LitReactor Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2020 - Part III
Another year has come and gone. You know what that means, don't you? Time for a bunch of strangers to tell you what was good! And why should you care what the LitReactor staff thinks are the best books of the year? Trick question! You shouldn't. But what they have to say might interest you nonetheless, because they are good-looking and knowledgeable and they read like the wind. So for those who care, we submit for your approval/derision some of LitReactor's favorite reads of 2020 (part 3).
*Not all of these books were published this year. We figured if someone read a book for the first time in 2020, they deserved the opportunity to crow about it.
**Also, I can't believe I've been cutting and pasting this same intro for nine years now. Not to mention the header!
Max Booth III — Columnist
"Antkind" by Charlie Kaufman
Look, it's okay not to like Charlie Kaufman. I understand why his writing is not very pleasant for most people. I totally get why his latest movie, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, didn't land for a lot of you. Personally, though, I loved that movie—but, more importantly, I freaking LOVED his debut novel, released earlier this year. It's a book only Charlie Kaufman could have written. It's also the fastest I've ever read 700+ pages.
"Unboxed" by Briana Morgan
I listened to the audiobook of Unboxed while driving home from making my first movie, so Briana Morgan's play is always going to hold a special place in my heart. It's also really, really fun. We have limited characters, limited settings, and spooky things going wrong on the dark web. What's not to like?
"More Better Deals" by Joe Lansdale
The absolute king. No list is complete without Lansdale. More Better Deals is super engaging. The kinda book you never want to end. One bad thing after another happens and you can't look away, no matter how hard you try. I haven't felt a sick thrill like this since Scott Smith's A Simple Plan.
"The Worm and His Kings" by Hailey Piper
One of the best examples of cosmic horror ever was released this year. You're going to be hearing a lot about Hailey Piper. She's the real deal. Do yourself a favor and read everything she publishes.
"The Only Good Indians" by Stephen Graham Jones
There's a reason this novel is going to be a repeat on so many best-of-the-year lists. It's straight-up the best book published in 2020. And maybe the best book of SGJ's career. I am so happy for all the success he's receiving. I can't think of anybody who deserves it more. Fuck yeah.
Meredith Borders — Columnist
"Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent" by Isabel Wilkerson
Wilkerson examines the racial history of the United States under the framework of a caste system, similar to those in India and Nazi Germany. It’s a revealing way to approach the racism and racist policy that have shadowed our union since its earliest days, and Wilkerson’s writing is powerfully illuminating. She tackles a painful and complicated subject from every possible angle, from the globally expansive to the deeply personal.
"Piranesi" by Susanna Clarke
Clarke’s long-awaited follow-up to her beloved masterpiece Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is utterly unlike that novel in every particular, except in striking originality. A strange, mystifying, beautiful book, Piranesi reveals itself page by page, wave by wave, statue by statue. To say more is to do potential readers a disservice, but you must give this book a chance to gently unfold its mysteries to you. Once it does, you might have a favorite book for life, as I do.
"Plain Bad Heroines" by Emily M. Danforth
Don’t read Plain Bad Heroines on your Kindle. I’m usually not snobbish about that sort of thing, but this book is a BOOK, weighty and textural and huggable. It’s elegantly typeset, features stunning Victorian-era illustrations, and oh right, the story is riveting and darkly hilarious. A gothic, sapphic, genre- and generation-jumping, meta-twisty layer cake, you’ll want to take your time drinking in every single page.
"A Promised Land" by Barack Obama
Full disclosure: I’m still reading this one! But having read President Obama’s first book (Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance) this year, I can already tell that A Promised Land offers the same vulnerability, clarity and insight. This level of unadorned honesty from a former president feels like a rare gift. Obama keeps offering us the chance to truly know him, beyond the Oval Office images and presidential portraits.
"The Searcher" by Tana French
Tana French has been my favorite mystery author for years, but there’s something a little different about her latest book. While The Searcher, like the rest of French’s books, reminds readers of the dark, selfish enigma in all of us, it also offers a little hope, a little escape, a little light by the end of its pages. We sure as hell need it this year.
Gemma Files — Instructor
"The American" by Jeffrey Thomas
A deep, dark plunge into transglobal post-colonial Late Capitalism paranoia, juxtaposing moral horror with its supernatural effects in ways that crack the reader's third eye open—gradually, terribly, implacably. It's a ghost story about history, layers folding over layers of willing, knowing self-pollution, desire melding into hunger melding into horror; the slime we leave behind ourselves as we slug-trail around this awful world, finding the places where we can debase ourselves until we disappear. I started reading and couldn't stop, no matter how much I wanted to.
""The Teeth of America"" by Michael Wehunt
Similarly, in an otherwise annus horribilis which at least finally saw Trump defeated (if not Trumpism), Michael Wehunt's The Teeth of America provided a despairingly poetic paean to the decaying landscape his infestation leaves behind it. Composited epistologically from a variety of near-future academic and media sources, it posits exactly how deep and wide the rot might spread if we allow it, particularly within the ever-spreading rust-belt of Trump's central voting base. It'll make your nethers clench, metaphorically and otherwise, and I can't recommend it enough.
Read "The Teeth of America" at Michaelwehunt.com
"The Book of Lamps and Banners" by Elizabeth Hand
"The Dirty South" by John Connolly
Two wonderful entries from backbone series were Elizabeth Hand's The Book of Lamps and Banners (Cass Neary #4,Mulholland Books) and John Connolly's latest Charlie Parker novel, The Dirty South (Atria). For those of us who've been following Cass Neary—Elizabeth Hand's sublimely self-destructive punk elder seer/chaotic neutral solver of crimes that she stumbles into headfirst, usually while attempting to extricate herself from yet another disaster in progress—since Hand first unleashed her on an unsuspecting world in Generation Loss, this entry brings Cass's brilliantly entertaining and surprisingly heart-wrenching post-traumatic down-spiral to a turn that's about as happy as she can manage, without in any way undercutting the various flaws and flourishes that make her who she is. Connolly, OTOH, follows up what appeared to be his doomed and doom-bringing P.I.'s potential last adventure by smartly circling back to Parker's formative years; this 18th series entry takes place during Parker's search for the man who killed his first family, way back during book #1. It'll tell you all you need to know about whether you want to read the rest.
Other stuff I loved this year included Laird Barron's Worse Angels (Isaiah Coleidge #3), Richard Gavin's Grotesquerie, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic, Adam Nevill's Wyrd & Other Derelictions, Carrie Laben's A Hawk in the Woods, Andy Davidson's In the Valley of the Sun, S.P. Miskowski's The Best of Both Worlds, and Andre Michael Hurley's Starve Acre. It's been a great year for horror, as only makes sense.
Andrew Fowlow — Columnist
"The Magpie Coffin" by Wile E. Young
Wile E. Young penned a terrifyingly twisted revenge story set in an unforgiving American wild west where a man needs grit and tenacity to survive. Not only is this one of my favourite books of 2020 but it also contains one of the best protagonists I've read about in a long time. Salem Covington is a blood-thirsty desperado consumed by evil and armed with a six-shooter that yearns for death. This is dark fiction at its finest.
Get The Magpie Coffin at Amazon
"Malorie" by Josh Malerman
This one lives up to all the hype, folks. It is a jaw-dropping emotional roller coaster that will leave readers in absolute awe. The novel is full of non-stop tension and suspense. There were times while reading this book where I thought my heart might leap out of my chest because it was beating so hard. Josh Malerman deserves all the praise a person can muster for this terrific story.
"The Dark Side of the Room" by Tyler Jones
The Dark Side of the Room delves deep into the horror of a mind devoured by darkness. This book will leave readers with a creeping sense of dread that is all-consuming from start to finish. Tyler Jones is an extremely talented writer who crafts some of the most compelling stories I've read in the horror genre. His books will always have a place on my shelf.
Get The Dark Side of the Room at Amazon
"Until Summer Comes Around" by Glenn Rolfe
Glenn Rolfe proves how amazingly entertaining and fun the horror genre can be with this 80's throwback coming-of-age story that will satisfy your thirst for a grisly vampire tale. It is the perfect summer read for anyone seeking a toothsome story with everything a horror-loving heathen like myself desires.
"Crossroads" by Laurel Hightower
Laurel Hightower is a favorite author of mine, and in my opinion, anything she writes is a must-read. This short novel is about a grief-stricken mother who will do anything, even appease a dark entity, for one last chance to see her son. This incredible story left me emotionally gutted.
Leah Rhyne — Columnist
"The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires" by Grady Hendrix
It could be argued that I loved this book because I spend half my time in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, where the story is set. Every landmark was one I've seen, and every character felt like someone I could know. But (and this is a big but) Grady Hendrix is a master of dark comedy, and the idea of very proper southern ladies tracking down an errant vampire was delightful. I'm not going to lie: the next time I went for a run in Mount Pleasant, I was definitely checking over my shoulder to make sure there were no creepy crawlies behind me.
"The Vanishing Half" by Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett keeps getting compared to Toni Morrison, which is so huge but so well deserved. Her prose is poetry. It drips with luxurious language that feels effortless and is inspiring to read. This story of identical twins pursuing very different life paths sheds light on the subject of "passing" in a different world, and in a year in which if you're not thinking about racial justice you may not be human, this is a must-read.
"The Pull of the Stars" by Emma Donoghue
Because who doesn't want to read a book about a pandemic in 2020? No, but really, Emma Donoghue's story of the 1918 flu as experienced by a maternity ward nurse in Dublin is...well, it makes you understand how love and death can explode in the same space. Intense situations can bring out the best in people, or the worst, and Donoghue chooses to show us the best. With vibrant characters and birth and death engaged in an elaborate waltz, I dare you not to fall in love with this story.
"Hamnet" by Maggie O'Farrell
Oh, look! The plague! Because it's still 2020 and we're still immersed in a pandemic, I thought I should mention this absolute gem of a novel. By focusing on how the death of his son, Hamnet, might have inspired William Shakepeare's writing of Hamlet, Maggie O'Farrell takes her readers on a journey through Elizabethan England as I've never seen it. As she brings life to one of history's most ignored wives — Shakespeare's wife Agnes (or Anne, depending on who you believe) — we see a world full of beauty, love, and the deepest of tragedies feared by every parent everywhere: the death of their child. Ugh, this book is so beautiful. I'm already looking forward to reading it again.
"The Splendid and the Vile" by Erik Larsen
I've long been a devoted fan of Erik Larsen and the way he can shed light on the world's unknown stories. In this book, though, he takes one of the most documented men and moments in history — Winston Churchill during the Blitz — and somehow he STILL makes it fresh and intriguing. If you don't come away from this book inspired to be better — stronger, braver, mightier — you also might not be human. Definitely a must read for anyone seeking a reminder that while 2020 is tough, the world has endured tougher, and we will endure this year as well.
Christoph Paul — Columnist
"Luster" by Raven Leilani
My favorite novel of the year. Raven Leilani shows in this debut she's got the stuff. I couldn't put this down, this was a literary novel with an amazing voice that was as readable as a fast-paced thriller. I can't wait to read what Leilani writes next.
"Opioid, Indiana" by Brian Allen Carr
To quote to sports broadcaster Stephen A. Smith, "Brian Allen Carr is a bad man." From his small press days to his mid-size run with Soho, he writes books that burrow into your bones. Opioid, Indiana is my favorite of his because the character's voice stays with you even when you don't want it to. For those looking for dark realism, this is the novel to read.
"Clown in a Cornfield" by Adam Cesare
I love YA and I love horror, and this is a great example of the two genres coming together really well. I've been a fan of Adam Cesare's work like Con Season, but him telling a slasheresque story with teens was just awesome. The horror fan and the YA fan in me loved this book.
"Don't Read The Comments" by Eric Smith
I love books with heart and Eric Smith's book has a ton. I love YA that captures the alienation teens (and sometimes adults) feel with a heartwarming romance. It's not just IRL that causes that alienation—sometimes it's the gaming world as well—and true connections can be found in both places. A must for YA fans.
"Untamed" by Glennon Doyle
I bought this at a Wal-Mart to see what all the hype was about, but damn, this is a great book. It deserves the hype from the intro to the end, I was really taken with Glennon Doyle's story and prose. This book is a special and uplifting book for a shity year.
Keith Rosson — Instructor
"Neon Green" by Margaret Wappler
I became a foster dad of two toddlers right before the pandemic wracked the country. This book, with its magical realism-acceptance of a UFO stationed in a family’s backyard, and its moving, funny, and gentle character studies of said family, was the book I went to during that turbulent, difficult, and incredible time of my life. This is a fantastic novel, and I’ll forever associate it with that time.
"A Natural History of Hell" by Jeffrey Alan Ford
A striking collection by Ford, who has written dozens, if not hundreds of incredible, memorable stories. If I ever write anything as inventive and flat-out deadly as “The Angel Seems,” I’ll count myself fortunate as hell. We’re lucky to have this writer.
"Black Light" by Kimberly King Parsons
Scuzzy, atmospheric, enthralling, probably the best collection I read this year. Just dazzling sentences.
"The Fear of Everything" by John McNally
McNally’s been writing for a long time, and while I know it isn’t, he just makes it look effortless. A lot of these stories toe the line of magical realism, and the vast majority of them vacillate between laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking, often on the same page. Great book.
"A Lush and Seething Hell" by John Hornor Jacobs
My introduction to Jacobs, and now I want to read everything he’s written. Two horror novellas gathered into one volume, there’s such a slow burn and dedication to his characters that by the time the wretchedness and ruination rolls around, you’re fully invested and dreading what happens to these people. Just an incredible book.
Check out PART I, featuring picks from Rob Hart, Kathe Koja, Lindsay Lerman, Jay Wilburn, and Peter Derk.
Check out PART II, featuring picks from Sadie Hartmann, John F.D. Taff, Andrea J. Johnson, Steph Post, and Joshua Chaplinsky.
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