In my final piece of 2020 business, here are the last three books I read for the year. These put my total at 59 books for the calendar year. I know this sounds dumb, but I was disappointed with that number. I’ve read that many books in a normal year. Surely in a pandemic year I should have knocked out a few more. Oh well, a goal for pandemic year #2, I suppose.

The Birdwatcher – William Shaw
A solid thriller told in two intertwining stories. The first takes place in current-day southeast England, with community police officer William South pulled into a murder investigation of his neighbor and bird watching partner. The murder spins out to be much more than a random event, and South pushes the investigation forward where the proper murder police thought they had it wrapped up quickly.

The second story is from South’s childhood during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, centered on the defining event of his youth that led to he and his mother fleeing to England.

Naturally what happened to South as a child becomes a big part of his modern investigation. And both of those stories are really good. But where Shaw slips a bit is in how he brings the story to its dramatic conclusion. I did not buy for a second the coincidence that tied the two stories together. Which is a pity, because this book had great potential.

The Last Ballad – Wiley Cash
A wonderful historical novel based on real events that took place in rural North Carolina in 1929. Much of the state’s economy is transitioning away from farming to millwork, where cotton and other raw materials are turned into threads and cloth. After a boom during World War I, things are slowing down, work is harder to find, and conditions in the mills are getting tougher. Unions from New York are attempting to organize workers to fight for better wages and work environments. These activities have led to strikes, violence, and the use of force to break them.

In the middle of all of this is 28-year-old Ella May Wiggins. She has four kids, her husband has abandoned her, and she has become pregnant by her new boyfriend. To top it off, she and her kids are the only white family in a small community of Black mill workers.

Wiggins is intrigued by the idea of a union and attends a rally. She is asked to sing, and her voice and lyrics about working in the mills amaze the crowd and union leaders. She is quickly pulled into the leadership circle and begins organizing, not just to get her co-workers into the union, but also to integrate the union, which the union brass aren’t enthused about.

After a confrontation between some drunk, off-duty cops and striking workers, shots are fired, a sheriff is killed, and tensions ratchet up even higher. In an attack on a union truck convoy, Wiggins is killed.

There are echoes of the current moment in political history in the book such as manufactured stories to sway public opinion, a supposedly free press putting the views of the corporate class first, and the belief that anyone who follows a non-capitalist view of the world is un-American and deserves any violence that falls upon them.

It is also a pretty sobering reminder of how recently large swaths of the US population toiled in horrible working conditions, with little hope of advancing their cause.

Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Evolution – Brian Freeman
I was quite surprised to see this on a couple Best Of lists for 2020. The Bourne series has never been high art, although Ludlum’s originals were quite good.

As thrillers go, it is pretty standard. Jason Bourne is framed for the assassination of a very AOC-like congresswoman, and has to fight two different organizations that want him dead as he struggles to uncover the truth. A very attractive woman gets sucked into his world and has her life threatened in the process. Lots of violence and death. Some tasteful sex. Again, standard.

What earned this book its accolades, I believe, is how it addresses the age we are moving into. There are three different “evil” organizations in the story, and two are concerned with scooping up all your data and steering your behavior based on that information. Not just through getting the public to consume products, but by encouraging them to get out and protest or take direct actions that higher actors desire. Ten years ago it would have seemed far-fetched. But in 2021, it feels like we’re awfully close to losing whatever grip we have left on reality and large segments of the population can be coerced to act based on manufactured prompts.

(I wrote the above paragraph about two weeks ago. Clearly it is even more relevant after the events of January 6, 2021.)