Best of 2020: Authors’ Picks

We were curious to know what the authors of some of the year’s biggest titles would choose as their favorite books of the year, so we headed to Twitter to ask them! We requested they send along what they felt was the best book they read in 2020 (not necessarily published this year however), along with a blurb about why they liked it (or in some cases them). We were overjoyed with the responses we received and hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did! And hopefully you find more than a few great books too!

Rumaan Alam

Author of Leave the World Behind and That Kind of Mother

Andrea Bartz

Author of The Herd

My favorite book of 2020 was Take Me Apart, a fierce and feminist debut from Sara Sligar. It’s a literary thriller about an archivist obsessed with solving the mystery of a photographer’s violent death many years earlier, and it’s beautifully written and totally absorbing. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Michelle Bowdler

Author of Is Rape a Crime?: A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto

I have a few books I loved in 2020. In all candor, the many lists of “best books” published at the end of the year never fully captures so many wonderful books enjoyed and cherished by readers and can hurt when authors search for their work amongst them. Whether authors are on one list or another, I am certain readers at home have laughed, cried, and, perhaps shyly reached out to let the author know what their work meant to them.

So, I am choosing to highlight a few books I loved, but there have been so many more. What resonates with one person may not resonate with another. This is not an exhaustive list of my Best Books. It’s a few books that meant a lot to me this year and there are so many more to come.

I published my own memoir this year and am a little surprised I got through any books, but, in fact, reading continued to feed me, calm my anxieties, help me connect with the human experience across the Covid landscape. I found I was drawn to non-fiction and memoir more than ever, and there were so many excellent ones to choose from – many more still in a pile by my bedside as “to be read.” I want to give a nod of deep gratitude to Maya Shanbhag Lang for What We Carry, E. Dolores Johnson for Say I’m Dead and Grace Talusan for The Body Papers. I also felt elevated, enraged and inspired reading Entitled by Kate Manne and The Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. These books absorbed me and I found myself sighing throughout my reading with the emotions they rendered. Thank you, writers, all for the work you put out into the world. We are all the better for it.

I wanted to mention in more detail E. Dolores Johnson’s book, Say I’m Dead. It addresses the stark and ugly realities of racism in this country by describing the impact of a marriage between a black man and white woman in the 1940s – Johnson’s parents – when anti-miscegenation laws meant that their marriage would have resulted in prison sentences for both of them, and the likely risk of violence and/or death for Johnson’s African American father. Johnson’s frankness and unflinching details relay her own experiences growing up and forging her own identity during this time in our history. What her parents sacrificed to be together is breathtaking in the consequences it wrought for them and their families. The author’s desire to learn more about the white side of her family leads to decades held secrets and a moving portrayal of forgiveness, understanding and love.

Ramsey Campbell

Author of The Wise Friend and many, many more.

One new delight has been Robert Aickman’s lost novel Go Back At Once, now published by the splendid Tartarus Press – witty, elegantly written, acerbic and strange as only Robert’s tales can be. I’ve been rereading books I loved in my teens, which is much like encountering them for the first time. Iris Murdoch’s The Flight from the Enchanter is as compelling and suspenseful and sometimes hilarious as I remembered, for instance. But I’m going to vote for Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, one of the first of his novels I read after being astounded by Lolita as I turned seventeen. Bend Sinister is written in inimitably virtuosic prose, and moves from the grotesquely comic to the terrifying and sometimes merges them in a vision of a dictatorship by mediocrity. Well before the end it has turned into nightmare horror. It deserves to be much more widely known, and it’s my recommendation of the year.

Julie Clark

Author of The Last Flight and The Ones We Choose

My favorite book of 2020 is, hands down, Aimee Molloy’s Goodnight Beautiful. Not only does it have one of my favorite characters of all time, but the twists in the book are mind blowing! Highly, HIGHLY recommend.

Manda Collins

Author of A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem

My favorite book this year was from an author I’ve been a fan of for a long time, but not in this genre–not until this year. I’m not sure why I waited so long to read Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, but it’s sheer perfection. And with Murder on Cold Street she gives us a hint at what’s to come with a particular romance thread that’s been dangling since book one. A murder mystery resolved and a chance at happy ever after? What’s not to love?

Ruth Gilligan

Author of The Butchers’ Blessing

My favourite book of 2020 was definitely The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld. Deliciously dark, it tells the intertwining stories of 3 women living at different points in history along the rugged Scottish coast. With themes of male violence and female silence, it simmers with feminist rage, but is also shot through with moments of real humour and tenderness. The intricate structure, the rich sense of place – it is a truly magnificent book. Wyld is one of a kind.

Araminta Hall

Author of Imperfect Women and Our Kind of Cruelty

My favourite book of 2020 was Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, the poetic and poignant story of the death of Anne Hathaway and Shakepeare’s young son. A stunning meditation on loss and love, I started crying on about page 50 and didn’t stop till the end.

Simon Han

Author of Nights When Nothing Happened

I loved Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd. Deeply intelligent and earnest at the same time, with one of the most charming child narrators I’ve ever read.

Alice Henderson

Author of A Solitude of Wolverines

My favorite book I read in 2020 was White Fire by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. By incorporating suspense, history, and science, the writing duo delivers a gripping read set in the snowy mountains of Colorado. Corrie Swanson is a smart, resourceful protagonist who travels to a wealthy ski resort town in order to study the bones of a group of miners who were killed in 1876. What she discovers puts her in danger. At the same time, a serial arsonist operating in the town draws the attention of her mentor, Special Agent Pendergast. He must delve into the history of a long-lost Sherlock Holmes story to put all the pieces together. White Fire is a fantastic, suspenseful read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Donna Hill

Author of Confessions in B-Flat

One of my faves was The Vanishing Half and also Where the Crawdads Sing!
They both spoke to me, to the core of what I write about- family and the meaning of it. Overcoming the obstacles that life throws your way and still you rise. Oh wait and Americanah!! Fabulous.

Katherine Hill

Author of A Short Move

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my own novel, A Short Move, which is the life narrative of a fictional NFL player. It was published in June and I’m pretty fond of it. As for my own reading, in 2020 I finally picked up the exquisite, resilient stories of Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. Berlin takes failure, heartbreak, cruelty, and addiction as ordinary matters of fact, which somehow helped put 2020 in perspective.

Jennifer Hillier

Author of Little Secrets and Jar of Hearts

Powerful, gritty, and lyrical, S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland is the unflinching portrayal of a man who’s deeply aware he needs to make a better life for himself and his family, but can’t — or won’t. This story is an emotional gut punch, and you’ll find yourself rooting for Bauregard “Bug” Montage, even while he’s ripping your heart out. Cosby, a rising star in crime fiction with a mesmerizing voice you won’t soon forget, has written an absolutely outstanding novel.

Jenny Holiday

Author of A Princess for Christmas

I think it was Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall. Classic & hilarious opposites-attract rom-com with a huge heart.

Natalie Jenner

Author of The Jane Austen Society

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai is a beautiful testament to the unbreakable bonds of family. Written in calm—and calming—prose, this heart-wrenching novel is made not only bearable but essential by its brilliant narrative structure. Alternating chapters enable a resilient grandmother and her spirited granddaughter to share a multitude of family stories over many years while always getting to the heart of the matter, enhanced throughout by the author’s gift for quick characterization. Each family story is like a different sharp, cutting facet of a diamond which holds in its centre the clarity and peace that so many in this book survive, fight and strive for. As moving and lasting a story as I have ever read, I cannot recommend it highly enough both as a book and as a significant contribution to our collective understanding and humanity.

Stephen Graham Jones

Author of The Only Good Indians

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse.

It’s sweeping, it’s epic, it’s thrilling, it’s world-building at its finest and it’s storytelling so engaging you can’t look away.

Alma Katsu

Author of The Deep and The Hunger

A tough choice! For being such a horrible year, 2020 saw many excellent books (because we needed them, I guess, trapped at home with our endless hours). It’s difficult to narrow it down to one but I’d say The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones was my favorite, foremost for the writing and characterization, which are both superb, but also because it deals with many of my favorite themes, like how you can’t outrun your past, no matter how hard you try. It’s also a novel of our times, culturally.

If you’re on the wait list for it, though, you can’t go wrong with The Ancestor by Danielle Trussoni, Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay, or Malorie by Josh Malerman.

Megha Majumdar

Author of A Burning

A book I’ve loved this year is Shruti Swamy’s story collection A House is a Body. Every story ends in a way where you want to sit with it and reflect on it before moving on to the next one!

Sam J. Miller

Author of The Blade Between

Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite

This 1993 horror novel contains an incredibly vivid and moving love story, about two troubled boys struggling to make romance work… while surrounded by insane splatterpunk gore and one of the grisliest most inventive ghost stories I’ve read in ages!

Kyle Mills

Author of Total Power and Lethal Agent

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

This sweeping novel set in post civil war Spain has it all–love, coming of age, mystery, murder, and even a touch of the supernatural. It was beautifully written in the original Spanish and I understand that it has a really elegant English translation.

David Mitchell

Author of Utopia Avenue and Cloud Atlas

Hi Avalon. A favourite from 2020 is Kevin Barry’s That Old Country Music. Each of these stories is a perfectly-prepared dish of yearning, humour and emotions there may not be exact words for. And the language! [insert envy emoji here]. I know of no finer stylist.

Micah Nemerever

Author of These Violent Delights and former public librarian

“You should not, under any circumstances, expect me to be the hero of this story.” The protagonist of Emily Temple’s The Lightness makes it clear from the start that she is aware of her culpability in the events that follow. Early on in her stay at a therapeutic Buddhist summer school program, Olivia is pulled into the orbit of her magnetic classmate Serena, a self-styled mystic determined to achieve transcendence through human flight. Serena’s friends are acolytes as much as companions, and Olivia participates without question in the group’s increasingly esoteric endurance tests and devotionals—but her motives are far more complex than loyalty or faith. In a narrative voice as elusive and unreliable as memory itself, The Lightness immerses the reader in a toxic obsession that its protagonist is all too eager to embrace.

Liz Nugent

Author of Little Cruelties and Unraveling Oliver

Highfire, a book for adults by Eoin Colfer (best known for his Artemis Fowl series) was a book which took me totally by surprise. I didn’t think a book about dragons was my kind of thing, but this story catapulted me out of my comfort zone and after a steady diet of crime and psychological thrillers, this was exactly what I needed in a year like the one we have just endured.

Hilariously funny, this story concerns a dragon called Vern with a fondness for Absolut vodka and the film Flashdance. He also has strong opinions about the representation of dragons in Game of Thrones. Believing himself to be the last of his species, he is content to live out his days quietly on the Louisiana bayou until trouble arrives in the form of a gormless teenage boy. Soon, he and the boy join forces to defeat the local town’s evil and corrupt mayor.

If someone described this to me, I would probably say ‘not for me’ but give this a try. You will be surprised and delighted. If you don’t like profanity, you might want to skip it.

Lori Nelson Spielman

Author of The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany

My favorite book of 2020 isn’t the one I couldn’t put down. It isn’t the novel that kept me up at night, or the thriller that had me guessing the final twist. My favorite book of 2020 is the one that changed me most, and that book is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson.

Though I don’t consider myself ignorant on the subject of race, I learned so much from these pages, things that made me weep with shame, things that made me more empathetic, more aware, and more understanding and supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. I wish it were required reading for every American.

Stephen Spotswood

Author of Fortune Favors the Dead

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

HTN is the second in Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy–a character-driven gothic space opera that takes a mixmaster to the conventional genre divides. It’s dark, funny, bloody, and introduces a pair of narrators who you never want to leave. Like the first novel (Gideon the Ninth) this revolves around a central mystery and again Muir manages to keep the reader on tenterhooks, so when the payoff comes it hits like a thunderbolt.

Elizabeth Wein

Author of The Enigma Game and Code Name Verity

Hi there! It’s Elizabeth Wein, here to gush about my favorite book of 2020!

I have read 71 books in 2020 (so far).

I am a little embarrassed to admit this, but my favorite by a landslide was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.

I read it twice early this year. Then I made my husband, my best friend, and two other friends read it. My husband and best friend hated it. I think the other two pretended to like it because I raved about it so much. The fact that none of these people enjoyed it as much as I did made me start wondering what its flaws were. And I can see how you’d argue that the hero, Robert Jordan, is sexist and two-dimensional, and that pretty much nothing happens throughout the book, and that it’s violent and confusing if you don’t know anything about the Spanish Civil War, and that perhaps Hemingway is ignorant about local customs and beliefs, and arrogant to write a book set in Spain and told from the point of view of an American.

And I accept those criticisms as valid reader interpretations.

But I still JUST LOVE IT. I loved it from the moment Robert Jordan’s commanding officer told him to get a haircut and he responded by sulking. I love Robert Jordan’s naïve belief in himself and his ability, and how it’s all utterly swept away by the people surrounding him as his life becomes hopelessly entangled with theirs: the girl he falls ridiculously in love with, the soldier woman who commands the band of guerrillas he’s working with, the young men and old men he has to learn to get along with, the complex histories he discovers as he comes to get to know them.

The language is simple and straightforward. The structure, too, is simple: the entire five hundred page book takes place over four days, and the characters – all of them, supporting and starring roles – are made to live a lifetime over those four days.

The descriptions of food are so evocative you can taste it. You can hear the river running in the gorge and feel the snow coming down. The human cruelty and heroism are heartwrenching. Everyone is flawed; there are no real good guys and no real bad guys. And really, that’s the theme of the book: No man is an island.

It’s the work of a master.

Denise Williams

Author of How to Fail at Flirting

I loved Hearts on Hold by Charish Reid! An overworked academic, a sexy as sin children’s librarian, and a love story to fall in love with… the book has it all!

Susie Yang

Author of White Ivy

My favorite book of 2020 is Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. This book starts out familiarly enough–a small town girl heads to a big city, Chicago, and becomes enamored with the parade of beautiful clothes and shops and well-heeled wealthy class, which she longs to belong to. This is such a familiar setup that when Carrie meets two handsome men who vie to become her patrons (neither of whom intend to marry her, one of them is married), I thought I knew how this story would end: à la Edith Wharton where the heroine ultimately meets her tragic ending, crushed by society’s relentless forces. Yet as Carrie learns about the weaknesses of mens’ nature and the limitations of depending on others, she gains her own ambitions, independence, and success, eclipsing all those who knew her from her humble origins. Most affecting of all, perhaps, is the fate of one of her early suitors as he loses his fortune and slides into homelessness. This book examines the effect both poverty and money has on our psyches with such unflinching honesty. It is the story of the human struggle for dignity.

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