MixedThe Observer (UK)Calder’s stories are impressively detailed in their fine-grain attention to the banal stuff-of-life and his characters’ inner agonies – from panics over not being able to remember if you locked a door to awkward social interactions in the workplace. But he writes with a cool, contemporary detachment rather than much heat ... At its worst, this can mean an exhausting focus on the dead-air of city life – I could have done without the deep dive into the pointlessness of corporate office culture in Search Engine Optimisation, which says little new ... At his best, however, Calder proves a tender chronicler of the digital age, tunnelling into what it feels like, moment to moment, to navigate dating apps and YouTube viewing histories and neglected WhatsApp messages ... This sense of going nowhere is well captured, but ultimately it’s shared with the collection. Calder’s stories don’t really go anywhere – like life, and like many relationships, of course. It just doesn’t necessarily make for a reading experience that is, well, especially exhilarating.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Within a neat 100 pages, Natasha Brown’s precise, powerful debut novel says more about Britain’s colonial legacy and what it’s like trying to exist within that as a black British woman than most could achieve with three times the space ... Assembly offers a depressing kaleidoscope of the ways racism affects the narrator’s life ... With distilled clarity, Brown conveys just how relentless and exhausting this feels ... Brown’s beautifully crafted brevity is stylistically potent, but can feel like an excuse for not fleshing out her story ... Nonetheless, Assembly signals the arrival of a significant talent, one who brilliantly illuminates the entrenched inequalities of our time.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)You can absolutely imagine How to Kidnap the Rich blazing across the screen. It roars through New and Old Delhi, sending up new money and old money, and taking an acerbic yet affectionately head-tilted, eyebrow-raised look at the corruption, hypocrisy and dynamism of modern India ... I only hope an adaptation manages to find a way to convey Raina’s distinctive tone as well as his blockbuster plot, with its sometimes one-dimensional heroes and villains. He just about gets away with putting bad movie dialogue in his baddies’ mouths – but the love interest, perfect TV producer Priya, is unforgivably flat. Fortunately, Ramesh is a bracingly cynical and funny narrator: endlessly snarking about insincerity and greed, with a side helping of self-flagellation for being no better than he ought to be – just a kid from a chai stall, plucked from poverty and educated by a saintly white nun, who’s somehow ended up a serial kidnapper ... no opportunity to throw in a dig at India’s government, its super-rich, or its geopolitical rivals is missed, to the extent that his wince-inducing similes come to feel like something of a laboured tic ... Still, How to Kidnap the Rich takes its readers on such a hurtling ride, it’s hard not to get carried along.
Kirstin Valdez Quade
PositiveThe Observer (UK)In truth, you can still feel the joins between the original story and the rest of the book. But once you’re in, you’re really in, as Quade tightens the screws (hammers the nails?) on all her struggling characters. The village of Las Penas may be fictional, but the problems its Latinx families experience are all too real ... You are utterly within these characters, and within their world – dreaming of a better life, just as they do. After a slow start, The Five Wounds turns into a propulsive, immersive story that reckons wisely with the real cost of redemption.
Robert Jones Jr
RaveThe Observer (UK)... an outstanding novel, delivering tender, close-up intimacy, but also a great sweep of history. The novel names chapters after books of the Bible, but what really frames it are poetic sections written in the mysterious, eternal voices of seven ancestors, speaking out from the darkness ... necessarily – not an easy read. Jones’s writing style is lyrical, but he doesn’t shy away from the gut-churning horrors of slavery. He writes that The Prophets is perhaps more \'a witnessing\' than a book. It certainly asks that the reader bear witness to things they might rather turn away from – but it is a fine piece of fiction, too ... Jones has a knack for a proverb-like turn of phrase and his descriptions have a rich, distinctive vividness ... The same layered detailing is applied to the characters’ emotional and spiritual lives – memories and magic, visions and voices thicken their experiences, and make his storytelling ripe and heady ... At times, this can be overdone. There are too many convoluted metaphors tangled in their own imagery. Its lustrousness is his writing’s great strength, but there are still places where less would be more ... Jones is also ambitious in the scope of his storytelling – and he delivers a lavish polyphony of conflicting fears and desires, slipping between the perspectives of a large cast of characters. Different instances of same-sex love thread throughout The Prophets, but it is the relationship between Samuel and Isaiah that gives the book its heartbeat, and a little softness amid all the hardship ... There are no easy platitudes about how love triumphs over suffering here, however; suffering suffuses every page. Even in moments of sweetness, there’s also a glowering, looming dread. What is remarkable, Jones suggests, is that humans do still love, even when the most terrifying threats hang over them. Even when knowing their oppressors will never allow them a happy ending.
Sayaka Murata, tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori
MixedThe Observer (UK)The descriptions of dissociating from [Natsuki\'s] body are particularly gut-shredding ... Natsuki makes for a compelling narrator, and Earthlings is a frequently disturbing but pacy read, with its own off-key humour. I ripped through it, despite some misgivings. While Natsuki is vividly drawn, especially in childhood, other characters are frequently less convincing, and the story hurtles towards a lurid finale that Murata doesn’t quite pull off.
Anne Helen Petersen
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Petersen’s book is a readable, well-researched guide to a generation ... But neither does Petersen offer platitudinous solutions, railing against the lifestyle-oriented sticking plasters millennials are usually sold ... Admittedly, it is easier to sign up to pilates classes than to dismantle capitalism, and readers may be left asking: \'Well, now what?\' Still, identifying the problem is a necessary first step. Can’t Even – despite its unhelpfully whiny title – scotches the idea that millennials are just lazy. Instead, it looks at how we were sold the myth that if you work hard you can have it all, and so we worked really, really hard, through global economic crises, and still found we had less than our parents ... This is hardly a new formulation. But what is genuinely enlightening is the way Petersen lays out how economic changes ushered in by the boomer generation are responsible for work being so unstable these days ... There is a problem, however. Petersen’s original article felt timely, diagnosing a near universal experience. But this book has been overtaken by events. It suggests burnout is not just a result of chronic work stress, but also the way we approach parenting, socialising, social media and leisure as another kind of work to be optimised. Burnout comes from never really switching off. And this year, many of us got forcibly switched off. Forced to have nights in; forced to slow down ...In a bolted-on intro, Petersen invites readers to assume that Covid amplifies all her arguments. Inevitably, her descriptions of, say, the grind of office \'presenteeism\' now feel out of date. Nonetheless, she is surely right that the pandemic will only add to the need for radical change. We may no longer be burned out, but we’re looking for lessons in how not to go back there ... a reminder to the burned out generation that things can be different.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)It\'s...hard to overstate how pleasurable it is to spend time in Moran’s company: More Than a Woman is funny, life-affirming and wise. Few can match her for snorts per page or her canny knack for describing common yet unnamed experiences ... The chapters on parenting are the ones that rubble you. Moran’s account of her daughter’s eating disorder is chilling, told with an honesty that makes your heart crack with her. It brings weight to an otherwise effervescent book. Moran’s daughter told her she could write about it in the hope it might help others; I am sure it will ... Moran proves herself, once more, a sage guide in the joys, as well as the difficult bits, of being a woman – of being a partner, mother, friend and feminist.
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, trans. by Michele Hutchison
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Discomfort is putting it mildly. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut novel, which has been longlisted for the International Booker prize, goes all the way to disturbing ... an unflinching study of a family falling apart in the madness of grief, rendered all the more unnerving for the childishly plain, undramatic way their compulsive behaviours are reported ... Rijneveld really doesn’t hold back with all this, poking sticky fingers into nasty places to stir up uneasy memories of prepubescent explorations of sexuality and mortality. The novel evokes a general curiosity and bewilderment with the adult world, here given two supercharged shots in the backside by the unspeakable (in all senses) tragedy of the brother’s death and the pressure of extreme religious beliefs ... Not everything works: Rijneveld seems to strain in search of an ending ... But this is a pretty remarkable debut. Confident in its brutality, yet contained rather than gratuitous, it introduces readers to both a memorably off-key narrator and a notable new talent.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)The Girls was ripe with descriptive writing. It could be brilliant; it could also be overcooked...She’s largely curtailed those excesses in her new short story collection, Daddy, aside from Marion, first published in the Paris Review in 2013, which occupies the same universe as The Girls ... Elsewhere, however, a coolness of observation replaces such fervid, fetid atmospheres ... Perhaps surprisingly, Cline often chooses to inhabit these ageing men rather than their screwed-up offspring. But throughout, she is exploring something her own millennial generation is often accused of: entitlement. And the grown-up children we see through the judgmental eyes of their fathers are often wildly entitled – it’s just that Cline makes clear they learned this from the boomers and Gen Xers who raised them ... I’ll be interested in how convinced middle-aged male reviewers are, but I found Cline’s insights persuasive, even if the territory does become repetitive ... The relentless privilege on display ultimately flattens out the reading experience, interest waning as a story introduces another rich old man or media player, another private school or house in the hills ... But Cline tracks shifts in power and influence – the desire to hold on to and wield them and the pathetic \'whiff of insecurity\' in those that have lost them – very well ... Cline is acute at exposing how women internalise the expectations of men .... There’s an uneasy ambiguity and a jittery, hollow anxiety running through Daddy that reflects a certain modern malaise, a vacuum in understanding how to live in the world, created by its vacuity ... Cline is also adept at swirling little eddies of unease into motion ... Occasionally, Cline is too coy, refusing us gory details of what, exactly, a son did to get expelled from school in Northeast Regional. But mostly, the undercurrents of the unspoken, the unspeakable, carry you along.
PositiveThe Independent (UK)Does any writer do nostalgia quite like David Nicholls? ... an ideal blend of the gently humorous and utterly heartfelt. It made me feel like something had swollen up inside my chest, and readers are liable to find their thoughts drifting over their own misspent school holidays or crushingly ardent first loves. Bag a copy immediately, because this has got \'perfect summer read\' smeared all over it like so much factor 30 ... Although told by the adult Charlie, the writing is superbly alive to the way teenagers try to be arch and cool, while also feeling everything so deeply ... Nicholls is just gorgeous on the good bits of being a teenager ... Nicholls writes all the rubbish stuff too – and this doesn’t diminish the nostalgia, but rather makes the book feel more truthful and mature.
RaveThe Observer (UK)... both brutal and brilliant, and a debut that’s sure to still be topping best-of-the-year lists in 12 months’ time ... cuts to the quick of the often grim realities of being young and black in the US today. But it’s wincingly funny, too, Edie’s dry observational narration dissecting office, racial and sexual politics – and the way all three intersect, uneasily – amid the grind of city living and online dating ... Leilani writes with such biting distinctiveness that, while Luster may feel extremely zeitgeisty, it never seems like it’s chasing or overly beholden to it ... This is an elevated example of the \'millennial novel\', swerving cliche ... Leilani’s setup, manoeuvring Edie into their family home in New Jersey, stretches credulity, however, as do a few unlikely set pieces featuring the inscrutable Rebecca (dragging Edie into a moshpit at a thrash metal concert, for instance). But Leilani’s prose mesmerises; you go with her, wherever she decides to take you ... And she delivers many killer lines along the way, sharpened by unexpected details and cynical insights ... can be soft as well as sharp; there’s a luscious, elegant sway to Leilani’s long, building sentences ... Leilani has painted a remarkable portrait of the artist as a young woman in these pages.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)... Scott’s book, which opens as a crime drama before elegantly turning into a love story, is generous in its attempts to excavate the humanity in a pretty grim premise. The storytelling shifts smoothly back and forth ... There is a niggling sense that Scott is so busy making sure the he-loved-her-yet-he-killed-her premise is convincing that she overlooks how unforgivable such violence is. That’s not to say there aren’t some very grim moments, but I found myself pulling away from the amount we’re expected to invest in Kaitaro and his love. There’s no real psychological exploration of where the final act of violence came from; rather, he’s portrayed as a good guy who messed up ... Scott spent many years researching the novel in Japan and it shows: she weaves in explanations of the legal system in a way that’s genuinely fascinating, although an earlier, more in-depth clarification of Japanese custody battles might have helped establish why the stakes are so high for all the characters. And the world she creates in What’s Left of Me Is Yours feels very sure under foot: deeply researched, but delicately described. Scott gives a clear sense of place and time, from contemporary Tokyo to evocations of seaside holiday cabins and shrines in forests ... I’m sure many readers will find the elegiac tone touching; I found it slipped into sentimentality. The narrative voice feels somewhat staid and old-fashioned, especially for a young writer’s debut ... Scott is more assured when it comes to structure: she braids her different characters’ timelines together with sophistication, her storytelling harmoniously well-constructed. The big questions over whether it’s better to lie or to tell a difficult truth, and what might constitute a betrayal, are layered across generations and decades and there is strength in the subtlety with which Scott slowly unpacks them.
PanThe Observer (UK)... offers a maximalist satire of a contemporary America defined by fake news, corporate bullshit, vacuous pop culture and performative wokeness, but one so excessive, surreal and repetitive that it is itself tiresomely bloated and absolutely exhausting. If anything can happen without consequence, stakes are lowered. It’s absurdism ad infinitum ... Where Kaufman’s films are playfully mind-bending, they usually have real heart. But although Antkind is skippingly clever – saturated with comic allusions, puns, linguistic inventiveness and wildly unfettered imagination – it is sorely lacking characters you actually care about or any emotional narrative to cling to ... There is something deeply wearying about Kaufman mocking woke culture while delivering 700 pages of tedious, white-dude inner life ... Besides, Kaufman’s own tone is one of tittering provocation: sending up tokenistic trans characters, queasily naming B’s daughter – a feminist who publicly renounces her father – Grace Farrow. These are Kaufman’s choices, not his character’s ... feels like a book that’s been indulged rather than edited; there’s a smaller, smarter novel somewhere in here, currently smothered in smug junk.
MixedThe Observer (UK)Endland is a place of grotty estates, exploitative jobs and crap pubs. But these urban fables are a world away from dour realism: dragons and ogres feature alongside alcoholics and sex workers. Etchells makes sparks fly by allowing the mythic to rub against grubby everyday existence: there are disruptions to the space-time continuum in Doncaster; Greek gods with names such as Herpes, Apollo 12 and Stormzy drink too much and get caught up in the migrant crisis. This is scorching, bitter satire of how society is continually screwed by inequality ... It’s a cracklingly original voice, and the stories are very funny ... Taken as a whole, however, the collection can seem a little one-note ... at more than 370 pages, the tone soon begins to grate, and I started to feel niggles of discomfort at his continually mining working-class voices or cliches for comedy. A slim volume of selected highlights would have sufficed; this includes chapters you suspect were more fun to write than for anyone to read ... Jarvis Cocker perhaps puts it best in the introduction: \'I respect this book – but I never want to read it again.\'
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)I’m sorry. I really am. I know it’s frustrating that any new young female writer must find themselves compared to Sally Rooney ... But on this occasion, it’s more than just a question of biography: Dolan’s writing does genuinely occupy similar territory. There’s a certain dry, almost deadpan quality in her observation of the lives of her twentysomething characters – the complications of attraction, and the gap between what’s felt and what’s spoken; calmly articulated self-loathing, and precise capturing of class differences – that both authors nail down dead ... So lucky us, really. Exciting Times is a fun, snappy read – ordinarily, I’d say its short chapters could be torn through on your commute, but it’ll brighten lockdown too ... Exciting Times is very funny in its cool observation and the way it takes us inside Ava’s spirals of overthinking. Dolan’s writing is extremely sharp – both cutting and tart – but there are places where it feels overly cynical ... Dolan seasons the novel with insights about class, gender, race, colonialism, and language, though the result does not always bring depth of flavour. The most insightful – and raw – of these are the caustic observations about Ireland’s repressive attitudes to homosexuality and abortionand how they damage individual lives ... It all adds up to a bracing, refreshing first novel, with hints of greater things to come.
Mieko Kawakami, trans. by Sam Bett and David Boyd
MixedThe Guardian (UK)... while Breasts and Eggs features incisive commentary on being a woman and a mother, and some surreally intense passages, I struggled to understand the fervour it’s inspired ... Not much happens until a brilliant final confrontation featuring a fridgeful of eggs, but Kawakami wraps the reader in a stifling claustrophobia. Her writing is sometimes beguilingly strange and peppered with evocative imagery ... But it can also be flat, thickened and slowed by banal repetitions in Sam Bett’s less-than-invigorating translation ... Kawakami writes with ruthless honesty about the bodily experience of being a woman, from menstrual leaks to painful nipples. She carefully reveals how poverty exacerbates the suffocating pressures on women within a society where \'prettiness means value.\' The mysteries of procreation hold both anxiety and allure across the two parts, although Kawakami remains thoroughly unsentimental ... the novel ends on an optimistic note, with Kawakami’s downbeat heroine finally embracing—in every sense—new life.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... vivid ... It occasionally feels like Cha lines up the relentless, contradictory pressures women face in South Korea in order to inflict them one by one. But her writing always crackles: it’s gripping as well as grisly, and flashes of real friendship and solidarity amid Seoul’s neon glare are more touching for being an enormous relief. A compelling, icily cool exposé of the unceasing quest for self-advancement when the economic odds are stacked against you.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)\"Strange Hotel feels like a book determined to show just how different it is from its predecessors ... One clear departure is in the voice, which is expressed in a kind of convoluted verbosity...as her protagonist engages in an endless, spiralling conversation with herself ... this short book is evasively lacking in context. We never know why the woman is in these cities, or what she does in them. We never see her leave the hotel rooms. Hotel rooms are strange—and McBride captures brilliantly the uncanny feeling of replication across cities and continents they give, how they seem to exist out of time, and how an abstract, untethered version of the self stacks up whenever you check in. But Strange Hotel’s view is also limited, always turning inwards rather than outwards. There’s a stuffy, airless claustrophobia to the character’s solipsism ... McBride has pinned down the inner workings of an individual arguing with themselves with as much coherent virtuosity as she captured the unrestrained rush of youthful impressions and geysering emotions in Girl and The Lesser Bohemians. It’s just that—to put it bluntly—the result is rather less interesting.
RaveThe Independent (UK)...strange: ominously swollen with elusive significance. The action is unnervingly out-of-time: we might be in the future – the earth-scorching, bird-killing heat brought on by global warming – or in the past – no one has mobile phones or computers ... After Me is steeped in a quasi-religious atmosphere of impending doom. Perry was brought up in a religious home, deprived of pop culture in favour of \'classic literature, Victorian hymns, and the King James Bible\'. Her work perhaps reflects such a diet: not only literate, it also harnesses the mythic power of religious and historical texts to lend weight and wonderment ... Perry is adept at peeling back the skin to reveal a detailed anatomy of psychological motivation ... Perry suggests that, in the end, there isn’t much that’s stranger than human love and envy, fear and desire. A gripping, memorable, impressive debut.
MixedThe Independent (UK)Jessica Andrews’ debut novel shimmers with promise: it’s one of those books where, from the first pages, you’re grabbed by a distinctive new voice ... Andrews has a real talent for description, which elevates this autobiographical work from slightly unearned naval-gazing memoir – she is in her mid-twenties – to something more memorably textured ... But it can also be too much, the vivid spray-painting of tiny detail ultimately obscuring any bigger picture. As Andrews churns through the years, glittering descriptions mount up but meaning or narrative drive doesn’t ... too often Saltwater is just about Lucy’s inner anxieties, and the changing external trends of the world she’s growing up in. This can leave the novel seeming, at times, more a pretty sketch of ennui in a vintage frock than anything very profound ... Much of Andrews’ imagery is persuasive. It’s often raw, unsettling ... On a craft level, it feels like a wee bit of cheat, mind – tight, clever vignettes drawn from your own life are easier to hone and arrange than conventional narratives are to sustain. But perhaps I am not being generous, given this is a debut – and given that each vignette is so sharply cut, with such high shine. Saltwater shimmers with promise, and it will certainly be worth watching what Andrews does next.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Katz’s allusions to operas can be quite heavy-handed, especially when they feature somewhat stodgy plot synopses ... One of the striking things about the book is Thomas’s icky tone, as he constantly romanticises, almost Disneyfies women. At first I thought Katz was laying it on a bit thick, but in fact she is preparing the groundwork for Thomas’s later possessive paranoia. There is some sloppy writing, however: would Thomas really liken his wife to a Picasso? Could he really smell her breath across the dining table? It’s not always clear if this carelessness is Thomas’s or Katz’s own ... it’s perhaps still not quite heady enough to make the shift from a bad few weeks to all-out tragedy entirely convincing. I’m sure many readers will find A Good Man sordidly gripping, but I didn’t feel too keen to spend the time with this distinctly nasty man.
Sok Fong Ho, Trans. by Natascha Bruce
RaveThe Guardian (UK)There’s a surreal bent to many of the stories in Lake Like a Mirror: everyday logic seems to slip, as if in a dream. It can be just an uncanny shiver ... But some stories go further, sneaking towards magical realism ... the meaning or metaphorical thrust of her work can be hard to grasp, but her writing is beguiling and seasoned with striking imagery ... Ho allows different parts of her stories to hang together lightly, and they may chime more easily for readers with knowledge of Malaysian culture. For those without it, the collection provides a fascinating glimpse, not least into the repressive nature of a strictly Muslim society ... Despite the distilled strangeness of much of Ho’s prose, spending so much time with lethargic, disengaged protagonists can ultimately prove enervating.
Paulina Flores, Trans. by Megan McDowell
RaveThe Guardian (UK)If reading can feel like a hand reaching out and taking yours (as Alan Bennett memorably put it), it’s still rare to encounter a debut with a grip this sure. Young Chilean writer Paulina Flores leads you with such cool confidence through her nine stories that I can’t wait to follow wherever she goes next ... feels particularly timely ... A number of stories are written from the perspective of children, and are so saturated with misunderstandings and swollen emotions that they really do transport you backwards. Flores perfectly captures how silly things and life-changingly serious ones can acquire the same weight for a child trying to make sense of a grown-up world ... But while her characters often flounder amid unspoken subtext, Flores exposes the complex workings of even the most off-hand human interactions ... There’s a masterly steadiness to her writing: no flash or dash, but neat psychological insight and understated, sometimes drily funny storytelling. There are also some killer twists. For all that she eschews high drama, I still physically winced a couple of times ... Flores writes convincingly about sex (a rare feat), allowing both roughness and tenderness ... Flores’s stories work just as they are, but the way she sustains this one over nearly 70 pages made me hope there’s a full-length novel on the way.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Kandasamy is also a poet, and it shows in some brilliantly distilled writing. But as they have only half the 100 pages, they remain elusive ... its domestic story is an escape, while its rage-filled notes are a work of consciousness-raising ... The fictional narrative doesn’t seem that removed, really ... This does not mean Exquisite Cadavers is a failed experiment – it’s a fascinating one, and we get to witness the author working it out on the page. The cleverness of Kandasamy’s bricolage is that it allows her to explicitly separate fiction and memoir, while ensuring they’re intimately intertwined.
Laura van den Berg
PositiveThe Independent (UK)Van den Berg has a lot of fun with outlandish settings, details, or narrative cogs. There’s almost a gung-ho genre thrust to many of them: these women are private detectives, crooked stage magicians, and bank-robbing girl gangs. Yet Van den Berg applies an acidic comedy in stripping these of genre conventions and plonking them into the banal real world ... She also frequently pulls off the reverse trick – finding moments of revelation, of magic, in the everyday ... Just occasionally, Van den Berg gives her characters too much hindsight, tipping into self-help-ish profundity. But largely this is a carefully crafted collection. Tonally, she effectively mixes a deadpan, droll observational humour with a real sense of the wounded, but still beating, heart inside each of her seven women.
PositiveThe Independent (UK)... an addictively readable, fast-paced adventure towards the collapse of Gilead ... a broader, multi-perspective book, which takes us both further inside the regime and provides an outsider’s view ... I wished Atwood had gone further into Agnes’s eventual crisis of faith, which gets somewhat swept away in the book’s thrillingly action-packed final sections ... For all that The Handmaid’s Tale may have been coopted as feminist iconography in the #MeToo era, Atwood isn’t in the habit of writing simplistic tales of feminine solidarity ... Details of the horrors of Gilead unfolded slowly in The Handmaid’s Tale, with its ambiguous ending; The Testaments can feel clunkily expositional and overly neat by contrast, explaining rather than suggesting ... builds on an existing world, and it has a built-in fan base, which it will surely please. It solves some of the mysteries of Gilead rather than stoking them: whether that’s a good thing or not depends what you want from fiction. But as a reading experience it’s also surprisingly fun, with its plucky young heroines and juicy (if predictable) plot twists. I was gripped and gobbled it up – and not just because of the time pressures of that broken embargo ... a hopeful reminder that resistance is possible and such regimes do eventually always fall.
RaveThe Independent (UK)Fitting together exactly what you’ve seen isn’t always easy in this greased Rubik’s cube of a book ... Levy...is writing with gorgeous, juicy assurance here. It’s stylish: written with a speedy, vivid economy, her characters’ eccentricities leaping off the page. It’s funny: Saul’s narcissistic narration is full of deadpan details of youthful pretentiousness, social awkwardness. It’s sexy: Levy writes keenly about layered attraction and resentment, how her characters bestow and withdraw gifts of sex and affection. And it’s political: the novel exposes the hypocrisies that accompany rigid ideology, but also questions how an individual can live with integrity if they only live for themselves. There’s also all sorts of other stuff going on in the first half, however – stuff that it’s basically impossible to get a handle on ... It’s only towards the end of The Man Who Saw Everything, when many different memories come clearly into view, that we see all of [Saul\'s] carelessness and selfishness, and all the ways his careless and selfish choices have impacted on other people. It is only when we see Saul through the eyes of others – through a different lens, if you like – that we finally see everything.
MixedThe Independent (UK)It is impossible to tell what is real and what is fiction – but knowing that it is even partly taken from real life makes the navel-gazing somehow less forgivable. How Should a Person Be? is already equated with another solipsistic, semi-autobiographical outing, Girls, but that TV show is hilarious; this is practically po-faced by comparison ... Heti is also admirably unbothered about coming off well. The obsession throughout with what it means to be beautiful really boils down to her own fear that she is inherently an ugly person, lacking a soul, \'something wrong inside\' ... You both groan inwardly and strain to catch the next revelation. It is frequently maddening – I don\'t often find myself actually rolling my eyes at a book – but also terribly compelling.
MixedThe Independent (UK)Rushdie’s novel is many things beyond just a Don Quixote retelling. It’s a satire on our contemporary fake-news, post-truth, Trumpian cultural moment, where the concept of reality itself is coming apart. It’s a sci-fi novel, a spy novel, a road trip novel, a work of magical realism. It’s a climate change parable, and an immigrant story in an era of anti-immigration feeling. It’s a love story that turns into a family drama. It’s a fast-spinning postmodern double Catherine wheel – impossible not to be dazzled by, but also making a lot of choking smoke. Are you tired by this long list of descriptions? Believe me, it ain’t got nothing on Rushdie’s longlisted, long-listing actual novel, which is bogged down by fatiguing accumulations of examples and explanations ... while Rushdie may bring together the most astonishing array of button-pressing hot takes on contemporary culture, he never misses a chance to make sure the reader really, really gets it ... Quichotte is at its best when it deals in matters of the human heart, in fundamentals like love and death, rather than the self-satisfied satire of societal ills. Nonetheless, as it hurtles to its conclusion, the book does gather an enormous momentum. The final portion is a wild ride: characters, narratives and worlds collide and come apart in spectacular fashion, while Rushdie maintains an exhilarating control over it all. But it’s a long journey to get there.
PositiveThe Independent (UK)... the heart breaks over and over: this is a devastating read, horror and misfortune and injustice piling on its protagonist till you think you can’t bear it, till you remember how many real teenage girls have had to bear worse. Yet it’s told with a spare economy; never sentimentalised, nor sensationalised ... an astonishing act of imaginative empathy on O’Brien’s part, grounded in research trips to Nigeria, and interviews with people involved on the ground ... Crucially, you feel O’Brien is compelled to tell this story not for the sake of showing off that talent, but for the sake of too-often voiceless women ... O’Brien, probably wisely, doesn’t attempt to craft any slangy, youthful Nigerian voice, but even so, there are phrases that jump out as inescapably English and old-fashioned.
PositiveThe Independent (UK)Barry...doesn’t just traffic in nifty dialogue and gratuitous nastiness (although there are startlingly abrupt revelations in Night Boat). This story has heart too ... Barry’s own twisting, inviting authorial voice seems to lean on our shoulder, to guide us through ... Within this generously spaced novel of restless short paragraphs, such sections at times skate and scurry through the years, rather than digging deep. But there is also a gorgeous wooziness, and soft-boiled vulnerability, to some of Maurice’s memories, as well as the acute, sour sharpness of lust and jealousy, paranoia and self-loathing ... Barry’s descriptions are often startlingly good. He slides words and images across one another, to create some new, precise image ... the book doesn’t cloy with stereotyped Irish folklore, thank god – but it does lend a shivery undercurrent.
PositiveThe Independent (UK)... while Winterson has lots of fun finding cute references and echoes across her narratives and centuries, it doesn’t do to expect too literal parallels. Often, they are crunchy instead. Having a trans character positioned as the architect of their own body at first seems to sit uneasily with the idea of Frankenstein’s horrific cut-and-spliced monster. In fact, Ry’s doubleness sits closer to Shelley’s growing recognition of the intertwined essential nature of her own creations: that Doctor Frankenstein and his monster are themselves dual, doubled ... also gleefully Gothic, taking us into a world of underground nuclear bunkers, scampering severed hands and spooky preserved heads. And throughout, Winterson’s approach is light and comic – although in truth, some of the satiric dialogue, especially Ron on his sex-bots, is too crude to be convincing ... Beneath the zany fun and giddy pace, Frankissstein does also takes a serious, 19th-century style philosophical look at what it means to try to create new consciousness, to wonder what humans are really made of ... In fact, the novel is overstuffed; you can sometimes feel the research bursting its stitches. Her characters also too often become clumsy mouthpieces for theories or contentious \'takes\' on a controversial topic. But the breezy way she handles the sheer number of complex ideas is also frequently dazzling, and ultimately means that this enjoyably audacious novel has no problem coming to life.
PositiveThe Independent (UK)The crimes at the centre of Big Sky are of a particularly nasty, and rather topical, variety: a historical investigation into a paedophile ring of elite, establishment figures is reopened, while an active company traffic young women into the UK. Yet while Big Sky never makes light of such depravity, it also makes for an exuberant, entertaining read ... Atkinson’s work is always playful, and there’s a brisk, jaunty tone to Big Sky and much dry observational comedy. Her characters have their own, distinctly British gallows humour, and there are blackly comic asides in even the most heinous of situations ... There’s a lot going on in Big Sky, and it can get bogged down in allusions to previous stories, especially from Brodie’s past ... These half unpotted case histories feel unnecessary for existing fans, cumbersome for new readers. Atkinson is on surer territory with new characters – she has an almost cruel ability to capture a person in a line or two ... But you also come to really know and love (or loathe) many of them. While this focus on character means Big Sky can lack the relentless propulsion associated with crime writing, getting to know a plethora of her tenacious, memorable characters seems like a fair trade, especially as they gently offer hope that, in the end, good will out.
PositiveThe Independent (UK)... [a] gleeful and wholehearted leap into genre fiction ... a vivid, bloody fantasy epic, playing out over more than 600 pages, complete with the sort of maps Tolkien would be proud of ... sort of does for the fantasy narrative what Black Panther did for superhero movies ... The novel manages to be steeped in an ancient myth, while also speaking to the politics of the present ... James skilfully weaves this worldview into the tale in a way that it feels natural, and lends it some heart – which this at times rather nihilistic tale sorely needs ... There’s a huge amount of inventiveness on display, and much to enjoy here; James’s exuberant creation of a whole world is a truly impressive achievement. Black Leopard is gloriously imaginative in both its fine-grain detail, and its sprawl. Known for his skill at describing violence, James provides many skin-crawlingly visceral moments, described with ripe yet precise language ... But there is also just so much of it. While sinking your teeth into such a fully-fleshed story is initially highly satisfying, after a while it becomes a tough old chew. It is hard not to get battle fatigue; rather than horrifying, the brutality becomes stultifying, and a yarn that was initially exhilarating becomes exhausting. Maybe I’m squeamish, but I grew sick of descriptions of rapes (of both genders, and often children), and even the vilest maimings become repetitive ... James’s choice to write in a vaguely arcane, \'mythic\' idiom is also at times wearing ... It seems odd to hold on to a stale idea of what the past sounds like while being so brilliantly inventive elsewhere.