PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksThe collection shares a pool of characters who come and go, but the stories otherwise stand on their own. The characters are deeply crafted and filled with complexity. While their reappearances extend their individual histories, even when contained within a single story, we see multiple dimensions: good and bad, flaws and strengths ... Katrina feels like Newman’s version of Nick Adams or Nathan Zuckerman, the recurring heroes of Hemingway and Roth, who both reflect their creators while simultaneously living lives they never did ... Newman cultivates an otherness about the state. We are meant to see it as a foreign place, exotic with weirdness and quirks. Houses require electric fences to keep out bears, moose attack trash bins, and locals fly small airplanes wherever they go. These details captivate us with their weirdness, so different from the suburban landscapes of the mainland where homeowners face the occasional racoon digging through their trash, and people drive sport utility vehicles for comfort rather than necessity ... Newman has crafted a collection of stories set in a deeply unique place with compelling narratives about the people who live at the remote edge of the world. The collection highlights the pain and challenges of such a life, while constructing a rich depiction of the place.
RaveChicago Review of Books...the horrors are more intimate, smaller, and less global in scale. This is not a collection filled with fantastic beasts, although a sea monster does make an appearance, but instead illuminates the monstrous nature of humanity ... Technology, rather than magic, catalyzes these changes. That is not to say there are not some traces of unexplained fantasy, such as a girl who sprouts wings from her ankles, but mostly, Fu’s monsters manifest from modernity ... The success of Kim Fu’s stories is the element of the unexpected. There are surprises lurking in these narratives, whether it is a quick final plot twist or unexpected peculiarity ... Although Fu seems more concerned with alienation stemming from individual relationships, there is criticism of conventional consumer capitalism ... The characters in Fu’s collection are eccentric and unexpected in their choices, and many of their stories feature unforeseen endings that strike the right tone for the dark era we live in ... Fu opens a window looking onto the sad possibilities of our own failures.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksAddiction and recovery narratives have proliferated, blurring the lines of memoir and novel, and creating a genre all its own. Harding’s Bright Burning Things follows the expected tropes, and to some degree, there is a familiar predictability to the beats of the story: Sonya abuses alcohol; Sonya enters a rehabilitation program; Sonya recovers. What Harding introduces to differentiate the novel is this focus on Sonya’s desperation to be a good mother. Is it enough to carry the novel? ... to Harding’s credit, Sonya is somehow sympathetic, despite her faults ... The emotional center of this book is a mother’s love for her son, and whether that is enough to be triumphant over addiction. This is not a process novel revealing the daily grind of recovery, but instead an emotional experience driven by motherly love. Bright Burning Things contains few surprises, but the prose is clean and crisp, the narrative moves steadily along, and ultimately appeals to our desire to see the story through.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksThe interviews have been organized to craft a well-rounded—read: flawed—portrait of Bourdain. The narrative builds toward his inevitable suicide, as if attempting to come to terms with his decision, if not to justify it, at least to explain it. Woolever is successful at finding a narrative from these interviews, and she takes us on an emotional journey. The book offers a compelling story, and not just for fans of Bourdain unsated by his untimely end. For many onlookers, Bourdain lived an aspirational, globetrotting lifestyle, but Woolever makes clear it was less than ideal ... Woolever has gathered interviews from a wide cross section of people, including his family, his film crew, and celebrities from his time on television. Woolever’s skill as an editor is in merging these disparate voices to appear as though the whole cast is engaged in one great conversation with each other. The interviews flow together into coherent scenes...If you listen carefully, you might just hear the gentle tambour of his voice ... What is perhaps lost in the text is the individuality of the contributors. It’s difficult to assess who is truthful and who is exaggerating, who is sugar coating Bourdain and who is remembering him with greater fondness after his death. Bourdain was clearly troubled. But also loved and adored by the people in his life. Perhaps nobody wants to speak badly of the dead. There seems to be agreement among the contributors that Bourdain was loving and caring, if not always spectacular at expressing those emotions ... Creating Argento as a villain provides energy to the narrative and creates a tension we as readers want resolved. Bourdain’s death in this narrative is inevitable, but the reasons for it are a mystery. Argento provides a reason ... These interviews aren’t showing us something we didn’t already know about him, but the book does offer the opportunity to prolong the time we spend with Bourdain, a personality so many people already believe they knew ... The redundancy is reassuring. It’s the kind of book that feels like slipping into conversation with a long absent friend. It expands the Bourdain industrial complex. It’s different but familiar. If the objective is finding an answer to all the questions leading up to Bourdain’s death, of course it fails because explaining why a person takes their own life is an impossible task. But the book does succeed in showing us a more three-dimensional person, and for many fans who convinced themselves Anthony Bourdain lived an ideal life, these interviews illustrate faults many may not have realized he possessed.
RaveSouthern Review of BooksEllis is a humorist, a writer with a sharp eye for finding the funny in any situation ... Ellis is clearly an entertainer looking for an audience, both in the moment and afterward when writing about those events. She offers the kind of humor where she can joke about butt plugs yet still sound like a classy Southern belle ... If there is anything that defines Ellis’s writing, it is a keen ability to add levity to serious topics. We also see what a model of good friendship looks like ... Ellis writes bluntly about these women in her life. It isn’t just mastectomies, but their sex lives and pursuit of botox as well ... those secrets are exactly what make Ellis’s essay collection fun. She doesn’t hold back ... The charm of Ellis’ essays is her willingness to debase herself ... There also is a wholesome quality to Ellis, even when she is casually gossiping about her friends’ fetishes. The dissonance between the earnest, Southern charm and the occasional potty humor creates tension, and when Ellis cuts the tension, we as readers end up laughing. Ellis isn’t ever mean or cruel, and that distinguishes her from so many humor writers who laugh at others’ expense ... what emerges feels real and genuine.
PositiveChicago Review of BooksPlunkett thrives on exploring the interioriority of these characters, and driving these stories is the examination of the self ... Plunkett hooks readers easily with carefully crafted first lines, drawing readers in with dead bodies, mysteries, and odd images. From there, the stories build momentum slowly, but precisely, spiraling out along tangential subplots. These sideline narratives accrete to form the fuller story, eventually coming together as the stories conclude, often abruptly. Plunkett piles many ingredients into a slow cooker and then lets them boil ... a collection featuring a cerebral examination of womens’ lives. Plunkett is methodical, layering narrative on top of narrative, creating well-considered arguments. Even when the links between tangents are not immediately obvious, Plunkett pulls them together in subtle ways.
RaveChicago Review of Books... gray areas of emotion are where the stories in this collection thrive ... a tightly crafted collection of stories grappling with the power dynamics of couples with the women in these relationships often suffering for the benefit of the men. Sestanovich writes with precise prose and winnows the narratives into the most meaningful moments in the lives of her characters. Her skill as a storyteller is drawing out subtle emotional responses even as she crafts broader narratives.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of Books... the novel quickly becomes a conspiracy-driven mystery, then a fast-paced battle sequence, and eventually a revenge plot, roughly corresponding with the novel’s four parts. Each of these sections largely takes place in a distinct environment. The in-game world dominates the first section, but the locations later recenter around New Liberty City, Old Town, and the Stellaxis headquarters. These shifting environments also help make the novel feel as though the plot is continually moving forward ... Corporations are on trial in this novel. If 1984 and Brave New World were warnings against authoritarian governments, Firebreak is a warning against unchecked capitalism. By combining familiar science fiction elements with a strong critique of the commodification of essential elements of life and the corrupting influence of power, Firebreak offers a frightening warning against a near-future dominated by the rule of megacorporations.
Izumi Suzuki, tr. Polly Barton, Sam Bett
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... an intimate exploration of anxiety, pain, and sadness ... Even though sometimes they are \'out of this world\' aliens or living in reimagined societies of the future, these are people struggling in the same ways we struggle today ... In this collection, Suzuki’s stories are reminiscent of the unhinged science fiction dystopias of the master of the craft, Philip K. Dick ... like Dick, Suzuki often leaves out concrete details in favor of ambiguity, a sense of disconnection, and a grayness between black and white truths. This vagueness projects a sense of purposeful exclusion, allowing space for the reader to fill in many missing points while preventing the narrative pace from dragging ... Suzuki focuses on the character’s relationships with each other, the friendship between Emi and the narrator, the narrator and Noashi, a famous celebrity, rather than on the surrounding setting. The science fiction serves as set dressing for their humanity ... Although she has been dead for a quarter century, the stories retain a contemporary quality and relevance. Suzuki is confronting issues still very much in the cultural zeitgeist. Terminal Boredom provides a solid foundation to introduce her work, and the stories extend the canon of twentieth century science fiction.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksThe stories stand alone, but by linking them with Sarahs, the collection manifests something more complex ... There are moments in the collection where Cohen’s narrative perspective assumes a common understanding of human experience through the lens of contemporary progressive philosophy. Cohen’s stories create a dichotomy between the conseravative values of traditional norms and a more enlightened, open mindedness ... Moments like this appear throughout the collection contributing levity and humor, but also make the reader a co-conspirator against convention ... The final story in the collection provides a beautiful conclusion and helps bind all the stories into a coherent, singular project ... The stories themselves push the expectations of storytelling, venturing into the fantastical. Cohen embraces the bizarre, and often leverages it against the ordinary. Sarahland is a uniquely premised collection successfully corralling a varied assortment of ideas into a singular, unified statement.
PositiveChicago Review of Books... a fast-paced, page-turning science fiction thriller delving into a deeper discourse about the very essence of our individuality. Like a modern retelling of Frankenstein set in a near-future not so different from our own time, The Echo Wife explores the conflict between predestination and individual choice ... Ultimately, these are characters who fight against predetermination, and Gailey seems to clearly come down on the side of nature over nurture—the uniqueness of an individual cannot be suppressed.
Ed. by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
RaveChicago Review of Books[A] titillating collection of stories about sex, fetish, love, and loneliness from a diverse group of literary authors. Although the collection includes detailed descriptions of sex acts, Kink is primarily an exploration of intimacy, power, and our human need to share an emotional bond ... Little is left to the imagination with respect to explicit and diverse sex, and the collection benefits from the variety of voices offering a wide spectrum of narratives. Cis-gendered, hetero-normative sex is a minority in this collection; rather there is an intimate look into an array of matches, which at times stimulate more than just the mind ... The collection as a whole benefits from familiarity and intimacy. Many of the stories read like memoir, a testament to the adroit control of authorial voice ... They have recruited an all-star lineup of notable contributors who deliver stories that are fun to read while thoughtful about relationships, power, gender, and expectations.
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... draws on the current zeitgeist with provocative narratives examining race, female friendship, and privilege ... The stories are tightly structured, compact and efficient, driven by wry wit and Evans’s keen observations ... The stories are strengthened by the use of sarcasm and droll observation ... The brilliance of Evans’s writing is in the ability to both generate sympathy for this cringe-worthy white girl while simultaneously eviscerating her ... a collection for the moment. Evans skillfully interprets cancel culture, fake news, and political cults in order to craft a unique critique of the country’s underlying racism. The success of the collection stems from balancing the gloom of racism with Evans wry commentary. The snarky narrative voice cuts deeply. These stories are now even more necessary.
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... fast-paced and haunting ... [Alam] has given us a tightly contained narrative within the much broader scope of a frightening crisis ... Alam makes clever and subtle reminders of their privileged obliviousness ... Alam’s prose is polished, melodic, and precise. This precision allows for the narrative perspective to wander with effortless shifts between characters. It is the trick of a skilled storyteller. Alam hones the focus too, pulling back from the close perspective to offer hints of the broader chaos beyond, yet still unknown to the characters. It has a powerful effect. The reader gains small hints of the looming catastrophe, but the point of view snaps back quickly to the characters, maintaining the suspense ... The shifts in perspective also aids in pacing. The story is never bogged down with irritating character proclivities ... Alam guides the pace of the story with expert timing. Each new happening raises the tension. It’s unsettling ... Turning the page is addictive. Alam’s narrative compels the reader forward with unexpected horrors, both terrifying and curious. The narrative, however, never dwells too long in any one place, denying us information and adding to the mystery ... an engrossing and haunting novel where the fantasy of unplugging becomes a nightmare. Leave The World Behind is a stunning literary thriller closely examining the most basic of human relationships.
RaveChicago Review of BooksDiamond dives deep into a cultural analysis rich with literary, musical, and Hollywood references and examines the historical, social context of suburban sprawl, from post-war Levittowns to the contemporary decline of shopping malls. The Sprawl offers an insightful examination of the type of places the majority of Americans call home ... Diamond is more focused on situating suburbs in our culture than the history of urban planning, but he does jump headfirst into one essential historical element — racism ... In some moments, Diamond slides towards film criticism rather than focusing on suburban experience, but he always brings it back to the sprawl ... The Sprawl is a uniquely American look at the suburban phenomenon. And Diamond is right. If the American suburb fails, so fails the American way of life ... The Sprawl leads us on a journey through the promise of suburbia while expertly peeling back the curtain.
MixedChicago Review of BooksDavid Goodwillie leans heavily on nostalgic sentimentality to carry his literary mystery novel, Kings County, but the suspense-driven plot flounders ... [Theo\'s father] is a one-dimensional cliche of red America, a caricature rather than a character ... The flashbacks and disjointed narrative timeline bog down the pacing. Goodwillie leads us down numerous pathways with backstories, but few seem relevant. Theo’s personal history with his father sidetracks the story ... These backstories, like the protest, are essential to the novel’s aspirations of class critique, but actually feel more like set dressing. Goodwillie is striving to write a class-conscious novel disguised as a mystery, but neither comes through clearly ... Despite the missteps, Goodwillie’s mystery holds unexpected twists. Audrey’s secrets create tension with Theo, and drive suspense for the reader. The wandering narrative serves as misdirection to keep us guessing. Goodwillie doles out information sluggishly, only providing details when absolutely necessary. The plot has a lot of inertia. It churns slowly at first, but once it chugs forward, it rushes towards the conclusion. Nevertheless, much of the novel feels like unnecessary filling. There is great affection for hipster Brooklyn, and a sense that Goodwillie has written a love letter to this particular time and place, even if at moments this is detrimental to the novel ... The novel is paying homage to a rapidly vanishing scene, trapping it in amber for future generations to marvel at. This is a nostalgia trip ... We are transported to this time and place, but setting is not enough to carry the novel. Kings County offers a nostalgic reflection loosely wrapped around a not very suspenseful mystery.
RaveChicago Review of BooksThe skill of Straub’s writing is balancing soap opera-like plots with substantive emotional potency. With All Adults Here, Straub examines the ups and downs of small-town America with the critical eye of a skeptical urbanite ... Perhaps simply reading about ordinary people living ordinary lives while we experience a pandemic lockdown enhances the enticement. Straub effortlessly deposits details to expand these settings into fully physical places with a strong sense of identity. She leaves readers with the sense of having stood in the center of Clapham without ever having visited ... Straub has successfully constructed a moving narrative about a person not conforming to the mainstream seeking acceptance in the face of adversity, with emotional weight behind Robin’s transition, and anyone who has felt out of place can empathize with the character’s journey. Straub accurately captures the hurt and pain of being bullied ... Straub is upbeat. The world she has given us is optimistic. She wants us to feel good after reading All Adults Here while avoiding an overly saccharine tone. She navigates this fine line and succeeds in offering us the kind of world we want to live in ... Straub is a skilled storyteller. She weaves together complex, character-driven novels that allow us to wander in and out of their lives to share in the defining moments. All Adults Here is a solid escape to the pastoral lives we all sometimes wonder if we should endeavor to have. Even if it’s fiction, Straub has given us a world to hope for, to want to live in.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksSouth skillfully crafts narratives of emotional isolation. Both ominously bleak and shrewdly humorous, South constructs near-future worlds filled with sad and lonely characters ... South combines beautifully composed metaphors with wry wit ... The stories in the collection present an overwhelming melancholy ... South has written a dark collection by exploiting sarcasm, irony, and humor to confront the alienation and loneliness brought about by modernity. You Will Never Be Forgotten is a collection of stories reflecting the zeitgeist: melancholy dread in conflict with modernity. Her narrative voice is sharp, witty, and efficient.
PositiveThe RumpusIn Costalegre, Maum warns us about the threat of concentrated power, and by extension, the threat of wealth on freedom and art. Leonora’s wealth gives her power. She has, after all, leveraged her wealth to save herself and her favored artists. She is the gatekeeper, and her wealth essentially decides the value of the art ... There are few warnings more dire in an era of oligarchs, concentrated wealth, and the rise of fascist governments ... With Costalegre, Maum demonstrates her adroit versatility ... she has given us a dystopia from the past, more relevant and frightening today than many of us thought possible.
PositiveChicago Review of Books\"Luiselli succeeds by building narratives on complex metaphors. She has framed the story around a family slowly torn apart. Their fate parallels the fate of immigrants crossing the border. The slow cleaving of the family unit mirrors the situation of the children the narrator is trying to save ... The visuals, especially the Polaroid photos, and the lists of literary references is reminiscent of other novels that include alternative narrative forms, like Jennifer Egan including a PowerPoint presentation in A Visit from the Goon Squad. These visual elements and alternatives to prose offer more than a gimmick. Among these items are migrant mortality reports alongside maps. The effect is to treat these documents recording the death of refugees in the same manner as books of the literary canon ... Moments of comparison are Luiselli’s strength. Her ability to create parallels — to mirror the familiar alongside the unknown — is the beauty of her work ... The plot of the novel does not surprise. It is not a mystery. The narrator and her husband split as foreshadowed. The boy and girl are never endangered. But mystery, danger, and plot are not the point. These characters are portholes for us to observe, to see things we don’t ordinarily see, or that we do, and ignore ... Luiselli forces us to pay attention.\
PositiveThe RumpusA strength of the collection is Braverman’s transportive descriptions. She crafts detailed scenes anchoring us to the place. This vividness of scene emerges throughout the collection providing a seemingly tangible moment to connect us ... The precision of the prose shows fine and meticulous editing ... The effect can feel dry, but interspersing various paces imparts some energy. She often employs a staccato rhythm to speed things up, shooting a blast of energy into the text ... With A Good Day for Seppuku, Braverman has written a collection of intense images and exacting language. She’s sliced through privileged suburbia to show us a delicious cross-section of the troubles of the elites, and shows how even with money, many women end up struggling to find their own place in the world.
PositiveThe RumpusNicotine feels much more Franzian—meandering, expansive, and centered around the dramas of a wealthy family while overlooking opportunities for critical introspection ... The drifting narrative allows for a cast of imperfect and weird individuals to collide with each other. Sex infuses the story, and it’s fun to anticipate the implosion of relationships as lovers furtively swap partners ... Nicotine is a well-built novel and there is plenty to like. Zink’s wittiness emerges more subtly than in Mislaid or The Wallcreeper, but what the novel lacks in humor, Zink makes up for in smooth, concise storytelling. Nicotine progresses steadily while the plot’s remains unpredictable. It is book that demands you finish reading.
PositiveThe RumpusWayne has a remarkable control of voice...In Loner, the fullness of David’s character, and the sympathy the reader feels for a lonely boy and the frightful sense of entitlement of the middling white male, are apparent in his voice ... Loner is a fast-moving book that draws on strong character development and voice to compel the reader forward. Wayne’s skillful control of the text keeps the reader interested even as his protagonist grows more unlikable. Loner offers an enticing, if also distressing, examination of white male privilege and its resulting catastrophes.
RaveThe RumpusThe characters are all people we all wish we could be—wealthy, successful, comfortable. This comfort is a trick. Straub seduces the reader into this world in order to rip it apart and expose its psychological truths ... Modern Lovers grapples with a truth of middle age: balancing our relationships can be a perilous task. Domestic bliss can only provide so much satisfaction, and it is unlikely that those domestic relationships can fulfill every emotional need. Friendship has its own limits. Modern Lovers skillfully captures the complexities of relationships often taken for granted, and Straub reminds us that happiness together is better than happiness alone.
RaveThe RumpusEllis has a superb ability to build narrative from a singular voice, and in American Housewife these voices belong to compelling women who continually surprise the reader.