The Rooster

The 2021 Tournament of Books Long List

In preparation for the 2021 Tournament of Books, presented by Field Notes, here are 77 of the most Rooster-worthy books of 2020.

This year. This year, reading has been a solace and a struggle. A chore, an irrelevance, an escape, a salvation. This year we read fiction that related to disaster, and fiction that was anything but. We read narrative nonfiction about racial injustice and dystopian fiction about racial injustice, and sometimes we struggled to tell the difference between the two. We read about disease and financial anxiety and loss while in our lives we dealt with disease, financial anxiety, and loss. Also, friends who had pledged for years they’d never join a book club joined book clubs that met through videotelephony, and loved them? We will be happy to leave much of 2020 behind us, but we are grateful for what we learned—not least that a ton of really good fiction was published in the midst of a pandemic.

Today we’re releasing the long list for the 2021 Tournament of Books, our 17th rendition of this oddball event, presented by Field Notes. (In case you missed it, we just completed a Tournament composed of 16 winners of previous Tournaments of Books: the Super Rooster, presented by Bookshop!) In a few weeks we’ll release the shortlist of the 16 or so books that will be in play come March, and those titles will be selected from the 77 works of fiction below.

If you’re new to all of this, here is how the whole thing works, and here’s a brief history of highlights.

What is this list? Several dozen titles that we feel represent some of the most exciting, interesting, accomplished, simply tantalizing works of fiction (published in 2020 in English in the US, mostly) that we discovered during lockdown. They were recommended by coworkers, family, publishing people, and the Super Rooster’s comments section. They were recommended by booksellers in two different neighborhoods of Los Angeles (Hollywood and Leimert Park) and a bookseller in Mississippi. They were recommended by commenters on social media, friends of friends, a woman in London insisting we absolutely had to read this. And yeah, very likely we missed your favorite book from this year—sorry! Next year, we’ll do better, surely.

Our immense gratitude to Field Notes, 2021’s presenting sponsor. Field Notes notebooks and sundries are our preferred tools of the trade, and they’ve been a great partner to the Tournament for many years. We’re also really excited to announce that Bookshop—the online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores—is returning as this year’s book sponsor. Yay, bookstores! Finally, our greatest thanks go to our Sustaining Members. Without their support, none of this would be possible. If you care about the Tournament of Books, we’d love it if you joined the ranks today—and score 50 percent off all ToB merch!

Make sure you sign up for the Rooster Newsletter for ToB updates. Also follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and check out our daily Headlines newsletter. Finally, a note to booksellers, small businesses, big businesses, and anyone else with a shared love for the Rooster: We have a bunch of cool sponsorships available, email us to find out more!

Book descriptions are excerpted from publishers’ summaries and edited for length. We get a cut from purchases made through the book links. Here is a spreadsheet of the full list.

 

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez

Antonia Vega, an immigrant writer, has had the rug pulled out from under her. She has just retired from the college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. And then more jolts: Her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, and Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep. Antonia has always sought direction in the literature she loves—lines from her favorite authors play in her head like a soundtrack—but now she finds that the world demands more of her than words.

 

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Bassam Aramin is Palestinian. Rami Elhanan is Israeli. They inhabit a world of conflict that colors every aspect of their daily lives, from the roads they are allowed to drive on to the schools their daughters, Abir and Smadar, each attend, to the checkpoints both physical and emotional that they must negotiate. Their worlds shift irreparably after 10-year-old old Abir is killed by a rubber bullet and 13-year-old Smadar becomes the victim of suicide bombers. When Bassam and Rami learn of one another’s stories, they recognize the loss that connects them and they attempt to use their grief as a weapon for peace.

 

Barcelona Days by Daniel Riley

Before their impending nuptials, Whitney suggests a lighthearted experiment to Will: Why not give each other three romantic "free passes" before getting married? On what’s meant to be the last night of a romantic Barcelona vacation, they agree to regale one another with details of these harmless trysts. They fall asleep, relieved to be firmly together again. But then a volcano erupts, spewing ash across Europe and grounding all flights. Trapped in Barcelona, Whitney and Will flirt, provoke, dance, and drink. Over the next three days, they will use and be used by new friends, once again testing the boundaries of their relationship—but this time, can it survive?

 

Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth

Two auditors for the US egg industry go rogue and conceive a plot to steal a million chickens in the middle of the night—an entire egg farm’s worth of animals. Janey and Cleveland—a spirited former runaway and the officious head of audits—assemble a precarious, quarrelsome team and descend on the farm on a dark spring evening. A series of catastrophes ensues.

 

Black Sunday by Tola Abraham

Twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike are enjoying a relatively comfortable life in Lagos in 1996. Then their mother loses her job, and the family, facing poverty, becomes drawn into the New Church, an institution led by a charismatic pastor who is not shy about worshipping earthly wealth. Soon Bibike and Ariyike’s father wagers the family home on a “sure bet” that evaporates. As their parents’ marriage collapses in the aftermath of this gamble, the sisters are thrust into the reluctant care of their grandmother. Inseparable while they had their parents to care for them, the twins’ paths diverge once the household shatters. Each girl is left to locate, guard, and hone her own fragile source of power.

 

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Makiko has traveled to Tokyo in search of an affordable breast enhancement procedure. She is accompanied by her daughter Midoriko, who has recently grown silent, finding herself unable to voice the vague yet overwhelming pressures associated with growing up. Her silence proves a catalyst for each woman to confront her fears and frustrations. On another hot summer’s day 10 years later, Makiko’s younger sister Natsu, on a journey back to her native city, struggles with her own indeterminate identity as she confronts anxieties about growing old alone and childless.

 

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party, and finds that his own ascent becomes linked to Jivan’s fall. Lovely—an irresistible outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor—has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear.

 

The Cactus League by Emily Nemens

Jason Goodyear is the star outfielder for the Los Angeles Lions, stationed with the rest of his team in the punishingly hot Arizona desert for their annual spring training. Handsome, famous, and talented, Goodyear is nonetheless coming apart at the seams. Narrated by a sportscaster, Goodyear’s story is interspersed with tales of Michael Taylor, a batting coach trying to stay relevant; Tamara Rowland, a resourceful spring-training paramour, looking for one last catch; Herb Allison, a legendary sports agent grappling with his decline; and a plethora of other richly drawn characters, all striving to be seen as the season approaches. It’s a journey that, like the Arizona desert, brims with both possibility and destruction.

 

A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers

Discerning and meticulous, food critic Dorothy Daniels’s clear mastery of the culinary arts make it likely that she could whip up a more inspired dish than any one of the chefs she writes about. Dorothy loves sex as much as she loves food, and while she has struggled to find a long-term partner that can keep up with her, she makes the best of her single life. But there is something within Dorothy that’s different from everyone else, and having suppressed it long enough, she starts to embrace what makes Dorothy uniquely, terrifyingly herself. Recounting her life, Dorothy Daniels show us what happens when a woman finally embraces her superiority.

 

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

On a forced vacation with their families at a sprawling lakeside mansion, a group of 12 eerily mature children feel neglected and suffocated by their parents, who pass their days in a stupor of liquor, drugs, and sex. When a destructive storm descends on the summer estate, the group’s ringleaders—including Eve, who narrates the story—decide to run away, leading the younger ones on a dangerous foray into the apocalyptic chaos outside. As the scenes of devastation begin to mimic events in the dog-eared picture Bible carried around by her beloved little brother, Eve devotes herself to keeping him safe from harm.

 

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Camino Rios lives for the summers, when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this year, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people. In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash. Separated by distance—and Papi’s secrets—the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered. And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.

 

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

Sofia, Bulgaria, a landlocked city in southern Europe, stirs with hope and impending upheaval. Soviet buildings crumble, wind scatters sand from the far south, and political protesters flood the streets with song. In this atmosphere of disquiet, an American teacher navigates a life transformed by the discovery and loss of love. As he prepares to leave the place he’s come to call home, he grapples with the intimate encounters that have marked his years abroad, each bearing uncanny reminders of his past. A queer student’s confession recalls his own first love, a stranger’s seduction devolves into paternal sadism, and a romance with another foreigner opens, and heals, old wounds.

 

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

Meet the Dolan brothers. While 16-year-old Rye yearns for a steady job and a home, his dashing older brother Gig dreams of a better world, fighting for fair pay and decent treatment. Enter Ursula the Great, a vaudeville singer who introduces the brothers to a wealthy mining magnate who will stop at nothing to keep his wealth and his hold on Ursula. Dubious of his brother’s idealism, Rye finds himself drawn to a fearless 19-year-old activist and feminist named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, her passion sweeping him into the workers’ cause. But a storm is coming, threatening to overwhelm them all, and Rye will be forced to decide where he stands.

 

Crossings by Alex Landragin

On the brink of the Nazi occupation of Paris, a German-Jewish bookbinder stumbles across a manuscript called Crossings. It has three narratives, each as unlikely as the next. And the narratives can be read one of two ways: either straight through or according to an alternate chapter sequence. The first story in Crossings is a never-before-seen ghost story by Baudelaire, penned for an illiterate girl. Next is a noir romance about an exiled man whose recurring nightmares are cured when he falls in love with a storyteller who draws him into a dangerous intrigue. Finally, there are the fantastical memoirs of a woman-turned-monarch whose singular life has spanned seven generations.

 

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .38 from his pocket, and in front of everybody shoots the project’s drug dealer at point-blank range. The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it are revealed in the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself.

 

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Raised in southeastern Nigeria by a distant father and a compassionate but overprotective mother, Vivek suffers disorienting blackouts, moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As adolescence gives way to adulthood, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the warm, boisterous daughters of the Nigerwives, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. But Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence masks a guarded private life. As their relationship deepens—and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis—the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.

 

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun

Jungle is a cutting-edge travel agency specializing in tourism to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. And until she found herself at the mercy of a predatory colleague, Yona was one of their top representatives. Now on the verge of losing her job, she’s given a proposition: take a paid “vacation” to the desert island of Mui and pose as a tourist to assess the company’s least profitable holiday. When she uncovers a plan to fabricate an extravagant catastrophe, she must choose: prioritize the callous company to whom she’s dedicated her life, or embrace a fresh start in a powerful new position?

 

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Nine-year-old Jai watches too many reality police shows. When a classmate goes missing, Jai decides to use the crime-solving skills he has picked up from TV to find him. He asks his friends Pari and Faiz to be his assistants and together they draw up lists of people to interview and places to visit. But what begins as a game turns sinister as other children start disappearing from their neighborhood. Jai, Pari, and Faiz have to confront terrified parents, an indifferent police force, and their fears of soul-snatching djinns. As the disappearances edge ever closer to home, the lives of Jai and his friends will never be the same again.

 

Docile by K. M. Szpara

Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him. Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it.

 

Dominoes at the Crossroads by Kaie Kellough

In an alternate nation populated by Caribbean Canadians who hopscotch across the country, some, seeking opportunity, fade into the world around them, even as their minds hitchhike, dream, and soar. Some appear in different times and hemispheres, whether as student radicals, secret agents, historians, fugitive slaves, or jazz musicians. From the cobblestones of Montreal’s Old Port through the foliage of a South American rainforest; from a basement in wartime Paris to a metro in Montreal during the October Crisis; our characters grapple with the abiding feeling of being elsewhere, even when here.

 

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The Down Days by Ilze Hugo

In the aftermath of a deadly outbreak, a city at the tip of Africa is losing its mind, with residents experiencing hallucinations and paranoia. During these strange days, Faith works as a fulltime corpse collector and a freelance “truthologist,” putting together disparate pieces of information to solve problems. But after Faith agrees to help an orphaned girl find her abducted baby brother, she begins to wonder whether the boy is even real. Meanwhile, a young man named Sans is so distracted by a glimpse of his dream woman that he lets a bag of money he owes his gang partners go missing—leaving him desperately searching for both and soon questioning his own sanity.

 

Drifts by Kate Zambreno

At work on a novel that is overdue to her publisher, spending long days alone with her restless terrier, corresponding ardently with fellow writers, our narrator grows obsessed with the challenge of writing the present tense, of capturing time itself. Entranced by the work of Rilke, Dürer, Chantal Akerman, and others, she photographs the residents and strays of her neighborhood, haunts bookstores and galleries, and records her thoughts in a yellow notebook that soon subsumes her work on the novel. As winter closes in, a series of disturbances—the appearances and disappearances of enigmatic figures, the burglary of her apartment—leaves her distracted and uncertain…until an intense and tender disruption changes everything.

 

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

As a child, Natsuki’s best friend is a plush toy hedgehog named Piyyut, who talks to her. He tells her that he has come from the planet Popinpobopia on a special quest to help her save the Earth. One summer, on vacation with her family, Natsuki decides that she must be an alien, which would explain why she can’t seem to fit in like everyone else. Later, as a grown woman, living a quiet life with her asexual husband, Natsuki is still pursued by dark shadows from her childhood, and decides to flee the “baby factory” of society for good, searching for answers about the vast and frightening mysteries of the universe—answers only Natsuki has the power to uncover.

 

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the family of 13-year-old Bahar—now a ghost—is compelled to flee their home in Tehran for a new life in a small village, hoping in this way to preserve both their intellectual freedom and their lives. But they soon find themselves caught up in the post-revolutionary chaos that sweeps across their ancient land. Bahar’s mother, after a tragic loss, will embark on a long, eventful journey in search of meaning in a world swept up in the post-revolutionary madness.

 

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Ava moved from Dublin to Hong Kong to find happiness, but so far, it isn’t working out. When Ava befriends Julian, a witty British banker, he offers a shortcut into a lavish life. She finds herself moving into Julian’s apartment, and striking up a sexual relationship with him. When Julian’s job takes him back to London, she stays put, unsure where their relationship stands. Enter Edith, a striking and ambitious Hong Kong-born lawyer. Ava wants to be her—and wants her. When Julian announces he’s returning to Hong Kong, she faces a fork in the road. Should she return to the easy compatibility of her life with Julian or take a leap into the unknown with Edith?

 

Four by Four by Sara Mesa

All is not well at Wybrany College—a school where the wealthy keep their kids safe from the chaos erupting in the cities. One of the “special,” scholarship students has disappeared, and it becomes clear that something more sordid lurks beneath the surface. Then, in a diary written by an imposter who has infiltrated the school as a substitute teacher, the eerie sense of what’s happening in this space removed from society becomes even more acute and sinister.

 

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star lodging on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. When the financial empire collapses, it obliterates countless fortunes and devastates lives. Vincent, who had been posing as Jonathan’s wife, walks away into the night. Years later, a victim of the fraud is hired to investigate a strange occurrence: A woman has seemingly vanished from the deck of a container ship between ports of call.

 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

England, 1580. As the Black Death creeps across the land, a young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.

 

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

A collection of stories about love and migration, gender and class, racism and sexism that proudly reflect African-American folk culture. Brought together for the first time in one volume, they include eight of Hurston’s “lost” Harlem stories, which were found in forgotten periodicals and archives. These stories challenge conceptions of Hurston as an author of rural fiction and include gems that flash with her biting, satiric humor, as well as more serious tales reflective of the cultural currents of Hurston’s world. All are timeless classics that enrich our understanding and appreciation of this exceptional writer’s voice and her contributions to America’s literary traditions.

 

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada

Asa’s husband is transferring jobs, and his new office is located near his family’s home in the countryside. During an exceptionally hot summer, the young married couple move in, and Asa does her best to quickly adjust to their new rural lives. One day, she comes across a strange creature, follows it to the embankment of a river, and ends up falling into a hole—a hole that seems to have been made specifically for her. This is the first in a series of bizarre experiences that drive Asa deeper into the mysteries of this rural landscape filled with eccentric characters and unidentifiable creatures, leading her to question her role in this world, and eventually, her sanity.

 

Include Me Out by María Sonia Cristoff

Mara is a simultaneous interpreter who moves to a provincial town in Argentina in order to speak as little as possible for a year. Steeled with the ten rules of silence set out in her manual of rhetoric, she takes a job as a guard in the local museum. The advantages of her work are threatened when she’s asked to assist in the re-embalming of the museum’s pride and joy: two horses—of great national and historical significance—are disintegrating and must be saved. But her goal and her slippery grasp on sanity lead her to more anarchistic means to bolster her purpose.

 

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Willis Wu doesn’t perceive himself as a protagonist even in his own life: He’s merely Generic Asian man. Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son, but he is always relegated to a prop. Yet every day he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO and enters the Golden Palace restaurant, where Black and White, a procedural cop show, is in perpetual production. He’s a bit player here, too, but he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy—the most respected role that anyone who looks like him can attain. At least that’s what he has been told, time and time again. Except by one person, his mother. Who says to him: Be more.

 

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s mythical world of Gilead, Iowa—the setting of her novels Gilead, Home, and Lila, and now Jack—and its beloved characters have illuminated and interrogated the complexities of American history, the power of our emotions, and the wonders of a sacred world. Jack is Robinson’s fourth novel in this now-classic series. In it, Robinson tells the story of John Ames Boughton, the prodigal son of Gilead’s Presbyterian minister, and his romance with Della Miles, a high school teacher who is also the son of a preacher. Their deeply felt, tormented, star-crossed interracial romance resonates with all the paradoxes of American life, then and now.

 

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

In a small, tidy apartment on the outskirts of Seoul lives Kim Jiyoung. She has recently left her white-collar desk job in order to care for her newborn daughter full time—as so many Korean women are expected to do. But she quickly begins to exhibit strange symptoms: Jiyoung impersonates the voices of other women—alive and even dead, both known and unknown to her. As she plunges deeper into this psychosis, her discomfited husband sends her to a male psychiatrist, to whom she recounts her entire life. But can her doctor flawlessly, completely cure her, or even discover what truly ails her?

 

The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe

Bunny Lampert is the princess of North Shore⁠—beautiful, tall, blond, with a rich real-estate-developer father. Michael⁠⁠—with a ponytail down his back and a septum piercing⁠—lives with his aunt in the cottage next door. When Bunny catches Michael smoking in her yard, he discovers that her life is not as perfect as it seems. And Michael has secrets of his own. At home and at school Michael pretends to be straight, but at night he tries to understand himself by meeting men online for encounters that both thrill and scare him. When Michael falls in love for the first time, vicious gossip circulates and a terrible, brutal act defines his and Bunny’s futures⁠⁠—and their friendship.

 

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Amanda and Clay leave New York City for a quiet family vacation in a luxurious home on Long Island. But a late-night knock on the door from Ruth and G. H., an older couple who claim to own the home, breaks the spell. These strangers say a sudden blackout has swept New York, and they’ve come to the country in search of shelter. With the TV and internet down, and no cell phone service, the facts are unknowable. Should Amanda and Clay trust this intruding couple—and vice versa? What has happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from each other?

 

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

They’ve infiltrated homes in Hong Kong, shops in Vancouver, the streets of in Sierra Leone, town squares in Oaxaca, schools in Tel Aviv, bedrooms in Indiana. They’re everywhere. They’re here. They’re us. They’re not pets, or ghosts, or robots. They’re real people, but how can a person living in Berlin walk freely through the living room of someone in Sydney? How can someone in Bangkok have breakfast with your children in Buenos Aires, without your knowing? Especially when these people are completely anonymous, unknown, unfindable.

 

Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Two sisters travel the same streets,though their lives couldn’t be more different. Then one of them goes missing. In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling. Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit—and her sister—before it’s too late.

 

Low by Jeet Thayil

Ullis went to the bathroom and carefully unfolded the business card and placed it on the sink. Then he rolled up a note and snorted the last of his wife’s ashes. Following the death of his wife, Dominic Ullis escapes to Bombay in search of oblivion and a dangerous new drug, Meow Meow. So begins a glorious weekend of misadventure as he tours the teeming, kaleidoscopic city from its sleek eyries of high-capital to the piss-stained streets, encountering a cast with their own stories to tell, but none of whom Ullis—his faculties ever distorted—is quite sure he can trust.

 

Luster by Raven Leilani

Edie is stumbling her way through her twenties—sharing a subpar apartment in Bushwick, clocking in and out of her admin job, making a series of inappropriate sexual choices. And then she meets Eric, a digital archivist with a family in New Jersey, including an autopsist wife who has agreed to an open marriage—with rules. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscapes of contemporary sexual manners and racial politics weren’t hard enough, Edie finds herself unemployed and invited into Eric’s home—though not by Eric. She becomes a hesitant ally to his wife and a de-facto role model to his adopted daughter. Edie may be the only Black woman young Akila knows.

 

Memorial by Bryan Washington

Benson and Mike live together in Houston. They’ve been together for a few years, but now they’re not sure why they’re still a couple. When Mike finds out his estranged father is dying in Osaka just as his acerbic Japanese mother, Mitsuko, arrives in Texas for a visit, Mike picks up and flies to Japan, where he discovers the truth about his family and his past. Without Mike’s immediate pull, Benson begins to push outwards, realizing he might just know what he wants out of life and have the goods to get it. Both men will change in ways that will either make them stronger together, or fracture everything they’ve ever known. And just maybe they’ll all be OK in the end.

 

Must I Go by Yiyun Li

Lilia Liska has shrewdly outlived three husbands, raised five children, and seen the arrival of seventeen grandchildren. Now she has turned her keen attention to the diary of a long-forgotten man named Roland Bouley, with whom she once had a fleeting affair. Increasingly obsessed by Roland’s intimate history, Lilia begins to annotate his diary with her own rather different version of events, revealing the surprising, long-held secrets of her past. She returns inexorably to the memory of her daughter, Lucy. This is a novel about life, in all its messy glory, and of a life lived, for the extraordinary Lilia, absolutely on its own terms.

 

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

In 2000, bright, ambitious 15-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her 42-year-old English teacher. In 2017, Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: Remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who transformed her and has remained a presence in her life? Is it possible the man she loved as a teenager may be far different from what she has always believed?

 

Network Effect by Martha Wells

You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot.

 

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

It is 1953, and Thomas Wazhashk and the other Chippewa Council members at the Turtle Mountain Reservation are facing a new Congressional bill that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. Also living in this impoverished reservation community is Patrice Paranteau, whose beloved older sister, Vera, moved to the big city of Minneapolis, hasn’t been in touch, and is rumored to have had a baby. Determined to find Vera and her child, Patrice makes a fateful trip to Minnesota that introduces her to unexpected forms of exploitation and violence, and endangers her life.

 

Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han

From the outside, the Chengs seem like so-called model immigrants. Once Patty landed a tech job near Dallas, she and Liang grew secure enough to have a second child, and to send for their first from his grandparents back in China. Isn’t this what they sacrificed so much for? But then little Annabel begins to sleepwalk at night, putting into motion a string of misunderstandings that not only threaten to set their community against them but force to the surface the secrets that have made them fear one another.

 

 

Or What You Will by Jo Walton

He has been too many things to count. He has been a scholar, a warrior, a lover, and a thief. But “he” is in fact nothing more than an idea in the mind of Sylvia Harrison, 73, award-winning author of 30 novels. He has played a part in most of those novels, and Sylvia has conversed with him for years. But Sylvia won’t live forever, any more than any human does. And when she dies, so will he. Now Sylvia is starting a new novel. Of course he’s got a part in it. But he also has a notion. He thinks he knows how he and Sylvia can step off the wheel of mortality altogether.

 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: Its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he lives to explore the house. There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

 

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Eighteen, pregnant, and working as a pizza delivery girl in suburban Los Angeles, our charmingly dysfunctional heroine is deeply lost and in complete denial about it all. She’s grieving the death of her father (whom she has more in common with than she’d like to admit), avoiding her supportive mom and loving boyfriend, and flagrantly ignoring her future. Her world is further upended when she becomes obsessed with Jenny, a stay-at-home mother new to the neighborhood, who comes to depend on weekly deliveries of pickled-covered pizzas for her son’s happiness. As one woman looks toward motherhood and the other toward middle age, the relationship between the two begins to blur in strange, complicated, and ultimately heartbreaking ways.

 

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Almost everything about Wallace, an introverted African-American transplant from Alabama, is at odds with the lakeside Midwestern university town where he is working toward a biochem degree. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with a young straight man, conspire to fracture his defenses, while revealing hidden currents of resentment and desire that threaten the equilibrium of their community.

 

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

After receiving a prestigious writing fellowship in Germany, our narrator arrives in a Berlin suburb. Instead of working on his book, he binge-watches Blue Lives—a violent cop show that becomes weirdly compelling in its bleak, Darwinian view of life—and soon begins to wonder if his writing has any value at all. When some friends drag him to a party where he meets Anton, the creator of Blue Lives, the narrator begins to believe that the two of them are involved in a cosmic battle, and that Anton is “red-pilling” his viewers—turning them toward an ugly, alt-rightish worldview—ultimately forcing the narrator to wonder if he is losing his mind.

 

The Resisters by Gish Jen

The time: not so long from now. The place: AutoAmerica. The people: Divided. The angel-fair “Netted” have jobs, and literally occupy the high ground. The “Surplus” live on swampland if they’re lucky, on water if they’re not. The story: To a Surplus couple—he once a professor, she still a lawyer—is born a Blasian girl with a golden arm. At two, Gwen is hurling her stuffed animals from the crib; by 10, she can hit whatever target she likes. When AutoAmerica rejoins the Olympics, though—with a special eye on beating ChinRussia—Gwen attracts interest. Soon she finds herself playing ball with the Netted even as her mother challenges the very foundations of this divided society.

 

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

In 1915, The Birth of a Nation cast a spell across America, swelling the Klan’s ranks and drinking deep from the darkest thoughts of white folk. All across the nation they ride, spreading fear and violence among the vulnerable. They plan to bring Hell to Earth. But even Ku Kluxes can die. Standing in their way is Maryse Boudreaux and her fellow resistance fighters, a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter. Armed with blade, bullet, and bomb, they hunt their hunters and send the Klan’s demons straight to Hell. But something awful’s brewing in Macon, and the war on Hell is about to heat up. Can Maryse stop the Klan before it ends the world?

 

Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita

In a California of the ’60s and ’70s, characters examine the contents of deceased relatives’ freezers, tape-record high school locker-room chatter, or collect a community’s gossip while cleaning the teeth of its inhabitants. Mr. Darcy is the captain of the football team, Mansfield Park materializes in a suburb of LA, bake sales replace ballroom dances, and station wagons, not horse-drawn carriages, are the preferred mode of transit.

 

The Searcher by Tana French

Cal Hooper thought a fixer-upper in a bucolic Irish village would be the perfect escape. After 25 years in the Chicago police force and a bruising divorce, he just wants to build a new life in a pretty spot with a good pub where nothing much happens. But when a local kid whose brother has gone missing arm-twists him into investigating, Cal uncovers layers of darkness beneath his picturesque retreat, and starts to realize that even small towns shelter dangerous secrets.

 

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

In 1995 Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls overboard into the Pacific Ocean. When a shiver of sharks appears in the water, everyone fears the worst. But Noa is gingerly delivered to his mother in the jaws of a shark, marking his story the stuff of legends. Noa’s family hails his rescue as a sign of the favor of ancient Hawaiian gods—a belief that appears reinforced by Noa’s puzzling new abilities. Now Noa, working as a paramedic in gritty Oregon neighborhoods, attempts to fathom his expanding abilities; in Washington, his older brother Dean hurtles into the world of elite college athletics; and in California, risk-addicted younger sister Kaui navigates unforgiving academic and wilderness landscapes to forge her independence from the family’s legacy. (As the winner of Camp ToB 2020, Sharks in the Time of Saviors receives an automatic berth in the 2020 Tournament of Books.)

 

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie’s mother Agnes is married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, but keeps her pride by looking good. Under the surface, however, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away each week’s benefits on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see.

 

Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Born just 10 months apart, July and September are thick as thieves, never needing anyone but each other. Now, following a case of school bullying, the teens have moved away with their single mother to a long-abandoned family home near the shore. In their new, isolated life, July finds that the deep bond she has always shared with September is shifting in ways she cannot entirely understand. A creeping sense of dread and unease descends inside the house. Meanwhile, outside, the sisters push boundaries of behavior—until a series of shocking encounter tests the limits of their shared experience, and forces shocking revelations about the girls’ past and future.

 

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth by Meryem Alaoui

Thirty-four-year-old prostitute Jmiaa reflects on the bustling world around her with a brutal honesty, but also a quick wit that cuts through the drudgery. Like many of the women in her working-class Casablanca neighborhood, Jmiaa struggles to earn enough money to support herself and her young daughter. This daily grind is interrupted by the arrival of an aspiring young director, Chadlia, whom Jmiaa takes to calling “Horse Mouth.” Chadlia enlists Jmiaa’s help on a film project, initially just to make sure the plot and dialogue are authentic. But when she’s unable to find an actress who’s right for the starring role, she turns again to Jmiaa, giving the latter an incredible opportunity for a better life.

 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Alix Chamberlain is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night, walking the aisles of their local high-end supermarket. The store’s security guard, seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, accuses Emira of kidnapping the child. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make things right. But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.

 

Summer by Ali Smith

In the present, Sacha knows the world’s in trouble. Her brother Robert just is trouble. Their mother and father are having trouble. Meanwhile, the world’s in meltdown—and the real meltdown hasn’t even started yet. In the past, a lovely summer. A different brother and sister know they’re living on borrowed time. They’re family, but they think they’re strangers. So: Where does family begin? And what do people who think they’ve got nothing in common have in common?

 

Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar

When the famed photographer Miranda Brand died mysteriously at the height of her career, it sent shock waves through Callinas, Calif. Decades later, old wounds are reopened when her son, Theo, hires the ex-journalist Kate Aitken to create an archive of his mother’s work. As the summer progresses, Kate navigates vicious local rumors and her growing attraction to the enigmatic Theo, all while unearthing the shocking details of Miranda’s private life. But Kate has secrets of her own, and when she stumbles across a diary that may finally resolve the mystery of Miranda’s death, her curiosity starts to spiral into a dangerous obsession.

 

Telephone by Percival Everett

Zach Wells is a perpetually dissatisfied geologist-slash-paleobiologist. After a field trip to the desert yields nothing more than a colleague with a tenure problem and a student with an unwelcome crush on him, Wells returns home to find his world crumbling. His daughter has lost her edge at chess, she has developed mysterious eye problems, and her memory has lost its grasp. Powerless in the face of his daughter’s slow deterioration, he finds a mysterious note asking for help tucked into the pocket of a jacket he’s ordered off eBay. Desperate for someone to save, he sets off to New Mexico in secret on a quixotic rescue mission.

 

Temporary by Hilary Leichter

A young woman’s workplace is the size of the world. She fills increasingly bizarre placements in search of steadiness, connection, and something, at last, to call her own. Whether it’s shining an endless closet of shoes, swabbing the deck of a pirate ship, assisting an assassin, or filling in for the Chairman of the Board, for the mythical Temporary, “there is nothing more personal than doing your job.”

 

Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly. First, it was reported that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans. Then governments initiated the “Transition.” Now, eating human meat—“special meat”—is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing. Then one day he’s given a gift: a live specimen of the finest quality. Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden on pain of death, little by little he starts to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost—and what might still be saved.

 

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

When Paul and Julian meet as university freshmen in early ’70s Pittsburgh, they are immediately drawn to one another. Sensitive and incomprehensible to his working-class family, Paul sees the wealthy, charming Julian as his sole intellectual equal. As their friendship spirals into an all-consuming intimacy, Paul is desperate to protect their precarious bond, even as it becomes clear that pressures from the outside world are nothing compared with the brutality they are capable of inflicting on one another. But as their orbit compresses and their grip on one another tightens, they are drawn to an act of irrevocable violence that will force the young men to confront a shattering truth at the core of their relationship.

 

Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

Through conversations between women—the stories they tell each other, and the stories they tell themselves, about shame and love, infidelity and self-sabotage—our unnamed narrator careens through 20 years in a life hungry for experience and bent on upending her life.

 

Trans(re)lating House One by Poupeh Missaghi

In the aftermath of Iran’s 2009 election, a woman undertakes a search for the statues disappearing from Tehran’s public spaces. A chance meeting alters her trajectory, and the space between fiction and reality narrows. As she circles the city’s points of connection—teahouses, buses, galleries, hookah bars—her many questions are distilled into one: How do we translate loss into language?

 

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience, studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family’s loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive.

 

True Love by Sarah Gerard

Nina is a struggling writer, a college dropout, a liar, and a cheater. More than anything she wants love. She deserves it. From the burned-out suburbs of Florida to the anonymous squalor of New York City, she eats through an incestuous cast of characters in search of it: her mother, a narcissistic lesbian living in a nudist polycule; Odessa, a single mom with even worse taste in men than Nina; Seth, an artist whose latest show is comprised of three Tupperware containers full of trash; Brian, whose rollercoaster affair with Nina is the most stable “relationship” in his life; and Aaron, an aspiring filmmaker living at home with his parents, with whom Nina begins to write her magnum opus.

 

Two Blankets, Three Sheets by Rodaan Al Galidi

Amsterdam Airport, 1998. Samir Karim steps off a plane from Vietnam, flushes his fake passport down the toilet, and requests asylum. Fleeing Iraq to avoid conscription into Saddam Hussein’s army, he has spent seven years anonymously wandering through Asia. Now safely in the heart of Europe, he is sent to an asylum center and assigned a bed in a shared dorm—where he will spend the next nine years. As he navigates his way around the absurdities of Dutch bureaucracy, Samir tries his best to get along with his 500 new housemates.

 

Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Baja California, 1979. Viridiana spends her days watching the dead sharks piled beside the seashore, as the fishermen pull their nets. Three wealthy American tourists arrive for the summer, and Viridiana is magnetized. She immediately becomes entwined in the glamorous foreigners’ lives. They offer excitement, and perhaps an escape from the promise of a humdrum future. When one of them dies, Viridiana lies to protect her friends. Soon enough, someone’s asking questions, and Viridiana has some of her own about the identity of her new acquaintances. Sharks may be dangerous, but there are worse predators nearby, ready to devour a naïve young woman who is quickly being tangled in a web of deceit.

 

Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah

Twenty-eight-year-old Ayami walks the streets of Seoul with her former boss late into the night, searching for a mutual friend who is missing. Their conversations take in art, love, food, and the inaccessible country to the north. The next day, Ayami acts as a guide for a detective novelist visiting from abroad. Almost immediately, in the heat of Seoul at the height of the summer, order gives way to chaos as the edges of reality start to fray. Ayami enters a world of increasingly tangled threads, and the past intrudes upon the present as overlapping realities repeat, collide, change, and reassert themselves.

 

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

It’s February 1976, and Odessa, Texas, stands on the cusp of the next great oil boom. In the early hours of the morning after Valentine’s Day, 14-year-old Gloria Ramírez appears on the front porch of Mary Rose Whitehead’s ranch house, broken and barely alive. The teenager had been viciously attacked in a nearby oil field—an act of brutality that is tried in the churches and barrooms of Odessa before it can reach a court of law. When justice is evasive, one of the town’s women decides to take matters into her own hands, setting the stage for a showdown with potentially devastating consequences.

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age 16, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?

 

Want by Lynn Steger Strong

Elizabeth has found herself with two kids, a husband, two jobs, a PhD—and now they’re filing for bankruptcy. As she tries to balance her dream and the impossibility of striving toward it while her work and home lives feel poised to fall apart, she wakes at ungodly hours to run miles by the icy river, struggling to quiet her thoughts. When she reaches out to Sasha, her long-lost childhood friend, it feels almost harmless—one of those innocuous ruptures that exist online, in texts. But her timing is uncanny. Sasha is facing a crisis, too, and perhaps after years apart, their shared moments of crux can bring them back into each other’s lives.

 

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

In the coastal town of Danvers, Mass., where the accusations began that led to the 1692 witch trials, the 1989 Danvers High School Falcons field hockey team will do anything to make it to the state finals—even if it means tapping into some devilishly dark powers. Helmed by good-girl captain Abby Putnam (a descendant of the infamous Salem accuser Ann Putnam) and her co-captain Jen Fiorenza (whose bleached-blonde “Claw” sees and knows all), the Falcons prove to be wily, original, and bold, flaunting society’s stale notions of femininity in order to find their glorious true selves through the crucible of team sport and, more importantly, friendship.

biopic

The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s next book, Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles (June 2021), is available for pre-order. For his magazine articles and other books, try rosecransbaldwin.com. More by The Tournament of Books Staff