It seems fair to say we all read far and wide last year. Many of us at Off the Shelf especially jumped around the stacks, riding the waves of pages wherever they took us, from feel-good escapist stories to eye-opening historical fiction. We’d burrow deep into our genre comfort zone for one read, and then launch into a new kind of adventure for the next. These wide-ranging explorations led to some meaningful book discoveries for us, so we wanted to hear from you all as well! That’s why we took to Facebook and Instagram to ask: What was your favorite book of 2020? Here are some of your—our readers’—excellent choices, along with our recommendations on what to read next!
Readers' Choice: With that gorgeous cover and gripping Gothic fantasy atmosphere, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s newest book, MEXICAN GOTHIC, was the hottest bookworm accessory of 2020. When a cousin’s disturbing letter brings Noemí to the eerie High Place mansion in Mexico in the 1950s, the house and family raise her alarm bells. As twisted features reveal themselves, along with full-blown horror, you’ll find yourself positively squirming.
Read Next: And the best way to let out that pent-up anxiety is to dive into some Silvia Moreno-Garcia backlist. We recommend SIGNAL TO NOISE. In this Mexico-set fantasy, teen Meche discovers that she can cast spells with songs, so she and her band of misfits embark on a music crusade, influencing crushes and teachers, and enhancing their schoolyard status. Eventually the youth and magic fade away, and when the three friends meet up twenty years later, they all must confront their past choices.
Readers' Choice: Fans of Erin Morgenstern know that her books completely immerse you in a magical world, and her latest, THE STARLESS SEA, does not disappoint. When graduate student Zachary Ezra Rawlins happens upon a mysterious book that incorporates his own childhood, he follows bizarre clues that lead him to masquerade parties, ancient libraries, and a fantastical world, which holds deep alliances and an answer to his questions.
Read Next: For another book filled with strange sea creatures and a confounding puzzle with hints of magic, follow detective Bridie Devine in THINGS IN JARS as she embarks on a hunt for a missing girl through the enchanting cobblestoned world of Victorian London.
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.
Readers' Choice: BEACH READ, one of the top romance books of last summer, tells the steamy story between two rival authors—one writes award-winning literary fiction, the other pens romances—who end up moving into neighboring beach houses and pushing their literary boundaries to the edge while the summer heats up.
Read Next: BEACH READ was the perfect summer escape, but who says we have to wait months to bask in the sun once more? Escape from the cold dreariness of winter with SHIPPED, another tale of what happens when archnemeses are forced together in close quarters. Angie Hockman’s novel takes off when two marketing execs, who have only ever exchanged words over email—harsh emails, at that—are plopped onto the same cruise ship and tasked with boosting travel bookings. The banter, the tears, the rivalry and career stakes, all will have you engrossed in no time, in a dream landscape! And if you want a chance to escape to an actual cruise paradise, enter Gallery Books's Sweepstakes for a chance to win a dream vacation in the sun.
The Unhoneymooners meets The Hating Game in this witty, clever, and swoonworthy novel following a workaholic marketing manager who is forced to go on a cruise with her arch-nemesis when they’re up for the same promotion.
Between taking night classes for her MBA and her demanding day job at a cruise line, marketing manager Henley Evans barely has time for herself, let alone family, friends, or dating. But when she’s shortlisted for the promotion of her dreams, all her sacrifices finally seem worth it.
The only problem? Graeme Crawford-Collins, the remote social media manager and the bane of her existence, is also up for the position. Although they’ve never met in person, their epic email battles are the stuff of office legend.
Their boss tasks each of them with drafting a proposal on how to boost bookings in the Galápagos—best proposal wins the promotion. There’s just one catch: they have to go on a company cruise to the Galápagos Islands...together. But when the two meet on the ship, Henley is shocked to discover that the real Graeme is nothing like she imagined. As they explore the Islands together, she soon finds the line between loathing and liking thinner than a postcard.
With her career dreams in her sights and a growing attraction to the competition, Henley begins questioning her life choices. Because what’s the point of working all the time if you never actually live?
Perfect for fans of Christina Lauren and Sally Thorne, Shipped is a fresh and engaging rom-com that celebrates the power of second chances and the magic of new beginnings.
Readers' Choice: When Elwood is branded delinquent and locked up in Nickel Academy, a segregated reform school in Jim Crow–era Florida, he and the other boys endure horrific treatment at the hands of racist, virulent guardians. With no opportunities for education or glimpses of compassion, he and the others must find hope where they can. Elwood finds it in MLK’s words, while his friend Turner finds it in plots and schemes. But the trauma they experience stains any future they seek. Based on the actual Dozier School for Boys, the chapters are interspersed with real first-person accounts of what life was like for these men. And it shows the impact that violence and racism leaves on generations.
Read Next: THE BLACK KIDS similarly utilizes America’s painful history—depicting events surrounding the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles—and fictionalizes a narrative of Ashley Bennett, a wealthy Black teen who confronts identity and violence for the first time. This YA book helps readers of all ages empathize and learn about the past so that we can move ahead with eyes open.
A New York Times bestseller
“Should be required reading in every classroom.” —Nic Stone, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin
“A true love letter to Los Angeles.” —Brandy Colbert, award-winning author of Little & Lion
“A brilliantly poetic take on one of the most defining moments in Black American history.” —Tiffany D. Jackson, author of Grown and Monday’s Not Coming
Perfect for fans of The Hate U Give, this unforgettable coming-of-age debut novel explores issues of race, class, and violence through the eyes of a wealthy black teenager whose family gets caught in the vortex of the 1992 Rodney King Riots.
Los Angeles, 1992
Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year and they’re spending more time at the beach than in the classroom. They can already feel the sunny days and endless possibilities of summer.
Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.
As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. Even as her self-destructive sister gets dangerously involved in the riots. Even as the model black family façade her wealthy and prominent parents have built starts to crumble. Even as her best friends help spread a rumor that could completely derail the future of her classmate and fellow black kid, LaShawn Johnson.
With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?
Readers' Choice: Fredrik Backman delighted readers again, in 2020, with his latest release, ANXIOUS PEOPLE. An open house turns into a hostage nightmare when a robber bursts in and captures eight strangers. The captives come from all walks of life and each reacts with such hilarity and heart that it has the hostage taker rethinking his strategy.
From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Man Called Ove and “writer of astonishing depth” (The Washington Times) comes a poignant, charming novel about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious strangers who find they have more in common than they ever imagined.
Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix their own marriage. There’s a wealthy bank director who has been too busy to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can’t seem to agree on anything, from where they want to live to how they met in the first place. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-ready-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst group of hostages in the world.
Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be. And all of them—the bank robber included—desperately crave some sort of rescue. As the authorities and the media surround the premises these reluctant allies will reveal surprising truths about themselves and set in motion a chain of events so unexpected that even they can hardly explain what happens next.
Rich with Fredrik Backman’s “pitch-perfect dialogue and an unparalleled understanding of human nature” (Shelf Awareness), Anxious People is an ingeniously constructed story about the enduring power of friendship, forgiveness, and hope—the things that save us, even in the most anxious times.
Read Next: With a similarly finicky and rambunctious cast of characters, GOOD EGGS is a story of what happens when a new caretaker arrives to aide the elderly (and delightfully naughty) Millie, and whose presence upends a chaotic three-generation Dublin household. Fans of Backman’s good-natured characters and uplifting surprises will enjoy this spring debut!
“A joyous, exuberantly fun-filled novel of second chances. An absolute delight from start to finish!” —Sarah Haywood, New York Times bestselling author
“Bracing, hilarious, warm, this novel is as wayward and mad as the human heart.” —Judy Blundell, New York Times bestselling author
A hilarious and heartfelt debut novel following three generations of a boisterous family whose simmering tensions boil over when a home aide enters the picture, becoming the calamitous force that will either undo or remake this family—perfect for fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and Evvie Drake Starts Over.
When Kevin Gogarty’s irrepressible eighty-three-year-old mother, Millie, is caught shoplifting yet again, he has no choice but to hire a caretaker to keep an eye on her. Kevin, recently unemployed, is already at his wits’ end tending to a full house while his wife travels to exotic locales for work, leaving him solo with his sulky, misbehaved teenaged daughter, Aideen, whose troubles escalate when she befriends the campus rebel at her new boarding school.
Into the Gogarty fray steps Sylvia, Millie’s upbeat home aide, who appears at first to be their saving grace—until she catapults the Gogarty clan into their greatest crisis yet.
With charm, humor, and pathos to spare, Good Eggs is a delightful study in self-determination; the notion that it’s never too late to start living; and the unique redemption that family, despite its maddening flaws, can offer.
Readers' Choice: Although it may seem like a long time ago, SUCH A FUN AGE came out just last year. In the before times, so many readers were abuzz with discussions of race and class over this book. On babysitting duty, Emira takes her charge to the grocery store and is soon accused of kidnapping the white child—because RACISM. When her privileged white employer tries to help, uncomfortable, complex conversations ensue. This layered story brings up a lot of difficult topics that resonate throughout today’s society.
Read Next: Readers will find a similar discussion of race and privilege (and a narrative that ramps up tensions) in THE OTHER BLACK GIRL. Nella is an editorial assistant at the fictitious Wagner Books, and the only Black girl—that is until the ambitious and lovable Hazel arrives. But Hazel’s not all that she appears, and when disturbing notes start showing up on Nella’s desk, she begins to question her colleague’s intent, as well as how well she really knows her white coworkers. This is one addictive thriller that’s saturated with social commentary and will be all the rage in book clubs!
“Riveting, fearless, and vividly original. This is an exciting debut.” —Emily St. John Mandel, New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Hotel
Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada in this electric debut about the tension that unfurls when two young Black women meet against the starkly white backdrop of New York City book publishing.
Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.
Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.
It’s hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realizes that there’s a lot more at stake than just her career.
A whip-smart and dynamic thriller and sly social commentary that is perfect for anyone who has ever felt manipulated, threatened, or overlooked in the workplace, The Other Black Girl will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last twist.
Image credit: iStock / Vimvertigo