In case you missed any of the year’s best books, we’ve got you covered. From fiction to nonfiction, our round-up includes the top titles that debuted in 2020. Some of these books were critically-acclaimed, while others created huge public buzz and became can’t-miss titles of the year. Whatever the reason, these releases were the most impactful books of 2020. Use the list to catch up on your personal reading or to choose a gift that’s sure to be a hit.
Table of Contents
The Vanishing Half by Brit Benett
This literary novel follows the lives of two sisters born in a Black community in the South. After running away as teenagers, the two women live vastly different lives. One returns to the town to raise her own Black daughter, while another enters adulthood “passing” as White, marries a White man, and keeps her true identity a secret. The book begins in the 1950s and progresses to the 1990s, when the sisters’ daughters meet for the first time and family secrets are brought to light.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Set in Brooklyn in 1969, this novel revolves around one frightening act of violence: The deacon of a local church walks into the courtyard of a public housing project, pulls out a gun, and shoots the project’s drug dealer in front of witnesses. The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath of the shooting and all those affected: the victim, the witnesses, the police, the church congregation, and the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters. It’s a literary mystery with so many layers and stakeholders.
Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell
This is a lyrical literary novel following the loss of a child. The big twist, of course, is who the parents are: William Shakespeare and his wife. They lose their son Hamnet to the bubonic plague in 1896, and the loss inspires Shakespeare to write Hamlet. This book is great for any Shakespear-lovers. It’s devastating and beautifully written.
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
This book melds a number of genres: fiction, memoir, and history, to create a novel based on the author’s own life. In it, a Muslim-American son and father search for belonging in post-Trump America. But it’s more than simply a novel: It also offers plenty of cultural commentaries.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
This is another work of literary fiction. It follows a neuroscience student named Gifty, who is trying to use her research to discover the scientific basis for her brother’s death by heroin overdose.
Gifty is the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants and was raised in an evangelical church. She not only grapples with the loss of her brother but also the ways in which she was impacted by her childhood. This is a story about grief, science, religion, and faith.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such a Fun Age explores performative activism by White people. It follows a young Black woman named Emira trying to find her way in the world, who ends up taking a job as a nanny for a wealthy and successful young White couple. When a profiling incident in an upscale grocery store impacts Emira’s relationship with her boss, Alix, tension begins to build. There’s an additional romantic conflict that affects both Alix and Emira and makes this book compulsively readable.
Nonfiction and Biography
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
This is the story of an “all-American family” that grew during the Baby Boom era. A seemingly normal family of 14 begins to break down behind the scenes, and by the 1970s, six of the children had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. This was such an unusual occurrence that the family was studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. In addition to following the family, this book also covers the history of schizophrenia and its treatment, which is a complicated and dark story on its own.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson is well known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, and has followed that up with an examination of American hierarchy. Wilkerson argues that a powerful caste system impacts the lives of Americans in the same ways it does in India and did in Nazi Germany. It’s a fascinating look at the ways humans separate each other into “haves” and “have nots.”
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi
Ibran X Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning is an examination of America’s history of racist ideas. From that book, born is Stamped, a young reader’s adaption. It’s designed to help readers connect America’s history of racism to its present. Although it’s a young reader’s adaption, this book is great for readers of all ages.
Rage by Bob Woodward
This was one of the year’s most buzzed-about books. Veteran journalist Bob Woodward paints a picture of Donald Trump in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election. The book is most known for documenting Trump’s admission that he knew how dangerous the coronavirus was while he downplayed its severity to the American public.
Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump
The year’s other buzziest book, Too Much and Never Enough is authored by President Donald Trump’s niece, a clinical psychologist. In the book, she attempts to explain Trumps psyche by using examples from his childhood and their family life. She paints a picture of how a toxic family life led to the man we see today.
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
This is a biography of Winston Churchill, but specifically during his time as British prime minister during World War II. It’s a fascinating, detailed account of Churchill’s thoughts and personal life during wartime. It’s sure to become a favorite of World War II history buffs.
His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham
Following the death of Civil Rights icon and Congressman John Lewis in 2020, this book became extremely relevant. It’s a biography of a man who lived through the Civil Rights era and continued to lead. He was a pioneer of nonviolent protest and an incredibly influential American figure.
The Dead Are Arising by Les Payne and Tamara Payne
This is a comprehensive biography of Malcolm X. Author Les Payne began researching and interviewing for this book in 1990. Following his death, his daughter Tamara, who also researched for the book, finished the biography. It is the most complete biographical account of Malcolm X, a man whose life and legacy has often been distorted since his death in 1965.
The Zealot and the Emancipator by H.W. Brands
Author H.W. Brands compares extremist abolitionist John Brown to President Abraham Lincoln in this historical non-fiction book. John Brown used violence to fight against slavery, while Lincoln chose to take the path of politics instead. It’s a fascinating look at two influential figures during an extremely volatile time in American history.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
In 1714, Addie LaRue makes a bargain with the Devil: She will live forever but be forgotten by everyone she meets. This curse lasts for nearly 300 years, until Addie finally meets someone who remembers her. This book is a slow, methodical tale of a woman cursed to live forever in anonymity.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
If you’re into dark academia, you’ll love this novel about a magic school where those who fail are killed. Students don’t leave the school until they either graduate or die. The main character, El, possesses magic powerful enough to defeat the monsters that rule the halls, but she must find a way to do so without killing her classmates.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
This book combines the suffragette movement and the Salem Witch Trials into a singularly compelling witchy story. Set in New Salem in 1893, three sisters seek out old magic in order to pursue power in a world dominated by men.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
This is a fantasy story about a man whose job is to oversee the well-being of magical youth living in government-run orphanages. When he is sent to evaluate children in a tiny island orphanage, he discovers why an oddball group of kids has been hidden away. He also meets their caretaker, a charming, loyal man, and they grow close as they work together to protect the children and keep the world safe from their magical powers. If you’re looking for a charming, sweet, and queer adult fantasy, this is the book for you.
Network Effect by Martha Wells
Murderbot is a sentient AI programmed for death and destruction, and surprisingly, is extremely lovable. Martha Wells brings Murderbot to life in their first full-length novel. Set in space, Murderbot must save their human associates from great peril. It’s exactly as quirky and fun as a space opera can be. Although part of a series, previously only novellas, this novel can be read as a standalone.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
Author Rebecca Roanhorse draws inspiration from the pre-Columbian Americas to create an epic fantasy world with politics and celestial mythology. It revolves around a man named Serapio, who is journeying on a ship to the holy city of Tova, either to bring greatness or harm to the people there.
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Lovers of New York City will appreciate this novel from the brilliant science-fiction writer N.K. Jemisin. In this fantasy world, New York City has five separate souls. An evil force is threatening to destroy the city, so its five souls must come together to protect it.
Mystery and Thriller
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
When a woman receives a letter from her newlywed cousin begging her to come to her Mexican country house, she has no idea what to expect. What she discovers is an estate and a family full of dark secrets. She must discover the secrets of her cousin’s new family before it’s too late.
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James
Following the death of her mother, a woman in present day decides to discover the truth behind the disappearance of her aunt in the 1980s. Set in dual timelines, both women are drawn to the Sun Down Motel, which the reader quickly discovers holds supernatural secrets. Both women are also caught up in real-life dangers as they learn about the motel’s frequent visitors.
When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole
Romance author Alyssa Cole brought her first foray into the thriller genre this year. When No One Is Watching is a thriller that takes the concept of gentrification and turns it into something literally sinister. When long-time residents of a Brooklyn neighborhood start selling their homes seemingly overnight, Sydney Green knows something is wrong. Where are her neighbors going, and is something darker at play?
One by One by Ruth Ware
Ruth Ware returns to the classic mystery set-up of an isolated, closed circle of potential killers (à la Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None). In this novel, a group of coworkers from a tech start-up attends a company retreat at an isolated mountain chalet when an avalanche hits, stranding them. With a killer in their midst, some of the employees will not survive to the end of the weekend.
The Last Flight by Julie Clark
In this thriller, a woman named Claire is attempting to escape her high-profile politician husband and his abuse. She has a plane ticket and is at the airport ready to go when she meets another woman, Eva, needing to escape her own circumstances. The two women swap tickets. But when Claire’s plane to Puerto Rico goes down, she realizes she must assume the identity of the other woman in order to keep Eva’s secrets buried.
Promised Land by Barack Obama
Likely to be the best-selling book of 2020, President Barack Obama has released the first of two presidential memoirs chronicling his 8 years in office. In this book, Obama offers his personal account of his early political career, 2008 presidential campaign, and his first years in office.
The Answer Is… by Alex Trebek
Alex Trebek died in November 2020 following a battle with cancer. The Jeopardy! host inspired millions to be lifelong learners. Though Trebek hosted the game show since 1984, he never wrote about his life until this year, after many fans appealed to him following his cancer diagnosis. This book is a great example of why Trebek was such a beloved figure in television history.
Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey
Matthew McConaughey has captured 35 years of his personal journals into one memoir. He reflects upon the many lessons he has learned thus far and gives advice to readers about how to catch more of life’s “green lights.”
A Knock at Midnight by Brittany K. Barnett
This book is the story of a lawyer confronted with an unjust justice system. When Brittany K. Barnett was presented with Sharanda Jones’ case, she learned how much America’s War on Drugs impacted women of color. When Sharanda was sentenced to prison for life on drug charges, she suddenly saw her role in the justice system differently.
Barnett had planned to pursue corporate law, but because of the connection she felt with Sharanda, she began to work pro bono for people caught up in an unfair legal system. This book is great for fans of Just Mercy.
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
This memoir, aimed at young adult readers, captures the life of George M. Johnson, a journalist and LGBTQ activist. Johnson recounts his childhood and what it was like to grow up Black and queer. It offers hope and solace for young queer readers as well as helps teens to be better allies to the LGBTQ community.
Food and Cookbooks
Modern Comfort Food by Ina Garten
If there was ever a year for Ina Garten to write a comfort food cookbook, 2020 was it. Garten’s food is always simple and delicious, but she really focuses on the most comforting recipes in this book. She also taps her large network of celebrity friends for recipes, such as Emily Blunt’s English roasted potatoes.
The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food by Marcus Samuelsson
In this book, chef Marcus Samuelsson gathers recipes and stories from some of the best Black chefs of our era. For home cooks looking to try unique dishes that celebrate the culinary traditions of the African diaspora, this book is the perfect place to start.
The Man Who Ate Too Much by John Bridsall
This biography book of James Beard, namesake to America’s most prestigious culinary awards. It delves into Beard’s life, beginning in Oregon and expanding to New York, where he became a fixture of the NYC food scene for decades. Bridsall also explores Beard’s life as a gay man born at the turn of the 20th century, coming of age in an era where he had to hide his true identity.
Xi’an Famous Foods by Jason Wang
Written by chef Jason Wang and named after his New York City restaurant chain, this cookbook includes many recipes that made the restaurant famous. Xi’an is in the Northwest region of China. Wang captures the city’s unique cuisine in his restaurants, and now in his cookbook.
The Good Book of Southern Baking by Kelly Fields
Kelly Fields is a renowned pastry chef who has spent years perfecting Southern baking staples. This book is a collection of recipes for the most important baked goods in the Southern kitchen. Southern specialities include cornbread, banana pudding, sweet potato pie, and coconut cake.
Vegetable Kingdom by Bryant Terry
Chef Bryant Terry makes vegan food inspired by African-American culinary traditions. In this book, he eschews vegan meat substitutes for whole-food, plant-based recipes such as barbecued carrots, millet roux mushroom gumbo, and pea shoot and peanut salad. Terry focuses on big flavor by incorporating unique spices into his recipes.
Ottolenghi Flavor by Yotam Ottolanghi
Another vegetable-forward cookbook comes from the the author of the highly praised Plenty. This time, the focus is on three main fundamentals of cooking: process, pairing, and produce. He focuses on how rethinking the ways we process our foods, such as charring and infusing, can bring immense flavor to dishes. He also discusses the art of pairing vegetables with high-impact flavor profiles, such as fat, sweet, acid, and heat. Finally, in the element of produce, the focus is on the vegetables themselves.
What 2020 book releases did you love this year?
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