Throughout the year we’ve featured reviews of books that have blown us away. These books are among the very best that compelled us to gush our praise out to the world. And so we’ve rounded up the top 10 of the best book reviews this year, right here on Off the Shelf.
The Best of 2020: The Top 10 Reviews of the Year
Sometimes a book gets into your heart and rests there, at least for a little while. Another time, a book might work its way into your head and wriggle restlessly around, making you think, making you wonder, keeping you wide awake when you should be fast asleep. Then, once in a while, a special sort of book comes along, and it takes up residence in both. THE DAUGHTER'S TALE did that for me.
Read the full review of THE DAUGHTER'S TALE
From the internationally bestselling author of The German Girl, an unforgettable, “searing” (People) saga exploring a hidden piece of World War II history and the lengths a mother will go to protect her children—perfect for fans of Lilac Girls, We Were the Lucky Ones, and The Alice Network.
Seven decades of secrets unravel with the arrival of a box of letters from the distant past, taking readers on a harrowing journey from Nazi-occupied Berlin, to the South of France, to modern-day New York City.
Berlin, 1939. The dreams that Amanda Sternberg and her husband, Julius, had for their daughters are shattered when the Nazis descend on Berlin, burning down their beloved family bookshop and sending Julius to a concentration camp. Desperate to save her children, Amanda flees toward the South of France. Along the way, a refugee ship headed for Cuba offers another chance at escape and there, at the dock, Amanda is forced to make an impossible choice that will haunt her for the rest of her life. Once in Haute-Vienne, her brief respite is interrupted by the arrival of Nazi forces, and Amanda finds herself in a labor camp where she must once again make a heroic sacrifice.
New York, 2015. Eighty-year-old Elise Duval receives a call from a woman bearing messages from a time and country that she forced herself to forget. A French Catholic who arrived in New York after World War II, Elise is shocked to discover that the letters were from her mother, written in German during the war. Her mother’s words unlock a floodgate of memories, a lifetime of loss un-grieved, and a chance—at last—for closure.
Based on true events and “breathtakingly threaded together from start to finish with the sound of a beating heart” (The New York Times Book Review), The Daughter’s Tale is an unforgettable family saga of love, survival, and redemption.
This novel, by the author of TOGETHER TEA, ticks so many boxes for me right now: It’s a passionate but bittersweet love story, a dual-timeline historical novel that taught me new things, and the unusual-to-me setting is beautifully observed by an author who brings her own cultural experience to bear in the telling. Give yourself the time and space to savor the world-building here (especially the descriptions of amazing Persian food!) and really luxuriate in the emotional journey Kamali creates for the reader. You’ll be mulling over the book’s events long after you’ve finished, imagining what could have been if only a single moment had gone differently.
Read the full review of THE STATIONERY SHOP
A poignant, heartfelt new novel by the award-nominated author of Together Tea—extolled by the Wall Street Journal as a “moving tale of lost love” and by Shelf Awareness as “a powerful, heartbreaking story”—explores loss, reconciliation, and the quirks of fate.
Roya, a dreamy, idealistic teenager living amid the political upheaval of 1953 Tehran, finds a literary oasis in kindly Mr. Fakhri’s neighborhood stationery shop, stocked with books and pens and bottles of jewel-colored ink.
Then Mr. Fakhri, with a keen instinct for a budding romance, introduces Roya to his other favorite customer—handsome Bahman, who has a burning passion for justice and a love for Rumi’s poetry—and she loses her heart at once. Their romance blossoms, and the little stationery shop remains their favorite place in all of Tehran.
A few short months later, on the eve of their marriage, Roya agrees to meet Bahman at the town square when violence erupts—a result of the coup d’etat that forever changes their country’s future. In the chaos, Bahman never shows. For weeks, Roya tries desperately to contact him, but her efforts are fruitless. With a sorrowful heart, she moves on—to college in California, to another man, to a life in New England—until, more than sixty years later, an accident of fate leads her back to Bahman and offers her a chance to ask him the questions that have haunted her for more than half a century: Why did you leave? Where did you go? How is it that you were able to forget me?
In my decade-plus years as a publicist, I’ve formed a theory: the novels that really strike a chord are those in which readers see their own lives reflected and validated. MRS. EVERYTHING is all that and more. It’s an exploration of women’s rights, sexual freedom, and the changing landscape of American politics. It’s the perfect mix of poignancy and levity—what you’d expect from a Jennifer Weiner novel, but on emotional and socio-political steroids. This is a big, juicy page-turner, infused with characters that will engage you and social issues that will illuminate the world into which it’s being published.
Read the full review of MRS. EVERYTHING
In this instant New York Times bestseller and “multigenerational narrative that’s nothing short of brilliant” (People), two sisters’ lives from the 1950s to the present are explored as they struggle to find their places—and be true to themselves—in a rapidly evolving world from #1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner.
Jo and Bethie Kaufman were born into a world full of promise.
Growing up in 1950s Detroit, they live in a perfect “Dick and Jane” house, where their roles in the family are clearly defined. Jo is the tomboy, the bookish rebel with a passion to make the world more fair; Bethie is the pretty, feminine good girl, a would-be star who enjoys the power her beauty confers and dreams of a traditional life.
But the truth ends up looking different from what the girls imagined. Jo and Bethie survive traumas and tragedies. As their lives unfold against the background of free love and Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib, Bethie becomes an adventure-loving wild child who dives headlong into the counterculture and is up for anything (except settling down). Meanwhile, Jo becomes a proper young mother in Connecticut, a witness to the changing world instead of a participant. Neither woman inhabits the world she dreams of, nor has a life that feels authentic or brings her joy. Is it too late for the women to finally stake a claim on happily ever after?
In “her most sprawling and intensely personal novel to date” (Entertainment Weekly), Jennifer Weiner tells a “simply unputdownable” (Good Housekeeping) story of two sisters who, with their different dreams and different paths, offer answers to the question: How should a woman be in the world?
In THE NEED, Helen Phillips’s masterful take on modern suburban motherhood, the eerie dread never leaves us. Molly, mother of young Viv and baby Ben, is a paleobotanist working at a site called the Pit. She’s half-crazed with exhaustion and anxiety from childcare, breastfeeding, a chronically traveling-for-work husband, and the discovery of some just-off-center finds at the Pit. Mix the bizarre finds with a masked intruder, and Molly’s inability to reconcile reality with her perceptions becomes the reader’s sinister problem as well. My hands were sweating as I read, my heart in my mouth from page one, as Phillips seduced me with this riveting and persistently creepy read.
Read the full review of THE NEED
***LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN FICTION***
“An extraordinary and dazzlingly original work from one of our most gifted and interesting writers” (Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Glass Hotel). The Need, which finds a mother of two young children grappling with the dualities of motherhood after confronting a masked intruder in her home, is “like nothing you’ve ever read before…in a good way” (People).
When Molly, home alone with her two young children, hears footsteps in the living room, she tries to convince herself it’s the sleep deprivation. She’s been hearing things these days. Startling at loud noises. Imagining the worst-case scenario. It’s what mothers do, she knows.
But then the footsteps come again, and she catches a glimpse of movement.
Suddenly Molly finds herself face-to-face with an intruder who knows far too much about her and her family. As she attempts to protect those she loves most, Molly must also acknowledge her own frailty. Molly slips down an existential rabbit hole where she must confront the dualities of motherhood: the ecstasy and the dread; the languor and the ferocity; the banality and the transcendence as the book hurtles toward a mind-bending conclusion.
In The Need, Helen Phillips has created a subversive, speculative thriller that comes to life through blazing, arresting prose and gorgeous, haunting imagery. “Brilliant” (Entertainment Weekly), “grotesque and lovely” (The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice), and “wildly captivating” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Need is a glorious celebration of the bizarre and beautiful nature of our everyday lives and “showcases an extraordinary writer at her electrifying best” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
THE WINEMAKER'S WIFE is set in the Champagne wine region of France during the German Occupation and centers on two couples—Michel, who owns the winery, and his wife, Inès, and Michel’s chief winemaker, Theo, and his half-Jewish wife, Céline. The book revolves around the work of the French Resistance and is filled with many heart-stopping moments of courage and adversity. I’ve read a large amount of historical fiction, specifically about World War II, and I greatly enjoyed THE ROOM ON RUE AMELIE by Kristin Harmel. This second book I read by her confirmed Harmel as one of my favorite authors of World War II fiction.
Read the full review of THE WINEMAKER'S WIFE
The author of the “engrossing” (People) international bestseller The Room on Rue Amélie returns with a moving story set amid the champagne vineyards of France during the darkest days of World War II, perfect for fans of Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Champagne, 1940: Inès has just married Michel, the owner of storied champagne house Maison Chauveau, when the Germans invade. As the danger mounts, Michel turns his back on his marriage to begin hiding munitions for the Résistance. Inès fears they’ll be exposed, but for Céline, the French-Jewish wife of Chauveau’s chef de cave, the risk is even greater—rumors abound of Jews being shipped east to an unspeakable fate.
When Céline recklessly follows her heart in one desperate bid for happiness, and Inès makes a dangerous mistake with a Nazi collaborator, they risk the lives of those they love—and the vineyard that ties them together.
New York, 2019: Recently divorced, Liv Kent is at rock bottom when her feisty, eccentric French grandmother shows up unannounced, insisting on a trip to France. But the older woman has an ulterior motive—and a tragic, decades-old story to share. When past and present finally collide, Liv finds herself on a road to salvation that leads right to the caves of the Maison Chauveau.
Amidst her enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot-tall housemaid and a tattoo-ridden ghost, Jess Kidd unfolds a brilliant and creative story about a dedicated and ingenious detective with a wild and eerie past. Part mystery and part fairy tale, this literary adventure seamlessly weaves magical realism and Irish folklore together, complete with a powerful female lead—Bridie Devine.
Read the full review of THINGS IN JARS
In this “miraculous and thrilling” (Diane Setterfield, #1 New York Times bestselling author) mystery for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation, Victorian London comes to life as an intrepid female sleuth wades through a murky world of collectors and criminals to recover a remarkable child.
Bridie Devine—flame-haired, pipe-smoking detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors in this age of discovery.
Winding her way through the sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing secrets about her past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot-tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where nothing is quite what it seems.
Blending darkness and light, Things in Jars is a stunning, “richly woven tapestry of fantasy, folklore, and history” (Booklist, starred review) that explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.
As a reader in search of a spark of hope, I completely lost myself in Kristin Harmel’s latest historical fiction release. Perhaps my infatuation with this compelling story was rooted in the persistent theme of cherishing books. Being a librarian, Eva’s love for the written word is pronounced right from the start. But as readers journey into her past and explore the ways in which Eva aligned with the Resistance, they meet countless characters that reiterate the power that one gains by loving books.
Read the full review of THE BOOK OF LOST NAMES
Inspired by an astonishing true story from World War II, a young woman with a talent for forgery helps hundreds of Jewish children flee the Nazis in this unforgettable historical novel from the international bestselling author of the “epic and heart-wrenching World War II tale” (Alyson Noel, #1 New York Times bestselling author) The Winemaker’s Wife.
Eva Traube Abrams, a semi-retired librarian in Florida, is shelving books one morning when her eyes lock on a photograph in a magazine lying open nearby. She freezes; it’s an image of a book she hasn’t seen in sixty-five years—a book she recognizes as The Book of Lost Names.
The accompanying article discusses the looting of libraries by the Nazis across Europe during World War II—an experience Eva remembers well—and the search to reunite people with the texts taken from them so long ago. The book in the photograph, an eighteenth-century religious text thought to have been taken from France in the waning days of the war, is one of the most fascinating cases. Now housed in Berlin’s Zentral- und Landesbibliothek library, it appears to contain some sort of code, but researchers don’t know where it came from—or what the code means. Only Eva holds the answer—but will she have the strength to revisit old memories and help reunite those lost during the war?
As a graduate student in 1942, Eva was forced to flee Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she begins forging identity documents for Jewish children fleeing to neutral Switzerland. But erasing people comes with a price, and along with a mysterious, handsome forger named Rémy, Eva decides she must find a way to preserve the real names of the children who are too young to remember who they really are. The records they keep in The Book of Lost Names will become even more vital when the resistance cell they work for is betrayed and Rémy disappears.
An engaging and evocative novel reminiscent of The Lost Girls of Paris and The Alice Network, The Book of Lost Names is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of bravery and love in the face of evil.
To read a memoir is to increase empathy and expand commonality, and to read HOW WE FIGHT FOR OUR LIVES is to conjoin someone’s ferocious becoming with a bracing readerly imperative. It is to be invited into a gratifying narrative of reclaiming trauma and pain and creating security, control, and a sense of self. In his coming-of-age story, Saeed Jones shows us how he had to, how others forced him to, and how we are all constantly in a fight for existence.
Read the full review of HOW WE FIGHT FOR OUR LIVES
WINNER OF THE 2019 KIRKUS PRIZE IN NONFICTION
WINNER OF THE 2020 STONEWALL BOOK AWARD-ISRAEL FISHMAN NONFICTION AWARD
ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES’S 100 NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2019
One of the best books of the year as selected by The Washington Post; NPR; Time; The New Yorker; O, The Oprah Magazine; Harper’s Bazaar; Elle; Kirkus Reviews; Publishers Weekly; BuzzFeed; Goodreads; School Library Journal; and many more.
“A moving, bracingly honest memoir that reads like fevered poetry.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Jones’s voice and sensibility are so distinct that he turns one of the oldest of literary genres inside out and upside down.” —NPR’S Fresh Air
“People don’t just happen,” writes Saeed Jones. “We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The ‘I’ it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, ‘I am no longer yours.’”
Haunted and haunting, How We Fight for Our Lives is a stunning coming-of-age memoir. Jones tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his family, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.
An award-winning poet, Jones has developed a style that’s as beautiful as it is powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one-of-a-kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.
The Call Me Ishmael project is a love letter to literature and the ways in which it can change our lives and loves. The resulting phone book makes the perfect gift for avid readers and is also a fun, interactive way to introduce kids to the world of books! THE CALL ME ISHMAEL PHONE BOOK is a beautiful reminder of the stories and experiences that connect us and make us human.
Read the full review of THE CALL ME ISHMAEL PHONE BOOK
For fans of My Ideal Bookshelf and Bibliophile, The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book is the perfect gift for book lovers everywhere: a quirky and entertaining interactive guide to reading, featuring voicemails, literary Easter eggs, checklists, and more, from the creators of the popular multimedia project.
The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book is an interactive illustrated homage to the beautiful ways in which books bring meaning to our lives and how our lives bring meaning to books. Carefully crafted in the style of a retro telephone directory, this guide offers you a variety of unique ways to connect with readers, writers, bookshops, and life-changing stories. In it, you’ll discover...
-Heartfelt, anonymous voicemail messages and transcripts from real-life readers sharing unforgettable stories about their most beloved books. You’ll hear how a mother and daughter formed a bond over their love for Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or how a reader finally felt represented after reading Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, or how two friends performed Mary Oliver’s Thirst to a grove of trees, or how Anne Frank inspired a young writer to continue journaling.
-Hidden references inside fictional literary adverts like Ahab’s Whale Tours and Miss Ophelia’s Psychic Readings, and real-life literary landmarks like Maya Angelou City Park and the Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum.
-Lists of bookstores across the USA, state by state, plus interviews with the book lovers who run them.
-Various invitations to become a part of this book by calling and leaving a bookish voicemail of your own.
Quirky, nostalgic, and full of heart, The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book is a love letter to the stories that change us, connect us, and make us human.
There are some novels that stop you in your tracks when you realize they’re a debut. How can the writing be so nuanced, so concise, and yet equally packed with meaning? How does a first-time author capture a character’s emotional evolution as smoothly as they do larger themes about diaspora, mental illness, and family? The only clear answer is it takes an exceptional and atypical writer for their first foray into long-form fiction to be as accomplished—and as widely acclaimed—as Tope Folarin’s A PARTICULAR KIND OF BLACK MAN.
Read the full review of A PARTICULAR KIND OF BLACK MAN
**One of Time’s 32 Books You Need to Read This Summer**
An NPR Best Book of 2019
An “electrifying” (Publishers Weekly) debut novel from Rhodes Scholar and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing about a Nigerian family living in Utah and their uneasy assimilation to American life.
Living in small-town Utah has always been an uncomfortable fit for Tunde Akinola’s family, especially for his Nigeria-born parents. Though Tunde speaks English with a Midwestern accent, he can’t escape the children who rub his skin and ask why the black won’t come off. As he struggles to fit in, he finds little solace from his parents who are grappling with their own issues.
Tunde’s father, ever the optimist, works tirelessly chasing his American dream while his wife, lonely in Utah without family and friends, sinks deeper into schizophrenia. Then one otherwise-ordinary morning, Tunde’s mother wakes him with a hug, bundles him and his baby brother into the car, and takes them away from the only home they’ve ever known.
But running away doesn’t bring her, or her children, any relief; once Tunde’s father tracks them down, she flees to Nigeria, and Tunde never feels at home again. He spends the rest of his childhood and young adulthood searching for connection—to the wary stepmother and stepbrothers he gains when his father remarries; to the Utah residents who mock his father’s accent; to evangelical religion; to his Texas middle school’s crowd of African-Americans; to the fraternity brothers of his historically black college. In so doing, he discovers something that sends him on a journey away from everything he has known.
Sweeping, stirring, and perspective-shifting, A Particular Kind of Black Man is “wild, vulnerable, lived…A study of the particulate self, the self as a constellation of moving parts” (The New York Times Book Review).
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