My favorite reads of 2020

The year 2020 was without question a difficult year for all of us. We faced many challenges and current events seemed to be a constant source of stress and anxiety. For me, however, one bright spot was the joy I found in reading. According to Goodreads, I finished 86 books last year (and I’m sure that there’s a few I forgot to record)! I read so many fantastic books but I’ve managed to narrow them down to the following list.

Fiction

Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III by James Tynion IV, Freddie Williams II, et al.

Writer James Tynion IV first caught my attention with his run on Detective Comics. His trilogy of Batman/TMNT crossovers have been nothing short of spectacular! He perfectly manages to capture the essence of both the Dark Knight Detective and the Heroes in a Half-Shell, bringing the two franchises together in an unforgettable way. The previous Batman/TMNT books have made me feel like a kid again and this capstone to the trilogy is no exception. I can’t say more without spoiling the plot but let’s just say that Tynion and company pay glorious tribute to the long and storied legacies of both Batman and the Turtles. If you’re a fan of either franchise, do not hesitate to pick up this hugely entertaining series!

Bloodline (Star Wars) by Claudia Gray

I read quite a few Star Wars novels last year but Bloodline stands out. Simply put, this is one of the best-written Star Wars tie-ins I’ve read in a while and cemented my opinion that Claudia Gray is one of the finest authors currently working for Lucasfilm and Del Rey Books. Fans often bemoan the boring and tedious Senate politics of the Star Wars Prequels but Gray has managed to write an engaging, suspenseful, and nuanced political thriller set in the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Leia is the main character and Gray provides fascinating insight into her personality and motivations as she struggles to hold the New Republic Senate together amid conspiracy and scandal. Certainly relevant to the contentious political machinations of this past year. Seeing Claudia Gray’s name on a Star Wars novel is for me a mark of quality.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

This past year I finished the Chronicles of Prydain series, reading the final two novels Taran Wanderer and The High King as well as the the short story collection The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain. I can now say, without any reservations, that Prydain is one of my favorite fantasy sagas of all-time! The High King by itself is a masterpiece and is one of the most emotionally moving conclusions to a series that I have ever read. These books deserve more attention than they get and Lloyd Alexander deserves a spot next to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on the list of greatest fantasy authors.

Hawkman, Vol. 1: Awakening by Robert Venditti, Bryan Hitch, et al.

I first became aware of Robert Venditti through his excellent work on X-O Manowar for Valiant Comics. When I heard that he was relaunching DC’s Hawkman title in a bold new direction, I became determined to start reading it. I was not disappointed. Venditti has created, in my opinion, the definitive take on the Hawkman mythos, deftly fusing the character’s various and contradictory incarnations into a cohesive whole. This comic offers cosmic-level sci-fi at its best, with mind-blowing journeys across time and space. If you love the far-out aspects of the DC universe, you’re going to love this first volume of Hawkman. I for one am looking forward to reading subsequent volumes.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

It was through Ray Bradbury that I first fell in love with the short story form (especially in science fiction) and if you’ve never read any of Bradbury’s books before I urge you to start with The Illustrated Man. Some of my favorite Bradbury stories of all time are here, including “The Veldt”, “The Other Foot”, “The Man”, “The Fire Balloons”, and “Zero Hour”, alongside many other spectacular tales. Bradbury’s stories have had a massive impact on my own work as a sci-fi and fantasy writer and I plan on returning to The Illustrated Man for inspiration in the future.

Super Sons, Vol. 3: Parent Trap by Peter J. Tomasi, Carlo Barberi, et al.

Super Sons is one of my favorite comic book titles of recent years and perfectly encapsulates everything I love about superhero comics: Pure escapism, high-octane adventure, and fun characters. Reading Super Sons makes me feel like a kid again sitting in front of the TV in my PJ’s on a Saturday morning. This “Saturday morning cartoon” vibe is sadly lacking in most comics published today. I appreciate dark and serious stories (my favorite superhero is Batman, after all) but all-ages adventure stories will always connect with me most deeply, as those were the kinds of tales I enjoyed in childhood. Jon Kent/Superboy’s fun-loving optimism is the perfect foil for Damian Wayne/Robin’s brooding cynicism. Putting these two characters together was a masterstroke! I’ve always appreciated the bond of friendship and respect between the “World’s Finest” (Batman and Superman) and it is heartwarming to see their sons carry on this tradition. Of the three volumes of Super Sons I’ve read so far, Parent Trap may be the best yet! This title is ripe for adaptation into an animated series. Why Warner Bros. Animation has not yet done so is beyond me.

Thrawn (Star Wars) by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn is of course best known for his groundbreaking “Thrawn Trilogy” from the ’90s. Many Star Wars fans were disappointed to see these books relegated to the status of apocryphal “Legends” in the new Disney Star Wars continuity. Lucasfilm however, still had plans for Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the most interesting and intimidating villains in Star Wars history. Timothy Zahn was brought back to retell the character’s surprising origins in this officially canon novel, simply titled Thrawn. It was fascinating to see Thrawn rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy despite the institutional prejudices again his alien heritage. While seeming to be a loyal Imperial, Thrawn clearly has an agenda all his own. This novel also provides fascinating insight into the background of Governor Arihnda Price, a secondary villain from the Star Wars Rebels animated series. In the show she is largely a two-dimensional antagonist so getting to see the motivations that inform her actions provided some much-needed depth to that character. Unfortunately, Zahn’s other recent Thrawn novels have disappointed me, but I highly recommend this first entry in the series.

The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson

Last year I read the first two Wingfeather books, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and North! Or Be Eaten. I love all-ages fantasy so I’m glad I discovered this wonderful series by author and musician Andrew Peterson. These books are quirky, heartwarming, and thrilling all at the same time. Tender moments are perfectly balanced with hair-raising escapes and side-splitting humor. There are some surprisingly dark moments as well but the overall tone is one of hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Kids (and parents!) will love these books. I cannot praise them highly enough. I’m looking forward to finishing the series this year.

Nonfiction

Countdown 1945 by Chris Wallace

A suspenseful, informative, and nuanced account of the days leading up to the mission to drop the atomic bombs on Japan at the close of World War II. Whether you believe this momentous, world-altering decision was justified or not, I highly recommend this book as an introduction to this controversial event for the general reader. Chris Wallace brings a journalist’s instinct for storytelling to a brilliant piece of narrative nonfiction. If you’ve read history books before and found them to be “boring” I highly recommend giving Countdown 1945 a chance; it has the pacing and tone of a thriller. I listened to the audiobook version and Chris Wallace does a great job as narrator (he is a TV news anchor, after all). I rarely reread nonfiction books but this is one I might return to in the future.

Grant by Ron Chernow

According to Goodreads, the longest book I read last year was Ron Chernow’s masterful biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general and President of the United States. I’ve been interested in Grant’s life since childhood (I remember giving a presentation on him when I was in grade school) so I was excited to finally dive in to a full-length biography of this fascinating and pivotal figure in American history. I went back and forth between reading this book on Kindle and listening to it on Audible (I love how Kindle and Audible are integrated so that, when switching between them, you can pick up where you left off). The narrator for the audiobook version, Mark Bramhall, does a fantastic job. There’s something about his gruff-sounding voice that just seems perfect for a book set largely in the Civil War period. This tome is meticulously researched and, upon finishing it, I really felt like I had gotten to know Grant as a person. Like the best biographies should, it gives a well-rounded portrait of Grant, highlighting both his strengths and weaknesses, his triumphs and mistakes. The book debunks many longstanding myths about Grant that were perpetuated by his enemies, but at the same time Chernow doesn’t exalt him on a pedestal. All in all, U.S. Grant comes off as a great but fallible (and thus very relatable) human being. I highly recommend this book. I learned a lot about the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction that I was previously unaware of. The accounts of wanton racial violence and the wholesale slaughter of African Americans by ex-Confederates during Reconstruction was truly shocking. Being exposed to this dark side of American history was a sobering but educational experience.

I Am C-3PO: The Inside Story by Anthony Daniels

I listened to Anthony Daniels’s wonderfully entertaining and charming memoirs via Audible and I’m so glad I did. Mr. Daniels’s real-life voice actually sounds a lot like his C-3PO voice, so it was like having Threepio narrate the book to you! Daniels shares some funny, surprising, and startling behind-the-scenes experiences from his work on all the Star Wars films, as well as the infamous “Holiday Special” and even some bizarre ad campaigns (including one where Threepio lectures Artoo on the health hazards of cigarettes)! Mr. Daniels also shares his vulnerable side, including his struggles with imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy. It was uplifting to hear how the love and support of the Star Wars fan community got Anthony Daniels through some difficult times. If you’re at all a fan of Star Wars be sure to check out this stellar autobiography!

Rush by Stephen Fried

I knew almost nothing about Benjamin Rush before reading this fascinating biography of the groundbreaking doctor and hero of the American Revolution. Despite being counted among the Founding Fathers, Rush’s pivotal contributions are largely forgotten by the public at large. This book does important work by raising awareness of this extraordinary figure. The read proved unintentionally timely in a year ravaged by a global pandemic, as the book contains a gripping account of Rush’s heroic battle against a Yellow Fever epidemic in his hometown of Philadelphia.

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