Reader's choice: Favorite books of 2020
from BookPage®

BookPage® is a discovery tool for readers, highlighting the best new books across all genres. BookPage® is editorially independent; only books they highly recommend are featured. Any publisher-sponsored content is clearly labeled as such. Available at all your Craven-Pamlico Regional Libraries.

  All Adults Here by Emma Straub

Events take place in a small, fictitious town in New York’s Hudson Valley and center on the Strick family. The matriarch is 68-year-old widower Astrid, who witnesses an acquaintance being struck and killed by a school bus. This brings to light Astrid’s long-standing animus toward the victim, who, years ago, informed Astrid that her eldest son, Elliot—now a successful builder, married with kids—had been spotted kissing another boy. The fact that Astrid admonished Elliot, albeit subtly, has plagued her ever since, particularly now that she is in a same-sex relationship with her hairdresser, Birdie. 

Emma Straub’s writing is witty, informal and deceptively simple, drawing readers in as if they’re having a conversation with a close friend.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Emma Straub shares a glimpse into her life as a bookstore owner and library lover.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

If readers believe that witch trials in the late 1600s only occurred in the U.S., Kiran Millwood Hargrave will enlighten them with this harrowing story based on well-documented records. Hargrave, the author of several award-winning children’s novels, shifts to adult fiction with The Mercies, a vivid and immersive depiction of a remote village on Norway’s northeast coast in the early 1600s—and how it was dramatically transformed, first by a violent storm, then by religious extremism.

The Mercies
is an exceptional work of historical fiction with a dramatic setting and perceptive insight into the rippling effects of extremism, as seen through the eyes of a carefully crafted cast of characters.

The Book of V. by Anna Solomon

The novel opens in 2016 with Lily, a 40-something Brooklyn wife and mom who’s grappling with the woman she has, and hasn’t, become. The narration then drops back to early-1970s Washington, D.C., where Vivian, or Vee, the young wife of a power-hungry senator, is about to host a party. Just as quickly, the story drops all the way back to ancient Persia, where 17-year-old Esther (yes, the biblical Esther) is about to be handed off to a Persian king who has done away with his first queen, Vashti, and now plans to select a new bride from his kingdom’s population of beautiful young virgins.

The Book of V.
offers plenty of thoughtful interiority while spinning a fast-moving story. Lily’s meditations on feminism, motherhood, friendship and middle-class striving will resonate with many readers. The novel’s unexpected retelling of the Esther story is imaginative yet, in its own way, faithful to the original.

The Distant Dead by Heather Young

The small town of Lovelock, Nevada, is nestled in brush-dotted hills that crouch under unending blue sky—an eerie desert landscape that sets a tone of creeping dread in Heather Young’s The Distant Dead.

The suspense is slow and steady in this meditative, artistic take on the murder mystery—the author’s language is poetic, and her contemplation of the corrosiveness of suppressed emotion is both sympathetic and impatient: When will people learn? This is an unusual, compelling portrait of a people and a place where the future always seems impossibly far away.

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata

In 1929 New Orleans, a young Dominican woman named Adana Moreau writes Lost City, a universe-bending work of science fiction. She writes a sequel, A Model Earth, but just before the new book is ready to be published, Adana falls ill. Knowing she is about to die and will never see the publication of her newest work, she burns the manuscript. In 2004 Chicago, a man discovers a manuscript in his recently deceased grandfather’s apartment. The ensuing journey to deliver the manuscript to the author’s son is enriched by generations of remarkable characters and the complex network of their memories. 

As if his captivating writing style weren’t enough, Zapata has treated us to a thrillingly mysterious storyline with a beautiful payoff. The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is his debut novel, and we can only hope it is the first of many.

Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon’s Code Name Hélène is a spellbinding work of historical fiction inspired by the real story of Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, a woman so extraordinary that your first instinct might be to believe she is imaginary, like James Bond. 

In her acknowledgments, Lawhon describes the extraordinary life of Nancy as first and foremost a story about love and marriage. Right away it seems preposterous to consider a story about a woman who seemed to magically summon weapons for the Allied Forces, who killed a Nazi with her bare hands, who saved thousands of lives, a love story. But let the story sink in, and Nancy and Henri’s enduring love will indeed rise to the surface.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

The Henna Artist is set in the pink city of Jaipur, India, and follows Lakshmi, a namesake of the goddess of wealth. Lakshmi has abandoned her husband, Hari, and now works in Jaipur applying dizzying henna designs to the city’s most elite women. Lakshmi is also a skilled herbalist, and she creates delicious Indian treats to ease her clients’ ailments and issues, as well as tea sachets that serve as birth control. She learned all of these skills from her mother-in-law, a kind and talented woman.

Rich in detail and bright with tastes and textures, The Henna Artist is a fabulous glimpse into Indian culture in the 1950s. You’ll notice certain remnants of British colonization, and you’ll see how Western culture permeates Jaipur. Throughout her first novel, Alka Joshi explores the complex relationships of women in India, offering an introduction into the caste system that separates and defines people, and comments on the often invisible yet deeply important labor that’s deemed “women’s work.” 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

When Desiree Vignes returns to Mallard, Louisiana, in 1968 after running away 14 years earlier, people take note—especially because she’s accompanied by her dark-skinned 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The black citizens of Mallard believe that lighter skin is better, an idea that’s been championed since the town’s founding back in 1848. All these years later, the townspeople “weren’t used to having a dark child amongst them and were surprised by how much it upset them.”

This is a novel to be devoured slowly, not only for its intriguing plot and exploration of vital issues but also for its gorgeous writing. Bennett digs deep into the history of colorism and racism in America and explores how far their poisons can reach. As young girls, Stella and Desiree witness the lynching of their father by angry white men. This tragedy haunts his surviving family, its effects reverberating for generations to come.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read about how Brit Bennett’s mother inspired The Vanishing Half.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

Our obsession with productivity is a defining characteristic of modern society. Smart watches streamline and gamify our workouts and sleep cycles. Smartphones make us permanently available. And of course, social media drives us to put our most personal moments online. In some ways, James Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art points out the obvious: This productivity obsession is killing us. Yet, not all hope is lost. Nestor’s work reveals the importance of our breath and promises us a changed life if only we’ll take a moment to stop, slow down and breathe. 

From yogis to monks, from voice teachers to athletic trainers, from people with scoliosis to those with asthma, Breath details how these rediscovered breath practices are providing the promise of a better, longer, healthier life. If this all sounds too good to be true, Nestor assures us that breath isn’t a golden ticket. It’s not a magic cure for everything that ails us, but it is “a way to retain balance in the body.” And if that still sounds like a bunch of baloney, go ahead and give it a try. Stop. Slow down. Breathe.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Riley Reid

Briskly told and devilishly well-plotted, Such a Fun Age follows a young black babysitter,Emira and her affluent white employer, Alix in the months following a racially motivated public altercation in an upscale grocery. Although strewn with emails, tweets, blogs and texts, Kiley Reid’s game-changing debut novel is rooted in classic dialogue-driven storytelling and is a marker for precisely where our culture is today.

Such a Fun Age
hits every note just right—from Alix’s self-righteous frustration to Emira’s ambivalence about accepting help. What takes the book to the next level is its willingness to go beyond where the story naturally leads. This is a tale without a heroine or villain; instead it’s a clear-eyed look at the complex transactional relationship that exists between mothers and nannies, while never shying away from the tender closeness that often grows between babysitters and their charges.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Kiley Reid shares the three things you must know before reading Such a Fun Age.

Devolution by Max Brooks

Civil society is always fragile. When it collapses under violent threat, its citizens inevitably reveal their truest selves. With his groundbreaking first novel, World War Z, Max Brooks adapted this timeless truth—the essence of The Iliad, King Lear, War and Peace, etc.—on a global scale (with zombies). In Devolution, the author gives it another go, this time in microcosm.

In Devolution, as in World War Z, Brooks relishes what he calls “forensic horror,” a medium for understanding a disaster retrospectively, through available evidence. The novel is framed by an unnamed researcher into the events, who presents the diary of Kate Holland, a resident of Greenloop. The researcher illuminates Kate’s complex firsthand account through interviews with her grieving brother and a baffled park ranger.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Max Brooks shares the inspiration behind Devolution: “We are racing headlong to build a society for comfort and not for resilience.”

The Glass Hotel by Emily S. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel follows her bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, with a more intricately layered—and better—novel about having money, not having money and the guilt, sorrow and panic of gaining it and losing it. The Glass Hotel is also, by the way, a bit of a ghost story.

The Hotel Caiette, the glass hotel of the title, is a super luxury hotel in a remote corner of Vancouver Island, a “five-star experience where your cell phone doesn’t work.” A young local woman named Vincent winds up working there as a bartender after some youthful bohemian years off the island. She is smart, witty and elegant. She catches the eye of Jonathan Alkaitis, the investment-fund mogul who owns the hotel and who soon invites her to become, essentially, his trophy wife. It’s a transaction she accepts. She moves to a posh house in Connecticut and thrives among the uber-wealthy. But it turns out that Alkaitis is running a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. When it collapses, Vincent eventually begins a third life as an itinerant cook on an international container ship.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Emily St. John Mandel discusses The Glass Hotel, the “kingdom of money” and the dangers of international waters.

A Time for Mercy by John Grisham

With nationwide calls for police reform and defunding, literary giant John Grisham’s novel A Time for Mercy is undoubtedly timely, as it explores the ways that violence committed by or against law enforcement officials can complicate the pursuit of justice.

While there are lulls during some of the legal procedural bits, Grisham’s mastery of the courtroom thriller is never in question. As usual, he presents as smooth a read as you’ll ever experience. The dialogue is sharp and pointed, layered with genuine emotions that make the characters pop off the pages of this morally complex story.

Monogamy by Sue Miller

Here is a taste of what a reader will find: The long marriage of Annie and Graham is a second marriage for both. Each has a past that captured and shaped them. Graham, who co-owns a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a passionate, needy, generous man who clasps his past—his ex-wife, for example—more closely than Annie does hers. It’s not irrelevant that Annie, a thoughtful person and a good-not-great photographer, views the world through her own lens and keeps any boisterous turbulence at a bit of a distance. Annie and Graham really do love one another. But the past is always up for reevaluation. So is our understanding of ourselves and others.

Miller is excellent at conveying and illuminating the inner lives of her characters, and she remains one of the best writers at depicting the day-to-day normality of sexual desire. Events occur in this novel—normal sorts of things—and Miller’s attention, her descriptions and the tempo at which she reveals them help us feel these events truly and deeply. She has found in Monogamy probably the best expression of her longtime interest in sociograms, an exercise to demonstrate how lives intersect and influence each other. Among the relationships of the characters in Monogamy, there are reverberations upon reverberations.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Sue Miller on our ever-changing perceptions of ourselves and each other.

When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

A squeaky-clean honors student gets arrested for selling drugs. A gregarious old man vanishes in the middle of the night, leaving his beloved dog and his belongings behind. Longtime Black residents are disappearing from Gifford Place, and wealthy white people are moving in. Something is definitely wrong with this picture, and it’s worse than run-of-the-mill gentrification.

By now, many will have seen When No One Is Watching described as Rear Window meets Get Out. Those comparisons are shockingly apt. Alyssa Cole’s latest triumph incorporates elements of both psychological thriller and social horror. Its finale is a bit macabre, much like Get Out, and there is a romantic subplot as well, just as there was in Hitchcock’s masterpiece. But Cole’s story is also highly original. She is drawing directly from today’s turbulent social currents and grim realities, crafting a nightmare from everyday terrors, both large and small.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Alyssa Cole shares why she’s wanted to write about gentrification for years.

The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World by Barry Gewen

Henry Kissinger’s approach to American foreign policy continues to be a subject of controversy, even though he’s been out of government since the 1970s. Regarded as a brilliant statesman by many, he has also been called an appeaser, a villain and a war criminal. What was it that caused people to view him so differently? Are there lessons for today we can learn from him? 

This beautifully written and engaging gem is an exciting, exhilarating must-read for anyone interested in international relations, American foreign policy or the ideas of Kissinger, whether you agree with him or not.

For other great 2020 reads, pick up a copy of the monthly BookPage® from your local library or check their website.