PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"... a sweeping portrait of Ugandan history that begins with the fall of a powerful clan in the 18th century and follows the family’s line through the 21st. The novel, like Genesis, is an origin story ... Writing with the assurance and wry omniscience of an easygoing deity, Makumbi watches her protagonists live out invariably provisional answers ... when Kintu’s carnival of clans, royal courts, Kampala apartments and church groups concludes, it is hardly clearer what form “family” might take, or how individuals should reconcile themselves to kinship. There is, nevertheless, a beauty to how Makumbi’s characters improvise alternatives to what they do not have or cannot be.\
Scholastique Mukasonga, Trans. by Jordan Stump
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"Around the hearth, old Rwandan folk tales dispel the gloom of exile. Yet loss is lodged in every reminiscence. Grief recalls Mukasonga to the hard present ... Mukasonga is a master of subtle shifts in register — a skill inherited, perhaps, from the Rwandan traditions of intricate courtesy and assiduous privacy that Stefania maintained. She turns everything over restlessly: In her prose, poignant reminiscences sharpen into bitter ironies, or laments reveal flashes of comedy, determination, defiance.\
Mathias Enard, Trans. by Charlotte Mandell
MixedThe New YorkerTell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants (deftly translated, like Énard’s three previous English releases, by Charlotte Mandell) is a tale of bastard genius that might have been, and a cautionary fable about the consequences of parochial timidity. Yet the book itself, scarcely over a hundred pages long, is marked by a certain reticence. A third-person narrative unusual in Énard’s œuvre, it suggests a sketchbook rather than a marble likeness, executed in terse, muscular scenes interspersed with lists, drawings, and letters—many of them taken directly from the artist’s correspondence. Impressions are the principal access to Michelangelo’s mind; he apprehends the city in sumptuous catalogues of spices, minerals, dyes, and other rare merchandise that he records in a notebook. The structure leaves a measure of white space, creating a sense of encounter with a \'lost\' artifact ... Ultimately, Énard’s imagined history confines itself to threading a nearly invisible influence through Michelangelo’s existing work ... There is hardly a glimpse, though, of what kind of world a worldlier Michelangelo might have made. Which is not to suggest that Énard should have written a full-fledged alternate history. Fragments, after all, can be keys. But it’s never quite clear what doors Énard is trying to open; why, if Michelangelo had travelled to Constantinople, it would have mattered.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review\"The Liberian-American writer’s debut novel is a Marvelesque national epic about Liberia’s independence centered on three supernaturally gifted misfits ... The varied and frenetic action makes for a novel that, while stimulating, is often confusing and overstuffed. Some sections read like folk tales or adventure novels, while those set in Virginia serve up reheated plantation melodrama. She Would Be King shows greater originality when Moore dissects Monrovia’s social world ... Moore’s sophisticated treatment of [the singular relationship between Liberia’s black settlers, for whom \'returning\' to Africa was a form of deliverance from American white supremacy] showcases her novelistic talents, though the tension somewhat dissipates when the \'real\' enemies arrive: The complex dance of nation-building gives way to a Garveyite battle royale pitting the reconciled settlers and natives against French slavers who attack Monrovia.\
Patrick Chamoiseau, Trans. by Linda Coverdale
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewImagine Walt Whitman adapting Apocalypto and you might approximate the awe and adrenaline of Chamoiseau’s action pastoral ... His exhilarating flight evokes the shock of freedom with tactile immediacy ... If the runaways of American literature seek autonomy and self-ownership, Chamoiseau’s maroon enters a \'Great Woods\' where distinctions between past and present, human and animal, Old World and New dissolve ... Slave Old Man transpires in a solitude that can be limiting. Chamoiseau’s descriptions of the forest—beautifully translated from French and Creole by Linda Coverdale—are exhilarating, but the old man never quite comes into focus against the background of foliage and verbiage. A character without relationships or concrete memories, he risks becoming a cipher ... If the old man proves himself to anyone, it is his canine pursuer ... The sparks from their contest kindle this bonfire of a book, a maroon story written with \'a folktale parlance and a runner’s wind.\'
PositiveThe New York Review of Books\"Yunte Huang’s Inseparable is a whirligig vision of nineteenth-century America, the portrait of a young democracy as it saw and was seen by its most unusual citizens ... a learned romp more guided by than limited to the story of Chang and Eng ... One of Inseparable’s thrills is the deftness of Huang’s associative leaps. Each chapter is a crank of the kaleidoscope, placing Chang and Eng at the heart of an ever-changing matrix. Digression is the rule; world events scroll past in panoramic miniature ... Huang’s clear affection for the twins enlivens his account of their independence ... Huang is unfortunately fuzzy about the moral implications. Though he doesn’t omit the known details... he repeatedly insists on a misleading symmetry between the twins’ experience and that of their captives ... For all Inseparable’s narrative exuberance and delightful, Melvillean erudition, it left me wondering about the twins’ hustle—their motives, means, and the social forces that governed their lifelong game.\
RaveThe New York Review of BooksIf A Brief History of Seven Killings can be said to have a main idea, it’s that nobody escapes, at least not entirely, from violence. Because violence isn’t an event, but a kind of potential—a force, like gravity, that lurks in every curve of space … It has less in common with most recent literary fiction than it does with Breaking Bad and The Wire...Seven Killings is surprising, suspenseful, and, when it stirs from its sinister languor, fast, with action sequences as finger-curling and eyelid-lifting as anything onscreen. But as much as it resembles the best of today’s television, the novel conveys violence with an interior nuance perhaps only achievable in prose. Its intensity comes less from the story’s underworld glamour than it does from James’s style and syntax—a language that gives texture to danger and its psychic terrain … Some will be frustrated by its lack of ‘larger comment,’ the usual hall pass for dangerous art. Others will find it too painful. People who think good writing should always be graceful won’t like it at all.
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewA galvanizing account of his coming-of-age in the movement, it’s a capsule lesson in courage of conscience, a story that inspires without moralizing or simplifying in hindsight ... more movement blueprint than civil rights monument, avoiding the Old Testament spectacle of good versus evil in favor of the clashing visions and fractious passions of those pledged to the same fight ... Vivid and dynamic, yet easily accommodating political nuance, this [graphic novel] form lends itself to depicting the complex confrontations and negotiations of a wide range of individuals ... Emphasizing disruption, decentralization and cooperation over the mythic ascent of heroic leaders, this graphic novel’s presentation of civil rights is startlingly contemporary. Lewis may be one of the 'great men' of the movement, but his memoir is humble and generous.
MixedThe New RepublicTruevine is a moving attempt to reconstruct this David and Goliath story, a chronicle of the Muses’ unlikely victory in a game that was doubly rigged against them ... Warm, personable, and empathetically speculative, it centers on experiences that shed light on the brothers’ inner lives ... You can’t fault a writer for not discovering what isn’t there to be known. But it’s hard to escape the sense that some of the time Macy spends developing the Muse brothers’ scant personal history might have been better spent on a subject she assiduously avoids: the attraction of their stage personae as sideshow freaks ... The book’s most glaring flaw is its unwillingness to make a study of the sideshow’s spectators.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksThe Underground Railroad isn’t the modern slave narrative it first appears to be. It is something grander and more piercing, a dazzling antebellum anti-myth in which the fugitive’s search for freedom—now so marketable and familiar—becomes a kind of Trojan horse. Crouched within it are the never-ending nightmares of slavery’s aftermath: the bloody disappointments, usually sidelined by film and fiction, that took place between the Civil War and civil rights. In Whitehead’s hands the runaway’s all-American story—grit, struggle, reward—becomes instead a grim Voltairean odyssey, a subterranean journey through the uncharted epochs of unfreedom.