RaveThe Guardian (UK)The care and deliberation show. MacLaverty’s method might be summed up in the name of the Australian wollemi pine (here in the story \'Glasshouses\'), from an Aboriginal word meaning \'look around you, keep your eyes open and watch out\'. He is a matchless observer of human details both trivia—the trickiness of trimming the nails on your right hand—and significant ... MacLaverty’s stark novels Lamb and Cal gave way to more capacious work...and these late stories show similar amplitude ... MacLaverty prefers to keep the reader company rather than leaving them to their own devices, but the result is no less satisfying.
Nastassja Martin, tr. Sophie R. Lewis
RaveThe Guardian (UK)[Martin\'s] story to begin with is simple, and beautifully gruesome ... this short but chewy book thickens up into a stew of memoir, drama, anthropology and metaphysics – or how the immovable object moved, and changed ... we get a fascinating, ambitious exploration of animism – the border between human and animal – and how she sees her encounter with the bear as a manifestation of a breakdown ... The book represents both a collapse and a rebuilding. The language, in Sophie R Lewis’s elegant translation, is often seductive ... Martin, however, doesn’t seek sympathy from the reader; she simply wants us to share in her attempts to understand what has happened to her. What more could we ask for from a book?
RaveThe Observer (UK)... one of those books that proceeds by what it doesn’t tell us. On the one hand, it doesn’t tell us much at all, being fewer than 100 pages long. On the other, narrator Barry Ashton likes to talk a lot, but seems to have trouble getting to the point ... a man with no friends and little sense of wonder, who’s better with things than with people, and who can’t see through the detail to what’s really going on. After a time, those blithe exclamation marks start to hurt like a hammer to the heart. And when we finally find out what he’s been skirting around, it all fits together precisely, and we look back in wonder at how we got from there to here without being able to see the join. Mars-Jones, it turns out, is an expert engineer himself. And much better at people than poor old Barry.
PositiveThe Times (UK)In one corner we have Shteyngart’s undimmed talent for comedy, which begins with the colourful cast he has assembled ... Their confrontations and canoodlings are set against a backdrop of likeable satire on modern America ... Alongside the wit there’s straight stuff too. Shteyngart makes points about the inequality of Covid outcomes, city versus country, and the inanity of entertainment and social media. And the strangeness of modern America is one of the things Our Country Friends is most interested in. Shteyngart invokes what Philip Roth called the “American berserk”: the idea — ever more plausible these days — that the US is uniquely prone to conspiracy, madness and chaos ... This fits, deliberately or not, with Our Country Friends and its messy nature, which is at times as exhausting as a long lockdown; there’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep track of everyone or see an underlying structure. The feverish energy that animated Shteyngart’s earlier books with madcap vigour is still there, but coming out in a different way ... Shteyngart has made something out of it – something often funny, sometimes moving, occasionally frustrating – but a little more stillness would be welcome.
MixedThe Irish Times (IRE)She is clearly a passionate admirer of Sebald and writes well about his three – or four if you include Vertigo (1990): I don’t – major prose works ... Why does Angier see it as her role to rob Sebald’s work of this mystery? ... if this sort of tinkertoy detective work is your thing, you will find out a great deal about people like Susi Bechhöfer, who resented Sebald’s borrowing of her life details in Austerlitz, or the painter Frank Auerbach, who never forgave Sebald for using his techniques as inspiration for Max Ferber in The Emigrants. And although she can’t speak to those who knew him best in his mature years, Angier leaves no distant relative unturned in exploring Sebald’s childhood and young adulthood, which make up the vast majority of the biography ... When we do finally get to his time as a published writer – about 100 pages from the end of a long book – there’s interesting stuff...But this isn’t enough to rescue a work that has little value other than to send us back to the books, which are after all the only reason to be interested in a writer in the first place.
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
RaveThe Times (UK)... starts in a pacy, quick-cut style, then settles into a more reflective mode ... by the end you can see why Johnson’s novel is being adapted by Netflix: violence blends with compassion, and ambiguity with inevitability. My Monticello is short, satisfying and punchy: more debuts should be like this.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Next to his pet peeves – rude people, over-friendly service staff and always, always litterbugs – more serious stuff is rarely dealt with: his agent’s dementia and sister Tiffany’s mental illness are presented almost as a diversion, at least until he reports their deaths. Compassion makes an occasional appearance ... but you won’t find analysis here of the major events of these interesting years. The protests after the murder of George Floyd are less likely to attract reflection than sarcasm or a quip ... The jokes seem to thin out in the later years, as Trump takes power, as Sedaris’s father’s health declines, as Covid descends. We don’t expect consistency from diarists, nor explication, and we don’t get it, as people appear without introduction or footnote: in Sedaris’s books, other people exist mainly to provide amusement. Best, then, not to read this book cover to cover, like a novel, but to use it as suggested by the title (which is taken from an Indian restaurant menu): to keep the appetite for delight and absurdity satisfied until the next Sedaris book comes along.
RaveThe Times (UK)The way Tóibín represents [Mann\'s] struggling restraint is to keep his own style unruffled, his quiet sentences stacking up to create an accumulation of feeling. Dialogue is limited to what needs to be heard, and big events—marriage, war, death—happen off the page; this is apt for a man who spent his life in the not very picturesque act of sitting at a desk. This approach has a number of effects. First, it makes The Magician an active reading experience, the reader bringing their own insight to plug the gaps. Second, it means that when emotions do boil over onto the page, even the subtlest representation feels dramatic ... Tóibín’s technique of combining scale with detail gives the book the feel of an epic without the length; it’s a novel you can’t and wouldn’t want to rush through ... not a biography but a work of art, an emotional reckoning with a century of change, centred on a man who tried to stand upright but was swayed by the winds of that change.
PositiveThe Times (UK)The first question when reviewing the third book in a trilogy is: do you need to read the others first? With David Peace’s new novel the answer is no, but it’s so good you might want to anyway ... too messy to be perfect (did he need to bring back characters from the first two books, in a brief mental hospital scene?), but it’s a powerful, stirring read, linked to its predecessors less by plot than by Peace’s indelible vision of a Japan consumed with shame after its wartime surrender, and a world where the only answers unfurl to reveal more questions. Sometimes reading his books feels like clinging to the edge of a slippery pit. But if you fall in, you’ll be in good company.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Vertigo & Ghost explodes into furious life with a series of poems and fragments about the Greek god Zeus and what some sources have referred to as his \'erotic escapades\' ... overall this extraordinary cacophony of voices (Ted Hughes’s Crow rewritten by Anne Carson) is an addictive, thrilling, sickening experience ... The reader is always being subtly moved on, and the book ends where the personal meets the political, in a series of poems that are looser and more flowing in their language ... Vertigo & Ghost is a book of two halves: one merely very good, the other quite out of this world.
RaveThe Times (UK)... like Finnegans Wake, only readable ... Ridgway’s trick — no, his skill — is that the stories combine down-to-earth realism with an incremental sense of strangeness. He seduces you, then smacks you over the head, abandoning you miles from where you thought you’d be ... He has all the other skills too, such as pinpoint descriptive writing ... what really holds the book together are the people, a bunch of slightly messed-up but deeply loveable characters that show Ridgway’s greatest talent. He gets into people’s minds so effectively that even a reader like me, who doesn’t normally mind whether characters are likeable or not, can’t help but really root for them ... This care comes from seeing into these characters’ lives nonjudgmentally. Seeing and understanding other people is, after all, what fiction is about. It’s an empathy that extends to the title, which appears several times in the text ... surprising and empathetic, which sums up the book generally ... But fiction is also about telling a story, and Ridgway has stories to burn: not just the nine chapters that make up A Shock, but stories within these that people tell one another to make sense of their lives. It’s enough to make you believe that nonsense certain writers come out with, about how \'we need stories\'. Not quite, but we definitely want them, if they’re as good as this.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Those who missed the pleasures of Cusk’s earlier books will be pleased, up to a point, to know that Second Place offers a synthesis of old and new: a story that draws on life but also has a bit of a plot and definitely some big characters ... We’re ready for some knockabout fun, but Cusk isn’t really a knockabout writer. The comedy in her earlier books was interrupted by elegant, interrogative passages of introspection, which are even more prominent here: even the exclamation marks that pepper M’s narrative seem nervy and bathetic rather than light-hearted. The occasional truly funny scene seems to be there to show us that Cusk can still turn it on; it’s just that, like Picasso with figurative painting, she doesn’t want to any more ... There can be a tension between the story and M’s essay-like reveries as Cusk wrestles to decide what she is most interested in. The hybrid form that results — half-novel, half-not — has a timeless, enduring quality, even when it is occasionally frustrating. If that is the price of following the path of one of our most reliably interesting writers, I’ll take it.
MixedThe Observer (UK)... a full-fat epic ... Backstory is always a risk – do we need to know why the hero is that way? Can’t the reader decide for themselves? – but it’s kept interesting with lashings of death, drugs, alcoholism, misbehaviour and, this being a Theroux novel, parents who are no better than they ought to be. We even get a cameo from Hunter S Thompson, though his countercultural shtick is no more interesting here than it was in his own work ... But this excess of detail is symptomatic of Theroux’s approach. It’s reminiscent of James Salter, an omniscient plenipotentiary of his own fictional world, dispensing information liberally (like Salter, he has a weakness for tales of men battling themselves, and for queasy sex scenes ... But his facility keeps the pages turning, especially when Joe finds out more and more about the man he killed, and has to deal with native Hawaiian distrust of white \'haoles\' (incomers) like him. Under the Wave at Waimea asks where we should measure a life from: its high point or its end point? And it works best if you don’t sweat the details too much and just let its wave sweep over you.
RaveThe ObserverI sighed with pleasure at being back in her sharp-witted world ... The subject is families, those people there’s no escaping from because we’re made of the same stuff. McCracken’s families aren’t warring: they’re good natured at heart and she has a gift for spotting the comic potential in situations many of us have endured, such as attending our first family event with a new partner ... what gives The Souvenir Museum an added layer of coherence is that five of the 12 stories are about the same couple, Sadie and Jack ... it’s a pleasure to follow Sadie and Jack, through their first meeting to that family wedding and their future together, laughing – and crying – all the way.
Edward St. Aubyn
MixedThe Times (UK)St Aubyn’s new novel, Double Blind , a non-Melrose novel, fits the established pattern: it is a turkey, a synthetic gobbler so thickly stuffed with St Aubyn’s previous concerns — childhood trauma, psychotherapy — that there’s no room left for the reader ... The primary problem with Double Blind is that it forgets to be a novel, with characters and story, and devolves into essayistic digressions on ecology, genomics, capitalism and science. The chapters flip between characters, but they all think like St Aubyn, with a quality of hyperarticulate fretting, and there’s a maddening lack of focus: one plot strand, where a character is diagnosed with a brain tumour, threatens to develop interest, but fizzles out too ... This being an Edward St Aubyn novel, the pill is sweetened with good jokes ... And there’s no getting away from those rambling screeds on medicine and biology, reminding us that science doesn’t know everything: that there is no genetic component to most illnesses, say. But it veers towards a lip-smacking insistence that science knows nothing, which is an odd angle to take as we vaccinate our way out of the greatest health crisis of the past 100 years.
RaveThe Irish Times (UK)I dived into Blake Bailey’s much-anticipated biography expecting to find what I did: a big, horny genius ... Aside from anything else, Bailey is an astute literary critic, with a clear-eyed appraisal of the novels, even the misfires ... [a] humane and thorough account of Roth, delivered in a witty, wry and even self-deprecating style ... I finished reading through tears.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
RaveNew Statesman (UK)... when we encounter real passion, as in the Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s remarkable prose debut...it’s an alien and disconcerting experience: it results in a book that takes you and shakes you ... it’s the birth of her fourth child, and first daughter, that inspires what might be the book’s strongest set piece, dragging the reader through the gruelling premature birth and aftermath with such breath-stopping intensity...that the chapter alone is a 15-page masterclass in life-writing. Next to this, or a later passage where she discovers lumps in her breast—both benefit from an inbuilt narrative drive—the sections searching for Eibhlín Dubh’s story are necessarily more distant. However, they burst into life when death appears again with the husband’s murder and the killer’s trial ... Her prose has a super-serious quality ... It is this single-minded focus that gives A Ghost in the Throat its intense flavour[.]
RaveThe Times (UK)It’s all very mysterious, this superstructure of society just beyond the reader’s eyeline. It does becomes clear, but this slow tease is essential to Ishiguro’s vision, which is radical among contemporary novelists. Imagine being teleported to another country, another time; you’d need to figure out how society works from people’s everyday conversations. That’s where Ishiguro places the reader. So in Klara and the Sun, there are no handy paragraphs where the narrator conveniently reflects on everything we need to know about a character we’ve just met ... This almost demented purity is rare ... Writing like this makes things harder for the reader, but that extra work means Ishiguro’s worlds stay deeply implanted in the mind, and as a result Klara and the Sun feels like a new definitive myth about the world we’re about to face. What that myth addresses is inequality, human potential, the need to be needed, even — I told you he was ambitious — whether human life is really unique, or if we should stop \'believing there’s something unreachable inside us\' ... I scoured the book for bum notes and found only one, where Klara and Josie’s father cook up a solution to a problem which is too neat and feels like it benefits the author, not the story; for once we can feel Ishiguro’s thumb on the scale. Elsewhere, the subtlety of his approach means that he can deliver an emotional payload in a few words ... It’s also surprisingly spry, with some hectic plot turns and a quest Klara sets for herself which seems ridiculous to the reader until suddenly it doesn’t. This is a novel for fans of Never Let Me Go, with which it shares a DNA of emotional openness, the quality of letting us see ourselves from the outside, and a vision of humanity which — while not exactly optimistic — is tender, touching and true.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)Here is a book you must read but you can’t. You can’t because the new novel by Anakana Schofield – whose first novel won two prizes and whose second novel was shortlisted for three – hasn’t been published in Ireland, the UK or even the US. It’s available only in Canada, so if you want to read it you need to have it shipped internationally for an arm and a leg. If I were you, I probably would ... This style is entirely unique: Schofield’s wit makes it slip down easily, yet her refusal to spell things out gives the reader plenty of work to determine what is going on. By not telling us explicitly what happened, we are embedded more deeply in Bina’s character. The reader has a greater investment in her story and her life, and the book makes a dialogue out of a monologue ... Here’s another warning: watch out for this book, if you do manage to get hold of it. It will undo you.
Tove Ditlevsen, trans. by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman
RaveThe New StatesmanThey are the best books I have read this year. These very slim volumes slip in like a stiletto and do their work once inside. Each has its own distinct tone, which just about justifies Penguin’s money-chasing decision to issue the trilogy (around 350 pages in total) as three separate books ... the simple declarative sentences of Natalia Ginzburg and the pervasive horror of a good fairy story. To Ditlevsen, childhood is a sentence to be endured, a skin to be shed. How could it be otherwise, when her world was upside-down from the beginning? ... There is a similar disconnect between the dark matter of these books and the thrilling impact on the reader. They act as a manifesto for art, showing that literature is not the base metal: it is the process of alchemy, and the gold that results.
RaveThe Times (UK)... for such a meaty, sparky book — McLaughlin keeps multiple plates not just spinning, but humming harmoniously — the only disappointment is the mimsy, wishy-washy title (the working title Retrospective seems more fitting). It’s a superior work of character-driven literary fiction in the spirit of Bernard MacLaverty or Tessa Hadley. That traditional form, one built on authority and control, may not chime with judges looking for new voices and forms; the prospect of a cracking dinner-party scene may not make your blood rush, but it worked for me. What I’m saying is, if The Art of Falling doesn’t make a prize shortlist or two this year, we should riot.
RaveThe Financial Times (UK)The variety of voices means that reading this novel is a less intense experience than Jones’s last two books, but Stillicide will never be mistaken for a comedy ... In his books, higher consciousness is sidelined and people take their place in nature, motives and thinking pared back. The language is correspondingly stark, the sentences cut close ... This simplicity of language means that when emotion is portrayed directly, such as Branner’s dying wife dictating a letter to him, the effect is devastating. How big this small book is, giving the barest details of its future world — water tokens, alittlements, soilmen — so the reader has space for their own interpretations. A lesser writer would have made an epic, with hundreds of pages of world-building, and it would have been immensely boring. Stillicide, like Jones’s earlier books, is never boring, but exciting, upsetting and essential.
RaveThe Times (UK)This bonkers ripping yarn of derring-don’t is a hell of a ride. It is an eye-opener into the mind of a daredevil for those of us whose idea of risky business would be, as Victoria Wood put it, to step on to an escalator in a soft-soled shoe ... Caesar dashes off Wilson’s formation with journalistic panache, neatly colouring in the outlines of his background and war service, with succinct digressions on shellshock, the economic development of Bradford, and Wilson’s survival of the war ... scrupulously researched — Caesar has not just tramped the fields of Wijtschate, but looped the loop in a plane like Wilson’s — but with no damage done to the flow of the story. (Although I scratched my head over what the book Sexual Life in Ancient Greece was doing in the bibliography) ... The story of how a man could be driven to try to scale this \'giant’s tooth made of rock and ice\' has a built-in excitement, but Caesar enhances the flavour with extracts from Wilson’s letters to the third woman in his life, Enid Evans, and from his diary. Wilson’s voice is as characterful and funny as we might expect of someone with this much \'pluck\' ... Maurice Wilson was a one-off, quite outside the ordinary run of people, and The Moth and the Mountain is a \'sorry, beautiful, melancholy, crazy\' tribute to a man who, like a leaf in autumn, burnt brightest just before he fell.
David Diop, tr. Anna Moschovakis
PositiveThe Observer (UK)As Ndiaye’s very identity begins to crack and slip, the brilliance of David Diop’s conceit becomes clear and the reader must reconsider the story backward as well as forward. That is why it has appealed to so many prize juries: it rewards rereading, which recasts the violent opening chapters in a new, even darker light. If the measure of a book’s success is to be quite unlike anything else, then At Night All Blood Is Black deserves the bouquets and trumpets after all.
RaveThe Times (UK)Another debut novel from a young writer about relationships. Oh good! But wait, come back: this one is not only distinctive — coming from a black, gay perspective — but pretty distinguished, making the particular into the universal ... The title suggests a sturdy permanence, but Memorial is a monument to the shifting sands of modern life. In a world where ownership is old hat and life is held by subscription, everything is provisional, including lovers ... The plot kicks off in promising style ... And so the world of the book, where Ben and Mike’s relationship was the keystone, is destabilised. Text messages are typed but not sent ... The sense of qualification and uncertainty extends to the prose: uninflected dialogue, plain punctuation and, of course, no speech marks, so everything is low-key. This can make the story feel thin at times, but Washington knows what he’s doing: he can be funny and moving, and he can depict in a few lines the character of a person ... What began as a novel about a couple turns into one about the communities we set up with families, friends and colleagues. And it’s a primer in the modern world for anyone who, like Mike’s dad, feels that \'I just don’t know the rules. They keep changing on me.\' So a novel about relationships, yes, but one that makes you think: \'Well, what else is there, after all?\'
Sayaka Murata, tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... Murata’s new novel takes the quietly spoken themes of her cult hit Convenience Store Woman and sends them into orbit. The two books might be seen as siblings, though Earthlings would definitely be the evil twin ... the book switches from muted tones to a Technicolor explosion, as Murata throws in a convulsion of sudden shocks including murder, necrophilia and cannibalism. This is a high-risk move: it takes a story about not fitting in and turns it into a sort of freak show – even though it’s hinted that the Grand Guignol grotesqueries of these scenes aren’t really happening. But whatever Earthlings is, whatever planet it comes from, it’s a tale of quiet desperation to make your brain fizz.
MixedThe Times (UK)... a book that could have been tailor-made for our times, with its tale of racial tensions and an unnatural disaster ... Rumaan Alam seems unsure whether he wants to write a gripping page-turner or a thoughtful exploration of issues. The writing at first is obstructively fussy ... not so much rat-a-tat-tat as drip, drip, drip. (It reminded me of those awful BBC adaptations of Julia Donaldson books they show on Christmas Day, where David Tennant reads a short picture book very . . . very . . . slowly . . .) ... Luckily, halfway through the pace picks up when the characters hear a noise ... And so the novel becomes a disaster story. But unlike many, it gives us not the aftermath, but the first steps. It’s a close-up narrative, and its strength lies in the emotional pull rather than thematic concerns of race and inequality ... Soon a satisfying, to the reader, panic takes hold. There’s something for everyone: that is, to terrify everyone, from parents to nature lovers to hypochondriacs. One nice foreboding touch is when we see flamingos and deer migrating en masse: the animals know something we don’t ... And here’s yet another split in the book: it shouldn’t be tense, as Alam cheekily nips ahead from time to time to let us know how it’s all going to pan out, but we can’t help but share in the family’s urgency. What’s worse, it seems to ask: knowing or not knowing?
Joaquim Maria Machado De Assis, trans. by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux
PositiveThe Observer (UK)\"This new translation, by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, is the perfect chance to get reacquainted with the delights of a book written with \'the pen of mirth and the ink of melancholy\', or to discover it for the first time ... Posthumous Memoirs contains the whole human comedy in 160 very short chapters...Cubas keeps digressing—being dead, he’s in no hurry to complete his story—and his condition, with nobody left to impress, offers the advantage of honesty ... The hectic digressions, ellipses and gaps frustrate the flow, so it’s hard to keep a handle on the characters that buzz in and out yet leave Cubas in solitude ... Thomson-DeVeaux’s endnotes provide all the context you could wish for. They even, occasionally, cast doubt on her translation choices; a very Machadian quality indeed.
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.
MixedThe Irish Times (IRE)... the book has nothing in common with Li’s most recent work: it is much longer, more diffuse and less driven than her last two books, and unfortunately less successful ... The form of the book is unusual ... This conceit, easier to understand in the reading than to explain, sounds intriguing: think of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where a luckless poet has his epic work ruined by a mad academic’s footnotes. But Must I Go is not a book of literary electricity; it’s altogether slower and more subdued ... The structure of the story [...] gives it a meandering lack of narrative drive, so the book feels longer than its 350 pages, and muddy rather than clear ... Yet, perhaps because of the length or the immersion in detail, I found that I missed both Roland and Lilia when the book was over. Perhaps this story of a grief that lies too deep for tears sank somehow into me after all.
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.
Mieko Kawakami, trans. by Sam Bett and David Boyd
MixedThe Irish Times (IRE)... they feel like two different books rather than two parts of the same story ... The first book is stronger, tighter and stranger ... intense and surprising, and falls outside some of the recent trends seen in Japanese fiction published in English, where tales of quiet restraint, kawaii (cuteness) and the uncanny are more often seen ... there is internal tension, a sense of a race against time and sharp emotional stakes, yet the story remains oddly uninvolving, perhaps because it’s delivered in such a flat tone, with nondescript details and cliches ... Much of this story involves her speaking to other people and listening to their views, which although interesting, give the narrative a second-hand feel, like reportage or notes toward a novel rather than lived experience ... It’s this clash between lack of oomph and leisurely length that makes the second story in Breasts and Eggs less engaging than the first. Which is not to say that it’s never entertaining ... Terrible people make good reading, but comparing the punchy first story here with the second story brings another cliche to mind: less is more.
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.
MixedThe Spectator (UK)A 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 Times (UK)Jenny Offill is a master of the right kind of detail ... It’s an appropriate method for a novel made up of aphoristic paragraphs; the small-plates approach to literature ... The gap after each paragraph, like a comedian’s forced pause, gives you time to process it before the next one comes along, and adds depth and texture to Offill’s jokes, hairpin turns and stabs in the heart. Often a section will start without context, which keeps the reader involved too; this is fiction that is easy to read, but demands vigilance ... There’s something faintly miraculous about how Offill gets us from there to here; baby steps from instagrammable anecdotes to a weightiness you can feel in your stomach. It’s all about those just-so details, which keep the reader sitting upright and give the good-value impression — up, down, funny, shocking — of two books for the price of one.
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.
MixedThe Times (UK)I felt the story of Tambu had something missing ... So does the book stand up on its own merits? It’s told in the second person, a technique that normally forces the reader into identification with a character, but here it feels distant after the close first person narrative of the previous books ... while individual scenes can be strong, the story overall is robbed of any real tension, and there’s no more sense of resolution at the end of this book than there was with the previous two volumes.
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.