Every December, I look back on the year past and give a shoutout to those books that deserved more buzz—more reviews, more word-of-mouth promotion, more book-club love, more Twitter excitement. It’s a subjective assessment—how exactly do you measure buzz? And how much is not enough?—but I relish the exercise because it lets me revisit some titles that merit a second look.
Of course, in 2020 every book deserved more buzz. Between the pandemic and the presidential election, it was hard for many titles, deprived of their traditional publicity campaigns, to get the attention they needed. A few lucky titles came out early in the year, disappeared when coronavirus turned our world upside down, and then managed to rebound; Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (Grove, Feb. 11), for instance, caught a second wind after being shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award and going on to claim the Booker Prize. Many more books earned respectful reviews, then sank without a trace. So herewith, a short list of books that have earned another moment in the spotlight:
With Amnesty (Scribner, Feb. 18), Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger, Selection Day) may have written his best novel yet—the shrewd portrait of an undocumented Sri Lankan immigrant keeping his head down and making ends meet as a housecleaner in Sydney, Australia, when he stumbles upon the murder of one of his clients. It’s part social novel, part thriller, and entirely captivating.
Daniel Mason, known for superb historical novels such as The Winter Soldier, proved he is just as good working with a smaller canvas. The nine stories in A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth (Little, Brown, May 5) transport readers to an 1824 English boxing match, a remote telegraph station in the Amazon rainforest, and a hot air balloon floating above 18th-century France, among other memorable locales. For sheer imaginativeness—and formal playfulness—this collection is a winner.
Another of the year’s great story collections—If I Had Two Wings (Norton, Aug. 4)—was author Randall Kenan’s long-awaited return to the fictional town of Tims Creek, North Carolina, last visited in his 1992 collection, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. Sadly, Kenan died just a few weeks after the collection was published—making this unpredictable portrait of small-town Southern life especially precious.
Many thousands of pages have been written about Emily Dickinson, but few capture the elusive Belle of Amherst as succinctly and vividly as Martha Ackmann’s These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson(Norton, Feb. 25), a slim volume structured around key turning points in the poet’s life. Ackmann teaches a seminar on Dickinson at Mount Holyoke College, and her firsthand knowledge of the local area and insightful readings of poems and letters make this portrait intimate and powerful. In a year that saw great hulking biographies of Andy Warhol and Sylvia Plath (both excellent), These Fevered Days is a reminder that less is sometimes more.
We have 30 more days of reading before 2020 is (finally, blessedly) behind us. Maybe your favorite,unheralded read of the year is still to come.
Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.