Looking back at 2020: my favorite books of the year

Agents of Influence is one of my favorite books of the year.

It’s that time of year again, when the National Book Awards and the Booker Prize are announced and the Washington Post, the New York Times, and just about any other publication with literary pretensions releases their “best books of the year” lists. And I always review those lists, hunting for treasure I might have missed. Usually, however, I find that I’ve already managed to pick up the only listed books that really interest me. (I’m a picky reader.) That was the case this year. And several of my favorite books of the year appeared on one or another of the lists.

My favorite books of the year among three million titles?

But with some two to three million new books published every year, picking the top titles of the year is decidedly a hit-or-miss operation. What, after all, are really the “best” books of this or any year? How could anyone, or any group of reviewers and editors pick them out of so many? All of which is why I’m no longer feeling arrogant enough to claim that my list of favorite reads during the year represents the year’s “best.”

Below you’ll find three lists, each encompassing 10 titles: my favorite nonfiction books of the year, my favorite mysteries and thrillers, and my favorite trade fiction (including science fiction). They’re listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names, and each is linked to my review.  

For your information, all but three of these thirty books were actually first published in 2020. The other three came out in the final quarter of 2019.

My 10 favorite nonfiction books of the year

The nonfiction I favor tends to include history, politics, biographies and memoirs, and technology. All those categories are reflected in the list below.

Pelosi by Molly Ball—A critical but admiring biography of Nancy Pelosi

American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power by Andrea Bernstein—The Trumps and the Kushners: the backstory

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America by Conor Dougherty—Why are so many homeless in America?

Drive! Henry Ford, George Selden, and the Race to Invent the Auto Age by Lawrence Goldstone—This thrilling account of the early auto industry sets the record straight on Henry Ford

Agents of Influence: A British Campaign, a Canadian Spy, and the Secret Plot to Bring America into World War II by Henry Hemming—British interference in American politics in WWII

Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes by Adam Hochschild—Early 20th-century America viewed through the life of one extraordinary woman

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson—An intimate view of Winston Churchill in WW2

An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent by Owen Matthews—The greatest spy of the twentieth century?

A Promised Land by Barack Obama—Barack Obama’s memoir is a literary tour de force

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener—An insightful Silicon Valley memoir

My 10 favorite mysteries and thrillers of the year

I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, especially those involving espionage, police procedures, courtroom drama, and detectives. Many are set in the past, reflecting my abiding interest in history.

Victim 2117 (Department Q #8) by Jussi Adler-Olson—The latest Department Q police procedural takes on terrorists

A Time for Mercy (Jake Brigance #3) by John Grisham—John Grisham revisits Clanton, Mississippi in a gripping courtroom thriller

Clean Hands by Patrick Hoffman—A diabolically clever thriller about corporate espionage

Hi Five (IQ #4) by Joe Ide—Multiple personalities, neo-Nazis, and a psychopathic arms dealer

Death in the East (Wyndham & Banerjee #4) by Abir Mukherjee—A murder mystery in the British Raj

Dead Land (V. I. Warshawski #21) by Sara Paretsky—The private eye as investigative reporter

The Missing American (Emma Djan #1) by Kwei Quartey—A nitty-gritty view of Ghana today in this inventive detective novel

East of Hounslow (Jay Qasim #1) by Khurrum Rahman—Undercover, a small-time drug dealer becomes an accidental jihadist for MI5

Masked Prey (Prey #30) by John Sandford—John Sandford’s millionaire  investigator takes on the alt-right

The Coldest Warrior by Paul Vidich—Project MK-Ultra and the scientist who fell to his death

My 10 favorite trade fiction books of the year

This broad category encompasses historical fiction, humor, science fiction, and “serious” literary works about contemporary society. Of the science fiction I read, most tends to be hard SF. (I don’t read fantasy.)

The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black—Booker Award winner Benjamin Black returns to historical fiction

The Traitor by V. S. Alexander—Dramatizing anti-Nazi resistance in Germany during World War II

Make Russia Great Again by Christopher Buckley—Satirizing Donald Trump is a tall order

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich—Louise Erdrich on Indian cultural genocide

The Evening and the Morning (Kingsbridge #1) by Ken Follett—Ken Follett sets up the Kingsbridge Trilogy in a prequel

Semi/Human by Erik Hanberg—A fanciful and light-hearted tale of a jobless future

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen—A snake stars in Carl Hiaasen’s savage takedown of Donald Trump

A Burning by Megha Majumdar—Terrorism, corruption, and Hindu nationalism in India today

Deacon King Kong by James McBride—Unforgettable characters in this delightful new novel

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead—A brilliant novel dramatizes life under Jim Crow

For further reading

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.

Spread The Word!