MixedThe New York Time Book Review... almost every time you expect a scene of horror, you get a scene of kinship instead ... A writer who dives into a gay love story along with one of mutual regard and affection between white and formerly enslaved people in the Deep South at the beginning of Reconstruction is clearly someone who wants to accomplish a lot and pose big questions. I applaud the novel’s ambition and I don’t want to mischaracterize the book. There are scenes that ring true with what we know about the experience of slavery ... Nevertheless, throughout The Sweetness of Water, it seems that Harris is working hard to undercut and reimagine the vision of post-Civil War America that readers commonly encounter, especially in novels and films of recent vintage. I sometimes admired that Harris was so willing to challenge the ways that slavery and its aftermath are typically portrayed in fiction (and also queerness, which rarely appears in novels about this period) — the beatings, the horror, the rage. Yet I repeatedly found myself saying: \'Really? Could that really happen?\' ... doesn’t feel quite right. Why do the Walkers behave so differently from most of their fictional neighbors (and, for that matter, most real white Southerners of the time)? Why are Prentiss and Landry at ease with them? The novel doesn’t do the world-building work that would make the civil, supportive relationships among the four characters convincing ... Writing an ambitious novel is reaching for heaven; not quite getting there is less a failure than a promise for the future.
C Pam Zhang
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewChinese-Americans — both native-born and immigrant — played a huge part in the settling of the American West, a fact that has too rarely been the subject of fiction. How Much of These Hills Is Gold, a debut novel by C Pam Zhang, is a tough-minded, skillful and powerful corrective to that omission. She dismantles the myth of the American West, or, rather, builds it up by adding faces and stories that have often been missing from the picture ... Zhang’s sweeping descriptions of the West put me in mind of the Steinbeck; she captures well its aridness and wild beauty, as well as what it costs those who traverse the barren land ... Don’t get me wrong: Zhang’s voice and story are wholly her own. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is an arresting, beautiful novel that in no way directly mines another. But by invoking these tropes, she reimagines them for thousands of forgotten Americans of different races and gender orientations; her American West is no longer populated only by the all-white, predominantly male cast of characters who, we’ve been told, created it ... an aching book, full of myths of Zhang’s making as well as joys, as well as sorrows. It’s violent and surprising and musical. Like Lucy and Sam, the novel wanders down byways and takes detours and chances. By journey’s end, you’re enriched and enlightened by the lives you have witnessed.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewThis novel takes a winding road through the forest and doesn’t rush to a finish, nor is the ending wholly surprising. But if you allow yourself to walk along with Patchett, you’ll find riches at the end of the trail ... Patchett pulls this off both through her conviction and through her willingness not to wink at or be coy about what she’s doing. There are even direct references to well-loved childhood classics ... The power of fairy tales is the way in which they grapple with some of the verities of human life — kindness and cruelty, love and hate. So it is in this novel ... Unlike a fairy tale, The Dutch House is peopled not with archetypes but with distinctive and believable characters ... It’s a rare novel that examines the experience of a close and dependent brother-sister relationship — far more often, we see tales of same-gender siblings. If sometimes Maeve and Danny seem a little too good to be true...their devotion is also quite moving ... There are very few sharp edges in this novel beyond Andrea’s central villainy and I periodically found myself wishing for a narrative that was, if not searing, a little less smooth ...That said, what I (occasionally) wished for isn’t what Patchett was trying to achieve. The heroes and heroines of fairy tales face mighty challenges but they almost always make it through in the end. In The Dutch House, all’s well that ends well — and that’s a pleasure.
PanThe New York Times Book Review\"It’s somewhat difficult to relate what happens in A Wonderful Stroke of Luck. This isn’t surprising: Beattie has never been a plot-driven writer. In her best earlier work, that isn’t a problem. But in this novel, I found myself wishing for an index of characters so I could see who was who, to figure out what mattered and why. Ultimately this is a novel in which nothing seems to matter much. It’s so discursive and shapeless that I found it impossible to glean what story Beattie was trying to tell and why a reader should care ... There’s also a troublingly blinkered aspect to the world Beattie has created, as regards race, age, gender, technology — really, as regards the modern world ... a seeming carelessness throughout... extends to a reliance on clubby shorthand that speaks only to certain people (literary-minded baby boomers) instead of creating a compelling narrative peopled with diverse, vivid and interesting characters ... A Wonderful Stroke of Luck does contain some elegant sentences and cutting observations that remind a reader of Beattie at her strongest and provide some moments of pleasure. But when I was done with this novel, I sought out and read two of her best short stories of the 1970s ... One hopes that as Beattie continues down the final stretch of road of her life as a fiction writer, she finds her way back to the perceptiveness and skill she has shown so abundantly in the past.\
John Edgar Wideman
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"Wideman puts us on notice: Wherever we’re going with him, we’re going to engage with America’s unhealed wounds of slavery and racism — and it’s not going to be comfortable or easy ... All are illumined by a searching intelligence and a willingness to test the boundaries of the short story form ... I found the digressiveness of this collection frustrating at times — it’s not a likable or easily accessible book. But in this case, that’s not a criticism. American Histories is not here to be liked. It’s here to challenge you. And that it does.\