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Turn the page: 2020’s recommended reads

November 30, 2020
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Despite everything that we’ve been through this year, it hasn’t stopped the literary machine from continuing to churn; we’ve seen many tremendous literary offerings hitting shelves in 2020.

Reviewing books is one of the best parts of my job. As part of that job, I’ve read dozens of books over the course of the past year. I freely admit that I tend to seek out works that I know will resonate for me – and hence usually enjoy the books I review – but even with that degree of curation, there’s no denying that there are always some that particularly stand out.

This is not your traditional “best of” list – not my style. Instead, consider this a collection of recommendations. These are suggestions; I enjoyed them, so I thought that you might as well. I’ve also included selections from my writings about these books (please note that the full reviews are available on our website). Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive list – there are scores more books out there, exceptional works that I simply never got a chance to read.

I’m not arrogant enough to call these the best books of the year – it’s all subjective and this is just one man’s opinion. What I can say is that every one of these works captured my imagination and my attention … and perhaps one or more of them will do the same for you.

And now, without further ado, here are my recommended reads from 2020.

Fiction

The Glass Hotel – Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel” is a mesmerizing puzzle box of a book, one whose many interconnected parts are in seemingly constant motion, both through space and time. That sense of propulsive perpetuity creates an almost insatiable hunger in the reader; we simply can’t stop. There’s a rhythm to the steady movement that borders on the hypnotic, sweeping us away at speeds that vary from snail-paced to breakneck – all in service to an incredible story.

Simply put, it is masterful, an elegantly constructed work of great emotional power and literary sophistication. While the narrative complexity is significant, it never once enters into the realm of convolution; every piece of the puzzle is placed just so, allowing the overall picture to appear in exactly the manner in which the author intends. It’s a meditation on just how surprisingly thin the foundations on which we stand can be – and how easily they can break, leaving us floundering in shadowy depths we never expected and don’t understand.

Truly a great book, one that will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

(Read our full review here.)

Godshot – Chelsea Bieker

Chelsea Bieker’s debut novel “Godshot” tells the story of a teenage girl swept up in the fervor surrounding a charismatic religious leader, a man who many in her small town believe to be something more than mortal. Through her eyes, we watch as a small town crumbles beneath the weight of faith – faith that may be misplaced.

It’s a bleak tale of desperate hope, an illustration of the personal horrors people are willing to endure for any possibility of redemption – even an illusory one – as well as exploring the courage it takes to defy the lockstep beliefs of those around you … and the consequences of that defiance.

“Godshot” is an engaging exploration of the complexities and contradictions that often accompany unquestioning faith, delving into just how desperate the measures are that can come with desperate times. Challenging and occasionally unsettling, it’s a book filled with striking moments that will likely linger in your memory long after you put it down.

(Read the full review here.)

If It Bleeds – Stephen King

Nobody does novellas like Stephen King.

Sure, he’s a tremendous novelist and a great writer of short fiction, but more than perhaps any author of popular fiction in recent decades, he embraces the gray area between the two. And some of his most acclaimed work has sprung from that particular vein.

His latest book is “If It Bleeds,” the latest in his once a decade-ish string of novella collections, book such as “Different Seasons,” “Four Past Midnight” and “Full Dark, No Stars.” It’s a quartet of stories that are a little too long to be labelled short, all of which are packed with that uniquely King combination of fear and empathy.

“If It Bleeds” practically pulses with the humanistic empathy that marks the best of King’s work. It’s an outstanding quartet, featuring four tales that are wildly different from one another, yet undeniably bound together by the voice of our finest storyteller. There is much to fear in the worlds created by Stephen King, but even in the depth of his darkest shadows, a light of hope steadily glows. More exceptional work from the maestro.

(Read our full review here.)

Leave the World Behind – Rumaan Alam

Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind” offers a small, intimate look at the end of the world. Through the lens of two families – largely strangers to one another – the reader is offered a glimpse at the way in which our perceptions of the world are based on a shared reality … and what happens when that shared reality is shattered in ways we don’t and can’t possibly know.

It is a thoughtful and propulsive read, a story that draws you in and asks – nay, demands – to be compulsively consumed. This is not a book about the world bearing witness to its own end, but rather about what it means to not know, to not understand, even as our faith in our world’s permanence is irrevocably and rightly shaken apart.

Too often, literature allows itself to be bound by convention and tropes. Rumaan Alam takes a different approach with “Leave the World Behind,” choosing instead to give us a blending and bending of ideas, moving in one direction before pivoting to another and blurring the lines between them, setting the compass needle to spinning and rewriting the lines on the map to create something quite different from what you’ve experienced before. Loud or quiet, large or small – every ending is its own.

(Read our full review here.)

The Lightness – Emily Temple

“The Lightness” – the debut novel from Literary Hub editor Emily Temple – is a fractured, fascinating look at a teenage girl’s pursuit of understanding – understanding of her circumstances and understanding of herself. Structurally daring and prosaically deft, the narrative moves back and forth across time (though all is past from the perspective of our frank and forthright narrator), capturing the fluidity and futility of memory.

It’s also a story of the complex sociological minefield that is friendship between teenaged girls, delving into the eggshell-stepping delicacy that can come from the deep and not always fully conscious desire to connect with those who may or may not have your best interest at heart … and are perfectly willing to co-opt your journey in order to advance along their own.

In a way, Temple has crafted a kind of metaphysical “Mean Girls,” one where we’re aware of Regina George’s ultimate fate from the onset. This notion of the power imbalances and transactional tendencies that come part and parcel with fraught female friendships bears a real universality; Temple has captured the desperate sadness and the giddy mania that comes with surrendering to that desire for inclusion.

(Read the full review here.)

Missionaries – Phil Klay

Phil Klay made a massive splash on the literary scene with his debut book “Redeployment” in 2014 – it won the National Book Award that year, as well as the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, awarded for a best first book in any genre (as a member in good standing of NBCC, I actually cast my vote for “Redeployment” to win the John Leonard).

Klay is back with his first novel. “Missionaries” is a look at the global war machine, the world-spanning business of warfare writ large and small. Through interconnected perspectives and narrators, it’s a look at the many ways in which the horrors of war can impact those who participate – willingly or otherwise.

Spanning decades of time and thousands of miles, “Missionaries” is a tale of the damage war can do and the influence it can have on the choices that those involved ultimately make. It’s also about the high cost, in money and in blood, exacted by the act. And it’s a tacit admission that if you’re in it, you’re in it – all are complicit, regardless of what they might tell themselves.

(Read our full review here.)

The Only Good Indians - Stephen Graham Jones

The last decade or so has seen an explosion of indigenous voices in the realm of speculative fiction. Native American and First Nations authors have always used elements of their respective cultures in their work, but the last 10 years has seen a real growth of distinct and diverse voices in the realms of fantasy, sci-fi, horror and the like.

One of the most prolific – and most talented – indigenous genre authors working right now is Stephen Graham Jones. In many ways, Graham, with his two dozen books over the past couple of decades, has led the way – he’s definitely a huge part of the vanguard.

His latest is “The Only Good Indians,” a tense and thrilling work of horror. It’s a tale of the consequences – both mundane and supernatural – that spring from the decisions that are made. A decade ago, four friends embarked on a fateful hunting trip – one whose aftermath cast a ten-years long shadow over their lives … and the price ultimately paid.

“The Only Good Indians” is the best kind of genre fiction – the kind that treats its genre with genuine respect. This isn’t just a great horror novel. It’s a great novel, period. We’re lucky that writers like Stephen Graham Jones choose to turn their tremendous talents toward the speculative. And when those writers also have important things to say and reasons to say them, well … that’s when you get something unforgettable.

(Read our full review here.)

Perfect Tunes – Emily Gould

Emily Gould’s “Perfect Tunes” tells the tale of a woman who makes her way to New York City at the very beginning of the 21st century, determined to make a name for herself. But her rapidly ascending star goes out too quickly, sending her life down a road of struggle, though she’s never quite fully removed from the possibility of what could have been.

It’s an exploration of what it means to just miss being a star and of the passion and motivation behind creation. It’s also a story of mothers and daughters (and parenthood in general) and of the consequences of compromises. It is also a wry and irreverent look at being an artist and how elusive popular creative success really is.

“Perfect Tunes” is thoughtful and funny, packed with ideas and observations that are quirky in a way that is accessible and engaging. The story it tells is extremely specific while never being exclusive, capturing a universality of experience – we’ve all had dreams, and we’ve all moved on from dreams. And in Gould’s eyes, that moving on process might be difficult, but often presents rewards of its own.

(Read the full review here.)

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke’s “Piranesi” is her first since 2004’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” an immersive story whose distinct voice quickly captures your mind’s ear. Piranesi is one of those characters that clarifies themselves IMMEDIATELY; we’re in his head in a matter of a few sentences, charmed by his naivete and slightly off-kilter manner of speaking and engaging with the world – his simple descriptor names for the statues, for instance. He’s the sole full-time resident of an impossible place, a self-appointed caretaker of something he doesn’t fully understand – or remember. His innocence leaves him ripe for misunderstanding, making him ideally unreliable.

“Piranesi” is a first-rate work from a first-rate writer, a wonderful and surreal romp. It reads like a pop cover of Borges, embracing aesthetic complexity in the service of exploring the ethics of exploration – all in just a couple hundred pages. Susanna Clarke is as good as it gets as far as wedding literary and genre conceits in her fiction; this is another example of her considerable abilities, one that is well worth the 16-year wait. You can take my word for it.

(Read our full review here.)

Shakespeare for Squirrels - Christopher Moore

Making someone laugh is hard. Making them laugh with nothing but words on a page is REALLY hard.

Of course, then you have someone like Christopher Moore who totally throws off the curve. See, Moore’s entire bibliography is packed with capital-C Comic novels, including a couple that warrant inclusion among the very best ever (though even lesser Moore is funnier than 99.9% of the self-styled comedic literature out there).

His latest is “Shakespeare for Squirrels,” the third in his ongoing series of parodic pastiche featuring the erstwhile fool Pocket of Dog Snogging. Like its predecessors “Fool” and “The Serpent of Venice,” this latest offering drops its nimble, quick-witted and foul-mouthed protagonist into a setting spun off from the brilliance of the Bard.

“Shakespeare for Squirrels” delights in squeezing and twisting a beloved story in ways both broad and subtle, all in service to wringing more laughs from the proceedings. Moore continues to cement his spot as popular fiction’s funniest writer, giving us a sharp and sardonic adventure. No one strikes the balance between highbrow and lowbrow like he does – this book is just the latest example of the tremendous comedic gifts he brings to bear. Fans of comic fiction, mystery stories and/or the Bard will have a hell of a good time.

(Read the full review here.)

Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s ninth book is “Utopia Avenue,” a story of the rise and fall of the titular band, an eclectic group of ahead-of-their-time musicians that fate (and an enterprising manager) brings together in London in the late 1960s. Through this idiosyncratic crew, Mitchell explores the peculiarities of fame and success during one of the weirdest, wildest times in the history of popular music.

It’s a sweeping psychedelic story, an alternate pop history that features a slew of famous and familiar names crossing the paths of our heroes in the course of their ascent. It’s a brightly colored and brutal fable that is equal parts celebration and warning regarding the raw power inherent to music. The pull of creative forces can sometimes be beyond our control, leaving the creator no choice but to hang on tight and hope for the best – a best that is far from guaranteed.

“Utopia Avenue” evokes the spirit of the ‘60s while leaning into its own vision of the time and place. It’s a deconstruction of the pursuit of fame – the thrill of the chase and the chaos that comes with success. It’s about the double-edged sword of creation, the gifts and curses inherent to harnessing the power of art. It’s about the voices surrounding us and within us … and choosing which ones warrant our attention. And in the end, it’s about the music.

Long live rock and roll. 

(Read our full review here.)

Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick – David Wong

David Wong’s coarsely-named “Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick” is the sequel to his delightfully profane and bizarre 2015 novel “Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits.” This new book is a sharp and satiric continuation of that story, yet it also manages to largely stand on its own – a relative rarity for genre series. That’s why I’m eschewing my usual tendency to avoid sequels and series continuations in these year-end round-ups to include it.

It’s smart sci-fi that delights in playing dumb, hiding sophisticated ideas and themes behind bizarre set pieces and all manner of creative profanity. It’s also a rip-roarer of an adventure tale, packed with high-concept twists and turns. All in all, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

“Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick” is something different, high-concept ideas in lowbrow clothing. It’s a read that’ll work on whatever level you want it to, opening the door to deeper insight while also operating as straightforward comic sci-fi. Basically, if you want David Wong to punch your brain in the dick, you should check this one out.

(Read our full review here.)

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Nonfiction

Answers in the Form of Questions – Claire McNear

Claire McNear has been writing about “Jeopardy!” for years. However, her new book “Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!” delves far deeper than she ever has gone before. Through a wealth of interviews – including over 100 contestants – and significant behind-the-scenes access, McNear offers up a closer examination of the beloved game show than any we’ve seen before.

“Answers in the Form of Questions” is a fantastic read for anyone who loves “Jeopardy!” It is heartfelt and hilarious, a well-reported and deeply-researched plunge into the world of everybody’s favorite question-and-answer (sorry – answer-and question) show. And while the circumstances of the moment may render it somewhat bittersweet, those seeking comfort could well find some within these pages.

This new book is an informative, entertaining and generally excellent look at the best game show in the world.

What is “Answers in the Form of Questions.”

(Read our full review here.)

Author in Chief – Craig Fehrman

Have you ever considered the literary impact our chief executives have had?

That consideration is the foundation of Craig Fehrman’s “Author in Chief: The Untold Story of our Presidents and the Books They Wrote.” It’s a years-long undertaking packed with an incredible depth of research and thoughtful analysis, all of it devoted to exploring the literary output of our presidents.

From the very beginning, the men who have led this country have been men of letters. Just about every man who has held the office has at least one book – and often considerably more – to their name. And these books, whether they were works intended to aid in campaigns or to recount legacies or something altogether different, offer completely different perspectives on the men who wrote them. What “Author in Chief” does is give us a chance to take a new view of our Commanders-in-Chief.

“Authors in Chief” is an absolutely absorbing read. The combination of exceptionally detailed research and well-crafted prose results in a truly engaging work of nonfiction. It’s a fascinating look at American history that isn’t quite like anything you’ve read before, a chance to view the men who have led this country through a different and very specific lens.

(Read the full review here.)

The Biggest Bluff – Maria Konnikova

Play the man, not the cards. It’s an adage that has been circulating in the poker world since there has been a poker world in which it could circulate. But how true is it?

That’s one of the fundamental questions explored in Maria Konnikova’s “The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win.” The pitch was simple – go from utter neophyte to the World Series of Poker in one year. But while she achieved her goal, Konnikova also wound up completely changing the trajectory of her life, both personally and professionally. Her voyage through the poker world opened her eyes to a number of truths about herself and her perceptions and proclivities.

It also turned her into a hell of a player. A good player … and a surprisingly successful one.

Maria Konnikova’s “The Biggest Bluff” is a wonderful read, a piece of engaging experiential nonfiction reminiscent of the participatory work of George Plimpton. Konnikova’s prose gifts are on full display throughout, capturing vivid snapshots of the poker world – moments seedy and sublime alike. She also does incredible work in making her personal journey accessible; anyone who has ever sought to learn something new will see reflections of their own quest in these pages.

(Read the full review here.)

Eat a Peach – David Chang

Restaurant impresario David Chang’s memoir “Eat a Peach” – co-written with Gabe Ulla – walks readers through his unusual and checkered journey to the top of his profession. From his early days in a strict and religious Korean-American family to his start in restaurant kitchens to the early uneasiness of his Momofuku endeavors to his ultimate ascendance to the upper echelons of the food world, we’re given insight into how he got to where he is.

But that’s just half the story. We also learn about a life lived in constant fear of failure. Chang is brutally honest and forthcoming about his up-and-down fight against depression and his ongoing struggles with anger management. It’s a success story that features plenty of misfires. The one constant throughout is a deep-seated and genuine love of cooking, both in terms of culinary exploration and cultural storytelling.

“Eat a Peach” is a delight, a book that will prove fascinating to anyone interested in the culinary world. Chang’s honesty and humor are just two of the many quality ingredients that make up the recipe for this delicious reading. Whether you’re a full-on foodie or simply a Food Network junkie, you’ll want to dig into this one.

(Read the full review here.)

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) – Katie Mack

Astrophysicist Katie Mack’s “The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking)” is a smart, surprisingly funny look at some of the ways that cosmologists believe the universe could potentially end. Don’t worry – it probably isn’t taking place anytime soon. Most of these endings won’t happen tomorrow. Probably.

It’s an accessible and engaging work of pop science, one that finds a way to strike a balance between the intricate physics and mathematics that go into these explorations and an easy narrative tonality that allows even those without PhDs to wrap their heads around these big-by-definition ideas. Consider this a crash course in cosmic eschatology, a sort of End Of It All 101. It is informative and entertaining in the way that only the very best science writing can be.

“The End of Everything” is science writing for the masses in the best possible way, a book that simplifies some staggeringly complex ideas without ever condescending to its audience. Its casual tone and charming good humor allow us to fully engage with the intricacies – both large and small – of this fascinating subject. Ironically enough, you’ll be sad to reach the end of “The End of Everything.”

(Read the full review here.)

The Inside Game - Keith Law

Baseball is a game of decisions, both on the field and off it. And when we talk about Major League Baseball, well – there are A LOT of choices that need to be made. Whether we’re talking about in-game strategy or front office maneuvering, the sport is rife with opportunities to make decisions.

But how do we know if they’re the right ones? How do we know if we’re truly making optimal choices or if we’re being guided (or misguided) by subconscious belief systems and biases of which we may not even be fully aware?

Answers to those questions are among the many things that Keith Law is delving into with “The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves.” It’s an effort to make accessible the behavioral science behind the inherent biases that can impact our decisions, baseball or otherwise.

While it is far from your typical sports book, “The Inside Game” is indicative of the ideas being utilized by the game’s thought leaders. Forward-thinking organizations are embracing awareness of these biases to build teams that operate more efficiently both in the dugout and in the front office. What Law does here is find a way to make the behavioral scientific concepts accessible to a broader audience by exploring the connections – direct and indirect – to the baseball realm. Smart and savvy, “The Inside Game” is a gem.

Although who knows? Maybe I’m biased.

(Read our full review here.)

Mill Town – Kerri Arsenault

Parts of who we are tend to be defined by the places we’re from. We are more than our hometowns, but forever OF our hometowns. And telling our own stories of those places can be far more complicated than we anticipate.

Kerri Arsenault’s “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99) is her story, a story about her hometown and her family’s life there. It is also about the place in a grander sense, defined as it is by the presence of industry and the town’s risk/reward relationship with it. Telling the tale of her family is inextricably entangled with the story of the town – and you can’t tell the story of the town without telling the story of the mill.

What follows is a memoir, yes, a remembrance of a small-town childhood. But it is also a thorough look at the lasting impact – positives and negatives alike – that the town’s reliance on and acceptance of the mill has had on those who live there. It’s a story of the compromises we’re willing to make – and the untruths we’re willing to tell ourselves – in the name of perceived prosperity.

(Read the full review here.)

The Splendid and the Vile - Erik Larson

“Oh great,” you groan. “Another book about Winston Churchill. Just what the world needs.”

Well … from Erik Larson? I mean … yes?

The bestselling historian – author of acclaimed works such as “Thunderstruck,” “Dead Wake” and “The Devil in the White City” – has turned his narrative gifts and powers of insight onto the Prime Minister with “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.” Far from the dusty doorstop of a book you might expect, “The Splendid and the Vile” is an example of Larson at his best.

By casting a wider net and adding the context provided by those captured in the man’s orbit, Larson has provided a valuable and worthwhile addition to the Churchillian canon. “The Splendid and the Vile” is a masterful plunge into the character of a truly historic figure, one possessed of all the propulsive power of great fiction and driven by the honesty and pathos of fact.

(Read the full review here.)

Thinking Inside the Box – Adrienne Raphel

I love crossword puzzles. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve found real joy in solving those black-and-white grids. From the daily newspaper to collections in books to online sources, I’ve been a cruciverbalist for most of my life.

Adrienne Raphel loves crosswords as well. She loves them so much, in fact, that she went ahead and wrote a book about them. “Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them” is a thoughtful and in-depth look at a hobby that has been occupying minds for over a century. Through a combination of historical research and first-person experience, Raphel takes the reader on an engaging and entertaining stroll across and down the cross-world.

Crossword devotees – among whose numbers I very much count myself – will absolutely adore this book. Even the most hardcore among us will almost certainly discover something new here. Yet even those with just a passing puzzling familiarity will be engaged, thanks to Raphel’s captivating storytelling style and clear love for her subject matter. Just smart and quirky and a hell of a lot of fun.

In closing, a crossword clue: Eleven-letter word for “Quality of Adrienne Raphel’s ‘Thinking Inside the Box.’”

(Read our full review here.)

The Wax Pack – Brad Balukjian

When I first heard about “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball's Afterlife” by Brad Balukjian, my reaction was pure and basic: “God, that’s a f---ing good idea.”

Balukjian, a lifelong baseball fan, undertook a simple, yet deeply fascinating adventure. He bought a pack of Topps baseball cards from 1986, the year he got into collecting. He popped the decades-old gum into his mouth and flipped through the 15 cards, regaling himself with ghosts of seasons past. And then, he packed up his life and embarked on an epic road trip, a cross-country voyage in which he hoped to make contact with the players he found when he peeled the paper from the titular wax pack.

The result is something unexpected, a thoughtful exploration of fandom that also serves as a glimpse of the different directions a faded athlete might go. And in the process of delving into this sports-loving memory hole, Balukjian himself becomes more present, undertaking an effort to look back at his own history.

(Read our full review here.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2020 17:28

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