PositiveThe Guardian (UK)It is an exploration of multicultural British modernity, of love, sex, class, politics, faith and family. But how well does it work in literary terms? ... There are riches here. All the components of modern identity are laid out: race, class, gender, faith, sexuality. Ali explores generational and cultural tensions, as well as contemporary political issues ... There is a big cast and the chapters jump between several perspectives (we even, puzzlingly, get Joe’s psychotherapist), but perhaps because we enter so many heads, often fleetingly, complexities begin to flatten. Joe, for instance, never quite emerges from the psychological diagnosis that defines him ... One notable exception is Baba. Tormented by hang-ups, he is a fully realised and often moving character ... This novel is largely engaging, entertaining and relevant and there will be lots of love for it, possibly prizes. Ali is a good storyteller, sometimes enlightening, but there is the feeling of a smaller, tighter, more devastating novel lurking here. As it is, the emotional punches can get a little lost amid the padding and point-making.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)... effortlessly spans six decades ... As plot strands go it is deftly done: witty, poignant, wry — and sort of radical ... Tyler’s genius lies in the subtlety with which she portrays her characters’ internal worlds ... vintage Tyler: accessible, comforting, driven by humanity. Her novels can feel repetitive — the same kindly middle-class Americans grappling with the same essential conundrum of how to live a decent life in a confusing world. But then, why not? Tyler’s fellow American Ann Patchett once said that every author has only one story, which they write repeatedly. You get away with this 24 times, though, only if you have a genuine streak of genius.
MixedSunday Times (UK)Pure Colour stretches fictional form...abandoning novelistic plot and characterisation in favour of scenarios and notions, often surreal, into which the reader must inject meaning ... What follows is a swirling, not always rigorous but occasionally tongue-in-cheek inquiry into the human condition ... There are strengths, of course. A portrait of isolation and misunderstandings emerges as Mira looks back on her love affair with Annie, and longs for her. Heti is also brilliant at nailing down universal cultural experiences ... Although Pure Colour takes aim at boring, uptight critics, the temptation to read it with a red pen, frowning at its intellectual vagaries, is really quite strong. The publisher calls it \'a contemporary bible\'. If this is the case, then I’m afraid we’re all doomed.
Julia May Jonas
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... arresting ... Above all, though, Vladimir is a novel about female appetite – for sex, food, power, success – and what the ageing process does to it ... a quietly captivating novel. Jonas’s voice is so assured, in fact, that for most of the time it seems astonishing that this is a debut. The confidence wavers towards the end, though, with a heavy-handed denouement: an unsuccessful attempt to tame the complex themes, and pin down this slippery and uncomfortably compelling narrator. The wobbly ending is disappointing – the narrator is oddly neutered by it – but perhaps this is a price worth paying for what is otherwise an engrossing and clever debut.
Sandro Veronesi, Tr. Elena Pala
PositiveThe Times (UK)Veronesi originally trained as an architect and, rather marvellously, it shows: the structure is inventive, bold, unexpected—slightly bonkers but elegant, and cohesive. Chapters leap around between the 1970s and 2030, while the narrative switches from calm omniscience to chunks of \'real\' life: transcribed phone calls, texts, emails. The timeframe offers nice opportunities for foreshadowing—an old trick, but a good one—which keeps the pages turning. The hotchpotch structure, meanwhile, conveys life’s messy unpredictability: joy and desperation, simple pleasures, moments of transcendence, much reeling and confusion ... Things get oddly shaky towards the end, though, when the focus turns to Marco’s granddaughter Miraijin, who is a modern Messiah ... There is nothing remotely believable about her. It is a testimony to Veronesi’s muscular storytelling skills that the ending is still a proper tearjerker.
RaveThe Times (UK)... pretty intense ... Burntcoat is marked by superb stylistic economy. As in her short stories, her concerns are expansive ... Burntcoat is a fierce, lyrical, not always controlled but compelling work. It sets a high bar for the pandemic novels to come.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)... a poignant follow-up: an exploration of traumatic separation, displacement and exile ... Non-human narrators can be very tricky—if not unbearable—and initially the fig narrator feels like a handy construct, providing bite-sized lessons in history, politics and arboreal science. But gradually its voice softens, grows acceptable and even, at times, beguiling. And this, essentially, is Shafak’s real genius: she is, quite simply, a great storyteller. She knows exactly when to dangle unanswered questions, when to drench our senses, when to offer meaningful musings, elegant metaphors and tugs at the heartstrings. There are perhaps signs of creative haste: a visiting aunt feels a little like a cipher, and a promising storyline for Ada remains underdeveloped. But the bombardment of riches grows cumulatively enlightening, and that torn, exiled, outspoken fig bears fruit.
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)Matrix is told in the present tense, a shortcut to immediacy, but spans decades, with nods to historical events — papal interdict, the children’s crusade. There is a slight tonal flatness as the years roll by, and Marie remains a little remote somehow, but Goff’s writing is muscular and precise, her themes wildly resonant. Women are dismissed and contained, subject to misogynist attacks and abuse, but gain power collectively — \'alone, together\'. Shockingly, this message is as poignant today as it was, perhaps, 800 years ago.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)... oddly compelling. The narrator vibrates with unexpressed emotion, sealed inside her painstaking detachment. Her observations are minute, precise, poetic ... Detachment—this notion of the individual passing through—has long been a preoccupation in Lahiri’s work, but here it feels obsessional, woven into the very structure of the novel, with each chapter a self-contained unit, pinned to a location that the ghostlike narrator barely touches. Even the delicate precision of the language contains this watchful separation: every word, inevitably, has been carefully chosen ... [Lahiri] has taken her writing apart and reconstructed it, sparely, to make something new, where silence matters. If the antidote to a year of solitude and trauma is art, then this novel is the answer. It is superb.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, tr. Martin Aitken
PositiveThe Times (UK)The need to be complex — and perhaps also to be seen to be complex — outweighs the need to make a point at times, and this can make some pieces hard going, but Knausgaard is an interesting thinker even when self-indulgent. At its best the writing is clear, elegant, dense and engrossing, but it is the less grandiose, less self-consciously expansive pieces that are the most satisfying and memorable ... The tone can be a bit lofty here, and elsewhere too, but turn one irritating page and something unusual will spring up — a moment of surprise or observation that, quite often, feels like the truth. Even hardened Knausgaard sceptics, then, should find something to admire here; and fans will be thrilled.
MixedThe TimesOsborne, previously a travel writer, generates a superbly visceral sense of Bangkok as a buzzing, humid, contradictory place with yoga parlours and stray dogs, glorious flowers and seedy bars, temples, skyscrapers and ghosts. The characters, however, are less fully realised ... They are clearly supposed to be disconnected and dissembling, but at times their behaviour stretches credibility ... Stylistically, there are definitely some transcendent moments, but there are also a good few misfires ... The Glass Kingdom is definitely atmospheric, sometimes wonderfully so, but it takes more than atmosphere to build a new Graham Greene.
RaveThe Times (UK)... assured ... Cline is particularly good at locking in the witty detail that speaks volumes ... These expertly constructed stories withhold key information, relying instead on a build-up of inflections to reveal unpalatable truths about unlikeable people ... The tone throughout is numbed millennial cool. Privileged people are damaged and dulled by pills or trauma or arrogance or simple hopelessness. An overwhelming sense of emptiness is intensified by the Californian settings — the sunshine and big houses, the swimming pools, shopping malls and acting classes. Everyone is so horrid that it is impossible to really care, yet the pleasures here lie not in caring, but in an appreciation of Cline’s skillful and absorbing craft.
RaveThe Times (UK)Yes, this is \'boy meets slightly unattainable girl\', so everyone can relax: we are nestled, firmly, in the David Nicholls sweet spot ... Nicholls’s literary talents are impressive ... The interesting thing about Nicholls’s fiction, given this megawatt success, is how essentially modest and gentle it is. His talent lies in heart-rending and witty explorations of fairly ordinary subjects ... Essentially an uplifting romantic, he manages not to diminish life’s knocks and setbacks, while presenting them as survivable. It is practically impossible to review a Nicholls book without using the word \'poignant\' ... On this score, Sweet Sorrow does not disappoint: the sense of nostalgia is visceral and intense, almost time-bending. The danger, of course, is that this could all become saccharine and fey, but Nicholls is too astute to allow that to happen: he develops a darker layer to the story, underpinning Charlie’s universal experience of first love with a very specific, messed-up family situation ... I can’t help but wonder if Sweet Sorrow, with its perfectly honed British nostalgia and its focus on a supposedly “ordinary” boy, will have the desired effect on a reader who has not experienced an adolescence of drunkenness, bad eyeliner, pretentious talk and snogging in the wet summer grass, but perhaps these specifics will prove irrelevant; after all, as Shakespeare knew all too well, letting go of the past is a very human challenge.
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)... resolutely unshowy ... [Enright\'s] work is deceptively low-key, but rich with shared experience. Bombs detonate in the background while Enright focuses on the complexities of human connection ... This is a slow read—for the first quarter, almost deal-breakingly so—but gradually the subtleties form into something profound and complex. Norah’s voice may be self-effacing but her observations are sharp and true ... a wry challenge, easily overlooked, but witty and really rather brilliant—Enright, then, in a nutshell.
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)Hannah Rothschild...is brilliant at unhinged aristos. The poisonous, deluded old matriarch Clarissa, who still puts on silks and furs for dinner, even though the servants are long gone and it’s a Chinese takeaway, is particularly good ... House of Trelawney is...an oddly uneven novel. There are coups de foudre, galloping horses, erotic cornfield romps and scheming beauties that might not be out of place in a Mills & Boon romance ... And yet this is also a charming satire that, save a few stodgy passages about money, is never dull ... Rothschild — a member of the banking dynasty and presumably no stranger to warped families and staggering wealth — is a witty, stylish storyteller and her overall message definitely feels timely.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)There is...a lot still to say about why grandmothers have been so overlooked by society. This, surely, could be important and fertile ground. But is it, here? There are just one or two moments, always with Nan, where a pinch of something more powerful spices up the narrative. But these moments vanish quickly, and for the main part the novel remains cozy. There is a rose-tinted view of the grandchildren as innocent and adorable. But this fond portrayal is uneven—I’m not sure many 12-year-old girls today would dream of falling in love with a Parisian saxophonist. The grandmothers also feel as if they have been given quirks to distinguish them. The result is a novel that will probably—and it seriously pains me to say this—be a tonic for grandmothers who are rightly sick of being culturally ignored, but it does not manage to challenge or surprise.
MixedThe Times (UK)Zed is billed as \'an absurdist thriller\', but \'thriller\' is a bit of a stretch. The scant plot definitely takes second place to a witty exploration of freedom and oppression; narrative order and chaos; truth and fakery ...While all this is fun and erudite, it comes at the expense of character development and emotional connection. I found myself longing to feel an Atwoodian gut-wrench. Or something — anything other than remote intellectual curiosity. For readers who like to nod at clever references, the imaginative Zed will be a delight, and it will no doubt gain many admirers. Those, on the other hand, who crave novels with complex, believable characters who grow, might find it all a bit relentless.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)...the plot becomes a bit of a stretch ... The narrative alternates between the present and 1982, moving towards a resolution of the central mystery...This keeps up the momentum, but also, because of the artifice of the set up, demands diligent and not always convincing justification ... Burton is an accessible, appealing stylist and writes with sincere gusto. She is particularly good at evoking a sense of place, whether a contemporary London house or a 1980s Hollywood poolside. A sharp intelligence beneath the romantic sensibility makes the less convincing story elements almost forgivable. What is less easy to ignore is the unconvincing and emblematic characterisation. Together with the plot, this makes The Confession feel more like stylishly written commercial fiction than a novel of any literary heft. Of course, there is nothing wrong with commercial fiction, people devour it. Burton, I suspect, will need to weather roaring book sales for some time to come.
PositiveThe Times (UK)\"... a doggedly quirky family saga ... McCracken is a firecracker stylist and every sentence, every image, is crafted for physical impact ... However, all the jaunty eccentricity and whimsy can feel tiresome, and in fact the quieter, more ordinary moments are generally more powerful ... Bowlaway though, is not supposed to be a quiet book. It is exuberant, a bit bonkers and raw and unflinching. It will find a great many fans — and no doubt some awards, too. If you enjoy quirks and eccentricities, cranks and loons, you’ll probably love it.\
MixedThe Times (UK)\"Paris Echo offers an eye-opening account not just of the hypocrisies of occupied Paris, but of the heinous treatment of Arabs by the French, and the interesting parallels between them. However, the set-up for all this (Tariq and Hannah sharing a flat) is less convincing ... There is much to learn from Paris Echo about the city’s complex identity, and about the way we view the past. However, without deeply compelling characters — or a powerful love affair — it can be difficult to connect with this story on a truly visceral, emotional level.\
PositiveThe TimesBitter Orange explores the stories we invent in order to bear enormous pain or guilt. Fuller, who is also an artist, can be tremendously subtle, and our perception can spin on a single, dissonant detail: a stray hair on a pillow, a noise beneath the bath. Vivid visual images also build an oppressive, off-kilter atmosphere ... This sort of thing is so good that it makes the standard gothic tropes—a dead bird, a mausoleum, a ghostly face at an attic window—feel heavy-handed. The denouement slinks close to melodrama, and therefore feels slightly disappointing. But the real interest lies in the fascinating gaps and contradictions, the complexity of the characters and the thematic richness.
PositiveThe TimesThe Poisonwood Bible was recently voted Britain’s favourite reading-group book. This fanbase will not be disappointed by Unsheltered, which is crammed with talking points ... Kingsolver’s power lies in her ability to expound big ideas without losing sight of life’s pulsing minutiae ... It is a wise message for turbulent times.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Some serious novels fling open their doors and usher the reader towards rich and transporting pleasures. Others demand more investment and toil. Sight, Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel, falls into this latter category ... Sight is a bookish young woman’s exploration of her shifting sense of self as it is funnelled into motherhood. We follow the first-person narrator from her early twenties when she loses her own mother, through meeting her partner, agonising over whether to have a baby with him, then having the baby ... Her heartfelt self-examination at every stage is broken up by accounts of historical figures that resonate with her preoccupations. We learn, for instance, about the 19th-century physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, the inventor of the x-ray machine; and about the life and work of the 18th-century surgeon John Hunter, whose collection of anatomical curiosities the narrator visits at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons ... The poise, intelligence and serious intent of Sight will be lauded, and rightly so. I would not be surprised to see it on heavyweight prize lists. It might, at this point, seem superficial or even petulant to ask: \'But is it enjoyable?\' If you need to pose such questions (let alone have answers to them), then perhaps this is not the book for you.
MixedThe TimesThis story is told mostly from Gwen’s perspective, but her inner life is never fully realized. A first love affair with a wealthy financier feels strangely uninhabited. A later abortion, which he pays for although it has nothing to do with him, is seen retrospectively and from his irritable perspective. The death of her first baby is again brief and retrospective. Her decision to abandon her small daughter to strangers also goes unexplored ... erhaps more puzzling, we do not venture into her creative mind. Consequently, Gwen is defined primarily in relation to the men who abandon, mislead and disappoint her. Phillips can be a lyrical, transporting stylist and his focus on Gwen’s displacement has profound thematic resonance. However, the fascinating, unhinged, alcoholic, furtively ambitious, self-destructive and brilliant \'Jean Rhys\' remains offstage, howling in an attic somewhere, unseen and definitely not happy.
RaveThe Times (UK)Sittenfeld’s stories often turn on clever timing: a perfectly paced misstep, a revelation ... The downside, oddly, is exactly what makes this collection work: its narrow focus. Her world (like Jane Austen’s) is brilliantly accurate, and culturally limited ... impossible to put down.