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Best Nature and Travel Books of 2019

A delightfully stimulating and not terribly controversial overview of human demographics.

EMPTY PLANET

THE SHOCK OF GLOBAL POPULATION DECLINE

A lively exploration of how “we do not face the challenge of a population bomb but of a population bust—a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd.”

Warnings of catastrophic world overpopulation have filled the media since the 1960s, so this expert, well-researched explanation that it’s not happening will surprise many readers. Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, and Globe and Mail writer at large Ibbitson (co-authors: The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture, and What It Means for Our Future, 2013) point out that a dozen nations are already shrinking. “By 2050,” they write, “the number will have climbed to three dozen. Some of the richest places on earth are shedding people every year: Japan, Korea, Spain, Italy, much of eastern Europe.” The authors explain that throughout history, birth and death rates were high, and population grew slowly. After 1800, increased food production and public health improvements lowered death rates, so populations boomed, but this didn’t last long. Also after 1800 came the Industrial Revolution and urbanization. Children are a big help on the farm but little use in a city. Perhaps most important, the authors emphasize, when women acquire education and status—something that happens in cities—they have fewer children. As a result, birth rates began dropping along with death rates, and most readers will be surprised to learn that the poor are not exempt. Brazil’s fertility is below its replacement rate, and Mexico’s is fast approaching. While it’s not unanimous, the authors are not alone in concluding that world population, now around 8 billion, will stabilize near 8.5 billion at midcentury and then decline. This is not necessarily good news. Nations losing population suffer labor shortages and an excess of elderly whose support requires taxes from a shrinking number of younger workers. The only effective solution to population decline is immigration, which, all researchers and the authors agree, always benefits their new nation.

A delightfully stimulating and not terribly controversial overview of human demographics.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984823-21-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 12, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

A superb book, essential reading for students of the once-and-future Arctic.

FLOATING COAST

AN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY OF THE BERING STRAIT

A lyrical, deeply learned ecological history of the region where Asia and North America meet.

The peoples of Beringia are many, writes Demuth (Environmental History/Brown Univ.), but ultimately, they divide into Natives—the Iñupiaq, Chukchi, Yupik, and so on—and foreigners, who number everyone else. Those foreigners—Russians, British explorers, and Yankee whalers—fundamentally altered the environment of the region in a fairly short time. If, as the author notes, Natives and foreigners alike went in search of whales as a source of sustenance, they did so with different ideas of what to do with their prize. Apparently influenced by students of Howard Odum, Demuth writes of energy flows across the region. “To be alive,” she writes, “is to take a place in a chain of conversions.” The seas surrounding the Bering Straits are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, and “human life in Beringia was shaped, in part, by the ways energy moved over the land and through the sea.” Many of those ways were purely extractive, as energy sources, from ambergris to oil, were located and taken away, a process against which Native people and some foreigners militated. One of Demuth’s great contributions is her exploration of the radical history of labor in the remote regions, a history soon supplanted by corporate capitalism on one shore and the gulag on the other, even as new arrivals concentrated their efforts on “liberating energy.” Now, she writes, a new chapter in Beringian history is being composed with climate change, a transformation that led one elder to observe that “foreigners had brought the end of a world to his people a century ago." The far north has inspired a remarkable body of literature, highlighted, in recent years, by Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams and Lawrence Millman’s At the End of the World. Demuth’s book, based on years of field research and comprehensive study, easily takes its place alongside them.

A superb book, essential reading for students of the once-and-future Arctic.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-63516-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Aug. 3, 2019

De Waal turns his years of research into a delightful and illuminating read for nonscientists, a book that will surely make...

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MAMA'S LAST HUG

ANIMAL EMOTIONS AND WHAT THEY TELL US ABOUT OURSELVES

Once again, the eminent primatologist takes readers deep into the world of animals to show us that we humans are not the unique creatures we like to think we are.

In his latest highly illuminating exploration of the inner lives of animals, de Waal (Psychology/Emory Univ.), the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, provides a companion piece to his prizewinning Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016), which revealed the sophistication of animals’ brains. Here, it is their emotions that take center stage. One of our keenest observers of emotional expressions, body language, and social dynamics, the author demonstrates that pride, shame, guilt, revenge, gratefulness, forgiveness, hope, and disgust all exist in other animals, not just humans. A dying chimpanzee matriarch’s farewell to her longtime caretaker provides the title of the book, but this is just the first of many stories about the immense—and unique—emotional capacities of animals. “I don’t expect to ever again encounter an ape personality as expressive and inspiring as Mama’s,” he writes. De Waal is impatient with scholars who assert that language lies at the heart of emotions, that feelings cannot be expressed without language. Sometimes he names names; sometimes he simply dismisses their ideas as nonsense. Most of the author’s observations involve the spontaneous behavior of chimpanzees, bonobos, and other primates, but readers will also be rewarded with tales of birds, dogs, horses, elephants, and rats. As he has shown in nearly all of his books, de Waal is a skilled storyteller, and his love for animals always shines through. His examples of the actions of certain humans—e.g., Donald Trump, Sean Spicer—lend color to his argument, and the simple drawings that illustrate behaviors and facial expressions are exceptionally clear and effective.

De Waal turns his years of research into a delightful and illuminating read for nonscientists, a book that will surely make readers want to grab someone’s arm and exclaim, “Listen to this!”

Pub Date: March 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-63506-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

A joy and a privilege to read.

A PILGRIMAGE TO ETERNITY

FROM CANTERBURY TO ROME IN SEARCH OF A FAITH

From the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, a pilgrimage to find religion—or truth, or the way—that pleasingly blends memoir, travelogue, and history.

The latest from Egan (The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, 2016, etc.) will make readers want to make a journey of their own. In a fascinating page-turner, the author chronicles his travels, mostly via foot but also via car and train, along the Via Francigena, a 1,200-mile medieval route that runs from Canterbury to Rome, where he sought an audience with “a pope with one working lung who is struggling to hold together the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics through the worst crisis in half a millennium.” Egan traversed this route in search of God or some type of significant spiritual experience. A skeptic by nature and Catholic by baptism, he realized that he needed to decide what he believes or admit what he does not. “I start [the journey] as a father, a husband, an American deeply troubled by the empty drift of our country,” he writes. “And for the next thousand miles or so, I will try to be a pilgrim.” Any pilgrimage is a rough test of faith and one of the most unpredictable and independent adventures on which to embark. Along for the ride on this quest are St. Augustine, St. Paul, Joan of Arc, St. Francis, and Oscar Wilde, among others. Egan’s Jesuit education inevitably crept into his mind during his stays at monasteries and visits to cathedrals to view their relics and learn about the events and myths that comprise their histories. Pope Francis, a man who embraces reason and promotes peer-reviewed science, brings the author a sense of hope after the church’s decades of inflexible leadership. Finding people and places warm and welcoming in each village and city, allowing himself to be amazed, lingering to rest blistered feet, and discovering soul-stirring spots—all this kept him pushing on, and readers will be thankful for his determination.

A joy and a privilege to read.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2523-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

Angry, eloquent, and urgent—required reading for anyone who cares about the Earth.

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THIS LAND

HOW COWBOYS, CAPITALISM, AND CORRUPTION ARE RUINING THE AMERICAN WEST

How arrogance and greed are eviscerating public wilderness.

Making an impressive book debut, journalist Ketcham, a contributor to Harper’s and National Geographic, among other publications, reports on his journeys throughout the West investigating the state of public lands: 450 million acres of land—of which national parks are only a minor portion—that are “managed in trust for the American people” by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Both agencies, argues the author persuasively, have shown inept oversight, caving to demands of oil, gas, mining, and lumber industries to “defund and defang” environmental laws, “leading always to the transfer of the commons into the hands of the few.” In Utah, “rabid Mormons” stridently insist that the “entire federally managed commons” are constitutionally illegal. Latter-day Saints, Ketcham asserts, are anti-science, deny climate change, and hold “naked contempt” for environmental regulation. But they are not alone: Enormously wealthy—and federally subsidized—cattle ranchers, who dominate millions of square miles of public land throughout the West, viciously attack lawmakers and activists who dare to stand up to them, refuse to acknowledge endangered species, and mount sadistic hunts for wolves and coyotes that, they claim erroneously, threaten their cows. Grassland has been degraded by overgrazing and watersheds contaminated by bacteria from cattle waste. Republican and Democratic administrations—including “self-proclaimed protectors” like Barack Obama—have repeatedly betrayed their mandate to protect the environment. Wildlife Services, a Congressional agency, “kills anything under the sun perceived as a threat to stockmen.” The Nature Conservancy, likewise, has bowed to corporate power, and federal funding has compromised the missions of well-meaning nonprofits. “To save the public lands,” the author maintains, “we need to oppose the capitalist system.” Echoing writers such as Bernard DeVoto, Edward Abbey, and Aldo Leopold, Ketcham underscores the crucial importance of diverse, wild ecosystems and urges “a campaign for public lands that is vital, fierce, impassioned, occasionally dangerous, without hypocrisy, that stands against the tyranny of money.”

Angry, eloquent, and urgent—required reading for anyone who cares about the Earth.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2098-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: April 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2019

A thoughtfully researched, poetically inspiring call to action that will resonate with a broad range of readers.

OUR WILD CALLING

HOW CONNECTING WITH ANIMALS CAN TRANSFORM OUR LIVES―AND SAVE THEIRS

The renowned nature writer explores how we can find better ways to coexist with animals in the future.

In his latest, Louv (Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, 2016, etc.) expands on key themes he has addressed in his previous books: specifically, how we must engage more directly and harmoniously with nature. He offers an impassioned and compelling case for establishing a sustainable bond with animals by proactively seeking to protect them. With extensive urbanization and the devastating effects of climate change driving more wild animals outside of their traditional habitats and into the cities, the urgency is greater than ever. “Wild animals, for their solitude or independence, stay a respectable distance from us,” writes Louv. “How do we do the same for them? How do we protect the spaces in which other animals live and still watch them, connect with them, be with them? The point is not just to fulfill our human need for connectedness but to mindfully replace our destructive interactions—as individuals, as a society.” Weaving his personal experiences into accounts of his interviews with wildlife experts, psychologists, teachers, and others, the author recounts spiritual and sometimes mind-altering or life-changing encounters with various types of wild animals. These range from dogs to cattle to birds to snakes to sea creatures (a particularly interesting section involves a diver’s enigmatic meeting with a giant octopus). Louv offers glimpses of how animals can effectively communicate with their own species and remarkable examples of cross-species interactions. He further considers how interactions with animals can be therapeutic, both physically and mentally, including our increasing dependency on support animals and evidence of how animal-assisted therapy can benefit autistic children. By understanding how to effectively connect with the animal world, argues the author, we will not only reduce human and animal loneliness; ideally, we could find the key to our survival on this planet.

A thoughtfully researched, poetically inspiring call to action that will resonate with a broad range of readers.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-616-20560-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

A treasure all its own. Anyone who cares to ponder the world beneath our feet will find this to be an essential text.

UNDERLAND

A DEEP TIME JOURNEY

An exploration of the little-visited realms of the Earth, from deep caves to bunkers, trenches to Bronze Age burial chambers, courtesy of an accomplished Virgil.

Macfarlane (The Lost Words, 2018, etc.), who has pretty well revived single-handedly the fine British tradition of literary natural history writing, can usually be found atop mountains. In his latest, he heads in the opposite direction, probing the depths of the Earth to find the places in which humans have invested considerable imaginative attention yet fear to tread. He opens with a cave network discovered in China’s Chongqing province only a few years ago that “was found to possess its own weather system,” with layers of dank cold mist that never see sunlight. From there, the author moves on to other places that require us to “go low,” into places that humans usually venture only to hide things—treasure, sacred texts, bodies. Now that many such places are making themselves known, exposed during construction excavations and unveiled by melting permafrost, “things that should have stayed buried are rising up unbidden”—treasure sometimes, more often just bodies. All of this is occasion for Macfarlane, a gifted storyteller and poetic writer, to ponder what historians have called “deep time,” the time that is measured in geological rather than human terms and against which the existence of our kind is but a blip. Even places well known or celebrated in antiquity—from the underworld of The Epic of Gilgamesh to the Iron Age mines of the Mendip Hills of southwestern England—are recent points on the map of that ancient landscape. As he moves from continent to continent, Macfarlane instructs us on how to see those places, laced with secrets and mysteries (“all taxonomies crumble, but fungi leave many of our fundamental categories in ruin”). Wherever he travels, he enhances our sense of wonder‚ which, after all, is the whole point of storytelling.

A treasure all its own. Anyone who cares to ponder the world beneath our feet will find this to be an essential text.

Pub Date: June 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-24214-0

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2019

Exciting and futuristic, this book elicits that anything-is-possible feeling—a must-read.

ARCHAEOLOGY FROM SPACE

HOW THE FUTURE SHAPES OUR PAST

A renowned space archaeologist gives readers an insider’s look at her field, which is basically Indiana Jones meets cutting-edge satellite technology. It’s every bit as exciting as it sounds.

Discovering ancient civilizations by digging them up has always had grand romantic appeal. Parcak (Anthropology/Univ. of Alabama, Birmingham; Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeology, 2009), the president and founder of GlobalXplorer and winner of the TED Prize, was among a generation of kids wooed by archaeology in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. But unlike most of us, she followed through on her passion, committing early to archaeology and pioneering the use of advanced technologies as a means to significantly improve the chances of the discovery of a lost site. Such excavations offer much more than just a cache of dusty loot; as she writes, “that dirt contains nothing less than the clues to who we are, how we got here, and how we might thrive in the future.” In this fascinating adventure memoir, the author describes how remote sensing technology powered by orbiting satellites has transformed archaeologists’ ability to locate and verify sites that might otherwise never have been discovered. As the lead in many big discoveries around the world, from Egypt to Newfoundland, Parcak has a lot of great stories to tell, and she tells them with clarity, enthusiasm, and humor. She also looks into the future, explaining that artificial intelligence and DNA analysis could further push the field into territory that only recently would have been considered sci-fi. And then there is crowdsourcing: The author is optimistic that regular people have the power to “find and protect the world’s hidden heritage” through the online mapping of millions of undiscovered sites. Us, space archaeologists? There is no doubt that she will have no shortage of volunteers.

Exciting and futuristic, this book elicits that anything-is-possible feeling—a must-read.

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-19828-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

Francophiles will adore this book, and others may become Francophiles as they read.

THE SEINE

THE RIVER THAT MADE PARIS

The veteran New York Times contributing writer and former Paris bureau chief shares her love affair with Paris and the Seine with enchanting anecdotes and insights.

Sciolino (The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs, 2016, etc.), who has lived in Paris since 2002, presents more of a voyage than a history, from Burgundy to the sea, traveling the 483 miles on the river’s looping path from the Plateau de Langres to Honfleur and the English Channel. Along the way, the Seine is anchored by Paris and then Rouen, where it widens enough for oceangoing ships to reach the port of Le Havre. The source of the river is the underground springs where the Gauls worshiped the healing goddess Sequana, who, according to the author, is the true symbol of the river. Through the years, the river has been altered many times. Napoleon eliminated many of the islands to ease navigation, and he established the river as the center point for Paris’ street-numbering system. Baron Haussmann transformed the riverfront with bridges, locks, and dams as well as tree-shaded promenades. As we travel downriver with our genial guide, we note that the right side of the river symbolizes money, politics, scandal, and the power of the media while the left signifies freedom, liberty, free speech, and free sex. Throughout, Sciolino provides wonderful, detailed interviews of former barge people, houseboat dwellers, booksellers, and members of the River Brigade, which polices the river. The author also takes us into the world of the impressionists, and in Rouen, once the most important port, we find ancient windmills, Joan of Arc, and the place where Monet obsessed over the light on the cathedral. Then it’s on to Le Havre, the port created by François I in 1517, and finally, Honfleur, which “travel guides often refer to…as one of the prettiest towns in France.”

Francophiles will adore this book, and others may become Francophiles as they read.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-60935-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

A swift-moving, often surprising account of the dangers that face sailors and nations alike on the lawless tide.

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THE OUTLAW OCEAN

JOURNEYS ACROSS THE LAST UNTAMED FRONTIER

Anarchy reigns on the high seas as a New York Times investigative reporter travels the world’s oceans.

Early on, Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award winner Urbina (Life's Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can't Take It Anymore, 2005) writes that the stories he turned up while roaming from port to port “felt less like journalism than an attention deficit disorder,” so bewildering and untidy did they seem, so without unalloyed heroes and villains. One figure in the narrative, for instance, is a law-trained, poetry-writing sailor whose job is to sneak into ports where ships have been impounded and, on behalf of their owners, steal those ships away; the work is dangerous and utterly demanding. “He struck me as an older Tintin,” writes the author. The good guys in the story are beleaguered, outnumbered, and often outmaneuvered. As Urbina writes of Palau’s efforts to halt maritime poaching, a former captain of an interdicted pirate ship arrested in 2016 was back as an ordinary deckhand six months later, making the effort “more myth of Sisyphus than David and Goliath.” If there are villains in the story, they are perhaps the unnamed owners of fishing fleets that put out to sea for long periods of time, for they are inspected and policed only in port. Urbina engagingly chronicles his travels from one trouble spot to another: oil rigs erected on continental shelves, just outside the territorial zones of neighboring nations and subject to little governance; pirate-rich Somalia, where he became a persona non grata; and Djibouti, one of the places where ship owners—in this case of a Thai fleet—“shop around for the most lax registries with the lowest prices and fewest regulations.” Urbina’s book ranks alongside those by Mark Bowden and Sebastian Junger, fraught with peril and laced with beer, the smell of sea air, and constant bouts of gaming an inept system.

A swift-moving, often surprising account of the dangers that face sailors and nations alike on the lawless tide.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-451-49294-4

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

If you weren’t alarmed already, Wallace-Wells sounds the tocsin of toxicity. An urgent, necessary book.

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THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH

WHAT CLIMATE CHANGE MEANS

“The threat from climate change is more total than from the bomb. It is also more pervasive.” A closely argued look at what may be a turning point in human existence.

As New York magazine deputy editor Wallace-Wells observes, almost every major moment of “evolutionary reset” in Earth’s history has been precipitated by climate change produced by an overproduction of greenhouse gases—and there is now more carbon in the air than at any point in the last 15 million years, leading him to open, grimly, with the warning, “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” So it is, and even if the author allows that we have the tools we need to stop transformative climate change, from carbon taxes to carbon capture and a conversion to renewable energy, we lack anything like the political or economic will to alter our course. The results will be catastrophic, from untold millions of environmental refugees to summers that, even in Scandinavia, will be accompanied by killer heat waves. Wallace-Wells rightly muses over the fact that, for all our devotion to end-of-the-world scenarios in science-fiction books and films, too many of us continue to believe that the scientists warning of these dire matters are “simply crying wolf.” Witness the sitting president, who considers himself too smart to believe that the climate is changing and that there’s still plenty of time to do something about it. There’s not, Wallace-Wells writes, leaving us with only a few alternatives, ranging from the hope that some technological miracle can be ginned up to the darker impulse to "normalize climate suffering at the same pace we accelerate it…forgetting all that we had ever said about the absolute moral unacceptability of the conditions of the world we are passing through in the present tense, and blithely.”

If you weren’t alarmed already, Wallace-Wells sounds the tocsin of toxicity. An urgent, necessary book.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-57670-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Tim Duggan Books/Crown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

Alexander von Humboldt himself would doubtless have approved. A pleasure for students of science, art, and their...

THE ADVENTURES OF ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT

A delightful recounting, in word and image, of the work of a pioneering scientist and world traveler. 

“Do you really remember all the plants you’ve ever seen?” “Of course!” So replied Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the famed explorer and naturalist, to a colleague’s query, adding, “I can remember even the smallest detail for years—from the shape of a leaf to the color of soil, the layering of a rock or a temperature reading. Why wouldn’t I?” Humboldt wasn’t bragging unnecessarily. Neither does his biographer, Wulf (The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, 2015, etc.), when she points out that he was the first naturalist to ask some of the critical questions that would later guide scientific investigations into plate tectonics, evolution, geomorphology, vulcanology, meteorology, and countless other fields—to say nothing of the fact that just about every continent bears names that honor his presence, intellectual or physical. In this “work of graphic nonfiction (for want of a better term),” Wulf teams with illustrator Melcher, whose work is whimsical, even a touch primitive—deliberately, one presumes, to fit the exploratory mood of the text. There are hidden depths in the artwork, however, for Melcher does wonders with collages and renderings that would do Joseph Cornell proud, making use of contemporary illustrations, modern photographs, and excerpts from Humboldt’s own handwritten manuscripts. (In one charming aside on a certain pelagic bird, Wulf notes, “I just wanted to note that Lillian Melcher didn’t draw the penguin…it looks very similar to her style, but I assure you that I sketched it in Callao.”) Readers new to Humboldt will surely find themselves fascinated by a man who went everywhere, saw everything, and spoke with the luminaries of his time, from Jefferson to Napoleon. And those who have already read and admired The Invention of Nature will enjoy this delightful graphic presentation.

Alexander von Humboldt himself would doubtless have approved. A pleasure for students of science, art, and their intersections.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4737-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2019

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