Book List

10 Excellent December Books

A winner: the stories are fascinating, the pages nearly turn themselves, and La Rochefoucauld is a true hero.

THE SABOTEUR

THE ARISTOCRAT WHO BECAME FRANCE'S MOST DARING ANTI-NAZI COMMANDO

The page-turning tale of a World War II hero who would fit comfortably into any good spy thriller.

Robert de La Rochefoucauld (1923-2012), the subject of this thrilling debut biography by ESPN The Magazine deputy editor Kix, was a descendent of one of the most legendary families in European history. The family traced their beginnings to 900 C.E. and included a duke in Louis XVI’s court as well as two brothers martyred in the Reign of Terror. Another, a friend of Benjamin Franklin’s, fought to end slavery. Serving the nation was in La Rochefoucauld’s blood; his father was awarded the Legion of Honor, and the war sent Robert out to battle as well. He was 17 when German bombers descended on his home northeast of Paris. It wasn’t the first time; the estate was captured and recaptured more than a dozen times during World War I, requiring complete rebuilding. As France fell to Germany, La Rochefoucauld was glued to the wireless broadcasts of Charles de Gaulle. Determined to join him, he left home. His adventures began almost immediately, as he was trying to get to Spain and then to England, which required trusting strangers and connecting with résistants. In London, he was convinced to join a new British organization, the Special Operations Executive, a highly secretive group that was formed to train and equip foreign nationals in sabotage and guerrilla warfare. La Rochefoucaul went through the rigorous training in Southampton and Scotland and was sent to France, where he met Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the head of the “Alliance” intelligence network, and got to work, which involved destroying the most important parts of factories, minimizing deaths. Throughout, Kix proves to be an adept biographer, avoiding hagiography. It’s all true: the bombings, betrayals, and significant successes, right down to his escape as he was being driven to his execution—and all before he was 21.

A winner: the stories are fascinating, the pages nearly turn themselves, and La Rochefoucauld is a true hero.

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06-232252-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 14, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2017

Mozley’s instantaneous success—this debut landed straight on the 2017 Man Booker Prize shortlist—is a response to the...

ELMET

A not-always-gentle giant and his two children live peacefully in the woods, but the push and pull of old forces will eventually find them, and the results will be explosive.

Part fairy tale, part coming-of-age story, part revenge tragedy with literary connections, Mozley’s first novel is a shape-shifting, lyrical, but dark parable of life off the grid in modern Britain. Its narrator is 13-year-old Daniel, the tall, sensitive son of John Smythe, a man mountain who makes his living as a bare-knuckle fighter. Daniel, his lovely, fearless older sister, Cathy, and their father live in a house John built in a copse, on land that once belonged to the children’s mother. They are self-sufficient, fed by game they hunt, seated on furniture they built. It’s an idyllic if elemental life, lived largely outside society, until landowner Price, who once employed John as a debt collector, arrives to apply some pressure. Soon John is helping lead an insurrection of underpaid farm laborers and oppressed tenants against Price’s clique of farmers and power brokers. The deal that will resolve this confrontation requires John to fight a brutal match, but the violence doesn’t end there. Mozley’s title refers to a Ted Hughes poetry sequence and a West Yorkshire setting with deep historical roots. Her ruined Eden of a landscape is evoked with beauty and empathy: “The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives.” Ecological messages, class and gender conflict, and England’s long history of struggle—all are mingled with Daniel’s sexual awakening and a surreal, or superhuman, or quasi-spiritual, gothic and gory final reckoning.

Mozley’s instantaneous success—this debut landed straight on the 2017 Man Booker Prize shortlist—is a response to the stylish intensity of her work, which boldly winds multiple genres into a rich spinning top of a tale.

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-61620-842-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 31, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2017

The story is modest, the poetry superb. A most worthy valediction.

SPY OF THE FIRST PERSON

A sharply observed, slender novel set in familiar Shepard (The One Inside, 2017, etc.) territory: a dusty, windblown West of limitless horizons and limited means of escape.

An image at the beginning of what is billed as the recently deceased Shepard’s final work of fiction—until the next one is found in a drawer, presumably—offers arresting portent: robins are singing, chirping away, not so much out of happiness with the world but, as the nameless narrator says, “I think mostly protecting nests” from all the “big bad birds” that are out to get their little blue eggs. The world is full of big bad birds, and one is the terror of a wasting neurological disease that provides the novel’s closing frame: two sons and an ailing father lagging behind the rest of their family as they make their way up the street in a little desert ville. “We made it and we hobbled up the stairs,” says the old man. “Or I hobbled. My sons didn’t hobble, I hobbled.” It’s exactly of a piece with True West and other early Shepard standards, and one can imagine Shepard himself playing the part of that old man in an understated, stoical film. In between, it’s all impression, small snapshots of odd people and odd moments (“People are unlocking their cars from a distance. Pushing buttons, zapping their cars, making the doors buzz and sing, making little Close Encounters of the Third Kind noises”). It’s easy to lose track of where one voice ends and another begins, where the young man leaves off and the old man picks up the story: explaining the title, the young narrator likens himself to an employee of a “cryptic detective agency,” even as the old man, taking up the narration in turn, wonders why he’s being so closely watched when he can barely move. In the end, this is a story less of action than of mood, and that mood is overwhelmingly, achingly melancholic.

The story is modest, the poetry superb. A most worthy valediction.

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-525-52156-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 31, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2017

Through it all, Lovesey moves from one dexterously nested puzzle to the next with all the confidence of a magician who knows...

BEAU DEATH

DS Peter Diamond’s 17th outing may be the coldest cold case he’s ever seen.

When a wrecking crew demolishes a block of 18th-century flats to make room for a new supermarket in the unfashionable Bath neighborhood of Twerton, they make a grisly find: a corpse seated in an armchair in an attic loft. It’s a real challenge for Diamond (Another One Goes Tonight, 2016, etc.) to have the remains safely removed from their half-demolished habitat without reducing them to 206 separate bones, and the situation is complicated still further by the discovery that the skeleton’s attire is as old as the buildings. Its coal-black wig and white tricorn hat were the trademarks of Richard Nash, the dandy and womanizer widely known as Beau Nash, the first citizen of Bath in his heyday (1674-1761). But what are his remains doing here, far from the site of his recorded death? And is it really Beau or a victim far more recently deceased? Diamond, both daunted and exhilarated by “what promised to be the most sensational murder case of his career,” is at first overwhelmed by the historical minutiae he’s required to master. Even after his lover, period costume expert Paloma Kean, and Estella Rockingham, Beau’s latest biographer, bring him up to speed, his inquiries are obstructed rather than assisted by the long-windedness of pompous forensic pathologist Dr. Claude Waghorn, the unwelcome news that a cocaine-addicted stager of fireworks has been shot to death in the middle of a display honoring Jane Austen and Beau, and Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore’s insistence that Diamond attend a meeting of the Beau Nash Society in full period regalia.

Through it all, Lovesey moves from one dexterously nested puzzle to the next with all the confidence of a magician who knows the audience won’t see through his deceptions no matter how slowly he unveils them. Next up, presumably: the Avon and Somerset CID investigate the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-61695-905-0

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Soho Crime

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2017

Especially timely given the recent saber-rattling not from Russia but North Korea and given the apparent proliferation of...

THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE

CONFESSIONS OF A NUCLEAR WAR PLANNER

Noted gadfly Ellsberg (Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, 2002) returns with a sobering look at our nuclear capabilities and the likelihood that they’ll one day end in tears.

When the author hurriedly copied the contents of his RAND Corporation safe to reveal, in time, what would become known as the Pentagon Papers, that was just the start of it. He had other documents, even more jarring. The good news is that the world didn’t come to an end during the Cuban missile crisis or a dozen other nuclear flashpoints before and since. The bad news, much in abundance, is that it’s rather amazing that we didn’t all go up in cinders. As fans of Dr. Strangelove knew all along, there really was a doomsday machine, still operational, by which a president could order nuclear Armageddon. The worse news is that this power is much more broadly distributed than the president, so that even more or less minor area commanders can send the missiles flying. What is more, writes the author, American policy is not really premised on retaliation in the event that a foreign power attacks first, but instead on our striking first. That would make us the bad guy in any future history of the world—and it’s something that Ellsberg worries about given Donald Trump’s blustery musing aloud about why we don’t use all those beautiful weapons we have, “in the delusion,” as Ellsberg writes, “that such an attack will limit damage to the homeland, compared with the consequences of waiting for actual explosions to occur.” Striking first would also mean abandoning the much-vaunted principle of “just war.” True deterrence is possible, Ellsberg urges, while at the same time reducing the nuclear arsenal—especially that doomsday machine—and imposing tighter limits on its potential use here and elsewhere.

Especially timely given the recent saber-rattling not from Russia but North Korea and given the apparent proliferation of nuclear abilities among other small powers.

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-60819-670-8

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2017

Inspired, one imagines, by the terrible headlines of famine, climate change, and simple uncertainty; Yan draws on the...

THE YEARS, MONTHS, DAYS

Apocalyptic, eerie visions in two novellas by much-honored Chinese writer Yan (The Explosion Chronicles, 2016, etc.).

Imagine: in some near future, after Fukushima has finished pumping its tons of irradiated water into the Pacific, the incidence of hereditary disease skyrockets. So it is in the village where a woman named Fourth Wife You is working the unusually bountiful fields with her four “idiot children,” all born apparently normal and then fading into some sort of penumbra of consciousness, a world of their own that is probably happier than ours. The doctor is no help: “You have four children and all four are idiots,” he says. “You could have eight, and you’d have eight idiots.” Apparently other such diseases have sprouted up, for when a stranger comes into view in Yan’s meaningfully titled novella Marrow, he announces himself as a “wholer,” a touch worse for the wear but still all there. The cure that Fourth Wife You discovers is perhaps worse than the disease itself, as she warns her children from the grave with less a curse than a promise. In the title novella, which would do Friedrich Dürrenmatt proud, drought falls on an already suffering village, eventually driving all but one of the residents into flight. He reasons, “I’m seventy-two years old, and would surely die of exhaustion if I tried to walk for three days. If I’m going to die either way, I’d prefer to die in my own village.” It is up to this Robinson Crusoe to stave off catastrophes that come in the form of spectral wolves and plagues of rats; like Fourth Wife You, the old man—called, indeed, Elder—must sacrifice himself in order to satisfy the mad gods of nature in a world now “so peaceful you could even hear the bright sound of the sunrays knocking against one another and the moonbeams striking the ground.”

Inspired, one imagines, by the terrible headlines of famine, climate change, and simple uncertainty; Yan draws on the conventions of folklore and science fiction alike to produce memorable literature.

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2665-8

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

Review Posted Online: Sept. 18, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2017

This stellar collection will appeal to both teens and grown-ups who dream of future worlds.

2018 YOUNG EXPLORER'S ADVENTURE GUIDE

From the Young Explorer's Adventure Guides series , Vol. 4

Worlds await young readers….

Imagine sneaking out of your habitat home on planet Skag3, defying your mother’s orders, so that you can take an adventurous walk on this strange new planet, only to be chased back by a legless carpet of lime-green fur. Or maybe you’re an extraterrestrial kid visiting Earth for the first time, longing for your Ocean home, while human beings mistake the sustainable connection you have to your home planet for an ancient religious belief. How about, instead of going to high school, because you’re a genetically engineered teen, created without lungs, your job is to scan the Earth’s destroyed, methane-filled atmosphere in your environmental pod. These are just a few of the page-turning stories in this annual showcase of sci-fi. This anthology offers new, vividly futuristic adventures featuring diverse characters, including humans from all over Earth as well as ET kids from other planets. One of the qualities that makes this yearly anthology such a treat to read is the wide range of futuristic possibilities that planet Earth and its occupants may encounter, realities that will keep readers wondering long after the book is closed. A few stories present poignant discourse about Earth’s sustainability, mixing neatly with adventures that give kids agency to navigate and ponder their own realities in different worlds.

This stellar collection will appeal to both teens and grown-ups who dream of future worlds. (Science fiction. 12-adult)

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-940924-25-0

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Dreaming Robot

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

The course of true love never did run smooth, but in the case of these two lovers, the journey is worth your while.

FOOLISH HEARTS

In Mills’ (This Adventure Ends, 2016, etc.) latest, the beginning of senior year leads to new friendships and new love.

When Claudia accidentally overhears the breakup of Iris and Paige, Prospect-Landower School for Girls’ “cutest couple,” no-nonsense Iris threatens to ruin her. Instead, Claudia and Iris strike up an unlikely friendship after a failed group project forces them to participate in the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Iris is Chinese-American, the other primary characters ambiguously described, suggesting a white default. Claudia, who previously hadn’t bothered to make friends outside her childhood bestie, Zoe, begins to open herself to her peers. Chief among them is outgoing, kindhearted Gideon, a student at nearby all-male Danforth Prep. Even when Claudia lets herself believe that Gideon may actually be interested in her, a previous breakup makes her hesitant to pursue a new relationship (“It’s just easier to never start something than to have to see it end”). Unfortunately, the story follows the tired popular-boy-falls-for-unpopular-girl trope; otherwise, however, the characters are wonderfully fresh and honest. Claudia narrates in funny, conversational first-person present as the plot meanders toward opening night of Midsummer, allowing time for Claudia’s blooming relationships and self-confidence to develop.

The course of true love never did run smooth, but in the case of these two lovers, the journey is worth your while. (Fiction. 13-18)

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-62779-937-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Aug. 27, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2017

McDermid keeps all three of these pots simmering, raising the heat in agonizingly tiny increments, until she’s ready for a...

INSIDIOUS INTENT

Back on the job as head of the newly formed regional Major Incident Team, DCI Carol Jordan (Splinter the Silence, 2015, etc.) is tested to the max by the Wedding Killer.

The motive for inoffensive office manager Kathryn McCormick’s murder couldn’t be more prosaic. The killer, who posed as a wedding guest to engage her in conversation before he dated her, drugged her, strangled her, left her car on an isolated road, and set it afire with her inside, was just using her as a placeholder for the amatory and business partner who’d left him after meeting a more suitable mate at a wedding she’d attended alone. The lack of an obvious connection between the murderer and his victim, coupled with his skill in avoiding any forensic evidence, makes it impossible for DCI Carol Jordan, clinical psychologist Tony Hill, and the rest of the ReMIT to come up with any suspects. It also makes it easy for the killer to keep on crashing weddings, cultivating pitiably vulnerable new acquaintances, and taking secondhand revenge on them. Things get even worse for Carol, already tormented by guilt over the unexpectedly far-reaching legal corner-cutting that made it possible for her return to work after she failed a Breathalyzer test, when crime correspondent Penny Burgess makes it her mission to get the evidence that will end Carol’s career. Nor are things going much better for DS Paula McIntyre, whom Carol urges to sign up for the inspector’s exam so she can take over when Carol steps down, as she may have to do any minute: Torin McAndrew, whom she and her partner, Dr. Elinor Blessing, took in as their ward after his mother was murdered, is suddenly acting a lot more skittish and secretive than other teenagers, and there’s a depressingly good reason why.

McDermid keeps all three of these pots simmering, raising the heat in agonizingly tiny increments, until she’s ready for a finale guaranteed to leave you reeling.

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2716-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2017

Many readers will agree that we are currently living in “demented times,” and Sigmund adeptly lays out a history that has...

EXACT THINKING IN DEMENTED TIMES

THE VIENNA CIRCLE AND THE EPIC QUEST FOR THE FOUNDATIONS OF SCIENCE

The course of Western philosophy was profoundly altered by the work of a small band of Vienna intellectuals a century ago. Sigmund (Emeritus, Mathematics/Univ. of Vienna; Games of Life: Explorations in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, 2017, etc.) tells their story.

The turn of the 20th century begat a significant rethinking in philosophy, away from a “muddled metaphysics” and toward a logical foundation for all of science and mathematics. David Hilbert posed unsolved problems in math, Einstein published his special relativity theory, and physicists Ernst Mach and Ludwig Boltzmann famously debated whether atoms existed. The author, one of the pioneers of evolutionary game theory, traces these ideas through the members of the Vienna Circle, from informal pre–World War I gatherings through the group’s formal inception in 1924 to its dissolution following Hitler’s annexation of Austria. The group held weekly lectures at the university followed by discussions at the local coffeehouses. Principal members were philosophers Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap, mathematicians Hans Hahn and Karl Menger, and the left-wing social reformer Otto Neurath, but there were many visiting luminaries, including Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and later, Kurt Gödel and Karl Popper. Sigmund does not dwell on the abstruse word and language issues strenuously debated by the circle so much as sketch the colorful lives and loves of the members and their friends against the demented backdrop of interwar Vienna. The high unemployment and hyperinflation of post-1918 Vienna proved fertile ground for extreme ideologies and fanaticism, with the growth of national socialist parties as well as a deepening of a long-existent anti-Semitism. Schlick was assassinated, and once the Third Reich was in place, circle members and their friends fled. Fortunately, many found academic posts in England or America, in this way spreading the seeds of positivism in the West.

Many readers will agree that we are currently living in “demented times,” and Sigmund adeptly lays out a history that has great relevance for today.

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-465-09695-4

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2017

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