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The 10 Most Addictive Books of 2019 (So Far)

A captivating, psychedelically charged coming-of-age memoir.

THE LIGHT YEARS

A MEMOIR

A dazzling debut memoir from artist and designer Rush.

Growing up in a strict Roman Catholic family in New Jersey, the author felt both trapped and adrift as a child, a feeling exacerbated by his neglectful mother and alcoholic father, who was “a dark planet, exerting only vague astrological influence on his offspring.” Introduced to drugs, especially LSD, early on by his loving hippie sister, Donna, Rush continued to chafe under his suburban adolescence before finally setting out on a remarkable journey into the counterculture and across America, from his hometown to the wilderness of the Southwest. By the age of 13, he writes, “I took LSD as often as possible. Taking acid was like entering a painting of a storybook—a glowing dream world, lush and lovely. I felt no conflict between the real and the unreal. It was so easy to slip in between.” In sparkling, lucid prose that perfectly captures the joy, depression, anger, and wonder that characterized his adventures, the author recounts the seemingly endless hills and valleys of his unique tale. Among others, these experiences included countless days getting stoned in his parents’ basement, avoiding his dysfunctional parents; a stint in boarding school, where he became the primary drug dealer on campus; time living with Donna and a group of her friends on a drug compound in rural Arizona; enduring a shocking act of violence; and some weeks living a feral life in caves scattered around the deserts of the West. Along the way, while struggling with significant substance abuse (“sometimes I’d shoot up with…customers who craved a speechless high, who wanted to grow dim with me, become sputtering candles in the dark”) and grappling with his sexuality, Rush continued to draw, an artistic spark that took years to ignite into a career. He also suffered a near overdose. Though the narrative ends on a slight uptick, the author refreshingly avoids tying his story up with a pretty bow, and readers will wish for more from this talented writer.

A captivating, psychedelically charged coming-of-age memoir.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-29441-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

A reminder that even in a world filled with divisions and right-wing ideology, young people will rise up and demand equality...

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INTERNMENT

Layla was a regular American teenager until the new Islamophobic president enacted Exclusion Laws.

Muslims are being rounded up, their books burned, and their bodies encoded with identification numbers. Neighbors are divided, and the government is going after resisters. Layla and her family are interned in the California desert along with thousands of other Muslim Americans, but she refuses to accept the circumstances of her detention, plotting to take down the system. She quickly learns that resistance is no joke: Two hijabi girls are beaten and dragged away screaming after standing up to the camp director. There are rumors of people being sent to black-op sites. Some guards seem sympathetic, but can they be trusted? Taking on Islamophobia and racism in a Trump-like America, Ahmed’s (Love, Hate & Other Filters, 2018) magnetic, gripping narrative, written in a deeply humane and authentic tone, is attentive to the richness and complexity of the social ills at the heart of the book. Layla grows in consciousness as she begins to understand her struggle not as an individual accident of fate, but as part of an experience of oppression she shares with millions. This work asks the question many are too afraid to confront: What will happen if xenophobia and racism are allowed to fester and grow unabated?

A reminder that even in a world filled with divisions and right-wing ideology, young people will rise up and demand equality for all. (Realistic fiction. 13-18)

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-52269-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

An absolutely delightful reading experience.

SAVE ME THE PLUMS

MY GOURMET MEMOIR

The renowned food writer recounts her adventures as editor-in-chief of the noted epicurean magazine Gourmet in its last decade.

A native New Yorker, Reichl (My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life, 2015, etc.) grew up reading the magazine, and food soon became her “own private way of looking at the world.” While working as a chef in Berkeley, California, in the 1970s, she began writing about food, at New West and then the Los Angeles Times, before returning to New York to become the formidable restaurant critic for the New York Times. In 1999, at age 51, somewhat fearfully—she lacked magazine experience and faced managing a staff of 60—Reichl took the editorial helm of Gourmet, at six times her Times salary plus perks, with free rein from Condé Nast publisher Si Newhouse to revamp the staid magazine. In this fun, gossipy, and beguiling memoir, Reichl offers revealing glimpses of her parents, both introduced in earlier books, but the focus is on the heady process of “magazine making,” which meant turning an old-fashioned book into a modern, edgy monthly. She describes the exhilaration of working with talented, quirky staffers, and she provides vivid snapshots of Condé Nast honchos, including publishers Newhouse (supportive) and Gina Sanders (who “relished” fights) as well as the “large, loud,” yet appealing CEO Steve Florio, who regaled her with tales of Newhouse (“You know that Roy Cohn was his closest friend?”). Throughout, the author tells winning stories—of goings-on in the celebrated Condé Nast cafeteria, midnight parties for chefs, zany annual meetings, and providing food to 9/11 firefighters. Her success in introducing provocative articles like David Rakoff’s “Some Pig,” about Jews and bacon, and David Foster Wallace’s classic “Consider the Lobster,” on the ethics of eating, taught her that “when something frightens me, it is definitely worth doing.” A dream job, it ended in the late-2000s recession, when declining ads forced the closing of the venerable publication.

An absolutely delightful reading experience.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6999-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

Never sentimental; always thrillingly alive.

TRUST EXERCISE

What begins as the story of obsessive first love between drama students at a competitive performing arts high school in the early 1980s twists into something much darker in Choi’s singular new novel.

The summer between their freshman and sophomore years at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts—an elite institution “intended to cream off the most talented at selected pursuits from the regular places all over the [unnamed Southern] city” where they lived—Sarah and David consummate the romance that had been brewing the whole previous year. It is the natural culmination of the “taut, even dangerous energy running between them,” which—while naturally occurring—has been fostered by Mr. Kingsley, the head of Theatre Arts, who has positioned himself as the central figure in his students' lives, holding power not only over their professional futures, but their social ones as well: part parent, part guru, part master manipulator. But when Sarah and David return in the fall, their relationship instantly crumbles, and in the wake of their very public dissolution, Sarah finds herself increasingly isolated, dismissed into the shadows of CAPA life. Until, that spring, a British theater troupe comes to campus as part of a cultural exchange, and Sarah, along with her classmate Karen, begin parallel relationships with the English imports: Karen is in love with the director, and Sarah is uncomfortably linked to his protégé, the production’s star. It is, until now, a straightforward story, capturing—with nauseating, addictive accuracy—the particular power dynamics of elite theater training. And then, in the second part of the novel, Pulitzer finalist Choi (My Education, 2013, etc.) upends everything we thought we knew, calling the truth of the original narrative into question. (A short coda, set in 2013, recasts it again.) This could easily be insufferable; in Choi’s hands, it works: an effective interrogation of memory, the impossible gulf between accuracy and the stories we tell. And yet, as rigorous and as clever and as relevant as it is, the second half of the novel never quite reaches the soaring heights of the first. It’s hardly a deal breaker: the writing (exquisite) and the observations (cuttingly accurate) make Choi’s latest both wrenching and one-of-a-kind.

Never sentimental; always thrillingly alive.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-30988-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Dec. 11, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

A lyrical work of intellectual history, one that Popova’s many followers will await eagerly and that deserves to win her...

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FIGURING

The polymathic Popova, presiding genius behind brainpickings.org, looks at some of the forgotten heroes of science, art, and culture.

“There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives,” writes the author at the outset. She closes with the realization that while we individuals may die, the beauty of our lives and work, if meaningful, will endure: “What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust." In between, she peppers thoughtful, lucid consideration of acts of the imagination with stories that, if ever aired before, are too little known. Who would have remembered that of all the details of the pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler’s life, one was racing across Germany to come to the aid of his widowed mother, who had been charged with witchcraft? The incident ably frames Kepler’s breaking out of a world governed by superstition, “a world in which God is mightier than nature, the Devil realer and more omnipresent than gravity,” and into a radical, entirely different world governed by science. That world saw many revolutions and advances ahead of the general population, as when, in 1865, Vassar College appointed as its first professor of astronomy a woman, Maria Mitchell, who combined a brilliant command of science with a yearning for poetry. So it was with Rachel Carson, the great ecologist, whose love for a woman lasted across a life burdened with terrible illness, and Emily Dickinson, who might have been happier had her own love for a woman been realized. (As it was, Popova notes, the world was ready for Dickinson: A book of her poems published four years after her death sold 500 copies on the first day of publication.) Throughout her complex, consistently stimulating narrative, the author blends biography, cultural criticism, and journalism to forge elegant connections: Dickinson feeds in to Carson, who looks back to Mitchell, who looks forward to Popova herself, and with plenty of milestones along the way: Kepler, Goethe, Pauli, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne….

A lyrical work of intellectual history, one that Popova’s many followers will await eagerly and that deserves to win her many more.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4813-5

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

A joyous experience awaits. Read it. Learn it. Love it.

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ON THE COME UP

This honest and unflinching story of toil, tears, and triumph is a musical love letter that proves literary lightning does indeed strike twice.

Thomas’ (The Hate U Give, 2017) sophomore novel returns to Garden Heights, but while Brianna may live in Starr's old neighborhood, their experiences couldn't differ more. Raised by a widowed mother, a recovering drug addict, Bri attends an arts school while dreaming of becoming a famous rapper, as her father was before gang violence ended his life. Her struggles within the music industry and in school highlight the humiliations and injustices that remain an indelible part of the African American story while also showcasing rap’s undeniable lyrical power as a language through which to find strength. Bri's journey is deeply personal: small in scope and edgy in tone. When Bri raps, the prose sings on the page as she uses it to voice her frustration at being stigmatized as “hood” at school, her humiliation at being unable to pay the bills, and her yearning to succeed in the music world on her own merit. Most importantly, the novel gives voice to teens whose lives diverge from middle-class Americana. Bri wrestles with parent relationships and boy drama—and a trip to the food bank so they don’t starve during Christmas. The rawness of Bri's narrative demonstrates Thomas’ undeniable storytelling prowess as she tells truths that are neither pretty nor necessarily universally relatable.

A joyous experience awaits. Read it. Learn it. Love it. (Fiction. 13-adult)

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-249856-4

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

A wholly engrossing story that joins the worlds of El Chapo and Edward Snowden; both disturbing and memorable.

THE MASTERMIND

DRUGS. EMPIRE. MURDER. BETRAYAL.

A complex tale of true crime on a global scale.

Wired contributor Ratliff (editor: Love and Ruin: Tales of Obsession, Danger, and Heartbreak from the Atavist Magazine, 2016), the co-founder of Atavist Magazine, digs deep into a story that seems utterly appropriate to the computerized, globalized, transnational age. The protagonist is Paul Le Roux, a Zimbabwe-born computer programmer. Having moved from South Africa to Australia and later to the Philippines, he discovered early on that cyberspace was a frontier in which to grow rich serving humankind’s lesser instincts: pornography, trolling, gambling, addictions of various kinds. Eventually, as the author foreshadows in an opening salvo of incidents, he founded a crime network with many nodes across the world, one with hired killers, corrupt doctors, software specialists, and countless other players. One branch began by selling painkillers under the flimsiest of medical screenings: A customer would type in a complaint that she had back pain, a doctor would sign off, and drugs would arrive in great quantities, with one small-town Wisconsin pharmacist alone filling 700,000 illegal prescriptions and being paid millions in return from a Hong Kong bank account. Killings followed as Le Roux stretched his hand to North Korean methamphetamine manufacturers, international mercenaries, Colombian cartels, and black-ops hackers. Writes Ratliff, each of these pieces “seemed like a kind of message from an adjacent reality that few of us experience directly”—a reality that ended in a massive counter-operation on the part of the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies, bringing down long prison sentences and massive fines. “In 2013,” writes the author, “UPS paid $40 million to resolve federal accusations of knowingly shipping drugs for illegal online pharmacies.” Sifting through detail after nefarious detail, Ratliff serves up a taut narrative that limns a portrait of a sociopath whose powers were most definitely used to evil ends.

A wholly engrossing story that joins the worlds of El Chapo and Edward Snowden; both disturbing and memorable.

Pub Date: March 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59041-2

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 11, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

A black Bridget Jones, perfectly of the moment.

QUEENIE

The life and loves of Queenie Jenkins, a vibrant, troubled 25-year-old Jamaican Brit who is not having a very good year.

" 'My last girlfriend was black.' I looked at my date and blinked, sure I'd misheard him. 'Sorry?' I asked, leaning across the table." But indeed, that's what he said. Just as she heard correctly when "Balding Alpha," a guy she dates later in her annus horribilus, licks her shoulder and comments, "Tastes like chocolate." Queenie's attempts to get over Tom, the long-term white boyfriend who dumps her at the beginning of Carty-Williams' debut novel, send her stumbling through a mined landscape of interracial dating and friendship, including the occasional white stranger who reaches to fondle her hair as if in a petting zoo. Terrified by the continual news of violence from the United States, Queenie is trying to get the paper she works for in London to cover important issues—"I’d wanted this job so that I could be a force for change"—but her editor responds to her pitches by suggesting a piece on "ten of the best black dresses Me Too movement supporters have worn at awards ceremonies." After all, it's the holiday season, and what people are really thinking about is party dresses! Queenie's main supporters are the three girlfriends who make up a texting group called The Corgis (a reference to the queen's loyal pack of pooches), but one of these relationships is about to detonate due to our heroine's wildly indiscriminate sexual choices, choices that keep her running in and out of the health clinic on a biweekly basis. At least she'll always be able to fall back on the judgmental embrace and reliable hot water of her ultratraditional Jamaican grandparents. Why she ever fell for that drip Tom and why she still loves him so much are never at all clear, but perhaps that's how these things go.

A black Bridget Jones, perfectly of the moment.

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-9601-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Scout Press/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Nov. 12, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

Choo has written a sumptuous garden maze of a novel that immerses readers in a complex, vanished world.

THE NIGHT TIGER

A young houseboy and a dressmaker’s apprentice get drawn into a mystery in 1930s Malaya.

It is May 1931, and 11-year-old Ren’s master, Dr. MacFarlane, is dying. Before he takes his last breath, MacFarlane gives Ren a mission: Find the doctor’s missing finger, amputated years ago and now in the possession of a friend, and bury it in his grave before the 49 days of the soul have elapsed. In another town, Ji Lin has given up dreams of university study to sew dresses during the day and work a second job in a dance hall; one evening, she is approached by a salesman who presses something into her hand during a dance: a severed finger in a glass specimen tube. By the next day, the salesman is dead—and his won’t be the last mysterious death to plague the area. Ji Lin’s search for the finger’s owner and Ren’s search for the digit itself eventually draw the two together and in the process ensnare everyone from Ji Lin’s taciturn stepbrother to Ren’s new master and his other household servants. Choo (The Ghost Bride, 2013) continues her exploration of Malayan folklore here with questions that point to the borders where the magical and the real overlap: Is someone murdering citizens of the Kinta Valley, or is it a were-tiger, a beast who wears human skin? Can spirits communicate with the living? Should superstitions—lucky numbers, rituals—govern a life? Choo weaves her research in with a feather-light touch, and readers will be so caught up in the natural and supernatural intrigue that the serious themes here about colonialism and power dynamics, about gender and class, are absorbed with equal delicacy.

Choo has written a sumptuous garden maze of a novel that immerses readers in a complex, vanished world.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-17545-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

THE AGE OF LIGHT

A portrait of Lee Miller, the American cover girl and war photographer whose wild spirit captivated Picasso, Cocteau, and other eminences in 1930s Paris.

Readers meet Lee in 1966, at the farm where she retreated with her British husband, a painter and curator, after documenting Nazi atrocities and the liberation of Europe as Vogue’s war correspondent. She’s forgotten the old boxes of photoprints she heaved up to the attic—including the one of her posing in Hitler’s bathtub—and now writes mainly about food, brilliantly, though she drinks so heavily she misses deadlines. She’s expecting to get sacked when her editor suggests taking a pause to write about her years in Paris as Man Ray’s student and about some of his photos from that time. “The woman’s touch….A story only you can tell.” Cornered, Lee accepts—with one caveat: not his photos, hers. And what a story! It starts with Lee’s first glimpse of Ray at a surrealist orgy she’s dragged to by new acquaintances. After modeling couture for some of the best photographers in New York, she’s just 22 and come to the Left Bank to make art. The only male in the room wearing a suit, Ray rescues her from their leering host and invites her to drop by his studio. That Ray, who is close to 50, doesn’t come on to her means the world given Lee’s history—raped by a family friend as a young child and ogled by powerful men ever since. She’s not interested in posing, as he assumes, but makes herself indispensable by keeping him on schedule and showing his posh clients how to relax in front of a camera—a skill she acquired while posing au naturel for her weird-but-loving father, an amateur shutterbug. She’s mildly obsessed by Ray’s girlfriend, Kiki, the local chanteuse and artist’s model whom Ray has photographed nude many times. But Kiki is history the day Ray shows Lee how to print off her first photograph—the nape of a woman’s neck, her fingers scratching the skin—taken with the Rolleiflex camera he helped her buy. Later, as she thinks back on what they gave and took from each other, she’ll wonder which of them was more destroyed. Scharer sets her viewfinder selectively, focusing on her heroine’s insecurities as much as her accomplishments as an artist; her hunger to be more than “a neck to hold pearls, a slim waist to show off a belt” is contrasted with her habit of solving problems by simply leaving. The price for Lee is steep, but it makes for irresistible reading.

Sexy and moving.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-52408-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2018

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