all of my 2019 and 2020 book recommendations

Here’s the complete list of the books I recommended in 2019 and 2020. I’ve bolded my favorites of the favorites.

If you want more, here are my book recommendations from 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.

2020

First, my favorite book of the year: The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune. A caseworker in charge of magical children travels to an island to investigate an orphanage that’s home to six seemingly dangerous magical kids. It’s so good — very Harry Potter-esque, but possibly even better. I love it so much.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A legendary but reclusive actress agrees to write her biography, with a surprising condition.

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of a mom and her baby-sitter and is all about how race and class and privilege mess us up. It’s really, really good.

The View From Penthouse B, by Elinor Lipman. Two sisters, one recently widowed and one recently bankrupted by Bernie Madoff, move in together and try to figure out what’s next … as complications arise in the form of a young boarder and a paroled ex. I keep seeing Elinor Lipman called a modern Jane Austen, and I don’t think that’s far off; she writes wonderful comedies of manners. This one is warm and cozy and funny.

All This Could Be Yours, by Jami Attendberg. A dysfunctional family’s patriarch is on his deathbed, and his daughter struggles with his legacy.

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym. I find Barbara Pym cozy and funny, while my sister finds her depressing. I don’t know what that says about us. In any case, this is the story of Mildred Lathbury, who is leading a quiet, boring life when excitingly modern neighbors move in downstairs and things are thrown into disarray. You should read this while drinking a lot of tea.

Followers, by Megan Angelo. In 2016, two friends seek fame, and find it with unanticipated consequences. 35 years later, the government runs a strictly controlled, 24/7 reality show with stars who can’t leave. This is a dark, utterly engrossing story about technology, fame, and lack of privacy.

My Latest Grievance, by Elinor Lipman. I’m on an Elinor Lipman kick. This one is about a teenager raised on a college campus where her parents work, and what happens when her father’s glamorous first wife arrives on the scene.

Saint X, by Alexis Schaitkin. Claire is seven when her sister disappears. Two decades later, she encounters one of the men believed responsible — and begins a quest to understand what happened and what it cost everyone around her. This is so beautifully written it’s painful.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg (now Daniel Lavery) of The Toast and Dear Prudence, whose writing is always a delight. This is the story of his transition, and it’s funny and smart and moving and goes in directions you don’t expect. Highly recommended.

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, about a lonely 15-year-old who becomes involved with her teacher and later struggles to understand the relationship as abuse. It’s disturbing and hauntingly written and kept me up reading until 5 am, which is a problem but also a strong endorsement.

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. In 1930s New York, a typist gets drawn into the city’s social elite. An enjoyable distraction.

Last Couple Standing, by Matthew Norman. When all their friends get divorced, a couple tries an ill-judged experiment.

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. This story of two siblings weaves all around, from dance clubs to a remote hotel in Canada to a Madoff-like scandal. There’s vulnerability and magical realism and meditations on money and beautiful writing. It’s very different from her earlier Station Eleven (do not read that right now), but it put me in a sort of trance and I liked it.

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s the story of a woman born in 1800 to a wealthy family, and I have no idea how to capture what it’s actually about so I’m going to quote from an NPR review to explain its breadth: “Gilbert covers how to smuggle plant clippings to foreign buyers; the vulgarities of professional sailors; Cicero; Captain Cook’s being hacked to death; varietals of vanilla pods; a sky-high waterspout; abolition and poverty; Euclidean gardening; sodomy and self-pleasuring; what the Dutch serve at tea-time; and what a rugby-like, women’s-only Tahitian sport can tell us about the animal kingdom. (To name just a few.)” Which still tells you nothing of what it’s actually about, but it’s good, and long.

Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler. A socially oblivious IT guy who holds himself at a bit of a remove finds his life increasingly complicated.

The Inn at Lake Devine, by Elinor Lipman. A Jewish teenager in the ’60s begins a decades-long fixation on a Vermont inn and the family that runs it (including an anti-Semitic mother and two intriguing sons).

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, by Janelle Brown. A mother and two daughters, all with secrets of their own, spend a summer grappling with family drama.

Pretty Things, by Janelle Brown. I’m now working my way through all her books. This one is about an influencer and a thief, their history together, and what happens when their paths cross again. It has revenge and dark plans and twists, and it will make you sympathize with people you don’t expect to sympathize with.

The Other Bennet Sister, by Janice Hadlow. The story of Mary Bennet, the plain, seemingly stick-in-the-mud sister from Pride and Prejudice. I usually don’t like retellings but I loved this one, and you will never look at any of the Bennet sisters the same way again. (In fact, even Mr. Collins becomes sympathetic here, which is quite an achievement.)

All Adults Here, by Emma Straub. This is a story about the messiness of families, as all Emma Straub’s novels are: a grandmother who rethinks her life when she sees an acquaintance get hit by a bus, a teenager granddaughter who comes to live with her after an upsetting incident at school, the friend she makes in her new town, and a web of family members all intertwined.

We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas. A long family saga (the best kind) about love, loss, and the American dream. Every character in here frustrated me at some point, but that made them more real.

The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild. A famous lost painting is found and spurs drama, mystery, romance, and dirty dealing.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. Twin sisters run away together from their small town founded by and for light-skinned black people. One returns later with her daughter, while the other builds a new life passing for white, cutting off ties to her family to keep her secret. It’s about race and identity and home, and I loved it.

Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson. An 18-year-old sleeps with her teacher, gets pregnant, and becomes part of a scientific project studying what happens when 10 families raise their children collectively. It turns out that planned utopias have as much dysfunction as anywhere else. (He also wrote the wonderful Nothing to See Here.)

Carrie Pilby, by Caren Lissner. A former child prodigy hits adulthood and struggles to connect with people. It’s quirky and charming.

Friends and Strangers, by J. Courtney Sullivan, the story of the relationship between a woman struggling in a new town and the college student she hires to babysit. It takes on money and class and parenthood, and both women are painted so vividly that you’ll miss them when you’re finished with it.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. A very amusing but penniless family lives in a crumbling castle in 1930s England, but everything changes when two rich American brothers become their new landlords. It’s delightfully written. How had I never read this before? I now love it with all my heart.

Family and Other Accidents, by Shari Goldhagen. It follows two brothers left on their own after their parents die, and their relationships with the women in their lives over decades. I loved it, although be warned there’s a jarring number of sex scenes that, to me, felt oddly discordant with the rest of the book.

America for Beginners, by Leah Franqui. A widow leaves India to tour America and find out what happened to her estranged son. I loved it.

The Comeback, by Ella Berman. A former teen star grapples with her relationship with the man who made her famous and controlled her for years.

Luster, by Raven Leilani. A woman struggling with her 20s falls into an affair with a married man in an open marriage but ends up connecting with his wife and daughter instead. This will make you so glad to be done with your 20s, if you are. (And if you’re not, my sincere condolences to you.)

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley. A man rescues a young boy after the plane they’re on goes down, and when the boy turns out to be the only surviving member of a rich and powerful family, questions are raised about what really happened on board. This is not my usual fare, but it kept me totally engrossed.

One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London. A friend recommended this and I was skeptical, but it’s very enjoyable: It’s about the first plus-sized contestant on a Bachelorette-like show, who is rightly cynical about the show but agrees to go on to help her brand, and what happens. It skewers some of the worst parts of reality TV and talks more honestly than you often see about weight.

Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby. A woman whose rather ridiculous boyfriend is obsessed with a reclusive musician secretly connects with said musician online and things ensue.

The Two-Family House, by Lynda Cohen Loigman. Two very different brothers, their wives, and children share a two-family house in the 1940s and 50s, and the sisters-in-law, once close, are driven apart by a secret.

With or Without You, by Caroline Leavitt. After awakening from a coma, a woman discovers that her life — and she herself — have changed.

Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption. This is a compilation of essays from the New York Time’s Modern Love column, and it is excellent for nights when you need something that will take you exactly 10 minutes to read before you fall asleep.

Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Away at boarding school, a teenager feels like an outsider. It’s about money and class and identity, and it feels real.

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam. A family vacationing in a remote area and the owners of the house they’re staying in get trapped when a mysterious global disaster strikes. It starts as a vacation novel, but it decidedly is not one. I don’t normally enjoy dread, but this sucked me in.

The Expectations, by Alexander Tilney. A teenager and his roommate each struggle in different ways to navigate an exclusive prep school. There’s lots in here about class and privilege, and how weird adolescence is. In many ways, this is the cousin of Prep.

The Smart One, by Jennifer Close. A tale of two sisters who both find themselves living back at home, their lives not working out as they’d planned.

Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork, by Reeves Wiedeman. OMG, y’all. If you like real-life stories of terrible management and the downfall of hubris, you will be so fascinated by this story of what happened at WeWork. (Think of all the start-up horror stories you’ve ever heard and then multiply them by 10; they’re in this book.) Along similar lines, if you haven’t yet read Bad Blood, about the massive fraud at Theranos, read that too.

Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh. After several years of silence, the author of Hyperbole and a Half (and the blog by the same name) is back! Her new book is full of illustrated stories about her childhood, her family, dogs, and the harder stuff she’s always so willingly tackled like loss and grief. It’s moving and funny and powerful, as her stuff always is.

Cobble Hill, by Cecily von Ziegesar. It’s about four families — including a former rock star, a school nurse, a renowned but struggling novelist, a performance artist, and their spouses — and how their lives intersect in unexpected ways. Not a lot happens but it’s fun.

Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan. Another epic family saga, this one told from alternating points of view and about two sisters who leave Ireland for America. Estranged for years after arriving, one raises a large family while the other becomes a cloistered nun. It’s about family, secrets, and how decisions when you’re young can shape the course of your life in ways you never expect.

Mother Land, by Leah Franqui. An American newlywed in India tries to adjust to her mother-in-law moving in with her.

The Family Man, by Elinor Lipman. This is the fourth Elinor Lipman book I’ve recommended this year, because I love her — when you want something light and sparkling but still smartly written, she’s perfect. In this one, a lonely lawyer reconnects with his formerly estranged step-daughter, who has been hired by a PR firm to pose as the girlfriend of a famous actor. It’s funny and sweet and just the right amount of zany.

Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots. It’s about a woman who works very boring temp jobs … for super villains. There are a lot of details that will be familiar to anyone who thinks about work a lot (a villain who is way too interested in how people are feeling, coworker tensions, worries about health insurance …), all of which become very amusing in a “working for villains” context, and you will be deeply invested in some surprising characters by the end of it. One of my favorites of the year.

2019

The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust, by Diana B. Henriques, the New York Times business correspondent who covered the scandal as it unfolded. Utterly engrossing and reads like a novel.

Severance, by Ling Ma. Alternating between flashbacks and present day, this is the story of Candace Chen, one of the few to survive after a plague wipes out most of the population. It’s got office politics, zombies, and shades of Station Eleven.

Educated, by Tara Westover. I read this under duress because people kept telling me to, but I found I couldn’t put it down. It’s a memoir about being raised in a isolated, survivalist home in rural Idaho, being allowed neither school nor doctors, with a family in denial about her violent brother, and eventually choosing a different life, including earning a doctorate from Cambridge.

The Awkward Age, by Francesca Segal, about a merged family that merges in unplanned ways.

The Darlings, by Cristina Alger. I’ve been reading obsessively about Bernie Madoff (and eyeing everyone I know with suspicion), and this is a fictionalized account of a couple whose lives intersect with a similar scandal. If you, like me, start to feel like you’re living in the world of the book you’re reading, you will feel very, very rich while you read this.

Late in the Day, by Tessa Hadley. Two close-knit married couples unravel when one of the husbands dies unexpectedly. That sounds horribly depressing but somehow it’s not? The Washington Post called it “romantic comedy pulled by a hearse” and said, “The whole grief-steeped story should be as fun as a dirge, but instead it feels effervescent — lit not with mockery but with the energy of Hadley’s attention, her sensitivity to the abiding comedy of human desire.”

Seven Days of Us, by Francesca Hornak. A family is forced to spend a week in quarantine together at Christmas. It’s tense, it’s funny, and it does not go quite smoothly.

The Banker’s Wife, by Cristina Alger. A banker’s plane goes down under suspicious circumstances on its way to Geneva, and his wife is left trying unravel what happened. You will stay up late reading this.

The Age of Light, by Whitney Scharer. It’s a fictionalized account of photographer/model Lee Miller’s relationship with Surrealist Man Ray in 1930s Paris, and I was skeptical that I’d like it but I was totally engrossed. It’s about love and art and imperfection and figuring out what you have to say.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou. Drop whatever you are reading and read this instead. It’s the story of the massive fraud perpetrated by Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, and it is fascinating. Also, there is terrible management on every single page. Seriously, it is amazing and you must read it immediately.

Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid — the fictitious oral history of a band in the 70s. It’s like the written version of watching a “Behind the Music” special but with more drama and more humor. I loved it.

The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman. It’s about a terrible, infuriating father and the mark he makes on the son who longs to connect with him. It’s also about art and legacy and rivalry.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, a strangely engrossing account of the staff of an English-language newspaper in Rome and how their lives intertwine.

Foreign Affairs, by Alison Lurie. Two American university professors on research trips to London each get drawn into life-altering relationships with others. It won the Pulitzer in 1985.

Normal People, by Sally Rooney. It’s the story of an on-again, off-again relationship that starts in high school and continues into college, taking different forms as the two people themselves do. I actually think Conversations with Friends was better, but I will read anything Sally Rooney writes from this day until the end of days.

Having discovered Alison Lurie, I’m now reading everything she’s written, most recently Truth and Consequences, which is about two academics’ marriage, their affairs, and a bad back.

Lights All Night Long, by Lydia Fitzpatrick. An exchange student from Russia spends a year in America after a tragedy befalls his family at home.

The Farm, by Joanne Ramos. It’s about a luxury baby surrogate business and gets into class, race, inequality, and motherhood in interesting and disturbing ways.

The Mother-in-Law, by Sally Hepworth, in which the mysterious death of a family matriarch causes all sorts of relationships and secrets to unravel. This is not my usual fare, but I quite enjoyed it.

Tomorrow There Will Be Sun, by Dana Reinhardt. Family dysfunction and vacations gone horribly wrong — two of my favorite genres! Very enjoyable in a beachy way.

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai, about a group of friends during the early stages of the AIDS crisis. I loved it so much. The first half was good, and the second half made it one of my favorite books of all time. You will cry multiple times. Probably my favorite book this year.

Ask again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane. The saga of two very different neighboring families, and how they intersect in ways both tragic and loving.

Crampton Hodnet, by Barbara Pym, recommended by a commenter last weekend. A paid companion to an elderly spinster finds novelty when a handsome clergyman moves in as a boarder. Scandals abound, and it’s a delight!

The Body in Question, by Jill Ciment, about two sequestered jurors drawn to each other during the trial they’re on.

Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America’s Dad, by Nicole Weisensee Egan. He’s even worse than you already knew.

The Expatriates, by Janice Y. K. Lee, about three American women living in Hong Kong, and how their lives intersect in surprising ways. I sometimes find that when a story changes what character it’s following from chapter to chapter, it’s disappointing when your time with one character gets interrupted for one you’re less interested in. But you’ll be invested in and attached to all three women in this book.

Supper Club, by Lara Williams. Two women create a subversive supper club where they indulge in ways they didn’t predict. It’s about friendship and food and the space you take up, and it’s dark and smart and funny and moving and I loved it.

Mrs. Everything, by Jennifer Weiner. Sprawling over seven decades, this is the story of two very different sisters and how they change as the world, and especially women, change. A long family saga wins again!

The Floating Feldmans, by Elyssa Friedland. The matriarch of a squabbling family turns 70 and decides to take the whole family (kids, spouses, and grandkids) on a cruise. Things do not go according to plan.

Reading Behind Bars: A True Story of Literature, Law, and Life as a Prison Librarian, by Jill Grunenwald. A while back I did an interview with commenter Oryx about her time working as a prison librarian, and this is her book — with far more details about the experience. It’s fascinating.

The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo. A wonderfully long family saga in which four daughters struggle in the shadow of what they think is their parents’ effortlessly happy marriage.

Reasons to be Cheerful, by Nina Stibbe. I don’t know how to describe this book. On the surface it’s about an 18-year-old who moves out, takes a job as a dental assistant, and starts becoming an adult. But I don’t know how to describe it in a way that will do it justice; it’s hilarious and charming and I loved it very much.

The Dearly Beloved, by Cara Wall. The story of two ministers leading the same church and the women who marry them. It’s more about marriage and friendship than it is about religion, but faith is a theme and a question throughout.

City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. A 19-year-old gets expelled from Vassar in 1940 and is sent to live with her black sheep aunt who runs a theater in New York City. She befriends showgirls, discovers men, and figures out how she wants to live her life. I quite enjoyed it.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota, by J. Ryan Stadal. I am a huge fan of his Kitchens of the Great Midwest (until stumbling across his photo recently, I thought he was a woman because he writes women so well). Anyway: pies, breweries, family drama.

The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott. It’s a novel but it’s based on real events surrounding the publication of Doctor Zhivago, including the women who helped the CIA smuggle it out of the Soviet Union, publish it, and sneak it back in. It’s a sort of literary spy story.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor. An older woman moves into the Claremont Hotel and befriends a young writer who agrees to pose as her grandson. There’s dark humor in it, but it’s more poignant than funny.

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett. It’s about a brother and sister who are kicked out of their family home by their stepmother and how that reverberates over decades.

Evvie Drake Starts Over, by Linda Holmes. A recent widow whose grief is complicated gets to know a baseball player whose arm stopped working and things must be worked out. It’s a little light and fluffy, and sometimes that is exactly what you want.

Lust & Wonder, by Augusten Burroughs. It’s either his third or his six memoir, depending on how you count them. The first covered his awful childhood, the second covered his alcoholism, and this one is about his path to his husband.

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, by Amaryllis Fox. This is a memoir about her time undercover for the CIA, and OMG it is fascinating, especially the details around how she was trained, how her cover was created (and costumed), and how she did her job.

The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker. A college student falls asleep and can’t be roused — and what seems to be a virus spread through the town, leaving people seemingly permanently asleep, while others struggle to deal with the outbreak. That sounds like horror, but it’s not; it’s strangely and beautifully done.

Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson. A 20something woman whose life hasn’t gone as planned moves to Tennessee to help take care of her friend’s twins, who their politician dad wants kept out of the public eye because they happen to burst into flames whenever they get upset. One of my favorite books of the year!

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta. Millions of people vanish all at once, in what may or may not be the Rapture, and those left behind struggle to figure out a path forward.

The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption, by Barbara Bisantz Raymond. This is the horrifying true story of a woman in the first half of the 20th century who openly kidnapped hundreds of children and sold them to wealthy adoptive parents.

Know My Name, by Chanel Miller. This is by the woman who was assaulted by Brock Turner, and she’s an extraordinary writer and an extraordinary person.

Be Frank With Me, by Julia Claiborne Johnson. Assigned to be an assistant to a reclusive literary icon, the protagonist instead ends up as the full-time companion to the author’s precocious nine-year-old son. Slate summarized it as three “three … eccentrics in an estate made of glass trying not to kill each other.”

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