Constance Grady is a culture writer for Vox.com. Previously at The Toast and the A.V. Club. She can be found on Twitter @constancegrady
RaveVoxFranzen is having fun with the Clem and Becky sections, their self-consciously square vocabulary, their earnest striving, the intensity of their small ambitions. But it’s with the two black sheep of the Hildebrandt clan, Perry and Marion, that Crossroads crackles to vicious, blazing life ... with Marion, [Franzen] reminds us that he’s actually one of our great novelists of female fury ... Yet despite Marion’s fury, there is a surprising tenderness to this novel. Franzen is known for his acidity, for his willingness to delve into the least attractive parts of his characters’ psyches. Crossroads is certainly unsparing toward the Hildebrandts, but it is also empathetic. Even awful, dorky, self-pitying Russ is allowed moments of surprising grace. This is a big, ambitious novel that aims to say big, ambitious things about America, and the church, and familial power dynamics; about what happens to families and countries after the patriarch has been deposed; about how we strive to be good and whether we ever can be. But it is also interested in the possibility of redemption after a great sin — or a great humiliation ... deceptively simple, merciless without being cruel, and thrilling in its sheer fury ... Haters and his own often-insufferable public persona be damned: Jonathan Franzen really is one of the great novelists of his generation. Crossroads stands ready and willing to prove it.
RaveVox... fraught and lovely ... The love stories provide the plot skeleton, and Rooney sketches them out with her characteristically sharp eye for the ever-shifting power dynamics of relationships and impressively intimate sex scenes. (Rooney’s tool kit also comes, it must be said, with a tendency to occasionally have characters break up over a misunderstanding so stupid that you kind of just say, \'Okay, Sally, we’ll let it go because it’s you\') ... is unlikely to be quite such a hit with readers, however successful it is on its own terms. It takes place very determinedly outside of the realm of the body. The love stories exist, but the ethical problem of art is what this novel is capital-A About ... Here, finally, is the end of alienation. Here, finally, is what it means to live life in a body, as a human being, not as a dry, mechanical observer or as a bodiless brain in cyberspace. That is what novels can offer us, even bourgeois realist novels, and especially Rooney’s earlier novels. And that, she seems to argue, is what matters most of all ... it’s unlikely to be a crowd-pleaser on the level the other two novels were. There is something tender about the way Rooney turns again and again to the novel, almost against her will, as though, Mr. Darcy-like, she has struggled in vain to deny her true feelings. Beautiful World, Where Are You is still very dialectical and Marxist and interested in political debates. Yet it is also a love letter to the novel as a form of art — and, by extension, to the ways in which human beings relate to one another ... a love letter to all of us, to all the ways we love. It’s much sweeter and smarter than all the merch would lead you to believe.
PositiveVoxA little bit Hitchcock, a little bit Patricia Highsmith, a little bit \'The Yellow Wallpaper\' ... Mrs. March is a sneakily brutal book, a scream almost drowned out by a whisper ... If there’s a major flaw here, it’s that Mrs. March seems if anything too clearly meant to end up onscreen ... Feito’s prose never falters, but she also doesn’t seem inclined to take advantage of the artistic possibilities the novel can offer that television can’t: psychology expressed through text rather than images, for instance. Still, there’s a relentless build to this book, a gnawing dread that sets in early and never quite lets up. And between Feito’s silver-polish sentences and her eerie psychological acumen, you don’t want it to.
Zakiya Dalila Harris
RaveVox... nimble-witted ... It’s all creepy and sad and unsettling, but it’s heightened just enough that it’s all a little bit funny, too ... Mostly, The Other Black Girl is just enormously fun. This book is confronting genuine issues about the problems Black women face as they navigate all-white spaces, and about how even liberal institutions like book publishing have made themselves all-white — but it does so with a joyous verve that will have readers galloping through every page. It’s a genuine blast of a read, and it will change the way you think about cocoa butter forever.
RaveVox... a lovely and vicious piece of work. It is vexed and questing, in search of some missing piece, some object that will bring meaning to the world but is utterly inaccessible; it fairly seethes with discontent ... it’s M’s ceaseless, ravening want that animates this novel, swirling under the surface of every immaculate sentence. Dwight Garner calls Cusk’s prose \'hot-but-cold,\' which comes as close as any descriptor could to summing up the exact quality of her sentences: They are detached, but also passionate; they writhe with furious wanting; they analyze all wants with ferocious mistrust.
RaveVox... terrific ... The giddy heist-movie energy of what ensues powers the first half of Gold Diggers: It’s all teens high on hormones and lemonade, pickpocketing their classmates for glory. But Sathian capably balances the slick pleasures of Neil and Anita’s small-time crimes with a clear-eyed foreboding ... The project of Gold Diggers is to deconstruct that dream. But what makes the novel so compelling is the playfulness with which Sathian deconstructs it. You feel for the characters and the ways they have been warped by their pursuit of greatness and the ways they are haunted by their sins — but also, there are heists and alchemy. It’s a blast.
PositiveVoxTruly, God bless Helen Oyeyemi ... her latest novel, Peaces, is very very weird ... But just because Oyeyemi’s source genre is cozy doesn’t mean the things she does with it are. This is a playful book, but it’s also a profoundly unsettling one ... Peaces moves slowly. But for the reader who might be tempted to find this lack of narrative urgency frustrating, Oyeyemi offers an illustrative fable in the book’s first few pages. She describes the audience at a marionette show, where there are four different ways of enjoying the performance — all of which map neatly onto different ways of reading a book ... Watching the strings while reading a Helen Oyeyemi book means watching the sentences, which are glorious ... As mysteries go, this one seems a little incoherent. But Oyeyemi imbues it with a creeping existential dread: a horror at the idea of this disappearance, at making yourself into exactly what someone wants, abasing yourself for them, groveling at their feet — and then becoming unseen ... Oyeyemi has provided quite a set of strings to track, even if she persists in frustrating all our wishes for resolution as Peaces comes to a close.
PositiveVox[A] spare and tender exploration of what it means to be made redundant, to exist in a world that believes itself to have moved past a need for you ... Klara and the Sun is not, however, likely to make Never Let Me Go redundant. It’s a technically lovely novel, with Klara’s forebodings expressing themselves less as fear than as a subdued melancholy that sweeps underneath the surface of the narrative in gentle waves. But this book lacks the deep wells of feeling that lurked in Never Let Me Go ... This sweet-natured novel is, like its narrator, just a little too cool and mechanical to inspire such emotional outpouring ... There are not so many good books in the world that a new Ishiguro will ever be obsolete.
RaveVoxBut No One Is Talking About This is not written in the way the portal writes. It is about the internet but not of it; it describes the internet without replicating it. It is a poetic examination of what it means to exist within that huge and seething mind ... Lockwood’s language is dense and lovely as a Cezanne painting, always, but surely it is easier to understand what you are looking at when you know which Cezanne brush strokes are indicating mountains and which ones are indicating houses. How do you comprehend a stream of communal consciousness if you have never been a part of that consciousness? ... She goes off the portal, \'where everything was happening except for this.\' She devotes herself instead to the baby, whom she finds overwhelmingly beautiful, and Lockwood’s prose here becomes so tender that you have to read it delicately, touching it with only one finger of your mind, so as not to bruise it ... But No One Is Talking About This only ever flirts with religious awe, never making those parallels explicit. And it seems to dare the reader to experience the baby’s life as cheap sentiment: Go ahead, it seems to suggest, try to take an ironic distance here. Try to experience this plot as manipulative ... As I read the second half of No One Is Talking About This, I could feel my brain-poisoning urging me toward lazy cynicism, toward the detached, sardonic skepticism that animates Twitter Voice. But Lockwood’s language was so clear, so tender, so radiant that I could not bear to read her book cruelly. Doing so would be a betrayal of something raw and vulnerable.
PositiveVoxManifestly, it is the book of a former president intent on protecting his legacy. The prose in A Promised Land splits the difference between the lyricism of Obama’s first book and the bean-counting of his second. The goals of this book are clarity and precision, but Obama indulges himself with the occasional writerly metaphor ... Obama’s technical literary gifts aren’t the point here, though. A Promised Land is a book written for the historical record ... He never goes so far as to suggest that the backlash against him is racist, in the same way he almost never mentions Trump by name. The suggestion is just there, lurking below the surface of his even, restrained writing. I found myself longing for Luther the anger translator to show up and just come out and say it ... FDR, he tells himself bitterly, would never have let that happen ... That’s the kind of recrimination Obama allows himself in A Promised Land. It’s a gesture at the kind of vulnerability that made Dreams of My Father so astonishingly intimate, and if this book never quite reaches those levels, it comes a lot closer than The Audacity of Hope did ... Obama’s ambivalence about his presidency runs shivering through the underside of A Promised Land. Here he is, making the world a better place, just as he always said he would. But how much is he actually able to get done? ... Obama has enough space and context to set the narrative he thinks he failed to set during his presidency.
MixedVox... compelling but uneven ... an unexpected argument for the power of restorative justice ... French is deeply invested in the aching, wistful beauty of rural Ireland ... As larger themes go, this is all good, meaty stuff. But The Searcher is not the richest of French’s novels, perhaps because it is so invested in its political themes and its setting that it never quite develops its central characters as carefully as French has in her other books. The central cast here is likable but rarely surprising, and there’s a touch of the generic to charming, smarter-than-he-looks, good-ol’-boy Cal. At times, he reads as though French carbon-copied Frank Mackey, the protagonist of 2010’s Faithful Place, and then changed his accent ... But that generic quality is one of the risks inherent to what French is doing with The Searcher. She’s going back to that hoariest of old stories, the righteous and honorable police officer trying to help a child, and she is trying to get the righteous police officer to question the entire genre in which he exists. Cal feels generic because he is: He’s a symbol of his genre ... What French is doing in The Searcher is trying to build a value system that cares about social workers into a novel that can still offer us the cathartic pleasure of watching a clever detective solve a case — while also maintaining her trademark complexity of character and theme ... doesn’t quite pull off every element of this balancing act. But it’s fascinating to watch French try.
RaveVoxClarke’s new novel is called Piranesi, and it is haunting. It establishes Clarke not just as one of the great fantasy novelists of her generation, but as one of the greatest novelists of any genre currently writing in English ... so haunting, so exquisite ... Piranesi did what all truly great novels do, which is to take me out of myself and then return me back as someone new and changed ... Piranesi is a book bigger than its mysteries and bigger than its slim page length. You will want to let it swallow you whole.
Maria Dahvana Headley
RaveVoxI am delighted. I’ve never read a Beowulf that felt so immediate and so alive ... Beowulf forces its translators to show their cards from the first word, and Headley’s priority is storytelling and a sense of linguistic play ... a rambling, boastful, word-drunk poem ... It’s profane and funny and modern and archaic all at once, and its loose and unstructured verses are full of twisting, surprising kennings ... Headley brings it to vivid, visceral life.
RaveVox... achingly lovely ... with her sophomore novel, Gyasi is narrowing her scope. Transcendent Kingdom is the story of one specific girl in one specific family: It is interior, psychological, and deeply focused on sifting through the layers of Gifty’s mind as she studies and prays and experiments to try to find her way to what lies at the core of human beings ... This is a quiet, ruminative story, proceeding through its ideas as carefully and deliberately as cautious Gifty proceeds when she makes her way through an experiment. Its intensity crept up on me slowly, so that I found myself registering Gyasi’s most startling images only after I had closed the book and saw them lingering behind my eyes hours later. The quietness is deceptive: Underneath all that deliberation, there’s someone screaming ... The pleasure of Transcendent Kingdom comes from peeling back all that deliberation, or perhaps more accurately, dissolving it, the way Gifty dissolved an eggshell in vinegar during her first practical science experiment. Once all the protective tissue is gone, there is the bare and quivering yolk. It’s the soul of the egg, revealed to us at last.
PanVoxIt has all the same clunky, leaden sentences you remember from the first time Twilight came out in 2005, and the same bizarre pacing, where nothing really happens until maybe 50 pages from the ending. It has the same insistence that stalking and emotional abuse is romantic, the same casual racism toward Indigenous people, and every other fault that made the franchise a general pop culture punching bag when it was at the height of its cultural saturation 10 years ago ... something in this franchise spoke deeply to the hearts of thousands of girls. That something is valuable, and worth a closer look. I can only find traces of it in Midnight Sun ... Meyer’s boredom is palpable. She has absolutely no interest in writing about a vampire-on-vampire game of cat-and-mouse through the wilderness ... we already saw...Bella’s point of view. And it was sexier and more interesting there. There’s a reason that the first time Stephenie Meyer told this story, she chose to tell it through Bella’s eyes and not Edward’s. Once you get inside Edward’s head, you’re stuck with a serious case of diminishing returns.
RaveVoxI loved Harrow the Ninth, loved it with my whole heart: its lush and velvety sentences, its wicked sense of humor, its sprawling cosmic world-building, the tragic love story at the center of it all. And if you are the kind of person who loved Gideon the Ninth (lesbian necromancers in space! what’s not to like?), you’ll love Harrow too ... But although Harrow can be very funny, this book is in the end a sadder story than the warmhearted Gideon the Ninth was. Harrow the Ninth is a book about grief and guilt, about committing a terrible sin and doing everything possible to forget it ... And as the book reaches its close, there are so many vast torrents of exposition it feels as though you could drown in them. Beautifully written, character-inflected exposition, to be sure, but exposition nonetheless. And truly, I could not tell you what is happening at the end of this book for the life of me ... I always enjoy being bewildered by Muir.
MixedVox... slim and polished ... as I read it, I couldn’t help but wish she’d waited five years to do so ... [Smith\'s] characteristic lucidity and novelistic sense of character. And when the subject is her own interiority, the essays fairly gleam with precision ... These essays have an attractive shine of relatability to them...But the enormous insight Smith is capable of marshaling toward her own thought process is not quite there on the page yet. There is something of the journal entry to these essays, a sense of taking notes and observing for a bigger project that has not yet arrived. Of putting down details from a close view to use when enough time has passed for perspective ... And when Smith turns her gaze to current events, to the politics of the pandemic, the results can feel downright facile. In \'The American Exception,\' she attempts to reckon with why America’s response to the pandemic has been so lacking on every level. Smith’s sentences in this essay can sometimes sing, but this question has been turned over and over and over so often by so many different thinkers over the past few months that by the time Smith takes her turn, the result feels almost empty. I know by now that my country’s elected officials have failed the country. I know that they are using the rhetoric of American exceptionalism to justify their failure. I know that people are dying as a result. What else you got? ... what Zadie Smith knows best is the form of the novel itself, and Intimations is at its liveliest and most provocative when she turns her attention to the question of what it means during this moment in time to write ... that gentle shrug is, more or less, the animating ethos of Intimations. Well, we have to have something to do, don’t we? It might as well be this book as anything else.
PositiveVoxThis novel is bleak ... It’s true that it’s impossible to tell if the thread of the story in this novel offers redemption or not. There is a glimmer of it, a glance of a possibility, in the final pages of the book, when Giovanna forms an alliance with her most ignored female friend. But it will take a whole other Ferrante novel, at least, for us to discover whether or not that friendship will be enough to redeem Giovanna from the existential despair into which men have thrown her.
RaveVox... a playful book about breaking through constraints and expanding past your limits, and it was never difficult for me to immerse myself in it ... That kind of easy, no-big-deal classical reference is one of the great pleasures of Or What You Will, which is filled to the brim with stories of Renaissance Florence, both historical and imaginary ... Walton is so enthusiastic on this point that a person might be tempted to hop on a plane, pandemic or no, and head off to Florence for lunch at the Teatro del Sale, an afternoon at the Uffizi art gallery, and then gelato at Perché No!, Sylvia’s preferred gelateria ... might be narrated by an incorporeal spirit, but it’s to ... I didn’t feel at all that I was in the wrong-shaped skull anymore. I felt I had at long last been set free.ld with a deep and palpable and sensual joy: of food, of art, of history, of books and learning.
RaveVoxThe gothic in this book goes well beyond surface-level tropes ... Moreno-Garcia is playing with great dexterity here with the conventions of the gothic house novel ... It’s the elegance with which Moreno-Garcia handles this metaphor that elevates Mexican Gothic above the level of didactic pastiche. This book is deliciously true to the gothic form, grotesque without becoming gross, and considered, always, in the way it thinks about power and its characters’ reactions to power. Read it with your lights on — and know that strange dreams might begin to haunt you, as they haunted Noémi.
RaveVoxIt’s a social satire, with all its carefully detailed descriptions of what it’s like to be Black and a woman in the midst of New York media. Leilani is ruthless toward the polite liberal racism and misogyny of this world ... most fundamentally, Luster is a family novel. It’s about the way we replicate our childhood family structures in our romantic lives, and how that’s maybe the only way we have of exorcising the trauma of being a child ... She captures Edie on the page. She gives her own main character what she’s been longing for.
RaveVoxAll of these events unfold with the inevitability of a folktale or a fable—which is how The Vanishing Half, with its many folklorish narrative extravagances, reads. This book is not interested in literary realism. It is a fairy tale, and it makes no apologies for being so ... Bennett duly enters into the minds of each of her major players, one after another, and she is thoughtful enough to be empathetic with each in their darkest moments ... Bennett is precise about tracking such gradations of power. She is also precise about her sentences, which are meltingly lush without ever becoming overripe ... a marvel.
PositiveVoxThe new book is billed as an origin story for Coriolanus Snow ... And it fulfills that function capably enough, although it fails to ever quite reach the adrenaline-pumping urgency of the first trilogy ... The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes digs a little deeper. It’s interested not just in the fact of the murder of children, but in the why of it ... calculation and coldness makes Coriolanus a tricky protagonist. Collins has no interest in making him sympathetic or a figure to root for ... while Coriolanus can be compelling, he never resolves into the kind of iconic survive-at-all-costs protagonist that Katniss was. And in general, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes lacks the relentless urgency of the original trilogy ... in the end, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes isn’t quite the moment-defining achievement the original trilogy was. It’s more of a curiosity, a cold-blooded philosophical inquiry that adds depth to the original three books but is not essential reading. It’s a nightmare from which it is all too easy to wake up.
MixedVoxThe End of October is not a good book if we’re talking about sheer storytelling craft. The plot hums along ably enough, but the characters are flat, the women exist mostly to be sexually assaulted and/or die, and the prose is workmanlike at best. You’re not reading this book to experience a beautiful work of art ... Under normal circumstances, it would be an airport thriller, the kind of book you buy on a whim when your flight is delayed and leave on the plane when you’re done. But under our particular circumstances, in which I deeply hope you are not engaging in any kind of nonessential travel whatsoever, things are different ... What makes The End of October compelling to read right now is that Wright researched the hell out of what kind of infrastructure the US would need to survive a pandemic. He concluded that we did not have it. And then he drew on his formidable knowledge of domestic and international politics to imagine what would ensue...He got disconcertingly close to reality ... As I read The End of October, I found myself resenting it. It was such a silly potboiler of a novel, with such unbelievable characters, such leaden sentences, such infuriatingly clumsy dialogue. How dare the world in which I am actually living so closely resemble a fucking airport thriller? ... Wright is undoubtedly a gifted reporter and observer of the world, and the fact that he was able to so clearly see where the existing fault lines in our social fabric lay and how they could be exacerbated by a pandemic shows real skill on his part. But the fact that Wright got so many of his details overwhelmingly right is also a reminder that this pandemic did not come out of nowhere. It was not difficult to predict. It was, in fact, something that we were told was coming over and over again, something that the people we elected to protect us from such a pandemic chose to willfully ignore ... This pandemic should not have caught us off our guard. It should have been as easy to see coming as the final twist in a cheap thriller.
PanVoxIt is \'really not so,\' Woody Allen remarks defensively, halfway through his new memoir...that \'I gravitated toward young girls\' ... That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it ... And so it goes throughout Apropos of Nothing, which came out in a surprise drop on Monday after Allen’s last publisher canceled the book due to staff protests: Allen sticks to his story. Specifically, he sticks to his story about what happened between him, Mia Farrow, and their adopted daughter Dylan Farrow ... Farrow, he says, was abusive and vindictive and obsessive, and on this point he waxes long and eloquent throughout the pages of his memoir ... Here’s the big difference between Allen’s story and the Farrow camp’s: As both Dylan and Ronan Farrow have pointed out, theirs has gone through fact-checking in multiple journalistic outlets, which always corroborate their claims with multiple sources. Allen’s generally has not, and Apropos of Nothing, like most books of nonfiction, was not fact-checked either ...The only big new addition Allen makes to his account in Apropos of Nothing is to address the long line of actors who have denounced him in the wake of the Me Too movement. He bears none of them any ill will, he says, and moreover, he doesn’t think most of them bear him any either ... As for his own behavior, Allen writes, he has only one regret: that he’s never made a film he considers truly great. The rest, he thinks, was all worth it.
PositiveVoxReading Emma Straub’s breezy new novel All Adults Here left me with a pleasantly soothed feeling ... It’s a gentle, friendly book, a classic beach read that will work just fine even now, when most of us can’t go to the beach ... secrets will emerge as this family of well-meaning, basically decent people work really hard to figure out how to be kind and supportive to one another in the best possible way, and the entire process is so, so calming ... It helps that Straub writes the kind of serene, orderly sentences that allow you to trust her instantly. Her prose is straightforward and limpid, and you just know as you read that she has never once misplaced a word. She might have misplaced a pronoun, though. One supporting character in All Adults Here is trans, but although the character identifies as a girl, Straub consistently uses he/him pronouns for her whenever she’s dressed in boy’s clothes—and continues even when the character is narrating the story herself, as though her gender identity depends entirely on her wardrobe. It’s a disappointing false step for an author otherwise in complete control of her story. Still, All Adults Here remains an immensely charming and warmhearted book.
RaveVoxMantel’s genius as an author is to make the past feel as though it is happening right now. Her books take place in the present tense, and as you read them, history stops seeming inevitable ... Part of what makes the books seem so urgent and immediate is that they take place so firmly within Thomas Cromwell’s head. The bulk of the three books is told in the third person, but every so often, the narration slips easily and elegantly into first or second person, in the way that sometimes in your inner monologue you are yourself, sometimes you narrate your actions as though you are a separate person, and sometimes you address yourself as \'you\' ... Expectations are high for this novel. And it lives up to them ... not as taut or as immaculately structured as its predecessors were. It’s a shaggy 754 pages, and it lacks a central goal for Cromwell to devote himself to ... Mantel makes the past feel so immediate that it seems possible Cromwell might actually manage to save himself ... in the meantime, it’s always a joy to spend time with Cromwell. He’s one of those characters who is so implausibly good at everything that you’d hate him if he weren’t so likable — and if he were not so satisfyingly self-interested. Mantel gives you plenty of space to hate Cromwell, which makes it possible to love him, too. And it makes his gradual evolution from principled lawyer to agent of the despotic state feel all the grander and more Shakespearean ... Throughout, Mantel’s prose is rich and vivid. She’s famous for her archival work, which she uses to ground her novels in the historical truth of the past, and it shows itself here in the vividness of Cromwell’s world...The result is immersive: You can lose yourself in these sentences.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg
RaveVoxA...kind of glee animates Ortberg’s writing, and it rushes all the way through this thoughtful, joyous book. Even when Something That May Shock and Discredit You delves into difficult material...Ortberg always writes with a sense of profound and honest delight: What luck, it’s another day where he gets to be a man. And reading, you can’t help but be delighted with him ... This book is odd and self-satisfied and bizarrely specific, in all the best possible ways. Consistently, it’s funny ... But Something That May Shock and Discredit You is also tenderly, gently thoughtful about gender and about what it means to transition, especially for someone like Ortberg, who built a public reputation as a feminist running a women’s website before coming out ... Something That May Shock and Discredit You is not precisely an explanation for everyone who was wondering why the person they first knew as Mallory Ortberg is now Daniel M. Lavery. It is neither apologetic nor self-justifying, and Ortberg remains very clear on the fact that he does not owe an explanation about himself or his gender to anyone ... Instead, this book reads like an exploration — a funny, gentle, thoughtful exploration — of how Ortberg sees the world, and how transitioning affected the lens through which he sees it. Reading it feels like reading the Toast felt in 2013, which is to say it feels like coming into contact with a restless and smart mind of profound and specific hyperfixations. It’s a joy.
PositiveVoxTaylor’s descriptive sentences can be so affectless as to read as terse, even though grammatically he tends toward the long and complex. It’s not that his prose doesn’t make you feel things; it’s that Wallace, in whose head we are placed in a close third-person perspective, is trying very hard not to feel things, and most of what he does feel is depression. So instead of telling us his feelings, he shares his observations ... Wallace allows us into his inner self only once, in a single first-person chapter toward the end of the book. There, Wallace tells us about the trauma of his childhood in detail and Taylor’s sentences grow rich and lush, fully and at last steeped in emotion ... sensitively, elegantly rendered. Taylor, who like Wallace trained in science before becoming a writer, is as keen an observer as his subject is, and he writes with extraordinary precision: about the academy, and queerness, and race, and trauma, and ambivalent friendship, and desire. About all the things that, put together, make up something approaching real life. Whatever the hell real life is.
N. K. Jemisin
RaveVox... an absorbing and joyful novel, and reading it didn’t just temporarily take me away from the reality of life during a pandemic. It made me more hopeful that when the pandemic ebbs, the vital core of our communities will still remain ... a love letter to the city’s resilience, and to all the ways it overcomes hatred to rise up stronger than it was before. And by extension, it’s about the rest of us, and the ways in which we must all work together to protect and support one another ... It will give you faith that New York can come back to itself again — and so can all the rest of us, too.
PositiveVoxJenny Offill’s Weather is a novel about living at the end of the world, which is to say that it is a novel about being alive right now ... That question is nearly impossible to confront without despair, but Offill’s form allows her to get closer than most writers. Those tiny units of story work like Zen koans: they are so opaque, and yet so deadpan and unflinching, that as they accumulate, we find ourselves brought closer and closer to the truth we could not bear to look at if it were presented to us head-on. We come so close that Weather feels honest and unsparing in a way few other novels about climate change have managed.
PositiveVox... witty and biting ... Reid is writing smart, accomplished satire here. The prose is so accessible and immediate that it seems to turn transparent as water as you read, but it’s laced with telling details about liberal racial politics. Most vicious and precise of all is the portrait of Alix, who trades off with Emira in narrating alternate chapters, and whose entitled, aggrieved voice serves as a biting indictment of banal, corporate-friendly white lady feminism circa 2016 ... is willing to allow Alix to be nearly lovable while still letting us feel exactly how gross and terrible she is to Emira because its satire never overwhelms its empathy toward its characters. That’s what makes them feel like fully realized people—and what makes their casual bourgeois racism so painfully, cringingly familiar to read.
RaveVoxThe Hate U Give is a didactic issues novel for teenagers. It is also a good book. Those two categories intersect only rarely, but The Hate U Give — a debut novel by Angie Thomas — manages the balancing act with aplomb ... It was probably inevitable that someone would write a YA novel about police shootings, but it was not inevitable that it would be a good book. Whenever a societal problem becomes a national obsession, some adult will write a book about it for teenagers; usually the result is a Go Ask Alice–style stew of fearmongering and breathless sensationalism. But The Hate U Give is charming and funny and carefully crafted, and Starr’s witty, observant, pop culture–inflected voice is a delight ... The specificity and whimsy of ideas like the anger scale of breakup songs is what keeps The Hate U Give moving so deftly through its heavy subject matter; it stays warm and focused and grounded in character even when it’s dealing with big, amorphous ideas like systemic racism. The result is a book so thoughtful and so fun to read that you’ll want to Bruno Mars it.
PositiveVoxNeither of these two villains is quite as effective as their predecessors, who could be genuinely terrifying ... while I occasionally found myself wincing as I read The Secret Commonwealth, the book always kept pulling me inexorably forward. And an enormous part of that pull is thanks to Lyra, who felt like a thoroughly modern heroine in 2000 and continues to feel like one now, nearly two decades later ... the deepest pleasure of reading The Secret Commonwealth comes from watching Lyra become more and more like the best parts of her child self, remembering how to lie fluently and commit herself to a quest with ferocious tenacity.
Carmen Maria Machado
PositiveVox... while Machado is fluent in many genres, her native tongue is the fairy tale, and specifically the dark and bloody Angela Carter kind. So throughout In the Dream House, no matter what narrative trope or genre is framing the chapter at hand, she uses footnotes to mark off fairy tale motifs as they occur ... Fairy tales are in many ways about the making and breaking of taboos...and their stringent yet arbitrary lists of rules make them a perfect metaphor for talking through an abusive relationship ... Machado’s telling of this particular story is anything but common: It’s compassionate and thoughtful and achingly honest. Most of all, In the Dream House is a generous book. It is generous to all the readers of the future who might find themselves in the Dream House as Machado did. And so that they don’t have to make up their own language to make sense of what is happening to them, it offers itself up, bare and vulnerable.
RaveVox... an incredibly immersive book, with a rich, detailed mythology, gorgeously balanced sentences, and a genuinely meaningful central relationship ... I started this book chuckling at the outrageous premise. I finished it crying, because the ending punched me straight in the gut ... Muir establishes this complex world so simply and so elegantly that it never becomes overwhelming. She provides just enough exposition to more or less give the gist of what’s going on at any given moment, and her grasp on the narrative is so sure that you can relax as you read... Mostly, Muir lets the plot unfold in the background where you’re not looking, and she lets her characters do the driving. And they are incredibly charming drivers ... Throughout, Muir’s prose is sleek and compulsively readable. She has a genius for sliding her voice seamlessly from Lovecraftian gothic mode into a slangy contemporary mode without ever undercutting one or the other for cheap comedy. Instead, the contemporary mode makes the cast of characters feel familiar and recognizable, the Lovecraftian horror makes the world feel expansive and terrifying, and the slippage between both powers the book forward ... The result is immersive; it demands to be swallowed down in long, luxurious gulps. I devoured it in two days and then spent the next day brooding over it, worrying the characters around in my mind.
PositiveVoxThe Testaments is a hopeful book. It’s escapist. It’s a thriller. It’s a bit of a joyride ... she holds on to the central belief of the TV show, which is that Gilead is a dystopia with hope, that it will be destroyed by individual and extraordinary human beings ... That makes The Testaments fun to read. But it also means that this sequel feels a little less truthful, a little less likely to become immortal, than its predecessor ... This version of Lydia is a stone-cold survivor, someone who was determined to build a life for herself regardless of what she has to do to anyone else to get it. And Atwood writes her with evident glee ... it’s in the younger women’s contributions that The Testaments is at its weakest ... There’s a certain giddiness to Atwood’s writing: Look at these women working together; look at the cleverness of their plan; look at how clear it is that those who are good will succeed and those who are not will be punished. It’s a romp. But that giddiness is also what makes The Testaments feel slighter than The Handmaid’s Tale ... It’s fun to read. It’s beautifully written. But it feels less honest than The Handmaid’s Tale did.
MixedVox... gentler and more melancholy than its predecessor ... effective at building tension. But it’s also frustrating, because it means we spend a lot of time with Samuel and Miranda as Aciman hammers home his chosen themes. And Samuel and Miranda are not particularly interesting characters ... Aciman writes it in his most exalted, lyrical prose, letting his characters pile one destiny-driven vow on top of another in cascading sentences ... Miranda and Samuel exist only as shallow outlines: Samuel represents wise and cosmopolitan age and Miranda is his perfect reflection in a young and vigorous body. That is the dynamic that Aciman seems interested in to the exclusion of all else, and the second time he writes it, it’s less convincing than the first ... Because Samuel and Miranda aren’t real characters, when they settle into the quasi-symposium that in Aciman’s worldview is the natural prelude to sex, their rapport doesn’t quite ring true. Which is surprising, because usually those symposiums work for Aciman even when they shouldn’t ... the emotion never quite comes through with Samuel and Miranda, because Aciman hasn’t made the effort to turn them into more than flat types. As a result, their symposiums feel like just that: symposiums, without the undercurrent of love and desire and fear that made Elio and Oliver’s symposiums so compelling.
RaveVox... the kind of book that begs to be read at 2 in the morning, under the covers, with a flashlight in your hand and snacks at your elbow. It’s so immersive that, reading it, I felt myself pulled back into the way I used to read as a child, curled up with a book and disappearing into its pages so thoroughly that it didn’t seem possible that anything else in the world could ever have existed. The only thing going through my mind was Bardugo’s haunted, corrupt, and magical Yale, and Alex Stern, struggling to make her way through it ... Bardugo fills the Yale campus with rich, luxurious details ... Alex is the great joy of Ninth House ... is willing to go dark, but it never dims so far as to feel like it’s punishing its readers. The darkness is cathartic, because we have Alex there with us, fighting with all her iron will to make it through to the other side. And her will is so strong, so visceral, as though she were exerting it on me, too, daring me to look away from her story. As if I wanted to do anything at all of the kind.
MixedVoxTa-Nehisi Coates is not yet a great novelist. He’s an okay novelist who can write the hell out of a sentence ... a rich, intellectually interesting metaphor, if nowhere near as elegantly deployed as the similar metaphor in Beloved that Coates is cribbing from (It’s a high bar!) ... studded with passages that shimmer with lyricism ... everyone talks in basically the same way, which means everyone talks in essays. And that, in turn, means it is nearly impossible to get a real feel for any of the characters besides Hiram, because all of them are more or less interchangeable: They’re just walking illustrations of various intellectual ideas that Coates would like to parse out ... having given itself over to the goofiness of its own mythology, the book stops in its tracks to let its characters have a Parliamentary debate over the best way to resist white supremacy. The movement between these two storytelling modes is whiplash-inducing ... [Coates] doesn’t have the kind of command over the novel as a medium that will let him meld disparate genres together; he doesn’t seem to care about his characters as people rather than as devices he can use to convey ideas; he doesn’t really understand how to keep a plot moving ... What Coates can do — and what he does better than nearly anyone — is build an argument that resounds with clarity and moral urgency, and craft a sentence beautiful enough to take your breath away. It will be incredible to see what he can do with those tools a few books from now.
E. Jean Carroll
PositiveVoxAll of this listing and cataloging of offenses sounds grim, but What Do We Need Men For? is in actuality a bit of a romp. It’s a whimsical book, a book that approaches its high-concept road trip with tongue firmly in cheek. Carroll peppers her sentences liberally with bubbly asides to her readers, whom she always addresses as Ladies ... But What Do We Need Men For? is also sincerely horrified by all of the Hideous Men Carroll has experienced in her life, by all of the casual violence and disdain and misogyny that our society has allowed to flourish. The book is a romp mostly because it will be damned if it’s going to let those Hideous Men keep it from romping, and when Carroll suggests that all men should be sent off to reeducation camps, her tone suggests that she’s only half joking.
PositiveVoxMcCulloch isn’t a prescriptivist, and she has no interest in telling her readers that one particular way of using language is more correct than others. Instead, she tracks how people are really communicating right now, and what meaning they are conveying to each other with their particular choice of capitalization style and GIF. What makes Because Internet so compelling is that McCulloch can parse the subconscious choices we all make every day as we type, and explain exactly how we learned to make those choices in the first place.
RaveVoxIf you want to understand what it’s like to live your life on the internet right now, there are few writers better equipped to help you than Jia Tolentino ... a collection of essays on trying to survive the 21st century that are so incisive and elegantly constructed that as I read, I found myself wanting to underline particularly beautiful sentences again and again, until every page was black with ink ... Most of what defines this collection is a feeling of profound horror at a terrible realization: Tolentino is smart enough to see the problems with what’s happening in the world, the way those problems warp our minds and souls; she can diagnose them for us. But she doesn’t have any prescriptions or solutions. You can’t think your way out of capitalism ... What Trick Mirror has to offer doesn’t feel like a solution. But it does feel like a map. And maybe that’s enough for now.
PositiveVox... the length of [Stephenson\'s] books is both one of his greatest weaknesses and greatest strengths as a writer ... When Fall is at its best, its length feels luxurious and unhurried. It’s as though the book is taking place in a vast and expansive world that goes on and on forever — or in many worlds that go on and on forever — and we have nothing but time with which to explore them ... But when Fall starts to falter, its length begins to feel less like a luxury and more like a burden. In the novel’s last hundred pages or so, there’s a sense of palpable exhaustion and boredom to the narration. Major climactic events are skimmed over rapidly. Ideas that have been lurking intriguingly in the subtext are suddenly spelled out, explicitly and inelegantly ... an elegantly plausible near-future dystopia that neatly replicates the power dynamics of our own time ... as Fall approaches its climax, it narrows its focus away from the grand philosophical ideas that animated its earlier sections to concentrate on Dodge and his problems, and specifically on his love story with a barely rendered female character who has maybe five lines of spoken dialogue in this entire 883-page book ... It feels less as though the novel is aiming for something underwhelming, and more as though all of its ideas come together to form a story so ambitious that it’s beyond Stephenson’s considerable powers to resolve it ... a rich and luxurious book. It’s worth the considerable time investment that it demands.
RaveVox... eases itself back and forth between Elwood’s and Turner’s perspectives with a deceptive seamlessness that belies how fundamental their disagreement is. It’s their debates that power the philosophical heart of the book ... Nickel is a brutal place, but Colson never lets the reader wallow in its brutality ... pointedly straightforward and simple...The argument between Elwood and Turner is so binary as to feel almost didactic in the beginning. The sentences have been sanded down to rhythmic, conversational fragments ... But all that simplicity is just part of Whitehead’s trick. There’s something else going on here, something terrible and heartbreaking, and when Whitehead at last eases it out into the open, he does it so beautifully that, reading, I found myself catching my breath ... s more than the sum of its parts, and its parts are beautifully constructed to begin with. But as beautiful and thoughtful as it is, it never lets you forget that it is built around a true atrocity, around something that should never have happened. It’s a book that rests on top of almost 100 unmarked graves.
RaveVoxEarly on, Fleishman Is In Trouble reads like a standard contemporary divorce novel, albeit a witty and nicely written one ... But hidden on the bottom of the first page, there’s a hint that something different is going on in this book ... The more we hear Toby’s account of all of Rachel’s sins, the harder it becomes to ignore the idea that perhaps Toby is the one who is not understanding something basic and fundamental, that perhaps the heart of the story — the most important thing here — has nothing to do with him at all. That’s the Taffy Brodesser-Akner trick, the thing that makes her profiles so clear-eyed and important, the thing that lifts her divorce novel head and shoulders above so many others in its genre: She is always willing to extend her empathy to people we are trained to believe are not worthy of our consideration. She is always willing to treat them as real people.
RaveVox... the Platonic ideal of a summer book. You don’t read it so much as sink luxuriously into it, like you’re diving into a clean and icy cold swimming pool on a hot day. Turning its pages, you can almost smell the warm cement sidewalks and the chlorine ... Gilbert’s prose has an inject-it-into-my-veins immediacy: It’s not so lyrical that it calls attention to itself, but the rhythm of each sentence is so precise that you absorb it before you even realize what’s happening. And Vivian is a fantastic narrator, self-aware and funny and just cynical enough ... Vivian’s nostalgia suffuses City of Girls and is what gives it its joyous energy. This book is a pure and uncomplicated pleasure to read, and it begs to be guzzled down like chilled rosé, sweet and summery and just a little intoxicating.
RaveVox... not jewel-like. It’s closer to a grand machine. And this machine is made up of intricately connected parts, all moving in a pattern of such complexity that you can’t always be sure that you’re following it. But you can always trust that the machine’s inventor has plotted out that pattern with exquisite precision ... Chiang is thoughtful about the rules of his imagined technologies. They have the kind of precise, airtight internal logic that makes a tech geek shiver with happiness ... he will never, ever veer away from the laws he’s set for himself ... The other big robot book of the spring, Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, comes off as clumsy in comparison ... The stories in Exhalation are a shining example of science fiction at its best. They take both science and humanism deeply seriously, which is why it’s so satisfying to watch Chiang’s shining, intricate machine at work: You know that whatever the machine builds, it will tell you something new about human beings.
PositiveVox\'Orange World,\' the title story in Karen Russell’s terrific new short story anthology, is so good that I want to turn it into a pamphlet and give it to every new mother I know ... \'Orange World,\' along with the other seven stories in this collection, is an encapsulation of Russell’s work. It shows off all her characteristic strengths — and her small weaknesses ... Russell’s stories are reliably funny, empathetic, studded with beautiful sentences, and gently, spine-tinglingly creepy ... it’s elevated by the precision of her prose, all crisp literary rhythms and haunting, eldritch imagery ... by this point, her short stories are starting to feel familiar. They’re not bad, not even close, but for a Russell fan, reading Orange World can come with a faint sense of deja vu ... I’d love to see Russell try something new, but as long as she keeps executing her old formula with this much care and tenderness every time, it’s always a pleasure to read.
MixedVox... at times disappointing ... At this stage in his career, McEwan can write a pretty good novel in his sleep. Like nearly all of his books, Machines Like Me is elegantly constructed, the sentences are consistently lovely, and the character dynamics—especially as Adam falls in love with Miranda, and even more so as Charlie and Miranda unite to betray him—always compelling. But Machines Like Me never rises above the level of \'pretty good.\' It reeks of wasted potential ... the idea of a robot who seems more human than the humans surrounding him, to say nothing of the question of what those humans might owe him as a result, is hardly new or groundbreaking. And the idea of a robot whose inflexible virtues make him incompatible with naturally corrupt humans (Adam cannot bear the idea of a lie) is a downright cliché ... Machines Like Me seems to avoid delving into new ideas with an almost willful obstinance ... It’s almost like a cyborg itself: The skin of this book is perfect, but when you look below the surface, there’s no soul there.
Bret Easton Ellis
PanVox\"White is a poorly thought-out mess of a book written by someone who does not take seriously the topics he’s writing about. It is also, more damningly, not interesting at all ... All of White is, in fact, a massive and unoriginal exercise in projection, a defensive bray of \'I’m not mad, I actually think it’s funny,\' repeated for 260 pages.\
MixedVox\"The result is a book that reads like a years-long montage, skittering from moment to moment and only ever lingering on a given scene long enough for a fleeting impression. Beattie’s prose is characteristically limpid, smooth and clear enough to keep a reader hurtling along without issue — but the plot is opaque, because Beattie keeps veering around vital information. If you want to figure out what’s happening in this book, you have to look at what’s not being said ... This is a book in which all the meat has been carved away, and we are left with only the bones ... A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is an intellectually rich book with a razor-sharp sense of irony. But it’s also a cold book ... Still, this cold book is mesmerizingly elegant. It may not leave you feeling much, but it is always beautiful to read.\
PositiveVox\"The true appeal of Gingerbread is in such eye-searing descriptions — of pastry turned blazing hot with vengeance and murder, so hot that it melts the spoon used to mix it and would, one has to imagine, ecstatically incinerate the tongue of the person who ate it. To appreciate it is to read it more for those descriptions, for Oyeyemi’s shivery imagery and turns of phrase, than to find out what happens next. What happens next is beside the point ... Gingerbread embraces that signature Oyeyemi weirdness and blasé disregard for plot — but it also seems to extend that disregard further than Oyeyemi has before ... It is as if the screen of Oyeyemi’s language has become so elaborate that it is difficult to reach past it and connect to the living hearts of her characters. And as a result, this book can sometimes feel a little dry, like gingerbread that’s been just slightly overbaked. But if a book is going to propel itself solely on language and atmosphere, then it should aspire to be as good at even one of those elements as Gingerbread is at both. No matter what happens in the plot, every sentence is perfectly balanced and evocative and rich with meaning.\
PositiveVoxWhat happened to the women of Manitoba is singularly horrifying, but a book written about sexual violence that comes out in America in 2019 has to work hard to avoid being thought of as a \'#MeToo novel\' ... Toews does not veer away from that classification. Instead, she uses the ghost rapes of Manitoba as a kind of allegory for the position in which women find themselves in the wake of #MeToo ... These are heady, difficult questions, but Toews handles them with fingertip delicacy. She is best known as a comic novelist, and Women Talking, as bleak as its premise might be, is also extremely funny ... Women Talking is as tender and funny and hopeful as it is possible for a book about the aftermath of a string of serial rapes to be.
Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
RaveVox\"Sounds Like Titanic, a debut memoir by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, is the definition of an overdeliver ... With an idea that compelling, the rest of the book really didn’t have to be better than passable. But then Hindman ups her game ... And on top of her ability to mine unexpected resonances from a story, she writes marvelously lucid prose. That her voice is strong enough to pull off the impossible horror that is lengthy chapters written in the second person is just icing on the cake ... Sounds Like Titanic... is never bland. It’s a rich, powerful book that is never content to rely on the wackiness of its premise but instead keeps digging. It does the hard analytical work that shows not just that a weird fake music tour happened for a period of years but why it might have happened, and what its audience got from it.\
PositiveVox\"[The book] wise and witty, and it boasts Thomas’s characteristic ability to handle serious questions of systemic racism with a light and even joyous touch ... On the Come Up is earnest and warm-hearted, a careful examination of social issues that’s built around an immensely endearing main character. It’s likely to assure Thomas’s continued and well-deserved dominance on the best-seller lists.\
PositiveVox\"The most purely charming thing I have read so far in 2019 is Jan Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye ... Morris’s voice combines thoughtfulness and kindliness in equal measure, and it is a profound pleasure to just spend time with her as she works out her thoughts ... There is so much dash and verve in Morris’s sentences, so much personality, a generosity of spirit that is flavored by well-earned crankiness ... Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye is so charming, so endearing, such an antidote to boredom, that I find myself tempted to give it the Montaigne treatment.\
MixedVoxI can’t actually say that Mary Ventura is worth reading now by anyone other than Plath completists. This story is very recognizably a piece of juvenalia ... It’s a learning story, the kind of story you write to figure out exactly what kind of writer you are becoming ... reading Mary Ventura now, with full knowledge of Plath’s biography, it’s difficult to read Mary’s decision to get off the train as anything but a suicide allegory ... with periodic glimpses of the genius she would become in occasional perfect sentences, it is compelling ... But in and of itself, it is too small and too slight to bear the weight of being sold as the publishing event of the past 50 years. It’s a student story.
MixedVox\"Does [the book] live up to \'Cat Person\'? Not quite. You Know You Want This is not a great book. It’s uneven, and it wants to shock more than it succeeds in shocking. But it’s never boring — and it reeks of potential ... When Roupenian leans into her ability to explore and explode modern archetypes like this, she’s a breathtakingly exhilarating force. But for most of You Know You Want This, Roupenian is not leaning into that ability. Instead, she seems to be experimenting, like a dutiful student ... Roupenian would have benefited from some time out of the spotlight to grow as a writer before she was catapulted into the center of the literary conversation. Still, when You Know You Want This is good, it is very, very good.\
RaveVox\"... both so tender and so intellectual that I held my breath as I read it, waiting for the balancing act to fail. It never did. Never once does Normal People try to prove its intelligence with coldness. Never once does it allow its romance to overwhelm the clarity of its prose. It takes a knife to its central relationship, slicing it apart to examine its dysfunctional power dynamics and never flinching away from the mess it uncovers — but it also allows that relationship to feel genuine and meaningful and even sweet ... Reading Normal People, you can luxuriate in the romance of the love story. But you are also never allowed to stop analyzing its power dynamics, to stop thinking about who is subservient to whom, and why, and how. The miracle of this book is that the romance and the analysis aren’t in opposition to each other. Instead, each amplifies the other, bringing the whole to a roaring crescendo. It is impossibly intellectual, impossibly tender. Impossibly beautiful, too.\
MixedVox\"Black Leopard Red Wolf actively resists any attempts on the reader’s part to sink inside the world of the book and lose themselves. It is deliberately opaque, on the level of sentence as well as plot ... On the plot level, the quest for a missing boy that ostensibly powers the action of the book is so confusing, and has so little to do with the main character’s motivations, that the rest of the characters are constantly complaining about it ... It is nearly impossible for a reader to hook into the narrative. Yet Black Leopard Red Wolf spends hundreds and hundreds of pages tracking its many twists and permutations ... But while I may respect James’s choice as a critic, as a reader, I found much of Black Leopard to be a slog. It’s difficult to push through page after page of beautiful sentences — and James’s sentences really are stunning — that are organized specifically to avoid telling you who is doing what or why and why you should care ... It’s in the last section of the novel that... Black Leopard Red Wolf became unputdownable for me. But there were so so many pages to get through before that.\
PositiveVox...reads like a fairy tale you already know in your bones. But this fairy tale lets its heroine be both monster and princess ... Novik’s world-building is rich and detailed, with a magical system that makes emotional sense ... Novik’s voice is simple and evocative, but it can occasionally feel cluttered ... a bright new installment from an author who’s poised to become one of the definitive YA voices of her era.
PositiveVox...an incisive portrait of gentrifying Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn ... a quiet and introspective book, never flashy and rarely shocking. Instead, Halsey Street pays careful, detailed attention to the ways family ties can splinter and fester and ache ... It’s a detailed portrait that’s almost a love letter.
MixedVox\"[Reading the book] is like being scolded, repeatedly, by someone who is clearly very smart and successful but who is so disdainful that you can’t do anything but reject everything he tells you. Also he likes birds ... But the thing that makes [Franzen\'s] essays so hard to take is one of the things that makes his novels great. Namely: Franzen is incapable of seriously considering the idea that his way of seeing and approaching the world might not be the absolute best, the clearest, the most efficient, morally pure, and aesthetically pleasing way possible ... Dear reader: Together, we have just spent four paragraphs arguing about the correct way to feel about birds. This is what The End of the End of the Earth has reduced us to ... The book does, of course, offer all of the pleasures to be found from reading an author as accomplished as Franzen. His sentences are crisp and clean and well balanced, and when he writes literary criticism, he can be deeply compelling ... But by and large, The End of the End of the Earth is so cranky and so condescending that it’s enough to make you want Franzen to abandon nonfiction altogether.\
PositiveVox\"This is a novel where every sentence has been wrapped in layer upon layer of velvet, in which every word is unctuous, in which every image is just on the verge of feeling overripe. It is a book that is always teetering right on the edge of being too much — but it never quite crosses over the line ... Self-consciously restrained novels are a dime a dozen, but weirdo over-the-top quasi-Victorian gothic fantasies about sin are rarer birds. This is a lush book, so let yourself luxuriate in it.\
MixedVox\"Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective is part of this year’s crop of post-election novels, and while it’s not the strongest of its ilk, it might be the weirdest ... The Feral Detective operates in a noirish, apocalyptic register, all loopy fever dream logic. Ordinarily this kind of deconstructed genre work is right in Lethem’s sweet spot... but in this case, it doesn’t quite land, mostly because Phoebe isn’t a compelling enough character to ground the rest of this heightened world ... The Feral Detective is not Jonathan Lethem at his best, and it’s not the post-election novel at its best either — it’s a messy, trippy book that never quite finds its center. But there’s a kind of glee and energy to its messiness that always keeps it compelling. Even if you never quite know what Lethem is doing, it’s worth digging around in the chaos to see what gems you can unearth.\
PositiveVoxLing Ma’s debut is a radically understated post-apocalyptic novel about boredom ... Ma’s critique of capitalism is not particularly subtle or particularly original, but it is searingly underplayed ... Ma’s critique is also intersectional. She is thoughtful about how the capitalism of the West oppresses the factory workers of the East ... Throughout, Severance operates with severe restraint.
RaveVox\"... a richly engrossing mystery ... The Witch Elm is a rich, immersive, and spine-chilling book, because Tana French is great at what she does and she knows how to tell a story. But it’s also a scathing and insightful deconstruction of social privilege, coming from a master of the form at the height of her powers.\
PositiveVoxIt would be heartbreaking if it weren\'t so funny ... Lake Success skewers the whole idea and subculture of Wall Street bankers detail by damning detail, and every detail is so specific and rings so true as to read like a succession of bull’s eye darts. But what keeps the novel from being a glib and cynical satire is how much affection it holds for Barry and all the other poor suckers of Wall Street ... That Shteyngart manages to balance sincere empathy with his subjects with a genuine satirical deconstruction of their culture is what makes Lake Success so compelling ... Barry is not a likeable protagonist, but Lake Success is not a purely cynical novel. Shteyngart draws the character with a kind of mocking tenderness that makes it impossible to completely hate him ... Shteyngart’s voice is quick and stinging. He has an eye for telling details, and he accretes them over the course of the novel until they begin to accumulate in the exact shape of his characters.
R O Kwon
PositiveVoxThe source of tension here isn’t the question of what will happen, because we know what’s coming; it’s why, and whether the reason is something that we and Will together have any chance at all of truly understanding. As Kwon weaves her way through this story of absences and omissions, her language stays sparse and stark. We are given the bare minimum of grounding in time and place ... For Will, the organizing figure is Phoebe, and even after their relationship ends, he is still trying to give himself over to her in order to tell her story. But The Incendiaries refuses to reveal whether Will is truly successful, whether he is able to give us a sense of who Phoebe is beyond Will’s idea of her. This is a novel of ambiguity, one in which meaning is created around absence, and in such a world, there are no easy answers.
Grace Dane Mazur
PositiveVoxThe Garden Party, a lyrical new novel by Grace Dane Mazur, is a modernist throwback of a book. In our age of realistic novels and high-concept dystopias, it is a lovely, shimmering anachronism ... The conflict here can feel reductive ... Still, as unbalanced as the conflict is, it’s beautifully rendered, all seething dislike beneath polite, desperate small talk ... The polyphony of voices in this book can overwhelm ... But Mazur’s prose is so vivid and melodic that it’s easy to let her language sweep you away. Ignore the characters, who are a little dull anyway; listen to the words, which are stunning ... a rich and lovely book.
Maria Dahvana Headley
PositiveVoxThe Mere Wife is an eerie, twisty retelling of Beowulf that is built around doubles: Everyone in Beowulf is mirrored and reimagined over and over again, until everyone—the monster, his mother, Beowulf himself—shatters into fragments of themselves ... It’s the two women who hold the place of Grendel’s mother: Gren’s mother Dana and Dylan’s mother Willa. They are the ones at the center of this story, and their battle is what carries the book to its climactic conclusion ... . Headley remains artfully vague about what it is about Gren that makes those who look at him think that he’s a monster ... The glossary reveals that in Beowulf’s original Old English, Beowulf is referred to as an \'aglæca,\' traditionally translated as warrior or soldier. Grendel’s mother, however, gets the feminine form of the word, with \'wif\' at the end: \'aglæca-wif,\' traditionally translated as monster or hell-bride. In our culture, the mere addition of the feminine suffix \'wife,\' Headley seems to suggest, is all that it takes to turn a soldier into a monster.
RaveVoxReader, I must confirm: There There really is an extremely good book ... As Orange’s characters attempt to reconcile themselves to their shifting sense of their identities, tragedy lurks in the background ... Orange’s crisp, elegant sentences keep things moving unobtrusively, but his greatest strength is his ability to mimic the rhythms of speech without becoming so gimmicky as to be grating. Each character in this novel has a distinct narrative voice, but there’s a unified flow from chapter to chapter; it can sweep you along. This is a trim and powerful book, a careful exploration of identity and meaning in a world that makes it hard to define either. Go ahead and go there there.
RaveVoxAs each story goes on, the tension mounts unbearably. Reading them, you feel as though you are being slowly smothered, that the air around you is so thick and humid—so Floridian—that it is impossible to breathe ... This is an eerie and unsettling read, one in which the world is more porous than it appears and the land is always oozing and seeping into our rational, ordered lives. It’s hard to pick up and impossible to put down.
PositiveVox\"Aja Gabel’s debut, The Ensemble, is rich and quiet. It’s the kind of book you will love if you just want to hear about how friendships change microscopically over time, and the kind of book you will find extremely boring if you’re concerned with such niceties as \'plot\' and \'things happening\' ... Novels this cerebral and literary often take refuge in cheap cynicism, so when it ultimately becomes clear that Brit’s romanticism will win the day, it’s a pleasant surprise. The Ensemble believes deeply in love and in the value of emotion. It’s just that it can only understand emotion through long, analytical passages, preferably rendered through the metaphor of chamber music ... What a sweet and welcome throwback. What a radical love story.\
Zora Neale Hurston
RaveVoxWith Barracoon, she put both her literary and her anthropological skills to work to create a unique and harrowing slave narrative, the story of the last known survivor of Middle Passage ... Barracoon is both a historical document and an astonishing literary accomplishment, an unapologetic rendering of a voice that shows us the wound and does not hide from it ... Baracoon breathes life into those memories — of the horrors of abduction, of Middle Passage, of slavery, of the Jim Crow South — and makes them so real and so present that they would trouble anyone’s sleep.
PositiveVox...a book that insists on its own quietness, its own hushed ideas. There’s a kind of fierceness to the rigor with which this book keeps itself whispering, to the way each restrained and understated sentence has been polished to glittering brightness ... As Laura and Emma progress through the years in a series of elegant, understated vignettes, the distance between them quietly expands and then contracts and then expands again, a torrent of raw emotion under the glacial surfaces of these sentences ... despite this novel’s enormous restraint and despite the surface pleasures of its comedy, Laura and Emma is a profoundly sad book. It’s loneliness in the form of a novel, and beneath its fierce quietness, there’s an ache that never stops.
RaveVox...a book that will leave you breathless, as much for its vulnerability as for its exquisite sentences ... there’s a certain ambivalence in the catharsis Chee finds in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel...And Chee is willing to immerse himself in this ambivalence, to explore fully how writing his autobiographical novel both wounded him and healed him.
PositiveVoxIt’s a carefully thought-out crossover that shines with affection for both its sources, one that never goes for the cheap joke when it can go for the gut punch ... As Kessel’s attention to Mary’s perspective wanes, Pride and Prometheus also stops insisting firmly on the idea that the Creature’s mate might have an agenda and a sense of self outside of the Creature’s, making the novel’s climax a lot less interesting than it might have been. But the closing pages, and the ending they suggest for Mary, are nearly satisfying enough to make up for that.
RaveVox\"Freshwater, ultimately, is not a book about giving in to one’s demons, but about living with them ... Emezi’s voice is enormously playful, playing with the rhythms of sentences and the conflicting and contrasting voices in Ada’s head. Most striking of all is the \'we\' voice of the ogbanje, which skitters frenetically across the page, all id and godlike grandeur: It’s just alien enough to sound like a foreign presence in a human being’s head, but human enough that its resonances linger. Beyond all her verbal pyrotechnics, Emezi’s ability to literalize the experience of a fragmented identity is astonishing: It’s affecting without venturing into pathos, and hopeful without becoming saccharine. And she’s just getting started. One of the most exciting things about this book is imagining what Emezi will bring us next.
MixedVoxIn 2018, it can be tempting to react to Smith’s claims about the power of the novel to free us from ourselves with a cynically raised eyebrow ... But witnessing the freedom of Smith’s brilliant, erudite mind at work and at play makes its own argument. There is an immense aesthetic pleasure to be had in tagging along as she worries her way through a train of thought ... In contrast, the political essays she includes in Feel Free (they comprise four of the total 31 essays) can seem banal. They are more or less centrist liberal orthodoxy without new insight ... If Smith had to turn away from her ideas about the self and the aesthetic and how literature works in order to write sad, flat essays about why Britain should not have Brexited, it would be an enormous loss. Nowhere is that truth more evident than in Feel Free’s celebration of the freedom to care about things that are not politics — art, philosophy, aesthetics — and its simultaneous argument in favor of that freedom.
MixedVoxAt her clumsiest, Benjamin integrates these details into the novel dutifully, like a student showing off her research: I did my reading, she almost seems to say; I can give you footnotes. But at her best, she succeeds in infusing her scenes with a kind of worn-in depth that keeps the reader grounded and aware of they are as Benjamin hurtles us from 1969 to the present. Benjamin keeps an elegant ambiguity working throughout the whole thing. It’s never entirely clear that the fortune teller who spoke to the Gold siblings told the truth.
A. J. Finn
MixedVox...in many ways, The Woman in the Window shares more DNA with last year’s sleeper hit tale of trauma and recovery and redemption, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman — which is to say that its central arc is less about its murder mystery than about the main character’s psychological healing. Which is a very good thing, because the mystery here is just okay ... The murder mystery here is a pure Golden Age of Hollywood pastiche, and part of the fun of it is playing spot-the-reference ... It’s possible to read this book voraciously, in long, luxurious gulps, but you don’t necessarily do it to find out what happens next. You know what happens next ... This story isn’t as witty and sparkling as its predecessor in Eleanor Oliphant, but it’s deeply felt — and the mystery of Anna’s trauma emerges in the book’s most chillingly horrifying set piece ... This is a book you can eat like candy.
MixedVox...an aggressively fine book. It’s a perfectly competent paint-by-numbers heist caper with a perfectly likable heroine and a perfectly readable, breezy voice, all adding up to a perfectly fine reading experience ... Whenever Weir gets to go into the nitty-gritty of a science fiction engineering problem — how to ignite a blowtorch in a vacuum, how to weld aluminum in low gravity — Artemis lights up and briefly becomes deeply, profoundly compelling. That’s because Weir is a process nerd, and processes are what truly interest him; by extension, when he dwells on process is when the book becomes truly interesting ... Jazz breezes through the narrative with paper-thin characterization, periodically reminding us that she is a woman of Saudi Arabian descent via her habit of checking out Saudi gossip blogs, but without otherwise distinguishing herself in any meaningful way from the hero of The Martian — or, for that matter, from Weir’s public persona ... As compelling as Artemis’s engineering passages are, they are not memorable enough to overcome the staleness everywhere else.
PanVoxHeather, the Totality is about a father murdering a man who he (correctly) suspects wants to rape his daughter, the titular Heather ...whole book seems incapable of imagining her as anything besides an object upon whom men might prove their masculinity ... Both of these fantasies are specifically rooted in masculinity, and in proving one’s masculinity by exerting power over or performing violence on or around women ...what really makes Heather, the Totality a failure of a novel is that it does not succeed in moving beyond the self-indulgent appeal of the fantasy and granting Heather her own personhood ... Heather remains an object to such a pointed extent that it begins to seem as if that’s the only way the fantasy can really work: Heather needs to be an object for her father to be a hero.
RaveVox...it’s stunning. It’s shaggy and messy, less mythic than the previous trilogy and more magic. If His Dark Materials is Paradise Lost for teenagers, then The Book of Dust is teenage Faerie Queene ... most importantly, the characters of La Belle Sauvage are as singular and lovable as the characters of His Dark Materials. Bitter, sarcastic Alice is slightly underdeveloped in this volume (there’s a troubling scene in which her sexual assault becomes important mostly for how Malcolm reacts to it; Pullman can and should do better than that), but her sour, cranky voice is profoundly endearing ... Reading La Belle Sauvage, you’ll remember again why you fell in love with The Golden Compass. Pullman has returned to his old world and expanded it, bringing in the old elements his readers loved but approaching everything from a new angle. This book can stand on its own or in the context of what came before it — and it’s also a profoundly compelling foundation for a new trilogy.
PositiveVoxGreen’s signature whimsy pops up from time to time in his characters’ conversations, but his depiction of mental illness focuses on the sheer monotonous grind of it. It’s less a sweet love ballad than it is a scream ... Aza’s story feels real, and exhausting, and authentic. She does not get all the way better. The quirky cute boy does not save her. Her mental illness is not romantic; it is scary and boring, and sometimes it annoys her friends. What’s important is that she manages to make her way through life regardless ... Green’s observations do occasionally veer off into the kind of faux profundity that his detractors like to make fun of...But those moments aren’t so much cringe-inducing as they are endearing: They are straight from the earnest teenage heart of Turtles All the Way Down, which is feeling so very many things. And if it’s a little myopic in its focus — well, isn’t that another one of the universal bugs of adolescence?
PositiveVoxThe central premise...is so simple as to be electrifying. What if every woman were to suddenly develop the ability to emit electric shocks out of her hands, like an electric eel? ... while Alderman explores some of the complications of this development with a minor character who is intersex, at no point does she look at what it would mean for the trans community. It’s as though Alderman cannot imagine critiquing our current patriarchal system of gender without erasing trans people from the world, which is one of the fundamental failures of this novel. But in other aspects, Alderman’s worldbuilding is admirably comprehensive. She builds her narrative around four main characters, all of whom show us what the power looks like in action in different corners of the world ... much of the book’s force comes from the potency of its empowerment fantasy ... But The Power takes place in a world in which an imbalance of power means that power will be abused. And women are not immune to its seductions.\
MixedVoxFresh Complaint acts as a sort of Eugenides sampler, one that shows off both his enormous gifts as a prose stylist and the tendency toward myopia — especially with regard to women — that can plague his writing ... there’s an ever-present danger that Eugenides’s writing may step over the fine line between commenting on the objectification of women and just straight up doing some objectifying of its own. Fresh Complaint is certainly not exempt from that danger ... generally, Eugenides is very good at writing his unpleasant men behaving badly. His stories are beautifully crafted, each with a distinctive, elegant voice and a gut punch of a closing line. They’re just long enough to give the reader a sense of how unpleasant these men truly are, without getting oppressive in the way that a novel-length book centered on one of these men might. But often, there’s a little frisson of illicit pleasure in Eugenides’s stories at the idea of doing something terrible to a woman, a little can-you-believe-the-son-of-a-bitch-actually-did-it ... while I don’t mean to suggest that reading and enjoying these moments is in any way immoral or wrong, if you are a woman who is tired of reading about women being sexually victimized, the overwhelming themes of Fresh Complaint might give you pause ... Eugenides is very, very good at creating other lives into which his readers can plunge. But what Fresh Complaint demonstrates is that he’s not always very good at making those lives welcoming to women.
PositiveVox...a collection of eight articles Coates wrote for the Atlantic, starting in 2007 during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, concluding this year with the start of Donald Trump’s administration, and including some of Coates’s greatest hits... In We Were Eight Years in Power, you can see America at first embracing the policy of a black president and then reacting in a violent and paranoid racist backlash, and you can see Coates developing both the theoretical tools and the lyrical, expressive voice that makes his analysis of that backlash so captivating ... The drive to render this reality with honesty and clarity creates Coates’s evocative, emphatic sentences: To make the reader experience the horror of white supremacy with honesty, Coates must kill cliché ... It is, like all of Coates’s major essays, well researched and well argued, but it lacks the urgent, evocative sentences of his other work.
PositiveVoxThroughout the book, Egan’s prose is as smooth and understated as her structuring: it draws absolutely no attention to itself, but there are almost no false notes. It’s windowpane prose, transparent and elegant. Some readers, I should note, will likely take issue with the figure of Lydia, who is a disabled character with almost no interiority, and who exists primarily to serve the character arcs of her family members. It’s a rare piece of clumsy plotting from Egan, who usually knows better than to reduce people to symbols. But the chief joy of reading Manhattan Beach lies in diving under the surface pleasures of the plot (which are plentiful — it’s immersive and compelling), and sinking slowly to its dark and unknowable depths. There are deep truths there, if you can find them.
RaveVox...a claustrophobic and compelling novel ... All of these betrayals and rejections are going down in Ng’s precisely rendered perfect suburb: Shaker Heights, a 'planned community' of immaculate lawns and strict aesthetic rules, in which houses must be either Tudor, English, or French style, and may be painted only one of three permitted colors. It’s a thoroughly domesticated town. The only thing that could possibly disturb such a place would be the enormous emotional heat of a mother/child relationship going wrong.
RaveVoxSome reviews have suggested that it’s poor craftsmanship on Ward’s part to give Leonie, who is such a cold mother with such a blinkered worldview, an inner monologue as poetic as warm and loving Jojo’s. But part of Ward’s project as a writer — as she’s described it in interviews and in essays — is to achieve a radical empathy and love for her subjects, regardless of their apparent moral failings. And in Ward’s books, empathy is a function of beautiful prose: the one leads inevitably to the other. So while Leonie may be a terrible mother, Ward can still find beauty in her thoughts. And that beauty turns her into a character who is worthy of the reader’s empathy —even when it’s very painful to empathize with her.
RaveVoxMy Absolute Darling is told in a tight third person, locked in on Turtle’s thoughts, and it is appropriately oppressive to be inside her mind ... What’s most impressive about My Absolute Darling is how carefully it handles its bleakness. Many abuse narratives are ostensibly about how terrible abuse is, but at the same time they invite their readers to wallow, to luxuriate in the idea of a young girl’s broken and violated body. My Absolute Darling is aware of what’s happening to Turtle’s body, but it remains firmly interior, focusing its attention on her warped and damaged psyche. The result is that it feels less exploitative than it does honest. And as Turtle gradually comes to terms with her secret hatred for Martin, and begins to take steps to separate herself from him forever, the outcome feels earned — and cathartic and spine-tingling as hell.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
RaveVoxThe most surprising thing about Autumn, the latest book from Norwegian literary superstar Karl Ove Knausgaard, is how tender it is ...in contrast, is relatively slim, coming in at 224 pages and containing no particularly shocking revelations. It doesn’t even have a narrative or barely any characters ...book takes the form of a letter to Knausgaard’s unborn daughter ...is a series of lyrical sketches that are invested in making even cruder topics like piss as worthy of aesthetic examination as the sun ... The spirit of that love animates this gentle, thoughtful book: love both for Knausgaard’s unborn daughter and for finding elements of the transcendent in the mundane. It’s tender, intimate, and lovely.
RaveVoxAs Home Fire telescopes out to accommodate Antigone’s structure, it loses some of what made the first half so compelling. The careful portrait of this specific family unravels so that Shamsie can shift her focus to enemy states. Clever, practical Isma all but disappears (her analogue in Antigone is a very minor character), and she is so clearly Shamsie’s best invention that her absence leaves a noticeable void in the story. And Parvaiz’s slow brainwashing by ISIS, and subsequent struggle against his brainwashing, only narrowly avoids becoming a wholesale cliché. What stays constant is Shamsie’s careful, lovely prose. She will deftly break your heart ... in the book’s final scene, the intimacy of the first half unites with the scope of the second half in a single, transcendent moment that will leave you breathless.
RaveVoxIn Jonathan Dee’s thoughtful and witty new novel The Locals, set in the years between 9/11 and Occupy Wall Street, dozens of the trends and ideologies that make up our current American moment come to insistent, demanding life … The most enduring idea running through the book, the one that is perhaps most vital to the America of 2017, is the deep and profound belief held by most of the characters in The Locals that they have been conned. Somebody has screwed them out of what they deserve … Crucially, Dee’s characters aren’t just vague avatars of rage or allegories for American political movements: All of them are rich psychological portraits, carefully grounded in their cranky small-town life. They’re all so well-defined that it’s a pleasure to watch Dee weaving in and out of their heads.
Anne Helen Petersen
PositiveVoxBy analyzing her 10 subjects, Petersen is able to make the invisible boundaries of femininity visible and legible ... Petersen gives her subjects all due credit for maintaining their unruliness in the face of public pressure, but Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is not a hagiography. Petersen is a nuanced enough writer to explore, for instance, the transphobia Caitlyn Jenner ('too queer') has faced as one of the most famous trans women in America, and to acknowledge that Jenner transitioned from a place of enormous privilege and has consistently championed policies that hurt the rest of the trans community. Petersen recognizes that all your faves are problematic, but that doesn’t stop her from analyzing what makes them your faves in the first place. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is the best kind of celebrity gossip book: it’s a book that shows us what celebrity gossip says about us.
RaveVoxHunger, is a radical book. It challenges readers to recognize and reassess cultural norms through the lens of personal experience. It is a book that insists that human bodies are worthy of respect regardless of their size, and that although our culture moralizes and pathologizes bodies that are fat, the presence or absence of fat has no bearing on a body’s essential value ... Hunger is an intimate and vulnerable memoir, one that takes its readers into dark and uncomfortable places. Gay examines wells of trauma and horror, not sparing her own self-loathing from her forthright analytic eye. But all the while, she insists on her right to be treated with dignity.
RaveVoxPerry’s prose is rich, textured, and intricate. You may recognize a bit of A.S. Byatt in the way Perry leaps into her characters’ philosophical debates, but she is at her lushest and most original when she can describe the natural world — not lyrically, but in a gothic mode, all rotting and fecund vegetation and marshy ground. Perry’s landscape is almost painfully alive, and that makes it redemptive: Her characters are only able to be completely honest with each other when they are outdoors. The Essex Serpent is a phenomenon in the UK, where it won the British Book Award and has sold more than 200,000 copies. Its reception in the US has been slightly quieter, but it deserves all the praise it’s won across the pond. It’s a thoughtful and elegant book about the human need for knowledge and love, and about the fears and desires we bury.
PanVoxInsofar as she has one, Trump’s signature move is to find a name that signifies cosmopolitan prestige — that tells readers that she is educated and polished and thoughtful — and then sand away any undesirable thoughts or attitudes that might accompany those names ... To the extent that Trump’s ideology translates to policy, it appears to be a policy designed to help those who don’t need all that much help. It’s for those who have already succeeded, because, after all, they chose to win. But little of that policy appears in the book. Mostly, Women Who Work stays committed to its aesthetic of pleasant vagueness.
PositiveVoxLockwood has an eye for the precise details that capture a family’s neuroses, and the exact turn of phrase that will leave readers snickering and then scrambling to explain to horrified friends why the idea of a priest in transparent boxers is so funny. She mines incredible humor out of the tension between her lapsed-Catholic, feminist adult self and her right-wing, God-fearing parents. But Priestdaddy is not just a collection of funny essays: It’s also something weirder and twistier and sadder than that. ... What emerges from Priestdaddy in the end is an immensely tender, loving, and melancholy portrait of a family, just as funny and dirty as the title suggests but with an unexpected heart.
PositiveVox...an insidiously creepy little book, modern in its understanding of psychology but purely Victorian gothic in its atmosphere ... Green’s naive voice — frank and straightforward even as she describes horrors — is heavily reminiscent of the child narrator of Emma Donoghue’s Room, but the setting, with its rotting house full of secrets and a shadowy and threatening woman flitting through it, is straight out of Shirley Jackson ... It’s not for the faint of heart, but it will stay with you.
PositiveVox...the atmosphere at the heart of The Idiot is one of linguistic alienation, when the distance between what words say and what they mean seems insurmountable ... All of this distance and alienation keeps the reader at a certain remove from Selin, as well; her deadpan voice is endearing, but it holds you at arm’s length. The Idiot is not a book that wants you to get wrapped up in its characters when you could be reveling in all of its linguistic games instead.
PositiveVoxIt’s a fascinating story, and it’s backed up with plenty of evidence, both psychological and historical. While Thompson occasionally gets tangled up in questions of causality — did this make this object famous, or was it that? — he develops a compelling lens to analyze the weird, borderline inexplicable phenomenon that is mass popularity ... Thompson’s project is to synthesize the findings of these different disciplines into a single analytic lens, and he does so relentlessly. The downside of that project is that it can lead to pat simplifications, but the upside is that its scope is impressive, and the insight it offers is compelling ... Hit Makers is thoughtful and thorough, a compelling book — and one that knows why it is compelling.
RaveVox...a thoughtful, beautifully crafted work that emphasizes above all the ordinariness and humanity of people who become refugees ... Exit West is by turns fantastical and all too real, and always thoughtful and gripping. It’s a novel about ideas that also cares deeply about the pleasures of language, and a novel of disconcerting timeliness that does not depend upon its historical context to be compelling. Its language and ideas might have a particular resonance today, but they would be worth reading at any time.
J. M. Coetzee
MixedVoxSchooldays is not a realistic novel. I would hesitate to call it a novel at all: It’s closer to a Socratic dialogue on the relationship between reason and passion that is structured around a small child for reasons that are frankly beyond me. It aggressively disdains the idea of story in favor of the idea of thought ... Schooldays is the kind of book that will appeal if you think Brecht’s teaching plays aren’t quite didactic enough, or if you look at Lacan and think, 'Why couldn’t this be more obscure, though?' As a book that is ostensibly supposed to be a novel, it is as dry as sawdust. As what it is, it is probably brilliant.
PositiveVox\"...determinedly a collection of stories with narrative arcs and conclusions, peopled with characters who have consistent, coherent psychologies. Gaiman’s voice is not so much heightened and lyrical as it is grounded and calm, with a wry, ironic sense of humor that spills over into the characters’ dialogue ... Loki is the star here: His love of chaos is the narrative engine that sets each story in motion, and watching him lie his way out of trouble and then back into it again is one of the chief pleasures of this book ... fresh, vital, and compelling.\
PositiveVoxThis sweet-natured longform work is a new direction for Saunders, the satirical short-story writer — but it’s a fruitful one ... It takes a few pages to ease into the rapidfire transition from voice to voice, but eventually the momentum of the piece takes over and you can sink into it. Always, the monologues are stylized and compelling, and periodically, they launch into ecstatic lyrical arias ... a thoughtful, readable, and beautifully constructed novel.
MixedVoxHow to Murder Your Life, has the quality of a dispatch from five years ago: Wow, Cat Marnell is still out there! And…still doing pretty much the same thing, I guess? ... The fact that this unrepentant party girl believes so deeply in working hard and paying your dues is profoundly endearing: You can feel how much she loves her work and how badly she wants to succeed ... How to Murder Your Life is honest, but it is not thoughtful and introspective. It’s actually a little bit boring. That intimate, slightly manic, I-am-probably-on-speed-right-now-as-I-write voice Marnell cultivated at xoJane worked brilliantly for a 500-word beauty blog post, but it cannot sustain itself for a 375-page book ... Marnell’s descriptions of her patterns — periods of manic productivity followed by periods of numbness — are realistic, but they are also exhausting, and they just keep going.
Samanta Schweblin, Trans. by Megan McDowell
RaveVox\"It’s rare for a book to do exactly what its title says it will do without any caveats or reservations. It’s even more rare for a book to achieve the kind of woozy, elliptical, intimate horror implied by a title like Fever Dream. But this debut novel by Argentinian short story writer Samanta Schweblin does exactly that. Fever Dream operates on the level of pure atmosphere. Its action is minimal ... The result is astonishingly and profoundly unsettling, in a way that few books ever quite achieve. Fever Dream is a novel stripped down to its barest elements, all dialogue and atmosphere, and working with only those elements, it manages to create an authentic nightmare. \'Authentic nightmare\' is not the experience everyone wants to get out of a book (I confess it’s not my ideal read, personally), and if it sounds deeply unpleasant to you, then Fever Dream is not your book. But if you’re after creeping, insidious, psychologically compelling horror, then you won’t do better.\
Lindsey Lee Johnson
RaveVoxThe earnest, intimate immediacy of the typical YA voice is completely absent: This book might be about teenagers, but it’s written for adults. And it begins, like all great novels about adolescence do, with trauma ... Out of these overlapping character studies emerges a portrait of the class itself, this seething group of high-strung, privileged teenagers, as an organism that seems to have a mind of its own ... What’s exciting about The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the way Johnson manages to find the individuality in each figure within this class full of traditional high school archetypes, without sacrificing the amorphous horror of the class itself. The book works as both a series of psychological portraits and as a social portrait.
PositiveVoxJ.D. Daniels’s debut essay and short story collection, The Correspondence, is so good, so clean and incisive, with such taut, muscular prose, that I’m already dreading the number of terrible imitations it will undoubtedly generate in MFA programs across America in the coming year ... Daniels’s prose [is] paced and structured with precise deliberation; it suggests roughness, but at the same time it’s been polished to diamond sharpness ... But the thoughtfulness that elevates his essays is not as fully realized in Daniels’s short stories. 'Letter from Devil’s Tower,' about a married van driver having a last affair with an old girlfriend, is so flat that it dies on the page ... The Correspondence clocks in at a slim 126 pages long, and 'Letter from Devil’s Tower' takes up 14 of those pages. That’s more than 10 percent of the book spent on a dud of piece — but the remaining 89 percent is so smart and elegantly written that it’s still well worth your time.
PositiveVoxNot all of Gay’s difficult women are as compelling at the rest...but every short story collection has highs and lows. And the highs in Difficult Women are pretty damn high. Taken together, the stories celebrate the condition of being difficult in the face of a world that is determined to hurt you. Because it is only the dead girls, Gay concludes in the title story, who are never called difficult.
RaveVoxIn Smith’s lovely, elegant voice, all of the different elements she’s playing with interweave themselves seamlessly into a deceptively simple whole. The result is as intricate and beautiful as a ballet ... Smith has preserved her uncannily precise eye for the subtle distinctions of class and race that preoccupy her characters, and for the way those distinctions shift across communities; that skill is on full display here ... The result is a terrific book from one of our greatest novelists.
PositiveVoxConstance would be a kick even if she were purely fictional. She’s almost 6 feet tall, strong and stoic to a fault, a classic Sam Spade detective who doesn’t quite understand why the rest of the world won’t treat her as such ... Unfortunately, this brings us to the downside of relying heavily on a true story as the basis of a thriller: Reality can’t plot for shit. As Constance tracks her prey from her rural county prison to New York City and back again, the story starts to get a little less gripping ... Still, based on character and atmosphere alone, Lady Cop Makes Trouble is a keeper.
PositiveVox...Brit Bennett’s debut is searing and ferocious ... The plot that connects all these ambivalent mother figures is not supremely original or interesting. There’s an affair, there’s guilt and recriminations, there’s a return home, and everyone is more or less the same person at the end of the book as they were at the beginning. Beat for beat, the structure of The Mothers is a little pedestrian ... What elevates the book are the emotional underpinnings of each character, and Bennett’s lively, precise voice.
PositiveVoxIn A Gambler’s Anatomy, things get pretty close to pitch black — but that doesn’t stop them from being a hell of a lot of fun ... The ensuing surgery is the novel’s most stunning and elaborate set piece ... What stays consistent across the novel’s three acts — the glamorous high-stakes gambling world, the harrowing surgery, the anarchic Berkeley section — is Lethem’s assured, unshowy prose. He’s working in a noir style here, smoky and disaffected, and while his language rarely calls attention to itself, his imagery is precise and vivid.
PositiveVox...a really good adaptation, like Atwood’s, can do the same thing as a really good and inventive staging of a play: It can tease out nuances and resonances from its source material, so that you begin to see the original work in an entirely new light ... That’s not to say that Hag-Seed is perfect. Most troublingly, its title suggests that it’s all about Caliban, but the novel fails to live up to that promise in any compelling way. Still, Atwood’s thoughtfulness and playfulness keep Hag-Seed from ever getting boring ... All told, Hag-Seed is a marvelous and thoughtful adaptation ... Yet there’s a certain emptiness in Atwood’s novel where Caliban should be.
MixedVoxA Gentleman in Moscow is one of the year’s most relentlessly charming books. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing ... The count’s charm is so relentless, bordering on aggressive, that you occasionally find yourself on Ignatov’s side. Slow down a little, you want to say. You don’t have to turn every meal into a meditation on Tolstoy ... Further weighing down the count’s charm is A Gentleman in Moscow’s occasionally clunky voice ... Still, the bulk of Gentleman in Moscow is so much fun that its occasional synonym abuse is hardly noticeable.
Jonathan Safran Foer
MixedVoxThere’s pleasure in watching Foer wrestle with those questions in rich, sprawling sentences, but it’s also wearying. Foer’s characters analyze everything so much, so compulsively, throughout Here I Am’s 600 pages, that they begin to feel like nothing more than over-articulate, disembodied brains. The solipsism inherent to the book’s structure is more than a little grating, and Foer’s unabashed sentimentality doesn’t always land ... it begins to feel dismissive to reduce [Israel] to a symbolic supporting player in the portrait of a yuppie marriage ... All the same — despite the claustrophobia and the solipsism and the Freud — there is an undeniable joy to be had in reading Foer’s textured, playful prose ... Here I Am is not perfect, but damn it, it tries. It swings for the fences. It’s ambitious, and if nothing else, its ambition makes it exciting to read.
PositiveVox...lush and lovely ... It’s not all grotesque suffering, though. Mbue finds room in Behold the Dreamers to highlight moments of intense joy in the Jongas’ life.
RaveVoxIts prose is so delicate, its structure so gauzy, that it feels as if the whole thing will disappear if you look directly at it. Which is not to say the book is insubstantial — only that its power lies in what it leaves unsaid. Describing it means either translating Woodson’s elegant, poetic elisions into prose, or leaving gaping holes in the narration ... an elegant fever dream of a book, one that will haunt you after you finish it.
ed. Jesmyn Ward
RaveVoxThe Fire This Time insists on the humanity and individuality of its subjects ... The Fire This Time shows that very little about our 'racial nightmare' has changed since Baldwin made that optimistic prediction. But it continues to argue that radical love can transform the world.
RaveVoxThe Unseen World has one of the most delicate and lovely voices of any book I’ve read this year. Every action and emotion is rendered so precisely and so cleanly that even the simplest sentences bring enormous pleasure. Combined with a wistfully melancholy coming-of-age story and a tricky artificial intelligence puzzle, it makes for a gem of a novel ... a slow-building coming-of-age story that is as heartbreaking as it is lovely, tragic without ever becoming sentimental, grounded but still compellingly shaded with a touch of American gothic here, a touch of speculative fiction there. And it’s all the more impressive for how lightly it wears its accomplishments.
PositiveVoxJulia’s single-minded focus on sex would feel off-putting, and the book shallow, if Rathbone weren’t so clear-eyed about where that focus comes from: namely, a sense of emptiness and stuntedness ... [Rathbone] knows how to find the comedy in Julia’s neurotic obsessive fantasies, and the tragedy in her series of unendingly terrible adventures in online dating ... a story that’s well worth reading.
PositiveVox...[a] sweet, charming, and just a little overcrowded love letter to geek culture ... [the] mother/son bond is right on the border of co-dependent, so specific in its sweetness that it manages to avoid becoming saccharine ... It is a lot. A whole lot. And while it can be fun to watch these stories intersect and play off one another, the overall effect is overcrowded. Dropping one of A Hundred Thousand World’s storylines would have given the remaining characters much-needed room to breathe and develop ... The book is definitely one to read if you get misty-eyed over storytelling and geek culture makes your heart sing.
RaveVoxThe book seamlessly transitions from dystopian satire to psychological melodrama to pure pulp (and back again) ... The Night of the Animals is a stunner of a book: thoughtful and elegiac, with long, lyrical sentences, and a tricky structure that will keep you guessing. It’s worth your time.
PanVoxThe book is a fairly straightforward conservative libertarian nightmare. And while I personally don’t agree with its politics, I might still consider The Mandibles to be a well-crafted book, if it didn’t seem to exist almost entirely to congratulate itself on its political views ... there are occasional gestures toward something else. Shriver is excellent at evoking the concrete physical discomfort created as the economy collapses...But those kinds of details are few and far between. Mostly, the characters of this book exist to have extended straw-man arguments about economic theory ... in other words, all the makings of our next Ayn Rand.
RaveVox...is her first collection of short stories, and it is astonishingly beautiful. Every line shimmers; every image is as precise and well-placed as though it were cut from glass. This book is so exquisite, so perfectly made...collection are all loosely connected, with characters weaving in and out of the narrative as it suits them ...what really unites the book is the repeated image of a key in a lock, and the question of whether it is better to unlock a mystery or to leave it unresolved ...What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a singularly beautiful collection of stories, filled with ideas and images that will linger in your mind for a long time to come.
PositiveVoxIn the midst of all this philosophizing, The Clasp manages to be a warm and funny romp. Crosley built her name on trenchant analysis of modern foibles, and she lives up to her reputation here. The parodies of Victor’s tech office, Nathaniel’s LA scenester life, and Kezia’s dilapidated-chic jewelry company are precise and pointed; the characterization is as tight as a drum ... At times it is an inelegant book by a very smart and talented writer. But this is a symptom of first-novel-itis, one that I fully expect to disappear in Crosley’s next novel.