RaveNew York Times Book ReviewIt’s a rare novel that leaves you reeling simultaneously with admiration, exhaustion, amazement at its author’s reach and skill, and desolation at the world it spreads out before you. Add to that a dose of borderline despair for the future of our species, and you have a sense of how you’re likely to feel by the end of Miguel Syjuco’s flawed but formidable political satire, I Was the President’s Mistress!! ... These movers and shakers may have been caricatured for comic effect, but the sickly-sweet flavor of their lives comes across with an authenticity that suggests long and intimate exposure ... Whether by sheer diligence...or just some superior force of imagination, Syjuco manages to get the other half of society — the migrant workers, slum-dwellers, disenfranchised minorities — onto the page almost as vividly as the kleptocrats and media moguls. Novelistic empathy is observed to a fault: There are almost too many claims on the reader’s attention, too powerfully pressed, for the book to stand a chance of working in any conventional way ... These interviews are essentially dramatic monologues, and like the classics of the genre they are rich with deliberate evasiveness and accidental disclosure ... Most of the interview material points back into the past, while the real-time action of the impeachment drama happens entirely offstage. There are certainly suspenseful questions around the latter ... But we hear about these matters only incidentally, as the interviewees allude to them in passing. It’s an interesting formal device, but it mutes the story ... So we are left with the lovers’ monologues. If these were just polished exercises in voicing and mimicry, I’m not sure the book would be worth the demands it makes. But they are much more than that. The best of them strike me as miniature masterpieces of the form, combining technical virtuosity with a psychological penetration that exposes the precise emotional dynamic driving each of these warped and riven figures.
PositiveThe New York Time Book Review... clearly the work of a writer in retrospective mood: taking stock, paying his dues ... A lot of writerly angst seems encoded in all this; lingering pique, perhaps, from ancient debates about the literary merits of King’s hugely popular fiction...It certainly makes for an interestingly complicated subtext, which is soon matched by the text itself as Billy starts planning his own counterscheme for getting out alive (and getting paid) — an elaborate ploy involving serial identities, multiple disguises, secret addresses and a daunting quantity of phones and computers ... King layers it all in patiently, detailing the little worlds of the downtown office and the residential suburb where Billy whiles away his days and nights, using the memoir to reveal Billy’s grim back story, and staging small lapses of judgment on Billy’s part that come dangerously close to exposing him. By the time his mark arrives the sense of what’s at stake in the shot Billy will finally take has been cranked up to the max, and the first of several lavish action scenes erupts with a satisfying release of pent-up tension ... Here, it has to be said, the book stumbles. Aside from the creaky coincidence, there’s something at once prudish and prurient about the ensuing relationship that’s hard to take. Post #MeToo, the conventional sexual dynamics of the pairing obviously wouldn’t work, and King tries hard to square them with those of our own moment, keeping things chaste while also keeping sex very much to the fore. The result is a weird sort of latter-day Hays Code effect, all separate bedrooms and nobly resisted temptation, offset by graphic anatomy shots and regular moments of accidental intimacy ... That these significant flaws don’t totally derail the book is a testament to its author’s undimmed energy and confidence. His eye for detail, especially at the dreckier end of roadside culture, is sharp enough to keep the long car rides that crisscross the novel lively and vivid, and he remains in possession of a seemingly effortless verbal flow that surges on over bumps and banalities in the story line (must the bad guy always turn out to be a pedophile?) without letting up. But next to classics of the One Last Job novel and its close variants — including my own favorite, George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle — it seems driven more by formula, in the end, than the real reckoning with fate and mortality that the genre, at its best, affords.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewIt would be hard to think of a living novelist whose books encompass more history, more settings, more professions, more varieties of individual fate, than William Boyd ... For readers who go to fiction for the pleasures of panoramic sweep, elaborate plotting and the company of a humane, genial intelligence, he has become one of the preferred masters. His new book, Trio, delivers much of the same set of literary goods, with perhaps a lighter touch than usual ... More than just a clever authorial performance, the structure underpins a sustained preoccupation with the tension between fate and chance, art and accident, script and improvisation ... Its settings (especially the pubs) are sharply observed. Its humor and melancholy are comfortingly English, premised (like the old British sitcoms it also resembles) on the supposition of a helpless collective commitment to folly. It’s a satisfying production, entertainingly retro, like a ride in Talbot’s beloved vintage Alvis coupe ... It seems churlish to wish — though I did — that the mission had been a touch more dangerous.
RaveLondon Review of BooksBook-length expansions of articles often seem bloated, but this one is a remarkable exception. Every page of its icily forensic narrative advances the story in some unexpected way, continually modifying one’s understanding of its principal players and their complex motives. It is partly a psychological thriller about the danse macabre that goes on between a skilled con man and a well-chosen mark, partly a global-historical blockbuster with variants on the obligatory tropes: lurid sex, wicked priests, Egyptology, Nazis. But it is also, most interestingly, a sustained study of the clash between the idea of historical truth as a set of objective facts waiting to be uncovered by rigorous inquiry and the more contemporary notion of it as a construct, amenable to (and fair game for) deliberate intervention. Sabar is clearly in favour of establishing the historical truth, and the spectacular results of his old-fashioned diligence stand as a 400-page rebuke to those who aren’t. But a surprising magnanimity prevails, with both King and her manipulator retaining a measure of sympathy, even respect, to the end ... it leaves you with the potent image of a woman who, far from being anyone’s dupe, knew exactly what she was doing all along.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)The sense of some deeply melancholic encounter haunts the pages of Australian writer Shaun Prescott’s winningly glum debut novel, aided by elegiac musings on belonging and estrangement, growth and decay, places and voids, portals and dead-ends ... A gentle, deadpan comedy of listlessness prevails. Everything partakes in it ... Occasionally someone tries to leave, and it’s here that the book’s absurdist DNA starts to reveal itself ... These tropes may not be entirely original, but they’re executed with a mixture of conviction and laconic humour that gives them a fresh appeal ... Do these ideas catch fire, dramatically, in the way the best speculative fiction does? Perhaps not quite – the human element is a little thin, even allowing for the fact that the book is partly a portrayal of societal enfeeblement. But it’s an engaging, provoking novel nevertheless, intelligently alive to its own metaphorical possibilities, and leaving behind a powerful vision of the world ending, not with a bang, but a whimper.
Michel Houellebecq, Trans. by Shaun Whiteside
MixedThe Guardian (UK)How to describe these crass, underpowered, chronologically bewildering opening sections? Shtick seems the best word ... Female characters have never been Houellebecq’s strong point, and the ones he parades past us here have about as much human interest as a catalogue of sexbots. That’s part of the routine, of course—narrator as sad creep imprisoned in his own puerile fantasies—but it seems very old suddenly ... Here and there Houellebecq relaxes from this effortful brand maintenance as purveyor of smut to the intelligentsia, and muses on non-sexual aspects of human life such as gastronomy or gentrification. There are some characteristic provocations ... It played better when there was a liberal political consensus to act as a foil than it does under current conditions, but Houellebecq has a sociological curiosity few other novelists possess, and his more considered observations are still worth paying attention to ... an unexpectedly gripping story begins to crystallise. Suddenly the book’s seemingly haphazard elements begin working together ... instead of sensibly ending on its high note, the book meanders on through a set of ridiculous plot twists in Labrouste’s personal life, petering out on a note of morbid self-pity. And yet there it is. The agony and rage of the demoted, the discarded, the \'deplorable\' (a segment of them, if not the whole basket), laid bare. What other novelist would have the willingness to go there, let alone the wherewithal? Out of this feeble excuse for a hat, Houellebecq has once again pulled, if nothing warm and fluffy, something at least dangerously alive.
MixedThe London Review of BooksYou get a sense of the church’s insidious grip on its members in the tortured logic of Megan’s account of the way empathy became the instrument for keeping her and others in the fold ... It’s a satisfying story, well told in terms of what happened and the way the church’s various mechanisms of control operated inside Megan’s own psyche. Where it falls a little short (and suffers in comparison with Tara Westover’s recent incandescent memoir of flight from a different kind of fanaticism, Educated) is in its somewhat perfunctory investigation of the underlying forces that drove the church’s behaviour. ‘I needed to believe that our ministry had not been influenced by the pathologies of a human being,’ Megan writes at one point. But clearly they had – and that human being was the man who founded it, Fred Phelps. She half-acknowledges it, but seems still too attached to Gramps to examine the intriguing biographical facts in her possession with any kind of clinical attention ... there is one rather staggering fact about Fred Phelps that would under normal circumstances merit lavish praise, and that even in this context adds an indisputable moral dimension to whatever psychological drama may also have been playing out in his life. This is that...Phelps spent three decades as a civil rights lawyer and activist, a notably courageous one ... Megan reports all this but seems at a loss to adjudicate it, much less reconcile it with the subsequent chapter in her grandfather’s ministry. It looms over her story, a seemingly unassimilable enigma that perhaps can’t be resolved but certainly can’t be ignored.
MixedThe GuardianRepetition can be a good sign in a writer—evidence of real compulsions driving the work rather than just the desire to bring a new product to market. But it can also, of course, be a sign of imaginative caution. How to Read the Air seems to show a bit of both. Its scenes of marital tension among disappointed emigrants and their children have, at their best, a patiently elaborated complexity that confirms Mengestu as an authentic writer with real insights to offer. But even without comparison with the earlier book, it sometimes gives an impression of treading water ... It\'s a neat structure, ably handled if a touch formulaic (you know in advance that the son\'s journey is going to re-examine the past in a manner that will eventually strike a wistfully upbeat \'redemptive\' note that readers, or anyway publishers, seem to demand these days). The problems, such as they are, have to do with the excessively passive character of Jonas himself ... Where the novel comes most grippingly to life is in the sections about the parents\' ill-fated road-trip. Here, Jonas\'s talent for lying reveals itself as something more interesting: a kind of speculative empathy ... the novel slides uneasily into a kind of postmodern meditation on the uses and abuses of storytelling, the west\'s exploitative fascination with tales of third world hardship and so on. It\'s moderately interesting, conceptually, but it undermines the impact of the material itself and leaves one feeling a little manipulated. And it certainly doesn\'t play to Mengestu\'s strengths which, on the evidence of this unevenly impressive novel and its more focused predecessor, are as a straightforward, compassionate, keenly sensitive observer of real life.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewBack story is where novels often sag, but in this case it’s where the book hits its propulsive stride. Around 40 pages in, a series of excursions into the men’s pasts starts to fill us in on their intimately linked criminal and romantic histories ... The detours have the nonlinear, emotion-drenched agility of memory, moving by association through powerfully evoked moments in tense bedrooms, piratical bars and dubious neighborhoods in Irish or Mediterranean cities. Barry has a great gift for getting the atmospheres of sketchy social hubs in a few phosphorescent lines, and much of the pleasure of the book is in being transported from one den of iniquity to another, effortlessly and at high speed ... There isn’t much psychological or (God forbid) moral analysis, so if you like your dark deeds illuminated by Dostoyevskian insight this might not be the book for you. But the sheer lyric intensity with which it brings its variously warped and ruined souls into being will be more than enough for most readers. It certainly was for me.
MixedThe London Review of BooksCasey Cep has published excellent pieces in the New Yorker on Lee’s post-Mockingbird(and posthumous) career. She outlined the Maxwell/Burns story in a 2015 article, and Furious Hours is that story fleshed out. Padded out too, it must be said. The book lacks the incisiveness of Cep’s articles and suffers from what seems an anxiety about some of the unanswered (and probably unanswerable) questions it raises; it flings up quantities of data-dust about marginally relevant subjects as if in the hope of concealing its more significant gaps ... The book never quite resolves the problem of its related but separate subjects (as witnessed by its laborious subtitle), and wobbles tonally between academic dryness and a more down-home style...as if fitfully trying to channel Lee at her folksiest ... But it’s fascinating all the same, and in spite of all the extraneous material Cep puts forward a persuasive set of conjectures about this key passage in Lee’s long and eloquent silence.
RaveBook Reporter... an apropos commentary on the #MeToo movement from a male perspective ... Lasdun has a talent for crafting complex characters ... Lasdun highlights the importance of women communicating their true desires in the moment, rather than acquiescing under pressure to please their partner, as well as the necessity of men listening and respecting their boundaries ... Lasdun approaches this sensitive topic with empathy, and the satisfying sardonic ending intertwines with anticipation of the election results. The timeliness of Afternoon of A Faun does not necessarily date this novel, and the issues of sexuality and consent it addresses will no doubt be a topic of conversation for quite some time.
RaveThe Guardian...the immense assurance of the writing, the deep knowledge of the settings and periods in which the story unfolds, the mingling of cruel humour and lyrical tenderness, the insatiable interest in human desire from its most refined to its most brutally carnal, grip you as tightly as any thriller ... It’s a wonderful structural device, this layering of similar situations on top of each other like a series of transparencies that cumulatively portray a culture as it exists in time as well as in space ... An amazing amount of the passion and folly of the human comedy is woven into his modest life, all of it beautifully observed and memorably articulated. It makes for a looser, freer book than the cunning puzzle of a novel one was led to expect, and almost certainly a better one, too.
RaveThe GuardianTwo very different literary impulses collide in Jesse Ball’s new novel: old-fashioned memoir and modernist fable. One might think they were incompatible, given their allegiances to the separate truths of experience and imagination, but it’s a testament to the skill of this talented writer that they end up enhancing each other in all kinds of unexpected, often remarkable ways ... I’m not sure the voice ever won me over entirely, but I found myself able to accept it, or ignore it, as I got absorbed in the story’s larger inventions ... Like any good road novel, Census is at one level a gallery of quickly sketched encounters, and among the book’s pleasures are the characters who open their doors to this itinerant father and son ... You don’t have to have any particular interest in Down’s syndrome to connect with this aspect of the book: it isn’t a polemic about special needs, but a detailed and moving portrayal of a kind of radical innocence, one that brings both the cruelty and the kindness in the world around it into sharp focus. For me, it was the most powerful of the many surprises in this unusual, impressive novel.
RaveThe GuardianIt wasn’t the only subject Johnson wrote about, but it lent itself peculiarly well to his gifts: his tender eye for the grotesque, his gallows humour, his ability to articulate the intense inner lives of the variously desperate types who form the cast of this particular narrative; above all his interest in the spiritual dimension of suffering and struggle... So it’s a relief as well as a delight to find that in his last stories Johnson was working at a consistently – and surpassingly – high standard. The five longish pieces comprising this posthumous collection are all, to my mind, quite wonderful ... Johnson has always straddled the divide in American letters between Beats and straights, hipsters and squares, but I don’t remember seeing the urbane side of him nearly so much to the fore as it is here ... All five of the stories share this casually improvised surface masking steelier underpinnings. They are, to mix a metaphor, wolves in shaggy dogs’ clothing, circling in on their quarry with a deceptive purposefulness.
PositiveThe GuardianIf there is an abiding theme, it is the way in which notions of right and wrong, guilt and innocence, victim and oppressor, shift over time as memories fade or new perspectives open up on old struggles. At their lightest, the stories show this by reprising the relatively simple inversions of the earlier book … They orchestrate precisely such moments of discomfort into their own twisting and turning plots, always a step or two ahead of the reader, and furthermore that they do so in the service not of partisan judgment one way or the other, but of deep, clear, unflinching understanding.
PanThe New York Times Book Review...Weiner has turned to the form he’s helped speed toward redundancy, for his latest project, Heather, the Totality ...a brisk, undemanding read, with alternating sections on the family (rich, tame) and the Worker (poor, psychopathic) creating an efficient mechanism of suspense ...the book also seems seriously at odds with itself, in all kinds of ways ... Despite this expository abundance, the characters remain oddly vague ... There’s almost no showing in the entire book; little real-time action or direct speech. You keep waiting for a fully imagined scene with the kind of immersive detail that persuades you of the reality... It holds your attention, but it doesn’t leave you with much.
PanThe GuardianIt seems certain that the mission, one way or another, will be intricately bound up with the more significant conflicts of that discordant era. Given McEwan's ability to make riveting fiction out of English politics (not easy), it would be hard to imagine anyone better equipped to write such a story … One resists, slightly, the literary turn. Still, manipulation of the intelligentsia has a deep history on both sides of the iron curtain...but as Serena begins reading the writer's stories, summarising them at length in her own text, it begins to look, unexpectedly, as if the book's real subject is in fact going to be its own navel, or at least its own author.
PanThe GuardianAleksandar Hemon\'s The Lazarus Project is one of several recent books that orbit these subjects. Its sentiments are all very correct and laudable, but as a novel it seems to me largely a failure. It opts, initially, for the oblique angle... Period reconstruction clearly isn\'t Hemon\'s game... What seem to interest him more are the various practical and metaphysical questions raised by his own desire to tell the story. The result is a familiar postmodern construction: a novel about the writing of a novel ...Lacking the pressure of a plot, these passages stake everything on their pure interest as writing ... Tired observations, lame jokes, bits of generic travelogue about smelly buses and scary taxi-rides form the bulk of these sections ... Towards the end The Lazarus Project seems to realise it\'s running on empty.
RaveThe GuardianAmong the many tasks Zadie Smith sets herself in her ambitious, hugely impressive new novel is that of finding a style at once flexible enough to give voice to the multitude of different worlds it contains, and sturdy enough to keep the narrative from disintegrating into a babel of incompatible registers ... Still more worlds open up beyond them as their lives unravel out through the genteel Massachusetts college town to which they have been transplanted: Haitian immigrants, hip-hop poets, New England liberal intelligentsia, reactionary black conservatives ... with a knockabout comic style (Dickens, by way of Rushdie and Martin Amis), here the intent is to live more inwardly with her characters, and the model, alluded to throughout, is EM Forster ... the plot of Forster's Howards End, ingeniously re-engineered, underpins much of the storyline of On Beauty ... With the self-righteous Kippses thus plumped down on the doorstep of the self-sabotaging Belseys, the situation has the makings of a small-scale campus comedy with scope for all the familiar farcical posturings so dear to the heart of academe ... Large, Forsterian themes of friendship, marriage (the Belseys' is in crisis following Kiki Belsey's discovery that Howard has been unfaithful), social tension, artistic expression (from Rembrandt to Tupac) are meditated on with an unguarded seriousness rare in contemporary fiction, and to some extent the book could be seen as a rather heroic attempt to dignify contemporary life with a mirror held up in the grandly burnishing Bloomsbury manner ... Beautifully observed details of clothing, weather, cityscapes and the bustling human background of drivers, shoppers and passers-by are constantly being folded into the central flow of thought, feeling and action ... sheer novelistic intelligence — expansive, witty and magnanimous — that irradiates the whole enterprise.
PanThe GuardianThis is the task the book sets itself: to see if a viable ‘marriage plot’ might be constructed around a feminist-era heroine for whom marriage no longers means an irrevocable surrender of person and property … There's a fair amount of irony at the expense of undergraduate pretension and holier-than-thou posturing, and some of it spills over to the three protagonists. But at the same time the book wants you to take their yearnings and dilemmas seriously, and the result is a curious tonal indecisiveness … The other missing piece, more important perhaps, is the kind of action that gives dramatic reality to the complexities of a character's inner life.
PanThe GuardianThe intent seems to be to elevate Knight by association into a flawed saint of solitude. But artlessly surrounding him with canonical figures ('He looked a bit like the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy') and hoping for the best isn’t enough to do the trick. One wants the connections to be explored rather than simply raised. More important, you want to be brought, somehow, into the inner reality of Knight’s experience ... more often he’s uncomfortably playing to Finkel’s eagerness for profundity or even more uncomfortably fending it off ... Next to the great fictional solitaries and rejecters of the world – Crusoe, Bartleby, Boo Radley, Kafka’s Hunger Artist, half of Conrad’s protagonists – Finkel’s errant knight cuts a dim figure. There’s no reason to hold that against him. Oblivion appears to have been what he sincerely craved (he eventually sent Finkel packing), and it’s probably what he best deserves.
Yuri Herrera, trans. Lisa Dillman
PositiveThe Guardian\"In terms of genre (and the book is very conscious of its genre antecedents), The Transmigration of Bodies is nine parts noir to one part post-apocalypse fantasy ... Swift, slick images and one-liners glitter at regular intervals ... You don’t experience The Redeemer (or anyone else for that matter) as a \'character\' – there’s too little texture for that – but the flourishes that bring him onto the page are expert enough for you to go along with him as the carrier of a darkly satisfying little tale.\
MixedThe GuardianI have to confess, reluctantly, that I found this [first] section (which occupies two thirds of the book) hard to like. The whole notion of this fortified desert compound, with its enlightened but sinister scientists and slightly robotic functionaries (or 'escorts'), seems ill suited to DeLillo’s gifts. For all his prophetic genius he’s a chronicler of reality, not a high-concept fantasist, and his lavish verbal resources seem to me wasted on trying to imbue this glorified meat-safe with consequentiality.
PositiveThe GuardianThe two sides of the resulting book – the curatorial and the curative – drive each other with neat economy, loneliness propelling Laing out into the archives and galleries of her chosen artists, whose work in turn informs (and transforms) her sense of her own isolation. Structurally speaking, it is an especially elegant demonstration of the advantages of this hybrid form...