My Favourite Books (and Films) in 2020

Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t been a great film-watching year for me, at least in terms of new releases. Since January, I’ve seen a grand total of six films in theatres, as well as three new releases via streaming services and one on Amazon Video:

  1. 1917
  2. Parasite
  3. Birds of Prey
  4. Over the Moon (Netflix)
  5. Ammonite
  6. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
  7. Soul (Disney Plus)
  8. Enola Holmes (Netflix)
  9. Misbehaviour
  10. Tenet

On the other hand, having to spend most of my time at home hasn’t hurt my reading habits, while daily walks provide the opportunity to listen to audiobooks which my commute previously granted. I’ve read/listened to 72 books this year, just beating last year’s total of 70.

Favourite Fiction Read in 2020

10. Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline
I was a big fan of Ready Player One, and while the sequel doesn’t quite hit those heights (or maybe that’s just because of the novelty wearing off), I liked it a lot. It generates a new source of conflict to drive the story that expands on what’s already been set up without feeling tacked on, though I was a bit irritated that Wade essentially has to re-learn the same lesson he did in the first book. The story has a different feel, being more event-driven than character-driven; but the nostalgic indulgence and the virtual world’s limitless possibilities are still out in full force.

09. Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
This is the first Star Wars novel I’ve read/listened to, and I enjoyed learning more about this universe beyond what we see in the films: getting down to ground level and having Empire soldiers as the main characters. Thrawn is a fascinatingly smart and competent character and I certainly want to read more of his stories. The audiobook version is very well produced, with background sound effects and appropriate voices for familiar characters like Emperor Palpatine. My only problem with the story is that some of the political and tactical machinations get a bit complicated and when listening to it, I sometimes lost track of things.

08. The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann
The TV series The Animals of Farthing Wood was a big part of my childhood, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t read the book earlier. One thing that surprised me – and isn’t the best reflection on the source material – is that several characters who were female in the series (Adder, Weasel, Owl, Kestrel) are male in the book. In fact, there are very few female characters at all here, and with the exception of Vixen, they aren’t given personalities or even names – they’re just somebody’s mate. The show did a better job of giving characters’ deaths emotional impact, as well.
Aside from that, I really enjoyed this book. It’s an exciting story where the animal characters have to face many different sources of conflict, most of them manmade. This fits in with the strong conservation message, which, coming from the animals’ perspective, feels earnest rather than preachy. And most of the animals have distinct personalities which come out over time – Adder is still my favourite character, even if their gender is different.

07. Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke
A fascinating and profound sci-fi story which explores a lot of interesting concepts in a relatively short space, from how humanity would develop under a benevolent dictatorship of aliens, to the idea of an overreaching system in the wider universe that is beyond our understanding on every level.

06. Troy by Stephen Fry
After Mythos and Heroes, I had expected the third volume of Stephen Fry’s Greek mythology series to cover both the Trojan War and the Odyssey – but if it takes separate volumes to do these stories justice (assuming that a fourth one is coming in the future), so be it. This is another excellent re-telling of classical mythology which does its best to flesh out the characters and get into their heads, though some parts (e.g. the abduction of Helen) are skimmed over so quickly that they’re a bit dissatisfying. Odysseus is my favourite character in this, so I do hope that Fry will indeed be giving us more of him.

05. Devolution by Max Brooks
This is a brilliant monster story on multiple levels: the themes of humans’ over-reliance on technology and loss of familiarity with nature, and how our true selves come out in a crisis; the gradual, tense buildup before the horror really begins; the epistolary format, with interviews being used to give background info on the Sasquatch; and the mix of different characters who react in different ways to the situation.

04. The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula le Guin
When it comes to fantasy, especially those stories set in other worlds, I usually either love them or am indifferent to them. This was one of those that I loved. I loved the sheer vastness and diversity of the world of Earthsea, and the intelligence of Ursula Le Guin’s writing, which doesn’t feel the need to spell things out to the reader, and contains a lot of interesting philosophy on life, death and the sense of identity.

03. Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith
The Cormoran Strike books have generally gotten better as the series has progressed, and this one is my favourite so far. The central mystery, the various subplots, and the fascinating character introspection all come together really well. Even though the main story involves a cold case so the protagonists are hardly ever placed in personal danger this time round, it’s still gripping enough to keep you reading. I did have a couple of minor gripes: there are so many suspects involved that it can be hard to keep track, and it is a bit frustrating to see more instances where Strike and Robin continue to keep things from each other until it all comes out in an unhealthy outburst. But this is another great detective story and character study, and I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.

02. Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
I’ve previously read Ken Follett’s novel The Pillars of the Earth, and while the setting of Fall of Giants is very different (early 20th century), it’s also a story spanning many years, involving a large cast of characters whose lives intertwine – and it’s similarly enjoyable too. As well as how interesting the characters’ various conflicts are, they’re placed in roles that allow the regular exposition regarding the First World War and European politics to feel natural instead of forced. More than other historical fiction I’ve read, this feels like an informative history book disguised as a novel, but it doesn’t suffer for it – it’s excellent.

01. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
It took me a few chapters to get into this book: there’s not a huge amount of plot, and I was a little irritated by how easily the narrator appeared to get side-tracked. But eventually something clicked, and I found myself loving it. There are so many great things about this book: what a brilliant character Owen Meany is, the rich atmosphere of Fifties and Sixties America, some very funny moments (e.g. the Volkswagen), how emotionally powerful it is, the reflection it encourages in the reader – and how, even though a lot of depressing things happen, it still manages to leave you feeling positive. Such is the power of Owen Meany.

Favourite Non-Fiction Read in 2020

10. The Body by Bill Bryson
This is a fascinating book done in Bill Bryson’s usual style, combining interesting facts (on just about every area concerned with the body, with enough detail to be satisfying) with stories about the people involved with the relevant discoveries (many of whom deserve to be more well-known than they are). It’s frequently emphasised how much we still don’t know about our own bodies, and that the modern western lifestyle is having worrying long-term effects on us. While it is a little frustrating that the book talks about our unhealthy diets and insufficient exercise without giving detailed science-based answers on what is necessary to resolve either issue, that may because real life is too messy to apply general figures to everybody (another point that frequently comes up) or because the answer – eat what you know is healthy, but not too much of it, and be as active as you can – doesn’t really require overthinking.

09. The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era by Gareth Russell
I picked up this book wanting to learn more about the world in which the Titanic‘s passengers lived. It certainly delivers in that regard, though the focus is on the first-class passengers: using a few characters as case studies, like the Countess of Rothes, it provides interesting details on the attitudes and expectations of their society, and how the Titanic itself reflected that society. Less time is spent providing details on the sinking as a whole – that is a subject for other books – though the author does sometimes deviate to pointedly debunk erroneous ideas like the Olympic-switch theory and the coal bunker fire theory.

08. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to write but is struggling to actually do it: its a short book and could well give you the kick you need by adjusting your mindset. I liked how it describes the forces of both resistance (which keeps you from writing), making you understand what it is and how it can be overcome; and the positivity of creation, as the author taps into the feelings that drive writers. The differences between amateurs and professionals also give a particular mindset to aim for. It’s a well constructed book that will hopefully make you want to write and believe you can produce something.

07. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore
A very powerful book, which inspires sympathy and admiration for the titular women in their suffering and fight for justice, and anger towards the radium companies who put profit above human lives and refused to accept responsibility. There is real emotion behind the writing, which makes it more engaging; the author does a great job at narrating the audiobook version, as you can feel her passion even more.

06. Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford
As well as being a very detailed and immersive account of Roald Amundsen and Captain Scott’s respective expeditions to the South Pole, this book gives plenty of insight into the differing attitudes of both men and their cultures, and offers applicable lessons in demonstrating why Amundsen succeeded and Scott failed. Huntford framing practically everything about Scott in a negative light can seem a bit extreme, but in most cases, he does have first-hand accounts and evidence to back up his views.

05. This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
A fantastic book which not only has a lot of funny jokes and anecdotes, but also gives a serious insight into the trials and tribulations of being a doctor, and why they still choose to do it (and deserve appreciation from the rest of us).

04. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
An excellent personal development book, that covers many different aspects of increasing the likelihood of success in a positive, understandable manner.

03. Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull
If you like Pixar films and you’re interested in what goes on behind the scenes, this book certainly provides some interesting anecdotes. Mostly, it provides some great advice and examples for either a manager or an artist to learn from. The main thing I took from it is to not be afraid of not getting something right the first time, as even Pixar films need a lot of time and tweaking to get right.

02. On a Sea of Glass by Tad Fitch, J. Kent Layton and Bill Wormstedt
This is by far the most detailed book on the Titanic that I’ve read. It delves deep into the ship’s construction, maiden voyage and sinking, with practically nothing being considered too insignificant. The accounts of survivors form the meat of the book, with multiple accounts covering each stage of the voyage, and the reader is able to get a good feel for who many of those on board were as people. Everything is backed up with sources, with even generally accepted “facts” about the disaster being called into question based on the evidence; it’s a necessarily slow read partly because I kept checking the endnotes. Essential reading for Titanic enthusiasts, who may be surprised to find out what they didn’t know about the subject.

01. Save The Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody
Anyone who’s either writing a novel or intending to write one should check this book out. It breaks down beautifully what a story and its hero need in order to work well, reinforcing its points with case studies (of different types of story) to make sure they are understood and stick in the memory.

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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