It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. And unless your name is Jeff Bezos, you’re probably not a whole lot better off than you were at the beginning of this godforsaken year. 2020 was a time of tremendous sacrifice and loss, TikTok dances and sourdough starters, Tiger Kings and Chess Queens (ty, Netflix), change in the streets, hours of Zoom calls, etc., etc. Our 50th anniversary celebration plans were dashed away by a plague and we traded in hugs for elbow taps and added social distancing to our everyday lingo. Plexiglass and copious amounts of hand sani became the norm. Dating nowadays feels like we’re living in a Jane Austen novel.
But the books—oh, the books!—were glorious. This year’s releases have gotten us through more than you’ll ever know, especially during those early days of COVID lockdown when we didn’t know left from right. Find yourself a little comfort in the reads that brought us the most joy this year. A lot of fiction, some romance, history, true crime, a little bit of everything.
January – June
Anna Wiener, Uncanny Valley (MCD, January)
One of The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year (2020)
Silicon Valley — the land of 28-year-old billionaires in hoodies. Anna Wiener wrote a memoir of her time working in the gold rush era of SV startups and it is, in a word, fair. In a few more words, specific, enlightening, searching, defining. She lays before us the young (mostly) men with nothing but optimism, technical skills, and venture capital burning holes in their startup-bought outerwear with nuance and humanity — after all, many of these people were her coworkers, bosses, friends, lovers. She writes her observations with clarity, non-judgment, and a deep appreciation for the drive, intelligence, and positivity that permeates the San Francisco workforce. Still, her publishing background and her orientation to the sensory world of art, music, culture, and history make her a bit of an outsider; she’s constantly seeing the other side to their world as it grows and morphs and swallows San Francisco whole (and we all know it doesn’t stop there). Power, responsibility, choices, and who has access to what and why rove through her perspective on the tech workforce and its impact on the rapidly changing landscape. It’s a powerful portrait that asks millions of questions — and invites even more. Loved it, obv. — Molly M.
Watch our virtual event with Anna Wiener and Jordan Kisner featured on LitHub’s The Virtual Book Channel here.
Brandon Taylor, Real Life (Riverhead, February)
Booker Prize Finalist (2020)
Years ago, I stumbled upon Brandon Taylor’s writing on Twitter, and I was instantly hooked! Charmed! Enchanted! I knew I needed more, and so I’ve been a loyal reader of his ever since, honored to be able to read his short fiction and personal essays online. But there’s something truly special about holding Taylor’s beautiful words in my hands. Real Life is a story of buried pasts and trauma; a story of growth and change and hope; of friendship, love, sex, and fury. It’s quiet observations of everyday moments, of real life, all wrapped in writing that begs to be read out loud. Even though Real Life takes place in the summer, it reads like fall, like cool weather and cozy knits. Like fire. It’s a privilege to witness Brandon Taylor’s journey as a writer and I can’t wait to see what comes next! — Eugenia V.
Jenn Shapland, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers (Tin House, February)
2020 National Book Award Finalist (Nonfiction)
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers gives us unfettered access into the lives of two writers: Jenn Shapland, grad student and archivist, wading through the murky waters of her queerness; Carson McCullers, the oft-misunderstood phenom behind the beloved The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. And it is by sheer accident (maybe fate) that their stories meet. Employing a dazzling blend of memoir and biography, Shapland describes a chance encounter with McCullers’ letters, re-introduces us to one of the twentieth century’s most prolific artists, and recovers a hidden history of repressed queerness, drawing parallels to her own story along the way. In McCullers, Shapland finds a muse and through Shapland, McCullers’ story receives the treatment its long been denied. The pair share an intimate kinship that bridges decades and their joint narrative is at once powerful and utterly necessary. This is a story that should be read over and over and over. — Uriel P.
Kirin Millwood Hargrave, The Mercies (Little, Brown & Company, February)
The Mercies wrenched out my soul and had me waking in the middle of the night tormented and in tears. A story of seafaring disaster, accusations of witchcraft, and love found hidden in old coats, Kiran Millwood Hargrave has crafted a dark and creeping work of atmospheric historical fiction that will linger with you long after you turn the final page. — Maya L.
Emily Nemens, The Cactus League (FSG, February)
Spring Training is here for the LA Lions, bringing a cadre of players, coaches, agents and hangers on to the desert-scape of Arizona. And for nine chapter-long innings we’re taken ’round the diamond looking to get the full story on fading baseball phenom Jason Goodyear from those who know him best and those who don’t, but think they do. It’s a story that, like a season of MLB ball, unfolds incrementally, full of dramatic peaks and valleys, and, when it matters most, reveals the character of those stepping up to the plate. Emily Nemens hits it out of the park with this no-doubt, moonshot of a debut. ‘The Cactus League’ brims with heart and a ferocious sense of humor! — Uriel P.
Jenny Offill, Weather (Knopf, February)
Weather takes a hard look at our hidden fears and dreams, and it does it through a fine thread of funny, snarky, and intelligent prose. Lizzie Benson has a lot on her mind. Her brother is a recovering addict with a baby on the way. Her husband and son sometimes feel like a placeholder in her life. Her boss has tasked her at work with the delusional mission of answering chain emails loaded with pointless, existential questions. Written as a sort of “stream of consciousness,” this novel works as a perfect mirror of our times and Jenny Offill understands our times. Prepare yourself for some sharp, funny, and relatable storytelling. — Cristina L.
Deb Olin Unferth, Barn 8 (Graywolf, March)
If the words “chicken heist” intrigue you, pick up this book. This is a highly original story that is both hilarious and devastating, forcing you to examine the culture of mass production that we live in. Even after all the terrible things that happen in this book, I was still left with the thought that in the end we will all need to be on the same side. — Robyn A.
Read our interview with Deb Olin Unferth earlier this year here.
Samantha Irby, Wow, No Thank You (Vintage, March)
Queen Samantha Irby returns with another hilarious, almost absurdly relatable collection of essays in Wow, No Thank You! Whether she’s sharing recipes for children’s undeserving taste palates or destroying a hotel room with heavy period flow (love that Austin played a small part in Sam’s story), Irby’s latest might just be her best. This is one of those books that folks will tell you not to read in public, but I say DO IT. You’ll find yourself cackling shamelessly and end up introducing onlookers to their new favorite writer, the one and only Samantha Irby. WOW, YES THANK YOU, ALWAYS MORE. — Eugenia V.
N. K. Jemisin, The City We Became (Orbit, March)
You’ve read a lot of books about New York City, but you haven’t read this one. Steeped in culture, Jemisin delivers a fantasy world that blends effortlessly with reality. If you’re holding your breath about the personifications of New York’s boroughs being stereotypical, you can breathe easily. Each character is a complex and nuanced amalgamation of both the history and daily lives of the communities they represent. The diverse and mundane concepts that make a New Yorker a New Yorker become weapons against a Lovecraftian enemy. If you’ve never been to New York, this book is like walking around the streets with a local, skipping all the tourist attractions to shake the hands of each person who calls it their home. This tediously researched masterpiece uses fantasy as a tool to shine a light on what truly makes us human. — Gina C.
William Boyle, City of Margins (Pegasus Books, March)
Boyle follows up his amazing A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself with this multi-character tale of Brooklyn residents haunted by a crime many don’t even know occurred. He uses every color in his rich palette to portray a place of decay and inertia each person attempts to escape from in some way. William Boyle is fast becoming one of crime fictions more important voices. — Scott M.
Dennis E. Staples, This Town Sleeps (Counterpoint, March)
This Town Sleeps, set on an Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota, is not an elegiac or idyllic work but rather a direct, unblinking, poetic novel that draws the reader inexorably on into the grey areas of the hearts of those in this story. Queer coming-of-age story bound up in a town mystery, this tale of Marion Lafournier, a young gay Ojibwe man, is a compelling debut by Dennis E. Staples, an author whose voice and storytelling will be appreciated in so many ways in years to come. — Christine H.
Quan Barry, We Ride Upon Sticks (Pantheon, March)
This book is so much fun to read! Travel back to the late 80s in a Heathers-like journey that will leave you feeling invested in the fate of an Emilio Estevez notebook infused with dark magic. Learn bit by bit about each character on this field hockey team and watch the girls come into their own (they are almost never what you would expect them to be). There’s also the added bonus of being constantly reminded of 80s jams that you had forgotten about. — Robyn A.
Robert Kolker, Hidden Valley Road (Doubleday, April)
One of The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year (2020)
A page-turner of a medical mystery/history of an illness/complex family tragedy. Kolker does a commendable job of organizing the stories of the two parents and 12 kids that make up the Galvin family, in which six of the siblings are diagnosed with schizophrenia. No member leaves without chapter-space on their history with or perspective on the family’s unusual, often traumatic circumstance. Interspersed between the narratives of family members, he presents a basic history of the disease, starting with the disagreement between Freud and Jung that triggered the dissolution of their relationship and a decades-long nature vs. nurture debate on whether the cause of schizophrenia is essentially biological or psychological. The research and treatment history of schizophrenia, and mental illness in general, is tarnished by ineffective treatments, dehumanization and overmedication of patients, and bad convictions, like that all cases of schizophrenia can be traced back to bad mothering. With the rise of genetic research and the Human Genome Project, conceptualization of the condition improved, and the high-rate of the disease’s expression within the Galvin family helped move research along in important ways. The book makes clear, there’s a ways to go yet. — Molly M.
Grady Hendrix, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (Quirk Books, April)
Sort of between the camp of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books and the horror/creepiness of The Passage by Justin Cronin (which is at the top of my personal horror comfort-level). Parts of this book read like any novel about a bored Southern housewife would read – dealing with kids & husband, being the perfect hostess, making friends as an adult, etc. When a vampire moves in down the street, then the horror elements creep in and things get dangerous and creepy. The violence and gore is spare, but when it is there it is really gross. Be warned. — Ellen G.
Curtis Sittenfeld, Rodham (Random House, May)
I’M OBSESSED. Sittenfeld has created a nuanced character portrait and an explosive page-turner speculating what would have happened if Hillary and Bill had broken up and not gotten married. This ultimate what-if leads the novelized Hillary down some very surprising paths that you will want to travel with her. — Consuelo W.
Emily Henry, Beach Read (Berkley, May)
I can’t get over how much I loved this book. Beach Read hits all the beats of a romantic comedy and will delight fans of the genre, but there is also an undercurrent of melancholy and family secrets that adds a unique twist. Maybe it’s a cliche to say “I laughed, I cried,” but in this case it’s very true. I laughed out loud several times and was a sobbing mess near the end. This is the perfect summer read (or really for any time of year). — Olivia O.
Yuri Herrera, A Silent Fury (And Other Stories, June)
In 1920, a fire raged in the American-owned El Bordo Mine, killing 87 people and leaving seven survivors stranded for six days. It happened in writer Yuri Herrera’s hometown of Pachuca, where almost no written history of the event existed, save for a few articles and a short official report. In this slim, effective piece of journalism, Herrera asks the questions nobody did at the time — who made the decision to seal up the mine so hastily, leaving so many inside? Why? Why were discrepancies in accounts from the mine’s administrators left unexamined, even when they contradict themselves within a single page of the official report? Why weren’t families allowed to bury their dead? Unlike the officials, journalists, and investigators who dictated the original history, concerned as they were with getting the mine back up and running as quickly as possible, Herrera focuses on the impact this catastrophe had on the humans involved. Here we have another horrible story of what happens when the powerful prioritize money and material over people; Herrera gives voice to the story untold to clarifying, devastating effect. — Molly M.
Megha Majumdar, A Burning (Knopf, June)
Set in modern-day India, A Burning, follows a cast of characters caught in the upheaval of an act of political terrorism— Jivan, the idealistic dissident falsely accused of the crime; PT Sir, an opportunistic gym teacher; and Lovely, a social outcast with dreams of Bollywood stardom. From the novel’s opening lines, we see their stories collide and run astride at breakneck speed, and as readers we are dared to put the book down before its unexpected conclusion. The magic of this book lies not only in the ambition to compress a political epic into a single-sitting read, but also in Majumdar’s singular ability to tell a story of our modern condition with humor and warmth. — Uriel P.
Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (Riverhead, June)
Brit Bennett follows her gorgeous debut novel, The Mothers, with an intimate and deeply moving story of family, racial identity, and love. The Vanishing Half will pull you into these twins’ histories– their insecurities and desires– and leave you wondering about Desiree and Stella, the way only the best books do, long after you’re finished reading the last page. — Eugenia V.
July – December
S. A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland (Flatiron Books, July)
This will definitely be in my top 10 of the year if not the decade–believe the hype on this one, it’s not to be missed! Featuring bad men and fast cars, it’s the story of a former getaway driver who has tried to carve out a better life for himself and his family–but circumstances both beyond and within his control drag him back to a life of crime that threatens to destroy the people that mean the most to him. — Meike A.
Alexis Daria, You Had Me at Hola (Avon, August)
Fans of telenovelas/telenovela adaptations like Jane The Virgin are going to swoon for this on-set romance between two rising Hollywood stars. I loved the characters’ ambition and drive, their strong chemistry, and the behind-the-scenes drama of filming a TV show. — Oliva O.
Akwaeke Emezi, The Death of Vivek Oji (Riverhead, August)
I love the way Akwaeke Emezi writes in The Death of Vivek Oji. Their skill in crafting non-linear plot revelations with deeply developed characters whose flaws and selfishness, virtues and joys, passions, depressions and motivations I came to know as well as I do some of my own family gave me chills to read. As they have done in Freshwater and Pet, Emezi engages every sentence and word in the task of submerging the reader in a complete and complex world, providing a space–and pain–that feels as real as our own. Impressively, given the slimness of the novel, they have created a profound moment that will cause the heart to ache and burn over a death that, 256 pages before we knew nothing about. A beautifully written exercise in secrets, death, and family; the effect (or lack thereof) of time on narrative and emotion; the impact (or lack thereof) of secret-keeping on our constructed realities; and the depth of unfairness at having to live/grow in an intolerant society, The Death of Vivek Oji is an incredible work of literary art that I hope to see on all the lists this year! — Tomoko B.
Jason Diamond, The Sprawl (Coffee House Books, August)
Jason Diamond does his best David Attenborough impression in ‘The Sprawl, his humorous, sobering look at the much-maligned, oft-ignored wilderness of Suburbia. It’s sociology and pop culture critique, and a tinge of urban planning bundled into one, neat package. It’s a little heady but that’s okay, because reading it is so effortless at the same time. Fascinating, too, because suddenly I’m looking at a place I once called home so differently. — Uriel P.
Tamsyn Muir, Harrow The Ninth (Tor, August)
Harrow the Ninth is like trying to drink soup on a roller coaster in the dark and also the soup is probably trying to kill you. What I mean is, it’s a blast. The cast of characters, like the first book, totally enamored me. They captured my attention until I finished the entire thing in two sittings. Harrow doesn’t know what’s happening. We don’t know what’s happening. God doesn’t know what’s happening. Just buckle up and enjoy the ride. — Gina C.
Raven Leilani, Luster (FSG, August)
An acid-tipped portrait of the artist as a young broke millennial, Luster pushes on painful pressure points of modern life with humor, precision, and a bruised, beating heart. Edie is a futureless editor at a publishing house when she begins a Tinder-borne affair with a much older man. He’s white, married, and wealthy; she’s black, orphaned, and completely broke. I won’t spoil anything else, but know that as this story complicates, Leilani skillfully excavates truths about power, class, racism, gender, manners, and trauma that exist even in our most minor interactions. I loved this book for its sexiness, its embrace of complexity, and its careful attention to pain. — Molly M.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Winter Counts (Ecco, August)
Another book that will definitely be in my top 10 of the year. The main character is Virgil Wounded Horse, an enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation who gets called in to exact justice when local law enforcement turns a blind eye. When his nephew is unjustly accused of drug trafficking, Virgil is forced to take on some very bad men. A timely view into the continued injustices faced by the Native American population. — Meike A.
Marilynne Robinson, Jack (FSG, September)
I don’t even know where to start. Marilynne Robinson is legendary and her mind is as infinite and precise and unfathomable as the cosmos. — Lindsey M.
Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through (Riverhead, September)
Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through is an unyielding meditation on our moral and emotional drivers. Who and what do we live for? And is it worth it in a world galvanized by self-destructive tendencies? Climate change, the election of one far-right populist US President, and fraught family relationships hang heavy over this book. Readers are pressed to reckon with these very questions as our narrator accompanies a terminally-ill friend through those, sometimes agonizing, last days of her life. And yet, this novel is also an uplifting, beautifully rendered piece that offsets the gloom with tremendous empathy. An utterly modern book in every way, Sigrid Nunez captures this singular moment in history and preserves a small treasure for all who pick it up. Just sublime. — Uriel P.
Sayaka Murata, Earthlings (Grove Press, October)
One of the strangest and most bizarre books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I loved it every second of it. Murata brings out the worst of societal pressures in the weirdest, jaw dropping way. Murata has a way of writing characters who rationalize the worst possible situations and make it their own like a more messed up Candide. This was my first time reading her and I felt a lot of thought, time, and care went into Natsuki’s worldview. It’s an incredibly dark novel but equally humorous and absurd. I felt such a huge array of emotions empathizing with the of characters. I was entranced by their ridiculousness. I laughed and felt my jaw drop more than any other book or media I’ve experienced. Earthlings is incredibly detailed and at times graphic but Murata has such a voice that I couldn’t put it down because I wanted to see what bizarre thing happens next. Magical realism and absurdism at their best. — Andres B.
Bryan Washington, Memorial (Riverhead, October)
Bryan Washington’s writing is absolutely incredible; I love the way his sentences sit on the page, each line feeding rhythmically into the next, pulling me along with it. It feels like poetry. Memorial is quiet, with humor like a wry smile; introspectively attending to and elevating all the mundane things that populate daily life. So specific to his characters, a street Benson lived on, a dish Mike cooked, but so familiar. And so close; the anxieties and tensions of wants unknown and words unsaid float in the space between the lines, caught in inaction–wondering if there’s a time or circumstance when love moves on, lets go; how close is too close; and can damaged people even love anyway? As much as Memorial is about love (and sex, and wondering when/how the two became so disconnected), it’s an exploration of family, history and trying to understand what the hell you want or need from both. It’s Houston and Osaka, here and not there, exploring some of the flawed, ugly, hopeful, human ways we lose and gain people in our lives. And, as always, delicious food runs like a vein through Washington’s writing. — Tomoko B.
Becky Cooper, We Keep the Dead Close (Grand Central Publishing, November)
After hearing of Jane Britton’s murder in its fable form from a couple of upperclassmen during her undergraduate years in the Harvard archaeology department, Becky Cooper finds herself haunted by the cold case and its apparent coverup. It’s from here that Cooper launches a thorough investigation bordering on the obsessive. Although We Keep The Dead Close stays firmly within the tradition of the true crime genre, it examines the echoes of misogyny, classism, and solipsism of academia that ripple through the case, as well as her own slippery relationship with the past and present. Perhaps the most salient line of questioning has a lot in common with the practice of archaeology itself — is it possible to recreate the past? Who gets to try? And to what end? — Molly M.
Titles We’re Looking Forward to in 2021
Edward Carey, The Swallowed Man (Riverhead, January 2021)
Brilliant, utterly brilliant. I cannot wait to hold a finished copy of The Swallowed Man in my hands and reread it with all Edward Carey’s magnificently expressive illustrations to accompany me as I journey with Geppetto in the belly of a whale once more. This re-visioning of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio expands the very heart of the story and even storytelling itself. Carey has crafted an origin fable beyond compare, one that will hopefully endure deep in the hearts of readers. — Christine H.
Patricia Engel, The Infinite Country (Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, February 2021)
Patricia Engel has done it again and this time it feels more powerful than ever before. Infinite Country is a story that leaves no feeling behind and with just a few pages in writing tells the life-long journey of Mauro, Elena, Karina, Nando, and Talia; A family fighting at all odds to stay together. This book left me too quickly, but their story will stick with me forever. — Cristina L.
Melissa Broder, Milk Fed (Scribner, February 2021)
How do you follow up the sheer absurdity of a novel like The Pisces Melissa Broder’s response: with a very queer, very Jewish fable of physical and spiritual delights. Milk Fed follows Rachel, a calorie-counting, image obsessed twenty-something working in the Hollywood fame machine. She lives by a strict ascetic code (nicotine gum for breakfast; a protein bar for lunch; and plain yogurt for dinner). A slim waist and approval from an emotionally withholding mommy drive her. By all appearances, she is cultivating an Instagram-worthy product for all to envy and desire. That is, until Miriam–the curvy, daring, eccentric Miriam–appears on the scene to blow it all to pieces, revealing to Rachel the varieties of desire and satisfaction. What ensues is something that reads like a fabulist sexual awakening–one that prominently features the golem of Jewish lore, all-night food binges, and sage rabbinical advice. If the Coen Brothers knew anything about what its like to be a millennial women, they might write something like this. But I thank little-g god every day for divining unto this earth Melissa Broder and the wise, funny, purifying gift that is Milk Fed. — Uriel P.
Casey McQuiston, One Last Stop (St. Martin’s Griffin, June 2021)
I was a huge fan of Casey McQuiston’s when I first read Red, White and Royal Blue and I was very excited to read what she wrote next even though I was very worried that my expectations would be too high. Somehow she took my expectations and blew them right out of the water with this one. She digs into two different time periods of New York and examines queer history, culture, and identity in both, blending in a quirky time travel romance along the way. I love love love this book and it’s great for fans of RW&RB but it also stands on its own two legs. — Thomas W.
Most titles mentioned here are available in-store and online at BookPeople now. And you can explore a more complete list of exciting 2021 titles to pre-order now here.