AJC critics name 10 best Southern books of 2020

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster / HarperCollins / Riverhead Books
Courtesy of Simon and Schuster / HarperCollins / Riverhead Books

‘Memorial Drive,’ ‘The Vanishing Half,’ ‘Lake Life’ among the year’s best

Cast in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 will go down in history as a year with very few bright spots, but one of them was a steady flow of good Southern books to read. Whether you sought entertainment, enlightenment or simply distraction from the news, the publishing industry delivered in a big way. Here are 10 of the AJC critics’ favorite Southern books of the year.

Jenn Shapland’s National Book Award finalist is an astonishing, revelatory hybrid of personal memoir and autobiography of the author of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Researched and written in part while she stayed in a writer’s residence at McCullers’ former home in Columbus, Shapland discovered compelling evidence that the late author was a lesbian, despite having married the same man twice. In the process, Shapland came to terms with her own sexual identity. In the AJC, book critic Candice Dyer wrote, “Shapland makes a rousing and compelling case. It is time we bring McCullers to a new generation of readers, in a fresh light.” (Tin House, $22.95)

Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

‘Blackwood’

In Michael Farris Smith’s chilling Southern noir novel, kudzu “skulk(s) across the land with a demented patience.” Beneath it is the blackwood, a place where “creatures crawled and sunlight fought through specks of space between the leaves.” That’s where a family of drifters — an unnamed man, woman and child — sets up camp and triggers a reign of death and destruction in the small, dying town of Red Bluff, Mississippi. Doing their best to battle evil are Colburn, a metal sculptor and newcomer to town with a secret past; his love interest Celia, who owns the town’s only bar; and Myer, a good-natured, middle-aged sheriff whose crime-fighting skills have yet to be tested. (Little, Brown and Company, $27)

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

‘The Book of Longings’

Written with reverence and historical authenticity, Sue Monk Kidd imagines how the history of Christianity might have been altered if Jesus had taken a wife. Ana is the daughter of the head scribe, and she is unlike other young women her age. Able to read and write, she is compelled to tell stories, particularly those of other women. Although she’s about to be betrothed in an arranged marriage, she spies Jesus at the market and is instantly smitten. On one hand, “The Book of Longings” is a romance novel, albeit a chaste one. On the other, it’s about the importance of giving women a voice, and it considers how their perspectives might have shaped history. (Penguin Random House, $28)

Courtesy of Algonquin Books
Courtesy of Algonquin Books

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

‘Down Along With That Devil’s Bones’

In 2015, protests erupted around an effort to restore a statue of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest that was stolen from a cemetery in Selma, Alabama. The event prompted journalist Connor Towne O’Neill, producer of the NPR podcast “White Lies” and a recent transplant to Alabama, to explore the connection between protests over Confederate memorials and a rise in white supremacy. Publishers Weekly wrote, “O’Neill writes with grace and genuine curiosity, allowing people on all sides of the issue to speak for themselves.” (Algonquin, $26.95)

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

‘In the Valley’

In the eponymous novella, Ron Rash revisits the action of his bestselling novel “Serena” to flesh out an aspect of the story — about a ruthless logging operation that destroys a virgin forest in the North Carolina mountains — from the perspective of a band of loggers. It’s accompanied by nine short stories that advance the novella’s theme of sacrifice for the good of others. Highlights include “L’homme Blessé,” about a grieving art professor who discovers mysterious reproductions of ancient cave paintings in a war veteran’s bedroom; “Last Bridge Burned,” in which a convenience store clerk’s act of kindness gets paid back years later in a surprising way; and “The Baptism,” about a deplorable man’s ill-intentioned demand that a preacher wash away his sins. (Doubleday, $26.95)

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster
Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

‘Lake Life’

David James Poissant’s debut novel about a family spending one last vacation together at their North Carolina lake house before it’s put on the market is an engrossing look at the complexities of familial relationships. At the center of the action are two academics nearing the end of their careers, their two adult sons and their significant others, a wife and a boyfriend. On the first day they arrive, a child drowns in the cove, setting the family on a collision course with old resentments and long-held secrets. Deeply compassionate and keenly perceptive, “Lake Life” is a dazzling debut. (Simon and Schuster, $25)

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

‘Memorial Drive

In 1985, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough was shot and killed outside her Atlanta home by her ex-husband, a man with a history of domestic abuse who was distraught over their divorce. It was a defining moment in the life of her daughter, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey, whose elegiac memoir is a coming-of-age story marked by unspeakable tragedy. As painful as it is to delve so deeply into this river of sorrows, the grace and beauty of Trethewey’s words carry you afloat and keep you from getting pulled under. It is a fitting memorial to a loving mother who always strived for something better. (HarperCollins, $29.99)

Courtesy of Hub City Press
Courtesy of Hub City Press

‘Sleepovers’

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’ literary debut was selected by author Lauren Groff as winner of the C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize presented by Hub City Press in 2019. Packed with 23 short stories set in an impoverished rural community, Phillips paints a bleak picture of people trapped by any number of encumbrances, including substance abuse, poverty and toxic lovers. In the AJC, book critic Becca J. G. Godwin wrote, “Rife with claustrophobic circumstances, dark imagery and nuanced perspectives, ‘Sleepovers’ is a disturbing page-turner that encourages a reevaluation of what’s most important.” (Hub City Press, $16.95)

Courtesy of Knopf
Courtesy of Knopf

‘Transcendent Kingdom’

In Yaa Gyasi’s sophomore novel, Gifty is the daughter of a Ghanaian family that has immigrated to Huntsville, Alabama, where rampant opioid abuse and despair have trapped her brother and mother in a downward spiral, despite their evangelical faith. A Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Stanford, Gifty is desperate to discover the answers to her family’s problems through the clinical trials of science. “Gyasi scrupulously tackles two competing forces — spirituality and science,” wrote book critic Anjali Enjeti in the AJC. She described “Transcendent Kingdom” as “a meticulous commentary on survival.” (Knopf, $27.95)

Courtesy of Riverhead Books
Courtesy of Riverhead Books

Credit: Amazon

Credit: Amazon

‘The Vanishing Half’

A multigenerational tale that jumps back and forth in time from the ’40s to the ’90s, Brit Bennett’s second novel is about light-skinned, biracial twins Desiree and Stella Vignes of Mallard, Louisiana, who forge different paths in life. When they’re 16 years old and working as laundresses in New Orleans, Stella skips town without notice. Left alone, Desiree gets pregnant and returns to Mallard. Years later, when Desiree’s child gets a scholarship to a college in California, Stella is discovered living on the West Coast passing as white. “You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood,” writes Bennett. “Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both.” In the AJC, book critic Latria Graham wrote, “With echoes of Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye,’ Bennett’s sophomore novel is an engrossing, engaging read and an ambitious undertaking for a nation that is still wrestling with the fallout of segregation.” (Riverhead Books, $27)

In Other News