PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)... complex, rich, challenging, and [Wyld\'s] longest book ... a jumpy, scattered novel, where the reader has to do a certain amount of work to fit the pieces together, and even then a complete picture is not always achieved ... offers a universal history of subjugation and oppression – but specifically focusing on male violence against women. Viv’s story is especially strong in this regard ... The fact that most of the male characters in the book are dangerous may be grist to the mill for the #NotAllMen brigade, but that would be to complain that the only Germans in Raiders of the Lost Ark are Nazis. The point of the book is to highlight it, not hide it ... However, not all the narratives are equally effective. The scenes in the story of the \'witch\' are short and feel more like mood music than integrally connected to the other threads. By contrast, Ruth’s story is so wide-ranging and features so many strands and characters that I found them hardest to engage with. The fact that it’s in the third person – the other two are first person narratives – adds to the sense of distance ... It’s Viv’s story which really shines and carries the book’s emotional weight. She’s a complete, troubled but sympathetic character and could drive a novel on her own. The violence in her life, and which runs through the book like veins in marble, means that even at its most vivid and gripping, The Bass Rock can be a grim read. Escape is possible, it seems to say, but only en route to the next act of destruction.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)This is not the follow-up to Helen Macdonald’s breakthrough book, H Is for Hawk and in that sense it may disappoint some of her readers. But it needn’t: in fact, as a selection of Macdonald’s journalism and essays, it provides a series of short blasts of insightful, invigorating nature writing ... she uses her expertise in this book to help us not just learn but think about things in a new way, and invoke a sense of wonder ... There are some essays here that fall outside \'nature writing\', such as a fascinating report on \'the numinous ordinary\' or the quasi-religious importance of everyday objects in our lives, and some of the best writing is about the cultural overlap where humans and animals meet, such as the activity of swan upping, or people who keep birds.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)This is [Mason\'s] first collection of short fiction, and it is full of stories that provide the nutrition of a novel at a tenth of the length ... Despite the range, and the fact that the stories were written over 15 years, the subjects and settings provide a pleasing unity. The grand pleasures of fiction are all here: rich, cushioning detail; vivid characters delivering decisive action; and a sense of escape into a larger world. The best story of all, though, might be one of interior drama. \'The Second Doctor Service\' is a tale of possession that stands comparison with Maupassant’s terrifying \'The Horla\', and reminds us that before we face our foes, first we must battle ourselves.
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)... not to say that Sisters is for everyone ... All these elements—gaps, imbalance, fluidity—feed the spooky, unsettling atmosphere that may be the novel’s greatest strength ... In the spirit of Eric Morecambe, who played all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order, there’s a lot of action going on here, but delivered in a seemingly disordered way, shuttling back and forth between past and present. Yet it’s never too confusing, and we build a vivid picture of the girls’ lives ... that is one of the pleasures of Sisters— it is not offering \'relatability\', but a deeper understanding of others and otherness. As well as that, it strikes rare balances; it combines modernity with a timeless, fable-like quality, and the language, although occasionally too mannered, is distinctive without getting in the way of the page-turning desire to find out what the hell’s going on and which inevitable tragedy will hit first ... a slim story with a lot happening: parenting, bullying, mental health, psychological horror. It’s a book less likely to cheer you up than screw you up (even a spot of DIY turns sinister), but Johnson’s uniquely lopsided world is oddly compelling, and bracing too, like a cliffside walk on a stormy day. You may end up with tears in your eyes, but at least it will blow the cobwebs away.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)...the slenderest of creatures, and the biggest small book of the year ... Opening with a blowjob scene recalls Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, but Mars-Jones seasons it with his trademark good humour ... The format of the narrative – one unbroken text, with no chapters or scene breaks – enhances Colin’s conversational voice, and often Box Hill reads like an Alan Bennett Talking Heads monologue: wry, dry, plump with words like \'fumble\' and \'stiffies\', and with a pleasure or peculiarity on every page ... But despite its sparkiness, this is the saddest novel he has written ... however chirpily Colin tells his tale, the facts he flatly states are unsettling, and the heart sinks a little further with each blithe revelation ... The setting for most of the book – a certain gay milieu of the late 70s and early 80s – makes it read like a portrait of a world already gone, pre-Aids, like Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library which was set in \'the last summer of its kind\'. The vision Box Hill delivers of that subculture...is ugly. And there are bitterer twists to come, but by the end of the book the comfort we desperately need is provided simply by the knowledge that because Colin is telling us his story, he is still here.
Marion Poschmann, trans. Jen Calleja
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Here is a short novel almost miraculous in its successful blending of potentially clashing tones ... The motivations of both men in rejecting society’s norms remain unspoken, and the quiet lightness of the story lends their utterances added resonance ... The Pine Islands is a story that doesn’t tie up loose ends but leaves themes scattered as needles on the forest floor, allowing the reader to spot their patterns. The best approach to this beguiling, unpredictable book is to follow Gilbert’s advice on reciting poetry: \'to let it affect you, and simply accept it in all its striking, irrational beauty\'.
Samanta Schweblin, trans. by Megan McDowell
MixedThe Irish Times (IRE)The concept is strong ... But there is a fundamental weakness in Little Eyes. The obvious dramatic potential for each story of two people locked together, committed to one another until electronic death, is never fully realised ... The cycling nature of the narratives, cutting from one user to another, means we never get much momentum going, and despite the introduction of a few eye-catchingly horrible elements – a battery chick barn, a swastika shaved into a Kentuki’s head – the stories never really get the blood pounding. In fact the most shocking thing about Little Eyes, coming from Schweblin, is that it is not really shocking at all, but instead rather sensitive and tender. Well, almost.
MixedThe Irish Times (IRE)...the story goes rather slowly, weighed down in part by O’Farrell’s love of the rhetorical rule of three. She never describes something once if she can do it multiple times ... Once noticed, it becomes unignorable, and the problem with piling on the descriptions is that it doesn’t deepen the reader’s understanding, it dilutes it ... But when Hamnet dies, the story takes on a new steel, and there is plenty of power in Agnes mourning Hamnet’s body, in the arguments it causes between Agnes and Wil in Agnes’s loss of faith in her own abilities and her numb grief ... And the death affects everyone in the family: what is the name for a twin, asks Judith, who isn’t a twin any more? Most of all, it gives a sense of purpose not just to Shakespeare but to the novel as well. And it is fitting, perhaps, that Hamnet has to die to bring his own story to life.
MixedA triangle of characters provides a sturdy, reliable structure for a novel, and there are some foreseeable developments coming from that; but the book is more interesting on the subject of change ... The biggest changes in the book are hidden. The story jumps from 1959 to 2009, and there’s some pleasant mental exercise to be had in working out what happened in between. But it’s firmly backward-looking, and most of the book feels not just set in the 1950s but as though it were written then too: there’s no sense that this is a new perspective on the past. It’s comforting and cosy, which are by no means futile attributes in a book, but it does make the effort of reading it feel mildly inconsequential. It’s a bit sad, a bit funny, a bit interesting—but only a bit. Swift does show admirable boldness in his refusal to provide a neat ending, but for a story about magic and showbiz, it’s weirdly lacking in pizzazz.
RaveThe Times (UK)...if you’ve ever felt that English literary fiction can be a bit anaemic, lacking in villains and general oomph, then step right up for the bastard offspring of Ian McEwan and Shirley Conran. That’s going a bit too far, but this debut novel delivers dramatic plot turns without embarrassment and has characters as unpleasant as they are sympathetic ... this is a very physical book generally with a sensual appetite ... Reminders of power and control ripple through every conversation ... The rumour-fuelled village setting also enables Marina Kemp to explore how our minds allow stories and fears to bloom, not like flowers, but like weeds, until they overwhelm us ... What we get from a novel is bound up in our expectations of it, so if a sultry setting with passive-aggressive people ends up delivering all sorts of soapy developments...it can provide a satisfaction that literary fiction often overlooks ...For a story about a dying man, this is a book with plenty of life and passion in it. So for a rollercoaster of a read with serious intent, get on the ground floor and try this sexy, single-minded and occasionally silly debut.
PositiveThe Spectator (UK)It needs authorial guts to write a novel in which details are shrouded, meaning is concealed and little is certain. Step up Catherine Lacey, and welcome ... the method of execution is unusual ... Specifically, the story is narrated by Pew, which is a risky strategy. Would Bartleby the Scrivener have been quite so fascinating if he’d told us why he preferred not to? Not that we learn much from Pew, who’s ‘having trouble lately with remembering’. The voice is unstable, half Martian style ... half literary novelist who talks of things such as ‘bruised kindness’, whatever that is ... Pew, like Pew, is open to different interpretations, occasionally frustrating but ultimately intriguing. It keeps you thinking, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
Jon Fosse, Trans. by Damion Searls
PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)Fosse’s book, translated by Damion Searls, is of a particular and recognisable type of European literature. The prose is closely packed and repetitive, with no paragraph breaks except when characters speak. The action is internal: everything that happens in the book happens in the narrator’s head. Which is fine, because what is a book but an effort, with no moving parts, to make things happen inside a reader’s head? ... The Other Name is not difficult to read because the repetition and the endless commas give it the hypnotic feeling of a mantra. A sense of provisionality is provided by the fact that many places and people in the book are named generically ... Although part of a larger work, The Other Name does have a proper (even surprising) ending, and the lack of full stops seems less affection than necessity. It forces you to read the book in long phases, maximising the satisfaction and engagement with Fosse’s slow-flowing story.
J. M Coetzee
RaveThe Times (UK)This is a ridiculous book. I don’t mean it deserves mockery, but that this...is the final book in a trilogy characterised by absurdity ... It’s in the second half of the book, approaching David’s death and afterwards, that The Death of Jesus achieves its purpose: to conclude the trilogy with force and heart. Through all three books Simón and David look for answers, but Coetzee is asking us to read the trilogy—to read all books—to seek meaning, rather than find it; to understand, paraphrasing TS Eliot, that art communicates before it is understood ... So this is a ridiculous book, full of unexplained developments, unrealistic dialogue and overcooked analogies. Like Don Quixote, it is a fiction about fiction. But many great books are ridiculous, and if The Death of Jesus strikes you in the right place, then you will read its cool, dry final sentences—as I did—with tears in your eyes.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)...Actress contains much more than seems possible for a 264-page novel ... this is not a plot-driven novel. Its lack of structure may be a bug or a feature but it adds to the sense that this is a portrait of a woman in full, a life irreducibly complex ... At times Actress reads like a performance in itself: look at what a writer at the heights can do. There is micro-brilliance in individual lines ... Or there are the sustained sequences which pin the reader to the chair ... Most of all, Actress does what novels so rarely do: shows us both sides of everything, the performance and the reality, up close and distant, the division between the person we know and the person we see. As James Salter put it, \'there are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.\'
PositiveThe Times (UK)The sentences in Strange Hotel are smoother, friendlier, but there is still plenty of grappling to be done on the reader’s part ... This is a novel with no moving parts, where everything that happens inside the narrator’s head, and the descriptions are skewed but effective ... Its quietness is apt for the subject matter of love lost, of the mystification of middle age, and the pleasures and sorrows of solitude ... Some will find Strange Hotel’s evasiveness maddening, but there’s something oddly comforting about it too: not a word usually associated with McBride’s work. True, nothing much happens, but the close, intricate style gives its eventlessness a hypnotic quality. All that combines to give this novel a unique honour: it’s the most interesting boring book of the season.
MixedThe Washington Post... often brilliant and sometimes frustrating ... Harvey conveys the hell of insomnia with the precision and passion of one who has come to know it too well ... When The Shapeless Unease remains focused on its subject, it engages and grips. Harvey complains about the futility of describing the feeling of insomnia, but she does as good a job as you would expect a gifted novelist to at relaying the brain fog, the mind turning in on itself ... so much of the book contains writing that seems to be there purely for its own pleasure. Harvey fills pages with rants about British jingoism, presumably representative of the flailings of the nocturnal mind, but sounding like an op-ed columnist making bricks without straw. She includes a story she wrote during her period of insomnia, about a man who steals vast sums of money from ATMs, which takes up around one-sixth of the book but seems untethered to the subject ... There’s no question that these are all beautifully done — particularly a half-page portrait of Harvey’s deceased cousin — but the creaks are audible as she tries to link them back to her topic...More frustrating still is when she gives us tantalizing glimpses of other material which surely must be relevant to the state of mind feeding her insomnia ... there is nothing on the science of insomnia, nor its cultural history. Harvey does gesture outward a few pages before the end, with discussion of Shakespeare’s references to sleep. But, like finally falling into peaceable slumber at 6 a.m., it’s just too late.
PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)I don’t know if [O\'Connell\'s] books are therapeutic ways of working out his anxieties, or if they drive them deeper as he researches more about his topics, but either way, I don’t want him to stop. They’re fun but filling ... for all the air miles (and, he acknowledges, carbon emissions) he racks up travelling to these places, O’Connell’s most fruitful journeys are those inside his own head. He tends not to challenge his \'weirdos\', to call them out on their selfishness or racism, but lets them speak and then adds his commentary in, as it were, the voice-over studio afterwards. Maybe this is the best approach, but it would be nice to hear them in defensive as well as declamatory mode ... At its glummest, the book is less inquiry into the apocalypse than a submission to it ... O’Connell shows the same nimble ability to shift between high and low registers – and the same pinpoint accuracy with a well-timed joke – as Geoff Dyer or, in his pomp, Martin Amis. The good news for those terrified by his last book is that it doesn’t look as if the future is going to happen anyway. But if we are all heading down the long slide, at least with O’Connell to keep us company, we’ll be laughing – and screaming – all the way.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Bowen’s range is in full view in this collection. There are lopsided romances, social comedy and tales of suspense. \'The Demon Lover\' is her most famous ghost story, but \'The Cat Jumps\' is equally atmospheric ... The setting for most of these stories – the world Bowen knew – is solidly upper-middle class. (The opulence of this Everyman edition, with its beribboned glamour, seems fitting.) Her characters can be snobbish, and Bowen skewers this mercilessly ... Bowen had genius, but rather than delivering fully on \'the new form\', she paved the way, becoming, as her biographer Victoria Glendinning put it, the link between Virginia Woolf and Muriel Spark ... Like Woolf, like Spark, her language is clear but her effects complex, creating shimmering reflections of reality, her world recognisable but just out of reach.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Douglas Stuart drags us through the 1980s childhood of \'a soft boy in a hard world\' in a series of vivid, effective scenes. We get a rounded picture of Shuggie ... Stuart writes emotion well...and doesn’t let up with the grisly details, to the extent that this can at times achieve an over-the-top flavour: a 15-year-old with dentures! Pawning your son’s belongings for drink! ... Stuart does tend to overegg the tragedy, and occasionally puts his own eloquence into the characters’ mouths ... But don’t look too closely and you will be swept along by the emotional surface, and there is occasional blunt comedy to provide welcome relief. Shuggie Bain is a novel that aims for the heart and finds it. As a novel it’s good, as a debut very good, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it progress from Booker longlist to shortlist. I’ll buy you a drink if it doesn’t.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)Kandasamy is one of the rising stars of contemporary literature ... Kandasamy looks the reader directly in the eye ... the results scrolling down the page margins creates a peculiar poetry ... The key question about Exquisite Cadavers, however, is does all of this work?...That is the hardest question to answer, because the terms are that it should be an experiment – there has never been a book quite like this. Better to ask, then, whether it surprises, grips, makes the reader take notice – all those things literature is supposed to do – to which the answer is, easily, yes, yes, and yes again.
PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)The focus is on English language authors (she plans another volume on translation) and, above all, Davis’s own writing: where it comes from and how it works...This last point in its own right makes Essays a valuable collection: so clear and honest is Davis in her forensic exploration of how her work is formed that it also feels like prying, or – put another way – a free course in reading and writing fiction for the price of a hardback book ... The detailed accounts of her writing process in these essays feels like her getting all of this out of her system ... David also writes convincingly about other writers and visual artists .... Other essays provide a valuable guide to books we will never read, such as Stendhal’s biography The Life of Henry Brulard or Michel Butor’s Degrees, a 450-page novel set entirely in a train compartment. Davis’s Essays, a 520-page book set entirely inside the author’s capacious brain, should never suffer such abandonment.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRELAND)Bernardine Evaristo’s eighth work of fiction...is one of those books that makes the reader ask \'Where have you been all my life?\' and rush out for the author’s backlist ... The counterpoint between different characters’ accounts of the same experiences is one of the satisfying pleasures of the book ... Evaristo....welcomes the reader and provides strong stories, appealing characters and lots of humour. But she is also an iconoclast, challenging our comfortable preconceptions on race and politics, and doing it in a narratively innovative way ... [a] warm, seductive and politically engaged book.
PositiveThe SpectatorThe first essay, ‘A Single Sentence’, describes his arrest and, like the others, it’s written in short sentences and staccato paragraphs, as though each represents a thought Altan has hurried to jot down in secret. The effect of this style is to build a case, block by block, to create a solid reef by the accumulation of small, fragile ideas ... essays often read like Altan’s therapy for himself, and it’s a pleasure to find him exploring ideas, turning them around, arguing against himself and conjuring up the reader—you, me—as a form of companionship in isolation. Perhaps it’s this that has kept his spirit intact in the face of indignities (such as seeing psychiatric patients being treated while still in handcuffs) that are, if not exactly Kafkaesque, certainly Kafka-ish. All in all, the lack of rancour in these pages is miraculous.
Dorthe Nors, trans. by Martin Aitken
RaveThe GuardianThis gripping collection of short stories leaves you wanting more ... Dorthe Nors’ Karate Chop, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, contains 15 stories in 82 pages. The stories don’t feel minimalist – they’re full of life and ripe with death – but they’re brief because there is no fat on them ... Nors draws in the reader in a variety of ways. Some of her stories begin in an odd register ... Many of the stories have spot-on insight into how people package up their traumas and hide from themselves what hurts ... Nors has written four novels not yet translated into English. Oh! Don’t make us wait.
PositiveThe Times (UK)What does a 1,000-page sentence even look like? It springs from thought to thought, separated by commas, with no breaks, no paragraphs, no let-up ... It is not entirely without structure: occasionally its never-ending sentence is interrupted with a story about a lioness and her cubs that ultimately merges with our narrator’s life, and there’s violent drama toward the end. This book is stuck between insanity and genius, arousing conflicting responses in the reader. I toiled through it, yet missed our heroine afterwards, which might show Ellmann’s brilliance in executing her eccentric project, or just be an example of Stockholm syndrome. It brings to mind Samuel Johnson on the Giant’s Causeway: \'Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.\' To put it another way, you’d have to be mad to read this book, but you might be glad you did.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRELAND)She is as ruthless in her self-awareness as she is in her observations of others. The benefit of structuring the longest essays around personal experiences (driving, divorcing, home decorating) is that it gives the reader a grappling place for the rigorous intellectual heft of Cusk’s writing ... All six personal essays here are approachable but substantial, and show that the subtle intelligence, close observation and leaps of thought which Cusk displayed in her acclaimed trilogy of novels ... Sometimes I found myself arguing with her approach while I read a piece...then afterwards deciding I would steal that view myself. She is occasionally funny, both in her self-awareness and her acute diagnoses of others ... short essays on artists and writers such as Louise Bourgeois, Edith Wharton, Olivia Manning and Simone de Beauvoir...have the desired effect: to make you read the books you don’t know, and reread the ones you thought you did. They are the perfect final course for this knotty, nutritious book.
Ingeborg Bachmann, Trans. by Philip Boehm
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... a startling edifice of psychological intensity, centered on the men in [the narrator\'s] life ... Malina’s long sentences hold the reader close, and the novel’s white-hot emotions make it an addictive read. Bachmann’s vision is so original that the effect is like having a new letter of the alphabet.
RaveThe Irish Times (UK)There is plenty to chew on, raise eyebrows for and occasionally laugh at, and the blend between the concerns of Frankenstein and modern AI is engagingly worked through ... Winterson blends a high style where opacity is part of the appeal with a desire never to leave the reader in any doubt about what she thinks ... it is good to be back in Winterson-world, with its self-assurance, its cantatory repetitions of rhythmic prose, its enthusiasm for experimentation – and its willingness to risk appearing ridiculous ... as always, she is at her best when at her most daring and playful ... The references in Frankissstein are so 2019 they practically come with hashtags: Brexit, bitcoin, trans issues, MeToo, Trump, Bolsonaro, and more. But more familiar to Winterson’s longstanding readers will be the recurrence of themes from earlier work: the tech/human interface from The PowerBook, the time jumps of Sexing the Cherry, the gender-fluid narrator from Written on the Body. That all shows how ahead of her time Winterson has been for decades – and now the world and the culture is catching up ... Winterson combines earnest concerns with page-turning energy. Frankissstein is serious fun.
RaveThe GuardianA book this sad shouldn\'t be so much fun to read ... a riposte to the notion that domestic fiction is humdrum and unambitious. From the point of view of an unnamed American woman, it gives us the hurrahs and boos of daily life, of marriage and of parenthood, with exceptional originality, intensity and sweetness ... thoughts and recollections have an aphoristic neatness to them, enhanced by the way each paragraph is set alone on the page, white space above and below ... almost every one of these vignettes is interesting and perfectly put ... a shattered novel that stabs and sparkles at the same time. It is the kind of book that you will be quoting over and over to friends who don\'t quite understand, until they give in and read it too.
Yuko Tsushima Trans. by Geraldine Harcourt
PositiveThe Irish TimesTsushima’s telling of the story enhances this feeling of detachment, telescoping years into a sentence ... [a] bracing, often breathtaking book.
RaveThe Irish TimesThe conversations do not directly address her grief, but instead are plausible representations of a real exchange between a parent and an almost-grown child: digressive; discursive; filled with memories and private jokes ... The effect is first mesmerising and then haunting because we know these are the things Nikolai’s mother can no longer say to him, even when they seem things not notably worth saying in the first place ... [a] disquieting, delicate, affecting book ... the power of the story stands alone.
PositiveThe Irish Times (UK)There is a lot of backstory, and for the first quarter of the novel it feels as though it isn’t going anywhere. But even then, when the story is stuck in the past, Evans brings her characters out with verve and aplomb ... The language Evans uses to introduce them and their world is casual, loose, glittering with detail and tossed-off characterisation ... delivers a persuasive portrayal of middle-class life in multicultural Britain ... The energy and flow of Evans’ writing in describing contemporary life is one of the prime appeals ... Occasionally exuberance overtakes sense and Evans’ desire not to use clichés makes the reader stumble ... a love story; a horror story; a page-turner ... In the end it’s the human story that wins the reader over and makes the plaudits seem deserved.
RaveThe Times...[a] charming debut ... The book is colourful and full of flavour, with a style often as eccentric as its subject ... Margaret the First leaves us wanting more, both of Cavendish’s life and her writing.