The 2020 books worth reading now

Stephanie Merry

THE WASHINGTON POST – For a certain segment of the population, a self-quarantine due to the novel coronavirus outbreak has led to an inordinate amount of down time. This can translate into an inordinate amount of reading time. Of course, the perennial question remains: What book to choose?

Looking back at the year so far, we’ve singled out 28 contenders that should suit a variety of readers. And if you’re wondering how to replenish your to-be-read pile, be sure to check out our guide to accessing books – and book-loving communities – from home.

ACTRESS, BY ANNE ENRIGHT

This first laureate of Irish fiction has written seven novels, including The Gathering, which won the Booker Prize in 2007. Her new novel explores a mother-daughter relationship burdened by fame as the narrator recalls the tumultuous life of her late mother, a celebrated star of stage and screen.

THE ADVENTURER’S SON, BY ROMAN DIALDIAL

A legendary Alaskan explorer, gives a raw, gripping account of the search for his son after the 27-year-old vanished while trekking alone into Costa Rica’s remote Pacific rainforest.

AND I DO NOT FORGIVE YOU, BY AMBER SPARKS

Each of the stories in this wide-ranging collection pulls off a convincing blend of the ordinary and the surreal while erupting in an array of feeling: groans of heartache, yips of delight and the rage of a woman wronged.

BIRD SUMMONS, BY LEILA ABOULELA

This elegant novel gives mischievous treatment to the classic road trip narrative, subverting a traditionally white, male genre by casting Muslim women as the rogue adventurers. In Scotland’s misty Highland forests, a trio of travellers transmogrify from wives and mothers into individual beings whose desires threaten to consume them.

THE BURN, BY KATHLEEN KENT

This deeply satisfying follow-up to last year’s Edgar-nominated The Dime revolves around a Dallas narcotics detective with post-traumatic stress disorder. Raymond Chandler praised Dashiell Hammett for taking crime fiction out of the drawing rooms and into the streets. Kent brings those mean streets to life as excitingly as anybody has in years.

CLEANNESS, BY GARTH GREENWELL

This story collection, like Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, follows an American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria. Although the form is smaller, the scope is broader, and the overall effect even more impressive.

DEACON KING KONG, BY JAMES MCBRIDE

The new book from the National Book Award winner is a hilarious, pitch-perfect comedy set in a Brooklyn housing projects in the late 1960s. But beneath the humour and the well-drawn, often eccentric characters is a story about how a community can provide a centre to keep things from falling apart completely.

DEAR EDWARD, BY ANN NAPOLITANO

Amid the wreckage of a downed jet, one passenger is found alive: a 12-year-old boy who becomes the world’s most famous orphan. Napolitano attends deftly to the endless fascination with this young survivor, letting the world’s agony and curiosity play out on the sidelines of a delicate story about one child’s physical and psychological recovery.

DJINN PATROL ON THE PURPLE LINE, BY DEEPA ANAPPARA

In the opening pages of this novel, Jai, a plucky nine-year-old living in an Indian slum, is presented with a macabre opportunity to practice what he calls his “detectiving” skills when a classmate vanishes. The darkness that follows is leavened by the stubborn lightness of Jai’s remarkable voice.

THE ESCAPE ARTIST, BY HELEN FREMONT

Fremont’s memoir about a memoir looks back at the surprise success of her book After Long Silence and the rift it caused in her family. In openly confronting the consequences of telling intimate stories, Fremont takes the reader along with her on the risky moon shot that is the family memoir.

THE FALCON THIEF, BY JOSHUA HAMMER

Hikers and birders tend to warm up fast to others of their kind. That explains how Jeffrey Lendrum, the title villain of this entertaining and illuminating true-crime account, maintained a dual identity for decades: heroic birder and merciless thief.

THE GLASS HOTEL, BY EMILY ST JOHN MANDEL

The Glass Hotel may be the perfect novel for your survival bunker. Mandel’s inspiration for the follow-up to her post-apocalyptic hit Station Eleven is Bernie Madoff’s USD65 billion Ponzi scheme.

THE KING AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, BY ARTHUR PHILLIPS

After travelling to Elizabethan England for a thankless assignment, a Muslim physician essentially becomes a Turkish Gulliver, continually astonished by the strange ways of the people who treat him with condescension, even while depending on his medical knowledge.

LONG BRIGHT RIVER, BY LIZ MOORE

A patrol officer in the Philadelphia Police Department searches for her missing sister, an opioid addict. If that premise sounds contrived (and at least as old as the classic 1938 gangster film Angels With Dirty Faces), Moore’s nuanced development of her detective protagonist’s troubled character banishes all reservations.

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT, BY HILARY MANTEL

Mantel won Booker Prizes for the first two installments in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – so naturally the final entry arrives with deafening fanfare. It’s all well-earned.

THE MISSING AMERICAN, BY KWEI QUARTEY

Emma Djan, a talented young private investigator in Ghana, gets pulled onto a case involving an American widower who disappears after getting swindled by Internet tricksters. The novel marks the start of a new series revolving around Djan, and it’s a gem of a debut.

THE NIGHT WATCHMAN, BY LOUISE ERDRICH

The National Book Award winner drew inspiration from her grandfather – who helped save the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota – for her new novel. The story is set largely on that reservation in the 1950s, when Congress attempted to dissolve all treaties with Native American tribes, but the story stays focussed on characters whose immediate concerns feel more pressing than the latest attack from a collection of white congressmen 1,500 miles away.

NOBODY WILL TELL YOU THIS BUT ME: A TRUE (AS TOLD TO ME) STORY, BY BESS KALB

Kalb, a humour writer with an Emmy nomination for her work on Jimmy Kimmel Live, adopts the voice of her indomitable late grandmother for this – what to call it? – imagined memoir? Oral history? Semantics aside, the book is a poignant and funny look at four generations of women in Kalb’s family.

THE RESISTERS, BY GISH JEN

Jen’s dystopian novel, set in the stratified AutoAmerica, follows a group of underclass ‘Surplus’ citizens. Although the husband and wife at the centre of the story have a history of resistance against a corrupt government, they also have the possibility of changing their fortunes after their daughter turns out to be a baseball prodigy.

RUN ME TO EARTH, BY PAUL YOON

Although presented as a novel, Run Me to Earth is a tightly integrated collection of six stories that begins with the tale of three Laotian teenagers in 1969 as they try to survive in the most dangerous place on Earth. Jumping across decades and continents, the spellbinding chapters that follow delineate the trajectories of lives ricocheting across the world.

SEPARATION ANXIETY, BY LAURA ZIGMAN

The light from Zigman’s novel is generated by a kind of literary nuclear fusion: an intense compression of grief and humour. A deliciously absurd tone runs straight through this novel about a depressed, middle-aged mother whose career and marriage are flailing. But things start to look up when she begins wearing her 20-pound dog in a baby sling everywhere she goes.

THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE, BY ERIK LARSON

Larson cleverly weaves together the colossal and the mundane in this chronicle of Winston Churchill’s life from May 1940 to May 1941, as England became mired in World War II.

SUCH A FUN AGE, BY KILEY REID

Reid’s entertaining debut poses thorny questions about race and class. It all starts when a social media influencer hires Emira, a 25-year-old black woman who isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life, to babysit her children. After a grocery store security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping, the videotaped fallout ignites a powder keg that changes both women’s lives.

TROUBLE IS WHAT I DO, BY WALTER MOSLEY

Mosley’s sixth Leonid McGill PI novel is so short, it almost seems like a throwaway. It’s not. This gifted raconteur of the African American experience has produced an absorbing noir beauty of a tale about a 94-year-old Mississippi bluesman bent on a good deed that could get him killed.

UNCANNY VALLEY, BY ANNA WIENER

Wiener’s memoir of life in Silicon Valley explains how the tech scene drew her in, despite all of the many obvious red flags.

WEATHER, BY JENNY OFFILL

Weather, like Offill’s breakout 2014 novel, Dept of Speculation, is told through a series of short, bracing paragraphs that suit the material: the story of a college librarian skidding toward end-times neurosis.

A WOMAN LIKE HER, BY SANAM MAHER

Maher’s debut tells the story of Qandeel Baloch, a woman from a small village in Pakistan who became a social media celebrity, and at age 26 was killed by her brother because he believed she was bringing dishonour to their family.

WRITERS & LOVERS, BY LILY KING

The narrator of the joyous Writers & Lovers is a 31-year-old writer clinging to her dream of a creative life. She is an irresistible heroine, and we’re immediately invested in her search for comfort, for love, for success: a triple prize that seems entirely impossible – until, suddenly, it doesn’t.