PanFinancial Times (UK)\"Can we take our prophets seriously when they become disconnected from the day-to-day textures of the phenomena they seek to comment on? ... It is in its fuzzy evocation of a half-understood digital world that the novel’s belatedness is most visible; its lack of answers so palpable.\
RaveThe Guardian (UK)...[a] rich and strange new novel ... one of the many deep and destabilising pleasures it offers comes from trying to work out precisely what kind of a book – and what kind of a world – you are in at any particular moment ... The contemporary parallels – with Brexit, with the existential threat of climate crisis – are there for the making, but Meek never labours them ... There is a pageant, balletically violent fight scenes – as good as anything in Cormac McCarthy – and some memorable sexual encounters. The overall effect is of a radical generic ambiguity, so that you never know if you’re reading a comedy of manners, a bawdy romance, a dystopian novel or a medieval porno ... It is an audacious thing to try to create a world sufficient to be described in an invented language, but in To Calais, in Ordinary Time the effect is triumphant ... At the centre of this beautiful novel is an exploration of the difference between romance and true love, allegory and reality, history and the present. It plays out in unexpected and delightful ways, and it would be unfair to make these explicit. To Calais, in Ordinary Time ends with a consummation both of its technique and of its story that is affirming, tender and a little bit glorious.
RaveThe Financial Times (UK)There’s a simple analogy to be made between magic tricks, which achieve their effects by hiding their workings, and fiction. It’s one that seems particularly appropriate to Swift’s recent novels, the exaggerated simplicity of which masks a vertigo-inducing emotional precipitousness ... His language, always plain, has become almost transparent ... Swift, unusually among his generation of English novelists, has never been afraid of cliché ... Some of the narrator’s descriptive touches in Here We Are...clearly belong to Swift. But most are those of his characters, expressed in a subtle free indirect style riddled with clichés, truism and the worn-out currency of everyday speech ... Despite its subject, there’s nothing extravagant or showy about Here We Are ... The book’s power comes precisely from the fact that it performs its magic in front of your eyes, leaving nowhere to hide. Barely noticing the mechanism, you wonder how he does it.
MixedThe Financial Times (UK)[Gibson] generates a sense of what he calls, in Agency, \'the high resolution texture of an alternate universe\' by stuffing his novels with real objects and brand names that feel both familiar and strange. He often describes the present in terms of the future and the future in terms of the past ... One of the thrills of his novels is that they throw you right in to new worlds and trust that you will figure them out for yourself. For the most part this works, though in Agency there are a few moments where you feel bombarded with technobabble ... [Gibson] is still interested in decentred political and technological systems and shadowy, quasi-criminal superstructures that can be navigated only by visionary individuals armed with the right tech. And he still delivers these ideas in plots that aspire to the satisfying knottiness of thrillers. It’s a shame, then, that in Agency the various parts don’t quite cohere. Despite the apocalyptic themes, nothing ever feels like it’s really at stake ... One of the paradoxes of fiction is that it must pretend its characters have agency even though we know that the decisions they make are preordained by their authors. Too often in Agency the controlling hand of the author becomes obvious ... If you can go along with the explication then Gibson’s vision is a compelling one, but often in Agency the novel comes to feel like an old technology, insufficient for the demands Gibson makes of it.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)[Greenwell\'s] writing is precise and fastidious, but it often describes unfinished or contingent thoughts, as though ideas were forever rehearsing themselves within his sentences. Here there’s a sense in which the narrator’s own striving – for the articulation of a vision, or a feeling to fit his thesis – is at least as important as what he’s looking at ... Not quite a novel, it is nonetheless a tightly structured book, eschewing chronological order in favour of a careful symmetry in which each story, apart from the central one, is mirrored by its thematic opposite ... Greenwell has spoken about the way gay sex can create private spaces amid public ones: the cruising spots in a city in which sexual activity goes on under the noses of straight society. His prose is like that too, at once inviting you in and holding you at arm’s length. The combination of intimacy and distance that characterises his writing is echoed in descriptions of sexual encounters, often with strangers, in which the line between desire and fear is so fine as to be invisible ... Greenwell charts clear-sightedly the delicate balance between wilful will-lessness and true powerlessness, which is for the narrator the main attraction of the experience ... Greenwell was a poet before he became a novelist, and the namelessness of the characters gives Cleanness the feel of a lyric poem, at once confessional and anonymous. The anonymity creates a space for biographical speculation, leaving you wondering whether you’re reading journal entries rather than fiction, and exactly whose propriety is being protected by those blank initials. But the ambiguity and lack of characterisation creates a problem too. Because everything is channelled through the mind of a single narrator, the book becomes, at times, overwhelmingly solipsistic ... the narrator has more words than he has perceptions or ideas, and the world he moves through appears far simpler than he wants it to be ... Fantasy, unconscious desire, the roles we are forced to perform by love: on all this, Cleanness is wise and illuminating, and Greenwell is clearly a talented writer of beautiful sentences, and an insightful guide to the strange ways people have of loving each other. But despite some astonishing and unsettling moments, this is a profoundly humourless book. Need sex always be so portentous? Need life?
Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. by Don Bartlett
PositiveThe Financial TimesTaken on its own, Dancing in the Dark...is a fairly straightforward Bildungsroman. As the novel opens, Knausgaard is on the cusp of manhood ... Some of the badness of the prose may be down to the translation. Though Don Bartlett’s renderings of Knausgaard’s Norwegian feel technically accurate, they do on occasion seem to miss the mark tonally ... At other times the badness of Dancing in the Dark is Knausgaard’s own. He’s fond of using clunky onomatopoeic outbursts to convey intensity ... An encyclopedic catalogue of inconsequential moments that often feels far greater than the sum of its parts ... The attraction of the writing is that it generates a kind of artificial authenticity, an authenticity founded not necessarily on accuracy but on the appearance of it.
MixedThe Financial Times (UK)\"...the overall effect of Olive, Again is one of deep melancholy: what one character calls \'a stark feeling of dismalness\' ... One of the remarkable things about Olive Kitteridge was the way in which its tone and mood seemed to bleed into your consciousness, so that while reading it every social interaction you had in the real world seemed charged with potential significance. Though there were dramatic moments in the novel...its uncanniness stemmed from the way it articulated those private moments of hidden devastation that mark most lives ... In Olive, Again this effect is more uneven and heavy-handed ... That said, Olive, Again is, in its way, a perfect novel: as compelling and unsettling as anything Strout has written. But its perfection is of a brittle kind, a kind that feels in the end wearying and even slightly manipulative. How little we can know each other, it says. How strange and temporary our feelings are. How slight and overwhelming they can be. How quickly they pass. How soon they end.
RaveThe Guardian (UK))Lerner’s first two works of fiction were intelligent novels of ideas about characters who were more or less like him: disaffected, overeducated young men. What saved them from self-indulgence was their sentence-by-sentence virtuosity, their imaginative density, and the fact that the cleverness of his prose always felt appropriate to the stories he told ... Much of this is recognisable in The Topeka School ... But it is also a more earnest and sentimental novel than [Lerner\'s] previous books, which often sought to reconcile authenticity with postmodernist posturing by invoking a kind of ironic indeterminacy. The Topeka School – as dazzling as anything Lerner has written – is also his most successful effort at navigating between communal experience (the shared tropes, ideologies and cliches of a culture) and individual feeling (the specificities and textures of poetic expression) without denaturing either.
RaveThe London Review of BooksLucy Ellmann’s new novel, Ducks, Newburyport, does not, despite the claims of some reviewers, consist of a single sentence (I counted 880). But it does contain one very long one ... The prose gains momentum recursively, as half rhymes and echoes of memory trigger the next associative stream. The effect is by turns infuriating, hypnotic and addictive ... Ellmann’s first six novels tempered their political seriousness and emotional intensity with a puckish flippancy, like Tristram Shandy rewritten by Stevie Smith ... Many of these elements are present in Ducks, Newburyport, which feels at once more real – because less cartoony – and more sentimental than her earlier books, and, despite its scale (it is longer than all of them combined), smaller in scope. This is partly a result of the claustrophobia involved in spending nearly half a million words inside a single character’s head. But it’s also because the narrator is so much more earnest than those in her previous books ... What’s most unusual about Ducks, Newburyport isn’t its length but the sustained attention it pays to the details of domestic life that usually go unwritten. That its maximalism feels like a provocation is partly because no one has paid this much attention to this kind of mind before. The intimacy it produces depends on recognition – you might well have the same flotsam and jetsam bumbling around your own mind – but the novel’s uncanniness is produced by repetition. As the pages turn and the layers build up, ideas, images, memories seep out, so that when they’re revisited hundreds of pages later you can’t quite recall if you’ve had the same thought before, or if Ellmann supplied it.
MixedThe Spectator (UK)\"Middle England is as historically self-aware as the other two novels in the trilogy ... The prose is slick and precise and you always feel in safe hands. Coe is a master of transitions — using paragraph and section breaks to cut the action — and his set-pieces are perfect miniatures, stylishly engineered. But reading Middle England can seem like wandering around a model village: you marvel at the extraordinary attention to detail, but feel unsettled by the lack of life.
PositiveFinancial Times (UK)If the set-up evokes Beckett the dramatist, the language of Night Boat to Tangier is much more like that of Beckett the novelist. It is written in a kind of ornate pub-lyricism that casts into relief the grime and squalor of its subjects ... This is rich fare, and Barry’s strident image-making can threaten to take over at times. Why need a payphone be a \'coin phone\'? Are a line of larches really \'primly erect, arrogant as surgeons\'? ... it is testament to Barry’s ear that he is fully aware of the threat, and to his skill that his prose never reaches its sell-by date.
PositiveFinancial TimesHaddon sticks close to his source material, but there are some curious interludes along the way ... what he really seems interested in is giving the bare bones of the play a kind of emotional and psychological plausibility that is alien to Gower, and even to Shakespeare. In doing so he has written a gripping novel that, despite its rollicking plot, never feels relentless, and is often very affecting indeed.
PositiveFinancial Times...there’s a sense in which the quartet is tending towards some sort of unified conclusion ... In Spring one of these sections, expressing the secret desires of social-media companies, is like Gertrude Stein rewritten by Twitter ... in these moments the novel is like a Modernist prose poem of the now. Smith has always been attuned to the hidden absurdities and comforts of language, and part of her attraction to puns is that they are, as Freud realised, always and inevitably meaningful ... Spring takes great delight in uncovering the linguistic objet trouvé of everyday life ... Against the backdrop of abuse and violent incarceration that is also documented in Spring, this playfulness might threaten to be flippant or twee, but only if it is read as seeking to offset rather than undermine the savageness of the horrors described elsewhere.
PositiveThe Guardian\"Much of what [Hunt] describes is genuinely exciting ... Another strength is Hunt’s personableness, and his sensitivity to different ways of relating to the places he is so fascinated by. He seems able to talk himself into anywhere ... Underground is also beautifully written. Hunt is attuned to the smells and textures of subterranean places ... Hunt’s instincts are journalistic rather than scholarly, however, and if I have one frustration with this book it is that it contains no notes or bibliography.\
RaveThe Financial TimesIt is a bleak, Borgesian conceit and, though it is tempting to read the novel figuratively — as an allegory about global warming, or nativist isolationism, or Brexit — really, as Kavanagh himself is at pains to stress, the Wall should be understood literally ... quite different from anything [Lancaster] has written before and it is, I think, his best novel — though it has none of the sentence-by-sentence virtuosity of his earlier works. The story is told in flat, affectless prose, like that of JG Ballard in his pomp, but the overwhelming influence is the Kafka of The Trial and In the Penal Colony ... As with Kafka, though, it is hard to say what in the end it all might mean. The Wall could be about many things, but its real power stems from the fact that it never collapses into straightforward metaphorical equivalence. It asks only to be read on its own terms: as an unsettling, compulsive and brilliant portrait of powerlessness.
RaveThe GuardianThere’s been a revival of interest in literary modernism in recent years...But over his last three novels it’s become apparent that Self’s method is different. Phone isn’t an attempt to inhabit the language of modernism but an attempt to exhaust a style ... There’s still plenty of fun to be had spotting references to Self’s lodestars, Joyce and Eliot, in Phone...But these moments aren’t mere allusions. Instead, they show how we live in modernism’s wake, how we’ve internalised its languages and styles so that we can’t think outside of it even if, like Busner, we’ve never read a line of Joyce. Phone will be a challenge to those whose minds have been eroded by the permanent present of the smartphone. It’ll take you a couple of weeks to read all three novels properly. But I can’t think of a better way to spend your time. Self’s message is a perennially important one, brilliantly expressed: only connect.
RaveThe Financial TimesThe Only Story, a gentle, bleak, and brilliant novel, the kind of book Philip Larkin might have written had he continued as a novelist, is in some respects a return to origins ... \'Most of us have only one story to tell,\' says Paul late in the novel, \'I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling.\' Sometimes it feels like Barnes himself might have been telling only one story through all his writing. And this is to the good, for his themes are the big, unfashionable, universals — ageing, memory, above all love — and they have remained constant.
RaveThe Financial Times...as accomplished and pleasurable as anything he has written ... The Sparsholt Affair, like Hollinghurst’s previous novel The Stranger’s Child, is a multi-generational portrait of gay life in the 20th century. What’s new is the way in which Hollinghurst makes these themes seem satisfyingly ambiguous and open-ended ... We are all the unreliable narrators of our own lives, Hollinghurst’s method implies, and it’s often what’s left out that’s most important.
MixedThe Financial Times\"There are excellent essays on Nabokov and Bellow, the \'twin peaks\' of Amis’s literary mountain range; some disappointingly lightweight and anti-prescient riffs on Trump; and familiar takes on Philip Larkin, Christopher Hitchens and Amis’s father Kingsley. There’s also a ponderous, defensive Q&A with readers of the Independent, some funny pieces about tennis and a few early works of swaggering reportage. The style, once so joyfully alive, has ossified slightly ... The latent pomposity, once held in check by Amis’s undeniable ability to also channel what he calls the \'thought-rhythms peculiar to the time,\' has become manifest, so that you never quite know how intentional it all is ... As an interrogator, as a critic of language, he’s on firmer ground. There is no one alive — with the possible exception of Adam Mars-Jones — who can hear an ailing sentence and diagnose its problems with such devastating and gleeful precision ... It’s when the frown becomes a sneer that Amis is at his worst: alone in his garret, removed from the world, railing against the mob.\
MixedThe GuardianDawn of the New Everything lacks the directed energy of his previous books, fusing techno-utopian thought experiments with truncated memoir, but still contains plenty to argue with. Most immediately engaging are the autobiographical sections, for Lanier has led a fascinating life … The enemy here, as in his previous books, is the model of a ‘weightless’ internet — anonymous, free, and therefore, Lanier writes, inherently manipulative — that we live with today. The libertarian utopianism of Silicon Valley is a result of this frictionless internet, where nobody pays for anything so that we all become products … Despite Lanier’s gestures towards the benign singularity of universal oneness, the image of VR that emerges here feels decadent and isolating.
RaveThe Financial TimesTo hear about such events is to want to be involved in them, but the dull horror of McGregor’s quietly triumphant novel Reservoir 13 depends on this desire for involvement never being quite satisfied ... Like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, this is a novel of voices. The third-person narrative moves between characters seamlessly, sometimes in mid-paragraph, as they talk to and observe one another. The narrative voice is a collective one: the chorus of the community, the apparent disinterest of which is undercut by a nagging judgmentalism ... McGregor’s use of free indirect style is masterful. His method implies that our thoughts are never really our own, and that we only very rarely admit to all the things that are going on in our minds ... Reservoir 13 is written against that most superficial of psychological and fictional crutches — the idea of 'closure' — and is all the better for it. It is an extraordinary novel of threads left unwoven.
PositiveBookforumThough written with all the swagger, dazzle, and gonzo humor we’ve come to expect from Cohen, Moving Kings is a focused, efficient novel about the idea of home and its absence, about what it means to be unhomed and what it might feel like to unhome others in turn ... Moving Kings has a tighter thematic coherence than some of Cohen’s previous novels, announcing itself as a novel about identity and the violent exiling of people from their homes. It’s also a more conventional beast...Still, Moving Kings displays much of the magic of all Cohen’s fiction, its savagery of vision and above all its deep commitment to the sentence as a unit of meaning ... Sometimes Cohen begins a paragraph as though embarking on a difficult and potentially dangerous journey, so that you read on not necessarily because you want to know what happens next but because you want to know what the sentences will do.
PositiveThe Financial Times""...captivating ... The first half of White Tears — its A-side, if you will — charms you with the verve of its storytelling and the energy of Kunzru’s sentences, which sometimes read like licks or riffs layered over his main theme. If its 'B-side' is less successful, that might be because the narrative loses steam somewhat when, halfway through, Carter is unceremoniously removed from the plot. But it might also be because some of its central concerns feel rather familiar ... But while not always making it new, White Tears is a witty, strange and often very moving book. I feel sure I will play it again.""
PositiveThe Financial TimesBatuman is a justly celebrated staff writer for the New Yorker, and The Idiot contains much of what makes her journalism so winning. It is a very funny book, full of zingy one-liners and arch, deflationary observations about the absurdities of academia and adolescence ... the second half of The Idiot is bittier and less shaped than the first, composed of a series of brilliantly observed vignettes that never quite resolve themselves into a greater meaning. On the whole Batuman’s wit, the oddness of her eye, and her perfect deadpan delivery will sustain you through this.
MixedThe Financial TimesAs a study in rootlessness, Swing Time is often superb. There are several bravura sections: a portrait of the narrator as a young goth, her university years, and her childhood on the council estate all crackle with life. The novel loses its way slightly when it moves away from these things ... A bigger problem is that the narrator herself remains curiously unknowable ... in part Swing Time wants to be a book that asks what happens when we treat bodies as though they are things. But too often within it bodies are treated only as bodies.
MixedThe Financial TimesThe first hundred or so pages are among the most enjoyable I have read for a long time, and there are nuggets of brilliance buried throughout the rest of the novel. Much of the time you’re willing to go along with Lethem for the startling clarity of his sentences and the mischievous wit of his image-making. But after a while the novel begins to feel like a series of more or less brilliant riffs on its main theme. The second half is a meandering disappointment filled with cul-de-sacs of plot and symbolically freighted moments don’t earn their keep. Characters come and go for no apparent reason.
MixedThe Financial Times\"...[a] strange, entertaining yet occasionally maddening debut ... Kleeman is a deft, assured writer, confident in the weirdness of her vision and the sharpness of her sentences. But sometimes her plotting lets her down, and in the latter half the novel drifts around rather aimlessly. At its best You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine is a clever satire on the naval-gazing horrors of contemporary life ... Kleeman is brilliant on the cognitive dissonance of the beauty industry, which tells young women both that they are beautiful as they are, and that they need to improve themselves with salves and lotions ... It’s striking stuff, but although You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine contains plenty to chew over, I hope Kleeman’s next novel will be a bit meatier.\
Alvaro Enrigue, Trans. by Natasha Wimmer
RaveBookforumIt reads like a metafictional, freewheeling therapy session on the legacies of colonialism, imperial ambition, and modernity. It’s also a love story, and a story about the constraining nature of the rules of love ... In one sense, this is a book about flogging a metaphor to death, about the various ways in which the game of tennis can come to stand for so many other things: games of state, games of love, even the knockabout e-mail exchanges between Enrigue and one of his (perhaps fictitious) editors, which are quoted verbatim ... In less able hands, this could all feel a bit labored, but in Sudden Death the postmodernist flourishes are never mere gimmicks. They are suited to their subject, reflecting and revealing the games and tricks of empires and of the histories they construct to justify themselves.