David Canfield writes book criticism and features for Entertainment Weekly. He’s previously written regularly for Slate, Vulture, and IndieWire. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcanfield97
PanEntertainment WeeklyFor a one-stop counter to all those trend pieces bemoaning the supposed \'death\' of the rom-com, look to Helen Hoang ... Hoang’s books are tenderly personal ... Hoang is a sensitive writer, but also a very funny one ... There are so many good things about this book. The plotting is tight. The romance unfolds to irresistible, if familiar, beats. The set pieces range from perfectly comic...to erotic, the heat between the couple luxuriously realized on the page.
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyIt’s hard to believe, in such a short amount of time, that Greene could revisit this period with such clarity and grace. His emotionally transparent story resonates not just for the intense sadness at its core, but also its implicit message of perseverance — a complex portrait of a family struggling to go on, manifested in this melodic, sensitive tribute ... A freelance music journalist, Greene writes in the present-tense, a stylistic choice that pays off if only because he’s able to so comprehensively guide his readers through even the darkest of moments. He is descriptive, perceptive, documenting with a biographer’s care bursts of pain or numbness as they’re felt and internalized ... Greene turns away from no emotion in his work; the feeling, for the reader, can be overpoweringly personal. Though Stars is told from its author’s perspective, the memoir is at its best when expanding beyond his experience, exploring what others are going through as they wade through tragedy.
RaveEntertainment Weekly...rarely has a novel so fully brought to life a place most couldn’t pretend to know ... Phillips...immerses readers in this region. It’s in the rich, humane characterizations; the plot’s gentle surprises; the reminders of the past; the rendering of the landscape ... As [the] family’s tragedy moves to the fore, the depth of Phillips’ storytelling prowess reveals itself. She challenges her readers — and characters — by offering new angles on her inciting incident, and imbuing each with authority and complexity. Phillips’ slant is American, but in the tradition of great Russian art — from Tolstoy through to the films of Andrey Zvyagintsev — Disappearing Earth tells delicate, impassioned, small human stories within sweeping, brutal, imposing political realities ... Disappearing Earth wades through the darkness with heart. Its final three chapters, especially, overflow with life ...
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyIn Downing’s skillful hands, My Lovely Wife takes several wild turns, each bleaker than the last, and its sturdy construction (strong characters, deliberate pacing) bolsters the insanity. But Downing’s best choice here is her narrator: the unnamed husband, a simple fellow suckered into an unhealthy habit by his beguiling wife. His commentary reframes Millicent’s psychopathy with dark, hysterical mundanity, as if a mere symptom of their discontent.
RaveEntertainment Weekly\"... a gonzo literary performance one could mistake for a magic trick, duping its readers with glee before leaving them impossibly moved ... Intriguing characters are kept on the story’s margins, yet in so vibrantly surveying this landscape, Choi gives each room to breathe ... Facts are debated in Trust Exercise, yes, but Choi always tells the truth.\
MixedEntertainment Weekly\"Freudenberger employs her distinctive skills — her stylistic restraint, the unmannered quality of her prose — to slightly different effect here [compared to her previous work], relying on a spare, meditative telling in the construction of what amounts to a very interior novel ... Yet for all its fascinating insights, Lost and Wanted lacks cohesion. The emotional momentum that fuels Freudenberger’s best fiction... is absent, replaced by scattered — though certainly potent — profundity ... Indeed, for all the territory that Lost and Wanted covers — from race to gender dynamics to quantum physics to academia to parenthood to the TV business’ ins and outs — it’s ultimately an intimate depiction of the experience of loss. But Freudenberger doesn’t tighten her novel accordingly. Instead, like her brainy hero, she gets lost in her own head.\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami... artfully infuses her crime saga with tremendous empathy ... Lalami’s scrupulous construction lends The Other Americans a page-turning excitement. Some characters only pop in when most convenient, their personal dilemmas relatively slight — contributions, and little more, to the book’s larger arguments. But each gets a moment that strikes like a thunderbolt: electric, resounding, and precisely delivered ... the novel fundamentally focuses on the intricate dynamics of life in the here and now. It provides a nuanced response to the whiff of malaise in the air, the animus taking over the American day-to-day ... The conclusion reads unusually, tentatively hopeful. Let it settle, though, and it feels, if not satisfying, at least appropriate. In a novel that knows hate but believes in people — that ultimate contradiction — a little optimism goes a long way.\
PanEntertainment Weekly...here we are again with The Parade, the author’s first 2019 title which distills his worst tendencies into a stiff, opaque sub-200-page parable ... The Parade finds worthy areas of inquiry in its slim, spare telling, yet Eggers all but rejects the principles of good storytelling. Billed as a novel, The Parade reads more like an extended short story, reserving its knife-turn for the final page and plodding until then ... Eggers treats this morality play like a plastic wind-up toy. He introduces simplistic main characters before planting a set of obstacles on their predestined paths ... Eggers’ embrace of the saccharine had me waiting, begging for the cynical hammer to drop ... Eggers’ writing in The Parade is fine — often lovely in its attention to physical detail, utterly lacking in soul. The allegorical nature of the prose hints at weighty complexity, but what materializes ranges from a college term paper steeped in pessimism to a narrative assembled from crocodile tears ... the author’s latest is hardly eye-opening in the way fiction can and should be. Eggers is good enough to know better.
T. Kira Madden
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"Madden details her years growing up queer in ritzy South Florida through a tough, raw literary voice. The debut author gives readers uncomfortably intimate access into her difficult childhood ... Long Live is a bit dense at times, stuck in its immediacy, but as it builds to the death of Madden’s father, it finds some peace, painfully messy as it may be — and is all the richer for it.\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"... a book that whirs through mythic lands and spikes its many plot twists with the enchanting allure — and nightmarish tinge — of a fairy tale, to be absorbed in a pleasant, sleepy daze before haunting its reader’s dreams ... no less reliable is Oyeyemi’s tenderness, finely calibrated through her focus on the bond between mothers and daughters, which carries on through generations ... What a strange, ponderous book this is... a beautifully, wildly inventive beast. Nobody else writes like this: puncturing the timelessly poetic with harshly contemporary asides, animating plants and dolls with a cool nonchalance. And how is it that this dark, nutty novel exudes cozy warmth above all else?\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"The Far Field becomes a layered examination of pressing Indian political conflicts. But Shalini’s wounded narration — her wistful, nostalgic anguish — still pulses through most intensely, lending the novel the feel of a sorrowful family epic. Here is a singular story of mother and daughter — a loving, broken bond so strong it touches, changes, and hurts countless lives beyond theirs.\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"Merlo is a sturdy focal point for Leading Men, his last days and his memory of better days imbued with a slick, glittering emotional pull. But the book stiffens as its meditations on fame and artistry increasingly dictate the narrative, rather than the organic tension between Merlo and Williams. The prominence of Anja... becomes a bit of a drag ... Castellani has a lot on his mind, and generously employs the craft necessary to convey it. Leading Men is unafraid to expand beyond its glitzy hook into something deeper, sharper. But like Merlo and company, until the novel’s enormously moving final chapter, we’re gradually left in the haze of a steamier, drunker time, where two men’s passionate romance, doomed to fate, could find new life — briefly and unforgettably — in a single longing glance.\
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyLaura Sims’ debut novel is an immersive investigation of obsession ... Sims’ approach is not judgmental ... The author so prioritizes her clever, contemplative heroine’s voice that, even as killer one-liners and suspenseful sequences abound, what settles in most clearly is an overwhelming melancholy ... Sims is smart enough not to let readers off the hook by reveling in mockery ... Looker is a wicked slow-burn without a clear arc to follow. The prose could use a serious tightening ... But this is still a strong, tense effort, short and addicting enough to be scarfed down in no more than a day.
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"[In Our Mad and Furious City is] an introduction to a voice so fiery it burns to the touch. This is not to say Mad and Furious always works ... It’s obvious Gunaratne knows these boys well, eschewing coming-of-age clichés in an effort to thoroughly, authentically detail their lives and pain. His rendering, violent and pointed as it may be, brims with empathy. There’s also a sort of experimental ambition here ... The novel periodically expands, admirably if unevenly, into the hearts and minds of Ardan’s mother, Caroline, and Selvon’s father, Nelson.\
RaveEntertainment Weekly\"Elizabeth McCracken holds a funhouse mirror up to the Great American Novel. Whimsy and weirdness spark at Bowlaway’s edges ... As Bowlaway moves through tremendous social change, McCracken develops her characters with remarkable depth. Her sense of detail is precise but comprehensive ... This is McCracken’s masterpiece, a story of reinvention: that most American of themes, the promise that’s guided a country through depressions, wars, tragedies, betrayals. The author has reframed the family saga for the misfit: that truest American character ... It is rousing.\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"Drenched in African myth and folklore, and set in an astonishingly realized pre-colonized sub-Saharan region, Black Leopard crawls with creatures and erects kingdoms unlike any I’ve read ... James’ hyperactive plotting will lose you (don’t expect much linearity), and the novel is overlong, no matter how many corners James finds to explore in this world ... the fragmented narrative gets in the way of momentum ... And yet: For all its political power and artistry, Black Leopard, Red Wolf triumphs in James’ swagger. He hasn’t merely produced a literary earthquake. He shows off, his stylistic flair a cocky muscle-flex. This is a concert, a production, an epic. This is a revolutionary book.\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"Becoming arrives like a glass bottle of decency, preserved from a nationwide garbage fire. This is a straightforward, at times rather dry autobiography from a major public figure that stands in remarkably sharp contrast to the state of our discourse ... The book’s first third, Becoming Me, is dedicated to Obama’s upbringing in ‘60s Chicago and her educational development. It can drag, progressing like so many memoirs of its type. But Obama also constructs episodes from her childhood which vividly, subtly capture the experience of growing up black in America ... Obama’s strength in Becoming lies in hindsight, her ability to take a step back from a specific anecdote, and not only contextualize but ruminate on it, really consider its power.\
Cote Smith, Zack Akers, Skip Bronkie
PanEntertainment Weekly\"... Limetown doesn’t convince as stand-alone narrative fiction ... Resembling a fictionalized Serial, the [podcast the book is based upon] is an expansive, gorgeously produced work; an entire town comes to life through Lia’s research ... The book mostly forgets this, following 17-year-old Lia as she discovers secrets about her uncle and family. Her connection to Limetown‘s main story comes into view — a nice bonus for listeners, perhaps. But the family story plods, with too much focus on moving plot. There’s a good book somewhere in the world of this podcast. But its creators may need to listen more closely.\
Karen Thompson Walker
RaveEntertainment Weekly\"The Dreamers eschews typical disaster plotting; there’s no Purge-level anarchy or menace. Instead this is an exquisite work of intimacy. Walker’s sentences are smooth, emotionally arresting—of a true, ethereal beauty ... we’re invited into the dreamers’ worlds, and there, in the slumbery depths, this book achieves its dazzling, aching humanity.\
MixedEntertainment WeeklyAuthor Sam Lipsyte presents a hero for our times in Hark, a meditation on belief and optimism pushing up against political upheaval. The writer’s scope has widened from his previous novel, the superb Gen-X character study The Ask. Indeed, here’s the latest instance of a seasoned, acerbic novelist suddenly on the hunt for a target...vying to make sense of the absurd present. Yet Hark’s vibe ranges from timeless to dated, even as it strains to hit post-2016 notes ... The novel playfully explores what draws this miserable, diverse group to nonsense, but its foundation—a listless ensemble without a spark in the bunch—crumbles. Which is a real shame, because fans of Lipsyte...will pick up traces of his best work. He’s particularly good in the abstract in Hark, building out his premise and shaping a god complex for an \'end of men\' world ... Lipsyte, in the most general sense, understands how figures like Hark rise. He traces that evolution incisively, bringing a refreshingly light touch to his dystopia-adjacent novel—not marred by perfunctory nihilism, not fixated on educating or warning, not limited to cynical apocalyptic pronouncements. This feels like a step forward for the Trump-era satire. But then we’re missing a reason to invest. Lipsyte seems all but divorced from his characters, realizing them with a crippling sameness. Hark’s most insightful passages could be attributed to anyone; even as they describe or refer to specific people in the book, there’s no specificity to them. The emotional connection is lacking. The story scatters between its principals, starting slow before rushing for a plot, an arc, an ending, a purpose ... Lipsyte’s still a compelling stylist, but here, crafty sentences function like unfulfilled promises, winding toward profundity that never arrives.
RaveEntertainment Weekly\"Heavy lives up to its name. With extraordinary craft and pain, Kiese Laymon’s stark memoir chronicles one man’s scarring journey into adulthood, sentence after sentence piercing in its emotional intensity through all 241 pages. Heavy covers grim territory, but reads too intimately to look away ... Laymon’s personal story develops into a national indictment, one that cuts deep into the heart of American mythmaking ... Heavy is raw but controlled: a refined, warm, generously poetic literary work.\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"By now the clichés [about families] write themselves. Yet debut author Kathy Wang confidently leans into them, spicing up old stories — the tense reunions and fatal betrayals and dying fathers — with fresh faces ... Wang writes from a witty, sarcastic distance; she’ll zoom out when the family gathers for a meal, reveling in their dysfunction, before tightening around a pivotal character moment, the prose suddenly awash with warmth ... But Family Trust gets only so much out of the minutiae; it occasionally plods, unlike more streamlined novels of its type. At least Wang has her setting: She depicts Silicon Valley with seductive specificity, telling tales of instant billionaires and offering glimpses of irritable geniuses changing the world.\
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"Adjei-Brenyah... executes his premises with an elegant Black Mirror-like realism, though his world-building is a bit uneven. The book drops recognizable faces — a teen drawn to activism, a retail worker drained by Black Friday’s spectacle — into worlds so strange, they couldn’t possibly resemble reality. And yet in their gnarly intensity, their polemical potency, they hit us where we live, here and now. Sometimes it takes a wild mind to speak the plainest truth.\
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyBitter Orange twists and bends, arouses and agitates, like a seductive nightmare. A demented memory play — Atonement by way of The Little Stranger ... Claire Fuller (Swimming Lessons) enhances the mystery with luscious detail ... The plot’s movements are rendered secondary, at least in the early going, to the atmosphere, and it’s to the novel’s benefit; with sensations so alive on the page, you’re constantly kept on your toes, attuned to the mania ... B+.
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyAll You Can Ever Know gently but firmly challenges the stories told to its author in childhood, the myths intended to make her feel loved and wanted and \'normal,\' but that could never paint a complete picture ... The author...revisits her coming of age with a deep melancholy, favoring clarity over sentimentality. She writes crisply, intimately, bringing us close to her experiences of pain, isolation, and discovery.
RaveEntertainment Weekly\"Particularly in coming-of-age fiction, dialogue can be a liability; quips can mask nuance, and realism is aspired to far more often than it’s reached. But dialogue is the engine, the power, of How Are You Going to Save Yourself. Holmes’ uncanny ear is so delicately rendered that the book not only bursts with life during each back-and-forth, but it evolves, steeped as it is in the rhythms of family squabbles and serious discussions and, most centrally, friends shooting the s—t ... If not overwhelming, How Are You Going to Save Yourself is certainly tough, entrusting its players’ words (and, perhaps more importantly, lack thereof) to communicate what their actions cannot. The trick doesn’t work every time. But the message sings throughout, and the final blow Holmes delivers is inescapably staggering.\
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyJM Holmes believes in dialogue ... his lyricism, his depth of prose, pops with quiet authority ... Holmes’ uncanny ear is so delicately rendered that the book not only bursts with life during each back-and-forth, but it evolves ... How Are You Going to Save Yourself moves to these familiar, lifelike beats, and achieves an electrifying singularity in the process. Though pitched and structured as a story collection, this is a book of novelistic richness.
Haruki Murakami, Trans. by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyMurakami (1Q84) crafts notoriously windy novels, but he’s an equally gifted short-story writer. That quality is evident in Commendatore ... Murakami calls Commendatore his homage to The Great Gatsby, and the comparisons are obvious. Yet he aligns with F. Scott Fitzgerald in subtler, deeper ways, too — in the searching quality of the prose. The book’s missteps, from painfully dry historical analysis to some offensive treatment of the female characters, undermine its affecting melancholy ... Murakami executes his mission with metatextual ingenuity ... B+.
Omarosa Manigault Newman
PanEntertainment Weekly\"Now there’s Omarosa’s tell-all: the logical next step in our collective, steep, seemingly endless descent toward disgrace. Above all else, Unhinged is a meta-commentary on the bleakness of our political culture ... It’s useless to review Unhinged as a standalone written product. It’s engineered as a media tool, structured in a fashion that complements what its author says on TV and reveals in a steady stream of recorded semi-bombshells. The book itself reads mostly like the Fire and Fury sequel you never wanted: a swift account of the major events to surround Trump since he began his campaign for president, filled out with one adviser’s observations, opinions, and insider \'knowledge\' ... That this is an effort in rebranding is hardly subtle, but Unhinged is not an outrageous retaliation, a disgruntled former staffer’s hyperbolic rantings. It’s the first account by a departed, disgraced Trump White House official—of which there have been many—to actually admit complicity, the abetting of a duplicitous, bigoted administration.\
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyThe unnamed narrator of Cherry, Nico Walker’s coarsely poetic debut ... provides an agonizing character study ... The book is gritty, profane, and raw ... Walker’s prose resembles that of Denis Johnson (particularly Jesus’ Son), only a little rougher around the edges. Indeed the writing here is conspicuously uneven. Its uncompromising nature at times feels less realistic than crude, less relentless than repetitious; character depth isn’t the primary goal here, but Walker doesn’t have a firm grip on Emily, a figure of both sympathy and culpability who lacks internal consistency. Walker’s expression still shines through. One major reason: Cherry doesn’t ask for pity. It presents a landscape ravaged by war and drugs, greed and pain, and introduces a voice that sounds ugly only until you read closely enough to see the beauty lying underneath an American tragedy.
MixedEntertainment Weekly\"Fink rather neatly compresses three podcast seasons into one book. His flashy horror stylings don’t fully translate to the page — the creepy, anxious factor of his audio work is second to none — and the pacing, as Fink tries veering between new points of view, turns clunky. But this Alice Isn’t Dead remains an intriguing complement, imbued with newfound soul — and romance. Alice has always known suspense, but as a novel it finds true love.\
MixedEntertainment WeeklyGreen spins a fine speculative yarn — even if he bows out with an unduly cheap, sequel-staging cliff-hanger — but the writing is lacking. The political parallels are so blunted here, they couldn’t cut through butter, and the dialogue verges on ghastly ... heroes banter with the stilted quippiness of sloppy YA ... Remarkable Thing has robots and aliens to spare — but the actual people need an upgrade.
RaveEntertainment WeeklyShortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Washington Black depicts slavery — unsparingly — but it’s about freedom ... Washington Black is a classic Bildungsroman in many ways, albeit one that subverts or transcends the genre’s tropes at critical junctures ... In Washington Black, Edugyan writes within the constraints of her time period aptly. The novel’s towering achievement rests in its simultaneous realism and imagination. Wash’s candid narration grounds the story ... The more extraordinary his life becomes, the more Edugyan brings out his complexity — a duality which showcases the author’s gift for emotional precision ... Edugyan’s prose is elegant, nuanced, but her fury at this fact — the passions lost over centuries of agony — powers through like a godly storm. She confronts slavery’s legacy with acuity, depth, and staggering grief.
MixedEntertainment Weekly\"...it can’t help but seem a little well-trodden all the same. Shteyngart empathetically draws the divide between Barry’s privilege and the struggles faced by those he comes into contact with, though not without a little inevitable condescension...This is indicative less of an intriguing character flaw than a weakness in Shteyngart’s characterization. Lake Success untangles major themes, with a wicked feel for modern life’s aimless chatter, but it’s lacking in soul ... Perhaps it’s the nature of what feels fresh, sharp, and needed in this bizarre new world. For what can yet another entitled, delusional, wealthy white man tell us about where we’ve gone wrong?\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"It’s a loose, clever format to tell your life story. But, as Posey learned, it can be an intimate and revealing one, too ... Airplane is an eclectic mix of monologues, recipes, revelations, and collages. It’s all in the effort of sharing herself — her quirks, passions, and creative spirit.\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly...devastating calls to action that affirm the galvanizing power of pointed, human storytelling ... a definitive attempt at confronting the epidemic, from its source to its current scale ... Macy is a terrific reporter, scrupulous in detailing the significance of her findings. She hits the big established points ... For those coming into Dopesick already aware of the basics, then, it can read a little too familiar. And while each number Macy cites in the book (and there are many) indicates horror and urgency, certain sections are overstuffed with figures ... But fortunately, Macy’s heart is with the people. Dopesick’s second section — filled with gut-wrenchingly candid interviews with addicts and their families — is the most essential.
Laura Van Den Berg
RaveEntertainment Weekly\"Strange, unsettling, and profound from start to finish, The Third Hotel is a book teeming with the kind of chaos that can only emanate from the mind. It could be fairly described as a meditation on grief, or marriage, or travel; fresh insights on each materialize regularly, at enviable levels of nuance ... Laura van den Berg channels genre masters like Hitchcock and such evocative literary works as, particularly, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. She gets under your skin and hits bone. Hers is a terror tale as mercurial as life, veering between the grisly and the gentle ... An award-winning writer of short fiction, van den Berg is a storyteller of astonishing detail. Her descriptions — whether concise or elongated — simply demand attention ... Van den Berg can be heavy-handed with the parallels she draws, the big ideas she’s confronting, but it’s all in service of this masterpiece of life and afterlife.\
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyClock Dance is a greatest-hits album in novel form. Anne Tyler’s latest book features most, if not all of her trademark themes and writerly quirks, and it moves briskly, but in absence throughout is a certain personality — a particularity ... the novel toggles between playing to Tyler’s strengths and going through the motions of her relatively threadbare story beats ... It’s that dreamy flow which, at her best, marks the author’s wisdom and vision as a chronicler of the human condition. But in Clock Dance it’s lacking in potency. Tyler seems anxious to keep things moving, more concerned with how character details and experiences fit together, puzzle-like, than really living in their humanity ... Clock Dance is perhaps ultimately an argument for seeing an uneven story of high potential through to its conclusion. This is a book that improves significantly as it progresses ... Rest assured, the dialogue is fun and snappy throughout; the final pages offer a warm and appropriately, exceedingly sentimental ending. Tyler still hits her marks.
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyGessen is not much of a stylist here; his colloquial approach ranges from appealingly informal to sloppy, and phrases are repeated almost verbatim, without the necessary emphasis ... He’s never as fleshed out as he should be, but then, his wry observations...are completely engrossing. It’s portraiture ...A Terrible Country is a splendid guidebook disguised as a decent novel.
RaveEntertainment WeeklyMakkai spikes a sadly familiar historical narrative with kaleidoscopic compassion ... Makkai is intuitive, evading traps of sentimentality. She leans on her established strengths — realistic characters, emotional complexity — and in the context of this 80s milieu, their potential is bracingly realized. Her relaxed prose flows; her fascination with human behavior enhances the book’s vivid ensemble. Makkai’s writing even assumes an effortless sweep, plunging readers into a saga of mesmerizing intimacy ... Makkai has a real feel for grief, achingly describing the city she’s long known inside and out as it’s suddenly permeating loss. You don’t just see the ghosts of her Believers — you spend time with them, learn their flaws and virtues and darkest fears, cry at their funerals right alongside those who’ve known them for decades.
James A McLaughlin
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyAtmosphere, as its opening so impeccably indicates, is everything in Bearskin. This is not exactly the page-turning thriller so overstuffed with twists it leaves you dizzy by page 100. It’s a slow-burn by design, a tale of suspense that reels you in through McLaughlin’s scrupulous skill. There’s no escaping the mountainous isolation enveloping Rice, and as the novel pushes forward and stakes a claim in richer psychological territory, there’s no escaping the man’s tortured mind, either ... Ostensibly a character study, Bearskin is most satisfying as a philosophical investigation of man and nature, washed in noir ... it’d be better off without its most familiar beats, its reverting to genre expectations. But when its imagery, so stark and often poetic, takes center stage, Bearskin is elegiac, hypnotic—unshakable.
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"Li goes right into the action but is tentative about how to navigate it; the pacing starts out as frantic as the restaurant, struggling to establish a consistent tone around chunks of exposition. But stick with it: Li’s talent for human tragicomedy grows more evident by the page. Her characters — Nan, the venerable restaurant manager on the brink of disaster, especially — come alive, and her erratic plotting consolidates, leading to a cogent finale. By the climax, Li generously realizes the dreams, the regrets, and the resilience of a family holding on to its American dream, hoping it doesn’t slip away.\
RaveEntertainment WeeklyTwo things David Sedaris is talking about more than he used to: Donald Trump and death. The essay collection Calypso, his first in five years, finds the beloved humorist rejiggering his tone — right along with much of the country — to meet a newly somber national mood. Or maybe it’s just the shadow of late middle age: the looming reality of mortality, the increasing pervasion of funerals and illnesses and retirements in one man’s orbit. It’s hard to tell exactly from where the motivation for the shift stems. And indeed, therein lies Sedaris’ genius — he reflects the culture inwardly. Through his peculiar mind, Sedaris captures biting truths, documenting with journalistic precision his quiet public indignities and milking them for all their tragicomic worth.
MixedEntertainment Weekly\"The atmosphere of anguish is so overwhelming that it feels as if you might suffer from heatstroke or get carried off by a 100-mph storm wind. You’re helpless to the power — the sheer virtuosity — of Groff’s evocative prose ... This is an author who knows how to immerse her reader; but a depth of mood doesn’t always translate to a depth of narrative ... No story flails, but the collection’s grueling darkness proves limiting: Surprisingly, Florida seems like our best evidence yet of Groff’s unparalleled gifts, while simultaneously an indication of what can weigh down her work.\
RaveEntertainment Weekly\"Alam is a writer of true empathy ... Mother isn’t big on plot or surprise. It thrills in its attention to nuance, its construction of a full, flawed, loving heroine. Alam’s generous rendering rings authentic. Whatever takeaway one has of Rebecca, a protagonist sure to polarize due to the verisimilitude with which Alam draws her, she emerges with an open, beating heart. It’s partly because Alam knows when to gracefully drive in the knife. He’s wry, but never cruel — confident enough to pinpoint life’s ugliness while keeping hope alive.\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"In the context of our enduring fixation, Chasing Hillary reads like a surprisingly intimate campaign memoir ... Unusually, it is Chozick’s own, admitted obsession with Hillary Clinton which lends her book not just credibility but gravity. Having been on the front lines, Chozick has a keen understanding of the current political climate. She grasps the power of obsession in today’s politics and doesn’t pretend to be immune; rather, she crafts a compelling narrative out of her own biases and experiences that reads like a juicy but insightful novel. At times, she comes up short when it comes to honest reflection on the big themes...But Chozick thrives at bringing campaign shenanigans down to a human level ... Chasing Hillary succeeds because, unlike so many recent tell-alls which have purported to shed light, Chozick relishes the incendiary ... Chozick observes Clinton critically but in admiration. Their relationship is richly complex, if mostly unspoken: a fascinating portrait of two brilliant, wounded women unknowingly headed for a collision course ... In its emotional messiness, Chozick’s story commands nuance. Politics is personal, and the personal is never clear-cut.\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"Motherhood is a starkly intimate recital of waiting and questioning, while the world indifferently passes by. As psychological inquiry, it’s undeniably effective. But the book, consumed as it is by hypotheticals, takes a circular shape, tracing over itself with increasingly sharp insights and blunt language ... But it’d be too easy, too limiting, to say that Heti’s literary effort is unsuccessful. To the contrary: Frustration and ambiguity are rooted in the book’s very argument. However redundant Motherhood is, that’s where the book’s sneaky power lies, in a layered question which lacks an answer: How should a mother be?\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"Every once in a while a book comes around that fills a need — that communicates ideas so effectively and humanely its social value leaps off the page. Heads is such a book ... The author thoughtfully reveals contemporary racial dynamics by letting authenticity lead the way. She poses dilemmas, and we observe them play out as if she’s plucked scenes directly from our day-to-day ... Writing in versatile prose and with a penchant for naturalistic dialogue, the author calls to mind writers like Junot Díaz and Tayari Jones in the way she weaves timeless human conflict into a quietly political tapestry. Well-observed as they are, some of these entries could use a little more meat on the bones.\
James B Comey
MixedEntertainment Weekly\"He demonstrates wit and humility in his anecdotes; later, he conveys urgency in his ruminations on this moment in time, and he’s not afraid to express reluctance and uncertainty ... This is not the dry law enforcement memoir that such a linear structure would typically beget. Instead, it’s cunningly calculated. Both explicitly and subtly, Comey draws himself as Trump’s polar opposite ... He pores over each of his most controversial decisions but comes to conclusions certain to satisfy no one but the most willingly forgiving ... His earnest manifesto on leadership informs a climactic righteous screed; he states his fear of being an egomaniac, only to awkwardly wield that insecurity as a weapon against the biggest egomaniac around ... Comey’s scathing arguments against Trump could hardly be more compelling, and Loyalty is infinitely more credible than Michael Wolff’s gossipy best-seller. But the point remains: Not even a fundamentally decent, morally upright former FBI Director could resist the appeal of a little Trump gaslighting.\
RaveEntertainment Weekly\"With The Recovering, Jamison still articulates a clear, compelling mission. But the book may not strike such a chord, layered as it is with highbrow references and unconventional structures ... There’s something profound at work here, a truth about how we grow into ourselves that rings achingly wise and burrows painfully deep. In this astounding triumph, Jamison reveals how myths make us who we are, situating herself within a storied American movement before steering us all toward a new, clearer state of being.\
PanEntertainment WeeklyTangerine is cinematically engineered, an aromatic stew of ingredients ripe for a big-screen treatment — exotic ’50s setting, unreliable narrators with inscrutable motivations, mysteries clouded in madness ... The plotting all but demands comparisons to Patricia Highsmith; the sweaty, paranoid atmosphere screams Hitchcock. This isn’t to say Tangerine is at the level of those masters. It’s deliberately evocative of them. And once that initial intrigue wears off, Mangan’s touch loses its luster rather quickly. Her style feels more imitative than original, a dispiriting reminder of what more daring storytellers could do here. The writing is laborious, particularly early on, and Mangan’s Hitchcock emulation turns problematic as confounding sexual politics increasingly drive the narrative. It becomes clear that there’s not enough of a story here: The twists are fun, but hardly jaw-dropping, and the descriptive redundancies feel like padding for a book thinner than its page count suggests.
MixedEntertainment Weekly\"The plotting all but demands comparisons to Patricia Highsmith; the sweaty, paranoid atmosphere screams Hitchcock. This isn’t to say Tangerine is at the level of those masters. It’s deliberately evocative of them. And once that initial intrigue wears off, Mangan’s touch loses its luster rather quickly ... The writing is laborious, particularly early on, and Mangan’s Hitchcock emulation turns problematic as confounding sexual politics increasingly drive the narrative. It becomes clear that there’s not enough of a story here ... The book is undeniably readable, even at its clunkiest, and some of its scenes are vividly imagined.\
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyThe House of Impossible Beauties is a work of unrestrained passion, a novel both unabashedly queer — flamboyant and proud, built out of chosen families, pulsating with club vibes whilst clouded in the haze of trauma — and unmistakably Latin ... Stylistically, the novel is a glorious mess: It swerves with melodramatic prose, and finds easy opportunities for exposition in its straight-talking queens. To be sure, the book is hardly perfect, at times galumphing in its story movements. But those rough edges might just be the key to The House of Impossible Beauties.’ enthralling, invigorating success.
RaveEntertainment Weekly\"While McNamara was — spoiler alert — ultimately unable to unmask the killer’s identity, her book is reflective and candid in such a way that it still produces revelations ... What we discover, beautifully, is McNamara’s interest in human beings. There’s a spooky, suspenseful magic to the way the author constructs bite-sized short stories and infuses them with that lurking inevitability of terrible, potentially deadly crimes ... the book’s patchwork in Part 3 — effective as it is — can’t quite compensate for the loss of her voice. And yet this is all part of what makes I’ll Be Gone such a singular, fascinating read. It’s lifelike in its incompletion. Had McNamara lived to wrap this book on her own, one suspects the end result could have been a masterwork. It still is, mostly — a posthumous treasure that feels thrillingly alive.\
PositiveEntertainment Weekly\"McNamara is unsparing in explaining the killer’s macabre habits, but ethically so, favoring information over indulgence and emotion over gore. She’s also able to perfectly execute the procedural aspect of true crime ... Part 3—effective as it is—can’t quite compensate for the loss of her voice. And yet this is all part of what makes I’ll Be Gone such a singular, fascinating read. It’s lifelike in its incompletion. Had McNamara lived to wrap this book on her own, one suspects the end result could have been a masterwork. It still is, mostly—a posthumous treasure that feels thrillingly alive.\
PanEntertainment WeeklyIweala is a unique and surprising writer; the story he tells is neither of those things ... The tragic inevitability of Niru’s journey is less illuminating than familiar, less gut-wrenching than exhausting. The page-turning effect is monotonous, a screed inflamed by anger and pain. We’re not permitted to get to know Niru, goes the novel’s argument, because he’s not permitted to know himself. Speak No Evil feels patched together in that respect, alternating between stunning and tired chunks of narrative almost on a whim.
MixedEntertainment WeeklySpeak No Evil reveals the worst-case scenario ... interrogates what it means to live in a climate of police brutality, or to develop an identity that intersects with multiple marginalized groups ... The tragic inevitability of Niru’s journey is less illuminating than familiar, less gut-wrenching than exhausting. The page-turning effect is monotonous, a screed inflamed by anger and pain ... Speak No Evil feels patched together in that respect, alternating between stunning and tired chunks of narrative ... Iweala’s forceful writing, defined by sentences of only a handful of words that move at an accelerated clip, shines when he digs into Niru’s psyche. He has a rare gift for capturing stream-of-consciousness thought, tackling it at a pace that’s quick but authentic. His book’s structure is rooted in the style, and so it’s strange the degree he seems to resist its potential ... With every step Iweala takes toward tragedy, our window into Niru’s soul gets narrower.
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyOverrepresented as it may be in fiction, the road trip provides an ideal structure for acclaimed novelist Jesse Ball (A Cure for Suicide), a writer of an elegantly poetic bent ... It’s a transcendent, consummately strange sketching of the human condition.
RaveEntertainment WeeklyThe destigmatization of mental illness has become a focus in popular entertainment circles, particularly the YA space, and the bracing Freshwater takes that effort several steps further. Brilliantly, it reconfigures Western conceptions of identity, trauma, and even consciousness by discarding Western approaches to character.
RaveEntertainment WeeklyWith Brass, Aliu has introduced herself as a major new literary voice ... the novel expands magnificently as it introduces a parallel narrative: Elsie’s now-teenage daughter, Luljeta, heading down a similar path, littered with regrets ... The shift makes for a shatteringly intimate mother-daughter tribute, a love letter brimming with pain.
RaveEntertainment Weekly\"Halliday’s big revelation isn’t some jaw-dropping plot point. Her politics aren’t bleeding out of every turned page. You discover what she’s writing about as you go along, and then re-discover and re-discover.\
MixedEntertainment Weekly\"To call Gnomon a work of genius is not entirely a compliment. Nick Harkaway’s epic, unwieldy, unpredictable new novel is outwardly brainy and pridefully digressive, and the distance it projects from its reader feels excruciatingly deliberate ... These mini-stories range from poignant to dull, which again, seems almost beside the point in the grander scheme of the novel ... That there’s so much to recommend here, so much to grapple with and admire, is at its root a product of that very pure mission: to both be literary and endear readers to the literary. So it’s all the more disappointing that Harkaway can’t quite execute that mission — can’t quite match his herculean ambitions ... The reading experience sours as Harkaway’s writing stays maddeningly expository...For all that Harkaway comments on the vitality of books and storytelling, he too often strays from their most basic pleasures.\
RaveEntertainment Weekly\"There are narrative patterns between each of the five stories which powerfully unify the book in theme and feeling. Many of them feature protagonists meditating on the people who matter — or mattered, at one point — the most to them in their lives … For Johnson’s characters, art and storytelling provide windows of understanding into human nature; it’s a lovely and timeless sentiment, one that was no doubt shared by the author himself … Here’s an author turning toward the past, conjuring up the ghosts of those he’s loved and lost, writing of wild experiences with affectionate abandon.\
Maude Julien, Trans. by Adriana Hunter
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyWithout taking away from Julien’s actual experiences, what she accomplishes as an author and storyteller is impressive. Her present-tense prose is concise; compact but clear descriptions of torture are unshakable, and brilliantly build on one another as you keep turning the pages in disbelief. It’s hard to overstate the achievement, of relaying years of real trauma with poetic immediacy. She effectively brings you inside her profoundly paranoid father’s mind, both as she simplistically understands it as a child and as she comes to terms with it as she grows ... You can feel the weight of the story catch up with Julien in the book’s climax; there’s an awkward, overwhelming balance of resolution, summary, and continued terror that lacks the cogency of what preceded it. It damages the book’s addictively blistering flow, but at the same time, she expands the story’s bounds of emotional intelligence.
RaveEntertainment WeeklyWasson masters the art of the monograph by locating a sharp argument within a sweeping, messy, compelling history ... The creative process is like democracy in action. (The book cleverly posits this theory against the backdrop of, among other political moments, the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.) Wasson’s dizzying style drives the point home. Though he jumps around, he never gives a player short shrift, and his conversational tone captivates. The book’s focus tightens as its narrative strands converge, but it maintains a loose unpredictability throughout. It holds the element of surprise—true to the spirit of its subject.
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyUnflashy as it may seem, her writing sparkles when she alternates between detailing her characters’ motivations and describing their new home in all of its volatile, foreign, scaldingly hot charm. She demonstrates a masterly touch in the way she drops dashes of bleak Hungarian history into marital squabbles, family meals, and morning jogs. The familiar, even obvious rhythms of Strangers in Budapest mostly work to its benefit. Keener’s prose occasionally meanders, as reminders of Annie’s state-of-mind turn redundant and the Budapest sun’s overpowering heat is relentlessly emphasized, but it always clicks back into place, fusing emotion to setting and past to present with cutting brevity ... Strangers in Budapest doesn’t exoticize or patronize its location; rather, in a rare achievement for an American novel of this international emphasis, it revels in the complexity of its appeal. The more we learn about the city — the more we travel its roads, wander its stuffy apartment buildings, admire its parks and rivers — the more mournfully satisfying the book becomes. We come to understand why these characters are drawn to Budapest. We see why they’re drawn to the dead.
PositiveEntertainment WeeklyPochoda’s sharpness as a writer comes through in her patience. Early on, it’s clear that, as with many books that share Wonder Valley’s structure, vignettes will overlap and mysteries will eventually be pieced together. Yet uniquely, revelations arrive without announcement; pivotal moments quietly creep into paragraphs. The ending is magnificently unexpected, almost ingenious, and the surprise factor sneaks up on you. Its subtle brilliance is just that — subtle ... There’s heartbreak and disappointment to spare in Wonder Valley, and every character is rendered with empathy. Each element in the story has texture, from the weather to the architecture to the people inhabiting it. Pochoda lets no one off easy, and, at times, she gets a little carried away sketching out the idiosyncrasies of her setting. But crucially, Wonder Valley has an innate understanding of what makes hiding from home, or taking a leap into the unknown, or ripping off your clothes and racing through traffic, naked, such deeply human impulses. The book tells an essential truth: Everybody’s running from something.
PanEntertainment WeeklySpanning decades within a little more than 100 pages, it tells a basic story in an increasingly perilous context. It intends to grab you, hold you, and never let you go — but it never really does ... Working in such a small storytelling space and with so many swirling elements, there’s precious little room for error here. This proves untenable. Weiner’s drawing of Bobby, for starters, is offensively off-base: The book indulgently examines his homicidal nature with doses of poverty porn, yet he’s merely used to establish contrasts of class and stability. Further, the breakdown of the Breakstone marriage, which takes up most of the action, is chronicled without distinctiveness. That these stories are paralleled throughout is an almost jarringly cynical choice. Weiner’s style is neither comic nor empathic nor particularly insightful; the narrative plods forward with simplistic characterizations that grow tiresome, and flabby sentences mistaken as artfully unformed ... In its empty cynicism, there’s simply too little to feel or to contemplate; in more ways than one, Heather, the Totality marks a pretty thin debut.
MixedEntertainment WeeklyThe results are mixed in the way memoirs often are, even as it features his distinct voice and an unusual structure. It both falls victim to the genre’s trappings and maximizes on what can make it so uniquely powerful ... Hodgman, known for his dry humor, is typically restrained and offbeat here; his stories tend to be meditative and cutting, peppered with touches of absurdity. Yet you can feel the author hitting up against the walls of the conventions of memoir as he revisits insubstantial anecdotes that fail to convey the sense of displacement which threads the book ... Hodgman is not a great descriptive writer and so it’s often puzzling the extent to which the book relies on rote descriptions of his past ... The beauty of Vacationland comes through when Hodgman isn’t bogged down by his genre’s conventions ... It’s only when Hodgman gets away from the 'painful beaches' of Massachusetts and Maine, and into the choppy waters of his own mind, that Vacationland presents a world worth sinking into.