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
PositiveLos Angeles Times... a book as impassioned, unconventional and frustrating as its subject ... Auster delivers no new revelations or freshly unearthed documents that would argue for an update. The biographical portions of Burning Boy mainly tour regions already mapped by Sorrentino and other scholars ... Auster makes the case for his book’s existence, first, by his sheer enthusiasm for Crane ... The book’s heft is due to its second distinguishing quality: Auster’s close—very close—readings of Crane’s signature works ... Burning Boy is literary biography’s equivalent of a carpet store that brings the samples direct to your home ... The strategy often works: At its best, Burning Boy delivers the uncanny sense of simultaneously inhabiting Crane’s prose while reading about it. The book’s chief pleasure is the experience of a veteran novelist going deep on another fiction writer ...Burning Boy succeeds less as an argument for Crane’s canonization than as a showcase for how complicated canons can be ... Auster doesn’t overstate Crane’s talent. But he does want to keep underscoring it, over and over. In that regard, Burning Boy reads more like a poignant lament than a life.
PositiveThe Washington Post... a deeply immersive novel, steeped in tragedies — the chief one being characters who try to muscle their way through problems for lack of other ideas ... almost an unintentional satire of Great Men narratives, in which determined men move from strength to strength and climb a ladder to attainment. Here, Corey scraps and battles only to wind up in the same place he began ... Lish makes this kind of despair consistently engrossing, in part because he’s so rigorously poker-faced. Though he writes from an Olympian third-person, he delivers no commentary on his characters’ dilemmas, no winking pronouncements or broader messages.
PositiveLos Angeles Times... a peculiar novel, intentionally—a prismatic, sui generis story that’s unafraid of humor while addressing a humanitarian crisis, threading a needle between that urge to witness and the recognition that doing so may be pointless ... Alameddine finds a consistent tone ... Sumaiya is experiencing a crisis atop a crisis, but Alameddine wants to keep medical or political solutions at a distance. Most urgent for the refugee is clinging to her dignity ... In Telescope, Alameddine attempts to universalize Mina’s experience on Lesbos, but not out of a callow urge to suggest that her dilemmas—or yours—are comparable to the Syrians’. But if the solution to the crisis resides in empathy, a reminder of our own travels and our own uncertainty might be a meaningful step ... Blind optimism and pat solutions are for other novels. The prevailing mood here is resignation, but of a gimlet-eyed sort, rooted in an unwillingness to give up entirely. The answer is somewhere, but not exclusively in a book.
Joyce Carol Oates
MixedThe Washington Post... stormy, even by Oates’s dark domestic-gothic standards, dramatizing Michaela’s grief as it curdles into disorientation and then utter derangement. As a narrator, Michaela out-magical-thinks Joan Didion’s magical thinking. She unreliably narrates like few have unreliably narrated before. It’s both wrenching and at times over-the-top ... As a portrait of the wobbly unreality of existence that comes with a loved one’s death, “Breathe” can be effective and harrowing. Oates finds an effective way to resolve the story while preserving Michaela’s boiled-brain irrationality. She isn’t afraid to delve into overstatement to make the point that losing someone we love carves out a piece of us. But that also means Oates makes Michaela cartoonish in the novel’s latter stages. No rationality can reach her. Gerard’s neuroscience offers no comfort. Nor does spirituality — she sees those Pueblo gods as vile monsters. Nor does teaching, which only introduces her to people she can’t trust. She’s friendless and has no family. She’s so inconsolable that she becomes less a character than a leaden symbol of inconsolability ... \'To be a good widow, as to be a good wife, one must learn how to lie convincingly,\' Oates writes, just as Michaela is starting to slip badly into irrationality. In its best moments, Breathe shows how that makes a kind of sense; so many relationships are made of the stories we tell each other. But it’s also a novel that falls in love with its portrait of paranoia — and that’s not a healthy relationship for anybody.
Joyce Carol Oates
MixedThe Star TribuneBreathe is stormy, even by Oates\' dark domestic-gothic standards, dramatizing Michaela\'s grief as it curdles into disorientation and then utter derangement. As a narrator, Michaela out-magical-thinks Joan Didion\'s magical thinking. She unreliably narrates like few have unreliably narrated before. It\'s both wrenching and at times over-the-top ... The early going of Breathe is rich with...fine-grained passages about Michaela\'s morbid disorientation in the face of her widowhood ... As a portrait of the wobbly unreality of existence that comes with a loved one\'s death, Breathe can be effective and harrowing. Oates finds an effective way to resolve the story while preserving Michaela\'s boiled-brain irrationality. She isn\'t afraid to delve into overstatement to make the point that losing someone we love carves out a piece of us. But that also means Oates makes Michaela cartoonish in the novel\'s latter stages ... In its best moments, Breathe shows how that makes a kind of sense; so many relationships are made of the stories we tell each other. But it\'s also a novel that falls in love with its portrait of paranoia—and that\'s not a healthy relationship for anybody.
Anthony Veasna So
RaveUSA Today... superb ... However fraught these situations are, though, So writes about them with an irreverence and humor that matches the youthfulness of most of his characters ... While So’s characters take various paths to find themselves, he never denies the core importance of their Khmer background ... a powerful, enduring statement in itself, evidence of how deft So was at revealing the layers of complexity within a single community.
Omar El Akkad
PositiveThe Star Tribune\"... brief, taut, coolly delivered but with seas of emotion swirling beneath ... Though Amir is the story\'s center, he\'s enveloped in El Akkad\'s stiffer metacommentary on the migrant crisis from secondary characters ... The novel is strongest when El Akkad\'s lens is trained on Vanna and Amir. He refers to them together as \'children,\' which is factually true, but also emphasizes the point that surviving in a hardhearted environment—even thinking of survival—requires a certain innocence. And a late twist in the novel applies some of that innocence to the reader. We\'re too easily tempted to apply pleasant, novelistic arcs to human lives, El Akkad suggests. He uses his own novel to remind us to distrust that instinct.
PositiveUSA TodayIn Mehar, Sahota has powerfully imagined a life under extreme constraint. Imprisoned in her marriage, she becomes all the more attuned to the sensory details she is allowed to take in, from the differing touches of the two brothers to the whispers of an Indian independence movement ... Mehar’s story is so strong in itself that the plotline involving her great-grandson feels almost extraneous. We don’t need it to learn Mehar’s fate, and she carries the novel well on her own. The strongest notes of romance and tragedy are there ... But moving the story 70 years into the future underscores how much has – and hasn’t – improved since Mehar was forced into her marriage.
MixedAltaAppleseed is wildly ambitious by the standards of climate fiction and most novels, period; Bell applies some spectacular world-building ... Bell’s story is audacious beyond just its plot—he’s attempting to shift our focus from mankind to nature, or at least suggest that we keep them in balance ... The novel is imperfect. Its three-part structure makes it seem even longer than its 400-plus pages, giving us the feeling of reading three books at once. The plot can creak ... And Bell’s style, which privileges repetition to create forward motion, sometimes drags ... Appleseed offers a glimpse of what a hybrid existence might feel like—no small feat and better than a lecture.
PositiveOn the SeawallPart of the dream of immersion means recognizing that it is just a dream, always destined to end. But in highlighting that tension, Eisendrath makes us recognize how much of our reading lives puts us in a conflicted state ... \'What would a literary criticism look like that could somehow take cognizance of such conditions of mental life?\' Presumably it would look something like Gallery of Clouds, which engages with that question but suggests that it can be looked at only from oblique angles ... The book is belletristic because it’s so elegantly written, rich with digressions and pockets of dry wit ... But being belletristic here is to a purpose, to evoke the same sensibility that challenged and inspired Sidney. Here we can be patient, meander, look curiously at the fragments of an immersive literary life that Eisendrath uses to illustrate her book: Montaigne’s marginalia, the notes people leave in their books, the literary letters we receive.
PositiveUSA TodaySwann, a native Texan, cleverly reimagines the gods as down-home personality types ... Even if you don’t make every connection, Swann makes it clear that Greek myths offer a unique way to disrupt the conventional family saga ... When it comes to family-fiction tropes, Swann has found a way to be persistently, often admirably irreverent ... But rebooting myths as realistic novels is tricky, because human nature often gets skewed in the retelling. Successful such novels bridge chaos-sowing gods and resolution-seeking mortals...By emphasizing godly fury, Olympus at times lapses into melodrama, its characters delivering officious pronouncements...They speak often about what each other deserves, but because it’s hard to root for any one character, it’s easy to conclude they simply deserve each other ... thrives in its more intimate moments than in its sweeping, occasionally incredible plot.
Geling Yan tr. Jeremy Tiang
PositiveThe Washington PostIn this slim, tricky novel, [Yan] is less concerned with plausible motivations than with the emotions that consume us when we force ourselves to confront our past and our secret ... As the novel pushes to its close, full of missed connections and climactic confrontations, it becomes more fully a story about the toxicity of repression than about ill-advised online banter ... A more realistic novel might have given Hongmei a different way to share her anxieties. But in this one, the tension between her need to express herself and her questionable method for doing so is affecting, even at times touching ... flawed conceptually, but it succeeds at bringing the mood of an existential novel to a hair-raising thriller.
RaveThe Star Tribune... engrossingly creepy ... Rutherford can do scary, no question: The nine well-crafted stories in his second story collection are suffused with piles of bones, shape-shifting creatures, dark woods, starvation and storms. But Rutherford wants to conjure an atmosphere of eeriness and anxiety more than he wants to frighten. In his best stories, the otherworldliness feels intimately human, exposing our primal concerns about love, parenthood and death ... Rutherford [...] has mastered his palette of imagery almost to a fault — children and infants, after all, are easy symbols of vulnerability no matter what weirdness you apply to them. But the fear of loss his stories evoke is potent and never lapses into the easy scares of horror stories. We read these stories to be reassured as much as unsettled.
Kirstin Valdez Quade
PositiveUSA TodayQuade has taken on a sizable task – covering multiple generations of Padillas, plus friends and lovers. In the early pages, that sometimes makes for draggy passages where she’s arranging the plot furniture. But once Angel’s son, Connor, arrives and the stakes for the novel increase, the novel runs more smoothly and immersively. Quade delivers a lot of detail ... every action matters. So does each emotion, which Quade is well-attuned to ... Quade, to her credit, doesn’t resolve [...] complications with a happy-family conclusion – though, true to the religious themes that run through the book, she leaves room for a minor miracle to creep in. Dumb luck is part of precarious living too, and in this big-hearted novel, Quade knows how to make use of it.
RaveUSA Today... lush, perceptive ... The Red House, like the entire island, is seductive, and Lee describes it exquisitely ... in league with other major novels that use far-flung locales to explore cultural asymmetry and racism, like Toni Morrison’s and Norman Rush’s Mating. And as with those books, Lee celebrates what distinguishes her setting – her descriptions of Madagascar are rich and deep. But she doesn’t succumb to the exoticism that makes the country feel \'ornamental and harmless,\' as Shay puts it ... For a time, Shay and Senna’s marriage feels like an underdrawn element of the book –why stay in a marriage so suffused with anxiety, ignorance, and bigotry? But the closing pages explore that dynamic so well that Red Island House becomes a unique, surprising work – at once a psychological novel, a novel of place and a novel about relationships ... a savvy exploration of the many ways that plundering is done.
Andrew J. Graff
RaveThe Washington Post[Graff] wants to unravel some of the expectations of the genre. Nature, here, isn’t impressed with masculinity at all, and it’s prepared to smash machismo against its rocks along with anything else ... Before it delves into any of that, though, Raft of Stars comes on like an updated Huck Finn tale ... And though Stars isn’t an outright tragedy, there’s little in the way that feels triumphant. Mostly what the woods and river do are flatten our humanity into pure survival mode ... Graff writes exquisitely about the wilderness, both its dangers and the way its freedoms enchant the novel’s two prepubescent leads — the joy they find in building a raft and escaping capture is palpable ... Graff recognizes that his main job is to deliver a gripping adventure tale, which the concluding chapters offer plenty of — dangerous rapids leading to life-threatening waterfalls, menacing black bears and coyotes ... Untamed nature is bad news for humanity in general. But it’s always good news for adventure stories.
MixedUSA Today... a well-researched and engrossing book, but at times a frustratingly narrow one, despite its heft ... Bailey ably documents the lifelong squabbles over his cancel-worthiness but sidesteps making a ruling ... There’s a downside to all of Bailey’s diligent, dishy accounting of scandals and mapping of Roth’s life to his novels: A reader interested in Roth’s fiction might reasonably wonder what all the fuss is about. Roth was a diligent reviser and thinker about the American scene and a champion of dissident writers. None of that is as seductive as his romantic history. But it means his evolution and value as a writer gets shorter shrift in Bailey’s book. Roth was determined as a writer, he said, to \'let the repellent in.\' A stronger biography might’ve shown how he did that, and why it might matter for the writers who’ll follow him.
Mael Renouard tr. Peter Behrman de Sinety
MixedOn the SeawallRenouard renders no judgments upon this possible future, a posture that at first felt disorienting to me...We’ve been conditioned to expect one of two narratives in books about the internet, and Renouard has written neither of them ... The structure of Fragments resists synthesis: These are fragments, after all, riffs that sometimes engage philosophically (most commonly with French poststructuralists like Baudrillard, Deleuze, etc.), sometimes personally. This sometimes leads him to overstatements.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesFor a crime writer, a sense of place means as much as clean prose and a morally tormented hero. So a lot of what makes Tod Goldberg’s lively, often entertainingly snarky story collection The Low Desert so cohesive is its preferred destination for murder and despair: West Coast exurbia ... [Goldberg\'s] style, in the best stories here, is distinguished by a gallows humor featuring men who are just smart enough to work a grift but not bright enough to escape the ensuing trouble.
PositiveThe Washington Post... a stab at a hefty, Tom Wolfe-style social novel that wrestles with big themes. But his most complex novel is also the best of the batch, and makes a solid case for him as a real-deal novelist. It’s a provocative, entertaining book that [...] exposes our collective foibles and makes everybody look a little cartoonish. But it persuades you that we deserve the caricature he’s made of us ... Good for Duchovny. He’s not playacting at fiction. But Truly Like Lightning also reveals a celebrity’s privilege: He’s had the opportunity to develop his voice across three novels before writing one that resonates, more leeway than what’s now afforded most emerging writers, who have to take off like a rocket or be all but banished. We could use more David Duchovny novels: funny, big-picture, irreverent. We could also use a literary culture that nurtures more writers the way it has Duchovny.
PositiveOn the Seawall...meditative, eerie, and beautiful ... Hunt’s touch here is so gentle ... The novel’s simplicity, at first inviting, becomes disarming. Zorrie is living a life that we know will be shortened ... Here, about halfway through the novel, Hunt further undoes the trusswork of a journey tale. The novel undergoes a tonal shift that turns a placidly told story with undertones of tragedy into something more dreamlike. The language becomes more ethereal and suggestive, and the sentences stretch out ... It’s as if a Marilynne Robinson novel got microdosed.
RaveUSA TodayThis ought to be a recipe for an overcooked melodrama. But Hobson...has written a subtle, powerful novel that connects the Echotas’ immediate struggles with loss and memory to a wider swath of Cherokee history, from the Trail of Tears to the present. It’s a surprisingly magnetic and eerie book ... Hobson masterfully balances the family’s realist conflicts with more supernatural touches. This duality is at its strongest and most disorienting ... In this book, Hobson makes that line feel palpable, complicated and true.
David Stuart MacLean
PositiveThe Star Tribune... although Ohio is set 35 years ago, MacLean intends to speak to the present. The novel is girded with themes of racism, economic inequality and political division, suggesting that our current fractured moment is exemplified by mid-\'80s Midwest suburbia, practically built on an assembly line there ... For a while, this setup feels a little low-stakes and after-school-special-ish, the novel threatening to drift into a rote if entertainingly snarky tale of cross-cultural understanding. But MacLean patiently piles on the calamities, which tend to relate to bad decisions by adults with confused senses of loyalty and accomplishment ... The downcast latter chapters of the novel are observant and piercing set pieces about suburban malaise and economic drift, punctuated with starker themes of death and abandonment. Can literary fiction set in Ohio be anything else these days? ... MacLean distinguishes himself with his voice — that is, Barry\'s voice, at first sarcastic and distant, then earnest and ultimately heartbroken.
MixedThe Washington PostMcConaughey’s self-effacing slacker-cool attitude, which lets him casually drop a few thousand on the hapless Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl, has made him an ideal masculine movie hero for our anxious moment. The world is on fire, but he has got you; he’s our mindful-breathing Brando ... A great thing about Greenlights is that the persona never sounds like a put-on. The bad thing, though, is that he obviously wrote it himself and seems certain that in addition to being a memoirist he’s also a certified motivational speaker and, worse, a poet ... Be it through memoir or Instapoetry, McConaughey pushes an ethos of learning to take your hands off the wheel. The \'Greenlights\' of the title refers to moments when the universe gives us permission to do new things; reds and yellows are the things that stand in our way. McConaughey has obviously navigated this successfully, but his wisdom isn’t exactly transferrable ... So, on a scale of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days to True Detective I figure Greenlights is a solid Magic Mike — simply structured, a little flashy, but not as insightful as it wants you to think it is.
PositiveLos Angeles Times... craft books tend to read like invitations to a kind of shared suffering. But if Saunders’ writing guide is no more helpful, it’s funnier and more open-hearted ... though he approaches the book with I’m-just-winging-it humility, he works in some pedagogy. His trick...is not to be so pedagogical about it. Rather than throw down diktats about plot, structure and characterization, he encourages readers simply to walk attentively through each story. Saunders invents shorthand to make the process less intimidating ... Saunders delivers some old-fashioned from-the-lectern close readings, with occasional forays into multiple translations to explicate certain word choices. But he bites off bigger chunks than an academic ... It’s persuasive in context. But...Saunders opens up the kinds of questions that defy answers ... When do you get to make messes and when is it best to avoid them? On such points, Saunders may be more honest than most writing teachers, but it’s where Swim is at its haziest ... if the only solution is for writers to figure it out for themselves, Saunders excels at motivating them to do the figuring.
PositiveThe Washington PostIn a sentence, Charyn passes the literary torch ... Salinger’s disillusionment reaches its climax in 1945, as he helps liberate one of the camps at Dachau, in a masterful and stomach-churning set piece ... In outline, Sergeant Salinger is true to history. But it also strains to connect the author with his literary creations ... the blankness grates a little — shouldn’t a historical fiction provide a fuller picture of a person, one that the historical record can’t provide? Charyn’s Salinger is an empty vessel, collecting ennui and experiences, despairing for some way to clarify it all in fiction. He would get there, somehow. But in this novel, as with much of Salinger’s life, we have to accept a certain amount of mystery.
Peter Ho Davies
PositiveUSA TodayDavies’ overall position is resolutely pro-choice: The \'lie\' of the title, which comes from a quotation by the writer Anais Nin, is shame. But he also wants to show how the decision to have an abortion lingers ... The novel’s latter pages fall a little flat as Davies strives to reconcile this handwringing with the dad’s growing child and declining father ... The heart of the novel, though, is a piercing depiction of a marriage under intense pressure ... Resolution is important in novels, but it can be a cheat in novels about parenting. The anxiety might alleviate, Davies knows, but it never quite goes away.
Michael Farris Smith
PanLos Angeles Times... an earnest but humid and ill-advised attempt to deepen a top-tier candidate for the Great American Novel by applying some backstory to its least interesting character ... Nick keeps making you wonder why it exists ... it’d be nice to think the real reason writers have resisted revisiting Gatsby in earnest is because it’s thematically sequel-proof. It’s a novel about the perils of nostalgia ... Smith doesn’t attempt to mimic Fitzgerald, but there’s a lot of ersatz Hemingway ... Ultimately, the novel becomes what Fitzgerald almost magically avoided in Gatsby—a melodrama ... Nick doesn’t so much clarify Nick’s character in Gatsby as photocopy it ... Nick may in the end be the worst subject for a spinoff. He, more than anyone, knew how foolish it can be to dwell on the past.
RaveThe Washington PostThe interesting thing about all this — especially if you’re a book reviewer who’s never so much as ridden a horse — is that her fixation on horses demonstrates the breadth of Smiley’s skills, not her narrowness ... [Smiley] crafts intimate domestic stories and big-picture social novels, addresses kids and grown-ups, and writes in a host of registers ... here Smiley stretches her talents even further ... though the animals’ personalities tend to stick to the straightforward archetypes of children’s literature — daring, haughty, exploring, squawky — Smiley strives to avoid a cloying tale about getting along ... the animals’ perspectives on people make our blessed strangeness easier to see. That makes Smiley’s fun, light read also something of a more serious literary challenge in characterization: Can a novelist give a novelist human traits, and vice versa, without teetering into unreality? ... Though there’s a perhaps inevitable Disney-ish sheen to the proceedings, as if the novel was a high-end adaptation of a film like Ratatouille. Smiley has the comic sensibility to sustain the suspension of disbelief her setup demands.
PositiveUSA Today... has an unserious, gonzo attitude that’s welcome in a well-worn genre. Call it a shaggy-dog apocalypse tale ... a writer gifted at playing with genre forms and riffing on popular culture, he enjoys tweaking dystopian novel conventions: The hustling for resources, the threat of feral outsiders, the unlikely romance amid the chaos, and the obligatory lecture about social inequality and environmental stewardship ... Lethem’s own take is defiantly pulpy, befitting an author who’s written a book-length tribute to the horror-action-comedy cult classic They Live. The novel’s climax is a shambolic mashup of chase sequence and commentary on humanity’s herdlike, primal selves ... Lethem hasn’t invented a new dystopian story, but he’s had a good time dismantling the old one.
RaveUSA Today...witty and sagacious ... The persistence of anti-Semitism after the Holocaust has been an enduring theme for American writers, from Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth to more contemporary writers like Michael Chabon ... Gross earns a spot in that company because he grasps that the subject remains urgent ... a potent cautionary tale.
RaveLos Angeles TimesPete Beatty’s very funny, rambunctious debut novel, Cuyahoga, is not a Trump-era allegory. It could be read with pleasure in 2002, or 1950It’s a satire of tall tales, but not a distant, too-cool treatment. Beatty, a Cleveland-area native, deeply inhabits the tone and style of the form, paying sidelong homage to an essential American genre ... Beatty’s style in the novel is what you might call Modified Huck: Grammatically concussed but knowing and down to earth. Beatty’s sentences in this mode are homespun and lyrical, without coming off as hokum ... as fun as any well-told campfire tale ... Cuyahoga covers a particular moment in history as well as a wide swath of America’s historical consciousness.
PositiveUSA Today...should stir a host of emotions ... Jack doesn’t clear up every mystery, but it does provide some backstory ... [A] peculiar opening sequence, a 70-page stretch in which the two are locked overnight in the city’s historic Bellefontaine Cemetery ... the scene feels more like a potted and stiff one-act play than a nuanced portrait of what connects this unlikely, troubled couple ... The misstep is all the stranger because the remainder of Jack shows why Robinson is a singular figure in American fiction. She writes about faith without piousness, art without snobbery, and when she gets deep into her characters’ heads, gives their emotional crises complexity and contours ... Robinson also conjures a sense of hard-won possibility.
PositiveOn the Seawall... a Pac-Man sized chunk of the pie chart [of the memoir]...is devoted to sex. It was Giorno’s animating force, his reason for being, his means of communication, and often the heart of his poetry practice ... It makes his memoir interesting, in the way sex pretty much always does when it’s revealing and surprising ... And it makes his memoir dull, in the way that reading about sex can be when there’s no particular direction or meaning to it ... Giorno’s spiritual awakening, even more than his sense of liberation as a gay poet, gives his memoir its brightest spark ... a memoir, most of all, about craving connection in all its forms—noble, ugly, and in-between.
PositiveLos Angeles Times...ingenious and bittersweet ... To better stress her relevance, Strauss finds a way to work in a Trump ... Darin takes a while to insinuate himself into the story, which makes The Queen of Tuesday feel somewhat off-kilter. Rather than a historical novel leavened and complicated by the novelist’s presence, the book often feels divided into segregated lumps of \'auto\' and \'fiction\' ... But even someone who grasps what Strauss is doing and likes it might wonder whether a novel about a comedian should be funnier ... Strauss finds his footing toward the end, balancing Isidore‘s and Lucille’s real lives and the romance he’s dreamed for them.
PositiveThe Washington PostBaker’s disillusionment is built into his book’s structure. Its chapters are diary entries written through the spring of 2019 that catalogue the scraps of knowledge he gleaned and his tussles with the FOIA infrastructure to get them. This format isn’t so much a sustained argument about America’s history of biological warfare as it is a real-life version of Groundhog Day; the book follows a circadian rhythm of file requests, denials, archive visits and attempts at dot-connecting, punctuated by dog walks and Baker’s puttering around his Maine home ... That structure gives the book a sweetly personal feel; no book about FOIA may be more accessible to a layperson. But it also accumulates storm clouds of despair. Baker has no firm, overarching story to tell ... almost inherently unsatisfying, like a memoir about a climb halfway up Mount Everest ... Still, it’s not wasted effort. Baker uncovers enough factoids — and reminds the reader of enough past U.S. military horrors — that it’s clear his hunger for clarity comes from a sensibly righteous place ... Baker is right to take on this battle as a challenge to America’s conscience in the long term.
PositiveUSA Today... sharp and compassionate ... Tenorio is a gifted, expressive writer about the Filipino American diaspora...With the novel’s wider canvas, he’s able to more deeply explore the moral challenges that being \'tago ng tago\' presents for both Maxima and Excel ... Maxima’s racket drives the story to a tense climax, but Tenorio’s novel also delivers a powerful story about what it takes to uncover a sense of oneself when you\'ve been forced to keep it under wraps.
RaveUSA Today... vibrant, spiky ... Leilani is such a funny writer that the despair of Edie’s predicament isn’t clear until she’s fully immersed in it ... But Leilani is a master of darker, more deadpan humor ... As the situation destabilizes, growing uncomfortably thick with noblesse oblige, the metaphors get sharper ... distinguished by its focus on race, which raises the stakes for the story. The climax emphasizes that for all of her wit and flexibility, Edie is ultimately a Black woman in a white neighborhood. She’s treated as an assistant, then an interloper and finally an invader ... But Leilani is also a major new talent because her command of style and characterization is so strong. Tucked within the story of her life with Eric’s family are scraps of Edie’s own life, which emerge as she becomes more aware of her third-class treatment and her capacity to escape it. In that regard, Luster isn’t just a sardonic book, but a powerful one about emotional transformation. Edie shrewdly learns how to find strength in her jadedness, not just resignation. She becomes wise at \'parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head.\'
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times... expands this distinctly American drive across the span of a century and the breadth of the country. McPhee has earned this sweep: Over five novels she has developed such a sophisticated grasp of social-climbing characters that she’s able to track three generations with an easy grace many historical novels lack.
PositiveThe Washington PostIn his frank and poignant first book, Jollett tries to capture the path to discovering the forces that shaped him. He writes from the perspective of a child and adolescent who slowly grows aware of his circumstances. Jollett has an innate sensitivity and eye for detail. You sense that any novel he’d write would be a good one, a Denis Johnson-esque tale rife with drifters and drugs and couples hitting the skids ... As he gets older he sometimes works himself up into the kind of rhetorical lather best suited for teenage diaries. Airborne Toxic Event songs aren’t verse-chorus-verse so much as verse-verse-increasingly-anguished-verse, and Jollett can get equally overdramatic on the page ... He takes his time, but he’s never boring; it’s a curious but pleasant surprise to notice that by the halfway point of this nearly 400-page book he hasn’t even hit puberty yet ... Jollett doesn’t miss his childhood — nobody would regret escaping what he has — but he writes with an understandable affection for the kid who made him who he was.
PositiveUSA TodayThere’s the strength of Lansky’s writing, which has an easy humor combined with some of the rough edges of early Bret Easton Ellis. And he writes with depth and candor about male body image, a subject that tends to get short shrift in fiction. A late section of the novel smartly explores how insecurity and anxiety turn into paranoia and sickness ... Lansky has plenty of keen observations, but deserves a stronger novel to support them.
PositiveUSA TodayTaylor, a novelist and professor, shares these less-than-flattering details not to diminish his longtime friend, but to model the candor that Roth demanded ... At times [Taylor] is more a reporter than confidante, and though he bore witness to the worst of Roth’s final days, wracked by painkillers and dementia, the author remains a cryptic figure, seen from a distance ... A more complete picture will likely emerge when Blake Bailey’s full-dress Roth biography is published. Still, for Roth fans, Taylor’s book is essential reading, an affectionate but never sentimental portrait of the furious, divisive, and comic personality who produced a handful of the past century’s finest novels.
Amy Jo Burns
PositiveLos Angeles Times... smart, stylish ... There’s a \'Rashomon\'-like quality to Burns’ shifts in perspective; manly virtue from one angle is heedless violence from another. But she finds common threads in the way that blind faith clouds judgment, as well as in how much of the violence is borne by women ... she’s an inheritor of [writer Breece D\'J] Pancake, an Appalachian native who didn’t want his fiction to explain the region so much as inhabit it, with characters that are plainspoken and stubborn but also stymied by a sense of resignation. For Burns, that means balancing Wren’s urge to leave town with her sense of how much the place has shaped her identity ... Though it’s set in the near past, Shiner often reads like an ages-old story ... At the micro level, this can sometimes get a little odd and overwrought ... But making the place strange is part of Burns’ mission ... Better to escape the old stories and legends, Burns suggests—forget others’ unfinished sentences, and write your own.styli
PositiveLos Angeles TimesThe fish-out-of-water conceit isn’t wholly unrealistic: More LGBTQ people have been moving to red states in recent years, thanks to a lower cost of living and increased legal protections. Still, Laskey, a Los Angeles-based writer with an MFA from the University of New Mexico, makes great demands on our capacity to suspend disbelief ... If it feels far-fetched, it’s also refreshing ... And it doesn’t come at the end of a neat, tidy arc ... a fragmentary structure works, underscoring how emotional change happens in individual and complicated ways ... Laskey’s vision of inclusion is all-encompassing. It’s also alert to how halting and surprising the path can be.
PositiveOn the SeawallI Will Take the Answer is a clutch of cultural studies that on the surface revels in frivolity ... But his underlying intentions are serious, born of a belief that the more we keep spelunking through our memories of these artifacts, and their own histories, the closer we’ll get to a truer sense of being. He’s funny, but not a prankster; he’s inspired by Roland Barthes but disinterested in academic scrutiny; he’s a historian but only to the point where he can make history round back to the personal ... Zipping between past and present, mystery to mystery, from natural history to cultural artifacts, he’s trying (trying) to assert that our character is often constructed out of these sedimentary layers of thought, experience, and fact—and, more interestingly, that we engage in our culture-making to both express our sense of that being and to bury the past ... Fun as the zipping is, a little bow-tying wouldn’t hurt on occasion; I Will Take the Answer at times reads more like notes toward an essay collection than the finished thing, a statement I suspect he’d take as a compliment.
PositiveThe Washington Post... even if you’re suffering from what you might call Literary Tree Fatigue, Christie’s novel is worth reading, in part because it’s a clever mash-up of genres that distinguishes itself from its literary cousins and earns its bulk ... broad messages aside, the heart of the novel is a winning and energetic chase story ... When do we choose self-preservation, and when do we choose survival in a broader sense? The question has never gone away, but Greenwood closes with the message that it’s increasingly urgent.
PositiveLos Angeles TimesAltschul’s novel is an impressively textured attempt to look into...questions [about terrorism] ... It’s fine that he falls short: His goal is to write a terrorist thriller that isn’t about black hats and patriots but the state of confusion that’s truer to times of political crisis. In the process, Altschul gets to have it both ways; he’s written a story with an activist’s righteous energy and a novelist’s psychological depth ... If that all sounds a tick sanctimonious, Altschul is way ahead of you ... Andres and Leonora both believed that they alone could solve an enormous social problem. It’s an American brand of self-regard, blown out far beyond the scope of modest domestic novels. It can make for a big story, with global consequences.
Phillipa K. Chong
PositiveOn The Seawall...[an] academic but engaging analysis of book reviewing ... Chong endeavored to put some scientific rigor around the motivations of fiction reviewers by interviewing 40 of them, a random sample drawn from more than 1,000 bylines that had appeared in one of three major (but unnamed) national newspapers ... It’s odd: The critics Chong spoke to have strong good-of-the-order feelings when it comes to novelists, but have little sense of belonging when it comes to critics. This, for better or for worse, seems a function of Chong’s methodology, which seems to skew heavily toward the novelist-critic.
C Pam Zhang
PositiveUSA TodayZhang plainly cherishes the genre’s broad themes. Everything else that defines the Western gets run through a shredder ... Her prose at its best can be heart-stoppingly lyrical ... But Zhang’s microscopic attention to every line means many of them feel labored over. Sentences groan with metaphor or forced portentousness. Each chapter has a raw, elemental title...But instead of giving the story an earthy simplicity, the symbolism just as often burdens the storytelling ... The novel’s flaws are consistently a function of Zhang’s ambition, though – she’s confidently determined to make something new of the Western. Which is fitting, because her two memorable lead characters are trying to make themselves new as well.
PositiveUSA TodayThe lack of outward drama in Days of Distraction belies the stormy consciousness of a woman who’s struggling to define her identity as others try to do the job for her ... Chang’s strength is her ability to give a sense of confusion contours: Jing Jing’s observations are pointed, witty, and free of easy resolutions. And Chang’s deadpan style offers up moments of absurd humor ... Ultimately, though, Chang shows the challenge of trying to raise issues about racism that even those closest to her wish to avoid. Struggling to spark a conversation nobody wants to have, she conducts an engrossing one with herself.
RaveLos Angeles Times...biting and funny ... But though Wiener’s feelings of betrayal are strong, Uncanny Valley is not an embittered tell-all about San Francisco start-up culture. She doesn’t give the names of the two main companies where she worked for four years, as if she’d choke to utter them, though she reveals enough to make them identifiable ... Wiener understands that all those brand names bring their own emotional weather, and in this book, she’s determined to create her own turbulence ... Wiener’s style — informed, Twitter-pithy, at least a little exasperated — would read as mere snark if she weren’t such a gifted and witty observer ... The funny-angry voice that Wiener brings to Uncanny Valley has emerged as the prevailing tone of millennial writing and commentary — the defeated yet defiant cry in the face of being sold a bill of goods. It’s palpable in the deadpan prose of Sally Rooney’s novels ... Uncanny Valley ought to be read by policymakers just as closely as any set of statistics.
Crissy Van Meter
PositiveLos Angeles Times... a novel that aims to both beguile with its lyricism and hit hard with a sense of human ferality. Impressively, she largely pulls it off ... The mood of the novel, especially in the later chapters, is dominated by loss and betrayal ... The sensibility of this short, gemlike novel puts Van Meter, a SoCal native and former surf editor at ESPN, in league with contemporary novelists for whom humans and their environment are tightly bound together—Lydia Millet, Joy Williams and T.C. Boyle come to mind. And Creatures is studded with lovely, melancholy sentences that shimmer like dark sea glass ... Van Meter can also press too hard to stress the sweet-and-sour nature of Evie’s youth, though. The novel’s spell is occasionally broken by purple sentences...or biology factoids awkwardly pushed into metaphorical service ... But in Evie’s closest relationships—with her parents and her husband—Van Meter beautifully evokes the challenge of loving somebody in spite of themselves or yourself ... Creatures delivers a powerful feeling that we, like Evie, are destined to always feel at least a little adrift.
S. M. Hulse
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times... [Hulse] she delivers this tough material with unusual gentleness. Her style doesn’t soften her subject matter, exactly, but gives it a slower, more contemplative feel ... The grace with which Hulse depicts it is enchanting, if a little bemusing: Should a story about domestic terrorism feel so cozy? ... imagery makes for Hulse’s loveliest writing ... This is a funny way to write about domestic terrorism — to dab in some faith healing and plein-air painting...at times feels disorienting because Hulse is striving to preserve the intimacy of western tropes (protecting the homestead, keeping the family whole) while stretching its canvas. Big Sky Country awkwardly expands to include the kind of violence that makes national news, with a hero whose brother is hard to sympathize with ... if Eden Mine is a peculiar western, it’s a welcome entry in the genre of terror-themed fiction, which since 9/11 has been prone to either Don DeLillo-esque geopolitical pronunciamentos or unsatisfying mind-of-a terrorist psychological studies ... Hulse’s eagerness to do that excavation alleviates some of the more cloying elements of the story: Asa’s tested faith, the noisily symbolic names of the mines, sources of original sin and punishment. And it pays off in the end: In the climactic closing scenes, Hulse delivers a thrillerish exploration of the dueling urges to save or punish in the face of violence.
PositiveUSA Today... there’s a trickiness and intimacy to Wayne’s tale of two aspiring novelists that makes it more than a yarn about literary ambition. For one thing, it’s a savvy class novel ... Wayne conveys this tension subtly but palpably ... As if concerned that a novel at such an intimate, contemplative level won’t get over, Wayne conjures up some bigger dramas in the latter pages. It’s a literary revenge fantasy so outsize it risks being unbelievable, clanging against the main narrative as if a crime story were suddenly inserted into a romance. But the climactic incident does put the men’s characters into sharp relief, showing how readily affection can warp into obsession.
PositiveUSA Today...ambitious...3/4 stars ... Jin’s choice to keep Su Lan’s own voice out of the story makes structural sense. By refracting her through those who knew her, but not fully, we feel how tragically unknowable she was ... Little Gods is built from familiar tropes: love amid violence, lost parents, secrets held by those closest to us. But Jin brings a fresh imagination to them.
MixedUSA Today2.5 out of 4 stars ... built around a reliably intriguing character type: the nun with a past ... Olafsson needlessly delays clarifying the nature of the accusations. Given the context – priests, children – they’re exactly what you’d expect ... He borrows a bit of the dark, ironic style of much of Scandinavian crime fiction ... But while the setup promises an atmospheric exploration of sexuality, identity and truth in a religious context, The Sacrament stalls nearly as often as that car does ... Though Olafsson writes brisk chapters with tight sentences, they often lack in forward movement.
PositiveThe Washington Post... [an] engrossing...expansive book ... What mainly defines the culture in Chinle, in Powell’s eyes, is a resilience that he’s careful not to sentimentalize ... the mood lifts whenever Powell covers a game day ... the book becomes a gripping, propulsive story about a playoff run. The basketball and cultural stories aren’t parallel but braided, the problems woven around possibility.
PositiveThe Washington Post... a fine but (caveat emptor) on-brand collection, bookended by a pair of particularly inflammatory tales ... Peck’s satire of domesticity is meant to be both campy and nauseating — at least, that’s the best one can make of a kindergartner cooing \'Fever\' with bedroom eyes. It exemplifies Peck’s finger-in-the-chest attitude, as if to say, you think this domestic scenario is bad, check out what real relationships are like ... And yet. Shocking the reader isn’t the same thing as going for shock value, and Peck is operating with a purpose ... If he’s determined to unsettle, he’s also determined to find the most precise verbiage with which to do it.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesIn Shannon Pufahl’s engrossing, melancholy debut novel, On Swift Horses, California feels both scrubbed new and thick with storm clouds ... It’s practically axiomatic that every story set in 1950s America must be a critique of its squeaky-clean surfaces. On Swift Horses is no different. But it does it so skillfully — Pufahl’s prose is consistently lyrical and deeply observant. And her keenest observations are about the secrets we keep ... Pufahl,...is plainly a fan of the fiercest noirs to come out of the postwar era ... She admires the genre’s blend of high and low culture, its sharp-elbowed sentences and neon-lit imagery, its vision of hard-luck off-the-grid lives. Just as important, Pufahl’s prose can run with those icons and at times surpass them ... Metaphors run so thickly over Pufahl’s story that the novel reads as much like a prose-poem commentary on the ’50s as a realistic novel set in it ... That sense of unreality can sometimes make Pufahl’s dialogue ungainly. Her style, so rooted in symbol and lyricism, can make her characters sometimes speak as if they were prophets on a whiskey bender...Pufahl is so committed to the spell she’s casting that her characters’ voices fall under it too ... Yet it’s a remarkable spell. Pufahl embraces noir’s mood while weaving in a love story. She evokes the fear and possibility of life in a new place, with new emotions. She writes with a grace and force that’s rare even among seasoned writers
PositiveThe Los Angeles Review of books... engrossing, melancholy ... Pufahl’s prose is consistently lyrical and deeply observant. And her keenest observations are about the secrets we keep ... [Pufahl] admires the genre’s blend of high and low culture, its sharp-elbowed sentences and neon-lit imagery, its vision of hard-luck off-the-grid lives. Just as important, Pufahl’s prose can run with those icons and at times surpass them ... Metaphors run so thickly over Pufahl’s story that the novel reads as much like a prose-poem commentary on the ’50s as a realistic novel set in it ... That sense of unreality can sometimes make Pufahl’s dialogue ungainly. Her style, so rooted in symbol and lyricism, can make her characters sometimes speak as if they were prophets on a whiskey bender ... Pufahl is so committed to the spell she’s casting that her characters’ voices fall under it too ... Yet it’s a remarkable spell. Pufahl embraces noir’s mood while weaving in a love story. She evokes the fear and possibility of life in a new place, with new emotions. She writes with a grace and force that’s rare even among seasoned writers ... And she’s written a historical novel that feels thoroughly contemporary — in the anxiety of the ’50s, she’s found our own.
PositiveOn the SeawallIn the craft essays that make up the bulk of Lydia Davis’ collection Essays: One, the pleasure is always immediate, the joy near at hand ... Her embrace of a freewheeling attitude is not a prescription for slovenliness. Throughout, she demands that writers hit the dictionary — a real one, a physical one with thorough etymologies — and explore word histories, test them for sound and effect ... funny, witty ... Davis is as adept at conducting this kind of close reading with others’ work as her own ... the most charming of the non-craft essays is a piece on early 20th century Dutch tourist photographs, where you can feel her being drawn heedless into needing ever more information on the clothing, folkways, and routines suggested by the image.
PositiveThe Star Tribune\"American writers are getting more comfortable with being funny about the Holocaust. This is a tricky business, of course — there\'s a fine line between irreverent and offensive. But it can be done: ...[a] smart debut novel ... It gives nothing away to say that Slava eventually has to reckon with his deceptions. And if you know your New York debut novels, you\'ll be unsurprised to hear that Slava has a romantic conflict, too — whom shall he choose, the fetching fact-checker, or the girl from the old country? Underneath those familiar plot lines, though, are some spiky provocations about what kind of suffering deserves restitution, and how storytelling can paper over reality. \'I can imagine myself as the person who\'s forging,\' Slava says. \'But I can also imagine myself as the person who turns in the forger. How can that be?\' Fishman\'s novel is a deft and funny exploration of the answer.
Carmen Maria Machado
PositiveUSA TodayThis fragmentary approach takes some getting used to. It isn’t clear at times how long or sustained Machado’s ordeal was. (Most of the events circle around 2011 and early 2012.) And though the busted narrative format shows how deftly Machado can work in a variety of styles and formats, it but can also feel tonally wayward – the mood can leap from agony to irony in a matter of sentences ... But if you can recognize that as part of Machado’s point – that abuse disconnects you from yourself and the \'right\' way to tell a story – In the Dream House makes for uneasy but powerful reading.
RaveThe Star TribuneHe’s our national laureate of the weirdness of our normal lives. The 16 stories in his masterful new collection, Voices in the Night, riff on advertising copy, board reports, mythology and sports announcing. But within that breadth of styles he consistently prompts the reader to sense some shadowy but important news that’s about to be delivered ... Millhauser isn’t concerned with death so much as with the elements of human nature that are hard to articulate or that speak to our fears ... For all of its hauntedness and sense of biblical history, Voices in the Night is defined more by its playfulness; Millhauser tweaks genres and expectations like a carnival strongman bending steel bars.
Claire Vaye Watkins
PositiveThe Star TribuneWhat distinguishes Watkins\' work more than place ...is her command of time. Nearly all the stories are set in the present, but her characters constantly live with aftereffects of the past. They\'re not simply \'scarred\' by history; they\'re irradiated by it, queasily lit from within ... A novel may give Watkins a better canvas for her ambitious thinking about place, memory and history, but Battleborn immediately puts her in league with contemporaries like Charles Bock and Alyson Hagy, who\'ve set perceptive fiction in the new West. It\'s a place Watkins\' characters could more comfortably abide if only they could live more in the present.
MixedUSA TodayFentanyl, gun culture, mastodons and a portal to an alternative universe all figure in the plot, though like puzzle pieces from a missing box, they’re difficult to connect ... Rushdie’s path through this brokenness involves strata of shaggy-dog storytelling ... Quichotte...is uncertain of its direction, as distracted as the distraction it aims to critique. Rushdie is too busy zipping among outrages to humanize the brokenness he insists was so motivating ... like the world it imagines, Quichotte wheezes its way to the finish line.
RaveThe Washington Post... contemplative, foreboding ... There are a number of familiar ways a novel can address the subjects Overthrow, and Crain studiously avoids all of them. Nobody will confuse the novel for a thriller; on one of their first dates, Leif and Matthew pad through the Morgan Library, pondering the Gilded Age’s excesses. Though jails and the legal bureaucracy claim much of the stage, the mood rarely descends into Kafka-esque paranoia. And while it’s easy to imagine somebody like Tom Wolfe making a sweeping statement out of this material, stuffing his narrative with archetypes, Crain has declined to write the kind of social novel that’s thickened with detail about political movements and the institutions they tussle with ... Rather, Crain opts to tell this story at a more intimate level, with a degree of emotional acuity that recalls Henry James (whose work plays a modest but meaningful role in the story). At its strongest, Overthrow captures the depth of disconnection that the online world creates, and the dread and depression it sows ... Swapping human connection for an algorithm of convenience is a lousy bargain, Crain argues. His novel is a sensitive, provocative plea to recognize what gets lost in the exchange.
RaveUSA TodayThe opening pages of Nell Zink’s irreverent, ersatz social novel Doxology suggest a quirky tale about parenthood and punk rock in 1980s New York. But it soon expands into something bigger, more charming and ambitious ... Zink plays those personal and global calamities against each other, striving to bring two sad, strange notes into harmony. That experimental spirit makes her a distinctive figure in American literature, almost gleefully unimpressed with pieties ... she has a remarkable talent for taking our disorderly world and giving it a shape that feels funny, humane and true.
PositiveUSA TodayThe strength of Cha’s novel isn’t just that she understands that the problem doesn’t reduce so simply. It’s how well she inhabits the multiple communities involved, each wearing their own sets of blinkers ... Cha has taken care not to write a cynical book; indeed, she dives so deep into her characters because she believes that communicating their nuances across racial lines is essential to heal the wound. But the novel’s fiery conclusion emphasizes how difficult that work will be ... Your House Will Pay is based on a 1991 incident in which a 15-year-old black girl was killed by a Korean shop owner over a petty misunderstanding. Cha grasps the symbolic power of that story, the way it clarifies so many American social challenges. \'Where was the new city?\' she asks in the novel’s closing moments. \'And who were the good men?\' Cha’s novel is both a page-turner and a prompt to confront those questions.
PositiveThe Washington PostMelon functions as much as an assimilation novel as it does a noir. But it’s rhetorically offbeat, as well ... In the wrong hands, postmodern paragraphs can read as if they require a pickax to penetrate, and the plot in Melon can get dense, as Risto experiences hallucinatory visions that put halos around the heads of people in photos, a \'mystic Photoshop\' he often noodles over. But as postmodern crime yarns go, this one is pretty spry, and especially well-turned when it comes to Risto’s struggle to reconcile the crime he’s solving with the violence he witnessed in his youth ... Domini’s novel is determined to push the noir—and us—out of well-worn ruts.
PositiveLos Angeles Review of Books...the whodunit plot operates at a simmer ... Norman is striving to change our concept of the afterlife—not as something that is the opposite of living, but its palimpsest, its echo. Death delivers us not to heaven or hell but to the library. And aren’t books, like ghosts, echoes of our lives? In tweaking our conception of the afterlife, Norman is abandoning the ghost story as we’ve been conditioned to understand it ... The melancholic mood thickens in The Ghost Clause, as Simon, Lorca, Zachary, and Muriel contemplate their losses (the missing child, the miscarriage, Simon himself). Yet the novel’s trajectory also ultimately stabilizes the mood, as Corrine’s case is resolved and the nature of Simon’s presence becomes clearer. This isn’t the same thing as saying the novel has a happy ending...it simply acknowledges the push and pull of joy and loss.
PositiveOn the Seawall...[a] provocative, tentatively hopeful clutch of essays ... For anybody who comes to White Flights in the context of the current debate over appropriation, it’s important to know that Row isn’t delivering a craft talk about how to write about race, with explicit guidance on how not to screw it up. His main point is a trickier and more provocative one ... Row is raising a set of complicated but valuable points, and because his approach is more seeking and open-ended, it doesn’t have the force of a jeremiad or manifesto. Nor is it a marshaling of evidence. White Flights might best be described as a lament: Here we have a country with a rich ethnic and racial background, and our most acclaimed white writers seem to be strenuously laboring to avoid it ... Row’s book is a valuable starting point for a conversation that not enough writers — OK, white critics — are having. And its open-endedness, its refusal to simplify or be prescriptive, is to its credit, even if it’s frustrating.
PositiveThe Star Tribune...Téa Obreht’s M.O. is clear: She\'s determined to unsettle our most familiar, cliché-soaked genres ... the hefty and engrossing Inland...can feel like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian turned inside out: contemplative rather than rollicking, ghostly rather than blood-soaked. Obreht resists convention so strenuously that the novel sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard—that studied interiority can muffle its sense of adventure. But in its closing chapters Obreht elegantly merges Nora and Lurie’s fates, satisfying Obreht’s urge to play this old tune in a different key.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune... witty, mournful ... darkly funny ... Ultimately, [Hemon] chooses to be an optimist, at least of a Hemon-ish sort. In Bosnia’s past, he sees America’s future ... pay[s] tribute to the struggle.
PositiveNewsdayLynskey’s book is a helpful reminder that the British novelist wrote  with very particular concerns ... The first part of The Ministry of Truth, which addresses the creation of 1984, is lively literary history ... it contextualizes Orwell’s art in a valuable way, encompassing both his life and his library ... The book’s second part, concerning the book’s afterlife, is a quirkier and more skippable work of cultural history, as patchwork as the ways people have responded to Orwell ... Lynskey has more to say about the novel in the context of Bowie and The Lego Movie than, say, North Korea.
PositiveThe Washington Post...in 2010 he delivered Matterhorn a heaving 600-page epic about the Vietnam War that was largely about the plodding, crushing effort of a company of Marines to reclaim control of a mountaintop base ... There’s something similarly, stubbornly offbeat about Marlantes’ second novel, Deep River ... Sweeping assimilation novels, especially about white ethnic groups, have been out of fashion for years ... Still, Marlantes’s idiosyncratic approach is to his credit: Deep River is an engrossing and commanding historical epic about one immigrant family’s shifting fortunes. And though its story is a century old, this time it speaks more directly to America’s current predicament ... Deep River earns its scope in part because it reveals the frustratingly incremental effort to improve conditions — every demand, from straw for bedding to eight-hour workdays, becomes a pitched battle ... Deep River is a feat of lavish storytelling; Marlantes ably balances details about the logging industry and the black markets its cheapskate owners help foster, from brothels to bootlegging. But, as in Matterhorn, Marlantes’s big-picture storytelling can come at the expense of its line-by-line prose ... Deep River could use some better sentences. But we could also use more spirited novels like Deep River.
PositiveThe Star TribuneThere’s something...stubbornly offbeat about Marlantes’ second novel, Deep River ... Still, Marlantes’ idiosyncratic approach is to his credit: Deep River is an engrossing and commanding historical epic about one immigrant family’s shifting fortunes. And although its story is a century old, this time it speaks more directly to America’s current predicament ... Deep River earns its scope ... Marlantes...[is] alert to the resonances between the past and present ... Deep River is a feat of lavish storytelling; Marlantes ably balances details about the logging industry and the black markets its cheapskate owners help foster, from brothels to bootlegging ... But...Marlantes’ big-picture storytelling can come at the expense of its line-by-line prose ... Lyricism is not his strong suit ... Deep River could use some better sentences. But we could also use more spirited novels like Deep River.
PositiveUSA TodayLouis is Miller’s tart retort to the priapic, casually misogynistic heroes of Philip Roth and John Updike ... Miller adeptly keeps the reader’s feelings toward him at that place just before compassion degrades into pity ... memories fire off in the narrative like bottle rockets, brief but attention-grabbing ... a Southern version of \'80s minimalists like Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver. Her prose is clear and resonant as a church bell, and her critique of blinkered men like Louis is natural and collected ... a candid, wryly comic story.
RaveThe Washington Post... a piercingly laugh-out-loud novel in a genre that doesn’t often abide comedy. But Hanif pushes his narrative beyond mere irony, expanding his critique of America’s military interventions to include satire, ghost stories and absurdist touches — up to and including a canine narrator that’s usually smarter than any human in the room ... There’s no question that the central target of Hanif’s satire is the American military and its various missteps in the Middle East. But because the location of “Red Birds” is unnamed, his satire is more powerfully universal, pulling in a whole complex of refugees, aid workers and more who’ve been forced to live with the absurd consequences of war cultur. In time, Momo gets a little smarter about what’s going to make him money. His enlightenment, like the novel as a whole, is at once witty and crushing.
RaveUSA Today... superb ... In Dozier, Whitehead has found a valuable symbol for systemic and persistent racism in America. His narrative is brutal in its \'60s scenes, and just as wrenching when the story shifts to years later, as a free and successful Elwood contends with his memories of Nickel ... if The Nickel Boys evokes the monstrous reach of Jim Crow, it also embraces the hopeful spirit of the Civil Rights Movement ... straight-ahead realism, distinguished by its clarity and its open conversation with other black writers: It quotes from or evokes the work of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and more ... Whitehead has made an overt bid to stand in their company – to write a novel that’s memorable, and teachable, for years to come. The Nickel Boys is its fulfillment.
RaveUSA TodayTaffy Brodesser-Akner’s assured and spiky novel about a busted marriage...is an assault on misleading surfaces. In most domestic novels, that means revelations of an affair, a hidden trauma or a long-buried family crisis. But Brodesser-Akner is after something more common yet more subtle: the inability of two members of a couple to simply hear each other, and how that miscommunication is often gendered ... Fleishman is a highly entertaining novel about 40-something foibles, but it also delivers a piercing message about just how much within a relationship is prone to misinterpretation ...
MixedOn the Seawall... Asher makes a strong case for Algren’s enduring value as a social critic, if not a social novelist, and lays out proof that candor will always be seen as a threat by authorities ... The FBI file doesn’t overwhelm Asher’s story, but it guides its sensibility; Never A Lovely So Real is a critical biography, but less of Algren’s output than of the culture he lived in. Asher suggests, not unfairly, that Algren would have been more of a towering figure in American letters were critical tastes not so aggressively booshwa after World War II, or if the feds found bigger fish to fry ... The tradeoff for this line of argument is that it’s not much of a defense of his prose. As an advocate for Algren’s fiction, Asher can be as disappointing a salesman as Algren’s father was a mechanic — his discussions of the novels themselves are mainly extended plot summaries that make Algren’s characters seem like flotsam on a turgid river, followed by sketches of the critical reception they received.
PositiveThe Star Tribune\"O’Nan trusts that the simplicity of his story, rather than dulling Henry’s character, will instead reveal it ... Tracking Henry’s subtle interplay with Emily, and the unspoken mysteries that concern him, O’Nan reveals a rich inner life.\
RaveUSA Today\"... in her masterful, twisty fifth novel, Trust Exercise... Susan Choi upgrades the familiar coming-of-age story with remarkable command and sensitivity ... Choi elevates this stuff above high-school-confidential fare partly through the sheer richness of her prose: Choi’s talent is for taking ineffable emotions and giving them an oaken solidity ... So many books and films present teenage years as a passing phase, a hormonal storm that passes in time. Choi, in this witty and resonant novel, thinks of it more like an earthquake -- a rupture that damages our internal foundations and can require years to repair.\
PositiveUSA TodayNovels about the immigrant experience often turn on the psychic trauma that families endure in a new country. Etaf Rum understands that the experience can leave physical bruises, too ... heartfelt and piercing ... Rum delays multiple revelations for dramatic effect, and in the meantime, the novel can feel overstuffed with Fareeda’s repeated lecturing to both Isra and Deya about serving husbands and having sons... But the delaying is also purposeful, evoking the anxiety many families suffer about speaking up about domestic abuse.
RaveThe Washington Post\"... vibrant, intellectually rich ... like any good nation-hoovering novel, [this book] too refuses to conform to expectations ... Serpell is a natural social novelist, capable of conjuring a Dickensian range of characters with a painterly eye for detail ... Here too, Serpell gets to have it both ways. She delivers a satisfying, dramatic climax that represents the comeuppance of 19th century colonialism, as Naila and the half-brothers monkey-wrench the tools of the oppressor. And yet Serpell is too much the realist — the skeptical social novelist — to believe the fate of a nation can be resolved so tidily. After more than 550 pages, the novel is breathtaking, yet it feels like only one chapter in an ongoing story about people who see profit in Africa and who get sacrificed for profit’s sake ... Serpell resists the simple efficiency she critiques, and her clear-eyed, energetic and richly entertaining novel is all the better for it.\
PositiveUSA Today\"Golden Child isn’t thick with... rich socio-political detail ... But with a spare, evocative style, Adam... evokes the island’s complexity during the mid-\'80s, when the novel is mostly set ... Golden Child mostly operates on an emotional plane ... The island Adam describes is indeed a challenging, often brutal place. But her novel also suggests we be alert to how of many of those challenges we conjure up ourselves.\
MixedLos Angeles TimesSo much of the novel’s comic firepower—and it’s a very funny, if frustrating novel—comes from Lipsyte\'s assaults on the kind of middle-class despair that goads people Hark-ward ... Lipsyte’s lament for our dehumanization is clear: We’re too easily corruptible, too easily manipulated by \'the screens, the screens, the screens.\' But when it comes to identifying the place where our humanity resides in this techno-sociopolitical mess, he has a harder time finding the target ... The flaws in Hark are of the trying-too-hard, swinging-for-the-fences sort. De-centered, Trumpish times—when every social norm seems to have been upended—have given Lipsyte plenty of satirical fodder. Indeed, the well is practically bottomless, and finding humor in it—that isn’t just meme-speak and Twitter zingers—is an accomplishment. We need more Lipsytes. But in the process, the novel becomes subject to the same sense of distraction that it’s meant to poke fun at.
Emiliano Monge, Trans. by Thomas Bunstead
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesBy leaping forward and backward in time across most of the 20th century while following one man’s violent life in a dusty mesa town, the novel strips away anything that might be construed as heroic. Instead, it evokes a sense of terrible acts constantly repeating in one place, history grimly folding back on itself. It’s a traditional western cut up and turned into an M.C. Escher print ... It’s hard not to hear a resemblance to Cormac McCarthy in bleak, lyrical prose ... But The Arid Sky also foregrounds Monge’s taste for literary gamesmanship, which draws heavily from Latin and South American experimentalists (Márquez, Cortázar, Bolaño all come to mind) as well as the Modernists ... Yet the novel thrives on a persistent feeling of universality, a sense that Germán’s scrambled life is a stand-in for many others ... What story, Monge asks, can we tell that will break that chain of rage and violence? The Arid Sky is a cutting, provocative attempt at an answer.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneSet in 2013, the novel follows four 20-something characters who’ve returned to their southern Ohio hometown of New Canaan on the same night to settle scores and rekindle relationships. Bill is the lefty world traveler with a drug habit. Stacey is a literary scholar determined to confront the judgmental mother of her high school girlfriend, Dan is an Afghanistan vet watching his hometown witness economic decline. Tina was bullied mercilessly in high school, and she knows where to find the lead bully ... Markley’s novel is in line with a dark strain of Midwestern fiction that runs from Edgar Lee Masters to Gillian Flynn. Its bleakness and style are appealing. Just don’t confuse it for literary realism, let alone reality.
RaveUSA Today...earnest and ambitious ... [Unsheltered] has the virtues of her best fiction: A compassionate portrait of parenthood in all its complexity, rich historical detail and a gift for a piercing satirical line ... the novel is also Kingsolver at her most didactic ... There’s a twist in Unsheltered, though, that elevates it above its potted squabbles and artful blasts of anti-Trump fury ... it’s also a resonant call to be more alert to our social predicaments.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneBarry is hard to sympathize with, but his worldview is entertainingly Swiftian, absurdly upside-down ... Shteyngart often shuttles between mocking Barry and pillorying him, which makes for lively writing either way. He’s a study in outsize narcissism, a bubble that needs popping ... But here’s the most pointed message of Lake Success: Guys like Barry are always going to be OK, saved by their money and privilege. Shteyngart is careful not to make Barry a black hat—his interactions with his autistic son are compassionately rendered, and Barry is more dim than craven. But a nice guy who does not-nice work serves as a warning as well as a punch line ... He has no advice on how to change the odds, but he’s put a spotlight on how the game is rigged.
Katherine J Chen
PositiveUSA TodayRather than remounting the Pride story in genre dress, Chen’s skillfully roots out blind spots in Austen’s perspective, the way Pride celebrated integrity and honesty but was often stingy with empathy or respect for contrarian women pursuing an intellectual life. Chen doesn’t soft-pedal how challenging Mary’s task is—she’s forced to keep much of her self-possessed spirit hidden. But quietude is a powerful resource ... Mary B is a tribute not just to Austen but to defiant women of any era.
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 Times\"It 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 Review\"The 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.