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10 Best Books to Read This January

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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SUCH A FUN AGE

The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

The best of what science fiction can be: a thought-provoking, heart-rending story about the choices that define our lives.

THE VANISHED BIRDS

In this gorgeous debut novel, love becomes a force that can shatter space and time.

We first see Nia Imani through the eyes of someone she is always leaving behind: Kaeda, a boy growing up on a backwater planet visited once every 15 years by offworlders who come to collect its harvests. Nia is the captain of a faster-than-light ship that travels through Pocket Space. While Kaeda lives a decade and a half, Nia spends just a few months traveling between various resource-producing worlds like his, shipping goods for the powerful Umbai Company. It’s not until a mysterious boy falls out of the sky on Kaeda’s planet that Nia begins to form a connection she’s not willing to walk away from. The boy doesn’t talk, but he’s drawn to music, particularly a traditional workers’ song from Kaeda’s world: Take my day, but give me the night. Kaeda teaches the boy to play the flute, and the music speaks to Nia. But there’s something else about the boy, something that draws the attention of Fumiko Nakajima, the woman who designed the massive space stations that anchor this corporate-controlled empire. Something dangerous. Something that could change the universe. Spanning a thousand years, this sweeping novel takes the reader from the drowned cities of Old Earth to the vast reaches of Umbai corporate space but always anchors itself in human connection. Even characters whose lives are glimpsed only in passing, as waypoints along Nia’s time-skipping journeys, are fully realized and achingly alive on the page. This powerful, suspenseful story asks us to consider what we’d sacrifice for progress—or for the ones we love.

The best of what science fiction can be: a thought-provoking, heart-rending story about the choices that define our lives.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-12898-5

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Del Rey

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

A highly constructive analysis that provides many topics for exploration and discussion by parents and others who interact...

BOYS & SEX

YOUNG MEN ON HOOKUPS, LOVE, PORN, CONSENT, AND NAVIGATING THE NEW MASCULINITY

Candid information on what boys really think and do when it comes to sex.

After spending more than two decades examining the lives of girls, Orenstein (Girls & Sex, 2016, etc.) realized that “if I truly wanted to help promote safer, more enjoyable, more egalitarian, more humane sexual relationships among young people, I needed to go back into their world and have the other half of the conversation.” Boys and parents of boys will thank the author for her work as she shares the complex sexual world she discovered via interviews with more than 100 young men, psychologists, and other experts. She exposes the trashy locker-room talk prevalent in athletic circles and how it is difficult for boys to speak up against such behavior for fear of losing their own place in the male world. She gives graphic, sometimes unsettling descriptions of boys and their consumption of pornography, which many use as their only source of information on what a sexual relationship should entail. Orenstein also shares numerous stories about boys realizing their inappropriate behavior with girls, and she chronicles how, even while they feel shame and regret, they may still avoid self-criticism in order to fit in with their peers. The author is inclusive in her study, portraying the experiences of a wide variety of boys, including people of color and gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. Orenstein effectively covers the issue of consent and includes stories of men who have been aggressively forced into sex by girls, and she also shows how girls can damage a boy’s reputation by sharing specific details of an unsuccessful sexual encounter. Ultimately, the author’s research opens up a welcome forum for exploring “a hunger for more guidance about growing up, hooking up, and finding love in a new era.”

A highly constructive analysis that provides many topics for exploration and discussion by parents and others who interact with boys.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-266697-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

Brave and beautiful.

CLEANNESS

Greenwell depicts the emotionally haunted life of an expatriate American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria—who seems to be the same unnamed character who narrated his highly praised debut novel, What Belongs to You (2016).

At the heart of that last novel was Mitko, a gay hustler who fueled the narrator’s pained desire, then disgust, and ultimately empathy, but he doesn’t appear here. The narrator pushes more sexual boundaries this time, and Greenwell admirably pushes them too by depicting those desires with an unflinching frankness. Sadomasochism, unprotected sex, the narrator’s voyeuristic attraction to one of his students: They are all elements of the story, portrayed in Greenwell’s precise, elegant style. The narrator’s experience seems to align with Greenwell’s; the writer has acknowledged the autofictional nature of his writing. Depictions of rough sex bookend the novel, but it’s the narrator’s relationship with Portuguese student R., who appeared briefly in What Belongs to You, that occupies most of Greenwell’s attention. Both marooned in Sofia, the men are happy together until they acknowledge the futilities both of staying in Bulgaria and in a long-distance relationship. One of Greenwell’s talents is making everyday occurrences feel dramatic and full of ambivalence and nuance, but the scenes featuring the relationship at the heart of the novel suffer a bit in comparison to the dramatic sex depicted in other sections. Still, the simple beauty of the writing is something to behold. Here he is evoking a wind from Africa that assaults Sofia: “There was something almost malevolent about it, as if it were an intelligence, or at least an intention, carrying off whatever wasn’t secure, worrying every loose edge.”

Brave and beautiful.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-374-12458-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

A fast-paced blast from the past…and (who knows?) maybe the immediate future as well.

WESTWIND

Rankin fans ready for a break from Inspector John Rebus’ inimitably dour Edinburgh (In a House of Lies, 2019, etc.) will welcome this reprinting of a state-of-the-art high-tech international thriller from 1990.

As the U.S. prepares to pull all its troops from Europe in a prophetic "America First" move, two apparently unrelated incidents provoke panic among the Brits who face abandonment by their partners in the historic special relationship. One is the period of 3 minutes and 40 seconds during which the satellite Zephyr goes dark, losing all contact with its monitors on the ground. Although it soon returns from the blackness, controller Paul Vincent is deeply shaken by the interruption. He shares his fears with fellow monitor Martin Hepton, and soon both of them are up to their floppy drives in danger. The other problem is more serious from the get-go: The space shuttle Argos crashes to Earth in the middle of a heretofore routine flight, killing all five members of the American crew and leaving only Maj. Michael Dreyfuss, the sole British participant, alive. Like Vincent, Dreyfuss instantly senses that the failure of the craft on which he’s hitched a ride is only the tip of a much larger iceberg. And as subsequent events will quickly show, the two incidents are indeed only the most obvious nodes of an international—or, more precisely, post-national—web of intrigue. Picking out the leading malefactors from a cast that includes military officers, career diplomats, agents of the American and British secret services, and the odd professional assassin who all look equally untrustworthy is less rewarding than uncovering the deep-laid and remarkably simple plan behind all the shenanigans. A bonus in this new edition is Rankin’s refreshingly candid Introduction, which emphasizes the vicissitudes of his early career in a way that will either inspire wannabe writers or lead them to despair.

A fast-paced blast from the past…and (who knows?) maybe the immediate future as well.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-49792-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

A smart, creative series start from a romance master who always entertains.

THE VANISHING

Two women who witnessed a murder in their hometown as teens are suddenly targets of an unknown enemy. As the danger rises, a mysterious investigator with ties to an organization devoted to the paranormal steps in to help.

Catalina Lark and Olivia LeClair were 16 when they were exploring the caves around the tiny Pacific Northwest town of Fogg Lake. Fifteen years before, an incident in the caves had led to a large percentage of the population’s showing paranormal abilities. Fogg Lake residents became extremely wary of strangers, and the town's children were “raised with a degree of caution that bordered on paranoia.” That watchfulness may have saved the girls' lives the night they witnessed a murder in the caves. Years later, Catalina and Olivia have left home to start a private investigation agency in Seattle, and while they don’t advertise their psychic talents, they do use them in their cases. Then Olivia mysteriously disappears. Catalina is just beginning to search for her when Slater Arganbright arrives in the city. Catalina once worked with Slater’s uncle, Victor, the head of an “enterprise dedicated to paranormal research,” but it ended badly, so she’s not thrilled to meet his nephew. However as the two gather information, it begins to look like Olivia’s disappearance is connected to the murder the women witnessed as teens and may be tied to a frightening plot to weaponize paranormal power. Saving Olivia will depend on Catalina's and Slater's talents, and working together makes them realize what great partners they are. Krentz (Untouchable, 2019, etc.) shows her wizardry for worldbuilding and once again incorporates paranormal elements, which will thrill fans.

A smart, creative series start from a romance master who always entertains.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-0643-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Berkley

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

A passionate, eloquent memoir about how “complex stories of humanity [and] our capacity for imagination are what give us...

BECOMING A MAN

THE STORY OF A TRANSITION

A transgender man chronicles his physical and psychological transition.

In 2017, author and social justice activist Carl (Artist-in-Residence/Emerson Coll.) was just seven months into testosterone hormone therapy when he began to be addressed as “sir” by service staff at a Manhattan hotel. It was a celebratory moment for the author, who was then just shy of his 51st birthday. Born Polly in Elkhart, Indiana, Carl spent “decades trying to know her, shape her into something that I can bear to live with,” but his life as a female was a futile battle with a persistent biological need to be male, which led to depression, rage, and multiple suicide attempts. Carl’s family life was equally complex and traumatic. He writes lucidly of early abusive behavior by his parents and, later in life, how their confusion and transphobia made becoming their son an uphill battle. His transition also began eroding his marriage when he completed an elective double mastectomy in 2013, yet his desperate need to finally “see more dimension to the world” and connect to his true gender persisted despite despair and misinterpretation. Throughout the memoir, Carl examines the nature of toxic and fragile masculinity and acknowledges lifelong issues with the problematic male gender. “I want to punch men long before I become a man,” he admits. Combining political debate and discourse on gender equality, the author’s elegant yet powerful prose will hopefully promote action from readers. His reflective memories often read like poetry, as when describing his own private process as an “evolving bodily transubstantiation where in one moment I am material subject matter to be consumed and in another I feel like a holy essence, my body and blood both sacrificed and blessed into being.” This moving narrative illuminates the joy, courage, necessity, and risk-taking of his gender transition and the ways his loved ones became affected and eventually enriched by it.

A passionate, eloquent memoir about how “complex stories of humanity [and] our capacity for imagination are what give us hope.”

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982105-09-9

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

An incisive, frightening picture of a toxic environment in which “the presidency…needs a champion.”

UNMAKING THE PRESIDENCY

DONALD TRUMP'S WAR ON THE WORLD'S MOST POWERFUL OFFICE

Two Lawfare editors and senior fellows at the Brookings Institution trace the crumbling integrity of the U.S. presidency.

As former National Security Agency attorney Hennessey and Wittes (Notes on the Mueller Report: A Reading Diary, 2019, etc.) show, early on in Donald Trump’s presidency, the initial hopes that the office would tame his baser instincts quickly evaporated. The authors quote legal scholar Jack Goldsmith’s assessment of the man: “so ill-informed…so openly mendacious, so self-destructive, so brazen in his abusive attacks.” From the beginning, Trump proposed making the office a vehicle for his own self-expression, sublimating proper management functions, good faith execution of law, ethical conduct, truthfulness, and service. The authors effectively tap a wealth of material, including administration leaks, comments from ex-staffers, and Trump’s own words. They argue convincingly that Trump’s fracturing of the executive branch necessitates control mechanisms that continue to erode. Trump’s mendacity is a key feature of his incompetence, and the culture of lying that he has fostered has produced more leaks than usual. In the past, leaks have often served to bolster government credibility by reducing the incidence of lying; now, however, they lead to more lies and extensive coverups. As staff and Cabinet members quit or are fired, the control mechanisms have all but disappeared. If the presidency is beginning to look like an autocracy, it is because Trump has assumed the power to protect the guilty while cultivating impunity for and from friends. As the authors consistently demonstrate, his view of justice is to reward friends and punish enemies. Though the authors acknowledge that tensions in Korea have lessened and the current economic and trade policy hasn’t led to economic ruin (yet), their opinion of the president is clear. “If a first step is rejecting and repudiating Trump himself and facilitating his actual exit from office,” they write, “the second key step is fortifying the presidency’s institutional protections using well-designed laws.”

An incisive, frightening picture of a toxic environment in which “the presidency…needs a champion.”

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-374-17536-8

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

Gutsy stories from one of our most fearless writers.

VERGE

Characters from the fringes of society grapple with desire and fury in this collection of short stories.

Early on in “The Pull,” a story about a young swimmer from a war-torn country, the narrator describes her childhood as the “kind of story that makes your chest grow tight as you listen.” The stories here are exactly that kind: insistently visceral, pushing into, and past, the reader’s comfort zone. Many of the stories center erotic experiences. In “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” Bosch works in a modern-day fish processing plant, and he finds boundless pleasure in the arms of a young male co-worker. In “Cusp,” a teenage girl smuggles drugs into a local prison and shares her body with the prisoners as a way of being closer to her incarcerated brother. But if these stories teach us about lust, they also flip to the other side of that same coin: These are narratives full of deep rage. Some of this rage takes place inside of intimate relationships, as in “A Woman Signifying,” in which the protagonist deliberately burns her face against a radiator to create a “symbol” of her anger at her lover. Sometimes this rage is social, as in “Drive Through,” about an encounter with a panhandler at a McDonald’s drive-thru. Yuknavitch (The Misfit’s Manifesto, 2017, etc.) keeps readers’ heads pressed against what is hardest to see, and this doesn’t always land. Some of the rage can feel self-righteous; some of the desire pushes deep into taboo and veers toward unpalatable. But where there are risks, there are rewards, and these howls from the throats of women, queer characters, the impoverished, and the addicted remind us of the beauty and pain of our shared humanity.

Gutsy stories from one of our most fearless writers.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53487-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

A clear, useful guide through the current chaotic political landscape.

Our Verdict

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  • New York Times Bestseller

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WHY WE'RE POLARIZED

A sharp explanation of how American politics has become so discordant.

Journalist Klein, co-founder of Vox, formerly of the Washington Post, MSNBC, and Bloomberg, reminds readers that political commentators in the 1950s and ’60s denounced Republicans and Democrats as “tweedledum and tweedledee.” With liberals and conservatives in both parties, they complained, voters lacked a true choice. The author suspects that race played a role, and he capably shows us why and how. For a century after the Civil War, former Confederate states, obsessed with keeping blacks powerless, elected a congressional bloc that “kept the Democratic party less liberal than it otherwise would’ve been, the Republican Party congressionally weaker than it otherwise would’ve been, and stopped the parties from sorting themselves around the deepest political cleavage of the age.” Following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many white Southern Democrats became Republicans, and the parties turned consistently liberal and conservative. Given a “true choice,” Klein maintains, voters discarded ideology in favor of “identity politics.” Americans, like all humans, cherish their “tribe” and distrust outsiders. Identity was once a preoccupation of minorities, but it has recently attracted white activists and poisoned the national discourse. The author deplores the decline of mass media (network TV, daily newspapers), which could not offend a large audience, and the rise of niche media and internet sites, which tell a small audience only what they want to hear. American observers often joke about European nations that have many parties who vote in lock step. In fact, such parties cooperate to pass legislation. America is the sole system with only two parties, both of which are convinced that the other is not only incompetent (a traditional accusation), but a danger to the nation. So far, calls for drastic action to prevent the apocalypse are confined to social media, fringe activists, and the rhetoric of Trump supporters. Fortunately—according to Klein—Trump is lazy, but future presidents may be more savvy. The author does not conclude this deeply insightful, if dispiriting, analysis by proposing a solution.

A clear, useful guide through the current chaotic political landscape.

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4767-0032-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Avid Reader Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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