- A.E. Santana
My 2020 Book Awards
Although I am an avid reader, I think it’s safe to say that I, and many other people, read a whole lot of books in 2020. In reflecting on all the brilliant stories I devoured this year, I realized some books reappeared in my thoughts more than others. Based on this, I decided to give personal awards to these books that have a hard time leaving my brain. Most of these books can be considered horror, possibly dark fantasy, and definitely speculative fiction as this is the sort of story that I am drawn to read. Also, these are books that I read in 2020 but may have been published before this year. So, for clarity, after the word “book” in each award title there is a silent (that I read in 2020). Here are My 2020 Best Books Awards:
FAVORITE BOOK OF 2020—Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
A gothic, dark academia with science fiction threads woven in, Catherine House is my favorite book I read this year. Have you ever had a warm, buttery cookie melt in your mouth? That’s what it was like for me to read this novel. Ines, a young adult escaping a terrible event in her recent past, is accepted into Catherine House, a prestigious higher education facility that has as many secrets as it does prominent and influential alumni. The atmosphere of this books is decadent and deliciously heady. As Ines sleepily trips through her years at Catherine House, the reader follows suit until they are wrapped in the book’s luscious moods and tones, lulling the reader into a soft peace while the story slowly builds to an alarming and uncomfortable end. What I also love about Catherine House is the blatant yet unassumed diversity that thrives within the pages. Ines is a young bisexual Hispanic woman, and the faculty and her fellow students come from a wide range of demographics, including various ethnicities, races, socio-economic statuses, and sexual orientations. However, no one is a cheap imitation of a person, but rather well-rounded and masterfully crafted characters who display the best and worst of human curiosity. Read my full, original review.
BOOK I RESONATED WITH—Maria the Wanted and the Legacy of the Keepers by V. Castro
How starved I was for diversity in literature, particularly for characters that I could directly identify with. In Maria the Wanted and the Legacy of the Keepers that is exactly what I received, and I fell in love with the titular character Maria for her unrepentant and honest portrayal of a Mexican woman fighting to stay alive (or undead). With vampires and devils and demons, this is a horror novel, but I believe that the real horror lies in oppression of people of color and, notably in this novel, women of color. Maria shows the strength, devotion, passion, power, and beautiful boldness that I have seen in the woman in my family and beyond. Maria’s transformation mirrors the evolution (that sometimes takes generations to complete) of so many women from all cultures: from beholden to belonging only to themselves. Read my full, original review.
BOOK I WISH I HAD WRITTEN—The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson
In the same vein of science-fiction horror such as The Twilight Zone and The X-Files, The Loop is a terrifying look at what happens to humanity when we want to be more than human. Yet, the reason I wish I had written this book isn’t the heart-stopping brutality or perfectly conspired conspiracy theories, but for protagonist Lucy Henderson (née Lucia Alvarez). Like Maria from Maria the Wanted, Lucy is everything I ever wanted in a character. She’s traumatized, broken, scared, angry (so wonderfully angry), and too young to be feeling all these emotions. And since she’s a teenager, she is the master at hiding her feelings—because for teenagers, especially for a teenager on the outside looking in (like I was), having emotions is a no-go. However, on this horrendous joyride of cruelty, Lucy and her feelings need to be in it to win it. Lucy, you are what I want to see more of in literature: a fierce, feeling, conscientious, and multifaceted (young) woman of color as the main character.
BOOK THAT MADE ME TAKE A DEEP BREATH—Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
I think of Kindred often. It is difficult for me to put into words what reading this novel has done to my head and heart, but I’ll try. Eye-opening. Mind- or heart-opening is better. Devasting, crushing, and enlightening. A young Black woman, Dana, is attempting to settle down in society as a writer and newly wedded to her white husband (and established writer) Kevin. But, by some unexplained time traveling power, Dana is pulled into the antebellum South, forcing her to survive as a slave to her distant white relative. Themes of slavery, generational trauma, racism as a social construct, and power dynamics are delicately woven into a genre-bending novel that also showcases a resilient female protagonist. Kindred is painful, raw, merciless, and unashamed in the truths it tells. Lauded as a science fiction-esque, gritty fairy tale, this novel relies on the realities of society rather than fantasy to help unearth America’s corrupt past and present. This book moved me, implored me to think more of our pasts as a nation, and urges me to learn more so that I may do better.
BOOK THAT SOLIDIFIED THAT I WANT TO TEAR DOWN SOCIETY—The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
This novel had me angrily muttering the words, “so true,” numerous times as I read it. Immanuelle, a young girl of mixed blood, struggles to find her place in the Puritan-like community of Bethel. Gated and boarded by the Darkwood, an evil place where Lilith and her witches were banished, Bethel is strict and unforgiving in its holiness. As Immanuelle comes into womanhood she is drawn into the Darkwood and discovers that good and evil, black and white are not as she was taught. Henderson does an amazing job constructing a nuanced society of racism, toxic masculinity, and patriarchal hypocrisy. From the history of Bethel to the community’s religious teachings and Immanuelle’s everyday interactions, the oppression that Immanuelle endures is crafted into every nook and cranny of the story. For a reader who is woman of color and often feels stuck between two cultures (American and Mexican), I saw the reflection of my world—our world—in Bethel and was again disgusted by it. For lovers of dark fantasy who also want to topple the patriarchy, I highly suggest reading The Year of the Witching.
BOOK I HAD THE MOST FUN READING—Cirque Berserk by Jessica Guess
Abandoned circus. Roller blades. Eighties music. Yes, please, to all of this. This novella took me on a rollercoaster ride of thrills, chills, and what the heck is happening?! Fast paced with alternating timelines, Cirque Berserk follows a group of teens as they break into an allegedly haunted theme park for one last high school hurrah! But their experience is hijacked by a band of bloodthirsty spirits with a debt to pay. I read this novella in a day because every time I put it down, I immediately picked it back up. Entrapped by the fun and cool ambience of the story I was geared to read “just one more chapter” until all the chapters were done. Although jammed with high-energy and often hilarious kill scenes, Cirque Berserk also won my heart by turning the slasher genre around and giving more than a sad backstory to our killers. Guess imbued the antagonists with a brokenness that can only be healed and satisfied with revenge, loyalty, friendship, and love. Like Catherine House, the characters in Cirque Berserk are diverse, hailing from different backgrounds and races, giving space and spotlight to deeply needed representation. Right up to the very end, this novella takes the reader on a twisted rush back to the eighties and then into the future of horror literature. Read my full, original review.
BOOK THAT WEIRDED ME OUT (aka Best Horror)—The Cipher by Kathe Koja
As a devoted reader, writer, and reviewer of horror, I don’t often find myself frightened by what I read. Then I happened upon the Locus Award-winning novel, The Cipher, which causes my skin to crawl and my stomach to pinch and an ardent desire within me to throw myself into a pit, but not the pit detailed in The Cipher—please, for all that is good, not that one! The black hole in The Cipher is nicknamed the "Funhole" by protagonist Nicholas and his sometimes lover Nakota. After discovering the Funhole in a storage unit in Nicholas’ apartment and the hole’s bizarre ability to transform and disfigure non-organic, living, or dead things, Nakota becomes obsessed. Nicholas’ obsession with Nakota spurs him along with her peculiar experiments until they find themselves overcome by tortured desire, cruelty, cultish mania, and a vicious craving to know the Funhole’s secrets of transmutation. My personal fear of alternate dimensions and portals that one may never return from certainly helped to tighten The Cipher’s claws into me, but the novel also feeds into the universal fear of the unknown. The atmosphere of The Cipher is gritty, grimy, unkempt, unnerving, and uncomfortable, all of which lends to the grotesque spikes of fear that the novel creates in its readers.
Feel free to share in the comments: What books did you read in 2020? Which ones were you favorites?