My Top Ten Favorite Novels of 2020



These are my favorite novels published in 2020. I make no effort to read a bunch of books I SHOULD read or which would make anyone else's top ten. Also, there are no non-fiction or story collections.



 Deacon King Kong by James McBride

It’s September 1969, and nobody knew why the old deacon shot the young dope dealer who’d once been a pitcher on the church’s youth baseball team that the old man had coached.  The deacon drank some when he could come by it, the King Kong if he could get it, but he wasn’t fussy.  So, he hadn’t killed the boy.  Sometimes, afterward, he didn’t seem to remember that he’d done it.  He went about his four jobs, only one of which was being a deacon at the Five Ends Baptist Church in south Brooklyn, as if he feared no arrest or retribution for the shooting.  He talks often to his wife Hettie who passed away from an apparent suicide a few years back.  Though he isn’t hiding, he is seemingly invisible to the police because though his real name is Cuffy Lambkin, he’s always been known to everyone in the community as “Sport Coat” or Deacon King King.  He shares identification with his good friend, Thelonious Ellis, known as “Hot Sausage.”

From there, McBride begins connecting the strands to Sport Coat.  One of Sport Coat’s jobs is as landscaper for the elderly mother of a local trucking company owner, Tommy Elafante (the Elephant) whose father helped out with the Five Ends Church.  There’s the dope dealer’s supplier who wants to be more than a middle man; and there’s the mysterious old bagel store owner who spent time in prison with the Elephant’s father and gave him something to keep for him until he asked for it.  Now, he’s asking for it.

As is readily apparent, this novel is wonderfully auditory, the names, the sounds reverberate throughout.  Though it might seem unlikely, the book is also a hearty stew of love, laughter, longing, sorrow, pain, and redemption.

Like all great books, it stays with you long after you close the back cover.  It is a story that represents its time, but is also somehow timeless.

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

The Dolan brothers, sixteen-year-old Rye (Ryan) alone in the world except for older brother, Gig (Gregory), have moved on from their poor Montana looking for work. In Spokane, they find hard physical labor and have to compete for low paying day jobs.  Gig has inherited their father’s love for alcohol and a growing sense of injustice over having to pay job sharks a dollar just to get a day’s work. When Gig begins talking big ideas and causes echoing those of the Industrial Workers of the World, Rye goes along warily. They are arrested with a group of other men at a Free Speech Day put on by the “Wobblies.” Rye is released due to his age, but Gig is among those made an example of. 

Rye meets Ursula the Great (one in a long-line of Ursulas), vaudeville singer who performs with a live cougar and introduces the brothers to a far more dangerous creature: a mining magnate determined to keep his wealth and his hold on Ursula. But when Rye's turn on the soap box catches the eye of well-known activist and suffragette Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, he is swept into the world of labor activism-and dirty business. With his brother's life on the line, Rye must evade the barbaric police force, maneuver his way out of the clutches of the mining magnate, and figure out for himself what he wants out of life.

“How do you do it?” I asked her. “How do you keep getting up every day and fighting when winning seems impossible?” She thought about it, and then she said, “Men sometimes say to me: You might win the battle, Gurley, but you’ll never win the war. But no one wins the war, Ryan. Not really. I mean, we’re all going to die, right? “But to win a battle now and then? What more could you want?”

I very much liked the inclusion of actual historical characters like Gurley Flynn and historical events included not as the story itself but as backdrop and stage dressing for the story Walter is telling.

Another element present here as it is in all of Walter’s books is his ability to make even secondary characters three-dimensional in a way that is economical and precise without getting in the way of the narrative.  Pinkerton detectives, lawyers who mean well, undercover spies, and regular folks caught in the midst of all the sides.

Walter also does a fine job of showing episodes when ideologies don’t hold sway and characters are genuinely human with each other, displaying how one can act without needing to see another person’s flag or crucible first.

It might be said that this book is about the free speech movement or the IWW or class struggle, and it may be all those things, but the reason it works as a great novel is because it is Rye Dolan’s story, his relationships with his brother, Gurley Flynn, and all those he came to care about while finding his own way to make sense of whatever life he might build.

The Distant Dead by Heather Young

Adam Merkel left a university professorship in Reno to teach middle school in Lovelock, Nevada seven months before he died. A quiet, serious man who dressed like a college professor and seemed to believe math was the doorway to all things in the universe. He makes a connection with one of his students: Absalom Prentiss, a lonely sixth grader who lives with his uncles since the drug-related death of his mother. The two outcasts bond over chess and eating lunches together.  Slowly, they share their past tragedies which have in common drugs and addiction.
 
One of Sal’s uncles asks him to deliver “pills” to people in the park and near the school who his uncle says need the medicine.  Sal’s other uncle, the stern one, spends all his time working in his shop on the property making furniture. One day he finds his brother’s stash, dumps it down an old well, then beats his brother bloody with the admonition that he’ll kill him if he ever finds drugs again. Sal confides in the math teacher when his drug-selling uncle tells him the medicine will be dispensed in balloons and needles.  That’s how his mother died, and soon, Sal must report finding Adam Merkel’s body, charred almost beyond recognition, half a mile from his uncles’ land.
 
If this is a who-done-it novel, then Nora Wheaton, the middle school’s social studies teacher, is the detective.  She is the one who thinks everything does not add up.  She herself dreamed of a life far from Lovelock, but cares for her disabled father, a man she loves but can’t forgive him for driving drunk and causing the death of her brother. After Adam’s death, she delves into his past for clues and finds a dark history she understands all too well. She also sees that Sal Prentiss’s grief seems shaded with fear and a knowledge more than he is telling. 
The author tells the story through multiple time shifts and jumps from characters’ perspectives.  She does a masterful job of working the backstories of inevitable tragedy, blame, and regrets in several character’s lives as we all have in common. There is also a clever mystical and universal connection from the prologue to the
ending involving the Prentiss clan and a cave on their land.
 
The most impressive accomplishment for me was the author’s superb description through the Adam Merkel character of what it feels like to succumb to one’s addiction, the awareness and the revelation in the experience, better than anything in life other than that experience.




Squeeze Me
by Carl Hiaasen

Hiaasen returns to the madness of Florida, in an irreverent social and political satire featuring the imbecilic Orange one with his gerbil-like attention span and first lady, referred to here by their secret service names of Mastodon and Mockingbird. It is the height of the exclusive Palm Beach charity ball season so many of the country's wealthy attend, with Casa Bellicosa close by, the Winter White House. Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons is a prominent member of the POTUSSIES, a group of rich, diehard elderly female fans of the current POTUS, founded and led by Fay Alex Riptoad, enraged by the fake news and lies about their beloved leader, they are frequent visitors to the Casa Bellicosa. The drunk Kiki disappears at a charity ball, with a half-bitten ecstasy tablet at the scene, next to a murky koi pond. It is this event that triggers the multiple bonkers threads of madness that flow from it.  The President declares Kiki Pew a victim of the immigrant hordes. This, as it turns out, is far from the truth. A bizarre discovery in the middle of the road brings the First Lady's motorcade to a grinding halt. Enter Angie Armstrong, wildlife wrangler extraordinaire, who arrives at her own conclusions after she is summoned to the posh island to deal with a mysterious and malicious influx of huge, hungry pythons. Angie operates Discreet Captures, employed to remove the wide range of critters in the sunshine state that can turn up in homes and businesses. Her past includes some run-ins with outdoorsmen and poachers she may have dealt with less kindly than the wildlife she relocates. Having been forced to kill an enormous Burmese python that had just eaten a large meal with a machete at a charity ball venue, Angie knows exactly what happened to Kiki and is willing to go to considerable lengths to expose the truth. Honduran illegal, Diego Beltran finds himself accused of the crime involved with Kiki’s disappearance.  Mastodon’s tweets ensure justice remains beyond the reach of the young Honduran.  With incompetent criminals, the procedures that lie behind the Orange one's tanning bed, the return of the crazed Skink, ex-Governor of Florida, and the emergence of a number of acid tripping Burmese pythons appearing in Palm Beach, Angie finds herself working with secret service agent, Paul Ryskamp, soon to retire, and local Police Chief, Jerry Crosby, to prove Diego's innocence, whilst finding her professional services in growing demand.

I believe this is a return to the heights of Hiassen’s inimitable form.  His recent books have been good, if not great. You can’t really go wrong with any Hiaasen novel, but some are standouts. This one hits all the right notes and ranks up there with Lucky You; Striptease; and   for razor-sharp humor, character development; depth of feeling, and superb storytelling.

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

In March 1865, the long and bitter War between the States is winding down. Till now, twenty-three-year-old Simon Boudlin has evaded military duty but following a barroom brawl in Victoria, Texas, Simon finds himself conscripted into the Confederate Army. Luckily his talent with a fiddle gets him a comparatively easy position in a regimental band.

Weeks later, on the eve of the Confederate surrender, Simon and his bandmates are called to play for officers and their families from both sides of the conflict. There the fiddler can’t help but notice Doris Mary Dillon, an indentured girl from Ireland, who is governess to a Union colonel’s daughter. It is here that he meets up with a “rag tag” group of other musicians and they take to the road, playing their music along the way. Before they begin traveling, Simon meets Doris, a young Irish girl, indentured to a cruel Yankee officer and his family. He becomes even more determined to fulfill his dreams and Doris becomes a part of those dreams.

The supporting cast is equally memorable. Damon Lessing, whom Simon meets when they are conscripted into the Army and assigned to the “band,” is a piper. Patrick O’Hehir is the drummer boy who is the youngest among them. And Doroteo Navarro, a Tejano guitar player, who has some experience as a fisherman and is therefore invaluable to at least one leg of their journey. Together they form a good team, supporting one another and surviving a number of altercations and dangers.

After the surrender, Simon and Doris go their separate ways. But Simon cannot forget the fair Irish maiden, and vows that someday he will find her again.


His search for Doris and for the music that gives his life meaning becomes his journey.  I was moved by Jiles’ writing to go along and, as always with her books, I was happy I did.




What Is Time to a Pig? by John Straley

It's been seven years since Gloomy Knob landed in the Ted Stevens High-Security Federal Penitentiary and five years since the end of the war, the one North Korea started when they sent a missile to Cold Storage, Alaska. Serving a life sentence for the murder of his sister, Gloomy spends his time trying to forget about the past. Then one day, an old family friend grabs Gloomy from his off-site work station and smuggles him away in a hollow tree trunk. Instead of celebrating his newfound freedom, Gloomy knows he will lose his prison job unless he goes back very soon. But his kidnappers believe Gloomy knows where a second nuclear warhead is hidden and demand to know where it is. The clock is ticking, and Gloomy knows he needs to find the missing warhead fast, or his wife, his friends, and the entire town of Cold Storage will be obliterated. The only problem is he has no idea where it is. Prison is where he feels he belongs for the unspeakable wrongs he has committed, but his kidnappers have other plans. They want information from Gloomy, and they want it soon, or his wife, his friends, and the entire town of Cold Storage may all get obliterated. As Gloomy struggles to escape, the memories he fought hard to repress begin to creep out from the strange corners of his mind, first in rivulets, then in waves. In a drug-induced haze, Gloomy decides to wade in, and what he discovers may just bring him the closure he desires-if it doesn't kill him first.
 
This is a difficult story to dive too far into without some trepidation.  Gloomy has committed terrible crimes, some more terrible than others, but he seems to have come to grips with doing the time for the crimes.  He is most concerned about keeping the prison job he tolerates best, burning debris from the construction site of the new female prison being built near the men’s facility.  As a reader, his contentment with this job, outdoors, working at his own pace, not hassled by more than one guard, I had empathy and sided with him when he didn’t want to be forced to escape.
 
Straley is expert at divulging just enough information to make us want to find out what really happened.  Also, he make clear that there are ways of making captives talk.  He does a masterful job of making the reader feel as if he or she is undergoing the same enhanced interrogation techniques as the main characters and, perhaps, some of the secondary characters as well.
 
In case it might sound as if this is a heavy downer, Straley is also a master of never letting reality travel too far from the absurd.  Although, not a laugh riot, this is a book filled with dry wit and ironic twists.




When You See Me by Lisa Gardner

FBI Special Agent Kimberly Quincy and Sergeant Detective DD Warren have built a task force to follow the digital bread crumbs left behind by deceased serial kidnapper Jacob Ness. And when a disturbing piece of evidence comes to light, they decide to bring in Flora Dane who has personal experience of being imprisoned by Ness.

Detective DD Warren, Agent Kimberly Quincy, and serial killer survivor Flora Dane, are all fascinating characters, full of energy, depth, intrigue and resolve. While they appear in previous Lisa Gardner novels, there is a freshness to their role in this story. They have been called together as part of a task force to investigate the human remains of a young woman thought to be another victim of the serial killer, Jacob Ness. Flora was once a kidnapped prisoner of Ness for over a year, but she killed him as part of her escape to freedom. Flora is psychologically wounded as a consequence and undoubtedly struggles with PTSD and survivor’s guilt. It is fascinating to observe Flora as a very determined person, brave but introspective and places huge barriers against human relationships and a fear of vulnerability. Her good friend Keith may become more if she can overcome her resistance to trust and fight the images of horror she endured. Their investigations take them to a small town deep in the hills of Georgia where something seems to be deeply wrong.
What at first seems like a Gothic eeriness soon hardens into something much more sinister as they discover that for all the evil Jacob committed while alive, his worst secret is still to be revealed.
With the aid of a girl, Bonita, who at first had no name and without speech or even formal sign language, they must find the evil force behind these killings before they themselves become the next victims? Quincy and DD must summon their considerable experience to crack the most disturbing case of their careers - and Flora must face her own past directly in the hope of saving others.

D.D., Kimberly, and Flora are definitely the foundation of another great book by Lisa Gardner, but like always it is her abilities with characters who not front and center which tend raise her stories to top ten lists.  This one is no exception.  Flora’s friend Keith, previously viewed as merely a brilliant computer geek, gets to flex some other muscles in this one.  Jacob Ness’s father is a singular character, a backwoods bundle of quirks to go with his guilt and paranoia.  The most interesting character is Bonita, who lost her voice when she was very young and she was shot by the “bad man” who also killed her mother.  With no formal schooling, she has nonetheless grown into an innately intelligent teen forced to work as a maid by the family which took her in.  As the plot ramps up, it becomes evident to D.D. that the girl knows more than she can communicate.  She also turns out to be more than a mere victim to be underestimated.



Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen

Summer has come to Atlantic City but the tourists have not returned to the boardwalk and the casinos have been culled to just holding on. The janes --
lay dead in the marsh, behind the Sunset Motel, positioned side by side, their heads all facing East, looking towards the lights of the failing casinos and resorts. Only one person even knows they’re there.

In eight weeks, there will be more Jane Does, pleading to be found-- “Please See Us”. But they came to Atlantic City to disappear, so nobody realizes they are missing and no one is looking.

 Until Clara Voyent, a teenage boardwalk psychic, struggles to attract clients for the tarot readings that pay her rent. When she begins to experience very real and disturbing visions, she suspects they could be related to the recent cases of women gone missing in town. When Clara meets Lily, an ex-Soho art gallery girl who is working at a desolate casino spa and reeling from a personal tragedy, she thinks Lily may be able to help her. Lily begins to believe that Clara does have a gift, and may not be the con artist she originally thought her to be. 

 Can they save another lost girl before it is too late?  Or will they join the other victims?

As a debut novel, this one was very impressive.  It’s structure and shifting viewpoints are extraordinary for a first published novel.  Mullen lets even the murdered victims tell their own stories and how they fit into Lily’s and Clara’s narrative.
 

This is a novel where many secondary characters move the story while the main characters try to weave their way around. So, Mullen’s ability to elicit feeling for them is incredibly important.  This is also a great example of a story with several protagonists whose narratives intersect, but don’t work in tandem.  A third character, a deaf-mute janitor with a talent for painting pictures from historical photos, acts as a framing device as Luis watches and sees much that he cannot communicate without bringing suspicion upon himself, but Mullen can take us inside his head to let us hear what he sees.  It’s an inventive device that adds another angle on an already well-plotted tale.




City of Margins by William Boyle

In City of Margins, the lives of several lost souls intersect in Southern Brooklyn in the early 1990s. There’s Donnie Parascandolo, a disgraced ex-cop with blood on his hands; Ava Bifulco, a widow whose daily work grind is her whole life; Nick, Ava’s son, a grubby high school teacher who dreams of writing the next great screenplay; Mikey Baldini, college dropout who’s return to the old neighborhood is purposeless, drifting; Donna Rotante, Donnie’s ex-wife, still reeling from the suicide of their teenage son; Mikey’s mother, Rosemarie, also a widow, who hopes Mikey won’t fall into the trap of strong arm work; and Antonina Divino, a high school girl with designs on breaking free from Brooklyn. Uniting them are the dead: Mikey’s old man, killed over a gambling debt, and Donnie and Donna’s poor son, Gabe.

These characters cross paths in unexpected ways, guided by coincidence and the pull of blood. There are new things to be found in the rubble of their lives, too. The promise of something different beyond the barriers that have been set out for them. This is a story of revenge and retribution, of facing down the ghosts of the past, of untold desires, of yearning and forgiveness and synchronicity, of the great distance of lives lived in dangerous proximity to each other. City of Margins is a Technicolor noir melodrama pieced together in broken glass.

No matter how quirky or outlandish Boyle’s characters become he has a way of keeping them real, and you want to find out what happens to them.

I’ve seen this novel referred to as a “crime novel,” but it is more about the characters than the crimes.  The crimes are not the focal point, but rather something that happens to the characters or are committed by the characters because of who they are and what they are trying to do.




One Minute Out by Mark Greaney

Freelance mercenary Court Gentry is tasked with assassinating former Serbian general Ratko Babic at his compound in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While infiltrating his house, Gentry discovers it’s a way station for trafficking young girls into sex slavery. After killing Babic, Gentry manages to escape with one of the girls named Liliana while having to leave the other girls behind. After sending the girl home safely, Gentry encounters Talyssa Corbu, a Romanian financial analyst working for Europol, on a personal mission to find her sister Roxana, who is missing, presumed dead or sold into sex slavery. Gentry discovers a yacht with a reputation for transporting unsual cargo and decides to follow it. The Director of the trafficking operation, businessman Kenneth Cage, sends security contractor Jaco Verdoorn and his men to stop Gentry and Corbu. Meanwhile, Gentry finds Roxana on the yacht, who has been re-named Maja selected for personal delivery to Cage. She refuses to be rescued, vowing to help her sister identify the Consortium's top players. Court’s boss, Matthew Hanley declines to help. Turns out, Cage is an important Agency asset. Corbu travels to the U.S. and tracks down a ranch in California where Roxana and the girls are being kept. With no help, Gentry enlists the a group of veterans led by former Delta Force officer Shep Duvall, who has raided brothels and rescued trafficked girls in the Philippines until caught, imprisoned, and extradited. Although long in the tooth and past their prime, the team help Court storm the ranch and rescue the girls. Verdoorn escapes with Cage and Roxana to the boss’s mansion. Court and the surviving teammates must make a last-ditch effort to make certain Roxana and Talyssa are re-united.

Greaney has dabbled with first person POV for Gentry with varied success.  I prefer his shifting between chapters 3rd person, but I could see why he chose this story to let us hear Gentry’s thoughts inside his own head.
 
As in past Gray Man thrillers, the book looks imposing at over 500 pages, but it’s a blazing read which will seem like a book half that size. It’s a wild ride and ends even a bit more bloody than the usual Gray Man, but all quite appropriate it seemed to me.


Honorable Mention:

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

Hi Five by Joe Ide

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly

Shakespeare for Squirrels by Christopher Moore