For Fans Of:Tana French, Christina Henry, dark fantasy and crime novels
Trigger Warnings:Murder (both of children and adults), violence, gun violence, death of family members, abandonment, missing persons, mental illness, divorce, bullying
I first discovered Cynthia Pelayo’s work with her collection Loteria, which features dark fantasy short stories and flash fiction based on the Mexican game with the same name. I own a copy of the game and absolutely love the illustrations associated with it. Sometimes for fun I’ll pull Loteria cards and then flip through Pelayo’s book to read her entry on that specific card. It’s a wonderful way to go through that collection. Pelayo is a well established name in horror and crime writing, especially for her poetry. Her most recent poetry collection, Into the Forest and all the Way Through, honors the life and stories of over one hundred missing or murdered women.
When I heard that Pelayo had a novel coming out this year, I rushed to Netgalley with the hopes it would be available. It was. I smashed the download button so hard. Children of Chicago is dark, gut-wrenching, emotional, and relatable. After having heard Pelayo talk on several panels and reading her past work, I know the deep admiration and affection she has for Chicago and its Latinx populations, having grown up there herself. It is clear that Children of Chicago is another tribute to this world she holds so close.
Detective Lauren Medina has dealt with loss her entire life, but now that her father has passed away, her divorce is finalizing, and her partner on the force is retiring, things seem to be coming to a head. When teenagers start turning up dead around Medina’s childhood neighborhood in Chicago along side new graffiti announcing the Pied Piper, Medina realizes that her painful past is anything but behind her. In fact, the deaths of her sister and stepmother are more closely connected to Medina’s current case than anyone could guess. What appears to be instances of gang violence and children attacking other children might have a deeper, more sinister origination. Something that has been around for centuries, and does not care about the rules of our world. Can Lauren stop the cycle and free the city and herself from terror in this dark modern retelling of an old fairy tale?
Pelayo writes about painful realities with a patina of folklore. I recently did some research on folklore, urban legends, and how we communicate, and the histories and connects between in all are really fascinating. It was incredibly fun to see this melding of urban legend with folklore and fairy tales in Children of Chicago. The book felt a lot like Candyman and Slender Man — Slender Man, in particular — which have both transcended urban legend status and gone on to a sort of mythological standing. The plot is an example of old folklore tropes being communicated through urban legend and interpreted through new technology to cause real harm, much like what happened with the Slender Man killings. But Children of Chicago is much more than that. It’s a look at real violence in real communities and the darkness that stretched across generations, across centuries, that causes it. And it’s about a beautiful, complicated city, which feels a lot like a stand-in for our society at large.
I think most people are familiar with Pelayo as a poet, so Children of Chicago is a bit of a change-up. Her skill as a poet is very apparent in her prose. I enjoyed her style of writing, especially for this dark fairy tale retelling. It had something like an affectation to it, which I felt added necessary atmosphere to the plot and characters. Her characters felt very present on the page. I really enjoyed Pelayo’s mixture of genres, adding a bit of crime, mystery, horror, and dark fantasy. Children of Chicago is dark and can be pretty terrifying at times. I recommend it to fans of authors like Tana French and Christina Henry, shows like The Killing and The Fall, and anyone who likes dark secrets coming home to roost.
Children of Chicago will be out on 02/09/21.Thank you to Netgalley and Agora Books for providing me with a digital ARC.
This past year was both a successful and frustrating reading year for me. I finished 90 books, which is the most I’ve read in one year ever, but I saw a significant drop-off in my reading after March. This was mostly due to COVID-19 stress and anxiety. My husband and I also were fortunately enough to buy a house this year, so that took up a lot of time and brain power.
Here are my favorite books that I read in 2019 and 2018. These lists are on my old blog.
Below are my favorite books that I read in 2020. I’ve sectioned them off into different categories, and I think I’ll continue to do this for future Best Of lists. It’s fun and offers an opportunity for more explanation and context. If I have existing reviews of these books, I will link to them!
Favorite Backlist Titles
The Diviners by Libba Bray: I’ve owned this series for years, and now that Bray has finished it I have little excuse to hold off reading it! The Diviners (and the entire series) is an example of one of those books that I know will be perfect for me, so I think subconsciously I keep putting them off because I don’t want them to be over. Another example of this for me is My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix. The Diviners was everything I had hoped for! Exciting, action-packed, full of fascinating historical details, amazing characters, vivid settings, and extremely strong political commentary. This was the only book I could focus on during the worst parts of my reading slump. Read my full review here.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: I read this early in 2020 and was lucky enough to hear Machado speak when she visited Pittsburgh. She surprised and delighted me! Her writing is very serious, dark, introspective, and absolutely brilliant. When speaking casually, however, Machado is effervescent, warm, welcoming, and also still absolutely brilliant. I was intimidated by this essay collection about intimate partner abuse because I could feel the weight of it and even related to certain elements. The inventiveness with which she approached the formatting and narrative structure blew me away completely. Machado will always be a must-read for me.
Lolly Willowesby Sylvia Townsend Warner: I loved this quiet kooky little book! Written in 1926, the plot follows Lolly, an unmarried childless woman in England who, after a whole life of living with family members, helping to raise nieces and nephews, and following social norms, decides to move out to the country where she can be alone! This is shocking to her family, and they simply do not accept her decision. They don’t stop her from doing it, but they constantly question her choice. Living alone makes her feel free and joyful, but soon her family follows her and invades her new-found sanctuary. To rectify the situation, Lolly makes a deal with the devil. Literally. It kind of comes out of nowhere and I love it! The tone of this book is warm and a bit silly. You sympathize deeply with Lolly, and you can’t help but want to move to her remote little village (where apparently everyone are Satanists). This book does a wonderful job of describing why it is so important to have independence and autonomy, even when it comes to the little things.
Bunnyby Mona Awad: Talk about a head-scratching ‘huh?’ of a book! I loved it, but I do not understand it hahaha I don’t want to say much because it’s best to go in cold for this one. Just know that it feels like a fever dream. This was very entertaining and distracting during a weird and hard year. It also made me have some deep thoughts that were fun to explore.
The Babysitters Coven by Kate Williams: I love this YA series that has been frequently and accurate described as Buffy meets the Babysitters Club! Esme is a normal teen. She loves fashion, music, babysitting, and spending time with her best friend. Cassandra is a new girl in town, a bit rough around the edges. When the football coach (and Esme’s Dad’s best friend) tells the two girls that they are actually chosen ones with supernatural abilities that need to be used to protect the human realm from the realm of the demons, they have questions. But there is no denying the fact that they are different. And when the little girl Esme is babysitting on Halloween is kidnapped, all hell breaks loose (literally). Esme and Cassandra have to achieve the unthinkable under shocking circumstances. This is a very fun series. The second book recently came out with another on the way!
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns: I think about this book all the time. I had never read any Comyns before, but I feel like I need to read all her work now. This short book is brutal and fantastical. It feels a bit like del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in that way. A young woman in (I’m guessing 19th century) England watched her dearly beloved mother die of illness while her father’s indifference adds to the grief. Her father is a cruel, evil man who abuses his daughter constantly. When he’s not abusing her he’s neglecting her. During times of extreme stress, she discovers that her body floats of its own accord. It’s not long before this is discovered. This is a story of abuse, trauma, grief, and self-love. It does not end happily at all, but it completely blew my mind.
Severance by Ling Ma: I already planned to read this book in 2020, but luck would have it that I actually picked it up in March. I was one of those people who wanted to consume as much plague content as I could in the first few months of quarantine. I’m still down with the sickness, but not as heavily as back then. This was an honest, realistic look at what a situation like ours could become. It was unsettling, humorous at times, and made me feel grateful that our plague is not any worse (although I hear that a new strain is taking hold). Ling Ma’s writing is fabulous, and I recommend this book to anyone.
Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queenby Dexter Palmer: Ho boy! This is a book about a woman who appeared to give birth to rabbits in 18th century England. What a bonkers tale. And it’s true! Kind of. This fictionalization of some incredibly bizarre events had me glued to the page. I feel like I learned a lot about general life in England at that time, as well as medical knowledge and how information was shared across the country. I really enjoy historical fiction that gives me a window into specific period of the past, and Dexter did a wonderful job of that. This was the book where I learned that people who write Science Fiction are usually also very good at writing Historical Fiction because both rely on intense world building and sense of era. Past and future. So interesting! This book is disturbing but completely fascinating.
Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix: What a gift to readers Grady Hendrix is, am I right? Funny, exciting, absolutely terrifying. I really enjoyed this inventive horror comedy that takes place in an Orsk, an Ikea-like home goods mega store. I especially appreciated that it took place in Cleveland and referenced the Pittsburgh Ikea often, which is where I have purchased like 80% of my furniture. This book is super fun, and honestly very scary at times. Hendrix got a lot of attention for his new release in 2020, but don’t skip the backlist, people! You’ll thank me later.
Favorite New Releases
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I loved Gothic fiction young in life and was delighted to take a class devoted to it in undergrad. I was so excited to see a bit of a resurgence in popularity this past year, led by Mareno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. This book has it all: 1950s Mexico, a strong female lead, an evil creepy house, madness, and mushrooms. It also has a clever take on eugenics and the occult that a certain brand of white person was obsessed with in the first half of the 20th century. Not saying that line of thought has died, but it’s no longer as accepted.
The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson: Do you like action? Brooding? Cults? Women highly skilled with a bow and arrow? Ancient swamp magic? REVENGE?? I’m sure your answers were all ‘yes’, and so I highly recommend to you The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson. This book is a thrill ride with plenty of bloody action, terrifying folk magic, and beautiful found family vibes. It feels like Winter’s Bone meet Beasts of the Southern Wild, and it’s amazing. Read my full review here.
The Returnby Rachel Harrison: The Return is scary and thrilling with well crafted characters. It’s an excellent examination of female friendship, especially with groups of women who have known each other for a long time—the history you bring up and the history you agree to forget; the wrongs done to each other that can build up; the resentment, the judgement, but also the deep love. The Return nails it. Read my full review here.
Secret Santa by Andrew Shaffer: I’m sorry, but who DOESN’T need a lighthearted Christmas-themed horror romp set in the 1980s publishing world featuring Nazi occult paraphernalia?
Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones: As always, Stephen Graham Jones delivers an inventive and mind-blowing story that both completely disturbs and delights. Sawyer and his best friends are growing up. The end of high school is looming, and they’ve long since stopped playing games like they did as kids. But when they decide to prank one of their own at her job in a movie theater using an old mannequin they used to play with, Sawyer feels like they’re kids all over again. But then the mannequin stands up and walks away by itself, and only Sawyer sees it happen. Shortly after, people start dying. This novella has quite a few twists and a campy B horror vibe, but overall it’s a tight plot with a heartbreaking end. Night of the Mannequins is a delusional and demented coming-of-age story with Jones’ distinct tone (lighthearted and fucked up, pleasantly mixed together).
If you haven’t gotten yourself all hooked up with the Libby app yet, please take some time to treat yourself. It allows you to borrow audio and ebooks from your public library with your library card. It’s how I get a lot of my reading done.
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray: Another hilarious, fast-paced, politically-minded novel from Bray! The audiobook is complete with fun sound effects and cues that really bring the story to life. I don’t usually enjoy those extra elements, but they are so well done here. I listened to this while driving from Pittsburgh to Rochester for a girlfriend’s bachelorette party. On the way I hit one of the worse snow storms I’ve ever driven through, which is saying a lot because I come from upstate New York. I was sure I was going to die. Luckily, this book helped me stay focused on the road and kept my spirits high. I made it to my final destination, and not in the Devon Sawa sense.
Gerald’s Game by Stephen King: I’m not sure what made me love this audiobook so much. It has elements I don’t normally enjoy, like random music spliced in, but I was so taken with the story. This book really surprised me! It’s definitely in my top five Kings. If you haven’t picked this one up yet, I highly encourage it. Perhaps…on audio??
Favorite Graphic Novel/Comic
The Last Halloween by Abby Howard: I laughed so hard and felt so much delight while reading this graphic novel. There were many references and jokes that horror fans will love. It’s a sweet story of found family working together against insurmountable odds with a very heavy dose of humor. This was such a pleasure to read, especially during a hard year. Read about this book and more coming of age stories here!
Favorite Short Story Collection
And I Do Not Forgive Youby Amber Sparks: Cutting and imaginative with a killer cover! These stories and poems have really stuck with me and are perfect for lovers of dark fantasy and fairy tale retellings. There are several stories from this collection that haven’t left my mind.
How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friendby Linda Addison: This collection of mostly poetry (and some short prose) is packed full of style. These stories and poems range in genre from humor to fantasy, horror to scifi. The mastery in Addison’s writing is just so apparent. My favorite story is in the form of a series of emails between a corporate employee and a new artificial intelligence HR system. The system has her name misspelled in the records, but when she tried to correct the error she cannot get a hold of a human, and the AI system insists she is not who she says she is because the woman they have in their system has a differently spelled name. She is subsequently fired and framed for crimes that she never committed, all for the want of a human in the Human Relations department. Don’t worry, it ends hilariously.
Favorite Non-Horror Book
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: I really enjoyed pretty much everything about this book. The protagonist is cranky and weird, but she still managed to endear herself to me. She enjoys her nature, her dogs, fake astrology readings, and being alone. Sounds like a woman after my own heart! When people turn up dead in her small remote Polish town, she takes it upon herself to get involved. This book has a very fun twist that I refuse to spoil for you.
Favorite Horror Book
Misfits by Hunter Shea:I read mainly horror and horror adjacent work, so most of these categories could actually be boiled down to ‘favorite horror’, but I wanted to have an excuse to single Misfits out. When I want a solid balls to the wall horror, I usually want something like this book. It has local legends, terrifying monsters, a rag-tag crew of *ahem* misfits fighting for survival! It’s brutal, bloody, and nonstop action. One of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read! If you like the movie Wrong Turn and ’90s grunge music, this is a must read. Read my full review here.
Most WTF Book Read
The Unsuitable by Molly Pohlig: While this category might not seem complimentary, trust me when I say it absolutely is. I love it when books blow my mind, and The Unsuitable managed to edge out many mind-blowing WTF books this year for this high honor. Iseult is odd: awkward, nervous, strangely pale, and has a huge scar where here collarbone broke during her delivery, killing her mother. But that’s ok, because her mother now lives in that scar and talks to her, telling her what to do and how to live. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most disturbing. Read my full review here.
Best Distraction During a Hard Time
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: I read this on a trip to Knoxville for a library conference…on March 11th. My husband traveled with me, and on the 13th we were supposed to drive over to visit my Dad and two of our best friends in North Caroline and Virginia, and then drive home. But then everything shut down and lock downs started. We decided to leave Knoxville early and skip that last part of the trip. I read Ninth House on the drive back from Tennessee to Pittsburgh, and it was very helpful to stay distracted while the world got very scary very fast. It’s also my ideal book, so there’s that.
Favorite Book Overall
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: No surprise here! This book was so good. I don’t even know how many times it had me jumping to my feet yelling “WHAT!?”. My husband was probably very annoyed with me by the end of it because I kept insisting on reading him sections and exclaiming about the things that were blowing my mind and even acting out parts that I thought were super amazing. Poor man. But honestly, he’s better for it. The Only Good Indians is inventive, unique, terrifying, and jam-packed full of heart. I ordered myself a beautifully illustrated copy as a treat and can’t wait to read it again when it arrives! Read my full review here.
There they are…my favorite reads of 2020. I’m determined to make 2021 a good reading year. I hope to keep up with reviews (ha), but my only real resolutions are to read 100 books and increase the diversity in my reading in all ways. I always hope to read more of the books I already own…but with the library and Netgalley that can be a true challenge.