Ellen Akins is the author of the novels Home Movie, Little Woman, Public Life, and Hometown Brew, and the short story collection World Like a Knife. She has published short stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, and The Southwest Review. She has written reviews for numerous publications and is a regular contributor to The Minneapolis Star Tribune. Ellen can be found on Twitter @ellenakins
Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. by Michael Hofmann
PositiveThe Star TribuneWhat is past, what is present, and what persists are questions that haunt Kairos, a novel concerned with continuity in politics and culture but also with passion and character ... Erpenbeck\'s spare style, seamlessly blending dialogue, thought, narrative and allusions to German culture, echoes the ideas that animate Kairos, and occasionally the disorientation at its core.
RaveThe Star Tribune\"When you come to the end of Abraham Verghese\'s new novel, The Covenant of Water, you will feel that you have lived among the Indian and Anglo-Indian characters who populate its pages for almost a century. It\'s that long. But it\'s also that immersive — appropriately enough for a book so steeped in the medium and metaphor of water, as the title suggests.... These lives, so finely drawn and intensely felt, are at once singular and inextricably bound together within the immensity of fate and faith — like \'the water that connects them all in time and space and always has.\'\
RaveThe Star TribuneManages to be both a model of the intricate network of familiar coordinates — love, money, art, work — and an intimate portrait of each individual caught, for better or worse, in its web ... The larger social, cultural and emotional strains sharply and movingly conveyed through the smaller lens of these three people ... Commitment does seem to take the great Victorian novel for a template of sorts — updated for a world where \'commitment\' is forever being redefined, but love abides.
RaveThe Star TribuneMakkai spins a pertinent story ... This might all sound somewhat programatic — and maybe it is — but it\'s also a damn good story in which what happens and what it\'s about bear equal narrative weight ... Deviously twisting midway, as new and newly remembered information shifts Bodie\'s suspicions, the book is remarkably good at turning nuance to account and turning the abstractions of personal, social and cultural politics into a practical, deeply felt and occasionally even thrilling reality.
MixedThe Star Tribune... there is, in Smiley\'s telling of her story, a certain straightforwardness and simplicity that make it seem, even at the height of the drama of unmasking a murderer, decidedly safe ... It\'s light, as I said, for all the weightiness of its subject — but entertaining, nonetheless. And even so, Eliza reflects, \'life had turned out to be more complex than even she, in her business, had expected.;
RaveThe Washington PostThese spunky, somewhat benignly neglected children, with a pedigree stretching from Charles Dickens to Lemony Snicket, might seem familiar, but they have their own peculiar and particular charm, as do the supporting cast of flamboyant visitors, eccentric locals and unflappable family retainers. And when the drama shifts to wartime footing, that familiarity, so lovingly recast and cultivated, has secured our affection for these characters and our interest in the new roles they assume ... For all its theatricality and amusements, outsize and intimate, The Whalebone Theatre is most interesting and moving as the story of these siblings, Cristabel in particular, making something of their own out of the material they’ve been given, finding their rightful place in a drama not always of their own making. Which is to say, because it’s all made up, after all, the real performance here is Joanna Quinn’s. What’s remarkable, especially for a first novel, is her deft way of depicting this lost world — whether a subsiding seaside aristocracy or a training school for British agents or a Parisian theater in wartime — convincingly enough to let us see it simply as a setting for the unfolding drama. Her vision is so fine and fully realized that it’s hard to imagine her doing anything else — and hard to have to wait to see what that might be.
RaveThe Star Tribune[It] all unfolds in the most natural way, with current moments tracing back to Gil\'s past, and the sense of his character accumulating from quiet moments with Tom, Tom\'s parents and Sarah, a new, slowly emerging love interest. And through it all, there is a concern about what\'s happening in the world, depredations environmental, political and personal ... Involving and moving ... Millet, whose talent is at once outsize and subtle, makes it seem perfectly natural.
RaveThe Star TribuneWonderfully balanced between the literary bravura of novels like Life After Life and the more mundane but ample pleasures of her Jackson Brodie mysteries, Kate Atkinson\'s Shrines of Gaiety puts a cast of irresistible characters into an intriguingly convoluted plot set in post-World War I London, wafts a Shakespearean air of antic enchantment over the proceedings, and keeps you guessing till the end — even as something tells you everything will be all right. Mostly ... The story is such a complex web of underhanded plotting and double-dealing that occasionally it\'s hard to tell who\'s out to get whom and what the game is, though this only makes it all that much more fun ... Atkinson\'s narrative panache is somehow historical —the brands and trams and flavors and names — and au courant, the storytelling of its time and ours, scenes unfolding only to jump back and fill in from a new perspective, characters footnoting their own thoughts. And often it\'s just plain funny, especially in the confines of the Coker family, who are droll in the most unsentimental way ... This is storytelling at its best — entertaining, moving, surprising — as true to the busy, Dickensian tradition as it is to the exigencies of our day.
RaveThe Star TribuneHow these artists of varying degrees of talent, skill and savvy make use of one another — as subjects, lovers, supporters and competitors — at Wrynn and, shortly, in New York City once they for a variety of reasons are forced to leave the school, is interesting in itself; but mostly it, the plot, is a tidy structure upon which hang the far more interesting questions about love and art, fear, ambition and desire ... Angress is very good at getting what people think about and what they want when they make art, whether from political conviction, a performative impulse or a deep need to convey what they see ... If this might seem somewhat programmatic, the moments of recognition and frustration, revelation and betrayal, desire and revulsion are convincing and moving, and Angress\' portrayal of the intersection — or disconnect — of art, politics, idealism and practicality within the web of familial, romantic,and professional relationships is painterly, in the best sense of the word.
RaveThe Washington Post... partakes of the charm, if not the sting, of the fairy tales the author updated in her 2014 book of stories, The Witch: And Other Tales Re-Told ... is as much about women’s power in the world, poetic or otherwise, as it is about the power of poetry. And in the novel the power of poetry speaks for itself, in offhand and formal quotes from Shakespeare, the Bible, Byron and Yeats, among others, and in the reading and reciting of some quite wonderful poems with which Thompson supplies her \'pew-ets,\' as Aaron affectionately refers to them ... There’s no doubting and no escaping the joyful, hopeful spirit that inhabits The Poet’s House — the spirit of poetry that by the end of this charming novel Carla so clearly embodies — and the irrepressible Jean Thompson so smartly imparts.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens
MixedStar TribuneBe prepared to shrug it off, along with subsequent similar interventions, and get on with the story, assuming that it will all eventually make sense ... It sort of does ... \'Is it possible to imagine something so fully that it takes on a life of its own? So many systems run only on belief.\' It\'s possible that a novel, like this one, does, too.
Karen Joy Fowler
PositiveThe Star TribuneAn interesting historical novel about a family in 19th-century America, whose story begins in theatrical celebrity and ends in notoriety, broken by the Civil War and the irreconcilable convictions it exposed and the bloody passions they unleashed ... Fowler\'s portrayal of the theater business, high and low, is fascinating in its particulars ... . But everything that happens, however thoroughly engaging the Booths and the reader, is shot through with our awareness of what\'s coming, which makes for an odd sort of suspense — a suspense complicated by the sense that this play never really ended, and that we have yet to contend with this darkness at the heart of the American drama.
PositiveThe Star Tribune... a considerable cast of intricately connected characters shifting through different configurations in interlocking stories set in the recent past and not so distant future and told in a dizzying variety of ways ... Each has its own language, its own tropes and terms, which Egan somehow manages to use and skewer at the same time, while maintaining the mystery that makes each person unique and worth knowing. As she puts it, near the exquisitely moving conclusion of The Candy House, \'Knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it\'s all just information.\'
PositiveThe Star TribuneBlank Pages is an older man\'s book, the prose simpler than in previous work, and somehow both more urgent and more elegiac ... The stories are largely preoccupied with loss, past or impending: of parents and children, of memories and home, of possibilities, inspiration and illusions. But with the prospect of every loss comes the imperative to bear witness, create a record, or, at the very least, to see, truly see ... it is the poor Catholic father, gathering blackthorn sticks when he gets his scratch, who provides perspective, and perhaps a key to MacLaverty\'s Blank Pages: \'As the light faded, everything became very sharp against the sky.\'
PositiveThe Washington PostDoyle’s brilliance probably shines brightest in life with children — which may give added poignancy to these lives from which children are missing, lost or launched. But Doyle’s other extravagant gift, a way with speech, does have its moments here, often in significant exchanges recalled but more generally in the conversational knack of the narration — whether it’s a character telling his own story (or, in one case, two characters telling alternating, and sometimes conflicting, versions) or a third-person narrator approximating a character’s point of view.
Peter Stamm, Tr. Michael Hofmann
PositiveThe Star TribuneWhat happens might be what\'s most interesting about [these stories], because formally and stylistically they\'re coolly self-effacing, rendered, in reviewers\' parlance, in unadorned prose. As with the flat telling of fairy tales, on the smooth surfaces of Stamm\'s stories we slip easily from ordinary to strange, distinctions elided ... Whether it\'s Stamm, an award-winning Swiss writer, or Michael Hofmann, his trusty translator, mixing things up, the occasional confusion is typical of these stories, where characters wander between menace and melancholy, finding themselves without ever quite knowing where they are.
PositiveSt. Louis TodayClearly having been written in the midst of the events that overtake its characters—the coronavirus and then the Twin Cities’ eruption over the murder of George Floyd—the book has a sometimes disconcerting you-are-there quality, which can seem out of step with the story proper, though the events do amplify the novel’s themes of social and personal connection and dissociation, and of the historic crimes and contemporary aggressions, micro and overt, perpetrated in the name of white supremacy. What does hold everything together here, fittingly enough in a novel so much of which takes place in a bookstore, is the connection made through reading, and one of the great charms of The Sentence for an avid reader is the running commentary on books—recommendations, judgments, citations, even, at the end, a \'Totally Biased List\' of Tookie’s favorites. As she tells us: \'The door is open. Go!\'
PositiveThe Star TribuneClearly having been written in the midst of the events that overtake its characters—the coronavirus and then the Twin Cities\' eruption over the murder of George Floyd—the book has a sometimes disconcerting you-are-there quality, which can seem out of step with the story proper, though the events do amplify the novel\'s themes of social and personal connection and dissociation, and of the historic crimes and contemporary aggressions, micro and overt, perpetrated in the name of white supremacy. What does hold everything together here, fittingly enough in a novel so much of which takes place in a bookstore, is the connection made through reading; and one of the great charms of The Sentence for an avid reader is the running commentary on books—recommendations, judgments, citations, even, at the end, a Totally Biased List of Tookie\'s favorites.
RaveThe Star TribuneIt\'s a good thing this is a short book, because if there were much more of its crazy brilliance, a reader\'s head might well explode ... Grim and/or elegiac as the novel mostly is, it is also an oddly reassuring repository of cultural history, philosophy, psychology (pop and not), environmental concern, and mythical and linguistic lore—all put in perspective and often punctured by Williams\' wry, goofy, generous wit. Sometimes it seems like Denis Johnson, Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee got together, consulted Hegel, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and came up with a story—and then Samuel Beckett, Lewis Carroll and Terry Gilliam piled on. But it\'s all Joy Williams.
RaveThe Star TribuneThis all might sound a bit sci-fi technical, but all the scientific razzle-dazzle, including the details of the planets that Theo elaborately imagines for Robbie, simply underlines the human story at its center—and makes the tenderness between father and son seem so real and heartfelt that the novel becomes its own empathy machine. What\'s more powerful, though, is how the emotions Bewilderment evokes expand far beyond the bond of father and son to embrace the living world and Robin\'s anguish at its plight, experienced ever more exquisitely as the experiment progresses. And then, in case you figure your feelings for this man, this child, and this benighted planet can\'t get any stronger, fair warning[.]
PositiveThe Star TribuneThe novel at first seems curiously flat, biographical reportage with dialogue often sounding like stiff translations from the German; but little by little the inexorably accumulating details make Tóibín\'s Mann more interesting than the mere facts of his admittedly larger-than-life story ... events conspire to invest this life with much of the drama of the 20th century\'s most pressing social, cultural and political questions. While much of The Magician is taken up with the doings (and undoing) of Mann\'s remarkable family...the book gets its momentum and heft from the way these experiences intersect with the larger world, in particular, the way Tóibín has Mann making sense of them, in his life and in his art ... a deep and nuanced vision of Germany moving via culture and corruption from old world to new, with Thomas Mann as both its observer and its embodiment.
Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi
PositiveThe Washington Post... a novel of ideas if ever there was one ... Though steeped in sex and haunted by fleshy frights (bloody rags under the sink in the grossly grimy apartment; the blue, bloated face of the woman Arezu might’ve become if she’d stayed; the baby wild boar Omar once forced into Arezu’s backpack), their exorcism is mostly a matter of language, happening on the page.
PositiveThe Washington PostWith a lot of overlap, it’s hard to say what’s comical and what’s in earnest — but there’s enough of both to keep a reader happily engaged, and, because the author has lived in Namibia, there are plenty of probably true facts to savor about the landscape and quirks of language and expat behavior. That is to say, here’s the disclaimer the novel should have come with: Don’t take this book too seriously, and it will entertain you, seriously.
PositiveThe Star TribuneProse has worked an amusing inversion: The plot is more paranoid than our well-meaning hero, a sort of editorial Candide. And it may be one of his saddest and sweetest delusions that a novel, then or now, could make much of a difference in the not-so-grand scheme of things.
PositiveThe Star Tribune... the novel moves between the personal and the scientific in a way that is at once informative, suspenseful and heartfelt—a balance that Shepard manages with remarkable grace, imparting a ridiculous amount of data and historical detail, but mostly believably couching it in the characters\' thoughts and often funny and endearing dialogue. The balance, in fact, seems to be the point, as Aleq\'s plight and Jeannine and Danice\'s struggles persistently shift our focus from natural science to human nature and back again, reminding us of our precarious place among the world\'s infinite possibilities.
RaveThe Washington Post... by taking us along with him, drawing us so deftly into moments of intimacy and worldliness, brutality and beauty, the author effectively ceases to be an outsider. In Monkey Boy he has crafted his own E pluribus unum, with room enough for stories lived, written or read — and, of course, for the two Franciscos, Goldberg and Goldman.
Jo Ann Beard
PositiveThe Star TribuneBeard is so good at what she does ... In Beard\'s book, writing works like compound interest, each experience building on the last, which built on the one before, till \'nothing new\'— all the dying dogs and aging friends, abandoned houses and abandoned women (and cancer, which pervades this collection)—is something new, something more, and \'very moment of your life brings you to the moment you\'re experiencing now. And now. And now.\'
PositiveThe Star TribuneOne of the peculiar pleasures of the novel comes from Klara\'s reframing of the familiar — whether it\'s teenage angst, or the comforting sound of a refrigerator, or the notion of privacy as something that might be taken or even stolen (though never by the ever-thoughtful Klara).
PositiveThe Washington PostThere may be a bit too much consonance between the events past and present that give the novel its structure. But, in light of Polly’s great-grandfather’s work as a famous excavator of myths, a la Joseph Campbell, we might also see such coincidences as reflections of a larger, more intricate design than the tangled branches of one family tree ... The nature of Papa’s work also peoples Polly’s story with a wonderful cast of interesting characters: writers, artists, historians and crazies whose erudition, curious ideas and inspired eccentricities infuse Polly’s mental mapmaking with shimmering light and color. And it is really the way Polly thinks that makes this book so engaging ... Carrying us along, Polly conjures a richly textured, often lovely life of everyday loss and longing and endless speculation ... Harrison’s novel takes the unreliable narrator to a whole new place: in short, to the center of everything.
PositiveThe Star TribuneJack Boughton is probably the most interesting character in the fictional world of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels ... along with being a disreputable, inveterate rotter, Jack is delightful—funny, brilliant, extraordinarily perceptive and so deeply erudite that the poetry of the Bible and Shakespeare (for instance) thread inextricably through his thoughts ... What is in fact most powerful and poignant about this love story is how at once hard and permeable is the boundary between the \'marriage of true minds\' and the real world; and in Jack’s case, how internal that boundary also is.
RaveThe Washington PostThis is recognizable territory for Mary Gordon, who is expert at creating characters of clear moral, intellectual and what might be called aesthetic goodness — then testing that goodness in a clarifying, often life-altering way. In some ways, Gordon’s familiar conception of the novel is the real character being tested in Payback, as a sensibility attuned to the nuances of truth and beauty finds itself in the harsh, ugly light of the reality TV show that our world is inexorably becoming.
RaveThe Washington PostIn a novel that is, like all of Smith’s, rich with references, characters quick to share stories about artists and their work, and the misfits and heroes of history, Summer is more than a perennial season. It is the bravura performance of a writer, poised at the edge of the day’s vast darkness, gathering all the warmth and light of our inner summer.
PositiveThe Star TribuneIn the dioramas, Lee Conell gives us another nifty narrative metaphor—for the framing of her story, and for the story she’s telling ... If this clever novel is occasionally uneasily balanced between social satire and emotional seriousness, so in a sense are its players, forever enacting the basement/penthouse comedy-drama of class consciousness, never letting on that it’s pretend until it’s too late.
Kristen Millares Young
PositiveThe Washington PostAt its heart, Subduction is all about stories — the stories that constitute personal, family and cultural identity and, perhaps more important here, the stories that people tell, about themselves and to themselves, to make life meaningful and livable ... As the characters make their winding way toward the vaunted potlatch, there are passages of quiet beauty, deep emotion and sharp observation ... But lyricism and passion vie throughout with an academic impulse not unlike Claudia’s own ... whip-smart, if at times uneven.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThere are, that is, interesting historical notes here. Interesting information about the house Shakespeare grew up in, and the one he purchased when he began to make money. About flowers and herbs and their medicinal properties. There is a moving account of the courtship of an unlikely couple, an even more moving story about the grief experienced over the loss of a child. But what elevates the story above \'interesting\' is its engagement with Shakespeare’s life, and there’s something peculiar about hinging the story’s emotional gravity on a reader’s knowledge of Hamlet’s father’s ghost ... There’s also, perhaps, something amusing about seeing the great playwright at a loss for words, but imagining the point of view of someone who has contributed more language to the canon than anyone other than the composers of the Bible might require a Shakespearean effort — and that is something not even the most demanding of readers would expect of Maggie O’Farrell.
PositiveThe Washington Post... Pink’s style: brief paragraphs, often mere sentences or fragments, descending in short order toward what might be an insight, a judgment, or a joke—or one of the phrases repeated like an incantation throughout a story ... In \'The Machine Operator\'...Pink’s narrator is a noticer, a recorder, a performer of his observations in a world where little beyond the moment matters, conversation is mostly a matter of trading wisecracks and insults, and circumstances are beyond one’s control. Pink can make perfect little sentences...or poke fun at the tools of his craft ... He can be funny, faux-profound, loopily self-aware[.]
PositiveThe Washington PostThis narrator, one of the book’s more delightful peculiarities, is a (mostly) disembodied know-it-all voice that can sound like a mash-up of Beckett, Dr. Seuss and the Kinsey Report. Though claiming a certain aloofness as a \'bystander,\' the voice has plenty to say about mental ailments, marital relations, abuse, shock, recovery and the state of things in general ... [It] all sounds so awful, and it is — but in the narrator’s knowing, alternately wry and waggish commentary, there is more than denial, repression and toughing-it-out, though plenty of that, too. There is a glimmer of hope, a suspicion of redemption, and enough playful wit to suggest that what’s building in Little Constructions may well be a comic novel after all.
PositiveThe Star TribuneThat a family history forms the novel’s skeleton is fitting, because it is a sense of family that holds the whole story together ... What is most beautiful about the book is how this family feeling manifests itself in the way the people of The Night Watchman see the world, their fierce attachment to each other, however close or distant, living or dead ... [there is a] dark strand running though the book, and through the American story—one that, for all its chauvinism, Erdrich frames with remarkable care.
RaveThe Star TribuneLike a sort of literary shadow box, the novel collects images and instances from the past few years, with the 2016 election as a clarifying point in this picture of a fraught and fragmenting world. Again, there are jokes, factoids and quotes, as well as a healthy dose of survivalist lore ... one of the wonders of Offill’s writing that her light touch lets us glimpse the very real dread lurking underneath ... Henry, in his fragile state, makes all the more abstract existential fears that course through Weather intimate, immediate and sharply, sometimes comically, real ... The note of hope, obligatory though it may be, comes through.
RaveThe Star TribunePieced together in a sort of narrative pastiche...facts and features and events are told and retold, alluded to and expanded on, until we have seen them from so many angles that the picture they finally make seems at once comprehensively complete and incomprehensibly complex ... The associations that Apeirogon suggests are inescapable, of course, not random at all, but as wide as they ripple and as heady as they sometimes seem, they always come back to the book’s human heart, two grieving fathers and the power of their love in the face of countably infinite odds.
MixedThe Washington PostIt may be brave of O’Brien to take on such a grievous subject so far from her home turf, and it may be churlish to question the authenticity of her rendering of a tortured child’s plight; but it’s also hard to avoid comparing Maryam’s voice with the voice that Susan Minot conjured for a schoolgirl abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda for her 2014 novel Thirty Girls. Where Minot’s girl was heart-rendingly real, O’Brien’s Girl feels, rather, like a brilliant performance.
PositiveThe Washington PostBarry channels the music in every voice, from lowlife philosopher to slow-footed thug, ponderous wit to fluting child — and the comic genius in everyone, whether unfunny fool or God’s own comedian ... for readers, it will end too soon.
RaveThe Star TribuneKate Atkinson’s Big Sky, the fifth in her series of literary detective novels featuring ex-soldier, ex-policeman and private detective Jackson Brodie, is, like the others, wonderfully written, irresistibly suspenseful and offhandedly funny, its wildly eventful plot so chock full of coincidence and convenience that, looked at from arm’s length, it seems delightfully silly—yet so attuned to human foibles that it feels utterly genuine.
RaveThe Washington PostOpen Spring, and words erupt off the page, a wide-ranging rant of demands and wants, as if the tantrum of our political moment has found a voice. But then! Another voice rises, all-powerful Mother Earth promising, in spite of humanity’s puny mewling and intransigence, to once more bring green spring out of the deadly mess we’ve made. This is Ali Smith, the crazy-brilliant Scottish writer ... Chockfull of Smith’s joyous language, wordplay and aphorisms, snippets of pop songs and folktales, classical allusions and appreciations of artists from Rilke and Mansfield to the extraordinary cloud- and mountain-conjuring Tacita Dean, Spring is as fierce in its conviction and sure in its connections as that first, earthly voice that, after its vision of devastation, issues this promise: \'I’ll be the reason your own sap’s reviving. I’ll mainline the light to your veins.\'
PositiveThe Star Tribune... what happens, however harrowing and suspenseful, is not really the point in such a bravura performance—of language and understanding at their outer and innermost limits. If only we might see Lanny, as Dead Papa Toothwort does: \'Young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key.\'
MixedMinneapolis Star Tribune\"... Beattie’s writing with its clever rhythm of observation, reflection and speculation that disorients us even as it seems to be moving us forward. Thus, sometimes feeling as aimless as Ben himself, as he goes from Bailey to Cornell to various jobs and liaisons and girlfriends, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck puts us in its well-meaning but hapless protagonist’s position — moving ahead, not necessarily getting anywhere, but graced along the way with moments that occasionally confer their own meaning.\
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneAt once practical and passionate, poetic and earthbound ... Butler is very good at getting the pattern of Lyle’s days and the rhythm of his thoughts, the routines and rituals as subtly infused with personal history as with the changing of the seasons, the habits of a rural town, the quality of work, and the accommodations of a long, happy marriage. And so, when the crisis comes, the moment is as real as it is shocking.
PositiveMinneapolis Star Tribune\"It’s a clever device, supplying Mona with a self-questioning conscience, inner voice of reason, the occasional punch line — a glimpse of the interior life of a character who often appears to be operating on autopilot ... [Mona\'s story contains] a sort of existential drift to it, a sense that of all the houses to be inhabited and roles to be played and liaisons to be had, none offers much beyond the moment; although the moments — sharply drawn, sexually charged, wry with Mona’s deadpan wit — often suffice.\
PositiveMinneapolis Star Tribune\"Prepare to be appalled — by Thomas Rayfiel; Ethan Harms, his creation; or yourself, for falling for him ... It is tempting to read the entire novel as an extended metaphor — a temptation that Ethan encourages... And yet, he is no more capable of transcending the flesh and desires that define him than is Shakespeare’s Richard II ... What a reader has to come to terms with in this novel is how much of humanity Ethan Harms represents. Are we to align ourselves with the flesh and desires of his familiar prison — or can we cling to the fiction that the prison is all of his own making, his alone, his manatee?\
PositiveThe Star TribuneThere are more than a few moments of reckoning in this fine collection of linked stories ... in a down-on-its-luck Detroit that Maureen Aitken manages to make as homey and familiar as it is broken and blighted ... with every disappointment, every troubling encounter and failed liaison, come the quiet epiphanies that make Mary herself, and her life these stories. Aitken, who teaches at the University of Minnesota, ultimately gets her character, following yet another guy, to the Twin Cities (cold comfort!), where her ever more powerful brew of sharp comedy and sharper pathos almost—almost—prepares us for her heartbreaking last chapter.
RaveThe Star Tribune\"I admit, I’m growing tired of novels—even good ones—that turn historical figures into fictional characters ... I say this simply to underline how powerfully this book, an imagined life of Madame Tussaud, performed in winning me over ... This is a book so dense with events and so vibrant with delight in language that it’s difficult to do it justice. Suffice it to say that Carey, in the disarmingly engaging voice of his heroine, can make even a list of wax-working tools seem charmed.\
PositiveMinneapolis Star Tribune\"It’s an expansive vision Enger has, peopled with pretty regular folks but with room for romance and redemption, the drama of the everyman and the everyday ... Enger’s peculiar blending of poetic plainness and self-conscious artifice is such that, if you aren’t rolling your eyes at that Hiawathan tall tale, then you can be sure you’ve been expertly led into the realm of fiction where everything is possible...\
RaveMinneapolis Star TribuneReaders of Julie Schumacher’s hilarious 2014 novel in letters and/or memos, Dear Committee Members, will need little encouragement to pick up this uproarious sequel ... Like the best campus comedies, The Shakespeare Requirement satirizes all manner of academic pieties while maintaining a soft spot for the embattled humanist ... Although much of this is simply funny, what works best, unsurprisingly, grows out of the familiar hopes and longing, frustration and grievances, that only superficially have to do with campus life. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune may be zingers, but finally there’s something to be said for the subtle humor tinged with pathos that hums through Schumacher’s book.
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneShuttling back and forth in time, now and then issuing such dramatic currency...Kate Atkinson’s Transcription presents us with a world in which nothing is what it seems...and where the war trumps all ...The narration is as self-conscious in its staginess as Juliet’s BBC productions ... But even though the narrative voice, approximating Juliet’s point of view, is hedged with parentheticals, contradicting, commenting, correcting...it’s hard to accept the last deception the novel reveals.
PositiveThe Star TribuneMakkai is very good at conjuring a gay community enacting the usual dramas of love and lust and ambition and jealousy in a world where all the usual dramas suddenly can carry a fatal charge ... There are plenty of ensemble dramas out there, good ones, too. What might distinguish this one from the lot is Makkai’s focus on art and its parallels in memory. It is through Yale’s work running a gallery that we encounter Nora, a relative of Fiona’s, whose personal art collection from the period around World War I becomes a metaphor for how much of life, and in particular love, is preserved or transformed or lost over time.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune\"...these speeches, which seem to unfold naturally, are actually brilliant, perfectly controlled performances through which Faye — quoting and paraphrasing — travels from point to point, creating a narrative where none, in any conventional sense, exists ... There is something almost surreal, and ultimately funny, about how one character after another meeting Faye has definite opinions on questions of interest to her — about freedom, illusion, power, literary ambition, familial and marital relations (everyone is divorced) — and an uncanny ability to articulate them ... Along with recognition or acclaim, \'kudos\' in its original form is \'suggestive of something which might be falsely claimed by someone else.\' Whatever her interlocutors might say, it is Faye\'s story, to Rachel Cusk\'s honor and glory.\
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star\"This is a book of stories about stuff. Some are funny, some are silly, some are clever, and all of them have the arch, in-on-it air that Lionel Shriver does so well, although it tips over into snark often enough that the rare note of wistfulness is more than welcome ... in many of these stories there are fine distinctions and indefinable links between what these characters are and what they own.\
PositiveThe Star TribuneIt is truly weird, but in a way that’s become far more common, and celebrated, since its debut. Plotted, it’s not, which in some ways may be the point, because the main character, Pearl, is far more concerned about toeing the blurry line between what’s real and what’s not than about getting anywhere in particular ... Williams is a brilliant writer, and the book is laced with exquisite lines, many startling and some bizarrely funny — but it all comes to naught, in a quite deliberate way.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneMrs. is a novel that suffers — or benefits — from so many comparisons that it’s hard to categorize. Here we have the tiresomely familiar — or cattily amusing, take your pick — New York City mothers jockeying for their offspring’s position in primary school, as they speculate about a newcomer’s provenance, worry about an unsavory influence, lobby for an invitation to a party that will prove a) excruciating, b) hilarious or c) enlightening … As Caitlin Macy brings these characters into conflict, ostensibly because of differences of class, what registers instead is how conflicts of class are really matters of character — at least in this case … Mrs. gives us two classes of fiction: one a character-driven drama, in which people make bad choices or stupid mistakes and have to pay; the other a social comedy of sorts, where the difference between old money and new supplies the conflict and determines the outcome.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneBalanced uneasily between social satire and dystopian sci-fi, the novel follows Karl’s point of view, with The Transition going progressively from promising and mysterious to menacing … The novel, like The Transition, is somewhat better at moving people toward a goal than knowing what to do with them once they get there. But this, oddly, is one of the book’s charms; Karl is such a fine specimen of a certain character, a sort of hapless but serious — and seriously funny — good guy in the Hugh Grant vein, that his navigating of all the paranoid, conspiratorial material that comes his way is fun to follow even when it goes nowhere … Karl is a perfect exemplar of 21st-century, middle-class anxieties that are at once the result and the handicap of ‘progress.’
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune\"Christmas offers an opening — through which, as in A Christmas Carol, ghosts of Christmas past and promises of Christmas future can make their salutary way. As in many of Ali Smith’s books, disrupters arrive to stir the plot … With Iris and Lux as catalysts, scenes from Christmas past unfold, and our narrow views of Sophia and Art widen and deepen, filled with the secrets and substance of their histories, even as the characters themselves seem to expand.\
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...steeped as it is in dystopian darkness, Cedar’s diary is most remarkable for the amiable, heartfelt way in which it captures what’s familiar — in friendships and families, in communities and in nature. It is against this prosaic background, so artful in its seeming artlessness, that the loss anticipated in this novel registers in all its depth and sorrow.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneMuch of what these characters think and do seems more explained than felt — and yet they’re real enough to be moving. Much of what we see and hear — in a cramped apartment or the shipyard, at a nightclub or aboard ship — seems awash in particulars for the sake of verisimilitude, and yet it is convincing enough to take us where we’re supposed to be. It is when we come to the sea, 'an infinite hypnotic expanse that could look like scales, or wax; hammered silver; wrinkled flesh,' that artifice and experience invariably merge, and we witness the full reach of Egan’s writing. 'The strange, violent, beautiful sea. … It touched every part of the world, a glittering curtain drawn over a mystery.'
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneTold from the first in McDermott’s careful way, observing but with a certain intimacy, the story is set in motion by a suicide that leaves Annie, a pregnant, very young widow, alone in the world, at the mercy of circumstance ... Almost at once we encounter the tension that runs through the book, creating suspense of a metaphysical sort. With the Catholic Church as template, each character struggles to balance the physical against the spiritual, the earthly against the heavenly ... we begin to understand how the story has been spun, knitted together from a family’s memories — a fiction, really, but no less of a world, and no less true, for that.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneA world so carefully marked between out and in, us and them — where each spring ‘we bump our children’s heads against the boundary stones, so that they’ll not forget where they and all of us belong’ — is in the process of being turned inside out. The whole terrible story, entirely absorbing, has been a subplot in the larger narrative of progress, as town, in the person of a new master, encroaches on village, and the old deep ways of farming are displaced by sheep. All told and slowly understood by Walter, himself an outsider up to 10 or so years ago (a blink of the eye in this world), the story holds us in suspense with its minute and exquisite observation of every particular until, like the unsuspecting villagers, we are let go, left to contemplate ‘wherever is awaiting us.’
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe profound ignorance and innocence of the Crakers allow Atwood to exercise her waggish wit and to play with the complexities and absurdities of understanding and communication — as Toby tries to explain, for instance, what writing is, why creatures die, why humans have two skins (clothes), all in the language of Dick and Jane made mythic. Furthermore, the Crakers have become fascinated with Zeb, whose story is coaxed out of him by a perhaps even more interested Toby, who in turn narrates it to the Crakers … There is something funny, even endearing, about such a dark and desperate view of a future — a ravaged world emerging from alarmingly familiar trends — that is so jam-packed with the gifts of imagination, invention, intelligence and joy.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneLet me start, although my edition didn't, with George, christened Georgia, who is real in a way that Francesco, however charmingly ebullient, isn't quite. In a book about how stories speak to us in different ways at different times, we see George in the year after her mother's death at the same time as we see the two as they used to be, the cheeky teenager working out her identity under — and often against — her remarkable mother's tutelage … The making of these frescoes is at the center of the other story. From the sketchy record, Smith re-imagines Francesco as a disguised girl, the stonemason's child becoming an artist in a rich Renaissance mishmash of sharp wit, low comedy, pathos and historical detail.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThat Eleanor’s social awkwardness is extreme, sometimes painfully and often comically so, is far more apparent to the reader than it is to Eleanor herself — and that we get this through Eleanor’s own narration is a credit to the author’s cleverness and craft ... If Eleanor finds her way to some semblance of normality, and to a reckoning with her awful past through therapy, that may be a bit more real than the earlier goofiness has led us to expect — but that doesn’t make the goofiness any less delightful, or Gail Honeyman’s reflections on loneliness any less poignant.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...more often [than not] the writing is bright and shiny, as fun to follow as that bouncing ball ... Occasionally we dip into the shallow consciousness of Maazel’s characters, who think and talk like this: '?"I can’t make it without you," he said. "I know it hasn’t seemed like it for a while, but you are my life."?' But mostly we skate on that bright surface, which in this novel’s terms makes a certain sense. If consciousness and experience are so suspect and subject to distortion, forgetting and loss, perhaps it’s better not to go too deep. If only we can remember that.
J. M. Coetzee
PositiveThe Minneapolis StarPrecise and spare in features and language, nearly to the point of flatness, the book has the feel of allegory, but in the unmoored manner of Kafka’s stories where the ideal and the practical, the personal and the universal, collide in startling and often comical ways ... The wonder is that Coetzee, in his matter-of-fact style, conveys the longing that gives that mystery its power and meaning.
RaveThe Washington Post\"From the dreamy, disorienting opening of Autumn, we are in the strange territory that will be familiar to readers of Ali Smith, whose books play slyly with notions of time, character and plot ... Daniel, who takes Elisabeth to see The Tempest, is something of a Prospero to her Miranda, a fatherly magician summoning the wealth of words and images that will shape her life ... a novel that, under all its erudition, narrative antics, wit and wordplay, is a wonder of deep and accommodating compassion.\
PositiveThe Dallas Morning News...the puzzles, in this debut novel by Emily Fridlund, are both practical and profound ... Fridlund's neatly calibrated narrative gives us to understand, nature, no less than a feeling, is subject to loss.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneIt’s a canny strategy, tapping the current penchant for 'auto-fiction,' but allowing for the free play of the author’s considerable gifts in the traditional storytelling mode ... Back and forth the narrative moves, prompted and interrupted by the narrator’s questions, between the dying grandfather and the account he is supposedly giving of his past, all rendered in richly novelistic detail ... Threaded through it all is the wonder of the universe, the dream of spaceflight that has forever animated and frustrated the grandfather.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...a thoroughly entertaining romp through the theater of revenge and redemption ... The cast and crew, a colorful ensemble of criminals, offer amusing variations on Shakespeare’s dramatis personae.
PositiveNewsdaySemple has a singular genius for turning the ordinary inside-out and looking at it slantwise. While the mystery of Joe’s disappearance supplies the book with the somewhat shaky architecture of plot, all the in-between business keeps us happily occupied with its peculiar mash-up of the madcap and the poignant.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneMoving fluidly from one character to another and back and forth in time over 50 years, Patchett manages to capture those moments of life that, strung together, however awkwardly, constitute family history ... each of these characters is uniquely real, sympathetic and interesting by virtue of being so clearly and credibly drawn.
PositiveThe Dallas Morning News[Banner's] touch is light and her style accommodates both the foibles and magical thinking of Castellamare's more curious inhabitants and the subtler moments of happiness and heartbreak her main characters experience across several generations ... the island is alive with stories, as is The House at the Edge of Night.
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneIf much of the speculative Dystopian future in Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles seems wildly improbable — from its onset to the armed confiscation of gold to the population’s willingness to have transaction-monitoring chips implanted in their necks — it’s certainly fully realized. The book is thick with future slang and technology, grounded in a future recent history and rife with such ironic natural developments as the Mexicans putting up a wall to keep out fleeing Americans and the Chinese shipping their aged to America because it’s cheaper than taking care of them at home. Because so much has happened, characters have to spend a lot of time describing the events to each other (i.e., us), with a wink from the author.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...sounds pretty heady — and indeed there are moments of poetry and impressionistic observations and odd little otherworldly exchanges, allusions to brands of psychology and fables. But piercing the wordplay and abstractions and flights of fancy are the sharp specifics that make the family’s loss clear and their grief that much more real ... To call this tiny but potent book a novel is to grossly misrepresent it — but maybe that says more about our constrictive definition of the novel than it does about this book, which uses the writer’s, and Crow’s, whole bag of tricks to transform the indescribable absence that is grief into palpable, undeniable life.
RaveMinneapolis Star TribuneWhen, a few years ago, researchers at the New School in New York City conducted a study showing that reading literary fiction increases empathy, The Round House was one of the books they gave their subjects. It was hardly a startling pick, or outcome, because empathy is the guiding force in Erdrich’s writing — and so it is in this sad, wise, funny novel, in which the author takes the native storytelling tradition that informs her work and remakes it for the modern world, stitching its tattered remnants into a vibrant living fabric.
PositiveMinneapolis Star TribuneTo reconcile the two — the fear of death that informs so many egregious acts, for instance, and the little everyday moments that make up so much of life — is the problem DeLillo takes up again and again, and the impossibility of it is what makes his work so powerful, so comical, so frustrating and so fine.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune\"Conjured in a prose at once lush and spare — so precise and yet so rich in observation — Danielle Dutton’s Margaret is a creature exquisitely of her own creation, who can tell herself, and perhaps believe, that she \'had rather appear worse in singularity, than better in the Mode.\'”
PositiveThe Dallas Morning News'To speak of things as they are:' Again and again Oyeyemi’s fiction demonstrates all the promising improbability of that enterprise.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneIn his mind, Hans tells us, 'all the other academic disciplines — including the physical sciences … were irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance.' And this is where the genius of Ethan Canin’s storytelling lies — negotiating that space between pure thought and substance where all of us have to find a way to live.
PositiveThe MillionsIn A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin gives us a truly convincing picture of what it’s like to experience the world as most of us, probably, don’t ... Though Canin wants us to care about Milo and his mathematically gifted children and grandchildren, what’s far more convincing is what’s familiar: 'We watched a pair of red ants pitilessly drag a thrashing inchworm across the sand. It was like the ending of a great novel.'
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneLate in 1904, grief-stricken Tomàs travels from Lisbon to the High Mountains of Portugal, only to remark upon his arrival: 'There are no mountains in the High Mountains of Portugal.' In a novel by Yann Martel, whose work has featured a philosophical castaway tiger (Life of Pi) and a Holocaust play starring a stuffed donkey and monkey (Beatrice and Virgil), it's no surprise to discover that something is not what it's supposed to be. Nor will it spoil any of the delights of his new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, if I tell you that the remarkable, perhaps transformative medieval artifact Tomàs seeks turns out to be an ape on a cross.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesAfter pages and pages of Lilliet's speculation about the significance of the possibility of the chance that the meaning of (and so on), I came close to tearing my hair out in my own operatic fashion. And yet I was nonetheless mesmerized by Chee's portrait of Second Empire Paris at its glittering heights and in its bloody fall...
RaveMinneapolis Star TribuneIt’s done so well, you feel it, too, every slight and fear and tremor of desire. No one can speak fully or clearly to one another in this book, and yet they all communicate like crazy, with each other and with us — even to the point of a wordless epiphany.
Bonnie Jo Campbell
PositiveThe Star Tribune“It's a hard-luck, hardscrabble life in the world of Bonnie Jo Campbell's stories, a landscape that's as fertile as it is unforgiving, where families crop up and wither with the weather but manage some piquant humor and moments of worthy reckoning along the way.”