Best & Worst of 2020!
Can you guess which books I loved and which ones I didn't?
2020 was a full year of reading for me - I read 40 books, the most I've ever finished in one year! Quarantine most definitely helped me achieve this goal, but the truth is simply that because I read so many amazing books, it was hard to stop reading.
I regret that I didn't blog as much as I wanted to - I only did about three posts before stopping until now. There wasn't any real reason for it. I was reading a lot and work was stressful and I put it to the side.
I set out with this amazing goal of blogging every week and writing constant reviews of books and I just didn't. Life happened and every week I'd remember but I would consistently put it off, saying I'd do a post the next week. And then next week turned into 10 months later.
I thought I'd make today the day to restart this journey! I still feel the excitement when I talk about books and so many people ask me for recommendations that it makes sense to keep the blog going.
Kicking off my first post of 2021, I thought it only logical to go over some of the duds and wonders from last year.
Let's jump right in and start with my picks for the Worst of 2020...
#1 - Hater by David MoodyHater seemed right up my alley. For reasons unknown, people are going crazy right before the eyes of their loved ones and neighbors. In a split second, your loved one could turn into a Hater: someone plagued with hatred towards everyone in their immediete vicinity. A hatred so deep that it causes them to commit horrible acts when it hits them. Haters will brutally kill and then flee. The main character, Danny, is experiencing the onset of this worldwide pandemic with his family, where they shelter in place in their home to try to avoid the fallout of this strange disease. Soon, however, Danny is infected and attacks his father-in-law before running from his home. But not before catching a glimpse of his daughter's eyes. She is like him; a Hater. She just hasn't turned yet. The rest of the novel is set with Hater Danny, banding together with other Haters and trying to find a way to get his youngest daughter away from the rest of his family, where they can live their Hater life together, away from anyone who isn't like them.
The premise of Hater really intrigued me and I was extremely excited to read this. I dismissed the extremely low rating (3.65 average!) on Goodreads and set out to enjoy this. I was determined to like it. The only thing I liked, unfortunately, were the chapters that were separate from the main storyline that showed a shocking murder after someone turned. The main storyline itself was, in a word, SLOW. It dragged on and on and for an apocalyptic action story, was incredibly boring. Many chapters of Danny and his family just staying indoors and having whispered conversations amongst each other. I perked up a bit when Danny turned, thinking we would finally get the action the book jacket promised, but no-go. The Haters are even dumbed down in a way, with the twist being that when Haters become Haters, they suddenly see everyone that isn't a Hater as a violent, murderous individual. It justifies the brutal killings as necessary because if they don't kill them, they think the uninfected people will. This twist does nothing to satisfy the reader and makes it (if even possible) less exciting.
Hater is a three part series, and one which I will not continue reading. There is nothing in Hater that makes me want to read more. I am an avid reader of post-apocalyptic fiction, and this just doesn't do it for me.
#2 - The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock
Oh, how I wanted to like this one.
A drama (which I admittedly do not read much of) set in the Mojave Desert, where pilot Jim Harrison test flies planes for the Air Force and lives with his wife Grace in the '50s and '60s. They long for a child and after many failed attempts, finally are able to conceive. However, their beautiful daughter dies of cancer and Jim and Grace's relationship is strained. Jim signs up to be a part of the astronaut training program to one day go to the moon and his marriage slowly falls apart as he chooses his career over saving his marriage. While a part of the training program, he realizes what he lost and leaves the program to reunite with his wife.
This book suffered from similar problems that Hater did. It is simply dull. Large sections of aerospace engineering and technical descriptions of flying fill the pages and the main plot itself is simply not unique enough to hold my attention. Reading pages upon pages of the thoughts of boring characters really does nothing for me. I think this book was trying to be deep and convey an important meaning, but fell flat.
No quotation marks are used for when characters speak, something that I always dislike seeing in novels. What are writers trying to prove by not including any indication that their characters are talking? It is an aesthetic choice or are they trying to be modern and unique? I have never understood the reason. It slows down reading when you have to review parts to figure out who is actually doing the talking.
Overall, this just doesn't hit the mark it is aspiring to. It is much too long and uninteresting. The writer has good prose and seems like a solid writer to me; this just isn't the book that showcases his abilities.
#3 - The Returned by Jason Mott
Another one I wanted so very badly to like that showed so much promise. The thing with The Returned is that it isn't a bad book: the plot is interesting and Mott isn't a bad writer. The problem of The Returned is the execution. Coming in at 338 pages, it is extremely long and doesn't need to be. There is so much unnecessary detail added into this, I'm shocked an editor didn't clean it up more.
The Returned has a simple premise: people who have died are suddenly returning from the grave, people from all walks of life and all time periods. They are suddenly showing up with no memory of what they experienced while dead and no explanation for their reappearance. An entire family who was murdered, a young boy who drowned in a river, the mother of a government agent... they all just show up.
Harold and Lucille Hargrave are a couple whose son shows back up after died at his eighth birthday party over 40 years prior. Now both elderly, they are shocked when their son shows back up at the exact same age as when he died. Harold and Lucille argue over the sudden appearance of their beloved Jacob; Lucille dotes on him and takes him in as if nothing has happened while Harold holds resentment and fear in his heart. He firmly believes the child back in his home is not his. Soon, the Hargraves community is used as a detainment center for The Returned. The government is rounding up Returned individuals and shipping them off to be studied and kept behind fences.
The main storyline is interspersed with additional mini stories, much like Hater. Small little chapters of random people Returning break up the monotony of the main plot. I found a review on Goodreads that sums up my thoughts on The Returned perfectly: 'This book doesn't just have a sagging middle - it has an enormous beer gut.' The Returned could have lost 150 pages and been fine. It honestly would have been better. This book suffers from way too much of nothing happening. It would have been much better as a novella. The final climax of the story doesn't even make up for the ridiculously long middle section. There is no explanation for why the Returned came back, when that's all I really wanted by the end.
Save yourself a few hours and just watch The Leftovers instead.
#4 - The Oracle Year by Charles SouleWith a cover this cool, this book has to be good, right?
Soule's debut novel certainly sounds promising: a random man waking up one day with 108 predictions about the future seared into his brain definitely peaked my interest. Will decides to slowly release his predictions to the world by use of a secretive website and soon starts selling predictions to the highest bidder, raking in millions of dollars for him and his tech-savvy friend, Hamza.
Will starts developing high powered enemies, including the President and a phony televangelist, desperate to own the predictions for themselves. Will teams up with Hamza and a journalist to try to evade capture and outwit the people organizing a manhunt for him.
I expected a ton of action and what I got instead was a boring thriller with way too much dialogue and not enough excitement. Character development is weak and I never felt invested in anything that was happening. It is very bland and we get no answers as to why exactly Will got the predictions or even how he did in the first place. The resolution of the book is not captivating and I honestly could care less about what was going on. I just wanted answers and I didn't even get that.
#5 - The Never List by Koethi Zan
Sarah and Jennifer are best friends who find themselves in a horror movie when they are abudcted after accepting a cab ride. For two years, they are held in the basement of a sadist and tortured.
Ten years later, Sarah is living a quiet, reclusive life and trying to forget about the fact that Jennifer never made it out of the cellar. The man who abducted her is up for parole and Sarah is determined to confront her fears and phobias. With the twisted letters that her abductor has sent her, she goes on a journey to finally face what happened to her and it leads her to a shocking revelation.
The Never List tries very hard to be a shocking thriller but just doesn't hit the mark. With a very cliche twist and bland characters, it just doesn't live up to my wishes. I finished this one in a day during one of my quaratine reading binges and while it did hold my attention, the pay off just wasn't great. It is not badly written nor is it boring - it just wants to be so much more than it is. I've seen and read this plot hundreds of times. It is nothing new and could have benefited from some major rewrites. I really wanted to like it, but just couldn't. We don't connect with Sarah because we don't go with her on a journey. Much of her experience in the cellar is completely omitted and only inserted when a plot point is needed to be explained. We don't feel the horror that Sarah feels. We don't experience the tension of what life was like for two years trapped in a cellar chained to the wall. We are just not invested in the story and the book suffers for it.
Find Her by Lisa Gardner, Room by Emma Donoghue and The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson do the kidnapping-and-after story so much better.
The common theme of my Worst of 2020 list was definitely the fact that most of them were boring. They were much too long, packed with too much unnecessary detail and couldn't hold my attention or keep me invested. With the exception of The Never List, all others took me longer than normal to finish.
These books are not awful. All of them had a redeeming quality or two. What I may not like, others may love. Don't write off one of these if it's on your 'to read' list or if you found yourself interested by the plots in them. Try it! You might have a totally different reaction than I did. That's the beauty of reading :)
And now for my picks for the Best of 2020...
#1 - 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King
Wow, was this one fun. I read a lot of amazing books in the beginning of 2020, but this one blew away many of them.
Ben Mears, a successful writer, returns home to his childhood town of 'Salem's Lot. There he meets and falls in love with Susan Norton and starts writing a book about the abandoned mansion on the edge of town, Marsten House. It has recently been purchased by a strange man named Kurt Barlow, who is never seen. Richard Straker, the man who deals with Barlow's affairs, is the only one of the duo seen in public.
The small town of 'Salem's Lot is quickly plagued by a vampire outbreak that quietly consumes the entire town, leaving only a handful of survivors after a few short weeks. I don't want to spoil too much, as this story is best to be discovered between its pages, rather than through someone else's words. It is a wonderfully delicious vampire story, with just the right amount of horror. The characters are developed beautifully. Being only King's second published novel, this is stellar. If you are a fan of King but haven't read this one yet, put it on your list ASAP! It truly is spectacular. Just the right length with action and excitement on every page, I never wanted to put it down!
#2 - The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
If I knew about The Golden Compass as a child, I wouldn't have hesitated to read this beautiful novel.
Set in a parallel universe where human souls take the form of animal companions called daemons, Lyra is an adventurous young girl who goes on a journey to save her best friend from child snatching beings known as Gobblers. She sets out with a witch, her daemon and an ice bear (among others) and soon finds herself in the middle of something much bigger than she imagined.
I remember hearing about the movie version of this book when I was a teenager - I heard about the claims of it being anti-Christian and demonic, the opposite of Chronicles of Narnia (which is known for it's Biblical connotations of good and evil). The fact is, this book is an imaginative adventure story and is not Christian bashing in the slightest. The Golden Compass is a master class in world building. The characters are fully fleshed out and everything fits together beautifully. There are no rambling chapters that don't lead anywhere, no boring pieces. Every sentence is inserted for a reason and everything leads somewhere that has a purpose.
The Golden Compass can be read by anyone - I would hardly call it a children's book. It sucked me in. If you like fantasy with a dynamic, exciting plot, this is the book for you!
#3 - That Night by Chevy Stevens
That Night is a crime thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat.
Toni Murphy, along with her boyfriend, Ryan, are accused of brutally murdering her sister one summer. Toni and Ryan are convicted and sent to prison, despite the fact that they are innocent.
Over a decade later, and Toni is out on parole. She returns to hometown and struggling to adapt to life on the outside. She is forbidden to have any contact with Ryan and expected to stay out of trouble. But things are making that difficult: Ryan is convinced he can figure out the killer, her mother denies her innocence and the group of girls who made Toni's life horrible in high school are still there and hiding secrets that Toni could never imagine. Toni is swept up in the mystery of what truly happened to her sister that night, and she can't rest until she figures it out.
Written extremely well, Stevens is great at creating the relationships between people and the secrets they carry. I love when writers can effortlessly slip between the past and the present to build a story that only reveals itself at the end. If there is any downside to this book, it is that it is a bit long (372 pages) for the actual story. Bits and pieces could have been snipped with no affect on the quality of the story. Overall though, it is a great twisty thriller with a fabulous reveal and a great ending. Can't wait to read more of Chevy Stevens!
#4 - Recursion by Blake Crouch
NYC cop Barry Sutton is investigating False Memory Syndrome - a mysterious ailment that fills its victims with memories of a life they have never lived.
Helena Smith has dedicated her life to creating a technology that lets us preserve the most beautiful memories of our lives.
How these two stories weave themselves together is the plot to Recursion.
It is hard to describe this novel without giving too much away, so I will just say that this is the most hauntingly beautiful thing I have read in a long time. Recursion manages to mix romance, science fiction, and action packed thriller in the most effortless way. The plot is unlike anything I have ever read. It is completely original and exciting as hell. I kept wanting more and was sad when it ended.Blake Crouch is quickly becoming my favorite sci-fi writer. The way he builds his characters and mixes them with complex science fiction concepts is amazing. He is a master at pulling you in and leaving you wanting more. I literally could not put this book down and am excited for the day when I reread it.
#5 - The Passage by Justin Cronin
Save the best for last, right?
If I had to give up every other book and only pick one from 2020 to remember, this would be it.
The Passage is phenomenal. It is emotional. It is immersive. It is everything I want in a novel.
Brad Wolgast is an FBI agent with a sticky past - he has been recruiting death row inmates for a top secret government experiment for the last few years. An experiment that he knows is bad at its core. After he is ordered to collect young Amy Bellafonte, Brad finds himself at a moral crossroads. Soon, he is protecting Amy from the fallout of the unleashed experiment: a vampire apocalypse is sweeping the country, leaving death and destruction in its path.
Brad and Amy's journey is only the beginning however, and only lasts the first 100 pages. The next 700 are filled with the aftermath of the deadly vampires rampage on the world. We are taken 100 years into the future, to a protected camp where society is barely hanging on. Electricity and supplies are dwindling, and it is only a matter of time before what is left of humankind is wiped out. With a perfect cast of characters beautifully written and action around every corner, this hefty read goes by in a flash.
First in a series of three, The Passage sets up the trilogy perfectly, with just the right mix of everything you need in a novel: plot, action, detail, character development and world building. The nerd in me was fully satisfied with this fabulous book. The second novel, The Twelve, is almost just as good. If you are a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction or anything involving vampires, this is the book for you.
I wish I could read it for the first time again, it is that good.
THERE YOU HAVE IT FOLKS. My picks for the Best and Worst of 2020! :)
If you've stuck around this long, I commend you.
I'll be back next Sunday!
See you soon,
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