Book List

Five Novels That Break All the Rules

A simple and surprising effort to capture everyday life that rewards the time given to it.

MY STRUGGLE

BOOK ONE

From the My Struggle series , Vol. 1

A Norwegian novelist plumbs his interior life, particularly his troubled relationship with his late father, in this curiously affecting opening to a multipart epic.

“Epic,” though, may not be quite the right word to apply to what Knausgaard (Out of This World, 2005; A Time for Everything, 2009), has accomplished. Though the book, a bestseller in his homeland, is composed of six volumes, its focus is on the author’s quotidian, banal, sometimes-frivolous experiences. One extended sequence follows his ham-handed interview as a teenager of a well-known Norwegian author; another covers his ham-handed attempt to play in a rock band; another tracks his ham-handed efforts to get to a New Year’s Eve party. Sense a pattern? Knausgaard is emotionally clumsy to be sure, but remarkably, almost miraculously, his novel never comes off as a plea for sympathy, as so many memoirs (or memoir-novels) are. He means to strip experiences and emotional responses to their bare essences, and over time, the book evokes a feeling of fully inhabiting a character that typical rhetorical somersaulting often doesn’t. That’s not to say the storytelling is aimless or can’t be emotionally piercing: The book concludes with a long section of Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, clearing out their alcoholic father’s rural home while minding their grandmother, who appears to be succumbing to alcoholism herself. Scrubbing down the impossibly filthy home is dry stuff on the sentence level (“I filled the bucket with water, took a bottle of Klorin, a bottle of green soap and a bottle of Jif scouring cream…”), but the slow accrual of detail masterfully evokes the slow effort to reckon with the past. The title, with its echo of Hitler’s memoir, is a provocation, but a considered one—Knausgaard's reckoning with his past is no less serious for lacking drama and outsize tragedy.

A simple and surprising effort to capture everyday life that rewards the time given to it.

Pub Date: Feb. 2, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-914671-00-8

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Archipelago

Review Posted Online: Jan. 29, 2015

With every new work, Jemisin’s ability to build worlds and break hearts only grows.

THE FIFTH SEASON

From the The Broken Earth series , Vol. 1

In the first volume of a trilogy, a fresh cataclysm besets a physically unstable world whose ruling society oppresses its most magically powerful inhabitants.

The continent ironically known as the Stillness is riddled with fault lines and volcanoes and periodically suffers from Seasons, civilization-destroying tectonic catastrophes. It’s also occupied by a small population of orogenes, people with the ability to sense and manipulate thermal and kinetic energy. They can quiet earthquakes and quench volcanoes…but also touch them off. While they’re necessary, they’re also feared and frequently lynched. The “lucky” ones are recruited by the Fulcrum, where the brutal training hones their powers in the service of the Empire. The tragic trap of the orogene's life is told through three linked narratives (the link is obvious fairly quickly): Damaya, a fierce, ambitious girl new to the Fulcrum; Syenite, an angry young woman ordered to breed with her bitter and frighteningly powerful mentor and who stumbles across secrets her masters never intended her to know; and Essun, searching for the husband who murdered her young son and ran away with her daughter mere hours before a Season tore a fiery rift across the Stillness. Jemisin (The Shadowed Sun, 2012, etc.) is utterly unflinching; she tackles racial and social politics which have obvious echoes in our own world while chronicling the painfully intimate struggle between the desire to survive at all costs and the need to maintain one’s personal integrity. Beneath the story’s fantastic trappings are incredibly real people who undergo intense, sadly believable pain.

With every new work, Jemisin’s ability to build worlds and break hearts only grows.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-22929-6

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Orbit/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 14, 2016

Brilliantly accomplished and uncompromisingly dark.

KUDOS

From the Outline Trilogy series , Vol. 3

Brexit provides the sociopolitical background for Cusk’s existential investigation into the nature of freedom and the construction of identity, the concluding volume to her brooding trilogy begun with Outline (2015).

Narrator Faye has married again since her excursions in Transit (2017), but almost everyone she meets at a literary festival in an unnamed European country is either bitterly divorced or painfully ambivalent about family life. Even pets become the source of power struggles with spouses and children in some of the seething personal narratives people share with Faye. Cusk also paints a sardonic portrait of the literary life via the monologues of a philistine salesman-turned-publisher, a first novelist disenchanted by a pretentious writers’ retreat, and an arrogant journalist who’s supposed to be interviewing Faye but barely lets her get a word in. Despite the brilliantly detailed descriptions of these characters and the locations through which they uneasily pass, this is not conventionally naturalistic fiction; conversations reveal unrecorded lapses of time within the narrative, and people examine their experiences in highly abstract language not intended to reproduce vernacular speech. Physical reality is as mutable and subject to question as the identities people carefully create and then later reject. One man, who connects his new success as an author with the radical loss of half his body weight, speaks for many when he concludes that, “The person he’d always been…lived in a prison of his own making.” Many of the broken marriages described were shattered by one partner’s desire for freedom, but that too may be an illusion: “When they thought they were free,” says one man of some friends, “they were in fact lost without knowing it.” Faye’s tender telephone exchanges with her two sons remind us there is love in the world, too (though we never learn more about her new marriage than that it exists). Nonetheless, a jarring and ugly final scene confirms an overall impression that Cusk’s views of human nature and personal relationships are as bleak as ever.

Brilliantly accomplished and uncompromisingly dark.

Pub Date: June 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-27986-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

This is groundbreaking, shape- and genre-shifting work from a daring writer; a fresh novel that elevates questions of sexual...

PAUL TAKES THE FORM OF A MORTAL GIRL

A magical, sexual, and hopeful debut novel about transcending boundaries of gender to pursue emotional connection.

Lawlor (Position Papers, 2016) writes of Paul, a shape-shifter tending bar in a college town in the mid-1990s. Paul can change his gender and appearance at will and does so as he navigates in and out of various pockets of academia and queer culture. Paul is drawn to the act of attraction; he “relied on his ability to attract only the sorts of attention he desired,” and he shifts his form as a way of constantly challenging himself to connect with more people. Paul wants access to as many circles and bodies as possible. Lawlor’s prose is taut, self-aware, and carnal. As Paul tests his “own nascent malleability,” the author explores appearance, attraction, sexuality, and identity. Paul’s youthful exuberance and thirst for hookups are foils to his persistent feelings of isolation. The book is divided into several parts, most notably shifting when a visit to a Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival leads Paul (as a woman) to both a great love, Diane, and a confrontation with his own reasons for seeking sex. “What was sex, but newness?” he asks himself. Eventually Paul has to decide on the level of intimacy he desires; specifically, who he wants to tell about his body. This suggests that intimacy is knowledge of an identity that transcends the corporeal form. Dispersed throughout the story are short chapters with the feel of legends, each fable hinting at issues of gender. In the final third of the novel, Paul moves to the Bay Area, tests the limits of his ability to hold a form, and does his most mature self-examination.

This is groundbreaking, shape- and genre-shifting work from a daring writer; a fresh novel that elevates questions of sexual identity and intimacy.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-9860869-9-1

Page Count: 388

Publisher: Rescue Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2017

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

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A LITTLE LIFE

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

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

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

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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