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5 Novels by Women You Should Be Reading

A chilling novel about confronting our complicity in past atrocities—and retaining the strength and moral courage to strive...

MELMOTH

Haunted by past misdeeds, a self-exiled English translator encounters the uncanny in snow-covered Prague.

Helen Franklin doesn’t deserve joy, so she arranges her own “rituals of discomfort: the uncovered mattress, the unheated room, the bitter tea,” the modern-day equivalents of wearing a hair shirt. When one of her few friends, the scholar Karel Pražan, stops her on the street to share his discovery of a strange manuscript, Helen begins to suspect her past has caught up with her at last. The manuscript contains tales from many sources, and they all detail horrors in various degrees: a young Austrian boy who gets his neighbors sent to concentration camps during World War II, a 16th-century Protestant in Tudor England striving to retain her faith in the face of persecution, a 19th-century Turkish bureaucrat responsible for writing a memo used to justify the detention of Armenian families. In each of these tales lurks the spectral figure of Melmoth, a witness “cursed to wander the earth without home or respite, until Christ comes again.” But why does steady, practical Helen Franklin feel Melmoth’s “cold gaze passing at the nape of her neck”—and what misdeeds from her past have pushed her to the brink of exhaustion? While Helen’s friends—the sharp, wry Thea, a former barrister, the cranky landlord Albína, and the saintly Adaya—worry, the beseeching hand of Melmoth grows ever closer. In rich, lyrical prose, Perry (The Essex Serpent, 2017, etc.) weaves history and myth, human frailty and compassion, into an affecting gothic morality tale for 2018. Like David Mitchell and Sarah Waters, Perry is changing what a modern-day ghost story can look like, challenging her readers to confront the realities of worldwide suffering from which fiction is so often an escape.

A chilling novel about confronting our complicity in past atrocities—and retaining the strength and moral courage to strive for the future.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-285639-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Custom House/Morrow

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

At once powerful and delicate, compassionate and cleareyed, this book is sure to breed interest in a new literary voice.

RUTTING SEASON

This arresting debut short story collection often finds its protagonists poised between disaster and redemption.

It’s not always easy to foresee how the stories in Smith’s collection will end. In “Mercy,” recently widowed Pam is doing her best to take care of her young kids and the animals on her horse farm, but things keep dying: the kids’ puppy, the kittens, goldfish, a duckling, the barn cat, some chicks and goats. Even the hamster has gone missing. When Pam distractedly lets her beloved Thoroughbred, Ace, get into the grain bin—“even an hour of gorging on grain could kill a horse,” the reader has been warned—it looks like the death toll on the farm will climb further. Will it? “Rutting Season” follows a chain of office misery—Ray the computer guy’s unrequited crush on Lisa, in fundraising, prompts a lunchroom encounter in which Ray treats his assistant, Carl, cruelly—that may lead to a workplace shooting. Can an unexpected act of kindness deflect the violence? “Siege” also hinges on a decision about whether to come out shooting or surrender to life’s disappointments and injustices. Will Amber, a young woman who picks up her late mother’s boyfriend’s gun after he has been killed, choose violence or victimhood…or both? Yet the unpredictability of the nine stories here, many of which deal with matters of life and death, is only part of their charm. Nuanced and empathetic, at times dangerous, tragic, or redemptive, these stories find their subjects in the midst of pivotal moments in their lives, as they struggle with impulses and actions both animalistically urgent and deeply, hauntingly human.

At once powerful and delicate, compassionate and cleareyed, this book is sure to breed interest in a new literary voice.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-9270-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

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

THE NIGHT TIGER

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

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

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

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-17545-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

Comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez are inevitable and likely warranted. But this novel’s generous spirit, sensory...

THE OLD DRIFT

The past, present, and future of an African nation is filtered with humane wit, vibrant rhetoric, and relentless ingenuity through the interweaving sagas of three very different families.

The year is 1904, and an itinerant would-be photographer named Percy Clark has wandered from his native England to a colonial outpost along the Zambezi River in what was then known as the Northwestern Rhodesia territory. One momentous day, Clark, addled by fever, is stumbling around the lobby of the Victoria Falls Hotel and somehow manages to inadvertently pull a hank of hair from the pate of the hotel’s Italian manager, whose 5-year-old daughter angrily responds by striking an "innocent native" passer-by so hard that “he became an imbecile.” From the moment that inexplicable calamity occurs, the descendants of these individuals find their respective fates entwined through what’s left of the 20th century and beyond as the land around them morphs into the nation of Zambia. Sometime in the 1960s, for instance, Percy’s wealthy granddaughter, Agnes, deprived by blindness of a promising tennis career, falls in love with a brilliant black exchange student whom she accompanies back to the soon-to-be-independent Zambia he calls home. During those same years, Matha, the precocious granddaughter of the poor assault victim, is among several math-and-science prodigies recruited by the country’s Minister of Space Research to train for a mission to the moon by decade’s end. Strangest of all these progenies is Sibilla, the granddaughter of the hotel manager, who is born with streams and streams of hair that never stops growing—and apparently makes things grow out of the ground, too. The children and the children’s children of these women find themselves inexorably, absurdly, and at times tragically drawn together through the history of both Zambia and the patch of land where their ancestors first collided. Blending intimate and at times implausible events with real-life history, this first novel by Serpell—a Zambian writer who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and who's won the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story "The Sack"—enchants its readers with prose as luxuriant and flowing as Sibilla’s hair.

Comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez are inevitable and likely warranted. But this novel’s generous spirit, sensory richness, and visionary heft make it almost unique among magical realist epics.

Pub Date: March 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-90714-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

Acker shows that the lives of black girls and women are vast and varied, pushing back on the monolithic ways they are often...

TRAINING SCHOOL FOR NEGRO GIRLS

In her debut collection, Acker pays tribute to Washington, D.C.—the Chocolate City—and the changes it went through during the last years of the 20th century.

The 11 stories, each centered on the life of a black woman, depict D.C. life beyond the monuments and government antics outsiders normally associate with the city. In fact, the tourist D.C. is barely background scenery in Acker’s milieu, which manages to go more local without alienating readers who are unfamiliar with life inside the Beltway. For instance, in "Mambo Sauce," a sample of that local condiment becomes the catalyst for Constance, who's just moved to D.C. from Brooklyn, to try to stave off gentrification in her new neighborhood—and the reason she begins to reconsider her interracial relationship. And in "Strong Men," a high school graduation becomes the occasion for a D.C. crab bake. Acker is strongest when she's excavating the interiority of her characters. This is especially true in “Cicada,” which chronicles a young girl’s experience as she participates in her first piano competition, and “Now, This,” in which Acker astutely describes the inner thoughts of Rae, a premenopausal woman who has to care for her ailing mother while coming to terms with the reality of her own aging body. Yet the collection is uneven. Sometimes the ancillary figures are more interesting than the main characters; in "Strong Men," the protagonist is 13-year-old Bit, but her older brother, Ronnie, whose alleged drug dealing, obsession with local basketball legend Len Bias, and desire to see the world puts him at odds with their father and jeopardizes his enrollment at Howard University, is quite a bit more interesting than Bit, who has trouble with boys and best friends. Acker’s exploration of the inner workings of Washington’s black middle class in the title story comes off as heavy-handed, resulting in exaggerated characters that might have been better suited for satire. Nonetheless, the collection ends on a tender and memorable note in "You Can Leave, but It's Going to Cost You," as a father and daughter cruise the city to the accompaniment of the music of its native son Marvin Gaye.

Acker shows that the lives of black girls and women are vast and varied, pushing back on the monolithic ways they are often portrayed while giving readers everything but go-go music in a generally lovely ode to D.C. life.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-936932-37-5

Page Count: 232

Publisher: Feminist Press

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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