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*