Complex in theme, complex in narrative, this is a masterful literary exploration of the specter of conscience and the...

ABSOLUTION

In Flanery’s debut literary fiction, Sam Leroux has a publisher’s assignment to write the biography of a famous South African author, Clare Wald, imperious, reticent, evasive about her writing and disinclined to discuss her catastrophic personal life.

A native South African, Sam is a writer and scholar residing in the United States. Sam flies to meet the reluctant Clare, who resides in his native Cape Town, a fractious city where have-nots confront razor-wire–topped walls behind which the rich have imprisoned themselves. Told from alternating points of view, the novel shifts from unsettled present to bloody past, from today’s fractured economic and social environment to the historic struggle to end apartheid. That ugly fight for democracy consumed the lives of Clare’s sister and daughter and Sam’s parents. Guilt, fear and regret keep Sam and Clare from confronting their mutual history of loss and love, deceit and despair. Unbeknownst to Sam, Clare has already written Absolution, a “fictionalized memoir,” which will be published only because the circumspect Clare agreed to an official biography. Ghosts hover each time Sam and Clare meet, and Clare’s cathartic expulsion of her truths comes in flashes. Flanery has constructed a haunting labyrinth of mirrors, fact reflecting remembrance, lie reflecting evasion.

Complex in theme, complex in narrative, this is a masterful literary exploration of the specter of conscience and the formidable cost of reconciliation.

Pub Date: April 12, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59448-817-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2012

War is hell in this novel of inspired absurdity.

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BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK

Hailed as heroes on a stateside tour before returning to Iraq, Bravo Squad discovers just what it has been fighting for.

Though the shellshocked humor will likely conjure comparisons with Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five, the debut novel by Fountain (following his story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, 2006) focuses even more on the cross-promotional media monster that America has become than it does on the absurdities of war. The entire novel takes place over a single Thanksgiving Day, when the eight soldiers (with their memories of the two who didn’t make it) find themselves at the promotional center of an all-American extravaganza, a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys football game. Providing the novel with its moral compass is protagonist Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old virgin from small-town Texas who has been inflated into some kind of cross between John Wayne and Audie Murphy for his role in a rescue mission documented by an embedded Fox News camera. In two days, the Pentagon-sponsored “Victory Tour” will end and Bravo will return to the business as usual of war. In the meantime, they are dealing with a producer trying to negotiate a film deal (“Think Rocky meets Platoon,” though Hilary Swank is rumored to be attached), glad-handing with the corporate elite of Cowboy fandom (and ownership), and suffering collateral damage during a halftime spectacle with Beyoncé. Over the course of this long, alcohol-fueled day, Billy finds himself torn, as he falls in love (and lust) with a devout Christian cheerleader and listens to his sister try to persuade him that he has done his duty and should refuse to go back. As “Americans fight the war daily in their strenuous inner lives,” Billy and his foxhole brethren discover treachery and betrayal beyond anything they’ve experienced on the battlefield.

War is hell in this novel of inspired absurdity. 

Pub Date: May 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-088559-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2012

Although Heller creates with chilling efficiency the bleakness of a world largely bereft of life as we know it, he holds out...

THE DOG STARS

A post-apocalyptic novel in which Hig, who only goes by this mononym, finds not only survival, but also the possibility of love.

As in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the catastrophe that has turned the world into its cataclysmic state remains unnamed, but it involves “The Blood,” a highly virulent and contagious disease that has drastically reduced the population and has turned most of the remaining survivors into grim hangers-on, fiercely protective of their limited territory. Hig lives in an abandoned airplane hangar and keeps a 1956 Cessna, which he periodically takes out to survey the harsh and formidable landscape. While on rare occasions he spots a few Mennonites, fear of “The Blood” generally keeps people at more than arm’s length. Hig has established a defensive perimeter by a large berm, competently guarded by Bangley, a terrifying friend but exactly the kind of guy you want on your side, since he can pot intruders from hundreds of yards away, and he has plenty of firepower to do it. Haunted by a voice he heard faintly on the radio, Hig takes off one day in search of fellow survivors and comes across Pops and Cima, a father and daughter who are barely eking out a living off the land by gardening and tending a few emaciated sheep. Like Bangley, Pops is laconic and doesn’t yield much, but Hig understandably finds himself attracted to Cima, the only woman for hundreds of miles and a replacement for the ache Hig feels in having lost his pregnant wife, Melissa, years before.

Although Heller creates with chilling efficiency the bleakness of a world largely bereft of life as we know it, he holds out some hope that human relationships can be redemptive.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-95994-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

GIRLCHILD

Bright young girl must endure family dysfunction and sexual abuse while coming of age in a Reno trailer park during the late 1980s.

Life in the Calle de Las Flores trailer park, as Rory Dawn Hendrix tells it, comes with its own unique rituals and social mores. People live paycheck-to-paycheck, cops and child-protective services are the natural enemies and getting away from the Calle is “an act of will akin to suicide, in force and determination.” An excellent student whose off-the-charts test scores amaze and confound her teachers, Rory nonetheless feels she is of “feebleminded” stock. Her hard-drinking mother Johanna tends bar at the Truck Stop, relying on her lissome figure to eke out tips. Bearing four sons before she was 21 years old (and losing all her teeth by the time she was 25), Johanna has more than her fair share of demons. Her four grown sons chose to live with their father over her, and she seems ill equipped to take care of herself, let alone another person. Like Johanna, Rory’s grandma Shirley Rose has an ugly history with men, and an addiction of her own. She prefers the slots, and looks after Rory while her mom works. When she finally moves from the Calle, Johanna entrusts Rory to a sullen teenage neighbor, Carol. It turns out that Carol’s father, popularly known as the Hardware Man, has been molesting Carol, and preys upon Rory as well. And when he in turn moves away, taking that secret with him, it is left to Rory to rebuild her shattered self-esteem. Taking inspiration from a battered library copy of The Girl Scout Handbook, Rory does a remarkable job raising herself, while trying to let go of the people (and hurts) that no longer serve her. With a compelling (if harrowing) story and a wise-child narrator, Hassman’s debut gives voice—and soul—to a world so often reduced to cliché. A darkly funny and frequently heartbreaking portrait of life as one of America’s have-nots.

 

Pub Date: Jan. 31, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-16257-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

A fine first novel that enlivens familiar themes of parenthood and battles against nature.

THE SNOW CHILD

A couple struggling to settle in the Alaskan wilderness is heartened by the arrival of the child of their dreams—or are they literally dreaming her?

Jack and Mabel, the protagonists of Ivey’s assured debut, are a couple in their early 50s who take advantage of cheap land to build a homestead in Alaska in the 1920s. But the work is backbreaking, the winters are brutally cold and their isolation only reminds them of their childlessness. There’s a glimmer of sunshine, however, in the presence of a mysterious girl who lurks near their cabin. Though she’s initially skittish, in time she becomes a fixture in the couple's lives. Ivey takes her time in clarifying whether or not the girl, Faina, is real or not, and there are good reasons to believe she’s a figment of Jack and Mabel’s imaginations: She’s a conveniently helpful good-luck charm for them in their search for food, none of their neighbors seem to have seen the girl and she can’t help but remind Mabel of fairy tales she heard in her youth about a snow child. The mystery of Faina’s provenance, along with the way she brightens the couple’s lives, gives the novel’s early chapters a slightly magical-realist cast. Yet as Faina’s identity grows clearer, the narrative also becomes a more earthbound portrait of the Alaskan wilderness and a study of the hard work involved in building a family. Ivey’s style is spare and straightforward, in keeping with the novel’s setting, and she offers enough granular detail about hunting and farming to avoid familiar pieties about the Last Frontier. The book’s tone throughout has a lovely push and pull—Alaska’s punishing landscape and rough-hewn residents pitted against Faina’s charmed appearances—and the ending is both surprising and earned.

A fine first novel that enlivens familiar themes of parenthood and battles against nature.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-316-17567-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2011

Powers writes with a rawness that brings the sights and smells as well as the trauma and decay of war home to the reader.

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THE YELLOW BIRDS

A novel about the poetry and the pity of war.

The title comes from an Army marching chant that expresses a violence that is as surprising as it is casual. Pvt. John Bartle’s life becomes linked to that of Pvt. Daniel Murphy when they’re both assigned to Fort Dix before a deployment to Iraq. Murph has just turned 18, but at 21, Bartle is infinitely more aged. In a rash statement, one that foreshadows ominous things to come, Bartle promises Murph’s mother that he’ll look out for him and "bring him home to you." The irascible Sgt. Sterling overhears this promise and cautions Bartle he shouldn’t have said anything so impulsive and ill-advised. In Iraq nine months later, the two friends go on missions that seem pointless in theory but that are dangerous in fact. They quickly develop an apparent indifference and callousness to the death and destruction around them, but this indifference exemplifies an emotional distance necessary for their psychological survival. As the war intensifies in Nineveh province, they witness and participate in the usual horrors that many soldiers in war are exposed to. As a result of his experiences, Murph starts to act strangely, becoming more isolated and withdrawn until he finally snaps. Eventually he, too, becomes a victim of the war, and Bartle goes home to face the consequences of a coverup in which he’d participated.

Powers writes with a rawness that brings the sights and smells as well as the trauma and decay of war home to the reader. 

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-316-21936-5

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: April 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2012

Despite Shipstead’s flair for language and scene setting, her characters are worse than cartoonishly unlikable—they are,...

SEATING ARRANGEMENTS

New England blue bloods suffer through three days of wedding festivities in Shipstead’s debut, a bleak comedy of manners—think a modern-day Edith Wharton on downers.

Winn Van Meter (Deerfield, Harvard), a banker apparently oblivious to the recession, and his stoic wife Biddy (ancestors on the Mayflower) are throwing a wedding for daughter Daphne (Deerfield, Princeton) on the Massachusetts island where they always summer. Winn certainly approves of Daphne’s fiancé, whales-on-his-belt preppy Greyson Duff, whom she met at Princeton and whose parents own the entire Maine island where they summer. He is less thrilled that Daphne is 8 months pregnant. To make matters worse, Daphne’s younger sister Livia (Deerfield, Harvard) was impregnated by her Harvard boyfriend, Teddy, around the same time. What sticks in Winn’s craw is not Livia’s pregnancy or the abortion after her Teddy dumped her, but rather the embarrassment she caused by announcing her pregnancy in a drunken rage one evening at the Ophidian, a Harvard club. Winn takes club membership very seriously. Even his dangerous attraction to Daphne’s bridesmaid Agatha (Deerfield) is less compelling than his desire to get into the Pequod Club where he’s been lingering on the waiting list; ironically, Teddy’s parents, whom Winn treated badly in his college days (the Vietnam era although Winn hardly noticed) have influence at the Pequod. Once Greyson’s family arrives, a game of sexual musical chairs begins. Winn plays around with Agatha in the laundry room. Pursued by Greyson’s self-proclaimed Buddhist brother Francis, Livia instead hooks up with his black sheep oldest brother Sterling. The next day Livia and Winn walk into the garage and catch Sterling in flagrante delicto with Agatha, whose predatory sexual appetite is never explained. More embarrassing if less sexual incidents follow. The one outsider, bridesmaid Dominique (Deerfield, U. of Mich., but Egyptian!!), observes their escapades with a jaundiced eye.

Despite Shipstead’s flair for language and scene setting, her characters are worse than cartoonishly unlikable—they are, with the exception of Dominique, yawn-provokingly uninteresting.

Pub Date: June 12, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-59946-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2012

Wilson displays an admirable Neil Gaiman-esque ambition that isn’t quite matched by this oft-plodding tale.

ALIF THE UNSEEN

Modern hacker culture and ancient Muslim mysticism collide in the debut work of fiction from Wilson, better known as a graphic novelist.

Alif, the pseudonym of the Arab-Indian hero of this novel, is a young hacker living in an unnamed city in the Persian Gulf, providing support to various groups who want to avoid government censors. Heartbroken when he discovers his love has been betrothed to another man, Alif writes a program that can help him secretly detect her online activity, but the program catches the attention of the government, setting in motion a convoluted series of adventures involving an ancient Arabian Nights-esque tome called the Alf Yeom, religious leaders, otherworldly creatures and, quite literally, the girl next door. The most engaging members of this menagerie arrive early, including Vikram the Vampire, an imposing guide to the world of the jinn, and a female American Muslim-convert who sheds light on the mysterious text. Both give Wilson an opportunity to explore the more mystical elements of the Koran in particular and Islam in general, and she also clears plenty of room to discuss repressive regimes and East-West understandings. The novel is timely, especially as it surges toward an Arab Spring-themed conclusion. But though Wilson, a Muslim convert (documented in her 2010 memoir, The Butterfly Mosque), displays a savvy knowledge of Muslim arcana, the story is overstuffed with left turns and a host of characters and bogs down in jargon about hacker tools and techniques. Given relatively short shrift are samples from the Alf Yeom itself, which, when they do appear, offer some wry fables that are engaging in their simplicity. Larger doses of those stories’ pithiness and charm would give this thriller more spirit.

Wilson displays an admirable Neil Gaiman-esque ambition that isn’t quite matched by this oft-plodding tale.

Pub Date: July 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2020-5

Page Count: 440

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2012

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