My Favorite Reads of 2020: Fiction
In so many ways, 2020 was a horrible year. But in terms of literature – horror and otherwise – it was terrific. I’ve put together my list of the twenty favorite books that I read in 2020, and if I’m not mistaken, twelve of them were released last year. That’s a pretty good showing considering that several others are classics that, for whatever reason, I had never read before. I expect a few of these will be on the final ballot for the Bram Stoker Award in their respective category.
In no particular order, here they are…
The Broken Girls by Simone St. James
The Broken Girls takes place in Vermont with the centerpiece of the story being Idlewild Hall. In 1950, Idlewild was still a functioning school for wayward girls. Four roommates become friends amidst the stories of the Hall being haunted. Then one of them disappears.
In 1994, the body of Fiona Sheridan’s sister was found in the overgrown fields near Idlewild Hall. Her sister’s boyfriend was convicted of the murder.
Present day, 2014, and Idlewild is slated for demolition. Fiona, now a journalist, sets out to write a story about the school. A gruesome discovery made during the razing that connects Fiona’s sister to the school’s dark history leads Fiona into a harrowing search for the truth.
Part coming-of-age, part mystery, and part ghost story, the book moves seamlessly between the 1950 and the 2014 plot, and the writing is wonderful. Great book.
Faithful Place (Dublin Murder Squad, Book 3) by Tana French
I can’t get enough of The Dublin Murder Squad books. It’s a unique series where the books are all tied together by overlapping characters, but you don’t have to read them in order. I’ve been rationing them out because I don’t want to get caught up and have to wait for the next one. Instead, I enjoy them slowly, knowing there are others unread in my future.
Book Three focuses on Frank Mackey, an undercover cop whose girlfriend, Rosie Daly, disappeared twenty years earlier on the night they were supposed to run away together. He had cut all ties with his family, but when his sister calls to tell him Rosie’s suitcase was found in the old neighborhood, Frank must confront his family and the ghosts of his past to solve the mystery.
Well-paced and full of compelling characters, this is another great addition to the series.
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
This is another book, like Rebecca, that I don’t know why it took me so long to find. The Elementals is a unique haunted house story told in Southern Gothic tradition. It takes place at Beldame, a remote slice of Alabama coastline where three great Victorian houses stand. Two are still used, while the third, still fully furnished, is inexplicably being buried under a growing mound of sand.
The mystery of the third house and the relentless sense of isolation make this one of the best in the haunted house genre. Highly recommended to anyone that is late to the party like I was.
Of Foster Homes and Flies: A Dark Coming of Age Novella by Chad Lutzke
It’s no secret I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age story. Of Foster Homes and Fliesis easily the most unique story in the coming-of-age category I’ve ever read, and one of the best.
Denny is a twelve-year-old boy who’s been training all year for the annual spelling bee. When his mother, a hopeless alcoholic, dies a week before the contest, it puts Denny in a situation no twelve-year-old should be in. The only way to fulfill his dream of participating in the contest is to keep his mother’s death a secret for a week. Not an easy task in the heat of New Orleans.
Despite the grim situation, Denny’s story is both funny and touching. Lutzke’s depiction of the boy and his flawed logic is on point throughout the book. This is one, like Boy’s Lifeand Summer of Night, that I will go back and visit often.
The Temple of Gold: A Novelby William Goldman
Goldman is best known for his screenplays, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President’s Men (1976). He also wrote the novels that were the source material for Marathon Man (1976), and The Princess Bride.
The Temple of Goldwas his first novel. It is the story of two friends growing up in small-town Illinois. It is – shocking for a book on my list – a coming-of-age story. Ray Trevitt and Zachary Crowe - called Zock – are the opposites that attract to become best friends. There is heartbreak, guilt, despair, and ultimately, hope for redemption. A wonderful story.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: A Novel by Kim Michele Richardson
This is another book that brings to light a piece – two pieces, actually – of American history that few people ever hear of. First, it covers the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project. This initiative was a result of the Great Depression and the American Library Association’s assertion that almost a third of Americans had no reasonable access to library services. Enter the book women,” who rode horses to deliver books to remote rural households.
The second strange-but-true facet of the novel is the “Blue People” of Kentucky. Yes, there really were people whose skin was blue due to a rare disease called methemoglobinemia. Troublesome Creek was the actual origin of the condition that, while causing no health issues, the blue skin color left those inflicted subject to embarrassment and discrimination.
In Richardson’s novel, Cussy Mary Carter is the protagonist who suffers from the condition. She joins the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project and her story is one of courage, hope, and redemption. A wonderful read.
Corpse Whisperer Sworn (An Allie Nighthawk Mystery Book 3) by H.R. Boldwood
I have been an Allie Nighthawk super-fan since the first book. If you think this is going to be just another zombie series, you’re dead wrong (see what I did there). Boldwood has made a believable zombie plot and Allie Nighthawk is the troubled heroine who takes on the undead in her own unique and unorthodox ways.
In the third book, Allie travels to New Orleans where she not only faces her fair share of “rotters” but must deal with an old nemesis and all the hoodoo The Big Easy has to offer. These books are a lot of fun with the perfect mix of scares and snarks. Go get acquainted with Allie Nighthawk. You can thank me later.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I’m not sure how, as a life-long fan of horror and the supernatural, I made it this late in life never having read Rebecca. I’m glad I remedied that in 2020. From the famous opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .” the book is steeped in atmosphere and mystery.
The unnamed narrator, a young (early 20s), naïve woman, is swept off her feet by the rich widower, 42-year-old Maxim de Winter. After a short courtship, they marry and return to de Winter’s estate, Manderley.
It is there that she learns of the first Mrs. De Winter, Rebecca, whose memory is kept alive almost obsessively by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. Things begin to unravel, partially due to the manipulation of Mrs. Danvers and partly due to the ghost of Rebecca.
One of the five best ghost stories I’ve ever read, simply brilliant.
Until Summer Comes Around by Glenn Rolfe
I met Glenn at a reading event in Salem, MA a few years ago and have been a fan of his work ever since. With Until Summer Comes Around, Rolfe has, in my opinion, elevated his writing to a new level.
This story has everything I love: set in the eighties, vampires, summer in a small coastal New England town (Old Orchard Beach, ME), a coming-of-age theme…and did I mention the vampires. Rolfe’s pacing in this novel is perfect as he manages to build three-dimensional characters while continuously moving the plot forward at breakneck speed. I’ll be revisiting this one…next summer.
The Bone Weaver's Orchard by Sarah Read
This won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel last year and I couldn’t be happier for Sarah. The Bone Weaver’s Orchard is well-deserving of the honor. The writing is beautiful, haunting, and the story is creepy as hell.
Whenever kids go missing from The Old Cross School for Boys, the story is always the same. They ran away. Charley Winslow isn’t buying it. He discovers a series of secret tunnels that lead to an abandoned wing of the school and, with an unlikely pair of accomplices, begins to unravel the dark history of Old Cross School.
I can’t wait to see what Sarah’s follow up is.
Black Heart Boys' Choir by Curtis Lawson
The Black Heart Boys’ Choir is, at its core, a coming-of-age story. But there are intricate layers to this tale. Lawson pulls no punches in his unapologetic look at the darker side of high school life for those who don’t fit in. When Lucien Beaumont discovers an unfinished song by his late father, his obsession to complete the song becomes a disturbing glimpse into his father’s true nature.
The beauty of the story is its combination of spectacular writing and relentless pace. It has the potential to be an iconic book in its genre: think of it as the disturbed offspring of Catcher in the Ryeand King’s Rage. Don’t miss it, but don’t take it lightly.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
This may be my favorite read of 2020 and a sure finalist for the Bram Stoker Award. At first glance, the story seems like a common horror trope: four friends fight for their lives when a deed from their childhood comes back for revenge. But, trust me when I tell you, you haven’t read anythinglike this before.
Stephen Graham Jones takes this story in a new direction, and he does it with a combination of great storytelling and perfect prose. This book begs to be made into a movie. I’ll be rereading this one, probably often.
The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford
I can’t praise this book enough. One part mystery, one part ghost story, and one part coming-of-age tale, it is the perfect blend of each that left me wanting more. The description on Amazon says, “Not since Ray Bradbury's classic Dandelion Wine has a novel so richly evoked the dark magic of small-town boyhood.” I couldn’t agree more.
Ford’s story is reminiscent of the great ones: Summer of Night, Boy’s Life, and King’s The Body all come to mind. The characters are expertly drawn and the story is sprinkled with hints of supernatural. My favorite parts centered around “Botch Town” – a cardboard model of the protagonist’s home town, including clay figures that represent the neighbors.
There are some chilling scenes and overall just a wonderful book. I’ll be searching for more of Mr. Ford’s work.
Autumn Bleeds into Winter by Jeff Strand
Children are going missing in Fairbanks, Alaska. When Curtis Black’s best friend, Todd, becomes the next victim, Autumn Bleeds into Winter takes an interesting early twist. Strand tells you, through the eyes of Curtis, who the bad guy is. It’s his neighbor, Gerald Martin, but he can’t prove it. Instead, he hatches an impossible scheme that only a desperate teenager could conceive, and confronts Martin. As the summary says, “this is just the beginning of the terrifying story.”
Strand’s coming-of-age tale is intensely paced and more frightening in that it’s believable. Every move Curtis Black makes is something any average fourteen-year-old boy would make. He’s no superhero or mastermind, he just wants justice for his friend. It’s a great story that begs to be read in one sitting.
Wonderland by Jennifer Hiller
Everyone knows I’m a sucker for a coming-of-age story, but anything set at a carnival or amusement park is sure to hook me as well. Wonderlandis billed as a mystery/thriller but it certainly has enough creepy scenes to be considered horror.
On the same day the dead body of a homeless man is discovered on the grounds of Wonderland, a teenage employee goes missing. The last act by the employee was to scale to the top of the park’s famous Wonder Wheel and take a selfie flipping off the park.
So begins Vanessa Castro’s first day on the job as Seaside’s deputy police chief. The mystery deepens, reaching back into Wonderland’s history, as Castro and her daughter – now a part-time Wonderland employee – become caught in the killer’s web.
Lots of twists in this one and a well-paced story that will keep you guessing and turning pages.
Boneset & Feathers by Gwendolyn Kiste
Kiste’s debut novel, The Rust Maidens, won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. Boneset and Feathersis her second novel and is no less stunning than The Rust Maiden.
Odette is a witch, the sole survivor of an earlier raid by the witchfinders. Shunned by her village, she lives a solitary life in her small house in the forest. As Odette says, “No witch has ever been permitted a peaceful life.” The witchfinders are returning and it’s Odette they’re after.
Kiste’s prose is breathtaking and her storytelling skill is something to behold. I have no doubt this novel will be on the final ballot for the Bram Stoker Award this year.
Betty: A novel by Tiffany McDaniel
This is not a book I would typically pick up and read, but McDaniel’s first novel, The Summer That Melted Everything, was so mesmerizing and brilliant that I wanted to give Betty a try. I was not disappointed.
Betty Carpenter is one of eight children born to a white mother and a Cherokee father in 1950s Ohio. The story is absolutely heartbreaking at times, as Betty struggles through family drama and the harsh rejection of her peers because of her dark skin. There is a bit of mystery woven through the story, but it is Betty’s resilience and heart that carries the tale. Also, one of the best opening lines in recent memory: "A girl comes of age against the knife."
The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires: A Novel by Grady Hendrix
If there’s anyone that can put a new spin on an old trope, it’s Grady Hendrix. A blurb on the Amazon page calls it “Steel Magnolias meets Dracula” and I couldn’t think of a more apt comparison. Set in a small Southern town in the nineties, this one is a slow burn with a wild conclusion.
Patricia Campbell is struggling with every aspect of her life. Except her book club. It’s the one place – among her close friends – where she feels safe, feels like somebody. When she is attacked after book club one night, the nephew of her attacker shows up and befriends Patricia. Slowly, she realizes he isn’t what he seems…he’s much more.
This is another of my 2020 reads that has definite Stoker possibilities.
Wonderland by Zoje Stage
Zoje Stage’s debut novel, Baby Teeth, was as unsettling a book as I’ve read in a while. I’m glad I didn’t read it when my kids were little. In her follow-up, Wonderland, Stage again focuses on a family. In this story, the reader is drawn into the isolated world of the Bennett family as they relocate to a farmhouse in the Adirondack mountains.
Before long, the Bennetts (and the reader) figure out there’s something not quite right about the woods surrounding the house. As winter closes in, Orla Bennett realizes she may be the only one that can save her family from whatever force lives on the Bennett land.
Stage does an amazing job of creating a claustrophobic experience where the force of nature may be the enemy. Orla Bennett is a believable protagonist given her desperate situation. My one criticism of Baby Teeth was I though the ending unsatisfying. That is not the case in Wonderland.
If It Bleeds by Stephen King
This was King’s fourth four-novella collection (Different Seasons, 1982, Four Past Midnight, 1990, Full Dark, No Stars, 2010) and it is definitely a format that has worked for him.
For me, the weakest of the bunch was “Rat.” Not that it was a bad story, it was just too-familiar ground for King to revisit. A writer goes up to his cabin in a remote part of Maine to finish his novel. Bad things ensue. It’s well written and interesting, just nothing new.
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is another example of King using technology to his advantage in a horror story. In this case, it’s an iPhone that is buried with its owner. Then, the man’s young friend, Craig, begins to receive texts from the phone. Very creepy in parts after a “slow burn” start.
“If It Bleeds” is an installment in the universe King created in the Mr. Mercedestrilogy. It’s a follow-up to the Outsider and pits Holly Gibney against another type of “outsider” being. It adds new depth to the Gibney character and is intense from start to finish.
My favorite story in the collection, and sure to be on the final ballot for the Long Fiction category at the Stoker Awards, is “The Life of Chuck.” This story is simply one of the most creative and unique things King has ever written, and there’s a scene that is probably the most beautiful thing he’s ever written. It’s hard to describe this one without spoilers, so just go read it.