One of the real pleasures of assembling our 90th Anniversary Issue was combing through the archives to see what Kirkus Reviews had to say about the classics as well as some lesser-known books. You’ll find excerpts from those archival fiction reviews below. We didn’t aim to represent every major title of the past 90 years but to highlight the ones that were most entertaining or illuminating today. Allhave been condensed and lightly edited, when necessary, for clarity.

SEPTEMBER 1937 | Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Reassessed as an American classic after novelist Alice Walker brought attention to it in the 1970s, Hurston’s novel was in fact reviewed by Kirkus—quite favorably—at the time of its publication.

Authentic picture of Negroes, not in relation to white people but to each other. An ageing grandmother marries off her granddaughter, almost a child, to a middle-aged man for security—and she leaves him when she finds that her dreams are dying, and goes off with a dapper young Negro, full of his own sense of power and go-getter qualities. He takes her to a mushroom town, buys a lot, puts up a store and makes the town sit up and take notice. His success goes to his head—their life becomes a mockery of her high hopes. And after his death, she goes off with a youth who brings her happiness and tragedy. A poignant story, told with almost rhythmic beauty.

APRIL 1939 | The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

This Depression-era masterpiece—winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize—secured Steinbeck’s reputation; he went on to receive the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962.

This is the sort of book that stirs one so deeply that it is almost impossible to attempt to convey the impression it leaves. It is the story of today’s Exodus, of America’s great trek, as the hordes of dispossessed tenant farmers from the dust bowl turn their hopes to the promised land of California’s fertile valleys.…What an indictment of a system—what an indictment of want and poverty in the land of plenty! There is flash after flash of unforgettable pictures, sharply etched with that restraint and power of pen that singles Steinbeck out from all his contemporaries. There is anger here, but it is a deep and disciplined passion, of a man who speaks out of the mind and heart of his knowledge of a people. One feels in reading that so they must think and feel and speak and live. It is an unresolved picture, a record of history still in the making. Not a book for casual reading. Not a book for unregenerate conservatives. But a book for everyone whose social conscience is astir—or who is willing to face facts about a segment of American life which is and which must be recognized.

SEPTEMBER 1941 | Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Cain’s novel about a California woman striving to support her family during the Great Depression was adapted into classic film noir; Joan Crawford won an Oscar in the title role.

The author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Serenade turns from the shock technique of both of these to present an incisive, full length portrait of a woman in business, and her emotional dependency on her coldblooded, greedy, captious daughter—Veda. There is much of Dreiser in the portraiture, a solid, sound picture of personality and emotional strains and stresses, tensed to breaking points. There is also a thematic resemblance to Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life. In slow, sure fashion Mildred emerges, in all her strong weaknesses and weak strengths, in her relations with the husband she kicks out, with her lovers, and with Veda, whom she fears and respects. And there is her golden touch in the restaurant business, originating in her ability to make pies. A climax is reached when Veda, now a radio star, steals her mother’s second husband, Monty, and Mildred, stripped of her wealth, daughter and possessions, remarries her first husband. Less thunder and lightning, less flamboyance, than in his previous books—but there is the same knowledge of people and narrative momentum which carries the book, and the reader, right along.

JUNE 1949 | Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Orwell’s chilling novel of life under totalitarianism put the term Big Brother into common parlance and set the template for decades of dystopian fiction to come.

It presages with no uncertainty the horrors and sterility, the policing of every thought, action and word, the extinction of truth and history, the condensation of speech and writing, the utter subjection of every member of the Party. The story concerns itself with Winston, a worker in the Records Department, who is tormented by tenuous memories, who is unable to identify himself wholly with Big Brother and The Party. It follows his love for Julia, who also outwardly conforms, inwardly rebels, his hopefulness in joining the Brotherhood, a secret organization reported to be sabotaging The Party, his faith in O’Brien, as a fellow disbeliever, his trust in the proles (the cockney element not under the organization) as the basis for an overall uprising. But The Party is omniscient, and it is O’Brien who puts him through the torture to cleanse him of all traitorous opinions, a terrible, terrifying torture whose climax, keyed to Winston’s most secret nightmare, forces him to betray even Julia. He emerges, broken, beaten, a drivelling member of The Party. Composed, logically derived, this grim forecasting blueprints the means and methods of mass control, the techniques of maintaining power, the fundamentals of political duplicity, and offers as arousing a picture as the author's previous Animal Farm.

APRIL 1952 | Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Ellison’s first novel, winner of the National Book Award, is one of the great debuts in American literature; it is frequently listed as one of the best novels of the 20th century.

An extremely powerful story of a young Southern Negro, from his late high school days through three years of college to his life in Harlem. His early training prepared him for a life of humility before white men, but through injustices large and small, he came to realize that he was an “invisible man.” People saw in him only a reflection of their preconceived ideas of what he was, denied his individuality, and ultimately did not see him at all. This theme, which has implications far beyond the obvious racial parallel, is skillfully handled. The incidents of the story are wholly absorbing. The boy’s dismissal from college because of an innocent mistake, his shocked reaction to the anonymity of the North and to Harlem, his nightmare experiences on a one-day job in a paint factory and in the hospital, his lightning success as the Harlem leader of a communistic organization known as the Brotherhood, his involvement in black versus white and black versus black clashes and his disillusion and understanding of his invisibility—all climax naturally in scenes of violence and riot, followed by a retreat which is both literal and figurative. Parts of this experience may have been told before, but never with such freshness, intensity and power. This is Ellison’s first novel, but he has complete control of his story and his style. Watch it.

OCTOBER 1959 | The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

This eerie ghost story from the author of “The Lottery,” a finalist for the National Book Award, is widely considered one of the best American horror novels.

Dr. Montague, an investigator of psychic disturbances, extends an invitation to three young people to join him at Hill House, whose tragic history has made it unfit for human habitation, and where perhaps they can intensify the forces at work. Eleanor Vance, who had spent eleven years in caring for an invalid mother, is now alone in the world and unwanted—and she has had a poltergeist experience; Theodora is telepathic; and Luke Sanderson is the nephew of the present owner. During the days and nights to follow there are doors that close; drafts that chill; banging and scurrying noises—and writing on the walls.…Eleanor becomes increasingly disturbed and distraught; her hoped for close friendship with Theodora is brushed aside—as Theodora goes off alone with Luke; she is the most susceptible to the dark history of this house and attempts to imitate a tragedy in the past; and the story which begins as a spritely tour of the spirit world, ends on a note of real disequilibrium. A tantalizing, suggestive reconnaissance where the phantasma of other worlds—and private worlds—reveal a disconcerting similarity, and Shirley Jackson’s special following will find pause to wonder and admire.

AUGUST 1963 | The Group by Mary McCarthy

The center of a New York intellectual circle that transfixed midcentury America, McCarthy is today best remembered for this sharp—but not heartless—social satire, still a literary gem.

Out of the grove of academe (Vassar ’31) into the big world comes the group, with their unassailable self-assurance: They had gone to the very best college (well, Vassar was better than Smith or Wellesley); they had some ennobling notions about being enlightened and interested in higher things; and they had had a very liberal education although in one area it proves to be a little patchy (in spite of stealthy readings in Krafft-Ebing and what the doctors at Vassar had told them).…This is the book which has aroused considerable advance speculation and well it might; it has a tremendous reader recognition (for a few—mottled with indignation) and there cannot be much doubt that Mary McCarthy is an exceptional social satirist, with a jackdaw eye and an infallible ear.…Certainly here, more than in any of her other novels, there’s the evidence that Mary McCarthy can not only impale but move and there’s more than a little residual sympathy for those involved. It’s a stunning entertainment, with many special effects, the civilized intelligence, the style, the wit. Succès de scandale and succès d’estime, it’s an irresistible combination.

APRIL 1967 | Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Better known today through the film directed by Roman Polanski, starring Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby began as a blockbuster novel that sold millions of copies.

It’s almost fifteen years since Ira Levin’s…award winning A Kiss Before Dying and this one promises to be the blessed event of the season and probably a good many more. Not since the late Shirley Jackson has there been quite this kind of spellbinder although Levin, a little less literary, a little less bizarre, grounds his saturnalia in the everyday—actually an old apartment house in New York City where Rosemary Woodhouse and Guy, an actor, move, not knowing that the Bramford has quite a history—a recent infanticide in the cellar, and longer ago, the Trench sisters lived there and conducted strange nutritive experiments. Then there’s the little old couple who live next door to Guy and Rosemary and who may be responsible for Guy’s becoming distrait and distant just when Rosemary becomes pregnant and has terrible pains in her stomach and a craving for raw meat and—and—and….Well, Rosemary’s Baby’s a beautiful conception and you’ll enjoy every maleficent minute of it. A witches’ Sabbatical for everyone.

JULY 1975 | Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

This capacious work of historical fiction, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was later adapted for a movie and a musical.

Ragtime is a great billiard game of events, ideas and personages at the turn of the century, where the real protagonist is America herself captured in the last gasps of complacency and social Darwinism—waging territorial wars abroad for God, Country and Mammon, breaking strikes and throwing charity balls at home while WWI hovers in the wings. After this, the national identity will never be the same.…At the heart of the story is the stultifyingly Victorian model family of a respectable manufacturer of flags, fireworks and patriotic odds and ends whose somewhat Moses-like recovery of an abandoned illegitimate black infant leads to an exemplary tale of racism, insurrection and injustice in America. This is fleshed out by a succession of wildly imaginative run-ins with (or among) Sigmund Freud, Emma Goldman, Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker Washington, Zapata and of course—the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.…[T]his is a beautifully realized complex of social epiphanies, all watched over by the spirit of Scott Joplin.

JULY 1979 | Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Butler’s literary reputation has soared in the years since her death in 2006, and this novel—a work of science fiction that addresses the history of slavery in the U.S—is the cornerstone of her legacy.

Butler is one of those accomplished science-fiction writers…who tap out their tales so fast and fine and clear that it’s impossible to stop reading at any point. And this time the appeal should reach far beyond a sci-fi audience—because the alien planet here is the antebellum South, as seen through the horrified eyes of Dana, a 20th-century black woman who time travels in expeditious Butler fashion.…Dana has been “called” by her white ancestor, Rufus—on her first visit, Rufus is a small child, son of a sour slaveowner—and she’ll be transported back to Maryland (twice with her white husband Kevin) to rescue Rufus from death again and again. As Rufus ages (the Maryland years amount to hours and days in 1976 time), the relationship between him and Dana takes on some terrifying dimensions: Rufus simply cannot show the humanity Dana tries to call forth; Dana, drawn into the life of slaves with its humiliation and atrocities, treads carefully, trying to effect some changes, but too often she returns beaten and maimed to her own century.…There is tremendous ironic power in Butler’s vision of the old South in science-fiction terms—capriciously dangerous aliens, oppressed races, and a supra-fevered reality; and that irony opens the much-lamented nightmare of slavery to a fresh, vivid attack—in this searing, caustic examination of bizarre and alien practices on the third planet from the sun.

MARCH 1981 | Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s wildly inventive second novel won the Booker Prize in the year it was published and twice won the “Booker of Bookers” prize as the best novel ever to win the prestigious U.K. literary award.

When Indian novelist Rushdie arrived with Grimus in 1979 we called him “an imagination to watch.” And he’ll be watched indeed once this bravura fiction starts circulating—a picaresque entertainment that’s clearly inspired by close readings of the modern South American fabulists and, above all, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Rushdie’s own Tristram is named Saleem Sinai—and he is born at the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947, making him exactly contemporary with the life of India-as-a-nation. In fact, Saleem and 580 other “midnight children” born at that moment grow up to find themselves equipped with powers of telepathic communication, foresight, and heightened individual sensoria: Saleem’s particular gift is a "cucumber" of a nose with which he goes through life literally smelling change.…Rushdie swoops, all colors unfurled, all stops out, through and around his synchronic fable with great gusto and sentimental fizz.…Tour de force, in other words—and so, of course, a little exhausting; but, unlike other fantastical picaresques, this one is truly worth the effort. A big striped balloon of a book, often dizzying with talent.

MARCH 1989 | The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

This bestselling novel of mothers and daughters broke ground for representation of Asian American characters in mainstream fiction; it was adapted into a hit 1993 film directed by Wayne Wang.

An inordinately moving, electric exploration of two warring cultures fused in love, focused on the lives of four Chinese women—who immigrated, in their youth, at various times, to San Francisco—and their very American 30-ish daughters. Tan probes the tension of love and often angry bewilderment as the older women watch their daughters “as from another shore,” and the daughters struggle to free themselves from maddening threads of arcane obligation. More than the gap between generations, more than the dwindling of old ways, the Chinese mothers most fear that their own hopes and truths—the secret gardens of the spirit that they have cultivated in the very worst of times—will not take root. A Chinese mother’s responsibility here is to “give [my daughter] my spirit.”…With lantern-lit tales of old China, a rich humanity, and an acute ear for bicultural tuning, a splendid first novel—one that matches the vigor and sensitivity of Maxine Hong Kingston…in her tributes to the abundant heritage of Chinese-Americans.

SEPTEMBER 1992 | The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Kirkus reviewers are known for being tough, and this review of Tartt’s debut novel could be Exhibit A. Despite our review—and other less-than-adulatory critical takes—the book has remained a cult classic.

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn’t ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn’t shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched.…First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very ’80s—and in Tartt’s strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic.

SEPTEMBER 1994 | In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Alvarez’s 1991 debut, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, is a contemporary classic of the immigrant experience. Her second novel mesmerized Kirkus’ critic, too.

Brimming with warmth and vitality, this new novel by the author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) is a paean to the power of female courage. The butterflies are four smart and lovely Dominican sisters growing up during Trujillo’s despotic regime. While her parents try desperately to cling to their imagined island of security in a swelling sea of fear and intimidation, Minerva Mirabal—the sharpest and boldest of the daughters, born with a fierce will to fight injustice—jumps headfirst into the revolutionary tide. Her sisters come upon their courage more gradually, through a passionate, protective love of family or through the sheer impossibility of closing their eyes to the horrors around them.…This is not García Márquez or Allende territory (no green hair or floating bodies); Alvarez’s voice is her own, grounded in realism yet alive with the magic of everyday human beings who summon extraordinary courage and determination to fight for their beliefs. As mesmerizing as the Mirabal sisters themselves.

SEPTEMBER 2004| Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Clarke, author of the acclaimed 2020 novel Piranesi, had published nothing in the preceding decade. But her debut fantasy novel racked up superlatives from critics at Kirkus and elsewhere.

Rival magicians square off to display and match their powers in an extravagant historical fantasy being published simultaneously in several countries, to be marketed as Harry Potter for adults. But English author Clarke’s spectacular debut is something far richer than Potter: an absorbing tale of vaulting ambition and mortal conflict steeped in folklore and legend, enlivened by subtle characterizations and a wittily congenial omniscient authorial presence. The agreeably convoluted plot takes off with a meeting of “gentleman-magicians” in Yorkshire in 1806, the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The participants’ scholarly interests are encouraged by a prophecy “that one day magic would be restored to England by two magicians” and would subsequently be stimulated by the coming to national prominence of Gilbert Norrell, a fussy pedant inclined to burrow among his countless books of quaint and curious lore, and by dashing, moody Jonathan Strange, successfully employed by Lord Wellington to defeat French forces by magical means.…The climax, in which Strange and Norrell conspire to summon the King, arrives—for all the book’s enormous length—all too soon. An instant classic, one of the finest fantasies ever written.

APRIL 2005 | Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The author of Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, among many other titles, won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2017. Had the Swedish Academy taken Kirkus’ review to heart?

An ambitious scientific experiment wreaks horrendous toll in the Booker-winning British author’s disturbingly eloquent sixth novel.…Ishiguro’s narrator, identified only as Kath(y) H., speaks to us as a 31-year-old social worker of sorts, who’s completing her tenure as a “carer,” prior to becoming herself one of the “donors” whom she visits at various “recovery centers.” The setting is “England, late 1990s”—more than two decades after Kath was raised at a rural private school (Hailsham) whose students, all children of unspecified parentage, were sheltered, encouraged to develop their intellectual and especially artistic capabilities, and groomed to become donors.…With perfect pacing and infinite subtlety, Ishiguro reveals exactly as much as we need to know about how efforts to regulate the future through genetic engineering create, control, then emotionlessly destroy very real, very human lives—without ever showing us the faces of the culpable, who have “tried to convince themselves…[that] you were less than human, so it didn’t matter.” That this stunningly brilliant fiction echoes Caryl Churchill’s superb play A Number and Margaret Atwood’s celebrated dystopian novels in no way diminishes its originality and power. A masterpiece of craftsmanship that offers an unparalleled emotional experience. Send a copy to the Swedish Academy.

SEPTEMBER 2010 | Room by Emma Donoghue

This powerful novel—told from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy born into captivity with his abducted mother—was made into an Oscar-nominated 2015 film.

Talented, versatile Donoghue…relates a searing tale of survival and recovery, in the voice of a five-year-old boy. Jack has never known a life beyond Room. His Ma gave birth to him on Rug; the stains are still there. At night, he has to stay in Wardrobe when Old Nick comes to visit. Still, he and Ma have a comfortable routine, with daily activities like Phys Ed and Laundry. Jack knows how to read and do math, but has no idea the images he sees on the television represent a real world. We gradually learn that Ma (we never know her name) was abducted and imprisoned in a backyard shed when she was 19; her captor brings them food and other necessities, but he’s capricious.…In the story’s most heartbreaking moments, it seems that Ma may be unable to live with the choices she made to protect Jack. But his narration reveals that she’s nurtured a smart, perceptive and willful boy—odd, for sure, but resilient, and surely Ma can find that resilience in herself. A haunting final scene doesn’t promise quick cures, but shows Jack and Ma putting the past behind them. Wrenching, as befits the grim subject matter, but also tender, touching and at times unexpectedly funny.

SEPTEMBER 2016 | The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This stunning work of historical and speculative fiction was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize; it later won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, establishing Whitehead as one of our greatest contemporary novelists.

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks? For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup.…But Whitehead…fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form.…Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is. Whitehead continues the African-American artists’ inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank. •