MixedNew York Journal of BooksRelies mainly on the narrative voice and memories of Edi’s childhood friend, Ash. That works powerfully, except when it doesn’t ... When she’s honest about her deepest shame, grief, regret, jealousy, and love for Edi, Ash’s voice is unbearably compelling ... Ash’s voice for too much of We All Want Impossible Things is too cute, too aware of its own cleverness and crammed with nonstop one-liners. It’s fun for a few pages ... What saves this book, in addition to the passages of Ash’s powerful voice, are the characters. They are all original, fully imagined human beings, likable in different ways.
PositiveNew York Journal of BooksProperties of Thirst is sprawling, rich, deep, passionate, beautiful, and as big as one of its key protagonists, the six-foot-plus California rancher Rocky Rhodes, and the vast mountain ranges he loves. Author Marianne Wiggins, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist, knows how to craft an absorbing story with full-bodied characters and immersive descriptions ... even at 544 pages, this novel is too thin for all the themes and subplots that it tries to tackle ... With so many pivotal characters ranging across so much territory, it’s no wonder Wiggins can’t follow every plot or theme to its fullest ... the literary world is fortunate that Wiggins managed to complete this amazing novel.
PositiveNew York Journal of BooksAn engrossing political novel but not in the usual sense ... Bravely, author Teddy Wayne...has made Paul annoying, self-righteous, and whiny. Those qualities are perfectly tuned to build the compelling plot and also make Paul a fully realized character, whether or not they alienate readers ... However, Paul’s periodic cluelessness isn’t believable ... The plot really takes off in the final 40 pages, like the kind of thriller Paul would never read or write.
PositiveThe New York Journal of BooksThe most wonderful aspect of this powerful novel is the world it lovingly evokes: the vast farming and desert area known as California’s Inland Empire, 100 miles east of San Diego and Los Angeles ... Family and home: They’re the grounding of this novel and of humanity.
MixedThe New York Journal of Books... a solid page-turner, made more compelling because the environmental disasters it describes may not be so fictional ... More jaded readers may find the Big Missed Clues a bit hard to swallow. Still, Eleutheria—a word that stems from an ancient Greek term for liberty—is a solid page-turner, made more compelling because the environmental disasters it describes may not be so fictional ... Unfortunately, the book starts to veer off-track as it moves toward the finale. It relies too much on the device of a letter that Willa possesses throughout the book but— straining the reader’s credulity—conveniently refrains from reading until now. Meanwhile, Hyde abruptly unloads a harangue about climate change ... True, this poor planet needs all the help it can get. But a well-told story almost always works better than a lecture, as most of this novel proves.
Harald Jähner tr. Shaun Whiteside
MixedNew York Journal of Books... rich detail ... For most of its 416 pages, Aftermath could be about almost any vanquished nation in the industrial era. The details are the book’s strength, but the lack of context is its weakness ... The sharp descriptions are aided by Jahner’s conversational writing style ... However, the book sorely needs a clearer structure and thematic statement ... Even worse, the occasional references to the genocide against the Jews or ex-Nazi officials who worm their way into respectability are so casually dropped in, then forgotten, that the book seems as unforgivably callous as the postwar German mentality it eventually criticizes. This is an important addition to the library of Holocaust literature, but it should be read with other historical post-war texts that examine the perpetrators of the Holocaust more deeply.
PositiveThe New York Journal of BooksThe most stunning aspect of Elizabeth Strout’s beautiful and insightful new novel, Oh William!, is the narrative voice, which violates most of the basic tenets of high school English classes ... the writing is powerful in its understated way ... Strout hits only a few discordant notes. While the choppy style usually works, there’s too much of the overly cute refrain \'So there was that.\' And some of the descriptions of rural Maine are a touch patronizing ... Lucy may think that \'we do not know anybody.\' But Strout, once again, demonstrates that she certainly knows human nature.
MixedNew York Journal of Books[The first two] sections are fascinating in different ways. Part One grabs the reader with its passion, beautifully translated by Leslie Camhi, with only a couple of stumbles. To some degree, this Maman is a cliché, the over-the-top, half-mad, Dostoyevskian protagonist. Happily, author Violaine Huisman fleshes out that cliché with some wonderful quirks ... Part Two is more conventionally engrossing ... After these absorbing sections, the brief Part Three is a letdown, a dribble of more examples of Maman’s craziness and unhappiness, puddling into her death. It’s not really necessary. In this debut, Huisman has already given her readers a richly textured portrait of an enthralling woman you might love as a dinner companion—but never as your mother.
PositiveNew York Journal of Books[An] ambitious debut ... While some of the narratives are inevitably more compelling than others, the complex structure generally works ... The main characters of this novel are complex people with interesting mixes of traits ... Chakrabarti, who was born in India, usually manages to keep all his narrative balls in the air, though he gets tangled too much in the weeds of the Bangladesh war and the Maoist insurgency. A Play for the End of the World deserves credit for finding common humanity among three very different cultures, while telling a compelling story.
Jessica Anya Blau
MixedThe New York Journal of Books... marred by some hard-to-believe plotting but rescued by genuine love and a wonderful sense of its mid-seventies era ... the contrast between counterculture-equals-good, versus conventional-equals-bad, teeters on the cartoonish. And Mary Jane’s parents aren’t merely stuck-in-the-mud caricatures; they are outright racists and anti-Semites ... What saves the novel are the sweet hints of genuine love between Mary Jane and her mother ... As beach reads go, this one isn’t bad. (Hopefully, the audio version could include a soundtrack of Jimmy’s songs.)
MixedNew York Journal of BooksThe mood is more sweetly nostalgic than brutal ... The few moments of dramatic tension—such as when that boy, Bernie, misses his bus and is stranded at a highway rest stop—are quickly resolved ... In trying so amiably to encompass so many people over such a long timeframe...author Eleanor Morse glides too blithely over major upheavals, personal as well as political. For instance, Harry and Liddie need only a few pleasant conversations to apparently resolve any doubts about uprooting their family from Michigan ... The most original voice is that of Margreete. Starting on the first page, her actions seem almost reasonable, until gradually the narrative meanders more and more off-kilter ... It’s okay to visit a tumultuous time without being overly dramatic. Still, the book could use a little more spice from Margreete and that farmer.
Irmgard Keun, tr. Michael Hofman
PositiveNew York Journal of Booksa short, charmingly absurd portrait of postwar Germany. Its cast of misfits bumbles through quixotic business ventures, genteel poverty, eviction, hapless romance, and even prison ... Sometimes author Irmgard Keun treats that horrible history with quiet but deadly sarcasm; however, sometimes she dashes it aside with a disturbing casualness ... more like a series of anecdotes and character sketches than a narrative. Certainly, this novel is unusual in the genre of World War II literature. For that reason alone, it’s worth reading.
Janet Skeslien Charles
MixedThe New York Journal of Books... well-plotted and richly populated ... Inevitably, Odile’s story is more engrossing ... A little more drama would have made the Nazi horrors—and Odile’s dilemmas--more vivid.
MixedThe New York Journal of Books... impressive ... This novel suffers from a gaping hole, however: Saeedah. While pages and pages of often powerful writing are devoted to Hanadi’s and Muneer’s points of view, Saeedah’s voice is as stifled as if she were living in the most rigid, traditional Saudi household ... She is granted just one sentence justifying the kidnapping and no opportunity to explain some of her other wild actions, like walking into a freezing lake in the winter, heavily pregnant and wearing only her bra and underpants. There is little sense of any fear, love, anxiety, annoyance, or triumph she might be feeling as she flees across the U.S. with Hanadi ... The novel’s beautiful conclusion leaves hope that families divided by culture and geography can reunite. Reuniting those torn by emotions and memories isn’t so easy.
Gaëlle Josse, tr. Natasha Lehrer
MixedThe New York Journal of Books... evocative but too-abbreviated ... At barely 200 pages of large-size type, The Last Days of Ellis Island is so short that the sparseness must have been deliberate. Yet the brevity is ultimately dissatisfying. If Mitchell was so wrapped up in Ellis Island during his 45 years there, he certainly should have memories of more than three immigrants and two fellow employees. What was the daily routine in that self-contained world? How did they cope when storms stranded the ferries? What were Mitchell’s feelings at each step downward, as his beloved facility slid from importance? Instead of getting those insights, the book spends six precious pages on the World War II combat death of his nephew, an interlude that feels tacked on to show Mitchell in a wider context. Luckily, the brief portrayal of Mitchell that exists is pungent and often lyrical.
L. Annette Binder
PositiveNew York Journal of BooksL. Annette Binder piercingly describes the mood of the inhabitants of the small Bavarian city of Wurzburg, just weeks before World War II ended ... The Vanishing Sky paints a haunting portrait of a nation slowly collapsing. The story is gripping, and the characters are fully realized, flawed individuals ... by making the fictional setting so generic, Binder, a prize-winning short story writer, hoped to explain how her father was able to participate in such mass cruelty. Under similar authoritarian control, how many readers of any nationality would have had the courage to resist? Yet there’s something troubling about the idea of ignoring the extreme evil of the Third Reich. If this novel aims for universality, then it’s important also to remember that many \'ordinary\' German adults—not just impressionable teenagers, not just cowed victims—avidly cheered Hitler and beat up their Jewish neighbors, long before Nazi control was firmly in place. Indeed, they voted for him in 1932 when Germany was still a democracy.
PositiveThe New York Journal of Books... disappointing in that it contains little about [Schwarz] family. The key players are no longer alive, talked sparingly before they died, or didn’t do much during the war ... That, however, is exactly the point of this book...Importantly, Géraldine places her family’s story in the broader context of postwar German and French blame-shifting ... It took Europe arguably two generations to fully face up to its shameful Holocaust past. Books like this one are needed to make sure that future generations don’t have any such guilt to deny.
PositiveThe New York Journal of BooksFew of the narrators share Oliver’s vision. Indeed, some have their own utopian or paranoid obsessions. It’s those obsessions, which often mirror the changing society around them, that give this novel its depth ... This section is weakened by the novel’s every-five-years timeline, which requires Alice to be far more aware of the Watergate cover-up than a typical American would have been in 1972 ... Skip, Alice, the other narrators, and a rich cast of supporting characters are nimbly cross-referenced, sometimes just by the subtle dropping of a name ... Not surprisingly, Nine Shiny Objects suffers from the flaws typical of the multi-narrator, novel-in-stories format: The narrative voices generally sound the same, there are too many characters to keep track of, and just when a reader is starting to care about one protagonist, it’s time to move on to the next ... Still, author Brian Castleberry has done a masterful job of weaving his complex pattern with a momentum that never flags. This is a novel that, like the eponymous flying saucers, sparkles invitingly.
MixedThe New York Journal of BooksAs a new entrant in the unlikely but burgeoning genre of Holocaust romance fiction, Paris Never Leaves You is a cut above the average thanks to the storytelling skill of its author ... Thus, the book offers language a reader won’t trip over, an enthralling plot with many melodramatic and obvious twists, and a real stunner toward the end, along with, unfortunately, the standard cardboard characters ... Ultimately, however, such attempts at a higher theme fall flat, because both Charlotte and Horace Field, the publisher, are too exquisitely ethical to be believed ... Readers should simply enjoy this novel for what it is: a good yarn with some well-drawn descriptions of Paris during the Nazi Occupation and the publishing life in the fifties.
Szczepan Twardoch, Trans. by Sean Gasper Bye
PositiveThe New York Journal of BooksAlmost everything about The King of Warsaw is gripping: the range of characters, the rich descriptions, and the plot twists, including one big stunner ... However, this book is not for readers with weak stomachs. It goes into vivid detail about myriad kinds of punching, shooting, stabbing, dismemberment, prisoner abuse, and rough sex ... should be required reading for the right-wing Poles today who still insist that their countrymen were never fascists or anti-Semites and that everything was the Germans’ fault.
Walter Kempowski, Trans. by Charlotte Collins
MixedThe New York Journal of BooksKempowski’s deadpan tone makes the callous reactions of Jonathan and his two German traveling companions even more chilling. Of course, the callousness also makes most of the characters fairly unlikable ... Yet it’s troubling that Kempowski doesn’t seem to notice his characters’ most disturbing example of indifference ... piercing.
PositiveThe New York Journal of BooksYes, it’s the perennial conflict between motherhood and career, but not the way most readers might expect ... It’s an easy read that constantly takes unexpected detours. To Gould’s credit, she doesn’t tie up all the loose ends. Many of the characters are painted in a wonderfully subtle palette ... The glaring exception is Callie, the stereotypical alpha girl. The book could also have done without so many \'in\' references to Brooklyn street names and subway stops. And come on, Gould: Give us the \'perfect song\' that Laura wrote when she was 16! We all need some perfect tunes in our lives.
Michal Ben-Naftali, trans. by Daniella Zamir
PositiveThe New York Journal of BooksWhat emerges, powerfully translated by Daniella Zamir, is a shattering portrayal of utter loneliness, guilt, and despair ... In addition to probing Elsa’s state of mind, Ben-Naftali also grounds her story in vivid descriptions of the reality of the train and the camp ... At just 138 pages, the novel is short. As long as the narrator is inventing the whole thing anyway, it would have been nice to imagine more details about how Elsa managed her first few years in Israel—for instance, whether it was hard for her to learn Hebrew, or whether she felt any regret when her brother Jan, her only surviving relative, moved far away to Australia ... Even unsolved mysteries can leave a lot of clues.
Meg Waite Clayton
MixedThe New York Journal of BooksThe best parts of the new novel The Last Train to London are the scenes where Truus alternately charms and stares down Nazi officials to carry \'her children\' safely past the maze of border checks ... wonderfully rich in details of the Austrian and Dutch political debates of the time, via the news articles by Kathe that are interspersed throughout the pages. As well, the novel shows how difficult the basic logistics were for the rescue organizers ... Even the most fraught rescues, however, start to drag down this book’s page-turning plot when there are two many similar encounters with Nazi guards, too much fretting by Truus’s husband, and too many repetitive discussions that move the action barely an inch ... Many of the other characters, unfortunately, fail to develop beyond clichés: the spunky, smart schoolgirl; the sensitive boy who yearns to be a writer; the best friend who turns out to be a closet Nazi; the self-sacrificing dying parent ... But who needs vivid fictitious people, when there’s a real-life, strong, canny, loving heroine like Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer?
MixedThe New York Journal of BooksWhen this novel focuses on the magic parts of its story, its language is magical ... But the rest of the time, when The World That We Knew is a historical novel about how four Jewish teenagers struggle to survive the Holocaust, it’s pedestrian ... Luckily, the plot is a page-turner ... The novel is also saved by the passion of its non-magic theme: the depth of a mother’s love ... As with many adventure novels, there are too many characters to keep track of. Even worse, the point of view switches frequently, sometimes in mid-paragraph ... The novel’s main weakness, however, is that Hoffman seems to get bored when she’s not writing about magic and just grabs the nearest cliché ... If only there had been more magic—not just in this novel, but also in the actual Holocaust, so that more people could have been saved.
MixedThe New York Journal of BooksWhile Middle England offers many subplots and too many narrators over its eight-plus-year span, its underlying—and timely—theme is the way the passions that led to Brexit and its global cousins, nationalism and \'other\'-bashing, have infected daily life ... Of course, there’s also plenty of non-Brexit action in this novel, which is part humorous, part preachy, part elegiac, and a bit sprawling ... more than a half-dozen other characters also narrate from time to time, sometimes switching the story’s point of view in mid-paragraph or showing up only once ... All this is almost too much, especially because certain subplots are dropped too quickly. Luckily, Coe is a veteran who knows how to keep the action moving ... And while some of the characters, such as Sophie’s mother-in-law Helena and Doug’s daughter, are too starkly villainous, others are interestingly complex, most notably Ian.
MixedThe New York Journal of BooksWisely, author Mamta Chaudhry grounds her romantic tale and evocative language with details that are sharply realistic, usually about everyday Parisian life ... Best of all are the scenes when Julien seems to time travel, visiting a group of Parisian washerwomen in 1889, and witnessing the murder of King Henri IV in 1610 ... The problem is that the plot hinges on an unbelievable premise. (No, not the ghost part.) The reader must believe that the devastated Sylvie, desperate for any concrete reminder of Julien, would wait until page 70 to tear open the sealed envelope that conveniently falls out of a secret compartment in his desk on page three ... Furthermore, once she finally tracks down the mysterious “\'M,\' whose initial is on the envelope, Sylvie flees M’s apartment without asking the questions that are piling up, at least in the reader’s mind ... Luckily, the lure of the mystery and the seductive writing outweigh the annoyance of the author’s heavy manipulation.
MixedNew York Journal of Books...about two-thirds of the way through the book, author Liza Wieland whips out an imagined subplot that was her chief inspiration yet that seems awkwardly pasted onto this exploration of moods: A friend asks Elizabeth to help rescue some Jewish babies from Belgium ... The [book] is an odd hybrid that almost works. The subplot adds new dimensions to the very private Bishop, whose poems are precise and vivid but not personal ... The problem is that Wieland’s inventions are significantly contrary to the character of the real Bishop, who was not known for any interest in either children or political activism. So the novel will not actually give readers any insight into the poet ... Happily, the language of Paris, 7 A.M. is better than the narrative. It is sharp, evocative, and true to Bishop’s style of picking out details of the physical world ... this novel perceptively explores Bishop’s inner turmoil as she increasingly views the world around her with a poet’s eye even while despairing that she will ever be a poet.
MixedNew York Journal of Books\"Julie Orringer has embroidered the basic narrative into a tome of nearly 600 pages in two ways, one somewhat justifiable and one ham-handed—with a clandestine romance and with leaden, sometimes melodramatic padding ... it’s understandable that Orringer really, really wants readers to appreciate the obstacles Fry faced, whether from Gestapo goons or reluctant refugees. However, she seems to have included in this book every obstacle, every person Fry helped, and even every dinner he consumed in his 13 months in Marseilles ... Certainly this novel is timely, a reminder of the United States’ inexcusable inhumanity 70 years ago when it cruelly blocked desperate refugees.\
PositiveThe New York Journal of BooksThe best part of this novel, other than the historical revelations, is the way Elise names her disease Agnes, \'after a girl at my junior high school in Davenport—Agnes Finster—who was forever taking things that didn’t belong to her\' ... Those Agnes descriptions are a bright exception to an otherwise bland writing style. Still, author Susan Meissner, a former journalist and award-winning veteran novelist, knows how to spin an engrossing plot peopled by complex human beings ... And beyond its literary strengths and flaws, The Last Year of the War is timely and important today, when thousands of would-be immigrants from Latin America are cruelly being held in detention centers or deported solely because of their nationality, just like the Sontag and Inoue families.
PositiveNew York Journal of Books...a bittersweet read for many who remember the Vietnam War era ... Conscience is not naive. Using two narrative strands, related by three richly complex narrators, the book explores a half century in emotional and political depth ... Not surprisingly, the sixties-era narrative is more dramatic and engrossing, even though it’s obvious what will ultimately happen ... Nevertheless, the more placid drama of the current story line also has its page-turning elements ... Mattison is sharply insightful about the dynamics between complicated people ... After dozens of pages, however, the ups and downs of the present-day relationships become repetitive ... Merging political history with good storytelling and compelling characters is one of the trademark strengths of Mattison.
Andre Dubus III
PositiveThe New York Journal of Books\"Gone So Long has everything a novel could ask for: It’s a literary page-turner that explores the grit and pain of working class lives through complex personalities and beautifully pungent, multisensory language. From the earliest pages, author Andre Dubus III is intensely inside his characters’ bodies and memories ... This new book’s only major flaw is that, at 480 pages, it sags and repeats at times. Yes, the tension in the last 150 pages is almost unbearable—in a good sense. But Dubus drags out the denouement just too much...\
PositiveThe New York Journal of BooksFather Michael Kavanagh, an Irish-American priest plagued with doubts about his church; and Rachel, the guilt-ridden tour guide and Holocaust survivor. Their story and their philosophical debates, set in New York City in 1950, provide an intriguing stream of historical, religious, geographic and plot crosscurrents with the medieval tale [of French monk Peter Abelard and his pupil Heloise] ... The possible romantic parallel is just one of many crosscurrents that make The Cloister a literary detective game, even if some of the historic references, including Abelard’s supposed friendliness toward Jews, are debatable ... Perhaps the biggest dissimilarity is that Kavanagh and Rachel are more believably human than the mythologized Abelard and Heloise. When she isn’t nobly brave and insightful, Heloise ridiculously slips into bodice-ripping zingers ... But overall, the parallel holds. Indeed, in pushing his readers—in both his fiction and nonfiction—to ponder tough religious topics...Carroll is continuing the important discussions made famous by Peter Abelard.
MixedThe New York Journal of BooksGeorgia Hunter presumably loves her family and didn’t want to insult anyone when she set out to write a fictionalized account of how these well-to-do, assimilated Polish Jews survived the Holocaust. Unfortunately, that means her end product emerges as an adventure story about a set of stick figures, each one more beautiful and noble than the next ... To her credit, Hunter smoothly keeps track of this sprawling cast as they move from one temporary hideout to another across five continents, and the narrative rarely flags. The writing, meanwhile, is serviceable. Hunter’s overreliance on clichés is rescued by occasional flares of strong sensory descriptions ... Most powerfully and beautifully, the novel conveys the family’s love for Radom ... Yet she failed to take advantage of the opportunities fiction offers for depth of characterization. She could have created flesh-and-blood people with faults and weaknesses—and then claimed that, after all, it was only fiction and her relatives in real life were much nicer.
Orhan Pamuk, Trans. by Ekin Oklap
PositiveThe New York Journal of BooksLike most of the nine other novels by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman is a story that personalizes political, cultural, and philosophical conflicts, especially east vs. west. But above all, it is a tale of obsession ...Pamuk’s language is so sharp that a reader can taste the gritty sand and feel the claustrophobia ...Pamuk rarely makes it easy on his readers. He and his narrators are so in love with erudite philosophical and political discourses that major plot points often seem like nuisances, to be discarded in a subordinate clause ...more approachable than some of Pamuk’s oeuvre (like Snow), thanks largely to the sharp descriptions and fascinating plot.