Book List

11 Early 2020 Books We Love

Another masterpiece in miniature about the unpredictable directions a life can take.


Three orphans struggle to survive the ruins of war-torn Laos.

In another life, Yoon (The Mountain, 2017, etc.) might have been a sculptor, carving the excess off his creations until they're perfect. In this decades-spanning examination of the survival of three orphans with the bad luck to have been born into the ruins of a battlefield, he's stretching his abilities while still writing with deliberate, almost vigilant care. The Author’s Note that opens the book notes that more than two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War—with 30% failing to explode on impact. The book’s viewpoint, beginning in 1969, comes from three teenage orphans living in a bombed-out hospital: Alisak, who dreams of fleeing to France; his dear friend Prany; and Prany's younger sister, Noi, all bonded by caring for each other because there’s no one else to do it save for Vang, a drunken doctor who does his best. The language is as elegant and understated as always, but Yoon has chosen to fracture his narrative, often by decades. In 1970, Prany and the doctor are imprisoned for political reasons, meaning mostly no reason at all, and seven years later they're released into a world they don’t recognize. Noi has a dark encounter back in 1969 before the novel leaps forward again to 1994, when Khit, another member of Alisak’s motley crew, finally makes it to Paris. The story ends with a moving remembrance from Alisak in 2018, so far away from his bombed-out homeland, thinking of three children huddled around a fire. The story of the friends' wartime tragedy echoes that of children caught in dire circumstances around the globe, but Yoon’s imaginative prose and affection for his characters make the story larger than a look at the ways people survive. We see a bunch of kids working together to make it out alive, and then Yoon's time jumps show that life goes on after survival and that there's meaning there, too. The characters get what we all get in the end, if we're lucky: a life, with all the joys and heartbreak that come with that.

Another masterpiece in miniature about the unpredictable directions a life can take.

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5404-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

Twin sisters cut adrift in a perilous, duplicitous world learn that “only the wise survive.” A formidable debut.


When things fall apart, four modern Nigerian siblings will need cunning to survive.

In this piercing, supple debut, a Nigerian father is scammed into ruin, and his wife, wearing her "favorite perfume, Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door," soon flees to New York. The couple had honeymooned in Spain and lived a comfortable life, but “my family unraveled rapidly,” says their daughter Ariyike, “in messy loose knots, hastening away from one another, shamefaced and lonesome, injured solitary animals in a happy world.” Ariyike sells water on the Lagos streets while her sister scrubs hospital toilets, their younger brothers both hungry and in need of school fees. All subsist with their complaining Yoruba grandmother. In a riveting sequence, Bibike helps her twin, Ariyike, transform into Keke to audition for an on-air radio job. A male acquaintance advises: “Dress sexy, be confident, smell nice, and if you are offered something to drink, ask for water first....If they insist, ask for something foreign and healthy, like green tea.” Keke isn’t chosen but leverages a position anyway by trading sex and plying her encyclopedic knowledge of Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels. Thus begins her rise in Christian radio. Sex—often predatory—forms and deforms all four siblings; the novel features several rapes. Chapters alternate in each sibling’s voice over a stretch of 20 years. The brothers grow up and move to Chicago and out of the story. Abraham stuffs her novel past brimming, but its sophisticated structure and propulsive narration allow her to tuck in a biting critique of corrupt colonial religion and universally exploitative men. “It was fortunate to be beautiful and desired,” says Bibike, whose voice opens the story. “It made people smile at me. I was used to strangers wishing me well. But what is a girl’s beauty, but a man’s promise of reward?” Bibike eventually becomes a healer who cherishes their Yoruba grandmother while Keke, the wife of a powerful and monstrous pastor, tastes ashes—the source of the novel’s title.

Twin sisters cut adrift in a perilous, duplicitous world learn that “only the wise survive.” A formidable debut.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-948226-56-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Catapult

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

Drain writes with fierce warmth about characters coping with crushing racism and poverty in this impressive debut.


A collection of linked short stories takes readers inside life in Chicago’s Stateway Gardens projects.

This debut book is set mostly in the 1980s in one of the South Side’s largest, most segregated housing projects. Stateway Gardens’ eight high-rise apartment blocks (built in the 1950s and demolished by 2007) formed a neighborhood notorious for grinding poverty, violence, drug use, and crime. Drain, who grew up in Chicago, writes intimately of the human experiences of those who lived there. The stories are linked by a group of characters who are relatives and friends of a pair of brothers, Tracy and Jacob. Tracy narrates several of the stories, beginning with “B.B. Sauce,” which takes place when he’s 6 years old. He’s the younger brother, “my mother’s smart child, but Jacob was the handsome one with the precious button nose and eyelashes that flapped like dove wings.” Their rivalry will play out for years. Neither boy’s father is in the picture, and several of the stories revolve around the heartbreaking irony of a single mother who works so many hours and jobs to support her children that she has no time to be with them. For Tracy, though, that’s just one of the realities of his world. It’s a world so harshly limited that in “Wet Paper Grass,” Tracy, Jacob, and their friend Jameel undertake a harrowing journey just to hang out on a community college campus miles away: “It was our summer resort….We imagined ourselves as those rich North Side white kids being sent to European cities we’d never manage to spell.” But just getting there puts eight-year-old Tracy in mortal peril. In “The Stateway Condo Gentrification,” teenage Tracy—still the smart one—realizes that in some ways living in the projects is “no different than living in those condos that weren’t more than four miles north of us on Michigan Avenue.…You could see the entire city from our fourteenth-floor ramp.” It turns out to be a prescient observation.

Drain writes with fierce warmth about characters coping with crushing racism and poverty in this impressive debut.

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-984818-16-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

Fine inspiration for entrepreneurs that should be required reading in any business school curriculum.



Financial journalist Davidson explores the new economy of pursuing one’s dreams instead of plodding through a thankless career.

Do what you love, and the money will follow. Davidson, a New Yorker staff writer and creator of NPR’s Planet Money podcast, takes that idea and runs with it, his book predicated on the thrilling idea that a new economy is right around the corner, one in which “our work lives and our deepest passions can merge, happily, in ways that make us better off financially and personally.” Think of a place like a certain well-known fast-food chain, one that makes it “immediately clear that you are not in a place of joy,” a place where workers are replaceable and know it. Then contrast that with someone with a rare skill set, someone who, as with one of his examples, took training as a naval aviator and retail consultant and turned that into a delicious, much-sought-after candy bar, successful even though the candy giants had a lock on the distribution chain. Another example is a woman who grew up around the people who, with callused hands and dirty boots, did the hard work of harvesting grapes, and she converted her in-depth knowledge into a marketing business positioning wines before discerning audiences of drinkers. There’s a new paradigm at work here, one that defies the old laws of supply and demand and that instead posits that price, for instance, is one of those things that a customer understands is a token of “the benefits they hope to receive: benefits based on very specialized knowledge.” Technology and interlocked global markets bring this specialized knowledge to the world in ways that could only have been dreamed of in the past. Davidson’s case studies are excellent, but the heart of the book is a set of rules worthy of committing to memory—e.g., “Pursue intimacy at scale”; “Know what business you’re in, and it’s probably not what you think.”

Fine inspiration for entrepreneurs that should be required reading in any business school curriculum.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-38-535352-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

A vital book for any library or classroom—and for foot soldiers in the fight for racial justice.


A compact, exceptionally diverse introduction to the history of black women in America, rooted in “everyday heroism.”

As Berry (History/Univ. of Texas; The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, 2017, etc.) and Gross (History/Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick; Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex and Violence in America, 2016, etc.) persuasively argue, black women have “significantly shaped” our nation—and fought for their rights—throughout every period of American history. Yet their contributions often have been overlooked or underappreciated. In the latest book in the publisher’s ReVisioning American History series, the authors offer a selective but wide-ranging search-and-rescue mission for black female activists, trailblazers, and others who have left a mark. In the first chapter, they introduce Isabel de Olvera, who became one of the first black women to set foot on what is now American soil after joining an expedition from Mexico in the early 17th century. From there, Berry and Gross proceed chronologically, opening each chapter with a vignette about a signal figure such as Shirley Chisholm, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants who became the first black female member of Congress. Along the way, the authors frequently discuss members of traditionally underrepresented groups, among them the lesbian blues singer Gladys Bentley and the conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy, whose exploitation by mid-19th-century showmen suggests the perils faced by black women with disabilities. The result is a narrative that highlights both setbacks and achievements in many spheres—sports, business, education, the arts, military service, and more. While their overall approach is celebratory, Berry and Gross also deal frankly with morally complex topics, such as women who committed infanticide rather than see a child enslaved. Amid their gains, black women face enduring challenges that include police brutality and other forms of “misogynoir,” or “gendered, anti-Black violence.” For anyone hoping to topple the remaining barriers, this book is a font of inspiration.

A vital book for any library or classroom—and for foot soldiers in the fight for racial justice.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8070-3355-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Beacon

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, often both at once. Everyone should read this extraordinary book.


The co-founder of The Toast and Slate advice columnist demonstrates his impressive range in this new collection.

In a delightful hybrid of a book—part memoir, part collection of personal essays, part extended riff on pop culture—Ortberg (The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, 2018, etc.) blends genres with expert facility. The author’s many fans will instantly recognize his signature style with the title of the first chapter: “When You Were Younger and You Got Home Early and You Were the First One Home and No One Else Was Out on the Street, Did You Ever Worry That the Rapture Had Happened Without You? I Did.” Those long sentences and goofy yet sharp sense of humor thread together Ortberg’s playful takes on pop culture as he explores everything from House Hunters to Golden Girls to Lord Byron, Lacan, and Rilke. But what makes these wide-ranging essays work as a coherent collection are the author’s poignant reflections on faith and gender. Since publishing his last book, Ortberg has come out as trans, and he offers breathtaking accounts of his process of coming to terms with his faith and his evolving relationships with the women in his life. The chapter about coming out to his mother, framed as a version of the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, is just as touching as a brief miniplay entitled, “The Matriarchs of Avonlea Begrudgingly Accept Your Transition.” Throughout, Ortberg’s writing is vulnerable but confident, specific but never narrow, literal and lyrical. The author is refreshingly unafraid of his own uncertainty, but he’s always definitive where it counts: “Everyone will be reconciled through peace and pleasure who can possibly stand it. If you don’t squeeze through the door at first, just wait patiently for Heaven to grind you into a shape that fits.”

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, often both at once. Everyone should read this extraordinary book.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982105-21-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Oct. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

An absolutely enthralling depiction of family and self-discovery.


High school junior Izzy discovers that some secrets can’t stay hidden.

Isabella “Izzy” Crawford is caught in between worlds, from her interracial and interreligious family to her friendships with wealthy classmates at school and her outspoken, socially conscious best friend, Roz. Izzy describes herself as being able to pass for white like her deceased father; her Puerto Rican mother, Rita, and younger brother, Jack, cannot. New doors open for Izzy as she befriends Aubrey, the new girl in her a cappella group and sister of Hot Sam, a wealthy basketball player Roz obsesses over. As Izzy tries to figure out where she belongs, she is trapped in a whirlwind of secrets as her worlds inevitably collide. Padian (Wrecked, 2016, etc.) masterfully portrays the internal struggles Izzy goes through in her Catholic faith. While navigating the remnants of her Methodist father’s legacy and her mother’s deeply rooted Catholicism, Izzy must also explore her relationship with both sides of her family. While her mother, who “always doles out her wisdom—and warnings—in Spanish,” works on their application for a Habitat for Humanity house in an attempt to move from the mobile home park, Izzy begins to understand there is more to her deceased father’s family than she first imagined.

An absolutely enthralling depiction of family and self-discovery. (Fiction. 12-18)

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61620-849-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

An insightful, moving coming-of-age tale.


Transitioning from life in Korea to America, a young woman struggles with change and figuring out where she fits.

After her mother’s decision to marry a man in Alabama, 14-year-old Chuna, who thought she was just going on another mother-daughter trip, grapples with culture shock, bullying, and integrating into a new family. Her mother is still her hero, and she recognizes the sacrifices she has made in order for them to survive. It’s rough going though, especially when the rest of the Kims, her new stepfamily, are not very supportive. She can’t help but compare Korea to the U.S., the lively streets of Seoul and her many friends to her isolation in 1990s Huntsville. Bullying, though for different reasons—in Korea, for coming from a single-parent home and in Alabama, for being Asian—is always prevalent in her life. (Many of the people she interacts with at school are white.) It isn’t until her mother reminds her of her love of comics and drawing that Chuna, now going by Robin, begins to thrive. Employing soft and subdued coloring for the majority of the work, Ha (Cook Korean!, 2016, etc.) uses sepia tones for recollections of her family’s history in Korea. This heartfelt memoir from an author who shares her honest, personal experiences excels at showing how Ha navigated Asian American identity and the bonds between mother and daughter.

An insightful, moving coming-of-age tale. (glossary) (Graphic memoir. 12-adult)

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-268510-0

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

An eye-opening account of tenacity that brings the efforts of young anti-Nazi activists vividly to life.


Gertrud, Fritz, and Jean were among many young people who confronted fascism in this little-known true story of teenage resistance in Nazi Germany.

Based on firsthand accounts and historical documents, Gaddy’s debut tells the story of the loosely affiliated nonconformist youth groups known as the Edelweiss Pirates. Meeting in secret, camping in the woods, and attempting to avoid mandatory recruitment into Hitler youth organizations, their resistance activities ranged from scatological pranks and vandalism to flyering and sabotage to simply playing guitar and wearing their hair long. Though largely composed of straight Christians, many from socialist and communist families, the groups welcomed gay and Jewish youth. This matter-of-fact narrative shows how youth can stand against an overwhelming tide of fascism. It implicatively asks readers, “what would you do?” while highlighting the actions of young people who refused to be complacent—and the consequences they suffered for it. It challenges common narratives that reserve praise for resistance for the politically centrist middle and upper classes. The author weaves a lesson in historiography into an already fascinating story, effectively utilizing black-and-white photographs, excerpts from primary sources, and images of historical documents in chapters that are divided into short, dynamic segments that will sustain readers’ interest.

An eye-opening account of tenacity that brings the efforts of young anti-Nazi activists vividly to life. (historical note, source notes, bibliography, photo credits, index) (Nonfiction. 12-18)

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-5255-5541-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019



A biographical introduction to the unusual life of 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson.

An inquisitive child who explored “every bird, every flower, every bee or breeze or slant of light,” Emily adored her brother and enjoyed her school friends, experienced intense feelings, thoughts, and desires, and loved reading, which felt like traveling “on a sea of words.” When people failed to answer her existential questions, Emily put “faith in what she could see and understand.” Gradually, her thoughts and feelings emerged as poems that set her free and allowed her to dwell in an inner world “bigger than all the world outside.” Continuing to enjoy her gardens, dog, family, select friends, and neighborhood children, the adult Emily rarely left her room, where she wrote and hid hundreds of amazing poems discovered after her death in 1886. Adroitly incorporating language and imagery from Dickinson’s poems as well as whole lines and stanzas, the neatly hand-lettered, lyrical text appropriately focuses on how Emily’s rich inner life crystallized into her remarkable poetry. Splendid illustrations combine both folk-art and surrealist styles to contrast Emily’s limited physical journey from sensitive child to reclusive poet within the confines of her family home with imaginative scenes of her limitless inner life showcasing visual images from her poems. Inspired use of the butterfly motif captures the poet’s enigmatic spirit.

Stunning. (notes on Dickinson and poetry, author’s note, artist’s note) (Picture book/biography. 5-8)

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4521-4297-5

Page Count: 52

Publisher: Chronicle

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

A beautiful portrayal of a historic and arduous family journey northward


One family’s experience of the Great Migration.

Cline-Ransome and Ransome, a husband-and-wife author-and-illustrator team, have again collaborated on an important story from African American history. Narrator Ruth Ellen, Mama, and Daddy awaken early to travel to New York without the permission or knowledge of the landowner on whose land they sharecrop. (The author’s note mentions that landowners often used threats and violence to keep sharecroppers on the land and perpetually in debt.) The family boards the train with luggage, tickets, and food in a shoebox—since black folks cannot eat in the dining car and must sit in the colored section of the train. The conductor calls out the cities as they progress North. When the conductor removes the “whites only” sign near Baltimore, African Americans can sit wherever they want—though it takes some time before Ruth Ellen and her family find white riders who smile a welcome. Ruth Ellen reads Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass aloud to Mama on the train ride, a gift from her teacher that parallels her own family’s journey. Ransome’s watercolor-and-collage illustrations effectively capture both the historical setting and the trepidation of a family who though not enslaved, nevertheless must escape as if they were. Cotton bolls throughout the images accentuate cotton’s economic dominance in the sharecropping system.

A beautiful portrayal of a historic and arduous family journey northward . (Picture book. 4-8)

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8234-3873-0

Page Count: 48

Publisher: Holiday House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

More Book Lists

The Magazine: Kirkus Reviews

Jenn Shapland reclaims a queer icon in My Autobiography of Carson McCullers.

  • The Kirkus Star

    One of the most coveted designations in the book industry, the Kirkus Star marks books of exceptional merit.

  • The Kirkus Prize

    The Kirkus Prize is among the richest literary awards in America, awarding $50,000 in three categories annually.

    See the 2019 winners.

Great Books & News Curated For You

Be the first to read books news and see reviews, news and features in Kirkus Reviews. Get awesome content delivered to your inbox every week.

Thank you!

Looks good !! Please provide a valid email.