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2020’s Best Books Based on True Stories

Book covers from left to right: 'The Scientist and the Spy', 'Fast Girls', and 'Jackie and Maria'.
Penguin Group/Harper Collins/Harper Collins

2020 has been the kind of year that future authors are sure to write plenty of books about, but for now, you’ll have to settle for these recently released true stories of decades past. From terrifying stories of true crimes to intriguing tales of lesser-known figures, these are some of the best books from 2020 that took their inspiration from real life.

The Scientist and the Spy

Growing corn isn’t usually what you think of when you imagine espionage thrillers, but that’s exactly what’s behind the true story of The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage by Mara Hvistendahl.

A trespassing investigation turns into an international agriculture and industrial espionage case as the FBI goes up against a former academic in a case over international trade secrets and a racially biased investigation.

Jack and Marie

Two of the most famous women in the world—political wife Jackie Kennedy and opera singer Maria Callas—find their lives increasingly overlapping in Gill Paul’s Jackie and Maria.

The novel is based on the real histories of these two women who lived controversial lives in the spotlight and found themselves entangled with a charming and brilliant billionaire named Aristotle Onassis.

The Book of Lost Friends

Instead of narrating a single true story, The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate is inspired by a real phenomenon in the post-Civil War South. Newly freed slaves would post “lost friends” advertisements in newspapers, searching for friends and family members who had been sold off to unknown parts.

The book alternates between the experiences of three women in the post-war era and the story of a teacher (a century later) who learns about their story and its connection to her present.

Tsarina

Before there was Catherine the Great, there was Catherine I of Russia, the woman at the center of Elle Alpsten’s Tsarina. Beginning life as an impoverished Polish-Lithuanian peasant named Marta, Catherine endures indignities and traumas. However, she eventually begins to work her way into favor with important Russians, rising in influence until she catches the eye of the brutal and brilliant Peter the Great himself.

Black Bottom Saints

In Black Bottom Saints, the real-life Detroit neighborhood of Black Bottom takes center stage in a fictionalized tale by Alice Randall. Former gossip columnist Ziggy Johnson provides the framing device: As his life comes to an end, he assembles a list of “saints”: the icons he knew and the stories he witnessed in this legendary place—all highlighting real figures of Black arts and culture.

Fast Girls

Elise Hooper’s Fast Girls takes a semi-fictional look at the 1936 women’s Olympic track and field team—the first integrated team sent to the Olympic Games. Against the backdrop of the rise of Nazi Germany and with the world moving closer to war, three women struggle against the limitations and expectations placed on them in order to change their destinies and compete as the fastest women in the world.

The Woman Before Wallis

History remembers Wallis Simpson as the woman who inspired a king to abdicate his throne, but Bryn Turnbull’s The Woman Before Wallis explores the affairs Edward VIII had before he fell for the American divorcée.

Thelma Morgan, an American diplomat’s daughter, marries into the British aristocracy and eventually starts an affair with the playboy prince, but she’s forced to leave him behind when she has to support her scandalous sister in America.

The Devil's Harvest

The Devil’s Harvest: A Ruthless Killer, a Terrorized Community, and the Search for Justice in California’s Central Valley by Jessica Garrison is a terrifying true crime story that’s also a social commentary about our most vulnerable communities.

The story tracks the crimes of a brutal hitman who evaded capture for decades—and explains how he flew under the radar by preying on the very people who are least protected by laws and communities.

The Mercies

You’ve probably never heard of the Vardø storm or the 1621 Norwegian witch trials, but Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies casts a haunting light on this terrifying true story.

After a witch-burning crusader arrives in a fishing village in Norway that’s mostly made up of women after the men were all killed in a storm, he becomes determined to wipe out what he perceives as the evil there, especially as his young wife becomes more and more intrigued by the independent lives of the village women.

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to LifeSavvy. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Her articles have appeared on HowlRound, Slate, Bustle, BroadwayWorld, and ThoughtCo, among others. Read Full Bio »

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