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Best Popular Fiction of 2015

Brookes' second novel is a multipronged spy thriller that fires on all cylinders. A smarter or more exciting mystery likely...

SPY GAMES

Having survived a disastrous turn of events in China in Brookes' sensational debut, Night Heron (2014), British journalist-cum-spy Philip Mangan is dragged back into perilous waters by a mysterious Chinese official who wants to trade state secrets.

His cover blown, Mangan has been keeping a low profile in Ethiopia. But following a terrorist bombing in Addis Ababa, he is enticed into meeting with "Rocky," as the official calls himself. Part of a rogue military group bent on overthrowing political and corporate leaders in China, he not only has information on the terrorist attack, but also defense secrets to share with the British. Returning as Mangan's determined handler, tall and striking Trish Patterson gives him the go-ahead to meet with Rocky, who may also know something about the murder of a key contact of hers in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, a boy from a storied but shady Communist family who's attending Oxford is worried for his safety. As the plotlines converge, Mangan gets in further and further over his head. As much as he may have learned about deception, betrayal, and even killing, he is no supersleuth. In the tradition of the great spy novelists, Brookes refuses to indulge in heroics: when Mangan is seized by the bad guys and has his life threatened—knowing he's regarded by MI6 as a "cutout," or on his own—he is properly petrified. "Get used to it, Philip," Trish tells him at one point. "Our stories don't end. They just sort of hang there, unresolved." As powerfully as this story is, in fact, resolved, readers will be left hanging on, keenly anticipating the next installment in the series.

Brookes' second novel is a multipronged spy thriller that fires on all cylinders. A smarter or more exciting mystery likely won't be released this year.

Pub Date: July 7, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-39990-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Redhook/Orbit

Review Posted Online: April 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

Slaughter (Cop Town, 2014, etc.) is so uncompromising in following her blood trails to the darkest places imaginable that...

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PRETTY GIRLS

Twenty-four years after a traumatic disappearance tore a Georgia family apart, Slaughter’s scorching stand-alone picks them up and shreds them all over again.

The Carrolls have never been the same since 19-year-old Julia vanished. After years of fruitlessly pestering the police, her veterinarian father, Sam, killed himself; her librarian mother, Helen, still keeps the girl's bedroom untouched, just in case. Julia’s sisters have been equally scarred. Lydia Delgado has sold herself for drugs countless times, though she’s been clean for years now; Claire Scott has just been paroled after knee-capping her tennis partner for a thoughtless remark. The evening that Claire’s ankle bracelet comes off, her architect husband, Paul, is callously murdered before her eyes and, without a moment's letup, she stumbles on a mountainous cache of snuff porn. Paul’s business partner, Adam Quinn, demands information from Claire and threatens her with dire consequences if she doesn’t deliver. The Dunwoody police prove as ineffectual as ever. FBI agent Fred Nolan is more suavely menacing than helpful. So Lydia and Claire, who’ve grown so far apart that they’re virtual strangers, are unwillingly thrown back on each other for help. Once she’s plunged you into this maelstrom, Slaughter shreds your own nerves along with those of the sisters, not simply by a parade of gruesome revelations—though she supplies them in abundance—but by peeling back layer after layer from beloved family members Claire and Lydia thought they knew. The results are harrowing.

Slaughter (Cop Town, 2014, etc.) is so uncompromising in following her blood trails to the darkest places imaginable that she makes most of her high-wire competition look pallid, formulaic, or just plain fake.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-06-242905-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

Grafton’s endless resourcefulness in varying her pitches in this landmark series (W Is for Wasted, 2013, etc.), graced by...

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X

From the Alphabet series , Vol. 24

What does X stand for? Xanakis, XLNT, maybe even Father Xavier, all features of Kinsey Millhone’s dense, meaty 24th case.

The drought of 1989 is causing anxiety all over Santa Teresa, but money seems to have rained down on Kinsey’s latest client, Hallie Bettancourt, who’s seeking the current whereabouts of just-released robber Christian Satterfield, the son she had when she was only 15. Kinsey makes a few calls, rings a few bells, tracks down the address, and sends it on to the client, only to discover that everything Hallie told her, from her name to her relationship with Satterfield, was false. To add insult to injury, one of the $100 bills Hallie, or whoever she was, insisted on paying Kinsey is one of the same bills wealthy Ari Xanakis used two years ago to ransom a Turner painting back for $25,000 from his ex-wife, Teddy, who’d taken it upon herself to add it to the divorce settlement. Meanwhile, Kinsey’s gotten involved in another equally messy case, driven by her unwelcome suspicion that her late colleague Pete Wolinsky—hired years ago by salesman Ned Lowe’s attorney, Arnold Ruffner, to dig up dirt that would impeach the testimony of Taryn Sizemore, who’d accused him of harassment and stalking—had cast his net further and decided to blackmail either Lowe or someone else connected with the case. Showing as much initiative as Hallie or Pete and a lot more rectitude, Kinsey resolves to close the book on Pete’s shadowy game and to return a pair of sentimental religious keepsakes she’d found hidden in Pete’s files to their rightful owner. A droll drought-driven subplot revolving around Henry Pitts, Kinsey’s ancient landlord, is the icing on the cake.

Grafton’s endless resourcefulness in varying her pitches in this landmark series (W Is for Wasted, 2013, etc.), graced by her trademark self-deprecating humor, is one of the seven wonders of the genre.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-399-16384-5

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Marian Wood/Putnam

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

Even the most astute readers will be in for a shock as Hawkins slowly unspools the facts, exposing the harsh realities of...

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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

Desperate to find lives more fulfilling than her own, a lonely London commuter imagines the story of a couple she’s only glimpsed through the train window in Hawkins’ chilling, assured debut, in which the line between truth and lie constantly shifts like the rocking of a train.

Rachel Watson—a divorced, miserable alcoholic who’s still desperately in love with her ex-husband, Tom—rides the same train every day into London for her dead-end job, one she unsurprisingly loses after one too many drunken outbursts. Continuing her daily commute to keep up appearances with her roommate, Rachel always pays special attention to a couple, whom she dubs “Jess and Jason,” who live a seemingly idyllic life in a house near her own former home. When she sees a momentary act of infidelity, followed soon after by news that Jess—whose real name is Megan Hipwell—has disappeared, Rachel is compelled to share her secret knowledge, becoming enmeshed in the police investigation, which centers on Megan’s husband, Scott. Further complicating matters is the fact that the night Megan vanished, Rachel has a hazy memory of drunkenly stumbling past the Hipwell home and seeing something she can’t quite recall. Hawkins seamlessly moves among Rachel’s present-day story as the investigation into Megan’s disappearance widens, Megan’s own life leading up to her disappearance, and snippets about Anna, the woman for whom Tom left Rachel.

Even the most astute readers will be in for a shock as Hawkins slowly unspools the facts, exposing the harsh realities of love and obsession’s inescapable links to violence.

Pub Date: Jan. 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-59463-366-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

Penny is an expert at pulling away the surface of her characters to expose their deeper—and often ugly—layers, always doing...

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THE NATURE OF THE BEAST

From the Chief Inspector Gamache series , Vol. 11

In Inspector Gamache’s 11th outing, the sheltering forest around his small village of Three Pines is revealed to be a hiding place for unexpected evil.

Armand Gamache, former head of homicide at the Sûreté du Québec, is learning to let go and be happy with his new life in Three Pines, far from the evil that ate away at him for years. His former colleagues and friends poke fun at him, saying the great inspector will never truly hang up his hat, but these jokes turn deadly serious when an imaginative 9-year-old boy named Laurent is murdered shortly after telling what seemed to be a tall tale about a massive gun wielded by a monster in the woods. When it’s discovered that the boy was not exaggerating even in the slightest, Gamache’s mind quickly switches back to questioning his surroundings and the people who inhabit this space—many of them his close friends. Chief Inspector Isabelle Lacoste and her right hand, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, take up residence in Three Pines, and with Gamache’s sideline help, they begin to find out what sort of darkness lurks just outside of town. Penny uses her well-known, idyllic setting as the center point of a mystery with global scope and consequences, spanning decades and implicating many, including series veterans. What makes this story most magical, though, is how the many aspects of this spiraling tale can be connected by a Bible verse and related lines from a Yeats poem: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” It’s with this eye for detail that Penny sketches the “nature of the beast”—evil that has the potential to grow even in the most unexpected places. An especially terrifying character returning from Gamache’s past is the perfect reminder of the dark side of human nature, but that side does not always win out.

Penny is an expert at pulling away the surface of her characters to expose their deeper—and often ugly—layers, always doing so with a direct but compassionate hand.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-250-02208-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Minotaur

Review Posted Online: July 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

A nail-biter that is equal parts suspense, science fiction, and a funny, dark sendup of the stranglehold of gender.

THE BLONDES

A Canadian grad student, newly pregnant with her married professor’s baby, must navigate a world altered by a pandemic in which blonde women attack the people around them in this smart new literary thriller from Schultz (Heaven Is Small, 2009, etc.).

On her first day in New York City, Hazel Hayes discovers her unexpected pregnancy, dyes her hair orange and sees a businesswoman drag a young girl to her death on the subway tracks. At first, it seems like a random act of violence, but soon, the streets are filled with women and girls acting rabid, killing people and perishing themselves. The only thing connecting the infected? Their (natural, dyed, highlighted) blonde hair. Hazel is recounting these events—and her herculean struggle to get home to Toronto as the disease tears across the world—months later to her unborn child while holed up in a cabin with her professor’s wife. The premise seems ludicrous—almost as if it's not meant to be taken very seriously—but that's intentional, and Schultz plays with this expectation. Before a violent attack at JFK, Hazel witnesses a group of flight attendants preparing to strike. She attempts to describe the scene and then stops. “You see, I’m not telling this right,” she says. “It sounds comical, even to me. Part of the difficulty has to do with the fact that they were very beautiful women.” This is the best kind of satire: The disease doesn’t stand in cleanly for any single idea but rather an amalgamation of double standards, dismissals, expectations, abuses, and injustices large and small that any woman will recognize. What could be sexist clichés—the student/professor affair, the mistress and wife at each other’s throats—are utterly recast, and nestled in the wry political commentary are moments of pure horror.

A nail-biter that is equal parts suspense, science fiction, and a funny, dark sendup of the stranglehold of gender.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-250-04335-1

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Feb. 2, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2015

Coben can always be relied on to generate thrills from the simplest premises, but his finest tales maintain a core of logic...

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THE STRANGER

Another one of Coben’s got-it-all New Jersey dads finds out that his wonderful wife has been hiding a whopper of a secret from him—a secret whose trail leads to even more monstrous revelations.

“We’re living the dream,” Tripp Evans assures Adam Price at their sons’ sixth-grade lacrosse all-star team draft—lacrosse, for crying out loud. But the dream is already slipping from Adam’s grasp as Tripp speaks. Minutes earlier, a young stranger who declined to give his name had sidled up to Adam and informed him that his wife had faked her first pregnancy, which had supposedly ended in a miscarriage. When an agonized Adam confronts Corinne with the story, she doesn’t deny it. Instead, she pleads for more time and promises that she’ll tell all over a restaurant dinner the following day. Adam, who’s clearly never read anything by Coben (Missing You, 2014, etc.), agrees, and Corinne checks out of her high school teaching job and vanishes, pausing just long enough to text Adam: “YOU TAKE CARE OF THE KIDS. DON’T TRY TO CONTACT ME. IT WILL BE OKAY.” Days pass, and it’s not OK. Adam’s two boys (are they really even his? should he run DNA tests?) keep asking where their mom is. There’s no word from Corinne, who won’t answer Adam’s texts. Her cellphone places her somewhere near Pittsburgh. Rumors about her start to percolate through the lacrosse league. And, although it’ll take Adam quite a while to find this out, a murder in far-off Ohio has implications for Corinne’s disappearance even more disturbing than anything Adam’s imagined.

Coben can always be relied on to generate thrills from the simplest premises, but his finest tales maintain a core of logic throughout the twists. This 100-proof nightmare ranks among his most potent.

Pub Date: March 24, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-525-95350-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2015

Part Fight Club, part feminist manifesto, an offbeat and genre-bending novel that aims high—and delivers.

DIETLAND

Hilarious, surreal, and bracingly original, Walker’s ambitious debut avoids moralistic traps to achieve something rarer: a genuinely subversive novel that’s also serious fun.

At just over 300 pounds, Plum Kettle is waiting for her real life to start: she’ll be a writer. She’ll be loved. She’ll be thin. In the meantime, she spends her days ghostwriting advice to distraught teenage girls on behalf of a popular teen magazine (“Dear Kitty, I have stretch marks on my boobs, please help”), meticulously counting calories (“turkey lasagna (230)”), and fantasizing about life after weight-loss surgery. But when a mysterious young woman in Technicolor tights starts following her, Plum finds herself drawn into an underground feminist community of radical women who refuse to bow to oppressive societal standards. Under the tutelage of Verena Baptist, anti-diet crusader and heiress to the Baptist diet fortune (a diet with which Plum is intimately familiar), Plum undertakes a far more daring—and more dangerous—five-step plan: to live as her true self now. Meanwhile, a violent guerrilla group, known only as “Jennifer,” has emerged, committing acts of vigilante justice against misogynists. As her surgery date nears and Jennifer’s acts grow increasingly drastic, Plum finds she’s at the center of what can only be described as a literal feminist conspiracy—and she’s transforming into a version of herself she never knew existed. But while it would be easy for the book to devolve into a tired parable about the virtues of loving yourself just the way you are, Walker’s sharp eye and dry humor push it away from empty platitudes and toward deeper and more challenging turf. Ultimately, for all the unsettling pleasure of Walker’s splashier scenarios—and there are many—it’s Plum’s achingly real inner life that gives the novel its arresting emotional weight.

Part Fight Club, part feminist manifesto, an offbeat and genre-bending novel that aims high—and delivers.

Pub Date: May 26, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-544-37343-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

Celebrate, fiction lovers: The gods of Southern gothic storytelling have inducted a junior member.

MY SUNSHINE AWAY

The 1989 rape of a 15-year-old golden girl profoundly alters her suburban Baton Rouge neighborhood and all those who love her.

"I imagine that many children in South Louisiana have stories similar to this one, and when they grow up, they move out into the world and tell them," says the narrator of Walsh's debut novel, looking back on the floods, fires, mosquitoes, heat waves and psychopaths of his childhood. Probably so—but only a few can do it with the beauty, terror and wisdom found in these addictive pages. When Lindy Simpson's childhood is abruptly ended one evening as she bikes home from track practice, so much goes with it, including the innocence of the 14-year-old boy who loves her to the point of obsession—and eventually becomes a suspect in the crime himself. He fills in the events of the next few years in a style that recalls the best of Pat Conroy: the rich Southern atmosphere, the interplay of darkness and light in adolescence, the combination of brisk narrative suspense with philosophical musings on memory, manhood and truth. All the supporting characters, from the neighborhood kids and parents to walk-ons like the narrator's cool uncle Barry and a guy we meet in the penultimate chapter at the LSU/Florida Gators game in 2007, are both particular and real. So is the ambience of late '80s and early '90s America, from the explosion of the Challenger to the Jeffrey Dahmer nightmare. In fact, one of the very few missteps is a weirdly dropped-in disquisition on Hurricane Katrina. That's easy to forgive, though, as you suck down the story like a cold beer on a hot Louisiana afternoon. 

Celebrate, fiction lovers: The gods of Southern gothic storytelling have inducted a junior member.

Pub Date: Feb. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-399-16952-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

Imagine The Sound of Music for big girls, flavored with a dash of Mad Men bitters.

ALONG THE INFINITE SEA

A pair of fugitives—one from pre-Nazi Europe, the other from the U.S. Senate Chamber (correction: bedchamber)—meet over a rare 1936 Mercedes Roadster that transports first one, then the other out of a god-awful fix.

With the killer charm of a Rogers and Hammerstein score and a touch of DuMaurier intrigue, Williams’ latest sexy and enthralling period drama (on the high heels of Tiny Little Thing, 2015, etc.) draws readers into the parallel, luxe worlds of two sparky women in the post-Camelot 1960s: Annabelle Dommerich, a 40-ish widow with a passel of grown stepchildren, who conceals her Baroness title and much else about her past as the mistress of a Jewish resistance agent and wife of a German high-command general (to whit: “whether one man could keep you safe from wanting another”); and Pepper Schuyler, the smart-alecky aide to a powerful politician, who’s hard-put to conceal just one secret—the identity of the man responsible for the baby bump beneath her Lilly Pulitzer shift: “I always thought the more, the merrier. Sex and cigarettes.” (Fans of Williams’ novels will recognize Pepper as the best-dressed and sharpest tongued of the three fictional Schuyler sisters.) The two ladies strike up an irresistible womance when Annabelle shows up at the Breakers in Palm Beach to collect the vintage car Pepper restored then put up at a collectors’ auction so she wouldn't have to accept “help” from the father of her baby or her socially prominent (and often comically obtuse) parents. Gliding up the coast of Georgia in that leather-seated roadster toward the beautifully appointed seaside cottage the Baroness has offered Pepper as a safe house, they’ll spill all their secrets and sorrows and help each other reclaim lost pieces of their hearts.

Imagine The Sound of Music for big girls, flavored with a dash of Mad Men bitters.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-399-17131-4

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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