2020’s Top New Novels to Read Now
10 must-read novels from Isabel Allende, James McBride, Hilary Mantel and more
From top left: RANDOM HOUSE, GRAND CENTRAL, FLATIRON, WILLIAM MORROW, HARPER, RIVERHEAD, RANDOM HOUSE, LITTLE BROWN, BALLANTINE, HENRY HOLT, Getty Images
This season is full of fiction to add to your reading list, with some of the most celebrated authors coming out with new novels. That includes three National Book Award winners (Louise Erdrich, James McBride and Colum McCann), as well as Man Booker-winner Hilary Mantel. Some of the following books are wise and weighty, others are just lots of fun, but they're all worth a read.
Here's hoping this entertaining debut novel doesn't get lost among the stacks of books by big-name authors this season. It's about two women, 72-year-old Cloris Waldrip, the only survivor of a plane crash that killed her husband, and park ranger Debra Lewis. Cloris is lost in the mountainous wilds of Montana, while Debra — depressed, wine-guzzling and newly divorced — is convinced Cloris is still alive and, along with a motley crew of assistants, sets out to find her. The characters are appealing (you'll love Cloris) and the story is suspenseful, with a nice touch of humor.
All the Ways We Said Goodbye
Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
The third collaboration by the three bestselling historical fiction authors is centered on, appropriately, three women. We meet Daisy, a glamorous member of the French resistance; Babs, an American widow; and Aurelie, an heiress. They separately end up at the Ritz hotel in Paris during three time periods — the two world wars and the 1960s — but their lives turn out to be closely linked. Each woman narrates her own story, full of betrayal and romance.
After Lydia Quixano Pérez's journalist husband is killed by members of a drug cartel in their hometown of Acapulco, she and her young son, Luca, have to flee for their lives. Their desperate journey north to safety in the U.S., and the tremendous amount of luck, effort and humiliation involved in doing so, makes for propulsive reading. With folks such as Stephen King calling it “an extraordinary piece of work,” and immigration so much in the news, it's (justly) one of the season's most-buzzed about novels.
A Long Petal of the Sea
The author of The House of the Spirits (1982), among other wonderful works, tells an absorbing story about a pregnant musician and her late husband's brother, an army doctor, who flee Barcelona with the rise of General Franco's dictatorship and move to Chile — described by poet Pablo Naruda as “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.” Struggling to navigate a life in exile, Roser and Victor later find themselves caught up in the rise of another dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Allende was born in Peru and grew up in Chile (Chilean president Salvadore Allende, who was overthrown by Pinochet and appears in the novel, was her father's cousin).
It's no surprise that movie rights to The Holdout have already been sold: Moore wrote the adapted screenplay for the 2014 film The Imitation Game (and won an Oscar for it), and sure knows how to write cinematically. Years ago, Maya Seale, a lawyer, convinced her fellow jurors that the defendant on trial was innocent of murder. Evidence later appears to suggest otherwise, stirring up controversy over the already difficult case — whose verdict grows all the more questionable after one of the jurors is murdered and Maya's the main suspect. Though some of the book's plot twists are eye-rollingly implausible, it's nonetheless a fun and fast-paced read.
McCann, author of the 2009 National Book Award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin (one of my favorites), now offers Apeirogon, whose title is the term for an object with an infinite number of sides. Based on real-life people, it focuses on two men, a Palestinian and Israeli, who unite in grief after they each lose a daughter to the ongoing conflict. Together they devote themselves to Middle East peace. What's remarkable, though, is the wildly imaginative way McCann tells this tale: through hundreds of short segments, some with only a quote, that create a moving whole.
Deacon King Kong
It's hard to imagine this one — a new novel by the author of 2013's National Book Award winner, The Good Lord Bird — not zipping to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Set in 1969, it's full of compassion and the kind of quirky humor that makes McBride's books so unique. The title character is an often-intoxicated widower known as Sportcoat, who walks into a Brooklyn housing project's courtyard, pulls out a gun and shoots the ear off the area drug dealer. McBride, who was raised in Brooklyn's Red Hook housing projects, goes on to reveal why Sportcoat did such a foolhardy thing, and how its reverberations spread outward to affect a colorful mix of characters. Maybe it'll be a TV show someday: The Good Lord Bird will premiere as a Showtime series in February, with Ethan Hawke in the starring role.
The Night Watchman
Another National Book Award-winner, for The Round House (2012), Erdrich has based her latest novel on the experience of her grandfather, a night watchman in North Dakota who fought a federal government bill that threatened the Native people's rights to their land in the 1950s. He's represented by the book's main character, tribal elder Thomas Wazhashk, whose tale is intertwined with that of Pixie Paranteau, a whip-smart young woman who leaves the impoverished reservation to search for her missing sister, Vera, in Minneapolis.
The Mirror and the Light
The finale to the epic trilogy that Mantel began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, each of which won the Man Booker Prize, expertly and intricately continues her moody and dramatic story of Thomas Cromwell — wonderfully played by Mark Rylance in the BBC/PBS miniseries based on the book — who came from nothing to climb the ranks in the treacherous Tudor court of Henry VIII. You might also try the 38-hour audiobook version, voiced by actor Ben Miles.
The Boy from the Woods
The bestselling author of this year's Run Away has written another gripping thriller for 2020. Our hero, of sorts, is an outcast, a near-feral man known as Wilde who gets drawn into the search for two missing teenagers. He teams up with a septuagenarian lawyer and TV personality, Hester Crimstein, to crack the case, but ends up facing off against some powerful people in town who have information that could destroy countless lives. This one also may be destined for the small screen: Coben is creator and executive producer of many television shows, including the upcoming eight-part Netflix series starring Richard Armitage, The Stranger, based on his 2015 novel.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on November 26, 2019. It's been updated with new information.