John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic. Powers covers film and politics for Vogue and Vogue.com. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Harper's BAZAAR, The Nation, Gourmet, The Washington Post, The New York Times and L.A. Weekly, where he spent twelve years as a critic and columnist. You can find John on Twitter @JohnPowers
Kotaro Isaka, trans. by Sam Malissa
RaveNPR... a new book that did delight me in the old trashy way. It\'s a thriller called Bullet Train by the bestselling Japanese writer Kotaro Isaka. Zippily translated by Sam Malissa for The Overlook Press, this is one novel that lives up to its title. Fueled by a seductively explosive premise, it\'s fast, deadly and loads of fun ... Isaka neatly deploys his locomotive setting—everything from the luggage racks and toilets to the train\'s occasional stops—to keep his characters, and us, guessing ... Isaka isn\'t trying to express some grand cultural idea. He wants to give us the irresponsible pleasure of sheer entertainment. And he does. At once outlandish and virtuoso, Bullet Train is like one of those dazzling balance beam routines that keep you hoping the gymnast will stick the landing.
RaveNPRThe spy writer most attuned to our delirious moment is Mick Herron ... funny, brilliantly-plotted [...] terrific seventh installment ... If you\'ve read the earlier Slough House novels — and if not, I urge you to start at the beginning with Slow Horses — you\'ll know that Herron tells his stories with extraordinary verve. He juggles multiple plot lines and reveals character in sharp, sardonic strokes ... Each of these topics is worthy of a le Carré novel. Yet Herron\'s tone is not remotely le Carré\'s. He comes from a later generation, one that finds the world of espionage more comic than tragic.
Tove Ditlevsen, trans. by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman
RaveNPRDitlevsen\'s brilliance is evident ... a crisp translation ... Told in a sneakily plain, highly addictive voice ... Such a summary may make the book sound harsh or depressing, but oddly, it\'s the opposite. Many of Tove\'s escapades are amusing, especially in volume two, and even the account of her Demerol addiction has a clear-eyed briskness that sucks us in with its immediacy ... Perhaps because she was a poet, Ditlevsen knows the eloquence of leaving things out. The Copenhagen Trilogy lies at the opposite end from Karl Ove Knausgård\'s My Struggle whose six volumes try to tell us everything about his life no matter how pedestrian. Her entire trilogy clicks in at a cool 367 pages — 100 fewer than the shortest volume of My Struggle, though her struggle was far greater than his ... Like Grace Paley and Alice Munro, Ditlevsen\'s a master of compression who can capture the whole story of a marriage in a couple of pages. With a born writer\'s killer instinct, she likes to pounce on us with arresting chapter openings ... Even if writing couldn\'t save her from herself, it lets her soar above the world\'s expectations and seek the truth on her own terms.
PositiveNPRLuster is a crackling debut about sex, art and the inescapable workings of race ... just when one fears that Luster might sink into endless woeful lusting, the book slyly pivots ... As a Black writer, Leilani is of course well-versed in the inescapable workings of race. Luster offers several keen moments on the theme ... Edie addresses us in a funny, shrewd narrative voice that precisely describes the wide-ranging contours of her life.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila, trans. by Roland Glasser
RaveNPRFiston captures that surging life-force, too. If his portrait of Congo makes it appear socially and politically hopeless, what\'s hopeful is the spirit of his writing, which crackles and leaps with energy. Rather than moralize, he transfigures harsh reality with a bounding, inventive, bebop-style prose, translated from the French with light-footed skill by Roland Glasser ... Fiston evokes the textures of the city in all its deliriousness, blowing marvelous riffs on everything from the sleaziness of foreign visitors to the differing shapes of streetwalkers\' buttocks to the way the poor patrons of Tram 83 like jazz, because it\'s so classy. Virtually every scene is punctuated by the come-ons of the prostitutes — too lewd to quote here — that serve almost like a Greek chorus repeatedly saying, \'Live for now, live for now, live for now.\'
RaveNPRThe Infatuations is mysterious and seductive; it\'s got deception, it\'s got love affairs, it\'s got murder — the book is the most sheerly addictive thing Marías has ever written. It hooks you from its very first lines ... It\'s more of a metaphysical thriller — closer in spirit to the Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow-Up than to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Marías uses his crime plot to explore the elusiveness of perception, the fragility of memory and the violence lurking within ordinary life, including supposedly \'happy\' feelings like being in love ... Marías calls into question the certainties that most of us — including most other novelists — take for granted.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeWard provides a thorough and readable chronicle of how the bitter primary fight between Carter and Ted Kennedy and the Democrats’ misplaced nostalgia for the past sabotaged their future and how their division eerily foreshadowed the Republicans’ own civil war in 2016 that put Donald Trump in the White House.
PositiveNPR\"... I seek out books and movies that show how the world appears from the other side of the colonial looking glass. One of the most original ones I\'ve found is Insurrecto, a dizzying new novel by Gina Apostol ... Now, I must admit that Insurrecto does require readers to cope with a few moments of disorientation. But let me assure you that the novel goes down easily and becomes clearer by the end ... [Apostol is] playful like Italo Calvino or Kurt Vonnegut ... It\'s Insurrecto\'s great achievement that it confronts us with dreadful things without ever turning into an accusatory, anti-American screed.\
PositiveThe Boston GlobeThe National Football League has been knocked around for the past few years like an undrafted rookie receiver, battered by the concussion controversy, domestic violence, Deflategate, and anthem kneelers. Commissioner Roger Goodell, the defender of the Shield, has become the planet’s highest-paid piñata. Fewer viewers are tuning in to what has been the country’s Sunday entertainment for more than half a century. \'Are we witnessing the NFL’s last gasp as the great spectacle of American life?\' wonders Mark Leibovich.
PositiveThe Boston GlobeHe delivers a meticulously researched and eminently readable account of the only heavyweight champion who exited a savage sport with a perfect professional record ... [Powers does] a deft and detailed job of recreating Marciano’s journey through a violent and venal profession, with a direct style that pulls no punches.
Sayaka Murata, Trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori
RaveNPRYou can add to this list...of...first-rate new novels ... one pleasure of this book is her detailed portrait of how such a place [a convenience store] actually works. Yet the book\'s true brilliance lies in Murata\'s way of subverting our expectations.
It\'s not simply that Keiko finds liberation, even happiness, by becoming a cog in the capitalist machine, an unsettling idea when you think about it. Murata also makes us see how the family members who find her love of the store\'s rituals strange are themselves trapped within a set of rules - dress this way, don\'t talk like that, get married and have kids. But unlike her, they—and maybe we—don\'t know it.
Dorthe Nors, Trans. by Misha Hoekstra
RaveNPRMirror, Shoulder, Signal is the latest novel by the Danish writer Dorthe Nors, who possesses a rare gift. She treats heavy, dark matters with a very light touch ... With bracing good humor, Nors...celebrate[s] the quiet heroism of women who accept the cost of being themselves.
RaveNPR\"I know this sounds dauntingly grim, but in fact this smart, sharply written, sometimes funny novel sucks you into Romy\'s world, evoking her reckless past and the claustrophobic present that will also be her future ... While it would be wrong to call The Mars Room an old-fashioned protest novel, it is, like her first two books, political. Lucid but not hectoring, it reminds us that most prisoners\' fates have been sealed by poverty and the cruel machinery of a prison industrial complex that incentivizes locking people up without caring what happens to them.\
RaveNPRHollinghurst's literary hero Henry James once said that a writer must be one on whom nothing is lost, a phrase that hints at what makes Hollinghurst so extraordinary. He's simply brilliant at capturing the nuance textures of life ... Jean-Paul Sartre once claimed that the greatest art is about the passing of time. And whether Hollinghurst is showing the decades-long erosion of repressive values or the flowering and slow fading of his characters, this magisterial novel offers evidence that Sartre was right.
RaveNPR...the sharpest spy fiction since John Le Carré ... Herron\'s new novel stands apart from that series, but like all his work, it sucks you in from the opening page. There we meet Maggie Barnes, a 26-year-old country lass who\'s moved to London only to find herself stuck in a drab office job and enduring a crushing loneliness ... Before we know it, what looks at first like your basic spy thriller morphs into something far different — a tricky game of three-character monte filled with sly twists that Herron reveals with the precision of a high-end Swiss watchmaker ... Now, not all of these twists are, strictly speaking, realistic. But who cares? To crib a line from Hitchcock, This Is What Happened is less a slice of life than a slice of cake.
RaveNPR...a seductively menacing thriller ... Osborne made his name as a brilliant travel writer, and like his earlier novels, Beautiful Animals creates a thrillingly immersive sense of place ... What makes Osborne's work so compelling is that it's ruthlessly unpredictable. This is one writer who knows that life, even on a rapturously lovely Greek island, is no day at the beach.
RaveNPR...a stingingly sharp short story collection that itself addresses the gap between the American soldiers who've fought in Iraq and those of us back home … Klay quite pointedly doesn't offer a big vision, only a mosaic of smaller ones. In fact, what makes him so good is the way he can carry us from the battlefield to the strip bar, from the funny to the harrowing to the heartbreaking … Redeployment is so wonderfully written, it's a pleasure to read. Yet it's hard not to be saddened by what an ill-conceived mess the war in Iraq proved to be. After so much money and sacrifice, you'd hope to wind up with stories happier than the ones Klay tells us.
Roberto Bolaño, Trans. by Natasha Wimmer
RaveNPR...2666, superbly translated by Natasha Wimmer, is a magnum opus about, well, almost everything ...the love-child of David Lynch and Jorge Luis Borges — he's that visceral and erudite...912 pages of vivid characters, startling dream sequences and stories within stories within stories, all told in the seductive voice of one who experiences the world more intimately than we do and can capture all its nocturnal melancholy and unexpected sunbursts of beauty ...2666 is obsessed with writers and writing... He never lets us forget that, beneath writers' vaulting words, the world still exists in all its pain, struggle, inequality and violence ... Bolaño gives us an unforgettable portrait of an earthly hell, a dusty, sun-flayed sprawl of shacks and little factories just teeming with lost souls — gangsters, corrupt cops, media mystics, heartless bureaucrats.
RaveNPRMy Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name leaven [Ferrante’s] fierceness with a new warmth and expansiveness. They don't merely offer a teeming vision of working-class Naples, with its cobblers and professors, communists and mobbed-up businessmen, womanizing poets and downtrodden wives; they present one of modern fiction's richest portraits of a friendship … For all of Lila's defiant grandeur, these books are finally about Elena. To find her own, original voice, she must shake off the crushing values she was raised with, resist the blandishments of conventional success and learn from Lila without being overpowered by her.
Édouard Louis, Trans. by Michael Lucey
RaveNPR\"Louis\' account of growing up gay and poor in a working-class village isn\'t only a story about France. Just released in a highly readable translation by Michael Lucey, this painfully insightful tale of entrapment and escape could\'ve easily been set in Michigan or West Virginia ... While Eddy\'s parents are both vivid characters — Louis has a great ear for their patois — what makes the novel special is the way it expands outward. Louis shows how his parents\' values have been shaped by a profound sense of powerlessness shared with their neighbors in the village of Hallencourt, a blue-collar community bleak with unemployment, alcoholism, violence, racism and a deadening sense that life goes nowhere ... like so many people who feel abused by our globalized world, they were merely passing the abuse along.\
RaveNPRWhere Luiselli's earlier work was marked by an elegant, hyper-literary sensibility, this compassionate new one finds her in a head-on confrontation with daily reality ... This book is fueled, in no small part, by Luiselli's bottled up shame and rage. She's aghast at the gap between American ideals and the way we actually treat undocumented children ... Still, for all its nuts-and-bolts look at the immigration process, what makes Tell Me How It Ends so moving and humane is that Luiselli doesn't serve up a catalogue of horror stories that soon grows numbing. In a touch that personalizes the migrant story, she deftly links the experiences of migrant children with her own efforts to get a green card and make a life here with her family.
PositiveThe Boston Globe...an affectionate and anecdotal chronicle of the playing and coaching days of Stengel ... Appel portrays Stengel as a one-man vaudeville act ('I can make a living with my face.') who operated with a wink and a wisecrack. 'When you’re losing,' he once observed, 'everyone commences to playing stupid.'”
RaveNPR\"...this extraordinary book has instantly rocketed Ferris into the graphic novel elite alongside Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel and Chris Ware. You see, she\'s produced something rare, a page-turning story whose pages are so brilliantly drawn you don\'t want to turn them ... Breaking away from the panel format customary in comics, Ferris\'s densely-imagined, crosshatched images explode with a visual freedom I\'ve not seen in a graphic novel. And she uses that freedom to give us, well — everything ... For all its stylistic tour-de-forciness, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is filled with emotion. And while the material is often dark, the book is strangely affirmative. This is partly because of its affection for oddballs, which harks back to the work of R. Crumb, and partly because its pages brim with Karen\'s genuine love — for her mother and her brother, for her gritty neighborhood, for monster movies and for the magic of art, which lets her transform and transcend her often hard daily life.\
RaveNPRSet in a dystopian backwater, her short, gripping book begins as an allegory of thuggish misogyny then evolves into a far stranger and more challenging feminist parable ... What keeps all this from seeming doctrinaire is the book's sheer imaginative intensity. Wood's writing crackles with vivid precision.
Daniel Saldaña París, Trans. by Christina MacSweeney
RaveNPR...brief, brilliantly written, and kissed by a sense of the absurd ... a classic slacker novel, a shaggy-dog story about breaking free from the tedium of daily life and finding some sort of aim if not meaning ... For all Saldaña París' sharp wit, Among Strange Victims is about waking up to the world's brighter possibilities.
Yuri Herrera, trans. Lisa Dillman
RaveNPR\"For all the book\'s noir trappings, Herrera is no pulp fictioneer. He writes short, poetic, elliptical books that conjure Mexico in all its brutality, heroism, and unexpected tenderness. He pulls you into mythic spaces that recall everyone from Dante and Dashiell Hammett to Juan Rulfo, who wrote the landmark Mexican novel, Pedro Páramo. If Among Strange Victims gives us a country whose characters are trapped in their own heads, The Transmigration of Bodies goes straight for the soul. Unsettling and deep, Herrera transmigrates us to a Mexico that feels like a metaphysical condition, a timeless kingdom in which the living are forever dancing with the dead.\
RaveNPRa startlingly brilliant tour de force ... At once dizzyingly meta and deeply heartfelt, the book spans 80 years and in its complicated layering remind me of everything from Maus and The Tin Drum to, believe it or not, Ulysses ... Liew himself creates them all, both naive and sophisticated, with dazzling virtuosity. Man, can this guy draw ... probably the greatest work of art ever produced in Singapore.
RaveNPR\"[A Little Lifeis long, page-turny, deeply moving, sometimes excessive, but always packed with the weight of a genuine experience. As I was reading, I literally dreamed about it every night ... While A Little Life is shot through with pain, it\'s far from being all dark. Jude\'s suffering finds its equipoise in the decency and compassion of those who love him; the book is a wrenching portrait of the enduring grace of friendship. With her sensitivity to everything from the emotional nuance to the play of light inside a subway car, Yanagihara is superb at capturing the radiant moments of beauty, warmth and kindness that help redeem the bad stuff.\