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7 books from the first half of 2020 that more people should read

7 books from the first half of 2020 that more people should read

The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant shutdown has had a way of warping one’s sense of time—alternately making the days go by in a blink or pass grudgingly slowly. One would be forgiven for forgetting what happened last week, to say nothing of February. But even during a different sort of year, it’s easy to miss all the new books worthy of one’s attention. So we’re taking this mid-year check-in as an opportunity to highlight some of our favorite underrated books of the year so far, “underrated” being the most subjective of terms. Many of these books have been covered widely (though not yet here), while this may be the first time you’re hearing about others. Either way, here are a handful of books published in the first half of 2020 that we think deserve a little more attention.

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Show Them A Good Time by Nicole Flattery (January 28, Bloomsbury)

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Image: Show Them A Good Time

Nicole Flattery’s short stories stab and slip, cutting without immediately alerting you to that fact. Sharing an absurdist bent with a writer like Jen George (The Babysitter At Rest), Flattery populates Show Them A Good Time with young women in ridiculous, often dire circumstances. Her characters are sometimes aggressively ambitionless, resistant to even small pleasures. “[S]he had to be stern with herself, and be extra careful not to have any fun,” she writes of Natasha, the protagonist of “Abortion, A Love Story,” the collection’s 80-plus-page centerpiece. When Natasha meets the brash, self-absorbed Lucy, the two come together to put on a metafictional play no one asked for. It reads as if Synecdoche, New York had been written by two mildly talented undergrads utterly convinced of their own artistic gravity. The stories stretch out. “Even the catastrophe of my own life was something I managed with amazing slowness,” one narrator says. Such patience allows Flattery to write past simpler endings and arrive somewhere oblique or unexpected. What sticks is her deadpan stare, the precision of her humor—that feeling that sometimes the funniest person in the room is the one who isn’t laughing. [Laura Adamczyk]

The Lost Book Of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata (February 4, Hanover Square Press)

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Image: The Lost Book Of Adana Moreau

Michael Zapata’s The Lost Book Of Adana Moreau is a tale of both perseverance and profound loss. The titular Adana Moreau, born of Dominican freedom fighters in the early 1900s, is the author of the most stunning sci-fi fantasy novel you’ve never heard of. But just before finishing the sequel’s manuscript, Moreau succumbs to tuberculosis in New Orleans, leaving the story lost to time—until a hotel clerk in Chicago is tasked with delivering it to her theoretical-physicist son decades later. It’s difficult to convey the scope of this novel in a short summary; The Lost Book zigzags through space and time, crafting a mythology and historical lineage so compelling it overshadows the original mystery. Readers of Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino, and even Studs Terkel can all find something to love in Zapata’s detailed world-building and heart-stopping prose. [Taylor Moore]

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (February 25, One World)

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Image: Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning

Drawing from the work of Claudia Rankine and Sianne Ngai, Cathy Park Hong defines “minor feelings” as the ugly, cognitively dissonant emotions that emerge when your lived experience as a person of color clashes with the mainstream post-racial narrative. In her first essay collection, the Korean American poet uses both rage and grace to dismantle the idea that Asian Americans are “next in line” to be white. Released in February, this raw, leftist polemic on race and capitalism has only become more relevant, due to the barrage of racist harassment that Asians have faced because of COVID-19 and the devastating police violence wrought upon Black Americans. The model minority myth, which purports that Asian Americans are successful because of their hard work, is anti-Blackness by another name, and Hong argues that to be free, people of color must band together against whiteness rather than aspire to it. [Taylor Moore]

The Kingdom Of Back by Marie Lu (March 3, G.P Putnam’s Sons)

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Image: The Kingdom Of Back

Bestselling author Marie Lu’s YA historical fantasy novel tells the story of Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart, the older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who shared his musical talent. While Nannerl wants her work to make her immortal, she’s expected to pursue a traditional life of marriage and family while her brother’s prodigious talent is celebrated across 18th-century Europe. She may have the chance to escape those restrictions with the help of a faerie prince named Hyacinth who draws her and her brother into his strange and beautiful magical realm. The book reads like a fusion of Heather Terrell’s The Other Einstein and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, a fairy tale about the complicated relationship between siblings and the challenges young women must face in order to achieve their dreams. [Samantha Nelson]

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry (March 3, Pantheon)

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Image: We Ride Upon Sticks

In the summer of 1989, the perpetual losers of the Danvers High School girls field hockey team are so desperate to turn their fortunes around that they turn to witchcraft. The simple ritual, supposedly harkening back to their town’s roots as an extension of Salem, Massachusetts, involves signing their names in an Emilio Estevez notebook and pledging to follow their urges wherever they lead. They lead to a charming novel that combines the beats of a sports movie with the dramas of teenagers coming of age, the ensemble cast exploring queer awakenings, and racial and class tensions. There’s plenty of ’80s nostalgia, with references to complex bang maintenance and sneaking in to see When Harry Met Sally, but Barry also delivers an earnest look at the divisions and secrets that can bubble up in a close group in any era. [Samantha Nelson]

The Last Taxi Driver by Lee Durkee (March 3, Tin House)

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Image: The Last Taxi Driver

Remember taxis? That vanishing breed of our city streets. Raise a hand, roll the dice, never sure who’s gonna pick you up or what condition the car might be in. Meet Lou, a Mississippi college town cabbie and one-time novelist reluctantly cruising for fares from drunks, eccentrics, and the dying. He enlightens his passengers with UFO sightings, recites Bill Hicks monologues, and gobbles the occasional orphaned pill found wedged between the back seats. It was written by a former Mississippi college town hackney who published his last novel 20 years ago. You get the drift. For devotees of the offbeat and grit lit writers like Larry Brown and Mary Miller. Follow the air freshener rocking back and forth, taking you under its spell, as Durkee takes you for a ride. [Rien Fertel]

Notes From An Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell (April 14, Doubleday)

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Image: Notes From An Apocalypse

The world is ending. Or that’s what you probably think if you, like Mark O’Connell, are a privileged white man. In Notes From An Apocalypse, O’Connell goes searching for doomsdays past, present, and future—the radioactive ruins of Chernobyl, a prepper suburbia in South Dakota, Peter Thiel’s New Zealand hobbitdom of one, Elon Musk’s Mars mirage—and finds much of the same: patriarchal and racial anxiety. O’Connell meditates with humor and grace on everything from the merit of Steven Pinker’s hair to how to parent in the 21st century. “The end of the world,” he writes, “was not some remote dystopian fantasy. It was all around. You just had to look.” Read this and, in the words of R.E.M., you’ll feel fine. [Rien Fertel]

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