Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is a critic-in-residence and lecturer at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism. She is the author of So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures and the literary memoir Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading!
Elliott J. Gorn
PositiveNPR[Let the People See] builds on new evidence discovered by the FBI in 2005 to present a detailed reconstruction of Till\'s kidnapping and killing in Mississippi ... Gorn also dives deep into a legal analysis of the transcripts of the trial ... But what\'s most interesting about Gorn\'s book is his final section, called \'Memory,\' in which he traces how Till\'s story, which seems so well-known today, came very close to \'pass[ing] into oblivion\' ... Let the People See is a timely book about the fragility of collective memory ... a vivid reminder of just how easy it is for people not to see things they\'d rather not see.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalGreat white literary fathers are not in vogue right now ... Forget those preconceptions, however, because Mr. Tóibín’s investigation into the lives and legacies of what he calls \'three prodigal fathers\' is juicy, wry and compelling ... the august academic origins of Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know don’t cramp Mr. Tóibín’s relaxed first-person style here ... Mr. Tóibín is writing here as a psychoanalytic literary biographer, somewhat in the Janet Malcolm mode. Thus, like its subject, the critical approach of Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is also out of fashion these days. But, if a critic is going to rely on Freud, what better place to do it in than a book on fathers and sons? Mr. Tóibín’s approach yields especially charged assessments of John B. Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce—both of whom were Olympian procrastinators and scroungers ... Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is an entertaining and revelatory little book about the vexed relationships between these three pairs of difficult fathers and their difficult sons.
PositiveNational Public RadioOnce upon a time in America, ordinary people turned to Roosevelt for advice, and as these columns attest, she repaid their trust with responses that are downright startling to read today because of how seriously she took even their most mundane problems ... Although she was, by nature and upbringing, emotionally reticent, Roosevelt sometimes responded to the genuine need of her questioners with an openness that was rare then and almost unimaginable now ... As trivial a cultural artifact as an advice column may seem to be, Roosevelt\'s If You Ask Me columns reveal multitudes about the extraordinary relationship she forged with her fellow Americans, of all races, young and old. There\'s something very democratic about this 20-plus-year monthly \'conversation\' of sorts that Roosevelt conducted on the pages of popular women\'s magazines. People felt they had a right to contact Roosevelt and she felt she had a responsibility to respond.
RaveNPR\"What a tonic this book is for anyone who feels the world is too much with us these days! Maliciously witty, erudite and ingeniously constructed A Ladder to the Sky explores the cold outer limits of ambition ... Part of Boyne\'s own brilliance as a storyteller is that, up until the very last chapter when we readers finally enter into Maurice\'s mind, we hear, instead, from a succession of narrators fated to become Maurice\'s prey. That approach only intensifies Maurice\'s enigmatic allure ... Boyne himself doesn\'t share Maurice\'s difficulties with generating plot: A Ladder to the Sky keeps twisting and turning in such slyly unpredictable ways that, honestly, I sometimes laughed out loud at Boyne\'s ingenuity.\
RaveThe Washington Post\"Dark Sacred Night is billed as the first \'Ballard and Bosch novel\' and it is ingenious, frantically suspenseful, and very, very bleak ... Let’s just say that in the spectacular final third of Dark Sacred Night, the two detectives learn the hard way that they have each other’s backs.\
RaveThe Washington Post...trust me, you are in for a singular mystery experience ... her cases seem like they’re taking place on one of those old Anytown, U.S.A., Twilight Zone sets. The Infinite Blacktop is the most intricately plotted of the series ... The peculiar charisma of Gran’s mysteries derives not only from her wayward plots but also from eccentric details.
MixedThe Washington PostIn The Gatsby Affair, Taylor idealizes Zelda and carries forward the tradition (perfected by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast) of diminishing Scott by emasculating him ... Most of these tidbits have been reshuffled time and again in earlier biographies. The new angle Taylor purports to offer is access to [Zelda\'s rumored lover Edouard] Jozan’s letters and recollections by his daughter Martine ... Regrettably, what Taylor mostly serves up is a pile of unsifted information about Jozan’s ancestry, schooling and military training. Descriptions here are so dense with trivia they make reading an act of the will ... Perhaps it’s a sign of desperation that Taylor resorts to reading Zelda’s and Jozan’s astrological signs ... The Gatsby Affair is one of those wobbly biographies where a reader constantly flips to the \'Notes\' section, only to be frustrated by the lack of sources tethering pronouncements like: \'Edouard Jozan was the type of man about whom Zelda always had fantasized.\'
RaveNPRLing Ma\'s Severance, however, is an unusual apocalyptic novel. Satiric and playful — as well as scary — it lends readers the assurance that humor will linger even as the world winds down to an end ... Ling Ma is an assured and inventive storyteller ... Like the best speculative fiction, Severance also aims for more than chills and thrills: without being preachy, Ling Ma\'s story reflects on the nature of human identity and how much the repetitive tasks we perform come to define who we are ...
Ma\'s vivid apocalyptic novel is something of a sardonic wake-up call.
MixedThe Washington Post\"It’s very eerie; it’s also quite hefty and static for long stretches. Whether you find the novel satisfying will probably depend on how much you care about action vs. atmosphere. French expertly crafts a cloud cover of thickening menace throughout this extended narrative, but the storm doesn’t break until the very end. By then, even the most patient reader may be excused for being exhausted from all the bleak moodiness that preceded it ... It would be nearly impossible for any novelist to conjure up a plot payoff that justifies all this anticipation. French tries, but the climactic revelations here inevitably seem too little, too late.\
PositiveNPR\"In Washington Black, Edugyan has created a wonder of an adventure story, powered by the helium of fantasy, but also by the tender sensibility of its aspiring young hero, Wash Black ... Certainly, much of the pleasure of reading Washington Black derives from Edugyan\'s ingenious storytelling gifts, but her novel is more than just a buoyant bauble ... Washington Black is an unconventional and often touching novel about the search for transcendence above categories.\
RaveThe Washington Post\"By combing through court documents and newspaper accounts and interviewing surviving friends and family members, Weinman has evocatively reconstructed Sally’s nightmare, as well as the sexual mores of mid-20th-century America ... Weinman has compassionately given Sally Horner pride of place once more in her own life, a life that was first brutally warped by Frank La Salle, and then appropriated by one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century.\
RaveNPR\"Smarsh\'s new memoir is called Heartland and it tries to tell more of that \'whole truth\' ... Though Smarsh is now a journalist with a graduate degree, she hasn\'t written the predictable \'up by my own bootstraps\' saga of individual perseverance and class ascent. Quite the contrary. Smarsh spent 15 years researching her memoir and her lens is unusually wide and deep ... Heartland deepens our understanding of the crushing ways in which class shapes possibility in this country. It\'s an unsentimental tribute to the working-class people Smarsh knows — the farmers, office clerks, trash collectors, waitresses — whose labor is often invisible or disdained ... In Heartland, Smarsh powerfully talks back to a world that mostly told her and her family they were disposable.\
RaveNPR\"There\'s life in the old road trip saga yet. That\'s just one of the many things that Gary Shteyngart\'s spectacular, sprawling new novel, Lake Success, affirms ... More than \'just\' an artistic tour de force, Lake Success aims—and succeeds—in saying something big about America today ... He captures what one of his own favorite writers, Philip Roth, once called \'the indigenous American berserk\' but he\'s not, in turn captured and disfigured by it. He imagines that there might yet be another fork in the road, another highway rest stop, another snoring American right beside you, dreaming their own great American dream.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"What Juliet \'did\' during the war — and beyond — makes for suspenseful reading, and Atkinson clearly has fun resuscitating classic white-knuckle moments from old espionage novels and films ... Espionage is a grim business, but Atkinson’s wry style imbues the world of Transcription with moments of brisk cheer, as if Ian Fleming had been crossed pollinated with Barbara Pym.\
RaveNPRWhat I love most about Wilson\'s writing is that he\'ll start off with these goofy, almost sitcom-type contrived premises and from there create stories that knock you out with the force of their emotional truth. That distinctive sweet-tart flavor of Wilson\'s writing is triple-concentrated in his new short story collection ... In ingenious ways, all the stories here are about surrender, whether they\'re about a character\'s surrendering to loss or human failing ... There\'s a lot of Salinger in Wilson\'s writing — the wit, the vulnerability and the cosmic sadness ... they killed me.
R O Kwon
PositiveNPR\"Kwon vividly explores a subject that\'s rarely raised in mainstream novels about life on campus these days: that is, the allure of a belief in God — or at least the things that a belief in God provides ... Sometimes Kwon\'s style can get a bit too doggedly lyrical, but she\'s deft at moving the plot toward its explosive climax. In The Incendiaries Kwon has created a singular version of the campus novel; it turns out to be a story about spiritual uncertainty and about the fierce and undisciplined desire of her young characters to find something luminous to light their way through their lives.\
RaveThe Washington Post\"Give Me Your Hand steadily intensifies its atmosphere of claustrophobia to the point of constriction. Indeed, this macabre story makes Edgar Allan Poe’s \'The Pit and the Pendulum,\' (the granddaddy of all \'walls-closing-in\' tales) seem as airy and expansive as the Grand Canyon ... Abbott deliciously draws out tension by hopping back and forth in time, slowly disclosing Diane’s skeleton-in-the-closet while divulging Kit’s moral failings that will inadvertently add to the body count ... Give Me Your Hand, like so many of Abbott’s disturbing tales, dramatizes the adage, \'Be careful what you wish for.\' \
MixedThe Washington Post\"For some readers, that cover illustration alone—and the fantasy it conjures up—will be worth the price of this book. As is fitting, Biden is the narrator: He’s a rattling Dr. Watson to Obama’s more inscrutable Holmes. Shaffer does his best to generate Biden-isms aplenty to lend a smidgen of authenticity to Uncle Joe’s voice ... Some aspects of this novel strain too hard for zaniness. (It’s bromance overkill, for instance, when Barack and Joe are forced to share a double bed in a fleabag motel while they hide out from the bad guys and the Secret Service.) As is often the case with screwball comedy, the slighter episodes are the funniest ... I did laugh, but if you didn’t, perhaps this romp, sweetly goofy as it is, isn’t for you. Word is that Hope Never Dies is just the first of a projected series of Obama-Biden mysteries. That may be a bit too much of this bromance even for those who think that the last administration was the stuff that dreams are made of.\
RaveNPRThis is an entertaining and elegantly written story about social class, self-delusion and the fragility of second chances ... a perfect storm of a plot in which the vertical borders between the privileged and the proletariat collapse. Christensen is a sharp observer, not only of the layered social world of the Queen Isabella but of the shifting relationships between her characters ... all the while I was reading The Last Cruise I kept thinking of Barbara Pym...who has been described as the most under-rated writer of the 20th century—Christensen is easy to misjudge, but, as she demonstrates in The Last Cruise she\'s quite capable of navigating deep waters.
RaveNPRLevy\'s style is fragmented, each anecdote as luminous, self-contained and hard as the pearls in the necklace she habitually wears around her throat. There\'s humor here and vulnerability; after all, in addition to her divorce, Levy has to weather those other common melancholy midlife markers—the death of her mother and the departure of one of her two daughters for college. But above all, The Cost of Living is a smart, slim meditation on womanhood informed by Levy\'s wide reading.
PositiveNPR\"Whatever you may think of her novel\'s subject—and I\'m still on the fence—you have to give Moshfegh props for her skill as a writer ... As engrossing as it is, there\'s also something undeniably airless and off-putting about this novel. Reading it is like having one of those weird vivid dreams; a dream that\'s so self-contained, once you shake off its drowsy spell, you may find it hard to remember what it was all about.\
PositiveNPR...a very breezy history of the family road trip, which had its heyday, at least for some Americans, from the 1950s into the \'70s ... perhaps Ratay\'s most poignant cultural observation is the one he opens and closes his book on. Ratay says that, unlike plane trips, those long car rides of yore — in which families traveled without the distraction of smartphones or DVD players — were less about the destination than the journey.
PositiveThe Washington PostPart espionage tale, part coming of age/coming out novel, Knecht’s narrative requires a lot of setup, which gives the first half of her story a cumbersome stop-and-start rhythm. Readers who have the patience to stick with it, however, will find themselves rewarded with an off-road tale of political intrigue and youthful naivete ... The pacing of Who Is Vera Kelly? is uneven, but it ends up being a pretty satisfying adventure romp. Given the current popularity of \'women-in-trouble\' psychological suspense tales, where much of the action takes place in the heroine’s anxious mind, it’s refreshing to read a novel where a capable young woman not only knows how to fix an electrical short in a transformer, but also how to maneuver around the homophobic biases of her own era.
RaveNPREven if the rest of its story were just so-so — and it\'s much more than that — the novel\'s prologue would make this book worth reading ... In his prologue and in other inspired digressions throughout this novel, Orange\'s writing reminds me of the late, great Tom Wolfe — another exuberant, socially conscious prose poet who loved to get word-drunk but never got sloppy ... There There is distinguished not only by Orange\'s crackling style, but by its unusual subject ... There There is pithy and pointed. With a literary authority rare in a debut novel, it places Native American voices front and center before readers\' eyes.
RaveThe Washington PostA classic never goes out of style ... Here’s a suspense tale so old-fashioned, I’m hard-pressed to recall an element of it that doesn’t derive straight from the \'It Was a Dark and Stormy Night\' playbook. Among other Gothic delights, there’s a crumbling old mansion, a disputed inheritance, an orphaned heroine and a grim housekeeper whose signature supper dish is gristle stew ... Somehow, Ware takes all these tarnished suspense tropes, gives them a brisk working-over with a polishing cloth and recovers the ageless beauty of the traditional ... The Death of Mrs. Westaway is superb. In addition to its brooding atmosphere and labyrinthine mistaken-identity plot, the novel also gives us a heroine of real depth in Hal.
RaveNPRThe Death Of Mrs. Westaway is a perfectly executed mystery very much in the mode of Daphne du Maurier\'s Rebecca ... I predict that lovers of first-class suspense will want to shut out the sunny delights of summer...and read until the stunning endgames here are played out.
PositiveNPR\"Florida is filled with brooding, inventive and often moving short stories—and I say this as a critic who has admired the architectural complexity of Groff\'s work in the past but also found it somewhat chilly. Here, she is more generous about opening up her character\'s emotional lives. In Groff\'s trademark zigzagging storytelling style, revelations ricochet between pages — and sometimes even within single sentences. ... Lots of things go south fast in the stories collected in Florida—like marriages, careers and the weather—but throughout, Groff\'s gifts as a writer just keep soaring higher and higher.\
PanThe Washington PostHer swarm of fans who have come of age with Pretty Little Liars — and Shepard’s many other YA novels — will not be dissuaded from reading her new book, The Elizas, a thriller aimed at an adult audience, no matter what scorn I heap upon it. But, though the effort be futile, heap I must ... Shepard’s story line is simultaneously so ornate and empty that it dissolves soon after reading. Eccentric but flat characters populate the novel’s pages, and false alarms pop up in every chapter with humdrum predictability ... I’ve tried but failed to think of a single positive thing to say about The Elizas, but no matter. Word is the novel has already been optioned for a film adaptation.
RaveNPRPerhaps best known for her grand descriptive powers as a travel writer, Morris, now 91, has also written acclaimed works of history and biography ... The short, illustrated book Morris has written about the Yamato is what she calls 'a reverie' on the varied emotions that war summons up, including 'pride and splendour,' 'sacrifice,' 'squalor' and 'carnage.' I think it's safe to say that Morris has also written a reverie on accepting the inevitability of death ... This book itself signals yet another end: Certainly, it will be one of the very last books written about World War II by an author who saw active service in that war. That sobering fact only adds to the elegiac resonance of this magnificent little book.
RaveNPR\"I didn\'t know how much I needed a laugh until I began reading Stephen McCauley\'s new novel, My Ex-Life. This is the kind of witty, sparkling, sharp novel for which the verb \'chortle\' was invented ... McCauley summons up a conclusion that makes a profound statement about time passing and the shifting mirage of life goals. Like the best of comic fiction writers [...] McCauley draws his readers into reflecting on some of the big questions — sexuality, mortality, failure — with the lure of laughter.\
Zora Neale Hurston
RaveNPR\"For skeptics who believe that all the archives have long been plundered and all the literary treasures of the past have already been published, Barracoon will be a conversion experience. It\'s a monumental work, not \'merely\' because it describes aspects of the slave trade that largely went unrecorded, but also because it vividly dramatizes two extraordinary voices in conversation ... He told Hurston: \'When de earth eats, it doan give back.\' True enough. But in writing Barracoon, Hurston found a way to ensure that the earth didn\'t swallow Cudjo Lewis\' precious words.\
RaveNPR\"Hampl wonders about what we miss when we no longer allow ourselves to simply get lost in thought. Her sharp and unconventional book — a swirl of memoir, travelogue and biography of some of history\'s champion day-dreamers — is its very own Exhibit A, making the case for the profound value of letting the mind wander ... Unlike stories, these small moments or \'vignettes,\' as Hampl says, lead us \'down the rabbit hole of thought.\' That sounds self-indulgent, but Hampl is such an incisive writer, a reader comes to trust that those rabbit holes are worth tumbling down into ... Like most of the rest of this odd and haunting book, it\'s impossible to do justice to the cumulative power of Hampl\'s dream-weaver writing style by just quoting a few lines. You have to go on the whole voyage with her, take the detours, be willing to let yourself get becalmed in thought. The payoff — because, of course, we\'re all still looking for a payoff — is that by wasting some of your time with Hampl, you\'ll understand more of what makes life worth living.\
Kirk Wallace Johnson
PositiveThe Feather ThiefThis is one weird-but-true story ... By the end of Kirk Wallace Johnson\'s absorbing book, The Feather Thief, we readers learn more than we probably ever wanted to know about feathers. But, we may also come to understand why it\'s important, ecologically speaking, to care about what happened to the feathers of what Johnson calls, \'the missing birds of Tring\' ... Though it\'s non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller ... I won\'t tell you how Johnson\'s gallant search for the missing birds ends. But it\'s depressing to learn, as we do early on in this book, that Edwin Rist, the feather thief, never served any time in prison. In the eyes of the law, perhaps all those old feathers didn\'t amount to much.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"...an entertaining and erudite cultural history of selected female thinkers ... Indeed, Ms. Dean herself performs the work of a public intellectual by doing justice to the substance of her subjects’ work, while also conveying—through her own wit and lively opinions—why their work matters ... Along with incisive readings of their most emblematic work, Ms. Dean skillfully encapsulates each of these women’s life stories, focusing on their mostly roundabout and bumpy paths to a public career ... There’s so much more to savor, ruminate on, learn from and, certainly, argue with in this splendid book.\
RaveThe Washington PostFilled with turbulence and sudden plunges in altitude, The Flight Attendant is a very rare thriller whose penultimate chapter made me think to myself, 'I didn’t see that coming.' The novel — Bohjalian’s 20th — is also enhanced by his deftness in sketching out vivid characters and locales and by his obvious research into the realities of airline work ... The Flight Attendant is the ultimate airplane book, and not just because of its name: entertaining and filled with inside info on the less glamorous aspect of flight crew’s lives, it may even make you more politely attentive the next time you’re asked to listen to that in-flight lecture on emergency water landings.
RaveNPR\"No other biography of Christie that I\'ve read so powerfully summons up the atmosphere of Christie\'s own writing: that singular blend of menace and the mundane.\
RaveNPR\"McNamara and her collaborators have written an un-put-down-able account of the crimes, the faded suburban California world where they took place and the dogged police detectives who remain haunted by the case. Just as powerful is McNamara\'s investigation into her own obsession with The Golden State Killer. Her voice throughout is unfailingly smart and wry.\
RaveNPRYoung is a frank, funny and mercilessly self-lacerating narrator. His writing is entertaining and experimental — two adjectives not often found together. To convey the chaos of his three deployments in Iraq, Young writes in choppy chapters filled with lists, letters, cartoons, plays and, yes, lots of stories … Eat the Apple is a brilliant and barbed memoir of the Iraq War. Unlike his ‘past-me’ self in that hotel room struggling to communicate with his family, Young has now found the language to convey the messy totality of his experiences. And that's just about all the redemption you'll find in Young's war story.
PositiveNPRThink the tough tone of something like Rachel Kushner's New York/Italian art and politics novel, The Flamethrowers, or Olivia Laing's atmospheric nonfiction book about New York, The Lonely City ... By foreclosing the question of Lu's decision, Lyon avoids the contrived quality built into her plot. Instead, the focus here shifts more to Lu's ambition, her tortured rationalizations and the harsh limits of the world she's desperate to climb out of. Above all, as its title suggests, Self-Portrait With Boy is a smart novel about the narcissistic ambition that's needed to succeed, especially in the art world, especially in New York.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalFeel Free, like Ms. Smith’s 2009 debut essay collection, Changing My Mind, is polyamorous in its objects of fascination...may be taken as an exhortation to wander, follow our own curiosities, pluck essays out of different sections and skim or skip others ... Most but not all have been published previously, in outlets like the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the Guardian and Harper’s. And most, but not all, are worth reading ... It’s a rare piece of critical writing that can contemplate a mystery and deepen our understanding of it without \'solving\' it. This is criticism with the open-ended power, yet also the ambiguity, of the creative genius from whom it is derived. There is too much in this collection that doesn’t deserve renewed scrutiny; but when Ms. Smith is writing at her best, she is free, unfettered and alive.
RaveNPRLike those direct addresses to his future readers that Whitman scatters throughout Leaves of Grass, Johnson, in these stories, anticipates talking across the abyss that separates the quick from the dead … Most of these stories are terrific, and two — the first and the last — are out-of-this-world … The Largesse of The Sea Maiden contains the kind of work every writer would like to go out on: fresh, profound and singular. It affirms literature's promise to believers, the gift of eternal voice.
Leila Slimani, Trans. by Sam Taylor
RaveThe Washington Post...psychological suspense novel about a 'perfect' nanny who snaps ...aspires toward the taut elegance of that classic nanny nightmare tale, Henry James’s 'The Turn of the Screw,'... The voice of Slimani’s omniscient third-person narrator is consistently chill and precise; her plot spares neither her characters’ fates nor her readers’ sensibilities ... Poetic phrases like that one abound throughout the novel and elevate it well above its formulaic premise, one that has inspired many a Lifetime television movie ... Surely it’s the enduring masochistic power of that nightmare — rendered particularly vivid here through Slimani’s great stylistic gifts — that have made this slim novel an international bestseller.
Leila Slimani, Trans. by Sam Taylor
PositiveNPROne can see why the judges were wowed. The voice of Slimani's omniscient narrator is chill and precise; her plot spares neither her characters' fates nor her readers' sensibilities. The opening paragraph of The Perfect Nanny warns us this is a story in which the worst can happen and, in fact, just has... Slimani's aloof narrator slowly reveals that Louise obsessively yearns for a second chance to perfect her own flawed mothering skills. Of course, it's an impossible aim and the pressure mounts ... Poetic phrases like that one abound throughout Slimani's novel and elevate it well above its formulaic premise, one that has inspired many a beware-the-au-pair Lifetime movie ... Surely it's the enduring masochistic power of that nightmare of maternal inadequacy — rendered particularly vivid here through Slimani's stylistic gifts — that have made this slim novel an international bestseller. Talk about a guilty pleasure.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe premise of the eighth Chief Inspector Gamache mystery sounds like ye olde Gothic novel boilerplate, so it’s a testament to Louise Penny’s subtlety as a writer that The Beautiful Mystery is so fresh and fully realized. In their latest case, Gamache and Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his sidekick in the Surete du Quebec, venture into a world largely untouched by modernity but, regrettably, not untouched by sin … Penny’s setting is so haunting that she can perhaps be excused for going on a tad too long throughout the first third of this book in describing the atmosphere of the abbey … By its conclusion, The Beautiful Mystery transforms itself, unexpectedly, into an emotionally harrowing tale.
PositiveNPRGiven that Mad Men was routinely referred to as ‘a televised epic novel,’ you'd expect that Weiner's foray into literary fiction would be pretty good — and it is … As he did throughout Mad Men, Weiner also deftly exposes the weirdness of mundane life changes: the transformation of a chatty toddler into a shut-down adolescent; the sudden shifting of alliances among closed groups, whether they be ad agencies or nuclear families … Heather, The Totality doesn't break any new ground stylistically; instead, it chillingly reminds us of how unstable the ground is that we take for granted beneath our feet.
RaveNPRI rave on: this time about Russell's new short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Russell is so grand a writer — so otherworldly, yet emotionally devastating; so daffy and daring — that she doesn't need an imprimatur to stake her claim to literary genius. The title story kicks off this collection by doing the near impossible: making me care about vampires, a breed more overexposed these days than Labrador retrievers … I love the sweep of these stories, their goofy-to-majestic tone, the authority of Russell's narrators.
Kate Winkler Dawson
MixedNPR...an intriguing book about this silent disaster ... Those parallel plotlines never quite intersect. Death in the Air would've been an even more compelling book without Dawson's somewhat forced attempt to make connections between these two London 'stranglers' ... Another strike against the Christie story is that his grisly career has been exhaustively documented in books and films ... Dawson cuts a precise narrative path through the smog by marshaling together an array of government and newspaper reports and interviews with people who lived through those terrible five days when trains, buses and ships on the Thames came to a standstill and crime was rampant. Most affecting are the first-person recollections of a woman who was 13 years old that winter.
PositiveNPRThe Burgess Boys is not only a novel — it's a big, floppy, shambling jumble sale of a novel. I mostly loved it because it feels like life: Color it chaotic … This is an ambitious novel that wants to train its gaze on the flotsam and jetsam of thought, as well as on big-issue topics like the politics of immigration and the possibility of second chances. The Burgess Boys can be overly sentimental sometimes and too contrived, but Strout can really nail things in her precise but unprissy language … The most resonant parts of The Burgess Boys, however, are the long, sprawling sections that delve into the family dynamics, especially the damaged, delusional yet still essential relationship between Jim and Bob. It's because this novel is messy and wrinkled and digressive that it ultimately rings true.
Ed. by Gary Phillips
PositiveNPR...a collection of 15 stories so sly, fresh and Bizarro World witty, they reaffirm the resiliency of the artistic imagination ... The overarching aim of all this outlandishness is to entertain, as well as to tuck some social criticism into the formulaic folds of these tales of spooks, spies, private eyes, clones, bots and alien invaders ... In recent years, writers of color have taken up sci-fi and fantasy in particular as richly poetic vehicles to explore racism and imagine alternative worlds. The pulp stories in The Obama Inheritance — sci-fi, fantasy and noir — are fun to read, and be forewarned: Many of them also pack a punch.
MixedThe Washington PostJon McGregor has revolutionized that most hallowed of mystery plots: the one where some foul deed takes place in a tranquil English village that, by the close of the case, doesn’t feel so tranquil anymore. Whether you find McGregor’s innovations brilliant or boring will depend on your tolerance for delayed gratification ... as McGregor’s achievement is, I frequently found myself looking for excuses to stop admiring it and read something else. Staying inside his finely wrought construction for long stretches of time made me feel wistful for Agatha Christie. I wanted clues to track, criminals to nab and, most of all, a timely solution that would lay evil to rest ... The inventive — and enervating — quality of McGregor’s novel derives not only from its refusal to bend to conventional thriller expectations, but also from its form. Paragraphs frequently run on for pages — monoliths of prose in which the minutiae of life in the village is recounted ... Reservoir 13 generates suspense, not out of chase scenes or sly dialogue, but out of the extended narrative experience of waiting — waiting for something, anything, to break in Rebecca’s case. Maybe this is not so much a thriller, but a 'post-thriller'— a novel that meditates on tragedy and its inevitable fading away in memory. No matter how it’s classified, Reservoir 13 requires an extraordinary amount of patience from its readers.
RaveNPRIt's that shadowy state of knowing, but mostly living as though we don't know about all these looming terrors that Kazuo Ishiguro captures in his latest novel, The Buried Giant ... In The Buried Giant, an exhausted group of medieval travelers cross a blasted landscape straight out of the plays and novels of Samuel Beckett ...Ishiguro quests after far more profound mysteries here than the location of that dragon ... This is yet another radiant and deeply moving Ishiguro riff on loss and the tragic nature of life. It'd pay at the tribute of saying that as a novel, it's unforgettable.
RaveNPRThis is a big, traditional historical novel — in the manner of a Ken Follett or Herman Wouk ... Like every good historical novel I've ever read, the storyline of this one is as hokey as hell and completely transporting. Manhattan Beach is ambitiously and deliciously plot-driven, and it boldly helps itself to a wide library of earlier New York stories ... Manhattan Beach isn't flawless. Especially at the beginning, Egan strains to convince readers of the authenticity of her story and intrusively references too many brand names and period details: Ivory Flakes for washing, automats, the 40-cent boxed chicken lunches that Anna buys at the Navy Yard. But to focus on scattered imperfections would be like focusing on the litter of New York City streets while ignoring the wonder of the city itself. Manhattan Beach is a big gorgeous tribute to New York City and its seaport. In drawing from the classic catalog of New York stories, Manhattan Beach also takes its place among them.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMs. McDermott’s range may be confined, but she sees a world within those dusty parish halls, tenements, bars and funeral homes whose interest is inexhaustible. With the precision of a master—never over-reaching for significance or relaxing into sentimentality—Ms. McDermott lays bare the reasons why those 'small lives' matter ... A great McDermott novel—and The Ninth Hour is a great one—makes you realize the wisdom of her decision to stay put in the old neighborhood ... Female self-sacrifice—its allure and moral complications—is Ms. McDermott’s overarching subject here. As Mary Gordon did almost 40 years ago in her now classic debut, Final Payments, Ms. McDermott brilliantly dramatizes the pull, especially on loving Catholic daughters, of martyrdom ... Ms. McDermott has once again managed a marvelous literary feat: She’s written another one of those 'parochial' novels of hers whose reach is universal.
PositiveNPREver since Marley & Me was published in 2005, the litter of literary tributes to beloved bow-wows has become so vast and formulaic that a universal spaying of the genre is called for. But Afterglow is a mutt elegy in a million ... Through all this weirdness, Myles gets at something no other dog book I've read has gotten at quite this distinctly: The sense of wordless connection and spiritual expansion you feel when you love and are loved by a creature who's not human ... Myles takes chances with form: Sometimes they flop into incomprehensibility; but, overall, Afterglow works. It's raw and affecting, and in its wild snuffling way, utterly original.
MixedThe Washington PostLarsson had grand ambitions for his Millennium series, projecting a total of 10 novels. In Lagercrantz's hands, the series is realizing grand ambitions of another sort. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for An Eye intensifies the mythic elements of Larsson's vision. All the talk of stolen babies and a 'search for origins' in this novel - along with the malevolent influence of Salander's evil twin, Camilla - moves the series further into the realms of Star Wars and Harry Potter. A little of this legendary stuff goes a long way in Salander's hard world ... The enduring draw at the center of the Millennium series is that image of a strange and solitary young woman trying to even the score with all manner of bullies by dint of her brains and, when called for, some martial arts moves. A bit far-fetched, certainly, but it's rooted in the just barely possible. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye is entertaining, but 'the girl' at the center of this wild tale is beginning to look like somebody we readers only used to know.
PositiveNPRThe two separate plotlines about these two questers — Nicole and Epstein —ultimately intersect, but that's the only predictable aspect of this scramble of a novel. There are digressions here into Franz Kafka, René Descartes, Sigmund Freud, fairy tales and film. Sections of the novel are walled off from each another, as disconnected as that row-after-row of rooms in the Tel Aviv Hilton. Readers should just go along for the choppy ride, because the pleasure of Krauss' writing isn't located in the story. Instead, it's the wayward precision of her language that draws us into the desert, 'the forest dark' and other contemplative places where illumination occurs.
RaveThe Washington PostIn A God in Ruins, she’s written not only a companion to her earlier book, but a novel that takes its place in the line of powerful works about young men and war … A God in Ruins contains many...harrowing scenes, rendered in economical detail and occasional black humor. Atkinson’s skills as a suspense writer serve her well here: It’s not till the final pages of the novel that we learn who makes it through the war and who doesn’t. As powerfully as it conveys life-and-death struggles in the air, A God in Ruins also compels readers to recognize the courage of those in the war’s aftermath, who were left to quietly pick up the pieces.
RaveNPRThe Burning Girl reads like an updated Gothic tale — in part, because it has so many of the traditional trappings of the genre (a decaying mansion, an evil guardian, ghosts) and, in part, because it's a novel about the friendship between two adolescent girls — and what life journey could be more Gothic than the passage through adolescence? ... Because Messud is such a precise and restrained writer, the girls' haunted summer walking tour remains credible, as well as evocative ... this is a novel that's made distinct by its mood more than its story. The climax here melds together the mundane griefs and cruelties of adolescence with the eerie atmosphere of those dark woods and that asylum. Like most of Messud's other novels, The Burning Girl deeply excavates the subject of female loneliness. Growing up female, as Julia tells us, may indeed have something to do with learning to be afraid, but in writing on the difficult topics of abandonment, betrayal and isolation, Messud herself is fearless.
PanNPRMcEwan deploys his great gifts of storytelling to draw readers into an intricate plot about Serena's career during the 1970s, working as a low-level operative for MI5, the British internal intelligence service. Then, by novel's end, McEwan ridicules us readers for ever believing in Serena and the fictional world he's blown breath into … There's a degree of nastiness here — particularly in that genderized disdain for female readers as well as in McEwan's cool dismissal of the products of his own imagination. Postmodernist writing can have humor and heart, but, in Sweet Tooth, McEwan's postmodernist narrative ‘tricks’ simply serve as weapons of mass destruction. The novel is exposed as little more than a mental game, and Serena, whom we've grown attached to, is brutally silenced.
Karen Joy Fowler
PositiveNPRFowler's novel is superb, but I've already warned a couple of sensitive animal lovers I know away from it. You should read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves only if you're willing to be upset and probably permanently haunted … Fern disappears when Rosemary is 5, and we don't learn what happened to her until the end of the novel. What Rosemary does chronicle, however, is how her family was shattered by Fern's leave-taking. Lowell grows up to be a militant animal-rights activist wanted by the FBI; her mother descends into depression; her father drinks. Rosemary thinks she endured the worst fate of all … Fowler's smart and exquisitely sad novel provokes us to think about a lot of aspects of our relationship to animals that most of us would rather ignore.
Lawrence P. Jackson
RaveNPRAs interesting as Jackson's account of Himes' later life is — including his eventual self exile in Paris, a deep friendship with Malcolm X and the turn to writing the detective novels that would bring him fame and financial success — it's the long section of this biography about Himes' prison years that's most absorbing ... Himes, like the literature he created, was difficult and sometimes cruel; but Jackson insists he's worth the trouble. At the end of this biography, Jackson memorably characterizes Himes' great gifts as a writer, describing 'his spirited realism from the bottom that defied fear and always cut hard enough to draw blood.' That sentence, and many more like it, make me intrigued enough to want to read Himes' work beyond the detective novels I already know.
MixedNPRIn April, a debut mystery called The Cuckoo's Calling was published ... The story takes place in a circumscribed setting, it's full of oddball suspects, and the killer is affably lurking in plain sight throughout much of the action. Rowling's private eye hero is named Cormoran Strike: He's an ex-military policeman who lost a leg in Afghanistan ... Rowling tries to bring a more contemporary edge to this novel by featuring a beautiful biracial victim and delving into the demimonde of high fashion and hip-hop royalty, but the world here still feels curiously dated ... The most intriguing unsolved mystery in The Cuckoo's Calling is why, in this post-Lisbeth Salander age, Rowling would choose to outfit her female lead with such meek and anachronistic feminine behavior.
RaveNPRIn the resulting portraits, Shapiro, like a consummate maître d', sets down plate after plate of the food these women cooked, ate or thought about and an amazing thing happens: Slowly the more familiar accounts of each of their lives recede and other, messier narratives emerge ... Several times throughout What She Ate, Shapiro repeats what surely is one of her life's mantras: 'Food talks — but somebody has to hear it.' How lucky for us readers that Shapiro has been listening so perceptively for decades to the language of food.
MixedThe Washington PostThis story stays scrupulously within the lines: to the degree it satisfies, it does so because — like a Lifetime movie — its premise, setting and characters are so comfortably broken-in. There’s even a haunted house, a dark and stormy night, a baby in peril and climactic trials by flood and fire ... Ware’s style here is as routine as her plot. For instance, when faced with an awful revelation, Isa feels 'a shiver of cold run from my neck, all the way down my back, prickling at my skin.' In other scenes, like many a thriller heroine before her, words scream inside Isa’s head ... The Lying Game rallies in its second half, making a few unforeseen detours off its well-worn narrative road before inevitably returning to that perilous half-submerged footbridge to wrap things up. As long as readers are ready to surrender to the pleasures of the predictable, Ware’s latest thriller is enjoyable enough.
RaveNPR...most of Zhang's situations — and language — are far more violent and sexually explicit than the classic immigrant tale. These girls aren't sheltered. How could they be, when they're sleeping on mattresses on a floor shared by their parents and three other families? They're tough and knowing — and they sound like it — although you can also hear vestiges of a childish vulnerability in their voices ... Most of Zhang's others stories in Sour Heart are simultaneously tough to read and, yet, worth it. There's something very compelling about young girls in fiction, and in life, who speak up — and if their voices are rude, funny, even offensive sometimes, all the better. Given this fierce debut, I'll be giving the other voices Dunham finds a careful listen.
RaveNPR'Geezer Lit' has become a booming publishing niche as we readers wrinkle, but The Last Laugh is so much more than a print version of The Golden Girls. Freed's one-liners on subjects like sleep apnea machines are hilarious; so are the excerpts from Ruth's columns, which she writes for a senior publication called So Long Magazine. But Freed also gives more somber subjects their due, such as loneliness and the fear of looming dependence. The Last Laugh is a Campari spritzer of a novel: bubbly and colorful, but with a underlying note of bitterness to add satisfying complexity.
RaveThe Washington Post...if, like me, you are a technophobe who also loves good suspense fiction, you should stick with this story...the techie jargon here is more decorative than essential. It’s an embellishment that lends credibility to one of the most ingenious thrillers I’ve read in a long time ... Brookmyre is a pro at slowly injecting ever more anxiety into scenes where the suspense sweat-o-meter is already hovering in the red zone ... The one thing critical to a good suspense novel is, well, suspense. But an extraordinary suspense novel has that extra something — a haunting setting, wit or, in the case of The Last Hack, the presence of an idiosyncratic, morally complex heroine. The immortal Lisbeth Salander, that other 'girl on the Internet,' is brilliant, but deliberately difficult to cozy up to; Sam Morpeth is much more human and vulnerable. By the end of this novel, she’s not only hacked her way into high security sites like Synergis but into but a reader’s affections, too.
PanNPRA serious problem with The Lacuna is telegraphed in its striking title. ‘Lacuna’ refers to a gap or something that's absent. The motif of the crucial missing piece runs throughout the novel, but the thing unintentionally missing here is an engaging main character … Kingsolver's aim here clearly is to give us the bystander view of history, the perspective of the ordinary Joe rather than the key players. As Kahlo declares to the young Harrison, ‘Greatness is very boring.’ The politically incorrect truth is, however, that ordinariness oftentimes is even more boring. Harrison is so pallid, so retiring that it's very hard to stay for extended periods in his company, and seeing history unfold from his wan point of view isn't all that illuminating.
RaveNPR...[a] superb debut novel ... Like all great humorists, Klam is a sharp observer and he skewers his targets here with specificity and brio. Who Is Rich? is also cynically smart about the class politics crackling in the air at these kinds of gatherings ... There's a scene midway through this novel where Rich — guilty about an affair and itching to break free of his paycheck-to-paycheck existence — impulsively blows his entire honorarium on an expensive bracelet for his wife at home. I swear to you the economic terror Klam conjures up in that scene is every bit as vivid as the physical terror of the opening scene of that quintessential New England beach movie, Jaws.
RaveNPR...a novel about post-Sept. 11 New York City as viewed through the scrim of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is the great American novel about dreaming, overreaching and loss, but many people forget that it's also a great novel about New York City, which stands in for the idea of America in the novel ... We live in a permanent state of aftermath. Which is where Joseph O'Neill's marvelous novel Netherland begins ... O'Neill is a wide-ranging stylist capable of whipping out unexpected but precisely right words like 'peregrinating.' He's also adroit at muted comedy...The Great Gatsby itself has become something of a 'green light' for novelists — a literary ideal to be reached for but never quite grasped. O'Neill in Netherland runs faster, stretches out his arms farther and approaches the glow of greatness.
PanThe Washington PostThe best moments in The Child occur when readers tag along with Kate as she works on identifying the long dead infant by talking her way into pubs and flats and combing through old archives. All the while, she’s also teaching her wide-eyed hipster intern the classic techniques of golden age investigative journalism. Enjoyable as those scenes are, however, the rest of The Child should have been sent to the publishing equivalent of Kate’s rewrite desk. The Child is a middling and much-too-long suspense story that would have benefited from a ruthless red-pencil ... Figuring out how all these women are connected — to each other and to the unidentified infant — is the hypothetical draw of this kind of fragmented, multi-perspective type of storytelling. I say 'hypothetical draw,' because The Child is more tedious than tense.
MixedNPRWhen Modern Gods stays within the bounds of this closely observed family story — about Alison's shot at happiness thwarted by the power of the past; about Liz's reckoning with the price she's paid for leaving Ballyglass — it's an engrossing spin on Laird's signature theme of reinvention. But Modern Gods doesn't stay within those bounds. It gets antsy or maybe even anxious about sticking to the traditionally female terrain of domestic drama, and so in its second half the novel goes seriously haywire. Think Heart of Darkness without its colonialist weight or A Handful of Dust without the laughs ... The novel starts out with a lot of promise, but like the beliefs and conventions it punctures, Modern Gods itself ends up being a lot of wild blather.
RaveNPRGolden Hill is so gorgeously crafted, so intelligent and entertaining, it makes a case for the enduring vitality of the more straightforward historical novel ... Spufford's sprawling recreation here is pitch perfect, down to single sentences that can stretch exuberantly to a page, as well as a comic narrator who directly apologizes to readers when events get too bawdy or bloody.
PositiveNPROscar, I'm happy to say, is nowhere in this terrific collection, which instead focuses almost exclusively on Yunior, Oscar's wired friend who narrated The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The nine fully charged-up and chronologically mixed-up stories here mostly explore Yunior's staggeringly scummy treatment of his girlfriends — his "hood hotties" — but they also riff on other kinds of love: maternal and brotherly; the yearning immigrants feel for their home country; the distinct emotional purgatories of the cheater and the cheated upon ...because as any Junot Diaz reader knows, his characters can't rattle on for long without resorting to some expletive. Happily, Yunior's voice is as versatile as his other main instrument...
RaveNPR...a very smart work of literary fiction that exposes how very thin the layer of good luck is that keeps most of us from falling into the abyss ... Meloy is such a deft writer that she keeps the adventure plot whizzing along even as she deepens our sense of the characters and the unfamiliar culture they have to navigate. You may (mistakenly) think that you don't want to enter the nightmare world of this novel, but Meloy makes you realize what a luxury it is to have that choice.
PositiveNPRThere's a quality of stillness to The Lowland that, especially in its opening sections, almost verges on the stagnant — or would, were it not for Lahiri's always surprising language and plotting … The Lowland is buoyantly ambitious in both its story and its form … The Lowland is a novel about the rashness of youth, as well as the hesitation and regret that can make a long life not worth living. Toward the end of The Lowland, a metaphorical monsoon finally hits, rousing Subhash out of his lifelong timidity, that mud hiding place Lahiri describes in her lyrical opening.
MixedNPRLike a stalk of late-summer corn that's blighted at its very tip, NW's narrative is four-fifths ripe, golden deliciousness, one-fifth barren cob. As she did in her terrific debut White Teeth, Smith gives us an ambitious city novel in NW … As anyone who's read Smith's fiction knows, her genius dwells in her language. She excels at Gertrude Stein-inspired lines that whip together sound and nonsense and fleeting zigzags of insight … It's Natalie's bizarre remedy for her own alienation, however, that causes this novel to crumble in its final 70 pages or so, endangering its credibility and the wealth of its accumulated, smart observations about contemporary London.
RaveNPREven though Franzen gets more praise for doing what many fine female writers do ‘backwards and in heels,’ in the case of the blandly titled Freedom, it's well deserved … It's the novel — by a man — along with novels by women like Allegra Goodman, Lionel Shriver, and the incandescent Sue Miller, that I'd elect to put in a time capsule to give a sense of the texture of middle-class American life to future readers. And, I sincerely hope that last phrase is not an oxymoron … There's not one throwaway scene in Freedom and, yet, for all that effort, nothing feels overwritten or false.
PositiveThe Washington PostIt’s hard to top that macabre pub-crawl around Glasgow for drama, but Mina has plenty of other provocative historical material here to flesh out — including the transcripts of Manuel’s murder trial that took place the following year ... the narrator of The Long Drop sees far beyond the daily grime and grisly events of the late 1950s and, yet, mostly keeps mum, leaving readers to stumble with detectives through the fug of half-truths and lies that enshroud the story of Peter Manuel and his patsy or prey or possible partner in crime, William Watt. The Long Drop takes readers on a suspenseful tour into the past, through psyches and situations far grimmer than even those sooty Glasgow streets.
RaveNPRA slim, deeply affecting and brutal story ... There's nothing fake or forced in Magariel's writing; he even pulls off the trick of relying on a 12-year-old narrator without pandering to sentimentality or wise-child syndrome. Those are some of the pitfalls Magariel avoids; what he achieves is a novel that makes readers feel what it would be like to live on high alert all the time; to be at the mercy of a father's addictions, crackpot whims and surges of violence. He also makes us feel what it would be like to still love such a father.
PositiveNPRLerner's offbeat little novel manages to convey what everyday life feels like before we impose the structure of plot on our experience … Almost everything that happens here happens inside the main character's head, which runs day and night like one of those loop-the-loop computer screen savers, constantly generating digressions, fibs, self-criticisms and doubts … Adam's thoughts don't so much resolve themselves into conclusions; they simply dissolve into other thoughts: thoughts about the authenticity of our connection to art and to other people; thoughts about the wobbly nature of reality … The fact that I liked this novel as much as I did is entirely due to the fluidity of Lerner's words and to the wit of his musings.
RaveNPRRakesh Satyal's new novel checks off a lot of boxes, but its charm lies in the fact that it wears all of it various identities so lightly. This is an immigration story, a coming-out story and something of an old-school feminist story about a timid woman learning to roar. Yet, there's nothing preachy or predictable about Satyal's novel ... Their shared situation may sound glum, but because No One Can Pronounce My Name is essentially — and delightfully — a comic novel, the intertwined plots here are buoyant rather than blue ... No One Can Pronounce My Name explores the politics of sexual identity, as well as the immigrant and first-generation American experience, but, unfashionable as it may sound, the novel's greater achievement lies in the compassionate, comic way it explores the universal human experience of loneliness.
RaveNPRI feel like I've been waiting for a novel like this to appear not only since I read The Secret History, but also since I first read David Copperfield … As ingenious as Tartt's plot is, this novel would be but a massive scaffolding feat, were it not for her uncanny way with words … [Theo’s] loneliness is the realistic emotional constant in this crowded, exuberantly plotted triumph of a novel. And if that ain't ‘Dickensian,’ I don't know what is.
PanThe Washington Post...something’s amiss in this second novel: It’s stagnant rather than suspenseful. The Girl On The Train may have rumbled back and forth on the same train tracks twice a day, but at least it moved; as a thriller, Into The Water is stuck in the mud ... Into The Water is a dull disappointment of a thriller; one good flush would put everybody — characters and readers alike — out of their misery.
RaveNPRHer other memoirs have explored the terror of coping with her then-infant son's life-threatening illness and her parents' deaths. But Hourglass is different: It's less an account of catastrophe than it is a clear-eyed inspection of the slow cracks certain to develop in a long marriage ... In addition to its many other virtues, Hourglass underscores the tightrope tension of trying to support a middle-class lifestyle on writing.
Leonardo Padura, Trans. by Anna Kushner
RaveNPRFor over 500 tightly packed pages here, Padura manages to sustain his signature tone of wry, elegant cool as he juggles the demands of a story that oscillates between Cuba in the 1930s and the present ... Heretics spans and defies literary categories. All of which would only be of ho-hum technical interest if Heretics weren't also an arresting novel about fanaticism, anti-Semitism and the long fall-out of a decades-old moment of political cowardice ... Cloaked within familiar narrative conventions, Padura's ingenious novel is something of a heretic itself: by turns playful, dark, and moving, it traces the great psychic costs — and rewards — that come from nestling so deeply into dogma that nothing is permitted to trigger doubt.
PositiveNPRAs a novel, Waking Lions itself is the product of a collision of cultures and genres. Translated from the Hebrew, it's a psychological suspense tale mashed with a social novel about the refugee crisis. Overall, it's vividly imagined, clever, and morally ambiguous, although, occasionally, Gundar-Goshen's plot seems bit contrived. (Eitan's wife, for instance, happens to be the Israeli police detective investigating the hit-and-run accident.) Those lapses, however, mean little in comparison to how deftly Gundar-Goshen complicates her characters here ... a smart and disturbing exploration of the high price of walking away, whether it be from a car accident or from one's own politically unstable homeland.
RaveNPRThe tense fun of reading this vivid, fretful story lies in watching the main characters grab hold of what they think will be rescue ropes, but instead turn out to be slip knots ... Ghachar Ghochar is filled with wry poetic lines like that one where Shanbhag — and his translator, Srinath Perur — have rendered emotions and even random thoughts in language that's as pungent as those spices the family is marketing. Within the tight confines of a hundred pages or so, Shanbhag presents as densely layered a social vision of Bangalore as Edith Wharton did of New York in The House of Mirth ... Ghachar Ghochar is the first of Shanbhag's fiction to be published in English, but I expect it won't be the last. He's one of those special writers who can bring a fully realized world to life in a few pages and also manages to work in smart social commentary about fears that don't require much translation.
RaveNPRWhat really makes The Dime special is not just the fact that it features a lesbian detective. Rather, it\'s the fact that it shoves its lesbian detective into one of the most breathless, inventive and —be forewarned—violent suspense plots I\'ve read in a long time. Halfway through, The Dime accelerates into warp speed, and Betty has to draw on all her Brooklyn, Polish, tough-girl moxie to fight her way out of an imprisonment that would have made Harry Houdini hang his head in defeat.
RaveNPRThough it's early to say, I feel pretty safe in predicting that this is going to be one of the year's most acclaimed novels. Lincoln in the Bardo is searing, inventive and bizarre ... If this overview makes Lincoln in the Bardo seem too static, too reminiscent of that sluggish classic Spoon River Anthology, be assured that the wild plot swerves of Saunders' short stories have been transplanted and multiplied in his debut novel ... Like the president who graces its pages, it's monumental.
RaveNPRFortunately for us readers, the experimental ideal community that Kevin Wilson brings to life in his second novel, Perfect Little World, has the delicious makings of a mess from its very inception ... Wilson richly imagines the mundane details of life in the futuristic compound, as well as the bumpy personalities of the other parents, all of whom, except Izzy, are coupled ... Wilson is such an inventive and witty writer, that it was only after I'd finished Perfect Little World and was no longer caught up in the story, that I realized how many ideas he raises here, how many kinds of family arrangements he scrutinizes, among them biological, chosen, nuclear, communal, broken and bandaged. The utopian Infinite Family Project may be flawed from the get-go, but Wilson's 'perfect little world' of a novel pretty much lives up to its title.
PositiveThe Washington PostEven though Flint is British, she nails with authority the voices, commonplace wisdom and dusty claustrophobia of the borough. Just as important, Flint captures the mundane yet mythic horror of the case that has memorialized it in the annals of New York City crime ... Flint is scrupulous about centering this moody thriller in the facts, yet giving them a deeper psychological spin. In a way that feels measured rather than salacious, Flint also manages to keep aloft the crucial question of 'Who murdered the children?' until the very last pages. As a novel inspired by tragic real-life events, Little Deaths is atmospheric and plausible.
PositiveNPR...[a] nervy, funny and thought-provoking new book ... A Really Good Day tells a really good story, one that will make readers think about how drugs get classified and how chemistry alters what we think of as essential personality traits. It's a story that only a woman who's lived most of her life being 'a handful' would be gutsy enough to tell.
RaveThe Washington PostThere’s an element of Nancy Drew here, but Penny, as ever, has something more ambitious in store ... The series is deep and grand and altogether extraordinary. Although individual novels have featured plots about mass murderers and serial killers, they’re always infused with wit and compassion; they’re as much spiritual investigations into the nature of evil and divine mercy as they are 'entertainments' ... the main narrative branches into more complicated patterns until all questions are resolved in a spectacular climax that cross cuts between story lines ... In addition to all her other many gifts, Penny is a beautiful writer. A Great Reckoning is one of her best, but I think that pretty much every time I finish a Gamache mystery...or metaphysical exploration, or whatever the heck these miraculous books are.
RaveNPR...these stories, dozens of them chopped and scrambled, are bawdy and moving, violent and very funny ... Granted, some subplots seem self-indulgently baroque...But Chabon's narrative energies never flag ... a multitude of subplots command attention because they're so highly textured and because Chabon's language is so voluminous and vivid ... this is why you read Michael Chabon - for the self-deprecation and insight and brio all packed tight into sentences, fantastic stories and wild novels that you may think are a world away from where you live but always turn out to hit home.
Blanche Wiesen Cook
PositiveNPROne of the most extraordinary aspects of the third volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's monumental biography of Eleanor Roosevelt is the way it ends. I don't think I've ever read another biography where the death of the subject is noted in an aside of less than 10 words, on the second to last page of the book ... packed with many revealing small incidents, as well as detailed accounts of her tireless work on behalf of progressive causes ... I've read all three volumes of Cook's biography and, taken together, they present an exhausting and exhilarating story, as well as undeniably melancholy one.
RaveThe Washington PostThis latest Bosch outing is its own accomplishment: brooding and intricate, suspenseful and sad. In short, it’s another terrific Michael Connelly mystery ... Because Connelly is such a hardboiled master, he casually sidesteps the usual narrative convention and does not intertwine these two plots. Instead, readers experience the stressful chaos of Harry’s overloaded and divided life.
PositiveThe Washington PostStewart offsets the series’ sentimentality with her dogged attention to the specific — and often sordid — details of Constance’s work life ... Stewart starkly dramatizes what the loss of Constance’s paycheck would do. As the steady wage earner among her sisters, Constance keeps food on the table ... Throughout the novel, Constance confronts nightmare images of female dependency ... takes readers on a lively chase through a lost world. It’s a colorful and inventive adventure tale that also contains a serious message at its core about the importance of meaningful work to women’s identities and, in some cases, survival.
RaveNPRI need a moment, more than a moment, in the steady and profound company of Mary Oliver and I think you might need one too ... There's hardly a page in my copy of Upstream that isn't folded down or underlined and scribbled on, so charged is Oliver's language. What her language is not is sentimental or confessional ... Her essay here on Poe turns out to be the most compassionate piece on him I've ever read.
MixedNPRTruth to tell, as a work of the imagination, The Mothers isn't all it's hyped up to be. The plot and premise here feel canned. Indeed, much of the novel reads like a mash-up of Lifetime movie melodrama with Hallmark Channel social politics. To a certain extent though, The Mothers is redeemed by the presence of those same sharp perceptions that made Bennett's essay such a must read sensation ... But a work of fiction demands more than intermittently perceptive moments to come to life. Unfortunately, The Mothers lacks the narrative and linguistic energy to sustain a reader's belief in the world that Bennett has contrived.
RaveThe Washington Post...[an] exquisite new novel ... These rooms of Donoghue’s may be tiny and sealed off, yet they teem with life-and-death drama and great moral questions ... Donoghue manages to engage these larger mysteries of faith, doubt and evil without sacrificing the lyricism of her language or the suspense of her story line. Anna may or may not be a genuine 'living marvel,' but The Wonder certainly is.
PositiveNPRLoner begins as a sharply observed novel of manners, academic posturing and social distinctions on campus today. But it soon mutates into a classic tale of obsession. The overall effect is a bit jumbled. As a reader, I felt as though I'd been shoved off a college orientation tour straight into an advanced abnormal psych seminar. But if you don't mind the switch in style, Loner ultimately becomes a powerful and even a somewhat touching suspense story.
Jonathan Safran Foer
PositiveNPRDazzling and draining, dazzling and draining...Until the last hundred pages or so brought home the final verdict - just dazzling ... as absorbed as this novel is with those larger issues, it, too, like Jacob, privileges the personal over the political. Foer takes us deep into the despair that marks the crumbling of the Bloch family ... Here I Am is a profound novel about the claims of history, identity, family and the burdens of a broken world that weigh upon even the most cleverly evasive people.
RaveThe Washington Post...an exquisitely taut and intense debut thriller ... Under the Harrow is such a superbly crafted psychological thriller, it deserves to be celebrated for its own singular excellence.
RaveThe Washington Post...a masterful tale that’s both suspenseful and an eerily accurate portrait of the way teenage and parental cliques operate ... Throughout the novel, Abbott shrewdly dissects the cliques within cliques swirling within BelStars gym but never lets the suspense flag.
RaveNPR...a masterful thriller that also offers an eerily precise portrait of the way teenage and parental cliques operate ... It's Abbott's psychological smarts that make You Will Know Me such a standout ... You Will Know Me is a terrific accompaniment to this summer's Olympic frenzy. It's an all-around winner.
RaveNPR...a very funny and touching collection ... The title story is the best new short story I've read in light years ... Ryan's stories usually start off with mundane situations and then boldly go into the depths of emotional deep space ... a wry and smart collection — a beam of intelligent life from an author who clearly likes to probe the outer edges of the familiar.
Mary Mann Hamilton
PositiveNPR...it's the backstory that will first grab a reader, but it's Hamilton's gift for storytelling in her blunt voice that makes this memoir such a standout ... Hamilton's sprawling recollections of pioneer life add to the historical value of Trials of the Earth, even if some sections are ugly and tough to read.
PositiveThe Washington PostHand’s tale burrows in deep. Part of its power derives from the sheer exuberant strangeness of Hand’s storytelling ... Hand is also unflinching in her depiction of her bad-girl antiheroine. Cass has much in common with Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, but Cass is older and more grimly set in her antisocial ways ... The spooky finale of Hard Light leads readers deep into a macabre murder scene — courtesy of Edgar Allan Poe — that holds clues to the beginning of the art of photography itself. It’s a bravura ending that both lays some questions to rest and exhumes even more freshly disturbing images to trouble a reader’s peace of mind.
Ben H. Winters
RaveNPRAn extraordinary new novel of alternate history...Underground Airlines jolts readers to a heightened awareness, making us see just how much of the nightmare of what could have been is part of the all-too-familiar reality of what is ... Like all great works of suspense - and this is one suspenseful tale filled with double crosses and dangerous expeditions down drainage tunnels and into plantations - Underground Airlines is hyperattentive to details. The world Winters conjures up is chillingly credible.
PositiveNPRI bet some of you are thinking, who needs a novel about colostomy bags and grief? Oh, but you do need Schine's novel. At least, you do if you're a reader who relishes acute psychological perceptions and lots of laughs to leaven the existential grimness, like those other literary domestic goddesses to whom she's sometimes compared, Jane Austen and Nora Ephron ... Does anyone really ever do anyone else any good? That's the question this sparkling and sad novel mulls over and answers with a wry shrug.
PositiveNPRIn the course of investigating the enigma that always has been her father, Faludi considers the various strains of gender, ethnicity, religion and family that, perhaps, go into making someone who they are. At times, this wide-load technique slows down the narrative force of Faludi's book: a fat section, for instance, on the identity theories of Freud and Erik Erikson reads like an excerpt from a psych textbook. Elsewhere, however, Faludi's ambition is justified, such as when she considers the darker dimensions of the identity politics that fueled the Holocaust, as well as rising right-wing nationalist movements in Hungary and other Eastern European countries today...A compelling, exhausting, messy and provocative book, In the Darkroom seems like especially pertinent reading in these, our own dark times, when questions of identity keep coming to the fore, as matters of life and death.
MixedNPRGyasi's lyric and versatile language makes all the difference. She's only 26, yet she writes with authority about history and pulls her readers deep into her characters' lives through the force of her empathetic imagination ... it's a stagey premise, but Gyasi coaxes us into accepting this baroque situation through the conviction and, occasionally, even the playful novelty of her descriptions ... Homegoing would have been a stronger novel if it had ended sooner, perhaps on a moment like this one, where the urban crowd absorbs Robert in his whiteness, but silently rebuffs Willie. As the novel moves forward into our own time the pressure to wrap up the two storylines intensifies, and contrivance comes to the fore. But so many moments earlier on in this strong debut novel linger.
RaveNPRThe novel is so good it legitimately stands shoulder to padded, paranoid shoulder with the classics of the crime noir genre ... There are so many terrific elements in this novel, Nick's haunted character, a plot that never darts in the direction you expect it to and a truly ingenious climax that I could be here until Labor Day singing its praises.
RaveNPRHaving all these Berlin stories assembled together really gives a sense of their breadth: Berlin (and her fictional narrators) have seen it all — from the rich girls' schools in Chile, to the trailer parks and laundromats where folks live who routinely bum bus fare and beer money ... If you want consolation or uplift from your short stories, look elsewhere. Berlin had been around the block a few too many times to sugarcoat things. But her hard-earned, one-of-a-kind voice and vision make these stories well worth the pain.
PositiveNPRThe book is fierce and vivid in its depiction of the exhaustion of the spirit and the rending of the flesh during childbirth ... Those with delicate sensibilities should be forewarned: Erens never flinches here and in this incisive novel about birth, she bears witness to its beauty and brutality.
RaveNPRFor Haigh, Bakerton is becoming something akin to Faulkner's apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County. It's a place she's brought to life so scrupulously that she can delve deep, both into the minds and family histories of her mostly working-class characters, as well as into the land itself and the stories it contains. Heat & Light is her most ambitious — and compelling — novel yet ... As spectacular as Haigh's panoramic social focus is in this novel — whisking us from Dark Elephant's shareholders' meeting in Houston into Bakerton's taverns, the Wal-Mart, the local meth-head hangouts and storefront churches — she's also superb at getting us into the nitty gritty of her character's worldview, as well as their speech.
RaveThe Washington PostRogue Lawyer is so cleverly plotted, it could be used as a how-to manual in fiction-writing courses. Its opening chapters are self-contained, giving the impression that this will be a collection of short legal suspense stories, rather than a novel ... It’s a mark of just how fleet-footed and inventive Rogue Lawyer is to say that the Gardy trial — which is pretty suspenseful — is the weakest story line in the novel.
RaveNPR...what will make readers want to remain in the tired and sad company of Alvar's workers and wanderers is her own gorgeous writing style. Each one of the nine stories in this collection riffs on the theme of exile; yet, every main character's situation is distinct, morally messy in a different way, and unpredictable. Alvar is the kind of writer whose imagination seems inexhaustible, and who stirs up an answering desire in her readers for more and more stories.
RaveNPRThrough extensive interviews with survivors, she's constructed a minute-by-minute account of how the attack unfolded on the island — a narrative technique that could devolve into voyeurism but doesn't. That's because Seierstad depicts the students in all their messy adolescent humanity ... As hard as it is to read about the attack, as frustrating as it is to learn how many delaying mistakes the first responders made and as monstrous as Breivik is, the kids on that island that day were beautiful in their idealism. They deserve to be witnessed, which is the ultimate reason to read One of Us.
RaveNPRDominic Smith's novel about the eerie powers of art and the long reach of the past is every bit as harrowing in its own subtle way as its more physical counterpart...absolutely transporting...
PositiveNPRThe novel's source, no doubt, imbues it with authority, but its literary power derives from Bock's elastic language, stretching from his detailed inventories of extreme medical procedures to the lyric melancholy of his descriptions of mood and place...Alice & Oliver is both haunting and raw — a rare novel about cancer that, in this case, doesn't try to find meaning in serious illness, but rather gives its random malevolence its full due.
RaveNPRInnocents And Others is one of those uncanny novels whose characters and ideas linger long after the story is over. In the end, Spiotta's portrayal of artistic idealism and ambition is unexpectedly moving. As Meadow would say, what a mystery the way things act on us.
PositiveNPRSometimes, I have to say, the sinuous style of Oyeyemi's storytelling totally bewildered me; but when the tales are alive enough — and many of them are — I was willing to surrender my expectations of closure, of that 'click' of the door, that more traditional short stories usually end on. What is always a sure thing with Oyeyemi is her mastery of imagery and language — both of which are capable of being shocks to the system.
RaveNPRIt's the poetic precision of McGuire's harsh vision of the past that makes his novel such a standout. I suggested that initial Melville comparison because of McGuire's detailed accounts of whaling, of course, but he's more in line with Gothic writers like Mary Shelly and Poe who imagined the blank wastes of the Arctic as a kind of frozen hell. Like Sumner, we readers are enticed on board The Volunteer and then find ourselves swept along on what turns out to be a voyage of the damned.
RaveNPRThe Little Red Chairs is both a call to pleasure and duty. O'Brien's undiminished gifts as a storyteller draw us in and then awaken us to the limits of our own blinkered vision, the fragility of our own safe havens.
RaveNPRThroughout the over 500 pages of this elegant and devastating novel, Canin writes with authority about the likes of number theory, submanifolds and differential equations. But what he writes about with even more authority is the pressure to work, to produce, to achieve and the constant thrumming anxiety felt by his central character in particular that whatever special gifts one may have been graced with at birth could just as mysteriously disappear.
RaveNPRLaing bravely illuminates the dark contours of these difficult, sometimes even repulsive works and the extreme deprivation that produced them. In doing so, she campaigns against what she calls the gentrification of cities and of emotions. By that, she means the homogenizing, whitening, deadening effect that causes us to deny the existence of the shameful and the unwanted. The Lonely City is an odd and uncomfortable book - not consoling, but always provocative. And like so many of its weird solitary subjects, it's absolutely one-of-a-kind.
RaveNPREvoking the clash of tone and subject found in movies like The Producers and The Great Dictator, The Yid is a screwball farce about atrocity. History here is portrayed as a mad improvisation in which the actors take charge and manically rewrite the script even as they enact it. Paul Goldberg's animating intelligence gives all this madness a stunning coherence that these days we all too rarely get from either art or life.
RaveNPRWhatever literary category it falls into, The Portable Veblen winds up being totally endearing because it is so completely and originally itself ... McKenzie doesn't write cute. Instead, this is a quirky novel that respects itself and so doesn't try too hard to win a reader over. McKenzie imbues her characters with such psychological acuity that they, as well as the off-kilter world they inhabit, feel fully formed and authentic.
PositiveNPRHe may be old — ancient even — but his voice on the page is still as nimble and strong as that of the kid who talked his way into LaGuardia's office. As Angell tells it straight, it's not much of a pleasure to be very old, but it is a great pleasure to spend time in the company of This Old Man.
RaveNPRGaitskill's charged writing makes all things possible here — not only surmounting the sentimental premise of this situation, but, also, delving deep into characters' lives...The Mare is a raw, beautiful story about love and mutual delusion, in which the fierce erotics of mother love and romantic love and even horse fever are swirled together.
PositiveNPRThe final moment of this novel in particular is a killer. From the coziest and most familiar of fictional materials, Hadley has created a remarkable story, as disturbing as it is diverting.
PanNPR...it's chockablock with information that educates but doesn't entertain. Hijuelos hadn't yet found a way to dramatically convey whatever it was that obsessed him about Twain and Stanley's friendship and shape it into a story distinct from the historical record. In the end, Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise is a novel that makes you appreciate — unfortunately, by its absence — the magic that animates Hijuelos' best work.
PositiveThe Washington PostBosch may be out to pasture as far as the Los Angeles Police Department is concerned, but Connelly is still very much in his prime as a suspense writer. The Crossing is a pensive thriller that’s ingeniously constructed and ambitious in scope.
PositiveNPRUnlike Just Kids, whose linear plot was all about the thrill of 'becoming,' M Train is about enduring erosion. Its narrative, fittingly, is more allusive and incantatory, more like Smith's distinctive song lyrics.
PositiveNPRIn The Witches, Schiff may not lead us out of the dark, but she makes it an inviting place to linger a while and listen to fresh details of a familiar story all over again.
MixedNPRAs engrossed as I was in the elaborate, clashing tales of [Lotto and Mathilde's] marriage, I didn't find myself caring at all about them or believing in them, for that matter. Granted, not every novel needs to be character-driven to be worth reading, and there are plenty of other reasons to read and admire Fates And Furies. It's just that without the presence of compelling characters at its core, Groff's novel ends up being an austere, architectural achievement. There are certainly worse things for a novel to be, but there are also better.
Elena Ferrante, Trans. by Ann Goldstein
RaveNPR'The Neapolitan Novels,' taken together as one long epic that stretches from childhood to old age, are so smart about the darker currents of female friendships, the discrepancies between sexual desire and sexual politics, the high cost of a class migration like Elena's, and the ultimate 'velocity with which life [is] consumed.'