As the pandemic caused by CoronaVirus rages across the globe, all means of economy growth has slowed or stopped. Publishing industry was also interrupted and many book launches were postponed to the future(!). Some novels, like Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, published out just before supply chains got disturbed. A stream of other big books were pushed to the fall (Elena Ferrante’s Lying Life of Adults, Otessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands, David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue). It’s a damned hard year, in what’s been a damned hard decade, to release a work of fiction. The best fiction and nonfiction books of the year 2020 covers everything from teenage romance to Big Tech, while also telling deeply human stories of identity, romance, and family.
This list includes includes novels published from January 1st till now and will be updated regularly.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
This is a story about the survival of a mother and son and their journey to safety. Lydia Perez Delgado’s whole family, apart from son Luca, are wiped out in an orgy of killing. Sixteen people are slaughtered. This is retribution for her journalist husband Sebastian’s article about Le Lechusa (The Owl) – Javier Crespo Fuentes who is head of the Los Jardineros Cartel.
Prior to this, Javier had spent hours in Lydia’s bookshop discussing literature and poetry with her. Lydia has no clue at this point that Javier is anything other than someone who shares her passion for books. Now, Javier is her enemy and she and Luca have to flee their comfortable life in Acapulco and seek safety in the USA. This is the story of their journey in which they meet other migrants equally desperate to get to the USA albeit for differing reasons.
The story is chilling, tense and well written as it charts their incredibly dangerous journey, clinging to the top of goods trains, getting robbed and ultimately paying a coyote. The characters are good though I feel more depth to Luca and in the sisters Soledad and Rebecca from Honduras who they travel with. There’s a sense of detachment in Lydia which is appropriate as it’s her way of surviving the trauma of the murders and the dangers of the journey. Her care for all three children is admirable. The younger characters have to grow up quickly in order to survive and they have to endure things no one should.
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Set in a modern-day New York, The City we Became is a book about a city fighting for its soul against eldritch abominations personified by the Woman in White. To fight the forces of evil, NY gives birth to five avatars (for each of the city’s five boroughs). They have to band together and discover their respective powers to save their beloved metropolis. The inhabitants picked by the city belong to minorities (Bronca, for example, is Lenape, Padmini is of Indian origin).
Jemisin engages with the stereotypes of the boroughs – Queens has got the attitude, she reacts to stress with aggression and readiness to fight. Manhattan is a charming but ruthless young black guy who manifests his powers by flashing cash around like a weapon. Brooklyn’s magic comes from music and Staten island wants to be left alone.
The story works as both a boldly imagined and fiercely written Urban Fantasy and a manifesto – a Woman in White uses the forces of racism (neo-Nazi artists attacking the Bronx Art Museum) and gentrification in her invasion. The plot draws on incidents that happen right now in the NY – violent police reactions on people of color, or deed frauds in Brooklyn. The City We Became is one of the best books published in 2020 and you need to read it.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place 64 years before the start of the original trilogy. Here we follow young President Snow as he acts as the first mentors for the 10th Hunger Games. He ends up with the District 12 girl, which is seen as a disgrace, and boy does he know his family needs to avoid disgrace as much as possible.
It’s focused on Snow so it lacks something major that the other books have – characters we love and root for. Yet, I did enjoy the backstory of the games and seeing how they began, knowing how they had evolved over time to Katniss’ time.
It’s also different because we get the perspective of a mentor versus that of the tribute. And it’s Snow who we all hate. The book does nothing to endear him to readers. Instead we see how his desire to get ahead and keep up appearances ruled him, above all else. We are in his mind as he becomes increasingly accepting of the Capitol’s views and becomes more ruthless, denying himself love, friendship and even family with the singular focus of one day having power.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Deacon King Kong is a crime novel centering around life in the projects in the 1960’s New York City. What makes this novel such a standout achievement is not so much the action or plot so much as the writing which tells a whole life story in one paragraph If not in each sentence. Often the characters are revealed in poetic street raps about how they earned their nicknames and what’s going on. McBride is an author I’d never heard of before, but one worth checking out.
The setting is in the Brooklyn projects in 1969. McBride writes the kaleidoscope of characters coexisting in a neighborhood. He includes the upright church ladies, who influence and rule the majority of social undertakings. The drug infestation is evident, along with a touch of the mafia. In his story, McBride is kind to the police force, mostly only showing the humanitarian side.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Anyone who has read Station Eleven or in fact any of the author’s previous novels will know that Mandel writes thoughtful and addictive stories. Her prose doesn’t shout a story at you, it’s far more subtle than that. Instead you’re more likely to be taken through a gentle maze of events that eventually knit together to deliver a gut punch.
The Glass Hotel starts with what appears to be a scene of Vincent’s final moments after falling off a ship. One of what may be her final thoughts is a wish to see her brother. Quickly the time frame changes and we’re introduced to to Paul, a dropout from the University of Toronto where he was studying finance. Paul’s real interest is music but for reasons that will become apparent later he ended up studying a subject he really had no interest in. Paul, we learn, has a half-sister called Vincent. This is one of the most thoughtful books published in 2020.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
This is a short, odd South Korean novel about gender politics. It’s a strange mix of fictional life story of one woman moving through the men-dominated and men-focused world, and socio-economic facts and statistics.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 follows the Korean woman of the title from her birth until the present day. We’re introduced to Jiyoung in the present day where, at 33, she’s hospitalised after having a breakdown, and the author then recounts her life story which gives us the background and context as to how this has happened.
Cho Nam-Joo gives readers a heck of a lot of examples of incidents of institutionalised sexism and misogyny which have cumulatively impacted so greatly on Jiyoung and her psyche – men are considered superior to women in almost every way in Korean society, and Jiyoung is subject to inappropriate behaviour from colleagues, teachers and fellow students, skipped over for promotions and settles into a life of domesticity, despite being a promising student at university and having no desire to quit her job to raise her daughter.
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin
This is now Schweblin’s third book to be translated into English. The book centers around kentuckis, a sort of AI amalgamation, or unholy offspring, of Alexa/Siri and the Tamagotchi craze of a few years back – animate animal-like pets that ‘keepers’ adopt, but that are controlled by ‘dwellers’ – strangers living usually hallway around the world, who monitor the kentucki’s actions and interact with the owners in rather limited, voyeuristic ways.
The book contains five major storylines, which are chopped up and interspersed throughout the novel, as well as six single chapters that tell more concise snippets – usually just a single scene that shows a different angle on the phenomenon.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Throughout the whole of this amazing Thomas Cromwell trilogy, all I have been able to think about is what an incredible man Thomas Cromwell must have been and how well Hilary Mantel has portrayed him for us. She is an artist with words, giving the reader a clear visual picture of every one of the historical characters she introduces and there are many!
As an historical account of life in England between 1536 and 1540 The Mirror & the Light just sweeps the board. Every little detail is there – what they ate, how they dressed, where they lived and most importantly how they survived, living each day with the threat of the plague and other diseases
Add to this living under such a capricious King as Henry VIII. This may be a book about Thomas Cromwell but Henry often takes centre stage as such a flamboyant character always will. Mantel pictures him as a charismatic man who still had many of the attitudes of a small child. A dangerous mix for a King of England in those days. As all the books by Hilary Mantel, this book is also must read in 2020.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Contemplative and absorbing, Real Life reflects on what it means to live authentically. Unfolding over the course of a single summer weekend in a Midwestern college town, the story follows Wallace, a reticent biochem grad student, as he nears an existential breakdown. His father has recently passed, he finds academia stultifying, and, as a queer Black man in an overwhelmingly white space, he finds himself estranged from his friends and labmates, subject to constant microaggressions and overt racist harassment.
Making things even more complicated is his budding romance with a standoffish white peer he formerly resented and thought straight. In mesmerizing prose Taylor fully renders Wallace’s inner life, subtly capturing the ways he manages great stress and searches for a higher purpose in life. There’s a lot in here that’s only lightly sketched, from Wallace’s relationship with his father to the personalities of his friends, but the writing’s compelling and promising.
Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey
Miranda Popkey’s debut book “topics of conversation” came out in January and it is one of those best books published in 2020 you will not want to miss.
Topics of conversation almost reads like a series of short stories taking place over a twenty year period while an unnamed woman has, well, conversations with other women. Touching on subjects of their infidelity and their self loathing, their loneliness and their pain, their love and guilt. From late nights on a beach with an older woman, to the lingering people still drinking late into the night after a party Popkey uses an eclectic set of women to serve as supporting actors in this one woman’s life varying in age and relationship stages, all speaking their truths like they were best friends catching up over a glass of wine.
Weather by Jenny Offill
Offill writes in witty, short paragraphs that mimic diary-like entries. It is a quirky style that works surprisingly well. The ‘author’ of these entries is Lizzie Benson, a curious librarian that absorbs odd facts about climate change, religion, and much more. These blurbs are peppered among entries that catalog how she is ‘weathering’ life’s challenges. There is her brother, Henry, a recovering addict that she allows to live with her periodically. And then there is her side job answering doomsday emails sent to Sylvia Liller, creator of the podcast ‘Hell and High Water’. Sylvia found them too depressing to answer them herself. Her husband Ben makes educational video games for a living as he was unable to find a job with his Classics PhD degree.
Undeniably clever and well-written. A carefully constructed distillation of one woman’s individual worries and concerns (the microclimate) and how these undergo flux amidst the generalized anxieties occupying the world today (the global pandemic, climate change, literally and figuratively). Cause, effect, response, affect…and periodic affectation. Weather by Jenny Offill is one of the best books published in 2020.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King
Writers & Lovers follows Casey Peabody as she struggles with the unexpected death of her mother, trying to become a writer while working as a waitress to support herself, and dealing with relationships that never seem to be quite right. Casey has held onto her dream of becoming a writer even though most of her friends who had the same dream have given up on theirs. Casey has been working on her novel for six years, but can’t seem to finish it. Meanwhile she has started seeing two men she truly likes.
This is a really well-written book about a young writer, Casey, grappling with the writing process, the death of her mother, and lousy romantic relationships.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
An expansive historical novel bringing to life the start and end of the gold rush, as experienced by a Chinese-American couple and their two children, studious Lucy and tomboyish Sam, who clash as kids and adults over their differences in personality.
Lucy and Sam are left orphaned and homeless early in the book; their search for belonging, along with their fraught relationship, lie at the heart of the novel, which nevertheless midway takes a Faulkneresque detour and reveals the backstory of the siblings’ parents, from the perspective of their dead dad. How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang is one of those books you can not miss to read in 2020.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
Set in Seoul, If I Had Your Face follows four very different young women who live in the same building. Ara is a mute hairdresser who has an unexpected violent side, heightened by her obsession with a K-pop star. Kyuri is a former prostitute who, having transformed her looks with plastic surgery, makes lots of money at an exclusive ‘room salon’, but also has huge debts. Miho, outwardly the most successful of the characters – an artist who has returned to Korea after a scholarship in New York – is haunted by memories of her late friend Ruby, whose boyfriend she is now dating. Wonna is married and pregnant; she wants to be a mother, but is both terrified of losing the baby and convinced she can’t really afford to bring up a child.
Altogether, I think this is one of the best books of 2020 that can be enjoyed as something light and fluffy; it doesn’t delve too deep into its characters’ most troubling attributes, nor their most intriguing ones.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Exciting Times is one of the strong and witty debut books of 2020. It is a clever and biting story following Ava, a young woman in a foreign country trying to figure her life out – and maintain a semblance of coolness while doing so. It’s also a story of girl-meets-boy, and girl-meets-girl, and girl-hides-boy-and-girl-from-each-other. It’s a refreshing take on friendship and love, but also otherness, politics, and money (and power, which often mingles with money). Dolan’s writing is funny and clever like a spark – despite their faults I found it hard not to love these characters.
The Jetsetters by Amanda Eyre Ward
“The Jetsetters” by Amanda Eyre Ward is a novel that explores the generational effects of family dysfunction. Of course, family dysfunction doesn’t just plop itself out of the blue. Dysfunctional parents endured dysfunctional parents and so on. The saga continues until one member breaks the succession. Ward provides the reader with the causes of parental dysfunction. It’s sad to see how each child absorbs the wrongs.
It’s a story of a widow whose best friend just died and she’s taking stock of her life. She realizes she is estranged from her children, and her children aren’t close to each other. She enters a contest to win an extravagant vacation for four people. And she plans to invite her three children to vacation with her.
She wins the prize and the children agree to join her. It’s a character driven novel, with each family member providing their history in the family and their current life situation. This is one of the best books published in 2020 and you should not miss it.
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
The author returns to the same setting and similar themes as his previous novel, “What Belongs To You” from 2016. An unnamed narrator, an American writer and English teacher living in Bulgaria, describes encounters and relationships in a country trying to become modern and escape the shadow of its Soviet Past. The novel is broken into three parts, three chapters each. Somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, the plot in this book is very thin. What connects this novel is the setting and the same first person point of view from the same character in every chapter.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Uncanny Valley is Anna Wiener’s story of working in tech, primarily in Silicon Valley. Anna is looking to leave her NY-based job in publishing, seeking more from a career. Millennials were flocking to the West coast, where the tech industry continued to grow — software, digital service providers, and social media platforms, all making a name for themselves and marking their presence. Anna decides to join them.
In this book, she details her work experience at a few different companies: one book related, one focused on data analytics, and the other, open source software — both the day-to-day and events like offsite team retreats. Anna holds customer service side roles, and quickly observes, across the industry, these positions are often valued less than their technical counterparts.
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
Chilean-American Allende’s novel follows Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera as they become refugees in January 1939 when Francisco Franco defeated Spain’s Republican army at Barcelona. Each of them joined the half million other defeated Spaniards fleeing to France and placed into concentration camps. [Almost 15,000 people perished in the French camps—including 9 out of 10 children.]
Victor marries Roser whom is pregnant with Victor’s dead brothers’ child in order to be included on the S.S. Winnipeg. [The real-life poet Pablo Neruda persuaded Chile’s president to provide asylum for 2,000 Spanish refugees.] Victor had been studying medicine before becoming a medic for the Republicans, and Roser is a gifted pianist. They find a home in Santiago.
They will become refugees again when General Pinochet takes over Chile in a military coup and repressed numerous civil liberties. This time they flee to Venezuela, before returning to Chile when the government changes once again.
Throughout all of this displacement, Victor and Roser fall in love—and love is what endures. This is one of the most heart touching books published in year 2020.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
This is the Darkest and one of the most disturbing books I’ve read in 2020. This story is about Vanessa a 15 year old girl who attends boarding school and begins an affair with her 42 year old English teacher. The affair lasts until she is 21 years old. Too old for him to be attracted to her anymore. We see how this relationship nearly destroys her. Yet, all the while she is quick to defend him and their relationship. Even after several girls come forward also accusing him of abuse. Vanessa doesn’t believe these other women as he only had eyes for her. She was his one true love. She felt as if they were two dark spirits brought together. Fate.
Strane is well aware that what he is doing is wrong yet he can’t control his urges. He is a master manipulator and it was infuriating to witness. He even tells her from the very beginning: “I’m going to ruin you.”
Vanessa feels like it’s her fault that he is the way he is. She was too irresistible to him and she knew it. And she acted in ways that didn’t give him a choice. She feels as if she is the spider that lured him to her web when it was actually the other way around.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
Nothing will convince you to stay home and read all day like an elegant, gritty Ferrante novel. Her latest, dripping with richness and complexity, features Giovanna. In the unforgettable opening sequence, her powerful father declares her ugly, comparing her face to that of his estranged sister, who repulses him. Giovanna tracks down the source of her ugliness—this unknown relative—as her body’s uncontrollable blossoming into womanhood leaves her disgusted and ashamed. With intense fury and hunger at odds, Giovanna burns through her life, uncovering a web of lies whose epicenter is an object as beautiful and ugly as herself.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
“Rodham” is a fictional account of Hillary and how her life might have gone in a different direction had she not married Bill. The author plays around with historical events and people in this smart, thought-provoking satire of our current day politics.
When a politician is as simultaneously admired and vilified as Hillary Rodham Clinton, it becomes very tantalizing to consider the “what ifs.” What if Hillary had said “no” to Bill Clinton’s third marriage proposal and they had gone their separate ways? Could Bill Clinton reach the pinnacle of his ambition if not for Hillary? Indeed, could Hillary herself reach it? Would either of them have ascended to the presidency? Would George W. Bush, Obama or Trump prevail had the Clinton dynamics markedly shifted?
This novel definitely has a feminist undertone. Hillary’s fierce intelligence and the obstacles she (and other women politicians) must confront regularly are definitely highlighted. This is one of the most interesting books I read in 2020.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
This is a beautiful book that focuses on the turbulent weekend of Wallace, a black queer man in his 20s who is forced to rethink his career goals as a biochemistry graduate student, the division between “real life” and the life of a graduate student, and the friendships that he has made while pursuing his Ph.D. research. It is an engaging novel that keeps you interested as its events unfold and secrets are revealed, yet it is also unflinching in its honest portrayal of the tedium of spending your 20s building a life that may or may not ever take shape.
Taylor’s style is beautiful. He focuses on Wallace’s perceptions of natural phenomena, including birds and one of the Great Lakes, while the narrator possesses an authentic sense of deep psychological insight. Wallace, at one point, picks up Woolf’s To the Lighthouse at the recommendation of a friend who studies literature, and the example is a good one for some of the stylistic and narrative features of Real Life.
Death in Her Hands: A Novel Ottessa Moshfegh
An elderly woman of Eastern European origins, living on her own in something of a backwater, sets out to investigate a murder mystery largely of her own invention. She falls out with the local police and with the locals who see her as an eccentric oddball and she in turn despises as fat and stupid (as we see from her first party viewpoint). Her dog disappears, she invents names for her neighbours, religious references abound.
Ottessa Moshfegh spins out an intricate, layered character study in Death in Her Hands. Vesta is an unreliable narrator, so her inner monologue of finding a clue to what she believes may be a murder is fraught with conflict, obfuscation, both vague and crystal clear interpretations of data, and the kind of scattered thinking that might indicate dementia.
Determined to figure out the murder, Vesta doggedly pursues the cold trail, but comes up with more questions than answers. Moshfegh is a peerless genius at crafting unlikable characters, and this one is exquisitely done. Nerve-wracking and tense, with a deep dive into her protagonist’s psyche, Moshfegh writes a novel that serves as an epiphany for what is possible in fiction. This is one of the best books I’ve read in 2020.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The setting is fascinating—a town called Mallard, founded by a freed slave with the express objective of ‘lightness’. A ‘third place’ during a time of binary segregation, a place for those who ‘would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes’; a sort of opt-in eugenics experiment where residents aim to create ever-lighter generations of children. Mallard is the jumping-off point for Bennett to explore, not only race, but colourism, complex racial hierarchies and the many nuances of privilege and prejudice.
Twins Stella and Desiree both reject Mallard’s strictures, but in totally different ways. Desiree marries ‘the darkest man she could find’ while Stella ‘passes’ for white, cutting all ties for the sake of her reinvention. Physically identical, the twins’ lives chart very different courses. The Vanishing Half is one of those books published in 2020 which you shouldn’t miss to read.
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall
Truly a refreshing voice in Black feminism. Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall is a collection of essays where she takes aim at the legitimacy of the modern feminist movement arguing that it has chronically failed to address the needs of all but a few women.⠀
She draws on her own experiences with hunger, eating disorder, violence, hyper sexualization along with commentary that makes all of the essays so strong. My favorite essays were #OfFastTailedGirls and Freedom, It’s Raining Patriarchy, and Pretty for a… Truly though all of the essays are strong. One of the best debut and a strong anti-racist collection of essay books published in 2020.
Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth
Chosen Ones features five heroes that were brought together as children and trained to fight The Dark One. The Dark One has been using magic to create drains that can kill thousands at a time. There is a prophecy that the government has been using to find candidates that might potentially be the Chosen One.
The main protagonist, Sloane Andrews was discovered as a young teen and trained with the other Chosen Ones under “Bert”. The team went up against The Dark One several times before defeating him and subsequently became famous for saving the world. Following the 10th anniversary of the great defeat, the five gather together to honor the lives lost at the hand of the Dark One. Some of them have been able to move forward more effectively than the others and Sloane has always struggled with the darkness surrounding their defeat. Shockingly, one of them dies soon after bringing them together again for the Memorial. Is this a new manifestation of the Dark One or something else entirely?
Here are a few books to be published in future I’m looking forward to read.
- Transcendent Kingdom: A Novel by Yaa Gyasi
- The Death of Vivek Oji: A Novel by Akwaeke Emezi
- Just Like You by Nick Hornby