10 of the Buzziest 2020 Books to Catch Up On

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Summer Loomis


Summer Loomis has been writing for Book Riot since 2019. She obsessively curates her library holds and somehow still manages to borrow too many books at once. She appreciates a good deadline and likes knowing if 164 other people are waiting for the same title. It's good peer pressure! She doesn't have a podcast but if she did, she hopes it would sound like Buddhability. The world could always use more people creating value with their lives everyday.

I love Best Books of 2020 (or whatever year it is) lists. I know they come out every year. Somehow I always love them, even after 2020 was such a lackluster year for so many. Over years of perusing, it is still surprising that some books appear on multiple lists while others do not. I also sometimes find it hard to add these books into my reading after the buzz has died down some.

Here, then, is a compilation of some buzziest books of 2020. Hopefully this will help you (and me!) read some of them soon. This is a mix of fiction and nonfiction, and not in a particular order otherwise.

Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Wilkerson’s book made several lists in 2020, including President Barack Obama’s, Amazon’s best, NPR’s staff picks, and Publisher’s Weekly‘s Top 10, among others. It was also longlisted for the National Book Award. Although this book tackles weighty issues of race and hierarchy in American history and society, Wilkerson has a very readable style that you can see in an excerpt of her book from Random House.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half, is one of those books that I kept coming across again and again in 2020. It was on Amazon’s best books of 2020, President Obama’s list, The New York Times 10 best books of 2020, and was an NPR staff pick. It was even recommended to me by my “bibliologist” (don’t be jealous—you can have one too!). Having read her debut, The Mothers, and loved it, I know I have to read this soon.

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

This is another novel that was on the Times 10 best, President Obama’s list, and Amazon’s best books of 2020. In McBride’s case, I read his memoir The Color of Water years ago and found it very moving. However, this means I have a lot more left to read from him, including The Good Lord Bird and now Deacon King Kong (a copy of which is waiting for me on one of my shelves right now).

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang

Zhang’s book appeared on Barack Obama’s list, Amazon’s best books of 2020, and NPR’s staff picks, among others. This is an adventure story and one of the few historical fiction books on this list. It opens with the death of a father and its effect on his two preteen children, who are apparently alone otherwise. You can listen to an excerpt here.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

This was a National Book Award Winner and an NPR staff pick. The book opens on Willis Wu, who is an actor being typecast because of his ethnic background. The writing is funny and cutting, going over his set roles and aspirations in a deadpan way. Yu is also the author of several other books including How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a book I have to admit has been on my TBR for a while now too.

Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran

Tran’s memoir was on Amazon’s best books of 2020 and in more than one Book Riot post. I read this on audio and cannot recommend it enough. Tran was evacuated along with his family from Saigon in 1975. He and his family eventually settled in a small town in Pennsylvania. Tran sensitively treats his assimilation and his family’s experiences as he navigates small town life and the challenges of growing up different from those around him.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

This was on President Obama’s list as well as several others. Washburn’s story is set in Hawai’i and the audio starts with an excellent narrator—who has not only the pronunciation but the rhythm of local talk—if you’re looking for one of these to read that way. It’s described as interweaving fantastical elements with Hawai’ian legends and I loved the excerpt I listened to, so I’m definitely sold.

War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan

MacMillan’s book was featured on the Times 10 best books of 2020 and takes an intriguing starting point: how violent conflict has shaped human experience. She begins with very early evidence in the mummified remains of a man who lived around 3300 BCE. While some try to portray violence as particularly associated with a religious tradition or particular group of people, MacMillan takes the much broader and more accurate view that violence is a part of human nature. You can listen to an audio sample here.

The Dragons, The Giant, The Women by Wayétu Moore

This is the memoir of a woman who grew up in Monrovia, Liberia, until the age of 5, when she had to flee the first civil war. She and her family were able to reach Sierra Leone and eventually settled in the U.S. You can listen to an excerpt here.

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

This was a National book award winner and one I am particularly looking forward to reading. Les Payne was a journalist who began working on this biography in 1990, interviewing everyone he could find who had known Malcolm X personally. While Payne unfortunately passed away in 2018 before publication, his daughter—and primary researcher—Tamara Payne was able to finish and publish this important biography in 2020.