MixedThe Observer (UK)... the suspenseful organising drama...can seem but a minor diversion in the larger metaphysical spectacle that is, well, life in the 21st-century. It’s no surprise, then, that the novel’s ending doesn’t provide quite the release or comfort that might be expected, despite its outcome. Indeed, one of the most profoundly unsettling attributes of The Fell is the way it questions that elemental source of human succour: storytelling ... \'Accumulating dread\' is what Moss atomises so brilliantly here but it should be added that this is also a very funny book. All of the characters share a certain doomy drollness ... There is an abundance of generosity, too ... With its unwavering interiority and meticulously excavated disquiet, The Fell is a novel certain to be seized upon by scholars in the future. But what of readers in 2021? Lacking the dystopian romance of Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat, say, or the glamour and verve of Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends...The Fell is almost too faithful an artefact. For the time being, many readers, such as Moss’s own Alice, may prefer to reach for a dog-eared Lord Peter Wimsey than this intense time capsule of a tale.
Charlotte Higgins, Illus. by Chris Ofili
RaveThe Observer (UK)... erudite and exhilerating ... Gusseted with a map, family trees, notes and glossaries, this feminist corrective oddly recalls the kind of old-fashioned mythological compendia that Higgins grew up with ... Higgins’s own volume is illustrated by the Turner prize-winning Chris Ofili, whose drawings are charming and airy, suggestive in spirit of Matisse’s pencil sketches. While they undoubtedly beautify an already alluring object, the deeper Higgins leads the reader into her forest of tales, the less necessary they feel.
RaveThe Observer (UK)... intimate, elegant essays ... radiant storytelling, both questing and vulnerable in its candour ... contains some masterclass-grade tips on writing, but it confronts, too, the extent to which literature and life diverge: people aren’t characters; our daily hurryings and scurryings do not a plot make. And while Patchett can’t start work on a novel without having figured out exactly how it will end, living well requires the opposite: \'Death always thinks of us eventually. The trick is to find the joy in the interim, and make good use of the days we have left,\' she advises. As a rallying call, it’s timely, timeless and as full-voiced as her smile is broad.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)... to an impressive extent, it succeeds. Wonderment and despair, love and destruction and hope – all find their place in its sumptuously plotted pages, along with a generous smattering of classical philosophy ... Though it isn’t short, Cloud Cuckoo Land’s lyrical, propulsive pages feel like a feat of compression. After all, this is a book that draws on the entire past, present and future of human civilisation. As well as a tribute to the magic of reading, Doerr has pulled off something timelier. Through its exploration of loss, heroism and destiny, Cloud Cuckoo Land grapples with the climate crisis and humankind’s culpability, and does so with wisdom and clemency. By its close, a novel characterised by its questing nature for “the mysteries beyond” has become an ode to home.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)From the all-consuming social media platform that hogs centre stage to the deadly pandemic that looms over its ending, The Startup Wife pulses with up-to-the-minute topicality ... The end result may not be entirely persuasive philosophically, but as high-octane entertainment that hits notes poignant as well as savagely witty, it soars ... Asha can’t decide whether she’s been betrayed or merely sidelined at WAI; all she knows is that she isn’t about to let Cyrus take the credit ... While it doesn’t altogether fit with how the story unfolds, and it certainly isn’t going to help tech address its chronic and very real women problem (not necessarily fiction’s job anyway), it does disrupt the familiar feeling of disempowerment that comes with victimhood. It also feels true that to Asha, amid the glossy allure of Utopia, any level of unvarnished authenticity seems downright subversive.
RaveThe Observer (UK)... sublimely polished ... Sestanovich’s heroines are surrounded by mess of one kind or another, but there’s nothing sloppy about them ... There’s plenty of mischief in these tales, and it’s particularly sharp when aimed at the literary scene ... At times, Sestanovich almost seems to be parodying the spareness of her chosen form and the volumes that it leaves unspoken ... These stories are nothing if not topical ... If it sometimes feels as if we get no closer to these immaculately drawn characters than the eavesdropper on the next table, it’s worth noting that they’re partly estranged from their own lives, or at least from the moments that Sestanovich captures so commandingly. In this way, her pleasurable, discrete dramas achieve something extra: along with their acute social observations and pithy elegance, they collectively probe the gap between how we’re seen and how we might long to appear.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)A stirring sense of the epic animates this striking novel ... This capaciousness is echoed in the sheer range of Sorrowland’s timely preoccupations. It’s about escape, self-acceptance and queer love. It’s about genocide and the exploitation of black bodies, self-delusion and endemic corruption, motherhood and inheritance. Its frame of reference is generous – in some ways, it’s clearly rooted in Afrofuturism, owing plenty to Octavia Butler, but it nods as well to Giovanni’s Room, Robin Hood and folklore from multiple cultures ... Sounds like a lot? It is, and you’ll certainly find extraneous material here, including a motel-room orgy attended by a couple of ghosts. And yet Solomon matches their ambition with a propulsive plot whose intense conviction and sheer vitality make up for any shaky logic where the likes of colonising fungi and resurrections are concerned ... As for memory, ensuring that past wrongs don’t go forgotten isn’t enough for Vern, who, though still a girl by the novel’s end, has taken ownership of the adrenaline, anger and appetite that drive her. Solomon’s audacity lies in imagining at least some of those wrongs not only remembered but put right, and in dreaming up powers potent enough to make it so.
RaveThe Observer (UK)... a vibrant, soulful memoir that binds her own belated coming-of-age with her mother’s untimely death, and serves up food, music and, yes, tears alongside insights into identity, grief and the primal intensity of the mother-daughter bond ... The book’s middle chapters make for difficult reading, and yet Zauner never loses sight of the person her mother was. Chongmi is beautifully observed ... That droll tone is a vital ingredient in Zauner’s prose, but it doesn’t obscure her honesty ... It’s this modest scepticism that sets Zauner’s book apart from so many other grief memoirs. She isn’t looking for readily formulated fixes, and instead remains open to truths that are hard to put into words in any language.
RaveThe Observer (UK)It may be laden with whimsical details and witticisms, but the opening chapter of Helen Oyeyemi’s Peaces feels grounded given her penchant for disorienting fables ... this smart, inventive narrative moves with antic momentum, darting between past and present, and from storyline to storyline ... One of the joys of Oyeyemi’s work is its quicksilver ability to resist straightforward interpretation. The train was once used to smuggle tea, for instance, but good luck to any critic seeking to peg this as an allegory about empire. Similarly, while answers to its puzzles generally materialise, they’re almost beside the point in a text that responds to every question with a story, followed by more questions ... While the title alludes to an Emily Dickinson poem, it’s impossible not to think of it in a different spelling. Ultimately, the book’s \'pieces\' come together more in the way of glass beads in a kaleidoscope – transiently, but forming dazzling patterns with each turn.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)There are toxic relationships, and then there’s the relationship at the centre of Megan Nolan’s fearless debut. From compulsive beginning to violent end, the love affair between the novel’s narrator [...] and the older Ciaran, a half-Danish poet, is supremely messed up ... But the novel’s less lurid confessions are almost more disturbing ... It’s amusing, relatable, crushing. What galvanises the narrative in lieu of plot is the fierce urgency that Nolan, a New Statesman columnist, brings to her heroine’s musings. In particular, this is a book with plenty to say about victimhood and sexual violence, about the way women censor their own needs and ironise or eroticise their abasement. While some of this is provocative, it’s all rendered in prose that is bright and warm. Nolan’s gutsiest achievement, however, is reclaiming the female experience of love and desire in all its shades from lighter literature, making of it something frequently unpretty – unromantic, really – yet intensely vital and worthy of examination. Like some kind of fairytale quest, in doing so she frees her narrator.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
RaveThe Observer (UK)This incandescent, uncategorisable prose debut is...many things—a reimagining of an 18th-century life that combines scholarship with imaginative verve; an account of obsession and a meditation on the limits of biography; a memoir of post-feminist motherhood ... when it comes to prose, is incapable of delivering a dud sentence ... [Ní Ghríofa] is incapable of delivering a dud sentence. This is a text that glints with treasures ... In entwining her own existence with the story of a lauded poem and its overlooked author, she busts open the idea of the female text to encompass not merely self-sacrifice and scars, but also merriment, desire, and fierce, sustaining curiosity.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)This being the 1980s, shoulder-padded jumpsuits add colour to a narrative intensely flavoured with Bajan patois and local dishes (how about lentils with tarragon and coconut milk?), gospels and reggae. Jones’s fondness for repetition strikes an incantatory note but becomes claustrophobic, too, since the punches keep coming, explicitly detailed until language itself breaks down ...Its victim is once again Lala, still only 18 years old and named after a song by a mother she scarcely knew. Her mother’s story is sickeningly familiar but also, we discover, incomplete. Omitted is a moment of rebellion, of fighting back. Futile, since she still died at her husband’s hand and yet, in the context of this uncompromisingly clear-eyed novel, it almost passes for hope, a glimmer of light at the end of a labyrinthine tunnel.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)What We Run the Tides probes so poignantly is the volatility of female adolescence, its on-the-cusp caprices and confusions, as well as the more timeless riddles of independence and identity, seduction and storytelling.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)[G]irlhood will not only speak to you, it will also ignite fury that two words like \'ordinary\' and \'violation\' should ever have cause to couple. A capacious blend of memoir and reportage, history and cultural criticism, its seven essays loosely chart Febos’s journey from girlhood to womanhood ... Febos is a skilled storyteller; her prose pulses with drama and colour, light and darkness. There are frequent gear-shifts, and while these generally work – the mix of genres and range of references feel in the spirit of a book in which solace comes from uniting with others – they do produce the odd cumbersome sentence ... After all, this is a book that is acutely aware of the coercive power of narrative, and the limits that the available narratives continue to place on girls. Narratives, in short, are to be disrupted.
Mariana Enriquez, tr. Megan McDowell
RaveThe Observer (UK)When it comes to book reviewing cliches, the word \'haunting\' is surely among the tattiest, yet Mariana Enríquez’s newly translated short story collection restores to that tired adjective all its most mysterious, fearful strangeness ... shares the exuberantly macabre sensibilities of her English-language debut, Things We Lost in the Fire, which it in fact predates ... There is nothing wraithlike about these apparitions. Instead, they acquire a pushy, malevolent physicality, not so much ghosting Enríquez’s generally female protagonists as possessing them, driving narratives that work a similarly tenebrous magic on the reader, even as gross-out details are layered on like a dare ... Pornography, paedophilia, necrophilia – nothing is out of bounds here, but there is jet-black humour, too ... She’s already attracted comparisons with Shirley Jackson, but lashings of local mysticism and a flair for transgressive imagery make her an arrestingly original talent. Do all of these stories come off? Not quite. Nevertheless, it’s a collection amply deserving of its spot on the longlist for this year’s International Booker prize.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)While Una Mannion’s debut ably fulfils the promise of its suspenseful start, providing carefully orchestrated lawlessness, bare-fisted violence and a long-haired predator sinisterly named \'Barbie Man,\' this is no crime novel ... Some of her epiphanies give off a distinctly YA vibe and nods to forces shaping the wider world – strip mining, hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, America’s blinkered exceptionalism – can feel like an overreaching distraction. Where Mannion excels is in evoking a time and a place that’s slipping away even as she pins it to the page with such perceptive, lyrical economy ... Yoking a classic coming-of-age narrative to the pacier engine of a thriller takes skill and A Crooked Tree is more than persuasive, emanating nostalgia, foreboding and clear-eyed empathy.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Passion proves hazardous for the loners and oddballs who drift through Barry’s forceful landscape ... Written over the course of eight years, these stories aren’t quite of equal strength, but throughout, their language is exhilarating, its verve evoking the very best of Barry’s compatriots while further carving out a territory that’s all his own.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)... a piercing story of faith, science and the opioid crisis ... the heat and faith of the deep south shimmer on the page, localising the immigrant experience ... it’s in its heroine’s frank efforts to defuse the dichotomy between religion and science that Transcendent Kingdom really sings. There’s bravery as well as beauty here ... There’s also the novel’s back-and-forth structure, which can become repetitive, sapping its momentum, and a brisk addendum feels at once too much and too little. All the same, these are relatively small quibbles when stacked against the successes of a narrative that contrives to be intimate and philosophical.
RaveThe Observer (UK)... soulful, urgent ... Cook is adept at matter-of-factly deploying unadorned detail to deadpanning, gut-plummeting effect ... a propulsive narrative ... The push-pull ambivalence of Bea and Agnes’s bond forms its beating heart ... it is through Agnes’s eyes that the bulk of this supremely well-crafted adventure unfolds. Her wild girl observations and lack of inhibition can be at once humorous and lightly menacing, as when the plump legs of a woman freshly arrived from the City make her hungry ... So much else is broached in these vivid, timely pages: tribalism, courage, consumption, storytelling itself – an art that Cook spirits back to its spark-enlivened, campfire origins. What lingers, though, beyond the awesome power of Bea and Agnes as heroines, is pure wonderment at all in this world of ours that is not human.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Reading this slender, rich exploration of what it means to cook for others is like pulling up a chair at the ideal dinner party. The food is mouth-watering – creamy curries, candied baobab seeds, fat slices of homemade pizza – but just as nourishing is the conversation, which embraces hospitality in its many guises, from the strained welcome received by Syrian refugees in the author’s adoptive Germany to the langar, a free meal served in Sikh temples ... Add a pinch of Derrida and a slug of retro pop culture, and you’ve got an irresistible amuse-bouche.
Joyce Carol Oates
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)An immersive, discursive chronicle of a family’s reconfiguration following the death of its patriarch...and an otherworldly chord resonates through portions of its narrative ... Despite its bulk, this is a novel that doesn’t so much sprawl as scamper, at times darting purposefully off in the direction of a deadpan comedy of manners, a courtroom drama, a philosophical enquiry into the nature of art. It also provides a timely as well as damning snapshot of race relations and police brutality in the US ... There is much to relish in Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars., from its nimble pace to exuberant set pieces. As a portrait of a family and a nation, it’s funny and tragic and sometimes bleak. Indeed, if there’s fault to be found it’s simply that the novel reads like multiple books in one, and, inevitably, some of its narrative strands get passed over too quickly. This is particularly true of the sections dealing with police racism and its fallout. Though they’re vividly rendered, in order for the novel to hang together as a whole they must ultimately be subsumed by the overarching narrative, that all-American quest for self-realisation. In this case, the self-realisation of privileged white people. Given the intense topicality conferred by George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests, it makes for an uncomfortable juxtaposition.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Gothic horror provides the architecture for an arrestingly strange melange of speculative fiction and teen trauma in this atmospheric debut novel ... Ines’s apathy can drag but nibbling menace spurs the plot onwards.
Emma Jane Unsworth
RaveThe Observer (UK)Emma Jane Unsworth’s virtuoso new novel is far too canny to convey anything so gauche as a \'message\', but if it did, it would be this: step away from your screen ... Adults is a tale rich in keenly observed relationships – between mothers and daughters, best friends and boyfriends, idols and rivals – yet its central, inseparable pairing is that of thirtysomething heroine Jenny and her phone. Theirs is a supremely dysfunctional affair ... Daffy one-liners, trenchant satire, misadventure of the laugh/cry variety – the narrative pops with all of the above as it parses everything from selfhood to attraction ... Though she’s a dauntingly able all-rounder ... it’s as a comedic writer that Unsworth sparkles, and her quickfire wit synthesises perfectly with her theme in Adults, mimicking the relentless pace of the internet. Yet like the very best of her kind, she creates a world complex enough that in the echoes of our laughter are also relatability, wistfulness, even hope. All are present in this novel’s satisfying close.
RaveThe Observer (UK)... [a] standout first novel ... There’s something a touch too tidy about the way Alix’s character develops, and it’s true that the plot pivots on an almighty coincidence. All the same, Reid writes with a confidence and verve that produce magnetic prose, and she’s a whiz at dialogue, whether it’s the African-American vernacular that Emira slips into with her girlfriends or Briar’s bold toddler-talk ... While race dominates, Reid is far too engaged a writer to let it define a narrative that has equally incisive observations to share about everything from maternal ambivalence to dating mores and dining fads. Hypocrisy and forgiveness get a look in, and in some respects, this is a novel that’s as much about money and class as anything. All in all, it’s a cracking debut – charming, authentic and every bit as entertaining as it is calmly, intelligently damning.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Uniting the two eras are the challenges that come with womanhood (this is a novel with zero memorable male characters). Both marriage and motherhood are portrayed as threats to the female self, and it’s Connie – mercurial and imposing, yes, but also single and childless – who comes to dominate the story even as age weakens her. That she’s capable of shocking callousness makes her all the more interesting. While Burton resists easy conclusions, calling out the perverse comfort that’s to be had from abandonment and the myriad other ways in which a lover’s hurt can justify shabby behaviour, she does have a weakness for treacly dialogue ... It’s one of relatively few flaws in an absorbing, intelligent piece of storytelling that succeeds in sustaining its mystery to the end.
RaveThe Observer (UK)You’ll hear echoes of the estimable Barbara Pym as Violet’s heels clip across the cathedral’s inner close. Allusions to casual sex and lesbian passion notwithstanding, days are punctuated by cups of tea and people remain largely trapped by their manners. At one particularly stirring moment, instead of finding herself kissed, Violet is treated to a three-course meal ... It’s a time and a place that is perfectly suited to Chevalier’s meticulous scene-setting, gentle pacing and gimlet eye for hidden hurts and secret longings. As for the embroidery, with its repetitive stitches that slowly, almost inconspicuously add up to something dazzling, she couldn’t have picked a more satisfying metaphor. After all, Violet and her fellow broderers are women building not only themselves, but the very idea of independent single womanhood in a world that does its best to ignore their existence.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... profound, moving and consistently unexpected ... Iris is a difficult, brilliantly realised character, and one whom the author never judges ... a book that embraces class, desire, race, gender, ambition and tragedy, all with exemplary subtlety. The word \'margarine\', for instance, conveys a world of socioeconomic differences; the fierceness with which a baby latches on contains all the seeds of a complex mother-daughter relationship ... pure poetry, filled with incantatory repetitions, soaring cadences, burnished images. There is laughter and spirit, \'fire and ash and loss\', blocks of gold hidden beneath squeaky stairs. It’s a story laden with stories, too. As Sabe says, \'If a body’s to be remembered, someone has to tell its story.\' Woodson does just that, weaving a narrative whose specificity yields an undeniable universality. We grownups have been missing out.
MixedThe Observer (UK)...a grim portrait of what it means to be doubly disenfranchised as a female illegal immigrant in an oppressively patriarchal community ... In the acknowledgments of this absorbing if imperfect exploration of the transactional bargains that women are forced to strike is a plea for film and photographic footage of New York’s Dominican community from the 1950s to the 1980s. The kind of colour that such an archive might yield is precisely what’s missing from the narrative. While its Dominican sections evoke skin that tastes of the ocean, a place where the ground is strewn with ripe apricots and radios fill the air with song, in the main it could be set almost any time, any place. There are moments, too, when the dialogue seems jarringly anachronistic.
A K Benjamin
RaveThe ObserverThe eight lines that preface Let Me Not Be Mad slice straight to the singed, fast-beating heart of a mental-health memoir like no other ... Benjamin is kinetic company, his rangy intelligence matched with a fondness for rarefied locution (he can never resist a \'lickerish\' mouth) and indelible images ... The book’s second half fuses an alarming, increasingly claustrophobic psychodrama with irresistibly sharp cultural commentary that makes even greying bugbears such as listicles and the misuse of the word \'literally\' seem fresh ... this is a text that constantly interrogates the very act of narrativisation, together with its limitations and the tricks that our minds play on us with it ... a wild, genre-defying wake-up call of a book.
PositiveThe Observer\"...a polished and harrowing debut novel ... These distinct narratives are equally convincing. Both have been extensively researched....yet that learning is worn lightly, and Barr shifts between two very different tones with a light touch, maintaining a subtle emotional intelligence throughout. There are moments of almost shocking drollery, too...Meanwhile, the harsh poetry of the land anchors the text, its red earth stretching out beneath starlit stillness, unchanging from generation to generation ... Homophobic violence overshadows the brutal closing section of You Will Be Safe Here but it’s the connections between then and now that make it so devastating ... By its end, so many instinctive responses will have been upturned that the reader will be left with just two certainties: that the circularity of man’s cruelty to his fellow human beings is endless, and that only kindness is stronger.
RaveThe ObserverOften, the story we start out reading turns out to be a feint, yet none of this tips over into tricksiness. Whether they’re focused on the racism that’s inherent in a certain kind of charity or the complications of dual heritage identity, these are all urgent, intimate narratives, framed as confessions and quests, and edged with quickening threat. Everything that is good can be ruptured with as little as a single accidental touch, \'quiet as two lips parting\', and despite his great feeling for beauty and grace, Brinkley is unafraid to probe the ugliest lows of human behaviour ... Throughout, there’s an enigmatic quality to his prose that makes the sharpness of his observations still more dazzling ... These nine near-faultless stories are laden with similarly pocketable treasures, not only heralding the arrival of a fully formed, entirely distinctive new voice but reinvigorating the short story itself. In the end, there’s no doubt who the lucky ones are: we, the readers.
RaveThe Guardian...a smart, shimmering study of youthful self-discovery and the power of place ... There’s an extent to which any coming-of-age novel – any novel, full stop – set in New York City is treading ground already so mythologised, so narrativised, that it is impossible to make it feel real. Hoby nods to this ... while it resists narrative neatness, the book’s prose is impressively precise, glinting with pocketable images and insights.
MixedThe Seattle TimesThough technically Olivier's servant, Parrot is almost twice his age and infinitely more wise about the world; his first impressions of ‘Lord Migraine’ are hardly flattering. Olivier, in turn, regards his uppity servant with appalled fascination, complaining to his mother in shipboard letters that Parrot himself takes on dictation. Their relationship develops into what Hollywood would call a ‘bromance,’ yet this agile and almost too facile novel aspires to be more than just the tale of an odd couple … Thematically, this is an aptly restless novel, touching on forgery, exile and loyalty before settling on the question of whether art can flourish in a democracy. Olivier, like Tocqueville, fears not. Parrot, who becomes the publisher of a folio of prints of American birds, disagrees … For all its madcap energy and playful accomplishments, the novel lacks the dark shadows that make the best comedies truly memorable.