2020 will forever be known as the year of isolation and self-examination. For some this was good. For others, it was hell on earth. Constant reminders over how the human mind could stay productive through these tough times were constantly thrown at us. Capitalism guilted us into something that might become known as the great saddening. We were forced to face our greatest fears and our greatest dreams. But it is how we found refuge that will be the thing that will define the human spirit.
While many did puzzles and went on TikTok, others turned to literature. A new generation of readers and writers were born. Whilst many will remember New York Times bestsellers as the greatest books of the year, others will credit indie books for giving them the most inspiration. In a year that felt so displaced and outside of reality, only oddball literature that defied mainstream culture truly stood out and it was what we needed the most. When the world tried to stay calm and carry on, small presses gave us literature that allowed us to keep our sanity intact to get us through the year.
Below are 20 of those books that did just that:
1. Comaville by Kevin Bigley
Comaville is the debut novel of TV, film, and voice actor Kevin Bigley. In this novel, a 36-year-old software engineer named Josh finds himself in a deep coma after a biking accident. Within this coma he is ensconced in a city of memory with people from his past: teachers, camp counselors, beloved sitcom stars, and they relish Josh’s presence, celebrating everything he does. He is in a personalized paradise.
Intercut between his story, Steph, his younger sister, quarrels with their parents in a hospital room over what is to be done with her vegetative brother. Their various conversations manifest physically in his coma. The longer Josh is submerged, the more peril his brain is in as neurons die off. The familiar faces that once brought comfort will be replaced with ghoulish masks. He’ll learn this place has malevolent intentions as it threatens to devour his soul.
2. SHE IS A BEAST by Christina Rosso
She is a Beast is an illustrated collection of feminist fairy tales published by APEP Publications in May 2020. Some are re-imaginings of the classic tales we know, such as Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella, while others are completely original. This collection is about women reclaiming their stories and finding agency by embracing their beastly natures and adopting monstrous appetites deemed inappropriate by society. In their wildness they find freedom.
3. Apsara Engine by Bishakh Som
Apsara Engine is a graphic short story collection centered on women and gender-diverse characters. Bishakh Som blends South Asian mythology with contemporary reality, featuring half-human creatures, futuristic worlds, postcolonial cartography, time-traveling tourists—and more. Som’s fiction debut is strikingly illustrated, full of sepia-toned watercolors, and poses questions about gender, bodies, and dualities.
4. The Handsome Man by Brad Casey
The Handsome Man is a collection of linked stories that follow several years of the life of a young man as he is drawn around the world: from Toronto to Montreal, New York, Ohio, New Mexico, British Columbia, Berlin, Rome, and Northern Ontario, along the way meeting hippies, healers, drinkers, movie stars, old friends, and welcoming strangers. He isn’t traveling, however; he’s running away. But as far and fast as he runs, the world won’t let him disappear, and each new encounter and every lost soul he meets along this journey brings him closer and closer to certain truths he’d locked away: how to trust, how to live in this world, and most of all, how to love again.
5. Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino by Julián Herbert
In this madcap, insatiably inventive, bravura story collection, Julián Herbert brings to vivid life people who struggle to retain a measure of sanity in an insane world. Here we become acquainted with a vengeful “personal memories coach” who tries to get even with his delinquent clients; a former journalist with a cocaine habit who travels through northern Mexico impersonating a famous author of Westerns; the ghost of Juan Rulfo; a man who discovers music in his teeth; and, in the deliriously pulpy title story, a drug lord who looks just like Quentin Tarantino, who kidnaps a mopey film critic to discuss Tarantino’s films while he sends his goons to find and kill the doppelgänger that has colonized his consciousness. Herbert’s astute observations about human nature in extremis feel like the reader’s own revelations.
6. Las Vegas Bootlegger: Empire of Self-Importance by Noah Cicero
Ryan Neroni is a lonely lawyer with bad breath. All his life he’s had everything handed to him on a silver platter, but after winning what should have been a career-defining lawsuit, he discovers that what he really wants is to drive contraband across state lines in a fast car with tinted windows. With the help of Theresa Barahona, an innocent and aspiring multi-level marketing entrepreneur, nothing can get in his way. Not social expectations, not the emptiness of the western U.S., and certainly not a string of surreal experiences orchestrated by a shadow organization known only as “the Committee.”
7. Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen
Meet Majella O’Neill, a heroine like no other, in this captivating Irish debut that has been called Milkman meets Derry Girls
Majella is happiest out of the spotlight, away from her neighbors’ stares and the gossips of the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up just after the Troubles. She lives a quiet life caring for her alcoholic mother, working in the local chip shop, watching the regular customers come and go. She wears the same clothes each day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, microwaved at home after her shift ends), and binge-watches old DVDs of the same show (Dallas, best show on TV) from the comfort of her bed.
But underneath Majella’s seemingly ordinary life are the facts that she doesn’t know where her father is and that every person in her town has been changed by the lingering divide between Protestants and Catholics. When Majella’s predictable existence is upended by the death of her granny, she comes to realize there may be more to life than the gossips of Aghybogey, the pub, and the chip shop. In fact, there just may be a whole big world outside her small town.
8. Beside Myself by Sasha Marianna Salzmann, translated by Imogen Taylor
In this debut novel by German playwright and essayist Salzmann, a young woman travels to Istanbul to hunt for her lost twin brother Anton. Gender-changing drugs are for sale on the streets, and as Ali wanders around looking for Anton, her own gender begins to break down and open up. The history of Anton and Ali’s family—who left the USSR for West Germany in the face of rising anti-Semitism after Stalin’s death—is woven into the present-day events, as Ali navigates political upheaval and searches for connection and belonging.
9. Don’t You Know I Love You by Laura Bogart
The last place Angelina Moltisanti ever wants to go is home. She barely escaped life under the roof, and the thumb, of her violent but charismatic father, Jack. Yet home is exactly where she ends up after an SUV plows into her car just weeks after she graduates from college, fracturing her wrist and her hopes to start a career as an artist.
Angelina finds herself smothered in a plaster cast, in Jack’s obsessive urge to get her a giant accident settlement, in her mother Marie’s desperation to have a second chance, and in her own stifled creativity – until she meets Janet, another young artist who inspires her to push herself into making the dynamic, unsettling work that tells the story of her scars, inside and out. But excavating this damage, as relations with her father become increasingly tense, will push Angelina into making a hard choice: will she embrace her father’s all-consuming and empowering rage, or find another kind of strength?
10. Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton
Aoko Matsuda’s linked story collection Where the Wild Ladies Are (a reference to Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are) offers up a subversive, feminist reimagining of traditional Japanese ghost stories and folktales. In one story, a woman sleeps with the ghost of another woman who was killed by a man she refused to marry. Almost all the narrators are twists on stereotypes about women, such as a jealous wife or an overly talkative middle-aged woman, and many are linked to one another in clever ways throughout the collection.
11. Alice Knott by Blake Butler
Alice Knott lives alone, a reclusive heiress haunted by memories of her deceased parents and mysterious near-identical brother. Much of her family’s fortune has been spent on a world-class collection of artwork, which she stores in a vault in her lonely, cavernous house. One day, she awakens to find the artwork destroyed, the act of vandalism captured in a viral video that soon triggers a rash of copycat incidents. As more videos follow and the world’s most priceless works of art are destroyed one by one, Alice finds that she has become the chief suspect in an international conspiracy—even as her psyche becomes a shadowed landscape of childhood demons and cognitive disorder.
Unsettling, almost physically immersive, Alice Knott is a virtuoso exploration of the meaning of art and the lasting afterlife of trauma, as well as a deeply humane portrait of a woman whose trials feel both apocalyptic and universal.
12. Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich
As Communism begins to crumble in Prague in the 1980s, Jana’s unremarkable life becomes all at once remarkable when a precocious young girl named Zorka moves into the apartment building with her mother and sick father. With Zorka’s signature two-finger salute and abrasive wit, she brings flair to the girls’ days despite her mother’s protestations to not “be weird.” But after scorching her mother’s prized fur coat and stealing from a nefarious teacher, Zorka suddenly disappears.
Meanwhile in Paris, Aimée de Saint-Pé married young to an older woman, Dominique, an actress whose star has crested and is in decline. A quixotic journey of self-discovery, Virtuoso follows Zorka as she comes of age in Prague, Wisconsin, and then Boston, amidst a backdrop of clothing logos, MTV, computer coders, and other outcast youth. But it isn’t till a Parisian conference hall brimming with orthopedic mattresses and therapeutic appendages when Jana first encounters Aimée, their fates steering them both to a cryptic bar on the Rue de Prague, and, perhaps, to Zorka.
With a distinctive prose flair and spellbinding vision, Virtuoso is a story of love, loss, and self-discovery that heralds Yelena Moskovich as a brilliant and one-of-a-kind visionary.
13. Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch
A fiercely empathetic group portrait of the marginalized and outcast in moments of crisis, from one of the most galvanizing voices in American fiction.
Lidia Yuknavitch is a writer of rare insight into the jagged boundaries between pain and survival. Her characters are scarred by the unchecked hungers of others and themselves, yet determined to find salvation within lives that can feel beyond their control. In novels such as The Small Backs of Children and The Book of Joan, she has captivated readers with stories of visceral power. Now, in Verge, she offers a shard-sharp mosaic portrait of human resilience on the margins.
The landscape of Verge is peopled with characters who are innocent and imperfect, wise and endangered: an eight-year-old black-market medical courier, a restless lover haunted by memories of his mother, a teenage girl gazing out her attic window at a nearby prison, all of them wounded but grasping toward transcendence. Clear-eyed yet inspiring, Verge challenges us with moments of uncomfortable truth, even as it urges us to place our faith not in the flimsy guardrails of society but in the memories held–and told–by our own individual bodies.
14. KOKOMO by Laura Theobald
The Beach Boys sang, “Off the Florida Keys there’s a place called Kokomo. That’s where you wanna go to get away from it all.” But KOKOMO is also the name of Laura Theobald’s newest collection of poems. It’s a book where we wanna go to get away from it all.
Theobald’s poems unabashedly invite us to escape with her to the private island of her mind. On these invisible beaches, loneliness and desperation reign, and comfort is found in the companionship of a cat or in holding your favorite stuffed animal, in baking cakes and stuffing butterflies into jars. These poems don’t shy away from bodily functions or how difficult it is to be a poet if you don’t leave your house.
15. We Were Called Specimens: an oral archive of deity Marjorie by Jason Teal
Fiction. Short Stories. Marjorie Cameron Parsons. Famed occultist, Thelemite, strikingly Iowan, Navy volunteer, poet, artist. This book has nothing to do with her. Or is it the key to the universe? You, reader, have summoned the Three, intertwining your fate with their own. Relationships are mutable and the world spins into another year. WE WERE CALLED SPECIMENS is Jason Teal’s first book of flash fiction. The collection centers on a mythical, supernatural Marjorie untethered to time and space. Follow her into the bleakest, harshest storms of humanity–and flee with her from the onslaught of dreamers and villains alike.
16. I Will Show You The Life Of The Mind (on prescription drugs) by SJ Fowler
From the mysterious recesses of the mind (or is that brain?) comes the urge to fix our sadness! Drugs are the answer, allied with literature. Legal, prescribed drugs, by hurried doctors, which reroute synapses in millions of human beings consciousnesses. What is the poetry of this ubiquitous but hidden malforming of the already overblown 21st human mental experience? In England, of all places? Who knows?! But SJ Fowler’s inventive espousing of fiction, poetry, illustration and found-text, as one singular literary undertaking, offers up the mess and hope of searching. A choose-your-own-adventure novel into the pits of your cognizance, this truly original book of confusion and consolation, as generously vulnerable as it is challenging, is by turns sad, funny, abstract and painfully clear. What emerges is YOU: the writer, the reader, the patient, the doctor, the doubt and decision, and how to newly express this, a life of the mind…on prescription drugs.
17. The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing by Joseph Fasano
Fiction. Deep in the mountains of British Columbia, across an unforgiving landscape, one man’s pursuit of a fabled mountain lion leads him into the furthest reaches of himself. As he struggles to confront the wilderness surrounding him–from the baying hounds to the relentless northern snows–he journeys into his own haunted memories: a life of wild horses and ballet, fishing skiffs and blizzards, tropical seas and dolphins. Through wind, snow, and the depths of grief, he asks what price he is willing to exact on a world that ravages what we love, and whether redemption awaits those who learn to forgive. A tender story of love and a modern-day parable, The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing, the debut novel from acclaimed poet Joseph Fasano, guides us into the deepest territories of the human heart.
18. A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt
Billy-Ray Belcourt’s debut memoir opens with a tender letter to his kokum and memories of his early life in the hamlet of Joussard, Alberta, and on the Driftpile First Nation. Piece by piece, Billy-Ray’s writings invite us to unpack and explore the big and broken world he inhabits every day, in all its complexity and contradiction: a legacy of colonial violence and the joy that flourishes in spite of it; first loves and first loves lost; sexual exploration and intimacy; the act of writing as a survival instinct and a way to grieve. What emerges is not only a profound meditation on memory, gender, anger, shame, and ecstasy but also the outline of a way forward. With startling honesty, and in a voice distinctly and assuredly his own, Belcourt situates his life experiences within a constellation of seminal queer texts, among which this book is sure to earn its place. Eye-opening, intensely emotional, and excessively quotable, A History of My Brief Body demonstrates over and over again the power of words to both devastate and console us.
19. With a Difference by Francis Daulerio and Nick Gregorio
Cowritten by poet Francis Daulerio and fiction writer Nick Gregorio, With a Difference is inspired in part by Rancid and NoFX’s 2002 BYO split cover album. Gregorio has adapted ten of Daulerio’s poems into stories, and Daulerio has turned ten of Gregorio’s stories into poems. Like a vinyl record, the book must be flipped over to read both “sides.”
20. Born To Be Public by Greg Mania
In this unique and hilarious debut memoir, writer and comedian Greg Mania chronicles life as a “pariah prodigy.” From inadvertently coming out to his Polish immigrant parents, to immersing himself in the world of New York City nightlife, and finding himself and his voice in comedy. Born to Be Public is a vulnerable and poignant exploration of identity (and the rediscovery of it), mental health, sex and relationships, all while pursuing a passion with victories and tragicomic blunders. At once raw and relatable, Mania’s one-of-a-kind voice will make you shed tears from laughter and find its way into your heart.