My favorite books of 2020: Fiction
Gold: A Novel

Gold: A Novel

I actually read this in the last days of 2019, but since I read it after I shared my favorite books of 2019 I'm including it here. When my husband, Will, came on on What Should I Read Next, he named this as his favorite book possibly ever—and so I made it a winter break priority. I LOVED it and read it in two days. The story centers around two velodrome cyclists who are best friends and arch-rivals, training under the same coach for their last remaining shot at the London Olympics, while respectively navigating personal crises and the life-threatening sickness of a child (note that content warning, please). I was riveted as Cleave set out the complicated history between the two women and kept raising the stakes in the present. The story is told from multiple points of view to great effect; the coach's point of view made the book for me. More info →
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Sweet Sorrow

Sweet Sorrow

I was utterly absorbed by this wistful novel about first love, coming of age, and Shakespeare, from the author of One Day. 16-year-old Charlie Lewis doesn’t have much to look forward to. He’s struggling in school, his family’s fallen apart, he’s caring for his depressed father, and he can’t see beyond what seems like an endless summer. But then one day he’s out for a bike ride and literally stumbles into a beautiful girl and a local theater production of Romeo and Juliet. When Charlie asks the girl to coffee she gives him an ultimatum: he has to join the production. Charlie doesn’t see himself as “one of those theater kids,” but he can’t say no to Fran—and this decision changes his whole world. Perceptive, bittersweet, and stirring. More info →
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The Jane Austen Society

The Jane Austen Society

This charming debut was a 2020 Minimalist Summer Reading Guide selection as well as one of our picks for the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club. Jane Austen lived out her last days in the sleepy village of Chawton, and in the days just after World War II, her legacy still looms large. Times are hard, and we meet several villagers burdened with their own private sorrows, who are doing what they’ve always done: turning to the works of Austen for solace. When a local business attempts to buy the Austen property and raze her cottage, the villagers band together to preserve her legacy. At one point, a character muses that Austen’s works present “a world so a part of our own, yet so separate, that entering it is like some kind of tonic.” The same can be said of Jenner’s wonderful book. Audiophile alert: Richard Armitage reads the audiobook, and his narration is predictably outstanding. More info →
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The Vanishing Half

The Vanishing Half

Another 2020 Minimalist Summer Reading Guide selection. I've been waiting for a follow-up to Bennett's smashing debut The Mothers for years, and this historical novel was worth the wait. Identical twins Desiree and Stella grew up in a town so small it doesn't appear on maps. They're closer than close, so Desiree is shocked when Stella vanishes one night after deciding to sacrifice her past—and her relationship with her family—in order to marry a white man, who doesn't know she's black. Desiree never expects to see her sister again. The twins grow up, make lives for themselves, and raise daughters—and it's those daughters who bring the sisters together again. It's a reunion Stella both longs for and fears, because she can't reveal the truth without admitting her whole life is a lie. Bennett expertly weaves themes of family, race, identity, and belonging into one juicy, unputdownable novel spanning five turbulent decades. More info →
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The City We Became: A Novel

The City We Became: A Novel

Yet another 2020 Minimalist Summer Reading Guide selection! That's no coincidence; I pack that short list with books I LOVE. I've enjoyed Jemisin's work in the past, but her new urban fantasy—the first in a planned trilogy—nevertheless took me by surprise. Every city has a soul, and the great cities of civilization—like Rome, Athens, São Paolo—finally reach a point when they come to life. Now it’s New York’s time to be born, but the city itself is too weakened by a gruesome attack to complete the process. If New York is to live, five people—or, more precisely, five avatars, one for each of the city’s boroughs—must rise up and unite to evade, and then destroy, the creeping tentacles of their opponent, the amorphous power personified by the Woman in White. Jemisin layers her fantasy upon a deeply realistic modern-day New York. A wild and wonderful ride, fantastically inventive and imaginative. More info →
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Beach Read

Beach Read

I enjoyed this book so much I read it twice! That cover is perfection, but it's also confused a lot of readers: take note that appearances aside, this is no rom-com. January is a 29-year-old romance writer who no longer believes in happily-ever-after. Demoralized and broke, she moves into the beach house she inherited when her father died, hoping to lick her wounds and finish her current manuscript. But then, in a cruel twist of fate, she discovers her neighbor is the beloved literary fiction writer Augustus Everett, her college rival (and crush), whom she hoped never to see again. But it turns out Gus has troubles of his own, and so the two make a bet to get their writing back on track: January will try her hand at the “bleak literary fiction” that Gus writes, and Gus will write a romance novel. A warm and delightfully meta take on love, writing, and second chances. More info →
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Passing

Passing

I read this for the first time this year, and it was not at all what I expected. Written in 1929, set during the Jazz Age in Harlem, this is the story of two childhood friends who reconnect after choosing very different paths. Both women are Black and light-skinned. Clare has chosen to pass for white, and is even married to a white man who knows nothing of her heritage or history. Irene is married to a successful African-American physician. As the women spend more time together, Irene's life starts looking better and better to Clare ... and what unfolds is a battle of wits in a story akin to a psychological thriller. The story feels so fresh and unexpected, I couldn't believe it was written nearly a hundred years ago. What a page-turner! More info →
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Upright Women Wanted

Upright Women Wanted

A reading friend passed this my way, describing it as a tale of "outlaw librarian lesbian spies." This genre-bending novella is a little bit fantasy, a little bit dystopia, with a neo-Western vibe. It starts with a woman on the run, fleeing a bad marriage and the law after her partner was hanged for possessing Unapproved Materials that were not government-sanctioned. She takes shelter with a band of traveling librarians—and quickly discovers that these librarians are insurrectionists against the state. I loved how this book was constantly surprising in every way. Gailey made me laugh on every page, even as their characters shoot up gangsters in their quest to dismantle the patriarchy and right society's wrongs. I proceeded to read nearly all their works over the course of the year. Magic for Liars is a close second favorite work of theirs, but I chose Upright Women Wanted for the surprise-and-delight factor. More info →
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Shiner

Shiner

"Making good moonshine isn't that different from telling a good story, and no one tells a story like a woman." So begins this new literary novel, out in May, that deserves more attention than it's received thus far. Wren lives in the Appalachian Mountains with her family: her snake-handler father, who scares and enraptures the town with his preaching, and her mother, who only ever wanted to get off the mountain with her best friend Ivy, but whose parents made her marry. When Ivy stumbles into the fire and Wren's father performs a "miraculous healing," it sets in motion a chain of events that has devastating consequences for all. Gorgeous, lush, and beautifully sympathetic, I read this in one sitting. Recommended reading for fans of Jayber Crow—the similarities between the two books run deep, though they're not immediately apparent. More info →
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Hamnet

Hamnet

I adore Maggie O'Farrell; her 2016 novel This Must Be the Place is one of my all-time favorites. In her sweeping new novel, she takes a few historically known facts about Shakespeare’s wife and family and, from this spare skeleton, builds out a lush, vivid world. You should know this book is devastating, and I consumed the better part of a box of Kleenex while reading it. Yet with its captivating central character and evocative storytelling, I didn’t want to leave Shakespeare’s world—or put down O’Farrell’s writing. The story centers on Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, who is torn apart by grief when their son Hamnet dies at age 11. Soon after, Shakespeare writes Hamlet—and O’Farrell convincingly posits that the two events are closely tied. In her distinctive style, O’FarrellI takes you to the heart of what really matters in life, making you feel such a deep sense of loss for Hamnet that you won’t look at your own life the same way. More info →
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The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

I read and enjoyed my advance review copy ages ago, and I'm so glad it's finally here and landing with readers! The story begins in France, 1714: a girl is running for her life. She's been warned to never pray to the gods that answer after dark, but she's desperate to escape an unwanted marriage—and so makes a deal with the devil. In doing so, she gains immortality—but only slowly does she realize that she's given up the possibility that anyone will remember her, ever. Not her legacy, her existence, or even her name. Over the next 300 years, she learns to work within the confines of her curse, moving through a world where she cannot leave a mark. Until one day, in a Manhattan bookstore (it's called The Last Word, and boasts a bookstore cat named Book), she encounters a beat-up copy of Homer's Odyssey and a man who offers her the kind of hope she hasn’t felt for 300 years. An imaginative, absorbing, genre-busting read. More info →
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Olive, Again

Olive, Again

I've been meaning to read this and Olive Kitteredge for years, and it was a joy to read them both practically back-to-back in February. Retired schoolteacher Olive is not keen about the way her small Maine town is changing. Through a series of interconnected short stories, we get to know Olive's family and some of the townspeople as they each grapple with their respective problems. I enjoyed this follow-up even more than the Pulitzer-winning original. Strout has a genius for capturing profound emotions in everyday moments, which made this collection by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. More info →
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Into the Drowning Deep

Into the Drowning Deep

You may notice that a book that takes me by surprise is likely to end up as a year-end favorite—and this one sure did. As a confirmed scaredy-cat I was afraid to pick up this sci-fi/horror novel, but a couple of readers I trust told me I could probably handle it. They were right. Here's the deal: Mermaids are real, but they are not like Ariel. Some researchers believe this with their whole heart and have made studying these mermaids, or sirens, their life's work. Others are deeply skeptical, but regardless what camp they're in, a huge swath of the scientific community isabout to set sail on another voyage to the Mariana Trench, a follow-up to a voyage seven years earlier ended in tragedy with everyone on board lost at sea. No one is exactly sure why; skeptics called the whole thing a hoax. Both the siren skeptics and the true believers are about to discover mermaids are very real—and it will be a miracle if anyone gets out of there alive. More info →
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