PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)The inner lives of goons and henchmen are difficult to render convincingly: do they feel sad when a crony dies, or do they simply seek out new cronies? Thankfully Vargas Llosa doesn’t demean his subject matter by overegging the psychodrama. Miss Guatemala’s lurid escapades aside, Harsh Times is relatively unembellished: the narrative voice is measured and impassive, allowing events to take centre stage; the dialogue, clipped and controlled, doesn’t strain credibility. The result is a quietly propulsive novel of machinations and recriminations — a well-wrought portrait of the squalid intrigue that constitutes, in the sardonic words of Vargas Llosa’s narrator, \'the eternal story of Central America\'.
PanThe Sunday Times (UK)Doerr’s writing style, which foregrounds description and dialogue over interiority, has a histrionic quality reminiscent of Hollywood trailer voiceovers: historic present-tense narration; lots of short, sometimes verbless sentences to generate a sense of moment. It is somewhat ironic that this love letter to the codex reads, at times, as though it belongs in a different medium altogether ... In substance, too, Cloud Cuckoo Land evokes the corny sensibility of big-screen schmaltz ... The radicalisation of the young zealot is smartly rendered, but little else of interest occurs across some 600 pages. Twee cameos from assorted animals — household pets, a ubiquitous owl — pad out a ponderous and less than gripping narrative. The novel’s implicit moral, that the power of storytelling can heal our planet, is woolly and platitudinous — a meagre payoff for such a long and dull grind.
David Grossman, tr. Jessica Cohen
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)In More Than I Love My Life he tells a sombre and affecting tale without recourse to undue melodrama or psychobabble. This delicately crafted novel, crisply translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, is a fitting tribute to his late friend.
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)Peace’s baroque prose style is an acquired taste. He uses heavy, mesmeric repetition — of words, phrases and names — to generate a heightened sense of intrigue and dread ... Some motifs recur so frequently one starts to wonder if he’s doing it for a bet: a handkerchief is produced, and a face wiped, on no fewer than 35 occasions, and there’s a remarkable amount of sighing — I counted 77 instances. The atmospherics are decidedly lurid ... I don’t think I’ll ever know what a \'rodent sky\' is but that’s beside the point: the novel’s vaguely deranged ambience makes for an absorbing if occasionally hammy portrait of the mystery writer’s psyche. When Kuroda delivers a feverish monologue on his fixation with Shimoyama, it is as if Peace — who spent a decade writing Tokyo Redux — is explaining his own compulsion to reanimate this old story: \'I will . . . put him together again, make this man whole again, line by line and page by page.\'
Leila Slimani tr. Sam Taylor
MixedFinancial TimesThe lurid storylines of those earlier books lent them a page-turning urgency; here, by contrast, a marked lack of narrative thrust makes for a somewhat dull grind ... Slimani’s impassive prose style (translated here by Sam Taylor) can seem dreary, and she is conspicuously over-reliant on certain go-to words ... The turmoil of Morocco’s independence struggle is competently rendered ... One can’t quite shake the impression that many of these characters are stock types, each exemplifying a given demographic phenomenon or political tendency ... There is more to life than this, of course, but as a didactic snapshot — of a time and a place, a culture and its mores, a moment in history — The Country of Others is a qualified success.
PositiveThe Times (UK)This tale of family drama takes a surreal turn when one of Anna’s fingers disappears suddenly, \'without accident or pain\'. She is an early victim of a strange epidemic of \'vanishings\', whereby people fade from view, body part by body part. This conceit functions as a somewhat gloopy metaphor for the novel’s interlinked themes: the decline of empathy, the spectre of climate change and the inevitable passing of all things ... Laments for threatened species — platypuses, rainbow lorikeets — are pointedly juxtaposed with reflections on estranged relationships, implying a connection between our moral and ecological crises ... Flanagan writes movingly about environmental destruction, but his mawkishness grates ... Facile hand-wringing about the internet is the literary navel-gazing trope of our age; hopefully, in time, it will go the way of the aurochs and the Walkman.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Oyler’s debut does not disappoint. Fake Accounts is a sharply observed and wryly funny satire on the banal sociopathy of online life ... Oyler’s narration is ruminative and essayistic — this is palpably a novel written by a critic — but the story ticks along nicely ... the internet poses a conundrum for contemporary novelists: should they merely write about it, or seek to emulate its texture in their prose? Oyler doesn’t attempt the latter, which might just be impossible. Fake Accounts is all the better for it.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... one of the strangest novels of the year ... At the centre of this bawdy, absurdist farce is a sardonic portrait of ambivalent motherhood ... Judged by the morally fastidious standards of contemporary fiction, the novel’s comic sensibility is somewhat off-colour, finding its mirth in child manslaughter, parental neglect, canine defenestration and the antics of a psychologically damaged \'strumpet\'. Readers may well wonder whether there is a satirical subtext to the throwback prose style and slightly dated repartee. There isn’t: Lake of Urine is a jeu d’esprit, best enjoyed on its own deranged terms. And it is genuinely funny, with nuggets of surreal whimsy on almost every page.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Worth buying for the title pun alone, Mantel Pieces brings together three decades’ worth of Hilary Mantel’s criticism in the London Review of Books. Review essays about historical figures including Jane Boleyn, Robespierre and Danton feature alongside pieces on Madonna, the Salman Rushdie fatwa and the killing of Jamie Bulger ... The volume’s standout essay, Royal Bodies, was the subject of some outrage in 2013 because it raised uncomfortable questions about the nation’s voyeuristic relationship with the monarchy. But it has aged well, and will remain pertinent for some time to come.
MixedThe Times (UK)The author conjures a sense of wistful nostalgia by doing strange things with syntax ... The mannered lyricism lends a corny flavour to the proceedings as Evers regales the reader with misty-eyed snapshots of everyday life ... Evers has spoken of his desire to see more \'ordinary\' people represented in fiction. When a somewhat unconvincing plot device presents Anneka and Nathan with an opportunity to diddle the Carters while also enriching themselves, the suggestion of karmic justice hints at a bigger reckoning — the unfinished business of that \'quiet revolution\'. But while class will never be a dull subject, \'ordinariness\' is another matter: its authentic portrayal can accommodate all manner of banal epiphanies and dreary homespun wisdom ... If this is progress, I’ll take reactionary misanthropy all day long.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)A number of cultural historical references throughout the story — on science, art history and philosophy — labour an implicitly political point about the interconnectedness of all people and things. The homely didacticism will be familiar to readers of the earlier books, as will the playful prose style. Smith’s relentless punning is occasionally witty but much of it feels painfully forced — neither clever nor particularly funny ... In Summer,, as in other recent political fictions, earnestness stifles artistry.
PositiveFinancial Times (UK)With its twin themes of personal and economic demise, The Wild Laughter is no cheery beach read ... It is, nonetheless, a very funny novel. There’s a spiky levity to dialogue and narration alike, with liberal sprinklings of snark, gallows humour and word play ... The ethical quandary of assisted suicide prompts a thoughtful engagement with Ireland’s shifting social mores ... The story’s elegiac quality is well served by Hughes’ distinctive prose, which blends earthy vernacular with belletristic high style. While it never quite lapses into sentimentalism, The Wild Laughter is celebratory in its own peculiar way, a sombre and sardonic paean to the \'culchies\' from whom nearly all of us are descended[.]
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)The juxtaposition of Lilia’s wizened cynicism with the pathos of Roland’s conflicted disposition makes for a compelling diptych, but Li’s prose is blighted by her excessive recourse to aphoristic metaphors ... Unforgivably, Li endows Roland with the same tic. He remarks: \'Self-doubt is like truffles. I wouldn’t mind flavouring my days with a sprinkle, but too much wouldn’t do.\' The same might very well be said of these pungent little flourishes.
MixedThe Times (UK)Born in Trinidad and educated in Britain, Persaud announced herself by winning the 2018 BBC National Short Story award. In these pages she portrays her homeland with a mixture of dewy-eyed affection and despondent solicitude ... With its unabashed sentimentalism and soap opera-style plot themes — deadbeat dads, family grudges, forgiveness and redemption — Love After Love falls squarely into the melodrama genre and succeeds on those terms. Persaud is a talented and engaging storyteller; narration and dialogue are brisk and lively, with liberal sprinklings of Trini slang ... The novel crams in a huge amount of positive messaging, making a remarkably thorough sweep of socially marginalised groups: victims of domestic violence, gay people, migrant workers and self-harming youngsters are sympathetically represented. Persaud’s heart is clearly in the right place, but there is something to be said for subtlety and getting your point across by stealth, rather than blunt, earnest force.
PositiveThe Spectator (UK)There’s an endearing anti-glamour to this novel, from its geographical setting — the bikers live in suburban locales rarely featured in contemporary fiction, such as Woking and West Byfleet — to its affectionate evocation of the cultural landscape of the 1970s — a world of shandies, Wimpy, Advocaat, obsolescent British-made bikes and the word ‘naff’ ... Some of the treatment endured by Colin makes for decidedly uncomfortable reading...but the novel’s wry subtitle, ‘A Story of Low Self-esteem’, takes this as a given. What’s intriguing here is the conspicuous lack of reproach in the narrator’s account; his
unrepentant equanimity speaks convincingly to the sense of fatedness that attends early sexual experience — the certitude, even in the face of objective evidence to the contrary, that one is absolutely the agent of one’s own destiny.
Carlos Manuel Álvarez
MixedThe Times Literary SupplementMariana’s mental and physical decline forms the central plot of The Fallen, and is related in heartbreaking detail, neatly rendered by Frank Wynne ... It is a bold move to load a slim novel with obscure dream sequences. Bolder still is having your narrator declare, at the end of one such passage, that \'The dream was not boring\'. It was ... With its cynical riffing on teleological history and the futility of utopianism, The Fallen evokes the postmodernist-influenced intellectual landscape of the 1990s. It feels a bit old hat, but not entirely devoid of contemporary resonance.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)... while Brown Album’s primary focus is on racial and religious identity, it is also a case study in déclassé angst ... Khakpour writes in the highly subjective style popularised by the New Journalism of the 1960s and 70s and currently much in vogue – an influence acknowledged in the collection’s title, with its nod to Joan Didion’s White Album of 1979. This mode of writing – anecdotal, fragmentary, at times quasi-therapeutic – has its limitations. For a more conventional and scholarly survey of the book’s terrain, readers might prefer The Limits of Whiteness by the sociologist Neda Maghbouleh. But Khakpour’s reminiscences are compellingly candid, and yield some illuminating psychological insights.
Samanta Schweblin, trans. by Megan McDowell
MixedLiterary Review (UK)The element of farce in these proceedings makes for enjoyable reading. As a mildly absurdist situational comedy riffing on everyday human foibles—jealousy, capriciousness, existential restlessness—Little Eyes is competently crafted; the understatedly arch tone is well served by Megan McDowell’s translation, which is so slick that one hardly seems to be reading a translated work. However, to the extent that the novel aspires to be a Black Mirror-esque satire, skewering our ambivalence towards technology by presenting us with a troubling near-dystopian scenario, it doesn’t quite convince ... the facilitation of human-to-human contact is arguably one of the least interesting things about where digital technology is heading. The texture of experience conveyed in Little Eyes feels not so much speculative as nostalgic, harking back to the early days of the internet—evoking, in particular, the uncannily intimate voyeurism enabled by such websites as Chatroulette. What seemed at the time like a vision of the future is now just another cultural curio.
Samanta Schweblin, trans. by Megan McDowell
MixedLiterary Review (UK)The element of farce in these proceedings makes for enjoyable reading. As a mildly absurdist situational comedy riffing on everyday human foibles—jealousy, capriciousness, existential restlessness—Little Eyes is competently crafted; the understatedly arch tone is well served by Megan McDowell’s translation, which is so slick that one hardly seems to be reading a translated work. However, to the extent that the novel aspires to be a Black Mirror-esque satire, skewering our ambivalence towards technology by presenting us with a troubling near-dystopian scenario, it doesn’t quite convince ... there is something implausible about the idea that someone in possession of such a toy would, despite knowing full well that it was remotely operated by another human, suspend their disbelief and conceive of it as a distinct being with its own personhood ... The texture of experience conveyed in Little Eyes feels not so much speculative as nostalgic, harking back to the early days of the internet—evoking, in particular, the uncannily intimate voyeurism enabled by such websites as Chatroulette. What seemed at the time like a vision of the future is now just another cultural curio.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Theft is profoundly concerned with the relationship between a person’s provenance and their place in the world ... Brown’s portrayal of this provincial milieu is refreshingly nuanced ... Paul’s motives are enigmatically opaque. His pursuit of Emily seems to be driven not so much by carnal lust as by animus against her partner and all that he represents—a kind of sexualised class warfare ... perhaps the most striking feature of this well-crafted novel is the highly selective access we are afforded to the narrator’s inner life. He is candid and transparent when ruminating on family and friends, but of his sexual machinations we get zilch. This makes for a convincing rendering of the compulsive, thoughtless nature of certain kinds of destructive behaviour. The register here is more black comedy than psychodrama: the narration is brisk and the dialogue pithy, with lots of satirical lampooning of the contemporary cultural landscape—wry digs about clickbait journalists, ambivalent polyamorists and right-on literati.
PanThe New Statesman (UK)Structured like a travelogue interspersed with epistolary fragments, Threshold is an autobiographical novel reminiscent of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station ... There are some colourful tales of debauchery...but the plot is secondary ... Inviting a stranger to come and live inside your head for some 350 pages is a risk: if you don’t keep them entertained, they may end up resenting the experience. There is, unfortunately, a rather dreary quality to much of Doyle’s psychic patter, which is littered with trite aperçus. These include musings on weather...and disquisitions on the attractiveness of French and Italian women ... The narrator’s self-indulgent ruminations on his waning virility are similarly tedious – think Michel Houellebecq minus the laughs ... unshackled from the constraints of conventional narrative, Doyle runs away with himself and leaves the reader behind ... Threshold’s sprawling listlessness is probably best enjoyed as deadpan satire – a cautionary tale of dissipation and drift; a masterclass in what not to do.
Ananda Devi, trans. by Jeffrey Zuckerman
MixedThe Guardian (UK)The abuse scenario recounted in The Living Days prompts a meditation on urban inequality, in which the politics of race and class loom large ... fetishistic language underlines the essentially neocolonial nature of [the] relationship: in its sordid and exploitative dynamic, it symbolically evokes the history of social relations between white and black, between metropole and empire – the legacy of which, Devi suggests, persists in the violence of 21st-century city life ... Devi’s talents were impressively showcased in Eve Out of Her Ruins, which explored everyday violence and misogyny in the slum districts of the Mauritian capital, Port-Louis, with a smart blend of lyricism and sociological insight. The Living Days is a somewhat disappointing follow-up, comparatively lacking in subtlety and trading rather too heavily on shock value. There is a conspicuous strain of Victorian paternalism in Devi’s ruminations on the nexus between poverty and violence, which occasionally lapse from well-meaning solicitude into crass condescension ... tonally awkward moments diminish the novel’s moral force, as does the abundance of cliches in Devi’s prose: some allowance must be made for the ambiguities of translation, but the surfeit of corny phrasees...is cloying. While Mary’s loneliness is rendered with a certain degree of conviction...the character of Cub is two-dimensional...
PositiveThe Irish Times (UK)...a nostalgic saunter through the literary and artistic milieux of belle époque Paris - a lost world of dandies, duels and decadence ... Barnes’s prose style is almost exasperating in its studious sobriety. One longs for some linguistic exuberance to complement all this debauchery, but to no avail: if Julian Barnes were a high-street clothing store, he would surely be Gap. Luckily his subject matter is inherently interesting ... In a short coda to the book, Barnes calls out the \'deluded, masochistic\' nature of the Brexit project and suggests that Pozzi’s cosmopolitanism and intellectual curiosity offer an inspirational counterpoint to the boneheaded insularity of English nationalism.
The sentiment is worthy...but in truth the heady brew of human comedy - quarrelling aesthetes, salacious gossip, family dramas and gory deaths - is more than enough to be getting on with. Through-lines be damned: sometimes a journey is sufficiently colourful as to warrant making for its own sake.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)Prudish readers be warned: the sex scenes in Cleanness are unhurried and officiously thorough ... Greenwell writes with great acuity about interpersonal chemistry, from the thrill of holding hands in public spaces (in a country where homophobic attacks are not uncommon) to the ritualism of S&M, which is rendered here as a kind of performance – a dance of self-negation and withholding ... He refrains from using speech marks in dialogue, and frequently deploys comma splices where others might have gone with a semi-colon or a fresh sentence...Such gimmicks can often feel contrived, but Greenwell’s storytelling is so consistently engaging, and his sentences so immaculately weighted, that they succeed in imbuing the prose with a sense of suppleness and momentum ... The novel’s title signposts its preoccupation with moral fastidiousness ... We’ve seen this trope elsewhere, in novels like Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians: a character who likes it rough, or is otherwise sexually atypical, is revealed to have been a victim of physical or sexual violence. Readers of such books must grapple with a similar dilemma to that faced by Greenwell’s characters: by treating this cause-and-effect formulation as a self-evident existential truth, we implicitly reinforce reactionary notions of sexuality that pit the normal (wholesome, clean) against the deviant (damaged, defective, squalid), perpetuating stigma and shame. Cleanness explores this bind with bracing candour, and comes down – just about – on the side of a generous agnosticism: \'There’s no fathoming pleasure . . . nothing we can imagine is beyond it.\'
PositiveFinancial TimesFor the most part it is the novelist, not the journalist, who comes to the fore with a love of character and observation. It is, Altan acknowledges, part of a coping strategy to keep his mind occupied and ward off despondency. Indeed, much of this book is about emotional and psychological self-preservation. But it is not without telling detail. Altan relates a story about sharing a TV with a fellow inmate, a devout Muslim ... He wants to watch religious programs, but Altan, a non-believer, would rather watch shows with scantily clad singers performing pop songs. This almost sitcom-worthy scenario encapsulates the cultural chasm between Turkey’s secular and religious traditions.
MixedThe Irish TimesThe stories in Grand Union occupy a range of registers. \'Big Week\', a poignant story about a disgraced ex-policeman whose wife leaves him, has a quiet pathos reminiscent of Raymond Carver. By contrast, \'Escape from New York\' is almost pantomimic in its playfulness ... The collection is patchy; some of the stories are blandly middlebrow and the prose is stylistically clunky at times.
MixedThe Irish Times... a strange beast ... Each one of these tales might, individually, have made for a compelling memoir in its own right. By pulling them together in this way, Taddeo invites us to view them collectively, as part of a single, composite entity ... if there is a common theme across the three stories, it is a conspicuous lack of sisterly solidarity ... handles its subject with far more sympathy and insight than we would get in a commercial misery memoir, but it is not entirely free of some of the unattractive traits associated with that genre: the very nature of the book presupposes a degree of prurience and condescension. Alternatively, perhaps fastidiousness itself is the problem. Perhaps the hitherto existing system of rules governing matters of privacy and propriety prevents us from talking about these things in a manner that is both sufficiently incisive to say what needs to be said, and sufficiently generous to meet the standards of good taste and decency. If so, then Three Women’s flaws – its conceptual messiness, its extractive voyeurism, and its very slight whiff of overbearing, wise-after-the-event didacticism – are also its most important features.
PositiveThe Literary ReviewFormed of eighteen vignettes spanning a four-year period, Normal People is considerably leaner than Rooney’s acclaimed debut ... Her skilfully paced narration creates a sense of space within this compact structure, slowing down time by drawing attention to prevaricatory fumblings and gaps in conversation, whether it’s Marianne rooting around in her handbag to mask an awkward moment or Connell kicking a crushed beer can across a floor during an uncertain lull ... At first blush, this novel’s fixation on moral wholesomeness evokes an atavistic religiosity, a reflexive priggishness redolent of internalised Catholic guilt, but there is more to it. In a secular age, goodness is not an end in itself but a currency in a marketplace of human striving. When you strip it down, this is a story about two people exchanging cultural and emotional capital. Each has something the other lacks ... This might sound like a somewhat transactional basis for affection, but that doesn’t make it soulless. A world in which life is increasingly shaped by the vagaries of work and itinerancy – both figurative and literal – demands an enlarged conception of romance. In the 21st century, not all love stories will be happily-ever-afters, a point Normal People articulates with subtlety, generosity and grace.
Heike Geissler, Trans. by Katy Derbyshire
PositiveThe GuardianIt’s a blend of reportage and memoir, embellished with novelistic frills: the narrative voice alternates between first and second person, and is prone to introspective digressions. This diaristic mode of writing enables Geissler to move beyond journalese and into more subjective terrain, exploring the feelings of powerlessness and despair ... The result is a bleak meditation on 21st-century drudgery ... Seasonal Associate is told in a weary monotone, aptly evocative of the stultified torpor it describes ... Her portrayal of zoned-out apathy is perhaps a little too convincing: there is a listlessness about the prose. Relief—for author and reader alike—comes in intermittent moments of sardonic spikiness, as Geissler finds solace in gallows humor and flights of fancy.
PositiveThe GuardianPublic schools are steeped in an oppressive culture of hierarchy and domination ... Verkaik contends that the preponderance of \'inflated egos\' with \'an innate sense of entitlement and ... an almost pathological willingness to risk everything\' accounts for the adversarial and polarizing tendencies in contemporary politics ... Verkaik’s book is nonetheless a timely intervention that asks all the right questions. Its sweep is impressively broad, encompassing everything from child abuse scandals to concerns about money laundering amid the recent influx of oligarch wealth. Verkaik dismantles the myth that Britain owes its strong military tradition to the public schools ... Posh Boys is, for a book about public schools, decidedly comprehensive.
Jordan B. Peterson
PanThe Los Angeles Review of BooksIt’s not just that this sloppy use of language exposes Peterson as an intellectual lightweight; the tendency to causally conflate various disparate phenomena that one happens not to like — in this instance, postmodernism, Marxism, and political correctness — is the calling card of the paranoiac ... Arguably the most manipulative feature of 12 Rules for Life is the author’s repeated reference to procreation as the driving force of human behavior: time and again this or that proposition is supported by reference to the mating patterns of humans or animals. Given that so many of his readers appear to be young men struggling with masculinity issues, this is fiendishly clever in its appeal to their deepest insecurities: reinvent yourself as a brutal Nietzschean strongman and you’ll get some ... The world is full of snake oil salesmen; why should this one concern us particularly? Because male self-pity is a killer