The best books of the year so far 2020
From a bracing exploration of US racism to a funny dystopia and a bawdy collection of essays, here are some great reads, selected by BBC Culture.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
What would have happened if Hillary Rodham had never married Bill Clinton? Sittenfeld answers this question with Rodham, a novel that weaves an imagined tale into real historical events. In it, Hillary blazes her own trail, and on the way encounters compromise, ambivalence and exhilaration, explored compellingly by Sittenfeld. “Her ear is attuned to inconvenient truths and double standards, particularly misogyny in America. She specialises in awkward encounters and surprise shifts in power,” says the New Statesman.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Set against the backdrop of the American gold rush, it focuses on two orphaned siblings are on the run, trying to find a home. Along the way they encounter hardship but also glimpses of a different future. Full of Chinese symbolism, this debut novel is an adventure story that explores the themes of memory, family and belonging. The New York Times describes it as a “haunting, arresting” read. “By journey’s end, you’re enriched and enlightened by the lives you have witnessed.”
American Poison by Eduardo Porter
American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed our Promise is a wide-reaching examination of US racism. Porter explores how this national pathology has stunted the nation’s development and the growth of the institutions needed for a healthy, cohesive society – including labour, education, health and welfare. But it also points the way towards hope and a new understanding of racial identity. “Learned, well-written… a bracing wake-up call,” says the New York Times Book Review.
You People by Nikita Lalwani
Going behind the scenes of a London pizza restaurant, You People centres around Tulu, the pizzeria’s proprietor. A Robin Hood character, he aims to help anyone in need, but when his guidance leads into dangerous territory, the characters are faced with a difficult moral choice. “This is a moving, authentic, humane novel,” says the Guardian, “which raises fundamental questions about what it means to be kind in an unkind world.”
Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez
New writer Paul Mendez explores sexuality, race, class and religion across generations and cultures in his semi-autobiographical debut novel Rainbow Milk. In this coming-of-age story, protagonist Jesse McCarthy grapples with his identity and upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness in a disempowered region of the UK, as well as the complex legacy of the Windrush generation. “Exhilarating, a bravura piece of writing… Mendez looks set to shake up the literary establishment in the most thrilling way,” says the i newspaper.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
“The bawdiest humour, the biggest heart,” is how the Irish Times describes Samantha Irby’s collection of essays, Wow, No Thank You. The author of the best-selling We Are Never Meeting in Real Life draws unflinchingly on her own life. Having left Chicago and her job as a vet’s receptionist, she has moved to California where she lives with her wife. “Wildly, seditiously funny,” says the New York Times, “this is her voice: deadpan, confiding, companionable.”
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
“A blistering classic,” is how the Washington Post describes Pulitzer finalist Lydia Millet’s new novel A Children’s Bible. A modern retelling of Noah’s Ark, Millet’s tale is of a group of idle, wealthy friends and their feral children. The families have rented a mansion for the summer, and then a massive hurricane hits. It is, says Vulture, “that rare and precious thing: a funny dystopia”.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
Set in contemporary Seoul, this debut novel follows the lives of four young women as they set about making lives for themselves in a world where the odds are stacked against them. As the women navigate various challenges, their tentative bond evolves. People says: “An enthralling tale about the weight of old traumas, economic disparity and the restoring power of friendship.”
The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel
A story about crisis, survival and the search for meaning in our lives, The Glass Hotel explores two intersecting but seemingly separate events – the collapse of a huge Ponzi scheme, and the strange disappearance of a woman from a ship at sea. Mandel’s award-winning dystopian novel Station Eleven was widely acclaimed, and her latest offering has been similarly well received. The Atlantic describes the novel as “deeply imagined, philosophically profound”.
Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler’s books are perfect comfort reading, and her new novel Redhead by the Side of the Road is no exception. The novel explores the heart and mind of a man who is struggling to negotiate unexpected events in his life. Full of her usual compassion, empathy and joyfulness, it is classic Tyler, and has been highly praised. “If ever there was a perfect time for a new Anne Tyler novel, it’s now,” says the Wall Street Journal. “Very funny – one of Tyler’s best yet.”
Collected Stories by Lorrie Moore
Hailed as one of the most significant voices in US fiction, Moore is a master of the short story. Now the complete stories – smart, witty and beautifully crafted – are gathered together, including three new and previously unpublished in book form. Her stories, says the New York Review of Books, “no matter how often you read them, are an endlessly rich and renewing source of pleasure and inspiration”.
Sharks in the Time of Saviours by Kawai Strong Washburn
Intertwining Hawaiian folklore with the reality of the modern-day US, Sharks in the Time of Saviours is a debut novel by Kawai Strong Washburn. The characters are depicted in a contemporary, yet also mystical, version of Hawaii. “This may be his debut,” says The New York Times Book Review, “but he proves himself an old hand at dissecting the ways in which places — our connections to them, our disconnections from them — break us and remake us.” (Credit: Canongate)
Weather by Jenny Offill
A series of episodic vignettes, the widely acclaimed novel Weather is narrated by librarian Lizzie, who speaks with frankness about her daily preoccupations and ordinary anxieties. These include worries about her troubled mother, her recovering-addict brother – and the climate emergency. “Weather achieves a rare triumph… it’s an uncannily realistic portrait of what it’s like to be alive right now,” says the Telegraph. In its musings, jokes, and snatches of memory, the book “zooms from the micro to the macro”, according to the New Statesman. “Weather captures the anxiety and absurdity of the 21st Century.”
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Real Life tells the coming-of-age story of Wallace, who is studying for a biochemistry degree but is at odds with the midwestern university town he finds himself in. A shy young man from Alabama, he has left his family behind – but not his troubling childhood memories. Then come confrontations with colleagues and a surprise encounter with a classmate. “Brandon Taylor emerges as a powerhouse with this artful debut,” says Newsweek. “In tender, intimate and distinctive writing, Taylor explores race, sexuality and desire with a cast of unforgettable characters.”
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
When 25-year-old Emira Tucker is wrongly accused of kidnapping the child in her care, a series of events unfolds that raises questions about class, race, parenthood and morality. Yet this debut novel is written with a light touch, and makes for a witty, if uncomfortable, social satire. “Charming, authentic and every bit as entertaining as it is calmly, intelligently damning,” was the Observer’s verdict. The Atlantic, meanwhile, describes Such a Fun Age as “a funny, fast-paced social satire about privilege in America”.
Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr
The acclaimed journalist Deborah Orr died in November 2019, and earlier this year her remarkable and unflinching book Motherwell was published. In this candid and occasionally humorous memoir, Orr recalls her 1970s, working-class upbringing in Scotland, and her complicated relationship with her mother. Motherwell is, says Andrew O’Hagan in the Guardian, “a masterpiece of self-exploration”, and its “greatness lies mainly in the psychological dimension, in the vivid portrait of her parents’ narcissism and the just-as-vivid portrait of her own”. As the Scotsman observes: “It is disconcertingly honest and self-revealing. You are unlikely to forget it.”
McCann’s Apeirogon tells the stories of two men, an Israeli and a Palestinian, both of whom have lost a daughter to the conflict
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
Two men, one Israeli and one Palestinian, had a daughter killed in in the conflict. Then they become friends. Apeirogon by Colum McCann is based on the true story of this friendship, and has been widely praised. It is “a masterpiece” and “the kind of book that comes along only once in a generation” says the Observer. “Brilliant... powerful and prismatic,” says the New York Times. “Apeirogon is an empathy engine, utterly collapsing the gulf between teller and listener... It achieves its aim by merging acts of imagination and extrapolation with historical fact.” It is a “profoundly human” novel, says BBC Culture.
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
Greenwell’s second novel Cleanness follows his acclaimed debut What Belongs to You. He continues the story of a US teacher living in Bulgaria, and explores his memories and sexual encounters through a disordered narrative. The Washington Post calls the novel “quite simply, a work of genius that will change the way you understand the world and your place in it.” The New York Times, meanwhile, says: “[Greenwell's] writing about sex is altogether scorching... Greenwell has an uncanny gift, one that comes along rarely”.
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
While dissecting white feminism, this book also focusses on productive solutions and a hopeful approach. Refinery 29 describes Hood Feminism as “blistering... A fresh new and necessary black voice in feminist literature”. The book is a “much-needed reality check”, says inews: “The author has a canny ability to take heavy, complex subjects and translate them into concrete, sound arguments, offering practical resolutions”.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
The much-anticipated finale of Mantel’s trilogy about King Henry VIII’s right-hand-man Thomas Cromwell has been well received. Mantel’s Cromwell is a complex, consummate player, more powerful in many ways than the king himself. The Mirror and the Light charts his downfall, and as The Atlantic points out, “Cromwell’s charisma is never allowed to dissipate”. The Guardian hails the book as a “masterpiece” and as “a novel of epic proportions [that is] every bit as thrilling, propulsive, darkly comic and stupendously intelligent as its predecessors...The trilogy is complete and it is magnificent”.
House of Glass by Hadley Freeman
In House of Glass the journalist Hadley Freeman uncovers her family’s secrets, focussing on the life story of her grandmother, who escaped the horrors of Europe during World War Two to live in the US, as well as the contrasting lives of her great uncles. “It is the product of 20 years of research, and it amounts, by sheer cumulation of detail, to a near-perfect study of Jewish identity – of Jewish being – in the 20th Century,” says the Telegraph. Or, as Kirkus puts it: “Frightening, inspiring, and cautionary in equal measure”.
Actress by Anne Enright
Irish author Anne Enright’s new novel Actress has been longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize, and is a tale of fame, power, and a daughter’s quest to understand her mother. It is, says the Washington Post, “brilliant… the deceptively casual flow of her stories belies their craft, a profound intelligence sealed invisibly behind life’s mirror”. The Observer also praises the author, who has previously won the Booker: “Enright triumphs as a chameleon: memoirist, journalist, critic, daughter – her emotional intelligence knows no bounds.”
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel was inspired by the true story of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who died aged 11. “Hamnet is a novel apart. It shares the page-turning verve of its predecessors,” says the Observer, and has “the power of letting a story appear to tell itself”. The Sunday Times describes Hamnet as “powerful” and “an intense poetic exploration of parental grief”.
Where the Wild Ladies Are by Matsuda Aoko
This collection of stories, translated by Polly Barton, are inspired by traditional Japanese mythology, but with a feminist twist and a modern setting. The stories feature demons and ghosts, skeletons and spirits, but the original tales are all imaginatively up-ended by Aoko, and told from a contemporary, female perspective. Where the Wild Ladies Are is, says the Guardian, “funny, beautiful, surreal and relatable – this is a phenomenal book”.
The Death of Comrade President by Alain Mabanckou
Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize. Now his new book The Death of Comrade President, translated by Helen Stevenson, has also been well received. It is a coming-of-age tale set in the 1970s in Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, where young Michel is negotiating everyday life, until the brutal murder of the president. Bookshybooks says: “Starting as a tender portrait of an ordinary Congolese family, Alain Mabanckou quickly expands the scope of his story into a powerful examination of colonialism, decolonisation and the dead ends of the African continent.”
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
The poet Cathy Park Hong examines Asian-American identity in Minor Feelings. “It bled a dormant discomfort out of me with surgical precision,” writes Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker of the collection of essays that explores identity, race and neoliberalism. “Hong is writing in agonised pursuit of a liberation that doesn’t look white – a new sound, a new affect, a new consciousness – and the result feels like what she was waiting for.”
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
A ship takes 2,000 refugees from the Spanish Civil War to Chile in 1939. “This exodus is the basis for Allende’s riveting new historic saga, which has echoes in today’s global refugee crises – and parallels to Allende’s own life,” says Jane Ciabattari on BBC Culture. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson, Allende’s latest novel is, according to the Telegraph, “a gripping tale of love in exile”.
Our House is on Fire by Greta Thunberg et al
This family account of Greta Thunberg’s Asperger’s diagnosis has been hailed as a must-read environmental message of hope. Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis is co-authored by Thunberg’s mother Malena Ernman, who is the primary narrator, her father Svante, and her sister Beata. It is, “an urgent, lucid, courageous account,” says David Mitchell in the Guardian. “Everyone with an interest in the future of the planet should read this book. It is a clear-headed diagnosis. It is a glimpse of a saner world. It is fertile with hope.”
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