Jocelyn McClurgJocelyn McClurg is USA Today's Books Editor. She is based in New York City. She can be found on Twitter @JocelynMcClurg
MixedNewsdayAnn Patchett...has delivered in The Dutch House a novel likely to lead to spirited love-it-or-hate-it chatter over wine and cheese ... The Dutch House is certainly intriguing, but you can almost feel Patchett laboriously constructing it room by room ... Danny, a good if passive kid who lives in his own bubble, is our (often clueless) conduit to the Conroy family secrets. As a character, unfortunately, he’s not terribly interesting until late in the book, when he’s a grown man ... Patchett has real affection for her characters, even prickly, bitter Maeve. The Dutch House is a rambling maze of a book, but if you keep following its undaunted author, you’ll arrive at a place of forgiveness and comfort that feels, yes, something like home.
PositiveNewsday\"Metropolis is an excellent introduction for newcomers and a fitting coda for longtime fans ... Kerr’s powerful series seems more vital than ever, with anti-Semitism, authoritarianism and white nationalism all on the rise. With a final bow from his flawed if improbably endearing hero, Kerr again reminds us: Never forget.\
MixedUSA TodayA clever come-on likely to sell books, if a bit of a misleading tease ... Toggling between past and present has become a predictable and often annoying historical-fiction device ... Robson has the chops of a very good mystery writer, and The Gown is at its best in its darkest (and most moving) moments ... The novelist tries, though, to be all things to all readers, and of course we must have a happy, semi-improbable (if predictable) romance bud overnight when Heather arrives in London to unlock her grandmother\'s past.
PositiveUSA TodayDickens meets Gillian Flynn in Anne Perry’s latest Christmas period piece ... Perry’s taste for horror emerges in a deadly fire in the final pages. Lest you be too alarmed, be assured that the real Christmas Revelation here is the warm holiday embrace of young Worm’s makeshift family.
PositiveUSA Today\"I don’t think Grisham was trying to write a literary classic for the ages, but The Reckoning is deeper, more ambitious that his usual legal thrillers. The pacing is slower, deliberate, at times even sleepy. Stylistically, Grisham’s writing is matter-of-fact, the opposite of dazzling. But have no doubt: He knows how to spin a yarn ... A murder mystery, a courtroom drama, a family saga, a coming-of-age story, a war narrative, a period piece: The Reckoning is Grisham\'s argument that he\'s not just a boilerplate thriller writer. Most jurors will think the counselor has made his case.\
RaveUSA TodayRowling’s wizardry as a writer is on fulsome display in Lethal White...a behemoth of a novel that flies by in a flash. This is a crime series deeply rooted in the real world, where brutality and ugliness are leavened by the oh-so-human flaws and virtues of Galbraith’s irresistible hero and heroine ... Galbraith can, of course, construct a bang-up mystery plot. But the real addictive tension in this series comes from the push-pull (unspoken) attraction between the gruff Strike, who lost a leg serving in Afghanistan, and Robin ... Galbraith dials back the Stieg Larsson-like depths of depravity we got in (the excellent) Evil, which is a relief. Perhaps less is at stake, mystery-wise, in Lethal White, but Rowling’s signature strengths—her indelible characters, the Dickensian detail and inventiveness (the names alone!), her dry British humor and her empathy toward matters of the heart—have room to bloom.
PositiveUSA TodayJ.K. Rowling has moved on to more grown-up endeavors with her gritty, pseudonymous Galbraith mystery series, and I for one am cheering the coincidental (?) arrival this month of Lethal White, the fourth book starring the dynamic detective duo of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott ... this is a crime series deeply rooted in the real world, where brutality and ugliness are leavened by the oh-so-human flaws and virtues of Galbraith’s irresistible hero and heroine ... Rowling’s wizardry as a writer is on abundant display in \'Lethal White\'.
MixedUSA Today\"Picoult has never shied away from controversial topics in her fiction, from school shootings to the Holocaust to gay rights to racism. She flies her liberal flag proudly. But this is by far her most blatantly political novel, and while she tries to get inside the heads of her characters to explore both sides of the pro-choice/pro-life debate, it’s obvious where her sympathies lie ... It’s an uncomfortable topic no matter your personal beliefs, and A Spark of Light is an uncomfortable, disturbing read, which may be Picoult’s intent. It’s hard to say: That’s a central problem with a novel like this, which alternately keeps you riveted and repulsed. A breathless thriller about an abortion clinic shooting? The intention, depending on your politics, may be admirable. The execution made me somewhat queasy ... Polemic or page-turner? Picoult wants to have it both ways, with mixed results. But give her points for daring to take on a volatile, politically charged topic in deeply divided times and trying to humanize it.\
Bill Clinton & James Patterson
MixedUSA Today\"An overheated, logic-defying, over-long thriller about cyber terrorism that thrives on breathless Homeland-style pyrotechnics — brought to an occasional screeching halt by policy-wonk digressions ... The novel is fascinating in its own weird way, and patient thriller fans who like their assassins creepily sexy (yes, there’s a female assassin), their plots thick with duplicity and their time-ticking countdown stakes high are likely to find this a diverting-enough beach read.\
PositiveUSA Today\"I wish there were more you-are-there, front-line moments with Gellhorn in Love and Ruin. She rang the alarm bell early on Hitler and was committed to describing the personal stories of those caught up in conflict ... It can be weird, if titillating, to eavesdrop on imagined, intimate conversations between famous people, but McLain’s dialogue, is, as Hem might say, good and true. She captures the passion Gellhorn and Hemingway feel for each other, and the slow erosion of trust on both sides ... McLain captures the alternate joy and angst both writers experience as they wrestle with their work and with their competing agendas.\
PositiveUSA Today\"Jake Tapper proves he has the page-turning knack in his entertaining debut novel ... Tapper has a flair for Mad Men-esque ’50s flourishes, though he writes through a modern prism that can be jarring ... It’s only April, but Tapper’s thriller has beach-read written all over it. And I think the author has a good feeling about Charlie Marder’s future (as he should), because this Club ends with an invitation to a sequel.\
PositiveUSA TodayI get a kick out of Curtis Sittenfeld ... The novelist (Eligible, American Wife, Prep) is a sharp observer of human nature and human relationships — especially the male/female variety — and she’s a hoot ... Sitting on the sidelines, observing these human foibles, the reader gets to vicariously play the \'You Think It, I’ll Say It\' game. It’s a lot of fun, even when it makes you wince.
MixedUSA Today\"Frazier is a superb prose stylist who elevates the historical fiction genre ... Sometimes Frazier’s considerable literary talents get in his way. His writing can be breathtaking, but Varina’s fragmented narrative hopscotches all over the place. Which is a shame, because this picaresque novel’s most memorable scenes rival Gone With the Wind (and Cold Mountain) for sheer jaw-dropping Dixie drama ... Varina the character is a fictional triumph, and the real Mrs. Davis did save Jimmie; Varina the book is more problematic. The Civil War continues to haunt.\
Andrew Lloyd Webber
MixedUSA TodayAndrew Lloyd Webber has decided the time is right to share some memories (sorry). And yes, the story behind Memory, from Cats, or at least Barbra Streisand’s rendition of it, is one of the juicier tales in...Lloyd Webber’s meticulously rendered memoir of his life and fabulous career ... Some impatient readers may find Unmasked more of a door-stopper than a show-stopper.
RaveUSA Today\"...[an] irresistibly audacious re-creation ... Bloom convincingly weaves tender romance with hard-boiled reality, although there is an occasional misstep. Granted, FDR had his own well-known dalliances, but his metrosexual tête-à-tête with Hick is a stretch. At its heart, however, White Houses feels true. In an afterword, Bloom notes that the White House staff routinely cropped Hickok out of photos. In White Houses, she’s in the center of the frame, and nobody who reads this sad, funny, frisky novel is going to forget her.\
Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
MixedUSA TodayThe Wife Between Us bests The Woman in the Window in the didn’t-see-it-coming plot twist category, right on page 147. The remaining pages, while intriguing, never quite top that early jaw-dropper … The Wife Between Us is built around a deliciously clever premise, and it’s psychologically astute, if a bit dreary.
RaveUSA Today...a crackling and intelligent thriller ... This is irresistible material for historical fiction, yet Harris cleverly raises the narrative stakes (and our blood pressure) by telling the tale through the eyes of two young men ... History tells us the terrible outcome of the Munich Agreement, but Harris keeps us guessing about the fate of our two young friends. Munich, an artful blend of truth and imagination, would make one heck of a movie or TV series.
RaveUSA Today...fascinating and lively … The book is stuffed with surprising revelations … Flanders relegates the so-called ‘War on Christmas’ to a mere footnote, while happily celebrating the holiday over the centuries and debunking plenty of myths. Eating, drinking and making merry have always been part of Christmas. In a tug of war between the religious and secular, the latter usually wins.
A. J. Finn
PositiveUSA Today[Finn] knows his classic movies (there’s even a character named Jane Russell!) ... I figured out two of the biggest 'reveals' in Window well before they were revealed, and Finn the cinephile’s taste for melodrama can get silly (doorbells ring, cellphones die, thunder crashes!) but there’s something irresistible about this made-for-the-movies tingler. Finn knows how to pleasurably wind us up.
PositiveUSA TodaySamuel Beckett’s influence on Shepard has perhaps never been more apparent. It’s Waiting for Godot in the desert ... It’s painful to read, and yet remarkable to think that Shepard was compelled to keep writing, and without self-pity. A feeling of vague paranoia can lurk in these sparse pages. 'Someone wants to know something. Someone wants to know something about me that I don’t even know myself. I can feel him getting closer and closer.' There’s a subtle curiosity at work, too, the curiosity of a writer to the very end. Unsettling, yet brave.
PositiveUSA Today...it’s fun to relive her rise to the top at Condé Nast in The Vanity Fair Diaries, with glamorous names dropped like gold nuggets throughout these voluminous pages ... At times Brown’s Diaries reads like a creaky time capsule (Dynasty’s Joan Collins and her sister Jackie having a real catfight), but it’s also fascinating how little has changed. Men have the power. Brown struggles mightily with work-life balance (work always seems to win). Will she ever be paid what she deserves? ... Her most intimate observations — about her marriage to fellow Brit editor Harry Evans; her concerns over their premature son, Georgie; the agony of watching talented young men die from AIDS — elevate these Diaries beyond a mere New Gilded Age chronicle.
RaveUSA TodayMatthew Weiner’s debut novel, Heather, the Totality, is creepy, unsettling, strange, violent and queasily seductive ...really a novella, told in a fever pitch ... What if the girl’s father had witnessed that look? Weiner let his imagination go from there. The riveting result will fascinate some readers and repel others. Either way, you keep turning the pages, as tension and dread steadily mount ...very little dialogue in the book, which has a tell-not-show narrative that defies convention but mostly works. Weiner’s screenwriter credentials shine brightest in his sharply focused character snapshots ...deeper than a mere thriller.
PositiveUSA TodaySomehow we root for this trio even when they’re buying fake IDs, breaking every rule in the book and venturing into territory that could land them in jail, like signing on to a class-action lawsuit inspired by the Wells Fargo customer-fraud settlement, which could earn them millions. Grisham, who’s at his best when he brings his sardonic sense of humor to the sometimes questionable ethics of law and banking, also takes aim at the politics of immigration ... As the tension mounts and the walls close in on our naughty young heroes (a few rookie mistakes are inevitable), Grisham plays a card from his most famous novel, The Firm. Lazy recycling or an intentional homage to an early classic, the one that got the lawyer-turned-writer started on his remarkable string of courtroom victories?
PositiveUSA TodayStrout grafts her fictional family melodrama onto actual headline-making events that occurred in 2006 in Lewiston, Maine, in an attempt to paint on a bigger socio-political canvas (And in so doing proves she's better at mining the intricacies of intimate relationships) … But as The Burgess Boys slyly unfolds, Strout turns the idea of hero worship on its head and delivers a touching answer to the age-old question of whether you can or can't go home again. Boys never comes close to Olive-like perfection. But there are more than enough flashes of ironic humor and magnanimous compassion to remind you how good Strout can be.
RaveUSA Today\"Hanks proves his bona fides as a serious scribe, producing a collection of 17 short stories so accomplished and delightful he can rest assured he has a great fallback plan should that acting thing, you know, not work out ... Good acting is about good storytelling, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Hanks can dream up a multitude of characters and worlds for them to inhabit. Like any great actor or writer, he brings a panorama of emotion to these tales, from humor to poignancy and a lot in between ... So yeah, some of these tales are pretty retro and some of the references date Hanks, who is 61 (\'Rat Packesque,\' \'Abbott and Costello\'). Some of the kids in the contemporary stories talk like it’s the 1950s. These are quibbles, though ... Hanks does what all the best story writers do: He packs a punch, a pow, a wow.\
RaveUSA TodayHere's the wondrous secret of The Paying Guests: it's volcanically sexy, sizzingly smart, plenty bloody and just plain irresistible … After a long buildup, Frances and Lilian are madly kissing (and more) in the scullery, and that's just the beginning of trouble. We can't give more away, but the last third of the novel is consumed by a sensational murder trial and continuing, unbearable tension. Somehow, Waters pulls off this improbable feat with fine-tuned prose that's by turns crisply cool and pressure-cooker hot. She conveys an intense intimacy; we feel as though we're living within the confining (and yet liberating) walls of the Wray house.
PositiveUSA Today...in Tom Perrotta's black comedy Little Children, Mom and Dad — when they're having sex at all — are doing so with the spontaneity of an alarm clock ... As perceptive social satire, Little Children offers a generous serving of laugh-out-loud moments. But Perrotta deftly keeps the reader off-balance with the troubling goings-on at Blueberry Court... At the same time, he locates the humanity in even the most repugnant characters. A palpable undercurrent of sadness lies just beneath the surface in Little Children; Perrotta knows the white-picket-fence dream is just that. Life is disappointing, sure, but a little bit of breezily sardonic humor goes a long way to ease the pain.
PositiveUSA TodaySour Heart is about the immigrant experience, but Zhang isn’t out to bash the Good Old U.S. of A. Her coming-of-age tales are coarse and funny, sweet and sour, told in language that’s rough-hewn yet pulsating with energy. Her girls, like so many, are caught in between: different cultures, warring parents. Add assimilation to the bucket of typical teenage woes, and good luck with that. The same families and girls pop in and out of these interconnected tales, all variations on a single theme, which is both a strength and a weakness of Sour Heart.
PositiveUSA Today...a fresh, fun departure from his usual fare. Oh, don’t worry, Grisham-ites. Smart plotting, clever criminals and law-enforcement types are all here, but this one stays out of the courtroom ... Grisham’s workmanlike prose will never be mistaken for Fitzgerald’s, but he reveals an amiable, sardonic edge here that makes Camino Island a most agreeable summer destination.
MixedUSA TodayA walking, talking example of poor judgment, Rachel inserts herself into the case of the missing woman, Megan, who picks up the narration game … Girl on the Train is populated with characters who veer between unlikable and repulsive … Train takes a while to get rolling, but once it does, hang on tight. You'll be surprised by what horrors lurk around the bend.
RaveUSA TodayKudos to Elizabeth Strout, who not only has created a sui generis character in Olive but has done so in a brilliantly revealing way. In this ‘Novel in Stories,’ Olive emerges kaleidoscopically, seen through the eyes of her kind pharmacist husband, her unhappy son, her longtime neighbors, her former students … By the end of Olive Kitteridge, you'll be madly in love with an old, overweight widow and hoping she lives forever … Strout's craftsmanship — the way she constructs her stories with rich irony and moments of genuine surprise and intense emotion — is first rate. In several tales, Olive is at the periphery, and other memorable characters steal the spotlight … Glorious, powerful stuff.
PositiveUSA TodayTestimony — which, don’t get me wrong, is quite entertaining — sometimes veers into Cialis ad territory. After all, what’s more urgent: middle-age male sexual angst, or the possible massacre of 400 gypsies in a refugee camp after the Bosnian war? ... Dark, unlikely fodder for a summer thriller, perhaps, but Turow’s lively prose and terrific cast of supporting characters makeTestimony one for the beach bag. This is a guy who knows what he’s doing ... Testimony is a fun ride, an odd thing to say about a novel that casts new light on Bosnian war atrocities and sketchy American arms deals, as well as midlife crises among smart (but stupid) white guys. A weird, sometimes eyeball-rolling mix, but it works.
RaveUSA TodayWhen Elizabeth Strout is on her game, is there anybody better? Her latest, Anything Is Possible, is Strout’s best book since Olive Kitteridge ... Family secrets — which Strout slyly reveals — abound in Anything Is Possible. Despite moments of darkness, this is a generous, wry book about everyday lives, and Strout crawls so far inside her characters you feel you inhabit them. It celebrates love (always imperfect) and forgiveness, acknowledges the burdens and gifts of feeling genuine emotion (small, illuminating moments of connection), and suggests judgment where judgment is due. This is a book that earns its title. Try reading it without tears, or wonder.
PositiveUSA Today...in many ways, these sketches are vintage Didion, idiosyncratic and tantalizingly self-revealing. As a journalist, she coolly lets readers draw their own conclusions from her stark observations. These pages seem haunted ... South and West is a slim, slight book: unfinished, equivocal, yet filled with piercing, startling sentences ... If Didion’s attempt as a Californian to 'understand' the South here is (at best) sketchy, her glimpses into her own psyche are fascinating.
PositiveUSA Today...a highly readable new biography ... Bennetts’ clear-eyed biography shows why this ambitious, 'stubbornly paradoxical' woman who 'wasn’t ready to cede the spotlight' continues to command our attention.
PositiveUSA TodayConclave has a stately, dignified air, yet it quietly pulsates with intrigue. This may not be a rip-roaring page-turner, but Harris’ clever plot machinations slowly draw you in ... Ambition, sex scandals, financial corruption and terrorism all rear their ugly heads. And Harris saves one whopper of a surprise for the final pages. Could there be a recount? Nah. But a sequel? Maybe.
RaveUSA Today...both tenderhearted and tough, dryly funny and at times intensely moving ... Patchett’s episodic approach, skipping among characters and decades, teasing out details, allows her to weave a rich tapestry of a tale that never wastes a word ... a book so refreshingly honest you can’t help but laugh.
MixedUSA TodayAlas, Truly Madly Guilty is a bit of a letdown, a summer bummer, if you will...The real sin of Truly Madly Guilty is that it’s simply not as much fun as The Husband’s Secret or Big Little Lies.
PositiveUSA TodayDownton’s creator delivers a juicy if lightweight tale of class snobbery, social climbing, lucky orphans and family secrets as he channels Dickens, Austen and romance queen Georgette Heyer ... Sadly, there’s no Dowager Countess/Maggie Smith dropping delicious bon mots, but characters such as conniving servant Ellis, striving daughter-in-law Susan Trenchard and mustachio-twirling villain John Bellasis keep these pages zipping along.
MixedUSA TodayThe Girls finds a fresh spin on a familiar story, one some of us have been reliving for nearly 50 years. And yet in the end, it’s an exercise that feels empty. The Girls stayed with me — it has its haunting moments, despite some overly writerly indulgences — but left me as troubled and perplexed as ever by an unimaginable crime. Sometimes the imagination simply fails.
PositiveUSA Today...give Sittenfeld props for diving into her chick-lit satire with gusto, and making interesting choices — some work better than others — about how to move the long-gone world of ballrooms and “marriageable” girls into the present ... Hey, these are tacky times. So put aside your prejudice, Janeites. Eligible is good for some giggles on the beach. And a little romance — as convoluted and tortuous as ever — never hurt, either.
MixedUSA TodayThere are many pages to go and florid descriptions to wade through first. Everything in Summer is a bit muted and proper; it simmers for a long time. Happily, Simonson has thrown enough humor and soap-opera-ish intrigue into her pot to keep us from starving.
RaveUSA Today“An emotionally rich and exquisitely poignant work of historical fiction that breathes intricate life back into the 16th President of the United States.”