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Best Up-to-the-Minute Fiction of 2018

Subtle, well-crafted, and powerful.

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AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE

A look at the personal toll of the criminal justice system from the author of Silver Sparrow (2011) and The Untelling (2005).

Roy has done everything right. Growing up in a working-class family in Louisiana, he took advantage of all the help he could get and earned a scholarship to Morehouse College. By the time he marries Spelman alum Celestial, she’s an up-and-coming artist. After a year of marriage, they’re thinking about buying a bigger house and starting a family. Then, on a visit back home, Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. Jones begins with chapters written from the points of view of her main characters. When Roy goes to prison, it becomes a novel in letters. The epistolary style makes perfect sense. Roy is incarcerated in Louisiana, Celestial is in Atlanta, and Jones’ formal choice underscores their separation. Once Roy is released, the narrative resumes a rotating first person, but there’s a new voice, that of Andre, once Celestial’s best friend and now something more. This novel is peopled by vividly realized, individual characters and driven by interpersonal drama, but it is also very much about being black in contemporary America. Roy is arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned in Louisiana, the state with the highest per-capita rate of incarceration in the United States, and where the ratio of black to white prisoners is 4 to 1. There’s a heartbreaking scene in which Celestial’s uncle—Roy’s attorney—encourages her to forget everything she knows about presenting herself while she speaks in her husband’s defense. “Now is not the time to be articulate. Now is the time to give it up. No filter, all heart.” After a lifetime of being encouraged to be “well spoken,” Celestial finds that she sounds false trying to speak unguardedly. “As I took my seat…not even the black lady juror would look at me.” This is, at its heart, a love story, but a love story warped by racial injustice. And, in it, Jones suggests that racial injustice haunts the African-American story.

Subtle, well-crafted, and powerful.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-61620-134-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 12, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

Intensely smart. Sharply written.

HOW TO BE SAFE

A brilliant, tragically timely second novel from the author of The Young Widower’s Handbook (2017).

FORMER TEACHER HAD MOTIVE. When this chyron rolls across the bottom of a cable news segment, Anna Crawford becomes complicit in a high school shooting. Never mind that she had nothing to do with the crime; once she’s part of the story, she’s guilty of...something. This novel is an indictment of gun culture, hot-take journalism, and social media, and if that sounds like a miserable premise for a novel, fear not: McAllister is a brave and stylish writer, and Anna is a singular creation. At first, she seems like a classic unreliable narrator, but it quickly becomes hard to decide which is crazier: Anna or the world she’s describing. As a one-time teacher and a thoroughgoing misfit—she was fired for being “unpredictable” just before the shooting—Anna is perfectly positioned to understand the shooter even as she recognizes that both his teen angst and his deadly rage are hackneyed. Once she achieves secondhand fame, she notes that the strangers who want to kill her, those who want to rape her, and those who want to do both—in that order—share the same fantasies of dominance. “In America,” she says, “we send children to school to get shot and to learn algebra and physics and history and biology and literature. Less civilized nations don’t have such an organized system for murdering their children. Mass murders in undeveloped countries occur because they are savages.” Anna doesn’t just worry about guns; she sees how misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and classism shape a society in which assault weapons are fetish objects. The horror is offset—or maybe thrown into sharp relief—by moments of mordant humor. When an evangelizing acquaintance tries to frighten Anna with images of darkness and demons and a final battle between good and evil, Anna says, “You might want to make this sound less exciting…I kind of want to not repent just so I can see the whole scene.” Then she adds, “People don’t want to be bored.”

Intensely smart. Sharply written.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63149-413-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION

A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

Dreamy and jarring and exceedingly topical.

THOSE WHO KNEW

On an unnamed island, a decade after the fall of a brutal dictator, a woman suspects that a prominent senator she knows from her past—a progressive star, a media darling—is guilty of his own private violence.

“Precisely a week after the death of Maria P. was declared an accident,” begins Novey’s (Ways to Disappear, 2016) sophomore novel, “a woman reached into her tote bag and found a sweater inside that didn’t belong to her.” The woman is Lena, a 30-something college instructor. The sweater bears an eerie resemblance to a sweater she used to wear, back when she too was a student activist, just like Maria P. before she was “accidentally” run over by a bus. Lena, though, is convinced Maria P. was murdered: She was pushed, Lena believes, by a hotshot senator named Victor, light of the nation’s Truth and Justice Party. Lena has some experience with this. She was once in the thrall of Victor, too. Meanwhile, in a bed elsewhere on the island, Victor has come up with a plan to ward off questions: Get married. And so he proposes to the well-connected woman beside him, who lovingly accepts. The first half of the book has the propulsion of a thriller, a whirlwind of characters and perspectives. There is Lena’s friend Olga, a victim of the regime who now runs a books-and-marijuana shop. There is Freddy, Victor’s gay playwright brother, who has his own suspicions. There is Oscar, a northern tourist bearing baked goods. And then, of course, there’s Lena, haunted by Maria P. and the years she spent in silence. What follows is a tangled web of loss and regret and—perhaps—something like redemption. It's not a particularly subtle book—after the initial setup, it unfurls more or less how you’d expect it to—but Novey’s writing is so singularly vibrant it hardly matters.

Dreamy and jarring and exceedingly topical.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-56043-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

In this vivid and moving book, Orange articulates the challenges and complexities not only of Native Americans, but also of...

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THERE THERE

Orange’s debut novel offers a kaleidoscopic look at Native American life in Oakland, California, through the experiences and perspectives of 12 characters.

An aspiring documentary filmmaker, a young man who has taught himself traditional dance by watching YouTube, another lost in the bulk of his enormous body—these are just a few of the point-of-view characters in this astonishingly wide-ranging book, which culminates with an event called the Big Oakland Powwow. Orange, who grew up in the East Bay and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, knows the territory, but this is no work of social anthropology; rather, it is a deep dive into the fractured diaspora of a community that remains, in many ways, invisible to many outside of it. “We made powwows because we needed a place to be together,” he writes. “Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum.” The plot of the book is almost impossible to encapsulate, but that’s part of its power. At the same time, the narrative moves forward with propulsive force. The stakes are high: For Jacquie Red Feather, on her way to meet her three grandsons for the first time, there is nothing as conditional as sobriety: “She was sober again,” Orange tells us, “and ten days is the same as a year when you want to drink all the time.” For Daniel Gonzales, creating plastic guns on a 3-D printer, the only lifeline is his dead brother, Manny, to whom he writes at a ghostly Gmail account. In its portrayal of so-called “Urban Indians,” the novel recalls David Treuer’s The Hiawatha, but the range, the vision, is all its own. What Orange is saying is that, like all people, Native Americans don’t share a single identity; theirs is a multifaceted landscape, made more so by the sins, the weight, of history. That some of these sins belong to the characters alone should go without saying, a point Orange makes explicit in the novel’s stunning, brutal denouement. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin wrote in a line Orange borrows as an epigraph to one of the book’s sections; this is the inescapable fate of every individual here.

In this vivid and moving book, Orange articulates the challenges and complexities not only of Native Americans, but also of America itself.

Pub Date: June 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52037-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

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THE OVERSTORY

Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.

In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63552-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

As good as anything we've seen from this author: smart, relevant, fundamentally warm-hearted, hilarious of course, and it...

LAKE SUCCESS

A hedge fund manager on the skids takes a cross-country Greyhound bus trip to reconnect with his college girlfriend, leaving his wife to deal with their autistic 3-year-old.

"Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding. There was a clean slice above his left brow where the nanny's fingernail had gouged him and, from his wife, a teardrop scratch below his eye." Shteyngart (Little Failure, 2014, etc.) gleefully sends Barry, on the run from troubles at work as well as his inability to face up to his son's recent diagnosis, on an odyssey that the author himself made on a Greyhound bus during the lead-up to the 2016 election, thus joining Salman Rushdie, Olivia Laing, Curtis Sittenfeld, and others with recent works set in the dawn of the Trump era. Barry is, in some ways, a bit of a Trump himself: He's from Queens, has a serious inferiority/superiority complex, has achieved his success through means other than actual financial genius. Barry, however, is a likable naif whose first stop is Baltimore, where he uses the "friend moves" he developed in middle school to bond with a crack dealer named Javon. He leaves Baltimore with a rock in his pocket and the dream of establishing an Urban Watch Fund, where he would share with underprivileged kids his obsession with Rolexes and Patek Phillipes as a means to self-betterment. In fact, Barry has left New York with not a single change of clothes, only a carry-on suitcase full of absurdly valuable watches. And now there's that crack rock. Off he goes to Richmond, Atlanta, Jackson, El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, Phoenix, and La Jolla, the home of an ex he's been out of touch with for years. Alternating chapters visit his wife, Seema, the daughter of Indian immigrants, who's back in New York with their silent son, Shiva, and his nanny, conducting an affair with a downstairs neighbor, a successful Guatemalan writer named Luis Goodman (whose biographical overlap with the real writer Francisco Goldman has all the markings of an inside joke).

As good as anything we've seen from this author: smart, relevant, fundamentally warm-hearted, hilarious of course, and it has a great ending.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9741-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2018

Stylishly written, cleverly observed, and boldly imagined.

BOOMER1

After his academic job search, his journalistic career, and his marriage proposal go down in flames, an angry young man moves into his mother's basement and starts a radical movement that pits millennials against baby boomers.

Cassie and Mark, both bluegrass musicians, meet at a gig in Williamsburg, where "maybe fifty bespectacled recent college grads milled around drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon from the can and Miller High Life from the bottle." Cassie reflexively rebuffs Mark's friendly overtures, fearing that her girlfriend will notice and take umbrage. (Perhaps girlfriend is not the right word. "They lived together in a kind of Heiddegarian phenomenological relationship present, in which only the present moment of drinking or playing music or fucking existed, an immediate Dasein of mutually undecided and uncommented-upon cathexis, Eros and lust.") Despite Cassie's lack of enthusiasm, the two soon find themselves in a band, a relationship, and a shared apartment. But shortly after Mark gets her a fact-checking gig at the glossy magazine where he's on staff, their lives take starkly different turns. He loses his job, spends a year writing an essay on Emma Goldman that no one reads, then makes a financial and romantic mistake so serious he is forced to move home to Baltimore. There, he puts on a David Crosby mask, sets himself up in front of an upside-down poster of Jerry Garcia, and begins to issue YouTube screeds against baby boomers. His message: Retire now, greedy pigs, and free up the jobs for us. The videos go viral. Cassie, meanwhile, is riding a wave of good luck. She's become Director of Research at a new media company called RazorWire and is having a passionate relationship with a brilliant female co-worker. The money is fantastic even if the job is something less than that, fact-checking articles like "Seventeen Great New Recipes That Use Splenda Instead of Sugar." But when Mark, now known as Boomer1, loses control of his movement, bad things start to happen, first to Bob Weir, Eddie Bauer, Jann Wenner, and the AARP. Torday's (The Last Flight of Poxl West, 2015) gifts as a writer are brilliantly displayed in the details of Cassie's and Mark's inner and outer worlds. A third main character, Mark's mother, is not as compelling, and when this ambitious social novel comes to rest with her, it loses some steam.

Stylishly written, cleverly observed, and boldly imagined.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-250-19179-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2018

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