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Throughout the year, Booklist’s Adult Books reviewers have bestowed stars upon books across our wide reviewing spectrum and editors have selected titles for our subject-area and genre Top 10 lists. We now present the 2020 master list, the very best of the best, arranged in eight broad nonfiction categories and two encompassing fiction categories, one for general and historical fiction, the other for crime, fantasy, horror, romance, and science fiction. We are elated to be able to celebrate these exceptional books, given all the struggles of 2020.
ARTS & LITERATURE
Just Us: An American Conversation. By Claudia Rankine. Graywolf, $30 (978164450215).
Rankine presents an arresting blend of essays and images, sharply attuned to this long-overdue moment of racial reckoning, that keenly analyze the overwhelming influence of whiteness and open a window onto the Black experience.
Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History. By Elizabeth Ferrer. Univ. of Washington, $34.95 (9870295747637).
Ferrer profiles more than 80 Latinx photographers with an emphasis in the 1960s and forward and attains diversity in geographical heritage and aesthetics to create a powerful testament to a rich artistic legacy.
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone. By Madison Smartt Bell. Doubleday, $35 (9780385541619).
Robert Stone remains one of America’s finest novelists, and his friend and fellow fiction writer Bell pays eloquent, insightful, and moving tribute to Stone’s genius and to the man behind the books.
Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist. By Celia Stahr. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (9781250113382).
Stahr breaks new ground as she establishes the foundation of Frida Kahlo’s aesthetic, chronicles her sojourns across the U.S., and elucidates the profound impact these immersions had on the arc of her phenomenal creativity.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir. By Natasha Trethewey. Ecco, $27.99 (9780062248572).
Distinguished poet Trethewey tells the story of her parents’ interracial marriage, their divorce, her mother’s career, and the inexorable path to her mother’s murder in this work of exquisitely elegiac intensity.
Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis. By Jeffrey H. Jackson. Algonquin, $27.95 (9781616209162).
In Paris, lesbian artists Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe were known as Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. On the English Channel island of Jersey, they were an inventive and courageous two-woman resistance movement against the occupying Nazis.
Recollections of My Nonexistence. By Rebecca Solnit. Viking, $26 (9780593083338).
In her gripping memoir-in-essays, Solnit shares key, often terrifying moments in her valiant writing life and pinpoints the body-and-soul dangers women routinely face in our dangerously misogynist world.
Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In. By Phuc Tran. Flatiron, $27.95 (9781250194718).
In this deeply felt coming-of-age memoir, Vietnamese immigrant Tran writes of growing up in “very white” Carlisle, PA, and attempting to assimilate through books and punk rock.
Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Run through North America’s Stolen Land. By Noé Álvarez. Catapult, $26 (9781948226479).
This evocatively written running memoir by a young Mexican American describes not only a grueling “spirit run,” but also the challenge of embracing one’s heritage while forging an individual path forward.
The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained. By Nik Sharma. Chronicle, $35 (9781452182698).
Trained molecular biologist Sharma explains in scientific yet wholly readable fashion how his six elements of flavor—emotion, sight, sound, mouthfeel, aroma, and taste—combine to make delicious food, maps out flavor profiles of various cuisines, and shares 100 recipes.
The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food. By Marcus Samuelsson and others. Little, Brown/Voracious, $38 (9780316480680).
On this culinary journey discussing the diversity, history, culture, and spirituality that Black food and Black chefs express, readers will find more than 150 recipes among profiles of contemporary Black chefs.
HEALTH & MEDICINE
COVID-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One. By Debora MacKenzie. Hachette, $27 (9780306924248).
Science journalist MacKenzie delivers a wise and accurate account of how we arrived at the dire situation we’re in, how the virus has impacted our lives, and how to prepare for future infections.
Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America. By Gerald Posner. Avid Reader, $35 (9781501151897).
Fraud, incompetence, conspiracy, and avarice are all present in Posner’s comprehensive exposé of the pharmaceutical industry and the government’s role in its development, examining everything from Xanax to the opioid epidemic.
A History of the Second World War in 100 Maps. By Jeremy Black. Univ. of Chicago, $35 (9780226755243).
This scrupulous survey of early-1940s to mid-1950s cartography offers a full study of the war through posters and photos of communication lines, waterways, and troop movements, with text from government and media sources.
The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch. By Miles Harvey. Little, Brown, $29 (9780316463591).
Harvey creates a vivid historical context for the astounding exploits of James Strang, an antebellum con man who posed as a Mormon king, took up piracy, and became an elected official, wreaking havoc at every turn.
African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song. Ed. by Kevin Young. Library of America, $45 (9781598536669).
This invaluable anthology of African American poetry reaches back to 1790 and encompasses poets writing today, a spectrum of voices scholar and poet Young illuminates with vigorous historical and literary analysis.
When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through. Ed. by Joy Harjo and others. Norton, $19.95 (9780393356809).
U.S. poet laureate Harjo and her coeditors have compiled the most complete and nuanced anthology of Native Nations poetry to date, grouping past and current poets within five regions that span the continent.
Fathoms: The World in the Whale. By Rebecca Giggs. Simon & Schuster, $27 (9871982120696).
With fresh perceptions and startling facts, Giggs maps the history and current plight of whales in warming oceans toxic with plastic, urging us to protect these wondrous animals, the oceans, and ourselves.
The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars. By Jo Marchant. Dutton, $28 (9780593183014).
To track the profound influence of stars on human culture, Marchant conducts a mind-expanding global inquiry that encompasses cave art, Babylonian astronomical records, Polynesian celestial navigation, quantum physics, and consciousness.
The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insect. By Wendy Williams. Simon & Schuster, $26 (9781501178061).
This entertaining look at “the world’s favorite insect” explores past assumptions, relates how butterflies helped prove Darwin’s theory of evolution, and explains butterfly physiology.
African American Culture: An Encyclopedia of People, Traditions, and Customs. Ed. by Omari L. Dyson and others. ABC-CLIO, $319 (9781440862434).
This timely and essential three-volume work, which includes biographies of key figures, highlights the ways African Americans have shaped U.S. culture, from religious practices to contemporary artistic style and expression in straightforward, engrossing prose.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. By Isabel Wilkerson. Random, $32 (9780593230251).
Wilkerson defines caste as the insidious social “operating system” in the U.S., examining slavery, the genocidal violence against Native Americans, Jim Crow, and many forms of white privilege, while profiling individuals who resisted caste’s repression.
Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America. By Lalia Lalami. Pantheon, $25.95 (9781524747169).
Lalami employs highly charged personal stories to propel this eye-opening account of the many ways U.S. citizens are discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or language.
The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X. By Les Payne and Tamara Payne. Norton/Liveright, $33.99 (9781631491665).
Based on decades of interviews, this monumental biography places Malcolm X within the continuum of the Black struggle, including his association with the Nation of Islam, and detailing all that shaped his quest for justice.
The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America. By Eric Cervini. Farrar, $35 (9780374139797).
In this insightful, meticulously detailed book, Cervini tells the fascinating story of government astronomer Frank Kameny, who was at the forefront of the fight for gay rights a decade before Stonewall.
A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom. By Brittany K. Barnett. Crown, $28 (9781984825780).
This riveting memoir is Barnett’s moving story of growing up in East Texas and her path to becoming an advocate for criminal-justice reform; she also shares the stories of clients whose life sentences she worked to overturn.
The Pink Line: Journeys across the World’s Queer Frontiers. By Mark Gevisser. Farrar, $30 (9780374279967).
On one side of the Pink Line, countries are expanding human rights; on the other, those same rights are retracted and criminalized. Gevisser contextualizes political and legal events and follows the lives of LGTBQ+ people on the wrong side of this divide.
Stakes Is High: Life after the American Dream. By Mychal Denzel Smith. Perseus/Bold Type, $26 (9781568588735).
Smith’s impactful book holds up a mirror to America in the hope that a clear-eyed glimpse of its failings will assist in the never-ending struggle to bring about the righteous nation it has always aspired to be.
Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do about It. By Erin Brockovich and Susanne Boothby. Pantheon, $28.95 (9781524746964.)
Brockovich shares her ongoing battles over the poisoning of local water systems and profiles largely unheralded individuals who are confronting corporate interests and local authorities across the country to protect our precious water sources.
Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots. By Morgan Jerkins. Harper, $27.99 (9780062873040).
Writing with curiosity, vulnerability, and warmth, Jerkins recounts her journeys south to discover her ancestral lineage, engulfing readers in the stories of the Gullah Geechee Nation, Louisianan Creoles, and Freedmen, and helping ground the experience of disenfranchised Black people throughout U.S. history. (Top of the List Winner—Adult Nonfiction)
Book of the Little Axe. By Lauren Francis-Sharma. Atlantic, $26 (9780802129369).
Francis-Sharma’s original and intricate novel revolves around Rosa, who never fit in among the free Blacks in 1790s Trinidad and ends up living in the Crow Nation of Montana, married to a chief, until their son spurs her to journey back to her roots.
A Burning. By Megha Majumdar. Knopf, $25.29 (9780525658696).
After witnessing a gruesome attack at a train station in India, young, poor, Muslim Jivan follows events on Facebook and posts a “foolish” response that causes her to be beaten, jailed, and accused of terrorism, making for an electrifying first novel about the fragility of human connections.
Catherine House. By Elisabeth Thomas. Morrow, $27.99 (9780062905659).
Ines Murillo arrives at the mysterious Catherine House with no real plans for her future, but the school, with the cultlike devotion of its über-famous alums, seems ready to take care of that for her in this terrifying, gorgeously captivating debut.
The Chicken Sisters. By KJ Dell’Antonia. Putnam, $16 (9780593085141).
Rival fried-chicken restaurants compete on a reality-TV show, and young widow Amanda is not thrilled when her estranged sister shows up to help in this deft, delightful first novel about regrets, dreams deferred, and second chances.
Code Name Hélène. By Ariel Lawhon. Doubleday, $27.95 (9780385544689).
Sporting her trademark red lipstick, Australian expat Nancy Wake parachutes into France in 1944 on a Special Operations mission to organize Resistance fighters in Lawhon’s magnificent WWII novel, inspired by a real-life hero.
Crooked Hallelujah. By Kelli Jo Ford. Grove, $26 (9780802149121).
This novel of interlinked stories connects the reader to the heart of a family of Cherokee women, starting in 1974 with 15-year-old Justine as she copes with her mother’s strict Christian church, then follows the path of her daughter, Reney.
Deacon King Kong. By James McBride. Riverhead, $28 (9780735216723).
After Cuffy “Sportcoat” Lambkin, the titular deacon in a vividly conjured multicultural 1969 Brooklyn neighborhood, shoots a young drug dealer, tragedies, absurdities, generational and cultural clashes, and shared struggles ensue in McBride’s vital, arresting, many-dimensioned tale.
Exile Music. By Jennifer Steil. Viking, $27 (9780525561811).
Orly flees 1930s Vienna for Bolivia with her family, where, over two decades, she struggles to come to terms with the horrors she escaped and with her sexuality in Steil’s evocative, well-researched coming-of-age tale.
Here We Are. By Graham Swift. Knopf, $22.95 (9780525658054).
In crisp, eloquently understated prose, Swift follows the lives of three showpeople in postwar Britain, brought together in a variety show on Brighton Pier in 1959, troubled souls who can never quite leave their secrets behind.
Homeland Elegies. By Ayad Akhtar. Little, Brown, $28 (9780316496421).
Akhtar confronts race, money, family, politics, and sexuality in a bold, episodic, and memoiristic novel about a Pakistani American man who reflects, before and after 9/11, on his immigrant father’s disillusionment and his own confrontations with the paradoxes of America.
The Last Great Road Bum. By Héctor Tobar. MCD, $28 (9780374183424).
Joe Sanderson, the quintessential road bum, spent years accumulating adventures and hoping to write a great novel. His death in El Salvador during a revolution prevented that, but Tobar has done it for him.
Leave the World Behind. By Rumaan Alam. Ecco, $27.99 (9780062667632).
A white family hopes to escape their woes by vacationing in a remote Long Island cottage, but the Black owners return and strange and unsettling events transpire, leading to Alam’s questioning of class, race, and the meaning of home in times of disruption.
The Lives of Edie Pritchard. By Larry Watson. Algonquin, $27.95 (9781616209025).
From the mid-1960s to 2007, Watson’s taut narrative follows Edie Pritchard—another of his resolute characters burdened by the inevitability of loss and the implacable landscape of Montana—as she desperately seeks a sense of self not defined by men.
Love, Death & Rare Books. By Robert Hellenga. Delphinium, $26.95 (9781883285852).
The late Hellenga’s final novel, about three bookmen of the old school, is a rhapsodic and deeply moving ode to physical books, their smell and feel, but also to the idea of both living life and reading about it, not choosing one over the other.
The Night Watchman. By Louise Erdrich. Harper, $28.99 (9780062671189).
Patrice supports her family by laboring at the jewel-bearing plant where Thomas is the night watchman and guiding conscience in Erdrich’s spellbinding and reverent drama of racism and sexual violence versus the spirituality and resilience of Chippewa life.
The Office of Historical Corrections. By Danielle Evans. Riverhead, $27 (9781594487330).
Across six short stories and a novella crafted with a surgeon’s precision, Evans introduces women protagonists on the brink of life-altering crossroads and dives into generational wounds from America’s violent racial past and present.
Parakeet. By Marie-Helene Bertino. Farrar, $26 (9780374229450).
Suffering from “a very specific nervous breakdown” in the week leading up to her wedding, The Bride is visited by her long-dead grandmother in the form of a bird, and keeps running into herself, literally, in Bertino’s brilliant and chaotic second novel.
Plain Bad Heroines. By emily m. danforth. Morrow, $27.99 (9780062942852).
The history of mysterious deaths at Brookhants School for Girls intertwines with the story of three women filming a horror movie there in a sexy, funny, spooky, and lusciously visual (and illustrated) novel of sapphic blossoming within a mishmash of genres.
Real Life. By Brandon Taylor. Riverhead, $26 (9780525538882).
Translating narrator Wallace’s thoughts and conversations with a rare fluidity, and with breathlessly physical scenes, debut novelist Taylor works a needle through Wallace’s knots of race, class, and love.
These Ghosts Are Family. By Maisy Card. Simon & Schuster, $24 (9781982117436).
Card’s stunning, kaleidoscopic debut introduces a family reckoning with enslavement’s legacy as its patriarch reveals his life’s secret: he used a tragic accident to reinvent himself, leaving behind the wife and children relying on him in Jamaica and starting over in New York. (Top of the List Winner—Adult Fiction)
Utopia Avenue. By David Mitchell. Random, $30 (9780812997439).
This addictive Big Gulp of a narrative draws on Mitchell’s previous metafiction to tell the story of a British band in the 1960s, offering a foot-tapping ode to rock music in which the author continues to use the rhythms of surface reality to dig much deeper, but without ever losing the beat.
The Vanishing Half. By Brit Bennett. Riverhead, $27 (9780525536291).
Reflecting and refracting her intergenerational novel via the four related women—sisters, cousins, mothers, daughters—at its heart, Bennett writes a tale of race and reinvention, divides made and crossed, binding trauma, and the ever-present past.
Well-Behaved Indian Women. By Saumya Dave. Berkley, $16 (9781984806154).
Three generations of Indian women—a psychologist on the eve of her wedding, a mother facing an empty nest, and a widow teaching girls in India—try in vain to meet expectations in this layered first novel about family, secrets, and dreams.
Blacktop Wasteland. By S. A. Cosby. Flatiron, $26.99 (9781250252685).
In this superb thriller, a former wheelman trying to go straight takes “one last job,” which leads to another last job, even more star-crossed than the first. Cosby never misses a note in this high-energy read, uncompromisingly noir but deeply human, too.
The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows. By Olivia Waite. Avon, $6.99 (9780062931825).
When respectable widow Agatha Griffin discovers a swarm of bees in her print-shop warehouse, she seeks help from apiarist Penelope Flood, who solves the bee problem but arouses a new dilemma in Waite’s inventive, same-gender, socially illuminating Regency romance.
The City We Became. By N. K. Jemisin. Orbit, $28 (9780316509848).
As the primary avatar of New York City lies in a coma, five people begin to experience mysterious new powers and find themselves facing eldritch creatures, racism, and gentrification in the fight for the literal life of the city.
Eight Perfect Murders. By Peter Swanson. Morrow, $26.99 (9780062838209).
A Boston bookseller lands in the middle of a murder investigation when a blog post he wrote about eight perfect murders in mystery fiction becomes a serial killer’s playbook. A devilish premise combined with jaw-dropping execution.
The Janes. By Louisa Luna. Doubleday, $26.95 (9780385545518).
PI Alice Vega is an utterly compelling protagonist as she and her partner, Max Caplan, struggle to save young Latina women from the clutches of a Mexican cartel boss.
Network Effect. By Martha Wells. Tor, $26.99 (9781250229861).
In the first full-length novel in Wells’ short-fiction series, the universe is expanded and characters are explored in greater depth, but there are still tons of action as everyone’s favorite Murderbot faces kidnapping, corporate machinations, and a possible alien contagion.
On the Corner of Hope and Main. By Beverly Jenkins. HarperCollins, $15.99 (9780062699282).
It’s election time in Henry Adams, Kansas, and Jenkins choreographs plenty of romantic and social shenanigans with wit and compassion as the town’s teens call out the adults on their nonsense and people seek forgiveness and second chances.
Party of Two. By Jasmine Guillory. Berkley, $16 (9780593100820).
In Guillory’s latest multicultural romance about high-powered professionals, Olivia Monroe has returned to California to start a new law firm when she finds herself flirting with a handsome stranger who turns out to be a hotshot U.S. senator.
Ring Shout. By P. Djèlí Clark. Tor, $19.99 (9781250767028).
Accompanied by her friends, a Black bootlegger in 1920s Georgia wields a mystical blade tied to the spirits of African slaves and chiefs against extradimensional, Lovecraftian monsters that have been summoned by Klan members.
The Searcher. By Tana French. Viking, $27 (9780735224650).
Country noir lives in West Ireland in French’s tale of a retired Chicago cop who looks for peace in an Irish village and finds something else entirely. Thrills, yes, but also a novel that reveals tenderness in the troubled hearts of its recalcitrant characters.
The Sun Down Motel. By Simone St. James. Berkley, $26 (9780440000174).
Carly Kirk’s aunt disappeared from a small New York town 35 years ago while working as a motel night clerk. Carly takes the same job, and the creepy stuff starts up again. A nightmarish trip back and forth in time.
Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Tales of Horror. Ed. by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto. Black Balloon, $16.95 (9781948226622).
Whether exploring supernatural horror or real-world ills of racism, sexism, and climate change, these stories by 42 different authors provide perfectly proportioned terror in 1,500 words or less.
Upright Women Wanted. By Sarah Gailey. Tor, $20.99 (9781250213587).
A young woman runs away to join the Librarians in a postapocalyptic American West in this deceptively short, rollicking adventure full of humor, heart-stopping action, and queer love.
When No One Is Watching. By Alyssa Cole. Morrow, $16.99 (9780062982650).
Romance star Cole presents an anxiety-inducing thriller with elements of romance and horror about a woman who returns to Brooklyn, only to suspect something even more sinister behind the neighborhood’s gentrification.
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