Mark Athitakis has written on books for numerous publications. He serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Barnes and Noble Review, and many other outlets. He is the author of The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt. You can find Mark on Twitter @mathitak
RaveThe Star Tribune...a darkly comic novel that makes something new out of familiar themes of disenchantment ... under the novel’s veneer of absurdity and provocation is a nuanced study of emotional helplessness. The narrator’s parents are rarely far from her thinking, although she denies she’s grieving. She mocks her appearances-obsessed friend, who eulogizes her own mother with a speech that \'sounded like she’d read it in a Hallmark card.\' But the narrator knows her life is no less mediated. Submitting to Big Pharma is the best if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em tactic she can imagine. Moshfegh plays up the humor and strangeness of the concept, partly to ensure we don’t think of the novel as a pat addiction narrative ... the novel is also set during 2000 and 2001, with the twin towers looming much like the narrator’s late parents.
RaveUSA Today\"As a teenager in England, Fincham-Gray was enchanted by the TV adaptations of James Herriot’s best-selling books, which made a vet’s life seem as easygoing as a country stroll. She’s grown up to write My Patients and Other Animals an engrossing, visceral counterpoint ... My Patients and Other Animals is at its best when the author is at her nerviest, removing the romantic sheen from her profession and replacing it with a more realistic and complicated portrait. If it’s sometimes tragic, it’s also consistently rooted in compassion.\
PositiveBarnes & Noble Review...an especially well-turned representative ... Tell the Machine Goodnight is structured more like a set of linked stories than a novel, the better to explore the varieties of (anxious, none-too-happy) responses that Apricity provokes ... unsettling, but not surprising.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times\"Joshua Wheeler detours around them all in favor of his native southern New Mexico in the engagingly chatty and seriocomic Acid West ... Wheeler is determined to put \'SNM\' on the map on new terms that don\'t play to stereotypes ... Wheeler is the inheritor of a conflict that\'s defined the last few generations of American essay writers — they\'re supposed to speak their passions but also keep their emotions at a distance. It\'s a hard balance to maintain, and sometimes Wheeler drifts toward glibness or callousness.\
PositiveThe Washington PostWeegee, born Arthur Fellig, stood out...thanks to talent, hustle and a remarkable lack of a conventional social life. Perhaps that’s why Christopher Bonanos’s appropriately gritty biography, Flash, is subtitled the \'making\' of Weegee, not the \'life\' of him ... Bonanos is especially skilled at tracking how Weegee’s blood-in-the-gutter style became obsolete thanks to squeaky-clean postwar attitudes, politicized photojournalism that he largely rejected and newspapers’ flagging fortunes ... The masses didn’t always share Weegee’s brand of obsession with sex and violence. But for a brief, electrifying moment in American life, they were in perfect sync.
PositiveLos Angeles TimesEvery novelist is required to have a feel for busted relationships. But Groff has proven to be particularly expert and inventive on the subject ... From the first line of “Florida — “I have somehow become a woman who yells” — it’s clear that Groff is still on-brand. Her writing about relationships rarely sticks within the narrow, Updike-ian confines of domestic dysfunction, though ... Groff’s favored stylistic tone to describe these predicaments is straightforward but moody and metaphorical — magical realism without the sparkle and sense of wonder. But she also has a gift for mordant humor.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune\"...a tender coming-of-age story so warmly delivered you almost forget how much of its plot involves smuggling, spycraft and assassins ... The pleasure of spy novels is their suggestion that smarter and savvier figures are protecting our lives. Ondaatje tweaks the notion, considering Nathaniel’s life in the context of spies falling down on the job ... Ondaatje gets to have it both ways: His elegant prose is a pleasure in its own right and a scrim that Nathaniel layers over his own story, protecting himself against how abandoned he’s been. A love of secrets, for better or for worse, is his inheritance.\
RaveNewsday\"Barnes subtly but powerfully signals how badly Paul wants to absolve himself — or at least sort out how complicit he is — by having him tell The Only Story in a variety of moods and tenses ... The Only Story is downcast too. But it evokes the rhetorical playfulness of his earlier work, constantly prodding the reader to consider how complicit or self-deluded its hero is ... It’s a cliché to say that love is inexplicable, but the strength of The Only Story is Barnes’ willingness to explore the nature of that inexplicability, how it makes for honeymoons and tragedies alike.\
RaveThe Barnes & Nobel Review\"...there’s much about The Recovering that’s inventive: its careful braiding of memoir and literary criticism, its close observation of addiction and creativity, its comprehensive grasp of the way alcoholism provokes scapegoating, solipsism, fear, shame, and solitude. And yet the redemption story won’t be blown up, behaving as if it were encased in twenty feet of concrete. Familiar as it may be, the redemption story is what helps save her ... The Recovering is nearly 500 pages and has such an intense and clarified energy, such a bone-deep compulsion to work out recovery’s paradoxes, that you feel she could go on for twice as long. (And I would happily read that book.)\
PanThe Washington PostBefitting an actor whose résumé includes both Dead Man Walking and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Bob Honey is all over the place in any format, slapdash in style and structure ... May he never quit his day job; Penn delivers prose as if he were gunning for a prize from the American Alliteration Association ... Bob Honey is best appreciated as the fever dream of a boomer who watches the news, cannot make sense of it, but cannot contain his fury at it anyhow ... If only the satire were funnier, though. If only the writing were more coherent. And if only the timing were better ... Sean Penn is not up to it as a novelist, but who knows? There is always a chance for a movie.
PositiveUSA TodayHe’s back-loaded the story with twists, from ones that were hinted at early to left-field surprises. And the brisk and busy ending is a fireworks show of redemption, revelation and old-fashioned gunplay. That knack for speedy narrative can be a fault at times: Scenes from the assassin’s perspective are relatively underdrawn, and for all the globetrotting the characters do, from New York to Dubai to Rome, there’s little vivid scenery to take in. But Bohjalian clears room in this no-nonsense narrative for moments of humor and sensitivity. He’s done his homework on the lives of flight attendants, and the abuse and absurdity they often face ... In that regard, it’s an assured novel about reckoning not just with some ruthless bad guys, but private sadness as well.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe heart of the novel is an expedition deep into the outback that’s ostensibly a search for the murderer but is in fact a grotesque hunt for aborigines ... Like every Western, Howarth’s spotlights how arbitrary frontier justice can be. But he also asks: How much less arbitrary is a purportedly civilized society ... As long as people are inclined to scapegoat, there’ll be people who’ll use the law to legitimize it.
PositiveNewsdayHollinghurst resolutely avoids detailing the exact nature of the incident. You ache for a big reveal, with some of the lavishly explicit sexual detail that’s a hallmark of Hollinghurst’s fiction. But no fireworks are forthcoming ... despite Hollinghurst’s deliberate, sober indirection, the book is rich with the kind of emotional detail that marks his best work ... Hollinghurst has taken a sizable risk in constructing a narrative whose main character is undefined — or, more precisely, only roughly sketched by others. The novel’s dividends are there, but they’re often subtle ... For all its occasional ponderousness, the main virtue of The Sparsholt Affair is its recognition of the distance between reality and how others perceive it, and how that distance is quite often cavernous.
Luis Alberto Urrea
PositiveThe Barnes & Nobel ReviewThe vibe of the novel isn’t an elegy for the end of a clan that’s lost its sense of identity, but a tribute to a family that has acquired the freedom to make multiple identities for itself ... another strategy Urrea uses is to not stay in one place too long: The silly scenes give way to the richly comic ones, the sentimental ones to the moments of somber pathos. And he’s rightly confident that the mix of storytelling forms will cohere ... Urrea’s novel is a Mexican-American novel that’s a retort to what such a novel ought to be. For a novel about death, there’s a lot of life in it.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesIt is a lament for what a broken immigration system does to families, and its final third is a riveting, heartbreaking exploration of one such case ... His lyrical asides about the border, from the history of its creation to quotations of poets who've written about it, are passionately delivered and speak to his urge to give nameless migrants an identity. But he spends less time scrutinizing the institutions that create the namelessness. His discussion of the Mexican government's bloody escalation of the war against the cartels only glancingly mentions the U.S. government's implication in it or the way border crackdowns only made crossing the border more expensive and risky.
The imperfection of Cantú's approach, though, mirrors the messiness of the crisis he's facing.
PositiveUSA TodayFeel Free, Zadie Smith’s second collection of essays, brims with a wide-ranging enthusiasm — she’s stoked by everything from highbrow art to TV sketch comedy. But her excitement is tempered by a concern over what politics have done to the cultural landscape ... The stakes are high for cultural consumers, she argues, especially if what we value in culture is diversity. She’s comfortable diving into the occasional controversy to make that point... But at heart she’s more a booster than a warrior, inclined to praise her chosen subjects, among them Jay-Z, Joni Mitchell, Key & Peele, J.G. Ballard, Hanif Kureishi and Philip Roth ... That open-mindedness gives the whole of Feel Free a lively, game-for-anything spirit ... She craves those rare moments when joy emerges, and falls hard for any work of art that can mimic it. Feel Free is an enchanting manifestation of how deep her craving runs.
MixedThe Barnes and Noble ReviewKarl, the middle-class British suburbanite at the center of Luke Kennard’s debut novel, The Transition, embodies the anxiety and entrapment of everyday capitalism, the way you can be a critic of commercialism’s abuses even while you can’t help being one of its victims ... And though Kennard is wise enough to know that we, like Karl, are skeptical of the scheme [the Transition] from the start, he ably spaces out the increasingly troubling revelations about the Transition across the novel ... Kennard presents Karl’s enlightenment (and horror) as a kind of intellectual thriller... The Transition itself is unquestionably a menace, but Kennard is strenuously avoiding the more stormclouded rhetoric of dystopian novels like 1984 or even The Handmaid’s Tale... But though the shame in that rightly belongs to the kind of political and commercial interests that would create something like the Transition, we don’t get a clear sense of what those interests look like ... Kennard’s not wrong there; humans do have their flaws. But so do institutions. The best dystopian novels recognize both.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesDoctorow made the nation itself feel like a character, and Nathaniel Rich, in his third novel, King Zeno, aspires to do much the same for his hometown of New Orleans ... Plotwise, it's a crime story, but thematically, Rich uses this historical matter to explore the intersections of corruption, music, business and racism that were secret at the time but are now out in the open. It's not Ragtime, but it's respectably ambitious for wanting to be ... Rich imagines a culprit, though, one who fits his vision of the city as a place with enormous potential (jazz, a pluralistic culture) undone by old-fashioned racism, fear and corruption... Profound symbolism giveth, but it also taketh away ... It's the one form of fiction that's arguably most at risk of making a mess. But it can also speak powerfully to the present, and King Zeno often does.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...a pleasant case of a ghost story that gets it both ways — it delivers a satisfying rendering of what that supernatural world might be like, while preserving the sense of mystery that draws us to such yarns in the first place ... Pierce, like every ghost-story writer, knows we crave an unreality to match the humdrum real world we’re stuck in. Unlike many, though, he grasps that we chase that tension not to cross into some 'other side' but to feel steadier on this one.
Ursula K. Le Guin
PositiveUSA TodayA blogging octogenarian is the kind of thing we’re trained to see as endearing and cute...that’s the kind of sentiment Le Guin is eager to swat away in her witty, often deeply observed collection of posts, No Time to Spare ... Le Guin comes at these assertions gently at first — her posts often kick off with an anecdote in the paper or a letter she received, before getting at more substantive matters ...if her blog has a recurring theme, it’s her eagerness to question the words we often take for granted or dismiss ... At her fiercest, she’s fully persuasive at how consequential and dangerous such word choices are ... Le Guin has a well-ordered mind, but No Time to Spare is a more casual rummage sale of a book.
MixedUSA TodayIn Louise Erdrich’s philosophical yet propulsive 16th novel, Future Home of the Living God, the source of the chaos is harder to pinpoint ...does bear a strong resemblance to the dystopias of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Year of the Flood ...interweaves the plot with Ojibwe folklore and writings by Catholic thinkers like Thomas Merton, spiritual lifelines for Cedar as she plots her survival ...as much a thriller as it is a religious-themed literary novel — it thrives on narrow escapes, surprise character appearances, and a perpetual sense of peril ... Braiding the two styles sometimes feels ungainly — Cedar’s family portraits feel incomplete, as does Erdrich’s depiction of how crazed the world has become. But her overall narrative is effective and cannily imagined.
RaveThe Barnes and Noble Review...Doyle’s new novel, Smile, is a taut and somber novel about a subject that’s usually treated lightly and satirically — the midlife crisis ...a story with a twist, and part of the reason the twist gets over is because we’ve been trained not to take characters like its narrator very seriously ...less a midlife-crisis story than a return-of-the-repressed story, and for such a short novel there are miles of geologic strata between who Victor is and what he’s trying to avoid ... Smile is a remarkable feat of characterization for Doyle... As ever, he delivers his characters best through dialogue, where the profane, pint-soaked bantering exposes how we try to make sense of the harshness of the world while at the same time keeping it at bay ...the heartbreaking core of the book — what it means to be a man, and how much pretending happens in the name of calling yourself one.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThere is no single incident that sends ‘Murph,’ still a teenager, off the rails. War itself is too plotless for that, and it has a way of turning traditional definitions of sanity and madness inside out … Powers, himself an Iraq vet, shifts the story back and forth in time from Iraq to stateside to deliberately fog the truth about Murph's fate and John's complicity in it. Powers earns the right to shuffle the deck through the clarity of his sentences: His flat, affectless prose is a barrier against piety and sentiment, but when John's emotions run free the lines gain a run-on rhythm that's practically biblical in authority … The Yellow Birds has the outward simplicity of a fable, and it captures the collision of camaraderie and grotesque violence that's all but required in every war story. But beneath its veneer of clean prose is a complex reckoning with how much words matter.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneSisters is written in very short chapters, many of them one or two sentences, which evokes a scattered, unsettled brain. You can’t begrudge her some anger: 'Once while we were making love, my husband called out her name instead of mine,' she writes. But Tuck is interested less in well-worn themes of love and fidelity than our capacity for self-deception. The style of Sisters — clipped, interior, written with a deliberately flat affect — is in good company of late. Novels like Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Rachel Cusk’s Outline all consider relationships from a fragmentary, almost cubist perspective. For all of them, the idea of a straightforward romantic narrative is overly, well, romantic. What distinguishes Tuck from her peers is a command born of experience — she’s been writing in this mode since the early ’90s, earning a National Book Award for it (somewhat controversially) in 2004. Sisters looks like a busted narrative, but Tuck expertly deploys revelations like land mines.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewPower, and especially the gendered nature of it, is central to Jennifer Egan’s fifth novel, Manhattan Beach. It’s first and foremost a deeply researched historical novel about mobsters, sailors, and shipbuilders during World War II, which arguably makes it Egan’s most conventional work … But the new novel’s meticulousness about battleships in Brooklyn and nightclubs in Manhattan shouldn’t obscure the fact that Egan is still playing with form. She’s just doing it in the hulls and keels — she’s just using the structure of the historical novel to shake up the good-girl-done-good story … Manhattan Beach has plenty of adventure-survival-danger, too, especially in an extended set piece featuring the wreck of a merchant marine boat and the survivors’ agonizing wait for rescue. What intensifies that drama, though, is Egan’s sense of how the different paths that are cleared for men and blocked for women lead to such predicaments.
RaveThe Cleveland Plain DealerWalter is well-tuned to be this story's narrator. As a relatively well-educated widower who's sidelined from work because of a hand injury, all he can do is watch. And Walter, via Crace, is a fine observer. One of the pleasures of Harvest is the degree of precision with which Crace imagines this small town, from its sexual peccadillos to its justice system to its (broken) leadership to its bad habits … So if Harvest is an allegory, what is it an allegory of? Take your pick: Terrorism, prejudice, insularity. Encroaching technology is Crace's greatest concern, though, especially the way it reshapes our very thinking.
RaveUSA Today...ranks among Rushdie’s most ambitious and provocative books ... Given its themes, the novel is a somber departure from the fable-like, comic style that has been Rushdie’s signature since his 1981 breakthrough, Midnight’s Children. But The Golden House still displays the quicksilver wit and playful storytelling of Rushdie’s best work. Through René, he weaves in screenplay dialogue and smash cuts, adding some snap to his typically labyrinthine prose. Nor has Rushdie lost his preternatural capacity to mash up mythology, religion, history and pop culture ... Rushdie makes his Nero a study in conflicts — magnanimous but corroded, generous yet neglectful of his children and the women in his life. In the process, Rushdie illuminates America’s conflicted self, too, where good and evil are in 'an uncomfortable and perhaps irreconcilable alliance.'”
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneTime and setting shift so much in the book's early chapters that the novel initially feels centerless, almost recklessly jumbled. But Walter's aim is clear: He wants to show how even today, when the idea of ‘culture’ has seemingly degraded to reality TV and e-mail forwards of cute otter videos, great art can still transform us … Walter makes each character memorable, in part by accessing their distinct storytelling voices. We read Shane's heartfelt but gloomy film treatment, Michael's straight-talking memoir, and the first chapter of Alvis' autobiographical novel, which he wants to be ‘the sort of funny that makes you sad, too.’ Walter wants that, too: As he moves Pasquale, Michael and Dee toward each other again, decades after their first meeting, the plot is littered with his characters' missed opportunities and dashed ambitions. Yet Beautiful Ruins is enlivened by wisecracks, rude jokes and caustic wit, and if Walter has to choose between cynicism and optimism, he'll pick the latter.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe stories in Paul Yoon’s debut story collection are told with a placidity that belies their violence — reading The Mountain is like admiring a glowing sunset before realizing that what you’re really watching is a wildfire heading your way ... Yoon grasps the reader’s urge to root for heroism and survival, then slowly nudges us toward reality. All six stories in The Mountain play with this tension of how to describe loss and failure simply but without clichéd bluntness — his sentences read like Hemingway stripped of his machismo ... working at a smaller scale, Yoon sometimes has a more difficult time maintaining a balance between storytelling and atmospherics, leaning on a soft metaphor — a missed train stop, a drifting rowboat — when a firmer line would better highlight his characters’ crises. Even so, The Mountain is remarkable as it is, as close as the short story can get to poetry without losing its grip on plot. The people in its pages are struggling with the kind of crises that are hard to make concrete.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe surfaces of David Mitchell's vibrant, exquisitely written new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, suggest a conservative, even antiquated tale...But Thousand Autumns succeeds in part because those old-fashioned storytelling skills are so firmly in his grasp … Mitchell's prose is a pleasure in itself, never better than in virtuosic passages when de Zoet's musings collide in real time with what he sees, sentences of thought and observation ping-ponging against each other. This novel is about language – how it connects and distances – and Mitchell revels in wordplay, nautical jargon and jokes. And he does it with little flash: The novel is mostly dialogue and crisp, brief paragraphs.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble Review...a critique of our best-intentioned it-takes-a-village sentiments that’s both more realistic and more weaponized than similar treatments ... The premise of The Blinds is so intriguing that you don’t dwell too much on that erasing-memories business, even though it’s the most volatile material you can pick up at the Hubristic Tropes Store ... the implications of the concept get a little messy in the telling in the closing chapters ... But Sternbergh sells the basic point: We mess with our psyches at our peril, and one way we mess with our psyches is persuading ourselves that we’re just a few regulations away from maintaining order.
Alain Mabanckou, Trans. by Helen Stevenson
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesFor all the novel’s humor, Moses himself is a cautionary if not tragic figure. The latter sections of Black Moses turn on his loss of memory and the inability of either neuropsychologists or folk healers to repair the damage done to him. His amnesia might be real, but it’s also a symbol for his cultural condition — stateless, parentless, tribeless, faithless ... Making this point while preserving a sense of humor is a tough trick, and in the early pages Mabanckou (via his translator, Helen Stevenson) doesn’t seem entirely up to the task — the prose is more dryly expository than brightly quixotic. But once Moses’ essential conflicts emerge — church versus state, good versus bad, family versus isolation — the brief novel gains liftoff, as pointed as it is funny.
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThat anger eventually explodes, but the mood before that happens is less one of rising tension than of novelistic furniture being carefully arranged. Caught-between-two-worlds characterizations abound ... Such contrivances frustrate because Platzer clearly knows his turf. A Bed-Stuy resident himself, he convincingly sketches out how thin the neighborhood’s peaceful veneer is without lazily singling out one cause of dysfunction ... This awareness of the complexity of the neighborhood, though, is often at cross-purposes with the tidy narrative line of the novel itself.
RaveThe Los Angeles Times...a brilliant book whose brilliance comes via a bait and switch. It opens as a comic portrait of a midlife crisis, but concludes as a somber cautionary tale frothing with cataclysms, including fire and gunplay ... It comes on as unassuming yet stylish, but circles around tricky questions of occupation and power in the U.S. and Israel. And yet none of it feels messy or overreaching — indeed, it feels master-planned to slowly unsettle your convictions, as the best novels do ... Cohen has a brain-on-fire intellect and a Balzac-grade enthusiasm for understanding varieties of experience, which encourages the reader to stick with his provocations ... Americans and Israelis may not be engaged in the same conflict, but they share a similar challenge in solving complicated questions of faith, race and the law. Cohen’s book is a comic and harrowing study of the consequences of ignoring them.
RaveThe Washington PostWhat Lee has written is a subtle novel about how people on the edge of a financial cliff are forced to sacrifice their ambitions ... If Lee dwelled exclusively on the friction between his three main characters, he’d have delivered a thoughtful working-class tale burnished with some Dylanesque wisdom. But Lee also weaves Yadin and Jeanette in a matrix of larger social pressures ... If Lonesome Lies Before Us isn’t the best American novel of the year, it’s one of the most American American novels. It’s intensely concerned with the civic institutions that shape everyday lives, and with who’s affected when they disappear. That’s too much weight for the average country song to bear, but Lee’s novel carries it just fine.
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneObreht aspires to erase our compulsion to commemorate war through old gestures of gritty realism or melodrama. Here metaphor will carry the day, as colorful and sturdy as the copy of The Jungle Book
Omar El Akkad
MixedThe Minneapolis Star Tribune[Certain lines] reveal the biggest problem with American War, one common to Dystopian novels: It has to speak the language of oppression and resistance, which is usually stiff, bureaucratic and militaristic. Great for rallies, tough on novels. But El Akkad, an Egyptian-born journalist who’s covered the war on terror, has a knack for giving that material as much of a heartbeat as possible. His imagined speeches, transcripts, history-book passages, censored letters and news stories feel accurate while highlighting institutional deceptions and omissions. Better, El Akkad clears plenty of space for human-scale storytelling amid the geopolitical scaffolding ... There are few glimmers of humor, though, or even much of the optimism that most Dystopian tales gesture toward in their final pages.
MixedThe Los Angeles TimesThere are a lot of places a premise like this can go, and it’s not always to the credit of The One-Eyed Man that Currie eagerly pursues so many of them ... Covering all this turf while keeping the tone uniformly comic can make the novel feel at times ungainly and forced. But Currie is also an experienced hand with this material ... He can cogently explore the theory of relativity, capture his friends’ exasperation at hearing about it ('When did you turn into Mr. Roboto?'), and evoke the grief that sent K. on this trip to Rationalia.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...the novel’s lifeblood is Batuman’s observations of our struggles to communicate. Whether it’s teaching ESL classes or studying linguistics, Selin is cornered into moments that expose just how prone to confusion we are ... Selin is aware that an American teenager is 'the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person.' But Batuman also knows that her struggle is a timeless one. 'Why were we all so bad at writing stories?' her hero asks. 'What were we missing? When would we get better?'
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewA remarkable — if very hard to love — memoir of the small comforts of literature and a sizable urge to throw off the baggage of personal history ... But Dear Friend isn’t a defense of the virtues of that absence so much as a first attempt at exploring what a life might be like without relying on them so heavily. If that does seem coldhearted, the flipside is that the very same attitude that made her a writer: She abandoned a promising career as an immunologist to pursue fiction, in part by neglecting all of those narratives about destiny and appropriate professional trajectories ... Literature is full of departures and disconnection — a hero goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town. Li’s book proffers an extreme vision of that emotional separation, but it’s not one that most readers will find unrecognizable. We’re all on that journey; it’s just that Li is traveling light.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble Review...a sublime series of portraits of one man’s sexual history ... Aciman writes tremendous lust scenes — moments where the erotic power of a man or a woman is so strong it reshapes its well-educated but heedless hero ... The fractured structure of Enigma Variations is key to the novel’s strength — the book is built on variations on a theme, not a familiar arc of love-gone-wrong or happily-ever-after. This leads to some contrivances, like the section about the woman Paul tumbles into bed with once every four years. But the push-me-pull-you relationship is also a surprisingly tender way to explore the idea of 'relief [and] its terrible partner, indifference, which is the impulse to let go before we’ve even begun reaching for what we crave' ... There’s something here for everyone, along with the appealing notion that everybody can be encompassed by this book’s particular someone.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesThe twist in Ellis’ brisk, harrowing new novella, Normal, is that while its eye is on what’s next, its structure is decidedly old-school — he’s bringing the bad news in the form of an Agatha Christie-style locked-room mystery ... Ellis does have a message about our future to deliver via those creepy-crawlies. But first he delivers a witty, if somber message about our present ... Ellis is engaging in the very soothsaying that he’s poking fun at, an irony which can be grating ... he has a knack for taut, fast, cliffhanger-driven installment writing. To that end, the closing pages of Normal have both the propulsive power of any solid thriller and the kind of social awareness Dickens might appreciate.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe Eastern Shore, has an elegiac, almost funereal tone ... An old-school journalist himself, he’s mastered the art of intimately understanding institutions without being impressed by them ... The Eastern Shore has an episodic shape and loose style that amble around these issues rather than attack them, often digressing into Ned’s musings on old jobs and past girlfriends. But if it’s lesser Just, its nostalgic, autumnal tone is also fitting.
RaveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewLittle Nothing, is a marvelous book. I mean 'marvelous' in the this-critic-approves sense, sure: Her command of character, style, and storytelling is expert and sustained. But I also mean it in the sense of being full of marvels ... Little Nothing is steeped in strangeness, but it’s driven by a basic question that frees the best novels and their heroes when the time comes to explore their worlds: What if there’s something else out there?
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe Nix is a durable, entertaining, at times harshly skeptical novel ... aspires to both the sweep and social critique of the past generation’s big-book authors — Tartt, Franzen, Eugenides. Hill has the style and bravado to belong in that company, and a candor that, if he can sustain it, suggests a brash new path as well.
Jonathan Safran Foer
MixedThe Washington PostThe Blochs are witty and whip-smart and engagingly dour in ways that sometimes evokes J.D. Salinger’s Glass family...But Foer’s microscopic attention to a couple of days in the life of the Blochs pushes off the novel’s dramatic geopolitical crisis for hundreds of pages ... Foer’s ambition in Here I Am has more to do with scope than with language, but once he’s put in the position to write about serious consequences, he again retreats into precocity and tiny domestic tussles.
PositiveUSA TodayThe language in Another Brooklyn isn’t much more complex [than her YA books], and Woodson sticks to brief episodic scenes. But it’s a much more dynamic book, alert to the confluences of dramas that a teen absorbs all at once, from racism to sexual abuse to the loss of family members. For all the tough lessons she delivers, though, Woodson also writes with a consistent warmth and compassion.
Joe McGinniss, Jr.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewThe tension is in that disconnection — how much of our lives do we need to live via text message and selfie, in anonymous hotels, in half-abandoned housing communities, before we lose our sense of self? McGinniss is gifted at cultivating a feeling of emotional distance in response to that question ... Phoebe and Nick have about three too many hollow squabbles followed by hollow reconciliations, and he could stand to be funnier; Carousel Court‘s dark mood leaves little room for dark satire. But his dry, crisp, sun-glared vision also suggests a path for fiction that is at once existential and operatic, slick but with a moral imperative, too.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesA closer cousin to Neon Green is Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, partly because of its mysterious-invader-in-the-burbs plot, but also because of its downbeat brand of satire ... But as Cynthia’s health worsens, the overall mood dims and Wappler writes in a dry, plainspoken tenor...At times these tonal shifts can be queasy-making, and some of the plot mechanics in Neon Green aren’t entirely persuasive ... But Wappler has found an entertaining way to make a point that’s often neglected in suburban and alien-invader novels: Being an outsider is a matter of perspective.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe stories in Adam Johnson’s excellent second collection, Fortune Smiles, tend to open by introducing a cryptic word or phrase whose meaning isn’t fully revealed at first. That’s a handy way for any short-story writer to hook a reader. But Johnson hides especially dark and peculiar meanings: Those innocent unexplained words soon lead to visions of emotional and physical wreckage, from North Korea to post-Katrina Louisiana to East German torture facilities. Gotcha, you imagine Johnson saying, each time.
Claire Vaye Watkins
PositiveNewsdayWatkins is a magnificent writer about the ways the west offers freedom and oppression in equal measure ... The best parts of Gold Fame Citrus explore how the apocalypse has cranked up the spiritual absurdity ... But Gold Fame Citrus ultimately narrows its scope, its brainy apocalyptic adventure story fading into a conventional tale about Luz's conflicted romantic affections.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...mental illness in contemporary fiction is often lousy, too. Readers endure either earnest clinical depictions — usually thinly veiled critiques of the pharmaceutical-industrial complex — or out-there prose that's supposed to evoke madness but instead reads like gassy rambling. Adam Haslett's brilliant second novel, Imagine Me Gone, is a remarkable exception, capturing two troubled minds with rare empathy, realism and insight. ... a memorable, funny and ultimately heartbreaking trip.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneLydia Millet's new novel has the bones of a thriller — there's a woman threatened by a stalker ex-husband and a kidnapped child. But 'thriller' implies high action, and Sweet Lamb of Heaven is softer and more emotionally interior. But 'psychological thriller' doesn't work, either: The term leaves little room for the loopy, music-of-the-spheres philosophizing its heroine engages in. We didn't know we needed a metaphysical thriller, but here Millet is with a fine one.
PositiveMinneapolis Star TribuneCentered on one survivor of the camps, Brand, a man who’s stateless and romantically adrift, it evokes austere postwar existentialist literature. And in its no-nonsense portraits of femme fatales and double-crossers, it could pass at times for a Raymond Chandler novel...What O’Nan is counting on — and rightly so — is that this will all feel alive and current for readers regardless.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewDespite its funhouse-mirror version of 1970, Hystopia is a straightforward chase yarn — will Singleton and company catch up with Rake, and what will they find when they do? What the novel’s length allows him to do is to explore the multitude of ways memory worms into our consciousness, despite our best efforts to suppress it. Tripizoid’s effects can be undone by good sex, or cold water, or thinking too hard, or talking to another enfold too much, or pressing hard on your temples, or just being mean-spirited enough — Rake was an early enfolding experimentee. That’s the grand joke that emerges over time: The simple business of living is going to force our trauma to the surface. Whether we’re capable of responding to it well is another matter.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesAlice & Oliver is at its best as a story about how a couple must develop an internal GPS to recalculate the path through unfamiliar territory, when the things that attract them to each other and the comfort of their routines begin to get scraped away...the true-life elements of the novel are meaningful only in terms of the novel's main flaw: If the book avoids wearing its heart on its sleeve the way Love Story did (thank goodness), it does sometimes overshare its research.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings is a lengthy novel, but it hardly ever reads as one. Its chapters are clear, short and episodic, and O’Connor writes about slavery and intimacy with equal grace. His vision of romance in a society defined by division is wrenching, and proof that dreaming can expose reality better than any hard truth.
Roy Peter Clark
MixedThe Barnes & Noble ReviewLittle of Clark’s advice is bad. And his love for the books is plain. Yet the thing that makes literature great is that it resists efforts to put it to such pragmatic purposes.
Joyce Carol Oates
PanUSA TodayThe Man Without a Shadow is strongest at highlighting the consequences of this professional despair across decades, how Elihu is cruelly and unwittingly used as a pawn for both professional ladder-climbing and emotional solace. Margot is a brilliant but lonely woman who resents her mentor, but she can’t help modeling his behavior. But how Oates strains to keep this story together!
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribunethe novel is consistently concerned with people with messed-up heads. But McKenzie successfully plays up the humor ... If there are a few too many scenes of parents and kids rolling their eyes at each other, the extra bulk serves the point that escaping past your past isn't easy.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThese pieces aren't rocking-chair reminiscences but attempts to make the familiar feel brand-new — like a down-home Roland Barthes, his quirky observations and sudden narrative turns remind us of the strangeness we miss every day.
MixedMinneapolis Star-TribuneGrace and generosity define Robinson's fiction, but this book reveals how much labor goes into understanding them.
PositiveBarnes & Noble ReviewThe novel falters when its unreality (a brilliant play written in five hours!) rubs too closely to its portentous sentences. But the novel is remarkably cohesive, considering how far Groff is willing to push her central characters...Fates and Furies doesn’t blow up marriage, but it’s a ferocious attack on its pieties and commonplaces. The marriage plot is forever, but Groff has found a new way to court the reader.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneIn its restrained, patient way, Tuck’s novel successfully creates a whole person, even if she knows that creation is inevitably a fiction.