RaveThe Guardian (UK)... is at face value about an Israeli family who remain largely untouched by the violence in their homeland – it is a love story, a story about a family and their myriad individual tragedies. But it is also about the way that the personal can never be wholly separated from the political, about the lingering wounds of history, about how violence seeps into all the dark corners of a life. It is, in the end, about Israel. Immaculately translated by Jessica Cohen, this is another extraordinary novel from Grossman, a book as beautiful and sad as anything you’ll read this year.
RaveFinancial Times (UK)... a novel of riotous, occasionally bilious satire that asks how long we want to live and how we wish to die ... the novel has enormous fun examining every possible outcome for the couple ... The possible futures become increasingly wild ... there’s something bracing about reading a novelist so admirably heartless, watching her pull the legs off her characters again and again. While it’s near-heretical to say so, I think Shriver’s novels are wonderful. Not only is it salutary to have a provocateur and gadfly in our midst, a libertarian Brexiter in a literary culture that otherwise sticks slavishly to the same liberal line, but her books are fun, smart and, perhaps because of their author’s unconventional political views, unlike anything else you’ll read.
RaveThe Observer (UK)[McAnulty\'s] prose is both spirited and spiritual, performing an intensive phenomenological survey of the wildlife around his home, bringing the reader into deep, occasionally uncomfortably close communion with the insects, plants and, above all, the birds of Northern Ireland ... Any concerns I had about McAnulty’s book were dissolved by the first few pages of careful, lyrical, closely observed nature writing. McAnulty admits halfway through the book that he doesn’t \'have a joy filter\' and the depth of his feeling illuminates every page of this miraculous memoir. It’s a book that succeeds in describing the deep and complex pleasure of immersion in nature ... I was reminded repeatedly while reading Diary of a Young Naturalist of the work of the great WH Hudson – a brilliant and eccentric nature writer who lived and wrote with the same deep and authentic sense of emotional engagement with nature as McAnulty ... McAnulty describes his family as \'close as otters\', and the portrait he draws of loving, enlightened, unconventional parents raising three neurodivergent children on a diet of poetry, punk and puffins is profoundly moving ... McAnulty is fiercely attuned to his own moods, and at a time when we’re increasingly aware of the health benefits of the outdoors, his ability to medicate with nature strikes a powerful chord: my head is pretty hectic most of the time, and watching daphnia, beetles, pond skaters and dragonfly nymphs is a medicine for this overactive brain. A few hours reading this intimate, sensitive, deeply felt memoir had the same effect on me, lifting my spirits and giving me a great deal of hope for the future, simply that young people like Dara McAnulty are alive and writing in the world.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)A Theatre for Dreamers feels at once like a gift and an escape route ... With such a vivid, atmospheric setup, the book almost writes itself, but Samson has done something more than just wallow in the loveliness of it all. This novel will be a surefire summer hit, but it has a darkness and complexity that reward careful reading. Cohen and Marianne operate at tangents to the central story of the novel, which is narrated by the likable ingenue Erica, a novitiate novelist in her late teens whose mother’s dying wish was for her daughter to go off on an adventure ... There’s a lot of high-flown prose ... Erica is a kind of Nick Carraway-figure, largely on the outside of events, observing and learning from the more experienced, glamorous people she has fallen in with. Her first-person narrative – in a breathless present tense – lingers almost painfully over descriptions of Cohen, so that he does to the text what it was said he did to a room, dazzling everything in sight ... The novel is bookended by Erica’s later visits to the island, where she drops down through time to those halcyon days before Leonard and Marianne became a kind of shorthand for the artist and his muse, and everything is melancholy and nostalgic. A Theatre for Dreamers is at once a blissful piece of escapism and a powerful meditation on art and sexuality – just the book to bring light into these dark days.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... a novel so comprehensively steeped in American literary history that it comes as something of a surprise to find that its author is a fortysomething from Surrey. It’s as if Lee...has distilled more than a century of American letters into a single book. There’s Fitzgerald ... There’s Hemingway in the muscular lyricism of the prose; Sherwood Anderson and Steinbeck in the beautifully drawn portraits of rural America; there’s the restraint of Henry James in the sinuous sentences; and then there’s a host of lesser-known writers who took for their subject turn-of-the-century New York and the riotous excesses of early capitalism: Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair ... a book of extraordinary intelligence and style, written in language at once beautiful and playfully aphoristic. It’s a novel whose protagonist—decent, dignified, wounded—will live long in the mind of those that read it, a novel that delivers wholeheartedly on Lee’s early promise.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review... can be situated in a growing tradition of fine British novels that have emerged in the wake of Brexit ... The stories are also connected by their style, which is airily suggestive, the long, ethereal sentences recalling the work of another author whose presence was powerfully felt in Barcelona in the early years of the millennium: Roberto Bolaño. Blanes, the town in which Bolaño was a campground caretaker, is mentioned several times, and at the level of subject and sentence Bolaño feels like a model for Thomson. These numinous stories, where reality is just the launchpad for flights of extravagant, erotically charged fancy, recall much of Bolaño’s early work, which was in correspondence with both South American and European magic realists. Thomson gives us a shadowy world in which, as one of the characters says, \'everything was connected, but not in a good way.\' It feels unlikely that this novel will prove Thomson’s breakout success — it is perhaps too elusive, too darkling for that — but Barcelona Dreaming is a wonderful book, a phantasmal hymn to a city and a lost way of life.
RaveThe Financial Times (UK)... a kind of radiant goodness, a sense that the world is a better place for having such books within them ... a pleasingly collaborative reading experience ... It’s a book that is also a social history of South London, showing the frictions and fissures, the ugly insularity as well as the generosity and decency ... Light Perpetual’s brilliance lies in the emotion and drama it wrings from the ordinary — but profoundly meaningful — experiences of its protagonists. Spufford’s prose, which is never showy, but always beautifully accurate, confers an extraordinary dignity on the lives of these imagined children, recovered from the rubble of a fictional bomb site.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)a novel that does what great debuts do – bringing an originality of voice and vision to the form, refreshing our ideas of what is possible in fiction ... These two stories build into a novel of huge power and emotional impact, written in language that is sharp, distinctive and often beautiful. 2020 has been a year of superb debuts and Rainbow Milk is among the best.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)The book’s title refers to justice, which catches small fry while letting larger fish escape punishment. Anne thrums with life all the way through to her tragic, gruesome end, while Frankie is calculating and alluring. The fact that all of the action is filtered through Anne’s voice means that some of Frankie’s escapades have a slightly secondhand air to them, and Carr never really convinces as a replacement for the vile Essex. These, though, are small gripes compared with the many things there are to love in this scintillating novel that plunges you head-first into a darkly compelling chapter of British history.
Tove Ditlevsen, trans. by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... majestic memoir of art and addiction ... The trilogy is stridently honest, entirely revealing – she makes no effort to hide the many shameful episodes of a shambolic, drug-addled existence – and, in the end, devastating ... One of the many semi-miraculous elements of Ditlevsen’s prose, which appears at first glance breezily artless, is the way she’ll settle on an object and rub her characters up against it, grounding them in the physicality of her world ... The affectless prose is interrupted by glorious poetical flourishes, and these bursts of lyricism are more than merely ornamental ... Ditlevsen’s trilogy is remarkable not only for its honesty and lyricism; these are books that journey deep into the darkest reaches of human experience and return, fatally wounded, but still eloquent.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Kay’s character feels strangely underdeveloped—the doughty SOE type who shows the men a thing or two has become a staple of the second world war literary landscape and it would have been nice to see Harris give her some edges. Graf is a more complex character ... His conflicted state as the end of the war draws ever nearer is presented with subtlety and sensitivity—this is what Harris does best, the decent man caught in the jaws of history ... It’s peculiar, then, that so much of V2 feels familiar. He wrote it during the lockdown and yet no sense of this feeds through to the reader. Living through historical times, our historical novels have to work harder to justify their existence. Harris’s books are always supremely readable—he has practically trademarked the term \'master storyteller\'—but V2 doesn’t tell us enough about the way we live now.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... like the novelisation of a comic, a book about the future that is actually an act of nostalgia for when that future and its technology appeared rosy and progressive ... The thing about the best Lethem novels – and I’m thinking back to early in his career, to Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude – is that they were such fun. I’ve read everything he’s written since and rarely has a novel approached the sheer pleasure of The Arrest. This is a dystopian novel in thrall to its own genre, full of knockabout comic book bravado, with regular knowing nods to literary and cinematic history. It is, in short, a blast.
Les Payne and Tamara Payne
PositiveThe Spectator (US)The Dead Are Arising, a new biography of Malcolm X, is timely. But perhaps this sobering book’s clearest message is that it will always be timely, because the story it narrates is timeless. In 1964 it would be Harlem, in 1965 Watts, in 1967 Detroit. Today, it’s Minneapolis and Louisville ... Les and Tamara Payne are especially good in detailing these early years of delinquency and rebirth. Like Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Johnson, The Dead Are Arising delves deeply into the wider context of Malcolm’s world, sometimes leaving Malcolm himself on the sideline.
RaveThe Spectator (UK)... extraordinary ... uses the stories of two men and their families to delve revealingly into complex questions of class, fate and history ... I’ve sometimes felt that Evers was an American author trapped in the body of a man from Cheshire, and this book has the scope of a Great American Novel, as encompassing and ecumenical as anything by Bellow or Franzen. But the real touchstone is Don DeLillo, and The Blind Light sent me straight back to White Noise, with which it is in direct and powerful dialogue. That Evers’s novel does not suffer by comparison is high praise indeed.
RaveThe Guardian (US)Alam’s novel is simply breathtaking, full of moments of exquisite recognition, as terrifying and prescient as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Alam is a writer of scrupulous precision, drawing the reader into the world of his characters through detailed inventories of the objects about them ... Leave the World Behind was written before the coronavirus crisis and yet it taps brilliantly into the feeling of generalised panic that has attached itself to the virus and seems to mingle fears about the climate, inequality, racism and our over-reliance on technology. As the reader moves through the book, a new voice interjects, an omniscient narrator who begins to allow us gradual access to the terrifying events taking place across America. Leave the World Behind is an extraordinary book, at once smart, gripping and hallucinatory ... When future generations (if that term doesn’t sound over-optimistic at the moment) want to know what it was like to live through the nightmare of 2020, this is the novel they’ll reach for.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Smith’s series has become a central part of my cultural life, one of the tools with which I attempt to read the moment, both a framing device and a lesson in defence against the dark arts. She says: things are bad, life is complicated; but here are Chaplin’s films and Pauline Boty’s paintings, here is Tacita Dean and Barbara Hepworth, here is Shakespeare and Dickens and Katherine Mansfield. She says: yes there’s Brexit, but here are deep shared ties of history and culture; yes there’s indefinite detention and the climate crisis, but here are people willing to lose their freedom, even their lives, to protest against them; yes there’s loss and loneliness, but here are small moments of connection, of recognition, of dignity. And yet so frantic were the headlines of 2020, so febrile the global temperature, I began to wonder if there was too much reality even for this supremely subtle and supple writer ... Reading the four books together is a deeply affecting experience, in which we understand the huge ambition that underlies them, the profound and compassionate intelligence that sits at their heart. Ali Smith has completed something truly remarkable in her seasonal quartet, a work that has risen to the challenges of the era that summoned it, but also a series of novels that will endure, telling future generations what it was to live in these fraught and febrile times, and how, through art, we survived.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)...a beautiful paean to young love and teenage lust, the whole thing prevented from falling into schmaltz by the air of melancholy that hangs around it, the recognition that such loves do not last, that all about is \'the sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town\' ... Sweet Sorrow is a book that does what Nicholls does best, sinking the reader deep into a nostalgic memory-scape, pinning the narrative to a love story that manages to be moving without ever tipping over into sentimentality, all of it composed with deftness, intelligence and, most importantly, humour. We may think of Nicholls as a writer of heartbreakers – One Day prompted many poolside tears—but he has always been a comic novelist and Sweet Sorrow is full of passages of laugh-out-loud Inbetweeners-ish humour.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... a story that takes familiar themes and wraps them in the web of [Dolan\'s] careering lyricism and twisted imagination ... ohnson’s prose comes at you in jagged bursts ... The fact that most readers will see the final twist coming doesn’t undermine its power. Indeed, there’s something interesting in the way that Johnson uses readerly expectation and generic convention to her advantage, timing her revelations perfectly, allowing the reader to hear echoes of other writers without the novel ever feeling derivative or formulaic ... Careful readers will find many pieces of treasure buried here, including several references to Johnson’s 2016 short story collection, Fen. The fact that the plot of Sisters follows relatively well-worn paths allows Johnson to be more inventive and experimental in her use of language and in her characterisation. This is a novel Shirley Jackson would have been proud to have written: terrifically well-crafted, psychologically complex and chillingly twisted.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... a surprising book, even an astonishing one, overcoming all those initial concerns in its luminously honest and affecting first chapter. Jukes is a gloriously gifted writer and her book ought to become a key text of this bright moment in our history of nature writing. I was reminded of William Fiennes’s The Snow Geese and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, but these resonances should not obscure the uniqueness of a book that quietly, beautifully, rewired my heart as I read it ... The brilliance of Jukes’s memoir is the way that it uses the image of the hive as a metaphor for so much else going on in the book. It’s rare to find an author who demonstrates such respect for her readers’ intelligence – the parallels and affinities are allowed to accrete gradually, subliminally, so that it’s only at the end that we recognise that a book that seemed to be about beekeeping is actually a meditation on solitude and friendship, on urban existence, on the condition of a generation ... It was Coleridge who said \'Everyone should have two or three hives of bees;\' everyone should also own A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings, which moved and delighted me more than a book about insects had any right to.
RaveThe Observer (UK)Barry handled scenes of McNulty and Cole cross-dressing in Days Without End immaculately; here, again, we understand the power conferred on Winona by her change in identity, the way she is suddenly able to move freely where she had previously been constrained. Her adventures take her on a journey that is horrifying, thrilling and enchanting in equal measure, all of it rendered in Barry’s uniquely lyrical prose, which seems at once effortless and dense with meaning ... This novel, like its predecessor, provides a compelling answer to those who claim that authors should stick to their own when it comes to telling stories. The idea of a middle-class white male writing in the voice of a cross-dressing teenage lesbian Native American might feel out of step with its times, but prose this good is a kind of enchantment, transcending the constructs that are supposed to define us to speak in a voice that is truly universal.
J. M Coetzee
PanThe Guardian (UK)Four years on from his arrival in the unnamed country, David is 10 and, if anything, even more enraging than in his earlier incarnations ... I’ve given up trying to force meaning into these novels. It’s striking that the most powerful moments in Coetzee’s great earlier books were strongly allegorical and carried deep religious undertones ... Now it feels as if all of the pleasures left to the reader of a Coetzee novel are pleasures of the head, not of the heart. The dreamlike nature of life in the unnamed dystopia that David inhabits makes it hard to achieve any degree of emotional engagement with the characters. The Jesus books are all allegory, and it’s an allegory that is endlessly referred, that never hits home, having no real-world corollary ... I’m increasingly convinced that this trilogy is an elaborate joke by its author at the expense of the exegetes attempting to \'translate\' his work.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)...an entertaining offshoot of [the] well-received 2010 biography of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper ... Sisman is a serious writer of nonfiction...but he has a novelist’s sense of the importance of showing, not telling ... There’s a rather antique feel about the whole project. Partly this is down to Sisman’s tone, which belongs to a previous era ... There’s no impression that a modern sensibility has been brought to bear on the subject matter. Peters appears to have been a sex offender, with numerous instances of his predatory \'advances\' on young girls. Sisman seems to have bought in to the tabloid portrayal of Peters as a \'Romeo\', and reports the fact that “it seems as if he could scarcely be left alone with a woman without making advances to her” without censure ... I’m also not sure that one can describe someone as \'inscrutable, like an Oriental despot\' in 2019. For all this, the book is a gripping read, telling us as much about the rise and fall of Trevor-Roper as about its deeply unpleasant priest.
PositiveThe Spectator (UK)... perhaps because of its intensely personal origins, this book feels particularly special, taking those elements that we expect from Erdrich — beautiful prose, exquisite depiction of the natural world, powerful emotion — and building them into something exceptional. If you haven’t read her before, The Night Watchman is a superb introduction to the work of one of America’s most important living novelists.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)As with her previous novel, the paragraphs in Weather are each a kind of koan, some short, some long, all of them containing a piece of central, organising wisdom. Penelope Fitzgerald was the queen of the innocuously devastating aphorism; Offill has inherited her crown. Again and again her sentences resonate powerfully, drawing you in with their humour before sideswiping you with their veracity ... we construct a whole from the pieces Offill gives us, and find that we hold in our hands a truly remarkable novel, perhaps the most powerful portrait of Trump’s America yet.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)It’s a strange time for a novel as full-hearted as Apeirogon. It feels as if the situation in the Middle East is always a reflection of its age ... Now each side has retreated into belligerent isolation, with Donald Trump gleefully fanning the flames of discord. But perhaps that’s the point – the desperation of the situation has brought forth a work of art whose beauty, intelligence and compassion may go some way to changing things. Is it absurd to suggest that a novel might succeed where generations of politicians have failed? Perhaps, but then Apeirogon is the kind of book that comes along only once in a generation ... You don’t read Apeirogon so much as feel it, as the particular tragedies of Bassam and Rami are lived out in an ever-present moment of loss ... For all its grief, Apeirogon is a novel that buoys the heart. The friendship of Bassam and Rami is a thing of great and sustaining beauty ... This, the novel suggests, is the solution to the conflict: something as simple and easy as friendship, as the acknowledgement of a shared experience, as love. I kept thinking as I read it about all the ways that Apeirogon could have failed, about the ammunition it might have provided to all of those who claim that no one should write a novel that reaches beyond their own particular experience. It could have been maudlin, tawdry, exploitative, trite. Instead, it’s a masterpiece, a novel that will change the world, and you don’t hear that very often.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Self’s latest act of perversity is to follow up...acclaimed novels with a drug memoir told in the third person ... Will feels snatched from another age. It recalls the great wave of drug memoirs that came in the 1990s, and particularly Ann Marlowe’s superb, genre-bending How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z. Like that book, Will’s formal structure is central to its impact ... It’s less a stream of consciousness, more like five pools with countless rivulets running between them ... This material is intensely, almost wilfully, familiar, so that reading becomes a battle between the predictability of the subject matter and the darkly angelic prose in which it is expressed. After [the] baleful first chapter, the book is a joy to read, with the final part in particular recalling David Foster Wallace at his best, taking on the \'bogus syncretism of Christianity and sub-Freudian psychotherapy\' of AA ... If, as [Self] says early on in the book, \'there’s nothing remotely exciting about heroin addiction\', there’s more than mere nostalgic pleasure in this gleefully self-lacerating memoir of drug abuse and rehab.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... his novel is resolutely, wonderfully Scottish at heart ... such a delight. Rarely does a debut novel establish its world with such sure-footedness, and Stuart’s prose is lithe, lyrical and full of revelatory descriptive insights. This is a memorable book about family, violence and sexuality ... Agnes is drawn with extraordinary sympathy: she simply leaps from the page as she juggles motherhood, a violent and philandering husband and her own demons, drink foremost among them. She is troubled, lovable, vulnerable and resilient ... This is a deeply political novel, one about the impact of Thatcherism on Glaswegian society ... It is brilliant on the shame of poverty and the small, necessary dignities that keep people going. It is heartbreakingly good on childhood and Shuggie’s growing sense of his otherness, of not being the same as the other boys on the estate ... Douglas Stuart has written a first novel of rare and lasting beauty.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)... a quieter, gentler work than her earlier volumes ... the literary equivalent of the slow food movement: writing that may describe momentous events, but does so in a manner that is sidelong, subtle and requires a degree of readerly patience ... There’s no doubt that this is the work of the same author as those earlier collections, though. First, there’s the quality of the noticing eye, the poet’s ability to look deeply at a landscape, a person, a situation, and then to summon it on the page with what Robert Lowell called \'the grace of accuracy\'. Then there’s Jamie’s particular talent for nature writing, the way that she weaves eagles, ragwort, snow buntings, caribou and all the rest of the natural world into her prose so that they lose the otherness that can distance them from our experience. Nature in Jamie’s writing is immediate, domestic and, well, natural ... accretive and, eventually, astonishing ... wonderful writing, testing the limits of nonfiction.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Harris’s bleak imagined world issues a clarion call to the present, urging us to recognise the value of progress, the importance of woolly concepts like liberalism and the rule of law, and all the other ideals we’ve spent generations fighting for yet seem prepared to sacrifice on the altar of populism. For make no mistake, this novel may be set in a Wessex that’s at once futuristic and quasi-medieval, but it’s very much about the here and now, about Trump and Brexit and the Govian rejection of experts.... Harris is a master of plotting and, in elegant, understated third-person prose, he ratchets the tension ever upwards ... As Harris’s plot moves towards its pleasingly bombastic ending, Fairfax’s faith is put to the test. The swiftness with which the priest overthrows his worldview feels slightly hurried, but then this is nothing if not a page-turner.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... there is something deeper, more sincere and radical at play here. This is a state-of-the-nation novel ... Lerner makes a powerful link between the violence of young white men and the state of politics ... this is a great novel, one summoned by the desperate times in which it was written ... Lerner has indeed grown up and he has created a work of extraordinary intelligence and subtlety, of lasting importance. The Topeka School is the sound of \'a public learning slowly how to speak again, in the middle of the spread\'.
Jonathan Safran Foer
RaveThe Observer (UK)... this is a life-changing book and will alter your relationship to food for ever. I can’t imagine anyone reading Safran Foer’s lucid, heartfelt, deeply compassionate prose and then reaching blithely for a cheeseburger.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)The fact that Ducks, Newburyport is 1,020 pages long, the fact that 95% of the novel is made up of just eight near-endless sentences, without paragraph breaks, some of them spooling over more than 100 pages, the fact that most of the novel is a list of statements, separated by commas, that begin with the phrase \'the fact that\', the fact that you soon don’t notice the repetition of \'the fact that\' the fact that these statements are also punctuated by the seemingly random emanations of the narrator’s mind...in Ducks, Newburyport, [Ellman] is making a case for a certain type of modernist novel, for difficulty, for pushing the stream-of-consciousness narrative to its limits, the fact that I read her years ago and had forgotten about her acidic, funny novels with their lists and their glowering, the fact that this feels like all of those novels rolled into one, with the story taken out, the fact that you eventually realise the story is there, but you’ve got to work for it ... the fact that I still worry that no book is good enough to be this long, the fact that 98% of those who pick it up will think it unspeakable guff, the fact that the 2% who get it will really get it. Well, that was exhausting, but I wasn’t sure how else to give the sense of quite what a strange and complex experience reading Ellmann’s eighth novel is ... There were a few dark moments while working my way through Ducks, Newburyport, where death seemed positively appealing as I was faced with another page of dense type, another list, another \'the fact that\'; but this is a novel that rewards perseverance, is truly unique, and feels like an absence in your life when you finish it.
RaveThe ObserverThese isolated, precarious refuges, at once exposed and welcoming, allow Richards to interrogate ideas of home and escape, of safety and adventure, all in a narrative whose principal pleasure is the time the reader gets to spend in the author’s amiable, erudite, Tiggerish company ... Richards’s prose is by turns beautiful, funny, evocative and learned, the pages illuminated by lovely, warming footnotes ... While Richards writes winningly of his doomed attempts to elevate himself in his isolated redoubts, the real pleasure of this book lies in its diversions, its divagations, its asides ... his voice is...vivid, self-deprecating, literary and very, very funny.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Jonathan Coe, in his expansive and often very funny Middle England, is the first author to address our current crisis of national identity using the form that feels most suited to the task. This is a state-of-the-nation novel that moves gallopingly from the election of the coalition government in 2010, through the riots of 2011 ...ending in 2018 ...this end point feels somewhat arbitrary, and the novel’s conclusion slightly cobbled together as a result, but there’s no questioning the impact of Coe’s sweeping and multilayered portrait of a country bent on self-immolation ... This is not a novel that comes down hard on one side or other of the Brexit debate ... While we want everything we read at the moment to speak with the voice of our own particular echo chamber, Coe – a writer of uncommon decency – reminds us that the way out of this mess is through moderation, through compromise, through that age-old English ability to laugh at ourselves.
RaveThe ObserverThe historical detail is immaculate, the landscape exquisitely drawn; the prose is hard, muscular, more convincingly Cormac McCarthy than McCarthy himself. If the western is the tale that America tells about itself, then this is an attempt to write a new chapter in that story ... The spark of the best historical fiction comes when the imagined world collides with the real; here, Obreht trawls up the fascinating history of the US camel corps, a short-lived attempt by the military to employ camels in the arid reaches of the south-west ... Obreht’s novel...explores the brutality and darkness that lurk beneath the veneer of the American dream ... a rebuke to isolationist US policies written with a panache and heart that you could imagine even that bibliophobe Donald Trump enjoying.
RaveThe Guardian...[a] masterly and mesmerising exploration of the world below us... We exit, utterly, beautifully changed ... Underland is rich with echoes of [earlier] works. It’s as if, deep within the ancient rock, Macfarlane is gaining perspective not only on time and nature, but also on his own literary career ... At one point, a taciturn potholer in the Carso, Sergio, offers up a halting explanation of why he seeks to map the underland: \'Here in the abyss we make… romantic science.\' It’s a fitting description of this extraordinary book, at once learned and readable, thrilling and beautifully written.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Smith is increasingly recognising the narrative possibilities of this new type of storytelling, finding deeper and more compelling ways of getting under the skin of her times ... While reading Spring, I became suddenly aware of the extraordinary meta-novel – the year – that the quartet will form once it’s complete, and how thrilling and important that book will be ... Now that we are past the halfway mark it’s possible to perceive the shape of the whole, to recognise quite how dazzling the interplay of ideas and images between the four books will be ... There’s so much more to say about this luminous, generous, hope-filled novel ... all of this rich material feels amplified by the echoes and resonances that thrum between Spring and its predecessors ... She’s lighting us a path out of the nightmarish now.
RaveThe Observer\"Like the best counterfactual novels – and this one is up there with Robert Harris’s Fatherland and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America – Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me is as much about the continuities it maintains as the skews it puts on history ... There’s not been a bad Ian McEwan novel since the Booker-winning Amsterdam, but this is right up there with his very best. Machines Like Me manages to combine the dark acidity of McEwan’s great early stories with the crowd-pleasing readability of his more recent work. A novel this smart oughtn’t to be such fun, but it is.\
PositiveThe GuardianMoskovich’s mother tongue is Ukrainian, and while her English is faultless, there’s a pleasing otherness about her syntax and word choice, a sense that there are different languages operating just beneath the surface of the text. It makes for a reading experience that is always strikingly original, if occasionally baffling ... The novel’s ending brings together all of the narrative strands in a denouement that Moskovich handles brutally and brilliantly. Virtuoso is a fine, fraught, strange novel that builds impressively on the model Moskovich established with The Natashas.
PositiveFinancial Times\"... a slimmer, simpler, funnier novel that feels more in keeping with [Englander\'s] short fiction: this is a rollicking, generous-hearted tale of faith, identity and family ... Kaddish.com is at once a romp and a deeply moral book, a novel in which the characters of Larry and Shuli march side-by-side, reflecting on each other, illustrating both the many hypocrisies of organised religion and the deep human need for belief. It’s certainly Englander’s best novel so far, one in which he finally succeeds in harnessing the profound lightheartedness of his stories to the longer form.\
MixedThe Observer\"Reading Barry Lopez is a religious experience, and that’s not meant entirely as a compliment ... Lopez is a scientist, a geologist, an archaeologist, a photographer; he’s a polymath whose interest ranges widely but always returns to the landscape. It’s striking, though, that it’s the final chapter, about Antarctica, that is the most memorable and compelling. There’s a sense of relief when Lopez steps away from it all, into the blinding whiteness of the ice ... \'One can never,\' [Lopez] writes, \'even by paying the strictest attention at multiple levels, entirely comprehend a single place, no matter how many times one might travel there. This is not only because the place itself is constantly changing but because the deep nature of every place is not transparency. It’s obscurity.\' The same might be said of the author of this strangely tight-lipped memoir.\
PositiveThe Guardian\"With its sweeping vision of a complex, interconnected world always in motion, it feels like Turbulence is attempting to do on a global scale what Szalay’s last book, All That Man Is, did for Europe: present us with a series of lives that feel at once profoundly particular and yet also emblematic, a portrait of our species at a time of crisis ... What Turbulence shares with its predecessor is Szalay’s characteristically effortless prose, his ability to distil lives into vignettes, the sense of an author whose curiosity about his fellow humans is boundless ... Szalay is our greatest chronicler of these rootless, tradeworn places, and the desperate, itinerant lives of those who inhabit them.\
Roberto Bolano, Trans. by Natasha Wimmer
PanThe Observer\"It’s easy to see why this novel was never published in Bolaño’s lifetime. It’s a rambling, dispiriting mess, symptomatic of the way publishers have dredged up substandard work from this great writer’s past in the hope that it might catch some of the reflected glory of his two great novels. Let us hope The Spirit of Science Fiction is the last of these tawdry outtakes that can only serve to diminish the legacy of one of the most remarkable literary voices of the past 50 years.\
RaveFinancial Times\"... exquisite ... Ghost Wall, [Moss\'] sixth in nine years, is her best novel yet, a slim book that can be read in an hour or two, but which leaves deep and lingering traces. At a time in which we are thinking more closely than ever about questions of nationalism and tradition, about walls and what they signify, this is an important novel that wears its timeliness lightly.\
George Saunders, Illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal
PositiveThe GuardianA story that can and will be read by children – but it’s also a book of deep, complex truths ... The language takes a bit of work initially. Fox’s malapropisms are often very funny, though, and you soon get used to the linguistic tics by which he represents the contemporary American idiom ... Above all else, it’s a story packed with the kind of moral didacticism that we expect to get from a certain type of children’s story – all about respecting others and the importance of basic decency.
PositiveThe Observer\"I kept thinking of Mohsin Hamid’s hauntingly fabular Exit West as I was reading The Little Snake ... Kennedy’s slim, suggestive fable is about the need for kindness to strangers; it’s about greed and politics; it’s about migration. It’s about the lessons we learn from the books we read as kids. What The Little Snake is about more than anything, though, is the acceptance of death as an ineluctable part of life. It’s not a new message, but Kennedy conveys it here in a manner that is subtle and hugely moving. If you know a child – or an adult – who has lost someone, give them this book.\
RaveThe GuardianThe facility with which Perry moves between these worlds and registers recalls Thomas Pynchon or George Saunders – the sense of a writer so completely in control of her craft that she is able to inhabit any number of different guises, each of them perfectly convincing ... There’s a sense that this is a book that seeks at once to provide a blueprint for how to negotiate the legacy of the atrocities of the 20th century and a model for resistance to contemporary violence ... The hopeful note struck by this episode of defiance in the face of power is mirrored in the book’s luminous, visionary ending ... Perry’s masterly piece of postmodern gothic is one of the great literary achievements of our young century and deserves all the prizes and praise that will be heaped upon it.
PositiveThe ObserverTorres\'s prose style is unctuous, dense with metaphor and surprising imagery ... At the start, there is little plot, and no clear attempt to situate the reader in time or space. This is how our memories of childhood operate ... It is here that the novel works best, as the chapters oscillate between violence and affection, pathos and humour, enriched by Torres\'s fresh and ornate prose.
PositiveThe GuardianIt brought home to me how few recent gardening books come anywhere close to its style, intelligence and depth ... This is a book that gives words to something that those of us who garden know by instinct—how being in the garden raises the spirits, modulates the seasons ... Lively is such a consistently genial presence in the book, her references friendly reminders of writers one loves...of new names such as Eleanor Perenyi, and of authors one knows ... Throughout the book we are drip-fed scenes from Lively’s life, so it becomes like an autobiography smuggled into a garden book ... This isn’t quite a perfect book ... Lively has a tic of too-regular authorial interjections to remind the reader of what’s to come ... outbursts come too often and begin to clunk ... And yet ... Our long history of gardening deserves a book as beautiful as Life in the Garden.
RaveThe GuardianIf we think about memory this way—as a medium of visual metaphors—then we begin to understand the extraordinary intensity of Ondaatje’s writing style: he is a memory artist. The unique reality effect that he achieves in his best work is the product of his ability to summon images with an acuity that makes the reader experience them with the force of something familiar, intimate and truthful. Warlight is a novel that comes back to you as a series of sharply perceived images ... Warlight’s brilliance comes from telling a familiar story—the female spy has become an established literary trope, from William Boyd to Simon Mawer—in a way that gives us all the pleasures of the genre without ever feeling hackneyed or predictable. It’s as if WG Sebald wrote a Bond novel.
PositiveThe GuardianWhen asked what he thought of his son’s books, Kingsley Amis said: \'Martin needs to write more sentences like \'He put down his drink, got up and left the room.\'\' Amis père would approve of many of the sentences in Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Only Story, which steps through familiar Barnesian territory, giving us the English suburbs, an aged protagonist looking back over an unfulfilled life, all told in deceptively affectless prose ... Here, viewed from what Barnes calls \'the other end of life\', there’s only the dull, intransitive rage of a terminally disappointed man ... The narrative is full of little rebarbative asides aimed at the process of storytelling ... The ending is quietly breathtaking, evidence of the subterranean magic that’s wrought by those seemingly austere sentences.
RaveThe Observer\"As with her previous novel, the great skill here is the way Miller gives voice to a previously muted perspective in the classics, forging a great romance from the scraps left to us by the ancients. If The Song of Achilles recovered a half-buried homosexual love story from the Iliad, Circe gives us a feminist slant on the Odyssey ... Miller has made a collage out of a variety of source materials–from Ovid to Homer to another lost epic, the Telegony–but the guiding instinct here is to re-present the classics from the perspective of the women involved in them, and to do so in a way that makes these age-old texts thrum with contemporary relevance. If you read this book expecting a masterpiece to rival the originals, you’ll be disappointed; Circe is, instead, a romp, an airy delight, a novel to be gobbled greedily in a single sitting.\
RaveThe GuardianAs one would expect of Hollinghurst, the greatest prose stylist writing in English today, this is a book full of glorious sentences, perhaps his most beautiful novel yet ... This is an unashamedly readable novel, one that goes out of its way to please; indeed it feels occasionally like Hollinghurst is trying to house all the successful elements of his previous books under the roof of one novel. It’s funnier, more warm-hearted, less waspish than any of his books so far, but still undoubtedly the work of a master.
RaveThe Observer\"The real joy of the novel is in its portrait of London and its inhabitants. Forna’s voice is relentlessly compelling, her ability to summon atmosphere extraordinary, her sympathetic portrayal of traffic wardens, street performers, security guards, hotel doormen a thing of lasting beauty ... Happiness asks us to think about the interconnectedness of lives both human and animal, about what we choose to see and ignore as we move through the city, about the power of small acts of decency. In Attila and Jean, Forna has created two memorable characters; in her portrayal of London, she has achieved something more remarkable – a vision of the city so vivid and multilayered that it becomes the novel’s central figure.\
MixedThe GuardianThe first thing to say about Speak No Evil...is that it is both less daring and more familiar than Beasts of No Nation ... Speak No Evil, for all the time that has passed, feels more tentative, less polished, more, in short, like a first novel ... Some of the passages in which Niru struggles to come to terms with his attraction to men are well handled, but they feel like they’ve been extended beyond their natural life until repetitions creep in. The reader develops an increasingly desperate wish for Niru to act upon his inclinations rather than simply turning them over in his mind. When the plot does suddenly spring to life, the twist, albeit heart?wrenching, feels borrowed from another story altogether.
RaveThe GuardianA Long Way from Home, Peter Carey’s 14th novel, uses the story of a light-skinned Indigenous Australian who has been brought up white to address the country’s brutal history of racism … Carey has found a way to delve deeply into a topic that was previously morally unavailable, so that what starts out feeling like a typical, jauntily whimsical Peter-Carey-by-numbers soon becomes something more complex and powerful … His best novel in years, maybe decades.
RaveThe GuardianA deep and fascinating bond appears to have built between Moorehead and Pincherle, so that it’s almost as if the biography is written through the mother’s eyes. Pincherle was a formidable woman, full of the noble spirit of the Risorgimento. She was also the leading Italian playwright of her age, and this lends the book an unusual literary quality. Moorehead’s narrative laces seamlessly between her own voice and that of Amelia, so that there are numerous observations and passages that hum with life ... Like any good biography, A Bold and Dangerous Family is about far more than its subjects, and it’s hard not to feel regular little shivers of horrified contemporary recognition at the rise of the populist demagogue Mussolini ... Moorehead’s portrait of the Rosselli brothers is at once a political history of pre-second world war Italy, a beautiful literary portrait of two brave young men, and a gripping tale of intrigue, espionage and escape. There have been a number of fine books about the Rossellis...None, though, have been this well structured, this readable, this deeply involved in the material of their lives. I finished it impressed, breathless and enormously moved.
MixedThe GuardianBeautiful Animals springs from one of the most poignant images to come out of this dark chapter – the migrants who wash up on the white-sand beaches of fabled Greek islands ... It feels as if the instinct that propelled Osborne was a generous, expansive one – to show the change inflicted on a pair of pampered, precious young women by the proximity of the Syrian genocide. Unfortunately, the girls aren’t up to the task, their responses obvious and adolescent, the reader’s sympathies left wildly oscillating ... One of the problems with Beautiful Animals is that Osborne is an adjective and adverb junkie, his language over-stuffed and sometimes painfully high-flown ... Such weighty prose strips the plot of its zing, and we’re left with a novel that feels as if it aspired to be something more than it is: a novel that lingers only briefly in the mind, briefer still in the heart.
Herman Koch, Translated by Sam Garrett
PositiveThe GuardianThe Dinner won't win plaudits from those looking for saintly protagonists, either. It is the story of two brothers, Paul and Serge, and their wives, Claire and Babette, who meet for dinner in a swanky restaurant in Amsterdam ...about the nature of evil, and the extent to which we can blame parents for the misdeeds of their children ... The dinner itself is described in tiresome detail, its various courses presented by a sinister maître d' with an ominously hovering pinkie finger and then analysed at length in Paul's narrative ... The Dinner lacks the weight and finesse of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it is a well-paced and entertaining novel.
RaveThe Financial TimesModern Gods is Laird’s third novel and his best by some distance...Laird seems to have found a way of marrying his poet’s sensitivity to the importance of the well-chosen word with a more rigorous, driving narrative voice ... The novel is an innately comic form and Modern Gods is a very funny novel. I was reminded often of another great comic chronicler of the contemporary family, Anne Enright. Like Enright in The Green Road and The Gathering, Laird’s book does what great novels do, using its humour to illuminate the deepest reaches of the human experience. With Modern Gods, Laird marks himself out as a first-rate novelist, applying his virtuoso linguistic skills and acute ear for dialogue to a subject — religion — that is rarely well-handled in fiction.
RaveThe Financial TimesWhile Cora is a compelling enough character, it is in the supporting cast that the novel really finds its life ... Perry takes apart our preconceptions of prim Victorian mores with gusto. The Essex Serpent is a historical novel with an entirely modern consciousness, and is every bit as gripping and unusual as its predecessor.
RaveThe Financial Times\"Autumn is a novel of ideas, and plot isn’t the reason we keep turning the pages. What grips the reader is the way that Smith draws us deeper into Elisabeth’s world ... the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel is partly a beacon held up against the darkness that falls in the wake of the vote. Smith is brilliant on what the referendum has done to Britain, the fissures that have appeared ... I can think of few writers — Virginia Woolf is one, James Salter another — so able to propel a narrative through voice alone. Smith’s use of free indirect discourse, the close-third-person style that puts the reader at once within and without her characters, means that Autumn, for all its braininess, is never difficult. Smith feels like a genial guide leading us through a torrent of ideas — about art, history, literature, feminism, memory. This is a novel that works by accretion, appearing light and playful, surface-dwelling, while all the time enacting profound changes on the reader’s heart. In a country apparently divided against itself, a writer such as Smith, who makes you feel known, who seems to speak to your own private weirdnesses, is more valuable than a whole parliament of politicians.\
RaveThe Financial TimesLincoln in the Bardo is part-historical novel, part-carnivalesque phantasmagoria. It may well be the most strange and brilliant book you’ll read this year ... Saunders presents Willie’s death as a turning point for Lincoln — will he be able to move on from his grief, to draw on it as a source of strength in the battle ahead, or will it crush him, the acuity of his own loss meaning that he sees Willie in every dead soldier? ... At a time when his office is held by a monstrous buffoon, there’s enormous power in this image of the noble, broken, moral president, who wrests such a brave message from his son’s life and death: 'Love, love, I know what you are' ... This is a novel that’s so intimate and human, so profound, that it seems like an act of grace.
RaveThe GuardianThe novel is structured haphazardly as far as chronology goes, leaping from the grandfather’s wartime exploits to his marriage to a period in jail. These jumps in time could be discombobulating, but we recognise a deeper logic at work in their construction – memory, hunting in the dark for truths and affinities within the seeming randomness of a life ... The grandfather’s war is beautifully rendered. Just as Kavalier & Clay was both about the writing of superhero comics and a kind of superhero comic itself (albeit in prose form), here we have a rollicking story within a story full of doodlebugs and desperate raids that never descends into pastiche ... Moonglow is a book that seeks to challenge the primacy of facts, the reality fetishism that sees every film plastered with 'based on a true story' ... This is a novel that, despite its chronological lurches, feels entirely sure footed, propulsive, the work of a master at his very best. The brilliance of Moonglow stands as a strident defence of the form itself, a bravura demonstration of the endless mutability and versatility of the novel.
Jonathan Safran Foer
MixedThe Guardian...[a] hefty, often engaging, but ultimately flawed novel ... Safran Foer is brilliant on the quotidian tortures of marital discord, on the way that walls can suddenly spring up between people who’d thought they shared everything ... something is sacrificed in allowing Jacob’s dilemma to remain unresolved for so long. What might have been a brave and bravura ending is allowed to fizzle out.
RaveThe Financial TimesIt’s to Lee’s great credit that we perceive the political world through the personal travails of her three characters: there is nothing heavy-handed or didactic here, just a group of ordinary teenagers living in extraordinary times ... This is a novel of great sincerity and moral courage, a book that can stand as a resonant response to the challenge that fiction has no place in the white heat of political turmoil.
RaveThe Guardian...[a brutal, vital, devastating novel ... This is a book that wears its research lightly, but the subtly antique prose and detailed description combine to create a world that is entirely convincing ... Everything in Whitehead’s narrative is honed to scintillating sharpness ... I haven’t been as simultaneously moved and entertained by a book for many years. This is a luminous, furious, wildly inventive tale that not only shines a bright light on one of the darkest periods of history, but also opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself.
PositiveThe GuardianEggers paints a fine and sympathetic portrait of a life that is never quite unbearable, but never all that far off ... America has lost its bravery, Eggers tells us, and it can be found in nature, in open spaces, in shucking off the trappings of mall life and the media and consumerism. It’s hardly a novel message, but Eggers renders it with such passion and good humour, and describes the 'land of mountains and light' in such stirring, lustrous prose, that we can’t help but feel its truth anew ... This is a novel that won’t please everyone: Josie’s story is meandering, restrained and lacking in thrills (although these for me are just part of its peppy charm). Heroes of the Frontier acts on the reader like a breath of Alaskan air, cleansing the spirit and lifting the heart.
PositiveThe Financial TimesThe early sections of the book nail down precisely the ennui and competitiveness of teenagers, the fragility of those half-formed egos ... The Girls is compulsively readable, particularly when Evie discovers 'the ranch,' a commune on the outskirts of town where a gaggle of hippyish girls gather around the charismatic Russell Hadrick ... While the subject matter is familiar, it’s the prose that makes The Girls such a strikingly accomplished debut. Evie’s voice shimmers with vivid metaphorical language ... While some of the prose’s rhythm feels a little creative-writing-class, with lots of jagged, five-word sentences, there are some truly breathtaking passages — lush and lapidary and full of startling imagery.
MixedThe GuardianNovels are inward-looking, shifty things, and can’t be all dazzle. There are many passages in The Bricks That Built the Houses where Tempest’s extraordinary talents are able to shine through. Elsewhere, and particularly in the long and multi-generational origin stories that we are given for each of the characters, the prose flounders, and I found myself willing the sentences off the page and on to a stage, with Tempest’s unique delivery and the rigorous thump of a backbeat marshalling new life into the words.
Garth Risk Hallberg
MixedThe Guardian“It is a very long, pretty good American novel, but comes to us in a year when there have been a number of long, but distinctly more brilliant and different books.”