From the Shelf
Shelf Awareness Best Books of 2020
What a year. These are the 10 fiction and 10 nonfiction titles that really stood out to us at Shelf Awareness for helping us make it through, sometimes make sense of, and find some pleasurable moments in 2020. (Reviews appear below; our Best Children's/YA list is here.)
City We Became by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford (Grove)
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar (Little, Brown)
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, trans. by Sophie Hughes (New Directions)
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (Pantheon)
Luster by Raven Leilani (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (Gallery/Saga)
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead)
Revolutions of All Colors by Dewaine Farria (Syracuse University)
African American Poetry, edited by Kevin Young (Library of America)
The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper (Riverhead)
The Book of Eels by Patrik Svensson (Ecco)
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House)
Homie: Poems by Danez Smith (Graywolf)
Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad (Sourcebooks)
Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey (Ecco)
Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford (Little, Brown)
Something that May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Mallory Ortberg (Atria)
Veritas by Ariel Sabar (Doubleday)
The City We Became
by N.K. Jemisin
In 2020, N.K. Jemisin added a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" to her already impressive record. Prior to that, she became the first writer to win the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row, for her Broken Earth trilogy. The City We Became kicks off another ambitious trilogy, an urban fantasy that transforms New York City into a multiversal battleground. The author has written a paean to a much-celebrated metropolis, though it is far from an uncomplicated portrait. The supernatural threats facing her protagonists often piggyback on some of the very real challenges facing the city, from racist policing to gentrification.
"Great cities are like any other living things," she writes, "being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn." The City We Became is about New York fighting for its life in more ways than one. It is a fierce, opinionated vision of a storied metropolis facing down existential threats. --Hank Stephenson, the Sun magazine, manuscript reader
by Kelli Jo Ford
Crooked Hallelujah is a splendid novel-in-stories that follows a Cherokee Nation family, repeatedly broken by choice and circumstance, via the women who remain connected throughout. The book already has significant plaudits: the seventh chapter, "Hybrid Vigor," won the Paris Review's Plimpton Prize in 2019, and Kelli Jo Ford's pre-publication manuscript won the 2019 Everett Southwest Literary Award from the University of Central Oklahoma. The book has since been longlisted for the ALA's Andrew Carnegie Medal.
Ford, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, adroitly and affectingly weaves indigenous history into her spellbinding narrative, exposing displacement, unacknowledged violence, cultural erasure, relentless racism and socioeconomic disparity. Ford has made a magnificent #OwnVoices debut with this multi-generational saga that boasts a vast and intriguing cast of characters. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
by Ayad Akhtar
In Homeland Elegies, Ayad Akhtar's impressive whirlwind of a second novel, the author turns his own phenomenally successful American story inside out, eloquently exposing fault lines that persist for those viewed as outsiders in their country of birth. The book takes the literary form of a reality drama, exploring the socio-economic upheavals that created Trump's America through the family saga of an American Muslim playwright of Pakistani ancestry. Through profoundly intimate vignettes, the narrator shares the distorted American dreams of a father who served as Trump's physician in the '90s and an uncle whose conversion to Christianity is a misguided effort to feel safe in the U.S.
Akhtar (American Dervish), staying true to the legacy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced, dissects themes of Muslim self-identity with incredible precision. Longlisted for the ALA's Andrew Carnegie Medal, Homeland Elegies will appeal to readers secure in their sense of belonging as well as those who, like Ayad, wrestle with feelings of otherness. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer
by Fernanda Melchor , trans. by Sophie Hughes
Mexican novelist Fernanda Melchor makes her unforgettable English-language debut with Hurricane Season, the snarled story of a witch murdered in the village of La Matosa. The accomplished Sophie Hughes translates from the Spanish, beautifully preserving Melchor's nearly uninterrupted prose, which conjures an intense gravity that can be difficult to escape. Prejudicial personal accounts, from those at the storm's center, blur into hearsay, into folklore and mythology, and back again, so that by its end this sensational novel resembles a profane gospel of human greed and betrayal. In La Matosa's economy of violence, Melchor makes awfully clear the ways women bear the most unforgiving burdens of exploitation. Yet Hurricane Season weathers it all into an exquisite work of art, a feat that has not gone unnoticed in world literature. Since its publication, Melchor's novel has been longlisted for the National Book Award in the U.S., shortlisted for the Booker International Prize in the U.K. and named winner of the Internationaler Literaturpreis in Germany. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
by Charles Yu
This National Book Award winner, a novel in screenplay format by Taiwanese American author Charles Yu (Sorry Please Thank You), is a caustic, absurd and endearing exploration of Asian American stereotypes, police procedurals and the immigrant experience. It will also be adapted to the small screen if Hulu has anything to say about it. Interior Chinatown pulls readers into the spotlight by narrating Willis Wu's inner life in second person, asking the audience to imagine a life as "part of the American show, black and white, except they have no part for yellow." These prose passages are interspersed with scene notations and dialogue structured as though taken from the script of Black and White.
In Interior Chinatown's playful mixture of formats, including montages and a children's show, lines blur between Willis's thoughts and the show's dialogue. Readers will often find themselves unable to tell reality from television, which is Yu's point in a nutshell. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
by Raven Leilani
Raven Leilani's debut, Luster, is a rocket-paced, sensual fever dream of sex, trauma, relationships and incisive perceptions. Edie, 23 and living in a shared Bushwick apartment, struggles with her low-level position in children's publishing, her uninspired sexual choices and her irritable bowel syndrome. Her painting is not going well, and she is a Black woman in New York City. "Racism is often so mundane it leaves your head spinning, the hand of the ordinary in your slow, psychic death so sly and absurd you begin to distrust your own eyes." Her affair with Eric seems refreshing, despite the 23-year age gap. Then Edie gets fired and evicted, and winds up in the middle of Eric's open marriage, living in their guest room in New Jersey--asked to mentor this white couple's adopted Black daughter, Akila. Luster is intoxicating and surprising. Leilani has crafted an unforgettable novel about a young woman making her own way. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
The Only Good Indians
by Stephen Graham Jones
The hunters become the hunted in this taut horror thriller by Native American author Stephen Graham Jones (Mapping the Interior). One Thanksgiving, Lewis and three friends violated tribal regulations when they gunned down nine elk on hunting grounds reserved for Blackfeet Nation elders. When the game warden caught them, the young men forfeited their hunting rights in lieu of paying a fine none of them could afford. Months later, one died in a bar fight after fleeing life on the Blackfeet reservation, but no one knew he saw an elk damage the other bar patrons' pickup trucks and run away. Ten years later, Lewis's carefully constructed life begins to unravel when he sees the young, pregnant elk cow he shot, lying on his living room floor.
By turns sardonic, suspenseful and pulse-pounding, The Only Good Indians confronts the expectations and contradictions of modern Indigenous life in a supernatural vengeance story that will leave readers satisfied though still deeply shaken. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
by Susanna Clarke
British author Susanna Clarke won a World Fantasy Award and legions of fans with her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a classic in its own time. Now, in Piranesi, her first novel in almost 16 years, Clarke introduces readers to a dreamlike new world and the charming, curious soul who lives in it and loves it. A bold blend of mystery-thriller and speculative fiction, this literary fantasia inspired by the etchings of 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi explores the resilience of the human spirit and challenges the concept of what it means to be lost.
Clarke's wry, masterful use of dramatic irony fuels both humor and suspense as the story builds to its climax with disciplined pacing. Though brief in length, it holds its secrets tightly until the right moments and leaves one with the sense of having glimpsed a boundless cosmos through a keyhole. Piranesi marks a sophisticated and triumphant return for one of the finest novelists of this era. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
by Brandon Taylor
Real Life, the debut novel by Electric Literature's Recommended Reading senior editor Brandon Taylor, has all the notes of a classic campus novel. It's got academic in-fighting. It's got complex hierarchies--and an associated web of alliances and betrayals--that link friends, lovers and rivals. And, most importantly to qualify for the genre, it's got a vaguely threatening undercurrent roiling beneath a placid collegiate surface.
Wallace is Black, gay and Southern at a large (and largely white) Midwestern university, and he is reckoning with the trauma, racism and homophobia that have shaped his life. He is in the trenches of a graduate program in biochemistry; reserved and self-protective, he is both completely consumed by the insular universe of his program and apart from it, which only intensifies his sense of seclusion. Real Life, which earned a coveted spot as finalist for this year's Booker Prize, showcases Taylor's elegant, thoughtful prose. --Hannah Calkins, writer and editor
Revolutions of All Colors
by Dewaine Farria
Winner of the 2019 Veterans Writing Award, chosen by Tobias Wolff, Dewaine Farria develops his extraordinary debut novel, Revolutions of All Colors, through exquisite snapshots scattered among the decades. In 1996, Ettie Moten is an Oklahoma state prison counselor and single mother raising Simon, the son of a recently deceased Black Panther whom she first met in New Orleans in 1970. But she's not alone. Her longtime colleague Frank Mathis, the deputy warden and a Vietnam veteran, has taken the teenager under his wing alongside his own two sons. As a result, Simon, Michael and Gabriel form a bond of brotherhood that flowers into the 21st century, as they stake their claims in a world that never cuts them slack. Revolutions of All Colors radiates adoration and wonder for fighters and their resilience, a magnificent portrait of Black boys loving each other and pursuing their dreams. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song
by Kevin Young, editor
With 670 poems arranged into eight sections and a scholarly yet accessible introduction by Kevin Young (Book of Hours)--National Book Award finalist (Blue Laws), poetry editor of the New Yorker and newly named director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture--African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song is one impressive collection.
The "successive eras can give a sense of the steady march and percussive drum circle of poetry," Young writes. He curates an extraordinary collection that spans from Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American poet, to the slam poetry of today. Young includes poems to lovers, to children, to nature and home, poems celebrating "good times," poems of grief. "The African American experience," he writes, "is a central part of the nation's chorus." This is a book to be passed from hand to hand, generation to generation. --Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor, Shelf Awareness
The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir
by Michele Harper
Michele Harper, an emergency room doctor and the author of The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir, devotes case-study-like chapters to patients whose stories spur her to draw connections between her work and the larger world. In "Jeremiah: Cradle and All," as an example, Harper treats a 13-year-old with a head trauma--the upshot of a classmate's bullying. After the boy confesses that he owns a gun and intends to use it on his assailant, Harper is required to contact social services. As she awaits the social worker, she wonders "why, in all my growing-up years, no physician had ever spoken to me alone, to ask if I was safe."
It's a reference to her fraught childhood. Harper grew up middle-class in Washington, D.C., with a physician father who beat up her mother. The celebratory mood of her graduation from an emergency medicine residency was dulled by the coinciding collapse of her marriage. By the end of the memoir, Harper has found a restless peace working at a Philadelphia VA hospital, where the beguiled reader hopes that she will continue to gather insights and commit them to the page. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World
by Patrik Svensson
In The Book of Eels, Patrik Svensson, a Swedish arts and culture journalist at the newspaper Sydsvenskan, takes an in-depth and scintillating look at the mysterious life of eels, what scientists have been able to discover and the many questions that remain. Though we know more today than when Aristotle gave it his best shot, the eel remains a fascinating puzzle in the modern era.
An eel can live 50 to 80 years, during which time it metamorphosizes multiple times, dictated not by time, but by migration location. We "know" the eel procreates in the equally curious Sargasso Sea, yet no one has ever seen a mature eel or eels mating there. Answers seem only to create more questions, rendering the eel a perpetually interesting riddle with no end. Winner of the 2019 August Prize for nonfiction, The Book of Eels is nature writing at its finest. Svensson's memories of eel fishing with his father speak to the intersection of life and science, and add to its heart. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
by Isabel Wilkerson
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) offers a singular and vital perspective on American society with Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Her examination of caste and its effect on every aspect of culture is unusual, eye-opening and of life-or-death importance. As in her previous work, which she continues and deepens here, Wilkerson lives up to the scope and significance of her subject matter, delivering a book that is deeply researched, clearly structured, well-written and moving.
The root of so many social ills in the United States, Wilkerson argues, is not precisely racism but casteism, which is closely linked to concepts of race invented and reinforced since before the country's founding. Caste is a thorough, incisive investigation of the often invisible workings of American society. Original, authoritative and exquisitely written, its significance cannot be overstated. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
by Danez Smith
Celebrated poet Danez Smith (Don't Call Us Dead) delivers a rapturous cry for all the beloved people in and out of their life in the profoundly moving collection Homie. Smith writes with both power and precision, and their poetic forms are as diverse as their topics. Homie teems with stream-of-conscious prose poetry and, in equal measure, gleams with lapidary stanzas of more formalized verse. Smith's personal style mixes modern slang with gorgeous imagery, resulting in verse as colorful and fanciful as Pablo Neruda but also savvy, down-to-earth, close to the heart.
Smith's Blackness and queerness frame struggles and larger questions of kinship, and they invoke friends, lovers, family members, other minority groups and even strangers. Homie doesn't gloss over the oppression Black people have suffered at the hands of white people. But neither does the poet slam the door on the possibility of love and reconciliation. This collection is filled with passion and humanity and demonstrates why Smith has been called one of the best poets of their generation. --Scott Neuffer, writer, poet, editor of trampset
Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor
by Layla F. Saad
Author, speaker and podcast host Layla F. Saad channels her work exploring the topics of race, identity and social change in Me and White Supremacy. "The primary force that drives my work is a passionate desire to become a good ancestor," she writes, and she invites readers to do the same.
Her book is designed as a 28-day course, but Saad explains that it is a map for a lifelong practice in antiracism and anti-oppression. She acknowledges that deconstructing white supremacy is hard work, and encourages readers to go at their own pace and use the book in a supportive setting, while also stressing the need for personal accountability in antiracist practices. The book is broken into four sections, or weeks, in which Saad explores various components of white supremacy such as white fragility, privilege, silence and exceptionalism, and tone policing; then moves to topics such as color blindness, anti-Blackness and cultural appropriation. She highlights how to become an effective ally and make personal changes before moving forward to structural ones. --Michelle Anya Anjirbag, freelance reviewer
Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir
by Natasha Trethewey
Natasha Trethewey, two-term U.S. Poet Laureate, forges a serious, poignant work of remembrance with Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir. Her mother, Gwen, is the focus of this book: the daughter's memories and what she's forgotten, and, pointedly, the mother's murder at the hands of her second ex-husband. The setting of the murder, just off Memorial Drive in Atlanta, Ga., gives the book its title. Trethewey is the daughter of an African American mother and a white Canadian father whose marriage was illegal in the U.S.; she was born just before the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Trethewey's early upbringing in Mississippi, with her doting extended maternal family, shifts with the mother and daughter's move to Atlanta when the marriage unravels. There Gwen meets the man who becomes her second husband, and who ends her life.
While this central event is harrowing, Memorial Drive does not focus only there. Trethewey ruminates on memory and forgetfulness in this compelling, gracefully and gorgeously rendered memoir. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Notes on a Silencing: A Memoir
by Lacy Crawford
The propulsive memoir Notes on a Silencing opens in October 1990, when Lacy Crawford, at age 15, was sexually assaulted by two star athletes at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H.--described in the third person.
The facts carry readers along as they would in a crime novel, with clinical details that force observers to imagine the motives and emotions of the perpetrators and victim. Crawford then shifts to a first-person narrative. "What interests me," she writes, "is the near impossibility of telling what happened in a way that discharges its power." She explores power in its countless iterations: the power of peers, parents, teachers, administrators, alumni--and the power of a diploma from a storied school.
By toggling between the timelines before and after the book's central event, she conveys the universal experience of survivors--the divide between the person she was and the person she becomes afterward--and builds the narrative to the epiphany that unlocks her silence. --Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor, Shelf Awareness
Something that May Shock and Discredit You
by Daniel M. Lavery
Daniel Mallory Ortberg (now known as Danny Lavery) has a discerning and oracular ability to illuminate personal experience through media touchstones--not least of which is the Bible. "One of the many advantages of a religious childhood is the variety of metaphors made available to describe untranslatable inner experiences," he writes in the opening essay of a book that largely considers his gender transition. Readers, regardless of spiritual discipline, however, will be glad such variety is at Ortberg's disposal--although he has plenty of originals to dispense as well, like when he writes of the Rapture as "being swept up by the Raisin Bran scoop of heaven."
Ortberg (The Merry Spinster) delves openly into his transmasculine experience with unrivaled panache. Passage after passage sees him refining a riveting portrait of his life and transness fit for the pages of an illuminated manuscript. Ortberg's Something that May Shock and Discredit You most certainly astonishes and amazes--it may even be transformative. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife
by Ariel Sabar
If turning scraps of ancient papyrus into an enthralling true-crime escapade takes a miracle, consider Ariel Sabar a miracle worker. In September 2012, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King shook the foundations of the Christian church when she announced the discovery of what she called "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife." Sabar was the only journalist in the room for the presentation. The most impressive biblical scholars from around the world had gathered in Rome for an annual conference that began unassumingly and ended in a media firestorm. Clumsy handwriting, horrid syntax and unsubstantiated dating set off a chain reaction of queries, criticisms and suspicions of forgery.
The National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author of My Father's Paradise transforms top-notch research skills into riveting suspense. And even as he closes in early on his prime suspect, method and motive prove to be the more baffling questions, at increasingly bizarre turns, in a refreshingly dogged pursuit of truth. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness