The 34 best books we've read during the pandemic
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- We’ve read a lot in quarantine — be it by way of audiobooks or hardcovers.
- Below, you’ll find the Insider staff’s favorite books from the past year, from light rom-coms to sobering memoirs.
- The list includes reviews of bestsellers like “The Vanishing Half,” “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone,” and “Dark Money.”
After a year in isolation, we’ve figured out which activities make us feel most good. (Read: happy, relaxed, entertained, or — hey, we’ll settle for it — simply distracted). We’ve started (and abandoned) sourdough starters, cranked out endorphins in at-home workouts, and tried to call our friends more instead of scrolling through Instagram.
One of those feels-very-good activities has been reading. A great book is an under-$20 ticket to hours of escapism. It’s the thing we call our friends to talk about — or send to their door as a “sorry my capacity for talking is so low right now, but I’m thinking of you” gift.
Here, we’re sharing the stories that knocked us off our feet this year — the ones that made us laugh, expanded our thinking, or just gave us a trilogy’s-worth of respite from our “Emily in Paris” binges. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did.
34 of the best books we read this year in quarantine:
"The Vanishing Half"
“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett, $16.20, available at Amazon
This was one of those books I read really quickly and then veeeeeery slowly on the last few pages as a subconscious way to make it last longer. It tells the story of two Black twin sisters who leave their small fictional town in the 1950s — only to have their paths diverge when one sister leaves with no warning to start a new life passing as a white woman (and hiding her past from her husband and daughter). Spanning decades, this deeply cinematic and heartwrenching story explores the split lives of the sisters, always hovering over whether they’ll ever meet again. —Julia Pugachevsky, e-learning editor
'Maybe You Should Talk to Someone'
‘Maybe You Should Talk to Someone’ by Lori Gottlieb, $17.29, available at Amazon
In “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone,” psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb takes us into the sessions and lives of her patients — a Hollywood producer, a young newlywed with a terminal illness, a twenty-something with dissatisfying relationships, and an isolated senior citizen — while unspooling the parallel story of her own simultaneous therapy sessions. Gottlieb leads us through these intimate vignettes with candor, wit, and a conversational tone that makes therapy exceedingly approachable — and appealing.
It helps you learn useful truths and invites you to face some of the fears we all harbor — like vulnerability — without putting all of your own skin in the game. It’s one reason why I finally decided to go to therapy. —Mara Leighton, senior reporter
'Such a Fun Age'
‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid, $9.67, available at Amazon
This is a coming-of-age novel that explores racism, prejudice, and hypocrisy. Although the topics are tough, Kiley Reid manages to make it a fun (even funny) read. It was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. —Laura Grace Tarpley, PFI associate editor
"The Naked Truth"
“The Naked Truth” by Leslie Morgan, $16.59, available at Amazon
I know that, at 31, I’m not necessarily the target audience for a memoir about a 50-something divorced mother reclaiming her sexuality by casually dating around Philadelphia, but I couldn’t put this book down. I read it in just a day and a half. Leslie Morgan’s memoir strikes the perfect balance between a steamy beach read and a touching work of introspection. Through her experiment, she grapples with the idea of what a “good” woman of a certain age should be doing and what she actually wants out of life, love, and sex. It made me examine my own ideas around sex and aging while also being just a seriously fun read. — Maria Del Russo, style and beauty guides editor
"Girl, Woman, Other"
“Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo, $14.43, available at Amazon
It’s hard to sum up “Girl, Woman, Other” since it deftly meanders into the lives, backstories, and thoughts of so many people, turning what you initially think are small side characters into fully fleshed out individuals in their own right. It follows numerous (mostly Black, mostly British) women and weaves their stories together in unexpected ways that continue to surprise and delight as you get deeper into the novel. Fresh, moving, and unlike any other book I picked up in the last year, this book is well-deserving of its numerous accolades. —Hannah Freedman, associate travel editor
"No One Is Talking About This"
“No One Is Talking About This” by Patricia Lockwood, $17.83, available at Amazon
This book BLEW MY MIND. Especially since so many of us have probably been more online than ever during quarantine, it’s such a deep and necessary exploration of the dark side of being too plugged in on social media. The novel is abstract and broken down into small, non-linear fragments, which kind of feels like navigating Twitter (except actually rewarding). Eventually, an emergency text pulls the narrator out of her virtual world, the events that follow pushing her to question if her digital life is really as dimensional as she thinks it is. —Julia Pugachevsky, e-learning editor
'Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine'
“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman, $10.85, available at Amazon
The main character of this novel reminded me of Anne Hathaway’s character in “The Princess Diaries”: a lonely and quirky girl who transforms into a more confident and fulfilled version of herself. The subtle sarcasm and unique personality of Eleanor (Miss Oliphant, to be exact; once you read, you’ll understand) is one you’ll never forget. Not to mention, the ending was a jaw-dropper and the entire book focuses on seeking help when you need it most. Excellent is an understatement. —Victoria Giardina, buying guides fellow
"Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland'"
“Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” by Patrick Radden Keefe, $13.95, available at Amazon
“Say Nothing” is what you want every historical fiction book to be: so spellbinding that you can’t believe it’s not fiction. (I double-checked after the first chapter). Radden-Keefe is a master of narrative, and his talent is put to no better use than here, in the disorientation of The Troubles.
One of the book testimonials calls “Say Nothing” an “architectural feat” — and it is. Radden-Keefe constructs a brutally vivid, exquisitely fair account of a war-that-wasn’t-a-war by threading the needle of meticulous research through the lives of its larger-than-life actors — real people who oscillate between villain, hero, and, sometimes, martyr.
Having grown up in an Irish-American family, I found Radden-Keefe’s nuanced and unsparing exploration of collective memory, martyrdom, and a fascination with noble failure to be especially poignant. I can’t recommend it enough. —Mara Leighton, senior reporter
“The Waves” by Virginia Woolf, $12.60, available at Amazon
The experimental novel explores individuality, self, and community and was voted the 16th greatest British novel by BBC in 2015.
It consists of soliloquies across nine interludes by six different characters with distinctive personalities. This book is beautiful and poetic in language and blurs the lines between prose and poetry. These nine interludes flow from their childhood to adulthood to death by each character and they reflect on love, loneliness, fear, and understanding of life. I like how these characters examine their life through their thinking and experience, and link back to their most primitive memories from childhood! Highly recommend this book for people who enjoy reading poems and stream-of-consciousness. —Cathy Huang, e-commerce analyst
"The Wedding Date" series
“The Wedding Date” series by Jasmine Guillory, $49.95, available at Amazon
I actually read most of the books in this delightful romance series in 2019, but I read the 4th and 5th ones in 2020. Jasmine Guillory’s writing is clever, spirited, and fun. Her protagonists are strong Black women who know what they want and how to get it, whether it’s in matters of love, life, or work. The stories often connect to one another, so you get the fun surprise of characters coming back into the narrative after their happily ever afters. These romance novels don’t shy away from serious issues, either, and there are many frank conversations about race, privilege, wealth, and prejudice. —Malarie Gokey, deputy editor
"Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right"
“Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” by Jane Mayer, $15.28, available at Amazon
I’ve long known that money played a role in politics, but it wasn’t until I read this incredibly thorough and well-reported book that I learned about the pervasiveness and power of money’s influence in the American government. Author Jane Mayer does a great job unraveling the family history of the Koch brothers and showing exactly how they contributed to the rise of the radical right through think tanks, universities, and other groups you would typically think of as bipartisan. Yes, this book may leave you angry and jaded, but it also gives you a clear education on how and why American democracy is so broken today. —Connie Chen, home and kitchen senior reporter
"The Left Hand of Darkness"
“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin, $8.40, available at Amazon
A feminist sci-fi famous for examining androgyny, this was voted the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel in 1970.
I especially like the story setting that individuals on the Gethen planet are ambisexual, with no fixed sex. It explores sexual fluidity and further examines the effect of gender and sex on culture and society. I also like the part depicting the contrasts between different religions in the Gethen planet and the conflicts these groups experienced at the exposure of an unknown civilization. The book also reflects on the blending and conflicts between civilizations and questions the future and existence of humans. I recommend this book for people who are interested in sci-fi that includes anthropological perception. —Cathy Huang, e-commerce analyst
"Fleishman Is In Trouble"
“Fleishman Is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, $15.97, available at Amazon
This book was one of those rare, sucks-you-in-and-spits-you-out-24-hours-later gifts. In it, Taffy Brodesser-Akner — a writer already so beloved for her feature reporting — hilariously details the bewilderment, bitterness, and sexual emancipation of the recently divorced Toby Fleishman. After his ex-wife drops the kids off and simply disappears, it’s Fleishman’s self-righteousness that consoles him — but, eventually, even that must be re-examined.
I loved “Fleishman Is In Trouble” because it was funny and fresh and propulsive. But, I might have enjoyed its unembellished truth about interpersonal dynamics — hey, you know it when you see it — most. Truth, especially the revelatory or ingeniously precise kind, is cathartic right now — when everything has stalled and become murky. —Mara Leighton, senior reporter
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
“Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” by Steven Pinker, $14.99, available at Amazon
If you’re looking for hope in dark times, “Enlightenment Now” is the book for you. Author Steven Pinker takes a look at history and empirical research to argue that in just about every area we are living better lives than the generations before us. I like that he doesn’t use this to argue that people should stop whining or fighting for progress. Instead, he points out that only because people have fought for improvements are we able to enjoy healthier and longer lives. Interesting fact: on his blog, Bill Gates says “Enlightenment Now” is his favorite book. —James Brains, home and kitchen reporter
"Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking"
“Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain, $9.99, available at Amazon
This was a fitting read for a time marked by everyone staying home more. If you’re someone who identifies as shy or introverted (and always felt that this held you back in life), this thoroughly researched book will not only reassure you that you’re far from the only one who feels this way, but will also help you find your unique strengths. —Julia Pugachevsky, e-learning editor
"The Two Lives of Lydia Bird"
“The Two Lives of Lydia Bird” by Josie Silver, $14.98, available on Amazon
You’ve certainly seen the fan-favorite winter read, “One Day in December,” and Josie Silver impressed me yet again with her story of Lydia Bird. It’s the only book I’ve read that alternates chapters based on perspective; one will hone in on Lydia’s life when she’s awake, while the next focuses on how her life would play out if her late husband was still alive. It’s a magical tale of love, loss, and appreciating the little things that make you happy. —Victoria Giardina, buying guides fellow
“Little Bee” by Chris Cleave, $10.59, available at Amazon
Even the inside cover of this book is perfectly written. It reads, ‘We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is truly a special story and we don’t want to ruin it.’ I also don’t want to spoil the book, because going into the Little Bee blind allowed me to be surprised about all the exciting plot details and unexpected character developments. The story is told in a way where readers can feel like they have a firm grasp on the story, but then a change in narration exposes a new perspective on the plot that you’ll be shocked you didn’t know about chapters ago. Anyone looking for a book that keeps them engaged and explores multiculturalism, right and wrong, and difficult decisions should pick up a copy. —Lily Oberstein, associate story producer
"Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors"
“Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors” by Sonali Dev, $14.49, available at Amazon
My biggest pandemic confession is that I have been escaping into romance novels like never before. I can only handle so many heart-rending literary masterpieces that make me think right now, and there is nothing like a little bit of true love to make everything seem right in the world. I do, however, have criteria for romance novels: They need to have something extra, and this series by Sonali Dev has it in spades. The “it” factor here is cultural context that takes this love story several layers deeper. Dev weaves in Indian culture, traditions, and foods into this modern adaptation of the classic, “Pride and Prejudice.” I admit to having read these out of order. I read “Recipe for Persuasion” first, but they are better in order, as the stories are connected. The third volume is coming out in July, and I have it pre-ordered. —Malarie Gokey, deputy editor
"Red, White & Royal Blue"
“Red, White & Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston, $9.97, available at Amazon
I am incredibly late to the party by having read this in 2021, but this may be the truest example of “better late than never.” “Red, White & Royal Blue” near-perfectly encapsulates the convoluted yet empowering experience of growing into one’s queer identity, while the simultaneous plotlines of presidential elections and royal family ties make the world feel a bit more hopeful and far more loving. Casey McQuiston miraculously proves that romance novels can be authentic and profound, with the development of very human, very flawed characters that you’ll unquestionably root for. Best of all, you won’t have to wait long for McQuiston’s next novel, “One Last Stop.” — Emily Hein, story producer
"Clap When You Land"
“Clap When You Land” by Elizabeth Acevedo, $15.99, available at Amazon
It’s easy to become attached to the two half-sisters in this beautiful and emotional story written in free verse poetry. It deals with many themes, including loss, grief, and family relationships, and while it’s packaged as a YA novel, I think it’s a cathartic read for anyone during this difficult time. —Connie Chen, home and kitchen senior reporter
"A Little Life"
“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara, $14.98, available at Amazon
This mesmerizing novel by Hanya Yanagihara felt so real I had to remind myself it was fictional. Set in New York City, the book follows four best friends, each riddled with complexities that are all too familiar. In a raw, heavy story that depicts love, life, abuse, and trauma, Yanagihara’s beautiful writing walks the fine line between heart-wrenching and heart-filling. I love writing that stirs emotions and allows me to empathize with realities just outside my own, which this book strikes the nail far beyond the surface. Frankly, it may be the saddest book you’ve ever read, but it’s a special book that’ll resonate with any reader. —Jacqueline Saguin, style & beauty reviews fellow
"A Woman Is No Man"
“A Woman Is No Man” by Etaf Rum, $13.39, available at Amazon
This book follows one family of conservative Arab-American immigrants in Queens — specifically a mother and her daughter. It’s a heavy read, and there is a lot of generational trauma that is parsed over the course of the novel. But the author, Etaf Rum, spins a tale of loss and self-discovery that is both heartbreaking and wildly relatable, even to those of us who didn’t grow up in immigrant families. I can’t recommend it enough. Just make sure to read it with tissues. — Maria Del Russo, style and beauty guides editor
“Self Care” by Leigh Stein, $11, available at Amazon
This satire on corporate feminism had me cackling in between remembering some brutally bleak past work experiences. A delightfully dark comedy about a fictional wellness company called Richual, “Self Care” dives into the #girlboss leaders behind the pastel Instagrams, exploring the scandals and hypocrisies that lie dangerously close to the surface. —Julia Pugachevsky, e-learning editor
"City of Girls"
“City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert, $11.56, available at Amazon
There’s nothing quite like missing the city you live in. The pandemic made me miss New York so much it hurt my heart — even when I was there. While New York and I were locked in quarantine, I read this book to remember the city as it should be. It’s narrated by an elderly woman looking back on her life in New York as a young, naive girl and all the trouble she got into. It’s a story about loving yourself, learning by really living, and how a city can get inside your bones and change you forever. —Malarie Gokey, deputy editor
The "Red Rising" series
“Red Rising” by Pierce Brown, $10.15, available at Amazon
This sci-fi series is ‘Hunger Games’ on Mars, plus some. The character and universe development is incredibly detailed, enough to lock me in for five-plus-hour reading marathons most weekends over the last few months as I’ve worked my way through all five books of the series back-to-back. —Rachael Schultz, health and fitness updates editor
"The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue"
“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab, $13.99, available at Amazon
Addie LaRue makes a deal with the devil to live forever — but is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets the second they leave her sight. She spends 300 years forging relationships that last for a day, traveling the world, and inspiring the creation of great works of art to try and leave something behind. All the while, she’s taunted by her own personal devil: the only one who still remembers her name. Until one day, she meets a man who remembers her — and everything changes. This book is unlike anything I’ve ever read. It bends and transcends genre, twisting through time to hit upon universal truths about love, loneliness, and creation. I ended up reading several of V. E. Schwab’s other books right after I finished this one, and they are all spectacularly different, but the beautiful use of language is always the same. —Malarie Gokey, deputy editor
"The Marriage Game"
“The Marriage Game” by Sara Desai, $13.79, available at Amazon
Romance fiction is comparable to rom-coms: cute, funny, and easy to get through. Such is the case with Sara Desai’s novel, touching on cultural traditions, staying true to your individuality, and following your intuition when it comes to love. The characters and vivid descriptions captivated me, and I finished this book in two days. —Victoria Giardina, buying guides fellow
“Luster” by Raven Leilani, $13.99, available at Amazon
Edie is, hands down, one of my favorite literary narrators in a long time, funny and flawed and fleshed out in a way few millennial protagonists are. Trudging between her low-paying publishing job and bleak Brooklyn apartment, she starts seeing Eric, a digital archivist with a wife and home in New Jersey. As all three they navigate an open marriage, Edie tries to slowly find a place for herself in the world, despite how chaotic it may be. —Julia Pugachevsky, e-learning editor
The "Shades of Magic" trilogy
“Shades of Magic” trilogy by V.E. Schwab, $32.97, available at Amazon
I read this series right after “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” because I loved the author’s writing so much. This fantasy series is entirely different from Addie’s story, and as someone who’s always loved escaping to magical worlds, it was right up my alley. In this universe, there are three parallel Londons, and only a few rare magicians can travel between them. In one London, magic is gone entirely; in another, it is vibrant and alive; and in the third, it is slowly dying. This story follows the last traveling magicians as they serve as envoys for the rulers of their respective Londons and the battles that break out as each tries to claim magic as their own. —Malarie Gokey, deputy editor
“The Flatshare” by Beth O’Leary, $15.29, available at Amazon
If you are a hopeless romantic and adore hearing people’s how-we-met stories, Beth O’Leary’s whimsical and cute novel is for you. The plot is unique and dives into finding love in unexpected ways — even if that involves two roommates from two completely different worlds. It’s definitely a five-star read and one of my favorite fictional plotlines in a long time. —Victoria Giardina, buying guides fellow
“American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins, $16.75, available at Amazon
This fictional recount of a (very endearing, book-loving) Mexican mother trying to escape cartel violence and make it to the safety of America was easily my most gripping read of 2020. Anyone even remotely interested in learning why Mexicans might immigrate illegally and what they actually have to go through to get into America will not be able to put this book down. —Rachael Schultz, health and fitness updates editor
- Note: “American Dirt” has been a lightning rod for discussions around appropriation and the white gaze in literature. For more context on the book’s controversy, read this breakdown.
"The Mirror & the Light"
“The Mirror & the Light” by Hilary Mantel, $14, available at Amazon
If you love historical fiction, you have to read Hilary Mantel’s trilogy following the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. This is the third and final volume in the trilogy, and it is just as wonderful as the two that came before it. It’s written in such a way that you are both within and without Cromwell’s mind. It’s beautiful and tragic because we all know how this story ends — with Cromwell a head short — but all the while you can’t help but hope that he can turn things around and survive, just like he always has. —Malarie Gokey, deputy editor
"The Wedding War"
‘The Wedding War’ by Liz Talley, $8.49, available at Amazon
I’ve read almost everything written by Emily Giffin and if you’re a fan of “Something Borrowed,” you need to run and get this book. I picked it up when I was browsing the library shelves recently and it’s a love triangle-driven, best friend-drama book you won’t put down. That said, it’s precisely the same storyline as Giffin’s bestseller, but with a twist. Aside from Melanie marrying her best friend’s ex-boyfriend, the ex-best friends’ children are engaged and planning a wedding. It’s a page-turner filled with beautifully-pieced descriptions and dynamic scenes that will have you turning every page with wonder. —Victoria Giardina, buying guides fellow
"A History of the World in Six Glasses"
“A History of the World in Six Glasses” by Tom Standage, $11.99, available at Amazon
The six most popular drinks in the world — beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coke — each get their own dedicated history treatment in this book. It gave me a newfound appreciation of beverages we drink every day as well as an undeniable urge to sip each drink as it was discussed. Each section is an overview, so I sometimes wished it went into more detail at times, but it’s still a great way to learn about how different drinks contributed to the economies and built the cultures of various countries. —Connie Chen, home and kitchen senior reporter
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