8

Most Popular Books Published in 2020

I love a good book list.  Although I have tried my best not to look at any for quite some time as my TBR lists are bursting at the seams, I could not resist perusing the Goodreads list of the most popular books published during 2020.  Although I read a lot of contemporary fiction, I had read just three of the 149 which appear here at the time of compiling this list.  Rather than write about those, all of which I found underwhelming (My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, One of Us is Next by Karen M. McManus, and Mr Nobody by Catherine Steadman), I thought I would pick out ten books which pique my interest.

1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett 51791252._sx318_sy475_
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?  Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.  As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.

438349092. Long Bright River by Liz Moore
In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.  Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.  Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.’

3. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James 45885644
The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.  Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn’t right at the Sun Down, and before long she’s determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden…’

51907346._sy475_4. All Adults Here by Emma Straub
When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus accident in the center of town, it jostles loose a repressed memory from her young parenting days decades earlier. Suddenly, Astrid realizes she was not quite the parent she thought she’d been to her three, now-grown children. But to what consequence?  Astrid’s youngest son is drifting and unfocused, making parenting mistakes of his own. Her daughter is intentionally pregnant yet struggling to give up her own adolescence. And her eldest seems to measure his adult life according to standards no one else shares. But who gets to decide, so many years later, which long-ago lapses were the ones that mattered? Who decides which apologies really count? It might be that only Astrid’s thirteen-year-old granddaughter and her new friend really understand the courage it takes to tell the truth to the people you love the most.  In All Adults Here, Emma Straub’s unique alchemy of wisdom, humor, and insight come together in a deeply satisfying story about adult siblings, aging parents, high school boyfriends, middle school mean girls, the lifelong effects of birth order, and all the other things that follow us into adulthood, whether we like them to or not.’

5. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 53152636._sx318_sy475_
After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.   Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.  Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.   And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.’

375062286. Weather by Jenny Offill
Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

7. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas 51934838
‘Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world’s best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years—summers included—completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises its graduates a future of sublime power and prestige, and that they can become anything or anyone they desire.  Among this year’s incoming class is Ines, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, pills, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. The school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves and their place within the formidable black iron gates of Catherine.  For Ines, Catherine is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had, and her serious, timid roommate, Baby, soon becomes an unlikely friend. Yet the House’s strange protocols make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when Baby’s obsessive desire for acceptance ends in tragedy, Ines begins to suspect that the school—in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence—might be hiding a dangerous agenda that is connected to a secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.  Combining the haunting sophistication and dusky, atmospheric style of Sarah Waters with the unsettling isolation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Catherine House is a devious, deliciously steamy, and suspenseful page-turner with shocking twists and sharp edges that is sure to leave readers breathless.’

459927178. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.  Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?  With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion, and courage.’

9. If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha 52696537._sy475_
Kyuri is a heartbreakingly beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a “room salon,” an exclusive bar where she entertains businessmen while they drink. Though she prides herself on her cold, clear-eyed approach to life, an impulsive mistake with a client may come to threaten her livelihood.  Her roomate, Miho, is a talented artist who grew up in an orphanage but won a scholarship to study art in New York. Returning to Korea after college, she finds herself in a precarious relationship with the super-wealthy heir to one of Korea’s biggest companies.  Down the hall in their apartment building lives Ara, a hair stylist for whom two preoccupations sustain her: obsession with a boy-band pop star, and a best friend who is saving up for the extreme plastic surgery that is commonplace.  And Wonna, one floor below, is a newlywed trying to get pregnant with a child that she and her husband have no idea how they can afford to raise and educate in the cutthroat economy.  Together, their stories tell a gripping tale that’s seemingly unfamiliar, yet unmistakably universal in the way that their tentative friendships may have to be their saving grace.’

5017541910. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Ava moved to Hong Kong to find happiness, but so far, it isn’t working out. Since she left Dublin, she’s been spending her days teaching English to rich children—she’s been assigned the grammar classes because she lacks warmth—and her nights avoiding petulant roommates in her cramped apartment.  When Ava befriends Julian, a witty British banker, he offers a shortcut into a lavish life her meager salary could never allow. Ignoring her feminist leanings and her better instincts, Ava finds herself moving into Julian’s apartment, letting him buy her clothes, and, eventually, striking up a sexual relationship with him. When Julian’s job takes him back to London, she stays put, unsure where their relationship stands.  Enter Edith. A Hong Kong–born lawyer, striking and ambitious, Edith takes Ava to the theater and leaves her tulips in the hallway. Ava wants to be her—and wants her. Ava has been carefully pretending that Julian is nothing more than an absentee roommate, so when Julian announces that he’s returning to Hong Kong, she faces a fork in the road. Should she return to the easy compatibility of her life with Julian or take a leap into the unknown with Edith?  Politically alert, heartbreakingly raw, and dryly funny, Exciting Times is thrillingly attuned to the great freedoms and greater uncertainties of modern love. In stylish, uncluttered prose, Naoise Dolan dissects the personal and financial transactions that make up a life—and announces herself as a singular new voice.

Which of these books have you read, and which 2020 release was your favourite?

2

Powell’s ‘Indiespensable’ Novels

Powell’s Books in Oregon, whose headquarters claim to be the largest new and secondhand bookshop in the world, is somewhere that has been on my to-visit list for around a decade now.  I am determined to get there one day – perhaps with an empty suitcase in tow for a wealth of probable purchases – but for now, I have to make do with their website.  Powell’s champion a lot of small, lesser-known books on their website, and launched a wonderful looking subscription club some time ago, called ‘Indiespensable’.  I would love to sign up, but being in the UK, it is rather expensive.  I have, however, made my way through their archive and highlighted ten books which I really, really, want to read, along with Powell’s wonderful reviews and reasoning for choosing these particular tomes.

1. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner featured-indie-73
‘With The Mars Room, bestselling author and two-time National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner brings readers another award-worthy novel. Romy Leslie Hall, prisoner W314159, captivated us from the beginning, riding in a bus for female inmates heading to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California, to serve a double life sentence. Romy’s life has never been easy, and she reflects on her time before prison, when she worked as a stripper at the Mars Room and cared for her son, Jackson. From prison she offers commentary on the minutiae of institutional life, studded with vivid characters like Conan, an extremely masculine transgender male; Norse, a heavy metal-loving white supremacist; and smiley Laura Lipp, the “baby killer.” Entertaining and thoughtful, The Mars Room delves into the injustices of the American prison system and the routine violence inflicted upon marginalized children and women in our society. Switching between Romy’s voice and those of her fellow inmates, as well as a dirty cop, a well-intentioned prison employee, and the diaries of Ted Kaczynski, among others, the novel creates a provocative mosaic of those living within and around the prison industrial complex.’
2. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado’s sublimely creepy debut, draws on the lexicons of urban legend, the 19th-century British gothic, and American society’s evolving ideas about female corporeality to tell stories about women on the edge. Machado’s characters are subject to the familiar embarrassments, privations, and violence to which women worldwide are accustomed, but they ’re also privy to something else; in very different ways, Machado’s main characters share a consciousness of the enormity of the world’s brutality against women, whether it’s exercised through the condemnation of fat, the frequency of rape, the male gaze, the disavowal of female testimony, or campfire stories about bad girls getting what they deserve. In the liminal worlds of Her Body and Other Parties — positioned somewhere between 21st-century America and a horrorscape of breathing pavement and sentient dresses — an intangible, living darkness reaches out to hurt women, or convince them to hurt themselves. The dread this darkness inspires powers Machado ’s riveting short story collection, which heralds the arrival of a brilliant and incisive writer.’
329202263. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
‘From Jesmyn Ward, the National Book Award-winning author of Salvage the Bones, comes another timely and stunning addition to the literary canon. With Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward casts a careful, unsentimental lens on the most disenfranchised Americans. The novel traverses the Gulf Coast on a complex family odyssey, as the characters struggle to find hope and peace in a world that is unsympathetic to them. Leonie, a careworn waitress, finds solace in drugs and Michael, her white boyfriend and the father of their two children. Caught in the middle of Leonie’s quest for the “perfect” family are Jojo, her teenage son, and his toddler sister, Kayla, who prefer the comfort and security of Pop and Mam, the grandparents who raised them. Like Ward’s previous work, Sing, Unburied, Sing is raw and honest in its depiction of the generational poverty, racism, and regret that shadow this family and, more broadly, the rural South. Ward’s signature lyricism lends a visceral quality to her characters and their landscape, without evoking undue sympathy for the most troubled individuals. Sing, Unburied, Sing is an elegantly rendered, brilliant, and necessary reading of the American landscape.’
4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
‘George Saunders’s writing has always been apropos of the current political and social climate, and though his theatrical debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is set in 1862, the modern-day parallels (and contrasts) are striking. The novel portrays a critical time in the life of Abraham Lincoln, who is deep in grief over the death of his son, Willie Lincoln. Disliked by the populace and presiding over a dramatically shifting country, Lincoln finds himself visiting the bardo — a Tibetan purgatory-like state — each night by returning to his son’s tomb while a gaggle of ghosts (including Willie) look on. Told through this chorus of spirits along with real-life and fictional characters, Lincoln in the Bardo turns our idea of the novel on its head. Yet through the fractured narrative, Saunders has created a deft historical tale that speaks volumes about our current unrest and ill-defined state.’

5. The Mothers by Brit Bennett 28815371
‘A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, New Republic, and The Paris Review, Brit Bennett has never shied away from asking and answering the difficult questions when it comes to race. Her debut novel, The Mothers, is just as bold in its depiction of abortion. But the story doesn’t end with this polarizing topic — it begins with it, and each page gradually reveals the tangled lives and fates of three teenagers in a black Southern California community: Nadia Turner, an ambitious and rebellious teen; Luke, the local pastor’s son; and Aubrey, Nadia’s timid friend. Narrated by “the Mothers,” a chorus of elder parishioners of Upper Room Chapel, the story follows Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey from age 17 into their mid-20s. Bennett’s unflinching honesty in portraying these all-too-human characters (including the narrators) is something to be treasured. The Mothers is a beautifully reflective work about the decisions we make in our youth and their reverberations in our lives and throughout our community.’
6. The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil
‘We’ve had our eye on Josh Weil ever since his first book, The New Valley, came out in 2009. The collection of three linked novellas won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and earned him a spot on the National Book Foundation’s esteemed “5 Under 35” list of upcoming young authors. So we had high expectations when his new novel found its way into our hands.  The Great Glass Sea lived up to — and surpassed — those accolades with its inventiveness, originality, and incredible story. Yarik and Dima are twin brothers living in an alternate and dystopian version of Russia. Inseparable as children, their adult lives begin to divide along lines of power, ideology, and fortune. Drawing strong influence from Russian folktales, The Great Glass Sea is a gorgeously written, intricately detailed look at how community, individuality, and love evolve in one imagined future. We are happy to be partnering again with Grove Atlantic, one of the country’s premier independent presses, to present this excellent work.
181439777. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
‘This novel tells the parallel stories of a blind French girl and a young German radio engineer during World War II. Whether he’s describing the locks in Paris’s National Museum of Natural History, the history of a notorious diamond, or the streets of a medieval French port, Doerr lends an expert’s eye to the details of the world he brings to life. But what truly elevates his second novel is how skillfully he uses each of his lyrical, evocative sentences, one after the other, to gradually reveal the complex inner lives of his truly memorable cast of characters. Abraham Verghese wrote: “It’s been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion,” and we, too, feel absolutely enchanted by this book.’
8. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell
‘When we read Matt Bell’s debut novel, our first thought was, Wow! Our second thought was, Indiespensable. Books like this are why we created a subscription club in the first place. We wanted a venue to promote those titles we would stake our reputation on but that might need a boost to reach the audience they deserved, hence the focus on independent presses, small print runs, and first-time authors. We’ll concede that this is not an easy book. It’s certainly difficult to describe, though Lauren Groff came pretty close when she called it “a big, slinking, dangerous fairy tale, the kind with gleaming fangs and blood around the muzzle and a powerful heart you can hear thumping from miles away.” But it is well worth the effort. Once you sink your teeth in, we’re confident you’ll love it as much as we did.’
9. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra 18428067
‘The moment we opened Anthony Marra’s brutal, beautiful debut novel about an orphaned Chechnyan girl hiding from the Russians during the country’s recent decade of war, we knew that for once our choice would be easy. Maile Meloy perfectly captured our experience: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is “both devastating and transcendent….You’ll finish it transformed.” One colleague was even more succinct, saying simply, “Gorgeous. Just gorgeous!”‘
10. Bright Before Us by Katie Arnold-Ratliff
Facing the prospect of fatherhood, disillusioned by his fledgling teaching career, and mourning the loss of a former relationship, Francis Mason is a prisoner of his past mistakes. When his second-grade class discovers a dead body during a field trip to a San Francisco beach, Francis spirals into unbearable grief and all-consuming paranoia. As his behavior grows increasingly erratic, and tensions arise with the school principal and the parents of his students, he faces the familiar urge to flee—a choice that forces him to confront the character weaknesses that have shattered his life again and again, and to accept the wrenching truth about the past he’s never been able to move beyond. A haunting debut novel, Bright Before Us explores the fraught journey toward adulthood, the nature of memory, and the startling limits to which we are driven by grief.

 

Have you read any of these?  Have you been lucky enough to go to Powell’s before?  Do you ever plan trips around visits to bookshops?

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