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Best Current Affairs Books of 2019

A vitally important new entry in the continued heated debates about criminal justice.

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CHARGED

THE NEW MOVEMENT TO TRANSFORM AMERICAN PROSECUTION AND END MASS INCARCERATION

A lawyer and journalist exposes flaws in the criminal justice system, with an emphasis on the untrammeled power of local prosecutors.

Because the United States contains several thousand prosecutor jurisdictions (mostly at the county level), identifying misconduct is often difficult. In this potent book, New York Times Magazine writer Bazelon (Yale Law School; Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, 2013) emphasizes prosecutors who care more about winning convictions rather than upholding their sworn duty of seeking justice. The author makes a convincing argument that if there were a larger number of justice-seeking prosecutors, we could reduce incarceration by a substantial percentage in a nation overwhelmed by prison costs. In addition, individual lives would no longer be derailed by criminal charges that are unnecessarily severe or even downright false. Bazelon aims her book at nonlawyer voters as well as defense attorneys, judges, police officers, social workers, prison wardens, and others in the criminal justice system. A clear message that resonates throughout the book: Never confuse the law with common sense. The author narrates her impressively researched book primarily through two defendants. One is Noura Jackson, a Memphis resident who was 18 when she was charged with the murder of her mother. Despite no physical evidence of guilt or eyewitness testimony, Jackson went to prison. Believing in Jackson’s innocence, Bazelon wrote about the case in August 2017. Based on the extensive evidence she gathered, the author rightly demonizes the Memphis district attorney, the trial judge, and other law enforcement personnel in the Jackson prosecution. The author also explores the plight of Kevin (a pseudonym), a teenager arrested on a gun charge in Brooklyn. As Bazelon makes abundantly clear through her cogent, credible arguments, a sensible, compassionate system never would have arrested or prosecuted Kevin. Throughout the two narratives, the author demonstrates occasional optimism due to the election of reform-minded prosecutors in a few cities. The appendix, “Twenty-One Principles for Twenty-First-Century Prosecutors,” is also helpful.

A vitally important new entry in the continued heated debates about criminal justice.

Pub Date: April 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59001-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

In both Columbine and this up-to-the minute portrait of the Parkland tragedy, Cullen has produced masterpieces that are...

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PARKLAND

BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT

An incisive study of one of the past year’s most significant mass shootings, with publication tied to the one-year anniversary.

Cullen spent 10 years researching and writing his book Columbine (2009), which meticulously documented the Colorado high school massacre, with an emphasis on the two students who planned it. This time, in the aftermath of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, committed by a former student on Feb. 14, 2018, the author has produced an impressively deep account in just 10 months. Never naming the murderer of 14 students and three staff members, the author focuses on surviving students who coalesced to promote gun control by spreading their message, encouraging voter registration, and seeking to influence legislatures at the local, state, and national levels. Starting with his initial coverage of the story for Vanity Fair just after the shooting, Cullen immersed himself with the students, many of whom left classes to tour the nation. Throughout the book, the author demonstrates his rapport with the students as well as Parkland parents, teachers, and community leaders. When he deems it appropriate and relevant, Cullen effectively compares and contrasts the Columbine and Parkland experiences. As he notes, his years of immersion in the Columbine tragedy left him with secondary PTSD, so diving in to the Parkland aftermath felt personally risky. However, he persisted, believing that the hopeful messages of the students would outweigh the darkness. Chronicling how the mostly middle- or upper-class Parkland students eventually expanded their crusade to address other issues related to guns, Cullen memorably captures many of the interests they share with often stereotyped inner-city teenagers from violent neighborhoods. In nearly 60 pages of detailed endnotes, the author expands on the revelations in the main narrative, discusses his information-gathering methods, and discloses potential conflicts of interests due to the close relationships he has formed with survivors.

In both Columbine and this up-to-the minute portrait of the Parkland tragedy, Cullen has produced masterpieces that are simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful about a saner future.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-288294-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

A fiercely uncompromising—and unforgettable—portrait.

AN AMERICAN SUMMER

LOVE AND DEATH IN CHICAGO

A chronicle of dreams and gun violence one summer in the city of Chicago.

In 1991, Kotlowitz (Journalism/Northwestern Univ.; Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago, 2004, etc.) published the modern classic There Are No Children Here (1991), which told the story of brothers Lafeyette and Pharoah and their experiences in one of Chicago’s violent housing projects. Years later, the author received a call in the middle of the night and learned that Pharoah may have been involved in a murder. In his latest powerful sociological exploration, the author masterfully captures the summer of 2013 in neglected Chicago neighborhoods, rendering intimate profiles of residents and the “very public” violence they face every day. One example is Eddie Bocanegra, who killed a rival gang member as a teenager. “Eddie did the unimaginable,” writes Kotlowitz. “He took another human life. I suppose for some that might be all you need to know. For others, it may be all you want to know about him. And that’s what Eddie fears the most, that this moment is him. That there’s no other way to view him.” We also meet Anita Stewart, a dedicated social worker who watched one of her favorite students get murdered and another struggle with the aftermath. Heartbreakingly, the author writes early on, “I could tell story after story like this, of mothers who drift on a sea of heartache, without oars and without destination.” Throughout, Kotlowitz raises significant issues about the regions where violence has become far too routine. “After the massacre at Newtown and then at Parkland we asked all the right questions,” he writes. However, “in Chicago neighborhoods like Englewood or North Lawndale, where in one year they lose twice the number of people killed in Newtown, no one’s asking those questions.” Kotlowitz offers a narrative that is as messy and complicated and heart-wrenching as life itself: “This is a book, I suppose, about that silence—and the screams and howling and prayers and longing that it hides.”

A fiercely uncompromising—and unforgettable—portrait.

Pub Date: March 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53880-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Dec. 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

An important memoir that should be required reading for anyone who has never struggled with poverty.

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MAID

HARD WORK, LOW PAY, AND A MOTHER'S WILL TO SURVIVE

First-time author Land chronicles her years among the working poor as a single mother with only a high school diploma trying to earn a living as a minimum-wage housecleaner.

The author did not grow up in poverty, but her struggles slowly evolved after her parents divorced, remarried, and essentially abandoned her; after she gave birth to a daughter fathered by a man who never stopped being abusive; and after her employment prospects narrowed to dirty jobs with absurdly low hourly pay. The relentlessly depressing, quotidian narrative maintains its power due to Land’s insights into working as an invisible maid inside wealthy homes; her self-awareness as a loving but inadequate mother to her infant; and her struggles to survive domestic violence. For readers who believe individuals living below the poverty line are lazy and/or intellectually challenged, this memoir is a stark, necessary corrective. Purposefully or otherwise, the narrative also offers a powerful argument for increasing government benefits for the working poor during an era when most benefits are being slashed. Though the benefits received by Land and her daughter after mountains of paperwork never led to financial stability, they did ameliorate near starvation. The author is especially detailed and insightful on the matter of government-issued food stamps. Some of the most memorable scenes recount the shaming Land received when using the food stamps to purchase groceries. Throughout, Land has been sustained by her fierce love for her daughter and her dreams of becoming a professional writer and escaping northwest Washington state by settling in the seemingly desirable city of Missoula, Montana. She had never visited Missoula, but she imagined it as paradise. Near the end of the book, Land finally has enough money and time to visit Missoula, and soon after the visit, the depression lifts.

An important memoir that should be required reading for anyone who has never struggled with poverty.

Pub Date: Jan. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-50511-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hachette

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2018

Expect a tweetstorm as Maddow’s indictment of a corrupt industry finds readers—and it deserves many.

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BLOWOUT

CORRUPTED DEMOCRACY, ROGUE STATE RUSSIA, AND THE RICHEST, MOST DESTRUCTIVE INDUSTRY ON EARTH

Maddow (Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, 2012) examines the disconcertingly disproportionate influence of big oil on world affairs.

The author may be a popular, progressive news-and-commentary anchor on MSNBC, but it’s not to be forgotten that she holds a doctorate in politics from Oxford and seems to devour whole libraries of data before breakfast each day. In her second book, she takes on the oil oligarchy, beginning with, fittingly, an opening: the first of a Russian-owned chain of gas stations in New York City in 2003, its celebrity highlight Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Sen. Chuck Schumer. Putin had not been in power long, though long enough that the U.S. ambassador to Russia “had already warned of the risk that [he] would evolve into an autocrat who monopolized control of government and the economy behind the window dressing of democratic institutions.” From there, Maddow goes on to develop a densely argued exercise in connecting dots: A corrupt Russia—one in which, for example, the builders of the Olympic Village in Sochi skimmed off upward of $30 billion—hitched its wagon to a moribund petro-economy, one that could not survive with the sanctions imposed on it by the Obama administration. This set in motion the whole chain of events now playing out, including Russian tampering in the 2016 election and the not-coincidental haste of the Trump administration to lift those sanctions the moment it entered power. There are many stops along the way. Maddow looks, for example, at the seismic effects of fracking in Oklahoma, a petroleum-extraction technology that, as one voter remarked, afforded “an issue that will turn a red state blue.” Updating Daniel Yergin’s The Prize with three decades’ worth of material, Maddow concludes that big oil can and will do nothing to regulate itself and argues that “containment is the small-c conservative answer” to the problem of “the industry’s reliance on corruption and capture."

Expect a tweetstorm as Maddow’s indictment of a corrupt industry finds readers—and it deserves many.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-57547-4

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

Bracing and gut-wrenching, with slivers of hope throughout, this is exemplary, moving reportage on an important subject that...

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NO VISIBLE BRUISES

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW ABOUT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CAN KILL US

A powerful exploration of the sinister, insidious nature of domestic violence in America.

As an international reporter for more than two decades, Snyder (Literature/American Univ.; What We've Lost Is Nothing, 2014, etc.) encountered regular acts of violence against women adjacent to the issues she covered. The grim statistics about and the prevalence of unreported incidents both startled and motivated her to begin chronicling the universality of an issue that “is too often hidden.” Through a graphically portrayed series of in-depth profiles, the author discusses how domestic violence has reached epidemic levels while efforts to curb the trend have been historically underfunded and ineffective. She elucidates this point in stories spotlighting both victims and assailants alongside the investigators and family members who’ve become all-consumed with sleuthing the crimes that have torn their relationships apart. She also tackles the complex conundrum facing victims of familial violence who choose to remain in abusive households. Intriguingly, Snyder probes the chilling territory of the perpetrators, sketching them from the inside out. Especially memorable is the author’s incisive coverage of the communities responsible for creating change through victim advocacy, rehabilitative jail programs, batterer intervention groups, and transitional housing. In one scene, Snyder describes a state prison’s group therapy session in which former abusers discuss “their own incidents of violence, times they…denied any wrongdoing, moments they manipulated or verbally threatened partners [and] instances of trivializing their own violent events. They begin to see, some of them for the first time ever, the effect their violence may have had on their victims.” As these stories and perspectives evolve and deepen, the author contributes her own profound introspection on the nature of empathy and relatability, weaving in themes of enduring emotional trauma, the resilience of “deep stereotypes,” and the many manifestations of physical and emotional violence.

Bracing and gut-wrenching, with slivers of hope throughout, this is exemplary, moving reportage on an important subject that often remains in the dark due to shame and/or fear.

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63557-097-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

What women—and men—can learn from Stack’s story is that “women’s work,” in all of its complexity and construction, should...

WOMEN'S WORK

A RECKONING WITH WORK AND HOME

A self-critical and heartfelt narrative of the author’s life in China and India and the impoverished women she employed as her nannies and servants.

For the majority of the wealthy, white, privileged women who employ these women, “help is affordable, help is cheap,” and learning further personal details about their servants and nannies seems to be an unnecessary headache. However, former Los Angeles Times reporter Stack (Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War, 2010), a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, has sought to sincerely empathize with and find similarities in their lives and her own life through an investigation of what she terms “women’s work.” The author divides her eye-opening book into three parts. In the first part, she thoroughly engages readers with the story of the birth of her first child, in China. These chapters are beautifully written, informative, and sometimes harrowing as she recounts the joy, fear, and exhaustion of becoming a mother. Her chronicle of how she found her way out of depression offers wisdom that new mothers will find supportive and enlightening. Throughout the book, Stack writes compassionately about her encounters with her nannies, Xiao Li (China), Pooja, and Mary (both from India), as well as her struggle with a “postmodern feminist breakdown.” The author demonstrates how her concepts of gender equality and sisterly connections ran head-on into her need to run her home and control her time. In the second part of the narrative, she relates her time in India and her second pregnancy. By that time, she had found it easier to relegate some household authority to her husband. In the final section, Stack discusses her decision to write about the women who worked for her and provides moving details of her relationships with them.

What women—and men—can learn from Stack’s story is that “women’s work,” in all of its complexity and construction, should not be only for women.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54209-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

Highly sobering, exemplary reportage delivered through richly detailed scenarios and diversified perspectives.

FENTANYL, INC.

HOW ROGUE CHEMISTS ARE CREATING THE DEADLIEST WAVE OF THE OPIOID EPIDEMIC

How a lethal synthetic opioid and its manufacturer is creating a global drug addiction crisis.

In 2013, investigative journalist Westhoff (Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast Rap, 2016) began researching potently addictive street drugs, and he learned about Fentanyl and other “novel psychoactive substances” while writing about “why so many people were dying at raves.” The author describes Fentanyl and synthetic drugs (including K2 and Spice) as formerly medically sound panaceas whose formulas were hijacked and re-created with unpredictable potencies and physical effects. The staggering statistics he presents tell a much darker tale, as he shows how Fentanyl-laced cocaine and other new psychoactive substances are killing thousands of people. In order to uncover the origin of the epidemic and the epic race to develop effective deterrent systems, the author seamlessly blends past and present in his profiles of Belgian chemist Paul Janssen, who was responsible for Fentanyl’s initial development in 1959; police officers; politicians; LSD drug kingpins, and St. Louis street dealers. While promising, the harm-reduction initiatives remain diluted beneath the shifting weight and influence of political red tape, global capitalism, and the biological and psychological bondage of drug dependency. Perhaps most compelling is Westhoff’s undercover infiltration of several rogue Chinese drug operations. Some operate covertly, while others are blatantly transparent since China offers subsidies to companies manufacturing and distributing Fentanyl components. Also fascinating is the author’s charting of Fentanyl’s circulation from darknet marketplaces to overseas postal stops to regional distribution. While international interceptive efforts like “Operation Denial” have helped in the apprehension of the upper echelon of major distributors, they have failed to collar Fentanyl trafficking network kingpin Jian Zhang, who is believed to be largely responsible for the steady flow of the drug into the global market. Drawing material from official reports, drug databases, scores of interviews, and years of personal research, Westhoff presents an unflinching, illuminating portrait of a festering crisis involving a drug industry that thrives as effectively as it kills.

Highly sobering, exemplary reportage delivered through richly detailed scenarios and diversified perspectives.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2743-3

Page Count: 356

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

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