Our 51 Favorite Books of 2020

  • November 23, 2020

We don’t possess the hubris to declare certain books "the best." Instead, in no particular order, here are some of our most-loved titles of 2020, a year that can't end soon enough.

Our 51 Favorite Books of 2020

Oligarchy: A Novel by Scarlett Thomas (Counterpoint). Reviewed by Josh Denslow. “What Thomas pulls off here is astounding. This is a truly funny book. It is acerbic. It is mean-spirited. It is heavy (and I don't just mean weight gain). The characters are flawed and sometimes intensely unlikable, but they are also naive and susceptible to peer pressure and scared to be different and just so crazy-believable. I was rooting for all of them to survive. Unfortunately, Bianca does not.”

Run Me to Earth: A Novel by Paul Yoon (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Alice Stephens. “Yoon’s mission is not to educate the reader on the history of Laos, and those unfamiliar with the country must stay alert to figure out what’s going on. Other than the author’s note and a few incidental details, there is little explication of that country’s political situation. Instead, his story is the human tragedy of war, with a leitmotif on the calamity of colonialism.”

Humble Pi: When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World by Matt Parker (Riverhead Books). Reviewed by Josh Trapani. “There are several pitfalls for books like this, and Parker largely manages to avoid them. The first is simply being too technical. I’ve encountered such books before. But, along with wit, Humble Pi is conversational in style. It’s also largely conceptual, rather than focused on the nitty-gritty of equations and formulae. Many of the foibles described aren’t about math itself so much as about what can go wrong when it’s done by computers.”

Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump’s War on the World’s Most Powerful Office by Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi. “The larger question is to what extent [Trump] is rewriting his successors’ views of the office, or, for that matter, those of the electorate. Is this an aberration or an ushering in of what is now considered ‘modern day presidential’? The authors deliberate this question in engrossing detail, with each chapter illuminating the historical, legal, political, and cultural aspects of a presidential norm into which this commander-in-chief has thrown a hand grenade.”

Shuggie Bain: A Novel by Douglas Stuart (Grove Press). Reviewed by Mike Maggio. “This is a book I did not want to read. Why? I didn’t like the title. First takeaway: Never judge a book by its name. Second takeaway: This is an instant classic. A novel that takes places during the Thatcher years and, in a way, defines it. A novel that explores the underbelly of Scottish society. A novel that digs through the grit and grime of 1980s Glasgow to reveal a story that is at once touching and gripping. Think D.H. Lawrence. Think James Joyce.”

The Boatman’s Daughter: A Novel by Andy Davidson (MCD x FSG Originals). Reviewed by Daniel Weaver. “Much like in Davidson’s debut, In the Valley of the Sun, the gothic, magical horror elements of The Boatman’s Daughter come second to, and build upon, a darker, realistic depiction of violence — the first chapter begins with a man named Cook who alludes vaguely to his refusal to traffic a girl to Cotton before Cook is killed by bikers involved in the trade. Because the truly fantastical horror elements take time to emerge and only ever involve a portion of Davidson’s cast, men like a corrupt constable, John Avery, and even Billy Cotton read like the darker characters from the first season of ‘True Detective,’ a show with which Davidson’s novel shares the humid, hazy, vine-draped setting of the American South.”

The Boston Massacre: A Family History by Serena Zabin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).    Reviewed by Dean Jobb. “The Boston Massacre was a turning point in the march toward the War of Independence. Britain’s military might and colonists’ demands for liberty collided on Boston’s streets, with deadly results. In The Boston Massacre: A Family History, historian Serena Zabin takes a fresh look at this historic milestone by shifting the focus to the human story that lies beneath this tragic and momentous incident, a ‘forgotten world…hidden in plain sight.’ Zabin, director of the American studies program at Minnesota’s Carleton College, scoured British army records and Boston archives to peel back layers of mythology and propaganda in search of people caught up in this prelude to the Revolution.”

Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife by Bart D. Ehrman (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Joel Looper. “After this masterful book, Ehrman offers his personal view on life after death: ‘I’m completely open,’ he writes, to the notion of a happy afterlife, and ‘deep down even hopeful about it. But I have to say that at the end of the day I really don’t believe it either. My sense is that this life is all there is.’ But anxiety about death is completely unnecessary. According to Ehrman, life’s brevity is ‘a motivation to love this life as much as we can for as long as we can, to enjoy it to its utmost,’ not a reason to get hung up about what happens after we’re gone.”

He Had It Coming: Four Murderous Women and the Reporter Who Immortalized Their Stories by Kori Rumore and Marianne Mather (Agate Midway). Reviewed by Dean Jobb. “The commentary, however, takes a back seat to the star of this particular show: the Tribune’s extensive news archive. Reading He Had It Coming is akin to browsing a well-staged and carefully curated museum exhibit. Vintage photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings, and an array of other historical records and artifacts have been unearthed and assembled to lavishly illustrate the story.”

Interior Chinatown: A Novel by Charles Yu (Pantheon). Reviewed by Josh Denslow. “If you read Charles Yu's Interior Chinatown (and I strongly suggest you do), you’ll find that it kind of looks like a script. Indented dialogue throughout. Rampant scene headings, one of which gives us our book’s title. But it’s in the action where things are different. In these blocks of prose, Interior Chinatown reveals itself to be a stunning novel about identity, race, societal expectations, and crippling anxiety told with humor and affection and a deep understanding of human nature.”

Half Broke: A Memoir by Ginger Gaffney (W.W. Norton & Company). Reviewed by Gretchen Lida. “The healing power of horses is not a new concept. It’s been explored across art forms. But narratives featuring equine therapy programs for veterans, autistic children, and others can often feel too sweet or tidy. This isn’t the case with Half Broke. The healing here is hard-won, subtle, and small. And that makes it all the more miraculous.”

The Night Watchman: A Novel by Louise Erdrich (Harper). Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell. “The Night Watchman is indeed historical, thoroughly researched, rich with cultural and topical detail. However, what engages the reader most deeply are Erdrich’s characters: people, ghosts, even animals. As for the human cast, some of them are directly involved in responding to the legislative threat; others just live their complicated, difficult lives. Through the eyes of diverse members of the community at this critical moment — a moment which illustrates and threatens to exacerbate past exploitation — Erdrich crafts another volume in her chronicle of the extended family of the Chippewa tribe.”

The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird by Joshua Hammer (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “The real-life cops-and-robbers yarn The Falcon Thief centers on a marauder who combs the wild places of our world to raid the nests of eagles, falcons, or other birds of prey. It’s a compelling and remarkable tale, vibrant and authentic, rendered more resonant by author Joshua Hammer’s impressive research.”

The Mountains Sing: A Novel by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Tom Glenn. “The book’s author, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, is a poet. Her text is embroidered with poetic phrasings. ‘I held the broom, sweeping sunlight into piles,’ she writes at one point. Voices rise like kites. The blossoms of a longan tree spread a dome of pearls atop the green canopy. Diệu Lan sees herself as a butterfly who’d ‘lost its wings, a tree who’d forsaken all of its leaves and branches.’ The book is also distinctly Vietnamese. A reader not familiar with Viet customs may wonder why characters who are not related by blood nevertheless address each other using familial nouns (sister, brother, auntie, uncle, grandmother, and so on). But this potentially confusing choice lends a rich cultural texture to the story, giving Western readers a feel for Vietnamese society.” 

Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington by Ted Widmer (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Talmage Boston. “Ted Widmer’s Lincoln on the Verge is quite simply as good as it gets in the art of writing biography. Besides his thorough research and fast-paced storytelling skills, the author’s deep insights into this tipping-point experience in Lincoln’s life as he traveled to meet his ultimate fate as president charged with the nation-on-his-shoulders responsibility of reuniting the states while acting as commander-in-chief during the most horrific war in American history makes for a saga to be savored.”

Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell (Doubleday). Reviewed by Colin Asher. “Part jeremiad and part travelogue, the book reports on the subcultures of doomsday preppers, billionaire survivalists, and Mars-colony advocates. O’Connell visits the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, a vast expanse of land denuded by industrial activity that is being rewilded, and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The book is full of wry humor, and O’Connell is an earnest, self-effacing narrator wise enough to employ filial love as recurrent theme to give his book emotional ballast. His greatest virtue, however, is his talent as a critic and interpreter.”  

Afterlife: A Novel by Julia Alvarez (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Heidi Mastrogiovanni. “When a book is touted as one of the most anticipated of the year, expectations are understandably high. When said book is written by a bestselling author (who last published an adult novel nearly 15 years ago), it’s not surprising that those expectations are elevated even more. But a gold-medal pole vaulter couldn’t clear the highest bar with more grace and assurance than Julia Alvarez does in Afterlife.”

Deacon King Kong: A Novel by James McBride (Riverhead Books). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “This is a beautiful, moving story, complex, layered, evocative, and often funny, as its near-Dickensian array of characters deals with the shooting’s aftermath. They range through all the predictable responses to the unexpected act: relief, joy, fear of reprisal, plus the impulse to protect the projects’ harmless champion from drug criminals and police alike. The author tells this tale with an acute ear for the authentic cadences of urban colloquial speech; he never lapses into the language of stereotype. And underlying all the talk in this talk-rich novel are the familiar echoes of Southern evangelism, touchstones of language and culture for the projects’ Black residents.”

Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth by Benjamin Taylor (Penguin Books). Reviewed by Terry Zobeck. “Shortly before he died, Roth told Taylor, ‘I have been to see the great enemy, and walked around him, and talked to him, and he is not to be feared. I promise.’ These words are eloquent, offer comfort to his dear friend, and address the single issue — mortality — that is ultimately of concern to us all and is the catalyst for all great art, which the best of Roth’s books surely is. In Here We Are, Taylor has crafted a heartwarming portrayal of his friendship with Roth that is clear-eyed and largely unsentimental. He writes that Roth often used to say, ‘Two things await me, death and my biographer. I don’t know which is to be more feared.’ Taylor’s memoir provides little Roth need have feared.”

The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by Hope Jahren (Vintage). Reviewed by Gretchen Lida. “We might combat climate crises by leaving copies of Hope Jahren’s The Story of More in strategic public places: on those display racks by the drink coolers in corner stores; near checkout counters at Tractor Supply; in every DMV line in America. If there’s one book all of us should read about the state of the environment, it’s this one. Sure, that might seem a little overzealous. One book isn’t going to solve the slow-motion catastrophe of a warming planet. It will, however, help readers understand the problem without making them run to the bunkers of fear, shame, denial, and tribalism.”

Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America by David Kamp (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Chris Rutledge. “In Sunny Days, Kamp examines the shows that remade American children’s television, including ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ ‘The Electric Company,’ and, yes, even ‘Zoom.’ It is almost impossible not to feel a warm blanket of nostalgia draped over you as you read; Kamp delivers a sense of comfort and familiarity on every page.”

Miss Austen: A Novel by Gill Hornby (Flatiron Books). Reviewed by Sarah Shoemaker. “A reader might well assume that a book titled Miss Austen refers to the 19th-century novelist Jane Austen, about whom a plethora of biographies, novels, and scholarly works have already been written. Instead, the name refers to Jane’s lesser-known sister, Cassandra. Based in large part on a multitude of letters between the two sisters and their friends and family, as well as other contemporary accounts, Gill Hornby’s novel is a warm and fascinating story that reads as though it could be a Jane Austen work itself.”

They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). Reviewed by Caroline Bock. “Some wouldn’t choose a book about a Holocaust survivor as an antidote to a pandemic. Still, I found myself engrossed in Monica Hesse’s third historical YA novel, They Went Left, set in 1945 Poland and Germany. As I read this immersive story from within my shelter-in-place suburban home, I kept thinking in a wry, melancholic way: Things could be worse. However, as I emerged from reading, I was glad it was 2020, not 1945. I have my immediate family around me (even if we are going a bit stir crazy) and I am grateful for them.”

Verge: Stories by Lidia Yuknavitch (Riverhead Books). Reviewed by Antoaneta Tileva. “Yuknavitch’s writing is visceral and unsettling, the metaphors eloquent and moving. ‘Who amongst us can see a self,’ she asks, and responds with singular characters sketched in stark detail, their burdens strange yet familiar. Her descriptions are terse, as though built on picked-clean skeletons, but the flesh emerges from the pages, raw and refusing to be contained.”

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi. “Miller is an award-winning science reporter and cofounder of the NPR program ‘Invisibilia.’ A strong thread of memoir underpins this, her debut book, which also includes biography, scientific inquiry, civics, investigative journalism, musings on psychology, and, yes, an answer to the book’s central question. Not incidentally, Why Fish Don’t Exist is beautiful. Beyond its blue and gold cover, the original, intricate illustrations — created on scratchboard by artist Kate Samworth — that accompany each chapter are captivating, with an otherworldly, even nightmarish quality. They lend the book an air of antiquity, as though the reader is holding a 19th-century science text or a Bible.”

Glorious Boy: A Novel by Aimee Liu (Red Hen Press). Reviewed by Norah Vawter. “Aimee Liu’s fourth novel, Glorious Boy — a family drama set against the backdrop of World War II and the rumblings of Indian independence from British colonialist rule — is big, ambitious, sometimes messy, and consistently stunning. This novel tugged at my heart in all the right ways. I got teary explaining to my husband why I’d cried the night before, when I’d stayed up until two in the morning finishing the book. As her characters’ journey becomes increasingly fraught, Liu walks the emotional tightrope perfectly, never swaying into sentimentality but also never shying away from heartbreak.”

Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings by Valerie Trouet (Johns Hopkins University Press). Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi. “I told a friend of mine that I had a funny story recently: ‘I’m reading a book about tree rings — that’s not the funny part,’ and she interrupted me. ‘Oh, no, you’re wrong. That is the funny part.’ Yet Valerie Trouet’s Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings is everything I had hoped it would be: intelligent, accessible, witty, and captivating — a global adventure spanning millennia and embracing a bevy of unexpected topics, all resulting from the study of tree rings. The book brims with globetrotting detective stories involving pirate ships, volcanic eruptions, the jet stream, and a Stradivarius known as the Messiah.”

A Quiet Cadence: A Novel by Mark Treanor (Naval Institute Press). Reviewed by Tom Glenn. “In an honored place on a wall in my house is a photograph of jungle combat boots from Vietnam. The picture is captioned, ‘Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.’ The empty boots imply that their owner gave up his life in defense of his country. A Quiet Cadence is the literary equivalent of that picture. It is the most powerful book on combat during the Vietnam War that I have read.”

Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Nicholas A. Basbanes (Knopf). Reviewed by Talmage Boston. “Over time, respect for Longfellow’s work among literary critics has ebbed and flowed. During the second half of his life (he died in 1882 at age 75), by all accounts, he was recognized as America’s leading poet who turned out universally acclaimed bestselling books. That level of respect carried into the 20th century until he fell out of favor with a new generation of critics who favored edginess over euphony. In recent years, widespread appreciation for his work has started to return and appears to be on a growth path. While assessments of his place in the canon has shifted over the years like ‘footprints in the sand,’ the word portrait of him crafted by Basbanes should cast in stone a legacy of sustained productivity and virtuous living capable of withstanding the test of time.”

Make Russia Great Again: A Novel by Christopher Buckley (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Drew Gallagher. “Christopher Buckley is at his side-splitting funniest in Make Russia Great Again, which includes lines of such pure comedic brilliance that the reader is tempted to stand and applaud like one would for a soloist at the Kennedy Center. This is what Jonathan Swift envisioned when he introduced the world to political satire. Conversely, Make Russia Great Again is probably not what President Trump envisioned by way of his legacy (fictional or otherwise), but there’s little risk of his reading this book unless it appears on the Fox News crawl.”

Fracture: A Novel by Andrés Neuman; translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Mariko Hewer. “Reading Andrés Neuman’s nostalgic Fracture, which centers partly on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, could be a fraught experience during a pandemic — and, indeed, many of the main characters’ convoluted feelings are likely to resonate with, and unsettle, the reader. The author’s skill, however, makes this compelling story well worth the emotional investment.”

Other People’s Pets: A Novel by R.L. Maizes (Celadon Books). Reviewed by Helene Meyers. “Last year, R.L. Maizes published a fine collection of short stories titled We Love Anderson Cooper, several of which prominently feature the intense relationships between guardians and their pets. Maizes’ first novel, Other People’s Pets, focuses on Louise (aka La La) Fine, an animal empath whose connection to all creatures great and small includes the ability to feel their physical and emotional pain. But this engaging and poignant novel should not be pegged for animal lovers only. With its powerful exploration of a dysfunctional birth family and the life that can be made from and despite the traumas of inheritance, Other People’s Pets is, quite simply, a great read.”

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Alice Stephens. “I love swimming precisely for the solitary nature of it. It’s not that different from reading, in that the mind becomes immersed in another reality. But not everybody is attracted to swimming for its solitary nature, as I discovered while reading Bonnie Tsui’s closely researched and entertaining Why We Swim. From swim teams to swim lessons to swim clubs, the fine art of self-locomotion through water brings people together, breaking down cultural barriers, racial differences, and socioeconomic disparities.”

Hieroglyphics: A Novel by Jill McCorkle (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Keith Donohue. “The real joy of Hieroglyphics is its intricacy, the pieces of four stories assembled into a mosaic of love and pain and redemption. Whether in Lil’s first-person epistolary account or the others’ accounts in third person, the plain and elegant style pulls the reader through its shifts and counterpoints. You emerge bedazzled, blinking in the bright sunlight of now and carrying the shards of their experiences in your heart.”

White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Michael deHaven Newsom. “White Too Long is a wonderful book. Along with being required reading for white Americans (its intended audience), it’s also a resource for Americans of color, if only to learn about the contours of white America’s dialogue on race. This is a book about doing: about seeing, remembering, believing, and marking. It is about white Christian Americans locked in a tight embrace with white supremacy, reinforcing and maintaining it, backed by a Christian theology that came into full flower in the years leading up to the Civil War.”

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings (Tor.com). Reviewed by Mariko Hewer. “The district of Inglewell, which comprises the towns of Woodwild, Carter’s Crossing, and Runagate, is an ancient and mysterious country. ‘Memory bled and frayed there, where ghosts stood silent by fenceposts,’ reports Tina Scott, Runagate resident and part-time narrator of Flyaway, Kathleen Jennings’ debut novel…As you might imagine, Flyaway is not the sort of book to tie every loose end into a beautiful bow for the reader’s sake. But it will leave you feeling deeply satisfied — perhaps more so, in fact, because it allows you to write your own ending.”

Miracle Country: A Memoir by Kendra Atleework (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Christine Baleshta. “It would be easy to assume that Miracle Country is another depressing account of the consequences of climate change and urban development. Instead, the author has pieced together an intimate portrait of one family’s resilience and a community deeply rooted in the Eastern Sierra. Memories of her mother and her family are written with candor and affection, and the land comes alive through her prose. We are tied to our landscape, and Kendra Atleework is a fresh voice reminding us of that fact.”

Hamnet: A Novel by Maggie O’Farrell (Knopf). Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak. “If Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize in fiction) were simply a captivating love story about a ‘falconer girl’ and a ‘Latin tutor,’ it would be compelling enough to hold a reader’s attention. However, when the tutor turns out to be William Shakespeare and the girl his wife (here known not as Anne, but Agnes), it becomes a brilliant historical novel steeped in the heady atmosphere of the 16th century.”

The Indomitable Florence Finch: The Untold Story of a War Widow Turned Resistance Fighter and Savior of American POWs by Robert J. Mrazek (Hachette Books). Reviewed by Andrew M. Mayer. “Robert Mrazek is to be praised for his serious research and superior writing style, both of which make this chronicle of Florence’s real-life adventures an absorbing saga. Her receipt of the Medal of Freedom spotlighted her brave, fearless war effort, just as The Indomitable Florence Finch brings her life and service to our attention.”

Pale: A Novel by Edward A. Farmer (Blackstone Publishing). Reviewed by Carrie Callaghan. “Farmer’s light historical touch and his plantation’s timelessness also remind us whose preferences are still paramount. The Black characters here have agency and success, but they operate in a world that is reluctant to acknowledge them. A reader might be forgiven for forgetting if this book is set in the 19th, 20th, or 21st century, and I suspect the author would approve. Though time in Pale seems fungible, the world Farmer has created is specific and visceral, cushioned with bitter cotton bolls and weighted by heavy summer clouds. It is a masterful achievement.”

Cool for America: Stories by Andrew Martin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Jack McCarthy. “Martin’s most astonishing power is his ability to sublimate a character’s internal frustrations into an external representation of reality — a cathartic, frequently amusing projection of the self onto the world’s brutal canvas. As he writes of a character in one story: ‘She understood that the things of the world had weight and force, and that she did, too, and that, in combination, this could pose problems.’ Maybe there isn’t any way to make sense of such problems, but at least we try. We have to, for the world would make even less sense if we didn’t.”

The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941: The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor by Paul Dickson (Atlantic Monthly Press). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “In this exhaustively thorough volume, Paul Dickson serves up a detailed picture of our nation’s just-in-time preparation for battlefield action in World War II. Dickson, an indefatigable researcher, again demonstrates his talent for marshaling ground-level details and contemporary newspaper accounts into a coherent and engaging story.”

Talland House: A Novel by Maggie Humm (She Writes Press). Reviewed by Roberta Rubenstein. “To base a work of fiction closely on the work of another writer is a task not lightly undertaken, for it may expose the borrower to the risk of failure by comparison. With Talland House, Maggie Humm has more than risen to the challenge she set for herself: an imaginative expansion of Virginia Woolf’s classic To the Lighthouse and a moving homage to its author.”

Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga; translated by Jordan Stump (Archipelago Books). Reviewed by Bárbara Mujica. “Mukasonga’s superbly crafted stories leave the reader with a deep sense of desolation, thanks, in part, to her deft use of metaphor. Hunger is an ‘implacable enemy who lived deep inside us.’ Fear is the Tutsis’ ‘true shadow, the shadow that never left them, that ignored the sun’s course through the sky, that clung to them even deep in the night.’ Fear ‘walked with us on the road to school’ and sat ‘with us…on the benches of the classroom.’ ‘I’m like an egg,’ one protagonist tells herself. ‘One jolt and I’ll break.’”

The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser (Doubleday). “James Baker’s place in history should be enhanced by the way his life story withstood the scrutiny of Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s investigative microscope. This biography partnership definitely achieves the parties’ objective es not only by producing a delicious read for lovers of history, but also by reminding the nation in 2020 that political power can be used to advance the national interest across party lines when it is wielded by a principled pragmatist whose primary purpose is to get things done.”

Anxious People: A Novel by Fredrik Backman; translated by Neil Smith (Atria Books). Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak. “How do you follow up a sensational international bestseller like A Man Called Ove? Fredrik Backman does it spectacularly with the entertaining conundrum Anxious People. As equally idiosyncratic and iconoclastic as his debut, it is an outrageously hilarious, flawless novel about ‘how a bank robber failed to rob a bank but instead managed to spark a hostage drama.’ It is the most bizarre heist story since Sidney Lumet’s ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ with narrative nods to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and O. Henry’s ‘The Ransom of Red Chief.’”

Transcendent Kingdom: A Novel by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf). Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi. “When her favorite laboratory mouse — an inveterate lever-presser that has developed a limp from the shocks he receives as he desperately chases another hit of Ensure — finally, because of her intervention, refuses to press the lever, it is as though she is witnessing a rebirth, the light of salvation that may course through all of us. Throughout Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi tackles a complex web of themes, weaving together a story that inches toward a quiet redemption. Along the way, it is a joy simply to delight in the language she uses in her close observation of life, the quotidian details made fresh.”

Jack: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell. “Reading Jack at this turbulent moment in national and world events, particularly this juncture in the continuing struggle for racial equity and justice, is like taking a deep drink of cool water; pausing to consider the challenge of making personal choices informed by ethical, moral, religious, and spiritual values.”

The Exiles: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline (Custom House). Reviewed by K.L. Romo. “The Exiles poignantly explores the issues of social identity, fate, loyalty, and survival during a time in history when women were ‘less than,’ and Anglo society believed itself entitled to decimate indigenous tribes living on confiscated land. From the squalid straw floors and suffering of Newgate, to a ship’s dark and foul hold, to a penal colony in Hobart Town, readers follow these brave women on their journey of survival through inexplicable sorrow, hardship, and loss.”

A Brotherhood Betrayed: The Man Behind the Rise and Fall of Murder, Inc. by Michael Cannell (Minotaur Books). Reviewed by Dean Jobb. “Cannell takes readers along for the ride as he documents — in remarkable, often chilling detail drawn from newspapers and archival documents — Reles’ inexorable rise. The hits keep on coming as he personally bumps off targets or dispatches his minions to kill the likes of rogue boss Dutch Schultz, who was gunned down in 1935. A Brotherhood Betrayed reads like a Brooklyn version of The Irishman, and Cannell’s riveting narrative unfolds with the simmering tension and explosive violence of a Scorsese movie.”

Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation by Peter Cozzens (Knopf). Reviewed by Chris Rutledge. “Cozzens also paints Tecumseh as both a skilled warrior and an able diplomat who worked diligently to pull together the various tribes. He provides many examples of Tecumseh’s skill at maneuvering his smaller contingent against a larger American force, and also points to many occasions when Tecumseh, with Shawnee nobility, steps forward to prevent the abuse of prisoners his own warriors have taken.”

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