Heather Scott Partington
Heather Scott Partington is writer, teacher, and book critic. Her writing appears at The Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares’ Blog, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a contributor to Goodreads, Las Vegas Weekly, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus. Find her on Twitter @HeatherScottP
RaveAltaEdgarian considers the earthquake an inflection point, a moment when social status and security were up for grabs. Her work contends elegantly and meticulously with historical detail, placing us at the center of a fateful event and allowing us to imagine how we’d respond. Because so much about those April days has been documented, Edgarian’s challenge is to unfold the timeline with suspense, at the same time giving us access to a wide swath of San Francisco social life. She succeeds by creating a life for her main character that straddles boundaries and permits her to move freely between classes as she crisscrosses San Francisco’s broken streets.
PositiveOn the SeawallThe Sun Collective, Charles Baxter’s novel about a retired couple searching for their missing adult son, has a question at its heart about human reliance on belief ... The Sun Collective is ambitious, if disorganized ... Baxter’s prose is artfully subtle in the way it links one character to another. Some are mistaken for twins of others, or appear to be a reflection of another character ... Baxter makes some astute revelations about the intimate interactions of family ... The Sun Collective is heavy with literary and mythological allusion — blind prophets, people who can talk to animals, characters blinding themselves when they come to great realizations, twins, curses from spurned lovers, and Brettigan and Alma, waiting. Godot only gets a brief mention in reference to Timothy’s disappearance, but it’s a clue to Baxter’s game, as is another brief discussion about MacGuffins, the \'thing that gives meaning to everything else.\' Baxter’s characters and readers face the same question: why do we need to believe in a bigger idea, a mission, or a god or gods in control of our actions, in order for a story to make sense?
PositiveUSA Today...an insider\'s peek ... Followers is an engaging confection wrapped around a thoughtful critique of how we live our lives online, and how we value others based on their curated personas ... it is Angelo’s acute awareness of our dependence on other people’s likes that is most prescient.
MixedUSA Today... a sentimental story of a life transformed ... Albom’s memoir is an antidote to narratives of toxic masculinity: Here is a man admitting that he is changed by loving a child. Albom’s open sentimentality about late-in-life parenthood will turn some readers off; he favors cliches and simple truths expressed simply ... Yet Albom, who has garnered wild success as this kind of sentimental writer, uses language in Finding Chika to echo the simplicity of religious aphorisms: It’s easy to remember and attempts to capture the ineffable and universal ache of grief. There’s beauty in Chika’s joy and the heartwarming conversations Albom recounts. He honors Chika’s life by telling her story and describing her resilience, silliness and yearning for the ordinary happiness of childhood ... If there’s one aspect of the story that’s troubling, it’s Albom’s use of a conceit throughout whereby he engages in conversations with Chika after her death. It is difficult to suspend disbelief to imagine these scenes as Albom recounts them. Is he hallucinating? Imagining? He insists on their truth, their specificity, their genesis beyond his own power.
RavePloughsharesIn this smart, irreverent collection, Gray’s language growls, hungrily; her characters express yearnings that can’t be satisfied through ordinary human interaction ... Gutshot’s careful awareness of physicality also shows in the tenderness of its characters ... Gray writes with wit; much of the pleasure of reading her surreal stories is found in their clever images ... Amelia Gray’s grotesques furnish a view of humanity that is dark and filled with a desire to live. Gray challenges us to decide whether to live is to burn or to imprison, to feed or to cut. These are characters whose wants overtake even their best intentions. In allowing them the freedom to abuse each other, Gray leaves her reader with an impression of humanity that is gritty, bleeding, and spent.
RaveElectric LiteratureJuly renders Cheryl with a combination of naïveté and wisdom. She understands little about herself or others in the world, yet she is able to float across lines of social and sexual taboos without a sense of guilt ... Since July writes Cheryl as a character who exists outside social norms, she is able to tackle social taboos in a way that’s both fresh and even a little cringe-worthy. Both Motherhood and sexuality blur. Sexual drive and the putrid stench of feet. Reincarnation and ageless love. July ventures to the edges of our comfort zone and then pushes on. Nothing about The First Bad Man holds back. This novel will be talked about for its ability to test boundaries, particularly the boundaries of sexual labels or forbidden love. But it’s worth mentioning the readability of July’s prose. Her success in carrying us through the strange world of Cheryl Glickman is a testament to her skill. This is a bizarre story, but an alluring one, and one that ends in a moment of satisfaction. July creates a character in Cheryl who elicits our empathy, but also a visceral response. Her conviction in her specific belief system makes her a character we want to understand, if not become.
RaveUSA TodayWoodson challenges the notion that women have to be mothers in any traditional sense, while also showing the pain her mother\'s choices causes Melody ... Woodson, a master of juggling multiple voices, gives life to the hopes and emotional wounds of each character ... a remarkable, intergenerational harmony of voices. At its center is hope for both individual and hereditary survival. But Woodson most poignantly portrays the brutality and liberty of a woman putting herself first.
PositiveThe Star TribuneKristen Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, is an incisive and peculiar study of grief ... Mostly Dead Things uses the preservation of animal bodies as a metaphor as much as a plot detail. Arnett writes about how we have to overcome our first understanding of the world in order to process it as an adult. She uses the language of taxidermy to explore the memories that ripple beneath our longest held beliefs.
PositiveUSA Today\"duBois’ characters are so acutely drawn and vivid that Mattie’s enigmatism—his singular defining trait—serves to draw out the personalities of those around him ... duBois’ language is dextrous, and her pacing impressive. Although we never quite discover the mystery of Mattie, we grow to understand his perspective and his role in Semi’s life. The Spectators is a treatise on the media’s power and a finely-wrought example of intimate pain.\
MixedNewsday\"Lost and Wanted sometimes bogs down under the weight of its scientific explanations, but it is most prescient when connecting scientific and metaphysical faith in things that cannot be seen with the naked eye...\
Mitchell S. Jackson
MixedUSA Today\"Jackson is a distracted essayist of occasionally overwrought prose, pulling many characters into his musings on drug addiction, pimping, the history of white supremacy in Oregon and the effects of trauma ... Jackson’s work often juxtaposes the tenets of history or philosophy against the grim reality of his own life; in this dichotomy, he exposes the reality of a rigged system. Each essay is a cornucopia of semi-related ideas, yet Survival Math is remarkably direct and poignant when the author focuses on the intimacies of his own deepest betrayals and hopes.\
RaveOn the SeawallDavid Means is at home in a short story. Where other writers chafe against the form or distract with stylistic acrobatics, Means draws power from the single moment, and man’s infinite cerebral capacity ... The men in Means’ short stories are of varying stripes, but in each story, Means deftly builds a mechanism for their rumination. Means’ stories are mostly moments of potential; they ask us to grasp the effects of love and loss, to swallow dichotomies whole ... A Means story is a literary equivalent of zooming in to view a picture on your phone: a concentrated gesture that allows the eye to examine myriad details otherwise overlooked ... Means’ agile prose celebrates introspection above complications of plot, but the author builds tension out of pregnant moments ... Means’ stories are essential, yet each one had the potential to escape into the forgotten landscape of time, had it not been lassoed, harnessed in prose, and penned in by the page ... Means utilizes the short story to stop time, to reverse and expand it. Whether pausing to recall a homeless brother or untangle the fears and hopes of a stay-at-home dad, Means stories reveal the ability of narrative to communicate a story and to mess with our temporal identity ... Means’ narrators’ resistance to the tools of storytelling illuminates how we use narrative to make meaning out of our existence.
RaveThe National Book Review\"Where Reasons End reads like a long poem; Li utilizes the ambiguity and imperfection of words to comment on the ineffectiveness of language, but also as a topic of conversation between mother and son. In each of their disagreements, Li challenges the basis of her writing style, linguistic tendencies, and worldview ... By shifting the conversation into the realm of fiction, Li makes the ineffable both tangible and ordinary, and thus more easily dissected ... Li leaves us wanting more, but that yearning seems to be the point. Li’s work is as singular as it is devastating.\
PositiveThe National Book Review\"... Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective... pare[s] away our attachments to cliched news-cycle narratives and give us weirder, truer ones ... This is not a novel about the election or the Trump presidency, and yet it is everything that 2016 was: the power of women, the sacredness of male leadership, the division into two warring, long-entrenched parties. Lethem takes us out into the desert, removing the light pollution of those narratives we accept about civics, and in so doing, allows us to glimpse our untamed reflection.\
PositiveNewsdayAbbott’s characters speak in pithy, clipped sentences. They make doomy proclamations that tell the reader that something important and scary is coming ... Abbott writes high school well, and her alternating then/now chapters balance teenage perception and identity with the extreme competition of the adult scientific world ... Diane’s secret and the lengths she’ll go to cover it up are predictable. The subtlety of Give Me Your Hand lies in the nuance of the women’s relationship: how, particularly in our teenage years, those we idolize can be bad for us yet also push us to our greatest heights. Friendship can be both a poison and a tonic.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune\"Sittenfeld’s collection speaks to how even happy lives can be underscored by conflict and unease. These are short stories that show how self-doubt can lead to mistrust and deception that wrecks relationships. But Sittenfeld’s prose makes them a treat — there’s something about, to borrow a phrase, \'the purity of her cynicism,\' and the clarity of her characters’ open desires.\
RaveNewsdayThe tales range from legendary to modern: everything from a single mother’s search for the perfect, daylong bath to a young girl’s refuge from her divided family in an asylum. The writer unfolds each with careful awareness of the short story form. Readers new to Diski will find a wide range of topics and styles, but always her singular social critique ... In this age when women are coming forward, claiming #metoo and reclaiming their space in artistic milieux, Diski’s stories of women choosing their own narratives sound a particularly resonant note ... It’s hard not to read these tales and lament the writer’s passing, again. But The Vanishing Princess is another radiant facet of her legacy.
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneEach of Allende’s sentences curls into the next like a delicate arabesque. She is most at ease when describing the august romance that blooms between Richard and Lucia ... Allende’s characters’ lives are marked by tragedy — fate seems to have dealt them more than their fair share of darkness. But the book shines when she gives voice to the slow burn of mature love. Allende’s work can rely too heavily on stereotypes, substituting culture as a shorthand for character ... At times it seems the gravity of the plot is a bit lost on Allende and her characters. Readers who love Allende will find much to enjoy. This is a syntactically beautiful story with the twists and turns of a telenovela, and it has warmth at its center. It is a novel that touches some difficult topics: immigration, murder, spiritual belief, divorce and the death of children. Although she can sometimes take on too much, Allende writes connections well.
MixedThe Las Vegas WeeklyMuch of what Gay writes is repetitive; she writes around difficult topics, and this opacity—or desire, in some cases, to hold back information from the reader—can undermine a story that is, at other times, bold and confessional. Many of the chapters are meditations on one feeling or another, and these overlap in their ideas and tone … Gay’s work is most compelling when she tells specific stories from her life, as she does with her original trauma, subsequent moves around the country, relationships and experiences in academia. The strength of Gay’s storytelling talent shines in those moments; the specific seems more universal when given the weight of detail.
RaveElectric LiteratureIn Courtney Maum’s novel, Touch, Sloane Jacobsen returns to the United States from Paris, where she’s been hiding from grief about her father’s death for years ... Sloane’s work allows her to peek inside the minds of the people who create and design tech, and she finds that while technology has made their lives easier, it has made even the tech creators at Mammoth long for old-fashioned physical contact? — ?hand-holding, sex, the embrace of a friend ... Maum excels at depicting the subtleties of human interaction in all its various forms, particularly the different types of tension in the workplace ... One of the best qualities of Touch is how accessible Maum renders esoteric ideas ... Maum’s Touch is the right novel at the right time, but this is not to discount the author’s skill in rendering well-paced scenes attenuated to the human condition.
PositiveThe Las Vegas WeeklyStartup could be called Pride and Prejudice and Tech Bros; Shafrir turns a sharp eye on the culture of techy startups and their unspoken moral codes … Shafrir underscores the cultural differences between generations, highlighting how a single decade means the difference between Dan and Sabrina’s experience on the cusp of technology, and that of those younger, who have grown up with the certainty of the Internet … This isn’t bold, defiant satire, but the kind that highlights the thousand natural shocks of human interaction.
RaveThe Las Vegas WeeklyHamid masterfully juxtaposes the unexpected and the ordinary to both complicate the lovers’ tale and offer an important critique of current refugee crises ... Hamid uses several recurring motifs: The night sky, the plurality of languages and the shame of refugees are refrains woven artfully into this tale about the difficulties of sustaining a relationship through trauma. There’s a decidedly absurdist overtone to Exit West, as in some ways the lovers (and others) seem to be filling their time, waiting for something they have yet to discover ... Hamid’s apposition of the magic and the pedestrian forces his reader to think differently about refugees and the idea of leaving an entire country or life behind.
MixedElectric Literature...presents a loop of circular logic; while some of the writer’s essays on similar material have been clearer and more forthright, the manifesto suffers for want of a through line ... she offers her strongest critiques when going after capitalism, celebrity, and self-help culture. But much of Why I Am Not a Feminist suffers from a lack of grounding in external references or specific examples of what she’s critiquing. Whereas Crispin’s other work in essays is direct and specific, Feminist offers something less consistent ... Why I Am Not a Feminist relies the most on abstraction where it is the most angry, in its first third... [it is] at its most thoughtful when it is tackling specific issues ... The problem is that she doesn’t offer much in the way of a specific call to action. How might this be accomplished?
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksThough the structure of Dear Friend is nonlinear, there are recurring preoccupations — fatalism, melodrama — that influence Li’s actions and unify the text ... A reluctant memoirist, Li’s halting prose reflects both her discomfort with the form and her trepidation about revealing too much ... Notwithstanding her own discomfort, Li has created Dear Friend from the messy intersection of reader and writer, where she has always lived. The result, though hard to classify — neither straight-ahead memoir nor straightforward literary criticism — amounts to a deeply sad story, one that nonetheless reveals, gloriously, the companionship, intimacy, and insight that can come from obsession with the written word.
RaveThe Las Vegas WeeklyMyers shows us how these songwriters artfully, purposefully and sometimes accidentally tap into our secret yearning with their own. There’s all kinds of fun stuff here ... Perhaps the greatest gift of Anatomy of a Song is its range. Myers considers widely the definitions of rock, R&B and pop, including their influences from a variety of sources. Most tender, perhaps, is his depiction of Joni Mitchell’s inspiration for 'Carey,' and he covers everything from the big sounds of 'Proud Mary' to the TV glitz of Elvis’ 'Suspicious Minds' comeback. This is a book that encourages you to go back into your record collection, to the hits you think you remember well.
RaveThe Las Vegas WeeklyDarnielle draws together lyrical diction and carefully timed doubt to build tension on every page. He leads Jeremy on a hunt for the tapes’ meaning, and parallels Jeremy’s story with a much older one about another character who has also lost her mother ... Darnielle’s non-linear timeline mirrors the broken tapes; ambiguity is wielded so artfully, it might as well be the secondary setting ... Darnielle thankfully avoids overwriting and spoiling the beautiful confusion until he draws it to a satisfying end ... Universal Harvester is a story about the children that mothers leave behind. It’s about generational dissonance, about the futility of any method of record keeping or art to preserve history or truth. Darnielle paints a haunting picture as notable for its blank spaces as its thrilling detail.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
RaveThe National Book ReviewWhat remains true in each story, whether his characters are in California’s Vietnamese communities or in Vietnam, is that war creates breaks in family lines. Nguyen writes compelling stories that reflect these caesura, and The Refugees is a precisely rendered collection of sketches ... Nguyen’s stories are significant because they both are and are not like those of everyone else; the presentation of the refugee experience as human, and therefore relevant, written with a skillful hand. Since these stories speak to the unique refugee experience, they will garner reviews full of words like 'necessary,' 'important' and 'required.' It’s impossible not to use these words because they’re earned by his steady prose. Nguyen’s writing is a wonderful dichotomy of honesty and energy. At the same time, these are stories that will seem familiar to any reader because they’re generational, human.
PositiveThe Las Vegas Weekly...[a] gritty and shrewdly constructed meta-fiction ... Tea writes Michelle mouthfuls of agitated prose reminiscent of Salinger. As Michelle descends into a spiral of poor decisions, making always the worst possible choice, she interrogates herself on the page as she writes the story, allowing us to see her erasure of painful memories and people. Tea forces us to consider what we’d rather not remember from our own lives ... Tea shifts gears sharply mid-novel and lives out the apocalypse in a used bookstore, half-drunk on jugs of wine. Though its second half isn’t written with the same intensity as the first, Black Wave remains ambitious, raw and wholly readable.
PositiveElectric LiteratureMake no mistake that Atwood’s novel?—?like any good retelling or reworking, or new version of a tale?—?is a basket of Easter eggs. But as the reworking of an archetype, it succeeds on its own because of how Atwood employs the material she’s given?—?as a compelling story in its own right, undeniably augmented by the underlying magic of the original, and made better for being built upon such rich a rich foundation ... Through Felix’s delusions, Atwood asks important questions about the nature of theater and belief ... If there’s a quibble to be had with Hag-Seed, it’s the lack of depth Atwood gives the players, Felix’s prisoners.
PositiveElectric LiteratureThough Shaw’s premise feels at first a little thin, like it would have been better suited to the confines of a short story, eventually it is the depth of his characters’ interactions and their subsequent understanding of each other, as well as those characters’ understanding of what the trees?—?the event of their growth?—?means to each of them that elevates Shaw’s work beyond a simple journey through an unknown world to a complex and otherworldly meditation on nature.
PositiveElectric LiteratureThe Woman in Cabin 10 is a psychological thriller that’s well paced, and satisfying as a good mystery should be ... Ware wants us to consider whether or not it’s possible to be the worst kind of witness, and still be right ... it's creepy, it’s frustrating, and it’s interesting. It brings elements of our current fixations into the realm of the thriller/mystery in the best possible way.
PositiveThe Las Vegas WeeklyWappler’s novel operates on the steady mystery of the UFO, but what makes it work is its combination of tropes from the ’90s with believable, complex characters. Neon Green is not just a pop-culture romp, but rather, a careful study of family dynamics ... Wappler’s work as a reporter informs her style, which is easy and rooted in memorable character descriptions. There are times when Neon Green suffers from its slower pacing, but it is an imaginative what-if.
MixedElectric LiteratureBarrodale’s tales are witty, but they can also be lumbering. Her unusual characters are in odd stories that are sometimes difficult to connect with ... The many strengths of Barrodale’s work include the way she artfully engages characters in miscommunicative dialogue ... Barrodale’s style in the stories of You Are Having a Good Time is sparse. Sparse can work, but every once in a while her characters’ actions seem empty or methodical, devoid of purpose. The subtext is either missing or too difficult to discern through the staccato of her syntax. This is not an even collection, and as it progresses, it becomes more distant and difficult.
RaveElectric LiteratureAllison Amend’s Enchanted Islands is as bewitching as the title suggests; [a] lush and captivating tale of friendship, marriage, and espionage ... Amend’s writing is spellbinding, and her characters are complicated and richly conceived ... Amend’s characterization of the protagonist feels as rich and vibrant as her descriptions of the island. It is worth mentioning here, too, that female protagonists over 35 are rare in contemporary fiction, especially women over 35 whose lives have purpose beyond stereotypes or saccharine conclusions.
RaveThe Las Vegas WeeklyLucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is sure to be lauded as a model of short-story writing. Berlin’s skill in telling these witty, grease- and blood-smudged tales means they are great reads—quick moments of suffering and weird shared joy. They draw attention to the dark corners and rusted-out cars where real life happens in its ugly glory ... This posthumous collection, 43 of her previously published short stories, is the world’s chance to see beauty in rusted ruins. A Manual for Cleaning Women reflects a masterful view of the world, a celebration of art in the ordinary.
MixedElectric LiteratureDaredevils stays primarily in safe emotional territory. This is the milquetoast coming of age of an underage polygamist bride; Loretta’s arranged marriage is more a function of setting than of pressing conflict ... In the case of most of Vestal’s minor characters, it feels as though there are opportunities for a stronger, darker motivation or connection ... Vestal’s polygamists are softer, nicer polygamists. And though there are some missed opportunities in Daredevils, it’s not a bad story. It’s just not one that challenges its characters as much as it could.
RaveElectric LiteratureLee’s High Dive is suspenseful, expertly paced, and an excellent read...High Dive succeeds for so many reasons, particularly the author’s strength in creating dramatic scenes with an awareness of the historical and personal significance of the events he writes into the background of his novel. But more importantly, this is a novel of sympathy for the individual, the highly personal, and the domestic.
PositiveElectric LiteratureThe Unfinished World is slightly unbalanced, but offers more than it leaves the reader desiring. What Sparks presents—especially in the first stories of the collection—is a flair for the shorter short story. Sparks understands timing, juxtaposition, and how to create original characters within the confines of a short work.