Bookmistress’ Top 10 of 2020

This is the year that I will finally admit it. My name is Jen, and I am a horror reader. Last year, I even tried to make it a goal to read more broadly, but I just didn’t do it. I blame it almost entirely on bookstagram, and NetGalley, and various Arcs, and well, my own dark tastes! Before you judge me, let me tell you a little bit about “horror,” because if you are not an avid reader, you probably have just one thing in your mind, and it probably resembles Stephen King. And yep, I read a new King novel this year, and it was just ok. Beyond the Stephen King, modern horror is so expansive; within that enormous umbrella rests so many sub genres. This year, I have read books that were laugh out loud funny (Plain Bad Heroines), books that made me cry my eyes out (Betty), books that filled me with righteous anger (Ring Shout), books that were classic gothics (Mexican Gothic), and dark academia (Ninth House), books that were balls to the wall gory thrillers (The Loop), books that were absolutely high art (The Only Good Indians, The Boatman’s Daughter), and even books that were epic dark fantasy (Gideon the Ninth). They all had a dark thread running through them that connects them in some way to the horror genre, even though they could not be more different from each other. 

So even though I feel like I have read so broadly: I have read books by many women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and many of those books with amazing representation within the pages: I am still reading “just horror.” I wanted you to know that the whole of horror is a really wide brush to paint with, and it is such an amazing genre. I have always felt like it is the one place where people are really able to face the deepest parts of themselves; those core fears that they never show on the outside, and that’s what makes it so much fun. It takes what individuals, and in turn, what society is afraid of and reflects it back so that we are forced to look at it, no matter how painful, gory, ridiculous, terrifying, or insanely funny that turns out to be.

Cheers to another year of amazing horror! This was definitely a year full of things to be afraid of. You can be sure that the next few years will see tons of horror fictions about plagues & politics! But in the meantime, here are my reads of 2020. I upped my goal this year to 60 books, and met it easily. It didn’t hurt that we had all that downtime locked in our houses. I didn’t do as many audio books this year though, because I generally listen to those in the car, and I didn’t drive nearly as much.

Here is my top ten in no particular order, and then a list of all the others as well. Because of the above, I didn’t break them into any additional categories this year, but I will note if anything is non-fiction or YA.

The Only Good Indians– Stephen Graham Jones

This was absolutely my favorite book of the year. Every once in a while, you come across a work that scares you because it hits too close to home, because you feel it deep in your bones. The kind of book that you are still thinking about days, weeks, months later- the kind that has you turning on lights, your heart beating a little too fast. That is what The Only Good Indians was for me, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

This is the story of the past haunting four Indian friends, and not in a metaphorical way. When they were young, these four cocky Blackfeet indians went on a hunt on forbidden elder tribal land, and what happened there has followed them into adulthood. They are coming up on the ten year anniversary of the hunt, and one of them has already died. Will any of the others survive the revenge that is coming to them?

I love stories that draw on folklore & traditional stories, and this is one of the best I have ever read. Graham-Jones draws on his own tribal background and others to create a heart-rending modern folktale. It is no surprise that this book is showing up on traditional Top 10 lists in addition to Horror Top Tens! Note- this is not for the faint of heart, though- it does get a bit gory. But in the very best way!

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires- Grady Hendrix

Hendrix has done it again! He has become my newest must-buy author for all things horror & a little bit funny! This one is no exception, as the title tells you- it sets a book club up against a blood-sucking fiend. Patricia Campbell has settled for the “perfect” southern life- she married a doctor and has children and a lovely home, but that husband is distant and those children ungrateful and that home like a prison. Her only relief is her book club, a group of Charleston mothers united by their love of true crime & suspense. When a handsome stranger comes to town, and some children go missing, Patricia begins her very own investigation. What she finds is even worse than what she finds in the pages of her books. (Note: there is a scene with rats that might be the scariest single scene I read all year!)

Invisible Life of Addie LaRue- VE Schwab

This book is probably up in a near tie for my favorite of the year. This is my favorite of the year that I would recommend to EVERYONE. Like, I gave a copy to my mom & she also loved it! 

This is the story of Adeline LaRue, who in 1714 was about to be forced into a loveless marriage, and so she prayed. She prayed for so long that she didn’t notice that the sun had gone down, even though she had been warned not to make offerings to those who might answer after dark. And answer they did. Addie felt her life had been too sheltered, too short- all she wanted was more time. So she was given her wish. However, we all know what happens when you make a deal with the devil. It comes with a price, and quite a lot of fine print. Addie’s soul was the price, and the fine print is that she will live as long as she likes, but she will never be remembered.

Then we follow Addie’s story through 300 years of detailed history and art- all beautifully rendered and in alternating chapters with her present-day life. Her life has been lived in fleeting moments, captured occasionally on canvas or in sculpture, but never in memory. She cannot even speak her true name. Until one day, a young man says the words, “I remember you,” and everything changes.”

This is an artful blend of historical fiction and fantasy, and I loved every minute of it!

Ninth House- Leigh Bardugo

This is Leigh Bardugo’s first foray into adult literature, and I think she killed it! 

Galaxy (Alex) Stern is a dropout who has gotten in with the wrong crowd & it has landed her in the hospital after her best friend was brutally murdered. When she awakes she is given a very strange offer- a full ride to Yale University in return for some mysterious assistance. With her life falling apart, she decides to take up that offer. What she discovers beneath the ivy league exterior is some very dark magic. She finds that the school is home to 8 secret societies, or houses, that each practice some form of occult magic. Alex herself has been recruited to be a part of the house that monitors the other houses, the Ninth House. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and the magic within! I was caught up in it right away, and I actually enjoyed the way there wasn’t always a lot of explanation for terms and ideas. You just have to read along and go with it & trust that you will figure it out as you go. It all comes together in such a great way! I can’t wait to read the next one in this series.

The Boatman’s Daughter- Andy Davidson

Here is another stunner from Andy Davidson. Whereas In the Valley of the Sun took on a dry, parched desert, this novel pulls us into a lush bayou swampland. What sets Davidson apart is, more than anything, his gorgeous prose. I read this book with sticky notes and much underlining because every page seemed so beautiful and important.

On the day Miranda Crabtree’s father died, there was dark magic in the swamp, and a strange child was born. From that day on, Miranda did her best to make ends meet, running drugs across the river for the mad preacher. She did it to protect her new family- the witch and the secret child. But the day the preacher asks Miranda to make one last run for him, a different kind of run, everything changes. Miranda must face her demons & decide what she is willing to sacrifice to keep the family safe.

This is the epitome of Southern Gothic magic- full of demons and darkness and witches and crazed snake-handling preachers and kudzu. It’s just everything, and it is so gorgeous and haunting. 

Mexican Gothic- Silvia Morena-Garcia

Yet another gothic on the top 10 list! I love seeing my favorite genre get fresh blood, so to speak, and this is a take on the classic gothic novel whisked into 1950’s Mexico. It takes many of the traditional tropes of the gothic and uses them in delightfully wicked ways.

Noemi Taboada is at one of her usual high society parties when she receives an alarming letter from her cousin, who has recently wed. She begs Noemi to rescue her from some unnamed horror, so Noemi’s father immediately sends her to find out the problem. So, chic, modern Noemi heads to this house called High Place in a distant Mexican village where she knows nobody.

But Noemi is not to be trifled with. She is a strong willed woman, and she is not afraid of anything. And High Place soon gives her much to be afraid of. Her cousin’s husband is as menacing as he is enticing, and his father is a misogynist of the highest degree. Every dinner becomes a battleground. Most of all, though, High Place itself becomes hostile, invading Noemi’s very dreams. Will she be able to get to the bottom of this family’s mysteries before the house consumes her?

The Luminous Dead- Caitlin Starling

Occasionally, an author really surprises me with their skill, and that’s what Starling did here. This novel is told in a completely closed setting with only two characters, and it still had me on the edge of my seat, feeling every bit of the rising tension and madness. Brilliant!

It is the distant future on a poor mining planet where a young woman named Gyre is risking her life for a fortune by attempting a very difficult caving expedition. This type of caving requires a closed suit, rerouting your intestines, and knowing that you may never come back up again. In Gyre’s ear is her handler Em, the only voice she will hear for months. As the expedition goes on, Gyre learns Em’s reasons for hiring her and all the other cavers before her. The claustrophobia of the setting begins to affect both Gyre and the reader, and things become more and more intense. Gyre begins to question reality, leading to a truly terrifying conclusion.

The Deep- Alma Katsu

Katsu was on my top 10 last year too, with The Hunger, her fictionalized take on the Donner Party, and this time she has taken on the Titanic with just as much terror and historical accuracy. I have started loving her brand of historical fiction horror- it takes you into the time period so beautifully, and then ratchets up the tension. This book whisks you away to the early 1900’s to both the Titanic and its sister boat the Britannic and a young woman who was on both She believes that there was something haunting the Titanic, and she is seeing it creeping back into her life on the Brittanic. 

I enjoy a book that has me looking up facts as I am reading, and this was definitely one of those, because it is so accurate in most of its history. One thing I learned that is really fascinating is how much drugs they took on these boats, and how much doctors just prescribed cocaine or laudanum to ladies who were “hysterical!” Because somehow that would help them NOT to see ghosts! Lol

The Twisted Ones- T. Kingfisher

This one gave me that twisty little upset feeling in my stomach that tells me it is a super good scary story! And it’s got some really good literary connections too- this is a retelling of Arthur Machen’s The White People, which is in itself a story about some very old folklore. While it helps if you have read Machen’s story (I did after I read the book), it doesn’t matter if you have; the story is still full without it. It’s the story of a young woman who goes to help clear out her dead (hoarder) grandmother’s house and finds some dark secrets. When Mouse takes her dog on a walk in the woods behind the house, she finds herself on a hill that is geographically impossible covered in strangely carved stones. Everything about it is wrong. This is a spooky and atmospheric read, and the best thing about it is Mouse’s relationship with her dog, Bongo. I read most of this story on fast forward because I was so scared for the dog!

Plain Bad Heroines- Emily M. Danforth

This one is just plain, good, gothic fun. It is a story within a story within another story- a little matryoshka of haunted lesbians. There are two sets of women at the possibly cursed women’s school Brookhands, and Reader, what a story it is! There is the story in 1902 with principal Libbie Brookhants & her “companion,” Alex, cleaning up after the scandal of 3 young students who died. Flash forward to modern times and we find Merrit Emmons, who has written a book about the curse of Brookhants and Audrey Wells and Harper Harper who are now starring in the movie version of Merrit’s book. The sharp-tongued (and fourth-wall breaking) narrator takes the reader back & forth between the timelines to find out how they connect & how the curse originated.

All of the stories are queer af, and that’s one of the best things about this novel- just about everyone in it is gay! But also, each story has the lovely, dusty trappings of an old-school gothic. Add in the whip-smart, funny narrator, and this is just about the perfect novel!

Books That Almost Made the List

In the Dream House– Carmen Maria Machado: A haunting memoir of an abusive relationship. This is so beautifully written- it’s a must read.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove– Karen Russel: This is my favorite short story collection of the year, and they are all so weird and magical. 

Gideon the Ninth– the second in this series came out this year, so I went back & read this one, which is the first, and I LOVED it. It is self-described as sword fighting lesbian necromancers in space, and it is all of that! And Gideon is such a funny, snarky character. I was a bit disappointed by the second book, Harrow the Ninth, but mostly because it was SO confusing. I’ll still keep reading.

Mapping the Interior– Stephen Graham Jones: I just didn’t include this because it was such a short little novella, but it is amazing. I’m pretty much obsessed with him now.

Amazing YA

The House in the Cerulean Sea– TJ Klune: this was just about the most joyful book I read all year. (well, I listened to it & the audio is awesome!) It was just constant smiles. It’s the story of an orphanage full of the strangest and most dangerous children and the Case Worker who is assigned to them. By dangerous, I mean like these kids are gnomes and sprites, and…the antichrist! The story that unfolds is both beautiful and profound- about found family and the power of love. SO GOOD!

Victories Greater than Death– Charlie Jane Anders: OK, this is coming out at the beginning of 2021, but I want you to keep an eye out for it if you like sci-fi. It is so queer, it’s blinding, and it’s so fun, I didn’t want it to end! Like a queer Star-Trek, where everyone is respectful of each other’s pronouns and the kids are coming of age just like everywhere else! 

The Bone Houses– Emily Lloyd Jones: This has the feeling of a folktale, mixed up with a sort of risen corpse story. It was action packed, but it still mixed in a bit of romance! Perfect for someone like me who likes a dark twist to their YA.

Backlist I’m Proud I Got To

IT– Stephen King: I finally finished this monster book. Yep, I had never read it before. I will say that I really think that it could have been much, much shorter, and King could have benefited from a much more vicious editor. Also, I have quite a bit of ranting I could do about the way women/mothers are treated in this work. However, the whole cosmic horror ending is just damn brilliant. There’s no way around it. The man is a great writer, and here, he created a terror that will be with people forever. 

Everything Else: Asterisks by the ones I really liked!

  • Skein Island- Aliyah Whitely
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August– Claire North
  • The Pale White– Chad Lutzke
  • Locke & Key– re-read
  • Carry On– Rainbow Rowell
  • Good House– Tannanarive Due*
  • The City in the Middle of the Night– Charlie Jane Anders
  • Magic for Liars– Sarah Gailey*
  • Undead Girl Gang– Lily Anderson
  • The Giver– Lois Lowry: bookclub re-read
  • If It Bleeds- Stephen King
  • House of Salt & Sorrows– Erin A. Craig
  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl– Andrea Lawlor
  • Me & White Supremacy– Layla F. Saad
  • Fledgling– Octavia Butler*
  • Call Me by your Name- Andre Aciman
  • The Loop– Jeremy Roberts Johnson*
  • The BFG– Roald Dahl- book club Re-read
  • The Ecstatic– Victor LaValle
  • Burn our Bodies Down– Rory Power
  • Wonderland– Zoje Stage
  • Bunny– Mona Awad- best re-read ever!
  • Ring Shout- P. Djeli Clark*
  • Betty- Tiffany McDaniel*
  • The Shining Girls– Lauren Beukes*
  • Dracul- Dacre Stoker & JD Barker
  • Halloween Season- Lucy A. Snyder
  • Bent Heavens– Daniel Kraus
  • Bird Box– Josh Malerman
  • Malorie- Josh Malerman
  • Haunted Nights– ed. Ellen Datlow*
  • Harrow the Ninth– Tasmyn Muir
  • Little Eve– Catriona Ward*
  • The Haunting of Beatrix Greene– 
  • The Echo Wife– Sarah Gailey
  • The Cruel Prince– Holly Black- re-read
  • Serpentine– Phillip Pullman
  • Nest of Salt– Matthew Brockmeyer*
  • The Wicked King– Holly Black
  • Certain Dark Things– Silvia Moreno Garcia (out 2021)*
  • Piranesi– Susanna Clarke*

Scoring Can be Fun! & The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones…

As soon as I finished this book, I knew I wanted to give it 5 stars- the first 5 star rating I have actually given in quite a while. I know that some reviewers hand out those 5 stars like they are Halloween candy, but they’re precious to me. That feeling of knowing about a perfect rating made me think about my personal scoring method, and how random it is, and how I often feel that I’ve rated some books completely wrong when I go back and compare them to other books. So I did a very English teacher-y thing (even though it has been a LOT of years since I’ve been a teacher). I made a rubric!

I’ve given each category a number of points, and the total points available are 600, so each star rating has a hundred point range. That way I could also let you know if it is 4.5 stars if the book got 450 points. I gave heavier weight to the categories I think are most important: Plot/Story and Characters (150 each), then Emotional Reaction and Voice (100 each) and finally Connections and Other (50 each). This is just how I read & react to books, so I made it very personal to me, and that other category is in there so that I could have some extra points for books I just loved or hated for some reason I just couldn’t put my finger on.

More specifically:

Characters: 150 pts- Did you like the characters? Were they fully realized & fleshed out? Were their reactions realistic? Were they relatable. Did you have any emotional connection to them?

Plot/Story: 150 pts- Was the basic storyline good? Did it catch your interest & make you want to finish the book? How did it flow? Did it continue well throughout, or was one part better than another?

Emotional Reaction: 100 pts- Did the book make you feel what it meant to make you feel? Angry, sad, happy, scared, whatever? Were you emotionally connected at all?

Voice: 100 pts- Did you like the way the story was told? Did that type of POV make sense for that story? Was the narrator reliable and if not, did that work? 

Connections: 50 pts- Consider the genre & the specific story- is it trying to make connections with past stories or authors in style or content? How well is that done? (even if the PR is pushing that connection, it affects the reader)

Other: 50 pts- Other things like cover art & gut reaction that might affect you. Personal connections.

Here’s how I rated The Twisted Ones:

I gave it 125 points for Plot. This is essentially the story of a young woman who goes to help clear out her dead (hoarder) grandmother’s house, and she discovers some dark secrets. When Mouse takes her dog on a walk in the woods behind the house, she finds herself on a hill that is geographically impossible covered in strangely carved stones. It all feels wrong. It’s not really a super-original plot, but it’s not meant to be. It’s a retelling, and a very good one, at that. It’s well- paced & I was hooked in fairly quickly. It is a retelling of Arthur Machen’s The White People, which I hadn’t read when I first read this, but I have since. It doesn’t matter if you have read it, but it is a fascinating connection. I think it also helps if you’re a dog person!

Next it got 100 points for Characters. Honestly, the character I connected with the most was the dog, Bongo! I spent most of the story reading as fast as possible just to see if he would live. (if you need to know before you read- DM me & I will spoil it for you) What a great dog! And Mouse loves him, so I cared about her too. But I was even more interested in the quirky side characters like the goth barista, and the strange punk/hippie woman across the street.

For Emotional Reaction, it got a solid 100. It was full of creepy stuff & slow moving discomfort as well as outright scares. I was spooked.

It got 75 points for Voice. I enjoyed Mouse’s narration, and she had a snarky sense of humor that would break up the tension sometimes, which was good. Her descriptions of her walks through the woods were very atmospheric, and I was drawn in. It was a little repetitive here & there.  Her grandfather’s journal is a direct reworking of the journal in The White People, so it makes more sense if you’ve read that.

I gave it 50 points each for Connections and Other, because of the way it connects back to Machen’s story and because of the way I just can’t resist a little backwoods faerie spook. 

And that is how we get to 500 points and 5 stars for this fabulous book!

Ring Shout- P. DèjIí Clark

Here there be monsters…

What if those monsters that we deal with, even today, those monsters with so much hate in their hearts, turned out to be actual monsters? Evil to the bone monsters that needed to be fought with sword and magic? That’s where Clark takes us in this fast-paced novella that will leave your heart racing. 

Ring Shout takes us back to 1920’s Macon, Georgia, to the heart of Klan country. But these aren’t just regular hate-filled Klansmen, these are Ku Kluxes. If you have the sight, you could see that these are true monsters. They are 9 feet tall, bone white, with ivory claws and 6 eyes on their pointed heads. Our hero Maryse and her friends are tasked with fighting them. On their side is the power of the Shout, and of old Gullah magic. As the Klan sets out with a plan to use the movie Birth of a Nation to unleash an ancient terror on the earth, Maryse must make some horrible choices in order to save the world from the hate that would overcome it.

I loved this little book & I give it a solid 4 stars- I mean, how timely did it end up being?!  It is full of stellar body horror in just the right amounts, and then it adds in a big shovel-full of Lovecraftian monster madness- who could ask for more? But Clark also includes just enough true history to feel uncomfortably realistic in the worst ways. One thing it is not is subtle, so be prepared for some full-on, swords-out racist fighting! And that is something we surely need more of!

Many thanks to NetGalley & Tor for this e-arc in exchange for an honest review.

Mexican Gothic- Silvia Moreno-Garcia

If you love a slow burn, look no further!

When you put the word “gothic” in the title of the book, you can bet your sweet butt I am looking for that book to fulfill some certain things. Some things that are very special to me, because I’m kind of obsessed with the gothic- it was my specialty in grad school, and I even taught guest spots in some of my peer’s classes on gothic novels. Sooooo, does this one make the cut?

First of all, a brief summary: this is the story of Noemi, a socialite from Mexico City who is pulled from her fast city life to go to a small village in the mountains to check on a cousin who sent a very disturbing letter after a too-quick marriage. Catalina dropped away from her family after her marriage to Virgil Doyle and now Noemi’s father is concerned for her. She arrives at the Doyle family home, High Place, which is situated near the defunct silver mine that had made a fortune for the family years ago. But Noemi finds that everything about High Place has gone a bit…moldy.

Now- is this a gothic? Oh, yeah! Not only is it, but it was clearly written by someone who has the same kind of love I have for the genre- respect and even some gentle tongue in cheek ribbing!  Here’s the standard way to check if a book is gothic: the laundry list!

Old & maybe haunted house/castle– Check, and the house even has a name!

Subterranean spaces/live burial- There are tunnels under that damn house for sure.

Sublime nature- Moreno-Garcia fills the book with lavish descriptions of the landscape, which at times, can be dangerous (huge ragged cliffs & misty forests)

The forest around High Place, El Triunfo

Females who generally fit into either a virgin/whore stereotype– Noemi vs the somber Doyle women.

Themes of decay, madness, secrets, and persecuted women– This is all over this novel, from the wallpaper to the constant gaslighting of the women.

A Tyrannical older man

A Villainous and usually very handsome younger man

A “hero” who is not as stereotypically manly as the others

“Supernatural” events that can be explained logically– well, it’s a crazy explanation, but…

There we have it! Moreno-Garcia packs this book full with all the classic gothic tropes, and it is beautiful to behold. I loved every moment of it, and I give it all 5 stars.  I’m not going to get into the details, because a review spoiled it for me & I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else. But if you love gothic novels, go get this right now!

Wonderland- Zoje Stage

Walking in a winter……

Note to publicists: stop comparing new novels to our cult favorites! It is never going to work out in your favor. Never. That was the first big problem with Zoje Stage’s Wonderland– they said it was as if Shirley Jackson had written The Shining. That’s a pretty high fucking bar. And this book was not that. I can tell you some of the ways they might be similar, but they are not the ways that fans will clamor for.

How cold was it?

First- like The Shining, this is a story of a family that becomes isolated in a remote, snow-bound place. And they start to go mad. That’s it. Similarities done. 

Second- like Shirley Jackson, Stage tries to find something frightening in the mundane. In this case, weather. But unlike Jackson, it is never quite successful, and tension is never drawn.

So, this is the story of the Bennet family, who has moved from the bustle of NYC to the quiet of the Adirondak mountains. And they were not prepared. Horror ensues. The story really is that simple, but Stage tries to take us into the mind of the main character Orla to show how she is going mad. However, I had trouble believing that any of these characters behaved like real people. That was also one of the things that bothered me about Stage’s first book Baby Teeth- it really stretched the possibility of real human reactions. You know, I can suspend a little disbelief for fiction, but, come on. The excessive repetition doesn’t really help in this case. Other reviewers have noted how many times Orla mentions her children’s names- which are (really) Eleanor Queen and Tycho and how many times you will hear about her ballet career. 

My primary beef with this book is how hard it tried to make snow frightening. Not scared of a snow dragon? No?  How about snow rollers? No? Well how about 10 feet of snow? No? How about a glacier?

Does rolled up snow scare you?

Ugh. None of it was scary. And almost all of it could be seen about a mile away.

Besides making me google a few interesting things, this book mostly entertained me by making me rant a little. It gets 2 stars.  There were a few times I might have been a bit spooked, and I truly enjoyed the descriptions of the husband’s artwork, so there’s that.

**********SPOILERS***********

Do you want to build a snowman? I briefly wondered if it was freaking Elsa!

Now, I am totally down for a ghost or a possession, or even a god, but maybe pick one. I have no idea what we really ended up with here. A girl who morphed into a tree who evolved into a god?  I was left totally unsatisfied with the ending as well.

Burn Our Bodies Down- Rory Power

Look at this gorgeous cover!

“How to keep a fire burning. How to stitch a fight up until it’s only a scar. That’s the kind of thing you learn with a mother like mine. Mostly though, you learn how to be loved without proof.”  

This is what 17 year old Margot Nielson thinks of her own mother. And the other very important thing she has learned is never to ask about her own history. She and her mother live alone and isolated from any other family members, and Margot is beginning to question why. When she comes upon an old family Bible with a photo in it, her journey to find her own past begins.

Upon the photo was the name of her family farm- Fairhaven- and a phone number. When she calls the number, she finds that her grandmother has been waiting for her to call for years, hoping to hear from her. But her mother FREAKS and forbids her from seeing or speaking to her.

So what’s a teenager to do? Run away of course! Margot heads out to find her Gram in Phalene, which turns out to be not far away. The day she arrives, she meets some local teens who recognize her immediately as a member of the Nielson family and tell her when a fire has broken out on her family land. When they arrive, Margot finds a young woman dead in the corn fields, a woman who looks so much like her they could be sisters. But could they be?

As Margot’s family history unfolds, she learns about their connection to the land, to the corn, and to eachother. Family secrets come to light, and they are horrifying.

she who walks behind the rows…

I read this book in one day, hardly wanting to put it down. The story was just so compelling to me, and so very weird! Now I will note that I always judge YA fiction a little bit differently than I do adult fiction- I feel that story is far more important for it. And I also try to keep in mind that I am not exactly the target audience, given that I am 45 years old! 🙂 There were aspects of this story that you could see a little ahead of time, but maybe not if you were 14 or 15. And I was actually surprised by some of it. I understood that there was going to be a deep connection between the crops and the family, I just didn’t realize exactly how deep. 

I also enjoyed Margot as a character; watching her try to find some sort of individuality where there was little to be found was fascinating. I have been enjoying the move towards queerness in YA literature often being a very small thing. The same way it is in many heterosexual stories. As if being gay was only one part of who a person is (imagine that!); I think that is so important because it makes it all that more “normal,” and it’s just as important as the stories that focus on it.

I should also add that I also loved this story just because of the CORN! I have an odd fascination with corn, and a huge collection of corny items, and this book with all it’s weird corn imagery was just my style.

I gave this strange little book 4 stars! I wish some of the other characters besides Margot had been given more fleshing out, and the same with her relationships with those characters. But all in all, I really enjoyed this read.

The Loop- Jeremy Robert Johnson

A bloody good read….

But when I try to picture a utopia, where we, like, all rise above, and we’re kind and we grow as a species, I can’t see it. So either I’m too dumb to have that kind of vision, or I’m just smart enough to know that humans could never pull it off. It’s way easier to imagine dystopia, and war, and all the bullshit we’ve been living in.

JRJ

Strap in, bitches! We are not in a utopia, that’s for sure. This book is a high-octane ride from the very beginning. Lucy and Bucket are best friends, and just about the only brown kids in their crap hillbilly town of Turner Falls, Oregon. But Lucy is confident that they can make it through their senior year and put the town in their rearview as long as they have each other. Unfortunately, their plans fall apart one day in school when one of the rich kids attacks & kills the teacher with a textbook. In a matter of minutes, the room is swarming with police and he is shot. But not before Lucy & Bucket saw his strange blue eyes and saw that weird thing in his neck.

Something very wrong is going on in Turner Falls. And it all connects back to the giant biotech company IMTECH, who has decided to use the children of its own execs as guinea pigs for an insane experiment.

Now Lucy, Bucket, and another of their outcast friends Brewer are on a mission to save the world.

The promo material calls this book a conspiracy thriller, and that’s just about right- it will take you down all the rabbit holes of all the conspiracies you’ve heard out there: drones, government monitoring, implants. But it does it all through the lens of a bad-ass female protagonist, so there’s that! Lucy is easy to root for. This book has everything a horror/thriller lover might want: lots of gore, a fast paced plot, and so much action! 

But it just wasn’t my style. I’m more of a slow burn kind of gal. What really saved this book for me was the ending, where the language shifted from crass teenage dialogue (which was realistic, I thought) to a more poetic style. I won’t tell you why, but I’m glad I hung in until then. It really opened up at that point for me.
I gave this one almost four stars 3.75! But that is just a matter of personal taste. This book is well written and a lot of fun, and I think a lot of other people will just love it!

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue- V.E. Schwab

Addie danced with the devil…. did she win?

Rock bottom. No way out. Those Gethsemane moments, sweating blood, crying out to God for any kind of help. Have you been there? What if, at that very moment, someone actually answered? But it wasn’t God who stepped up.

That’s exactly what happened to young Adeline LaRue at her darkest moment. It is 1714, and she was about to be forced into a loveless marriage with an old widower, so she prayed, and prayed. But she prayed for so long that she didn’t notice that the sun had gone down- even though she had been warned not to make offerings to those that might answer after dark. She felt that her life had been too sheltered, too short- she wasn’t allowed to live the way she desired. All she wanted was more time.

And so it was that she was given her wish. But you and I both know that when you bargain with the devil, it comes with a price- and also with quite a bit of fine print. Of course the price is Addie’s soul, and the fine print is that she will live as long as she likes, but she will never be remembered. And what is a life, if not the traces it leaves behind?

We follow Addie’s story through 300 years of detailed history and art- all beautifully rendered and interspersed with Addie’s present-day life. A life that has been lived in fleeting moments, captured occasionally on canvas or in sculpture, but never in memory. She cannot even speak her real name. Until one day, out of the blue, a young man says the words she has been waiting to hear, “I remember you,” and everything changes….

I loved every second of this book! It felt like an artful blend of historical fiction and fantasy and it seriously surprised me. I did not expect where it ended up, and it was a delightfully dark twist. 

I absolutely give this book all the stars!

The Only Good Indians- Stephen Graham Jones

Some horror novels creep up on you- those slow burns- and some are just straight up hardcore slashers where you rush towards the end. But every once in a while, you come across a work that scares you because it hits too close to home, because you feel it deep in your bones. The kind of book that you are still thinking about days, weeks, months later- the kind that has you turning on lights, your heart beating a little too fast. That is what The Only Good Indians was for me, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

This is the story of the past haunting four Indian friends, and not in a metaphorical way. When they were young, these four cocky Blackfeet indians went on a hunt on forbidden elder tribal land, and what happened there has followed them into adulthood. They are coming up on the ten year anniversary of the hunt, and one of them has already died. Will any of the others survive the revenge that is coming to them? And what exactly does it mean to be a “good Indian?”

This story is raw and bloody and heart-wrenching in all the best ways. I love horror that draws from folklore and traditional stories, and this is one of the best that I have read. Graham-Jones draws from his own tribal background, and the horrifying stories of other tribes to create a heart-rending modern folk tale. 

I give this book a HUGE 5 Stars, and highly recommend that you mark your calendars for its release on May 19th.! I will be putting up a more thorough & spoilery review at that time.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy!

The Bookmistress’s Best of 2019

Another year down, and it was a fantastic year of reading! I met my goal of 50 books, and actually exceeded it by four. Part of this is because I’ve begun listening to books in my car on the way to work. This is now primarily how I read my YA! And thanks to finding the wonder of bookstagram, I have done a much better job of keeping track of my books and reviewing them. I slipped on keeping up this blog, but my instagram page was always kept up. I can’t believe how much I love the community I found there, and the friends I have made, and the amazing books I have found and shared. It’s honestly one of the best things in my life, and I am thankful for it every day.

But, #becauseofbookstagram, I found that this year I read WAY more horror than usual! I kind of went overboard with my favorite niche, and next year I would like to find my way back to a more well-rounded reading list. Oh- don’t worry- it will still be chock-full of horror! Because, like my nightworms friends know: “Horror is my happy place!”

I also found myself reading fewer new releases; this is mostly because I have been reading less on my Kindle & more physical books. So my Top 10 list this year has a bunch of older stuff on it. There are a bunch of books on all the standard “best of the year” lists that I need to get to!

So in no particular order, here they are:

BUNNY– Mona Awad

This is the best book I read this year, maybe even this decade! I can’t even tell you how much I loved it. Its slang has become shorthand with my real life friends. Get out there & read this!

I don’t want to tell you too much about it, because it’s best to go in without knowing too much. 

But here are the basics: Samantha is a scholarship student at a schmancy New England school, in the creative writing department. The other students in her writing group are rich, beautiful girls who call each other Bunny, who smell and look like cupcakes, and who don’t like Samantha’s writing at all. Until one day the Bunnies invite Samantha to one of their Smut Salons, where they make her exotic drinks and recite weirdly erotic poetry. And then they ask her to bring them a bunny. A real one. 

This book is everything- it is a little bit horror and a whole lot weird, it’s about friendship and loneliness, it’s about the pain of creation and the agency of womanhood, it’s about madness, and it is also so very funny. 

Sawkill Girls- Claire LeGrand

This was my first read of the year, and it was a great one! This is a YA murder mystery that is at its core a coming of age story about really powerful girls. The girls of Sawkill are full of fire and electricity and they are using it to fight real monsters. One thing I really loved about this story is how beautifully it treats the girls’ various queernesses- there is no big deal if they sleep together or decide that they don’t want to sleep with anyone. I would just love to see more books about kick-ass ladies like these!

All the Birds In the Sky– Charlie Jane Anders

This one is the most amazing blend of sci-fi and fantasy!  The story opens up on two children, Patricia and Laurence, both outcasts who feel alone in the world. Patricia once speaks to birds, and a tree told her she is a witch. Laurence has built a time machine, but it only goes forward 2 seconds. They find each other and become fast friends, learning the other’s deepest secrets and making promises. 

Then they are separated when they both go off to special schools, the schools of their dreams, and their paths diverge. They are connected, though, and they orbit around each other throughout their lives, sometimes converging, sometimes flying apart, but always tethered. In the meantime, the world is coming down around them.

Will their crazy orbit tear the entire world apart? Anders skillfully warps all the standard concepts of science-fiction by integrating it easily with the world of fantasy and magic. Can magic save the world that technology is tearing apart? Or is it some act of magic that has destroyed the world, and only the brightest scientists can save it?

Are the birds the only ones who know the answer?

Is a tree red?

Hell Hound– Ken Greenhall

I didn’t expect to like this novella- I guess I was expecting some sort of story about a ravenous Cujo-dog. I was not expecting this. This book is so smart and so very disturbing. This book is primarily told from the point of view of the dog, Baxter. Baxter struggles to understand human emotions, and if he were a human he would almost certainly be diagnosed as psychopathic. But he’s a dog, so he works through them himself- when he deems something (or someone) a problem, he just rids himself of it.

The best part of this book is the relationship between Baxter and his owner, who is a Nazi-sympathizer and budding psychopath himself. The two slowly begin to understand each other, and then truly awful things begin to happen

I read this stunning little novella in one sitting, but I thought about it for days afterwards.

Experimental Film- Gemma Files

I have no idea how I missed this one when it came out a few years ago. This absolutely goes on my favorites of all time list.

In this novel, we follow film critic Lois Cairns as she digs into the history of Canada’s first female filmmaker- Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb. The subjects of Mrs. Whitcomb’s very experimental films are always the same: the noon witch of slavic mythology, Lady Midday. She appears at the very moment of noon to tired field workers, asking them questions; if they answer wrong, they lose their head to her scythe! She also causes physical distress- she is the personification of heatstroke.

The Noontime Witch takes over everything in Lois’s life and she becomes obsessed. Her goal is to make a film about it, of course. An old colleague is also following the story, putting obstacles in her way. Lois becomes increasingly physically ill until she reaches a breaking point.

How many people will she drag into the light with her?

Because this book is about film, Files has to make the reader SEE the story. She does a brilliant job of this; I could feel the brightness, my eyes tearing up at the glare off the screen. All the characters are intricately drawn, and the story moves at a quick pace even with all the detail. And most of all, it was scary! Not like gore & killers scary, but real disturbing deep down in your stomach scary. Like the next time I had a migraine, I thought about Lady Midday kind of scary. And that, my friends, is real scary!!!

In the Valley of the Sun- Andy Davidson

It’s been a very long time since I have read a “vampire” book that touched me like this one did. Davidson’s prose is gorgeous and lush, in stark contrast to the arid desert setting of his story. Listen: “His name. Spoken with the same luscious sound as the first bite into a red, raw apple, a delicious wet sound…”

This is a slow story, no rushing, and so at first I put it in my DNF pile. But then, tired of shorts, I picked it up again and just couldn’t put it down. When I finally did put it down, I found tears in my eyes.

This is the story of the slow ending of Travis Stilwell, who was unfortunate enough to encounter a woman-creature named Rue in a Texas honky-tonk. The story is laid out through inter-woven chapters focusing on Travis and a young mother and son he meets, the creature Rue, and the federal agents tasked with finding the serial killer working through Texas. And his story is heart-breaking, from neglectful parents to his time as a rogue soldier in Vietnam. This is one of those stories where you find yourself sympathetic to the monster.

As Travis is changing, he pulls into the Sundowner Inn, where he meets a young mother, Annabelle, and her son Sandy. Travis sets to helping Annabelle with small tasks around the Inn, and begins to find in their small family things that he believed to be lost. But can those things be found by the thing he is becoming?

Saturday Night Ghost Club- Craig Davidson

This was a quiet ghost story that really moved me. It is a coming-of-age about a bullied young boy and his new friends who have the summer of their lives learning about their town’s ghosts from his odd uncle. It is both spooky and sweet. Davidson gives us hints of first love and plumbs the depths of human emotion.

One of my favorite things about this book is how it tells the stories of the town’s ghosts. All the twisted and oft-told legends that schoolchildren hear from their parents and friends over the years.

The things that scared you “as you get older, the texture of your fear changes. You’re no longer afraid of the things you had absolute faith in as a child…the magic gets kicked out of you, churched out, shamed out- or worse, you steal it from yourself… By degrees, you kill your own magic.”

So this book brings all this magic back, if even just for a moment, and it was lovely.

Shadow & Bone Trilogy- Leigh Bardugo

I listened to this whole trilogy this year- I’ve taken to listening to books whenever I’m driving, and I really loved these. They are really everything I love in a YA fantasy series. It’s got intricate world-building, engaging characters, action, and a splash of romance. Bardugo sketches characters that feel real, which is the most important part of making a fantasy work. The story is familiar; a young girl, an orphan, grows up to discover that she is special and that she alone can save the world. But the world building and the fantastic setting- I love that it is Russian & not another British type series- make up for the familiar story.

I can’t wait to read more by Bardugo

The Book of Dust- Phillip Pullman

I can’t say very much about this book without getting spoiler-y. But what I can do is tell you to do yourself a favor and listen to the audio. Michael Sheen’s reading is just amazing, and it made a kind of slow middle part go much better.

If you thought that these were going to continue to be kid’s books, they are not. Pullman makes sure that we know that by using the f-word loud & proud. Lyra is not a child any more. She is a grown woman, and she has changed. Not necessarily for the good.

This book broke my heart, and left me hanging, and I am just hoping that the next one will be there to pick up the pieces.

Once Upon a River- Diane Setterfield

“Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.” At its heart, Once Upon a River is a story about stories. How they begin, how they are told, and how they evolve in the telling. This story begins at an ancient inn in France, right along the Thames, in about 1887. The Swan at Radcot has a history of storytelling; it is a place where 

people gather to get drunk and hear and tell stories as they travel along the river. 

On the longest day of the year, the Swan is packed with drinkers and stories, when the door bursts open and a man comes in carrying a young girl who is declared dead by the local nurse/doctor, Rita. But before the night is out, that girl draws breath again, as if by magic. Multiple people come to make a claim on the girl, who does not speak.

This story, like the Thames itself, winds and twists; we meet a large cast of characters all connected by their association with the girl found at the Swan. Setterfield has written a masterful story with elements of both historical fiction and magical realism. This period of time is rife with superstition and fortune-telling as well as great advances in science and medicine. All of these elements are used together to weave a story that dances on the very edge of fantasy.

This story is definitely a “slow-burn,” and it took me quite a while to get through it. I even put it down briefly to read something else and returned to it. However, once I got about halfway through, it really picked up. There was even a really fun play- like in Hamlet- to try and out the kidnapper at one point. And I won’t give any spoilers, but the end had me gasping in surprise! It was really fantastic & twisty. I always love it when I don’t guess the ending. 

Once Upon a River is a beautiful story that flows like the river it is set on; slow at points, madly rushing at others, but steady and constant always.

The Starless Sea- Erin Morganstern

“Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.”  Just a few days ago, Erin Morganstern tweeted that she was becoming a bit irritated by readers telling her that they didn’t like The Starless Sea because it was confusing and not at all like The Night Circus. This is exactly what it comes down to.

This book is not at all like the Night Circus, except that it is full to brimming with magic and beauty.

Morganstern is to me a magician of sorts, a magical wordsmith, and every turn of phrase leaves me breathless. I didn’t quite finish this book by the end of the year, not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t want to. I wanted it to go slower; I didn’t want it to end. And right now, as I have just finished the last few pages, I have a strange urge to pick it up again…”having a physical response to a lack of book is not unusual…” right???

I’m not sure I can describe the story, except to say that it is a story about stories. I know, that’s a lame description. But if you love books like I do, that might be enough to get you. It’s a story about stories and a secret society created to protect the stories. And bees and keys and swords. Read it!

Books That Almost Made the List

Coyote Songs- Gabino Iglesias

The Rust Maidens- Gwendolyn Kiste

Recursion- Blake Crouch

Middlegame- Seanan McGuire

Books of Special Note

Awesome Non-Fiction

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror & Speculative Fiction- Lisa Kroger & Melanie R Anderson

This is fantastic both as an introduction to the ladies of horror and a very thorough bibliography. Even I found lots of things to read, and I consider myself an expert in the field! This was a really fun read, and it was also a beautiful book- a must-have for any horror afficianado.

Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible: Stant Litore

I wish I could gift this book to every person who claims to be a Christian and then attempts to use the Bible as an excuse to hate- to hate women or gay people or immigrants… the list goes on. This book gave me chills. And hope.

I am not a Christian, but I am fascinated with religion, and this is one of the best books about translation I have ever read. Litore reminds readers that “in the Koine Greek of the New Testament, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.” And in this work, he asks readers to join him in the activity of truth-uncovering. He reminds us that all translation involves more than just historical context- there’s our own prejudices & cultural context as well. Litore breaks down several controversial bits of the Bible- passages about the place of women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, even corporal punishment. 

Litore’s writing is accessible for anyone, you don’t need a background in Biblical studies to enjoy the adventure he invites us on. 

Favorite New Author

Matthew Brockmeyer- Kind Nepenthe & Under Rotting Sky: Brockmeyer’s work is gritty and dark and just amazing. I loved every bit of it. Besides that, he’s a really nice guy, and he loves talking literature & engages with other readers on instagram, and that’s pretty cool. You can find him at @humboldtlycanthrope .

Favorite Outside of My Usual Comfort Zone

Black Leopard Red Wolf- Marlon James

This is an EPIC African fantasy novel, and by epic, I mean long! I had to push a bit to finish it, but I did because I thought it was both beautiful and important.

I Wish I Could Have My Time Back/ Books I Disliked

Exquisite Corpse- Poppy Z Brite

Like terrible necrophilia porn with no redeemable qualities. I literally didn’t care about anyone in the book, so it didn’t really matter to me if they died. I have really enjoyed many of Brite’s short stories, so I was disappointed in this!

Tribesmen- Adam Cesare

I wanted to like this, but I didn’t. It felt scattered.

Last Days of Jack Sparks- Jason Arnopp

This just truly drove me crazy. And I guessed the ending almost immediately. I hate that. Also, maybe I really didn’t like the audio narrator and that totally colored my opinion. And nobody says the word “mate” that often. Ugh.

THANK YOU!

So thank you all for joining me on this little reading journey! Here’s to a stellar 2020 in both books and life!