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Find more Booklist Editors' Choice
Booklist’s Adult Books editors celebrated the year’s starred titles in one scintillating, annotated roll call in the December 15 issue. We have now selected the very best of the best across our reviewing spectrum to create a “Booklist Editors’ Choice” list that covers an inclusive range of outstanding adult books perfect for recommending to library patrons, books that combine literary excellence with popular appeal. To that end, we are very pleased to add a new “Editors’ Choice” category: Genre Fiction. There you will find our top picks for crime, fantasy, horror, romance, and science fiction.
ARTS & LITERATURE
Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror & Speculative Fiction. By Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson. Quirk, $19.99 (9781683691389).
This superb little directory covers women authors of the gory and fantastic, past and present, noting each body of work and its lasting influence, along with a liberal sprinkling of reading suggestions, making it ideal for readers and readers’ advisors alike.
The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. By Toni Morrison. Knopf, $28.95 (9780525521037).
Nobel laureate Morrison’s 2019 death makes this collection of provocative essays and speeches covering a wide variety of complex topics—from identity and displacement to race, politics, feminism, and literature—all the more resonant.
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando. By William J. Mann. Harper, $35 (9780062427649).
In this extensively researched, consistently insightful reassessment of Marlon Brando, Mann argues that the iconic actor found his greatest satisfaction as a social activist, despite many decrying his efforts as inauthentic.
Hitler. By Peter Longerich. Oxford, $39.95 (9780190056735).
In a biography combining illuminating insights with exhaustive scholarship, Longerich retraces the fateful path of a floundering watercolorist who transformed himself into the führer, absolute dictator over much of Europe.
In the Dream House. By Carmen Maria Machado. Graywolf, $26 (9781644450031).
Machado’s memoir of an abusive relationship is presented in fragments, like the rooms of a haunted house, examining the experience not only as personal trauma but also through wider contexts, especially the ways in which societal assumptions complicate the abuse in lesbian relationships.
The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick. By Mallory O’Meara. Hanover Square, $26.99 (9781335937803).
O’Meara’s candid and passionate biography finally brings to light the accomplishments of special-effects designer and animator Milicent Patrick, the long-unacknowledged creator of the titular entity in Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit: Victorian Iconoclast, Children’s Author, and Creator of The Railway Children. By Eleanor Fitzsimons. Abrams, $35 (9781419738975).
This long-overdue biography of children’s writer E. Nesbit, author of The Railway Children, tells the fascinating story of a bohemian life that extended from Victorian England to the 1920s.
Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends. By Ash Carter and Sam Kashner. Holt, $30 (9781250112873).
This scintillating oral history of legendary stage and film director Mike Nichols delivers wry and heartfelt commentary by “150 of his closest friends,” from Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Meryl Streep through Candice Bergen and Christine Baranski.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. By T Kira Madden. Bloomsbury, $27 (9781635571851).
This episodic coming-of-age memoir showcases Madden’s journey as an artist alongside a graceful, understated, and open portrayal of the love and complication in her family.
Such a Pretty Girl: A Story of Struggle, Empowerment, and Disability Pride. By Nadina LaSpina. New Village, $19.95 (9781613320990).
Disability activist LaSpina, who contracted polio as a child, shares her successes and setbacks, both personal and political, and elucidates the U.S. medical system’s treatment of individuals with disabilities. Readers will also find plenty of humor, happiness, camaraderie, and love.
HISTORY & TRAVEL
The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America. By Jack Kelly. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (9781250128867).
The 1894 Pullman strike set off the greatest labor action in U.S. history. Kelly vividly portrays the personalities involved on both sides of the conflict and makes the tensions of the time quite contemporary.
Grass. By Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. Illus. by the author. Tr. by Janet Hong. Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95 (9781770463622).
After Korean graphic novelist Gendry-Kim met Lee Ok-sun, one of few surviving so-called “comfort women” who were forced into sex slavery during WWII, she devoted herself to telling Lee’s harrowing story in this powerfully composed graphic work of biography and testament.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. By David Treuer. Riverhead, $28 (9781594633157).
Treuer—acclaimed author, professor, and Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota—presents a many-layered counternarrative challenging the long-standing depiction of defeated Native Americans, emphasizing the resolve and revitalization of indigenous lives.
Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking. By Toni Tipton-Martin. Clarkson Potter, $35 (9781524761738).
Journalist and activist Tipton-Martin shares recipes from her decades of research on Black cookbooks, including notes on the dishes’ history, her process for creating the versions presented here, elegantly precise instructions, and large color photographs.
The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era. By Gareth Russell. Atria, $30 (9781501176722).
Acknowledging that the doomed Titanic has sailed into the realm of myth and cliché, Russell’s social history focuses on the vessel’s builders, crew, and passengers in the context of the close of Britain’s Edwardian Era, with its class stratification and persistent anti-Semitism.
Silver, Sword & Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story. By Marie Arana. Simon & Schuster, $30 (9781501104244).
Arana’s fluency in Latin American history blossoms in this unique and arresting inquiry into three “crucibles” that have shaped diverse Latin American lives and cultures for centuries: lust for precious metals, proclivity for violence, and fervor for religion. (Top of the List winner—Adult Nonfiction)
Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town under Siege. By Mike Thomson. PublicAffairs, $28 (9781541767621).
Marrying geopolitical understanding of Syria’s war with the extraordinary stories of people dealing with a horrifying reality, Thomson shines a light on the library that citizens of Daraya created using books rescued from bombed-out houses.
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. By Sonia Purnell. Viking, $28 (9780735225299).
Purnell restores overdue attention to Virginia Hall, who was underestimated during her lifetime for her gender and her wooden leg, yet masterminded prison escapes, developed successful guerilla tactics, and cultivated an essential network of spies.
Build Yourself a Boat. By Camonghne Felix. Haymarket, $16 (9781608466115).
To be Black in America has been a Sisyphean ordeal throughout this nation’s history, and Felix’s tough yet compassionate and profound poems express her desire to comprehend her place in that narrative.
How to Love a Country. By Richard Blanco. Beacon, $18.95 (9780807025918).
Blanco presents a fresh and significant collection shaped by Walt Whitman’s Everyman and reverberating with his own experiences as a young, gay Cuban immigrant in America.
SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY
The Deep History of Ourselves: The Four-Billion-Year Story of How We Got Conscious Brains. By Joseph LeDoux. Viking, $30 (9780735223837).
In this refreshingly lucid treatment of profound questions, LeDoux delves into evolutionary research to explain the neurobiological origins and dynamics of human consciousness, examining biological scripts traceable all the way back to the first one-celled creatures.
Losing Earth: A Recent History. By Nathaniel Rich. Farrar/MCD, $25 (9780374191337).
Rich’s meticulous history of early political battles over climate change and myriad missed opportunities to do the right thing for the environment and humanity is galling, instructive, and invaluable.
The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys across the Last Untamed Frontier. By Ian Urbina. Knopf, $30 (9780451492944).
Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Urbina vividly recounts his risky investigations into shocking crimes committed on the high seas, ranging from enslavement to poaching, torture, murder, piracy, and environmental decimation, in an exposé of immense magnitude and consequence.
Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other Animals. By Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers. Scribner, $27 (9781501164699).
Following the adolescence of four animals—a king penguin, a spotted hyena, a humpback whale, and a wolf—the authors illustrate how the experience is shared across many species, making for a fascinating read.
Figuring. By Maria Popova. Pantheon, $30 (9781524748135).
Popova weaves an intricate net in this exhilarating and omnivorous inquiry, connecting in surprising ways the lives of geniuses who broke barriers and “bridged the scientific and poetic,” including the brilliant astronomer Maria Mitchell, radical poet Emily Dickinson, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Going over Home: A Search for Rural Justice in an Unsettled Land. By Charles D. Thompson Jr. Chelsea Green, $18 (9781603589123).
Thompson traces the changes in tax structure and policies that drove U.S. farmers to buy more land and accumulate more debt, giving rise to industrial agriculture and the death of family farms.
Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have. By Tatiana Schlossberg. Grand Central, $28 (9781538747087).
In this informative and unexpectedly charming examination, Schlossberg demystifies the everyday products and services that contribute to the current dire state of environmental affairs, and leaves readers energized.
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. By Adam Higginbotham. Simon & Schuster, $29.95 (9781982110789).
This tense and revelatory product of more than a decade of research into the 1986 disaster includes interviews with survivors and newly declassified Soviet documents, resulting in an essential human tale with global consequences.
The Trial of Lizzie Borden. By Cara Robertson. Simon & Schuster, $28 (9781982110796).
A lawyer and legal advisor brings her expertise to 20 years of research on the infamous nineteenth-century ax-murder case, analyzing not only the bungled investigation and sensational trial, but also nineteenth-century attitudes about women and crime.
After the Flood. By Kassandra Montag. Morrow, $27.99 (9780062889362).
In Montag’s thrilling speculative adventure, set in a future climate-change-altered world overrun by water and pirates, Myra and her younger daughter struggle to survive while Myra searches for her abducted older daughter.
Ayesha at Last. By Uzma Jalaluddin. Berkley, $16 (9781984802798).
This modern, Muslim update of Pride and Prejudice will have readers smiling as they recognize the clever ways debut novelist Jalaluddin incorporates Austen’s words into the reluctant love story between outspoken Ayesha and pious Khalid.
Daisy Jones & the Six. By Taylor Jenkins Reid. Ballantine, $27 (9781524798628).
Framed as a tell-all biography of former rock juggernaut Daisy Jones & the Six, this novel conjures true-to-life images of the 1970s music scene as complex characters work through emotions that will curl readers’ toes.
Evvie Drake Starts Over. By Linda Holmes. Ballantine, $26 (9780525619246).
Recent widow Evvie Drake agrees to rent her spare room to Dean, a Major League pitcher who has lost his mojo, and the two slowly and reluctantly exorcise their fears with the help of their close-knit community.
Fall Back Down When I Die. By Joe Wilkins. Little, Brown, $26.95 (9780316475358).
In his unforgettable first novel, Wilkins writes of hardscrabble life on the northern Great Plains, creating characters with rich if troubled interior lives who are haunted by absent fathers.
The Far Field. By Madhuri Vijay. Grove, $27 (9780802128409); e-book, $27 (9780802146373).
Adrift since her mother’s recent death, Shalini travels from her home in Bangalore to Kashmir seeking her mother’s long-ago friend in this engrossing, finely plotted tale of love, grief, politics, and morality.
The Farm. By Joanne Ramos. Random, $27 (9781984853752).
At Golden Oaks, a gestational retreat for the surrogates of the one percent, four women—two carrying babies, two brokering surrogate-mother deals—face questions of ethics, privilege, and ambition in a novel buoyed by compelling storytelling and appealing, if not always likable, characters.
Feast Your Eyes. By Myla Goldberg. Scribner, $28 (9781501197840).
Goldberg’s deeply revealing and affecting mosaic of a novel takes the form of a museum-exhibition catalog, which brings into focus the painful controversies faced by photographer Lillian Preston in pre–Roe v. Wade New York.
Find Me. By André Aciman. Farrar, $27 (9780374155018).
In this psychologically astute and insightful sequel to Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name (2007), Elio and Oliver’s love affair has been over for 20 years, but now Elio realizes his mistake in ending the relationship.
Fleishman Is in Trouble. By Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Random, $27 (9780525510871).
When Toby Fleishman’s divorce is nearly finalized, his wife drops off the kids and disappears. In this affirming tale of midlife, marital, and existential despair, readers get glorious reams of personal histories tangled by ambition, gender, family, class, and, especially, love.
Girl, Woman, Other. By Bernardine Evaristo. Black Cat, $17 (9780802156983).
Anglo-Nigerian writer Evaristo’s courageous, intersectional, and riveting novel explores Black British identity through the stories of 12 interconnected characters, using minimal punctuation and fluid paragraphs for a high-velocity style of exposition.
Lost Children Archive. By Valeria Luiselli. Knopf, $27.95 (9780525520610).
In Luiselli’s astutely creative and unnerving novel about conquest and remembrance, wife-and-husband audio documentarians bring their daughter and son along on a road trip from New York to Arizona to research Apache history, but they are pulled into the refugee crisis at the Mexican-U.S. border, and end up searching for their own lost children.
Never Have I Ever. By Joshilyn Jackson. Morrow, $26.99 (9780062855312).
Nail-biting suspense and Southern family drama combine in the story of a suburban mothers’ book club that turns into a game of cat and mouse when a new member threatens to unveil secrets.
The Nickel Boys. By Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, $24.95 (9780385537070).
Whitehead’s tautly focused and harrowing portrait of two African American teens during the last vicious years of Jim Crow is anchored to Nickel Academy, a Florida reform school with secretly appalling racist and sadistic practices.
Night Boat to Tangier. By Kevin Barry. Doubleday, $25.95 (9780385540315).
Two Irish drug runners sit in the waiting room of a ferry terminal in the Spanish port of Algeciras. Their staccato dialogue, a hypnotically beautiful tone poem, is both wildly comic and deeply sad.
Normal People. By Sally Rooney. Hogarth, $26 (9781984822178).
This novel of two teens whose intellectual and romantic relationship alters dramatically during their college years advances months or minutes at a time through their reunions and rifts, with perceptive portrayals of class and the hard work of becoming a person.
Quichotte. By Salman Rushdie. Random, $28 (9780593132982).
Rushdie’s exuberantly imagined homage to Don Quixote—starring a chivalrous, retired traveling pharmaceutical salesman utterly bewitched and befuddled by marathon television immersions—unites a shrewdly hilarious yet philosophical doomsday adventure with lacerating social commentary. (Top of the List winner—Adult Fiction)
Red Birds. By Mohammed Hanif. Black Cat, $15 (9780802147288).
Hanif’s novel about a 15-year-old boy, Momo, who rescues a pilot somewhere in the Middle East, beautifully captures the absurdity and folly of war and its ineluctable impact on its survivors.
The Redeemed. By Tim Pears. Bloomsbury, $28 (9781635573824).
The concluding volume in Pears’ celebrated West Country trilogy again boasts lush descriptions of rural England and subtly penetrating character studies of individuals who say little but feel much.
The Water Dancer. By Ta-Nehisi Coates. Ballantine/One World, $28 (9780399590597).
In his first novel, a psychologically and socially perceptive drama with a touch of magic realism, Coates creates a new portal into the atrocities of slavery sieved through the experiences of young Hiram Walker, who, as the son of an enslaved woman and the owner of a prominent Virginia estate, possesses a strange and liberating power.
The Border. By Don Winslow. Morrow, $28.99 (9780062664488).
The concluding volume in Winslow’s landmark Cartel Trilogy, which focuses on maverick DEA agent Art Keller’s attempt to track the flow of drugs from Mexico to Wall Street, gives a heartbreaking and achingly human face to all aspects of the tragically misguided War on Drugs.
The Chain. By Adrian McKinty. Little, Brown/Mulholland, $28 (9780316531269).
You know you’re having a bad day when you get a call telling you your daughter has been kidnapped, and, to get her back, you must kidnap somebody else. A pitch-perfect thriller.
The Deep. By Rivers Solomon and others. Saga, $19.99 (9781534439863).
In an sf future created from the scars of the past, in a world of aquatic beings descended from women thrown off slave ships, one historian holds society’s communal memories, until the burden becomes too great and she flees to the surface.
Exhalation. By Ted Chiang. Knopf, $25.95 (9781101947883).
Chiang’s sf short stories explore emotional and metaphysical landscapes, from a cosmos populated by mechanical beings to human communications with alternate selves, in precise and incisive prose that will appeal to both genre and literary-fiction readers.
Gideon the Ninth. By Tamsyn Muir. Orbit, $25.99 (9781250313195).
Gideon—swordswsoman, malcontent, lovelorn lesbian—accompanies her house’ heir, Harrowhark, to a competition that turns deadly in a debut that fuses sf, mystery, horror, fantasy, adventure, dark humor, a dash of romance, and a spirit of queer joy.
Growing Things and Other Stories. By Paul Tremblay. Morrow, $25.99 (9780062679130).
These stories, anchored by a variety of strong narrative voices, brilliantly take ordinary situations—an author event, an AP history class, a family vacation—and subtly inject a sense of unease that quickly builds to pure horror.
Lady Derring Takes a Lover. By Julie Anne Long. Avon, paper, $7.99 (9780062867469).
If her husband, the Earl of Derring, weren’t already dead, Delilah Swanpoole would be sorely tempted to kill him herself, though he did leave her a boardinghouse on the Thames, where tall, dark, and taciturn Captain Tristan Hardy arrives on the trail of a smuggler, making for a witty, deftly constructed, hope- and love-affirming historical romance.
Lady in the Lake. By Laura Lippman. Morrow, $26.99 (9780062390011).
Lippman’s latest stand-alone, set in 1960s Baltimore, tells the interlocking stories of two women, an African American cocktail waitress whose body is discovered in a lake, and a white woman trying to reinvent herself as a reporter. A superb thriller, a terrific newspaper novel, and a fascinating look at racial discrimination in the 1960s.
A People’s Future of the United States. Edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams. Random/One World, $17 (9780525508809).
An array of speculative-fiction authors critique the present through visions of a variety of potential futures, from political dystopias to space colonies of refugees.
Red, White & Royal Blue. By Casey McQuiston. St. Martin’s/Griffin, $16.99 (9781250316776).
After their tabloid-fueled rivalry almost sets off an international incident, the U.S. president’s son, Alex Claremont-Diaz, and uptight Henry, Prince of Wales, are sent on a publicity tour to smooth things over and discover their true feelings for each other. McQuiston’s romance also offers a happily-ever-after on the political front.
Sarah Jane. By James Sallis. Soho, $23.95 (9781641290807).
This quietly powerful blend of noir and character study finds both despair and great tenderness in the daily lives of ordinary people, as observed by Sarah Jane Pullman, acting sheriff in a small Southwestern town.
Side Chick Nation. By Aya de León. Kensington/Dafina, $12.95 (9781496715791).
De León weaves together unforgettably realistic crime, racial issues, and sexism in this page-turning work of romantic suspense featuring Dulce, on the run from her drug-dealing boyfriend, and journalist Zavier, who both end up in Puerto Rico as it is devastated by Hurricane Maria.
This Is How You Lose the Time War. By Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Saga, $19.99 (9781534431003).
Rival time-traveling agents sabotage each other’s missions and leave secret messages behind, unfolding a twisting, sapphic fantasy love story across time and parallel universes.
Your House Will Pay. By Steph Cha. Ecco, $26.99 (9780062868855).
When Grace Park’s mother is targeted in a drive-by shooting, Grace discovers the truth about her family’s role in the 1992 L.A. riots. A gripping portrayal of racial injustice.
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