Top 5 (Actually 6) Reads of 2020

2020…. What a year! It was definitely a year like no other, that’s for sure. While there were many, many, many negatives, there were also a few positives.

I am celebrating my second year running Tattered Covers & Broken Spines. My little blog has slowly grown with followers and I am so grateful to each and every one of you who follow and support me!

Despite everything, I still managed to read 60 books last year. Unfortunately, I am very behind in writing reviews for all of them. One of my 2021 goals is to catch up on reviews so that I can share and promote all of these wonderful books with you!

Let’s move on to my Top 5, er… Top 6, shall we? I went back and forth on this and decided to go with 6 picks since my favorite read of the year wasn’t exactly horror. Without further ado, here we go!

My #1 read for 2020 was Betty by Tiffany McDaniel.

Betty is not exactly horror, but it does contain some horrific elements that will make it appealing to horror readers and fans of Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, Stuart O’Nan, and the like. Truly, this is not a book to miss. It’s a hard read and may be triggering to some readers, but at the same time it is beautiful and empowering. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

My Top 5 horror reads for 2020 were:

A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark – I still need to write a review for this title, but it is an amazing blend of cosmic horror, dark fantasy, and historical fiction. The Ku Klux Klan is thriving in Georgia as it is led by monsters – both human and inhuman. Standing in their way are three powerful women – Maryse, Sadie, and Chef. This novella is timely, powerful, and an absolute must-read.

Crossroads by Laurel Hightower

Gone to See the River Man by Kristopher Triana

John McNee’sDoom Cabaret by John McNee

Links to my reviews have been embedded in the titles and links to purchase these books through my my affiliate shop on bookshop.org have been embedded in the cover art.

What were some of your favorite reads of 2020?

The Pike Cast & Die Softly

Chatting about the new podcast and a vintage YA book review

3.5/5 Star Review

Christopher Pike and L.J. Smith were my two absolute favorite YA horror writers in the mid-90’s. I couldn’t get enough of them and I waited impatiently for each new book to come out. They are the two authors whose work I have held on to since my middle school days. While I have reread a few of L.J. Smith’s series, I have been wanting to revisit my Pike collection for a long time and kept putting it on the back-burner – until now. Enter The Pike Cast!

The Pike Cast is a brand-new podcast put together by Cooper S. Beckett author of the Prudence Osgood series, Cassie Daley artist and reviewer for Dead Head Reviews and Ladies of Horror Fiction, and Becca reviewer for As Told by Bex and Dead Head Reviews. The Pike Cast premiered on October 1, 2020 with a discussion of Die Softly. Every two weeks the gang will be back to discuss another Pike title! What better time to start rereading my Pike books?! The second episode will feature Whisper of Death.

Bear with me for one more bit of nostalgia before I get into the actual review of Die Softly… Once upon a time, in the early days of dial-up internet, there used to be an online Pike community called The Midnight Club. There was a website, but most of the communication was on ICQ and a listserv. It was so exciting to communicate with Pike fans from all over! Long before Facebook and Pike himself posting occasional updates there, he communicated with Scott and Shannon from The Midnight Club and we were able to get exclusive bits of news! (Fun fact – Pike’s long-awaited Execution of Innocence was dedicated to them!) You may be asking why I am bringing this up, aside from a trip down Pike memory lane. Simple – The Pike Cast has a Patreon and when you support the show for as little as $3/month, you get access to their private community on Discord. The community feels exactly like The Midnight Club used to feel – a warm, welcoming place for like-minded folks to discuss Christopher Pike. There are different channels for different chats and it is just a fun place to spend a little time every day. If you’re a fan, I highly recommend joining the group!

Ok! On to the review of the actual book – Die Softly by Christopher Pike. This will contain mild spoilers.

“Why did you two bake those cookies?” Herb asked.

“For money for drugs. I thought that was obvious?”

“I suppose. Did they have cocaine in them?”

“Just a tiny bit. Gave them a special flavor….”

The thing about Christopher Pike books was that they were always more mature than the other YA books out around that time. Reading them always felt like you were getting away with something. His teenagers drank, did drugs, had sex – they did things real teenagers did. That’s what I remember thinking at the time when I first started reading them.

I’m revisiting Die Softly about 25 years after reading it for the first time. Holy hell, friends! The amount of cocaine consumption in this book is insane! I’m sure that I understood it was an illegal drug when I first read this book, but reading it as an adult? Whoo boy! These cheerleaders have a serious habit! Fueled by the money from illicit school bake sales and a little B&E, Alexa and Lisa live a high-risk lifestyle. They bend boys to their will and make them into their personal slaves by addicting them to cocaine and sex. They are just trying to pass the time until they graduate high school and move out to L.A. where they dream of being famous. The All-American Dream, amiright?

Enter Herb, the self-proclaimed nerdy guy who will never get the girl. His passion is for photography and he just wants to get a few snapshots of the cheerleading squad naked in the showers after practice. After Lisa ends up dead and Herb develops the photos, he realizes he caught more on film than he ever bargained for!

The whole of Die Softy takes place over a couple of days and it is absolutely bonkers. It’s a whodunit fueled with cocaine, no sleep, drinking and driving, drinking and shooting, illegal weapons, and lots of teenagers getting murdered. Who even are these teenagers?! While Die Softly is certainly not one of Pike’s better books, it is so over-the-top that you can’t help but to appreciate it for what it is and chuckle at the absurdity of it.

There are some descriptions in here that are certainly signs of the times. Die Softy was first published in 1991 and it shows. We have an all white cast with the pretty popular girls holding all the power. Sammie, one of Herb’s best friends is an overweight girl who, “… didn’t have a body, her body had her. Somewhere inside, hidden beneath the rolls of fat, was the real Sammie.” Yikes. This description coming from the POV of her best friend – double yikes. Unfortunately though, that was typical in YA from this time period.

Overall, this is not one of Pike’s better books. It is notable, again, because it is so over-the-top, but it is also one of his few books with no supernatural element. It’s worth a read, but if you have never read Pike before I would not recommend this one as a jumping off point.

Next up – Whisper of Death! (A title that is a great jumping off point!)

Betty

A staggering coming-of-age novel by Tiffany McDaniel

5/5 Star Review

I rate many of the books I read with four and five star reviews – With a finite amount of time, I generally only dive into books that I really think I am going to enjoy. I’m lucky that they are usually as good as I expect them to be. These books are rated based on their own merits and I do not necessarily compare one 5-star read to another. Every once in a great while though, a book will come along that blows me out of the water and delivers a solid punch to my gut – Betty is one of those books. Simply put, this is really a 10-star read and has bumped itself up into my top 5 reads of all time.

I finished reading this book yesterday morning and I have been struggling with what I want to say in this review ever since. Betty is both a coming-of-age tale and a family drama told through the eyes of Betty, the youngest daughter in a poor family living in rural Ohio.

“A girl comes of age against the knife. She must learn to bear its blade. To be cut. To bleed. To scar over and still, somehow, be beautiful and with good enough knees to take the sponge to the kitchen floor every Saturday.”

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So begins the story of Betty Carpenter, a girl born of a white woman and a Cherokee man. She is the youngest girl and the only one of her six living siblings that strongly resembles her father. The majority of the novel takes place during the 1960’s in the fictional, southern Ohio town of Breathed and follows Betty from the time she is seven until she is eighteen. Betty has been raised on the stories of her father’s people and the strength she inherits from powerful Cherokee women; likewise, she has been raised on the stories of her mother’s people and the the abuse her mother suffered at the hands of her family. The dichotomy of these truths allows Betty to see the horrors that are happening within her own family and surroundings.

While Betty encapsulates the sense of time and place with McDaniel’s understanding of certain rural truths: mental illness was not a topic to be discussed and women being inferior to men, chief among them; She presents these truths in a manner that allows us to recognize that time has not erased these problems. The curtains may have changed, but they still cover the same old dirty windows.

It should be said that Betty is not a horror novel, but rather a literary novel with horrific elements. It is beautiful, tragic, and gritty enough to surpass the works of Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, or Stuart O’Nan. McDaniel handles topics of discrimination, racism, sexism, abuse, incest, and cruelty with a deft hand. She commands attention with her lyrical prose, vivid imagery, and powerful use of metaphors; she paints over all this with a watercolor layer of magical realism that both softens and hardens truths at their edges.

Betty is a tough read, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. There were moments where I had to walk away for a little while and come back to the book the next day. The reality that Betty endures would have broken me – she is a far stronger woman than I am. Having said that, the moments of beauty and strength are more powerful than the enduring tragedy of the Carpenter family. There are passages and images in my mind that will stay with me forever. If you read one book this year, please, read Betty.

Betty was released on August 18th through Random House. Click the image above to order through from my bookshop.org affiliates shop or click here to order a 1st edition hardcover with a signed bookplate from Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. Betty is, in part, biographical – how much is fact and how much is fiction in unknown. Click here to visit Tiffany McDaniel’s website to view some photographs of the Carpenter family – Betty is the author’s mother.

I was given a digital copy of this book for review consideration from the author. I have since pre-ordered a signed copy of my own from Lemuria Books and plan on moving her first novel, The Summer that Melted Everything to the top of my TBR pile. Tiffany McDaniel has cemented herself as a must-buy author for me.

Crossroads

A novella of grief and demons by Laurel Hightower

5/5 Star Review

“The first time Chris buried a part of herself by her son’s roadside cross, it was an accident.”

Crossroads asks the question, How far would you go to bring back someone you love? Chris is a mother still grieving the untimely death of her twenty-two year old son two years prior. He was killed in a car crash and the place she feels closest to him is not his grave, but his roadside cross placed near the spot where he died.

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As this is a novella, I hesitate to say anything more about the story. I went into the book mostly blind and I think it is the way that it should be experienced. At its heart, Crossroads is a ghost story tackling demons that are both real and imagined. It is an exploration of a mother’s love and loss. It is heart-breaking.

Not since Westlake Soul has a book left me so utterly and completely gutted. I am not a mother and cannot imagine what the loss of a child must feel like. I am, however, a human who has experienced the loss of loved ones and friends and know the ache that grief leaves in your gut – that feeling of emptiness and wanting to do anything to fill it with the light of the one who is gone. It’s not the same, but if you’ve experienced a loss, you will be able to relate and understand the horror imbued in this story.

This novella will break you, but that’s okay. It’s absolutely worth it in order to experience this tale. Hightower’s writing is poignant and powerful. She is an extraordinary talent and I can’t wait to read more from her!

Crossroads released from Off Limits Press on August 10, 2020. Click here to order the paperback directly from Off Limits or click the cover image above to order the book from my bookshop.org affiliates page.

It’s worth a mention that Crossroads was the title launching the debut of Off Limits Press. Off Limits is a female-owned independent publisher focused on horror fiction. Support women in horror by pre-ordering titles straight from their site!

Bad Parts (Dark Parts #1)

A supernatural novel of heavy metal and small town secrets by Brandon McNulty

4/5 Star Review

What’s a guitarist to do when her hand gets crushed mere days before the show that could make her career? Why, head back to her home town and swap it out for a new one, of course!

Ash Hudson, guitarist for the heavy metal band, Bad Parts, finds herself in a horrific situation after an attack in a parking lot leaves her with a crushed hand. While this turn of events could be career-ending for most people, Ash knows a secret about her home town that could save her. Hiding her injury from her band mates, Ash returns to her childhood home to meet with Snare, a demon that lives in the local creek who can swap broken body parts for working ones. There are two catches:

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1. Once you trade, you can never leave town.

2. You can’t trade for a part that’s already in use by someone else, until they die.

Bad Parts was a fun read – it’s fast-paced and has a pretty unique concept that fits great into the small town secrets/small town horror trope. I don’t want to say much more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away. However, I will add if you are a reader who needs to be able to relate to a character, or have likable characters in order to enjoy the story – this may not be the book for you. This novel has a cast of prominent characters and a bevy of ancillary characters and all but two were completely unlikable. They are selfish, detestable, and utterly human.

I did have one small issue with the story – and that was the timeline. Without revealing any spoilers, the plot involves a tight time frame in which so much happens in such a very finite amount of time that it seems unrealistic. I had to forget the timeline to make it work in my head. Once I let that go, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you are looking for a fun, horror beach read – Bad Parts is a winner!

I received a copy of this book from the author for review consideration.

Worst Laid Plans

An anthology of vacation horror edited by Samantha Kolesnik

5/5 Star Review

I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a dumpster fire of epic proportions. It’s almost the middle of summer and instead of traveling and lounging at the beach, we are staying close to home and masking up whenever venturing out is necessary. Does it stink? Absolutely! Want to feel a little better about it? Read this book.

Worst Laid Plans is a collection of 14 tales of vacations gone horribly awry. While not every story is specifically a summer trip – all of them have a distinct summery vibe. This anthology runs the gamut from aliens to monsters; from body horror to the supernatural; from grief to human nature at its worst. There is something in this collection for nearly everyone. It’s also worth a mention that Sadie Hartmann, Mother Horror herself, wrote a fantastic forward for this anthology!

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If you have read my reviews before, multi-author anthologies are rarely a complete win for me. This was absolutely not the case with Worst Laid Plans. While there were a few tales missed the mark for me, there wasn’t one in here that I would rate less than 3 stars. My top picks were just so fantastic that I still feel good about giving this collection a full 5 star rating. Without further ado – let me share my top 5 from this collection:

Unkindly Girls by Hailey Piper – This was my absolute favorite story from this collection. Morgan is a teenage girl on vacation with her over-protective father. Every summer they go on vacation to a different beach, never the same one twice. This year is different because Morgan has found out a truth about her father. Without giving anything away, there is a scene in which Morgan is swimming in the ocean with two girls she’s just met and the imagery of it absolutely blew me away.

Taylor Family Vacation ’93 by Jeremy Herbert – Daniel Taylor, CPA, has taken his wife and young son on an Orlando vacation to visit the theme parks. Every morning he wakes up to see that his camcorder has recorded seconds of extra footage – a little more each time and it appears that someone is watching them with their own camera. As a side note, I’m a central Florida girl and Herbert completely nailed the Kissimmee and Orlando area, right down to the tourist traps and old motels.

In the Water by Mark Wheaton – Two American girls, Candice and Jenn are currently vacationing at a resort in Thailand. A major storm moves in and the resort goes into lock-down. Not wanting to disappoint their guests, the hotel opens the bar and turns the downstairs area into a hurricane party. It is here that Jenn and Candice meet up with a brother and sister they met in Goa and the night takes a turn for the worse. I really enjoyed the format of this story – some was told in real time from the girls’perspectives and some was told from the detectives investigating the aftermath.

Peelings by Kenzie Jennings – Beth, her twin daughters, and her abusive husband, Marc, take a family vacation to the Disney parks in Orlando. Beth is unhappy, she gets a terrible sunburn on the first day and Marc berates her for not being careful. Her daughters take the cues from their father and are horrible to Beth as well. As her burn begins to peel, she finds parts of herself transforming and discovers that Disney truly is the happiest place on earth.

The Penanggalan by Scott Cole – An unnamed protagonist and his partner, Maddie, change their vacation plans last minute when Maddie finds unbelievably cheap airline tickets to Panang. During the plane ride, our main character finds a little booklet in the seat pocket in front of him called, “A Field Guide to Supernatural Entities in Southeast Asia.” He becomes inexplicably drawn to a vampiric creature called a Penanggalan. This tale had some serious Junji Ito vibes and I was there for it!

It was so hard to narrow these stories down to select the top 5. I have two honorable mentions that I would also like to mention here: The Cucuy of Cancun by V. Castro and Deep in the Heart by Waylon Jordan. Castro brings a new twist on El Cucuy while Jordan tells a coming-of-age tale replete with cave monsters.

It’s been some time since I have stumbled onto a multi-author anthology collection that left me so thrilled. I honestly can’t recommend this one enough and it is so perfect for summer! Definitely one to check out.

I received a copy of this title for review consideration.

Burnt Fur

An anthology of deviant sex and extreme horror edited by Ken MacGregor

3.5/5 Stars

I believe this is my first review that starts off with a warning! Here we go – This anthology is not for everyone. It contains graphic scenes of anthropomorphic animals having graphic sex, bestiality, and scenes of extreme horror. This is not to say that every story contains these elements, but the bulk of them do. If you think this will bother you, this is not an anthology you want to pick up.

If you are still with me after that warning, let’s continue on with the book. Burnt Fur is an anthology built around the theme of anthropomorphic animals and horror. There are furries, were-animals, talking animals, human-animal hybrids, and everything in between. While not every story contains sexual antics, a lot of them do.

Click on the cover art to purchase from bookshop.org.

Like most multi-author anthologies, Burnt Fur has some really great stories and some really just okay stories. There were even one or two where I honestly have no idea what was going on. The standout stories for me were:

The Moon in Her Eyes by Sarah Hans – The opening story of the anthology about an old wolf who rescues a young pup

The Hamford Pigs by N. Rose – A young man follows in his father’s footsteps as he becomes a police officer and joins the secret fraternity of the Hamford Pigs.

The Others by C.M. Saunders – You’re on your first date with a beautiful woman that you met on an online dating site. How do you respond when she tells you she can see animals that no one else can see?

Ware the Deep by Stephanie Park – A werewolf unexpectedly meets his match in a strange young woman that he stumbles across at a bar.

The Victims by James L. Steele – A marked wolf gives birth to a litter of pups – one of which shares her same mark. She tell the story of what this means for her newborn pup and the horror that they bear so that others may live in peace.

Honorable mentions to Oh Piggy, My Piggy by Mike Scott and 6 Dicks by Rachel Lee Weist. I found both of these stories to be disturbing and laugh-out-loud funny.

Bottom line – if the subject matter doesn’t put you off, there are enough enjoyable stories in this collection to make it worth a read.

As an aside, I received a digital copy of this title in exchange for an honest review.

Behemoth

A novel of giant biblical monsters by HP Newquist

4/5 Star Review

Are you in the market for small-town secrets? How about an old testament cult? A whirlwind novel of mystery, murder, and disappearances? Well, friends, look no further – Behemoth is here to scratch that itch!

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Robert Garrahan, a journalist by trade, has been making weekend trips between New York City and his small cabin in upstate New York to work on his book of New York architecture. One weekend, he detours into the small town of Morris for gas and is struck by the odd little town. It seems as though folks are coming out of their homes to watch him. The gas station owner and his daughter are friendly enough, they chat about the big city and how exotic it sounds. The next weekend, Robert stops again at the little gas station only to find the family gone and a new owner in place. He starts to dig into the town and finds that there have been a recent slew of disappearances in and around Morris and the book takes off from there.

I was a bit concerned about the Christian undertone to this book going in. I am not a religious person, and aside from the odd possession story here and there, I really prefer my horror not to be riddled with passages from the bible. Newquist handles the old testament themes and religious fanaticism with deft hands. I felt it was worth a mention here just in case anyone feels the same way as I do about these things. Rest assured – this is not what you think it is going to be.

While Newquist has several works of non-fiction under his belt, Behemoth is his first novel and hopefully will not be his last. I recommend checking this one out for sure!

As an aside, I received a digital copy of this title from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Walk the Darkness Down

A horrific western novella of cosmic proportions by John Boden

4/5 Star Review

I have to start this review with a confession: I received a copy of this book for review from the author last fall and it slipped through the cracks. I’m embarrassed by the amount of time that it took me to get to this wonderful little book. Do yourself a favor when you pick this one up – Don’t let it sit on your TBR pile. Read it immediately and read it slowly. Savor it.

This was my first read from John Boden and I was impressed. Boden commands the English language and manipulates it into gorgeous metaphors that paint the landscape of this novella. As you read, you want to meditate on the images that are being drawn in your mind. The world of this tale is just so rich and so brutal that it demands your complete attention.

Click on the cover art to purchase from bookshop.org.

Levi is a man who is no longer a man. He has been warped by the ancient evil that has invaded his mind. Jones is a man on a quest to find himself, as well at the man who killed his mother. Keaton is a man on the run from crimes he did not commit. Jubal is a boy whose parents are dead and has been left to care for his twin sisters. Walk the Darkness Down is the story of how these four come together and their ultimate showdown.

One tidbit about this novella that I will share with you is to pay attention to the names of the people and the towns, hell – even the horse. If you are familiar with folks in the horror community, you will see a lot of cameos and mentions throughout. They are fun little Easter eggs to find. It takes nothing away from the story if you don’t notice them, so don’t let this deter you from picking up this book.

If a violent and gory western imbued with cosmic horror sounds like your cup of tea – I highly recommend this read!

If you follow the horror community on Bookstagram or Twitter, you may have noticed a surge in the horror western sub-genre. If you don’t and are looking for more new books in this vein, check out Death’s Head Press. They have just started releasing titles for their Splatter Western line: The Magpie Coffin by Wile E. Young and Hunger on the Chisholm Trail by by M. Ennenbach.

Halloween Fiend

A spooky little Halloween novella by C.V. Hunt

3.5/5 Star Review

I’m wrapping up reviews for books read in the last week of April and you know what that means – we are less than halfway to Halloween! Over on the Spine Breakers YouTube channel, Sue and Megan have been hosting Halfaweenathon 2020. You can find the the original video and the reading challenges here.

I read Halloween Fiend for challenges #1 – Read a book with black or orange on the cover and #4 – Read a book with a spooky word in the title. I was running out of time so I had to combine challenges for this book!

Halloween Fiend is a quick and spooky little read. The novella follows the story of Barry as All Hallow’s Eve looms closer and closer in the town of Strang. It’s a town with a long-held secret – it plays victim to a dark creature that the townsfolk have come to simply call Halloween. Every night, small sacrifices, treats, must be left out for Halloween so that it can be kept at bay. Barry is tired of it all and wants out, but it is not quite so simple as that…

Hunt has created an eerie mythos surrounding Halloween and the town of Strang. It’s a little similar to Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ but a with a more cult-like attitude toward it all. Halloween Fiend is a very atmospheric read; You can smell fall in the crisp air as you pass through the town square and likewise taste the stale smoke on the back of your tongue that comes from decades of smoking inside a closed house.

I had two minor complaints about Halloween Fiend – neither major enough to keep me from recommending this title, but worth a mention. The first is that the main character, Barry, is too generic. I often forgot that I was supposed to be reading from the perspective of a middle-aged man. It’s not necessarily pivotal to the plot, so it is easy to overlook. My second is that I found some of the plot points to be a little too vague. I am all about ambiguity in horror – I quite love it, actually. There were just one or two explanations that I would have liked to have been more forthcoming in the story.

Overall, this was a fun read! If you are looking for a quick little tale to get you in the spirit of Halloween then this is definitely one to pick up.