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12 Best Reads for Your Book Club

At the intriguing crossroads of the seen and the unseen lies a weave among five generations of women.

THE REVISIONERS

A conjure woman who escaped slavery obliquely guides her descendants in 2017 New Orleans.

This second novel from Sexton confirms the storytelling gifts she displayed in her lushly readable debut, A Kind of Freedom. The new book opens as cash-strapped Ava Jackson is reluctantly moving herself and her 12-year-old son, King, into the mansion of a declining Martha Dufrene, her white grandmother. The first sentence—“It was King who told me we forgot the photograph”—suggests this object will matter. And indeed, Ava goes back for the portrait of Miss Josephine, her “grandmother’s great-grandmother,” a woman with second sight. Her part in the secret sect “the revisioners” is shrouded in time, but Josephine serves as the spine of this deftly structured novel. In one thread of chapters, she narrates her 1855 escape from bondage as a child and, in another, her rise to rural matriarch. In the framed 1924 photo, a widowed Josephine stands on the edge of her farm: “I still find new mercy in the fact this house belongs to me; that the pine boards overlap to keep the rodents out; the windows swing all the way open.” But this is the year that an aging Josephine makes the mistake of pitying a white neighbor, Charlotte, who confides that she married her brutish husband because “her mama said that he wore nice shoes, that his mama had all her teeth.” A third braid of chapters follows Ava, letting the reader slowly grasp a parallel treachery coiled in Martha and Charlotte. Martha’s creepy home conjures its own Get Out–flavored claustrophobia, and Charlotte eventually cozies up to the Klan. In this wondrous telling, King can lie on the sofa playing Fortnite in the same short book where Josephine’s fleeing family is hobbling “the other horses whose shoes need to be damaged so no one could follow us straight away.”

At the intriguing crossroads of the seen and the unseen lies a weave among five generations of women.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-64009-258-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled...

A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD

A riveting, potentially redemptive story of modern American suburbia that reads almost like an ancient Greek tragedy.

When the Whitmans, a nouveau riche white family, move into a sprawling, newly built house next door to Valerie Alston-Holt, a black professor of forestry and ecology, and her musically gifted, biracial 18-year-old son, Xavier, in a modest, diverse North Carolina neighborhood of cozy ranch houses on wooded lots, it is clear from the outset things will not end well. The neighborhood itself, which serves as the novel’s narrator and chorus, tells us so. The story begins on “a Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them,” we are informed in the book’s opening paragraph. “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame.” The exact nature of the tragedy that has been foretold and questions of blame come into focus gradually as a series of events is set inexorably in motion when the Whitmans’ cloistered 17-year-old daughter, Juniper, encounters Xavier. The two teenagers tumble into a furtive, pure-hearted romance even as Xavier’s mom and Juniper’s stepfather, Brad, a slick operator who runs a successful HVAC business and has secrets of his own, lock horns in a legal battle over a dying tree. As the novel builds toward its devastating climax, it nimbly negotiates issues of race and racism, class and gentrification, sex and sexual violence, environmental destruction and other highly charged topics. Fowler (A Well-Behaved Woman, 2018, etc.) empathetically conjures nuanced characters we won’t soon forget, expertly weaves together their stories, and imbues the plot with a sense of inevitability and urgency. In the end, she offers an opportunity for catharsis as well as a heartfelt, hopeful call to action.

Traversing topics of love, race, and class, this emotionally complex novel speaks to—and may reverberate beyond—our troubled times.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-23727-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 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 revelation. Hilarious, heartfelt, and hot. Hibbert is a major talent.

GET A LIFE, CHLOE BROWN

When computer geek Chloe realizes she has allowed her chronic illness to shrink her world, she creates a list of risky adventures that her building superintendent, a hunky artist, is all too happy to share.

After ending an abusive relationship with a London socialite, Redford Morgan has taken refuge in a nearby city, working as a super in his best mate’s building. Once a promising artist, Red’s self-esteem hasn’t fully recovered, so he paints at night in private. When he catches snobbish and prickly tenant Chloe Brown surreptitiously watching him, he doesn’t realize that she admires his lanky ginger looks as well as his vitality and easygoing charm. As a coping strategy for her chronic pain and exhaustion, Chloe has become, in her words, “a socially inept control freak.” Despite himself, Red is deeply attracted to Chloe’s gleaming brown skin and rococo beauty. After they join forces for a side-splittingly funny cat rescue, Chloe agrees to exchange her website design services for Red’s tolerance of her illicit furry roommate, and a friendship is born. With alternating points of view, Hibbert (That Kind of Guy, 2019, etc.) portrays how their relationship helps Red recover from intimate partner violence and helps Chloe stop allowing her fibromyalgia to steal her happiness. The plot sounds heavy, and Hibbert certainly writes authentic moments of physical and emotional pain, but this is an incredibly funny, romantic, and uplifting book. Red is as charming, sexy, and vulnerable as can be, but Chloe steals the show with her sarcasm, wit, and eccentric coping mechanisms. Even better, Chloe is surrounded by a family of remarkable, glamorous women, including two sisters who will be featured in later installments. Hibbert centers the diversity of the English experience, avoiding both the posh and the twee.

A revelation. Hilarious, heartfelt, and hot. Hibbert is a major talent.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-294120-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Avon/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

Beautifully written and alive with compassion, at times almost unbearably poignant. A thrilling book in every way.

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OLIVE, AGAIN

The thorny matriarch of Crosby, Maine, makes a welcome return.

As in Strout’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge (2008, etc.), the formidable title character is always a presence but not always onstage in these 13 interconnected tales of loneliness, loss, and love in its many flawed incarnations. Olive has not become any easier to like since her husband, Henry, died two years ago; “stupid” is a favorite adjective, and “phooey to you” a frequent term of dismissal. But over the course of about a decade we see Olive struggling, in her flinty way, to become “oh, just a tiny—tiny—bit better as a person.” Her second marriage, to Jack Kennison, helps. “I like you, Olive,” he says. “I’m not sure why, really. But I do.” Readers will feel the same, as she brusquely comforts a former student with cancer in “Light” and commiserates with the grieving daughter-in-law she has never much liked in “Motherless Child.” Yet that story ends with Olive’s desolate conclusion that she is largely responsible for her fraught relationship with her son: “She herself had [raised] a motherless child.” Parents are estranged from children, husbands from wives, siblings from each other in this keening portrait of a world in which each of us is fundamentally alone and never truly knows even those we love the most. This is not the whole story, Strout demonstrates with her customary empathy and richness of detail. “You must have been a very good mother,” Olive’s doctor says after observing Christopher in devoted attendance at the hospital after she has a heart attack, and the daughter of an alcoholic mother and dismissive, abusive father finds a nurturing substitute in her parents’ lawyer in “Helped.” The beauty of the natural world provides a sustaining counterpoint to charged human interactions in which “there were so many things that could not be said.” There’s no simple truth about human existence, Strout reminds us, only wonderful, painful complexity. “Well, that’s life," Olive says. "Nothing you can do about it.”

Beautifully written and alive with compassion, at times almost unbearably poignant. A thrilling book in every way.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9654-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

An occasionally amusing and insightful but scattershot exploration of midlife woes.

WHY WE CAN'T SLEEP

WOMEN'S NEW MIDLIFE CRISIS

Calhoun (Wedding Toasts I'll Never Give, 2017, etc.) argues that Generation X women find middle age harder than those older or younger.

The author is in her 40s and not enjoying this stage of life. In her latest, she offers a combination of her memories, recycled research, and interviews with “women who, by virtue of being middle class, grew up with reasonable expectations of opportunity and success.” Calhoun is far more successful when she focuses on the problems of being a middle-aged American woman than when she attempts to define the nebulous differences between baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials and to convince readers that Gen Xers are suffering in ways that those older and younger aren't and won't. She defines Gen Xers as those born between 1965 and 1980 (data supplied by the Pew Research Center). On the basis of scanty evidence, Calhoun identifies them as being latchkey kids and children of divorce and hampered by receiving “two primary messages” from their childhoods as the offspring of overly optimistic feminist mothers: “One: Reach for the stars. Two: You're on your own.” The author argues, for example, that Gen X kids were uniquely scarred by being witnesses to the Challenger spaceship disaster, neglecting to acknowledge that other generations—if generations can even be separated so neatly—had their own public traumas. Much of the book is devoted to demonstrating the suffering of “her” generation: “Gen X women undergo a bone-deep, almost hallucinatory panic about money,” she writes, blaming this alleged state of mind on the fact that “much of Gen X graduated into a weak job market.” Calhoun is on firmer ground when she discusses the stressors that affect middle-aged women in general: menopause and the physical changes that precede it, the challenges of dealing with older (and less appreciative) children and aging parents, and the fact that aging inevitably means that some life choices are no longer viable.

An occasionally amusing and insightful but scattershot exploration of midlife woes.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8021-4785-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

A well-told story fraught with both mystery and real-life aftershocks that set the psychiatric community on its ear.

THE GREAT PRETENDER

THE UNDERCOVER MISSION THAT CHANGED OUR UNDERSTANDING OF MADNESS

A sharp reexamination of one of the defining moments in the field of psychiatry.

“There are not, as of this writing, any consistent objective measures that can render a definitive psychiatric diagnosis,” writes New York Post journalist Cahalan (Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, 2012) at the beginning of this gripping account of a study that rocked the foundational concepts of how we judge sanity. In the early 1970s, David Rosenhan, a Stanford professor of psychology, sent eight sane people into hospitals for the insane in an experiment involving diagnostics and conditions for the mentally ill. The eight participants told the intake doctors that they were experiencing aural hallucinations, and they were all admitted for varying lengths of time. The resulting article, which appeared in Science, is credited with helping to change both diagnostic and hospitalization procedures. At first, Cahalan approaches the article, “On Being Sane in Insane Places” (1973), with a level of awe and appreciation and treats readers to a tour of the miseries that patients endured—most notably, isolation and dehumanization—as well as a review of her own misdiagnosis of schizophrenia. Eventually, doubts start to creep into the author’s investigation, discrepancies that a purportedly scientific article should not have contained: lying about hospitalization dates, exaggerating medical records, playing with numbers, and more. Cahalan follows all the leads like a bloodhound, in particular trying to uncover the identities of the patients. Her pursuit reads like a well-tempered mystery being picked apart, with tantalizing questions for which many of the answers are just out of reach. While “On Being Sane” may have been partially fabricated, it was also an important force in the deinstitutionalization of care for the mentally ill. Cahalan draws a vivid and critical picture of Rosenhan and the ramifications of his most prominent work.

A well-told story fraught with both mystery and real-life aftershocks that set the psychiatric community on its ear.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5387-1528-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: Aug. 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

Saturated with self-awareness and compassion, this is an irresistibly addictive tour of the human condition.

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MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE

A THERAPIST, HER THERAPIST, AND OUR LIVES REVEALED

A vivacious portrait of a therapist from both sides of the couch.

With great empathy and compassion, psychotherapist and Atlantic columnist and contributing editor Gottlieb (Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, 2010, etc.) chronicles the many problems facing the “struggling humans” in her stable of therapy patients. The intimate connection between patient and therapist established through the experience of psychic suffering forms the core of the memoir, as the author plumbs the multifaceted themes of belonging, emotional pain, and healing. “Therapists…deal with the daily challenges of living just like everyone else….Our training has taught us theories and tools and techniques, but whirring beneath our hard-earned expertise is the fact that we know just how hard it is to be a person,” she writes. Through Gottlieb’s stories of her sessions with a wide array of clients, readers will identify with the author as both a mid-40s single mother and a perceptive, often humorous psychotherapist. In addition to its smooth, conversational tone and frank honesty, the book is also entertainingly voyeuristic, as readers get to eavesdrop on Gottlieb’s therapy sessions with intriguing patients in all states of distress. She also includes tales of her appointments with her own therapist, whom she turned to in her time of personal crisis. Success stories sit alongside poignant profiles of a newly married cancer patient’s desperation, a divorced woman with a stern ultimatum for her future, and women who seem stuck in a cycle of unchecked alcoholism or toxic relationships. These episodes afford Gottlieb time for insightful reflection and self-analysis, and she also imparts eye-opening insider details on how patients perceive their therapists and the many unscripted rules psychotherapists must live by, especially when spotted in public (“often when patients see our humanity, they leave us”). Throughout, the author puts a very human face on the delicate yet intensive process of psychotherapy while baring her own demons.

Saturated with self-awareness and compassion, this is an irresistibly addictive tour of the human condition.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-328-66205-7

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

The visual echoes between past and present make this extraordinary memoir about difficult conversations all the more...

GOOD TALK

A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS

A novelist explores the perils and joys of parenting, marriage, and love in this showstopping memoir about race in America.

When her 6-year-old, half-Jewish, half-Indian son, Z, started asking complicated questions about Michael Jackson's skin color, Jacob (The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, 2014) faced the challenge of being honest about racism in America without giving him answers that might be too much to handle at such a tender age. The result is this series of illustrated conversations between Z and the author, by turns funny, philosophical, cautious, and heartbreaking. "Every question Z asked,” writes Jacob, “made me realize the growing gap between the America I'd been raised to believe in and the one rising fast all around us.” These reflections compelled the author to excavate her formative years in New Mexico and, later, in New York as a young writer struggling through her 20s. Jacob grew up navigating a constant stream of expectations from her parents, who emigrated from India to the American Southwest in the middle of the civil rights movement. Particularly moving are the chapters in which Jacob explores how even those close to her retain closed-minded and culturally defined prejudices. With grace and honesty, the author chronicles how she navigated the racist assumptions of an employer and dealt with Indian relatives who viewed her as "a darkie" with no marriage prospects as well as the devastating decision of her Jewish in-laws to vote for Donald Trump. "I feel awful," Jacob explained to her husband. "I feel like they've abandoned me." The memoir works well visually, with striking pen-and-ink drawings of Jacob and her family that are collaged onto vibrant found photographs and illustrated backgrounds. Occasionally the author reuses a drawing to spectacular effect, as when the faces of a white boyfriend and colleague from her past show up in a collage about the responses of white Americans to Trump’s candidacy. Told with immense bravery and candor, this book will make readers hunger for more of Jacob's wisdom and light.

The visual echoes between past and present make this extraordinary memoir about difficult conversations all the more powerful.

Pub Date: March 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-58904-1

Page Count: 368

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2019

Surely the crown jewel of the Logan family saga.

ALL THE DAYS PAST, ALL THE DAYS TO COME

A heart-stopping plot about a character whose life has always been defined by her family and their land.

Readers who have followed Cassie Logan since Song of the Trees (1975) will feel the paradigm shift as she moves first to Ohio and then California and Colorado, where she still suffers racism, although different from that in Mississippi. In California, after Cassie miscarries, then gains and loses the love of her life, grief becomes her constant companion. Later, as a successful lawyer and the only Negro in a Boston firm, she remains dedicated to her family and their values, using her legal skills to advance civil rights, initially reluctantly but then willingly when injustice visits a close friend. Not surprisingly, Mama, Papa, Big Ma, and Uncle Hammer figure prominently in this novel, and when Cassie falls for a white colleague, several family members blatantly object to the relationship. This novel places the Logans’ struggles amid historical events: Opening in 1944, it includes the integration of Ole Miss, the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, and the impacts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Taylor (The Land, 2001, etc.) refers frequently to episodes from her other novels, but this story also gives readers an up-close and personal view of key events of the civil rights movement. In this Logan swan song, Taylor is at her best.

Surely the crown jewel of the Logan family saga. (Historical fiction. 12-18)

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-399-25730-8

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

A triumphant queer coming-of-age story that will make your heart ache and soar.

LAURA DEAN KEEPS BREAKING UP WITH ME

A 17-year-old struggles to navigate friendship and finding herself while navigating a toxic relationship.

Biracial (East Asian and white) high schooler Freddy is in love with white Laura Dean. She can’t help it—Laura oozes cool. But while Freddy’s friends are always supportive of her, they can’t understand why she stays with Laura. Laura cheats on Freddy, gaslights and emotionally manipulates her, and fetishizes her. After Laura breaks up with her for a third time, Freddy writes to an advice columnist and, at the recommendation of her best friend Doodle, (reluctantly) sees a psychic who advises her that in order to break out of the cycle of her “non-monogamous swing-your-partner wormhole,” Freddy needs to do the breaking up herself. As she struggles to fall out of love and figure out how to “break up with someone who’s broken up with me,” Freddy slowly begins to be drawn back into Laura’s orbit, challenging her relationships with her friends as she searches for happiness. Tamaki (Supergirl, 2018, etc.) explores the nuances of both romantic and platonic relationships with raw tenderness and honesty. Valero-O’Connell’s (Lumberjanes: Bonus Tracks, 2018, etc.) art is realistic and expressive, bringing the characters to life through dynamic grayscale illustrations featuring highlights of millennial pink. Freddy and her friends live in Berkeley, California, and have a diversity of body shapes, gender expressions, sexualities, and skin tones.

A triumphant queer coming-of-age story that will make your heart ache and soar. (Graphic novel. 14-adult)

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62672-259-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: First Second

Review Posted Online: March 7, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

A deeply moving account of love in its many forms.

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FRANKLY IN LOVE

A senior contends with first love and heartache in this spectacular debut.

Sensitive, smart Frank Li is under a lot of pressure. His Korean immigrant parents have toiled ceaselessly, running a convenience store in a mostly black and Latinx Southern California neighborhood, for their children’s futures. Frank’s older sister fulfilled their parents’ dreams—making it to Harvard—but when she married a black man, she was disowned. So when Frank falls in love with a white classmate, he concocts a scheme with Joy, the daughter of Korean American family friends, who is secretly seeing a Chinese American boy: Frank and Joy pretend to fall for each other while secretly sneaking around with their real dates. Through rich and complex characterization that rings completely true, the story highlights divisions within the Korean immigrant community and between communities of color in the U.S., cultural rifts separating immigrant parents and American-born teens, and the impact on high school peers of society’s entrenched biases. Yoon’s light hand with dialogue and deft use of illustrative anecdotes produce a story that illuminates weighty issues by putting a compassionate human face on struggles both universal and particular to certain identities. Frank’s best friend is black and his white girlfriend’s parents are vocal liberals; Yoon’s unpacking of the complexity of the racial dynamics at play is impressive—and notably, the novel succeeds equally well as pure romance.

A deeply moving account of love in its many forms. (Fiction. 14-adult)

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984812-20-9

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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