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9 Books Not to Judge by Their Covers

Smith's work is always challenging and always rewarding.

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    Best Books Of 2019


From the Seasonal Quartet series , Vol. 3

The third installment of Smith's Seasonal Quartet (Autumn, 2017; Winter, 2018) touches on previous themes of creativity and friendship and delves deeper into current events with a sharp-edged look at the treatment of immigrants.

In the spring of 2018, a TV director named Richard discusses a new film with a woman named Paddy, a brilliant, ailing scriptwriter with whom he started working in the 1970s. The project and their decadeslong relationship will punctuate the book’s time-bending narrative, a large swath of which concerns a few days in the following October. Paddy has died, and Richard takes a train to Kingussie, Scotland, and considers suicide. Around the same time, Brittany, a guard at one of England’s immigrant-detention centers, meets the quasi-magical 12-year-old Florence and agrees to entrain for Scotland as well. Joining the sparse cast in Kingussie (pronounced Kin-you-see, in a devilish pun) is Alda, the driver of a coffee van with no coffee. All is revealed in the spring of 2019. As in the first two books, Smith alludes to contemporary issues, such as #MeToo, Brexit, and fake news, but on immigrants she grabs a megaphone. The book’s opening chapter is a verbal collage of rant and headline. Smith uses Brittany to spotlight grim details behind the cynicism and cruelty of Britain’s immigrant-detention policy, while Alda and Florence suggest the roots of a solution. Roots, shoots, and buds abound amid myriad references to death and rebirth, from the Hanged Man pub to Orpheus, Norse mythology’s Ragnarok, and Shelley’s “The Cloud.” The three novels have a few common elements—the pain and pleasure of creativity; the pairing of an older adult and an intelligent youth; the showcasing of an English female visual artist, here Tacita Dean—but they are self-contained and increasingly urgent in their hope that art might bring change. As Alda says, “Those stories are deeply serious, all about transformation.”

Smith's work is always challenging and always rewarding.

Pub Date: May 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-87078-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

A wildly inventive and moving exploration of the human mind under conditions of duress.


A challenging literary experiment about the shifting nature of human consciousness, inspired by English computer scientist Alan Turing, who was persecuted for being gay.

British novelist and poet Eaves (The Absent Therapist, 2014, etc.) tells the story of Alec Pryor, an English mathematician modeled after Turing, in three sections. Part of a top-secret effort to decrypt coded German communications during World War II, Pryor is a prominent member of scientific and government circles after the war. He is also, however, a gay man at a time when homosexuality is a punishable offense under British law. Searching for intimacy under these conditions, he wanders a fairground and meets a man named Cyril, with whom he strikes up a sexual relationship. This is his downfall: A friend of Cyril's breaks into Pryor's apartment, and when he reports the crime, he's taken in for suspicion of homosexual acts. Soon, he finds himself under the control of Dr. Stallbrook, an analyst who oversees the chemical castration to which he's been sentenced. Stallbrook encourages Pryor to write, and these "notes to pass the time" become the hallucinatory dreamscapes of the book's second and third parts. As the synthetic estrogen does its work, Pryor's consciousness ranges back and forth in time, from Britain's hunter-gatherer past to a future in which machines replace human consciousness. Watching himself as if from afar, he comes to terms with the loss of control he suffers as his body changes. All the while, he is haunted by the memory of a figure from his schoolboy days, Christopher Molyneaux, a fellow student Pryor loved but whose friendship gradually faded. "I think he was told no good could come of our friendship, because of what I am, or rather, because of what, then, it was suggested I would become." In careful prose, Eaves prods at the limits of human consciousness as Pryor comes to grips with the changes wracking his body. All the while Eaves asks important questions about our ability to communicate our innermost thoughts to those we love. "What would a conversation be with instant, mutual apprehension of its themes?" Pryor wonders. Eaves has delivered a gripping narrative experiment that gives us a sense of what such an intimacy would be like.

A wildly inventive and moving exploration of the human mind under conditions of duress.

Pub Date: April 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-942658-64-1

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

An incisive and disquieting look at the consequences of fame.


A London actor is pursued by an obsessed American fan.

Kristin is alone. Her house in Pennsylvania no longer bears any traces of her businessman ex-husband or her stepsons except for a small Spider-Man toy left behind by the youngest boy. But rather than feeling lonely, she fills her inner life with Henry Banks, a British actor featured prominently in a Downton Abbey–esque period drama called The Grange. Of Henry, Kristin rhapsodically thinks, “He was the key signature in which the music of her life was played.” Believing Henry is her “twin soul,” Kristin handwrites him fan letters and plots a trip across the ocean to engineer an encounter with him. Henry, too, cultivates his own obsessions, namely snagging the lead role in the upcoming film by genius director Miguel García, a move that should catapult him into the same realm as “Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston.” In the meantime, he moves with affable narcissism through film festivals, drug-fueled parties, and sex with models, unaware of the collision course he is on with Kristin. For the first time since his debut novel, Foulds (In the Wolf’s Mouth, 2014, etc.) has turned his keen attention to the present day, and the result is a book whose “thriller” label comes less from plot and more from the deepening unsettlement as Foulds turns the lights up on the derangements, both mundane and catastrophic, that drive both Henry and Kristin. As always with Foulds, though, the real star here is the writing, a delight at the smallest levels—as when Henry is “simplified inside the diagram of his suit”—and the larger, pinning down with a kind of otherworldly skill at observation the lengths to which people will go for acceptance.

An incisive and disquieting look at the consequences of fame.

Pub Date: June 11, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-14370-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

This wise, funny, thoroughly contemporary coming-of-age tale earns bonus points for acing the Bechdel test.


Self-contained, responsible Plum, long eclipsed by her brilliant, exhausting older sister, Ginny, breaks free when domestic disasters reshape the family landscape.

The sisters’ beloved Victorian home needs costly maintenance. That’s not happening on their artist mother’s teaching income and book royalties, even with a paying tenant. Their deceased father’s life-insurance payout covers tuition at the girls’ Philadelphia private school. Financial stress aside, the all-white, all-female trio, plus pets, is close-knit, though Ginny, a senior whose Ivy League hopes rest on winning a hefty scholarship, feels overwhelmed. Plum, 15—shy at school, assertive at home—soothes her, shouldering household tasks Ginny’s too agitated or busy for and their distracted mother overlooks. As they’re coping with a financial blow that coincides with a plumbing emergency, Ginny ditches her family for Thanksgiving. Feeling abandoned, Plum keeps her hesitant, fledging friendship with outgoing, popular Tate Kurokawa (implied biracial white Jewish/Japanese), her social opposite, secret. When she’s hired to tutor Tate, their awkward, confusing affinity grows. The sisters’ relationship—what pulls them apart, what draws them together when their connection is strained—is the story’s beating heart. While there’s romance, this is no pink-coded, Austen retread but a well-told, universally human—regardless of gender—tale about teens discovering who they are, where they want to go, and how to get there.

This wise, funny, thoroughly contemporary coming-of-age tale earns bonus points for acing the Bechdel test. (Fiction. 13-18)

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-244781-4

Page Count: 368

Publisher: HarperTeen

Review Posted Online: March 7, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

A refined and wistful exploration of the nature of memory.


In Paris, a young Turkish émigré assuages her loneliness by striking up a friendship with a novelist.

“So much of the texture of a relationship disappears when shaped into stories,” the narrator of Savas’ debut novel opines. Nurunisa, or Nunu, is speaking about her relationship with M., a British writer living in Paris who is best known for his novels about Istanbul, Nunu’s hometown. Nunu meets M. at a bookstore reading shortly after she moves to France—ostensibly to go to graduate school, though she has no intention of even beginning the program. Mostly, Nunu is trying to get away from her past: a brilliant, melancholic father who died when she was young, a disconnected mother, an overly analytical ex-boyfriend, and, most of all, Istanbul, a city whose loss looms largest. Completely alone in Paris, Nunu befriends M. on the basis of their shared mythologizing of Turkey. Together, they eat, drink, and mostly walk, traversing the streets of Paris with the ghost of Istanbul as their constant companion. Savas does not plot her novel so much as weave it, with very short chapters taking up threads of Nunu’s childhood—her fussy aunts, her summers spent in the country—and her present ruminations from a time in which M. is no longer in her life, her mother is dying, and Istanbul’s political turmoil “presses down on us, heavier each day.” Nunu calls this reminiscence of M. an “inventory,” and that’s exactly what Savas has produced here, rendering with elegant intelligence the minute details of both places and people. That the novel moves in circles, acknowledging that some places can be glimpsed but never really explored, makes it all the more like a long walk through a city one can never quite call one’s own.

A refined and wistful exploration of the nature of memory.

Pub Date: April 30, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-53741-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

A valuable addition to the growing body of 9/11–related teen literature—one that will be especially appealing to teens today.


The legacy of 9/11 asserts its mark on a pair of contemporary, white, Jewish teens.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Abbi Hope Goldstein was immortalized in a famous photograph taken on her first birthday, in which she was being carried out of her day care while the first World Trade Center tower collapsed in the background. Thereafter known as “Baby Hope,” 17-year-old Abbi is recognized all over her suburban New Jersey town. When she starts to develop a bloody cough, her instinct is to hide her symptoms from her worrying parents so that she can enjoy one last summer before having to face the likelihood that she will succumb to 9/11 syndrome, which afflicts some of those exposed to toxins at ground zero. Working as a summer camp counselor a few towns over, she is immediately recognized by her co-worker Noah Stern, who sees in Abbi the potential to answer a life-defining question regarding his own 9/11 tragedy. Together they embark on a mission to talk to the other individuals pictured in the Baby Hope photo, an emotional journey that is tempered by a generous amount of banter between the quick-witted, endearingly awkward pair. Ultimately, their story delivers its fair share of gut punches and cathartic moments, couched in an overall light-toned narrative.

A valuable addition to the growing body of 9/11–related teen literature—one that will be especially appealing to teens today. (author’s note) (Fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6678-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Feb. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

A smart, slightly kooky exploration of art and money, faith and politics.


The author of the memoir The Art of Waiting (2016) and the story collection Mattaponi Queen (2010) takes readers inside a writers’ retreat for Christians with her first novel.

It began as a joke. Marianne, a poet, suggested to her novelist boyfriend, Eric, that a writing workshop for Evangelicals could be a lucrative endeavor. When Eric—now her ex—calls Marianne and asks her if she wants to manage the newly formed Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch, she can’t believe he’s serious, but he is, and she’s not really in a position to say no. She’s perennially underemployed, and her cheap apartment is about to go condo. So, she leaves New York for an abandoned motel on the outskirts of Sarasota, Florida. Marianne assures herself that this gig will give her plenty of time to concentrate on her own work, but running a school requires a lot of effort, and the students are more demanding than she had expected. Donald—also known as Davonte—is an R&B star trying to write a novel based on what he hopes will be his comeback. He needs Marianne to heat up his Lean Cuisines; he’s trying to lose weight. Janine, a devout home economics teacher who assumes that Marianne is a believer, too, wants to talk about God’s plan for her poems about Terri Schiavo. Just as she’s realizing these aspiring writers are real people rather than gullible rubes ripe for fleecing, Marianne learns that the Ranch is partnering with God’s World God’s Word, a for-profit educational conglomerate with ties to extreme right-wing politics. And then there’s a massive storm heading for the coast….Boggs bombards her heroine with difficulties—artistic, ethical, romantic, meteorological—at an antic pace, and the book has slapstick charm. But the heart of this novel is its cast. Marianne is a mess, and she’s not always a sympathetic character, but she’s real, and she’s capable of change. Rekindling her relationship with Eric is her primary preoccupation early on, but it’s her unexpected connection with Janine that proves more enduring, more honest, and more interesting.

A smart, slightly kooky exploration of art and money, faith and politics.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-55597-834-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

Full of intelligence and charm.


A long-divorced pair of 70-something celebrities runs into each other at a ritzy Malibu rehab center.

Tanen's (Are You Going to Kiss Me Now?, 2011, etc.) first novel for adults follows a YA title and a hilarious series of illustrated books featuring yellow chicks. Though her delightful sense of humor infuses the plot and dialogue with sparkle, the characters and their predicaments are not played for laughs, or not only for laughs—along with the farcical situations come moments of real emotion and insight. The novel's title refers to German words that express concepts that take a whole sentence to convey in English, like Verschlimmbessern (“to make matters worse in the process of trying to improve them”) and Schnapsidee (“a plan so stupid, it must have come from a drunken mind”). These and three other such terms are the titles of the five sections of the book. In the first, two senior citizens with celebrated careers turn their lives into train wrecks. Marty Kessler is a retired Hollywood producer whose gold-digging girlfriend packs him off to Directions Rehabilitation Center for yet another stint in rehab when his opioid-and-benzo habit veers out of control. Bunny Small is a gin-swilling British author with a series of bestselling books for teens about a character named Henry Holter. When her estranged adult son, also named Henry Holter, fails to show up at the 70th birthday party thrown for her by her agent, she goes off the rails altogether. She, too, is sent to Directions. The family members who remain in the outside world have troubles of their own: Henry's girlfriend is cheating on him, and now his mother, whom he crossed the globe to escape, has shown up in Los Angeles. Marty's daughters, Janine and Amanda, have never fully recovered from their mother's long-ago suicide; Janine has the additional burden of having been a huge television star when she was a child, while Amanda's twin daughters hate each other. As the characters weather tough times and deal with hurts old and new, love and humor light the way.

Full of intelligence and charm.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-43716-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 25, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

A tightly plotted mystery with an unforgettably unnerving reveal.


A year after his friend’s murder, a boy finds a clue that propels him to start his own investigation.

Mac lives in Camera Cove, once famous only for its picturesque scenery. That was before the serial killer who murdered four people struck, leaving a clipping from an old catalog on each victim. The police found evidence of a drifter’s involvement, but the culprit was never identified. One victim was Connor, Mac’s close friend, for whom he harbored secret feelings. Now, the summer after graduation, Mac and his friend group have scattered, most hoping to move on. But without closure, Mac feels stuck until he discovers a note Connor left him the night of his murder. Riddled with guilt, Mac makes it his mission to find out what happened. Under the guise of collecting donations for a rummage sale, he visits the families of each victim, seeking clues. Quill, one victim’s cousin, becomes a partner in his investigation—and maybe something more. As Mac works out theories, he uncovers far more than he ever could have imagined, and he’s forced to rewrite everything he thought he knew. When the truth finally reveals itself, it’s breathtakingly chilling. Set across the lush backdrop of an oceanside vacation town, the mystery unfurls like a thick fog, eerie and wholly immersive. Most characters are assumed white; Quill is biracial (black/white).

A tightly plotted mystery with an unforgettably unnerving reveal. (Mystery. 14-18)

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8075-4151-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Whitman

Review Posted Online: Feb. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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