PanThe Times (UK)Without a working knowledge of The Passenger, Stella Maris would be utterly baffling and infuriating — as opposed to mostly baffling and infuriating ... At times, McCarthy’s worship for his creation brings to mind JD Salinger’s idolisation of his equally prodigious and gorgeous Glass family; at others, more disturbingly, Edgar Allan Poe’s idea that \'the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical subject in the world\' ... Acknowledging that your book is boring doesn’t mean that it isn’t. And, even if the whole thing is done only for effect, it’s probably best if the effect in question isn’t to make us want to throw the book across the room.
Graeme MacRae Burnet
RaveThe Times (UK)Artful ... Such admittedly lofty themes might give the impression that Case Study is a rather punishing chin-stroker of a novel. In fact, Burnet’s triumph is that it’s a page-turning blast, funny, sinister and perfectly plotted so as to reveal — or withhold — its secrets in a consistently satisfying way. It also does a fine job of keeping our sympathies shifting, and of conjuring up a lost cultural era. Rarely has being constantly wrong-footed been so much fun.
PositiveThe Times (UK)There can’t be many novels that simultaneously bring to mind Agatha Christie, Salman Rushdie, Raymond Chandler, John le Carré and Stranger Things — but this one does. At heart, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida could be described as a whodunnit ... There is, however, more to the book than that. An awful lot more ... The novel isn’t a hopeless mess. Karunatilaka respects the conventions of all the genres that he piles up so extravagantly ... The thriller-like quest for the photos serves up several properly exciting cliff-hangers. However wild it becomes, the magic realism takes place within a well-thought-out framework of what is and isn’t possible. The descriptions of the massacres are done as powerfully unsparing reportage ... This scrupulous clarity of purpose in turn explains why, although the book is never far from the narrow border separating the exuberantly rich from the badly overstuffed, it never crosses to the wrong side. The result is an unexpectedly exhilarating read.
PanThe Times (UK)I’m afraid my advice would be to curb your enthusiasm ... The Passenger...is neither [exhilerating nor coherent] ... Taking it as a whole, however, I can’t recall a recent novel so wildly — and often, it seems, wilfully — indifferent to what its readers might be expected to enjoy. Or even understand ... What on earth is McCarthy playing at? The most charitable interpretation, I’d suggest, is that he really is playing; that the whole novel is a mischievous joke about how nothing — whether religion, science or fiction — can \'get hold of the world\'. In short, the exasperated bewilderment that the book produces deliberately echoes the only correct response to human existence ... A less charitable one is that, aged 89, McCarthy is throwing in everything he’s got left over ... Neither of these theories, though, makes The Passenger any less frustrating — the more so since McCarthy’s formidable talents for dialogue, perfect sentences and descriptions of the natural world remain undiminished. His nihilism is still pretty bracing too ... Almost by the law of averages, the scattergun approach means that he hits some targets bang on. Unfortunately, none of this is enough to banish the sense that The Passenger is a big old mess.
MixedNew York Review of BooksIn virtually all of Miller’s novels, the protagonists are in a similarly intractable predicament. A past experience has derailed them so comprehensively that they’re stuck inside \'some interminable aftermath\' ... [The] theoretical underpinning is not matched by what happens at the end of the books. There, the intractability abruptly dissolves and the \'interminable aftermath\' terminates, as the protagonists achieve the kind of self-understanding that both they and Miller had so convincingly dismissed as impossible ... What on earth’s going on with the apparent failure of Miller’s novels to practice what both he and they preach? ... In Miller’s new novel these tendencies are, if anything, more marked than ever ... The Slowworm’s Song offers plenty to admire—thanks, inevitably, to its strong traditional narrative ... He exhibits his usual attention to striking detail ... [Stephen] becomes the latest Miller protagonist to make a single-leap escape from intractable inarticulacy to lucidity ... The question of that first-person narration ... As I noted, this is the first time Miller has tried it—and, as he has admitted, \'it may be the last. I found it a struggle. And I still feel unsure about the voice, whether I pitched it [right]\' for someone who’s \'not a highly educated man.\' It’s difficult to disagree with his misgivings.
RaveThe Telegraph (UK)Saunders sticks to his guns as he matches practice to theory. Or at least he does up to a point – because, especially in the stories set in his contemporary America, he can’t always hide his sympathy for people at the bottom of the social heap, or his distaste for those who feel themselves entitled ... Liberation Day is great art ... Immensely readable ... Saunders never denies us the solid satisfactions of plot, jokes, character, pacing and lovely phrasemaking.
PositiveThe Telegraph (UK)Not only does Lessons explore the full, strange mix of personal experiences and historical forces that shape a life, but it’s shot through with a rich sense of McEwan taking stock of his own – and of the political and social changes he’s witnessed. The result is part elegy for a vanished, kindlier post-war world; part slightly guilty acknowledgement of the luck of the boomer; and part handy summary of McEwan’s recurring concerns. It’s also a bit of a mess. The central idea that our lives essentially consist of random elements cobbled together leads to a book that could be described in much the same way – although not as damningly as that might sound ... The effect is less of a convincing character study than of a thought experiment about his own life and career if he’d sacrificed everything to his art ... We also get free-floating chunks of barely fictionalised autobiography ... In short, Lessons might well be the most enjoyable wildly flawed novel I’ve read in years.
MixedThe Times (UK)As the plot grows increasingly baroque, the book also bristles with set pieces that seem to be there purely for their own sake. It blasts away at pretty much all of our current received wisdoms, with particular reference to the self-obsession inherent in using subjective — aka \'lived\' — experience as evidence of anything ... While Toltz obviously has a serious purpose — to rub our noses in what a mess we’ve collectively made of being alive — his usual high quotient of fizzing one-liners ensures that not many pages go by without at least one laugh. By the end — possibly after a little lie-down — you may well be left wondering what the book adds up to: whether Toltz has served up a full-scale inventory of Homo sapiens or simply let that wild imagination of his run away with him. Either way, though, you’ll be hard pressed to deny what a ride you’ve just had.
PositiveThe Telegraph (UK)Some of the wilful reader-unfriendliness is irritating ... Yet the book can be surprisingly exhilarating, packing both an intellectual and emotional punch ... The disorientating strangeness here seems less like a literary device than an accurate reflection of the disorientating strangeness of the narrator\'s adolescence ... Checkout 19 offers plenty to relish: fizzing sentences, set pieces that are funny, alarming or both; a convincingly fractured portrait of a convincingly fractured narrator. Yet, by observing the conventions of the unconventional novel a little too closely, it inadvertently confirms how well established, even overfamiliar, many of them now are.
RaveReaders DigestThe book carries out its whodunit duties—a shifting series of credible suspects, plenty of neat twists, a conclusion that’s both plausible and unguessable—with undeniable skill. Nonetheless its main interest, for Billingham and the reader alike, perhaps lies elsewhere: in the brilliantly realised setting and particularly in the richly nuanced character of its narrator ... when the solution comes it’s perfectly satisfying. My guess, though, is that what most readers will remember more intensely is the collection of touchingly troubled souls we meet and, above all, Alice’s voice: by turns funny, broken, chatty, defiant, bewildered—but always utterly convincing and compelling.
RaveThe Times (UK)... another McGregor novel that, beneath its serene surface, takes huge risks. There is, for example, the wilful front-loading of the action, with that stirring storm sequence giving way to Doc’s agonisingly slow recovery. McGregor has also chosen to have a main character unable to express himself for most of the book. Fortunately, it’s also another McGregor novel that triumphantly gets away with it ... McGregor commits himself so wholeheartedly to the project of honouring minutiae (and has the literary talent to match) that the scene when post-stroke Doc first learns to touch his nose feels almost as dramatic as an Antarctic blizzard. For another, there’s the bracing awareness that the interconnectedness of human lives has its drawbacks as well as its much-trumpeted benefits ... the novel’s final scenes — poised beautifully between sadness and hope—remind us that the three verbs of the title aren’t a simple progression. Rather, they’re a constantly repeated cycle as life sticks doggedly to the process of going on.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksA Shock is pretty much a microcosm of Ridgway’s career, with the battle between his narrative strengths and his antinarrative anxieties ultimately won by the anxieties. What makes their victory especially vexing in this case is that the strengths put up such a good fight that for a while Ridgway looks to have at last found a way to maintain an equilibrium between the two factions ... it’s at [the] halfway mark, I’d suggest, that Ridgway’s antinarrative impulses begin their march to victory. From here on, A Shock no longer feels like the book that will finally reconcile his early coherence and later fragmentation, won’t strain too hard for its strangeness, and will have enough regard for its readers not to leave us feeling at times trapped in a tunnel longing for a sudden bursting into light. Instead, we seem to be back in the presence of a writer who sees it as his primary task to challenge both us and the customary satisfactions of fiction—largely by banishing them in favor of literary tricksiness ... the willfully boring is still boring ... True Ridgway believers will no doubt simply enjoy the vivid wildness ... Readers less sure about him may find themselves stuck with the troublesome business of striving for meaning ... Ridgway’s prizing of authorial uncertainty as a badge of authenticity now seems in some danger of leading him to a dead end. After all, using his abundant talents to butt up with such determination against the limitations of fiction has so far succeeded mainly in suggesting that some of those limitations are annoyingly real.
RaveThe Times (UK)... a work of undeniable moral seriousness, yet one that’s never just a series of (admittedly juicy) discussion points. Even the most fantastical outcomes are envisaged with exhilarating thoroughness — while Cyril and Kay remain the same richly conceived characters throughout. Despite the grimness of the premise, the book also offers the stirring sight of a writer clearly enjoying herself. There are plenty of good jokes and several playful references to Shriver’s previous fiction ... Shriver said that her favourite novels are those that pack both an intellectual and emotional punch. With Should We Stay or Should We Go, she’s added triumphantly to their number.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksAlthough not all eight tales feature ghosts, they do share a general sense of spooked unease at the effects of digital technology, for which the supernatural provides both narrative structure and metaphor ... \'Charity,\' like \'Signal,\' suffers from a final scene whose playfulness undermines rather than accompanies what the story elsewhere implies is a weightier purpose. A more satisfying marriage of narrative and meaning comes in the title story ... The best story of all is the one that most completely encapsulates the book’s concerns, influences, and techniques. \'Coffin Liquor\' features the journal of an academic at an economics conference in Romania ... might taking a lofty view of digital technology have...dangers? It’s a question that the story tellingly entitled \'We Happy Few\' confronts head-on.
PanThe Times (UK)... it is that the same thoughts recur on a loop for 300 pages, virtually all of which contain at least one sentence that sounds like a Marilynne Robinson parody ... Worse, this taste for the punishingly theoretical doesn’t really illuminate the human aspects of the story so much as completely smother them. Even Jack and Della’s racial divide, for example, seems more like an abstract question of moral philosophy than anything properly felt by them, Robinson or us ... There’s also the fact that much of the ground has been covered in previous Gilead books, making Robinson’s abiding fascination with these characters increasingly difficult to share. JD Salinger once wrote of his similar obsession with the Glass family in his later fiction that \'there is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms\'. For Robinson, you feel, that moment has long since arrived.
RaveThe Spectator (UK)... a book bristling with pleasures ... Jasper’s story becomes quite intriguing. Yet, there’s something slightly dutiful about it too, as if the cosmology that Mitchell has so patiently created is something he (mistakenly) believes his readers would miss if it didn’t underpin everything he writes ... Meanwhile, the other band members are given their own, more straightforward and ultimately more affecting, adventures. Both Mitchell and the reader have a lot of fun as well, with walk-on parts from any number of real-life musicians ... Taken individually, many of the set-pieces (and the novel mostly comprises them) seem like the old David Mitchell back telling stories purely for their own exhilarating sake. Yet, between them, they gradually add up to an overwhelmingly vivid—and equally exhilarating—portrait of an era when the future seemed likely to be shaped by a combination of young people and music. At the same time, there’s a melancholy sense of the transience of this idealism ... Of course, these are not especially original insights into the 1960s. But then again, original thoughts have always taken second place in Mitchell’s work to his highly original ways of expressing them ... So it is that Utopia Avenue confirms that his real talent—perhaps even genius—lies in finding wildly entertaining new ways to tell old truths.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Wink’s first book, Dog Run Moon, was a collection of short stories — and so in many ways is this, his first novel. Indeed an early set piece about 12-year-old August killing cats that have overrun the family barn appeared as a story in The New Yorker in 2012. It’s also by no means the only one in the book that seems to be setting up a significant plotline that is instantly abandoned. Between the bouts of feline slaughter, August’s mother informs him that she’s aiming to become a breatharian: someone who requires no food and lives on air alone. And with that, the subject is never mentioned again ... add up to an increasingly absorbing picture of rural Montana in all its unacknowledged strangeness ... Fortunately too the longer the book goes on — and the more we adapt to its languorous rhythms — the clearer it becomes how deftly the lack of affect is being used to reinforce Wink’s central point: that August is a stranger to himself. The unknowability of other people and the difficulties of knowing ourselves are scarcely unknown themes in fiction, but rarely can they have been so wholeheartedly rendered — or embodied — as they are here, with the book’s own inscrutability reflecting that of its main character ... \'You’ve been working for me for a while now,\' Ancient tells August during one bar visit, \'and I pretty much don’t know a damn thing about you.\' It’s a sentiment that most readers will share. Yet by that time it’s also apparent that, in a neat paradoxical twist, this is exactly what makes August such a penetrating and ultimately sympathetic character study.
Stefan Hertmans, Trans. by David McKay
MixedThe Times (UK)Hamoutal’s story is neatly interwoven with (or constantly interrupted by, according to taste) a careful analysis of the various documents and scholarly articles he consulted and an impressively assiduous attempt to follow in her many footsteps. As Hertmans acknowledges, her link to his own village also makes this an especially heartfelt project ... However, this level of personal investment cuts both ways. There’s no mistaking the book’s passion and epic feel. Yet Hertmans’s determination to provide every detail of Hamoutal’s journeys means that they can feel almost too thoroughly evoked. I have always been in favour of an author using sights, sounds and smells to capture a sense of place — but perhaps not all of them all the time, as Hertmans does. Even at moments of high drama, we’re kept fully informed about what the local flora and fauna are up to, as owls hoot, seagulls screech, or as he simply lists the nearby plants and flowers ... At first, admittedly, this does have the desired effect of keeping it vivid. A few chapters on, it begins to get in the way of the narrative momentum and becomes quite irritating. Happily, in the end, the central story and medieval Europe’s convulsed politics remain powerful enough to triumph over Hertmans’s rather smothering obsession with them. At times, however, it’s a pretty close-run thing.
RaveThe New York Review of Books...with Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart’s avowedly autobiographical first novel, Barrie has some competition at last ... It is, then, a testament to Douglas Stuart’s talent that all this literary history—along with the tough portraits of Glaswegian working-class life from William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and Agnes Owens—can be felt in Shuggie Bain without either overshadowing or unbalancing the novel ... Stuart says that he considers Shuggie Bain \'a queer novel\' ... Otherwise, the author is too generous—and, it would seem, too fond of his mother—for the central focus to lie anywhere but in the fierce, warm-hearted portrait of Agnes in all her maddening glory. As a result, this overwhelmingly vivid novel is not just an accomplished debut. It also feels like a moving act of filial reverence—if not, perhaps, of the sort that J.M. Barrie would have recognized.
RaveNew York Review of BooksIt is, then, a testament to Douglas Stuart’s talent that all this literary history—along with the tough portraits of Glaswegian working-class life from William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and Agnes Owens—can be felt in Shuggie Bain without either overshadowing or unbalancing the novel ... Stuart’s [has a] Grassic Gibbon–like ability to combine love and horror, and to give equal weight to both. Not only is Shuggie Bain dedicated to his mother, but in the acknowledgments he writes that \'I owe everything to the memories of my mother and her struggle\'; he’s clearly determined to give all the contradictory aspects of that struggle their full due ... Stuart’s capacity for allowing wild contradictions to convincingly coexist is also on display in the individual vignettes that comprise the novel, blending the tragic with the funny, the unsparing with the tender, the compassionate with the excruciating ... Otherwise, the author is too generous—and, it would seem, too fond of his mother—for the central focus to lie anywhere but in the fierce, warm-hearted portrait of Agnes in all her maddening glory. As a result, this overwhelmingly vivid novel is not just an accomplished debut. It also feels like a moving act of filial reverence.
RaveThe Times (UK)As ever, Miller recreates the past so vividly that reading the novel is never less than a fully immersive experience. And fortunately, just as you think that he might be rather overdoing the sights, sounds and smells of 1809 Britain, there’s another twist to the chase-plot, another hair- raising flashback to the chaos of the Peninsular War, or simply another juicy traveller’s tale. Miller’s welcome re-embracing of old-school psychological realism means that virtually all the characters...are given genuine depth. It also means that (even more old-school) his depiction of Lacroix seems to owe something to the idea in Renaissance literature, including Shakespeare, that being able to tell your own story coherently is the surest sign that all is well ... as well-written books by intelligent people go...this is a particularly enjoyable and satisfying one.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Crummey details the siblings’ survival techniques with unshowy lyricism and an infectious sympathy for the toughness of their lives. Yet, as \'each indistinguishable day\' passes...he doesn’t solve one obvious problem: how to write about monotony without being monotonous. You could argue that he triumphantly succeeds in his aim of depicting people with no concept of boredom — but the trouble is, of course, the reader is not so lucky ... Fortunately the novel perks up considerably over the final two thirds. In between the endless chores some other stuff happens, and quite a lot of it proves unexpectedly dramatic ... The most significant arrival of all, though, is adolescence. Crummey does a powerfully unsettling job of imagining how the onset of sexual feelings and self-consciousness would affect an isolated brother and sister who have never been prepared for what’s happening to them, and have nothing and nobody to draw on once it does. He also allows some neat touches of allegory to emerge naturally from the narrative without diminishing the singularity of Evered’s and Ada’s experience ... In the end, then, The Innocents does reward the reader’s patience — but there’s still no denying that a fair amount of patience is required.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksIn interviews...Jacobson has continued to grumble that \'we’re dying of correctness,\' and that \'a woman can make fun of a man, but a man can’t make fun of the woman, that is the rule of it at the moment.\' But...this is a rule he appears to have accepted, at least judging from the book itself, which is by some distance the kindliest novel of his career—and, more unexpectedly still, none the worse for it ... Although Live a Little isn’t one of Jacobson’s more Jewish books, he does have fun with the many elderly Jewish widows ... Not only does Jacobson’s affection for the widows shine through every scene they appear in, but he also mounts a touching, almost dewy-eyed defense of \'the elderly glamorous,\' ... Even in his most belligerent books, Jacobson has always prized conversation between men and women highly, which makes it all the more surprising, as well as disappointing, that Shimi and Beryl’s should be the weakest aspect of the novel ... Unfortunately...Shimi and Beryl speak to each other the way Jacobson writes at his worst: i.e., with slightly irksome—and for conversation distinctly improbable—portentousness ... But even this weirdly obvious blemish doesn’t prevent the overall effect of Shimi and Beryl’s relationship from being undeniably sweet ... In the end, there’s no mistaking that this is a book that proves the truth of Beryl’s claim, \'It’s never too late for anything\'—even a nice Howard Jacobson novel.
PanThe Sunday TimesIn Lanny we again get a supernatural presiding spirit. Yet this time, instead of seeming to emerge naturally from the human material, it feels arbitrarily imposed. Not only that, but the human material on which it is imposed isn’t very convincing either ... a distinctly soppy New Age fable ... there may be some people—fans of Jonathan Livingston Seagull spring to mind—who’ll consider Lanny enchanting and full of insight. For the rest of us, though, it can’t but seem a shame that after such a terrific debut Porter has dedicated his undoubted talents to a book as misbegotten as this.
Louis de Bernieres
MixedThe Times (UK)So Much Life Left Over spans two continents and 20 years. Its large supporting cast — many of whom get a bash at narrating — are given plenty of troubles of their own — there’s even a shamelessly scene-stealing cameo by Dr Iannis from de Bernières’ most famous novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Yet, while the book is certainly not short of vivid domestic incidents, they tend to pile up rather than provide forward momentum ... The trouble is not (needless to say) that these passages aren’t heartfelt, but that they increasingly seem like an intrusive if understandable autobiographical obsession. At times, they also seem distractingly pointed — not least when his now-adult daughter later assures Daniel that \'Mummy has to live with knowing that she didn’t do the right thing\'.
PositiveThe TimesThe main character is Billy Edgewater, who’s hitchhitching through the state to visit his dying father, although not with any noticeable urgency. Instead, he seems wearily resigned to whatever happens to him — which, luckily for the reader, is quite a lot ... All the bars he goes into (and he goes into plenty) are populated by an impressive variety of memorable oddballs — from a one-armed conman to an elderly but still enthusiastic prostitute. There’s also a fair sprinkling of such southern gothic staples as fake preachers, weirdly malevolent sheriffs and whiskey-swilling Bible-bashers. By page 17 Edgewater has been beaten up twice — and his adventures, by turns darkly comic and completely hair-raising, don’t get any less lurid from there.
They’re also matched by Gay’s never knowingly understated prose, which certainly strives hard for mythic effect, but on the whole achieves it. It’s hard to think of anything published recently that blasts in such a brilliantly sustained way — or that makes much of contemporary fiction suddenly seem so bloodless by comparison.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksIt gradually unravels a series of overlapping mysteries to provide an epic Victorian yarn of love, murder, and greed set during the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s. Nevertheless, this is not a book to gallop through—and not merely because the unraveling proves as complicated as anything in Victorian literature itself … The most unexpected influence of all is extraterrestrial—because this is a novel structured around astrology. Offhand, it’s not easy to think of a less intellectually fashionable subject; but, as with the Victorian narration, Catton takes it on with a wholeheartedness that borders on the obsessive … Whether you ignore it or not, the astrology adds another layer of unease to the feeling that The Luminaries is more a careful simulacrum of a great novel than the real thing. There’s no mistaking the almost frightening level of Catton’s talent. Yet in the end, does the book amount to any more than a vast creative-writing exercise—albeit one that’s superbly, and at times thrillingly, carried out?
MixedThe New York Review of BooksAs long as Liz is in Ulster, this double perspective remains. Laird continues to serve up a sharp, entirely recognizable, and sometimes funny account of the tensions and pleasures of a family reunion. But with Liz’s help, he also continues to draw our attention to those unnoticed myths—both political and personal ... the New Ulster sections too often read like dutiful pieces of straight anthropology: well written, certainly; fully realized, probably; fully felt, not so much ... Because the Melanesian section ends in murderous violence too, the book ends with Liz and Alison back at their parents’ house, taking refuge in what Alison had called the 'cult' of the family. But it also seems as if, after all the troubling questions he’s raised, Laird is taking refuge there as well...By finishing this way, Laird is perhaps implying that personal myths are easier to correct than political ones. Yet even if that’s true (and little else in the novel has led us to believe it), such an oddly happy ending seems distinctly inadequate as a response to all that’s gone before. Nevertheless, the primary problem with Modern Gods is still that, for all his efforts, Laird never properly convinces us that we can learn much about Ulster Protestants by studying a Melanesian cargo cult. Ironically, this leaves the novel feeling like an instance of the parallel universe becoming visible—as if two separate books existed and somehow inhabited the very same space.
PanThe New York Review of Books...while Lethem’s first novel, for all the sci-fi playfulness, had its own logic and coherence, his new one is so badly lacking in either that it feels as if he’s unwisely decided to write it using two divergent eyes. The routine description of Lethem’s methods is that he blends genres—but here the genres, and much else besides, seem not so much blended as arbitrarily thrown together ... Not only is A Gambler’s Anatomy almost totally free of recognizable human motivation, but it also picks up and drops its various threads with remarkable carelessness—most strikingly, the telepathy.