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The 2018 Kirkus Prize Finalists

With its clever, compelling vision of the future, deeply human characters, and delightfully unpredictable story, this novel...

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TELL THE MACHINE GOODNIGHT

In her first book for adults, Williams imagines a not-too-distant future in which people find happiness with the help of machines.

It's 2035, and for the last nine years Pearl has worked as a technician for the Apricity Corporation, a San Francisco company that's devised a machine that, using skin cells collected from the inside of a subject’s cheek, provides “contentment plans” for those seeking happiness. (The firm’s name means the feeling of warmth on one’s skin from the sun.) The machine’s prescriptions veer sharply from the benign to the bewildering, telling one of Pearl’s clients to “eat tangerines on a regular basis,” “work at a desk that receive[s] more morning light,” and “amputate the uppermost section of his right index finger.” “The recommendations can seem strange at first…but we must keep in mind the Apricity machine uses a sophisticated metric, taking into account factors of which we’re not consciously aware,” Pearl reassures the client contemplating going under the knife, in a speech she has memorized from the company manual. “The proof is borne out in the numbers. The Apricity system boasts a nearly one hundred percent approval rating. Ninety-nine point nine seven percent.” Never mind the .03 percent the company considers “aberrations.” Pearl herself appears to be a generally happy person despite the current circumstances of her life. Her husband, Elliot, an artist, has left her for a younger, pink-haired woman, Val, who has her own secrets—yet Elliot persists in flirting with Pearl. Her teenage son, Rhett, has stopped eating, perversely finding contentment in dissatisfaction and self-denial. Pearl’s own contentment plan, which includes painstakingly building elaborate creatures from 3-D modeling kits, keeps her on a steady keel even as she yearns to rescue her son from his unhappy state. Following the trajectory of today’s preoccupation with self-help and our perhaps not-entirely-justified faith that technology can fix everything, Williams explores the way machines and screens can both disconnect us, launching us into loneliness, and connect us, bringing us closer to one another. In this imaginative, engaging, emotionally resonant story, she reveals how the devices we depend on can both deprive us of our humanity and deliver us back to it.

With its clever, compelling vision of the future, deeply human characters, and delightfully unpredictable story, this novel is itself a recipe for contentment.

Pub Date: June 19, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-53312-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined,...

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HEADS OF THE COLORED PEOPLE

A bold new voice, at once insolently sardonic and incisively compassionate, asserts itself amid a surging wave of young African-American fiction writers.

In her debut story collection, Thompson-Spires flashes fearsome gifts for quirky characterization, irony-laden repartee, and edgy humor. All these traits are evident in an epistolary narrative entitled “Belles Lettres,” which tells its story through a series of increasingly snarky notes exchanged between two African-American mothers via the backpacks of their young daughters, the only two black students in their class at a California private school, who are engaged in some stressful and, at times, physical conflict with each other. The next story, “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” follows these girls, Christinia and Fatima, through high school and into adulthood as they continue to needle each other over issues of appearance and weight. (Yoga appears to be the answer. Or at least an answer.) The theme of self-image carries into the third story of this cycle, “Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” in which youthful romantic rituals, awkward as ever, are further complicated by presumptions of racial “authenticity.” In these and other stories, Thompson-Spires is attentive to telling details of speech, comportment, and milieu, sometimes to devastating effect. The title story carries a subhead, “Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” that only hints at the audacity, drollness, and, in the end, desolation compressed into this account of an altercation outside a comic book convention between two young black men, a flamboyantly costumed fan and an ill-tempered street entrepreneur. It seems difficult for even the most experienced storyteller to achieve an appealing balance of astringency and poignancy, and yet Thompson-Spires hits that balance repeatedly, whether in the darkly antic “Suicide, Watch,” in which an especially self-conscious young woman named Jilly struggles with how best to commit suicide (and to tell her friends about it on social media), or in the deeply affecting “Wash Clean the Bones,” whose churchgoing protagonist struggles with her soul over whether she should raise her newborn son in a racist society.

In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined, Thompson-Spires’ auspicious beginnings augur a bright future in which she could set new standards for the short story.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6799-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: 37 Ink/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

Smart, funny, humane, and superbly well-written.

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SEVERANCE

A post-apocalyptic—and pre-apocalyptic—debut.

It’s 2011, if not quite the 2011 you remember. Candace Chen is a millennial living in Manhattan. She doesn’t love her job as a production assistant—she helps publishers make specialty Bibles—but it’s a steady paycheck. Her boyfriend wants to leave the city and his own mindless job. She doesn’t go with him, so she’s in the city when Shen Fever strikes. Victims don’t die immediately. Instead, they slide into a mechanical existence in which they repeat the same mundane actions over and over. These zombies aren’t out hunting humans; instead, they perform a single habit from life until their bodies fall apart. Retail workers fold and refold T-shirts. Women set the table for dinner over and over again. A handful of people seem to be immune, though, and Candace joins a group of survivors. The connection between existence before the End and during the time that comes after is not hard to see. The fevered aren’t all that different from the factory workers who produce Bibles for Candace’s company. Indeed, one of the projects she works on almost falls apart because it proves hard to source cheap semiprecious stones; Candace is only able to complete the contract because she finds a Chinese company that doesn’t mind too much if its workers die from lung disease. This is a biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after, but that doesn’t mean it’s a Marxist screed or a dry Hobbesian thought experiment. This is Ma’s first novel, but her fiction has appeared in distinguished journals, and she won a prize for a chapter of this book. She knows her craft, and it shows. Candace is great, a wonderful mix of vulnerability, wry humor, and steely strength. She’s sufficiently self-aware to see the parallels between her life before the End and the pathology of Shen Fever. Ma also offers lovely meditations on memory and the immigrant experience.

Smart, funny, humane, and superbly well-written.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-26159-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

In this follow-up to The Polish Boxer (2012) and Monastery (2014), Halfon constructs a kind of postmodern memorial to his...

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MOURNING

In his latest autobiographical novel to be translated into English, Guatemalan native Halfon's same-named alter ego continues his far-flung travels to probe hidden family truths dating back to Nazi concentration camps.

The author, whose family relocated to the United States when he was 10, is as much instigator as investigator. Against the wishes of his maternal grandfather, a Polish Jew, Halfon visits the Lodz neighborhood where the old man lived before the Gestapo took him away (and where a former porn star now lives in his old place). Returning to Guatemala, he tries to determine whether it was his father’s brother Salomón who died at age 5 in a swimming accident there. Other Salomóns, including another 5-year-old who died an identical death, spin through the narrative. For Halfon the storyteller, unsolved mysteries and the freest of free associations satisfy his aims better than established facts. Halfon goes by "Hoffman" after someone mistakenly calls him that name—very possibly, Halfon determines, at the exact moment beloved actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died in New York. "Language is also a diving helmet," Halfon writes in recalling how worlds opened to him when he first learned English. With his slender but deceptively weighty books, which are at once breezy and melancholic, bemused and bitter, he opens up worlds to readers in return.

In this follow-up to The Polish Boxer (2012) and Monastery (2014), Halfon constructs a kind of postmodern memorial to his grandfathers, who outlived the horrors of the Holocaust but not its searing emotional aftereffects.

Pub Date: May 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-942658-44-3

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

A literary tour de force of precariousness set in a blistering place, a state shaped like a gun.

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FLORIDA

In 11 electric short stories, the gifted Groff (Fates and Furies, 2015, etc.) unpacks the “dread and heat” of her home state.

In her first fiction since President Barack Obama named Fates and Furies his favorite book of the year, Groff collects her singing, stinging stories of foreboding and strangeness in the Sunshine State. Groff lives in Gainesville with a husband and two sons, and four of these tales are told from the perspectives of unmoored married mothers of young ones. The first, “Ghosts and Empties,” which appeared in the New Yorker, begins with the line, “I have somehow become a woman who yells,” a disposition the narrator tries to quell by walking at all hours as “the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums.” Groff fans will recognize the descriptive zest instantly. The same quasi-hapless mother seems to narrate “The Midnight Zone,” in which she imperils the lives of her boys by falling off a stool and hitting her head while alone with them at a remote cabin, “where one thing [she] liked was how the screens at night pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards.” Ditto for the lonely oddballs telling “Flower Hunters” and “Yport,” the longest and last story, in which the reckless mother is often coated in alcohol. These are raw, danger-riddled, linguistically potent pieces. They unsettle their readers at every pass. In the dreamy, terrific “Dogs Go Wolf,” two little girls are abandoned on an island, their starvation lyrical: “The older sister’s body was made of air. She was a balloon, skidding over the ground”; their rescue is akin to a fairy tale. Equally mesmerizing is “Above and Below,” in which the graduate student narrator sinks away and dissipates into vivid, exacting homelessness. Even the few stories that dribble off rather than end, such as “For the God of Love, For the Love of God,” have passages of surpassing beauty. And Groff gets the humid, pervasive white racism that isn’t her point but curdles through plenty of her characters.

A literary tour de force of precariousness set in a blistering place, a state shaped like a gun.

Pub Date: June 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-59463-451-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 24, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

Absorbing and alive, the kind of novel that swallows you whole.

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HALSEY STREET

A quiet gut-punch of a debut, Coster’s novel is a family saga set against the landscape of gentrifying Brooklyn.

After five years away in Pittsburgh—a city whose primary appeal is its distance from Brooklyn—Penelope Grand, former artist and current bartender, reluctantly returns to Bedford-Stuyvesant to care for her ailing and beloved father, Ralph, moving into a sublet a few streets away from her childhood home. But the neighborhood has changed in her absence: her landlords, the Harpers, new to the block from the West Village, embody the shift—a young family, white, wealthy, attracted to the “historic” homes and the lower price tags. And yet the Harpers’ charming yellow house—and the affections of the charming father—offer Penelope an escape from the life she’s returned to. At least for a while. But when a postcard from her estranged mother, Mirella, shows up addressed to her from the Dominican Republic (Penelope isn’t the only one in her family desperate for escape), Penelope is forced to deal with a past she’d rather ignore. Alternating between Penelope’s perspective and Mirella’s, moving seamlessly back and forth in time, Coster pieces together the story of the Grand family: Mirella and Ralph’s early courtship and the first days of their marriage in Brooklyn, Ralph’s iconic record store and the accident that followed its closing, Penelope’s miserable freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design, her childhood trips with Mirella to the DR, and now—in the present—their final chance at something like reconciliation. Gorgeous and painfully unsentimental, the book resists easy moralizing: everyone is wonderful and terrible, equal parts disappointed and disappointing. The plot is simple, relatively speaking, but Coster is a masterful observer of family dynamics: her characters, to a one, are wonderfully complex and consistently surprising.

Absorbing and alive, the kind of novel that swallows you whole.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5039-4117-5

Page Count: 332

Publisher: Little A

Review Posted Online: Aug. 6, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

Solnit is careful with her words (she always is) but never so much that she mutes the infuriated spirit that drives these...

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CALL THEM BY THEIR TRUE NAMES

AMERICAN CRISES (AND ESSAYS)

For those heartsick at Trumpism, essayist and Harper’s contributing editor Solnit (The Mother of All Questions, 2017, etc.) offers context and support. Optimism? You’re on your own.

As the author argues in this fiery clutch of essays, optimism isn’t a particularly helpful attitude anyway. Optimism—and its obverse, pessimism—are “false certainties” that “let us stay home and do nothing” in response to hard-line, bigoted conservatism. It is better, she argues, to cultivate hope, “an informed, astute open-mindedness.” That’s a thesis Solnit has explored often, particularly in her 2009 book on Hurricane Katrina and other tragedies, A Paradise Built in Hell, and she’s persuasive at marshaling a case for the long view while being cleareyed about the degradations of the moment. The 1916 Irish rebellion against the British, for instance, paved the way to independence two decades later, and years of steady pressure led to the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans in 2017. So don’t despair: “We don’t know what will happen next and have to live on principles, hunches, and lessons from history.” Which is why the author doesn’t mind the criticism that liberal pundits like her are preaching to the choir by reasserting principles and history lessons: The choir represents the “deeply committed” who need encouragement. Stoking that support in part demands attacking doublespeak that enables bigotry and unethical behavior from governments. She explores this most effectively in “Death by Gentrification,” an investigation of the shooting of a San Francisco man by police and the rhetorical pretzels police used to blame the victim. Telling the story wrong, with the wrong words and framing, threatens democracy, she exhorts journalism school graduates in one essay. Her own work is a model of doing it right.

Solnit is careful with her words (she always is) but never so much that she mutes the infuriated spirit that drives these essays.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-60846-946-8

Page Count: 166

Publisher: Haymarket

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

A highly distressing, urgent alarm to awaken Americans to the peril of authoritarianism.

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THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM

RUSSIA, EUROPE, AMERICA

How Russia’s campaign to undermine democracies threatens the European Union and the United States.

In a hard-hitting analysis of current events, Snyder (History/Yale Univ.; On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 2017, etc.) argues persuasively that Russia under Putin is aggressively working to destabilize Western nations and export “massive inequality” and “the displacement of policy by propaganda.” Beginning with the strenuous revival of totalitarian thought in 2011, Russia has widened its efforts to attack the EU and to infiltrate American politics by masterminding the election of Donald Trump. For Russia, the EU, which requires that its member countries are democratic and promote human rights, exists as an affront to its “native kleptocracy.” Because “Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe and America,” writes the author, it sought to gain “relative power” by weakening other nations. Using targeted Twitter campaigns, trolls, and bots, Russia manipulated a “leave” vote in the Brexit referendum and later directed its attention to working against Emmanuel Macron in France and Angela Merkel in Germany. Snyder chronicles Putin’s successful influence in Trump’s nomination and election: “a cyberwar to destroy the United States of America.” Russian connections to Trump began in the 1990s, when Russian gangsters laundered money by buying and selling apartments in Trump Tower. Trump, who at the time was bankrupt and owed about $4 billion to more than 70 banks, welcomed funds from Russian oligarchs, who bought his properties through shell companies. The author expertly details Russian involvement in the 2016 election by Paul Manafort, who “had experience getting Russia’s preferred candidates elected president”; Trump’s foreign policy adviser, pro-Putin Carter Page, who became a lobbyist for Russian gas companies; and Michael Flynn. Russian use of Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sources “exploited American gullibility” and cynicism. Freedom, Snyder writes, “depends upon citizens who are able to make a distinction between what is true and what they want to hear.”

A highly distressing, urgent alarm to awaken Americans to the peril of authoritarianism.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-57446-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Tim Duggan Books/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

A potent social and economic message embedded within an affecting memoir.

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HEARTLAND

A DAUGHTER OF THE WORKING CLASS RECONCILES AN AMERICAN DIVIDE

Journalist Smarsh explores socio-economic class and poverty through an account of her low-income, rural Kansas–based extended family.

In her first book, addressed to her imaginary daughter—the author, born in 1980, is childless by choice—the author emphasizes how those with solid financial situations often lack understanding about families such as hers. Smarsh, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, lived a nomadic life until becoming a first-generation college student. Smarsh vowed to herself and her imaginary daughter to escape the traps that enslaved her mother, grandmothers, female cousins, and others in her family. “So much of childhood amounts to being awake in a grown-up’s nightmare,” she writes. “Ours happened to be about poverty, which comes with not just psychological dangers but mortal ones, too.” Because the author does not proceed chronologically, the numerous strands of family history can be difficult to follow. However, Smarsh would almost surely contend that the specific family strands are less important for readers to grasp than the powerful message of class bias illustrated by those strands. As the author notes, given her ambition, autodidactic nature, and extraordinary beauty, her biological mother could have made more of herself in a different socio-economic situation. But the reality of becoming a teenage mother created hurdles that Smarsh’s mother could never overcome; her lack of money, despite steady employment, complicated every potential move upward. The author’s father, a skilled carpenter and overall handyman, was not a good provider or a dependable husband, but her love for him is fierce, as is her love for grandparents beset by multiple challenges. While she admits that some of those challenges were self-created, others were caused by significant systemic problems perpetuated by government at all levels. Later, when Smarsh finally reached college, she faced a new struggle: overcoming stereotypes about so-called “white trash.” Then, she writes, “I began to understand the depth of the rift that is economic inequality.”

A potent social and economic message embedded within an affecting memoir.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-3309-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

An urgent, eye-opening look at a problem that promises to grow much worse in the face of inaction and indifference.

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DOPESICK

DEALERS, DOCTORS, AND THE DRUG COMPANY THAT ADDICTED AMERICA

Harrowing travels through the land of the hypermedicated, courtesy of hopelessness, poverty, and large pharmaceutical companies.

A huge number of Americans, many of them poor rural whites, have died in the last couple of decades of what one Princeton researcher has called “diseases of despair,” including alcoholism, suicide, and drug overdoses caused by the hopeless sense that there’s a lack of anything better to do. Roanoke-based investigative journalist Macy (Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, 2016, etc.) locates one key killer—the opioid epidemic—in the heart of Appalachia and other out-of-the-way places dependent on outmoded industries, bypassed economically and culturally, and without any political power to speak of, “hollows and towns and fishing villages where the nearest rehab facility was likely to be hours from home.” Prisons are much closer. Macy’s purview centers on the I-81 corridor that runs along the Appalachians from eastern Tennessee north, where opioid abuse first rose to epidemic levels. She establishes a bleak pattern of high school football stars and good students who are caught in a spiral: They suffer some pain, receive prescriptions for powerful medications thanks to a pharmaceutical industry with powerful lobbying and sales arms (“If a doctor was already prescribing lots of Percocet and Vicodin, a rep was sent out to deliver a pitch about OxyContin’s potency and longer-lasting action”), and often wind up dead or in jail, broke and broken by a system that is easy to game. Interestingly, Macy adds, “almost to a person, the addicted twentysomethings I met had taken attention-deficit medication as children.” Following her survey of the devastation wrought in the coal and Rust belts, the author concludes with a call to arms for a “New Deal for the Drug Addicted,” a constituency that it’s all too easy to write off even as their number climbs.

An urgent, eye-opening look at a problem that promises to grow much worse in the face of inaction and indifference.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55124-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 10, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

A dynamic memoir that is unsettling in all the best ways.

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HEAVY

AN AMERICAN MEMOIR

A challenging memoir about black-white relations, income inequality, mother-son dynamics, Mississippi byways, lack of personal self-control, education from kindergarten through graduate school, and so much more.

Laymon (English and Creative Writing/Univ. of Mississippi; How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, 2013, etc.) skillfully couches his provocative subject matter in language that is pyrotechnic and unmistakably his own. He also uses an intriguing narrative form, directly addressing his divorced mother, a poverty-stricken single woman who became a political science professor at Jackson State University. As an obese black youngster, the author had to learn to absorb cruelty not only because of his size, but also because of his dark skin. The relentlessness of his mother’s love—she expected academic and behavioral perfection and employed corporal punishment with a belt—shaped Laymon’s character in ways both obvious and subtle. One of the main elements of the memoir is his resentment at white privilege and his techniques to counter it. “Every time you said my particular brand of hardheadedness and white Mississippian’s brutal desire for black suffering were recipes for an early death, institutionalization, or incarceration, I knew you were right,” writes the author. Of all the secondary themes, the impact of addiction—food, gambling, and drug use, but especially food—ranks next. Laymon hated himself for topping 300 pounds as a teenager. Then he got fanatical with exercise and near starvation, dropping down to 170—followed by a relapse of sorts as he began to approach 300 again. Far more than just the physical aspect, the weight he carries also derives from the burdens placed on him by a racist society, by his mother and his loving grandmother, and even by himself. At times, the author examines his complicated romantic and sexual relationships, and he also delves insightfully into politics, literature, feminism, and injustice, among other topics.

A dynamic memoir that is unsettling in all the best ways.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-2565-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2018

A potent, necessary broadside against incarceration in the U.S., which “imprisons a higher portion of its population than...

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AMERICAN PRISON

A REPORTER'S UNDERCOVER JOURNEY INTO THE BUSINESS OF PUNISHMENT

A penetrating exposé on the cruelty and mind-bending corruption of privately run prisons across the United States, with a focus on the Winn facility in Louisiana.

That prison was operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, but after a shorter version of this book appeared in Mother Jones, the company rebranded as CoreCivic and lost the Winn contract with the government. Bauer (co-author: A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, 2014), who has won the National Magazine Award in addition to many others, spent four months inside the prison as a corrections officer, carrying out an undercover journalism assignment to find the truth behind CCA’s documented record of lies about its practices. At least 8 percent of inmates in state prisons must adjust to the practices of laxly regulated private companies rather than those in government-run facilities. At Winn, correctional officers (a term they prefer to “guard”) risk their safety every day for $9 per hour. Bauer determined that the guards, most of them unarmed, were outnumbered by the inmates by a ratio as high as 200 to 1. The author had also viewed prison from a different perspective, having been incarcerated for two years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison because he had unwittingly crossed a border while hiking as a tourist. Despite the awful conditions in his Iranian cell, Bauer found many of the conditions in Louisiana to be even worse. Nearly every page of this tale contains examples of shocking inhumanity. During his four months at Winn, Bauer also noticed a cruelty streak developing in his own character; even some of the inmates told Bauer that he was changing, and not for the better. Interspersed with the chapters about Winn, Bauer includes historical context—e.g., after the end of the Civil War, states continued slavery by a different name, forcing prisoners to pick cotton and perform other grueling tasks that produced income for prison administrations.

A potent, necessary broadside against incarceration in the U.S., which “imprisons a higher portion of its population than any country in the world.”

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2358-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2018

An extraordinary and timely piece of writing.

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HARBOR ME

Just before she begins seventh grade, Haley tells the story of the previous school year, when she and five other students from an experimental classroom were brought together.

Each has been bullied or teased about their difficulties in school, and several face real challenges at home. Haley is biracial and cared for by her white uncle due to the death of her African-American mother and her white father’s incarceration. Esteban, of Dominican heritage, is coping with his father’s detention by ICE and the possible fracturing of his family. It is also a time when Amari learns from his dad that he can no longer play with toy guns because he is a boy of color. This reveals the divide between them and their white classmate, Ashton. “It’s not fair that you’re a boy and Ashton’s a boy and he can do something you can’t do anymore. That’s not freedom,” Haley says. They support one another, something Haley needs as she prepares for her father’s return from prison and her uncle’s decision to move away. Woodson delivers a powerful tale of community and mutual growth. The bond they develop is palpable. Haley’s recorder is both an important plot element and a metaphor for the power of voice and story. The characters ring true as they discuss issues both personal and global. This story, told with exquisite language and clarity of narrative, is both heartbreaking and hopeful.

An extraordinary and timely piece of writing. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Aug. 28, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-399-25252-5

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books

Review Posted Online: June 11, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2018

A resplendent masterpiece.

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DREAMERS

Based on her experience of leaving Mexico for the United States, Morales’ latest offers an immigrant’s tale steeped in hope, dreams, and love.

This story begins with a union between mother and son, with arms outstretched in the midst of a new beginning. Soon after, mother and son step on a bridge, expansive “like the universe,” to cross to the other side, to become immigrants. An ethereal city appears, enfolded in fog. The brown-skinned woman and her child walk through this strange new land, unwilling to speak, unaccustomed to “words unlike those of our ancestors.” But soon their journey takes them to the most marvelous of places: the library. In a series of stunning double-page spreads, Morales fully captures the sheer bliss of discovery as their imaginations take flight. The vibrant, surreal mixed-media artwork, including Mexican fabric, metal sheets, “the comal where I grill my quesadillas,” childhood drawings, and leaves and plants, represents a spectacular culmination of the author’s work thus far. Presented in both English and Spanish editions (the latter in Teresa Mlawer’s translation), equal in evocative language, the text moves with purpose. No word is unnecessary, each a deliberate steppingstone onto the next. Details in the art provide cultural markers specific to the U.S., but the story ultimately belongs to one immigrant mother and her son. Thanks to books and stories (some of her favorites are appended), the pair find their voices as “soñadores of the world.”

A resplendent masterpiece. (author’s note) (Picture book. 4-8)

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-8234-4055-9

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Neal Porter/Holiday House

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

Medina delivers another stellar and deeply moving story.

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MERCI SUÁREZ CHANGES GEARS

Merci navigates the challenges of being a scholarship kid at a posh South Florida private school and the expectations of and responsibilities to her intergenerational family.

Eleven-year-old Merci Suárez isn’t the typical Seaward Pines Academy sixth-grader. Instead of a stately mansion, Merci lives with her parents and older brother, Roli, in one of three identical homes next to her Cuban-American extended family: Abuela and Lolo, Tía Inéz, and her rambunctious little twin cousins. At school, Merci has to deal with condescending mean girl Edna Santos, who loves to brag, boss around her friends, and throw out hurtful comments that start with “No offense….” Although Merci wants to earn money so that she can afford a new bike, she’s stuck volunteering for Sunshine Buddies, in which current students mentor new ones. What’s worse is that her assigned buddy is Michael Clark, a new tall white boy in her class. At home, Merci’s beloved Lolo begins to act erratically, and it becomes clear something secret and serious is happening. Medina writes about the joys of multigenerational home life (a staple of the Latinx community) with a touching, humorous authenticity. Merci’s relationship with Lolo is heartbreakingly beautiful and will particularly strike readers who can relate to the close, chaotic, and complicated bonds of live-in grandparents.

Medina delivers another stellar and deeply moving story. (author’s note) (Fiction. 9-13)

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7636-9049-6

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Candlewick

Review Posted Online: June 25, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

One of the best reads for young black boys in years, it should be in every library, media center, and, yes, barbershop.

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CROWN

AN ODE TO THE FRESH CUT

Safe to say, there’s nothing like the feeling of the fresh cut. You feel so extra visible with a fresh new cut, and this book built from that experience translates it in a way never before brought to the children’s bookshelf.

Basquiat-inspired king insignias and a bit of Kehinde Wiley flair shape portraits of all the various ways men (and women too!) come into the black barbershop to restore their cool, leaving the chair with high self-esteem, self-pride, and confidence—if only for as long as their hairlines remain crisp. It’s sacred. The all-important line and the diverse styles take center stage here. The Big Daddy Kane–homage flat-top. The part. The light shape-up surrounded by cornrows and locs. The taper. The classic wavy dark Caesar. Barnes’ imaginative prose mirrors the hyperbole and swagger of the barbershop. No cut is just good. It will have you looking “presidential,” “majestic.” Like you own “a couple of acres of land on Saturn.” The swagger is on a million. The sauce is drippin’. James’ oil-based portraiture will send many readers reminiscing. This book oozes black cool and timely, much-needed black joy, using the unique and expansive experience of the barbershop to remind young boys that their inner lives have always mattered there.

One of the best reads for young black boys in years, it should be in every library, media center, and, yes, barbershop. (Picture book. 5-12)

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-57284-224-3

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Bolden/Agate

Review Posted Online: Aug. 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

Powerful, captivating, and raw—Adeyemi is a talent to watch. Exceptional

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CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE

From the Legacy of Orisha series , Vol. 1

Seventeen-year-old Zélie and companions journey to a mythic island seeking a chance to bring back magic to the land of Orïsha, in a fantasy world infused with the textures of West Africa.

Dark-skinned Zélie is a divîner—someone with latent magical abilities indicated by the distinctive white hair that sets them apart from their countrymen. She saves Princess Amari, who is on the run from her father, King Saran, after stealing the scroll that can transform divîners into magic-wielding maji, and the two flee along with Zélie’s brother. The scroll vanished 11 years ago during the king’s maji genocide, and Prince Inan, Amari’s brother, is sent in hot pursuit. When the trio learns that the impending solstice offers the only chance of restoring magic through a connection to Nana Baruku, the maternal creator deity, they race against time—and Inan—to obtain the final artifact needed for their ritual. Over the course of the book allegiances shift and characters grow, change, and confront traumas culminating in a cliffhanger ending that will leave readers anxiously awaiting the next installment. Well-drawn characters, an intense plot, and deft writing make this a strong story. That it is also a timely study on race, colorism, power, and injustice makes it great.

Powerful, captivating, and raw—Adeyemi is a talent to watch. Exceptional . (Fantasy. 14-adult)

Pub Date: March 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-250-17097-2

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 5, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

Poignant and real, beautiful and intense, this story of a girl struggling to define herself is as powerful as Xiomara’s...

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THE POET X

Poetry helps first-generation Dominican-American teen Xiomara Batista come into her own.

Fifteen-year old Xiomara (“See-oh-MAH-ruh,” as she constantly instructs teachers on the first day of school) is used to standing out: she’s tall with “a little too much body for a young girl.” Street harassed by both boys and grown men and just plain harassed by girls, she copes with her fists. In this novel in verse, Acevedo examines the toxicity of the “strong black woman” trope, highlighting the ways Xiomara’s seeming unbreakability doesn’t allow space for her humanity. The only place Xiomara feels like herself and heard is in her poetry—and later with her love interest, Aman (a Trinidadian immigrant who, refreshingly, is a couple inches shorter than her). At church and at home, she’s stifled by her intensely Catholic mother’s rules and fear of sexuality. Her present-but-absent father and even her brother, Twin (yes, her actual twin), are both emotionally unavailable. Though she finds support in a dedicated teacher, in Aman, and in a poetry club and spoken-word competition, it’s Xiomara herself who finally gathers the resources she needs to solve her problems. The happy ending is not a neat one, making it both realistic and satisfying. Themes as diverse as growing up first-generation American, Latinx culture, sizeism, music, burgeoning sexuality, and the power of the written and spoken word are all explored with nuance.

Poignant and real, beautiful and intense, this story of a girl struggling to define herself is as powerful as Xiomara’s name: “one who is ready for war.” (Verse fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: March 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-266280-4

Page Count: 368

Publisher: HarperTeen

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2018

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