book preview 2020
Emily Carpenter/Thrillist
Entertainment

The Best Books of 2020 (So Far)

Bookmark this for when you're stuck on what to read next.

Another year, another one trillion new books coming out. The pace and sheer volume of book releases can be daunting, with every piece of marketing copy claiming that this will be the read that changes your life. How can you tell which is actually going to be worth your time? Leave that to us: we've been doing our homework, scouring publisher catalogues, scoping out early reviews, and doing the reading to suss out which books are actually the best of the year. Here are those titles that we think you should flag for your shelves, too. What else do you have going on?

For more book coverage, read about our favorite books of 2019 and 2018.

Abigail by Magda Szabó (translated by Len Rix)

Release date: January 21 (NYRB)
Why it's great: When Magda Szabó died in 2007, Hungary lost one of its finest, most nuanced literary voices. And yet, if you lived in the United States, you would hardly have known -- her hadn't been translated into English since 1995. That changed in 2015, when New York Review Books published Len Rix's 2005 translation of The Door in America, named one of The New York Times's top 10 books of the year. NYRB took the hint, publishing George Szirtes's 2014 translation of Iza's Ballad in 2016, Rix's translation of Katalin Street in 2017, and now, Abigail. There's an argument to be made that they saved the best for last, if indeed this is last. Universally beloved in Hungary, Abigail is the suspenseful coming-of-age story of Gina, the willful daughter of a Hungarian general who is sent from her home in Budapest to a religious boarding school in the country against her wishes on the eve of Nazi invasion. There, ostracized and miserable, her only hope is Abigail: a statue of an urn-bearing woman on the school's grounds believed to grant help to those who need it. Abigail is charming, gripping, and moving, in somewhat equal measure -- a feat in itself.
Get it now on Bookshop.org

Above Us the Milky Way by Fowzia Karimi

Release date: April 7 (Deep Vellum)
Why it’s great: The debut novel from author Fowzia Karimi is an exploration of memory in the form of analyzing and internalizing language -- in this case, the English alphabet. A family of seven leave their home in Afghanistan due to the dangers of war for the United States. The young ones, all five daughters, grow up in a foreign nation while never losing touch with the perils of their hometown. The book is masterfully rendered and structurally unique, each of its 26 chapters, based on each letter in the alphabet, form memory into a palpable language, or as the narrator claims, a “way forward.” For how experimental the novel gets, it never obstructs the family’s experience, everything from the small joys and the bold wonders a person may experience in a new land free of war.
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All My Mother's Lovers by Ilana Masad

Release date: May 26 (Dutton)
Why it’s great: Prolific book critic and journalist Ilana Masad’s debut novel is dripping with loss and secrecy. Twenty-seven-year-old Maggie Krause’s mother dies in a car cash, forcing her to return home. Much as expected, her dad isn’t dealing with his wife’s death very well, same with her brother, and that’s before the reading of her will, which contains five sealed envelopes addressed to a man Maggie has never heard of. This sends her on a search through memory and the mementos her mother left behind for the truth that is often needed to shed light, no matter how painful it is to unearth. Quite the somber novel, Masad has managed to render grief in a remarkably relatable yet unique manner.
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And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks

Release date: February 11 (Liveright)
Why it’s great: Amber Sparks has been writing some of the weirdest, most majestic short fiction for years. Her first collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was published back in 2012 and has since become a classic of independent literature. In her latest and most rebellious collection, Sparks offers the full effect of what it’s like to be a woman living in modern day 2020. In doing so, you’ll find her exploring the gamut of imaginative conceits that science fiction, the supernatural, and the fabulist might offer but without losing sight of the storytelling and its characters at the center of each prism-like story. It’s a resounding success, a real demonstration of her range as a writer, just how wild her imagination is, and it’s the perfect book to read if you’re even a little bit angry. Sparks’ anger will combine with yours to become the escape from reality you need. The book is worth checking out for the story "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" alone.
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The Anthill by Julianne Pachico

Release date: May 12 (Doubleday)
Why it's great: When's the last time you read a book set in Colombia? Was it set in Bogotá, or Cartagena? This one, instead, tells a tale of Medellín, the country's second-largest city, and specifically of its most overlooked and underfunded districts. The protagonist, Lina, returns to her hometown from an unsuccessful stint in British Academia and begins working at the Anthill, a school founded by her old friend Matty to provide for the city's poorest children. There she receives a chilly welcome — and watches as the school becomes haunted by a boy with gray skin and sharpened teeth. The book straddles the line between literary fiction and supernatural mystery, mostly successfully. It's a story Americans, whose leaders and news media frequently disregard the difficulties of the poorest members of Latin and South American countries while scapegoating migrants for their own problems, should hear loud and clear.
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August by Callan Wink

Release date: March 31 (Random House)
Why it's great: Callan Wink's first novel, following on the heels of his debut story collection Dog Run Moon, keeps the author's eye fixed on Montana's Big Sky country, but also brings upper Midwest agrarianism, in Michigan, into play. A bildungsroman of teenhood capturing the characteristics of small-town life in rural America, the book is packed with descriptive little moments of everyday life -- work, play, drink -- with just enough of sparseness in the prose to reflect that of the spaces in which it is set, building into a moving portrait of a young man growing into himself.
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The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala (translated by Anna Kushner) 

Release date: January 7 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Why it's great: The first novel by Cuban author Marcial Gala to be translated into English is a strange and beautiful one, yet compulsively readable. Told by a chorus of mutually contradictory narrators -- think George Saunders's Lincoln In the Bardo, except with fewer ghosts (just one ghost narrator, in fact) -- the book chronicle the building of a grand cathedral and consequent congregation in the city of Cienfuegos at the behest of Arturo, the preacher and patriarch at the center of the Stuart family, whose stories center the tale. As the congregation balloons, so does the project, the cathedral growing taller and taller but never completed, while flirtations, betrayals, murders, and hauntings connect the Stuarts and their neighborhood in ways both bawdy and bleak. A difficult book to explain, and yet an impossible one to put down.
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Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

Release date: January 14 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Why it’s great: The awaited follow-up to his debut, What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell has unearthed a book that’ll leave you gut-wrenched. In Cleanness, we are introduced to a professor teaching abroad in Sofia, Bulgaria, and his various encounters with the people in which he hopes to know, connect with, and become intimate. The book is a perfectly rendered crystallization of our desires for intimacy, for sharing our time with others rather than alone.Structured like a symphony, each story builds to a climax and catharsis wherein you see the intensities and intimacies head-on. The prose is cut with such poetry that the effect is like static electricity, snapping you with surprise, forcing you to reread and savor every single line.
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Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh

Release date: June 23 (Penguin)
Why it's great: Ottessa Moshfegh writes in the first person like almost no one else. She draws her readers into the minds of distinctly prickly people on the margins, whose imaginations veer toward the grotesque and discomfiting. This is true in her latest novel Death in her Hands, which gets inside the head of Vesta Gul, a widow adjusting to an isolated life in an unfamiliar town. While walking her dog, she comes across a note: "Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body." Intrigued and disturbed, Vesta begins obsessing over it, inventing a narrative to surround the message. As the reader spends more time with the protagonist, the lines are blurred between what's real and what's her own fiction leading to a grimly funny conclusion.
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Disappear Doppelganger Disappear by Matthew Salesses

Release date: August 11 (Little A)
Why it’s great: Matthew Salesses’ previous books orbit an incredibly delicate balance of compassion and depression, the surreal and the fantastical, creating this unique blend of literary fiction that feels like it came from some otherworldly source. In his latest novel, Disappear Doppelganger Disappear, we are introduced to a character that quite literally feels like he is disappearing, being replaced by a mirror image version that is, in every way, more successful than himself. It’s quite the relatable scenario, especially these days, with normalcy no longer a possibility. Imagine being unable to walk down the street because everyone bumps into you, every word you say muted because no one can hear you. Worse, imagine your life, and everything that you hold dear, falling into the possession of the version of you that might have been, if you hadn’t made any dumb, bad decisions along the way. A novel that is equally funny as it is sad, it’s a must-read.
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Follow Me to the Ground by Sue Rainsford

Release date: January 21 (Scribner)
Why it’s great: As the world around us becomes more frightening, we’re seeing fiction reflect those terrors, becoming more expansive in its speculative, magical, and often apocalyptic themes; Sue Rainsford’s debut falls directly into this camp. It’s as much about our difficulty connecting with others as it is about family, community, and compassion. Ada and her father live in a house in the woods, a simple and relatively calm life. However, they aren’t human but they are able to do something every human wishes they could do: cure illness. The method involves burial via the mystical and mysterious healing powers of the “Ground.” Critics have compared the book to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian with just cause -- Follow Me to the Ground is deeply rooted in human flesh, bodies, and transformation. 
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The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Release date: March 24 (Knopf)
Why it's great: Emily St. John Mandel, author of the National Book Award-winning novel Station Eleven in 2015, has finally released another swirling novel that takes readers through some of the darkest moments of people's lives. We follow along with an investment banking Ponzi scheme (based on Bernie Madoff's) falling apart, told in piecemeal through all the lives it touches -- the investors, the incriminated, the decision makers and their partners -- until the full picture devastatingly comes together at the end. Read The Glass Hotel now -- it's already been optioned to become a TV series by NBCUniversal.
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The Heap by Sean Adams

Release date: January 20 (William Morrow & Co.)
Why it’s great: Like a cross between the JG Ballard’s High Rise and a Black Mirror episode, Sean Adams’ debut novel is epic in every sense of the term: Here, we are introduced to Los Verticalés, a 500-story building, a would-be marvel of urban planning -- if it hadn’t collapsed. Now referred to as the Heap, it is a mass of rubble burying tons of untold mysteries. Our protagonist, Orville Anders, searches for his brother Bernard, a popular radio DJ that has disappeared but continues to broadcast from the depths of the Heap. The end result is as shocking as it is funny, with undertones of intense claustrophobia coupled with the same page-turning excitement found in thrillers like Rob Hart’s The Warehouse and Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers.
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How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang

Release date: April 7 (Riverhead)
Why it’s great: Simply put, this is one of the best literary debuts of the year. Zhang has managed to spin the Wild West into a tale of immigration and anomie so vivid and bold, it’ll surely be stay with readers for years. Lucy and Sam are two newly orphaned children, their father dying and their mother out of the picture. Much like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, they both seek to bury their dead loved one, but to do so, they must traverse the foreign land, encountering all kinds of terrors. And that’s without factoring the mental strain on both siblings, especially as they encounter a ravaged sense of racism previously unfamiliar to both. You need to read this.
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Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Release date: January 28 (Pantheon)
Why it's great: Charles Yu isn't just a talented novelist -- he's been a writer and story editor on Westworld and was a co-producer on FX's Legion. In Interior Chinatown, Yu's first novel since 2010, his TV and literary worlds collide in a send-up on Hollywood typecasting as the protagonist Willis Wu dreams of leveling up from Generic Asian Man to Kung Fu Guy in bit parts on a TV detective series. Yu manages a grounded surrealism that bubbles until it bursts, blurring the line between what is "real" and what is happening on a set until you realize that Willis's disassociations are meant to address not just the TV and film industries, but the stereotypes placed upon Asians and Asian Americans throughout all of society. It's honest, funny, sad, and necessary satire.
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Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan Dowell)

Release date: May 5 (Riverhead)
Why it's great: Her second Man Booker Prize-nominated work in three years, Argentine author Samanta Schweblin's Little Eyes is somewhat of a miracle. A plot-driven, page-turning, near-future sci-fi fable melts into the infrastructure of our existing reality, feeling grounded, absolutely believable, and human, in all of our messiness. The future tech in question -- autonomous stuffed animals on wheels called kentukis -- is the vessel by which Schweblin projects our best and worst (but mostly worst) tendencies, especially where power and control (and lack thereof) is exploited or harnessed for good, when our anonymity is presumed. This globe-hopping novel is practically readymade for the miniseries treatment; it's a tense thriller, fascinating character study, and moral litmus test (without ever preaching) all at once.
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Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Release date: February 18 (Riverhead)
Why it's great: No one with a former life as a biochemist should be able to write a novel as devastatingly good as Real Life is, but here we are. Very loosely based on shades of Brandon Taylor and his work as a researcher, Real Life is steeped in grad school lab drama, where everyone is stressed out and hanging on by a thread. We move through this world via Wallace, a lone wolf, gay man, and one of two people of color in his program in an overwhelmingly white Midwestern town, over the course of a weekend dealing with his shitty friend group, "nice white people," and unfair classroom politics. In all of this, Wallace falls into a surprising romance with a straight friend, unearthing unresolved trauma from his past, and reluctantly finds himself in the middle of friend group drama. Most of all, it's about following the convoluted path to connect with an indifferent world, and what could be more like real life?
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Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon

Release date: January 28 (Simon & Schuster)
Why it’s great: Yoon has long been a master of drawing complex emotions from some of the coldest, most desolate of situations, and in his second novel, he’s at his peak. Run Me to Earth chronicles the journey of three orphans as they navigate and attempt to survive the war-torn landscape of 1960s Laos, eventually finding a field hospital and a doctor named Vang who treats the wounded at all costs. Run Me to Earth is that careful balance of history and fiction, and in a world where a bombing literally happened every nine minutes, Yoon has achieved what you could say is the impossible: procuring and saving what little of human compassion was left in a world bombed into submission.
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Temporary by Hilary Leichter

Release date: March 3 (Coffee House Press)
Why it’s great: Hilary Leichter’s debut novel takes everything you’ve already seen and read about -- be it Office Space or the work of Douglas Coupland -- and tosses it into a shaker with some ice and a whole lot of 90-proof whiskey. This debut has more to do than inspect the insanity of office politics. Rather, Leichter turns her attention to the temp career of a young woman struggling to survive in New York City while trying to figure out what it means to “get your shit together.” Things get bizarre, especially when some of the temp jobs the agency lands her go above and beyond the usual mundane stuff like collating, answering phones, and generally being at a salaried employee’s every beckoning call (ahem, assisting an assassin). Temporary keeps you guessing and though it’ll make you think of your own career choices and aspirations, it’ll do so while continuing to warp the very essence of what it means to work and to be an employee.
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Then the Fish Swallowed Him by Amir Ahmadi Arian

Release date: March 24 (HarperVia)
Why it's great: This is the first book by the Iranian author Amir Ahmadi Arian to be available in English, and should be required reading for Americans, whose knowledge of that country and the consistently escalating cold war it remains in with the U.S. is paltry at best and damaging at worst. The novel follows Yunus Turabi, a Tehranian bus driver alone in the world following the deaths of his parents and imprisoned in Evin, a prison where political dissidents are jailed. The book unfurls the inner workings of Yunus's mind as his interrogator, Hajj Saeed, probes deeper and deeper into his history -- and forces Yunus to make a choice about his outspokenness against the despotism of his native country. It's an intimate psychological thriller, and one from which it's very hard to look away.
Get it now at Bookshop.org

The Town by Shaun Prescott

Release date: February 4 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Why it’s great: The premise is at once simple yet strange: A writer hits the road in search of dead towns to inspire his work-in-progress, The Disappearing Towns of the Central West. The topic has been his sole obsession for ages, and the young writer begins to discover black holes sucking up whole towns as though they were erased from history. It’s a Lynchian take on what should already be decidedly Lynchian territory -- small towns, outsiders, a mystery -- and it gets even weirder as its protagonist unearths the town’s dark history. The Town exhibits modern issues like poverty and the effects of technology on once-impervious industrial staples of commerce and paints a grisly picture on some of the most difficult principles we, as people, must accept about aging: Everything we know will one day fade away, to be found only in archives and history books, especially the secrets we hoped would stay hidden.
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Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann

Release date: February 11 (Pantheon)
Why it’s great: If you like your fiction surrealistic, borderline Kafkaesque, you might have already encountered one of Daniel Kehlmann’s books. His latest is a nonlinear blend of myth, fantasy, and European historical fiction. Tyll is a morbid retelling of the German tale of Tyll Ulenspiegel, the rebellious trickster and jester transplanted three centuries later into the 17th century, traveling through the episodically portrayed horrors and devastation of the Thirty Years War, the Holy Roman Empire. It’s not for the faint of heart, rife with devastation, war, and the nugget at the center of the tale: immortality. Readers will be instantly beguiled during the first pages, but give it a few chapters and soon you’ll fall victim to Kehlmann’s odd alchemy. Nothing is quite as it seems; war is everywhere and yet Tyll, our protagonist, takes readers on a true hero’s quest, a journey that might be told around the campfire to a group of young minds seeking to be inspired. 
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Weather by Jenny Offill

Release date: February 11 (Knopf)
Why it's great: A librarian, Lizzie, takes up the opportunity to moonlight as an advice columnist for a popular podcaster, answering mail from people worried about the status of the world, like how soon climate change will be here to wipe us out for good. It turns out: Imminently. Jenny Offill writes with the same choppy verve of her previous much-celebrated book, Dept. of Speculation, to beautiful, stifling, immediate, and peculiar effects while Lizzie moves the crumbling world around her, her young family, and unstable, co-dependent brother. In these strange times, Weather will stand out as one of the best books of the year, an uncanny and deeply human observation on the emotional free-fall during crisis while certain things feel exactly the same.
Get it now on Bookshop.org

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Release date: January 14 (Del Rey)
Why it's great: The Vanished Birds is the kind of space opera that already feels like a science fiction classic. Highly imaginative and utterly exhilarating, the novel takes place in the far future after humanity has colonized space, yet tells a cyclical love story that's striking in its intimacy. Nia Imani's faster-than-light trips through pocket space last mere months for her, but years for everyone living in real time. When a young mute boy crash lands on a colonized planet, the millennia-old designer of the space stations that allowed humans to spread out into the universe gives Nia the task of caring for him, on the off chance that he might express the signs of an innate, mysterious superpower that has the ability to change the course of humanity's future. Jimenez's first foray into longform fiction contains elements of Hyperion, Dune, and Foundation, but stands on its own with a twisty, ever-expanding tale of the lengths we will go to for the ones we love that will leave you breathless by the end.
Get it now on Bookshop.org

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Leanne Butkovic, John MaherEmma Stefansky, and Michael Seidlinger contributed to this story.