2020 has been many things—the year of a pandemic, of terrible wildfires, of political stress and strife—but let no one say in the annals of history that it was a year of bad books. It was so difficult to choose only 20 favorites from all the many we’ve loved this year, but we did it, and we hope you, beloved fellow readers, enjoy these yourselves and take inspiration to gift them to friends and family, too. (If you’re looking for other great gift ideas, check out this list of the 20 Books Everyone Should Read in Their Lifetime!)Whether you’re a fan of memoirs, thrillers, literary fiction, or gripping nonfiction, you’ll find reads to challenge your mind and warm your heart. These are the best books of 2020.
Featured Image: Chelsea Fone
Willis Wu is an actor living in a Chinatown SRO amongst a community of people viewed as foreigners regardless of how long they’ve been living and working in the United States. His steadiest gig is on Black and White, a police procedural where he plays various parts that could all fall under the title “Generic Asian Man.” But Willis isn’t a walking stereotype—no one is—but rather a man with a family history to discover, secrets to unearth, and a surprising evolution of his role on the TV Show. Charles Yu, as always, is in fine form here—experimental, wry, and moving.
In the quiet and always too-cold lab, Gifty works to cure mice of their addictions to the fortified sweet drink Ensure. In the final stretch of her PhD in neuroscience, she lives a lonely existence: largely friendless, dating occasionally, but ultimately focused on her research and its implications in humans. If she gets it right, she might crack a way open to fully cure addiction. When her depressed mother arrives from Alabama, Gifty’s attention is split, and she’s forced to remember the origins of her research: Nana, her beautiful, talented brother, whose death changed Gifty and her mother’s worlds.
A Long Petal of the Sea
In 1938, Roser Bruguera, a young Spanish woman, gives birth to her baby in France after crossing the mountainous border while pregnant to get away from the civil war ripping her country apart. In France, she reunites with Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her baby’s dead father. Sharing grief for a man and a nation, Roser and Victor must share even more in order to survive—to gain passage on a ship bound for Chile, they must marry. In Chile, Roser tries to move forward while Victor can’t stop looking back, yet they find unlikely love blossoming.
The Glass Hotel
Emily St. John Mandel
Jonathan Alkaitis orchestrated a Ponzi scheme of massive proportions, and when it comes to light, the fortunes of all those who trusted him come crumbling down. These include Vincent, Alkaitis’s faux trophy wife whom he met at an expensive hotel on Vancouver Island—Vincent was taken in by the freedom money would give her to pursue her artistic vision. Her half brother, Paul, a composer, is also affected, as are countless strangers: artists, office workers, consultants, business owners. And what of Alkaitis? In federal prison, he’s unable to escape the hauntings of his victims, even in his imagination.
A Promised Land
The first volume of President Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs, A Promised Land is sure to give comfort, hope, or perspective to readers. President Obama allows us a close, intimate look at the saga of his rise to the highest office in the nation, from the earliest stirrings of his interest in politics and all the way to that fateful November night when he was announced as the United States of America’s first Black president. President Obama doesn’t sugarcoat; he frankly discusses the moral difficulties of the office, the doubts and regrets and disappointments. Yet ultimately, he believes in America’s potential.
One of the powers of fiction is that it can help us imagine our way into the “what if”s, and in Curtis Sittenfeld’s masterful novel, Rodham, she does just that with one of the most public figures of the last decade. What if, she asks, Hillary Rodham never became a Clinton? The novel follows Hillary Rodham from the end of her college days, full of ambitions and aspirations. She still meets Bill, and has a serious, if tumultuous, relationship with him, but she decides not to marry him, which changes the course of both of their careers and lives forever.
Such a Fun Age
Emira is a Philly-dwelling millennial with good friends, a steady babysitting gig, and no idea what she’d rather do than what she’s doing, although she feels like she’s supposed to want more. Alix, Emira’s employer, seems to have it all already: money, a successful career as a blogger and speaker, a nice husband, an adorable toddler and a sweet infant. When a security guard approaches Emira and Briar one night—suspicious because Emira is Black and Briar is white—a cute white guy films the encounter. Little do Emira or Alix know how this moment will ripple through their lives and relationships.
Caste (Oprah’s Book Club)
Following her award-winning and critically acclaimed book about the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson turned her pen to a broader topic: the social hierarchies of the United States, and how these stratifications affect every other aspect of human beings’ lives. Wilkerson defines “caste” as: “the infrastructure of our divisions… the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions” that maintain a social order that keeps American society stratified in a complex web that encompasses considerations of race, class, gender, and more. Using other caste systems to show how we’re part of one, Wilkerson also describes how we might dismantle them.
Mike and Benson are at that point in their relationship where things are fine—really, they are!—but they’re also not entirely sure what’s keeping them together. When Mike learns that his estranged father is dying, he decides to fly to Osaka to be with him, even though his mom is arriving from Japan for a stay. She and Benson, both suddenly abandoned by Mike, begin to find joy in each other’s company, forging new family bonds neither expected. Mike, meanwhile, discovers his family’s past. Will the distance, space, and new self-discoveries bring the men closer or drive them apart?
In this National Book Award Longlisted debut, Megha Majumdar gives voice to three drastically different Indian individuals whose futures depend on the choices they make in their complex entanglement. Jivan, a young Muslim woman living in the slums, is accused of bombing a train. There’s proof of her innocence, but Lovely, a hijra Jivan was teaching English to, has to provide the alibi to the police, and she’s not sure she can risk doing so. Meanwhile, another witness in Jivan’s trial is PT Sir, a PE teacher who’s been making inroads in the local nationalist party. Will truth prevail?
The Vanishing Half
Desiree and Stella are identical twins from Mallard, Louisiana who run away from home together when they turn 16 before going off in different directions, each making choices the other would find inscrutable. Desiree ends up back in Mallard with a melanin-rich little girl, Jude, shocking her light-skinned Black relatives and peers at home, where “nobody married dark.” Years later, when Jude attends UCLA on a track scholarship, she spots her aunt taking off her fur coat at a bar, and learns that Stella has been passing for white for years. But the past never vanishes; it always catches up.
Wallace is attending a prestigious university as a PhD student in biochemistry. He’s a reserved young man, Black and queer and carrying hurts that he knows well how to live with, as long as those hurts are left mostly alone. Yet Wallace’s steady existence is broken by a developing and unexpected intimacy with a straight man in his group of friends, a man who seems to understand the need to carry one’s baggage close to the chest. On top of all that, Wallace, who works harder than anyone else in his program, has to face a deliberately sabotaged experiment.
Most of our lives have turning points, and Doyle had already been through many—choosing to become sober was a big one, for example—but it’s rare that we can pinpoint them so completely. Yet sometimes, there are moments that change everything. For Doyle, it came when she looked up at a conference and found her: the woman of her dreams. In this intimate yet open-hearted memoir, Glennon Doyle calls on us to be brave, to live fully, to honor our own desires, and to be who we want to be rather than who the world has told us we should be.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold
C Pam Zhang
What makes land home? Is it the labor you’ve put into it? What you’ve unearthed from it? Whether you can exist peacefully on it? All these questions come up as Sam and Lucy, tween siblings, set out to bury their father, a Chinese immigrant to the Gold Rush west who instead of prospecting as he’d planned ended up laboring as a coal miner for years. As Sam and Lucy drag their father’s body around in search of a place where he and they can rest, they encounter the Wild West’s ugliness, as well as where they belong in its narrative.
Deacon King Kong
At the tail end of the 1960s, an old church deacon known mostly by the residents of the south Brooklyn community as Sportcoat, walks into the courtyard of one of the neighborhood projects and shoots at Deems Clemens. Clemens is a 19-year-old and locally notorious drug dealer, and he only loses an ear, but most people think Sportcoat is done for. But Sportcoat keeps avoiding his demise as various players in this lively community—witnesses, cops, a mobster—keep getting in the way of Clemens’s vengeance, often inadvertently. Why did Sportcoat shoot him, anyway? The answer is, as most things are, complicated.
Cal Hooper is trying to start his life over again after a long career as a cop in Chicago ends with a divorce and a grown daughter who doesn’t seem to need him much. In a small town in Ireland, he’s hoping to live quietly, peacefully, but when a boy named Trey starts hanging around, things begin to get complicated and distinctly not peaceful. Trey’s brother is missing, presumed not dead so much as deadbeat like his dad: people think he’s just taken off. Trey is convinced that there’s foul play involved, and somehow, Cal ends up helping him investigate.
His Truth Is Marching On
John Lewis, who died earlier this year, is often called as one of the great heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, and he absolutely was. But his approach to the world—nonviolence as a philosophy, tactic, and way of being even when making what he called “good trouble,” that is trouble that brings about positive and necessary change—began before his activism, and his activism never stopped even after the 1950s and ’60s. In this biography, drawing on years of interviews with Lewis and ending with Lewis’s own afterword, we learn how difficult hope can be, how it’s something to be nurtured.
Death in Her Hands
“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” This is the note 72-year-old Vesta comes across in the woods near the cabin she’s recently moved into on an old Girl Scout camp. Except there is no dead body. How do you investigate a murder mystery in your own backyard when there’s no body?! Vesta, recently widowed, does so by surmising and inventing, becoming increasingly fascinated with the wild goose chase her imagination is leading her on. On the way, her own past and pains intertwine with her detective work.
The Splendid and the Vile
Winston Churchill took office as Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street in the midst of Nazi Germany’s assault on Europe, and on the very day that Hitler’s forces invaded Belgium and the Netherlands. Erik Larsen uses documents from Churchill’s first year in office, as he sought to lead a country being bombed on a nearly nightly basis. Even more interesting, and covering much new ground, are Churchill’s close contacts that year: two of his officials, his private secretary, his bodyguard, and his family members, whose writing Larsen also utilizes to paint this sweeping, in-depth, page-turning narrative of a notorious war.
Roy and Carl Opgard are brothers whose paths have long since separated them: Roy, who always protected and covered for Carl in their youth, opted to stay in their small hometown, while Carl left and was believed to have no intention of returning. No one is more surprised than Roy when Carl comes back with a beautiful wife and a plan to build a hotel in town, claiming he’ll make big bucks off it. But as mysterious deaths begin occurring, Roy begins to wonder why Carl is really back. Will he be forced to turn against his own blood?