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Best Short Fiction of 2019

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

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EXHALATION

Exploring humankind's place in the universe and the nature of humanity, many of the stories in this stellar collection focus on how technological advances can impact humanity’s evolutionary journey.

Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008. A time-travel fantasy set largely in ancient Baghdad, the story follows fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas after he meets an alchemist who has crafted what is essentially a time portal. After hearing life-changing stories about others who have used the portal, he decides to go back in time to try to right a terrible wrong—and realizes, too late, that nothing can erase the past. Other standout selections include “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a story about a software tester who, over the course of a decade, struggles to keep a sentient digital entity alive; “The Great Silence,” which brilliantly questions the theory that humankind is the only intelligent race in the universe; and “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which chronicles the consequences of machines raising human children. But arguably the most profound story is "Exhalation" (which won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), a heart-rending message and warning from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Although the being theorizes that all life will die when the universes reach “equilibrium,” its parting advice will resonate with everyone: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.

Pub Date: May 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-94788-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

Fajardo-Anstine takes aim at our country's social injustices and ills without succumbing to pessimism. The result is a...

SABRINA & CORINA

Eleven achingly realistic stories set in Denver and southern Colorado bear witness to the lives of Latina women of Indigenous descent trying to survive generations of poverty, racism, addiction, and violence.

"Ever feel like the land is swallowing you whole, Sierra?" the narrator's mother, Josie, asks her in "Sugar Babies," the first story of Fajardo-Anstine's debut collection. "That all this beauty is wrapped around you so tight it's like being in a rattlesnake's mouth?" Here, it's becoming a mother at 16 that threatens to swallow Josie, prompting her to abandon 10-year-old Sierra. In "Sabrina & Corina," which follows two cousins, women's lack of opportunities and their dependence on men undo Sabrina, a blue-eyed, dark-haired beauty. While Corina, the plainer of the two, goes to beauty school, Sabrina spirals into substance abuse and sleeps around. She's murdered at the story's start, and Corina has the horrible task of going to the mortuary to do her cousin's makeup, literally covering up the violence she suffered. In "Julian Plaza," gaping holes in our social safety net ensnare the characters. When Nayeli gets breast cancer, her family has no good choices: Her husband's health insurance won't cover effective treatments, and he can't care for her for fear of being canned. Fajardo-Anstine writes with a keen understanding of the power of love even when it's shot through with imperfections. Nayeli's young daughters try to carry their mother home from the neighbor's where she has been sent to die. And Sierra from the title story still fantasizes about her mother returning at some point, "joyously waving to me, her last stop."

Fajardo-Anstine takes aim at our country's social injustices and ills without succumbing to pessimism. The result is a nearly perfect collection of stories that is emotionally wrenching but never without glimmers of resistance and hope.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-51129-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

Hempel’s great gift is that her indirection only leads us further inward, toward the place where her characters must finally...

SING TO IT

The first collection in more than a decade from Hempel offers a dizzying array of short fiction held together by the unmistakable textures of her voice.

Hempel is often called a minimalist, and that aesthetic is very much in evidence here. Of the 15 stories, 10 are two pages or shorter in length, but if you think this means they’re slight, you’ll want to think again. Rather, Hempel packs a lot into her narrow spaces: nuance, longing, love, and loss. “At the end, he said, No metaphors!” she writes in the title story. “…So—at the end, I made my hands a hammock for him. My arms the trees.” The effect is to articulate an idea and then to illustrate it simultaneously. “That reminds me of when I knew a romance was over,” she opens “The Quiet Car,” reminding us that all stories begin in the middle, with the characters’ lives already underway. And yet, for all the succinct deftness of these shorter pieces, it is in the collection’s longer entries that Hempel’s vision takes full shape. The remarkable “A Full-Service Shelter,” inspired by her longtime animal advocacy, uses a repeating structure—each paragraph begins with a variation of the phrase “They knew us as the ones”—to draw us into the futility and necessity of caring for dogs who have been abandoned, a tension that animates the narrative. “Greed” traces a wife’s simmering vengeance against the older woman who is sleeping with her husband; the interloper is appropriately named “Mrs. Greed.” Then, there’s Cloudland, a novella that fills much of the second half of the book, the saga of a disgraced private school teacher doing home-care work in Florida who gave up for adoption the child she bore at 18. Constructed as a collection of fragments, the narrative circles itself, moving back and forth in time and often leaving the most important details unshared. The brilliance of the writing, however, resides in the way Hempel manages to tell us everything in spite of her narrator’s reticence, teaching us to read between the lines. “I remember thinking,” she writes: “There will never come a time when I will not be thinking of this. And I was right. And I was wrong.”

Hempel’s great gift is that her indirection only leads us further inward, toward the place where her characters must finally reckon with themselves.

Pub Date: March 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-9821-0911-0

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

Miniature masterworks of modern horror proving that life is hard, weird, and always fatal.

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FULL THROTTLE

The poet laureate of everyday terrors returns with a baker’s dozen of deliciously sinister tales.

Novelist and short story writer Hill (Strange Weather, 2017, etc.) is, of course, the son of Stephen King, with whom he collaborates here on two stories, including the title tale. As ever with King, the stories have ordinary settings with ordinary people doing ordinary things until something extraordinary happens, in this case involving the familiar King nightmare of menacing vehicles (“Could you supercharge a goddamn semi?”). If one bears in mind that in his last collection Hill posited that near-future rainstorms would shower down steel daggers instead of water, some of his setups seem almost logical. The most memorable comes in “Late Returns,” in which an out-of-work trucker (there’s that semi again) finds himself behind a bookmobile delivering volumes to denizens of the afterlife, most of whom owe late fees; as one such fellow tells him, the service he offers is something of a reward “for returning overdue books in spite of the inconvenience of being dead.” There are other benefits: In the weird chronology of the other dimension, those who are about to enter the great beyond get previews of books that haven’t even been written yet—including, perhaps the most frightening moment in the entire collection, “The Art of the Presidency: How I Won My Third Term by Donald J. Trump.” Hill plays with form; one story, “The Devil on the Staircase,” is told in triangles of carefully arranged prose, a storyline worthy of Poe unfolding with eldritch intent—and a nice punchline to boot. In yet another story, this one of a more satirical turn, Hill depicts a world in which the zombie apocalypse and addiction to social media are hard to tell apart. In a series of tweets, the narrator recounts a zombie being hauled before a human audience and a box of hatchets. “Don’t like where this is going,” she says. Exactly.

Miniature masterworks of modern horror proving that life is hard, weird, and always fatal.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-220067-9

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

This achingly beautiful book throbs with life, compassion, warmth, and humor; hums with an undercurrent of existential...

CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE

A remarkable literary voice rediscovered.

Many readers have probably never heard of Howland. This selection of her work, the debut title from literary magazine A Public Space’s new book imprint, aims to change that. Born in Chicago in 1937, Howland was raised in a working-class Jewish home on the city’s west side and went on to publish three books—W-3 (1974), Blue in Chicago (1978), and Things Come and Go (1983)—and become a protégée, muse, and sometime lover of Saul Bellow. Along the way, Howland married, had two sons, divorced, and, in 1968, spent time in an asylum, being treated for depression following a suicide attempt, prompting Bellow, in one of his many letters to her, to urge his friend “to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness.” Having apparently followed that advice, she found acclaim, winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984. After the latter honor, however, Howland mostly stopped publishing and faded into literary obscurity only to be rediscovered shortly before she died in 2017. This collection, which blends memoir, essays, and fiction, is intended to introduce Howland’s work to a new generation of readers, and it is an introduction well worth making. Her words and observations shine like buried treasure, each story a glinty, multifaceted gem that, despite the passage of time, has lost none of its luster or clarity. In stories like “Blue in Chicago,” about a University of Chicago graduate student who spends a day traveling from gritty, crime-ridden Hyde Park on the South Side to a family wedding in the city’s safer, more affluent North Shore suburbs, and “Public Facilities,” about the workers and patrons who populate a branch of the Chicago Public Library, Howland captures not only a particular locale and era—dreary, decrepit, dilapidated, yet lovably familiar—but also the connections between members of families into which we are born and those we find in unlikely, even inhospitable places. In works like “Aronesti,” the first story she ever published, “To the Country,” “German Lessons,” and the collection’s title story, essentially an extended note to a dying friend, Howland takes us further afield, turning her acute eye to areas outside her hometown. Throughout, she proves herself to be a stellar observer of worlds external and internal and a master of description.

This achingly beautiful book throbs with life, compassion, warmth, and humor; hums with an undercurrent of existential despair; and creeps into your soul like the slushy-gray-yellow light of a wintry Chicago morning.

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-9982675-0-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: A Public Space Books

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

Insightful, rueful, and often humorous, this collection holds a mirror to contemporary life and gives the reader much to...

MAGGIE BROWN & OTHERS

In these 44 stories and a novella, Orner (Underground America, 2017, etc.) concentrates on small perceptual moments, especially those involving knotty problems in relationships.

Orner’s stories range from one paragraph to several pages, so he scarcely gives himself enough time to develop conflict and character. Instead, he focuses our attention on small epiphanies and suggests that these moments of insight, if they come, might be all we can expect in this circumscribed world. Orner tends to direct our attention to both domestic and family relationships, both of which are found wanting. In “Visions of Mr. Swibel,” the narrator explains the communication strategy of his taciturn mother: “She didn’t bother to speak to my father any more than absolutely necessary. Words were energy and she was storing them up for another life.” A couple in therapy in “Rhinebeck” goes to a theater after their sessions and sits through any movie that happens to be playing, “all the way through the credits when there are no more names to thank and the whole deal stops....Anything not to go home.” A tone of wistful and often comic nostalgia pervades many of the stories, for Orner has a sharp eye for absurdity and a discerning ear for dialogue. The narrator of “The Captain” finds himself “thinking about peripheral people in my life, people I hardly knew”—people, in other words, like the title character, a drug dealer who dresses up like Captain Kangaroo. The longest piece here is Walt Kaplan Is Broke: A Novella, but even here Orner breaks his narrative into 30 chapters, using a small but recurring cast of characters in his microfictive world.

Insightful, rueful, and often humorous, this collection holds a mirror to contemporary life and gives the reader much to reflect on.

Pub Date: July 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-51611-2

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2019

An exquisite collection that is candid, compassionate, and emotionally complex.

LOOK HOW HAPPY I'M MAKING YOU

This debut collection limns the inner lives of women who have just become, will soon be, decline to be, or long to be mothers.

“You can’t know the joy until—,” says the teary-eyed mother of a woman who has just announced that she does not intend to have children, in an exchange tucked into “Grow Your Eyelashes,” the opening story of Rosenwaike’s empathetic collection. “You just can’t know it.” To this, the daughter replies, “Look how happy I’m making you.” Ultimately, the young woman gets pregnant and decides to have the baby. However, “Grow Your Eyelashes” is not really her story but rather one told through the eyes of her sister, whose struggle with infertility is making her the very opposite of happy. The effect of babies (newborn, unborn) on the lives and emotions of parents (and those who long to be or decline to be parents) is at the heart of all 12 stories in this deeply resonant collection. In “Field Notes,” a 30-year-old biologist connects with the inquisitive 9-year-old daughter of the receptionist at a research facility in which she works even as the biologist decides to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. In “Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop,” a freelance book editor suffers a miscarriage and mulls the pursuit of perfection, the expectation of effortlessness: “As if you could set out to do something and get it right the first time, as if the whole of life wasn’t about trying again.” The push-pull of life and death, the tug of postpartum depression, the shame of deception, the guilt of separation—all are explored in these pages. “People say that a baby changes everything, but is that true?” Rosenwaike writes in “Parental Fade,” a story about a couple embarking on the slow, painful process of sleep training. “Are we more patient or less? More generous or more selfish? More engaged with the world or more in retreat from it? More accepting of mortality or more frightened of dying?” These questions, considered here, are among the things that may keep parents up at night.

An exquisite collection that is candid, compassionate, and emotionally complex.

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54403-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

A momentous feat of storytelling in an already illustrious career.

ORANGE WORLD AND OTHER STORIES

Russell's third collection beckons like a will-o'-the-wisp across the bog, with eight crisp stories that will leave longtime fans hungry for more.

Since her debut more than a decade ago, Russell (Sleep Donation, 2014, etc.) has exhibited a commitment to turning recognizable worlds on their heads in prose so rich that sentences almost burst at the seams. Her third collection is no exception, and its subjects—forgotten pockets of violent American history, climate-related apocalypse, the trials of motherhood—feel fresh and urgent in her care. Russell takes an expansive view of history, excavating past horrors and imagining the contours of real terror on the horizon. In "The Prospectors," two society-savvy gold diggers must fight their way out of a haunted ski lodge without attracting the wrath of long-dead Civilian Conservation Corps men killed by an avalanche on the job. Even within the framework of her ghost story, Russell remains attuned to the performances women mount in order to survive the threat of male violence: "People often mistake laughing girls for foolish creatures," cautions the narrator. "They mistake our merriment for nerves or weakness, or the hysterical looning of desire. Sometimes, it is that. But not tonight." In "The Tornado Auction," a widowed farmer risks it all to return to his calling—rearing tornadoes on the Nebraskan plains—over the protests of his three grown daughters. "I saw, I understood, that in fact I had always been the greatest danger to my family. I was the apex predator," he muses after a terrible accident, exhibiting the guilt and regret of a loving father who nevertheless finds it difficult to change his ways. While the title story, "Orange World," offers a chilling—and insightful—depiction of motherhood as a real-life devil's bargain, it dips a toe in the realm of schlocky and crude horror uncharacteristic of Russell's other work. The result is mixed even though the story retains Russell's hallmark narrative strengths: a narrator who butts up against the edge of her own expectations and a strange, uncanny world that yields a difficult solution to a familiar emotional problem. "Rae admits that she is having some difficulties with nursing....There is no natural moment in the conversation to say, Mother, the devil has me."

A momentous feat of storytelling in an already illustrious career.

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-65613-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

Mordantly bizarre and trenchantly observant, these stories stake out fresh territory in the nation’s literary landscape.

THE WORLD DOESN'T REQUIRE YOU

The 21st-century surge of African American voices continues with these mischievous, relentlessly inventive stories whose interweaving content swerves from down-home grit to dreamlike grotesque.

Cross River, Maryland, rural and suburban at once, exists only in the imagination of its inventor. And in his second collection, Scott (Insurrections, 2016) manages to make this region-of-the-mind at once familiar and mysterious, beginning with Cross River’s origins as a predominantly African American community established by leaders of the only successful slave revolt—which never really happened. Nor for that matter were there ever any sightings of God doling out jelly beans at Easter time in Cross River, as chronicled in the opener, “David Sherman, the Last Son of God,” whose main character is a guitar prodigy struggling through his fraught relations with local clergy and other pious folk to play the sounds only he can hear. (“God,” David remembers somebody telling him, “answers all prayers and sometimes His answer is no.”) In another story, Tyrone, a doctoral candidate in cultural studies at mythical Freedman's University, submits a thesis positing that the practice of knocking on strangers’ doors and running away is rooted in black slave insurrection; he recruits a friend for his thesis’s practical application with lamentable results. There are also a pair of science fiction stories, set in a futuristic Cross River, in which the customs—and abuses—of antebellum slavery are replicated by humans on robots and cyborgs, who, over time, resent their treatment enough to plot rebellion. And there’s a novella, Special Topics in Loneliness Studies, chronicling an academic year at the aforementioned Freedman's University during which professors and students alike struggle with their deepest, darkest emotions. Even before that climactic performance, you’ve figured out that Cross River is meant to be a fun-house mirror sending back a distorted, disquietingly mordant reflection of African American history, both external and psychic. Somehow, paraphrasing one of Scott’s characters, it all manages to sound made-up and authentic at the same time.

Mordantly bizarre and trenchantly observant, these stories stake out fresh territory in the nation’s literary landscape.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63149-538-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: May 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

Several of Smith's stories are on their ways to becoming classics.

GRAND UNION

Nineteen erudite stories wheel through a constellation of topics, tones, and fonts to dizzying literary effect.

After launching a quiver of short fiction in the New Yorker, Granta, and the Paris Review, Smith adds 11 new pieces to publish her first collection. A reader can enter anywhere, as with Smith’s bravura “The Lazy River,” which “unlike the river of Heraclitus, is always the same no matter where you happen to step into it.” The artificial aquatic amusement, rotating endlessly through a Spanish resort, is “a non-judgement zone” for tourists where “we’re submerged, all of us.” Wit marbles Smith’s fiction, especially the jaunty “Escape From New York,” which riffs on the urban legend that Michael Jackson—“people had always overjudged and misunderestimated him”—ferried Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in a rental car out of the smoking debris of 9/11. Even in “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” a global parable of horror and repetition, absurdity bubbles up: “After eating, and drinking—if it is a village in which alcohol is permitted—the two men will take a walk around...and, as they reach out for your watch or cigarettes or wallet or phone or daughter, the short one, in particular, will say solemn things like ‘Thank you for your gift.’ ” In the wondrous “Words and Music,” the survivor of a pair of disputatious sisters meditates on peak musical experiences. “Kelso Deconstructed” takes up the bleak, racist real-life stabbing of Kelso Cochrane in London in 1959, and “Meet the President!” is set in an even bleaker future where a wailing child interrupts a young teenager’s elaborate virtual video game, her misery “an acute high pitched sound, such as a small animal makes when, out of sheer boredom, you break its leg.” Much less successful are “Downtown” and “Parents’ Morning Epiphany,” which read like fragments trying to become essays. Still, Smith begins and ends with two arresting mother-daughter tales—the first nestled in alienation, the last, “Grand Union,” in communion with the dead.

Several of Smith's stories are on their ways to becoming classics.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-55899-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

Beautifully written and alive with compassion, at times almost unbearably poignant. A thrilling book in every way.

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OLIVE, AGAIN

The thorny matriarch of Crosby, Maine, makes a welcome return.

As in Strout’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge (2008, etc.), the formidable title character is always a presence but not always onstage in these 13 interconnected tales of loneliness, loss, and love in its many flawed incarnations. Olive has not become any easier to like since her husband, Henry, died two years ago; “stupid” is a favorite adjective, and “phooey to you” a frequent term of dismissal. But over the course of about a decade we see Olive struggling, in her flinty way, to become “oh, just a tiny—tiny—bit better as a person.” Her second marriage, to Jack Kennison, helps. “I like you, Olive,” he says. “I’m not sure why, really. But I do.” Readers will feel the same, as she brusquely comforts a former student with cancer in “Light” and commiserates with the grieving daughter-in-law she has never much liked in “Motherless Child.” Yet that story ends with Olive’s desolate conclusion that she is largely responsible for her fraught relationship with her son: “She herself had [raised] a motherless child.” Parents are estranged from children, husbands from wives, siblings from each other in this keening portrait of a world in which each of us is fundamentally alone and never truly knows even those we love the most. This is not the whole story, Strout demonstrates with her customary empathy and richness of detail. “You must have been a very good mother,” Olive’s doctor says after observing Christopher in devoted attendance at the hospital after she has a heart attack, and the daughter of an alcoholic mother and dismissive, abusive father finds a nurturing substitute in her parents’ lawyer in “Helped.” The beauty of the natural world provides a sustaining counterpoint to charged human interactions in which “there were so many things that could not be said.” There’s no simple truth about human existence, Strout reminds us, only wonderful, painful complexity. “Well, that’s life," Olive says. "Nothing you can do about it.”

Beautifully written and alive with compassion, at times almost unbearably poignant. A thrilling book in every way.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9654-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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