The Best Books from the First Half of 2020

My top 10 releases of 2020 thus far, in alphabetical order within genre (nonfiction is dominating the year for me!), are:

 

Fiction

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Like some lost mid-career gem from Toni Morrison, this novel is meaty with questions of racial and sexual identity. Light-skinned African American twins Stella and Desiree Vignes’ paths divide in 1954, with Stella passing as white. Both are desperate to escape from Mallard, Louisiana. The twins’ decisions affect the next generation, too. It’s perceptive and beautifully written, with characters whose struggles feel genuine and pertinent. The themes of self-reinvention and running from one’s past resonate.

 

Writers & Lovers by Lily King: Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. Between waitressing shifts, she chips away at the novel she’s been writing for six years. Life gets complicated, especially when two love interests appear. We see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her. An older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say.

 

Weather by Jenny Offill: A blunt, unromanticized, wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life, Weather is in the same aphoristic style as Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Lizzie is married with a young son and works in a NYC university library. She takes on a second job as PA to her former professor, who runs a podcast on environmental issues. Set either side of Trump’s election, the novel amplifies many voices prophesying doom. Offill’s observations are spot on. Could there be a more perfect book for 2020?

 

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld: There’s no avoiding violence for the women and children of this novel. It’s a sobering theme, certainly, but Wyld convinced me that hers is an accurate vision and a necessary mission. The novel cycles through its three strands in an ebb and flow pattern that seems appropriate to the coastal setting and creates a sense of time’s fluidity. Themes and elements keep coming back, stinging a little more each time. An elegant, time-blending structure and an unrelenting course – that indifferent monolith is the perfect symbol.

 

 

Nonfiction

Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss by Rachel Clarke: I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs and books about death and dying; it takes a truly special one like this to stand out. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a very natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her father, who was also a doctor, and how she absorbed his lessons of empathy and dedication. A passionate and practical book, encouraging readers to be sure they and older relatives have formalized their wishes.

 

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.

 

Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee: From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His main harbingers are migrating birds, starting with swallows. The book is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. A fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.

 

Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier: Blending human and planetary history, environmental realism and literary echoes, Farrier, a lecturer in English literature, tells the story of the human impact on the Earth. Each chapter is an intricate blend of fact, experience and story. We’ll leave behind massive road networks, remnants of coastal megacities, plastics, carbon and methane in the permafrost, the fossilized Great Barrier Reef, nuclear waste, and jellyfish-dominated oceans. An invaluable window onto the deep future.

 

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones: While nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, Jones wanted to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. She makes an empirical enquiry but also attests to the personal benefits nature has. Losing Eden is full of common sense and passion, cramming masses of information into 200 pages yet never losing sight of the big picture. Like Silent Spring, on which it is patterned, I can see this leading to real change.

 

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty: McAnulty is the UK’s answer to Greta Thunberg: a leader in the youth environmental movement and an impassioned speaker on the love of nature. This is a wonderfully observant and introspective account of his fifteenth year: of disruptions – moving house and school, of outrage at the state of the world and at individual and political indifference, of the complications of being autistic, but also of the joys of everyday encounters with wildlife. Impressive perspective and lyricism.

 

The ones I own in print (not pictured: 2 read on Kindle; 1 read via the library).

 

The 4.5- or 5-star backlist books that I’ve read this year but haven’t yet written about on here in some way are:

  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
  • Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields

 

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?

What 2020 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

24 responses

  1. I rarely catch upon new releases immediately as they either have to get into library stock (with a waiting list, usually!) or become available in paperback. Unsurprisingly, I’m going to be bookmarking several of the natural world new releases.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Once your library is back up and running, I hope it will acquire most of them!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Me too! Apparently they are investing hugely in eBooks, which pleases me not.

        Like

    2. Hmm, I can see how that would be of immediate benefit, but less so in the long term.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Both Weather and Writers & Lovers hit the spot for me and I’m sure The Vanishing Half would have, too, had it not been for a Netgalley file with random pages missing! Here are a few favourite under the radar titles for me: Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford’s Business As Usual and Luke Brown’s Theft.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, that’s too bad. Weird formatting can spoil the e-reading experience. If you still fancy reading it, I’m sure Dialogue would send a print copy.

      How interesting that two of your recommendations are re-releases!

      Like

      1. I think it’s the first outing in the UK for Sidney!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved both Writers & Lovers and The Bass Rock, which would definitely feature as two of my best books of the year so far. If you enjoyed the King you might want to try Emma Straub’s forthcoming All Adults Here, which has the same Strout overtones. I didn’t get on so well with Weather, however. It struck me is okay but certainly didn’t light any fires.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do like the sound of All Adults Here. I was thinking about getting Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth out from the library, too (reservations for collection are starting next week).

      Like

  4. I’ve recently bought myself Writers & Lovers and the McAnulty. Hope I can fit them in soon! Weather, I was cooler on, but I have loved Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires – yes it’s horror, but done with verve and wit. Also The Ruins by Mat Osman – a rock’n’roll mystery (so ticking more of my boxes) and the latest Natasha Pulley which is mind-blowingly complex and atmospheric.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The vampires book sounds like good fun! I’m going to try Pulley’s first book when my library reopens.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Delighted to see Diary of a Young Naturalist here. There are several others I either have or have my eye on. If only I could get through as many books as you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a terrific read. One to read slowly with the seasons, or all at once, as you wish!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Another list of yours to squirrel away–thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think all the fiction, at least, is or soon will be available in the States.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I really need to read Diary of a Young Naturalist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would definitely recommend it to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m happy to see you loved Small Ceremonies – I haven’t read that one yet.

    I love the cover of Dear Life, with the flowers in the shape of lungs!
    Lily King, Evie Wyld and Jenny Offill are all on my list, so I’m happy to see them here, too. I’ll have to add Brit Bennett’s – you make it sound so good. But I still haven’t read her first one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, it’s so good — my new favourite from Shields (though I should really reread The Stone Diaries).

      I’m told this one is better than Bennett’s first novel, but it still sounds appealing to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. buriedinprint | Reply

    As for new releases that I think you’d appreciate, Laura Trethewey’s The Imperilled Ocean is one to watch for. It’s very readable and I like the balance she strikes between sharing the personal experiences of individuals with how that intersects with broader/global trends or concerns. There are extensive resources and notes, but it remains very accessible. Most of other new reading in my stack is CanLit which would be available on a delay for you, if at all, I suspect. But I just loved Lauren Carter’s 2019 novel This Has Nothing to Do with you (which might sound familiar from Naomi’s recommendation too).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like that sort of narrative nonfiction that pairs story with commentary. (I’m reading a book by a different Trethewey at the moment, Natasha. Her father was from Atlantic Canada.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        Could be a relative! I just checked the acknowledgements and Laura doesn’t mention any siblings (that I see), only parents (father=Paul), but her publisher is from eastern Canada too.

        Like

    2. N. Trethewey was born to a Black mother in Mississippi in the 1960s, when her parents’ interracial marriage was not acceptable to many. I’m not that far into her memoir, which is mostly about her mother, but I don’t think she kept up a relationship with her father after her parents’ divorce.

      Liked by 1 person

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