You’ve probably had a lot of time to put a dent in your reading list this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually did.
Listen, things happen!
Even in this seemingly endless period of quarantine and self-reflection known as 2020, there’s been a lot to keep up with—and that means the best books of 2020 might not exactly be your first priority.
This year’s new book releases, however, provide endless options for enjoyment, from incisive essays written during quarantine, to tales of heroism and hope, to thrilling stories of intrigue and friendship.
In a year that has mostly grounded us in one place, diving into a really good book—immersing yourself in its world, living in its language, and transporting your heart and mind to places all around the globe—has been a necessary reprieve.
And that’s what these titles all have in common. Whether you’re looking for sweet escapism from your everyday life or you’re searching for a bit of clarity among all of this uncertainty, there’s something for everyone on this list.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
It’s easy to see why Brit Bennett’s poignant sophomore novel The Vanishing Half has been heralded as the year’s best. Set in 1968 during a period of profound unrest and nationwide civil rights protests—and released this past summer amid more unrest and protests—The Vanishing Half follows identical twin sisters from a small Louisiana town who choose to live very different lives as adults, one as a Black woman and one passing as white.
Bennett explores how this one decision changes the course of two lives, spanning generations of self-reflection, discovery, and resentment. Is it possible to escape your inherited racial trauma, to erase the past in the name of a better future?
Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America by R. Eric Thomas
Elle.com columnist R. Eric Thomas brings his signature candor and humor to his book of autobiographical essays, Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America. Released in the Before Time, or before the world entered lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, this witty, introspective collection now reads like a balm for an anxious soul.
Each essay examines what it means to be seen as “other” by the world—and by yourself—through Eric’s own life experience as a Black, gay man living in America. In Here For It, a writer navigates his own marginalization and self-acceptance through stories of code-switching in college and reconciling his Christian faith with his sexuality, and in doing so he attempts to make a few conclusions about what it means to really, truly be yourself when your very identity seems at odds with the world.
In her debut novel The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes, author Elissa R. Sloan ponders the dark side of fame with the tragic fictional tale of Cassidy Holmes, a pop star from the early 2000s who dies by suicide and leaves her former bandmates with more questions than answers.
Told through the eyes of the four members of girl group Gloss, including Cassidy herself, the narrative charts the band’s swift rise and fall, unfolding like a mystery as it weaves together both the past and present to give Cassidy (also known as “Sassy Gloss”) a sense of justice.
The novel also captures the exploitative aura of the early aughts, a time when celebrity reigned supreme. Think of it as 13 Reasons Why meets Daisy Jones & The Six—a mediation on fame, friendships, depression—and it will keep you turning until the last page. But be prepared: It’s a slow burn.
Intimations by Zadie Smith
A brief collection of essays written during lockdown, Zadie Smith’s Intimations captures the specificity of this moment, a period now frozen in time and memory. The book finds the prolific author working through her own thoughts amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“There is no great difference between novels and banana bread,” she reasons. Perhaps she’s right. And Intimations, like baked bread, is warm and filling and homemade—an experiment cooked up quickly but nevertheless made with love.
They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman
A debut novel years in the making, They Wish They Were Us is a YA thriller that already has a TV adaptation in the works with real-life friends Sydney Sweeney and Halsey attached to star and produce the project.
A story of rich kids behaving badly, author and Cosmopolitan editor Jessica Goodman poses the question, how far would someone go to be popular? At Gold Coast Prep, an elite secret society known as The Players rule the school—they get the best grades, they throw the best parties, and they’re the ones everyone wants to be and be with.
But pretty, popular Jill Newman’s seemingly perfect senior year is turned upside-down when she receives a text from someone who claims that there’s more to the story of her best friend Shaila Arnold’s murder than previously thought. So now it’s up to Jill to solve the crime. Murder. Intrigue. Class. Influence. Power. Welcome to The Players’ twisted inner circle, where secrets are buried deep.
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
Yet another stunning debut, Megha Majumdar’s A Burning is a timely and thrilling story of injustice, corruption, and oppression that begins with a terrorist attack in modern-day Kolkata, India. Jivan, a poor Muslim woman, is charged with helping execute the gruesome attack after a miscalculated Facebook post criticizing the police makes her a target.
Two stories of womanhood told from very different perspectives, but the systems of discrimination and misogyny are all the same. The true beauty of Megha’s work is that even amidst such oppression, her characters never lose their ability to dream for a better tomorrow.
Ultimately, it’s a tale of hope and perseverance—an important message for so many people in 2020.
The Death Of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Despite its title, Akwaeke Emezi’s devastating The Death of Vivek Oji is actually about life, a life cut too short but one that was no less meaningful. Set in Nigeria where Emezi grew up, the novel explores gender and identity through the eyes of Vivek Oji, a young person who’s prevented from being their true self in life because of pressures from their family and a society that punishes those who are deemed different.
But in death—a final act of transcendence—Vivek can be their true self, and as loved ones process their own grief they also come to accept Vivek and uncover the life of someone they never allowed themselves to fully know. Equal parts heartwarming and emotionally shattering, the life and death of Vivek Oji is truly unforgettable.
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier
Pizza Girl is feeling a little lost. Understandably so. She’s 18 years old, pregnant, and working as a pizza delivery girl. Life is nothing more than an endless stack of warm pies and horrifying sameness. Such is the premise of Jean Kyoung Frazier’s colorful debut novel Pizza Girl, a coming-of-age story that finds its reluctant young heroine grappling with a host of issues: impending motherhood, her Korean-American identity, her alcoholic father’s death, her immigrant mother’s expectations, and her overwhelming feelings of resentment. Her boyfriend is supportive yet suffocating, and the last feeling she can muster up is any sort of excitement for the future.
Until she meets Jenny, a customer whose unusual order of pepperoni and pickles breaks her out of her aimless spell. It’s an infatuation forged from the desire to surround herself with someone who’s even more of a mess than she is—but in trying to fix someone else she comes face to face with her own self-destructive habits and ends up helping herself in the process.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Is there a scientific explanation for human suffering? Gifty, a Ghanaian-American neuroscience PhD candidate, wants to find out in Transcendent Kingdom. Surely, there must be a logical reason for why her family has suffered so much, first with the departure of her father, who returned to Ghana when she was was just a child, then with the loss of her brother—a star athlete who died from a heroin overdose after an ankle injury—and now with her mother’s deep depression.
But as Gifty turns to science for answers, she also begins to reckon with her childhood faith. Is salvation possible? Is grief inevitable? Is there a meaning to all of this suffering? These are the heady questions at the heart of Yaa Gyasi’s stunning novel. And maybe they’ve been at the forefront of your mind too this year.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Part memoir, part cautionary tale, Anna Wiener’s incisive Uncanny Valley chronicles her time working at tech startups in Silicon Valley during the boom period of 2013 through 2016—a time of “no hurdles, no limits, no bad ideas,” as she describes.
The reality, of course, was more dystopian than utopian. The book not only illuminates the tech industry’s structural inequalities for women, but it also details how those imbalances of power lead to a workplace culture that prioritizes productivity over personal health and the ways in which technology is being used as a tool for surveillance, not service.
Full of funny, insightful anecdotes and enough corporate garbage language to last several lifetimes, Uncanny Valley is both essential and unsettling.