In 2020, there were the big political books, like Rage by Bob Woodward; celebrity memoirs, like The Meaning of Mariah Carey; and new installments from big-name writers such as John Grisham, Elin Hilderbrand, and Stephen King. There was even the new Twilight installment, Midnight Sun. (Not that I read it. Cough. Cough.) Tucked in between these big releases was a plethora of not-to-be-missed titles. Here’s a handy guide to the best books of 2020.
For Cocktail Lovers and Their Sober Friends
The New Craft of the Cocktail
By Dale DeGroff
This is the first update to what is known as the cocktail bible in nearly two decades. In it, DeGroff offers up more than 500 recipes and tells stories of his time in the industry. You’re going to want this for a long winter of home-bartending.
Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason
By Julia Bainbridge
No Shirley Temples here! Bainbridge — a longtime food writer for Bon Appétit — takes the mocktail as seriously as DeGroff takes the cocktail. She presents recipes and rules for turning out a drink that will be the envy of every party.
For Lovers of Spy Stories
Code Name Hélène
By Ariel Lawhon
This work of historical fiction is not just a World War II-era spy story but a sweeping narrative told with chronological twists. Follow along to find out how a Australian woman becomes a spy and then a leader of the French
Resistance while drinking French 75s and wearing Victory Red lipstick.
It’s so good, you won’t believe it’s true.
But it is.
Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy
By Ben Macintyre
If Hélène is dashing around France in lipstick, then Agent Sonya is her opposite. Ursula Kuczynski was a mother and a Russian spy. Using Kuczynski’s journals, Macintyre brings to life a woman who struggled to find babysitters so she could spy on Nazis and later the West. It reads like fiction, but it’s 100 percent true.
For Lovers of Epic Family Sagas
These Ghosts Are Family
By Maisy Card
What would you do if you discovered your father faked his death and then started a new life with a new wife and kids? That question sets this multigenerational family epic in motion as it explores slavery, racism, colorism, and the power of secrets.
A Long Petal of the Sea
By Isabel Allende
Did you hear about the artist Banksy funding a boat to rescue refugees stuck at sea? Well, the poet Pablo Neruda did that in 1939 to rescue refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Allende’s book takes us on that boat as we follow a pair of refugees fleeing Spain and grappling with love and belonging. If you haven’t read Allende’s work, now is the time to start.
For Lovers of Wild West Tales
How Much of These Hills Is Gold: A Novel
By C Pam Zhang
This debut novel confronts the myth of the American West, replacing the cowboy at the center with the Chinese and Chinese-American experience in California at the time of a fictionalized gold rush. The story follows the journey of two orphaned sisters as they seek a final resting place for their father’s body.
The Cold Millions
By Jess Walter
Take a turn up from California and head to Spokane, Washington, at the time of the free speech riots of 1909. There you’ll find a set of orphaned brothers on their own journey. They get mixed up with a cast of characters from a cougar-taming vaudevillian to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a feminist and organizer for women’s rights and labor rights.
For Lovers of Literary Thrillers
Take Me Apart
By Sara Sligar
I passed this debut novel to a friend, who passed it to her mom, who passed it to her sister. Nobody could put it down. It’s the story of a woman who flees New York for California after her professional life falls apart. Forced to crash with her aunt and uncle, she takes a job archiving the personal effects of a famous photographer. What she discovers is the heart of this psychological thriller.
For Lovers of Literary Fiction
By S.M. Hulse
This book asks a question that feels all too relevant in Michigan right now: Can you forgive a family member that plots an act of terror? That’s the decision Jo has to make when her brother blows up a courthouse in rural Montana. Her voice is what propels this book forward as she deals with the aftermath. Hulse gives us a quiet, reflective book on the ties that bind and those left behind.
By Megha Majumdar
An act of terror is also the start of this debut novel. But this time, a young Muslim woman in India is falsely accused based on a Facebook comment. That one action sets in motion three intertwining tales set in current-day India and addressing issues of class, fate, and justice. This is sure to be a book club favorite.
The Margot Affair
By Sanaë Lemoine
What if you’re the other woman’s daughter? Margot is growing up in France with a famous actress for a mother and a rising politician for a father. Neither the world nor his wife knows about the couple, let alone their 17-year-old daughter. When Margot outs her parents, it unearths a trove of family secrets.
For Lovers of Unforgettable Women
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
By Deesha Philyaw
This short story collection is a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. What makes it stand out is how Philyaw draws four generations of women so finely you can feel yourself standing there with them as they grapple with the choices they make in public and private.
In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family, Far Away
By Dionne Searcey
As the West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, Searcey was responsible for bringing an oft-overlooked part of the world into the homes of readers. She did that often by telling the stories of the women she encountered, including those kidnapped by Boko Haram. In her reported memoir, she paints empathetic portraits of women in extraordinary circumstances while also facing her own struggle as woman and mother halfway around the world.
For Book Club
The New Rules of Cheese: A Freewheeling and Informative Guide
By Anne Saxelby
Trust Saxelby, the owner of Saxelby Cheesemongers and best friend of cheese lovers everywhere, to answer all your questions about storing, pairing, and serving cheese.
The Essential Wine Book
By Zachary Sussman
Sussman does for wine what Saxelby does for cheese. Sussman helps you understand wine — all those tasting notes! — and where the most interesting regions are today. You’ll never need to choose a bottle by the label again!
For Those Wondering How We Got Here
The state of our union is fractured, and the story of how we got here is what a number of writers grappled with on the page. Here are my favorite books and novels that illuminate the American experience in different ways.
Homeland Elegies: A Novel
By Ayad Akhtar
The Pulitzer Prize winner returns with a novel that struggles with how to belong in America and to America as a Muslim American in the years after Sept. 11 and the rise of President Trump.
Caste: The Origins of our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson
Bets are now being taken on whether Wilkerson or Akhtar will win their second Pulitzer Prize for their work this year. Caste addresses race and racism but through a lens of caste. Deeply researched and beautifully written, it pulls comparisons from how America, India, and Nazi Germany treat their highest and lowest citizens.
Just Us: An American Conversation
By Claudia Rankine
The MacArthur “genius” Fellowship winner pulls together poetry, photos, tweets, vignettes, and historical documents to investigate the issue of race and whiteness in America.
Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism
By Seyward Darby
Journalist Darby tells the story of three women entrenched in the alt-right movement and what it means for the future.
The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power
By Deirdre Mask
If Wilkerson’s Caste gives us the epic sweep, Mask’s book is the zoom in to a precise map dot: the street address. Mask investigates what an address says about who lives there, from Ancient Rome to modern America.
Amy Haimerl is a professor of journalism at Michigan State University; author of Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Love, Life and Home; and founder of the Shady Ladies Literary Society.