RaveThe Washington PostOpens with a striking line ... In alternating chapters, Jean and Leah tell their respective stories. It\'s a satisfying structure, allowing us to seep by turns into their voices and worlds. What may mark this novel out as unusual, even rogue, is its focus on two starkly distinct women from two generations who\'ve fought bravely for what they managed to gain ... Novey\'s prose, brisk and direct, tacks back and forth in time ... The novel fulfills its first line\'s proposition: as an incantation of an artist\'s name and, by implication, an artist\'s way.
Simon Van Booy
RaveWashington PostReverberant ... [The Presence of Absence] sets in motion a gentle carousel of richly dimensional, comfortingly specific lives — while hinting at a vaster, deeper project ... Delicately yet viscerally, Van Booy has woven elements of his own experience into a more universal composite, a narrating Everyman ... Tantalizing ... Events arrive matter-of-factly, as a kind of Human Predicament roll call. Readers at once feel part of Max’s struggle to figure out what to do, much of it recounted with sly wit and an almost unspeakable tenderness ... Yet Presence also flows with so much depth and power it’s difficult to describe ... In some of the most beautiful prose of Van Booy’s oeuvre, Max ponders existence, memory, time — a voice with everything at stake and not one nanosecond to waste ... Presence softly sweeps aside such notions, replacing them with wide-open wonder.
RaveThe Washington Post... forceful ... Urgent and personal, Complicities solidifies D’Erasmo’s reputation not just as a skilled shaper of disparate fictional worlds and beings, but as a fierce investigator of how it may feel to live inside them ... What makes the story come alive, to D’Erasmo’s enduring credit, is its persistent grounding in the physical ... Gracefully, suspensefully, D’Erasmo layers in backstories of key individuals in Alan’s life, allowing readers to piece together a composite portrait of that charismatic, smooth, elusive man...Each of their narratives almost stands as a small novel of its own: ultra-strange, ultra-human ... A great deal of marine science is itemized, including reportage on local and national policy-feuding. Despite this plot element’s passionate intentions and clear role to emblematize a different, towering complicity — that of our own in destroying the Earth — I struggled with the sense of its feeling imposed and, with its bountiful explaining, close to becoming an infomercial. D’Erasmo finally makes it work, tying Suzanne’s passion for the crucial symbolism of the whale’s death into her rather stunning later choice ... Of the novel’s assorted focuses — families, couples, love, sex, guilt, economics. ecological peril — the kaleidoscopic portrait of Alan most tantalizes. Here, D’Erasmo’s insights shine ... D’Erasmo’s writing is tight and flavorful, her thinking sharp, her characters warmly idiosyncratic, her causes timely, complex and morally freighted. Maybe that is more than enough.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle... wry, canny ... will delight Bay Area readers, as it’s set here — San Francisco, Marin, Santa Rosa — with superb authority and wit. But the novel may most strike home for poets and writers everywhere as it calmly, systematically depicts their worlds — and, let’s say, field behavior — unretouched ... Descriptions of these characters alone may be worth the book’s price ... Thompson’s skills make us comfortable at once — and she is often very funny ... delivers both an old-fashioned picaresque and real suspense as Carla wends her way through acolytes, wannabes, power struggles and poetry (much of which, to Thompson’s great credit, proves quite fine). Earned wisdom glints from these pages ... But the novel’s supreme glory is its sparklingly accurate chronicling of goings-on at a writers’ conference near Placerville ... Thompson inhabits the mind of an insecure, reading-challenged 21-year-old wonderfully well ... Let this delectable story, which steadily grows taut and exciting, channel its author’s wickedly seasoned observations of \'po-biz.\' The novel rewards: as a tribute to the soul-saving value of art, a cri de coeur for women striving to make authentic lives, and a pipeline of guidance from the elders to the emerging. The Poet’s House offers many rooms, infinitely worth the tour.
Alice Elliott Dark
RaveThe Boston Globe... powerful, enchanting ... Dark fans who devoured In the Gloaming and other, earlier works, rejoice. Striking from the first for its clear, sharply intelligent voice, streaming wisdom and wit on nearly all of close to 600 pages, Fellowship embodies a magnificent storytelling feat ... Some of the many miracles of this dense, bristling, multilayered work are its gut-level reality checks on modern sex, love, money, class, aging, and power. Yet though it fearlessly faces down topical problems (ecology, marriage, inequality) Fellowship remains compassionately complex, avoiding polemic, caricature, or infomercials. Its life is rooted in loyalty to humanness, to people so real you can see, hear, and smell them ... So much is deeply considered: facets of memory, family (parent viewing child; child assessing parent), death and grief, thwarted love, socio-ecological responsibility ... this wealth of rumination never sags, or drags. Instead it manages a seamless fluidity between interiority and scene, gathering relentless momentum, drawing us in tight as it pushes toward a stinging culmination — to resolve (secrets spilled, mysteries cracked) by its amazing close ... What may be most astonishing is Dark’s ability to totally inhabit a series of disparate characters down to the DNA — to walk around in their skins: a canny, contemporary George Eliot.
PositiveThe Washington Post... if, like me and countless others, you’ve loved Schjeldahl’s art criticism — its acuity, its passion — and considered him (quoting a fan) \'the best art writer of our era … one of the best critics ever\' — brace yourself. Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me, Calhoun’s brave, blistering new memoir, may force you to — uh — revise your assumptions ... At times the saga of Schjeldahl’s neglect (instance after instance) combined with Calhoun’s repeated efforts to gain his care and esteem, nearly obliterate O’Hara’s story — making it more a satellite against which embattled father-daughter energies bounce. It’s a strange triangulation, inevitably somewhat sidelining the artist whom longtime lover Joe LeSueur called, after O’Hara’s funeral, \'our Apollinaire\' ... kudos to them both, then, for this fierce, dissonant, yet compelling duet, or — by turns, however improbably — trio.
RaveThe Star TribuneMorton\'s novels all have in common a calm, caring voice that imbues the prose with a wry, pained tenderness, as if shaking its head at the human folly it describes. That same voice sustains this memoir ... Caregivers for elderly parents may be stunned — also slightly relieved — to recognize various elements: desperate research, trial after trial (some, involving abusive caregivers, go shockingly wrong) and rage chased by guilt ... Truth: I found Tasha addictive. I couldn\'t even slow down. Why? Its startling details, fearless depictions and the curiosity this sparks: How might Morton \'solve\' the unsolvable? Best is Morton\'s witty, scalding honesty — noting his fear, when a phrase suddenly eludes him, \'of my own dementia to come\' ... stands as both a cri de coeur and vibrant testament — the painstaking, brave, generous piecing-together of a wildly difficult puzzle.
RaveWashington Post[A] bracing account ... Morton’s novels...all have in common a calm, caring voice that imbues the prose with a wry, pained tenderness, as if shaking its head at the human folly it describes. That same voice sustains this memoir ... \'How can you see your parents clearly?\' Morton wonders. He’s not sure he’ll ever be able to, but to his extreme credit, he gives it everything...interleaved with his own present exhaustion, exasperation and anguish ... Truth: I found Tasha addictive. I couldn’t even slow down. Why? Its startling details, fearless depictions and the curiosity this sparks: How might Morton \'solve\' the unsolvable? Best is Morton’s witty, scalding honesty ... A complex, arduous yet satisfying reckoning seeps through ... Tasha stands as both a cri de coeur and vibrant testament — the painstaking, brave, generous piecing-together of a wildly difficult puzzle.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle... pensive, lyrical ... Grounding readers in the concrete lets us trust Sarris as he reimagines Indigenous creation stories with their vibrant casts of animal-gods ... Sarris gathers from gossip, myth, dreams and science to investigate the imperishable power of story itself and how it helps us locate and claim a sense of home ... Delicious characters people his remembering ... Such irresistible authority extends to historic conjecture ... In clean, thoughtful prose with jewellike detail — whether pondering Yosemite, his childhood babysitter, a secret cave or the oak tree outside his house — these meditations enchant.
RaveThe Washington Post... supremely beautiful ... What sets this novel apart — what marks its entrancing power — is a voice and vision (told in very close third person) that are solely the child’s. Adult perception never takes over, except as reported by Pira. I cannot remember anything like it. Instantly, it pulls a reader deeply into her own childhood — via prose so simple and direct it almost disappears. \'Clear as light,\' were my first notes. We’re not just alongside the child: we’re inside the child. It’s a masterful feat ... Pira’s mind, like most children’s, is a kind of unexposed film, imprinted by everything — micro to macro — in vibrant dimension ... Such moments — with so many like them, wondrous for their simplicity and depth — stand as small miracles. Readers inhabit both the adult recognizing the predicament and the child desperately trying to understand. A great tenderness infuses this telling, never once veering into preciousness. The narrative’s lush scope — from Pira’s deep dream life to the sight of the mighty volcano whose ancient creation stories he’s memorized to assorted crises including a scorpion’s near-fatal sting — reveals the boy’s gentle, undefended awakening to his own and others’ flawed, earnest love. An exquisite meditation upon language, meaning, human longing and consciousness itself, Stone World will fill readers with wonder.
RaveThe Washington Post... investigates those timely themes — loneliness, grief — in such a rich, mesmerizing narrative, I devoured it greedily ... Lucy and William have two grown daughters, whose portraits are vibrantly drawn. Somewhat less visible is William’s daughter with his current wife, Estelle. But for all their dimension and drama (a miscarriage, sulks, confrontations) these daughters — and even Lucy’s expired husband — seem to function more as elements of a palpable backdrop against which Lucy and William may seek and repel each other, like magnets with reversing currents ... So much intimate, fragile, desperate humanness infuses these pages, it’s breathtaking. Almost every declaration carries the force of revelation.
Simon Van Booy
RaveThe Boston Globe... ambitious ... the writing — unflinching yet tender, a sensibility which, like Flaubert’s, suffuses everything — carries us through ... Scenes inlaid with lyrical yet gritty context, act almost chorally throughout the novel as a surging reminder of time’s movement, while also physically grounding us ... Occasionally the story turns graphic; violence is depicted head-on — a departure for this gentle author. Derived from real stories entrusted to Van Booy by three generations of a rural Kentucky family, Night Came studies the long arc of human striving ... Kindness and raw luck undergird Night Came — echoing the trials and windfalls of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield. And like Dickens’s young heroes, Van Booy’s determined souls act with their whole hearts — as does this brave, fierce novel — to earn what good may come.
RaveThe Washington PostReading this bizarre, arresting tale, you may not always feel clear about what you are tracking — but you’ll absolutely want to track it ... The novel’s power and steady control manifest in its voice: that of an eerily inward, single male, perhaps in his 30s, who lives monkishly ... Scapegoat proves difficult to describe without spoiling. Menace gathers. So does a marvelously calibrated pace and tension. As with some of our best haunted fiction (The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House), the story obeys an internal, quasi-demonic logic ... breathtakingly seductive: a noir dream watched through a handheld camera.
RaveThe Washington Post... like talking all night with a brilliant friend ... Krauss imbues her prose with authoritative intensity. In short, her work feels lived. Some of these stories appeared earlier, in the New Yorker and elsewhere. But re-encountering them in a collection lets us absorb them as siblings ... Krauss’s explorations of interior struggle press on, unflinching; aperçus feel wrested from depths ... With chilling casualness, Krauss conveys the murderous realities lurking behind the scrim of social surfaces, that young women routinely face ... Settings range globally without fanfare, as do Krauss’s gelid portraits of modern arrangements ... the hallucinatory \'Seeing Ershadi,\' in which a dancer and her friend become obsessed with an Iranian actor, seems to distill the strange urgency of Krauss’s art ... What Ershadi represents to the women slowly unfurls, and (like much of this fine collection) continues to haunt a reader’s mind and heart.
RaveThe Washington Post... initially resembles Rachel Cusk’s fiction — narrated by a fiercely intelligent teacher and writer, describing encounters with a series of individuals whose difficult stories accrue like mosaic pieces to form a painfully human tableau. Nunez’s prose, too, seems to echo Cusk’s cool, flat distance ... Nunez’s project has grander designs than mere literary satire or clever portraiture (though streaks of these spice the prose). It will meditate — at length, in earnest, often graphically — upon whatever life, death and love can presently mean ... may baffle readers for its impenetrable bleakness — apt as that may be for our present straits. But because it’s Nunez, long admired for her fearless, ruminative, sharply insightful work, we push on ... One’s moved by the scope and pith of this novel’s ambition, as it addresses our biggest questions by naming the particular. But most striking may be how Nunez’s narrator transfigures, through deepening compassion, from a wry, circumspect observer into someone raked raw with hapless love for her vanishing friend ... Still, it’s the here-and-now of What Are You Going Through that spears us, its chorale-like testimonies, their preemptive requiem.
RaveThe Washington Post... delivers on its title, with an outpouring of responses to our shared ordeal by a wonderfully diverse group of (90!) writers ... Thank heaven, these short accounts do comfort. They’re compulsively readable, too, even when painful — first, because they do what good writing always does, giving us the sharp relief of recognition. But they also inform, with dramatic power. Several manage some humor. All help us feel less lonely as we negotiate each new (Groundhog) day ... Intense emotion, unsurprisingly, suffuses these writings, as does longing for our prior, unthinking ease of connection and closeness ... Organized into five sections, these voices feel linked — often by a sudden, refocused perspective on cycles of life and loss ... It’s bracing to see ourselves dig deeper, facing the worst, to devise, invent, reach out ... Hope and determination persist, if erratically ... Something’s here, in short, for each of us. In the raw surge of brave voices, Alone Together will, indeed, give some love, some light, some \'help for pain\' (subverting Matthew Arnold). Who can’t use a little of those right now?
RaveThe Washington PostIn remarkably plain and quiet prose, Henkin has explored the exigencies of marriage and families (especially recombined families) through unflinching yet kind depictions of the ways we live now. His thoughtful new novel, Morningside Heights, proves no exception ... Spence’s diagnosis, divulged relatively early, sharpens the novel’s structural challenge: to keep readers invested, eager to learn how these lives will play out. It draws us in — and on — by paying out details of Spence’s deterioration like a trail of clues, alongside Pru’s stumbling efforts to coexist with them ... Quietly told, the story nonetheless pulses with insistence: Attention must be paid. This subtle urgency opens our own awareness, lens-like, upon the implied human task, larger than any single calamity — that of attending to relentless change, loss, finitude.
RaveThe Washington Post... Raeff has created another richly memorable world in a complex mode — crisscrossing time and swaths of history, exploring one family’s intertwined impulses to find love, political drama and meaning. Like its predecessor, Only the River draws us in at once with the quiet authority of its voice, promising to guide us with clarity and care ... multiple voices speak here, expertly mobilized ... One of Raeff’s signal strengths is to ground and immerse readers in the sensuous present of any era, in each setting’s vibrant textures and temperatures, however extreme ... One of many reasons Raeff’s work is so deeply pleasurable is the gripping concreteness of her characters’ bodies and natures ... Through intricate interweavings of plot delivered in lean yet powerful, often poetic prose, Only the River ponders what the Germans call “the unanswerable questions . . . about the difference between courage and cowardice, weakness and strength” — the moving riddles of human confrontation with atrocity and possible redemption. It offers, with open hands, a complicated feast: irreconcilable impasses of character and event; what we can and cannot control. Epic and cinematic, wrought and soulful, it is a deeply serious novel, yet full of tenderness...makes its own soft, steady music, and its traces will haunt a reader’s heart and mind.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...a brave, passionate saga of three generations ... A fable\'s tone saturates the narrative ... Narrating in a beguiling, musical patois, Anette\'s is the novel\'s most delicious voice and energy, its spokesperson. It\'s Anette we most care and cheer for ... Told from alternating points of view (including a we who represent an anonymous chorus of \'old wives,\' the narrative takes sassy liberties with time and voice, calmly folding in the occasional riffle of magic ... This sensuous, queasy, dream-sequence uncertainty, the casual allusions to obeah (witchcraft) and to eerie island folktales, sets up a kind of contrapuntal tension against the grimly real history (including the Second World War and Korean War) surging alongside - compounded, too, by the steady, ugly incursions on island life by American culture and tourism ... One wishes, wistfully, that there had been a magic strong enough to ward off colonizers.
PositiveSF GateIt\'s been difficult to ignore the lavish praise doled out to Ten Thousand Saints, the debut novel by Eleanor Henderson ... As best I could, I entered with an open heart ... I experienced a sprawling, noisy, sweaty, multilayered, ambitious, occasionally belabored work. It\'s overlong, dense and bighearted. Read on ... Pay attention to [the] music: It will serve as the book\'s blood supply, relentlessly carrying characters and events, coloring in any unclaimed spaces. In fact, the novel may be read as a documentary and testament - to a way of life, and an all-consuming raison d\'etre ... Against the scorching backdrops of these cultures - a reader smells the sweat, blood, urine, beer; hears the crowds screaming; feels herself at times flung into the mosh pit - Henderson shepherds her characters with blatant affection. All are blinkered: touchingly, maddeningly ... All finally possess a good heart - or at least a well-intentioned one. In result, so does this story: raucous, wounded, sweet, spasmodically desperate, it comes to feel like a modern, drug-and-rock-riddled version of Peter Pan, ... Not exactly a bad thing - but a tiny part of this reader\'s brain wonders how likely such a depiction may be. Would all these characters actually be this endearing, this just-by-a-squeak redeemable, in the context of the worlds we\'ve been shown? Whatever the answer, I\'ll prefer Henderson\'s spin to a grimmer alternative.
RaveThe Washington PostSyllable for syllable, it’s stunning work—arguably better than the original ... these stories create a world almost unbearably addictive for its beautiful, agonized truths ... wave upon wave of unflinching insight, delivered in language so clean it shines. Sentences flow in simplest words and clearest order—yet line after line hammers home some of the most complex human rawness you’ll ever read ... Strout dwells with uncanny immediacy inside the minds and hearts of a dazzling range of ages ... Olive, Again transcends and triumphs. The naked pain, dignity, wit and courage these stories consistently embody fill us with a steady, wrought comfort.
RaveThe Washington PostPrescott’s hard-boiled depiction of D.C.’s intelligence community — its social and sexual hierarchies — gives readers a gritty insider-tour of a Mad Men-redolent world where women had to work doubly hard to be taken as serious players, effectively doing everything backward and in heels ... Such is the thoroughness of Prescott’s research and the crispness of her delivery that the novel reads almost like a documentary, itemizing cultural milestones and emblems alongside women’s courageous contributions to postwar heroism. Her details vibrate with authority ... Sally, Irina and Olga are distinct, dimensional and complex voices; their arcs compelling and sometimes surprising ... Prescott sustains a breathless tension ... Without a speck of sentiment, Prescott has built an impassioned testament to them. Reading Secrets affords a pleasurable, inspiring way to absorb unsung history.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleToni Morrison has made a ferociously beautiful new work ... Readers are plunged into the present-tense blood and sweat of it—slave trade, turf wars, religious sectarianism, sex, childbirth, food, drink, weather, farming, building, pestilence—and in Europe, class struggle and executions as entertainment. Morrison burns these particulars into us, through her astonishing story ... What flood a reader\'s senses are Morrison\'s women and men: black, red and white; slaves, indentured and free—deeply inhabited, complexly human, furiously willful, conveyed through whip-crack language. Morrison may imbue characters with a more modern habit of intellection than her setting warrants, but that\'s quibbling. A Mercy accomplishes art\'s miracle: Swept head-on into the brutal specificity of a place and era, we are forced to own it.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle\"Bowlaway spirits readers into an astonishing world ... McCracken’s prose — canny wisdom laid on in swaths of fearless, quirky, galvanizing language — gives consistent joy. Almost every page glitters with quotable treasure ... This is the risk of Bowlaway: its bighearted, cockamamie tone — playful, bittersweet, fond — takes a number of bewilderingly violent dives. By calmly folding such tragedies into the mix, McCracken seems to be insisting that there’s no banishing them: that straight-up horror must rightfully partner all the fun-house momentum ... With this finely wrought, moving saga, McCracken’s project is surely big as they come: to convey, in a kind of parallel universe, the poignancy and mystery of human effort; how we handle what we’re given.\
Meg Waite Clayton
PositiveSF Gate[Beautiful Exiles] is an immensely ambitious undertaking, given the mountains of material already written by and about authors ... [a] love-sex-booze-intrigue-politics-war-literary culture-travel-packed saga ... Clayton works hard to serve up micro and macro: intimate words and sensuous moments set against the world’s strife and (later) World War II ... Exiles suggests that the years with Hemingway formed a kind of defining backbone of vibrant, if bittersweet, memory.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Great Believers opens aptly, with a funeral, in the Chicago of 1985 — when AIDS was still badly understood, ineffectively treated and raging out of control, terrorizing gay communities. There we meet young art gallery development director Yale Tishman, and his inscrutable lover, Charlie, who runs a feisty alternative newsweekly ... compulsively readable ... her prose a relentless engine mowing back and forth across decades, zooming in on sublest physical and emotional nuances of dozens of characters.
PositiveSan Francisco Chronicle...a vivid travelogue ... Liam Callanan’s spirited Paris by the Book offers a near-irresistible package of twin glories, Paris and books (love of reading), delivering vibrant tours of each.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleWith Kudos, British author Rachel Cusk completes an extraordinary trilogy of novels that may have even forged a modern form (nodding to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio’s Decameron and the fiction of W.G. Sebald) ... Cusk\'s narratives...elude easy description ... They enter a reader’s imagination like a series of half-remembered dreams whose details seem at once to vanish, but whose ambiance continues to haunt with an eerie, desolate beauty ... Much of the trilogy’s genius lies in this structure: a smoothly linked chain of monologues ... Granting that the Outline Trilogy is called fiction, it burrows beneath our skin; we sense that all its conversations, characters and the troubling implications of their strivings, happened.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle\"Her many fans will surely admire Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood: and Other Stories,” but readers new to Schutt might want to brace themselves ... Schutt’s descriptions can startle: “Opalesce is a gauzy word to describe what the sky is doing.” But few proverbial breaks are given.\
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...[a] radiant new novel ... Signaling from the start that it will give nonstop beauty and insight, the novel repays close attention with what the best fiction can bestow: a larger, deeper understanding of the spinning world. Reminiscent at times of the work of poet/novelist Anne Michaels, every word here feels set down with care and fierce conscience. The resulting narrative glows as if distilled ... Winter Kept Us Warm is deeply concerned with what makes a family, with inevitable, unanswerable loss, with the intricacies of language and time; love and war, friendship, the life of art and the imagination, and always (borrowing from Yeats) the quest of the 'pilgrim soul.' In other words, just about everything that ever mattered. The novel’s own quest is one in which we can happily lose — and find — ourselves.
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"What binds the collection is Smith’s voice: frank, urgent, self-ironic. Dipping into these pieces (in any order) is like setting out on a walk with a vibrant, curious, gracefully articulate friend ... Because Smith was reared in England but lives part time in New York, we benefit from her two-way cultural vision; place (ergo, sensibility) is always on her mind, and the results are bracing ... This kind of companionability makes Feel Free’s parts — if occasionally uneven — form a pleasurable whole. Its subtitle could well be \'dispatches from a life in progress.\'”
MixedThe San Francisco Chronicle\"Winter didn’t take my heart in both hands. I wanted it to. It promised to — with its cheeky overture … Winter’s characters verge on becoming mouthpieces … Granted, Smith’s playfulness ranges like a riffing keyboardist’s: word games, quotes and allusions (Dickens, Shakespeare), time travel (the sisters’ childhoods, Sophia’s begetting Arthur, Arthur’s own eventual child), even mockery of literary form … Winter gives the patient reader a colorful, witty — yes, warming — divertissement. But for me the global alarms and laments, while utterly accurate, are so numerous that the whole structure finally seems more a billboard for Smith’s passionate concerns about the fate of us all.\
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleDiski’s writing is never less than arresting. Taken together, these stories form a narrative of the plight of women in a certain age ... In effect, then, men define, imprison, commodify and erase women. Not untrue — especially during the Mad Men years when Diski was coming of age. But in Diski’s telling, no alternating currents of any kind mitigate this airless state ... it’s helpful to rememeber that these stories were first published in 1995. While the writing itself is always clean, supple, and capable, it is often also (to me) overlong and belabored, suggesting either that Diski hadn’t yet grown mindful of the writerly peril of 'much of a muchness,' as the English call it — or that she was consciously bashing the famous English discomfort with demonstrative excess.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleHer accomplishment in these pages is Tolstoy-like: to render human particularity so meticulously and with such fierce passion as to convey the great, glittering movement of time … The 1911 event acts as a guide wire for the stories to come, and also as a carrot: Our need to know compels us forward. As the stories unfold, we learn that three innocent Indians who happen onto the property afterward are immediately blamed for the murders and lynched by a vigilante posse - one of the most excruciating scenes, among many, in the novel … Though the novel's last third feels somewhat sidetracked, as if straining to continually exceed its own five-alarm intensity, the final pages sweep us back, like a song's refrain, into the original spell. The Plague of Doves propels its ripe, round, multigenerational characters to a satisfying if rather chilling finish.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...a kind of tasting menu showcasing Fridlund’s stark, dissonant voice. Her descriptions blindside you with rude audacity … In artfully imagined predicaments, men, women and kids (even babies) try to figure out how and whom to be … Story after story replenishes Fridlund’s flinty, wistful vision.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle\"...[a] deeply thoughtful, absorbing novel ... Readers will be glad to know that it’s not strictly necessary to read Pages for You first, since Brownrigg has efficiently built that novel’s essence into this sequel. In fact, reading You after Her (which I did) provides a fascinating treat, allowing us to travel back in time and eavesdrop on its characters’ younger selves ... Brownrigg has set herself a stiff challenge, which is to fully inhabit the minds, hearts and voices of two seasoned, gifted, but utterly distinct women: one a self-questioning novelist, the other an admired, authoritative-yet-vulnerable, semi-dislocated academic. That mission is accomplished compellingly. We’re glad to come to know these women, and to be taught by what happens between them. Reading (or rereading) Pages for You, as a kind of coda, makes it even better.\
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleIn Paul Harding's stunning first novel, we find what readers, writers and reviewers live for: a new way of seeing, in a story told as a series of ruminative images, like a fanned card deck … Beneath the men's stories flows a series of heart-wrenching inquiries into the nature of life on earth, its terrible beauty, and the limits of our ability to comprehend and bear it … What's difficult to convey is the reach, and painful beauty, of Harding's language.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleKingsolver's exploration (through all five senses) of Mexican and American geographies, weather, people, food, cultures, politics, languages and era-bound events - Hoover through World War II, Truman, Nagasaki - is masterful, and a reader receives the great gift of entering not one but several worlds. In the bargain, Kingsolver mulls the lonely rhythms of an artist's life … The Lacuna is a supremely ambitious work: a dense picaresque, glitteringly alive (particularly in the Mexico sections). Its lone flaw is the occasional pong of polemic … Kingsolver rescues her epic with an intricate, moving, deeply satisfying close, against the landscape she conveys best. The final pages haunt me still.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleIn both Home and Gilead, Robinson appears to be considering (among myriad themes and issues) the ravaging, irremediable loneliness of the unbeliever. She embeds her inquiry in a lode of theological history, and a nest of comforting physical details. Home's deepest pleasures may come from the exchanges (which form the novel's body) between Glory and Jack – tentative, difficult, sore with love, anguish, insight, told through Glory's exquisitely nuanced perceptions in clean, simple, luminous language (Robinson's prose soothes and calms, itself a balm) … We may hope, Home finally suggests, that things will one day settle, in unanticipated ways. Robinson loves the word ‘settle,’ and by it she does not mean resignation.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleBones begins in disaster, and endures cataclysm. Early scenes – of pups arriving, some of them dying, of the shooting and gutting of a squirrel, of desperate, bloody dog fights and limb-risking efforts to steal supplies, of friends and family striking out in crazed efforts to survive in sweat and dirt and steam-heat, of characters getting bitten and sliced and broken – are full-frontal, graphic. This novel's got no time for comfort … The bitterness of having nothing, prospects of nothing – so inexorable and crushing that a kind of madness descends, causing the principals to turn on each other as well as fight to protect each other - soaks these pages. A reader can taste it. It's astonishingly brave.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleSerious feminist questions spill from every page, not as tidy scholarly inquiries but as body and blood, a true, sustained cri de coeur. Elena can neither shut out men nor deny their cost (Ferrante’s women, often maddened, spend their lives responding to men who, equally maddened, pretty much run things) … Like its two predecessors, this novel’s roller coaster of anguish, advances and setbacks roars on. The miracle is that Ferrante can keep the shocks coming, against a setting whose mildest emotional ambience is already in flames.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...[a] thoughtful, provocative first novel ... The novel’s pleasures arise from the jostling together of elements that vitalize and dimensionalize its story: the beauty and rhythms of the fabled city, its locals and visitors, seasons, festivals, food and drink, surrounding countryside and townships, art and architecture, and, never least, the music of the Italian language (a sprightly character unto itself, easily understood because of the deft way Chaffee sets it in context) ... Never didactic, never an infomercial, Florence brings readers on a gentle tour of the glorious city and adjacent areas, of its habits, history, art and books. At the same time, the novel examines some of the ways an anorexic mind perceives the world and itself.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe through-line in all of Ferrante's investigations, for me, is nothing less than one long, mind-and-heart-shredding howl for the history of women (not only Neapolitan women), and its implicit j'accuse. Ferrante seems to be holding our heads stiffly so that we cannot look away, telling us repeatedly, This is how it is … What's hardest is to watch Lila, Ferrante's frenzied warrior, gamble and lose, time after time, trying and failing to adapt conventional roles in any fresh way that might save her.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleHilary Mantel's magnificent Booker Prize-winning novel reads the way a great film races - a breathtaking, brainy, sexy, political thriller … While Wolf Hall conveys heinous period realities – plague, slaughter, machinations – in Mantel's trademark gelid style, it is also tender. It owns – complicatedly – a moral heart … Dialogue sings and crackles, in language that is at once lyrical, decorous and slangily modern. That modernness may constitute a fudging of sorts, but may as defensibly be a translation across time, waking readers to depths of character in fresh, yet recognizable ways … [Cromwell’s] brilliant company, and the life-size pageant of his world, give such sustained pleasure that we are greedy for particulars of a story whose outcome, in theory, we already know.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead marks the debut of a startling talent; its opening story stops your breath ... I advise building in plenty of time between readings: These ambitious stories, like fever dreams, don’t comfort.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleReading British author Rachel Cusk is like following a trail of tiny diamond chips, then stepping back to discover the trail has expanded into a vast, glittering mosaic ... It’s part of Cusk’s spell. The reader drops instantly, with her first words and sentences, into a strange, cold trance — unable to look away yet uneasy, discomfited, off-balance ... Faye’s role in each discussion resembles a therapist’s: She remains nearly silent, offering only an occasional word or phrase. These silences work like a velvet setting, showcasing details. A reader finds herself sinking gladly into Sebaldian particulars that open out and stand for much more ... Cusk’s writing is always precise, supple, complexly beautiful: Hers is surely one of the most acute minds alive today. My only reservation about these mesmerizing interviews — a brilliant portrait gallery — is that, watching a sensibility teetering at the edge of the world in part horror, part wonder and part paralysis, one longs for Faye to swipe aside the miasma or at least call its bluff; take hard action, re-enter, believe.
Joyce Carol Oates
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleOrganized into four sections, these pieces reward a reader with the rich pleasure of Oates’ critical thinking. Wasting nothing, missing nothing, Oates gets down to it; her relish feels infectious ... Oates has, it seems, read everything, and her deft, considered wisdom is pure treasure ... Arguably a kind of almanac, arranged to comfortably accommodate skipping around and rereading, Soul at the White Heat (its title taken from an Emily Dickinson poem) is a reference to keep near. Renowned as well as under-acknowledged names take their turns beneath the Oatesian gaze ... Though there’s not space here to cite countless remarkable passages, I will settle for praising the consistent enlightenment and generous companionship of Oates’ critical vision: never sacrificing complexity, relentless, acute, compassionate.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe authority of this voice — fable-like yet jaunty, patient, faintly autumnal — suffuses Gentleman. These sentences waft a tone of regal largesse that may not appeal to everyone. But their confidence and straight-up affability assure us they’ll take us where we need to go, in comfort and high style. What’s important is not to be in a hurry. It’s a big, fat, novelly novel.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleReprising an ensemble of characters back and forth in time, these linked stories enter us, dreamlike yet unnervingly real, sometimes close to sublime for their deep, fierce insights. Swallowed by the Cold is dark, seductive and worth finding.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleRamona Ausubel’s sparkling second novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, is packed with wisdoms. The Berkeley author’s prior work has won awards and appeared in the New Yorker; this third, glorious work will surely confirm her as a vibrant, memorable voice in contemporary American letters ... One longs to quote the many 'wisdoms' on almost every page of Sons and Daughters. A terrific exuberance and tenderness drives the telling, as it wings back and forth in time: full-blooded, sorrowing, funny, lush with backstories and images so acute you read them twice, three times.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleWhen the bomb at last does its work, the fireworks are suitably whopping, chased by a suitably dazed, Fellini-ish aura of slowed time. High Dive offers a mongrel blend of political thriller, dark comedy and pathos. My puzzlement with this brave, ambitious novel comes from a feeling, at its end, of mislaid — or stillborn — consequence.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleHadley’s wise, patient attention to recurring cycles of human longing, conveyed in simple yet passionate, shapely prose, makes The Past a splendid work.