RaveThe New York Times Book Review... is, among other things, a paean to the nameless people who have played a role in the transmission of ancient texts and preserved the tales they tell. But it’s also about the consolations of stories and the balm they have provided for millenniums. It’s a wildly inventive novel that teems with life, straddles an enormous range of experience and learning, and embodies the storytelling gifts that it celebrates. It also pulls off a resolution that feels both surprising and inevitable, and that compels you back to the opening of the book with a head-shake of admiration at the Swiss-watchery of its construction ... What can possibly connect such an odd bunch of people? One minute we’re haggling with Venetian book collectors in a besieged city, the next, a single mother in Idaho is struggling to pay her bills, or someone in a hermetically sealed spaceship is wondering how a beetle got in there. It’s an amazing feat that drawing from such disparate story lines, Doerr manages to keep the book compelling, coherent and moving ... To begin with, you have to take it on trust that all these elements somehow form part of a whole. Then bit by bit, the nature of the connections between each story comes tantalizingly into focus ... Doerr’s storytelling is bracing and energetic. His characters are engaging and, as readers of All the Light We Cannot See will recall, he’s nailed a particular style of rhythmic incantatory prose that uses crunchy present-tense verbs and vivid detail to grip the reader’s attention ... Above all, Doerr understands the pulse of changing fortune, the switches of destiny from good to bad and back again that have been the heartbeat of great storytelling since Gilgamesh and the Popol Vuh ... Although Cloud Cuckoo Land is a thoughtful, learned book, it’s also accessible. This feels like both an aesthetic choice and — in the broadest sense — a political one ... In fact, Doerr’s is much more than a mechanistic or childish device for passing time. It’s a humane and uplifting book for adults that’s infused with the magic of childhood reading experiences.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)... the author unwinds his story in long flowing sentences that are stretched with participial phrases and subordinate clauses...I suspect this kind of prose divides readers. Precision or preciousness? Pitch-perfect evocation of the bliss and insecurity of new romance, or a wordy descent into near-cliche? ... At his best, Arudpragasam is a patient and meticulous observer. He evokes the physical environment, the clanking train that takes Krishan north, the conquered Tamil territories, Rani’s funeral rites. He is also good on less concrete things: the colourism of the subcontinent; the misogyny Anjum encounters on the Delhi metro; the lingering hostility towards Tamils in Colombo after the war ... But on many occasions, the book’s rhetorical flourishes seem like swirls of dry ice masking an insubstantial story and unclear motivation. Why, in fact, does Krishan feel the need to go to his grandmother’s carer’s funeral? What’s at stake for him? What possible change can he undergo? And while the setup hints at tantalising possibilities, in the end Rani’s violent death turns out not to be a mystery to be solved, but the opportunity for another disquisition on memory, chance and trauma ... Krishan is a frustratingly passive protagonist. He does a lot of wondering and remembering; he smokes spliffs, and has some sex, but no real agency. Among people who have experienced so much struggle and trauma, Krishan seems drifting, inconsequential and oddly self-important. He ends up overshadowed by the more dynamic minor figures who crop up in the narrative ... The work of wondering how such a person as Puhal was possible and how she’d come to be seems like one of the things that novelists are supposed to do for us. But the detail and particularity of memorable fiction requires a form of wondering that is both deeper and less abstract than this. The frustration of A Passage North is that it gives us glimpses of extraordinary characters, but focuses its imaginative energy on the sophomoric musings of its hero.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewVivid and carefully researched, it’s clearly the product of long and conscientious work ... It’s one of Shepard’s many appealing qualities as a writer that he notices the significance of what people devote their lives to. He is interested in the minutiae of employment ... Shepard writes persuasively about the disparate places and lives connected by the disaster. The breadth of the book is necessary and commendable ... Shepard shows his gift for making art from the lives of people living in extremis. He does this with a patient, naturalistic eye for detail and a style in which exactitude and plainness bring bracing poetry. He also experiments with a different idiom, a knowing insider’s style that occasionally strikes a jarring note ... What makes the book engaging and ultimately uplifting is the emotionally complex lives of its central characters ... Shepard has managed to make art out of our crisis with a thought-provoking work of fiction that sustains our emotions, and also shames our policymakers.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewGuo is an unsparing noticer. She paints a vivid but unflattering portrait of her new dwelling in her adopted country ... The truthfulness and accuracy of Guo’s language gives the book mischief and energy. There are shades of Lydia Davis in her carefully etched sentences as she details the ups and downs of the relationship without sentimentality ... What propels the book forward is in part the sense of suspense that hangs over the nascent relationship: Has our heroine made an enormous mistake getting together with an itchy-footed boat lover? But there’s also something compelling about the breadth of the world the narrator inhabits. The book moves briskly from the canals of North London to Scotland, Australia, Germany and China. Along the way, it’s capacious enough to touch on moments of real darkness, while somehow managing to be mordant, funny and, ultimately, life-affirming ... Guo gives her characters scope to live and suffer, so her book’s final affirmation has a hard-won quality that carries weight.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... gripping ... From the off, the crisp, purposeful prose gives us the reassuring sense that we’re in the hands of a writer at the top of his game who is keen to unfold a story ... The book is written with the vividness and economy of a screenplay, unfolding through a series of sharply observed scenes full of cliffhangers, misdirection and reverses. Its lovely, rhythmic prose evokes the stinks of the Victorian city, its factories, rat-baiting arenas and slaughterhouses. McGuire dwells with fascination on the process of police work; in the breadth of its sympathies and its curiosity about detection and surveillance, the novel reminded me of the best police procedurals – The Wire by gaslight ... McGuire does everything well: evoking the pungent atmosphere of a teeming industrial city, recreating the period in a way that resonates with our own time without seeming preachy, and writing sharp dialogue that crackles with subtext. We’re dropped into the milieu and expected to pick things up as we go along, making the strangeness of the world more intriguing and the parallels with the present more urgent ... You might argue that a game of cat and mouse between an alcoholic cop and his scarred, implacable antagonist is not exactly breaking new ground in a thriller, but one of the pleasures of this book is that it reworks familiar tropes in surprising ways ... Thankfully, while adhering to some of the conventions of the thriller, the book’s final act manages to be both satisfying and oblique, rooted in possibilities raised by the specific biographies of its characters. The ending is replete with consolation and irony. While never being so clumsy as to carry any overt message, it also hints at the seductive combination of transcendence and delusion that lies behind the promises of all world-changing ideologies.
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewThe charm of Hornby’s previous books has been the way they balance middlebrow uplift with enough emotional truth to make the fantasy feel grounded. Here, there’s something underimagined about the two main characters. Tackling the intractable subjects of race and Brexit, the author seems constrained to make Lucy and Joseph exemplary and consequently rather bland ... Though there’s a lot of dialogue — internal and external — we’re not permitted to see much. It feels as if the leads have yet to be cast and the fictional world awaits the vision of a director. The characters’ thoughts linger on innocuous subjects and hurry past potentially awkward ones. The sex is obliquely described and the question of whether Lucy is fetishizing her handsome young Black partner is raised for an instant, then dashed ... While it’s never a disagreeable book, it’s hampered by a flatness that comes from our feeling that the author has deliberately wired things so the conflict will never rise above a certain voltage. And in the fraught times in which the novel has arrived, its bonhomie comes off as strained and false ... in the end, the child-proofed world of Just Like You can’t tell us much about difficult negotiations. Conflict-averse, it seems to endorse Joseph’s approach to the Brexit referendum: Check all the boxes so no one has a reason to dislike you.
PanThe Guardian (UK)... quirky, ambitious and ultimately disappointing ... a bold conceit and it’s impressive that Boyne pulls it off at all ... Characters tend to die in natural disasters or be murdered horribly every few pages; one effect of this rapid turnover is that the book feels cartoonish and unreal. The narrator careens through various historical tableaux, as though bouncing around inside a themed pinball machine ... The big canvas stretches and exposes the limitations of Boyne’s writing. No matter the historical period, everything’s rendered in a moth-eaten, non-specific literary prose where people \'don\' and \'proffer\' things and that never says in three words what it can say in 15 ... It scarcely needs to be said that the book is intended as a gung-ho rebuttal of the notion that writers should stay in their lane and stick to fictional worlds that are appropriate to their identity. But Boyne goes ahead and says it anyway ... a simplistic view of history, psychology and the problems of representation. Boyne operates under the blithe assumption that people in different historical milieux feel exactly the same way about such culturally determined things as creativity, monogamy and love. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t; but it doesn’t occur to him to wonder ... To be clear, I’m deeply sympathetic to the argument that novelists should roam freely around human experience. I think it’s important to stick up for the principle of fiction which says that through an imaginative effort you can discover and convey a sense of what it’s like to be another person. But Boyne’s take on this feels lazier, narrower and harder to defend: I don’t need to imagine your life, the book seems to say, you’re just like me.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)At its best, Independence Square made me think of a 21st-century Graham Greene novel, an absorbing thriller informed by emotional intelligence and a deep understanding of geopolitics. There’s more than a trace of Greene in the book’s sharply drawn minor characters, its insights into the world of diplomacy and political deal-making, and the contrary pulls of duty and desire. Where the novel falls short of Greene is in its over-elaborate structure, which switches between tenses and points of view in a way that feels unnecessarily complex. My other quibble is that the final revelation about what torpedoed Simon’s career is delayed beyond the point at which a reader will find themselves guessing it ... Miller has a sharp eye for the pathos and absurdities of post-Soviet life ... The most compelling and memorable character is Kovrin, a carnivorous Ukrainian success story who seems to hold the key both to achieving a peaceful outcome in the square and to understanding what triggered the implosion of Simon’s career.
Daniel Kehlmann, Trans. by Ross Benjamin
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... it’s possible to read Tyll with pleasure while knowing next to nothing about the history. This is because it first of all succeeds as a rip-roaring yarn ... this book artfully conceals its own sophistication ... It’s only on careful inspection that you see how cunningly each episode fits with the others ... historical fiction, but its strangeness and energy give it the flavour of a speculative or post-apocalyptic novel ... plunges a modern reader into an astonishingly violent and dirty alternative reality ... Kehlmann renders this world with an extraordinarily delicate and vivid touch, fixing on just those details that seem to capture the differences from our own ... a very funny novel, too, with a Monty Pythonesque fascination for absurd hierarchies, court protocol and the status games played by egotistical participants at peace conferences ... In this bleak world, the figure of Tyll himself is a tonic both to the audiences he entertains and to the reader. He stands at an angle to his era: in it, but never fully of it, looking at everything with a beady, mocking eye, like an avatar for a sceptical modern sensibility. And whereas the Tyll of the original German chapbooks is a one-dimensional provocateur, in the novel he becomes a fully realised character whose ability to see through the cant of his era has been bought at terrible personal cost ... The book also stealthily and elegantly feeds you just enough exposition to whet your curiosity about the historical figures and events it depicts ... It’s a testament to Kehlmann’s immense talent that he has succeeded in writing a powerful and accessible book about a historical period that is so complicated and poorly understood. He never pushes the parallels between present and past, but there are many ways in which this strife-torn Europe, fractured by religion, intolerance and war, is a reflection of our own times.
Javier Marías Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa
MixedThe GuardianThis is not a novel about spycraft, the drama of going undercover, or even...the moral choices attending the profession of secret agent...Marías is above all interested in negative states: waiting, uncertainty, insignificance, ignorance, deception and self-deception ... Marías is...a remarkably long-winded writer who has made his prolixity a badge of honour. In the past, he has talked about using his writing to do a special kind of literary thinking, worrying at an idea over a succession of clauses to get at a kernel of truth or exactness. Yet on the page, this often comes across as fussy and distracting. The prose seems written more for its cadences than the images it evokes ... A man, or woman, who knew how to omit would release a much improved novella from this 544‑page tome. Interestingly, the slimmed-down book would be much closer to commercial than literary fiction ... perhaps the real master of deception is Marías himself, and his book is simply a potboiler in heavy disguise.
Vasily Grossman, Trans. by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)\"
Reading [Stalingrad] is a very eerie experience. It’s like discovering the Bayeux tapestry has a prequel, albeit with marked differences in colours and texture .. Even with the restored passages, it would be impossible to claim this is a subversive or even historically reliable novel. It may not be a \'gelded fictional brontosaurus\', as one detractor memorably put it, but much of it is a conventionally Soviet book ... In the end, Stalingrad is a strange and complicated book. It is undoubtedly an amazing achievement of translation and scholarship. It’s lucid and readable, with moments of wonderfully evocative prose. I can’t imagine it will ever feel like an indispensable prelude to Life and Fate, because, as a work of art it’s significantly flawed. These flaws are themselves fascinating. It is an astonishing example of the compromises between creativity and censorship. Observing the negation of Grossman’s art as it tries to burst into flame in spite of the dampening of the censor, you get a deeper appreciation for the empathy, truth and magnanimity of its sequel. Perhaps the most intriguing element of all is the overstory: the way the Grossman of this novel somehow became the dissident author of Life and Fate.\
MixedThe Guardian\"To my taste, this is a flat-footed way of doing sci-fi. And, since you can’t possibly explain everything, the reader is sometimes left wondering why the narrator hasn’t also told you what’s happening in the cold war, or China, or how he has ended up with a glass of Moldovan white wine in 1982, when the country, then Moldavia, was part of the USSR. A further weakness is a reliance on long expositional speeches that it’s hard to imagine anyone actually saying ... With these caveats, there are many pleasures and many moments of profound disquiet in this book, which reminds you of its author’s mastery of the underrated craft of storytelling. The narrative is propulsive, thanks to our uncertainties about the characters’ motives, the turning points that suddenly reconfigure our understanding of the plot, and the figure of Adam, whose ambiguous energy is both mysteriously human and mysteriously not ... The novel is morally complex and very disturbing, animated by a spirit of sinister and intelligent mischief that feels unique to its author.\
RaveThe Guardian...Afternoon of a Faun... explore[s] uncomfortable corners of the male psyche with eerie clarity...[and] goes darker and further, with a timely and irresistibly unpleasant story that is sure to provoke passionate discussion ... In an age of loud invective and binary solutions, there is something wonderful about Lasdun’s scrupulous recording of doubts and uncertainty. I like his unapologetic literariness and the unexpected way his books draw strength from artefacts of high culture ... Afternoon of a Faun that lingers after you have closed the book with a vividness that testifies to the compact virtues of the novella.
PositiveThe Guardian...beneath the humour, Shteyngart’s spin is caustic and angry ... These encounters are vivid and funny ... The book teems with his damning, authoritative judgments about people based on their attainments and net worth ... Lake Success is spiky, timely and true, but also absolutely comfortless. That’s perhaps not surprising, given the times, but it’s also something to do with its choice of central character. The book contains many homages to The Great Gatsby, but it resembles a version of that novel where the lunkish proto-fascist Tom Buchanan is the hero ... Shteyngart manages to pull off a rather lovely denouement that elegantly weaves together some of the main thematic threads in a small act of reparation.
RaveThe GuardianKeith Gessen’s second novel is a very funny, perceptive, exasperated, loving and timely portrait of a country that its author clearly knows well ... Andrei relates the comic indignities of his new life with winning, informal candour. His fluent Russian and obligations to his grandmother draw him into corners of the vast city that outsiders never penetrate. He plays ice hockey matches in Moscow’s interminable suburbs, tries to get a date, is forced to rely on the fragmenting healthcare system, and meets young, broke Russians making their lives in a ruthless city that worships wealth and power. He surprises himself by disliking the well-off Russian liberals he meets at their informal headquarters, the cafe Jean-Jacques ... The refreshingly artless writing belies a deep understanding of Russia, its history and literature. Andrei digresses enlighteningly on Russian as a literary language, swearing, taxis, plumbing, ice hockey and the role played by global oil prices in the breakup of the Soviet Union ... A Terrible Country captures a moment when high oil prices, economic confidence and a strong rouble made Moscow appear even more intimidating than usual to outsiders.
Michelle de Kretser
MixedThe GuardianWith a tone that often refuses to indicate whether a detail is important or trivial and that wavers between satire and sincerity, the book is a difficult read at times. It can feel like staring at a page in a Where’s Wally? puzzle book, hoping for a reassuring glimpse of a hooped shirt among all the lovingly described weather, Australian landscapes, flora, clothing, fragments of history and multiplying minor characters. Storytelling is certainly reductive, but its simplifications are the means by which human beings make sense of themselves and of each other. It’s not until the book’s brilliant final act that De Kretser allows the reader to fall in love with a character, Christabel, whose particularity grips and moves, and who achieves the ultimate revenge against the writers who have wounded her, by throwing their novels in the bin.
Brian Van Reet
PositiveThe Guardian...one of the best opening chapters I’ve read for ages...The strengths of this excellent book are all on show in these tight 15 pages: the vivid observation, the nuance of its characters, the deep familiarity with the processes of waging war ... Van Reet doesn’t flinch from skewering the invasion’s cruelty and ineptitude, but his ambition goes beyond presenting us with only the US experience. The story gives us three perspectives on the unfolding action ... It feels intellectually responsible for Van Reet to push beyond the world he knows to give us a larger perspective on the war, but al-Hool is an empathic stretch for the author and there is more obvious contrivance about this section of the book ... It may not be news that war is hell, but our chronic forgetfulness of the fact makes Spoils feel not only rewarding but necessary.
MixedThe GuardianThe stories are constructed with great care, combining beady-eyed observation with farce, black comedy and occasional moments of lyricism. Ferris never tells us in so many words that his protagonists are awful, but their selfishness, narcissism, neediness and moral idiocy are the recurring notes of the collection ... The stories are thoughtful, mordant and funny, with a tendency towards farce that will divide readers ... My big cavil with the book is this: as a man – and, full disclosure, a somewhat American man – I found its troupe of grotesques exhausting company. The stories so thoroughly impugn their characters for selfishness and delusion that I began to bristle...I closed the book wanting to send the author a copy of Robert Bly’s Iron John – or some Walt Whitman, perhaps, a less ironical Brooklynite who loved men, and found in them beauty and spirit and resourcefulness.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewSelection Day casts a beady eye on these specious myths. It’s one of many commendable things about this book that it both relishes the brothers’ talents and presents them within a bigger picture, revealing the many varieties of corruption and damaging obsession that surround such endeavors ... Adiga invests even his minor characters with pathos and depth. The selfishness that drives the boys’ father is rooted in credible pain. We perceive him as his sons do: part monster, part clown, all bumpkin ... Most passionately of all, Selection Day is a novel about awakening sexuality ... This is a novel with broad sweep, accomplished with commendable economy and humor, in a sinewy, compact prose that has the grace and power of a gifted athlete.
PositiveThe GuardianThroughout the book, [Josie's] outrage is exquisitely articulated and very funny ... Having set Josie and her children in crazed motion through a world of more or less random encounters, Eggers forgoes obvious plot twists and simply gives himself the task of knowing this woman as completely as wit and empathy will permit ... In spite of its picaresque structure, the novel has a strong sense of urgency.
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewA Country Road, a Tree doesn’t offer its reader many footholds. It sticks very faithfully to the facts of Beckett’s biography, but often doesn’t tell you exactly what they are ... yet for all its deliberate obscurities, A Country Road, a Tree is much less radical in style and conception than the man Baker has chosen to honor. The purpose of the book is to show how a directionless expatriate writer ripened into the Samuel Beckett of literary history. But it’s impossible to imagine Beckett writing a bildungsroman where the difficulties of World War II bear heroic fruit in the artistic triumph of Waiting for Godot ... The atmosphere of ennui eventually leaves the reader wondering if a more engaging tale could have been told with the resourceful and practical Suzanne as its protagonist.
PanThe New York TimesThe new novel quickly becomes a breathless mash-up of wormholes, mythical creatures, current affairs and disquisitions on philosophy and theology. Behind its glittery encrustations, the plot resembles the bare outline for a movie about superheroes.