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Best Literary Fiction of 2015

A triumphant, singular collection deserving of every accolade it will likely receive.

IN THE COUNTRY

STORIES

In this debut collection, Filipino students, teachers, activists, maids, and chauffeurs negotiate their lives under martial law at home and seek fortune abroad in the Middle East and New York.

Each of these nine revelatory stories delivers characters who are equal parts endearing and disturbing. In the stunning “Esmeralda,” a cleaning woman ponders her station in life as she dusts offices in the twin towers in the months preceding 9/11. “You lay there—Esmeralda, daughter of the dirt, born to toil in God’s name till your hands or heart gave out—reclining like an infant or a queen, a hundred levels aboveground.” In “A Contract Overseas,” a budding fiction writer in the Philippines reveres her older brother despite his immoral, often dangerous behavior in Saudi Arabia. “I could picture him, reading my words somewhere, chuckling at my attempts to save some version of his life. Who could say, then, that I had an altogether lousy or inadequate imagination?” In the chilling “The Miracle Worker,” a special education teacher befriends her student’s family’s maid—who, it turns out, has a dark side. “I had underestimated her: what looked like a lifetime of toil and taking orders had contained subversions that no one, until now, had seen.” Alvar deftly flips the master-servant dynamic on its head. Her electric prose probes the tension between social classes, particularly in “Shadow Families,” in which wealthy Filipina housewives in Bahrain throw parties for working-class Filipinos. “These katulong—‘helpers,’ as we called them—were often younger but always aging faster than we were, over brooms and basins, their lungs fried with bleach and petroleum vapors….Helping these helpers, who’d traveled even farther, felt like home.”

A triumphant, singular collection deserving of every accolade it will likely receive.

Pub Date: June 16, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-35281-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

An intricate plot, perfect title, and a harrowing look at the tie that binds.

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FATES AND FURIES

An absorbing story of a modern marriage framed in Greek mythology.

Groff’s sharply drawn portrait of a marriage begins on a cold Maine beach, with newlyweds “on their knees, now, though the sand was rough and hurt. It didn’t matter. They were reduced to mouths and hands.” This opener ushers in an ambitious, knowing novel besotted with sex—in a kaleidoscope of variety—much more abundant than the commune-dwellers got up to in Groff’s luminous Arcadia (2012). The story centers first on Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite, a dashing actor at Vassar, who marries his classmate, flounders, then becomes a famous playwright. Lotto’s name evokes the lottery—and the Fates, as his half of the book is titled. His wife, the imperial and striking Mathilde, takes over the second section, Furies, astir with grief and revenge. The plotting is exquisite, and the sentences hum; Groff writes with a pleasurable, bantering vividness. Her book is smart, albeit with an occasional vibrato of overkill. The author gives this novel a harder edge and darker glow than previous work, echoing Mathilde’s observation, “She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.” Indeed it is.

An intricate plot, perfect title, and a harrowing look at the tie that binds.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-59463-447-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

Another daring, razor-sharp novel from a writer with talent to burn.

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THE SELLOUT

The provocative author of The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Slumberland (2008) is back with his most penetratingly satirical novel yet.

Beatty has never been afraid to stir the pot when it comes to racial and socioeconomic issues, and his latest is no different. In fact, this novel is his most incendiary, and readers unprepared for streams of racial slurs (and hilarious vignettes about nearly every black stereotype imaginable) in the service of satire should take a pass. The protagonist lives in Dickens, “a ghetto community” in Los Angeles, and works the land in an area called “The Farms,” where he grows vegetables, raises small livestock and smokes a ton of “good weed.” After being raised by a controversial sociologist father who subjected him to all manner of psychological and social experiments, the narrator is both intellectually gifted and extremely street-wise. When Dickens is removed from the map of California, he goes on a quest to have it reinstated with the help of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, who hangs around the neighborhood regaling everyone with tales of the ridiculously racist skits he used to perform with the rest of the gang. It’s clear that Hominy has more than a few screws loose, and he volunteers to serve as the narrator’s slave—yes, slave—on his journey. Another part of the narrator’s plan involves segregating the local school so that it allows only black, Latino and other nonwhite students. Eventually, he faces criminal charges and appears in front of the Supreme Court in what becomes “the latest in a long line of landmark race-related cases.” Readers turned off by excessive use of the N-word or those who are easily offended by stereotypes may find the book tough going, but fans of satire and blatantly honest—and often laugh-out-loud funny—discussions of race and class will be rewarded on each page. Beatty never backs down, and readers are the beneficiaries.

Another daring, razor-sharp novel from a writer with talent to burn.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-374-26050-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

A testament to a writer whose explorations of society’s rougher corners deserve wider attention.

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A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN

SELECTED STORIES

A posthumous collection of stories, almost uniformly narrated by hard-living women, that makes a case for the author as a major talent.

From the 1960s through the '80s, Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) published brilliant stories for low-profile publications—her six collections all appeared with reputable but small presses. One suspects she might have had a higher profile had her subject matter been less gloomy: she mined her history of alcoholism in stories like “Her First Detox” and “Unmanageable,” which detail the turmoil of the DTs and lost potential, and her work in hospitals in stories like “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977,” which establishes a milieu of “rich massive coronaries, matronly phenobarbital suicides, children in swimming pools.” Yet the prevailing sensibility of this book, collecting 43 of the 76 stories Berlin published, is cleareyed and even comic in the face of life hitting the skids. The title story, for instance, balances wry commentary about housecleaning work (“never make friends with cats”) and deadpan observation (“I clean their coke mirror with Windex”) with a sad, thrumming back story. Similarly, “Sex Appeal” is narrated by a girl watching her older cousin primp for a date only to realize that she herself is the lecherous man’s lust object—a discovery Berlin presents with both a sense of surprise and foreboding. Berlin’s skill at controlling the temperature of a story is best displayed in her most emotionally demanding material. In “Tiger Bites,” narrated by an El Paso woman who heads to Juarez for an illegal abortion, the pain of her experience and the pieties of her family at home collide. And “Mijito,” which deserves to be widely anthologized, exposes how an immigrant woman’s best intentions to care for her ailing son are easily derailed by circumstance and obligation.

A testament to a writer whose explorations of society’s rougher corners deserve wider attention.

Pub Date: Aug. 18, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-374-20239-2

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

The enigmatic Ferrante, whose identity remains the subject of international literary gossip, has created a mythic portrait...

THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD

From the Neapolitan Novels series , Vol. 4

Inexorable seismic changes—in society and in the lives of two female friends—mark the final volume of Ferrante's Neapolitan series.

Elena and Lila, the emotionally entwined duo at the center of Ferrante’s (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, 2014, etc.) unsentimental examination of women’s lives and relationships, advance through middle age and early old age (perhaps) in this calamitous denouement to their saga. The more fortunate Elena, an author who struggles to assert herself in the misogynistic world of 1970s and '80s Italy, is drawn back to Naples and its internecine bloodshed; Lila, who has stayed in the city of their youth, is at odds with its controlling families. Elena’s “escape” and attempts at personal and familial fulfillment, on her own terms, hint at the changing roles of women in that era, but it's Lila’s daily struggle in a Camorra-controlled neighborhood that illuminates the deep fractures within contemporary Italian society. The paths to self-determination taken by the lifelong friends merge and separate periodically as the demands of child-rearing, work, and community exert their forces. The far-reaching effects of a horrific blow to Lila’s carefully maintained equilibrium resonate through much of the story and echo Ferrante’s trademark themes of betrayal and loss. While avid devotees of the Neapolitan series will be gratified by the return of several characters from earlier installments, the need to cover ground in the final volume results in a telescoped delivery of some plot points. Elena’s narrative, once again, never wavers in tone and confidently carries readers through the course of two lives, but the shadowy circumstances of those lives will invite rereading and reinterpretation.

The enigmatic Ferrante, whose identity remains the subject of international literary gossip, has created a mythic portrait of a female friendship in the chthonian world of postwar Naples.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-60945-286-5

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Europa Editions

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

An expansive, brainy, yet inviting novel that leaves few foibles unexplored.

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PURITY

A twisty but controlled epic that merges large and small concerns: loose nukes and absent parents, government surveillance and bad sex, gory murder and fine art.

Purity "Pip" Tyler, the hero of Franzen’s fifth novel (Freedom, 2010, etc.), is a bright college grad with limited prospects: burdened with student debt, she lives in an Oakland squat, makes cold calls at a go-nowhere job, and can’t stray far from an emotionally needy mom who won’t reveal who her dad is. A German visitor, Annagret, encourages Purity to intern in Bolivia for the Sunlight Project, a WikiLeaks-style hacker group headed by the charismatic Andreas Wolf. Skeptical but cornered, Purity signs on. The names alone—Purity, Wolf—make the essential conflict clear, but that just frames a story in which every character is engaged in complex moral wrestling. Chief among them is Andreas, who killed Annagret’s sexually abusive stepfather and has his own issues with physical and emotional manipulation. But he’s not the only one Franzen dumps into the psychosexual stew. Andreas’ friend Tom Aberant is a powerful journalist saddled with self-loathing and a controlling ex-wife who detests her father’s wealth; Tom’s lover (and employee), Leila Helou, is a muckraker skilled enough to report on missing warheads but fumbling at her own failed marriage to Charles Blenheim, a novelist in decline. In Freedom, everybody was eager to declaim moral certitudes; here, Franzen is burrowing deep into each person’s questionable sense of his or her own goodness and suggests that the moral rot can metastasize to the levels of corporations and government. And yet the novel’s prose never bogs down into lectures, and its various back stories are as forceful as the main tale of Purity’s fate. Franzen is much-mocked for his primacy in the literary landscape (something he himself mocks when Charles grouses about “a plague of literary Jonathans”). But here, he’s admirably determined to think big and write well about our darkest emotional corners.

An expansive, brainy, yet inviting novel that leaves few foibles unexplored.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-374-23921-3

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

Effortlessly blends the past with the present, dark humor with profound sadness. A deeply human masterpiece.

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THE INCARNATIONS

A letter from a mysterious stalker upends the life of a Beijing taxi driver in Barker’s (The Orientalist and the Ghost, 2009, etc.) stunning epic, which spans a thousand years of Chinese history and six lifetimes of betrayal.

Wang Jun, husband of Yida, father of Echo, is driving down Workers Stadium Road when the first note falls from the visor of his cab. “I watch you most days,” it reads. It is taunting in its anonymity: “Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.” And so begins Wang’s unraveling. In the present, it’s 2008. The city is preparing for the impending Olympics, and Wang—distanced from his troubled family, mostly recovered from the nervous breakdown of his college years—has carved out something like contentment for himself: a beautiful wife, a beloved child, a job, if not the one he once seemed destined for. But this is not Wang’s first or only life, the letters explain. There have been other incarnations. He and the “soulmate” have, in fact, been intimately connected for more than a thousand years, from the Tang Dynasty to the Opium War to the Cultural Revolution. They have been father and illegitimate daughter, the product of incest and fellow courtesans to the sadistic Emperor Jiajing; schoolmates at the Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls and Jurchen boys, enslaved by the Mongols. Moving between Wang’s many pasts, all of them thrilling, gruesome, and tragic, and his increasingly desperate present, Barker’s historical tour de force is simultaneously sweeping and precise. It would be easy for the novel to teeter into overwrought melodrama; instead, Barker’s psychologically nuanced characters and sharp wit turn the bleakness and the gore into something seriously moving.

Effortlessly blends the past with the present, dark humor with profound sadness. A deeply human masterpiece.

Pub Date: Aug. 18, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5011-0678-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 13, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

A clever philosophical novel that, as the author puts it, has “less to do with lying than surpassing the truth.”

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THE STORY OF MY TEETH

A lively, loopy experimental novel rich with musings on language, art, and, yes, teeth.

Each section of the second novel by Mexican author Luiselli (Faces in the Crowd, 2014) opens with an epigram about the disconnect between the signifier and signified. If you dozed off during lectures on semiotics in college, fear not: though the author is interested in the slippery nature of description, this novel’s style and tone are brisk and jargon-free. The narrator, Gustavo, has decided late in life to become an auctioneer (“to have my teeth fixed”), a job he thrives at in part by skillfully overhyping the values of the objects on offer. Not that he’s immune to being oversold himself: did the new set of teeth he buys at auction really once belong to Marilyn Monroe? The skeletal plot focuses on Gustavo’s hosting an auction to benefit a church outside Mexico City, his hoard of prized objects, and his reunion with his son. But the book lives in its offbeat digressions, like an extended discussion of literary eminences’ lives via their teeth. (St. Augustine was inspired to write his Confessions due to a toothache; G.K. Chesterson had a marble-chewing habit; false teeth were recommended to calm Virginia Woolf’s inner turmoil.) But all this dental chatter isn’t precisely the point. “We have here before us today pieces of great value, since each contains a story replete with small lessons,” Gustavo tells a group of auction attendees, and the whole book is a kind of extended commentary on how possessions acquire value largely through the stories we tell about them. (In an afterword, Luiselli explains that this “novel-essay” was inspired by such questions and was first written for workers in a factory outside Mexico City that has a gallery connected to it.)

A clever philosophical novel that, as the author puts it, has “less to do with lying than surpassing the truth.”

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-56689-409-8

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Coffee House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

Ordinary people reveal dimensions that are extraordinarily cruel or kind.

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THE BOOK OF ARON

An understated and devastating novel of the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation, as seen through the eyes of a street-wise boy.

Shepard has recently earned more renown for his short stories (You Think That’s Bad, 2011, etc.), but here he presents an exhaustively researched, pitch-perfect novel exploring the moral ambiguities of survival through a narrator who's just 9 years old when the tale begins. He's a Jewish boy living in the Polish countryside with his family and an odd sense of his place in the world. “It was terrible to have to be the person I was,” he despairs, matter-of-factly describing himself as basically friendless, a poor student, and an enigma to his loving mother: “She said that too often my tongue worked but not my head, or my head worked but not my heart.” Yet Aron proves to be engaging company as he describes the selfishness that will help him survive as the world becomes increasingly hellish. The horrors are so incremental that Aron—and the reader—might be compared to the lobster dropped into the pot as the temperature keeps rising past the boiling point. Aron’s perspective is necessarily limited, and he often seems to have little understanding of what’s happening around him or why. His family is pushed into the city, and in the ghetto's chaos, he's separated from them. Serving as a moral counterweight to the boy's instinctive pragmatism is Dr. James Korczak, a real-life Polish Jew whose ambition to “become the Karl Marx of children” inspired him to keep a couple hundred alive through his orphanage, which he supports by begging for funds from the better-off ghetto inhabitants. Aron becomes the doctor’s ward and accomplice, though he has also been serving as an occasional informer for the Gestapo through an intermediary in the Jewish police. He tries to use his position to help save the doctor from being sent to a concentration camp, but the doctor is only interested if he can save all the other children as well. “How do we know if we love enough?” asks the doctor. “How do we learn to love more?”

Ordinary people reveal dimensions that are extraordinarily cruel or kind.

Pub Date: May 12, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-101-87431-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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