MixedThe New RepublicA novel that is as much as an interrogation of storytelling as it is a story about the stories the characters tell in order to get by in Victorian London ... Has a typically complex arrangement of central characters ... The parts of The Fraud that falter are not those that unfairly lay claim to someone else’s story but those that do not plunge far enough into another life ... The Fraud does not reach deep enough into Eliza to convey her seeking and her yearning, to build up a sense of what that might be. More precisely, the book does reach, sometimes, into Eliza, but it has its fingers in so many other, separate places that it is difficult for the reader to get purchase on those depths when they come ... Smith is absolutely a great novelist, but, in The Fraud, while there is much intricately rendered surface, and a crackling, thrilling intellect working through some fascinating questions, there is not quite enough trust in what the novel might still be able to contain.
PositiveThe New Republic\"All of Lacey’s work until now has explored the ineffability, the incomprehensibility of selfhood, how murky and uncertain we all are at the center; how murky and uncertain our ability to see and love and care for one another is. The title of Lacey’s first novel is Nobody Is Ever Missing; the title of this new book might well be Nobody Is Ever Found. All of her novels have been built around absences and lacks—a sister’s suicide, a disappearance, an unnamed, unraced, ungendered person—but X is both the most intricately constructed and the most ambitious, in the unknown self, the love and art it seeks ... The alternative history doesn’t always hold up in the face of questions of logistics...The book seems more interested, however, in the complexity and fragility of history as it unfolds, in how the world we know is always a near-collapsing house of cards ... This opacity feels less like a failure than a necessary consequence of Lacey’s project: If you convince a reader that there’s no such thing as fully seeing, knowing, understanding, it can be that much more difficult to see and know and understand what happens when this person makes choices and acts ... There is an ambition in The Biography of X that’s thrilling not least because it shows how endless, how elastic and expansive—at a time when so much storytelling feels constricted, tight and close on a single consciousness—fiction can be. It also makes even clearer how elusive that central and unknowable thing—the lighthouse, the grey goose—is. If I yearned at the end for more visceral proximity to both X and CM, the jolt and fizzle of their wants and needs, maybe that’s also what Lacey suggests art can be: work that painstakingly reconstructs the lacks and absences around us, to make us ache for all things that both art and love might never fully grasp.\
RaveThe Los Angeles Times[A] writer of sparse, assured sentences that burrow into something ineffable about what it is to be alive and then hold it up with care for our examination and pleasure ... It is even tighter — and better for that, I would argue — than the equally slim Small Things Like These ... The structure of the story is crystalline, unfussed: We begin at the start of something; we move almost completely linearly through the present tense; we finish when what started on the first page comes to an end. There is a clear and jarring rupture in the second half...followed by a devastatingly earnest and heartbreaking denouement ... This is not to say any of Foster is predictable — which in itself is remarkable ... Foster is exactly as sad as you imagine it would be, but more stunningly alive than you have any right to expect. Its language settles in your belly and then your bones only seconds after it has passed your eyes ... Foster is a small story, but it is not minimalist ... Keegan’s world is lush and full, the details delicately made, ever more rewarding and engaging with every read ... Keegan takes care to etch out for us this world’s particularity, to let us see,feel and hear it, to enlist us in helping bring it to life. While the scale of her story is modest...the scope of what Keegan can hold inside of it...is as big, brash and ambitious as a story might be.
RaveThe Los Angeles Times... a success on the terms it set out for itself. But it is a further testament to Serpell’s abilities and alacrity as an artist that, this time, I was completely in the thrall of the thing she made. The bombast of The Old Drift has been replaced with intimacy, intense emotionality and specificity, but the ambition, the acuity of the intelligence, remains ... The solidity of these grounding facts is key to the book’s success. Serpell’s dexterity not only inside of sentences but inside the world, delivering just enough immutable truth to guide the reader along the wobbly tightrope, gives her that much more freedom to move balletically through different registers of feeling, space and time ... Serpell’s engagement with grief grows in its layering as Wayne slips trickily into the first person previously occupied by Cassandra ... As the voice shifts, the reader has to continually recalibrate her expectations, continually reinvest in and reconsider all these different Waynes, these different types of loss...This can be destabilizing and uncomfortable, but then so can grief; so can trying to situate all your conflicting histories and experiences into a single self. It is also stunningly intimate, always crystalline at the level of the individual sentences, which remain brisk, clipped, all image and solid, immediately inhabitable metaphor ... Serpell is clear when she needs to be, opaque only when it matches how Cassandra or Wayne feels ... seems to stand on the shoulders of Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. Above all, Serpell is working with a confidence in and commitment to her project and to the story form. She understands what it is to always have hold of the reader. She does not pander or explain. Instead, the genius is in the book’s bones, its DNA. There is a sort of palimpsest of thinking, reading: The ideas have been churning in the writer for years, but the agony of that work is nowhere to be found. Instead, Serpell gives exactly what she tells us at the outset, a stunningly acute depiction of how the endless layers of both grief and absence, the impossibly slippery act of trying to be a person, feel.
PositiveLos Angeles TimesThe best book titles feel wholly different to the reader by the time the book is finished ... It is very much to Jonathan Escoffery’s credit that, after finishing his debut story collection, If I Survive You, I realized how differently I thought of the title phrase ... Short stories, ideally, evoke a heightened sense of attention: crystallized more fully than novels, they allow the breadth of a focused stretch of time, with its layers and textures, to reveal itself. At their best, Escoffery’s stories do this ... But the book suffers a bit from having to let each story feel stand-alone, even as they largely tread the same short span of time. Getting the same backstory sketched out in so many stories, I did wonder whether there was a novel in its bones. But Escoffery also makes a strong argument for the story by virtue of the fun he has inside of it ... In the end, the book tells us — and I almost wished it didn’t — who the \'you\' is ... What it also does is promise more from a writer I can’t wait to see making books for a long, long time to come.
PositiveNew York Times Book ReviewWhile the plot is peppered with a handful of specific events...the main driver of Delphi is a strange miasmic anxiety shot through with boredom ... This novel has the texture and the tenor of a certain type of fragmentary storytelling — including short aphoristic paragraphs and sharp, sometimes funny distillations that would easily fall under a popular definition of the term. Our narrator asserts her own individuality through a kind of fleet-footed intelligence ... Pollard is the author of six poetry collections, and her talents are on display as information and anecdotes unfurl with pleasing syntactic turns ... Pollard’s project is, in part, to depict our ever-present sense of dread ... I often wish I could read contemporary fiction outside of its modern context, at a time when it wouldn’t feel too high stakes and too soon. Delphi distills something elusive and upsetting about all the things we can’t quite see or understand about the present moment, even as all we ever do is look. This feels impressive, part of what good fiction is meant to do. But fiction is also meant to show itself as something separate, to deploy, by virtue of existing outside of the very time and space we’re trapped in, a logic all its own. As much as Delphi is able to observe and capture something about life these days, I still yearned for it to be more of itself.
RaveNew York Times Book ReviewMiller is cognizant of the complexity that can still breathe inside familiar stories. She helps us reconsider their elasticity, to see from different angles how they pulse with life ... Miller dips into the otherworldly, though as with most dystopias we’re offered these days, the world feels close enough to ours ... The stories hew closely to the psyches of their characters, a confessional first person or close third that sometimes roves, and it’s in this proximity that Miller lets us see the nuances of these lives ... Miller has an incredible dexterity in the deployment of individual histories: a whole list of love affairs, past losses, leaps in time, delivered efficiently and effectively within the larger narratives ... This, more broadly, is the accomplishment of this collection. You’ve read stories of this ilk before, but Miller knows and is playing with the ways that familiarity is also comfort, also proof of all the ways stories and lives infinitely repeat. You’ve never quite seen them inhabited by these versions of these characters, nor at the tenor of these sentences, with these deftly deployed layers of surprise.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesAll of this feels exactly as Taddeo intends it. Books and stories are often premised on the idea that we’re there to watch people in a process of transformation, but often people don’t change at all. Often people (and societies and systems) stay the same. Taddeo conveys the tragedy of this stagnation: messy, increasingly destructive, often very sad. These are women so entrenched in societal expectations, the ghosts of their own tragedies and self-hatred, which they will likely never quite escape ... This sameness and this sense of stuckness has a straightforward and somehow pleasing flatness, as if Taddeo’s goal is to give us not a fully fleshed-out person but instead a single sharp and lacerating slice. You might not know anyone like these women, but chances are that every woman you know holds at least a little bit of these women inside of them ... feels built to provoke — and it’s provocative. It pricks and prods you with its unrelenting focus on the many ways inhabiting a certain type of female body can ruin a life. Yet, as the stagnation spreads, the edges dull. While Animal had the time and space to drive its devastating narrative home, here each new story seems to undermine its predecessors ... That is not to diminish their moments of power; the sentences accrue a confidence and clarity by virtue of never having to cast around for what else these characters or their stories might contain. Yet they are too much of one type to puncture quite as deeply as they might have if they’d been allowed to delve a little deeper into what it is to be alive.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesWhether your first Zink novel is your last depends on your taste and also on which novel you happen to pick up. And while Avalon’s scope might feel smaller than the purview of her previous books, it turns out to be incredibly pleasing — if sometimes also baffling — to see a writer this intelligent keep the focus of her gaze this tight ... Zink’s confidence and authority as a writer are evident from Avalon’s killer first sentences ... The book continues at this clip, this register of absurdity, never stopping to answer any questions you might have about the weight of its details or events ... the sentences zip through your brain, crackling with confidence and intelligence, daring you to wonder about such basic and uninteresting ideas ... I felt, in moments, about Avalon the way Bran feels about Peter: I could never quite tell whether it was laughing at me or welcoming me in on the joke. Was I really reading a whole book about Bran’s misbegotten pursuit? What lived beneath or alongside the humor? And why wasn’t Zink working harder to give more of those layers to me? ... There’s often a point in a Zink novel when the pleasure of the zany zip begins to wane; when you suspect it’s more joke than active engagement with the ideas it promised at the outset; when the thrilling conceits start to feel like a bait-and-switch...In the case of Avalon, the reach feels less ambitious, almost ahistorical. There’s hardly a cellphone in sight, and beyond the initial strangeness and devastation of Bran’s origins lies a pretty straightforward coming of age. But this might also be what makes it work. If, instead of being stranded in our present moment, I was on an island somewhere between Arthurian legend and the California coast, why not stay another page? ... There are also long stretches of satisfying narrative, of humanity and pain ... For most of the book, the farce felt too far from Earth for Zink to land it. I kept reading though — not only because I was contractually obligated, but because, like Bran with Peter, I couldn’t seem to extricate myself. And then something happened in the last third: The book surprised me. Something landed. The flight might be longer, floatier and more manic than some might want from fiction, but it ended up, for me, feeling like art.
PositiveLos Angeles TimesThere’s an audacity here: meandering adolescence as rich, worthwhile subject; an unwillingness to pander to the reader’s longing for plot. There’s also impudence, of which Batuman is, of course, aware ... Both novels are charming and made me laugh. I became convinced Batuman is infinitely smarter than I am, got bored sometimes and then was embarrassed by my boredom, certain it was proof of my own dullness, abashed in the knowledge that I speak only one language (Batuman speaks seven) and never finished War and Peace ... There is no real breakthrough for readers who want to really feel what Selin is going through. This seems consistent, though ... lacks shape and impact, but then so does youth. We often fail to register life’s consequences when they come. Or more like: Consequence is sometimes like a mist that slips inside us, creeping and accruing, silent and ineffable at first, until 20 years later we try to write a book (or a review) and realize all the ways that certain bits of time and space have lived and grown and shifted in us since. We realize too that there’s something elemental about that time — when we knew what we didn’t want but hadn’t figured out how to pursue what we might want instead; when we were still dumb enough, regardless of how smart we were, to think that if we just read more, thought more, lived more, one day we might finally understand.
RaveTIMEIncredibly charming ... Shannon offers a sort of advice from time to time, a philosophy of hard work but also talking to everyone, making connections, and not being afraid to come up with absurd schemes. If I were to pull out any of the platitudes that she offers from the text, I’m not sure they’d feel like much. But they do work, within the context of her story, because it’s so clear throughout all these pages that Shannon actually means these things ... If there’s an alchemy to what makes Shannon who she is, it seems as much about that ache she describes as the solidity and play that she shows toward the book’s end. For every story of loss, of striving, and of doubling down in Hello, Molly!, there is also a determination to find joy and pleasure, to foster community, and to laugh. This seems, in part, to have come from her father, and the intensity and constancy of their relationship—but also from something ineffable inside of her.
RaveLos Angeles TimesWhat comfort...to enter the bizarrely relevant universe of Sheila Heti’s new novel ... The story moves relatively seamlessly through...abstractions and into the everyday of living ... Plot is not the reason we keep reading Heti’s novels. Although to say so also shortchanges their artistry. All of them have shape, accrue meaning and momentum over time ... If Annie is not quite fully formed, this feels a part of the project ... She does not ever feel like a real person, but then neither do lots of people we interact with fleetingly. Neither, for that matter, do those we worship or use as catalysts, especially if we are the kind who identify as bird ... Pure Colour is as much about making art as it is about living. It’s about the contradictions and complexities inherent in trying to do both at the same time ... It lingers and repeats itself instead of constantly bounding forward. It seems we’ve hit a point when the two highest compliments you can give a novel are that you read it in a single sitting and it hits all its beats, but this book achieves neither of those things. Instead, it made me reconsider what the particular container of the novel might hold inside of it: It dawdled and meandered ... If this book is a continued examination of Heti’s long-held obsessions...it is also a more mature take on those questions, more settled and retrospective. There’s more grief and earnestness, less sex. It feels both as thrillingly inventive as she’s ever been and also defiantly and satisfyingly middle-aged ... That is Heti’s genius: how fully she is able to show us that the tragedy of the world is all those minor losses gathering force. A single woman and her single loss, formally re-cast and sanctified within art, is also about all of us, mourning the whole world at the same time.
PanLos Angeles TimesTo Paradise...feels like further proof that her greatest strength lies in finding new ways to seduce her readers, while calling into further question the value or the purpose of the lure ... In each section, Yanagihara has an anthropological brilliance for compiling and disseminating objects, signifiers, settings. She can establish, immediately and engrossingly, both our characters and their worlds ... Almost every [character named] David is given at least one opportunity to break out of the stifling system he lives in—to escape his family for a lover or a revolution—but, in each instance, the book refuses these characters the intelligence, the agency or the page count to do it. Their narratives come to feel less like people making choices, taking actions, and more like set-pieces moved through the book’s architecture to converge on a preestablished point ... The sheer scope of To Paradise also makes it feel Big and Important, as if it has no choice but to say something about who and what we are ... What Yanagihara offers instead is the version that feels good until you look too closely, until you wake up the next morning—as after a Lifetime movie or a late-night Tinder date—and find that the endpoint was predetermined and that there’s precious little in its wake. It was Bigness, sure, full of sound and fury, but devoid of specificity or self-doubt or, indeed, of empathy.
PositiveThe New RepublicNearly every pivotal moment that the book recounts is delivered this way: There is the thing itself depicted—often filled up with digressions—and then there is an often longer engagement with the way the thing itself now lives in the narrator’s body and her brain, how it has shifted and been altered over time and through the stories that she and others tell ... In many ways, much of this feels well worn in contemporary fiction: an unnamed narrator, hewing to the basic outline of the writer’s own life, focused on consciousness and not much plot. But if Rachel Cusk, as well as Jenny Offill, Kate Zambreno, Miranda Popkey, and Sarah Manguso all write sentences defined by a crisp cleanliness, Bennett’s sentences often feel like flights of fancy: They circle back on themselves, linger in uncertainties and contradictions—they feel like mismatched socks, a layered skirt, an oversize and multicolored cardigan thrown over an ornate silk button-up as opposed to Cusk’s unadorned simplicity. The excitement around Bennett’s books is connected in part to a sense of possibility: If a writer like Cusk confronts the reader with the power of a taut, single consciousness, Bennett is stretching the forms that consciousness can take to include effusion and hesitation, self-indulgence and equivocation. It’s just as brilliant, just as well read, but more willing to grasp for and circle sensations and ideas that don’t ever quite cohere ... Because of Bennett’s ornamented, recursive style, there was a moment about three-quarters of the way through Checkout 19 when I got worried ... It began to feel like provocation: The affect never lets up—was it the book’s fault or mine that I felt the need sometimes to ask it to settle down? ... Throughout Checkout 19 stories function as a catalyst not just for thinking but for acting, choices, lived experiences; it feels thrilling to imagine all the books and stories, the reconsidered ways of being, that might come after this.
MixedLos Angeles TimesFranzen’s breadth remains extraordinary ... The sentences are often good, but it’s the way they accrue and interact, pile up over pages, that gives them their effect ... The world he builds is lush and complicated, immersive and alive ... And yet...the present action stagnates; shifts in time and among characters make it more difficult to feel the press of thrill or threat. And then, on page 358, the plot picked up: My skin got that proper prickle ... It should be said that the characters do not feel fully human; they feel allegorical. There’s lots of talk of God and goodness; past traumas are overwrought. The place we find Marion near the end feels both inevitable (by the novel’s logic) and absurd (by life’s). The characters feel, in other words, like characters: incredibly well-constructed pieces moved through the novel’s equally well-constructed world ... Franzen can spin a stellar yarn; Crossroads is further proof of that. Yet the sentences can get sloppy, attention lags. One wonders, why these seven good-to-great sentences, when one or two sharper ones could have held them all? By the end, it felt like the story was just barely getting off the ground ... I wonder about the dogged certainty with which Crossroads seems to have been written, the almost unfathomable (to me) trust that there’s inherent value in all the (many) things the writer has to say. In Crossroads, I felt the stolid knowledge that must come from decades of succeeding, a writer in full possession of his powers, etc. What I did not feel was the thrill of failure’s threat.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe start of Shipstead’s book [...] is thrilling and complicated, with many different threads laid out and back stories carefully and richly wrought; for the next 500-odd pages, I felt the fear I feel when a student’s work starts strong, when other novels open high — knowing that, more often than not, lofty heights can’t be sustained. But Great Circle starts high and maintains altitude. One might say it soars ... Great Circle can sometimes feel a bit baggy, but that seems to be Shipstead’s intention. This is a book explicitly invested in sweep ... this far-ranging breadth is as much the project of this novel as any of these individual lives — including all the ways each life exists within the context of so many others, the way the natural world informs and forms us, all the ways we are still only and particularly ourselves ... Great Circle grasps for and ultimately reaches something extraordinary ... In that, Great Circle is consistently, often breathtakingly, sound.
MixedThe New Republic... Hilary Holladay’s capacious new biography of Rich...encapsulates the mixed-up and messy, personal and political shape and texture of Adrienne Rich’s life. It shows, too, how willingly she often looked back later on choices she’d made with regret ... That Holladay uses...Rich’s own words to define the terms of the biography—is the book’s great strength. Yet, if it’s the role of the artist to name and contain the sensations of life, it is the job of the biographer to show us the mess and murk of the artist’s life that the work does not or cannot hold. What I yearned for most in the reading was a more rigorous attempt to push past the language Rich has already offered into the spaces that her own words had not yet shown: the morning after those nights up late after the kids were in bed when Rich drank cold glasses of straight vodka and smoked cigarettes, the artist-mother long after she’d stopped \'sleepwalking,\' not as an idea to which we might all aspire but as a tired, worn-out reality.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThe term \'unlikable\' has become a catchall in conversations about a certain type of female character. It’s been used as a pejorative, but also as a challenge: Books declare that they’re going to accomplish something complicated and exciting by daring to present a female character who is layered, flawed, sometimes dangerous. Susie Yang’s White Ivy asserts itself early as a novel invested in building its main character in this vein. \'Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her,\' the first sentence declares ... This sounds like a thrilling concept, but Ivy’s thievery is largely irrelevant to the story’s first 200 pages ... White Ivy is chock-full of compelling, exciting ideas. What it does not quite do is give the reader access to the experiences that might portray those ideas effectively in the context of a narrative. We’re not given the particular opportunity that fiction can make space for to reconsider them anew.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewOften, in great fiction, the characters’ responses and interactions can prove more interesting than the plot itself. Everything Here Is Under Control—the Y.A. author’s adult debut—is filled with compelling characters, but the first half of the novel fails to elevate them over the events they partake in. There is a thinness to the first 100 or so pages that arises from the book’s desire to continue to withhold a Major Secret; as a result, this part feels flatter and less engaging than the second half, which is so full of texture and authentic human ambivalence that it more fully serves the characters that Adrian has so deftly drawn.
PositiveThe Millions\"I also felt like the book was too long, but on purpose, as if Heti is performing for us what it felt like for this woman, thinking the same thing over and over again, having the same types of dreams, the same types of fights with her partner, the same kind of conciliatory sex. This feels like part of her project. If this is a book about (not) motherhood, it is also, a book about the female body and its limits and its strength. It is also an intense, sometimes maddening, performance of female ambivalence ... part of Heti’s project seems to be to push the limits of the Female, to upend the necessity of Mother, to suggest whole worlds that might exist beyond the making of other smaller versions of ourselves. But what her book also does is remind us of the limits, both of our bodies and our thoughts. For all her abstract acrobatics, this feels like a book about the complicated way Heti’s character both does and does not love her mother; it feels like an exploration of the ways our bodies hem us in.\