2020 may well go down in our nation’s history as the Lost Year, the year an entire nation hit Pause, the year the TV show known as America jumped the shark and the screenwriters really got desperate (whatever happened to the murder hornets sub-plot? Did they just merge that into the Covid-rabid minks plot-line? I have so many questions!) However, 2020 was a great year for one thing: books. Most of us ended up with lots more time to read than anticipated, and thank goodness our towering TBR lists were there to help.
Since most of us are having socially distanced holidays away from our extended families this December, you’ll probably be sending lots of presents through the mail…and nothing fits better in a UPS envelope than a nicely-wrapped book. Here are my recommendations for your next online shopping trip, twenty of the best books I read in 2020, though not all were published this year. Why twenty and not the usual ten? Because quarantine is ongoing and we’re all going to need more than the usual top-ten list. Some of these were written by friends and colleagues, some by authors I only hope to meet someday when the world re-opens—but all were fabulous reads, and would make a great holiday gift for someone in your life. I’ve even given you some help figuring out who, depending on how they’ve been passing their time in isolation…
1. AND THEY CALLED IT CAMELOT by Stephanie Thornton. A dishy, sympathetic deep-dive into the mind and life of Jackie the debutante turned Jackie Kennedy turned Jackie O.
Buy for: Your best friend who is currently in mourning now that she’s done with Season 4 of “The Crown.” The Kennedys are the closest thing to American royalty we’ve got, and every bit as dishy as the Windsors.
2. LIBRARY OF LEGENDS by Janie Chang. A Chinese university takes to the road to get away from the upcoming sack of Nanking, bringing with them a host of hopeful students, a priceless library of ancient scrolls, and a wandering star-spirit.
Buy for: That frazzled mom in your life who has been supervising three kids through virtual schooling all year—she’ll reflect that Zoom classrooms are a pain in the ass, but at least she hasn’t been slinging today’s lesson plan on her back while hiking her students through a war zone.
3. THE CHOSEN ONES by Veronica Roth. A non-YA contribution from the Divergent author, examining a team of superheroes not as young world-savers, but afterward, when teenage phenoms have become adults grappling with fame, PTSD, and new threats to the world.
Buy for: Your Marvel-loving ex-roommate who just finished binging “The Umbrella Academy”—which also stars teen superheroes turned screwed-up twenty-somethings.
4. HER LAST FLIGHT by Beatriz Williams. A voic-y, vivid tale of an Amelia Earhart-esque flyer who disappears on her last flight, and the intrepid young journalist who tracks her down decades later.
Buy for: Your adrenaline-junkie cousin who hasn’t been able to sky-dive, rock-climb, parasail, or zipline all year along, and needs a virtual dose of sky-time danger.
5. DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland. Kickass heroines, racial politics in a post-apocalyptic 19th century world, and lots of zombie-slaying.
Buy for: The kid brother who blitzed through all of “The Walking Dead” in October. He’ll be begging for a scythe just like the one on DREAD NATION’s cover.
6. THIS TERRIBLE BEAUTY/Katrin Schumann. A love triangle in post-WWII east Germany, as a nation struggles to come to grips with its war-time crimes, and a single act of cruelty between husband and wife ripples profoundly through the next decade.
Buy for: Your news-fiend dad, who is burned out on current events and will enjoy looking back to the days when the Berlin Wall was the biggest story around.
7. THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern. I’m late to this particular circus, but here’s a rare fabulously-hyped novel that is worth all the hype.
Buy for: That colleague who is struggling with the blues in isolation, and badly needs a dash of stardust and wonder in their life.
8. JANE DOE by Victoria Helen Stone. A darkly hilarious tale of deliciously exacted revenge, as a frank, self-aware young sociopath decides to seduce, take down, and utterly ruin the toxic boyfriend who drove her best friend to suicide.
Buy for: Your neighbor who used quarantine to finally binge “Dexter”—all eight seasons of it—and is now missing their daily dose of friendly neighborhood justice-dealing sociopath.
9. CLEO MACDOUGAL REGRETS NOTHING by Allison Winn Scotch. A brisk, practical-minded Congresswoman driving at a presidential run confronts a nasty op-ed piece and embarks on a funny, poignant campaign to address past regrets.
Buy for: Your Rachel-Maddow-watching, AOC-re-Tweeting pal who happily voted Joe but still mourns that ultra-competent slate of female presidential candidates back in the primary.
10. A TREACHERY OF SPIES by Manda Scott. An unbelievably complex mystery unraveling across decades as a WWII betrayal that blew apart a network of French Resistance spies goes unresolved until someone begins picking off the octogenarian survivors…who are still deadly determined to find the mole in their midst.
Buy for: Your grandmother, who has hated being cooped up all year and will love this tale of not-to-be-messed-with seniors.
11. LOVE FROM A-Z by S.K. Ali. Two bright, charming Muslim teenagers meet in Qatar and grapple with everything from medical diagnoses to Islamophobe high school teachers as they sidle toward each other with many a wary, romantic sidelong glance.
Buy for: The smart high-schooler in your life—son, granddaughter, nephew, teen babysitter—who is bored out of their mind with virtual class.
12. ONE TO WATCH by Kate Stayman-London. A confident fashion blogger becomes the first plus-sized star on a TV show obviously based on “The Bachelorette”; reality-TV shenanigans and touching revelations to follow.
Buy for: That cubicle-mate who lives for every season of “The Bachelor” but hates that all the contestants are size double zero.
13. HEART SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill. An aging rock star with a taste for the macabre buys a ghost on eBay—and gets much more than he bargained for, as he ends up fighting for his life and sanity as he examines the mistakes of his past.
Buy for: That slightly ghoulish friend who just re-binged all of “American Horror Story” on Netflix, for the third time.
14. FLORENCE ADLER SWIMS FOREVER by Rachel Beanland. A beautiful family drama where a single well-meaning lie unravels the beach-side summer of a Jewish family in 1930s America.
Buy for: Your soft-hearted aunt, who misses her family in lockdown and will love spending time with this one.
15. THE FLIGHT PORTFOLIO by Julie Orringer. An American scholar becomes a Marseilles escape facilitator for artists, Jews, and political outcasts looking to flee Hitler’s shadow—brilliantly moving, as love and idealism forge a pleasant dilettante into a hero who will spit in the face of the Gestapo to get just one more innocent out of Nazi clutches.
Buy for: Your bisexual co-worker who adores finding great same-sex love stories—they’ll swoon for the epic m/m romance that forms the heart of this war story.
16. THE SEVEN DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE by Stuart Turton. Groundhog Day meets Downton Abbey, as a nameless hero wakes up every day in an English country-house party where the daughter of the house dies every night—solve her murder, and he might get out of the endless cycle, but why is he here?
Buy for: Your noir-loving uncle who has rewatched every black and white Sam Spade mystery he can find on Amazon Prime, and grumping that modern mysteries are all gunfire and no plot.
17. MEXICAN GOTHIC by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia. Bluebeard’s Castle meets Rebecca, as a Mexico City debutante goes to rescue her beloved cousin from a brooding husband, his isolated mountain estate, and his increasingly creepy family.
Buy for: Your Gothic-loving mother who enlivened the “Rebecca” watch party by demanding “Why is Maxim de Winter dressed like a banana?” and “This remake doesn’t lean into the darker elements nearly enough” and “Well, that was putrid.”
18. WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING by Alyssa Cole. When gentification turns murderous, and a determined young woman teams up with her preppy neighbor to find out why her thriving Black community is suddenly turning into Yuppieville.
Buy for: The head of your Zoom book club, who will be ecstatic to find a suburban whodunit that isn’t about well-to-do white moms.
19. THE ARCTIC FURY by Greer McCallister. A thirteen-woman expedition to the Arctic goes horrendously wrong, and turns into a sensational murder trial—what happened out there on the ice?
Buy for: Your ultra-athletic sister who hasn’t done a single triathlon all year, and needs a vicarious survival-of-the-fittest stress-test.
20. YOU WILL KNOW ME by Megan Abbott. A brilliant, claustrophobic mystery centering around a murderous accident that blows up the tight-knit community of an elite gymnastics team, the girls’ driven parents, and particularly their budding-Olympic star.
Buy for: The Sports Dad in your life, the one who hardly knows what to do with himself when he’s not juggling his kids’ practices, out-of-state games, and booster meetings.