Best of 2020: New-To-Me (Non-Debut) Author Discoveries
Last week, I made a list of my top ten books by debut authors that I read in 2020, and today I wanted to make a companion to that list, of the top ten authors I had the pleasure of reading for the first time this year. Sometimes, it seems like an author could have many books under their belt or have been active for years by the time I finally clue in and get onboard the bandwagon, even when they may have been lurking on my radar for a long time. How often have you said to yourself, “Why did it take me so long to read <insert author’s name>?!” Well, it seems to happen to me all the time, so that was the inspiration for this post. No doubt I have more new-to-me authors in 2020 than the ten listed here, but the following are those who have really stood out to me this year.
While Home Before Dark might be the first book I’ve ever read by Riley Sager, I promise it won’t be the last. Several of his previous novels were already on my to-read list, and after this I’ll certainly be making it my priority to get to them. This book was fantastic, and you know how much I love a good haunted house story. Twenty-five years ago, Ewan and his wife Jess and their young daughter Maggie moved into Baneberry Hall, an old mansion nestled in the Vermont woods. A struggling writer, Ewan had always dreamed of living in a place like this, though money was always an issue. Baneberry Hall, however, was surprisingly affordable—and of course, there’s a good reason for that. The house has a dark past, filled with memories of grief, pain and death. Yet for Ewan, who possesses a fascination for the extraordinary, the estate’s macabre history simply made it that much more appealing. But in the end, the Holts barely even made it three weeks in their new home before they fled terrified into the night, vowing never to step foot in the house again.
I really should have read this author a long time ago, but I am glad I finally did with The Dead Girls Club. Under the impression that it was going to be your typical run-of-the-mill thriller suspense mystery, I picked it up for some reliable entertainment but discovered it to be about so much more. Told via dual timelines, the story follows protagonist Heather Cole who unexpectedly receives a mysterious package containing an item she knows well from her childhood: a cheap metal half-heart pendant friendship necklace which used to hang around the neck of her best friend Becca. And that was also where Heather saw it last—the day Becca died, almost thirty years ago. Unnerved, Heather tries to convince herself that it must be some sick prank. Might it even be possible the perpetrator is Becca’s mother, who was convicted for murdering her daughter? The woman did recently get released from prison, after all. Surely, no one else but Heather knows what really happened that night? In the second timeline, we find out exactly what happened to Heather and Becca that fateful summer, when they were both twelve years old and involved in a secret Dead Girls Club.
Tricia Levenseller is a name I’d seen around a lot on YA blogs, but I never got a chance to read her stuff until The Shadows Between Us came along. And I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the story! No pretenses, limited drama, just plain good fun with a generous helping of romance. And of course, a wildly entertaining heroine didn’t hurt. At the heart of this novel is a fairy tale as old as time—a girl hopes to catch the eye of the king, marry him and become his queen. But instead of living happily ever after, here the girl actually has vicious designs to murder the king and steal his kingdom. Let’s be clear: our protagonist Alessandra is not a nice person. She’s never claimed to be. She is highly ambitious and has always made it known that she’s only out for herself, and you can either help her or get the hell out of the way. Now she’s set her sights on the throne itself, and the key to getting it is the newly crowned Shadow King. So named because of the tendrils of living shadows that swirl around him, Kallias is a mysterious young man who mostly keeps to himself, but Alessandra believes she knows what he wants. Her plan is to present herself at court and make it impossible for him to resist her charms, and once he makes her his wife, that’s when she will strike.
I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for more books by Simone St. James in the future. My first book by her, The Sun Down Motel, completely blew my mind. It robbed me of a good night’s sleep because I stayed up late to finish it, and then I spent more time lying awake thinking about it some more. It had that way of getting under your skin. Thirty-five years ago, a young woman named Viv Delaney went missing from the small, dwindling town of Fell, New York. She was a night clerk working at the local Sun Down Motel, a seedy establishment where somehow persisted while other businesses closed down or moved away, when one day she failed to show up for work. Her disappearance was widely reported in the news at the time, as she was not the first woman to have vanished or met a tragic end in Fell. In spite of this, no trace of Viv was ever found, and with the town’s reluctance to talk about its missing girls, her case was soon forgotten. Until now. If you like a touch of the paranormal in your mystery-thrillers, then this one’s for you.
Brian D. Anderson has written many books and clearly knows how to write a crowd-pleasing fantasy. It’s always good to get back to basics, and this, I think, was the key to the huge appeal behind The Bard’s Blade, which I enjoyed immensely. It’s a reminder an epic fantasy novel isn’t required to be filled with sweeping battles, an indecipherable morass of politics and magical systems, or enough characters to fill a small village in order to be a hit with readers. Sometimes simple is best, even though finding that sweet spot between originality and conventionality can be tricky. However, I think Anderson manages to strike the right balance. Our story first begins in a sheltered little realm called Vylari which is magically protected by a barrier hiding it from Lamoria, the dangerous world beyond. Vylari is also home to Mariyah, the daughter of a wine merchant, as well as her betrothed, a talented musician named Lem. Like any young couple, they are planning for their future, even with its countless obstacles. However, all that calm is shattered one evening, as Lem receives an urgent summons from his uncle Shemi to come home. Upon returning to the house, Lem finds a strange visitor waiting, bearing an ominous message prophesizing the return of an ancient evil.
The Only Good Indians was a book that worked for me on some levels but not on others, but I’m still glad I read it because I got to discover a new author to watch. With his strong talent for character development and wordsmithing, Stephen Graham Jones is definitely worth reading again. I enjoyed his writing, as he clearly has a way with words and telling a good story. At the heart of this novel are four young Blackfeet men: Lewis, Cass, Gabe, and Ricky. A decade ago, they ventured off their hunting territory, killing a herd of elk on restricted land. As a result, the group faced some serious repercussions from their community, but little did they know, their punishment was far from over. Many years later, they will be made to answer for their reckless violence and disregard for life by a mysterious, vengeful force. In the present, the book catches up with the four friends and reveals their fates. All of them have moved away from the Reservation and are experiencing strange and disturbing things. We follow Lewis as his life starts spiraling out of control, and he also he suspects he is being haunted by a malevolent entity after seeing a terrifying vision of a dead elk so much like the one he killed all those years ago.
Rory Power is an author I’ve wanted to read for a while, ever since Wilder Girls took the YA world by storm. Thus it was with great excitement that I started Burn Our Bodies Down, a novel described as “American Farmland Gothic.” The main protagonist Margot has always been something of an outsider. The only close relationship she’s ever had is with her mom Josephine, and she’s not exactly mother of the year. And when Margot asks about her father, or any question about family, Josephine simply shuts her out. Finally, Margot has had enough. Defying her mom, she uncovers an old photograph with a name and phone number of someone she believes is her maternal grandmother. After calling the number, the old woman who answers confirms Margot’s suspicions. Excited at the prospect of answers at long last, Margot travels by herself to meet her Gram. Upon her arrival though, Margot quickly gets the sense that things aren’t quite right. First, Vera, her grandmother, is not the exactly the kind little old lady she led Margot to believe. Her farm is an eerie place, yielding strange and unnatural crop. Soon, Margot starts seeing and experiencing disturbing things that defy explanation. She wanted to learn more about where her family came from, but the longer she stays on the farm, the more she realizes why her mother left this town, never to speak of it again.
Best known for his YA fantasy Eragon, Christopher Paolini took a massive leap with To Sleep in A Sea of Stars, venturing into the world of adult sci-fi. Since I’d never read any of The Inheritance Cycle books, I went into this as a complete newcomer to his writing, and I have to say I enjoyed his style, though the story could have used a little more originality and depth. It follows Kira, a xenobiologist stationed at a research facility on a far-flung moon with a team of her fellow scientists. Upon the completion of their assignment, Kira and her boyfriend Alan have plans to get married and join a group of colonists sponsored by their employer to settle on a new world and start a new life together, but before those dreams could come to pass, disaster strikes. While doing a final run-through of the system before they leave, Kira notices the remnants of a strange alien relic on the planet and decides to investigate. At her touch, however, something ancient is awakened, causing the dust to swirl about her and cover her entire body in a mysterious black substance. Kira loses consciousness, and when she wakes up again, she finds out that the alien “suit” has become a part of her, and she can no more get rid of it than she can rid herself of her skin. While this was not a perfect novel, I was impressed with its scope and the sheer amount of love and effort the author obviously poured into it, and I’m glad I can finally say I’ve read a book by Paolini.
Zoraida Córdova has written many fantasy novels for kids and teens, including the first book of her latest series, Incendiary. There is a dark vibe to this story that is hard to describe, but I found it pleasantly surprising and it also made the story that much more poignant and gripping. Set in a fantasy world loosely based on Inquisition-era Spain, our protagonist Renata “Ren” Convida was just a child when her nation was conquered and she was kidnapped by the King’s Justice. As a Robari possessing one of the rarest and most powerful gifts of the Moria, Ren was immediately pressed into the king’s service to use her abilities to steal the memories and secrets of the crown’s enemies. Eventually though, Ren was rescued by a rebel group, but remained an outsider despite aiding the resistance with her powers. Only Dez, her unit commander and the son of the rebel leader was fully accepting of her, and the two became romantically involved. But now, a new threat looms on the horizon, forcing the rebels to turn to more drastic measures. Unfortunately, Dez winds up being captured by the notorious Prince Castian, and Ren realizes with horror that she may have unwittingly put her lover’s life in danger by disrupting a planned secret mission. To save Dez’s life, she must return to the palace of her nightmarish childhood under the guise of a loyal subject and convince her former captors that she is still on their side.
Lucy Foley has written several novels since her debut in 2015, but her name only landed on my radar this year with The Guest List. Set on an island off the coast of Ireland, this whodunnit mystery is told through the eyes of multiple guests at a high profile wedding. The bride is the owner of a posh fashion and lifestyle magazine and the groom is a reality TV star. The local wedding planner is an experienced event manager, used to organizing large-scale luxury weddings, but even she can’t help having some reservations. Many of the ushers are the groom’s old private school friends who can be pretty rowdy when they get together, and with the heightened tensions caused by the prospect of stormy weather and bad blood among several of the guests, the last thing this wedding needs is a bunch of drunken hooligans causing trouble. Still, the last thing anyone expected was a murder. All hell breaks loose as a panicked waitress reports seeing a dead body, and then it’s a heart-pounding race to the conclusion to find out the identities of both the victim and the perpetrator. After finishing this novel, I was hooked, and will be seeking out more by this author in the future.