The 10 Best Books of 2020
A Children’s Bible By Lydia Millet
In Millet’s latest novel, a bevy of kids and their middle-aged parents convene for the summer at a country house in America’s Northeast. While the grown-ups indulge (pills, benders, bed-hopping), the kids, disaffected teenagers and their parentally neglected younger siblings, look on with mounting disgust. But what begins as generational comedy soon takes a darker turn, as climate collapse and societal breakdown encroach. The ensuing chaos is underscored by scenes and symbols repurposed from the Bible — a man on a blowup raft among the reeds, animals rescued from a deluge into the back of a van, a baby born in a manger. With an unfailingly light touch, Millet delivers a wry fable about climate change, imbuing foundational myths with new meaning and, finally, hope.
Deacon King Kong By James McBride
A mystery story, a crime novel, an urban farce, a sociological portrait of late-1960s Brooklyn: McBride’s novel contains multitudes. At its rollicking heart is Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, a.k.a. Sportcoat, veteran resident of the Causeway Housing Projects, widower, churchgoer, odd-jobber, home brew-tippler and, now, after inexplicably shooting an ear clean off a local drug dealer, a wanted man. The elastic plot expands to encompass rival drug crews, an Italian smuggler, buried treasure, church sisters and Sportcoat’s long-dead wife, still nagging from beyond the grave. McBride, the author of the National Book Award-winning novel “The Good Lord Bird” and the memoir “The Color of Water,” among other books, conducts his antic symphony with deep feeling, never losing sight of the suffering and inequity within the merriment.
Hamnet By Maggie O’Farrell
A bold feat of imagination and empathy, this novel gives flesh and feeling to a historical mystery: how the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet, in 1596, may have shaped his play “Hamlet,” written a few years later. O’Farrell, an Irish-born novelist, conjures with sensual vividness the world of the playwright’s hometown: the tang of new leather in his cantankerous father’s glove shop; the scent of apples in the storage shed where he first kisses Agnes, the farmer’s daughter and gifted healer who becomes his wife; and, not least, the devastation that befalls her when she cannot save her son from the plague. The novel is a portrait of unspeakable grief wreathed in great beauty.
Homeland Elegies By Ayad Akhtar
At once personal and political, Akhtar’s second novel can read like a collection of pitch-perfect essays that give shape to a prismatic identity. We begin with Walt Whitman, with a soaring overture to America and a dream of national belonging — which the narrator methodically dismantles in the virtuosic chapters that follow. The lure and ruin of capital, the wounds of 9/11, the bitter pill of cultural rejection: Akhtar pulls no punches critiquing the country’s most dominant narratives. He returns frequently to the subject of his father, a Pakistani immigrant and onetime doctor to Donald Trump, seeking in his life the answer to a burning question: What, after all, does it take to be an American?
The Vanishing Half By Brit Bennett
Beneath the polished surface and enthralling plotlines of Bennett’s second novel, after her much admired “The Mothers,” lies a provocative meditation on the possibilities and limits of self-definition. Alternating sections recount the separate fates of Stella and Desiree, twin sisters from a Black Louisiana town during Jim Crow, whose residents pride themselves on their light skin. When Stella decides to pass for white, the sisters’ lives diverge, only to intersect unexpectedly, years later. Bennett has constructed her novel with great care, populating it with characters, including a trans man and an actress, who invite us to consider how identity is both chosen and imposed, and the degree to which “passing” may describe a phenomenon more common than we think.
Hidden Valley Road By Robert Kolker
Don and Mimi Galvin had the first of their 12 children in 1945. Intelligence and good looks ran in the family, but so, it turns out, did mental illness: By the mid-1970s, six of the 10 Galvin sons had developed schizophrenia. “For a family, schizophrenia is, primarily, a felt experience, as if the foundation of the family is permanently tilted,” Kolker writes. His is a feat of narrative journalism but also a study in empathy; he unspools the stories of the Galvin siblings with enormous compassion while tracing the scientific advances in treating the illness.
A Promised Land By Barack Obama
Presidential memoirs are meant to inform, to burnish reputations and, to a certain extent, to shape the course of history, and Obama’s is no exception. What sets it apart from his predecessors’ books is the remarkable degree of introspection. He invites the reader inside his head as he ponders life-or-death issues of national security, examining every detail of his decision-making; he describes what it’s like to endure the bruising legislative process and lays out his thinking on health care reform and the economic crisis. An easy, elegant writer, he studs his narrative with affectionate family anecdotes and thumbnail sketches of world leaders and colleagues. “A Promised Land” is the first of two volumes — it ends in 2011 — and it is as contemplative and measured as the former president himself.
Shakespeare in a Divided America By James Shapiro
In his latest book, the author of “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” and “1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare” has outdone himself. He takes two huge cultural hyper-objects — Shakespeare and America — and dissects the effects of their collision. Each chapter centers on a year with a different thematic focus. The first chapter, “1833: Miscegenation,” revolves around John Quincy Adams and his obsessive hatred of Desdemona. The last chapter, “2017: Left | Right,” where Shapiro truly soars, analyzes the notorious Central Park production of “Julius Caesar.” By this point it is clear that the real subject of the book is not Shakespeare plays, but us, the U.S.
Uncanny Valley By Anna Wiener
Wiener’s stylish memoir is an uncommonly literary chronicle of tech-world disillusionment. Soured on her job as an underpaid assistant at a literary agency in New York, Wiener, then in her mid-20s, heads west, heeding the siren call of Bay Area start-ups aglow with optimism, vitality and cash. A series of unglamorous jobs — in various customer support positions — follow. But Wiener’s unobtrusive perch turns out to be a boon, providing an unparalleled vantage point from which to scrutinize her field. The result is a scrupulously observed and quietly damning exposé of the yawning gap between an industry’s public idealism and its internal iniquities.
War By Margaret MacMillan
This is a short book but a rich one with a profound theme. MacMillan argues that war — fighting and killing — is so intimately bound up with what it means to be human that viewing it as an aberration misses the point. War has led to many of civilization’s great disasters but also to many of civilization’s greatest achievements. It’s all around us, influencing everything we see and do; it’s in our bones. MacMillan writes with impressive ease. Practically every page of her book is interesting and, despite the grimness of its argument, even entertaining.
Source: New York Times; A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 13, 2020, Page 14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The 10 Best Books of 2020.
Decorating sugar cookies always seems like a good idea, but they never quite turn out like the ones baked by the professionals. Even if you stick to the recipe you've been baking for decades, there are a handful of tips to keep in mind to make sure your cookies don’t crumble. Follow these tips—which span from dough to delivery—to make the best sugar cookies of all time, and get ready for Christmas cookie success.
1.) Make the Dough Ahead of Time
Get the Recipe: Basic Sugar Cookie Dough
Trying to roll out freshly made sugar cookie dough is nearly impossible. It’s too soft, too sticky, and totally unwieldy. It can be tempting to just stick the soft dough in the freezer to speed things up, but that won’t work either: The dough will be frozen on the outside and too soft on the inside. The verdict? It’s a good idea to make it at least a day before you bake. In fact, dough will last double-wrapped in the freezer for more than a month, and can be kept in the fridge for three to four days. “I go ahead and portion the dough into little balls and chill them on a cookie sheet, then put the chilled cookie balls in a bag in the freezer to use later,” says Sarah Rich, pastry chef at Rich Table in San Francisco, Calif. When you’re ready to bake, let the dough thaw slightly, then roll between two sheets of parchment paper to just under a quarter-inch thick, says Jen Yee, head of the pastry program at Lafayette in New York City. The chilling process also gives the gluten in the dough time to relax, which makes for a more tender cookie.
2.) Take Your Time Rolling the Dough
That said, trying to roll just-out-of-the-fridge dough can be super frustrating. Even with all your weight and good intentions focused on the rolling pin, the dough can crack from the edges inward. Instead of battling the fissures, pull the dough out about 15 minutes before you’re ready to roll. Unwrap the dough, place it on a lightly floured surface, and give it a few whacks with your rolling pin to encourage the dough to soften. Then, roll on. If at any point the dough gets super soft (i.e., holds an indent when pressed with your finger) transfer it to a parchment-lined baking sheet and stick it in the fridge for a couple of minutes. Repeat as often as necessary until all your cut outs are cut out.
3.) Don't Overwork the Dough
There are a few ways to prevent your cookies from ballooning in the oven. For starters, be gentle when mixing your ingredients together. “Over-creaming your butter can aerate the dough, which will cause your cookies to expand in the oven and collapse upon cooling,” Yee says. “Be sure to just work the butter enough to homogenize with the rest of the ingredients.”
4.) Use a Bench Scraper
A bench scraper or great big spatula is a dough-rollers best friend. Use it to gently get under and lift up the dough so you can keep it from sticking to the surface. This allows you to use a lot less flour on the surface (excess can make for tough cookies), and moving the dough as you roll makes an evenly rolled sheet of dough more accessible. Chances are you’re consistently putting more pressure on one area of the dough (it’s OK, we all do it). Rotating as you roll helps you compensate for any irregularity—or super strength—in your rolling.
5.) Chill Again After the Cookies Are Formed
Once you’ve cut the dough into shapes, put the cookies back into the refrigerator before baking, says Chris Hanmer, chef and owner of CH Patisserie in Sioux Falls, S.D., and winner of Bravo’s Top Chef Just Desserts. Why? Whether you’re making simple snowball cookies or plan to decorate cut out shapes, a quick chill in the freezer after your cookies are formed or punched out will help your cookies hold a well-defined edge even after baking. Cold dough means cold butter. The colder the butter, the slower it melts helping cookies of all shapes—especially ones with more intricate details (looking at you, Rudolph)—hold their edge.
6.) Set a Timer While Baking (and Watch It)
A friendly reminder that all ovens are not created equal. Neither are all cookie sheets, or eggs, or cups of flour. All those little variations can mean big differences in your finished product. Those are just a few of the reasons we give you a range for the finished cooking or baking time. For the best odds, set your timer at the low end of the range, say 12 minutes for a 12 to 15 minute cookie. Take a look at the cookies. Now look at the recipe. What are you looking for? Golden Brown? Dry and firm to the touch? Remember, you’re baking to the indicator, not the time. If you have to add a few more minutes (even if it's longer than the recipe says), keep going. Your cookies will thank you for it.
7.) Embrace Royal Icing
Royal icing (a mixture of powdered sugar and egg whites) is what gives bakery-made cookies their professional sheen. The best part? You don’t have to follow an exact recipe, Hanmer says: “The icing will tell you what it’s doing. If it’s too liquidy, add powdered sugar. If it’s too thick, add milk or water.” Add acid (in the form of lemon juice or cream of tartar) to help the icing dry more quickly, and experiment with different colors using gel paste coloring.
8.) Work Quickly When Decorating
The first step in decorating is to apply the icing, which involves piping the border with a piping bag, then filling in the center. Yee recommends making two consistencies of royal icing, one for each step. “You want a firm icing for the border, and a looser one to fill or ’flood’ in the border, which can be done by adding a touch of water to your ’flooding’ icing,” she says. You can use a piping bag, an offset spatula, or a paring knife to frost the center, and toothpicks can help to make designs, spread icing into detailed corners, and pick up mistakes.
Quickly add the sprinkles while the icing is still wet and tacky—within two minutes of frosting. Though the surface of the icing will feel dry after about 10 minutes, it’s important to let it fully harden for about four hours. And don’t stress too much about achieving perfection, she says: “Be patient and have fun! They’re cookies, so do yourself a favor and don’t take the icing too seriously.”
9.) Get Creative With Your Tools
You can still whip up picture-perfect cookies without professional-grade equipment. If you don’t have a piping bag (though they can be easily found in craft stores), use a squeeze bottle or create a “cornet,” which involves rolling parchment paper into a cone and snipping the tip to the size of your liking. And don’t fret if you’re lacking in the cookie cutter department. “Some cutters can be turned upside down or sideways to [make] a new creation,” says Summer Bailey, pastry chef at The Dutch in New York City.
10.) Be Strategic With Transportation
If you’re planning on transporting or packing the finished cookies for shipping, choose to bake rounder, less complicated shapes. “Snowmen will ship a lot better than snowflakes,” Hanmer says. In terms of packing them up, place the cookies in flattened paper muffin cups to keep them separated, and use tissue or crinkle paper as padding, Yee suggests. And though it may seem counterintuitive, load in as many as you can. “The more you can carefully pack into a container and the less that they move, the better,” Hanmer says.
11.) Store Sugar Cookies Correctly
Once you've made the perfect batch, you'll need to know how to store sugar cookies so they stay fresh for as long as possible. If you like your holiday cookies soft and chewy, head to the bread box. “A slice of white or potato bread helps prevent soft cookies from drying out,” says cookbook author Jessie Sheehan. Place the cookies in an airtight plastic container, separating layers with parchment paper, then drop in a slice of bread. The cookies will draw moisture from the bread, which will help keep them from getting stale (and harder than a lump of coal). If you’re on Team Crispy Cookie, reach for a glass container—or better yet, reheat them in a 300°F oven for no more than five minutes. And remember that cookies play by bagel rules: Store flavors separately, or they’ll all taste like everything.
Source: Real Simple Magazine By Betty Gold and Grace Elkus
Updated November 23, 2020
The holiday season is upon us, and this is good news for folks who have all of the holiday spirit and can’t watch those Hallmark movies fast enough. We too especially love this time of the year. Our holiday playlist has been on repeat for weeks and we've already put up our Christmas trees. We love this time of year! That being said, here's a list of holiday themed YA books for readers of all ages to enjoy. And no, you don't have to be a young adult/teen to read them! So get in the holiday spirit with us and read one of these holiday themed YA books. They're sure to bring the romance and remind readers of their favorite Hallmark movies.
#ALLIWANTFORCHRISTMAS: A SWEET YA CHRISTMAS ROMANCE BY YESENIA VARGAS
Christmas Eve is right around the corner, but enjoying the perfect Christmas is looking more impossible than ever for these five friends. Ella’s Prince Charming is caught in a snowstorm. Lena is just over the holidays in general. Harper needs another $100 for a family in need. Tori is more concerned with balloon colors than her boyfriend, and Rey just feels forever alone. Will their first Christmas together as friends be a flop?
CAROLS AND CHAOS BY CINDY ANSTEY
For fans of Jane Austen, Downton Abbey, and of course, Hallmark movies comes this companion novel to Suitors and Sabotage set during the Yuletide season of 1817. Lady’s maid Kate Darby has her hands full between performing her household duties at the Shackleford Park country estate and caring for her ailing mother. Matt Harlow is also busy acting as valet for the Steeple brothers, two of the estate’s holiday guests. Falling in love would be a disaster for both of them, but resisting their feelings for each other becomes the least of their problems when Kate and Matt unwittingly become swept up in a devious counterfeiting scheme.
DECKED WITH HOLLY BY MARNI BATES
A Christmas cruise with her two cousins is not Holly’s idea of a good time. The trip doesn’t get better when she gets seasick and then pepper-sprayed by a cute guy named Nick who is actually Dominic Wyatt, a drummer from one of the hottest boy bands. Soon, Holly’s face is plastered all over the internet, and rumors are flying. The band can’t risk destroying their family-friendly image, so Dominic convinces Holly to be his fake girlfriend for the next two weeks.
EX-MAS: A LOVE/HATE STORY BY KATE BRIAN
Lila Beckwith is ready to throw an epic holiday party while her parents are out of town. Lila’s big plans are soon spoiled when her Christmas-obsessed little brother Cooper takes off with his best friend Tyler to save Santa. Lila has to bring Cooper back home safely before her parents return on Christmas Eve, but the only person who can help is Tyler’s older brother Beau, who also happens to be Lila’s ex-boyfriend. It may take more than a Christmas miracle for Lila and Beau to overcome their differences and find their brothers.
FRENCH KISSMAS BY CATHY HAPKA
Christmas in Paris is like a homecoming for Nicole Larson. A year ago, Nic studied abroad in Paris and is now back with her friend Annike to spend the holiday season in the City of Light. Almost instantly, Nic is once again rekindling her romance with Parisian hottie Luc, but what is the point of reigniting something that will only last for a few weeks? Instead, Nic prefers spending her time with new friend Mike…until it becomes clear Mike is also interested in being more than just friends.
LET IT SNOW: THREE HOLIDAY ROMANCES BY JOHN GREEN, MAUREEN JOHNSON, AND LAUREN MYRACLE
Comprised of three separate but intertwined stories, Let It Snow follows three Gracetown teenagers during a huge snow storm on Christmas Eve. The Jubilee Express by Maureen Johnson follows Jubilee Dougal who is forced to spend Christmas Eve with her grandparents instead of her boyfriend Noah. A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle by John Green begins with Tobin and his friends, the Duke and JP, being lured to the local Waffle House by their friend Keun. In The Patron Saint of Pigs by Lauren Myracle, Addie deals with a recent breakup.
After reading Let It Snow, stream the Netflix adaptation!
MY NEW CRUSH GAVE TO ME BY SHANI PETROFF
The only thing Charlie Donovan wants for Christmas is Teo Ortiz. He barely knows she exists, but Charlie is determined to be Teo’s date to the Christmas Ball. All Charlie has to do is rig the school paper’s Secret Santa and win Teo’s heart with the perfect gift. To succeed, Charlie needs the help of J.D. Ortiz, Teo’s cousin. He is the most annoying person Charlie’s ever met, but J.D. is willing to give Charlie insight into what Teo wants. Yet, as Charlie spends more time with J.D., she begins to wonder if she knows what (or who) she really wants for Christmas after all.
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU BY LAURA SILVERMAN
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before meets You’ve Got Mail in this YA holiday romcom about rival teen booksellers. Shoshanna Greenberg loves working at her favorite local bookstore Once Upon. When her boss announces a holiday bonus to the employee who sells the most books, Shoshanna sees an opportunity to make enough money to fix her car. The only person standing in her way is the store’s new hire Jake Kaplan. Jake doesn’t even read, but his sales soon begin to rival Shoshanna’s. Jake may be handsome, single, and Jewish, which is hard to find in Atlanta, but to Shoshanna, Jake is the enemy. She is ready to take him down, but the competition seems to bring them closer.
SECRET SANTA BY SABRINA JAMES
Hopeless romantic Noelle just knows her Secret Santa gift is from her crush Charlie. Froggy the super geek likes the super popular Celia and plans to use being her Secret Santa to reveal his feelings, but Celia has a crush on resident bad boy Jake. Celia thinks her presents are from him. Lily just wants to give Connor a great gift because she loves Christmas, but her gifts are making Connor’s girlfriend jealous. All will be revealed at the Winter Dance, and there’s more than one surprise waiting under the mistletoe.
SNOW IN LOVE BY MELISSA DE LA CRUZ, NIC STONE, AIMEE FRIEDMAN, AND KASIE WEST
What’s better than one cozy holiday story? Four stories written by some of the bestselling YA authors. Kasie West shares a snowy road trip taking an unexpected detour when secrets (and crushes) are revealed. From Aimee Friedman comes a story about a young Jewish woman who finds love while working as a department store elf. Melissa de la Cruz gives Christmas Eve a plot twist when a high school couple exchanges presents. Nic Stone’s story is about a scavenger hunt amid holiday crowds at the airport.
SNOWED IN BY RACHEL HAWTHORNE
If you’re looking for Christmas YA books that provide cozy winter vibes without all the Christmas, then Snowed In is the must-read book for you.
At 17 years old, Ashleigh is about to experience a lot of things for the first time. The first thing is snow, because she and her mom are moving from sunny Texas to icy Michigan. Living on the completely snowbound and tiny Mackinac Island means experiencing small-town life for the first time. The scariest new experience of them all is boys. Of course, there were boys in Texas, but Ashleigh has never met a boy as cute or irresistible as Josh Wynter.
TOGETHER AT MIDNIGHT BY JENNIFER CASTLE
Kendall, who just returned home from a life-altering semester abroad in Europe, and Max, who is going through a gap year, witness a tragic accident during the holiday season. Racked with guilt from the incident, the two decide to perform random acts of kindness for strangers around New York City. Max and Kendall can’t deny their growing bond as the challenge brings them closer together. As the clock counts down on New Year’s Eve, will their other romantic entanglements keep them apart or will Kendall and Max be together at midnight?
Source: Katisha Smith for Book Riot. Originally posted Oct 23, 2020.