For the third year in a row, I present the Robbie Awards, recognizing the best books I read last year.
In many areas of life, 2020 wasn’t an award-worthy year. But at least, being cooped up at home gave me time to read 80 books. Here are some of the best.
I’m the critic. In my critical opinion, the most satisfying literary creation of my year in books was “His Majesty’s Dragon” by Naomi Novik. Originally titled “Temeraire,” it’s the first of a nine-book series about a dragon by that name and his human partner, Capt. William Lawrence.
Novik inserts dragons seamlessly into history, but what really drew me in is the touching bond between a man and a dragon who, against all odds, become a fighting unit in Britain’s aerial defense against Napoleon.
What? You don’t think dragons were involved in that? Read this book and you’ll be convinced by its period detail, beautiful style and emotional depth – to say nothing of a thrilling, climactic battle to defend England’s shores.
I’m the reader. For pure entertainment, my vote goes to “Insignia” by S.J. Kincaid, part one of a trilogy about a school for cyber-child soldiers.
Hilarious, action-packed and thought-provoking at the same time, this book conjures a disturbingly believable vision of our world’s near future, in which wars are fought in outer space between drones controlled by teens with computers implanted in their brains.
Young hero Tom learns, too late, that it’s a bad idea to give other people power to alter your thoughts. But he’s a resourceful kid, and he fights back. Go, Tom!
The child in me voted for “The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman” by Ben H. Winters.
It’s the story of a middle school student who exposes her mousy music teacher as a former punk rocker. The school year takes a crazy turn as Bethesda’s whole grade prepares a rock concert for an upcoming music contest.
Silly authority figures, sober lessons about right and wrong, a touch of mystery, quirky kids and an infectious love of rock ‘n’ roll make this a fun book on every level. It also has a sequel, “The Mystery of the Missing Everything.”
Best Short Subject
A short story collection that I really enjoyed last year was “Sideways Stories from Wayside School” by Louis Sachar, the author of “Holes.”
The school in this book was literally built sidewise, so it has one classroom on each floor, all the way up to the 30th floor. The kids in the classroom at the top are an especially quirky bunch, and they have some weird and wacky adventures, including a substitute teacher who can suck people’s voices up his nose and a principal who advises students to stay to the right while walking upstairs and to the left while going down.
It’s adorable nonsense, varying from funny to touching and puzzling. There are several follow-up books, too.
Best Graphic Novel
For heavily illustrated books, my vote goes to “El Deafo” by Cece Bell.
Illustrated in comic-book style, it captures a hearing impaired child’s struggle to fit in with her age group with charm, wit and a touch of fantasy.
Approaches to teaching hearing imparied children have changed a lot since Bell was a child. I think you’ll find her story touching and inspiring – and maybe prepare you to understand what someone like her is going through.
Being a child at heart, I read a lot of illustrated books last year. I especially liked “Castle Hangnail” by Ursula Vernon. Besides being a very good book, it was enhanced by Vernon’s drawings of a plump, 12-year-old witch and her castle minions.
These pictures help create a sweet, weird impression of a non-traditional family – including a stuffed man, an animated suit of armor and a donkey that turns into a dragon – brought together in a run-down castle that’s in danger of being closed if its new master doesn’t complete a list of tasks.
The characters are strangely easy to love, partly because the pictures showed how very odd and vulnerable they are. The book and its art made me laugh, awoke my imagination, and built up to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion.
Robin Fish is an avid reader who blogs about books and other topics at afortmadeofbooks.blogspot.com. Contact him with questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.