Books

These are the 19 best books of 2020, according to local experts

We asked the staff at Brookline Booksmith, Trident Booksellers & Café, Frugal Bookstore, Harvard Book Store, and Porter Square Books for their favorite titles that were published this year.

A woman reads a book as she waits in line at a COVID-19 testing site in the Brooklyn, New York. Kathy Willens / AP

The COVID-19 pandemic may have put a damper on many things in 2020 — but good books weren’t one of them. 

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To review the year’s slate of new titles and get a rundown of the standouts, we turned to staff members at five local bookstores — Brookline Booksmith, Trident Booksellers & Café, Frugal Bookstore, Harvard Book Store, and Porter Square Books

Their favorite new books from the year run the gamut from engrossing fiction to enlightening nonfiction to inspiring memoirs. Whether you’re looking for titles to catch up on from the year or seeking inspiration for the perfect gift for the holidays, the below 19 titles are one part of 2020 not to be left behind, according to the booksellers. 

“American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins (Jan.) 

Clarrissa Cropper, co-owner of Frugal Bookstore, said this novel, which was met with controversy upon its release, has remained one of her store’s top bestsellers through 2020. The story follows a mother and son who are forced to flee their home in Mexico because of a drug cartel and head north towards the United States. Critics of the novel accused Cummins, who identifies as white and Latina, of exploiting and presenting stereotypes of the migrant experience. “I think it was popular because of the controversy, but I think it was popular, too, because of the story she wrote,” Cropper said. 

“The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larson (Feb.)

The latest work of cinematic, narrative nonfiction from Larson was one of the best reads of the year for Ellen Jarrett, book buyer and an employee-owner at Porter Square Books. The new book about Winston Churchill covers the year of the Blitz bombings during World War II and draws on some newly-released archival documents, capturing moments that aren’t typically revealed in standard histories and biographies. “He just makes you feel like you’re there,” Jarrett said. 

“Untamed” by Glennon Doyle (March) 

This new memoir from the author of the bestseller “Love Warrior” is a title that has found an audience with just about everyone, according to Lydia McOscar, assistant buyer at Brookline Booksmith. In it, Doyle does a 180 from her previous book, shedding many of the ideas she set forth there, McOscar said. “The story of ‘Untamed’ is how she specifically, and how women generally, internalize misogyny and these patriarchal ideas from birth, and how they often can masquerade as empowerment or goals but they hold us back in so many ways,” the bookseller said. 

“Deacon King Kong” by James McBride (March)

The new novel from the author of the National Book Award–winning “The Good Lord Bird” isn’t one to miss from 2020, according to Cropper. Set in 1969’s New York City, the narrative follows the events that occur after an old church deacon shoots a drug dealer in the courtyard of a housing project. “It’s about truth and growth and development and fear,” Cropper said. “[McBride] has a way of writing — he mixes faith and humanity.”

“Hurricane Season” by Fernanda Melchor (March) 

This novel, translated from Spanish, is one of the staff favorites in 2020 at the Booksmith. The story begins when a group of kids find the dead body of the local witch in a drainage ditch, beginning the unraveling of the mystery of her murder in the small Mexican town, which is occupied by a wide cast of residents and with potential motives. McOscar said the novel deals directly with trauma, violence, and poverty, addressing the systems of inequity that throughout history have been connected to the murder of so-called “witches.” “It’s just such a visceral book and all these individual stories are so fascinating and so very in your face and just raw,” she said. “It’s also just a fascinating mystery and you’re just drawn into the various stories and the tales of this woman who died at the beginning of it and the whirlwind that surrounds the whole affair.”

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“How Much of These Hills Is Gold” by C Pam Zhang (April) 

Rachel Cass, book buyer at Harvard Book Store, picked this work of fiction about two siblings who have just been orphaned as one of her top reads of the year. The novel follows the siblings as they go on a quest to bury their father, and Cass said the author packs a lot into the tale. “It’s a really beautiful, lyrical novel about understanding their family and their tradition and their place as immigrants, or the children of immigrants, in the West at that time. I really loved [it].”

“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett (June) 

This novel, which was long listed for the National Book Award, was a favorite of the year for three of the booksellers who spoke with Boston.com. “It’s just so beautifully written,” Flynn said. The book weaves the story of identical twin sisters, whose paths after growing up in a small, southern Black community, have diverged. Years later, one sister is back in their hometown, while the other is passing as white and married to a white man. “It’s just really about family and colorism, especially within African American communities, and how difficult that is,” Cropper said. McOscar said readers can expect a page-turner they won’t want to put down. “The book is following their relationship and the ways their lives are intertwined, even at a great distance, as they move into different lives, but also jumps forward to when their two daughters’ lives intersect,” McOscar said. “It’s just a really amazing story that very much draws you in with the characters and the way you get to know them through this family saga.”

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“A Most Beautiful Thing” by Arshay Cooper (June)

If you’re looking for an inspirational read, this memoir is a great one to pick up, Jarrett said. In it, Cooper tells the story of a group of young Black high school students on the West side of Chicago — himself among them — who in the 1990s formed the first all-Black high school rowing team in the country. “The sport utterly transforms them and their lives,” Jarrett said. A documentary based on the book was also released in 2020, narrated and executive produced by Common. 

“Becoming Duchess Goldblatt” by Anonymous (July)

An anonymous memoir might seem impossible, but this one was one of the best books of the year for Cass. It’s written by the individual who anonymously runs the popular Twitter account, Duchess Goldblatt. The memoir delves into the author’s experiences of what was going on in her life when she started the account and how creating an online community helped her. “It’s really intimate and full of deep humanity,” Cass said. 

“Luster” by Raven Leilani (Aug.)

Cass said this debut novel was a favorite among the staff at Harvard Book Store in 2020. The story follows a young Black woman in New York City who finds herself living in the suburban home of her older, white, married lover. “I really loved it, and I know a lot of our booksellers loved it and just connected to it as a novel of desire and loneliness and identity and invisibility,” Cass said. 

“Migrations” by Charlotte McConaghy (Aug.)

This novel about a young woman with a haunted past who goes on a journey to track the migration of the last flock of Arctic terns from Greenland to Antarctica is one of Jarrett’s top picks for the year, calling it in previous conversations a “devastatingly beautiful book.” The woman ends up on a fishing boat, winning over the crew with promises that the birds will lead them to fish, and over the course of their journey, her past is slowly revealed. “It’s probably more important than ever as things develop on the climate change front,” Jarrett said. “It’s just such a great story.”

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“Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson (Aug.)

If you’re only going to read one work of nonfiction from 2020, it should be this one, McOscar said. “It’s incredibly well-researched, just exhaustively documented,” she said. Both Cropper and Flynn also agreed on the importance of the new book. Flynn said everyone should read the work, which presents the case that America has its own unspoken caste system that goes beyond race and class. Wilkerson writes in a compelling and “easy to read way,” she said. “She really goes through how that came to be and how all of these racial divisions have a lot of parallels to other caste systems that we know so well, like in India and in Nazi Germany and how that’s the world we’re living in, in America right now,” Flynn said. 

“Transcendent Kingdom” by Yaa Gyasi (Sept.)

Another important read for the current moment is this novel, which Flynn selected as one of the best books she picked up this year. In it, the author of the previously celebrated debut novel “Homegoing” weaves the story of a woman named Gifty. She is the daughter of Ghanian immigrants who is pursuing her PhD in neuroscience at Stanford and grappling with her family’s history with depression and addiction, including her brother’s overdose death. “It moves between past and present, and it’s just all about opposites — happiness, sadness, good, bad — all those things,” Flynn said. “It’s so beautifully written.”

“Punching the Air” by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (Sept.)

This young adult novel was one of the top reads of the year for McOscar, who said it’s great for both adults and teens. Co-written by Zoboi, a National Book Award finalist, and Salaam, one of the Exonerated 5, it tells the story of a young Black teen whose future is altered when he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. The story, told through verse, is so compelling and absorbing, McOscar said. “Anyone 13 and above will enjoy this book,” she said. 

“Leave the World Behind” by Rumaan Alam (Oct.) 

If you’re looking for a novel with a slow burn that will stick with you, this is it, Flynn said of this book, which she loved. “[It’s a] bit of a stressful novel, but so brilliantly written and so compelling,” she said. The story follows a family from New York City who are renting a home for vacation on Long Island when they get a late-night knock on the door from the house’s panicked owners. “Something may or may not be happening in the world,” Flynn said. “So there’s a lot of basically just digging into how people react in unprecedented circumstances and if our allegiance to each other as humans is greater than our own self. There’s just so many small decisions that get made by all these characters that ring so true in their rawness — they’re not all good decisions.”

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“The Searcher” by Tana French (Oct.)

Another favorite of Jarrett’s from 2020 was the new work from the acclaimed mystery and crime novelist behind the Dublin Murder Squad series. The new, standalone novel weaves mystery with the influences of a Western, telling the story of an ex-Chicago cop who retires to rural Ireland in a bid to get some rest and relaxation. His plan to stay out of the small town’s fray is upended when a local kid with a missing brother asks for his help. French’s prose will completely absorb you, Jarrett said. “She creates this kind of iconoclastic, nonconformist hero who you’re really drawn to immediately,” Jarrett said of the book. 

“She Come By It Natural” by Sarah Smarsh (Oct.)

Cass said she loved this collection of essays from the acclaimed author of “Heartland” focused on Dolly Parton. The essays, originally published as four columns in a music magazine, are less a biography of the iconic musician and more an examination of her work and country music. “Especially country music by women and how that fits into rural feminism — it’s just a really fascinating little nugget of a book,” Cass said. 

“A Promised Land” by Barack Obama (Nov.) 

Both Jarrett and Cropper agreed that the recently released book from the 44th president, the first volume of his presidential memoirs, has to be on the list of best books of 2020. In it, Obama delves into his path from his earliest political aspirations to reflections on his years as president. Cropper said she’s been listening to the audiobook edition of the work, narrated by Obama, and even though she’s not finished with it, it’s one of her top books of the year and a clear favorite at her store. “I really like it so far,” she said. 

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“The Best of Me” by David Sedaris (Nov.)

The new volume from Sedaris is a light and cozy book that Flynn described as almost like putting on an old, warm sweater to read. All the pieces in it have already been published elsewhere, but Sedaris has collected together what he has determined to be the best of his work. “It’s like turning on one of your old favorite sitcoms, like ‘The Office’ or ‘Seinfeld,’” Flynn said. It’s funny, it still is fresh, and it’s just perfect for reading on a day where you just cannot handle doom-scrolling and whatever is going on in the world. It’s a good antidote to all of the craziness.”

What was your favorite new book that was published in 2020? Let us know what title you couldn’t put down this year in the survey below or email us at [email protected] and your submission could be featured in an upcoming story.

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