News flash! There’s a new book arriving this month about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. (1849) and her sister, also a physician. Elizabeth was the major figure about whom I wrote my dissertation, so I’m excited and have preordered this book.
I place this one near the top of the list because it provides a monthly list of literary events, from specific book publications to award announcements and film/TV adaptations. (Publication dates in countries other than the U.K. might differ from those listed here.)
The folks at Off the Shelf advise, “If you pre-order these fabulously gripping reads now, you’ll thank yourself when the books arrive in the new year, and you’ll have plenty to look forward to throughout 2021.”
List compiler Ann Foster writes, “Several of these works featuring all or mostly-white characters in print have been adapted to change some characters to POC, but the dearth of adaptations of books by BIPOC and women is notable yet again in 2021.”
From CNN. I’m especially excited about the last book listed here, Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine, by Olivia Campbell, due out in March. 2021 seems to be THE year for interest in the history of women in medicine, with The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice P. Nimura coming out later this month. (See my latest 6 Degrees of Separation post.)
Most of the annual best books of the year lists refer only to books published during the stated calendar year. But my annual list always refers to books I read this year, regardless of when they were published.
Here, then, are the 10 best books I read this year, listed alphabetically by author, plus 5 more honorable mentions.
You could check out all the lists below. Or you could just start here and be done with it. Emily Temple of Lit Hub has scoured all the “best books of the year” lists to find out which books appeared most often.
From Lit Hub editor Emily Temple: “I’ve polled the Lit Hub staff to settle on the ten best literary adaptations that debuted on small or large (ha ha) screens in this bizarre death spiral we’ve called 2020.”
Katy Walkman, book critic for The New Yorker, has a refreshing approach to compiling her list:
I regret to announce that I will not be declaring the ten best fiction books of the year. Such lists are malarkey. I’d be delighted to boss you around—I assume that’s why you’re here, to receive direction or fight—but please just think of the titles below as ten worthwhile books, milestones of a sort, published in this Very Weird Year.
OK, this is not exactly a list of best books. But according to Nicole Saraniero, “The most checked-out titles reflect the way New Yorkers were feeling about the historic events and cultural movements that have occurred over the past twelve months. Many books that earned top spots tackle subjects like social justice and isolation, while others offer pure escapism.”
This article avoids merely listing titles by commenting on and attempting to explain the significance of the data.
Bill Buford, the writer and former fiction editor at The New Yorker, once said: “Stories protect us from chaos, [and are] essential to the way we make sense of our lives.” Given the tumult of this past year, we’ve needed stories more than ever. And fortunately, while 2020 has fallen wildly short of many expectations, it’s been a boon for readers who enjoy great books.
From Erin Kodicek, editor of Amazon Book Review, comes this list of the top 10 books of the year. The list includes both fiction and nonfiction. And, since it’s from Amazon, you’ll find many links to other lists that might suit you.
The New York Public Library offers lists for adults, for kids, and for teens. There are also Spanish lists and information on books available in accessible formats (e.g., digital talking books and braille editions).
From The Guardian, this is the portal page to lists in fiction, children’s books, crime and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, memoir and celebrity books, politics, ideas, sport, nature and science, poetry, comics and graphic novels, art, food, and stocking fillers.
This list contains only a few titles, with a link to the full list of 20. I’ve included this link because the article begins with a brief description of how the Amazon Book Review selects its best books of the year: “there’s no formula. It’s just us, reading new books by authors we love, reading books recommended by publishers, or reading books because we just like the look, or the description, of that particular book.”
NPR offers a big list of books that allows you to apply all different kinds of filters to find something that’s just right for you or for some lucky gift recipient. And just in case you can’t find anything published this year that quite fills the bill, you can also consult the best books of years past (back to 2013).
AudioFile has its list of the best audiobooks of 2020. Here Audible, the audiobooks arm of Amazon, offers its list of the top 10. At the bottom of the page are links to other categorical lists, such as fiction, comedy & humor, memoir, self-development, and mysteries & thrillers.
From Jamie Canavés for Novel Suspects: “The way I judged this year’s list was rather simple: what are the thriller books and mystery books published this year that I read and am I still thinking about? In a year that felt a decade long, it seemed like a good way to set the bar.”
From Emily Temple for LitHub: “We Lived Through 2020 and All We Got Were These Really Good Books.”
Of all the unique occurrences of 2020 that Temple lists (and the first paragraph is worth reading just for this list), my favorite is this one: “We all watched every TV show ever created and then complained about them on the internet.” I say this after watching all seven seasons of The 100, a show with an interesting premise that outlived that premise by four seasons and ended up with a totally stupid conclusion.
I must read five books in December to complete my Goodreads Challenge, so I’m turning to the list of books that can be read in one day. Here are some titles I’ve collected throughout 2020 because I knew I’d probably end up needing them when I turned the calendar page to December.
The books in the first section all weigh in at around 200 pages. The second section offers a list of articles you can consult if you need more selections to choose from.
Henry James: A Critical Biography by Rebecca West
Bright Lights, Big City by Jan McInery
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader by Vivian Gornick
The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis by Mark Gluth
The Conversations by César Aira (translated by Katherine Silver)
The World I Live In by Helen Keller
Love by Hanne Ørstavik
This Thing We Call Literature by Arthur Krystal
Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy
The Middleman and Other Stories by Bharati Mukherjee
“I’ve defined ‘short’ here as ‘about 200 pages or less’ (readable in one sitting)” writes Namera Tanjeem, compiler of this list that can help you knock off both the sheer number game and the classic book genre.
This list was designed to fit a category in Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge 2020: “read a sci-fi or fantasy novella that’s under 120 pages.” But there’s no reason why you can’t repurpose these suggestions to fit your own needs.
From June, the time of COVID-19 isolation, comes this list of short audiobooks to help readers escape from the overwhelming news crush. The longest of these is just over five and a half hours, and most are considerably shorter than that.
Because I was having trouble cranking up much enthusiasm for Halloween this year, here’s a collection of items I’ve collected. I hope you’ll find something here to help you get into this weekend’s holiday spirit.
This is the one that first inspired me. Did you ever see a display in a bookstore—back in the days when we could actually go into a bookstore—of offerings for “a blind date with a book”? These are books wrapped in paper with a tag describing the contents from which you can choose. Here Isabelle Popp describes how, when she worked at a library, she did a similar thing with books from the collection and called it “Read What You Need.”
She does the same thing here with suggestions of various forms of gothic literature to read for Halloween. An added bonus is a section labeled “gothic sidebar” in which she explains several ways in which the term gothic can be applied to literature. Read her descriptions, then choose a book from the type of gothic literature that most appeals to you.
Despite the deep history and heavy themes, gothic literature is expansive. The best writers can deftly expose monsters both literal and metaphorical while delivering a thrilling reading experience that can suit a variety of moods. Here are nine varied Gothic novels so you can read what you need.
First, a few key terms. Patriarchy is not, at the end of the day, defined by the gender of one’s leaders. It’s a societal model based on the rigid binaries and hierarchies necessary to divide, conquer, and control—e.g., men over women, men over nature, straight and cis over queer and trans, rich over poor, and, often, white over Black and Brown. Magic is energy moved with the intention of transforming reality. Therefore, for our purposes, #HexingThePatriarchy is channeling energy to dismantle this hierarchical world order and then cast a new, freer world.
Discussion of Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, among many other works, always comes up at this time of year because of the haunting, spooky nature of her work. In these two essays from Library of America, Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, discusses the author and her iconic works.
“Author Shirley Jackson often responded to readers’ letters; this one, written in 1962 after republication of her historical fiction for juveniles, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, seems uncannily prescient for our times.”
Sarah Hannah Gómez, who thinks “horror movies are fun all year long anyway,” has trouble getting charged up for Halloween. “If you find that you are one of those in-betweenies who wants to participate in holiday fun without losing your cred as an iconoclast, here are some ironic, trope-destroying, or meta selections that might allow you to find common ground with your Halloween enthusiast friends.”
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to stay home this Halloween, “that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy our haunted holiday,” writes Rachel Harrison. Here she shares her list of some of the best new horror books of 2020 paired “with horror movies that I feel compliment them in tone.”
“The sounds you’re hearing have been translated into something humans can hear and appreciate. They are not actually sounds that the universe emits, but a different way of appreciating the data NASA collects,” said Kimberly Arcand, visualization and emerging technology lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory space telescope.
One of the reasons why we read is to practice life, to look at particular circumstances and wonder what we’d do if we found ourselves in them.
For example, I don’t think I’d ever kidnap a child. But what if someone called me and told me she had kidnapped my daughter, and to get my child back I’d have to kidnap another child to replace her? I’m pretty sure I know what I’d do: the same thing Rachel Klein does in the novel The Chain by Adrian McKinty.
And as the ghosts come out for the approach of Halloween, we get the opportunity to meet some characters, see some settings, and have some experiences we hope never to have in real life. Here are some lists to help you choose your seasonal reading while you still have some reading time before Halloween arrives.
From the folks at Mental Floss: “From genre classics that should be on everyone’s list to a few offbeat entries—including a must-read comic starring a spectacularly creepy ice cream man—here are our favorite horror books you should pick up.”
Ah, the thematic book list. Nothing makes up leap for a new read like discovering a gem hidden in a historical fiction round-up or psychological thrillers listicle. This year, we even explored new sub-genres like domestic thrillers, historical fantasy and mystery, dysfunctional family dramedies, and even books Stephen King has blurbed. Here are just 10 of our favorite book lists we ran on Off the Shelf this year.
If you love lists as much as I do, here you’ll find links to the following lists:
14 Books You Wish You Could Read for the First Time Again
A Cozy Winter Getaway: 9 Perfect Novels You Need to Bring
Stephen King Recommends: 14 Books He Wants You to Read
7 Domestic Thrillers to Binge-Read Right Now
11 Books That Are Guaranteed Page-Turners
9 International Thrillers to Sink Your Teeth Into
12 Historical Novels to Transport You to Uncommon Eras
The Mister Rogers TBR: 10 Books You’d Find in the Neighborhood Today
9 Beautiful Novels That Will Inspire You to Be a Better Person
Because I read more books this year than I had in any recent year, paring down my list of the year’s favorites was much harder than usual. I always try to reduce the list of 10 best and 5 honorable mentions, but this year I couldn’t decide which should be the final title to get moved from best to honorable mention. I therefore present 11 best and 4 honorable mentions, although the differences between the two groups are indeed very slight.
As always, these are the best books I read this year, regardless of when they were published. They’re listed alphabetically by author’s last name.
Crouch, Blake. Recursion: A Novel
Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
Harper, Jane. The Lost Man
Kim, Angie. Miracle Creek
Lippman, Laura. Lady in the Lake
Michaelides, Alex. The Silent Patient
Obama, Michelle. Becoming
Quinn, Kate. The Alice Network
Reid, Taylor Jenkins. Daisy Jones & The Six
Turton, Stuart. The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad
Berney, Lou. November Road
Dugoni, Robert. My Sister’s Grave
Kushner, Rachel. The Mars Room
McTiernan, Dervla. The Ruin
You can find links to lists of the best books I read each year from 1996 to 2019 on the Year’s Best Books page.