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8 Books That Kept Us Up at Night

VanderMeer is a master of literary science fiction, and this may be his best book yet.

DEAD ASTRONAUTS

VanderMeer (The Strange Bird, 2018, etc.) continues his saga of biotech gone awry and the fearsome world that ensues.

David Bowie had just one dead astronaut, poor Maj. Tom, in his quiver. VanderMeer puts three in the middle of a strange city somewhere on what appears to be a future Earth, a place where foxes read minds and ducks threaten their interlocutors: “I’ll kill you and feast on your entrails,” one duck says, and, on being challenged about his lab-engendered ducky identity, spits back, “You are not a whatever you are.” All very true. In the ruin of the world that the nefarious Company has left behind after its biotech experiments went south, such things are commonplace, and nothing is quite as it seems, although everything dies. Sometimes, indeed, everything dies even as it lives, which explains why those three astronauts, a nicely balanced blend of ethnicities and genders, are able to walk and talk even as their less fortunate iterations lie inert. Says one, Chen, of his semblable, “Keep him alive. He might have value,” an easy task given that one version of Chen has been blown “into salamanders,” as our duck can attest. Other creatures that flow out of the Company’s still-clanking biotech factory have similar fates: They are fodder for the leviathan that awaits in the holding pond outside, for the behemoth that stalks the land. “Bewildered by their own killing,” muses Grayson, one of the three. “Bewildered by so many things. To be dead without ever having lived." Much of the action in VanderMeer’s story is circumstantial, but it provides useful backstory to his previous books Borne and The Strange Bird, delivering, for example, the origin story of the blue fox and emphasizing the madness of a humankind that destroys the natural world only to replace it with things very like what has been destroyed. Or at least that’s their intention, creating instead a hell paved with the results of mad, bad science.

VanderMeer is a master of literary science fiction, and this may be his best book yet.

Pub Date: Dec. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-27680-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

A well-crafted tale of entrapment, alert to the risk of exploitation that follows immigrants in a new country.

AMNESTY

An undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka tries to elude the forces, legal and otherwise, working to push him out of Australia.

Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, the hero of this taut, thrillerlike novel by the Booker Prize–winning Adiga (Selection Day, 2017, etc.), has done everything he can to pass through Sydney unnoticed after his student visa expires. He goes by Danny, the better to assimilate, and works as a housecleaner so fastidious and efficient he’s nicknamed Legendary Cleaner. He lives cheaply and unobtrusively in a storeroom above a grocery store and buys expensive hair highlights to blend into an increasingly expensive city. But during the course of the day the novel covers, his unstable perch is getting wobblier. His phone is obsolete and he can’t afford to replace it, cutting off his lifeline, and he witnesses the aftermath of what he’s sure is a murder committed by Dr. Prakash, one of his clients. The plot of the novel mainly turns on Prakash’s attempts to bully Danny into silence, lest he be reported to Australian immigration authorities. (“Easiest thing in the world, becoming invisible to white people, who don’t see you anyway; but the hardest thing is becoming invisible to brown people, who will see you no matter what.”) But Adiga cannily balances his assured plotting with a style that evokes Danny's justified paranoia. Amid the tick-tock of Danny’s reckoning with Prakash, Adiga chronicles his hero’s history as a migrant, which involves a demoralizing stint in a scammy university and an increasing realization that getting along means disclosing information others can use. “Each time a door opened or slammed…Danny’s heart contracted,” Adiga writes, and he expertly translates that anxiety to the reader.

A well-crafted tale of entrapment, alert to the risk of exploitation that follows immigrants in a new country.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-2724-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

Creepy, violent, and propulsive; a standout gothic mystery.

THINGS IN JARS

Lady detective Bridie Devine searches for a missing child and finds much more than she bargained for.

Bridie Devine is no stranger to the seedy underworld of Victorian London. An accomplished detective with medical training, she sometimes helps the police by examining bodies to determine the cause of death. Bridie recently failed to find a lost child, and when she’s approached about another missing child, the daughter of Sir Edmund Berwick, she isn’t enthusiastic about taking on the case. But Christabel Berwick is no ordinary child. Sir Edmund has hidden Christabel away her whole life and wants Bridie to believe this is an ordinary kidnapping. Bridie does a little digging and learns that Christabel isn’t his daughter so much as his prized specimen. Sir Edmund believes Christabel is a “merrow,” a darker and less romanticized version of a mermaid. Bridie is skeptical, but there are reports of Christabel’s sharp teeth, color-changing eyes, and ability to drown people on dry land. Given that Bridie’s new companion is a ghost who refuses to tell her why he’s haunting her, Bridie might want to open her mind a bit. There’s a lot going on in this singular novel, and none of it pretty. Bridie’s London is soaked with mud and blood, and her past is nightmarish at best. Kidd (Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, 2018, etc.) is an expert at setting a supernatural mood perfect for ghosts and merrows, but her human villains make them seem mundane by comparison. With so much detail and so many clever, Dickensian characters, readers might petition Kidd to give Bridie her own series.

Creepy, violent, and propulsive; a standout gothic mystery.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-2128-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

Derivative and shamelessly manipulative but still a lot of fun. Fisher is a writer to watch.

THE WIVES

Marriage is hard enough without having to compete with two other wives in Fisher’s (I Can Be a Better You, 2018, etc.) psychological thriller.

Businessman Seth is married to three women. Well, he’s actually only legally married to the narrator, a Seattle nurse he only sees on Thursdays. She calls the other two Monday and Tuesday since she doesn’t know their names. They’re polygamists, but Seth has no interest in a sister wife situation, and he’s done a good job so far in keeping the three lives he leads, and the women he leads them with, separate. Until now. In fact, his Thursday wife is getting downright restless. She’s tired of living only for Thursdays and is still haunted by the loss of a child. Though she truly believes she loves Seth, she frequently wonders how she lost herself so completely in such an unsatisfying and unbalanced marriage. When she finds a slip of paper with the name Hannah, who she believes is another of Seth’s wives (the pregnant one, in fact), a whole new world of snooping opens up to her. She even goes so far as to set up a meeting with Hannah—without revealing her true identity, of course—and is alarmed to see that Hannah is hiding some bruises that look an awful lot like finger marks. What she subsequently discovers leads her down a rabbit hole of startling revelations, and the narrative takes a sharp left turn that would be shocking if most genre readers hadn’t already seen similar twists before. It’s all a bit over the top, but Fisher is a slick writer who keeps a tight rein on her lightning-fast plot, and the lengths that her feisty narrator goes to in order to reclaim her life make for salaciously satisfying reading.

Derivative and shamelessly manipulative but still a lot of fun. Fisher is a writer to watch.

Pub Date: Dec. 30, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-525-80978-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Graydon House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

A treat for mystery readers who enjoy being kept in suspense.

A GOOD GIRL'S GUIDE TO MURDER

Everyone believes that Salil Singh killed his girlfriend, Andrea Bell, five years ago—except Pippa Fitz-Amobi.

Pip has known and liked Sal since childhood; he’d supported her when she was being bullied in middle school. For her senior capstone project, Pip researches the disappearance of former Fairview High student Andie, last seen on April 18, 2014, by her younger sister, Becca. The original investigation concluded with most of the evidence pointing to Sal, who was found dead in the woods, apparently by suicide. Andie’s body was never recovered, and Sal was assumed by most to be guilty of abduction and murder. Unable to ignore the gaps in the case, Pip sets out to prove Sal’s innocence, beginning with interviewing his younger brother, Ravi. With his help, Pip digs deeper, unveiling unsavory facts about Andie and the real reason Sal’s friends couldn’t provide him with an alibi. But someone is watching, and Pip may be in more danger than she realizes. Pip’s sleuthing is both impressive and accessible. Online articles about the case and interview transcripts are provided throughout, and Pip’s capstone logs offer insights into her thought processes as new evidence and suspects arise. Jackson’s debut is well-executed and surprises readers with a connective web of interesting characters and motives. Pip and Andie are white, and Sal is of Indian descent.

A treat for mystery readers who enjoy being kept in suspense. (Mystery. 14-18)

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-9636-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

Chilling, poignant, haunting, and, unfortunately, all too timely.

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THE GRACE YEAR

A rebellious 16-year-old is sent to an isolated island for her grace year, when she must release her seductive, poisonous magic into the wild before taking her proper place as a wife and child bearer.

In gaslit Garner County, women and girls are said to harbor diabolical magic capable of manipulating men. Dreaming, among other things, is forbidden, and before girls embark on their grace year, they hope to receive a veil, which promises marriage. Otherwise, it’s life in a labor house—or worse. Strong, outdoorsy, skeptical Tierney James doesn’t want to be married, but a shocking twist leaves her with a veil—and a dangerous enemy in the vindictive Kiersten. Thirty-three girls with red ribbons symbolizing sin woven into their braids set out to survive the island, but it won’t be easy. Poachers, who trade in the body parts of grace-year girls, surround the camp, and paranoia, superstition, and mistrust rule. Not everyone will make it home alive. The bones of Liggett’s (The Unfortunates, 2018, etc.) tale of female repression are familiar ones, but her immersive storytelling effortlessly weaves horror elements with a harrowing and surprising survival story. Profound moments lie in small details, and readers’ hearts will race and break right along with the brave, capable Tierney’s. The biggest changes often begin with the smallest rebellions, and the emotional conclusion will resonate. All characters are assumed white.

Chilling, poignant, haunting, and, unfortunately, all too timely. (Dystopian. 14-18)

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-14544-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Wednesday Books

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

A richly satisfying, Poirot-like ending for Johnson’s inspired and inspiring teen sleuth.

THE HAND ON THE WALL

From the Truly Devious series , Vol. 3

The final, riveting chapter of the Truly Devious murder series.

The initial incident in the series involved the 1936 abduction of newspaper tycoon Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter; the present volume probes several unsavory events that transpired afterward, including Ellingham’s own death in 1938, in a sailing accident on Lake Champlain, and the recent immolation of University of Vermont history professor and Ellingham mystery enthusiast Dr. Irene Fenton. Fenton was introduced to protagonist and contemporary “Ellingham Sherlock” Stevie Bell in The Vanishing Stair (2019). As Stevie gets closer to making good on her resolution to solve the Ellingham case’s past and present riddles, Johnson makes the most of the exclusive institution’s remote, wooded mountain locale, provocatively setting the climax of Stevie’s investigations during the throes of a cataclysmic blizzard. Stevie and her motley crew of misfit high school geniuses are stranded à la Agatha Christie with members of the Ellingham Academy administration, who may have a stake in the revelations of several secrets linking the Ellingham kidnappings with present-day murders. Throughout this intricately woven, fast-paced whodunit, Johnson demonstrates how proximity to wealth and power can mold and bend one’s behavior, whether with good or—here largely—devious intent. The brainy secondary characters' quirky talents and interests complement Stevie's sleuthing skills; while mostly white, they include diversity in socio-economic background, mental health challenges, physical disability, and sexual orientation.

A richly satisfying, Poirot-like ending for Johnson’s inspired and inspiring teen sleuth. (Mystery. 14-18)

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-233811-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

Satisfies as a stand-alone and leaves fans of fantasy, mystery, and thrillers clamoring for more.

NIGHT SPINNER

A disgraced warrior fights to restore her sense of self amid war and intrigue in this tightly wound, laser-focused epic.

In Thorley’s (An Affair of Poisons, 2019) immersive sophomore effort, the Ashkar Empire is imperiled, and 18-year-old Enebish, eponymous Night Spinner and sympathetic narrator, isn’t sure where she stands. Wielding the powers of darkness and starfire, Enebish was part of an elite corps drawing its strength from elemental forces until she allegedly massacred innocents. Mutilated and stripped of her abilities, she’s been training eagles at a monastery alongside Serik, her irreverent, magic-barren friend/love interest, ever since. Meanwhile, a generations-long conflict with rival Zemya intensifies as internal rebels rescue criminals and pilfer supplies. Desperate for assistance, Imperial Army Commander Ghoa offers her adoptive sister a shot at redemption, tasking Enebish with capturing rebel leader Temujin. As she grows disenchanted with Ashkar’s self-deified Sky King and Ghoa, Enebish sympathizes with the rebels; soon enough, events force her to reconsider all her loyalties. Thorley’s strength lies at the intersection of worldbuilding and plotting, melding familiar tropes—geographically-defined peoples, gods old and new, a chosen-one narrative—with a gyre of duplicity and scheming that alternatively meets and subverts expectations. Characters hail from different fantasy locales but register as white.

Satisfies as a stand-alone and leaves fans of fantasy, mystery, and thrillers clamoring for more. (Fantasy. 14-18)

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-62414-888-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Page Street

Review Posted Online: Nov. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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