PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of Books... will certainly inspire a sense of urgency and a cheer for the underdog in anyone who dives into it. In this reader, the narrative also provoked less easily digestible emotions ... The author describes their courtship elegantly, though there are times when she makes too much of a point of Rosie’s artlessness ... Despite the centrality of Rosie and Bennett’s relationship to the book, author Finn narrows the focus to Rosie after yet another earth-shattering event involving both of them. It’s rewarding to watch how Rosie’s life unspools without the specter of Bennett over it, though the existence she cultivates is far from perfect ... Readers will have to decide for themselves whether they find the conclusion of this engaging novel satisfying — when Rosie’s life, never easy, takes a last, unexpected turn that forces her hand once again.
RaveWashington Independent Review of BooksA sparse, moving portrait of a woman’s journey through life as she follows her scientific passion ... Lottie’s presence has stuck with me, an indelible impression made by masterful storytelling ... Heyman’s narrative technique of starting the story in the unpleasant present creates the impression that the rest of the novel will be devoted to explaining how Lottie ended up in this position. Indeed, the other parts do explore her past—much of it traumatic—but there is beauty and triumph along the way, too ... concise, almost minimalistic reporting style is one of Heyman’s greatest strengths; it leads us to conclusions subtly rather than jamming them in our faces ... Heyman has one more twist in store for Lottie that will shake her (and readers) to the core.
MixedThe Washington Independent Review of BooksIt’s clear from Brian Castleberry’s debut novel, Nine Shiny Objects, that he is a formidable short-story writer. The novel, parceled into nine viewpoints, each spread five years apart, almost feels like a short-story collection itself. Unfortunately, Castleberry fails to adequately tie the narratives together in a way that satisfies the reader ... If every narrative clearly related to the incident — if each, say, were one person’s memories of that fateful night or an account of the consequences of their actions — this lack of center might not be a problem. The viewpoints, however, are more akin to snapshots of each person’s life, the connection to the attack or its effect on the person sometimes only becoming clear after several pages ... Paired with the expansive timeline, this leads to occasional confusion — how is this person, who wasn’t born when the attack occurred, affected by it? How was that person involved? It also makes it difficult, though not impossible, to feel connected to any character, as we know they will only be with us for a short time until we move on to the next narrative ... Despite its shortcomings, Nine Shiny Objects is beautifully written, with prose that occasionally verges on maudlin but more often stays on the right side of sentimental ... The author is certainly effective at capturing emotions, which makes it all the more frustrating that what should be the emotional anchor of the book is never properly examined. One feels that, had the reader been given more of a chance to witness and learn about the attack, we might be more invested in the narratives. As it is, we are privy only to jumbled memories of the night, lacking in depth and clarity ... Taken purely on its writing merits, Nine Shiny Objects is a strong first novel. No doubt Brian Castleberry’s talents will only continue to improve with time.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksReading Andrés Neuman’s nostalgic Fracture, which centers partly on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, could be a fraught experience during a pandemic — and, indeed, many of the main characters’ convoluted feelings are likely to resonate with, and unsettle, the reader. The author’s skill, however, makes this compelling story well worth the emotional investment ... These women could easily have become simply foils for Watanabe’s inner journey. To Neuman’s credit, however, they are each deeply complicated characters with correspondingly conflicted wants and needs ... Neuman has done a masterful job sharing with us what goes on inside his head, and this book is an excellent choice for anyone who enjoys examining relationships in the face of tragedy.
Oksana Zabuzhko, trans. by Nina Murray, Halyna Hryn, Askold Melnyczuk, Marco Carynnyk and Marta Horban
MixedWashington Independent Review of BooksIt’s a rarity to come across writing that strikes an intimate tone, drawing you close and whispering tantalizing secrets in your ear. In Your Ad Could Go Here, Oksana Zabuzhko attempts this confessional tenor, occasionally achieving it but more often falling short, perhaps due to her rambling prose ... Unfortunately, the author’s writing style — expansive, meandering, parenthetical — deadens the emotional punch ... Some sentences are nearly a full page long. Readers may find themselves several pages into a story without any idea where it’s heading or what it’s about ... Luckily, Zabuzhko’s collection includes enough stories that I was able to experiment with my reading. When I treated each piece as a conversation — one in which Zabuzhko was doing most of the talking and I was listening to an interesting anecdote — it became easier to digest content and meaning, to appreciate the author’s gemlike nuggets of wisdom ... These observations, so uncomplicated, are...stunning when given room to breathe.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksSwitek does something challenging with ease and grace: He makes us care about a tiny protovertebrate with whom we ostensibly have nothing in common, but to whom we owe everything ... The reader feels safe in the author’s hands. We trust that he will tell us all we need to know to understand the story. As Switek transfers his attention almost seamlessly to prehistoric humans, we find that trust is well-placed ... There are moments when the author, a proponent of careful thought regarding social issues, veers off track, with varying degrees of success ... These insights into Switek’s mind are valuable, though perhaps he would have done better to grant them their own separate chapter and address them all together. Overall, however, it seems better to have a writer who thinks too much about such subjects than too little ... truly begins to flourish the closer we get to the present day, perhaps because Switek is delving deeper into topics many of us have heard of but not examined.
MixedWashington Independent Review of Books\"... we know much less about the men who served Henry, from his closest spiritual advisors to his shrewdest economic counselors. Tracy Borman’s Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him tries to remedy that ill, with mixed results ... The background [Borman] provides, though somewhat long-winded, does indeed lead the reader to a greater understanding of Henry VIII’s lifelong motivations and bugbears, which were many and varied ... Borman does an excellent job describing Henry’s upbringing, from enumerating his talented tutors to depicting his participation in lavish court celebrations ... Regrettably, the author’s writing begins to veer off track as she chronicles Henry’s ascent to the throne ... Borman has cast her net of research so wide that it’s difficult, at least at first, to distinguish who the truly important figures were. By introducing so many minor players, she complicates the narrative ... Though at times confusing and meandering, Tracy Borman’s Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him is a solid portrayal of a monarch who, after hundreds of years, still manages to capture and hold the imagination of generations.\
D. Wystan Owen
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksUnusual relationships are at the heart of Owen’s stories, which delve to voyeuristic depths ... the characters in Other People’s Love Affairs are strongly reminiscent of Alice Munro’s ordinary—yet by no means dull—affairs of the heart. This is the beauty of both Owen and Munro: They nudge open the door to hidden psyches and invite us to step inside ... It’s a testament to the power of Owen’s storytelling that, despite the shortcomings of his characters, we care deeply about them. He asks us to acknowledge their—and our own—humanity ... In fact, it’s difficult to find a weakness in Other People’s Love Affairs. If there is one, it’s that some connections seem slightly unbelievable ... Owen’s writing is so exquisite, however, that it overshadows any such flaws ... Easy as it would be to recommend Owen’s book only to lovers of short stories, that would be selling it short. Truly, this book is a worthwhile read for any lover of poetic—and poignant—commentary on the human condition.
MixedWashington Independent Review of Books...reads like something out of a horror novel, and it’s certainly a book you should consider if you’re a history buff ... Unfortunately, Horn’s writing style can be choppy and distracts from what should be a compelling narrative ... it’s clear Horn has done extensive research that enriches her book immensely. Many of her chapters include minute details that a less-conscientious writer might have dismissed as unimportant ... The less plot-driven parts of the book also feel cobbled together. Horn combines different types of narratives seemingly at random ... invaluable insight into how such tales of history’s dark periods can inform our present and future decisions.
RaveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksAlthough the reader may at times feel impatient with the amount of time Weiss takes to set the stage, her detailed lead-up to the climax is worth it ... At times, The Woman’s Hour can feel labyrinthine, due not only to the number of people involved in the fight, but also to the author’s in-depth analysis of a six-week period of nonstop activity. Mostly, though, Weiss’ attention to the small things pays off. She writes with wry humor ... Elaine Weiss’ book is a well-written, well-thought-out work set in a decisive historical moment. For readers eager to learn more about woman’s suffrage and for history lovers in general, it is a must-read.
PositiveThe Washington Independent Review of BooksSchmidt’s timeline can be confusing; for most of the book, two characters are recounting the day before the murder, while two others are describing the day of the murder itself. In addition, all four characters have frequent flashbacks meant to illuminate their characters, making it seem as though the book is taking place at many different times simultaneously. This suits Lizzie’s disjointed chapters, and perhaps Emma’s, since her past is so intertwined with Lizzie’s. For Bridget and Benjamin, however, the reminiscences often serve as distractions rather than clarifications. Despite these occasional diversions, the author does a superb job of conjuring up the circumstances surrounding Mr. and Mrs. Borden’s murders. Her prose mimics trains of thought without rambling, and by allowing the characters to tell their own stories, she is able to avoid some of the exposition necessitated by a third-party narrator. Schmidt’s slow burn — the buildup of the day before and the day of the murders — pays off in a big way.