LitReactor Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2020 - Part II
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 1).
*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!
Sadie Hartmann — Columnist
"The Only Good Indians" by Stephen Graham Jones
A statement piece for horror—what all horror aspires to be. Brutal, unflinching, and sweet, sweet torturous suspense; glorious tension.
"Ring Shout" by P. Djeli Clark
An ‘everything’ book. This story touches on all the things a reader wants from a storyteller. A compelling tale of good vs. evil where literally everything worth fighting for is at risk.
"True Crime" by Samantha Kolesnik
In her debut novella, Samantha Kolesnik proves she has chops. A hard look at nature vs. nurture in the makings of a killer. Hard to read but even harder to forget.
"Along the Path of Torment" by Chandler Morrison
It’s hard to recommend a book like this but when you read something that blows you away this hard, it needs to be acknowledged. Probably one of the most fucked up books I’ve ever read, but one of the most well written too. Chandler Morrison fan for life!
"Go Down Hard" by Ali Seay
It should be illegal to have this much fun reading a book about two serial killers who cross paths and can’t decide if they should have sex or kill each other or both. I loved every single minute I was invested in this story. A brilliant debut for Ali Seay. More please!
John F.D. Taff — Instructor
"True Crime" by Samantha Kolesnik
Short and brutal and sometimes hard to read, Kolesnik takes this story of nature vs. nurture and dials it up rather than back. Though there are almost too many trigger warnings to list, Kolesnik’s short, sharp prose is effective and affecting.
"Devil’s Creek" by Todd Keisling
Small towns and their secrets have long played a role in American literature. But Keisling’s weighty novel adds a whole dose of that good, old-time religion of the distinctly cultish, ermm…underground vein. Want to steep yourself in a long, sprawling horror book? This is it.
"Malorie" by Josh Malerman
Okay, kind of an obvious choice, but Malerman takes the idea of a sequel to his ridiculously popular Bird Box and moves it to the next logical step, growing the story out yet making the stakes even more personal. The children grow up, and the titular character Malorie tries to remain in control. Any parent, even in non-apocalyptic times—can relate.
"Crossroads" by Laurel Hightower
Grief is a powerful motivator in horror fiction, and Hightower wields it like a straight razor. At turns harrowing and uncomfortable, the best thing I can say about this book is something I said a long time ago about Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. I will only read it once. And that’s a compliment.
"Stations of Shadow" by J. Daniel Stone
At turns decadent and voyeuristic and yet deeply sympathetic, Stations of Shadow is Stone’s third novel. It’s a story set firmly in New York City’s avante garde art scene and features characters and situations most readers will never find themselves in. All’s the better for that. Stone’s prose is poetic, sybaritic, lush, but harsh when it goes there. And it goes there.
Andrea J. Johnson — Columnist
With Barack Obama’s memoir on the horizon, consumers have a singular focus when it comes to nonfiction. But I assure you, the 2020 bookscape overflows with true-life stories that educate, entertain, and eclipse this dumpster fire of a year.
"Memoirs and Misinformation" by Jim Carrey and Dana Vachon
Part memoir, part satire, Carrey reflects on his rise to Hollywood stardom through the blurry lens of a black comedy set in a parallel universe. This funhouse effect allows him to poke fun at celebrities and politics, but it also takes us on a wild ride that doesn’t always makes sense—but isn’t that quintessential Carrey? Fortunately, the underlying theme that success isn’t the cure-all for one’s insecurities is a message to which we can all relate.
"Handsome: Stories of an Awkward Girl Boy Human" by Holly Lorka
Gender and sexual orientation are subjects that we are just now discussing in a multi-faceted manner, and retired comedian turned ICU nurse, Holly Lorka, does so with wisdom and whimsy while revealing her own struggle with these terms. Written in a series of essays, this debut chronicles her search for what it means to be human—from bus stop bullies to sex toys to George Michael—and culminates in a beautiful lesson of self-acceptance.
"The Meaning of Mariah Carey" by Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis
Even haters will have to admit this book delivers. Carey is vulnerable and raw while giving us all the glamour we’d expect from her, darling. Written more like a romance novel than a memoir, readers will swoon over stories about her love affair with Derek Jeter, her marriage to Tommy Mottola, and the story of how she wrote “All I Want For Christmas is You.” Superfans (lambs) should splurge for the audiobook where listeners get the added bonus of hearing raw studio tracks from some of her greatest hits.
"Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man" by Emmanuel Acho
The former NFL player now has a companion book to the YouTube series that examines America’s sordid history of racial unrest and discusses how those lingering ideologies affect our current culture. Readers who may shy away from these topics for fear of being criticized should rest easy because Acho tackles his subject with heart and humor in a sincere attempt to bring Black and White culture together in an undeniably tumultuous world.
"From Crook to Cook: Platinum Recipes from Tha Boss Dogg’s Kitchen" by Snoop Dogg and Ryan Ford
Who reads cookbooks? I do, especially when they have hilarious pictures of Snoop mixing sauce for his “Spaghetti De La Hood.” Yaaaaas! The D-O-double-G delivers 50 hilarious recipes such as “Hey Auntie Banana Puddn’” and “Baby Got Back Ribs.” We even get a few “opening words” from Martha Stewart. And since Thug Kitchen has been debunked, this is the perfect alternative for those who want a hip take on holiday baking.
Steph Post — Columnist
"The Mirror and the Light" by Hilary Mantel
I not only devoured the third installment of Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, I was enthralled by it, in the true sense of the word. For me, Mantel's Thomas Cromwell is far more real and alive than the actual historical figure and I found myself not only thinking about the novel when I wasn't reading it, but thinking as the narrator speaks. The Mirror and the Light marks a bittersweet ending to one of our best historical series.
"Snake" by Erica Wright
In contrast to Mantel's tome, Snake is a short, more accessible read, but no less captivating. Wright's collection of essays for the Object Lessons series contemplates our relationship to her favorite reptile and explores all the fears, drama, myths and ecological consequences we've brought to the humble snake.
"Vesper Flights" by Helen MacDonald
I've already got a bit of a thing for birds, and the second half of 2020 has been a perfect time to embrace the essay form when distraction has become a routine part of life. By the acclaimed author of H is for Hawk, Vesper Flights is a poignant—at times piercingly so—collection of musings on the natural word and a much needed balm for a difficult year.
"These Women" by Ivy Pochoda
It was a banner year for crime fiction, but These Women particularly stood out to me because of how Pochoda reclaims and rewrites the female-murder-victim-narrative, giving not only the women in her story a voice, but agency and the space to be difficult, messy, vulnerable and strong on their own terms.
"Blacktop Wasteland" by S.A. Cosby
I was hesitant to recommend this thrillride-wrapped-in-the-guise-of-a-book, only because I have a feeling I will be one among so many to do so. But screw it—yes, S.A. Cosby's heist novel is THAT good and deserves all the accolades and then some.
Joshua Chaplinsky — Managing Editor
"Negative Space" by B.R. Yeager
Bought this based on Blake Butler's blurb and loved it. Then realized I'd been sent a review copy of Yeager's previous book, Amygdalatropolis, not once, but twice. Each time I'd looked at it and thought, this sounds really cool, I should read it, but for some reason never did. Cut to me on a frantic, house-tearing search for said book(s). I didn't find either copy, so promptly went and bought another. That's how much I loved Negative Space.
"We Need to Do Something" by Max Booth III
And that something is to read We Need to Do Something. Unapologetically dark and weird, this tale hit all the right buttons for me. 2020 may have sucked for the rest of us, but it was a banner year for Max as a writer. Between this and Touch the Night he really came into his own. If I were Max, this is where I'd make a crude joke about the phrase "came into his own." That's how much he's gotten into my head. Oh, and you know this one's already been made into a major motion picture, right? Like I said, banner year.
"Antkind" by Charlie Kaufman
Equal parts inspired, frustrating, innovative and self-indulgent, Kaufman's 800-page debut novel was everything I'd hoped it would be. Already one of my favorite writers based on his screenplay output, Antkind secured Kaufman's position in my personal pantheon.
"Memoirs and Misinformation" by Jim Carrey and Dana Vachon
Equal parts inspired, frustrating, innovative and self-indulgent... wait a minute. Another debut novel from a Hollywood higher-up that features the author as the main character engaged in wacky, mind-bending, temporal shifting adventures? I guess you could say I have "a thing." Oh, and did I mention Kaufman appears as a character in this one as well? Yeah. Laugh all you want. If someone with a name other than Jim Carrey wrote this, you weird fiction hounds would be lapping it up.
"Utopia Ave" by David Mitchell
This novel is pure, unadulterated reading wonderment. Storytelling on a master level. Every word is a pleasure. It's like Steve Erickson's Zeroville, but for rock n' roll in the late 60s, minus the more surreal bits. And yes, it connects to the David Mitchell "universe," in ways that—if you are unfamiliar with Mitchell's previous work, specifically Bone Clocks, will come off as odd, tonally. But Mitchell makes it work, and Utopia Ave sits nicely in his oeuvre as a whole. If new-comers go with it, they are in for a treat.
Check out PART I, featuring picks from Rob Hart, Kathe Koja, Lindsay Lerman, Jay Wilburn, and Peter Derk.
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