2020 in Facts and Figures

I already posted my main 2020 in Review and Looking Ahead to 2021 posts a while ago — only on my new blog (separate post to come) –, but I held back on my 2020 reading statistics until the year was well and truly over.  And for all my good intentions when posting my mid-year summary back in early July 2020, the second half of the year continued pretty much in the same vein as the first half had begun; i.e., my statistics for the whole year are still a variation on the theme of Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, or, 17 charts showing that 2020 was a year of reading Golden Age mysteries written by women (and following other Anglo-/ UK-centric reading proclivities); i.e. comfort reading galore … it was just that kind of year, I guess.

As a result, my Golden Age Mysteries / Detection Club reading project progressed very nicely.  Luckily, as I said in my main 2020 in Review post, I also managed to add a number of new countries to my Around the World challenge, and the gender balance is solidly in favor of women authors: I read almost 2 1/2 books by women for every book written by a man — in fact, I even reread more books by women than the total number of books by men.  So there was at least some progress in other areas, too.  And I liked or even loved most of the books I read in 2020 — including most of the new-to-me books –, which of course was another huge plus; in a year where reading was my go-to source of comfort, at that: most of my ratings were 4 stars or higher and thus, above the rating that marks “average” in my personal scale (3.5 stars).

Still, in 2021 I’m going to make a fresh attempt to refocus on my Around the World reading project, in furtherance of which I’ve also created a Diversity Bingo that I’ll try to get through in the space of this one year (though if it takes longer, it takes longer); and I’ll also try to include more books from my Freedom and Future Library in my yearly reading again.

And now, without any further ado:

Greatest New Author Discoveries of 2020

Classics and LitFic
Bernardine Evaristo
Olivia Manning

Historical Fiction
Dorothy Dunnett
Jean-François Parot
Paul Doherty

Golden and Silver Age Mysteries
Josephine Bell
Moray Dalton
Molly Thynne
Christianna Brand
Anthony Gilbert
Raymond Postgate
Patricia Moyes

My Life in Book Titles

This is a meme I’ve seen on quite a few blogs towards the end of 2020; it was created by Annabel at Annabookbel.  You’re to answer the prompts, using only books you have read in 2020; without, if possible, repeating a book title.  I thought I’d include it in my yearly roundup — and to up the ante a little bit further, I decided to use only books I read for the first time in 2020.

In high school I was Unspeakable (John Bercow)

People might be surprised by (my incarnation as) Lioness Rampant (Tamora Pierce)

I will never be The Horse You Came in On (Martha Grimes), nor Resorting to Murder (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

My life in lockdown was like (a) Tour de Force (Christianna Brand) and (a) Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)

My fantasy job is The Thinking Machine at Work (Jacques Futrelle)

At the end of a long day I need to be Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) (to my) Pilgrim’s Rest (Patricia Wentworth)

I hate being (around) Serpents in Eden (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

Wish I had The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)

My family reunions are (often with) Thirteen Guests (J. Jefferson Farjeon)

At a party you’d find me with My Friend Mr. Campion (Margery Allingham), Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Emmuska Orczy), and other Bodies from the Library (Tony Medawar, ed.; Various Authors)

I’ve never been to Goodwood (Holly Throsby), Cherringham (Matthew Costello, Neil Richards), or At the Villa Rose (A.E.W. Mason)

A happy day includes A Small Place (Jamaica Kincaid) (of my own): My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor)

Motto(s) I live by: To Love and Be Wise (Josephine Tey); and We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

On my bucket list is Shakespeare’s Local (Pete Brown)

In my next life, I want to have The Grand Tour (Matthew Pritchard, ed.; Agatha Christie)

The Stats

Number of books started: 273
Number of books finished: 271
DNF: 2
Average Rating (overall): 3.9
Average Rating w/o Favorite Annual Xmas Rereads: 3.8

Note: The above chart includes my 6 annual Christmas rereads, which have a habit of slightly skewing my overall rating figures upwards; without these books, the number of 5-star books is reduced by 5 and the number of 4.5-star books is reduced by 1.

Note: “F / M (mixed)” refers to anthologies with contributions by both male and female authors, as well as to books jointly written by male and female authors. — “N / A” in the protagonist gender chart refers to Martha Wells’s Murderbot, who is deliberately created as gender-neutral.

Note: “Multi-ethnic” either refers to several persons (authors / protagonists) of different genders, or to one person of mixed ethnicity.


Ruth Rendell: A Judgement in Stone

DNF @ 30% (approx)

“Illiterate” (read: dyslexic) working class home help kills her well-meaning but utterly clueless upper class employers.  The end.  (And because it’s an inverted mystery, we know literally from the first sentence that this is going to happen.)  Aaaannnd … I’m out.

I’m not merely bored, though.


Chiefly, I’m furious at Rendell for deliberately framing dyslexia:
(1) as a class issue (which it patently is not and never has been), and
(2) what is infinitely worse, as the trigger that causes a psychopath who is secretly morbidly ashamed of her lack of literacy to fatally lash out at others.

Shame on you, Baroness.  You ought to have known better.

Let no part of the blame fall on Carole Hayman, however, whose spirited reading made me give this book way more of my time than I should have.


Original post:

Renée Ahdieh: The Wrath and the Dawn

DNF @ 146 out of 432 pages

…. and I’m out.

This is insufferable.

Granted, I’m not the target audience to begin with.  But it’s not even the concept of “1001 Nights as a YA love story” that is putting me off the most, even though that does have at least something to do with it.  Shahrazād, in the original version, uses a potent brew of methods to get the king so wrapped up in her — and in her storytelling –, and a key element of that brew is seduction and sex appeal.  Which I’m not seeing here at all, not even on the tamest “clean YA writing” level.  We’re repeatedly told that Shahrazad — Western spelling, but let that be — is “pretty” (or “beautiful”), and apparently the “boy king” she’s gotten herself married to seems to be thinking so as well.  BUT that doesn’t deter him for a second from wanting to kill her straight at the beginning of the first night.  Off which desire she temporarily manages to wean him by just batting her eyelashes and saying “Please grant me this one wish, before you kill me let me tell you a story??”

Which however brings us to the first thing that really sat wrongly with me straight from the start: motivation.  As in, his, for letting her live — past her first morning at that.  We start off in the first night with the Thief of Baghdad, and by the time morning comes creeping in, we’re just at the point where the Magic Lamp has been rubbed for the first time (not by Aladdin, either, in other words, just in case you’d been wondering).  And just when some mysterious smoke begins to rise from the lamp, — zing!!! — Shahrazad offers up a cliffhanger and tells the king she can’t possibly go on and she’ll tell him the rest of the story tomorrow night.  At which … he’s mildly annoyed but in short order agrees to let her live a little more, just like that, so he can listen to the ending of a story that doesn’t even seem to have done more for him than amuse him on some level or other?!  Sorry, but that’s just ridiculous — we’re talking tyrant material here, after all.

Even more importantly, though: I could probably chog along with the book just fine if Ahdieh had taken the original collection’s cue and kept from locating it all too firmly in reality.  The original is a hodge podge of source material from all over the Orient, after all, very likely at least partly based on oral tradition and with none too firm and consistent a grasp on place names and time periods.  And at heart, it’s a collection of fairy tales.  So what more proximate thing than to turn it into a fantasy tale, right?  But what does Ahdieh do instead?  She writes a historical novel … without obviously having spent a single second on the historical and cultural research that such an approach requires.  And there’s only so much in terms of obvious errors and inconsistencies piling up within a very short time span that I am willing to take.

To stick with just a few of the “highlights”:

Ahdieh bases her book in “Khorazan” — let’s assume that by this she means Greater Khorazan, which she may have settled on because the ruler whom Shahrazād marries in the original collection is characterized as a Sasanian king, and Khorazan, in the 7th century, swallowed up the Sasanian Empire.  (Besides, it has the charm of having been a hotbet of Islamic culture with a rather lasting effect on all of the Middle East and Central Asia — at least until the Mongols came calling.)

Now, my first problem with this is that she gives her boy king the official title of “caliph”.  Because NONE of the four caliphates whose territory included all or at least part of Greater Khorazan were ruled by a caliph residing (as this one does) in a city this far east.  During the (earliest) Rashidun Caliphate it was Medina and Kufa (a city some 110 miles from present-day Baghdad); during the two caliphates with the largest territorial extension, the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, it was successively Damascus, Harran, Kufa (again), Anbar, Baghdad, Raqqa, Samara, and Cairo, and during the (final) Ottoman Caliphate — i.e., the Ottoman Empire — it was several successive Turkish cities; with Constantinople / istanbul being capital for by far the longest time (but the Ottoman Empire no longer extended far enough east to begin with).  The only thing Khorazan has to say for itself in terms of impacting the dynastic history of the caliphates is that the Abbasid Revolution started there (geographically and militarily / strategically speaking, that is).

Tl;dr: There never was a “Caliph of Khorazan” — as Ahdieh, however, gives as her “boy king'”s title.

Again: If she hadn’t written this as a historical novel (or indeed, as any sort of book set in the real world), that wouldn’t be a problem.  Since she insists on giving specific historic and geographical details, however, readers such as me expect her to have done her homework and verified that at least the major elements of her story are consistent with historic fact and reality.  This one isn’t.

Now: Since Ahdieh has Shahrazad start with the story of the Thief of Baghdad, obviously Baghdad has to exist at the time in which her book is set.  Which puts us into the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, as it was the Abbasides who founded Baghdad (and the Ottomans no longer ruled over Khorazan, see above).  And if we look at the extension of the Abbasid Caliphate, we see that although it still extends fairly far to the west in northern Africa, it no longer covers Morocco / the Maghreb, nor any part of Spain.  Why is that important?  Because Ahdieh refers to someone as “a Moor” and, in the same breath, tells us that he is “from Spain”.  Which is consistent insofar as much of Spain remained Islamic after the Abbasids had expelled the Umayyads; in fact it was to the Caliphate of Córdoba that the Umayyads retrenched upon being kicked out of the rest of their territory.  HOWEVER, during that time period no self-respecting Muslim would have referred to a Muslim from Spain as “a Moor”; at least not, simply by way of an introduction or explanation as it is done here.  To begin with, this term (or “Mauri”) merely referred to the Maghreb (= North African) Berbers, not also people from Spain; indeed, people from the Maghreb region in northwestern Africa are still referred to as “Mauri” by 16th century scholar Leo Africanus.  More importantly, however, in the Middle Ages “moor” (“moro” / “mouro” in Spanish and Portuguese) was a derogative term used by the Christians during the Reconquista and the Crusades.  It was a racist slur — nothing short of the “N”-word of the Middle Ages.


Words are important.  They are to your readers — and they should be to you as a writer as well.  Obviously, they aren’t.  That is a pity.

And speaking of words (and titles / addresses): A little later, someone is addressed as “effendi“.  That, in turn, is a form of address that was not used as far east as Khorazan at all — it is a classic expression of respect used almost at the other end of the world as far as a resident of Greater Khorazan would have been conderned: in the Eastern Mediterranean of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.  Which just might still make sense as the gentleman in question does not currently reside in Khorazan — the problem is, however: He used to.  In fact, he used to be tutor and confidant to our “boy king”‘s mother practically forever (until he was kicked out by the seat of his pants).  Which makes him just about anything by way of a respectful address from another Khorazani (none other than Shahrazad herself), but certainly not “effendi”.

Tl;dr: See above — words matter.  Do your godd**n research, woman.  Turks would address someone as “effendi” — not Khorazans.

And literally within a few pages of the above, we learn that another young gentleman from Khorazan, in seeking support for a campaign he’s mounting, is riding out to “the Badawi” — i.e., the Bedouins.  Which again would all be fine and dandy, the extent of the Abbasid Caliphate being what it was, if the next thing we’d be hearing about would be a weeks-, if not months-long trip fraught with hardship, mastered with the help of only a single horse  for transport (in fact, way too good a horse to risk its health on such a trip, but let that go).  But no — he has no sooner spoken of seeking out the Badawi than he’s already chatting to one of them next to a well.

At which point the story, quite literally, had hit the bottom of the well for me once and for all.

One more time: If Ahdieh had given me the slightest indication that she doesn’t mean her book to be set in the real world — in its past — I’d have gone along with her.  (Not quite willingly as her writing isn’t exactly stellar, either, but at least I’d have finished the book.)  But since she insists on peppering it with real world historic references, she must expect to be measured by the standards that such references invite.  And measured by those standards, her book falls woefully short on just about every page.  None of which has anything to do with this being a YA book — YA readers have just as much of a right to be offered historically well-researched books as anybody else.  (Incidentally: in this post, I’m deliberately only linking to Wikipedia pages, because that shows just how little effort it would have taken on Ahdieh’s part to at least get a handle on the core basics.)

Side note: Ariana Delawari as a narrator goes straight onto my “never again” list, too.  I’ve tried my hardest not to attribute her shortcomings to the author in addition to Ahdieh’s own blunders, but Delawari’s narration certainly didn’t make up for the writing, either.

So, I’ll pocket my $2 for BL-opoly and move straight along … fortunately, at least today is another roll day for me!


Original post:

Laura Restrepo: Hot Sur

Hard DNF @ p. 55

So your best friend left her home in Colombia after being raped at age 15, has (unsurprisingly) had few experiences with men since … and after having set her up with your husband’s weirdly-behaved younger brother, plied her with gin and let him drag her away — only to find out he proceeded to rape her in her body’s every cavity with a f*ing broken-off broomstick, for crying out loud — you have the temerity to tell her that she doesn’t know what just happened to her was rape, and “we’re all different and what’s bad for some people is good for others”???

Chica, I don’t care one iota why you’re rotting in the prison you’re currently in. I don’t care whether it’s justified, whether you ended up killing your husband or his brother or both (which they doubtlessly deserved, if so), or whether someone else did it for you.  I don’t care whether your friend came back and did it and you’re serving time in her stead.

I’m outta here.

I had a hard time working up any sympathy for you based on your rambling narrative as it is — and it certainly didn’t get any better when you said you wanted a writing teacher who’d just declared the eye-opening first novel you ever read “young adult literature and hence, of lesser literary value” to write a book wherein you’re the heroine.

And now this rape thing — and to the woman you claim was your best friend … I just can’t.



Original post:

Sam Kean: The Disappearing Spoon

DNF @ Chapter 4

I think it’s fair to say that if I prefer doing office admin chores and listening to a(n albeit truly fascinating) memoir about growing up in and getting out of North Korea to reading this book, that’s a pretty good indication I won’t be getting back to this.

Chapter 4 started readable, but within 2 pages we had the next bit of arrogant nose-snubbing, at the scientist authors of one of the most groundbreaking papers in all of 20th century science writing no less, with a casual misinterpretation of two lines by Shakespeare tagged on in another asterisked footnote — and I decided I just couldn’t take it any longer.

Writerly tone aside: if I find that I can’t trust an author’s pronouncements on the bits of his book that I can instantly verify based on my own knowledge, experience and interests (e.g., European history and Shakespeare’s writing) … how can I possibly trust him on the bits that I cannot verify quite as easily and quickly?

So Huggins must regretfully record that I’m outta here as well.  I think we may seriously need to review our Flat Book Society book selection procedure …

Original post:


Prior Status Updates

31 Pages:

Well, let’s just say Mr. Kean clearly isn’t Helen Czerski (and that is not a good thing).

He either has no clear conception of who his target audience is, or he doesn’t know how to talk to his audience.  Someone with an average to advanced training in science obviously wouldn’t need any explanations as to the structure of the periodic table, to begin with.  The rest of us might need one — but (and it speaks volumes that I even have to emphasize this) a clearly structured one, please, not an assortment of anecdotes that blows any explanatory structure clean out of the window.  Also, if you’re writing a book subtitled (in part) “…Tales of … the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements“, wouldn’t it be a good idea to give your readers an idea when and how the periodic table itself made its first appearance in the history of the world?  Just a paragraph or so, for reference in conjunction with its basic structure, so we know where we are, both in chemical terms and the history of science?  (Ms. Czerski did just that.  But as I said … Mr. Kean clearly isn’t Helen Czerski.)

So far, he’s managed the feat that only one of my school teachers ever managed, and that was my physics teacher, who, like Sam Kean, presented his material full of enthusiasm as to the magic of it all, or the big joke associated with a given scientific fact / discovery, or some other reaction clearly warranted in his eyes, while completely failing to transport to the rest of us — and hence, leaving us entirely mystified — what all all of this had to do with any of us and why it was actually important (other than in a way that only the initiated would be able to appreciate).  I used to actually like chemistry in school (unlike physics), and I believed I had a fairly good grip on the subject — an impression my teachers seemed to share, judging by my grades.   A major reason for this was the fact that (unlike in physics class) I never had a moment’s doubt as to why what I was learning mattered, and how it all fitted together in the grand scheme of things.  But if I didn’t at least have this distant reservoir to rely on, I’m pretty sure I’d be entirely baffled already.  And I can only hope that this state of affairs is going to improve, because otherwise I’m either going to throw in the towel or it’s going to take me eons to finish this book (and it won’t earn a particularly high rating, either).

Original post:


63 Pages:

The fact that I actually finished chapter 3 the day before yesterday and it took BT’s first status update for me to remember to also comment on my own progress probably tells you all you need to know about the priority this book has in my reading.

Well, the good news, I guess, is that chapters 2 and 3 are actually readable.  I don’t think I’ll retain from them much more than I already knew (and chapter 2 is another example of Kean getting stuck on two elements, amplified on by way of numerous details, after setting out to make a more general point), but at least he held my attention for the duration of those two chapters, and chapter 3 also contains a historical positioning of the periodic table.  Since this is the final chapter of the introductory section of the book, I’ll retract my criticism that he didn’t give any sort of historical introduction at all.  Which however doesn’t excuse the amount of condescension and outright innuendo going on in the description of the key biographical details of the scientists whose works he is describing in chapters 2 and 3.

That said, two days have gone by and I still haven’t been able to bring myself to move on to chapter 4.  As I mentioned in my comments on BT’s status update, somehow the combination of atoms as a topic and this author’s fractured approach to narrative and explanations doesn’t portend much encouragement.  Nor does his approach to the presentation of scientific theories (psst, Mr. Kean — that’s where footnotes just might be put to good use) … or his dealings with the biographies of several eminent scientists of the past, who can actually count genuine, important discoveries among their achievements.  I’ll be on a full-day trip tomorrow, and although it will include some train travel, I don’t see myself actually taking this book.  I also don’t think I’ll be in much of a mood to touch it tomorrow night when I get back.  I guess what I’m saying is I’m still on the fence whether or not to finish this.

Original post: