Alexis Burling is a writer and editor specializing in reviewing both adult and children's books, and writing educational standards-based books and articles for kids and teens. Her work has been published in TheNew YorkTimes Book Review, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian,Publishers Weekly, and other publications. She can be found on Twitter @AlexisPBurling
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"From deportation fears and the complications of teenage motherhood to the search for belonging and the healing power of kindness, The Consequences covers the full breadth of human experience and gives voice to a segment of the population too often stereotyped, taken advantage of or made invisible by our larger society. Simply put, Muñoz’s stories are as observant as they are revealing — full of nuanced subtext and bracingly honest depictions of vulnerability and hope, love and regret, and everything in between. They deserve all the attention they can get.\
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle... Aside from deserving an award for having the best title ever, Fatty Fatty Boom Boom thankfully doesn’t fall into the woe-is-me trap of some weight-issue memoirs. Equally a relief, there isn’t a whiff of you-go-girl!-style evangelizing anywhere in its pages. In its place, Chaudry’s engrossing look back at her life and the decisions she’s made thus far is full of honest introspection about what it feels like to be heavy, frank reporting about the difficulties associated with losing weight, and — perhaps unexpectedly — glorious celebrations of food and mouthwatering descriptions of everything from \'creamy, buttery saag\' to naan pakoray (the Urdu plural of pakora) that are bound to make your tummy rumble ... For more than 350 pages, Chaudry’s memoir aims to tell it like it is without much cushioning ... lovingly spiced with equal parts humor and insight, perhaps to humanize the struggle. Of particular interest are the rich passages describing her Pakistani heritage and opinionated relatives, as well as her commentary on the social media response after she lost some of the weight .. First and foremost, Fatty Fatty is an engrossing read that attempts to reckon with two disparate cultures’ shame surrounding body image and obsession with looking thin. But don’t miss the tantalizing recipes for Lahori fried fish, chicken salaam and others at the end. Like everything else in this book, they’ll keep you coming back for seconds.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleNostalgic ... It covers well-traveled arty-girl-meets-arty-boy territory, yet is so heartbreakingly honest at times, with an \'us against the world\' feel and punk rock spirit, that it’s easy to jump on board ... What Wilson so eloquently captures is that unique time in one’s life when one small gesture of artistic self-expression — a madcap sentence about living on the fringes and embracing your eccentricities, come what may — really does have the power to change the world, or at least your perception of it.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleExtraordinary ... With plenty of wisdom and strategically placed infusions of heart, it offers a bird’s-eye view into the day-to-day of a group of people often misrepresented or misunderstood ... Kingsolver is actually at her best when balancing...fury with allowing Demon’s fierce devotion to his home and the people in it to shine through ... On a micro level, Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead is chock-full of cinematic twists and turns that might not be for the faint of heart but are also not that surprising given the book’s subject matter.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleShowstopper ... Explored with compassion, clear-eyed perception and been-around-the-block delivery. And when placed within the context of racial segregation and prejudice in midcentury America, the results are soul-shaking ... Expertly paced ... Sexton makes the smart choice to tell the story from multiple perspectives, each with its own history-proven lesson to impart ... On the Rooftop is a powerhouse novel that reflects both how high we can fly and how quickly we can be knocked down.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle... a no-holds-barred collection of 13 dirty, doughty and often wickedly funny stories that cover everything from common misconceptions about aging (no, grandmothers aren’t only there to serve their grandchildren, and, yes, their thinking processes can be just as deep and nuanced as they were at a youthful 30) to erotic desire (or the long-overdue liberation from sexual obligation) to retaining agency as \'an oldie.\' The best part? They’re all narrated by mouthy women who are through with being patronized ... Campbell is at her strongest when she combines astute observations about getting older with intimate portraits of humans in need ... isn’t flawless. The choppy sentences and wonky punctuation in sections could use addressing. The shocking endings to some stories don’t always match the well-paced development in the rest of the narrative ... Still, Jane Campbell’s commanding voice — and wise insights about female empowerment, about embracing one’s twilight years and about feeling seen no matter how old you are — is one damn well worth listening to.
Belinda Huijuan Tang
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle... far-reaching and impactful ... Flipping back and forth in time from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, it demonstrates just how deeply circumstances beyond one’s control can shape a person’s or family’s existence and make — or break — their resolve to move forward. For the most part, Tang pulls it off ... the all-too-brief scenes detailing Yitian and Hanwen’s loaded reunion, while entertaining and necessary for illustrating how different the childhood friends’ lives turned out, don’t do much except keep the plot chugging merrily along...Instead, it’s Tang’s vibrant, stirring descriptions of Communist China during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath that grip, transport and beguile ... The sections involving Yitian’s complicated family life, particularly the tender and well-paced story of Yitian’s happy-go-lucky older brother Yishou’s scheme to sign Yitian up for the gaokao against their father’s wishes — and the tragedy that befalls Yishou as a result — are to be savored ... has its minor hiccups. Tang ties up every storyline so thoroughly toward the end, for example, that very little is left to the imagination. While some readers might find this approach appealing, it made me wonder how the book might’ve landed if just a few things on said map could’ve remained missing ... Despite these nitpicks, Tang’s prose is polished and consistently engaging for a first-timer, and the dominant narrative — one loosely based on a story at the center of her own family’s past — is wholehearted and sensitively drawn. I can’t wait to see what she writes next.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle... a knockout short story collection ... fires on all cylinders. Hopscotching from San Francisco to China, each one of these 10 dizzyingly immersive stories offers up a heady and visceral portrait of what ails us, from isolation and self-doubt, to unrequited love and regret over what might have been, to what it means to be (and to be considered) an American ... What’s most impressive about Jin’s collection is the way she confidently moves from timeless theme to complex idea — even within stories — without missing a beat ... isn’t an uplifting read by any means, yet it is both bittersweet and beautiful. Jin’s stories are at once pungent and claustrophobic yet rife with clear-eyed observations about humanity’s flaws and failings, our insatiable need, our capacity to inflict pain and bestow joy upon others.
Chelsea T Hicks
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleIn these 12 stories set mostly in California or Oklahoma, Hicks examines the Indigenous diaspora, highlighting not only the roots of her people’s alienation from their tribal homelands, but also the impact that separation continues to have on their daily lives...Sprinkled throughout the collection are words and phrases written in Wazhazhe ie, the Osage language...A Calm & Normal Heart isn’t perfect...Some of the stories end abruptly and seem unfinished...Others are a bit scattered plot-wise and might need a few takes before sticking...Still, Hicks represents a powerful new voice in Indigenous literature — one that hopefully has much more to share with anyone who will listen.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleLast Confessions is framed as a literary whodunnit of sorts ... While that premise certainly drives the narrative and comes to a satisfying conclusion after a slow-to-build start, it isn’t what creates the pulse of the novel. Where Kravetz really stirs up the magic is in his depictions of the interplay between madness and art; Plath’s gnawing loneliness and insecurity; and Rhodes’ ever-present quest for attention and recognition ... Literary history-savvy readers might also enjoy the myriad based-on-truth Easter eggs hidden throughout ... Is all of Last Confessions true? Of course not. It’s fiction, after all. But Kravetz makes good use of history’s rich material to spin a captivating story about some of the art world’s most notorious writers and thinkers.
ed. by Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
MixedSan Francisco ChronicleThe offerings aren’t exclusively erotic or \'bold\' as the book’s jacket copy suggests — some far from it ... Anonymous Sex often reads more like a stylized workshop exercise for award-winning writers than a tried-and-true compendium of deviously dirty lust and smut ... Still, some pieces showcase an intoxicating combination of tension and release, not to mention artistry ... Is there cringeworthy writing? Absolutely.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleThe title and subtitle of her newest memoir-cum- wry social commentary say it all ...A frank look at just how tiresome and lackluster (but ultimately rewarding!) marriage can be ...What works: Havrilesky’s neurotic, self-deprecating sense of humor is always on display and adds a comedic twist on universal themes, such as straying and what to do about your spouse’s excessively loud bodily functions. What doesn’t: At times, this same wit can seem acerbic, or worse, whiny. Her extended rant about suburbanites seems a smidge harsh, not to mention dated, for my taste ...Nonetheless, Havrilesky’s metaphors are reason alone to pick up the book.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleUnfortunately, with every relationship comes heartache, and there’s no one better to dissect the medical, physical and emotional repercussions of a broken heart than science journalist Florence Williams ... To those who have read Williams’ The Nature Fix, it should come as no surprise that the end result is a masterful blend of investigative reporting and personal narrative, chock-full of fascinating insights, gorgeous nature writing and an ample helping of compassion.
Charlie Jane Anders
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle... a panoply of virtuosic world-building, inventive approaches to unpacking relationship quandaries and full-on hilarious scene crafting. Also, be on the lookout for some artfully disguised (but decidedly pointed) political commentary thrown in for good measure.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleFor the most part, it’s a welcome return to form (if you liked 2016’s somewhat claustrophobic My Name Is Lucy Barton and are able to gloss over Strout’s habit of rehashing some of the old plotlines in this one, that is) ... On the enjoyable end of the spectrum, the scenes in which the two bicker resemble — if I might reference another beloved couple from Strout’s repertoire — Olive and Henry Kitteridge-style banter ... a master class on the perils of aging ... In all eight of her books, Strout excels at excavating the most vulnerable aspects of the human condition, no matter how disorienting or painful, and she continues to do so here. Because of its brutal honesty, Oh William! lands like a \'dull disc of dread in [the] chest\' at times. But it also serves as a gentle reminder to be emotionally generous with our loved ones and as physically present as possible each and every day of our lives.
PositiveThe Washington PostWhile some readers might be drawn in by the novel’s potential for blush-worthy bedroom scenes, the few that exist happen off page. Instead, what’s intriguing about Fault Lines is its shrewd commentary on Japan’s societal expectations of women as either sex objects or dutiful mothers.
RaveWashington PostWhat it lacks in length — a slim 112 pages — it makes up for in strength. A scathing takedown of the British class system and the country’s views on race, immigration and gender politics, Assembly packs a wallop ... Though impactful, the skeleton story line of Assembly isn’t what makes the book so unshakable. It’s the way Brown expertly captures the narrator’s mental state through an internal dialogue that’s alternately plagued and disgusted by how others perceive her ... Assembly is a searing account of a woman trying to \'be invisible, imperceptible,\' even in the face of what most would consider triumph. In truth, her thoughts — and actions — do just the opposite. They signify a rousing, inspired voice demanding to be recognized and heard.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleIs it worthy of all the prepublication buzz? With a few major caveats, you bet ... The plot, though delightfully dirty at times and compulsively readable, is nothing to write home about — mostly because it covers much of the same ground as Rooney’s previous two books ... though it admittedly feels wickedly satisfying to be caught once again in Rooney’s web of friendship-courtship entanglements, the pining glances, wounded squabbles and even the raunchy, sexy scenes aren’t the reasons to read Beautiful World, no matter how enticing — or rote — they are. Instead, it’s what Rooney does with the other chapters — probing letters between Alice and Eileen — that feels so experimental and exciting ... I don’t agree with everything Rooney has to say in Beautiful World — I’m sure harsher, headier critics will have a field day with some of it, too. Still, I found some of Alice and Eileen’s astute/scathing/snarky opinions about the state of things to be quite refreshing and accurate without being overly derogatory or nasty — and to that I say, \'Hallelujah.\'
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle... astonishingly polished and immensely affecting ... Davidson spent the first years of her childhood in Klamath. The seeds of her family’s connection to the community — and the 10 years she spent researching the book — are evident on every page. Based on interviews she conducted and the threads of real-life controversies in southern Oregon and Klamath (the Alsea studies, the first long-term research project that analyzed the effects of logging and forestry practices on salmon watershed populations in the Pacific Northwest, for example), the book is chock-full of pressing issues that still plague our rural areas today with nary a preacher pulpit or finger wag in sight ... What makes Damnation Spring such a knockout — and so devastating to stomach — is Davidson’s mature grasp of the precarity of life and the complexities of the human condition. It’s the Gundersons’ fierce love for each other and unwavering resilience despite multiple betrayals and near unshakeable losses that transform the book from a treatise on the dangers of an unfettered industrial complex and the impacts of climate change into a prescient and deeply felt novel about (mostly) good people just doing their best to survive.
MixedSan Francisco Chronicle... takes on marriage and motherhood — and shatters our safe, tidy concepts of each ... Like all of Spiotta’s work, Wayward examines questions of identity and transformation with a razor-sharp edge. But with born-again Sam, the approach takes on a desperate, almost manic tone without any of the moral payoff ... also peddles heavily in hot-button issues to move the plot along ... Overall, Wayward stands tall in its representation of these harried times. A woman perpetually on the verge of a breakthrough — or breakdown — even after she’s claimed her freedom. Complicated personal and societal goals. Even more complicated solutions. Whether you sign up to go along for the ride might depend on whether you’re still interested in the conversation.
Haruki Murakami, Trans. by Philip Gabriel
MixedSan Francisco ChronicleMurakami enthusiasts won’t find any major changeups here. Like his (mostly) beloved novels, the collection is rife with magical realism, pithy aha moments, and wondrous fissures in the time-space continuum ... There’s one potential clunker. Murakami has often been criticized for his one-dimensional depictions of women (to put it mildly). \'Carnaval,\' a story about a man who bonds with a woman over their mutual love of composer Robert Schumann, is especially off-putting for this reason. Here’s the telling first line: \'Of all the women I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest.\'
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle... though Edie Richter Is Not Alone documents the trauma of illness and the ravaging effects it has on Edie’s family with such honesty and accuracy that it made my ribs ache, it’s more a book about what happens next ... When witnessing a character’s steady and stubborn descent into full breakdown mode, it can be tempting for readers to judge the quality of a book based on said character’s poor decisions or bad behavior. Too often we throw away a novel because we deem its protagonist to be \'unrelatable,\' or worse, \'unlikable\'...In this case, Edie Richter Is Not Alone blossoms under the weight of Edie’s crisis. Yes, her selfishness is unpalatable at times. (An examination of whether her actions are justifiable could take up a whole other review.) But it’s also what makes her human ... It may seem counterintuitive to pick up a novel about death and grief when so many people are suffering at this moment in history. (More sadness? No thanks!)...What Handler’s book teaches us is that facing tragedy head-on and accepting death as a constant are the only ways to get through it. Plus, reading about or sharing someone else’s pain teaches us empathy ... No, Edie Richter wasn’t alone in her anxiety, her sorrow or attempts to heal, though she felt like it most of the time. Though all of us probably believe the opposite right now in this age of elbow bumps and quarantines, neither are we.
Ed. by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleFor any connoisseur of BDSM—which can include erotic bondage, discipline, submission and other forms of sexual role playing—or person who favors non-traditional sex, such depictions of kink are not only too contrived, milquetoast or emotionally barren, they’re also incredibly shortsighted.That’s where Kink comes in. This provocative, scintillating collection of literary fiction edited by R.O. Kwon (The Incendiaries) and Garth Greenwell (Cleanness) gives kinky sex its due ... As with any anthology, not all of the offerings hit their mark. Some, at least from this reader’s perspective, go long on physical descriptions (Spanking! Strangling! Golden showers!) but focus less on the emotional nuances of the encounter or stop short of investigating more complex questions ... Consequently, they feel shocking for shocking’s sake or overly clinical and bland, depending on your perspective ... Kink presents a real potential shift for intimacy.
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle... this isn’t just a glossy portrait of entitled rich kids gone off the rails. It’s a nuanced look at what happens when one member of a group — in this case, Eulabee — decides to go against the grain and bring truth (and, therefore, lies) to light, despite the consequences ... There are strands of this brisk and drama-heavy narrative that either warrant more development or don’t quite gel ... Still, there’s something naughty, almost gleeful about this nostalgia-soaked portrayal of pre-tech-boom San Francisco that keeps the pages turning. We Run the Tides harks back to a pre-cell-phone, pre-social-media era ... That, coupled with a final chapter involving a chance encounter decades later that adds both perspective and much-needed depth to the story, makes Vida’s foray into the frothy turmoil of postpubescence worth a gander.
Peter Ho Davies
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle...piercing and expansive ... A Lie isn’t only a novel about the shame, sorrow (and, yes, relief) that sometimes accompanies an abortion decision. Davies also tackles what comes next in painstaking detail ... While this synopsis might sound like yet another run-of-the-mill ode-to-parenting story, albeit with an abortion lead-in, it’s quite the opposite. Because the book is told in third person from the bumbling father’s unsentimental and often painfully honest point of view ... Also of note is Davies’ stark and refreshingly realistic portrait of the couple’s marriage ... a deftly written, bittersweet and thought-provoking book.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle... if you thought Lot was good, Washington’s first novel is a ground-busting masterpiece ... From this superficial summary, it’s tempting to think (incorrectly) that Memorial is some kind of slightly headier rom-com. But what takes this novel well beyond just a simplistic story of two lovers who eventually learn how to come together by spending time apart is Washington’s decision to reveal the course of their journey — and the depth of both their problems and love for each other — from each of the characters’ perspectives ... We also find out Benson is HIV-positive. (To Washington’s credit, his nuanced portrayal of Benson’s matter-of-fact attitude toward his status is the most accurate I’ve seen in modern literature) ... With a book so layered and, frankly, one that succeeds on so many fronts, it can be difficult to pinpoint the one overarching magical quality that sets it apart. In Memorial, Washington’s descriptions of food and cooking, particularly Japanese delicacies such as abura-age, konbu maki, kamaboko and spinach udon, and okonomiyaki, are to be slurped and savored ... The myriad screaming matches and sex scenes are compelling too ... As a secondary character, Mitsuko is sharp-witted and no-nonsense — and therefore thrilling company. (Her one-liners are priceless) ... But what truly makes Memorial extraordinary — especially the final section — is Washington’s uncanny ability to capture the elusive essence of love on nearly every page ... if there’s one book you should go out of your way to read in 2020, it should be this one.
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleThe book starts out strong ... But what starts out as a thrilling, focused tale of badass sisters busting up their origin story in order to chart a more empowered course for the future soon devolves into a series of unnecessarily outlandish and often unrelated or left-unfinished events that undermine the novel’s resonance ... Thankfully, in contrast to the piled-on nature of large chunks of the book, some sections in The Great Offshore Grounds do feel authentic. Aside from the opening scenes, the parts involving Essex, his stint in the Marines and his evolving relationship with Cheyenne are both appropriately nuanced and well-developed ... Unfortunately, as with many things in life, this bighearted but meandering book — like its characters — suffers from just too much baggage.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle... to sit down for a few hours with a book in which the author extols the virtues of her family despite its flaws, pays homage to the (yes, very rural) place she’s called home for most of her life, and writes with hard-earned insight and candor about the very pressing issues of California’s water shortage and climate change’s toll on the planet? Now that’s truly something special and refreshing. Kendra Atleework’s powerful debut, Miracle Country, is the rare trifecta that seamlessly blends personal narrative with historical nonfiction and highly charged, activist-style rhetoric with rarely a misstep or heavy hand ... History buffs will delight in reading about California’s early days before the drought, before the lack of jobs and affordable housing, when the land was verdant and the water flowed freely ... Mostly, what stands out in Miracle Country is Atleework’s gorgeous prose matched equally by her deep-rooted sense of and appreciation for the place she has always called home.
PositiveSan Francisco Chronicle... six poignant personal essays ... what comes through is a dark and often obsessive meditation on what it feels like to squirrel yourself away from the world and embrace isolation in the name of pursuing a passion ... Though slight in stature, On Lighthouses is perhaps best read in more than one sitting. Given Barrera’s brooding and all the skipping about from topic to topic, too much in one dose might seem like overload. But for readers lured in by the striking cover and looking for lighthouse trivia, there’s plenty of that to go around.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle... a wholly original, fully engrossing reimagining of Shakespeare’s little-explored home life with barely a flubbed line, misplaced stage prop or tedious soliloquy in sight ... rush out and pick this book up immediately ... Agnes is a character for the ages—enigmatic, fully formed and nearly literally bewitching to behold in every scene she’s in ... Also poignant is the depiction of Agnes and Shakespeare’s passionate yet often strained marriage ... Whether you are a Shakespeare scholar or someone who hated reading Hamlet in high school English class, the appeal of Hamnet is multifold. Not only does it demonstrate O’Farrell’s gift for capturing the human spirit both in the throes of love and under duress, but it also proves yet again that there is still more to be said about the legendary English playwright.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle... fiercely intelligent and consistently edifying ... This idea of duality or \'in-betweenness\' is a fascinating and culturally salient concept — and one that ripples through every piece in the book ... What makes this collection so compulsively readable is Kisner’s ability to wield her contagious curiosity and nose for objective reporting to investigate everything from a once bustling, now mostly abandoned lakeside oasis in Southern California, to Ann Hamilton’s magical and enveloping multimedia installation at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2012, to evangelical robocalls. But she also looks inward. Her efforts to unpack her relationship with her mother, her Mexican American heritage and her queer identity are some of the most earnest and impactful passages in the book ... remarkably polished and demonstrably articulate ... Kisner is one of the most perceptive, open-minded and capable literary tour guides I’ve encountered in quite some time, and I’m already looking forward to her next (ad)venture.
C Pam Zhang
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle... [a] thoroughly engrossing saga ... Deceptively, How Much of These Hills Is Gold starts out slow. In the first section of four, Zhang lays the skeleton groundwork for the rest of the book while still keeping most of the salient details close to the vest ... But any misgivings about this book’s promise immediately evaporate in section two. Here and continuing on throughout the rest of the book, the transformation from run-of-the-mill Great American West adventure tale into a fully immersive epic drama packed with narrative riches and exquisitely crafted prose is so complete that it’s easy to chalk up the first few chapters to protracted scene-setting. Like any intuitive storyteller, Zhang exposes the truth about her characters by setting up well-worn, surface-level stereotypes and poking holes in them one by one ... On a basic level, How Much of These Hills Is Gold succeeds as a riveting account of one family’s struggle to make ends meet in the American West ... But the novel is also a much-needed homage to the untold history of American immigrants, one in which Zhang discards the tired retelling of our white forefathers’ journey to discover and conquer great new lands, in favor of giving a voice to the \'honest folks\' of color who were enslaved, robbed, raped or murdered in the process ... Zhang captures not only the mesmeric beauty and storied history of America’s sacred landscape, but also the harsh sacrifices countless people were forced to make in hopes of laying claim to its bounty.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleYuknavitch leans heavily on her strengths. Once again, the prose and situations are provocative, transgressive and breathtakingly grotesque ... remains diverse and impactful, unlike some collections, where only a few stories shine ... Yuknavitch’s writing is most effective when fueled by lust, power and rage — or, rather, when she’s trying to drive a point home ... Most of these stories are not for the faint of heart. The sex scenes are raw, intense and often viscerally brutal. Though there are some hopeful endings, many of the characters are staring down a barrel of despair. If safe words and cookie-cutter fiction are more your speed, look elsewhere ... For the rest of you, Verge boldly asks some pressing yet unspoken questions ... It also forces us to acknowledge — and even embrace — the unsettling answers.
Crissy Van Meter
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle... [a] moody sucker punch of a debut ... the marooned whale is just one of the evocative, often pungent images, scenes or phrases the author invokes to grab the reader’s attention. While not all of her attempts are equally successful, the book works as a kaleidoscopic narrative full of bewitching nooks and crannies, with a unique structure that is unexpected, messy and inspired all at the same time ... One of the most impressive things about Creatures is Van Meter’s clear command of setting and its impact on the characters ... Though certainly affecting, [in] the sections devoted to her years with Liam...the tone verges on overwrought. A little subtlety here might go a long way ... In contrast, the chapters covering Evie’s childhood and her misadventures with her drug-selling, alcoholic, ne’er-do-well father as they camp in the frigid cold are heartbreaking yet so vividly described that they capture the pulse of the entire book ... With its quirky structure,Creatures might not be for everyone. It’s also relentlessly dark. But for others, Van Meter’s first foray into fiction is as impressive as it is unorthodox — tenacious, wildly original and full of insight.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle... an impressive feat ... the collection is both a fitting tribute to a beloved teacher and writer, and an encapsulation of his enduring legacy ... Readers acquainted with L’Heureux’s oeuvre will recognize familiar themes. He spent many years as a Jesuit priest before leaving the order, and his reflections on faith, forgiveness and how to find genuine meaning amidst the ever-increasing chaos of the modern world are on full display here ... perhaps my favorite stories are the ones that showcase L’Heureux’s sharp-witted take on marital strife and his delightfully twisted sense of humor even when tackling matters of utmost import ... a sentient collection that both embraces the messiness of living and inspires us to reconcile our innermost beliefs with our deepest desires.
MixedSan Francisco Chronicle...the stories and poetry in Beth Piatote’s The Beadworkers are...blatantly political ... Piatote has a lot on her mind when it comes to the negative way Native Americans have historically been (and are still) treated, and it comes through in her writing ... Though not all the offerings in The Beadworkers are...solid...[it\'s] a collection that gives voice to what is so often left unsaid.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleMimi Lok’s Last of Her Name is a smorgasbord of powerful writing and angsty emotion wrapped into eight meditations on what it means to feel slightly out of place, either in your head or in your physical surroundings ... While not all the stories are equally successful...it’s quite clear Lok is on to something about the human condition ... her empathy for her characters—and discerning grasp of their strained or isolated circumstances—comes through on every page. Her stories are insightful, painfully honest and deeply unsettling—a dynamite combination in a new writer on the scene.
Carolina De Robertis
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle... sweeping and utterly breathtaking ... Aside from the consistently engrossing narrative that effortlessly interweaves the story of each woman’s personal successes and setbacks with Uruguay’s complicated struggle to come into its own as a democratic republic, De Robertis’ writing is reason alone to read this book. Like her fierce characters, her words pry and pull at the essence of not only what it feels like to be thwarted, condemned or quarantined because of your beliefs and identity, but also what it means to be a vulnerable yet empowered, infinitely beautiful and fully alive woman. Often, these sentences hit their target so directly and eloquently that they practically sing ...
MixedThe San Francisco Chronicle... [a] balls-to-the-wall YA crossover novel ... If this sounds like yet another version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it is — and it isn’t. While Hassman does spend much of her bandwidth on short, often disconnected chapters detailing the Dickheads’ nefarious escapades, there are also some truly heart-pinching moments, particularly in the last third of the book. One thread involving Helen’s flailing attempts to stomach her father’s burgeoning relationship with Bird’s Bible-toting mother, Iris — and, in turn, work through her attraction to Bird — feels genuine and succeeds as a weightier counterbalance to some of the other frothier aspects of the book ... isn’t for everyone. The story line isn’t always linear, and some of the plot elements warrant more thorough consideration ... Still, Hassman clearly has her finger on the pulse of the teenage psyche — especially that of a fragile but oh-so-lovable disgruntled teenage girl. By the time this gritty novel has concluded, our affection and respect for wily yet vulnerable Helen and the rest of her ragtag crew has gone from zero to full-throttle.
PositiveSan Francisco Chronicle... an inspired, greatest-hits tour of public bathrooms, bathhouses and wooded areas in cities the world over to reveal the scintillating backstory of anonymous gay sex and its evolution ... Whether for the newbie reader or the well-initiated, the slim paperback is a balanced compendium of lesser-known tidbits and often-reported pop culture moments (the Sen. Larry Craig scandal or George Michael’s arrest and rebirth as a gay icon, for example) that demonstrates the author’s enthusiasm and respect for his subject and provides a jumping-off point for further research. While some portions of Cruising feel glossed over...other sections crackle with detail.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleFor readers searching for a fast-paced, meticulously researched, thoroughly engaging (and often infuriating) look-see into the systematic criminalization of gay men and widespread condemnation of homosexuality post-World War I, cultural historian James Polchin’s first book is a smart bet ... In later chapters, Polchin rightly shifts his focus to hint at the seeds of progress in the struggle for gay equality.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleSome sections skew overtly technical, mostly in the chapters that use psychiatrists Erik Erikson and Judith Herman’s theories to expose the long-reaching impact of negative early-life experiences and gay men’s responses to stigma and shame. But as a package, Odets’ trifecta of social commentary, memoir and therapeutic analysis is an astute statement on how to overcome trauma, loss and isolation to live a proud, self-actualized and fulfilling existence as a gay man ... Perhaps the most resonant (and tears-inducing) segments of Out of the Shadows are Odets’ recollections of personal traumas, including the death of his mother when he was a child. The final two chapters in which he describes the long road to coming out and his deep love for his lifelong companion, Matthias, and Matthias’ partner, Hank, are some of the most on-point and beautifully written thoughts on love, acceptance and family I’ve read in some time.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleWhile Winterson’s depiction of the intrepid, female-forward and delightfully dry-witted Mary is certainly worthy of praise, it’s the second narrative, a kind of present-day hall-of-mirrors parallel, that really steals the show ... Aside from the myriad passages in which characters from both stories contemplate life’s Bigger Questions, true to form, Frankissstein is also incredibly funny ... [an] astute, wildly inventive and totally unique book.
MixedSan Francisco Chronicle\"In a text whose sole purpose is navigating loss, this laser-like focus on semantics can be both surprising and mildly aggravating. Instead of revealing the details surrounding Nikolai’s death or giving his mother real estate to openly grieve, Li builds mini fortresses of words as barricades against unwieldy emotions ... By the end, the combination of the book’s emphasis on minutiae and its predisposition toward circular philosophizing had a numbing effect that — at least for me — felt both eerily familiar and deeply unsettling. But to be fair, that’s kind of Li’s point. After all, isn’t that what mourning — and writing or talking about death — is? A maddeningly individualized and mostly inexplicable experience?\
Han Kang, Trans. by Deborah Smith
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle\"The result is mesmerizing ... At times a string of sentences or an image created is so startlingly beautiful that it demands not only a lengthy pause in which to ponder its meaning, but a multitude of readings ... As a package, Kang’s ghostly The White Book is a force to be reckoned with. It demands every bit of your attention. But it also accomplishes something quite unique. It flows through your consciousness like a snowflake, a white butterfly, that handkerchief — settling there, then floating away up into the ether.\
PositiveSan Francisco Chronicle...meandering but markedly funny ... Depending on your appetite for drawing room shenanigans, here’s where the book picks up speed while simultaneously shedding some of its credibility or common sense. Instead of a story about a scorned woman’s renewal, what we’re met with is the riotous tragedy of (ill) manners so promised in the book’s unobtrusive subtitle ... By the time the novel’s grand finale rolls around, we’re not so much surprised by its punch line — especially given the book’s title and opening sentence — as we are slightly bewildered by its lead-up. Maybe that’s kind of the point? ... French Exit might not resonate with everyone in need of a sure or consistent path forward. But there’s one thing that’s certain — and it’s what kept this reviewer hooked.
Masatsugu Ono, Trans. by Angus Turvill
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe details of Takeru’s upsetting past...are shocking, but never overplayed. What’s more, it’s the shifting relationship between Takeru’s shameful memories of what transpired and his gradual adjustment to the kindhearted people and landscapes of his mysterious new surroundings that makes the novel both unsettling and quietly moving ... It’s a mournful, but ultimately uplifting portrait of a boy trying to make sense of his seemingly shattered world in order to create a stronger, more hopeful future.
Glen David Gold
RaveThe San Fransisco Chronicle[I Will Be Complete is] wickedly intelligent and wildly imaginative. [Gold\'s] books are ripe with larger-than-life scenes you can really sink your teeth into and enjoy a good munching. That Gold is a darn gifted yarn spinner! ... If there’s a fault in I Will Be Complete, it’s that Gold obsesses over his inability to feel anything about his mother’s behavior. While that may be true in his mind, what he’s produced is anything but hardhearted or unsympathetic. Instead, Gold’s memoir is once again wickedly intelligent, wildly imaginative (well, in some ways) and everything in between. Happy munching.
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"As is par for the course given the subject matter, many of the scenes alternate between gritty and sparingly matter-of-fact. Most are painted in such graphic detail that it’s easy to forget the book is actually a work of fiction ... The Mars Room is impeccably researched without ever seeming dry or preachy. In a way, the journalistic-fictional hybrid seems closer to a series of well-styled, fact-based vignettes than a traditional prison novel with a simple story arc and satisfying resolution ... It’s also one author’s insightful demonstration of the ways in which America’s criminal justice system is broken, not just inside this particular prison, but outside as well, in scores of other cities and towns across the country ... The Mars Room does have its flaws. Unfortunately, the ending seems like a random (though weirdly predictable) departure from an otherwise authoritative work. Still, it’s a hiccup surrounded by haunting warnings from all sides.\
Luis Alberto Urrea
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThere’s deep heart and tenderness in this novel — especially between bullheaded Big Angel and his devoted constituents ... Despite all the mushy-gushy, The House of Broken Angels is at its most political, a border story. The de La Cruz clan lives in a working-class neighborhood in South San Diego, much like the neighborhood where Urrea spent his childhood. Some are legal immigrants from Tijuana. Some are undocumented, while the younger ones are 'Dreamers' ... The flashbacks detailing how each of them arrived in America — and what they had to give up and endure while here — are not only chillingly accurate, they’re heartbreaking (and infuriating) ... Sure, there are sections that drag a little. Yes, it’s tricky at first to keep track of the characters. (Tip: Create a character web; I did.) But like any extended family gathering, just roll with it, and you’ll do fine.
RaveBookreporter.comIn debut author Vaddey Ratner’s case, she writes a masterpiece of a novel filled with so much raw power and beauty, it’s a miracle such a story that surely must’ve been difficult to write could find its way out at all ... Told from the perspective of seven-year-old Raami, the atrocities that occurred between 1975 and 1979 at the hands of the Khmer Rouge’s revolutionary socialist movement unfold in painstaking detail ... In the Shadow of the Banyan is foremost a novel about genocide and injustice ...despite its upsetting subject matter, what gives the book its heart is Ratner’s unrelenting focus on love ... Fair readers, this is perhaps one of the most waterworks-inducing books you’ll ever have the pleasure of reading.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleSpanning seven decades, from 1945 to 2015, the door stopper of a book checks every box when it comes to literary themes: a young protagonist’s coming of age, Great Love found and lost, hard-won triumph over prejudice, and so on … Cinematic and commercial, The Heart’s Invisible Furies makes for entertaining reading...But perhaps the most sincere and powerful emotion in the book — and what elicits the book’s truest reward — is rage. Boyne’s takedown of the church — its intolerance, hypocrisy and deceit — resonates throughout, as does his anger at his country’s hatred of ‘Nancy-boys’ and condemnation of homosexuality.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleNg begins Little Fires Everywhere with a fireball of a first scene — as high school senior Lexie Richardson would say, literally. On the opening page, we find ordinarily coiffed and cucumber-cool Elena Richardson standing in her bathrobe on her normally manicured lawn, watching aghast as her hulking six-bedroom home goes up in flames … Though we do find out whodunit in the end, it’s almost beside the point. In its place, what Ng delivers is a finely wrought meditation on the nature of motherhood, the dangers of privilege and a cautionary tale about how even the tiniest of secrets can rip families apart and turn perceptions on their head … Though the narrative jumps back and forth through time from rabbit hole to rabbit hole...there isn’t a section that doesn’t capture our imagination.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleDespite its epic nature, the journey across Mississippi to the tune of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying isn’t what’s revelatory here. Instead, it’s Ward’s wise choice to tell the story from multiple perspectives — Jojo’s, Leonie’s and that of Richie, the ghost of a dead boy who was once incarcerated at Parchman with a young Pop. Through each voice, we get a sense not only of the travails this multigenerational, mixed-race family has endured, but more so of the racist legacy of the Deep South that has been carried through into the present ... But it’s Ward’s clear sense of time, place, and the rich mysteries stuffed in-between that brings this soulful, truth-telling novel together. Like Salvage the Bones, her 2011 novel that won the National Book Award for Fiction, Sing, Unburied, Sing is set in Bois Sauvage, a fictional town on the coast of Mississippi. Ward’s descriptions of the 'feathery dark heart' of the region’s bayous, the oppressive heat and its dense woods marred by a violent and tragic history ring out like poetry dangling from the ghost-ridden branches of its trees.
MixedThe San Francisco Chronicle\"If your literary tastes lean toward the realistic — family dramas, torrid romances, anything with an emotional journey — Alissa Nutting’s second novel, Made for Love, won’t be for you. But if wackadoo narratives with hints of adventure and characters with bizarre personality quirks are more your speed, this weird and meandering puzzle of a book might be just the ticket ... Nutting can sure drum up a real hoot of a sentence. Plus, she’s sure as your bottom not afraid to stretch the boundaries of what’s considered hot as far as sexual preferences are concerned ... Unfortunately, that’s where the gushing ends. While Byron is certainly a menace, albeit a wimpy and geeky one, it’s hard to imagine that he’d actually kill Hazel if she didn’t come back to him, as the narrative would have you believe. And while it is admittedly terrifying to imagine a world in which mind-melds were possible and it is easy to draw comparisons to our Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Apple/Microsoft/Amazon-reliant (obsessed) society, it’s equally clear that such things have been written about before. Sometimes the same old metaphors, the same old parallels, just become tired. But let’s end on a high note. As in many technology-driven adventure stories featuring a slightly awkward female heroine, Made for Love does have a happy-ish ending — and it’s funny, sort of.\
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleDespite the hint of deceit and scent of illicit canoodling in the air, Lepucki doesn’t appear to be interested in writing a trashy noir cum sly bodice-ripper, though some of the sexy scenes do get a pinch, well, rough. Pretty early on, it’s clear that she’s experimenting with exploring something deeper. Mainly: what it means to be a needy, vulnerable, passionate, discarded lover, wife, daughter and mother ... While Woman No. 17 does posses all the trappings of a frothy page-turner — stormy arguments, showy melodrama, and (oops!) an affair, there are some quiet, serious moments, too. It’s the intersection between the two that makes this read both scintillating and thought-provoking.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleHis latest novel, The Underworld, is based on a real event. On May 2, 1972, a reported 173 miners went to work, as they did every day, at the Sunshine Silver Mine in Shoshone County, Idaho ... With that tragedy at its epicenter, Canty constructs a brittle, shattered world around the fallout ... Such are the ingredients of life’s darkest hours, and though Canty delivers when describing the fire — including a few interwoven chapters detailing the nail-biting rescue of the two trapped survivors — where he really excels is getting to the heart of the hurt ...like much of Canty’s fiction, it’s an honest portrait of two lost souls trying to make sense of the hand they’ve been dealt, the choices they’ve made and have yet to make.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleA welcome return to form, its pages are full of searing insight into the darkest corners of the human spirit and starkly demonstrate how shockingly easy it is to both damage and be damaged by those we love — sometimes irreparably so ... In its entirety, Anything Is Possible is both sweeping in scope and incredibly introspective. That delicate balance is what makes its content so sharp and compulsively readable. In fact, one might say that this — Strout’s winning formula — has succeeded once again. With assuredness, compassion and utmost grace, her words and characters remind us that in life anything is actually possible. The highs. The lows. And everything in between.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleAt first, the effect is disorienting and, dare I say, frustrating. Because Chabon barrels through by piling on anecdotes from different periods of Grandpa’s life without laying sufficient groundwork...Still, sticking with Grandpa’s Dilaudid-induced recollections is essential. As with any family history, the deeper you probe and the more patience you have to piece vignettes together, the more enthralling his story becomes ... by the end of the Moonglow, there are many holes purposely left unfilled...But isn’t that the point of storytelling? To leave some things open to the imagination and to interpretation? To leave your audience wanting more?
MixedThe San Francisco Chronicle...can sometimes be too scattered for its own good ... Unlike Bernadette’s character, whose snide asides and loony-tunes antics nearly always worked out in her favor in the long run, Eleanor comes off as more of a kvetch-prone worrywart with a scant grip on reality ... Still, there are elements to savor in Eleanor’s midlife crisis.
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle...a probing morality study that chips away at the age-old question: Would you turn in a loved one if you knew they did something reprehensible? ... Structured in three sections — two from Donald’s long-winded and heavy-handed perspective and one from Viv’s — the plot lags when it dwells on the psychology behind Don and Viv’s splintered union. But Livesey makes up for it by throwing a wrench into the narrative.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleWhen I say Commonwealth is a certifiable hoot to read, that’s really just an understatement ... The genius of the way Patchett approached Commonwealth is that it’s constructed like a puzzle. Each chapter takes place at a different point over the course of 50 years and reveals a section of the ever-expanding family’s story. This way, we don’t find out all the necessary details, nor the real truth of matters, until Patchett is good and ready.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"Pond is a fascinating and utterly immersive reading experience that speaks volumes about the author’s creative process and delivers insights in droves ... what makes Pond so remarkable is Bennett’s ability to capture the mysterious essence of objects and volatility of moments in just a few choice words, on page after page after page.\
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle...[a] hypnotizing debut ... In a way, the power of The Girls isn’t the idea that any one of us could be murdered in our presumably safe spaces by a band of marauding lunatics at any given moment, though that’s certainly a compelling thought. Rather, it’s that an awkward and vulnerable 14-year-old girl on the prowl for some fun could so easily be recruited by a group of older, seemingly wiser cool kids with the capacity to commit real damage ... So does The Girls live up to its hype? For the most part, yes — with one major caveat. Cline’s writing style shows her age and still needs some finessing. Though she has a knack for evocative, often flirtatious turns of phrase, her near-constant reliance on overstuffed, sometimes nonsensical similes and metaphors to deliver a point removes some of the magic from the text ... Her eagle-eyed take on the churnings and pitfalls of adolescence — longing to be wanted, feeling seen, getting discarded — rarely misses its mark.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleFor what it’s worth, Imagine Me Gone is indeed a huge downer...But to harp on its depressive qualities is missing the true beauty of the work. By signing on with Haslett and his characters we are given the chance to look beyond our minutiae and daily distractions in order to notice the passage of time as experienced by others. We are reminded of what it is like to be truly, if fleetingly, alive.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleKnowing Bock’s investment in Alice & Oliver — how closely he’s connected to the material — adds a deeper dimension to the story. It also means the book runs the risk of appearing too biased, too sentimental. Yet this is a novel, not a memoir, and by deliberately creating characters that were not mirror images of him and his wife but, instead, two unique souls forging their own muddled paths to recovery, Bock found enough distance to write a palpably raw yet surprisingly objective snapshot of the myriad ways illness can wield control over our lives.
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleSweeney doesn’t shy away from mining the oft-explored themes that typically accompany familial shenanigans. But she also adds two elements that make the book unique: less whiny characters and a genuinely satisfying, authentically positive ending ... what makes The Nest such a pleasure to read is not the smug satisfaction we get from observing Leo repeatedly fail to deliver on his promises. It’s that by watching the other characters keep secrets from each other while chipping away at their own shortcomings, we understand why they are simultaneously flawed and refreshingly human.
Janice Y. K. Lee
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleIt’s hard not to wish Margaret’s misfortune to take center stage instead of sharing the limelight with Hilary and Mercy’s struggles, which pale in comparison. And in the interest of not spilling spoilers, let’s just say that the book’s ending might ignite the ire (or bafflement) of more judgmental readers.
MixedSF Gate Because Irving is so intent on making both worlds — past and present — equally beguiling, he doesn’t fully succeed at doing either.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleWhat makes this (dare I say) masterpiece so stunning is Marra’s clear love for his subject and insistence on infusing beauty into even the darkest places.