Kirkus Managing Editor Eric Liebetrau first compiled a list of his top 20 book recommendations for last year’s Book Issue, and we liked it so much that we asked him to do it again. If you’re still in need of some solid summer reading, give this list a once-over. If you don’t find something here, you probably just don’t like books. —CP
Max Barry (Penguin Press)
With this action-packed thriller that explores the manipulative power of words, Barry makes a claim to be considered in the conversation with Neal Stephenson and other giants of speculative fiction. In an era of lightning-fast information sharing and seemingly endless data collection, Barry fits right in, but he ably ties those modern concepts back to the age-old discussion of language and its uses (and abuses).
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman (William Morrow)
Finally, Neil Gaiman returns from the YA world with his first novel for adults since the best-selling Anansi Boys. It’s a deceptively slim, beautifully written story about a young boy and his discovery of a supernatural secret in a nearby farm. Gaiman captures the magic, wonder, fascination, and terror of childhood in a fable that will resonate with readers of all ages.
Gail Godwin (Bloomsbury)
Set in the waning months of World War II, Godwin’s latest continues in her tradition of lovingly evoked characterization and pitch-perfect plotting. As 10-year-old Helen and her guardian Flora struggle with the absence of Helen’s father, who’s contributing to the war effort, as well as the recent loss of Helen’s mother and grandmother, they and a host of secondary characters experience the repercussions of the family’s past mistakes and secrets.
Colum McCann (Random House)
From the author of the National Book Award–winning Let the Great World Spin, this hypnotic story of aviation across three different time periods confirms McCann’s place as one of this decade’s top novelists. Jumping among 1845 Dublin, 1919 Newfoundland, and 1998 New York, McCann maintains an impressive command of his material in this ambitious, graceful novel.
Nine Inches: Stories
Tom Perrotta (St. Martin’s)
Called an “American Chekhov” by the New York Times Book Review, Perrotta has cornered the market on blackly comedic suburban fiction in such novels as Election and Little Children. In this story collection, the author continues in that tradition, blending satire, irony, and despair seamlessly into the lives of his characters, which include all manner of flawed individuals, from high school kids yearning for more to disillusioned adults struggling to move forward in life.
Marisha Pessl (Random House)
A grand experiment in literary terror, Pessl’s second novel — coming after her impressive, much-buzzed-about debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics — explores the alleged suicide of Ashley Cordova, the history of her horror-film director father, Stanislas, and the investigative journalist who is drawn further and further into the strange, eerie world of Stanislas’ frightening films.
Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press)
In the latest book from the famously reclusive author of Gravity’s Rainbow and other brilliant novels, Pynchon transports us to 2001 New York City, after the dot-com boom and before 9/11. Maxine Tarnow, seemingly just another working mom, is actually on the trail of electronic fraud and possible organized crime and terrorism. Though not as potent or ambitious as Gravity or V., Bleeding Edge provides plenty of the existential angst and madcap humor for which Pynchon is well known.
Lionel Shriver (Harper)
Fearless as ever, Shriver takes on America’s obesity epidemic in this story of 40-something Iowa resident Pandora, her husband, and her once-slim brother, Edison, who has ballooned from 150 to nearly 400 pounds. When Pandora decides to move out and live with Edison to help him lose weight, the new arrangement strains their marriage to the breaking point. Consistently witty and astute, Shriver remains highly attuned to the push and pull of sibling, spousal, and familial relationships.
Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House)
The fourth novel from the best-selling author of Prep and American Wife demonstrates Sittenfeld’s ability to imbue commercial fiction with intriguing depth. Involving identical twin psychic sisters, fraught marriages, and a significant premonition about a massive earthquake, Sisterland once again showcases the author’s acutely calibrated sense of the bonds that bind families together. Sittenfeld fans will love it, and it may even gain her a wider readership.
The Silver Star
Jeannette Walls (Scribner)
The Glass Castle was one of the most celebrated memoirs of the past decade. Turning to fiction, Walls borrows from her own life to create a moving story of a 12-year-old girl fighting against injustice both at home and on her coming-of-age adventure across the country to her uncle’s house. “Bean” Holladay is a feisty, memorable character, and her resolve in the face of abusive parental power reflects the author’s clear-eyed understanding of how children process and cope with bad parenting.
The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945
Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt)
The consummate historian rounds out his prize-winning Liberation Trilogy with a lengthy yet always-engrossing account of the final campaigns on the Western Front, which included D-Day and the well-known Battle of the Bulge. This closing volume is perfect for armchair historians, military buffs, and all those interested in how the Allies finally achieved victory in 1945.
The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean
Philip Caputo (Henry Holt)
The road trip has been a staple of American literature for decades, and the 70-year-old Pulitzer Prize–winning author makes a worthy addition to the bookshelf with this chronicle of his journey from the southernmost point of the United States, Key West, to the northernmost, Deadhorse, Alaska. During the journey, which he made with his wife and dogs and a small Airstream in tow, he encounters the usual cast of quirky road-trip characters and attempts to answer the question, what holds our divided nation together?
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
Sheri Fink (Crown)
Most readers will agree that FEMA woefully mismanaged the relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. However, Pulitzer Prize winner Fink uncovers some high points amid the flood in this sharp investigation into the heroic efforts of the doctors and nurses at Memorial Hospital in downtown New Orleans, who saved dozens of lives under calamitous circumstances.
Gettysburg: The Last Invasion
Allen C. Guelzo (Knopf)
Interest in the Civil War seems endless, and few cover the events of those bloody years better than Guelzo, the director of Civil War era studies at Gettysburg College who has written about Reconstruction, Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and other similar topics. In Gettysburg, Guelzo does it again, delivering what is sure to be the go-to book about the Civil War’s most significant battle.
The Joker: a Memoir
Andrew Hudgins (Simon & Schuster)
A compulsive joke-teller since his childhood, Hudgins takes on all comers in his hilarious, cringe-inducing, and insightful memoir. Sure, there are plenty of zingers that are sure to offend — race, gender, sex, religion, nothing’s off limits — but it’s the author’s illuminating exploration of the mechanics of joking, and humor in general, that make this one stand out.
I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)
Chuck Klosterman (Scribner)
What makes a villain, and why do we often root for them? That’s just one of the questions addressed by plugged-in culture maven Klosterman in his latest book, an examination of the concept of villainy — not just in pop culture, but in real life as well. From O.J. Simpson to Darth Vader, Klosterman is continually entertaining, whether you agree with him or not.
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
George Packer (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
Certain to be one of the most impactful books this year, New Yorker writer Packer’s series of snapshots of Americans from a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds — from wage slaves to Oprah and Jay-Z — is groundbreaking. In both structure and intent, Packer owes a debt to John Dos Passos, but the insights are fresh and consistently relevant, with Packer demonstrating on nearly every page his mastery of characterization and thought-provoking economic, social, and cultural analysis.
The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese
Michael Paterniti (Dial Press)
This is likely the greatest book about cheese you will ever read, but it’s so much more: travelogue, memoir of obsession, uplifting story of family and friendship, and even a dash of murder mystery. Paterniti masterfully recounts his travels to Spain to discover the secrets of an absolutely “sublime” cheese from Castile, displaying top-notch storytelling skills and a remarkable ability to convey the devotion of the cheese’s quirky creator and the villagers who support (and betray) him.
A House in the Sky: a Memoir
Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett (Scribner)
In minute-by-minute, harrowing detail, Lindhout chronicles her 15 months as a hostage in Somalia, during which she was starved, beaten mercilessly, and raped repeatedly. The narrative builds from her worldwide travels as a freelance journalist, exploding in the second half into the story of her heartbreaking ordeal. Readers will marvel at her extraordinary will to survive amidst nearly unbearable circumstances.
Men We Reaped: a Memoir
Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury)
The debut memoir from the National Book Award-winning author chronicles her early adulthood in rural Mississippi, specifically a five-year period in which she lost five young men in her life. Whether due to drugs, suicide, murder, or just bad luck, Ward artfully weaves their stories into her personal coming-of-age amid the poverty and crime that surrounded her.
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