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10 big books for fall 2020

Elena Ferrante's latest, new fiction from the writer of "Beauitful Ruins," and a major reissue of John Edgar Wideman's Move bombing novel, "Philadelphia Fire.

"Vesper Flights" by Helen Macdonald and "Philadelphia Fire" by John Edgar Wideman.
"Vesper Flights" by Helen Macdonald and "Philadelphia Fire" by John Edgar Wideman.Read moreGrove Press / Simon and Schuster

The books in this list run the genre gamut — absurd satires, family dramas, murderous thrillers — but in a way they all feel a little sci-fi. Who are these carefree characters eating at restaurants, meeting strangers, hugging loved ones, leaving the house without an N95 and a gallon of hand sanitizer?

We really used to live that way, and hopefully we will again sometime soon. In the meantime, we’ve got a lot of good books to pass the time.

Available now

Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald. This collection of essays is Macdonald’s first book since H is for Hawk became a flyaway best seller in 2014. The British author once again points out the smaller wonders of the natural world while touching on grander themes of grief, change, and catastrophe. And once again birds are everywhere, from mute swans on the Thames to common swifts (who sometimes go a year without landing), as are nests, eggs, bones, birders, falconers, etc. Macdonald is a deeply personal and slyly political writer, and every essay is at least part memoir, but don’t expect purple or preachy prose. A naturalist to the core, she takes care to describe these often romanticized creatures without quite romanticizing them herself.

Luster, Raven Leilani. OK, so there’s this 20-something Brooklynite who works for a publishing company and looks for love in all the wrong places … Yeah, I yawned at that, too, but I was wrong. With its electric prose and lightning pace, Luster could be the most exciting and memorable novel you read this year. It’s a wild ride, sharing head space with young Black narrator Edie — a queen at quipping and overthinking at every opportunity — especially once she moves to the Jersey suburbs to live with her older white lover, his wife, and their adopted daughter. Just about every page crackles with humor and modern neuroses about sex, race, class, gender, age, you name it.

The Great Offshore Grounds, Vanessa Veselka. The talented Veselka is such a crafty, confident writer you don’t immediately grasp the absurdity of the journeys her characters are on. This was true in 2011′s bleakly satirical Zazen. And it’s true in Veselka’s marvelous new novel, in which two sisters hit the road in search of the woman who gave birth to one of them. In other words, either Livy or Cheyenne is adopted and they don’t know which. Things only get stranger with each turn of the page, but it’s cool because you’re in good hands.

The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante. If you skipped the Neapolitan Quartet because, like, three of the four books were already out by the time you even heard of it, well, here’s your chance to get on board with the Next Big Literary Thing from the get-go. Because it’s a safe bet that the mysterious Ferrante’s new stand-alone novel, about a teenage girl scouring Naples in search of the estranged aunt with whom she allegedly bears a resemblance, will be one of the most book-clubbed books of the year. (And then there’s the audiobook narrated by Marisa Tomei, the forthcoming Netflix series, collectible action figures, probably…)

Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi. In 2016, Gyasi burst onto the scene with Homegoing, an ambitious multigenerational, multi-perspective saga that won near-universal acclaim, a long run on the best-seller list, and a bunch of awards. Following up that kind of rookie success is no easy task, but here’s Gyasi with Transcendent Kingdom, a novel smaller in scope but still taut, emotional, and concerned with the larger forces that influence human lives. Our protagonist Gifty (like Gyasi, a young woman born in Ghana and raised in the American South) has escaped her Pentecostal upbringing to study neuroscience at Stanford, but finds her new life clashing with the old when her depressed, deeply religious mother moves in.

» READ MORE: Hold on tight for a wild, unpredictable ride in movie releases this fall

Coming Soon

These Violent Delights, Micah Nemerever (Sept. 15). We’re immediately rooting for the two college freshmen who start dating on the down-low at the start of Nemerever’s page-turning debut novel. It’s the ’70s and these kids are queer, lonely, and misunderstood by their families; it feels like a miracle they even found each other. But as their relationship gets more intense, we start to realize that under all Paul’s shyness and loyalty lies obsession and rage, and that Julian’s not just a silver-tongued charmer but also a sociopathic manipulator. It’s only a matter of time before things start to explode in this enthralling, unpredictable thriller.

The Constant Rabbit, Jasper Fforde (Sept. 29). Lots of different animals took on humanlike qualities in the Spontaneous Anthropomorphizing Event of 1965, but it’s mostly the rabbits that people are having trouble coexisting with. It’s partly an issue of numbers. In the beginning there were only 18 of them in the U.K., but it’s 55 years later and, since they’re rabbits, there are now more than a million of these walking, talking, adorable abominations moving in next door, looking for jobs, etc. For all its parallels to real-world issues (race, immigration, vegan fundamentalism), The Constant Rabbit feels a bit more Bojack Horseman than Planet of the Apes, and it’s nowhere near as heavy-hoofed as Animal Farm. It’s a dystopia, but a cute one.

Philadelphia Fire, John Edgar Wideman (Oct. 6). This daring and award-winning 1990 novel about a writer obsessively searching for a survivor of the MOVE bombing is one of two works by Wideman being reissued by Scribner in October, along with his 1984 memoir Brothers and Keepers. The author, now 79 and mostly based in New York, was a Penn professor when the City of Philadelphia firebombed homes on Osage Avenue in 1985, and you can feel that heat, that closeness as the story unfolds. Wideman’s quasi-cubist approach to storytelling — full of angular sentence shards and deft rule-breaking — explores multiple facets of the tragedy and sometimes drags the reader and the author himself onto the page.

The Cold Millions, Jess Walter (Oct. 6). Hard to believe it’s been eight years since Walter released Beautiful Ruins, aka the Book People Won’t Stop Recommending to Me. And everybody is right — it’s a charming satire/Hollywood love story that keeps you hooked the whole way through. Finally, Walter is cashing in on all that 2012 momentum with a follow-up that’s short on glamour but no less cinematic. Set in Spokane, Wash., in 1909, The Cold Millions is a Scorsese-esque period piece, populated by cops, drunks, variety girls, temperance ladies, job sharks, Pinkertons, Wobblies, etc. A great book to get lost in.

» READ MORE: Fall 2020 TV is happening. But it won’t be the same. Here’s what you can expect.

The Arrest, Jonathan Lethem (Nov. 10). Maybe what the world needs now is a light, almost escapist apocalypse to take our minds off the dumb, scary one we’re currently mired in. Lethem’s new novel more or less fits the bill, concerning as it does a couple of old pals who run into each other while toiling in a primitive, post-electronics heckscape. Well, most people are toiling. One dude’s joyriding around in a “nuclear-powered super car.”