Some Early Recommendations for 2020

I haven’t done much dipping into 2020 releases yet, but I do have two that I would highly recommend to pretty much anyone, plus some more that are also worth highlighting.


My top recommendations (so far) for 2020:


American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

[Coming on January 21st from Tinder Press (UK) / Flatiron Books (USA)]


You’ve most likely already heard of this novel about the plight of migrants crossing the U.S. border in search of a better life. What’s interesting is that the main characters are not your typical border crossers: Lydia was a middle-class Acapulco bookshop owner whose journalist husband was murdered for his pieces exposing the local drug cartel. She and her eight-year-old son, Luca, know that the cartel is after them, too, and its informers are everywhere. They join Central American migrants in hopping onto La Bestia, a dangerous freight train network running the length of Mexico. Their fellow travelers’ histories reveal the traumatic situations migrants leave and the hazards they face along the way. Cummins alternates between the compelling perspectives of Lydia and Luca, and the suspense is unrelenting. It feels current and crucial. (My full review will be in Issue 491 of Stylist magazine, so if you are in London or another city that hands it out and can pick up a copy, keep an eye out!)


The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland

[Coming on March 3rd from Abrams Press (USA)]


A terrific follow-up to one of my runners-up from last year, Inheritance by Dani Shapiro. I learned that “non-paternity events” such as Shapiro experienced are not as uncommon as you might think. Copeland spoke to scientists, DNA testing companies, and some 400 ordinary people who sent off saliva samples to get their DNA profile and, in many cases, received results they were never expecting. There are stories of secret second families, of people who didn’t find out they were adopted until midlife, and of babies switched at birth. We’ve come a long way since the days when people interested in family history had to trawl through reams of microfilm and wait months or years to learn anything new; nowadays a DNA test can turn up missing relatives within a matter of days. But there are a lot of troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. It’s a timely and thought-provoking book, written with all the verve and suspense of fiction.



Also of note (in release date order):


Half Broke: A Memoir by Ginger Gaffney: Horse trainer Gaffney has volunteered at the Delancey Street Foundation’s New Mexico ranch, an alternative prison for drug offenders, for six years. She chronicles how feral horses and humans can help each other heal. Great for fans of Cheryl Strayed. (February 4, W.W. Norton)


Survival Is a Style: Poems by Christian Wiman: Wiman examines Christian faith in the shadow of cancer. This is the third of his books that I’ve read; I’m consistently impressed by how he makes room for doubt, bitterness and irony, yet a flame of faith remains. Really interesting phrasing and vocabulary here. (February 4, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein: Another in a growing number of hard-hitting books about female pain. Specifically, Olstein has chronic migraines. In these essays she ranges from ancient philosophy to recent television in her references, and from lists of symptoms to poetic descriptions in her format. A little rambly, but stylish nonetheless. (March 4, Bellevue Literary Press)


My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer’s Eden by Meir Shalev: The Israeli novelist tells of how he took a derelict garden in the Jezreel Valley and made it thrive. He blends botanical knowledge with Jewish folklore. I particularly enjoyed his good-natured feud against his local mole rats. Gentle and charming. (March 31, Shocken)


The Alekizou and His Terrible Library Plot! by Nancy Turgeon: The Alekizou can’t read! Jealous of the fun he sees children having at the library, he breaks in and steals all the vowels. Without them, books and speech don’t make sense. Luckily, the children know sign language and use it to create replacement letters. A fun picture book with rhymes reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, this also teaches children vowels and basic signing. (April 6, CrissCross AppleSauce)

With thanks to the publisher for the free PDF copy for review.


Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui: A personal history with swimming, but also a wide-ranging study of humans’ relationship with the water – as a source of food, exercise, healing, competition and enjoyment. Tsui meets scientists, coaches, Olympians and record holders, and recounts some hard-to-believe survival tales. (April 14, Algonquin Books)


Will you look out for one or more of these?

Any other 2020 reads you can recommend?

19 responses

  1. American Dirt was one of those rare books that lived up to the hype for me. The Lost Family looks interesting – my partner tells me that DNA tests are aggressively marketed in men’s toilets with posters suggesting that you might like to use one to check the veracity of your child’s paternity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I quite agree about American Dirt. That’s interesting to hear! I know there was a vogue for giving DNA tests as presents for people who already have everything. My FIL did one a couple of years ago. It’s amazing how specific the results can be.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Lost Family looks fascinating (and may prove useful background for a novel I’m working on…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad it appeals!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m curious about the swimming book. I was a serious competitive swimmer and triathlete and would be curious to see how others feel about their years in this time-consuming sport….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You would definitely find the book interesting, then. She meets a lot of wild/distance swimmers but also the world’s oldest female Olympic swimmer (in her 40s the last time she competed). The author is on a swim team herself.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. American Dirt certainly sounds worth looking out for.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t looked into it super closely, but American Dirt is getting some push back, I think for something along the lines of cultural appropriation? The author of Mean (which I loved) wrote a scathing review, I have it saved, haven’t read it yet. Have you caught wind of any of this? Any thoughts?

    Ther DNA one sounds really good.


    1. Yes, I caught the edge of that cultural appropriation debate on Twitter. I don’t really get it, as the author is part Latina (Puerto Rican) herself and her husband was once an undocumented immigrant. She also did extensive research on both sides of the border. She ponders these things in her Author’s Note at the end: “I worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it. But then, I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” And a chair of Chicano Studies told her, “We need as many voices as we can get, telling this story.”


  6. I’m excited to read American Dirt. Seems like it will be a huge book for 2020.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely! I think it lives up to the hype. It would make a great movie, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The DNA one looks fascinating. I’ve just gone through the Guardian’s upcoming books and need to list the ones I fancied from there somewhere!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I knew about a lot of the ones they listed, but some were still new to me, e.g. new books coming from Michel Faber and Nick Hornby.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. These all sound good, but especially The Lost Family! Since I work in a genetics related field and have recently gotten into true crime, I’m fascinated by the tensions between the good and bad that genetic testing and databases can do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely a book for you!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m finding it a challenge (ongoing, I suppose) to balance my interest in new titles with various other reading (and writing projects). When I read round-ups like that, and when I’m passing the new shelves at the library on my way to the holding shelves, I suddenly want to read a dozen different books, but, then, there are just as many backlisted titles awaiting my attention.

    I heard an interview with Cummins on The Guardian books podcast (or was it BBC Radio Four, I get those two confused all the time) and thought she spoke very well about her intentions and the legitimate questions raised about her qualifications to write/tell this story. When she read from the opening, I was immediately engaged in the story – sheesh, what an opening scene.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been distressed by how vitriolic the American Dirt argument has gotten on social media. Whatever the book’s perceived shortcomings and the frustrations with the state of publishing and marketing, Cummins doesn’t deserve to become a scapegoat. Once I have some free NYT/Wash Po articles again, I’d like to read reviews by critics who have actually read the book and aren’t just out to attack. I still don’t have a sense of what specifically about the book is being received as stereotyping and damaging. When I read it pre-pub, I felt it was not just a highly readable literary thriller but also a book that could open minds and hearts to what’s happening at the border.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The criticisms I’ve read seem, to me, to actually be more representative of the issues which plague the industry generally. Rather than about any specific book, although that would be convenient. If there were MORE stories published – and publicized – about the migrant and immigrant experience, then some of them would be penned from within the community and some of them from outside that community – and the argument/debate could simply be “whose work has been more effective in moving the hearts and minds of readers, or in entertaining them (depending on readers’ differing reasons for reading to start with). I think it means a lot to have the writer openly address these concerns.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. […] The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland: Gone are the days when people interested in family history had to trawl through microfilm and wait months to learn anything new; nowadays a DNA test can find missing relatives within days. But there are troubling aspects to this new industry, including privacy concerns, notions of racial identity, and criminal databases. Copeland spoke to scientists and 400 laypeople who sent off saliva samples. A thought-provoking book with all the verve and suspense of fiction. […]


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