think this prequel/TOS stuff is shoehorned in, and Anson Mount is pitch perfect in his portrayal.

And, of course, it’s also about Burnham and her family problems, as the arrival of the Enterprise brings up the curious absence of one Mr. Spock, her foster brother, who has taken leave from his duties on the Enterprise and not spoken to Pike, Burnham, or his father Sarek in a long time. The episode starts with a lengthy flashback to Burnham’s first day in Sarek’s home, and Spock’s initial rejection of his new foster sister. Later on Burnham blames herself for their failed relationship as faux-siblings. But visiting his quarters on the Enterprise, she discovers that Spock had something to hide, and that it might play in this larger mission with Pike. We don’t see adult Spock just yet, but we know he’s coming, as Ethan Peck has been cast in the role and seen in some of the trailers.

All of this makes for a lot to set up for the premiere, and we haven’t even mentioned Stamets’ decision to leave the ship for a teaching gig, abandoning his research with the Mycellium network, or the dark matter asteroid that they bring on board. All of this, obviously, will play out over the course of the season, but it sets up a good base, and it balances all of these elements fairly well. That’s kind of the point of making a more action-oriented premiere. You have a lot to set up, it won’t pan out for a few episodes, so here’s an exciting space jump to tide you over (including a pitch-perfect redshirt death). “Brother” establishes a good pace for us to work with as Discovery launches into new territory this season. I’m excited about the Red Angel stuff, I’m curious to see how the Spock stuff plays out, I’m elated at how good Anson Mount is as Pike and the new dynamic with the crew, and I’m optimistic about the show’s promise to be more about science and exploration, between the seven missions they’ve already set up and the dark matter asteroid they have sitting in the shuttle bay. And that’s pretty much what you can expect out of a soft-reboot premiere like this.

“Brother” gets 8 snarky redshirt comments out of 10.