PositiveThe Times (UK)The account of Plath’s youth in Massachusetts is exhaustive and utterly exhausting for mortal readers ... Clark is strong on the poetry and on the mutuality of the couple’s artistic collaboration. At times she is a little too meticulously granular, too reluctant to give us her own take. But her hands-off approach is appropriate for the story’s messy, tragic end ... Clark stays commendably even-handed ... Clark makes use of fresh information, including new interview testimony and recently discovered letters to Beuscher, to reconstruct Plath’s final days and argue convincingly that she did mean to take her own life.
PanThe Times (UK)It’s a promising premise, a classic DeLillo disaster. But The Silence makes for queasy reading, and not in a good way. It takes place in 2022 — but there’s no mention of the catastrophe we’re living through now ... the novel is out of touch with the times it seeks to encapsulate ... The general consensus — that DeLillo ain’t what he used to be — will only be strengthened by The Silence, which is a little too gnomic, too straight-faced, too close to late Coetzee.
MixedThe Times (UK)Sadly it’s hard to get a solid sense of Steinbeck from Souder’s book, which is highly readable but, at 368 pages minus notes, feels too slim for such a lot of life, such a lot of work. And Souder, who has also written lives of John James Audubon and Rachel Carson, wastes valuable space trying his hand at Steinbeck-inspired evocations of landscape, or dispensing slightly cheesy wisdom about writers.
MixedThe TimesThe novel doesn’t quite live up to the high standards set by its predecessors. The dialogue is burdened with too much of the philosophical and theological debate ... Robinson is a wonderful, wise writer and there are lovely things here ... If it’s your first time in Gilead, start with any one of the other three novels, and leave Jack until last.
PositiveThe Times (UK)...[a] warm, wise book ... [a] quietly radical tragicomedy. I was shocked by how unusual it felt to spend 275 pages exclusively in the company of older women. Whereas Late in the Day mines decades of romantic, sexual love, Wood’s novel is firmly about friendship ... The Weekend is a shortish novel that slips down easily. The plot ultimately lets in melodrama, and the prose...is hospitable to some automatic overwriting ... Yet with this ostensibly light touch, Wood commands the long histories of these three very different women. The focus is on the present; this is not a story about nostalgia or retrospect. But with a series of deft asides, we glean an account of their whole lives, through their memories of themselves and each other ... This is rich fictional territory and Wood has made the most of it in this surefooted novel that packs 50 years into one weekend.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Bennett’s prose style is mostly functional; sometimes it lets in cliché and overwriting. But she is a bold, skilful storyteller ... The slightly fantastical premise and the coincidence-laden plot will have readers eagerly turning pages. Bennett uses these hooks to showcase complex, compassionate portraits of her four leading ladies. And what grants the novel real heft is the light touch employed for the (not so) historical details ... a clever balancing act indeed to pair such heartbreaking material with a narrative that’s so much fun.
MixedThe Times (UK)The monologues of the townsfolk are flat lemonade; surely rambling speech is the easiest, laziest way of filling a page. Initially Pew promises to be one part Holden Caulfield, one part Eleanor Oliphant, offering the unique vantage point of the outsider. Fans of Lacey’s superior debut, Nobody Is Ever Missing, will recognise something of that novel’s quirky, maudlin narrator, Elyria. But Pew’s internal commentary tends too often towards the essayistic, expounding Lacey’s grand theme of bodily dissociation ... What keeps you reading is crudely withheld information: Pew’s identity, that creepy festival. Lacey buys herself space to waffle with the promise of a plot. But the \'answers,\' which come too late, are disappointing ... the ellipsis of the ending feels like a cop-out.
PanThe Sunday Times (UK)It’s true that Greenwell is right on-trend. But if Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are supermodels in couture gowns from the grand fashion houses of 20th-century autofiction (WG Sebald, Thomas Bernhard), then Greenwell is a Topshop knock-off ... Characters are mostly just initials — R, N and so on — and visual details are kept to a tasteful minimum. None of the grubby business of making the world come alive on the page. Instead, it’s an honest, authentic, stripped-back look. The writerly equivalent of poured concrete and a jute rug ... It’s not enough to offer up scraps of a life and expect the reader to stitch them together ... The stand-out feature of Greenwell’s fiction is the detailed narration of brutal sexual encounters ... As soon as we’re out of the bedroom, though, watching the narrator walking around Sofia, the voltage plummets ... In theory it’s fine to write about yourself, or your students, or a train journey. A great writer can make anything interesting.
MixedThe TimesMcCann’s novels have an unusually high thread count, weaving together dozens of interconnecting story lines, characters and ideas. Apeirogon is full of real people ... Their stories are tragic, powerful, moving and inspiring ... McCann’s fragmented retellings of Bassam and Rami’s stories are mixed in with such diverse material ... But this book is not a novel. Not because it’s formally daring, or because it deals with real events. A novel can do whatever it wants. And that’s precisely the problem with Apeirogon: McCann does not have freedom of movement. There are some important places that he cannot travel to — hence all the dazzling distraction tactics ... This is a work of creative non-fiction premised on the problematic belief that literature should do good in the world. It is a commendable achievement. It is also ponderous, worthy, sentimental and self-important. The lyrical prose, presumably meant to elevate the subject matter to \'novel\' status, is mostly second-rate.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)Published in America...to rave reviews, A Replacement Life is that risky thing: a book about a writer, writing, which explores the boundaries between fact and fiction, lies and truth ... The first 40 pages are thick with overwriting ... Then the prose relaxes slightly and the plot kicks in ... As a chronicler of the immigrant experience, Fishman can be funny and astute. But mostly the tone is an unhappy mix of baroque comedy and meta-moralising about the nature of truth. Towards the end, the story lurches queasily into Kingsley Amis-style farce ... a novel that relies too heavily on the horrors of war for its power. For a clever, witty, tender, horrifying, self-referential account of the Holocaust, as told from the perspective of a survivor’s descendant, you want Art Spiegelman, not Fishman: the former’s brilliant Maus books are everything that A Replacement Life is not.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)About one-third of the 19 short stories in Grand Union, Zadie Smith’s first collection, have \'really got something\'. That quotation comes from one of them, the melancholy, mischievous \'Blocked\' ... The best stories include \'Sentimental Education\', in which Smith is typically brilliant on sex and shame ... There’s nothing here that’s not at least goodish. Smith’s baseline is significantly higher than average. But we need better than goodish from our best writers. Too many of these stories feel like half-baked parallel projects ... Such is Smith’s stature that she can noodle away, like the over-beloved boyfriend who fancies himself a guitarist ... The title is a misnomer. There’s no grand union here. On the contrary, the stories are stylistically so eclectic you wonder what is Smith’s style, exactly ... It’s clearly a good thing when a writer refuses to calcify. But five novels and one short-story collection into her career, you’d be hard pressed to characterise what is uniquely Zadie Smith. It’s beginning to feel like a problem.
RaveThe Times (UK)As a novelist, [Lerner] is not only a natural, he’s also one of the best writers working today ... a tender, extended portrait of two good parents, a rarity in literature ... The non-linear structure produces narrative lacunae that powerfully enhance our understanding of character and event. The different voices are done simply and subtly. No crass ventriloquism here. Complex ideas are packed like alveoli in the lungs, creating an internal surface area much greater than you’d expect from 304 pages. But there’s always plenty of oxygen: everything feels breezy and effortless despite Lerner’s unbridled intellect ... What can’t he do?...he’s fearsomely articulate, but when it comes to description, \'a rain of glass\' is the best he manages. (That said, his prose is always clean and cliché-free.)
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)Quichotte is one of the cleverest, most enjoyable metafictional capers this side of postmodernism ... A glorious 21st-century riff on Cervantes’s 17th century classic Don Quixote ... In Quichotte, Rushdie brilliantly demonstrates the way that a writer’s life seeps into their work, sometimes deliberately, sometimes less so ... The narration is fleet of foot, always one step ahead of the reader — somewhere between a pinball machine and a three-dimensional game of snakes and ladders ... We are a long way from the fertile lyricism of Midnight’s Children, and there is nothing here approaching the death of Changez Chamchawala in The Satanic Verses. But we are still watching a master at work ... Rushdie has taken bits of our shared lives, scraps of our language, and constructed a vehicle as wondrous as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This novel can fly, it can float, it’s anecdotal, effervescent, charming, and a jolly good story to boot. I almost found myself wishing that it were Rushdie’s last book — because if so, it would be one of literature’s coolest sign offs, as Puckish as Prospero’s final soliloquy. But I don’t think anyone who reads Quichotte will want to release Rushdie from his bonds just yet. Applause, certainly, but also: Encore! Encore!
PositiveThe Times (UK)Obreht distils an impressive volume of research to transport us to 19th-century America, and some of the novel’s wackiest details are based on reality ... Ultimately, it’s a ghost story, and it will appeal more to some readers than others. The first-person voice can let in tired hyperbole, and the talking-to-the-camel trope is arguably a quirk too far ... The writing here is some of the most confident, free-ranging prose I’ve read in months. Obreht bounds effortlessly from details of daily life to bold, pithy summaries condensing 20 years into a paragraph ... Obreht skilfully weaves in various characters and backstories, building up a narrative of great psychological complexity. She withholds just enough to make you feel surprised but not cheated by the ending ... This is a fine piece of historical fiction, avoiding traps of the genre ... Inland is a novel of two halves, and it’s debatable as to how successfully they meld. It’s also overlong. This reader would have been happy with just the realist storyline; on its own, it forms a dusty fable of emerging America to set beside Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams or Carys Davies’s West. With the addition of Lurie and the dead, it tilts close enough to genre fiction to risk cosiness ... I might place Inland in the odd category of children’s books for grown-ups, delighting in mystery and myth and sufficiently removed from reality to allow you to switch off and sink in ... I’m already looking forward to whatever Obreht writes next, whether it’s for grown-up children or — fingers crossed — something really adult.
RaveThe Times (UK)Beware of any unmediated raves; don’t let them fool you into expecting a polished masterpiece. This is a poetic novel, formally and stylistically ambitious. There are going to be problems, and because Vuong is taking real creative risks, those problems, when they arise, are significant. As you might intuit from the title, one of Vuong’s modes is a high-stakes hyper-lyricism (think ee cummings and Emily Dickinson) that can teeter over into kitsch ... Vuong’s greatest weakness is his fondness for metaphors involving punctuation and syntax. Not only is it tiresome when writing repeatedly references the act of writing, it’s also an impoverished field of reference — there are only so many punctuation marks ... But the risk-taking works both ways, and the highs here are inversely proportional to the lows. There is a lot of good writing on the level of the sentence ... Vuong also employs an amazing vocal range that powers this nearly plotless novel, allowing for startling juxtapositions and feats of compression ... Most impressive is the treatment of abuse and mental illness ... Vuong’s determination to see well-trodden ground afresh, with unremitting complexity, is extremely rare ... There is a great deal to admire: that he was able to give such personal material novelistic treatment; that he had the patience to wait until that was possible; that he only had wait until he was 30. We should answer his patience with our own as we watch this exciting talent try things out on the page, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, but always striving to make it new.
PositiveThe Times...an admirably ambitious debut by an intelligent, hard-working writer ... The whole thing could have done with a very vigorous prune and maybe a few jokes. But the breadth of research on display here is impressive, as is Hammad’s granular depiction of this most politically complex of regions. With energy and care, she animates a crucial period of Palestinian history that most readers will know little about.
MixedThe TimesThis is not a straightforward work of literary biography. Lyndall Gordon has already reconstructed the lives of many greats, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Emily Dickinson. However, here she attempts something more creative, more novelistic than usual: the unification of five biographies, diverse narratives with a common theme ... One of the book’s great strengths is the sense it creates of \'a chain of making\': the overlap and interplay between the generations is richly evoked ... Occasionally, it seems as if Gordon is pushing Schreiner too hard ... Mostly, though, Gordon is a scrupulously restrained biographer—sometimes almost too cautious ... Also impressive is the feat of concision: each section forms a compressed yet complete biography. Only rarely do we feel that something crucial has been hastily treated ... Reading Outsiders at the end of 2017, I can’t help wondering if this book isn’t a fraction too late, whether Woolf’s question about the nature of woman hasn’t already expired. Perhaps the answer we are finally coming to, as gender norms crumble around us, is that the question was misconceived. Gordon’s binding agent relies on the belief that there is some essential, hidden femaleness waiting to be uncovered. Her subjects were women, but that isn’t an identical condition. They didn’t spend all their time \'being women.\'
William Melvin Kelley
PositiveThe Sunday TimesA Different Drummer is itself a fairy tale, in the best sense of the word: simple, timeless, mythic ... this is a novel about strategic silence: refusal to speak, refusal to engage. Kelley’s formal masterstroke is to tell the novel exclusively from the viewpoints of the white characters—characters whose portrayal is consistently sensitive and empathetic, even when they are committing atrocious acts. His is a true novelist’s gaze, sharpened by the conviction that if you look long and hard enough, you will always understand ... It is not a perfect book: between the swift, spellbinding opening and the shocking finale, there are real longueurs, and because we keep returning to the same day, experiencing it from different perspectives, it can feel as though we’re not moving forwards. But for a debut novel written by a very young man, it is an astounding achievement ... Kelley’s novel might be a fantasy—the dramatic grassroots movement he describes never happened, and likely never could have. But it’s a fantasy that’s still relevant and powerful today.4
MixedThe Times (UK)\"This isn’t a book of literary essays; it’s a book about birds. But the collection is only marketable on the strength of his fame as a novelist — as a literary mind ... most of these essays are plainly functional ... So who is Jonathan Franzen? Is he, as The Guardian has it, \'a literary genius for our time\'? Not on the strength of these essays. But he is a clever man who cares sincerely about important things, and we should be wary of dismissing him... There may come a time when we wish we’d paid more attention.\
PositiveThe Sunday TimesSadly, it’s not a book you can recommend to everyone ... Notably, the long, centrepiece chase section will be divisive and hard to follow if you haven’t played \'Grand Theft Auto\' or bought an X-Box etc ... Yet Gough’s powerful, playful argument will reward the patient reader. What feels so fresh is that this predictive novel avoids even a hint of the usual doomsday clichés. Instead, the transformative possibilities of technology are embraced—to the point where \'love is an interface between you and the universe\' comes to sound joyfully life-affirming rather than alarmingly clinical ... It might not be an enduring classic of literature, but it will subtly change the way you see the world.
MixedThe Times (UK)\"Increasingly, you get the sense that the book wasn’t written for you anyway. Laing has \'rewired\' it into a cosy short-circuit for those in the gang: those who believe the apocalypse is here, those who despise \'the endless malice of the polite right,\' those who feel England is becoming \'unrecognisable, officially racist.\' If you can’t join in with her squeamishly noble, fashionable fragility, then reading Crudo will feel like being cornered at a party by someone who seemed kind of interesting to start with.\
PositiveThe Times (UK)\"Hits and Misses takes its material from those years of ambition, graft and stellar success: it’s the mid-career album about fame. But you won’t find Rich bemoaning his star status à la NSYNC. The collection is full of well-bred privilege-checking—and a lot of very funny jokes ... Most of the pieces here are skits rather than stories, and some are simply jokes. The collection as a whole feels, unsurprisingly, like a sketch show. Which is no bad thing: one of Rich’s strengths is that he knows exactly how soon to stop ... His humour is good clean fun: The Big Bang Theory rather than Girls. He never reaches the transgressive nirvana of, say, Giles Coren on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Here I Am. Coren lets in just enough real envy to give his hilarious review an edge that even the best of these stories lack.\
MixedThe Times (UK)\"Moshfegh makes X’s voluntary incarceration compelling and darkly funny for the first 150 pages. Then you start to wonder where it’s all heading. By page 200 it’s clear that only an exceptional ending can convert this extended riff into a successful—ie, shapely—novel ... Despite her vaunted talent, Moshfegh isn’t up to the task. After some painfully heavy foreshadowing, 9/11 provides a crude, perfunctory climax. At the start the narrative voice is so confident you feel sure it’s heading somewhere worthwhile. But the laziness of the ending entirely recasts the book’s early promise.\
MixedThe TimesHis drawings are as simplistic as Satrapi’s, and somehow deader, less drawn, as if created on an iPad. A faded colour palette, heavy on the greige, adds an extra hit of emptiness to the atmosphere ... At times it feels as if you are watching CCTV footage, piecing it all together. Which can be very effective. Making the reader/viewer do the work, at the far extreme of show-don’t-tell, creates a powerful sense of realism ... Readers of Beverly will open Drnaso’s new book, Sabrina, on high alert, wise to the menace beneath the bland surface of Drnaso’s images ... in Sabrina the fee is simply too steep: the use of graphics leads not to speed and economy but to profligate narrative inefficiency ... Sabrina will likely be most readers’ introduction to Drnaso. Which is a shame, because it’s Beverly that’s the true treasure here.
PanThe Times (UK)...everything about this novel has been designed to make life pointlessly difficult for the reader. It is the literary equivalent of an Ironman triathlon: only masochists need apply ... Self’s yea-sayers argue that this incoherence illustrates 'the permeability of selves' ... What will you get in return for all your hard work? Some glib données (did you know that the Iraq war was a bit of a botch job?), some jokes that don’t land and plenty of trendy computer-based metaphors involving lagging, memory, downloading, data, connectivity etc. I am not suggesting that difficulty is always to be avoided — just that you might prefer to spend your energy on summits with a decent view from the top. But the loss in intelligibility simply isn’t worth it.
PositiveThe Times (UK)\"...mostly, the literary essays will leave you educated, enlightened, entertained ... The criticism is leavened with assorted pieces of reportage, sports writing and political commentary. The reportage in particular is extremely good. Highlights include a tour of the porn industry and an account of losing big in Las Vegas. On sport, Amis is at his funniest, which is saying something...But it’s hard to see why some of the pieces in the “politics” sections have been included — such as two inevitably stale profiles of Republican campaign trails in 2011 and 2012.\
PositiveThe TimesThe star feature of Johnson’s fiction is indeed his sense of rhythm, although not at the level of the sentence. He was a writer who knew exactly when to switch from dialogue to digression to denouement. He also knew how to begin a story with a great cymbal-clash of event ... His final collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is no exception ... Johnson’s fictions are always hospitable to hitchhiker-narrators, characters who tell their tales for a page or two before hopping out as we speed on to another unexpected destination ... The quality that Johnson’s acolytes admire, intense moments of transcendence flaring against gritty backdrops, often feels too easy, automatic, even, in these stories ... Description mostly does the job and nothing more. Sometimes it’s more argumentative than descriptive ... If you are new to Johnson, start with Train Dreams and see how you go. If you are a devotee, then these stories are an enjoyable performance from an accomplished session musician.
PositiveThe Guardian...this second collection refines Yunior's voice further, into an utterly convincing idiolect that takes in delicate literary detail and tough bilingual argot ... Yunior is centre stage in This Is How You Lose Her: although his brother, Rafa, has cancer, his primary concern is his own life and heartbreaks. Díaz's great achievement is to remain true to the helpless solipsism that possesses all of us most of the time, while allowing the reader to see those other stories on the periphery of Yunior's purview ...the title announces the theme, which is, overwhelmingly, infidelity. Díaz writes a cracking love rat and the only weak moments are the self-consciously right-thinking ones ...if you liked his two previous books, you'll love this one, because Díaz is boldly, brilliantly, doing the same thing again, only better.