MixedThe Boston GlobeAlthough this novel is a purported oral history of the title character, a mysterious avant-garde musician, hers is the one voice we never hear. Instead, as we seemingly learn about this fictional pianist-composer we are treated to a revealing — and at times hilarious — satire of the music business, fame, and the cult of personality ... Much of the humor in this short comic novel is broad ... Inside jokes abound, particularly in the testimony of experts who can supposedly offer insight into Geffel or her exceedingly odd compositions, which apparently emanate directly from her emotions ... Other jokes are a little more welcoming to a wider readership ... At times the humor wears thin. The one-note recitals, particularly by the hypercerebral musicologist and self-important critic, become repetitive, even in this relatively short work. By the time Hajdu wields the critical doubletalk to tackle another issue — whether if great art can be created by someone who is happy — it is too little too late. A perennial debate among critics and fans of a certain sort, this question is left largely unresolved, though Hajdu does use it to hint at Geffel’s fate. What we learn, instead, is how all of us view each other as extensions of ourselves, for our own dreams and purposes, and, ultimately, how mysterious art and the act of creation really are.
RaveThe Boston Globe...a lyrical meditation on motherhood and mourning ... Cast largely as a series of intimate vignettes, these everyday interactions are depicted with a sensitivity that gives these most human of relationships their proper weight. Narrated by a succession of characters, they are beautiful in their specificity ... In Hegi’s precise, almost imagistic prose, such quotidian scenes come to seem as magical as the miracle Sister Hildegunde is constantly attempting to paint.
MixedThe Arts FuseClearly a painstaking scholar, the author of the much more comprehensive Tolkien and the Great War ignores the poetry and creativity underpinning Tolkien’s classic, dissecting it in an over-thought (and, at times, overwrought) search for connections to the author’s real-life ... Too often, Garth assumes causality. While many of Tolkien’s influences appear obvious, Garth’s certainty is, at best, galling ... This is a beautifully produced book, replete with illustrations. Full-page photos of evocative landscapes are supplemented by both maps and smaller shots detailing architectural features, while many of Tolkien’s own paintings...make this a lovely keepsake for fans. Less lovely are the multiple illustrations by lesser artists, which undercut the author’s own imaginings ... even within its brief main text, Garth repeats himself ... As a series of speculative essays—outtakes, perhaps, from Garth’s earlier work—The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien could have made an enjoyable browse, especially illustrated with the site-specific photos and Tolkien’s own work. Packaging it as a definitive work does Tolkien no harm, but it does the underlying scholarship, as well as Garth, a disservice.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeSmart, engaging, and heartbreakingly plausible ... Like Sittenfeld’s 2008 novel, American Wife,Rodham is told as a first-person reminiscence. But “Rodham,” like its namesake narrator, is the sharper book by far, depicting the realities of American politics as well as an astute portrait of the candidate who, we should remember, did win the popular vote ... So credible that it’s almost agonizing, this first section gives us the smart but insecure woman swept off her feet by the charismatic womanizer ... When Hillary breaks up with Bill, following a series of traumatic revelations, the book shifts into speculative territory — envisaging a career track for Hillary that involves both advocacy work and her own first ventures into the political arena. While these are logical and fully fleshed, playing out the inevitable conflicts between her early idealism and her ambitions and drawing on interviews and Clinton’s own writings, this makes for the driest part of the book. Hillary always was a policy wonk, and Sittenfeld evokes her smart, detailed voice for good and ill ... In the longing and loneliness, the anger as well as ambition, this Hillary makes Rodham a compelling portrait of a future that might have been.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThese are up-to-the-minute issues, and, while engaging, the book occasionally reads more like straightforward social commentary than a fully realized fictional world. What rescues it from polemicism are the detailed and personal voices of its narrators, particularly the women at its heart. Told primarily in three voices, all either students or teachers, the novel relies heavily on dialect and colloquial phrasings. This approach, seemingly naïve, camouflages some beautiful and subtle imagery, as when Lovely, the least educated of the three main narrators, first appears ... small decisions by Lovely and PT Sir that collectively loom large, propel the book, and the novel’s breakneck pace stumbles when these narrators are absent ... When it focuses on the struggles of Lovely and her peers, fellow underdogs, fighting for their own small piece of success, A Burning is heartbreaking, a damning indictment of a society depicted as utterly corrupt and racist. Even with its flaws, the book is an engaging and fast read.
Daniel Kehlmann, Trans. by Ross Benjamin
RaveThe Boston Globe... darkly brilliant ... In Kehlmann’s hands, Tyll, based on the German folk hero better known here as Till Eulenspiegel, also has a compelling personal story, one he alternately reveals in jest and dances away from ... merciless, following its protagonist through a war torn continent terrorized by lawless mercenaries and equally bloodthirsty religious zealots ... Like one of Tyll’s japes, the core story takes some unraveling ... an episodic and nonlinear approach, and Ross Benjamin’s translation gives a clarity to the individual voices that render their stories — tragedies, for the most part — profoundly humane.
RaveThe Boston Globe... breathtaking ... Woods weaves her magic into realistic descriptions seamlessly, almost as if they were emotional projections made real ... That the supernatural is plausibly presented as quotidian, a part of nature, speaks to the author’s skill ... None of this deft syncretism would matter were it not in the service of a grand tale. With a few striking exceptions, Woods does not dwell on the greater atrocities of slavery — the increasing lightness of each generation’s skin says enough — focusing instead on the everyday trials that bring these strong female characters to life. By the time of the book’s climax, when a young mother faces the loss of her babies, all the preceding centuries of grief and rage come through, as do the love and commitment these newfound families have forged. That’s a kind of magic that merits rereading, summoning realities that still have repercussions today.
MixedThe Boston GlobeIn French’s latest, The Secret Place, the telling detail is a note—and that epitomizes both the promise and the failure of this uneven fifth outing ... French often writes beautifully, capturing the teen appeal of a boy’s \'hard-cut mouth electric with maybe kisses.\' When she lets the girls speak for themselves, however, this evocative prose disappears ... The author’s goal may be realism, but the result is the opposite: flattening out these characters to the point where several minor players become nearly indistinguishable. In a novel of character, the reliance on these texts—and the resulting lack of clarity—is a serious flaw. It doesn’t kill the magic but it does slow the pace of what could have been another French triumph.
MixedThe Boston GlobeCatharsis, unfortunately, is what is missing from Sarah Braunstein’s accomplished debut, The Sweet Relief of Missing Children ... These lives are depicted in well-chosen details, like the smell of a leaky house or the awkwardness of an adolescent girl ... Occasionally, Braunstein gets a little too writerly ... Ultimately, all of these stories only wind down to grim despair. More than discomfiting, Sweet Relief is unrelenting, showing Braunstein to be a skilled writer who uses her deft pen to depict a joyless view of life in which the best that can be aspired to is anesthetized survival ... Empty artistry, an exercise in showy manipulation...
MixedThe Boston GlobeAs always, Aciman writes about desire with blunt honesty, describing erotic and emotional interactions with equal clarity. Sex can be tender or not, the connection lasting or ephemeral, but it is almost always multilayered and complex ... Aciman tends to pile on the descriptives, urging us to accept his characters’ points of view. When these are supported, the beauty of the language – Aciman’s careful specificity – adds up to emotion. At other times, he makes sweeping pronouncements in language that may be read as either Proustian or pompous ... the cross-generational sex at times pushes credibility ... The book is also marred by a slight whiff of misogyny. The homosexual love stories, by their nature, focus on men. But while all these men experience desire at all ages, even as they worry about their failing bodies and fading abilities, any woman they encounter is either young and beautiful ... Such complaints may be dismissed by the novel’s primary audience, those who fell in love with the central romance of Call Me By Your Name. However, for other readers who prize Aciman’s rapturous prose, they give reason to pause, breaking at least for a moment the beautiful dream.
RaveThe Boston GlobeThe Institute, is another winner: creepy and touching and horrifyingly believable ... casual description of the looming unknown is emblematic of what makes King’s writing, and this book, so effective ... In some ways, The Institute reads like a re-working of Firestarter for our times ... It is also a tad long-winded. It’s always lovely to have more of a King novel to read, but this one could have lost some pages ... That’s a minor complaint for a major work, however. The vast bulk of The Institute is essential—plot and characterization working hand-in-hand to create an intimate picture of horror.
MixedThe Boston Globe...[a] rambling, at times beautiful, at times annoyingly precious novel ... Norman’s observations of life’s joys—as voiced by Simon—are often beautifully specific, intimate, and detailed ... This is lovely writing. However, when the descriptions begin to pile up, they lose their impact, becoming as bloodless as that ghost ... Although Simon’s close observations are interrupted by small attempts at humor—that cat—and lots of implied, life-affirming sex, they are too often as mawkish and didactic as advice from any well-meaning elder. This tendency is emphasized by Norman’s infatuation with certain words—like \'ongoingness\' and \'crepuscular\'—which recur a bit too often ... When Muriel quotes Faulkner—\'the past isn’t even past\'—her husband notes, \'That’s all a little too literary.\' Perhaps not to the newly minted academic or to Simon, her spectral predecessor in the house. Norman however, should have listened to his own characters and rooted them a bit more forcefully in the present.
Sarah Elaine Smith
RaveThe Boston Globe... stunningly evocative ... In Smith’s hands, Cindy’s acute observations capture the classism and casual racism of their poor town ... At times, the narrative veers into more sophisticated territory, stretching the credibility of Cindy as a narrator ... This is more the vocabulary of Smith, a poet as well as a novelist, than that of the then still self-educating Cindy. However, such poetic phrasings work, perhaps because sound as well as meaning contribute so much to a depiction of poverty and insularity that wouldn’t be out of place in the books of Laurel Groff or Tim Gautreaux. Or perhaps the author is hinting at a broader future for Cindy.
PositiveThe Boston Globe...[an] odd little social experiment of a novel ... Grief can make people prickly, and neither of these characters [Noah and Michael] comes across at first as sympathetic. In Donoghue’s sure hands, both Noah and his snarky charge are immediately distinctive, their voices clear. Neither, however, are much fun ... It would be a stretch to say these two loners redeem each other, but cast together, they do at least learn to reach out. By their flight back to their new, shared home, they’ve touched the reader as well.
PositiveThe Artsfuse... an improbably well-timed release that, while fictional, may do a better job of illuminating the multifaceted Maryland metropolis’s story than either the angry outbursts or the reactions they provoke.
Yuko Tsushima Trans. by Geraldine Harcourt
PositiveThe Boston Globe\"... this short novel has a timelessness to it. The denial and dislocation are portrayed in a straightforward fashion, and the translation, by Geraldine Harcourt, is spare and unsentimental ... [Sexism\'s] blatant nature — and the fact that the young mother accepts it as normal — is jarring. Much more compelling are the internal conflicts that make up the bulk of this novel. There is a sense of inevitability as the year ends, and the woman takes a new apartment. Only walking distance from her light-filled sanctuary, the new space represents a new life, another understated step along the journey she has made.\
RaveThe Arts FuseThese tales – the artful gleanings of survival-conscious Jews and other minorities – have remained relevant to generations removed from the shtetl. In the hands of fantasy author Naomi Novik, they acquire another dimension still ... The roots of this work are apparent in its language, its metaphors speaking of an older, primarily rural world ... Not only did Novik know her military history (she owns to being a fan of Patrick O’Brian), she created fully realized and distinctive dragon characters and kept scrupulously to her own imagined rules ... the book was an endearing, funny, sexy, and smart revelation. It reads like a fairy tale for adults, the kind of book that constantly surprises, even as it leaves you with the feeling that you’ve known this story all your life.
Karen Thompson Walker
PositiveThe Boston Globe\"... a dream-like, sleepy, and somewhat surreal tale, but one that is also often beautiful and disturbing ... Weaving together the stories of several of the residents, The Dreamers initially appears straightforward and chronological ... However, when a sleeper wakes with horrible visions of another catastrophe, one that has not yet happened, the straightforward nature of the book and of time itself comes into question.\
PositiveThe Boston Globe...a challenging philosophical work that’s also just great fun ... On one level this debut novel is a swashbuckling adventure about a notorious outlaw and his forbidden love in 18th century London—the kind of off-kilter picaresque destined to become a film starring Johnny Depp ... Much of his story is familiar: Sheppard is based on an English folk hero who was the centerpiece of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which became Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera ... A bibliography closes this novel, for anyone who wants to explore further. For readers simply seeking a ripping yarn, this volume alone will suffice.
RaveThe Boston Globe\"...a marvelous and truly spooky historical novel … Something larger than life seems to be at work, and the spooky happenings at Hundreds are only set off by Faraday\'s scientific cynicism. As a strange spot on an old and mouldering ceiling takes on a sinister appearance and bodies begin to accumulate, Waters\'s precise and chilling prose lets Dr. Faraday have his way with the story. As he slowly lets us in on his disappointments and dreams, we become more aware of the old prejudices and disappointments that have made him the man — and the narrator — he is. Determined to unravel the mystery of Hundreds Hall, and perhaps to better understand his own past, Dr. Faraday comes alive in The Little Stranger, ably serving as a guide between two worlds, or maybe more.\
RaveThe Boston GlobeAs this brilliantly realized book unfolds, each of the three hurtles toward a particular destiny … Told in Kate’s wry voice, this is a coming-of-age story in which all three characters suffer through a loss of innocence. Kate is a keen observer and while her language reflects the slang of her time – she actually says, ‘Great Caesar’s ghost’ – it is also timeless, as when she labels a romantic rival ‘as sharp as a harpoon and twice as barbed.’ Like this narration, the period details that the author – through Kate – notes are precise and evocative, from the grim secretarial pool to the fireworks over a mansion’s lawn. But they never detract from the characters. Their issues are the eternal ones of identity and self-worth, set in stark relief in a troubled world.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThe signifiers start early in We Are Water, which is told in a series of alternating first-person narratives. Annie, an experimental artist, is at the center of them all, however, and her history, as well as her purported gift, drives the plot … We Are Water has all the touchstones of a potboiler: multigenerational family saga, high finance, abuse, creativity, sex, and even love.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeWhat this novel concerns itself with is both the back story, showing us how this tragedy came about, and the aftermath, as Lydia’s parents, brother, and sister try to move on ...Ng starts with the family’s history, laying the groundwork for Lydia’s death. She then moves seamlessly into the weeks beyond, excelling in her sensitive and detailed portraits of grief... From the beginning, we are made to feel the tension in the Lee household, and the triggering crisis arrives with a kind of enervating inevitability ... What we don’t see, until it is too late, is the toll this sacrifice demanded ...a beautifully crafted study of dysfunction and grief. Yes, it may miss a few notes, but the ones it does play will resonate with anyone who has ever had a family drama, never mind a gift.
MixedThe Boston GlobeSmart, amusing, and light as an emoji feather, Startup is a coming-of-age novel for these digital times ... It is an easy world to poke fun at, with its insider references and silly-sounding catchphrases and, most of all, its ridiculous amounts of money ... But this is no Bright Lights Big City. It’s not even as deep as 2013’s coming-of-age breakthrough, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. While it may be coincidence that those books dealt with young people finding themselves in New York’s literary society, what they shared was a more complex worldview — a dawning awareness that the world was larger than the characters’ own social milieu ... Like her heroines, the author came of age in digital media, and the book reads that way: fast, witty, and fun. But, sadly, after turning the last page the story lacks the kind of thoughtful resonance that takes hold and lingers.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeCalm and slow-paced, it is the kind of mystery that builds to a startling climax, the kind that makes the reader wonder how such a trick was pulled off ... The characters are compelling as well ... Bohjalian often centers his novels on social and psychological issues, and this is one behavioral problem he has clearly researched thoroughly. But very little is what it seems in this mystery, and even the most casual observation is worth keeping in mind. While Bohjalian skillfully crafts his puzzle, The Sleepwalker isn’t perfect. The first half moves quite slowly, as Lianna — who is often stoned — goes through the motions of caring for her sister and father, while dodging her own emotions ... But these are quibbles. Without giving anything away, it is safe to say that Bohjalian does a masterful job of planting false clues.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeAs a family saga, The Mortifications has more than enough to sustain it. Palacio writes vividly, conjuring smells and tastes of life both in the frozen north and the tropical Caribbean ... A bit too often, however, Palacio veers into a kind of magical realism that seems more interested in ideas than characters, particularly when the family once again lands in Cuba ... Only when Soledad returns to Cuba does the story regain its focus.
PositiveThe Boston Globe...a lot to pack into a novel, but Greenidge succeeds in large part because her voices are so dead-on. Whether it is Charlotte, swooning and conflicted over Adria or her sister, or Nymphadora trying to be clear-eyed about Gardner, these narratives are convincing and utterly engaging. Even little sister Callie’s chapters follow their own crazy logic, all of which lead up to a perhaps inevitable present in which so much is still left unsaid.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeImagine not a vengeful God, but a scared one, hiding away. Picture that same divinity capable of avenging the smallest slights by lashing out with unimaginable wrath. Pair that with a rational, caring cast of humans, subject to the whims of their creator but also, in some ways, responsible for him — and all the while wrestling with the slippery mystery of faith. That’s what Mary Rakow has done, with intriguing results.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeA short, bittersweet tale about how the longing for passion lives on, unsustainable in all but the persistence of memory.