Most Surprising books 2020
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
To say that 2020 was a year of surprises is probably a bit tacky, everything considering, but it doesn't make it any less true. Not to worry, because there surprises all are better than the ones 2020 had in store for most of us. Today is all about books that in one way or another, subverted my expectations. Some have wholely unique structures or stories, that are very far from what's "traditional" within their genre. Some had surprising twists of event I didn't forsee, and most simply surprised me by being far more enjoyable than I expected them to be.
Without further ado, let's count down some of the positive surprises that 2020 brought me:
I’m putting it at the bottom of the list, because (spoilers!) it will make a re-appearance on my favourites of the year. To say it wasn’t one of the biggest surprises of they year would be a lie however. At the beginning of the year I had 0 interest in picking this book up, as I knew the author to write primarily romance, which just isn’t a genre I’m interested in. Luckily for me this book kept appearing to me again and again, until I caved out of sheer curiosity. This turned out to be so much more than “just a romance novel”: it’s a magical realism adventure for adults that reads like a middle-grade and also happens to include an adorable romance. It’s the most wholesome book I’ve read this year, and frankly I get the hype, as it’s just very hard to dislike this story.
Although I’m not afraid of weird books that try novel concepts, this was a bit weird even for me. Basically: when you first pick this thing up, it looks like a knock-off Ikea catalogue. Start reading, and it appears a satire on the business practices of stores like this, and the nightmare that is working retail. Read even further and you’ll find yourself submerged in a horror story, set in an abandoned knock-off Ikea at night. This entire concept is weird and although it’s very much a novelty-thing, it somehow worked for the duration of this quite short read. Surprising, a bit creepy, and written in a light-hearted humoristic voice: if you ever want to experience an absurdist retail-horror-comedy, then this is it. It shouldn’t work, but it somehow does.
I had read Final Girls by Riley Sager years ago when it had just come out, and it didn’t really do too much for me. The only reason his work entered my radar again, was because Kayla from BooksandLala raved about his latest work, and I fully trust her recommendations. Add to that the fact that it has one of my favourite tropes (haunted house) and I could easily grab it from the library and I decided to give it a go, despite only tempered success with the author before.
It was one of the best thrillers I’ve read in recent years, packed to the brim with suspense and with a twist that I didn’t call, which is always a plus. It also birthed a bit of a Sager-frenzy in me, as I proceeded to pick up other 2 novels back to back as well. Unfortunately to lesser success. That doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of this one however.
Number 4 may be an odd choice to put on a most-surprising-list: for sure I shouldn’t be surprised to like a book by the author that bares the title of “King of Horror”. And no, I wasn’t surprised that King delivered a quality and deeply unsettling horror story. I was however surprised by the profound emotional punch the depiction of grief had for me. I don’t say this lightly, but this is probably the most horrifying book I’ve ever read. Not thanks to the gore or cheap scares, which don’t usually do to much for me. Not even for the paranormal element either. It was those themes of grief and death, the existential fear and psychological dread of being near to sickness and mortality that this story touches upon that unsettled me to the core, in a way that I’ve rarely experienced before.
Most people will know what this story’s about, but in case you’ve never read it: we follow a family of four who move into a new idyllic house in a quaint town. On one side their house is flanked by the traffic of main road, on the other by the silent woods. In those woods lies a dilapidated pet cemetery, that the town folks seemingly avoid. When the family’s pet cat dies, and they decide to bury him in the cemetery, they soon find out why…
In third place, we have a book that I honestly had 0 expectations for. It was during the first lockdown in the Netherlands and libraries had closed leaving only their very limited selection of e-books available for me. As it was a time of great insecurity, where I had to adapt quickly to many changes in work environment in the hospital, I wasn’t up for anything too emotional or brain-wrecking in my time off. Browsing the (probably maximum of 15) e-books in the mystery-adventure category, this was the one that seemed mildly interesting to me, so I checked it out purely as a sort of “in-between-read” before bed. Not only was it perfect for that purpose, I had so much more fun with this than I was expecting.
In short: we follow a colourful cast of characters on a great Easter egg hunt through Boston city, set up by a rich and eccentric millionaire.
It’s not a literary masterpiece, but a great fast-paced story nonetheless, filled with urban adventure, mystery, lovable characters, campy humor and culture references. Probably the perfect book at the perfect time for me at that moment.
In the number 2 spot we have on that I wanted to love, but honestly didn’t expect to. Having read and loved Leslye Waltons debut The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, her sophomore novel was on my radar since its release, but the poor reviews and overall low average ratings kept me from it. However, how could I not like an intergenerational tale of a family labelled “witches”, set on an isolated island?
In the end I was indeed in the minority of people who did like this book. Yes, it was a bit too heavy on the YA-side, leaning into teenage-angst too much for me as well, but I think it had a lot of other redeemable qualities. Leslye Waltons stunning prose, a gorgeous atmospheric setting and interesting generational dynamic. Although not a 5-star, and not as good as the authors debut in my opinion, I don’t think this deserves the grief it gets.
I’m putting Vita Nostra at the top of my list this year, not because of surprise at my enjoyment, but because of sheer surprise at the story and the wildly imaginative trip this book takes you on. It’s not often that you read a book where you feel like you’ve never read anything similar before, yet Vita Nostra was that book for me.
The very simplified summary is that this is about a 16-year old girl who’s accepted into a magical university. Don’t let that fool you however: this is no The Magicians or Harry Potter. It’s an almost psychedelic coming of age story filled with strange characters that seem barely human at times, combined with absolute mind-melting philosophy and metaphysics.
It’s a challenging book to read at times, and in many ways a far cry from your typical American- or West-European published fantasy. If that’s what you usually read most, this book is bound to be a surprise to you to, and hopefully a good one.
That concludes the second entry in my Yearly-Wrap-Up series. Please check back in tomorrow to read about my most disappointing reads for 2020. Until then: happy reading, and stay safe.