RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewTo describe a bushfire is to describe a monster. We speak of flanks, fingers, tails and tongues, Chloe Hooper observes in The Arsonist, of a predatory, devouring hunger ... The latest book by the Australian writer tells the story of just one of the Black Saturday bushfires, a blaze deliberately lit on the outskirts of Churchill in the Latrobe Valley — coal country ... With propulsive energy, The Arsonist follows the case against Sokaluk, a 39-year-old former volunteer firefighter, from the arson investigation’s first frantic hours to the courtroom verdict. But first, Hooper takes us into the belly of the beast: birds falling from the sky with their wings burning; beehives combusting from the radiant heat; farewell texts escaping from fire-ravaged homes ... The elemental terror of Black Saturday requires little embellishment, only the quiet dignity of witness. It’s this restraint — as intelligent as it is compassionate — that elevates The Arsonist from slick true-crime procedural to cultural time capsule.
MixedThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)Clutter opens as Howard surveys the wreckage of her mother’s overstuffed life: maggots roil; years’ worth of unwashed laundry moulders; long-poisoned mice lie mummified in forgotten corners. Yet the closets are full to bursting with Italian leather shoes and gala gowns, and the costume jewellery of a woman who kept up appearances ... Rather than search for the woman trapped inside the mess, Clutter tackles the story of the mess itself ... Clutter sets out valiantly to counter the tide of insidious neo-liberal wellness literature that frames (and commodifies) social problems as failings in self-care and lauds individual productivity as the greatest of virtues. But, with few meaningful solutions beyond buying less crap, the book often reads like a manifesto without any particular dictums, more an exercise in strident systemic issue-spotting.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Alam’s trope-heavy third novel has the makings of a farce, and the portents of a slaughter ... It’s a delicious conceit, a theatrically contained collision of power and prejudice. There’s such scope for viciousness, and for virtue, too ... perhaps this is the resounding point of the book: when faced with the prospect of world-altering calamity – its moral exigencies and necessary sacrifices – we’re unlikely to do much at all except break out the hummus. It’s less an accusation than a grotesquely banal human truth ... Alam’s novel invites this comparative shorthand because it struggles to develop a personality of its own ... while we catch omniscient snatches of the coming death and ruin, Alam’s catastrophe is conveniently vague – a catalyst for more intimate terrors.
RaveTimes Literary Supplement (UK)The page-turning thrill of Piranesi is watching him puzzle out what we can already see, and guilelessly wander into danger ... Some books arrive dusted with the shimmer of literary myth. Piranesi is one of them ... There is something intoxicating about Clarke’s joyful castaway, a character so unencumbered by the weight of identity and ego. In another author’s hands his naivety might be stifling, but Piranesi seems more free in his crumbling prison than we are in our worldliness. When the winter wind lashes him with snow, he seeks out its beauty ... When the ferocious tides hurl him against the walls, he is grateful the statues are there to catch him. Even the presence of the dead is consolatory ... But the chief joy of Piranesi is that it is a space with limitless room in which the reader may roam, and no signposts – a grand metaphor, perhaps, for the act of fiction-writing.
MixedThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)Sarah’s story, told through another’s eyes, feels far less cohesive, dusting the novel with an unnecessary folkloric sheen ... Is re-enactment the antidote to our \'vast and infinite\' amnesia? It’s a question that haunts the art of the #MeToo era: can (must) we hurt women to prove how women are hurt and hurting? It is telling that the novel’s most potent moments come not from its scenes of violence but from the cell-deep anticipation of them; not from a ruined body in a suitcase but a desperate mother packing that same suitcase in the hope of escape. The Bass Rock lacks the nuance of the author’s previous work (most notably, the wonderfully sinister All the Bird’s Singing (2013). Sometimes you need the blunt force of a rock, but for all the novel’s ferocious and bloody reckonings, it is as a testament to survival that it carries weight.
PanThe Guardian\"It is a premise that requires a mighty belief in suspension in order to suspend disbelief ... There is even a cheeky suggestion in the book’s final pages that Temple’s floating fairytale exists in a similar universe to Tartt’s New England Greek tragedy. But while The Secret History was a novel of soul-curdling aftermaths, bisected by its murder, The Lightness is simply a novel of a looming bad thing ... Where The Lightness does carry weight is in its scenes away from the mountain and its manic pixie dream friends ... it is so dispiriting that her novel opts instead for a twee permutation of a story we have seen so many times before.
RaveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)Lacey works at the provocative end of contemporary American fiction, and Pew is her sharpest novel yet: a tale of the quiet savagery of \'good\' intentions, and the tyranny—and ecstasy—of belonging ... How easily, this novel shows, the language of forgiveness can become \'a costume for forgetting\' ... Lacey’s ferocious rebuke of church-sponsored sanctimony could easily slip into parochial caricature and contempt—fighting one form of self-righteousness with another—were it not for her silent protagonist, whose private, humane thoughts are our only guide to a world of long-held secrets ... And while there may be allegories lurking here, the author offers no tidy moral to her anti-fable.
Emily St. John Mandel
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)...as we face Covid-19, the strange, masochistic allure of havoc-lit has catapulted Mandel’s post-pandemic tale of itinerant Shakespearean actors back into bestseller territory. How better to while away a stint in lockdown than by bending our waking terrors into the most comforting and redemptive of shapes – the narrative arc ... Mandel has not penned a ticking-clock prequel; rather, her new novel is a portrait of everyday obliviousness, the machinery of late neoliberalism juddering along with characteristic inequity ... It’s a beguiling conceit: the global financial crisis as a ghost story ... All contemporary novels are now pre-pandemic novels – Covid-19 has scored a line across our culture – but what Mandel captures is the last blissful gasp of complacency, a knowing portrait of the end of unknowing. It’s the world we inhabited mere weeks ago, and it still feels so tantalisingly close; our ache for it still too raw to be described as nostalgia...
MixedThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)MacLean...is an unabashed anecdote hunter—Alice in dezinformatsiya wonderland. What he fails to demonstrate in investigative tenacity, he makes up for in hyper-coloured absurdity and gleeful caricature ... MacLean writes with the cadences of a fable ... Such rhetoric does a disservice to the complexity of the story...a rhetoric that mistakes our disinformation symptoms for the disease.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Is The Book of Science and Antiquities a sly existential joke, or an entirely solemn endeavour? It’s billed as the latter, as Keneally’s most candid work of fiction to date, a kind of grand human hymn. But there’s a wink or two that suggests he is chuckling into the cosmic void ... For all its expansive intentions, it’s a book whose delights are quiet ... 20th-century literature is a diligent and exhaustive catalogue of male senescence raging against the dying of the light. It’s hard to get excited about another eulogy to virility. The Book of Science and Antiquities lacks JM Coetzee’s caustic cruelty, or Philip Roth’s grotesque libidinousness. Shelby isn’t delightfully awful, he’s just tiresomely ordinary. Perhaps this is the novel’s lurking punchline – that the mundane can be mythic, and the mythic, mundane. The joke would be funnier if the women in Keneally’s novel weren’t confined to roles of warm-bodied consolation. There is a Learned Woman, too, but her story remains – tellingly – untold.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)All the elements are in place for a slick cartel thriller: a relentless villain; an improbable attraction; a clock-ticking chase to safety; a conveniently precocious child ... But despite its flamboyant and breathless first act, that’s not the novel American Dirt aspires to be ... there is a particular kind of literary ambition rooted in titularly American tales – a desire to puncture the soft complacency of American dreams ... Cummins’s title is no accident ... But it proves hard to reconcile the novel’s humane intentions with its propulsive, action-movie execution ... It’s an activist’s gambit: create a trauma so immense that we cannot help but be swept along by the force of its pathos. It dusts American Dirt with a sheen of sensationalist unreality that obscures rather than illuminates the quotidian terrors that beat at the heart of this book ... What emerges is a kind of modern Odyssey with the United States as Ithaca, a gleaming refuge. For a novel that sets out so earnestly to challenge the insular nationalism that leads the US‑Mexico border to feel like some kind of moral boundary, American Dirt may, despite or because of its manifest good intentions, accidentally reinforce the very kind of absolutist reasoning that keeps such myths alive.
PanThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)...a seething Brexit satire, with a gigantic wink to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis ... Much of this slim volume is dedicated to giving Reversalism (and its insectivorous champions) a backstory, leaving scant room for allegorical insight ... for all of his exposition, explication and fury, McEwan shies away from confronting the root causes of Brexit ... With this disdainful, surface diagnosis – less a cultural vivisection than a rebuke – McEwan misses the opportunity to scrutinize Brexit from within. He is simply an aggrieved witness to other people’s stupidity ... Sometimes you need the clarity of a cultural bommy-knocker, but The Cockroach never transcends the feeling that it began life as a self-satisfied joke at a dull dinner party. \'Why are you doing this?\' the German Chancellor implores McEwan’s PM. Jim’s answer feels like an explanation for this smug and petulant little volume: \'Because\'.
RaveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)Approached as a standalone work of invention...Will and Testament is a powerfully humane novel about inheritance, trauma and the inheritance of trauma ... Financial settlement is an ugly proxy for emotional settlement, and Will and Testament is a fittingly ugly book, mired in the petty mundanity of internecine squabbling: furious late-night emails, Facebook unfriending and virtuoso passive-aggression. It seems only fitting that this novel’s grand moment of reckoning takes place in the drab office of the family accountant ... Charlotte Barslund’s translation captures this soul-deep fatigue with barren prose, bared to the necessary ... this is a novel of the subconscious – of dreams, symbols and obdurate, childish longings ... There is undeniable cruelty in Hjorth’s life-drawn depictions ... But there is also a shimmering vein of compassion running through Will and Testament, and an irrepressible sense of hope. Hatred cauterizes hope, but love leaves it festering. This isn’t (or isn’t only), as the book’s blurb suggestively describes it, a \'down-and-dirty revenge\': it’s a tragic, terrible love story.
MixedThe GuardianCynthia, the simpering, scheming, covetous emotional sinkhole of New Zealander Annaleese Jochems’s assured debut novel, Baby, is alive and squirming; a memorable addition to the growing coterie of unapologetic antiheroines (dis)gracing the pages of contemporary fiction ... Jochem’s narrative is a tale of veneers and facades – the selves we project and curate – and so such questions lurk, but never surface. Depending on the reader, this wilful exteriority will either prove the book’s undoing, or its triumph. For we know as much about Cynthia and Anahera at the end of Baby as we do at the beginning – these two women for whom an untimely death prompts as much distress as an emptied jar of Nutella.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... may be catalysed by accidents, but there is nothing accidental about this fastidiously crafted (and crafty) novel. Saul’s story is laced with clues whose detection should be a source of conspiratorial pleasure. But Levy does not seem to trust that her meaning will be deciphered...There is scant space for the reader here. It is when the novel surrenders to its paradoxes that it beguiles.
RaveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)Woodson’s elegant multigenerational tale, her second novel for adults, begins eighty years to the day after the Black Wall Street Massacre ... Red at the Bone could so easily have become an elegy for thwarted expectations; that’s the punitive arc we have come to expect from tales of unplanned pregnancy – the tragedy of squandered potential, mitigated only by the redemptive purity of a child’s love. But Woodson – beloved by YA readers for her non-judgemental fiction – has never been interested in such didacticism ... It is rare to read an American novel that talks so unsqueamishly about class, and the systems – from the well-intentioned to the malignantly racist – that stymie upward mobility in black communities. It is rarer still to read a novel of unpunished maternal reluctance ... It is in telling Iris’s story – not as one of callous abandonment but of self-protection and queer desire – that Woodson’s novel shows its red-raw heart.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)The opening pages of The Need are charged with menace – taut as a baited mousetrap ... As with a sprung trap, once the central conceit of The Need is revealed, the tension of the novel snaps. But what begins as a hyperventilating domestic noir morphs into elegant speculative fiction, and then into a grand hymn to motherhood ... At times bordering on a parental panegyric, The Need is most compelling when most savage ... With her shadowy intruder, [Phillips] has created another metaphor: a canny physical manifestation of the terrors of parenting.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"... a dauntless exploration of the pathology of silence, an attempt to unsnarl the dark knot of history, culture, fear and trauma that can render conservative Arab-American women so visibly invisible ... Of Rum’s three women, it is implacable Fareeda — enforcer of norms, keeper of secrets — whose voice proves the most revelatory ... The triumph of Rum’s novel is that she refuses to measure her women against anything but their own hearts and histories ... Distinctly, defiantly and earnestly, A Woman Is No Man belongs to itself.\
PositiveTimes Literary Supplement\"... a novel of knots and bifurcations ... Lost Children Archive is formally elastic: it begins as autofiction and ends as something akin to magical realism, but at its heart there is always a narrative echo of this process of familial world-building, of accretion and mythmaking ... Not all of Luiselli’s subjects resonate ... The intention is worthy... but Luiselli’s portrayal of Native Americans in silhouette, as a vanished, voiceless people, risks perpetuating the very cultural erasure it fights against ... The novel’s crowning achievement is its single-sentence climax ... In Lost Children Archive Luiselli takes the US border and turns it into just such a resonant, clarifying surface.\