The Most Anticipated Books for 2020

Considering the fact that it was the end of the decade, and that we’re all trying to distract ourselves from the encroaching heat death of the planet, it’s not surprising that the 2019/2020 list season on the literary internet has been particularly robust—and much too long. This is a snapshot of the year to come in books—some of which we’ve read, some of which we haven’t, but all of which we think deserve your attention!


Twelve-year-old Edward Adler is the sole survivor of a plane crash that kills not only his parents and brother, but 191 other passengers. Following two timelines. Napolitano tells the story of Edward and his family boarding the plane at Newark Airport, a narrative somehow filled with suspense, even though we know the ending, and the aftermath of the crash when Edward moves in with his childless aunt and uncle and must figure out how to move on with his life. As Ron Charles so aptly describes in the Washington Post, “Napolitano has written a novel about the peculiar challenges of surviving a public disaster in the modern age. She shows with bracing clarity just how cable news and social media magnify misery and exposure as never before.” It is a devastating novel, of course, but also a story that pointedly asks, and answers, how we can live when living seems impossible.  –Emily Firetog, Lit Hub Deputy Editor


Kiley Reid’s much buzzed-about debut, about a young black babysitter working for a white family (the mother of which is an influencer of sorts) in Philadelphia, is the kind of book you have no choice but to read from cover to cover, forsaking all other obligations. (If you can swing it, I recommend tearing through it on a plane, where there’s less chance of interruption.) It’s juicy and smart and timely (and Lena Waithe has already acquired the rights to adapt it into your next favorite film and/or tv show).  –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor


In Popkey’s debut novel, a narrator recounts a series of encounters, of conversations spread over 17 years, from 2000 to 2017. Almost all are between women, and the eponymous topics of conversation are just what you might expect: desire, sex, self-loathing, art, being children, being parents, being lovers. Popkey is the closest I’ve read to a millennial Rachel Cusk, but the real pleasure in this novel is the cadence of her sentences, looping and digressive, self-editing—these are sentences that show their work, and the effect is mesmerizing. “Conversation is flirtation,” our narrator tells us. “Tease out enough rope and the listener, she’ll hang on your every word.” Consider me seduced.  –Emily Temple, Lit Hub Senior Editor


For many (too many), it took the seismic election of Donald Trump to fully apprehend the racism upon which America is built (being told repeatedly that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice has a way of reconfiguring the histories we’re prepared to accept). Which makes David Zucchino’s propulsive history of the 1898 Wilmington coup as important as it is tragic, a case study in the failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction. Through the 1890s the city of Wilmington, North Carolina was a model for burgeoning black middle class life, an example of what a racially mixed community in the south might look like on the eve of a new century… Until a consortium of white supremacists, in government and out, stepped in to destroy it.  –Jonny Diamond, Lit Hub Editor in Chief


Marcial Gala’s The Black Cathedral (translated by Anna Kushner) isn’t an easy novel to pin down: it abounds with narrators, and its sprawling narrative can feel overwhelming at times. But what ultimately emerges is a story of family, an account of a transforming Cuba, an exploration of religious devotion, and a harrowing tale of a sinister man engaged in horrific acts. The Black Cathedral might not be what you first expect, but its unpredictability serves as one of its many strengths.  –Tobias Carroll, Lit Hub contributor


For half a century, Robert Hass’s companionable voice has been a guiding sound in an age against wisdom. His work approaches the scale of what we do not know with respect and variety. A long-time translator from poets of the east, especially Basho and Buson, Hass also appreciates the clarifying ring of a single image. Still, from Field Guide, his 1973 debut, onward, he has developed his own warm kind of prosody: a loose, rangy, California poetic line that is a West coast sonic cousin to Whitman’s, without the barbaric yawps, and a more pronounced eastward spiritual lean. Hass’ last all new book was thirteen years ago, so Snow in July is an event, and it does not disappoint. This voluminous collection features a host of knock-out new poems, elegies, prose riffs and dispatches from the snowy peaks of a life approaching its eighth decade.  –John Freeman, Lit Hub Executive Editor


In 1993, E.J. Koh’s father accepted a job in Seoul, Korea, stashing his teenage daughter with her brother in Davis, California. The job came with perks, but not for the author of this exquisite memoir, who grew up feeling abandoned, stripped of her past. How could her mother leave a daughter behind? Years later, after an itinerant youth, some of it spent as a dancer in Korea, Koh discovers a box of letters from her mother, written in Korean, asking for forgiveness. The Magical Language of Others translates these letters into English, weaving them elegantly into Koh’s own story, crafting a meditation on longing and the ties that were supposed to bind. At first, in the letters, mother and daughter converse in broken Korean, but as Koh’s familiarity with the language grows, so does the complexity of what Koh’s mother can tell her. Eventually, when Koh begins to study Japanese, they switch into that language and the learning begins again—and the stories grow. In the book’s latter parts, we learn that Koh’s maternal grandmother was also separated from her children when she lived in Japan during a tumultuous time, disguising herself as Japanese for her own safety. As Koh describes her own trips to Japan, she powerfully captures the way time accordions in the body. How the tongue contains all the secrets to the past, if only one can teach it the languages of others.  –John Freeman, Lit Hub Executive Editor


The Rome Prize for Literature winner and author of The Unseen World (2016) returns with a character-driven literary thriller set in a Philadelphia neighborhood ravaged by opioid addiction. The lives of two once-inseparable, now estranged sisters—Kacey, a homeless addict, and Mickey, a beat cop patrolling the same dangerous streets that have stolen Kacey away from her—converge once again when Kacey disappears at the same time a mysterious series of murders occur in Mickey’s district. Moore’s previous novel was both an intricate, suspenseful mystery story, and a sublimely written meditation on familial love and loss. Long Bright River promises the same immersive, hybrid pleasure.  –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor


If Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 Having It All coined an adage, Why We Can’t Sleep shows what happens when the shine has worn off. Drawing on hundreds of interviews with middle class, middle-age women of all races and from nearly all 50 states, Ada Calhoun shows where Gurley’s motto led Generation X women—the first cohort of women not just told that they could have it all, but that they ought to. Exhaustion, Calhoun reports, has been the destination. Marriage implosions, rising debt, and a constant sense of failure pop up throughout this brief but potent and sometimes funny book. Calhoun tries to take stock of what a mid-life crisis looks like for her generation of overstretched middle class women. Indeed, Gen-Xers carry more debt than Millennials and Boomers around them. How do Calhoun’s subjects respond?

One mother takes a hammer to her kid’s iPad when a final warning doesn’t send him back to homework. Another calls in sick and goes to movies during the day to cry in private. It might be easy to make fun of such responses—many people in the country, let alone the world, don’t have an iProduct of any kind to smash, let alone a job to shirk, but Calhoun is quick to acknowledge how for the women she interviews that awareness adds yet more shame to their feeling. Why can’t they get it together, why can’t they just be grateful? Pain and being overwhelmed, Calhoun concludes, at least for the women she interviews, is not an enlarging experience but an isolating one. On that level, Why We Can’t Sleep might do much to let readers like the women Calhoun writes about that they are not alone.  –John Freeman, Lit Hub Executive Editor


For most writers (a broad category of aspirational self-identification that warms my heart!) getting an actual book deal is the be all and end all, the final trophy at the end of a thankless, grueling marathon… But wait! There’s more, a lot more. If any of this gives you anxiety—the before or the after—Courtney Maum is here to help, along with the 150 literary stars she’s called on for advice. The key word in the book’s subtitle—“A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving, Your First Book”—is that last one in the series, and Maum should know: a great exemplar of what it takes to make a life in literature, Maum is a tireless advocate of her fellow writers, while also finding the time to publish five books (thus far), and run an annual writers’ retreat, The Cabins. This is the how-to book for a new era of publishing. –Jonny Diamond, Lit Hub Editor in Chief

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