The Best Books of 2020

Nine critics name their favorite books to guide your holiday shopping

Our beloved bookstores, whether temporarily because COVID-19 restrictions or permanently after suffering months of losses, have been struggling this year. The New York Times cites a survey by the American Booksellers Association which found a third of its members said sales were down by 40% or more this year.

Though I miss so much about life before the pandemic, most of all I miss the hours I’ve spent wandering around an indie or second-hand bookstore, a particular family member or friend in mind, waiting for that perfect holiday gift to appear in my hands. So often, that gift would come from the recommendation of a bookseller. Last year, a cherished confidante at my local Philadelphia indie recommended the absolutely mind-blowing In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, which I have since read, re-read and recommended to anyone who will listen.

In the spirit of that lost feeling, we give you the Book & Film Globe’s staff picks. Nine of our harshest critics and deepest divers name their best books of 2020 to guide your holiday shopping and leisure reading in the new year. Check out their picks, and leave the best book you read this year in the comments.

Memorial by Brian Washington

Washington’s richly layered debut novel explores connection in all its forms — romance, family, lust, friendship and food. It focuses on Black day care worker Benson and Japanese-American chef Mike as they figure out what’s next for their four-year relationship. Set in Japan and Washington’s native Houston, it’s honest, heartbreaking and hopeful.–Sharyn Vane, who writes about books and publishing for Book & Film Globe, the Austin American-Statesman, and other outlets.

Malorie by Josh Malerman

Josh Malerman returns to the world of Bird Box with the nail-biting, up-the-ante follow-up, Malorie.  Picking things up a decade after the events of the first novel (and subsequent Netflix film starring Sandra Bullock), Malorie continues the story of the title hero and her two children, now teenagers, as they make their way through a world bursting with creatures who will turn you insane if you look at them. What makes the book effective, in addition to the white-knuckle pacing of the story, is the familial conflict between the “play-it-safe” mother and the precocious “die-by-the-sword” children — because in the Bird Box universe, the stakes of teenage rebellion have never been higher.–Phillip Fracassi, an author and screenwriter, predominantly in the horror vein, who also writes about, and reviews, horror fiction.

Sing Backwards and Weep: A Memoir by Mark Lanegan

Mark Lanegan

Mark Lanegan, the moody and volatile singer of pioneering Seattle grunge band Screaming Trees, writes a pitiless, unglamorous depiction of a junkie’s life. Lanegan’s astounding memory and refreshing willingness to name names, both for those who he credits with kindness and those who fucked him over, give his memoir an edge of realness that renders it occasionally difficult to read but even more difficult to put down. –Ken Kurson, CEO of Sea of Reeds Media.

The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist by Avi Steinberg

Steinberg lays out a convincing case for writers to abandon their literary pretensions and to focus instead on this vibrant genre with plenty of readers and actual income. –Art Edwards, who made, like, $600 reviewing books in 2020.

The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey


A writer as popular as Carey should not warrant my help to sell books, but I fell in love with the Koli series in a manner unparalleled except for Tana French and Elena Ferrante. It’s a chilling post-apocalyptic trilogy with an oddly folksy tone, from a writer who cuts to the red, pulsing center of human behavior and lays it open for us to see. I’m going out of my skin waiting for the final book, to be delivered early in 2021.–Katharine Coldiron, who has cross-stitched three times as many projects as she imagined possible in 2020.

Devolution by Max Brooks

In a world populated by pretentious and convoluted literary fiction, Brooks’ latest “oral history” provides great characters, blistering social satire, tons of action, and horrifying Bigfoot attacks. Truly one of the most memorable books of this or any other year. –Neal Pollack, The Greatest Living American Writer and editor of Book & Film Globe.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

There aren’t many writers who can bring something new to a story of a band on the rise in the late ‘60s. But David Mitchell manages it, turning his unlikely folk-rock heroes into a compelling family, even as one of them deals with a malign spirit trapped inside his skull. You could say Mitchell went a long way to add another chapter to his ongoing saga of psychic parasites who hide in the cracks of history, but Utopia Avenue also offers heartbreaking moments of character and beauty and grace, and those alone are worth the whole trip. —Christopher Farnsworth, the author of Flashmob and five other novels.

The Ministry For The Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

A near future story about the climate crisis heating up (sorry). It begins with a heat wave in India that kills 20 million people, jumps to the formation of the Ministry For The Future,a group propelled into being by a minor clause in the Paris Agreement, and snowballs into a world-spanning story of eco-terrorists, long-shot scientific gambles and the humans broken by or rising to the challenge. Robinson’s latest triumph is a harshly hopeful work offering the desperate possibility we might actually get to the other side of this looming disaster. –Michael Giltz, co-host of the podcast Showbiz Sandbox and pop cultural gadfly.

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio


I read a lot about immigration, and it’s easy to get lulled into submission by versions of the same—excruciating, unimaginable, racist and xenophobic, often illegal—horror stories that people experience at the hands of the U.S. immigration machine. Nothing in The Undocumented Americans is “the same”; Cornejo Villavicencio, a DACA recipient herself, knows her subjects so well that it’s impossible not to feel her connection and closeness to them on the page. And in return, she delivers an absolutely incredible slice of the lives of many undocumented immigrants. There are images and moments, so beautifully lived and written, that I will turn over for the rest of my life.–Katie Smith, fly on the wall of Literary Twitter.

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

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