RaveThe Times (UK)It’s the nuanced edges of legality that interest Lalwani, who was born in India and raised in Cardiff ... Nia has fled her alcoholic mother and sister back in Wales, a tender backstory described with a canny eye for the fluctuations of female and familial solidarity ... This could have been another formulaic tale of modern Britain, full of cringey accents and one-dimensional baddies. But Lalwani has a beautiful turn of phrase and her unashamedly literary approach makes Nia’s moral education a joy to read. If her compulsion to find a simile for every item of rubbish sticking out of a municipal bin is a little much, that is more than made up for by her strengths as a storyteller ... Shan, Tuli and Nia are intriguing, delightful, complex characters who lead us around a maze of political and philosophical ideas and questions while keeping us on the edge of our seats as the race to save Shan’s family gathers pace ... Best of all, Lalwani takes the radical (although it shouldn’t be) step of not having Nia falling in love, fancying or having sex with anyone else in the book. A female lead who isn’t defined by a romantic story arc? Yes please. Lalwani’s serious, ravishing way of writing about the secret life of Britain is just what we need.
PositiveThe Times (UK)... alarming ... All the harping on darkness—blood, bone, hate and the rest—combined with a rather awkwardly fancy prose style initially makes Animal feel like a teenager’s \'look at me, don’t look at me\' howl, written on a satchel or ring binder where grown-ups will definitely see it. However, as we accompany mad Joan on her journey of reckoning with her past, something more interesting emerges ... Taddeo has a sharp eye for the pretentious coffee places and farmers’ markets of yoga-mad California, and a beautifully painterly way of immersing us in the sunburnt scrub and spiky rough land of Topanga canyon ... although Joan’s story is hard to read and sometimes annoying, it’s about time some writer was brave enough to take the present iteration of man-hating, ball it up with a healthy dose of Freudian theory and splatter it all over the phoney wellness culture that promises women so much and delivers so little. This cross and sexy book smacks of a literary career in its adolescence but Taddeo has the guts and big ideas to become something great.
PositiveThe Times (UK)If you’ve ever taken a long-haul flight, you’ll know that feeling about nine hours in when you just really, really want to get off the plane now, please. A similar \'enough already\' sensation strikes around the middle of Great Circle ... Shipstead, who has previously written sharp, elegant novels about dinner parties and ballet, turns phrases and observes people beautifully. To her credit, when Great Circle seems too long a journey to make, she pulls it back together and keeps us with her until the end ... It is worth sticking with this gigantic novel if what you like is full immersion in a minutely described world full of adventure, passion and tragedy. All female life is here, plus mechanics, drugs, make-up, forests, whisky, Arctic wastes, starlight, war, gender fluidity, painting, masturbation, physics, babies, and the list goes on. It’s a glorious tribute to women who push the boundaries of their one, brief life, breaking the bonds of their place in history and their female bodies, to soar higher and faster than others; and the price they pay to live so fast.
Laura Imai Messina, Tr. by Lucy Rand
PositiveThe Times (UK)Messina swaps the usual busy thinking and colouring-in of romantic storytelling for a minimalist staging that is easy to miss: a glance, a breath, a movement of the hand...It’s exactly the western view of Japan: subtle, elegant and quiet. We also find kawaii — the culture of vulnerable cuteness that makes everything from pancakes to winter coats better with a pair of fluffy ears on top. This is given free rein in Takeshi’s daughter, a toddler who hasn’t spoken since losing her mother. She embodies and loves all things kawaii, and her sweet but sad nature is the force that finally helps Yui to face forwards again ... Ultimately, book groupers will learn that this is a story about the dogged survival of hope when all else is lost. And if they’re having trouble thinking about it, the text is appended by some questions for book groups to discuss, which feels rather brutal after the final page of an elegiac novel, but hey, the market knows best ... Messina shows us that even in the face of a terrible tragedy, such as an earthquake or the loss of a child, the small things — a cup of tea, a proffered hand — can offer a way ahead ... It would have been interesting to hear more about how emotional healing works in Japan’s famously formal society, especially coming from an author rooted in the very different Italian tradition, but Yui’s story is too specific to be parsed into a wider cultural landscape. So restrained and unsentimental is this novel that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting terribly upset over it, despite the subject matter. However, its meditative minimalism makes it a striking haiku of the human heart: short, slow and deceptively full.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)This book should have come with a napkin ... It’s sexy and fun, but remember this is Melissa Broder, the viscerally honest, troubled author of So Sad Today, an essay collection about addiction, eating disorders and sexual dysfunction. Her popular and dark social media feeds about depression show that this strikingly glamorous woman is no ditzy influencer or peddler of chick-lit. She wears her learning lightly, but Milk Fed continues the tradition of psychoanalytic investigation into the eroticism of mothers, breastfeeding and oral fixation ... Don’t be put off if em>Milk Fed sounds a bit disgusting and weird. It is! But that’s love. That’s the point. Luckily, Broder’s deep delving is leavened by a genuinely hilarious turn of phrase and a wicked satirical eye that will make you laugh out loud more than you gasp in horror. If, like me, you are an accidental connoisseur of sexed-up Jewish Orthodox literature, you’ll know what I mean when I say this is Foreskin’s Lament meets Disobedience. If not, get stuck in and find out. Just don’t forget your napkin.
RaveThe Times (UK)Unlike Joyce’s previous books, this wild women’s adventure story is exciting, moving and full of unexpected turns. There’s nothing twee about big, brave Marge as she changes from her sad old self into the kind of legendary female who can beat up baddies, drive a stolen truck through the night and turn her hand to some gory jungle surgery. Enid’s journey is similarly captivating as she strives to overcome a history of abuse and abandonment ... By the time the story reaches its breathtaking final act, there’s no doubt that Joyce has hit her stride. These are characters you cannot help falling in love with, and the wider social setting of postwar England is beautifully done ... Surely this is the one that will propel the intrepid Joyce off the long and shortlists into prizewinning territory.
RaveThe Times (UK)It has all come full circle, as a seasonal cycle might be expected to do. However, Smith is an unexpected writer. For her, the turning of the seasons is not simply about the comfort, in troubled times, of seeing the roses bloom again in August like before. By taking us deep into the reality of various historical and cultural events (and reminding us that no one knew the ending then either)—the war for Germans in England, BLM—she envisions the shape of life as something more wildly elemental than the neat idea that our days on earth run from point A to B with the continuous rolling base of the cycle of the seasons anchoring us to \'time\' ... There is so much pleasure in Summer ... Art, justice and nature are all given their due. There could be no more nourishing read for this summer of our discontent.
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)If you’re squeamish, look away now. In fact, avoid this book like the plague. Never have I read in such visceral detail about how foul and terrifying childbirth, illness and death can be. Not to mention the awful tragedy of stillbirth. Midwives will appreciate Julia’s technical skill at dealing with prolapses, perineums and poo, but for mere mortals it’s hard to stomach. Those who make it as far as the lively post-mortem scene will be rewarded with yet more medical realism ... If all that doesn’t make you feel sick, the lot of the early 20th-century Irishwomen will. Donoghue shows us a patriarchal Catholicism that demands as many babies as possible, but treats unmarried mothers like devils; the emotional and physical harm that urban poverty allows to flourish; rampant sexism everywhere; and a generation of brothers and fathers killed in battle. Julia, who has her own shell-shocked brother at home, carries the story with the affecting first-person immediacy that Donoghue is known for, and reminds us what an admirable and strange vocation nursing is ... an immersive, unforgettable fever-dream of a novel. It’s almost pathological in the way it infects you, pushes you to your limits and then drops you back in to real life feeling bruised and slightly wonky, but mostly just so grateful for the work that nurses do.
PositiveThe Times (UK)O’Connor presents his rollicking tale in the form of diaries, memoirs, letters to mother, transcripts of early phonograph recordings, newspaper articles and patchy translations of scribbled notes in coded Pitman shorthand. This indigestible, although authentic, literary Victoriana is made even lumpier by the florid prose-voice of Stoker, who embellishes his every sentence with as many flowery curlicues as William Morris wallpaper. Beneath the chintzy surface material, however, is an affecting depiction of artistic and social emancipation ... O’Connor’s well-researched theatrical caper offers total immersion in a forgotten London that is nonetheless only just out of reach, and all the more romantic for it. Swallow his stylistic shenanigans and be nourished by a colourful tale of secret love and public performance.
MixedThe Times (UK)The awkward characters, the heavyhanded opining make the book hard to love. There are moments when you can’t believe it has been published ... But just as you’re about to ask for your money back, Shriver, as always, does something cute at the last minute. She has self-awareness...she has humour...and she concludes this tricky novel with an afterword of genuine insight into ageing that is kind and erudite. If ranty, rich white people with stupid names annoy you, steer clear of this one. But if you can tolerate a lot of meanness and chat about knee replacements, and are looking for a new take on how to live well when the body is failing, Shriver could be just the difficult, limping fellow traveller you need.
RaveThe Times (UK)There are so many interesting women in this book...Majumdar gives them the hard, real faces of hard, real people ... As a millennial living in New York, Majumdar does not feel obliged to retell the story of empire and partition. Not for her the well-worn literary path of interspersing her contemporary Indian chapters with the story of some old Raj duffer’s wife suffering in the heat in the 1850s, or having a descendant of the Raj duffer’s wife researching her family history on a laptop in a café in Brighton while dealing with a divorce. There’s simply no need for all that when you’re telling it like it is ... This is a short, sharp shock of a novel that shows us how easy it is to rally a mob, to kill a Muslim woman and to silence a whole community. These are things we all know on paper, but the power of a great novelist — and Majumdar has a Dickensian flair and scope — is to transform what we simply know into something we can feel. What a treat to start the year with a talent as fresh as this.
RaveThe Times (UK)As the beautifully described mountain scenery around Vesta’s cabin changes season, peculiar townsfolk provide perfectly filmic bit-parts (the man in the bait shop with the scarred face; the dying woman dressed in a Victorian gown; the Cujo-like dog). But despite the masterly scene-setting and sharp characterisation we get further from the truth about Magda ... Unlike most thrillers, even the clever, twisty ones with unreliable narrators, it is impossible to guess whodunnit. Whodunnit is emphatically not what Moshfegh is interested in. This is a story about what might happen when a woman takes charge; when she finds the courage to step away from the men who wanted to define her. For Vesta, splendidly alone at last, stepping out of her cabin into the forest and into Magda’s story, which may or may not be her own, is a gloriously visceral mystery she is finally ready to embrace ... isn’t scary or exciting enough to work as a thriller, but it’s a lot more scary and exciting than much contemporary feminist storytelling. There are moments when Moshfegh is as wise and wild as Ali Smith or Rebecca Solnit, and as gifted a scribe of nature as Annie Dillard or Thoreau. She may not be the next great American novelist, but she’s certainly one to watch.
RaveThe Times (UK)... fantastically ghoulish and satirical ... Towards the end, however, just as you’re thinking, \'So this is what Dave Eggers’s The Circle would be like if it were written by a poet,\' Okri slips you a shot of ayahuasca and things get decidedly freaky and apocalyptic ... This is not a novel for strict realists or fantasy-phobes. If you find David Mitchell too much, steer clear. The Freedom Artist is an adventure story and an intense trip through the most esoteric corners of the human mind. It’s also a beautiful and timely appeal for the importance of books, subversive stories and love.
RaveThe Telegraph (UK)Yes, [Strayed] has a film deal and yes, Wild has its share of fierce fauna, bad men with knives and extreme physical privation. But what makes her account of a solitary 1,000-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail...so special is its serious analysis of what being alone in the wild really means ... You don’t expect hardcore wilderness writing to contain steamy sex scenes, but that’s just another quirk that makes this extraordinary book unique. Beneath the noisy thrills, however, there’s something sad and solemn: an absolute aloneness that must be faced before Strayed can move on with life ... The woman who emerges from the wilderness is scarred and strong and ready for life, and her inspirational account of a transformative journey is truly wild: dirty, beautiful and serene.
RaveThe Times (UK)Ever the experimentalist, Levy has some fun with temporal boundaries here, but Saul’s beguiling voice and the pacy narrative make it a joy to read rather than a mere exercise in literary trickery. Saul’s viewpoint turns out to be something other than it seems, which makes for some heart-stopping moments of surprise ... The most interesting aspect of this highly readable double mirror of a novel is the way Levy uses sexuality to explore the nuances of human interaction. Saul is not your typical male lead: here is a boy wearing a pearl necklace because it was his late mother’s; a man who is picked up and thrown down by a woman who has power not only over his body, but his public image ... If he were a woman, we might barely notice the way he is constantly gaslighted and robbed of agency, but casting this innocent soul as male, the injustice of it feels rightly shocking ... Such a varied writer won’t please everyone all the time, but if you secretly felt that...any of her previous work was just too stickily, intensely weird, don’t give up. Because this one is brilliant in a new way: cool, calm, highly atmospheric...and an ice-cold skewering of patriarchy, humanity and the darkness of 20th-century Europe.
PositiveThe Times (UK)[Coe\'s] affectionately witty attitude to our human foibles is always uplifting, even when the politically divisive subject matter is morbidly depressing ... It’s not until everything starts to wind up that he eases off on the chronological box-ticking and gives himself over to the interior lives of the Trotters. And he’s superb at that — at developing slow-burning love stories, observing the strange modulations of a personality reaching old age, showing us what grief does. That’s what Middle England is really about: the losses of middle age. It’s about being in your fifties...and realising that you’re leaving the country of your youth behind because that world simply doesn’t exist any more. Coe’s unflagging commitment to recording British life as it really is combines with his sensitive evocation of middle-aged angst, to make this an absorbing homage to things that change and things that stay the same.
RaveThe Times (UK)On the face of it, there couldn’t be a more depressing story. Yet Leila’s tale is surprisingly uplifting ... There is so much beauty in this book ... And there’s wisdom too ... Thanks to Shafak, the voices of women like Nalan and Leila will no longer be silenced.
PositiveThe Times (UK)As with any ambitious literary debut, there are moments of stylistic surfeit that readers with sensitive digestion may have trouble with. But [Vuong\'s] experiments with form—floating snippets of prose-poetry, song lyrics and disjointed dialogue—remain readable. He feels like a gentle fellow traveller rather than a lofty teacher, which is important, given the gravity and intimacy of his themes ... The bond between a hurt woman and son is at the heart of this story, which unfurls tender new layers right up to the last line. This impressive debut hints at even greater things to come.
RaveThe Times (UK)It’s got book-club hit and bestseller written all over it, even before you clock its media-friendly author ... it’s the very nowness that makes The Farm such a haunting read ... Ramos has crafted a real page-turner that combines all the hottest issues of the day: inequality, race and women’s battle to reclaim their bodies from commodification by big business, with the eternal questions of how much we can sacrifice before losing ourselves completely. She is eloquent on the little intimacies of gestating a baby and the upstairs-downstairs dramas between rich white ladies who feel guilty about everything and their nannies who must debase themselves without making their bosses feel sorry for them. The result is an entertaining novel that is also a serious warning.
RaveThe TimesThrow Me to the Wolves is, on the face of it, a made-for-TV procedural police drama...Scratch the surface, however, and all of Britain’s restless undercurrents are churning away ... McGuinness...spins his tale with some beautiful, unashamedly intellectual prose. It’s a pity that the female characters are mostly one-dimensional archetypes...However, in all other respects this is literary fiction as it should be: in stylish, surprising, lyrical sentences we are forced to confront the hidden power structures, public and private, that control our everyday lives. It’s reminiscent of Edward St Aubyn, not only in its pillorying of the elite, but the pleasure McGuinness takes in having his characters say clever things. It’s also a proper page-turner.
RaveThe Times...this is an elastic retelling of Shakespeare’s Pericles, which is itself a self-conscious patchwork of other tales ... Smith finds delicious new tragic and comic moments everywhere ... There is no simple happy ending, but rather a kaleidoscopic cyclone of voices that just about come to a point of earthly peace, if not celestial redemption ... Despite the stark indictment of humanity’s evils that this bubbling, babbling brook of a book contains, the real story is the eternal, deep pulse of nature doing its thing, oblivious to our sordid ways. Nature, in Smith’s hands, is a strange sort of mother ... She tells stories in a voice you can’t help but listen to.
Alexander McCall Smith
PositiveFinancial Times\"No one will be breathlessly turning the pages to find out which unremarkable conclusion Varg will reach. Still, McCall Smith’s finely tuned sense of human (and canine) nature does keep us keen to find out whether dear Marten is responding to his antidepressants; whether Anna will hold Varg’s gaze a little too long over coffee; whether the protagonist’s psychoanalyst will succeed in convincing us all that the North Pole is a phallic symbol ... McCall Smith knows how to create a world full of sweet things and emotionally true moments and in this new series of \'Scandi blanc\' delivers exactly what his fans will be hoping for.\
PositiveThe Sunday TimesMany coming-of-age novels set in the 1980s are little more than a roll-call of pop songs, retro snack foods and chopper bikes. Not this one. This is a proper literary novel about addiction, poverty, parenting and the power of love ... you might initially wonder whether you’ll be able to take all 500 pages of Dalton’s idiosyncratic prose style; The opening chapters in which he sets out his stall as a writer of serious emotional and stylistic bravura are occasionally hard to digest. He knows it too ... Dalton has created an electric novel out of a troubled childhood. Boy Swallows Universe is the opposite of a misery memoir, it’s a lively, funny affirmation of the human instinct for survival in a hostile environment.
PositiveThe Times (UK)\"... [Boyle\'s] writing gets really fired up, staying just the right side of gratuitously lurid, but giving you a good amount of bang for your buck ... Boyle renders the hypnotic, quasi-academic mood of the commune skilfully, capturing the participants’ initial belief that this was a serious spiritual quest, not merely a party ... The downside to this generally engrossing novel is that at the centre of it all lies something words can’t describe: what it’s like to do a lot of acid. Also, Leary himself would have been a much more interesting leading man than Fitz ... As the story of one man’s descent into madness and the folly of communal living and doing drugs for breakfast, however, it’s a jolly thrilling read.\
MixedThe Financial TimesThis fitful, dreamy little book certainly feels like a thing of the small hours ... it is a patchwork of musings, quotations and impressions with no particular narrative and definitely no conclusion ... In some 130 pages of prose, purple as the first light of dawn, Benjamin takes us deep into the anxious mind of a cosmopolitan, literary, sleepless woman. It’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting ... We toss and turn alongside her, wondering what exactly this book is for ... despite bursts of pretty writing and the odd glimmer of humour (hard to do, I know, when you’re really tired), it falls somewhat short ... Mostly, Benjamin ends up doing what everyone suffering from a chronic problem does: trying out far-fetched metaphors and similes to describe just how awful, special and weird her situation is ... It would be a shame for Benjamin if this well-intentioned but underwhelming philosophical excursion into the night is destined only to be bought as a gift book for people who are always banging on about not being able to sleep, but that, alas, is probably its fate.
PositiveThe TimesJohnson attacks the Oedipus myth with a taste for gothic horror and a radical vision based on gender fluidity that perhaps only a millennial writer could muster. Her clever layering of ancient and modern makes for a disturbing take on the illusion of free will and the horrible things that women sometimes think and do.
PositiveThe Times (UK)A conventional, but well-made novel. Faulks knows which strings to pull to make his themes — historical, political and personal — synchronise ... One ends up feeling moved more by Faulks’s Paris — its beauty, romance, history and complexity — than by the characters ... Faulks knows better than to mess with a classic recipe.
MixedThe Times\"Perry clearly has serious intentions. Her mission is to investigate moral responsibility in state-sponsored terror and the possibility of redemption at humanity’s lowest points. It just doesn’t quite work because the witch is so silly, and Prague so pretty, and the whole thing so playful. There are wonderful moments when Perry’s zany prose takes flight, but the impossible task she set herself has not been met. However, there are riches enough in Melmoth — a global, time-travelling, supernatural extravaganza full of politics, curses, monsters and weird sisters — to make us excited about what she will do next.\
MixedThe TimesEmma Hooper...sets out her store early on, with a lot of blank spaces, disjointed snippets of songs, ellipses and non sequiturs ... However, beneath the affected stylistics, Our Homesick Songs tells a relevant, strong story about the impact of environmental change on rural communities and the way the young generation can feel responsible for and angry at what their forebears have done ... After an interminable beginning, during which Hooper the storyteller disappears up the abandoned shipping channel of her impressionistic form, the pace quickens towards the end as the family embark on a plan to save themselves ... Hooper tries to evoke a specific Newfoundland landscape by using language to conjure vast empty spaces, whistling winds and the loneliness of fishing communities cut off from the world and from their past as (mostly Irish) immigrants. That’s a tall order for any writer, and Hooper, still young, does not quite nail it.
PanThe TimesClues and red herrings come thick and fast, but the narrative doesn’t work as a thriller because nothing sinister or surprising happens. The main players, whose favorite activities are making endless cups of tea, whingeing and having no sense of humour, are hard to love. None has any interesting ideas about the many weighty subjects the plot touches on (mental health, art, motherhood, religion). The familiar trope of a local spooky legend—this time about missing children visiting the Underworld—is put to its habitual use of adding a bit of cultural depth and the chance of things going all magic realism. And where some authors stick in a moody crow or fox to add weirdness, Healey goes for a mysterious cat. This is truly contemporary British fiction by numbers.
MixedThe Sunday TimesWe all love to read of a woman transplanted to a glamorous foreign city and having to work out the alien lingo, weird sandwich fillings and mad opening hours before realizing that things aren’t so different after all ... It would be nice to say that running through all this is the charming love story between her and her soulmate, \'L,\' colored in with intimacy and thrills and intellectually enlivened by the big philosophical questions around women having babies without men, and new ways of women being alone together. Like much of this understated book, however, the romance and ideas are played down. Way down. Brockes, an experienced investigative journalist, is very much of the \'what, when, where\' school of storytelling, with the \'why and how\' left to fend for themselves ... there’s an emotional chasm at the heart of this informative book ... I longed for that sort of coarse cry here, in this strangely depressed book about life written with the deathly calm of an expert rather than one living it in the raw.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Caitlin Moran’s new novel has a lot of sex and private parts in it ... look away if you\'re feeling fragile ... [It] will have Moran’s female fans giggling and crying in sympathy ... It’s quite a ride, this book. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, sweetly romantic and fiercely angry. Often all at once.
RaveThe UK TimesVlautin, who says he grew up with posters of Steinbeck and the Jam on his wall, steers his characters down their hard path like a veteran scribe of the American road. There’s a plangent beauty in Horace’s love for the rural life clashing with the pressure of earning a living and his desire for self-determination. And you don’t get much more country than that, y’all.
MixedThe Times (UK)\"The story is so formulaic and the prose so basic that it’s a wonder the book is as unputdownable as it is. Down-it-in-one beach reads such as this are fascinating things: predictable, insubstantial and full of cliché ... Tangerine is a vintage travel poster in literary form. Actually, it’s a screengrab of an Instagram post of a vintage travel poster: so filtered and cropped that its artificiality is a given, yet that doesn’t spoil the fun.\