At this point, it hardly bears repeating, but 2020 has been a truly god-awful year. We’ll take our silver linings where we find them, and at Kirkus, that means celebrating the great books we’ve read and reviewed since January. There’s been plenty of them, pandemic or no.
This month, we began to roll out our Best Books of 2020 coverage. We’ve already shared the 100 best fiction books and 100 best picture books selected by our editors. The best middle-grade, nonfiction, young adult, and Indie titles will follow in the coming weeks.
This time of year is also an opportunity for you to look back on your own reading and consider which titles wowed you when you first encountered them—and which have stayed with you over the ensuing months. This is neither an objective nor a comprehensive list of best books, but some of the peak reading experiences you take away from 2020. Here’s my own accounting:
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Grove Press, Feb. 11): This debut by a writer born in Scotland, now living in New York, is one of those novels that takes over your life while you’re reading it. The story of a young queer boy raised by a beautiful, alcoholic mother in working-class Glasgow of the 1980s is desperately sad and unbelievably beautiful. It rings with the cadences and color of the local dialect, shining with affection for its flawed characters. Nearly a year after reading Shuggie Bain, I can’t get it out of my head. Watching it win the Booker Prize last week was a joyful affirmation that this is one special book.
Warhol by Blake Gopnik (Ecco, April 28): This doorstop biography of Andy Warhol, weighing in at 976 pages, has been criticized in some quarters for being too much. But wasn’t Andy himself just that? For those, like me, who can’t get their fill of Warhol arcana, Gopnik lucidly maps the artist’s life in rich detail, from poor ethnic Pittsburgh roots to art-world ascent and high-society hobnobbing. I often balk at overlong biographies, but Warhol gave me something to think about on every page.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (West Virginia Univ. Press, Sept. 1): What a delight to stumble upon a debut story collection by an unknown writer, published by a small university press, that stealthily captures your heart and mind. That’s what this book, by a Kirkus reviewer, did for all of us at the magazine who read it. Deesha can write! These 9 stories—all featuring Black women with complicated feelings about faith, family, love, and sex—are sometimes sly, sometimes heartfelt, and always perceptive. The fiction judges for the National Book Awards thought so, too—it was a surprise finalist for this year’s prize.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, transalted by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, Sept. 1): Is it cheating if one of my peak reading experiences was actually a listening experience? So be it. To hear the latest novel by the pseudonymous Italian author read by actor Marisa Tomei, in her audiobook debut, is to feel its words and emotions course through your very body. (The audiobook is produced by Penguin Random House Audio.) Tomei captures the various intense moods and passions of the adolescent narrator, Giovanna, as she struggles to come into her own and understand the perplexing adult world around her. Brava!
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar (Little, Brown, Sept. 15): This novel, the second from Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Akhtar, is a thrilling, genre-defying work of art with hints of memoir and essay woven into its tapestry. The story of a Pakistani American writer coming to terms with Trump’s America is also the sensitive portrait of an immigrant family’s imperfect assimilation, a meditation on being Muslim in a largely Christian nation, and a scathing critique of our culture of wealth and debt. There’s so much happening in Homeland Elegies—all of it written with great style—that I’m determined to read it again and absorb what I missed the first time.
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter (Harper, Oct. 27): When you love a novel as much as I loved Walter’s 2012 bestseller, Beautiful Ruins, you tell yourself that the follow-up just can’t be as good. Right? Wrong. This historical romp, set in the author’s hometown of Spokane, Washington, in 1909, was the book that carried me through the excruciating week of the presidential election. A tale of two hobo brothers caught up in the free speech struggle of the Wobblies, led by a pregnant 19-year-old union organizer named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who really existed—with a vaudeville subplot and plenty of Western color to boot—this novel is a firecracker.
Here’s to the books that made this rotten year a little bit better. Which ones are on your list?
Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.