Some Top Novels From 2020
16 binge-worthy novels from Elena Ferrante, Tana French, Dean Koontz and many more
With the arrival of the pandemic earlier in the year, many publishers pushed their big books’ release dates to fall — perhaps hoping the world would be in a better place by then. That means we bibliophiles are in for a treat in the next few months, with the arrival of loads of great new reads. It's not easy to select the most notable novels among so many, but we've chosen 16 favorites and added brief mentions of 10 also-worthy books at the end of the list.
The Lying Life of Adults
The mysterious Italian author (her real identity remains famously anonymous) of the Neapolitan novels, the series that began with 2012's My Brilliant Friend, is back with another coming-of-age story that's already been snapped up for adaptation by Netflix. This one focuses on Giovanna, a young girl who lives with her intellectual parents in Naples, where her father is estranged from his less well-off family — including his unattractive and despised sister Vittoria. When Giovanna overhears her father comparing her with Vittoria, she winds herself up into a tailspin of self-doubt that leads to a new interest in and relationship with her disturbed aunt, ruptures within the family, and sexual exploration. It's a mesmerizing character study of a troubled adolescent struggling to figure out where she fits in the world. (Actress Marisa Tomei narrates the audiobook version.)
All the Devils Are Here
Fans will be thrilled to have a new Inspector Armand Gamache novel from the beloved writer, though this one is set in Paris rather than the usual wintry Quebec. Gamache and his family are in the City of Light dining out with his wealthy godfather, Stephen Horowitz, and former second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who's now living in Paris. When the group leaves the restaurant Horowitz is hit and killed by a delivery van — apparently intentionally — setting Gamache on a quest for answers. What he finds is a complex web of lies. You don't need to have read the previous books to enjoy the mystery (whose apt title refers to a line from Shakespeare's The Tempest: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here"), but knowing a bit about the characters’ backgrounds helps you follow the subtle tensions between them.
Gyasi, a wonderful Ghanian American writer who received acclaim for her 2016 debut Homegoing, writes a deeply moving story about a family who immigrated to Alabama from Ghana (as Gyasi's did). The focus is on Gifty, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford studying reward-seeking behavior in mice, for reasons that soon become clear: Her brother, a star basketball player in high school, died of a drug overdose after a post-injury prescription for OxyContin led to opioid addiction. Her mother has been devastated ever since. Now devoted to understanding the physiology of addiction, Gifty wrestles with the seeming incompatibility between her Christian upbringing and the fact-based world of science. (When a friend tells her, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” Gifty brusquely responds, “Opiates are the opiates of the masses.") It's a cerebral, absorbing novel with uncommon depth.
If you loved Backman's famous feel-good 2012 best seller A Man Called Ove, you'll love his charming new novel, Anxious People — especially if you enjoy some laughs with your sentimentality. It offers the same warmhearted quirkiness found in Ove, though with more humor, sometimes verging on slapstick. The action kicks off with someone (we're not told who until the story's end) attempting to rob a cashless bank; the failed criminal then crashes a real estate showing and, in a bumbling, unfrightening way, holds hostage the colorful group of characters in attendance. There's a poignant backstory behind the desperate act, and everyone involved turns out to have far more in common than they realized, including all the flaws, heartache and confusion that make us human. (Read our excerpt, an exclusive first look, here.)
Best-selling author Sue Miller's latest book, following 2014's The Arsonist, is a haunting meditation on love, marriage, fidelity, betrayal and loss. For 30 years photographer Annie and her beloved, gregarious bookstore-owning husband, Graham, seem to have the perfect life in the intellectual haven of Cambridge, Massachusetts. But after he passes away, Annie learns that Graham — a complicated character — was unfaithful, and her view of their marriage is turned upside down. The emotional story explores how she reconciles that reality with her love for him. As always, Miller's work is magnificent and moving. Consider it for your next book club read.
Piranesi is unforgettable — surely one of the most original works of fiction this season. It drops you into a mind-bending fantasy world, a vast labyrinth with infinite rooms and seas that sweep into halls and up staircases with the tides. We experience it through the eyes of an almost-childlike, kindhearted man called Piranesi, who believes it's his home. He knows of only one other living person, whom he calls The Other and believes to be his friend. Piranesi's memory fails, but using clues from his journals and a strange visitor, he eventually learns the stunning truth about his beloved world. It's a hypnotic tale that you can devour in a day (and probably will; it's that hard to put down), by the British author of the magical Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was chosen as Time magazine's best novel of 2004.
The Evening and the Morning
Blockbuster Welsh author Follett (he's sold more than 170 million copies of his 31 books) delivers a new story in his Kingsbridge series, a prequel to his hit 1989 classic The Pillars of the Earth. In the 11th century, after a Viking raid kills the girl he loves, Edgar finds himself drawing closer to Ragna, an aristocratic woman who's way out of his league. Can he, a mere commoner, and the noble Ragna surmount the obstacles to make a perfect pair? Follett vividly re-creates the ancient era, filled with slaves, royalty, murderers, lovers and churchmen, in this feast for his fans, who will be least daunted by the commitment this weighty 900-page novel requires.
The Awkward Black Man
The Mystery Writers of America Grand Master and Edgar Award winner known for his Easy Rawlins mystery series, Mosley's been dubbed the “Gogol of the African-American working class,” by Vibe, for his skill in chronicling the absurdities and tragedies among the black men who struggle in our society in the face of racism, urban violence and other modern problems. These 17 old and more recent stories (including “Pet Fly,” which ran years ago in the New Yorker, about an overqualified young mailroom clerk), feature distinctive characters, plus Mosley's jazzy prose and extraordinary insights. It's a tender, sad and gripping collection.
The fourth installment in Pulitzer Prize-winner Robinson's Gilead cycle (following 2014's Lila) is a nuanced story of illegal interracial love during the Jim Crow era. Jack Boughton, a white minister's son, WWII draft dodger, drinker and sometime vagrant, finds his life spinning out of control in segregated St. Louis, until he meets and falls in love with Della Miles, an English teacher from a prominent black family. Robinson, 76, who counts Barack Obama among her many fans, artfully depicts the pain that comes from life's roadblocks (neither Jack nor Della can make their union public), reminding us of how love can both torment and transcend.
The prolific Sparks, famous for hugely best-selling romantic novels like his hit 1996 debut The Notebook, is back with his 21st: It's the story of Trevor Benson, a young orthopedic surgeon returned from Afghanistan with injuries from his service. He's temporarily down South to take stock of the run-down, rural North Carolina home left to him by his late grandfather, when he meets a local teenage girl named Callie and starts to fall for Natalie, a deputy sheriff. They both seem to be holding something back, though, and Trevor starts to question whether there was more to his grandfather's life and death than he realized. Callie offers clues, then a crisis leads to surprising revelations.
Leave the World Behind
An already frightening tale is decidedly nerve-racking — almost hard to read — when read during the current anxiety-provoking pandemic. A couple, Amanda and Clay, and their two teenagers head out from New York City to a quiet area of Long Island for a vacation in a home rental, where they receive a late-night knock on the door. It's the homeowners, a wealthy older African American couple, Ruth and H.G., seeking refuge, citing a blackout in the city. Alas, there's no cellphone service to confirm their story. There is a bit of racial tension, but far more disturbing are the increasingly weird happenings that hint at the beginnings of a potentially world-ending crisis. It's no surprise that movie rights have been sold, with Denzel Washington set to costar as H.G.
Who doesn't fall under the spell of beloved author Alice Hoffman? Magic Lessons, a prequel to her 1995 best seller Practical Magic, takes lucky readers back to 1600s Salem and Maria Owens, the matriarch responsible for the curse that haunts the future Owens family. Hoffman guides us through tragedy and terror as Maria grows up, learning the mystical arts, only to find herself bitterly betrayed by a lover and branded a witch. But even as her rage unleashes the curse on her family, she learns dark and important lessons about love. Full of wonderfully strong women, fascinating history and a plot that doesn't stop spinning, this book is a treat.
You may know and love the Irish author Tana French from her best-selling Dublin Murder Squad series, six novels featuring detective Cassie Maddox. Then came a stand-alone, 2018's The Witch Elm, a slow-burning mystery that dove deeply into the main character's inner life. This new stand-alone is similar in its psychological depth. In this case, French's focus is on retired Chicago cop Cal Hooper who's moved to a lovely little Irish village, spending his time fixing up the old house he's bought and hoping for a low-key life. But when a troubled kid whose brother is missing shows up to beg him for help finding him, Cal starts looking for answers, even as it becomes clear that some locals want him to mind his own business. It's not wildly action-packed, but a quietly suspenseful story, and Cal makes for an appealing protagonist — perhaps the hero for a new Irish Countryside Murder Squad series, Tana?
Master of suspense Koontz crafts a terrifying new tale — a stand-alone novel — with a family feel. Jeffy Coltrane and his 11-year-old daughter Amity live a quiet life, though Jeffy is still brooding over his wife, Michelle, who left them, when a local eccentric gives them a mysterious object, dubbed “the key to everything.” They've been warned never to use it, but Jeffy and Amity accidentally unlock its power, and find themselves thrust into parallel lives. Could this mean they might be able to find Michelle? Before they can test-drive that theory, they'll have to stop a deadly presence determined to steal the object and destroy the world. It's a fast-paced, hold-your-breath thriller with a heart.
The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop
Author and performer Flagg is famous for her delightful 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (which became a 1991 film starring Mary Louise Parker). Now it's years later, and Bud, the son of beloved Fried Green Tomatoes character Ruth, has come back to the same small Alabama town with his daughter Ruthie. But with the railroad gone, hard times have broken the community, and nothing feels the same. Or does it? Can this seeming ghost town and its charmingly offbeat denizens come back to life? It's a feel-good story that suggests you can go back home again.
Horowitz, the TV writer behind PBS's Foyle's War and author of super-entertaining novels such as The Sentence Is Death, has killed it (so to speak) again with Moonflower Murders, a follow-up to 2017's Magpie Murders (though you don't need to have read that book to enjoy this one). Retired publisher Susan Ryeland is running a hotel with her boyfriend on a Greek island when a wealthy British couple comes to her begging for help: There was a long-ago murder at their own inn on the English coast, and now their daughter has gone missing. They believe someone's tried to silence her because she recently found clues to the killer's identity in a detective novel written by one of Ryeland's authors, the late Alan Conway. Ryeland, paid handsomely to investigate further, heads to the old English inn, where she starts to reread Conway's book, Atticus Pund Takes the Case — which we get to read for clues, too (the story detours to that book for 224 pages, cover, title page, fictional critics’ blurbs and all). It's an old-style whodunit with a twist, and just a fun, clever read.
Other notable fall releases include: Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie (Sept. 1); the satiric Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen (Sept. 1); What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, winner of the 2018 National Book Award for The Friend (Sept. 8); Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar (Sept. 15); The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (Sept. 22); The Book of Two Ways by the best-selling Jodi Picoult (Sept. 22); The Kingdom by Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbø (Sept. 29); The Cold Millions by Jess Walter, author of the wonderful 2012 novel Beautiful Ruins (Oct. 6); Missionaries, the debut novel from Phil Klay, an Iraq War veteran and a 2014 National Book Award–winner for his book of short stories, Redeployment (Oct. 29); and To Be a Man: Stories by Nicole Krauss, author of the beautiful best-selling 2005 novel The History of Love (Nov. 3).