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13 Fiction Breakthroughs That Live Up to the Hype

Mandel’s solid writing and magnetic narrative make for a strong combination in what should be a breakout novel.

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STATION ELEVEN

Survivors and victims of a pandemic populate this quietly ambitious take on a post-apocalyptic world where some strive to preserve art, culture and kindness.

In her fourth novel, Mandel (The Lola Quartet, 2012, etc.) moves away from the literary thriller form of her previous books but keeps much of the intrigue. The story concerns the before and after of a catastrophic virus called the Georgia Flu that wipes out most of the world’s population. On one side of the timeline are the survivors, mainly a traveling troupe of musicians and actors and a stationary group stuck for years in an airport. On the other is a professional actor, who dies in the opening pages while performing King Lear, his ex-wives and his oldest friend, glimpsed in flashbacks. There’s also the man—a paparazzo-turned-paramedic—who runs to the stage from the audience to try to revive him, a Samaritan role he will play again in later years. Mandel is effectively spare in her depiction of both the tough hand-to-mouth existence of a devastated world and the almost unchallenged life of the celebrity—think of Cormac McCarthy seesawing with Joan Didion. The intrigue arises when the troupe is threatened by a cult and breaks into disparate offshoots struggling toward a common haven. Woven through these little odysseys, and cunningly linking the cushy past and the perilous present, is a figure called the Prophet. Indeed, Mandel spins a satisfying web of coincidence and kismet while providing numerous strong moments, as when one of the last planes lands at the airport and seals its doors in self-imposed quarantine, standing for days on the tarmac as those outside try not to ponder the nightmare within. Another strand of that web is a well-traveled copy of a sci-fi graphic novel drawn by the actor’s first wife, depicting a space station seeking a new home after aliens take over Earth—a different sort of artist also pondering man’s fate and future.

Mandel’s solid writing and magnetic narrative make for a strong combination in what should be a breakout novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 9, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-385-35330-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

A raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets.

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ON EARTH WE'RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS

A young man writes a letter to his illiterate mother in an attempt to make sense of his traumatic beginnings.

When Little Dog is a child growing up in Hartford, he is asked to make a family tree. Where other children draw full green branches full of relatives, Little Dog’s branches are bare, with just five names. Born in Vietnam, Little Dog now lives with his abusive—and abused—mother and his schizophrenic grandmother. The Vietnam War casts a long shadow on his life: His mother is the child of an anonymous American soldier—his grandmother survived as a sex worker during the conflict. Without siblings, without a father, Little Dog’s loneliness is exacerbated by his otherness: He is small, poor, Asian, and queer. Much of the novel recounts his first love affair as a teen, with a “redneck” from the white part of town, as he confesses to his mother how this doomed relationship is akin to his violent childhood. In telling the stories of those who exist in the margins, Little Dog says, “I never wanted to build a ‘body of work,’ but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work.” Vuong has written one of the most lauded poetry debuts in recent memory (Night Sky with Exit Wounds, 2016), and his first foray into fiction is poetic in the deepest sense—not merely on the level of language, but in its structure and its intelligence, moving associationally from memory to memory, quoting Barthes, then rapper 50 Cent. The result is an uncategorizable hybrid of what reads like memoir, bildungsroman, and book-length poem. More important than labels, though, is the novel’s earnest and open-hearted belief in the necessity of stories and language for our survival.

A raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets.

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-56202-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

A small gem, disturbing and haunting.

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EUPHORIA

King (Father of the Rain, 2010, etc.) changes the names (and the outcome) in this atmospheric romantic fiction set in New Guinea and clearly based on anthropologist Margaret Mead’s relationship with her second and third husbands, R.F. Fortune and Gregory Bateson—neither a slouch in his own right.

In the early 1930s, Nell and Fen are married anthropologists in New Guinea. American Nell has already published a controversial best-seller about Samoan child-rearing while Australian Fen has published only a monograph on Dobu island sorcery. Their marriage is in trouble: Nell holds Fen responsible for her recent miscarriage; he resents her fame and financial success. Shortly after leaving the Mumbanyo tribe they have been studying (and which Nell has grown to abhor), they run into British anthropologist Bankson, who is researching another tribal village, the Nengai, along the Sepik River. Deeply depressed—he's recently attempted suicide—Bankson is haunted by the deaths of his older brothers and his scientist father’s disappointment in him for practicing what is considered a soft science. Also deeply lonely, Bankson offers to find Nell and Fen an interesting tribe to study to keep them nearby. Soon the couple is happily ensconced with the Tam, whose women surprise Nell with their assertiveness. While the attraction, both physical and intellectual, between Bankson and Nell is obvious, Fen also offers Bankson tender care, which threatens to go beyond friendship, when Bankson falls ill. At first, the three-way connection is uniting and stimulating. But as Nell’s and Bankson’s feelings for each other develop, sexual tensions grow. So do the differences between Fen’s and Nell’s views on the anthropologist’s role. While Bankson increasingly shares Nell’s empathetic approach, Fen plots to retrieve an artifact from the Mumbanyo to cement his career. King does not shy from showing the uncomfortable relationship among all three anthropologists and those they study. Particularly upsetting is the portrait of a Tam who returns “civilized” after working in a copper mine.

A small gem, disturbing and haunting.

Pub Date: June 3, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2255-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2014

An old-fashioned epic whose simple, captivating storytelling delivers both wisdom and truth.

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PACHINKO

An absorbing saga of 20th-century Korean experience, seen through the fate of four generations.

Lee (Free Food for Millionaires, 2007) built her debut novel around families of Korean-Americans living in New York. In her second novel, she traces the Korean diaspora back to the time of Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. “History has failed us,” she writes in the opening line of the current epic, “but no matter.” She begins her tale in a village in Busan with an aging fisherman and his wife whose son is born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot. Nonetheless, he is matched with a fine wife, and the two of them run the boardinghouse he inherits from his parents. After many losses, the couple cherishes their smart, hardworking daughter, Sunja. When Sunja gets pregnant after a dalliance with a persistent, wealthy married man, one of their boarders—a sickly but handsome and deeply kind pastor—offers to marry her and take her away with him to Japan. There, she meets his brother and sister-in-law, a woman lovely in face and spirit, full of entrepreneurial ambition that she and Sunja will realize together as they support the family with kimchi and candy operations through war and hard times. Sunja’s first son becomes a brilliant scholar; her second ends up making a fortune running parlors for pachinko, a pinball-like game played for money. Meanwhile, her first son’s real father, the married rich guy, is never far from the scene, a source of both invaluable help and heartbreaking woe. As the destinies of Sunja’s children and grandchildren unfold, love, luck, and talent combine with cruelty and random misfortune in a deeply compelling story, with the troubles of ethnic Koreans living in Japan never far from view.

An old-fashioned epic whose simple, captivating storytelling delivers both wisdom and truth.

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4555-6393-7

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: Sept. 26, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2016

A masterly tale of life and death, hopes and fears, secrets and lies.

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WHERE THE DEAD SIT TALKING

A man looks back on 1989, the year he was 15, when he was living in a foster home and a girl who was also living there died in front of him.

That’s no spoiler: Sequoyah tells us about Rosemary’s death within three sentences of the start of his tale. “I have been unhappy for many years now,” he begins, then tells the story of how his mother went to jail on a drug charge and, after a stint at a shelter, he wound up living with the Troutts, Harold and Agnes, and their two other foster kids, the eccentric George, 13, who was prone to sleepwalking, and 17-year-old Rosemary, who shared Sequoyah’s Native American heritage and liked to talk about death. They lived in rural Oklahoma, and the quiet suited them all; the Troutts were kind people, and everyone in the house liked to be by themselves a lot, with Agnes going for drives, Harold napping in the basement where he surprisingly ran an illegal bookie shop, George lying on his bed meditating, and Rosemary heading to the woods with a drawing pad. Sequoyah used to get in trouble at the shelter for slipping out at night to take walks, so he fit right into this house full of secrets and relative freedom. Hobson (Desolation of Avenues Untold, 2015, etc.) writes in a spare, even tone, and no matter what Sequoyah says—even when it’s about feeling dead inside, or about wanting to hurt someone—the reader is with him, empathizing. As in a Shirley Jackson story, everything seems perfectly ordinary until it doesn’t. “Why did the entire town seem to have the same strange habits?” Sequoyah wonders. Hobson is in total control of his material, letting Sequoyah relax into the welcoming Troutt family home while glimpsing the menace behind the curtain. Or is the menace just inside him?

A masterly tale of life and death, hopes and fears, secrets and lies.

Pub Date: Feb. 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-61695-887-9

Page Count: 289

Publisher: Soho

Review Posted Online: Oct. 22, 2018

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

GET A LIFE, CHLOE BROWN

From the Brown Sisters series , Vol. 1

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

A deeply stirring, unforgettable novel that feels like a once-in-a-generation event.

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MILKMAN

In her third novel, which won the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Burns (Little Constructions, 2007, etc.) writes again about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, delivering a blistering feminist perspective on a community at war.

With an immense rush of dazzling language, Burns submerges readers beneath the tensions of life in a police state. It’s “the great Seventies hatred,” ostensibly in Belfast (where Burns was born), where “two warring religions” have endured “eight hundred years of the political problems.” Daringly, the novel’s 18-year-old narrator, known only as “middle sister,” claims that “every weekday, rain or shine, gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots, [she] preferred to walk home reading [her] latest book.” Her father’s dead. She’s one of 10 children. She has a job and a boyfriend she might move in with, studies French, and helps her mother with her three precocious little sisters. But in recent months, “one of our highranking, prestigious dissidents,” known in the district as the “sinister, omniscient milkman,” has decided to stalk her, a nasty business that has ended thanks to his being “shot by one of the state hit squads.” His death ignites the tale, told in short jumps forward and backward in time, as the teenage narrator navigates the near-lethal rumor that she’s actually dating milkman and has joined “the groupies of these paramilitaries.” Less a coming-of-age story than a complex psychological portrait of Dostoyevskian proportion, each page bursts (at times repetitively) with inventive, richly detailed depictions of how “gossip, secrecy and communal policing” warp life doubly for those fighting injustice under an occupying foreign power. Burns was living on government assistance when she won the Man Booker, and her portrait of the way women, queer people, and the mentally ill in poverty eke out moments of joy despite intense surveillance, curfews, snipers, car bombs, and throat-cuttings is gripping and full of survivors’ humor.

A deeply stirring, unforgettable novel that feels like a once-in-a-generation event.

Pub Date: Dec. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-64445-000-0

Page Count: 360

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

This story is necessary. This story is important.

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THE HATE U GIVE

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter is a black girl and an expert at navigating the two worlds she exists in: one at Garden Heights, her black neighborhood, and the other at Williamson Prep, her suburban, mostly white high school.

Walking the line between the two becomes immensely harder when Starr is present at the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, by a white police officer. Khalil was unarmed. Khalil’s death becomes national news, where he’s called a thug and possible drug dealer and gangbanger. His death becomes justified in the eyes of many, including one of Starr’s best friends at school. The police’s lackadaisical attitude sparks anger and then protests in the community, turning it into a war zone. Questions remain about what happened in the moments leading to Khalil’s death, and the only witness is Starr, who must now decide what to say or do, if anything. Thomas cuts to the heart of the matter for Starr and for so many like her, laying bare the systemic racism that undergirds her world, and she does so honestly and inescapably, balancing heartbreak and humor. With smooth but powerful prose delivered in Starr’s natural, emphatic voice, finely nuanced characters, and intricate and realistic relationship dynamics, this novel will have readers rooting for Starr and opening their hearts to her friends and family.

This story is necessary. This story is important. (Fiction. 14-adult)

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06-249853-3

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Dec. 6, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

Powerful, necessary, and essential.

SPEAK

THE GRAPHIC NOVEL

Anderson’s timeless and important tale of high-school sexual assault and its aftermath undergoes a masterful graphic novel transformation.

Melinda, a nascent freshman, is raped at a party shortly before the beginning of school. In an attempt to report the crime, Melinda calls 911, and the party is shut down. When the semester begins, Melinda has become a pariah who spends her days silent. In addition to internalizing the emotional aspects of the assault, Melinda is relentlessly bullied by her peers and often runs into her attacker—a popular senior—who delights in terrorizing her. Although Anderson’s novel came out nearly 20 years ago, this raw adaptation feels current, even with contemporary teenage technological minutiae conspicuously absent. Melinda relies upon art to work as a vulnerary; this visual adaptation takes readers outside Melinda’s head and sits them alongside her, seeing what she sees and feeling the importance and power of her desire to create art and express herself. Carroll’s stark black-and-white illustrations are exquisitely rendered, capturing the mood through a perfectly calibrated lens. With the rise of women finding their voices and speaking out about sexual assault in the media, this reworking of the enduring 1999 classic should be on everyone’s radar.

Powerful, necessary, and essential. (Graphic novel. 13-adult)

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-30028-9

Page Count: 387

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 5, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

Meticulous pacing and finely nuanced characters underpin the author's gift for affecting prose that illuminates the...

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ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE

A boring summer stretches ahead of Ari, who at 15 feels hemmed in by a life filled with rules and family secrets.

He doesn't know why his older brother is in prison, since his parents and adult sisters refuse to talk about it. His father also keeps his experience in Vietnam locked up inside. On a whim, Ari heads to the town swimming pool, where a boy he's never met offers to teach him to swim. Ari, a loner who's good in a fight, is caught off guard by the self-assured, artistic Dante. The two develop an easy friendship, ribbing each other about who is more Mexican, discussing life's big questions, and wondering when they'll be old enough to take on the world. An accident near the end of summer complicates their friendship while bringing their families closer. Sáenz's interplay of poetic and ordinary speech beautifully captures this transitional time: " 'That's a very Dante question,' I said. 'That's a very Ari answer,' he said.… For a few minutes I wished that Dante and I lived in the universe of boys instead of the universe of almost-men." Plot elements come together at the midpoint as Ari, adding up the parts of his life, begins to define himself.

Meticulous pacing and finely nuanced characters underpin the author's gift for affecting prose that illuminates the struggles within relationships . (Fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: Feb. 21, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4424-0892-0

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2012

Impressive world-building, breathtaking action and clear philosophical concerns make this volume, the beginning of a planned...

THE HUNGER GAMES

From the Hunger Games series , Vol. 1

Katniss Everdeen is a survivor.

She has to be; she’s representing her District, number 12, in the 74th Hunger Games in the Capitol, the heart of Panem, a new land that rose from the ruins of a post-apocalyptic North America. To punish citizens for an early rebellion, the rulers require each district to provide one girl and one boy, 24 in all, to fight like gladiators in a futuristic arena. The event is broadcast like reality TV, and the winner returns with wealth for his or her district. With clear inspiration from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and the Greek tale of Theseus, Collins has created a brilliantly imagined dystopia, where the Capitol is rich and the rest of the country is kept in abject poverty, where the poor battle to the death for the amusement of the rich. However, poor copyediting in the first printing will distract careful readers—a crying shame. [Note: Errors have been corrected in subsequent printings, so we are now pleased to apply the Kirkus star.]

Impressive world-building, breathtaking action and clear philosophical concerns make this volume, the beginning of a planned trilogy, as good as The Giver and more exciting. (Science fiction. 11 & up)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-439-02348-1

Page Count: 394

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2008

With appeal to cynics and romantics alike, this profound exploration of life and love tempers harsh realities with the...

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THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR

Natasha and Daniel meet, get existential, and fall in love during 12 intense hours in New York City.

Natasha believes in science and facts, things she can quantify. Fact: undocumented immigrants in the U.S., her family is being deported to Jamaica in a matter of hours. Daniel’s a poet who believes in love, something that can’t be explained. Fact: his parents, Korean immigrants, expect him to attend an Ivy League school and become an M.D. When Natasha and Daniel meet, Natasha’s understandably distracted—and doesn’t want to be distracted by Daniel. Daniel feels what in Japanese is called koi no yokan, “the feeling when you meet someone that you’re going to fall in love with them.” The narrative alternates between the pair, their first-person accounts punctuated by musings that include compelling character histories. Daniel—sure they’re meant to be—is determined to get Natasha to fall in love with him (using a scientific list). Meanwhile, Natasha desperately attempts to forestall her family’s deportation and, despite herself, begins to fall for sweet, disarmingly earnest Daniel. This could be a sappy, saccharine story of love conquering all, but Yoon’s lush prose chronicles an authentic romance that’s also a meditation on family, immigration, and fate.

With appeal to cynics and romantics alike, this profound exploration of life and love tempers harsh realities with the beauty of hope in a way that is both deeply moving and satisfying. (Fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-553-49668-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Aug. 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2016

Wrought with admirable skill—the emptiness and menace underlying this Utopia emerge step by inexorable step: a richly...

THE GIVER

From the Giver Quartet series , Vol. 1

In a radical departure from her realistic fiction and comic chronicles of Anastasia, Lowry creates a chilling, tightly controlled future society where all controversy, pain, and choice have been expunged, each childhood year has its privileges and responsibilities, and family members are selected for compatibility.

As Jonas approaches the "Ceremony of Twelve," he wonders what his adult "Assignment" will be. Father, a "Nurturer," cares for "newchildren"; Mother works in the "Department of Justice"; but Jonas's admitted talents suggest no particular calling. In the event, he is named "Receiver," to replace an Elder with a unique function: holding the community's memories—painful, troubling, or prone to lead (like love) to disorder; the Elder ("The Giver") now begins to transfer these memories to Jonas. The process is deeply disturbing; for the first time, Jonas learns about ordinary things like color, the sun, snow, and mountains, as well as love, war, and death: the ceremony known as "release" is revealed to be murder. Horrified, Jonas plots escape to "Elsewhere," a step he believes will return the memories to all the people, but his timing is upset by a decision to release a newchild he has come to love. Ill-equipped, Jonas sets out with the baby on a desperate journey whose enigmatic conclusion resonates with allegory: Jonas may be a Christ figure, but the contrasts here with Christian symbols are also intriguing.

Wrought with admirable skill—the emptiness and menace underlying this Utopia emerge step by inexorable step: a richly provocative novel. (Fiction. 12-16)

Pub Date: April 1, 1993

ISBN: 978-0-395-64566-6

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1993

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