Michael Magras is a book reviewer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His reviews have appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Shelf Awareness, Northwest Review of Books, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Kirkus, BookPage, and elsewhere. He can be found on Twitter @michaelmagras
RaveShelf AwarenessDenizens of the grungier side of life dominate the assured stories in Heartbroke ... Sound depressing? It could have been, but with Bieker\'s gift for apt descriptions, readers will likely be enthralled instead of downcast. Uses of the vernacular...make these pieces sparkle with rough glamour ... [one character] falls for a hydroelectric miner, who tells her, \'It\'s fun to make people think you\'re one way and then boo! You\'re another.\' Stories by good authors pull off that conjuring trick all the time. Bieker shows how satisfying it can be.
RaveBookPageBulawayo has found a clever if familiar way to tell the story of a fictional African country and the fall of its leader: Clearly inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the population consists entirely of animals ... Glory is an allegory for the modern age, with references to contemporary world politics, chapters written as a series of tweets, and animals checking social media for updates on fast-changing developments ... readers will also note the influence of works by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, especially in Bulawayo’s extravagant storytelling and critique of colonialism ... As this wise, albeit occasionally repetitive, book makes clear, that’s a cautionary message all countries should heed.
Karen Joy Fowler
RaveShelf AwarenessIn this canny and disturbing piece of historical fiction, she creates a portrait not just of a killer but also of the killer\'s family ... Fowler\'s words read as chillingly apt today ... That\'s what makes Booth so unsettling and thrilling: the many parallels between the Booth family\'s era and the present day ... It is a grim reminder that, throughout history, families of murderers have had to discover the answer, and more are likely to follow.
PositiveShelf AwarenessBruni...includes graphic descriptions of the treatment...and philosophical discourses on what it means truly to see ... Some of Bruni\'s epiphanies are obvious: that the ambitious should occasionally interrupt their pursuit of power to appreciate the splendors all around is not an original insight. But this book is a welcome reminder, despite the inevitability of dusk in each person\'s life, of how \'enriching and beautiful that dusk can be\' when one examines it closely.
PositiveStar TribuneA surprisingly even-handed book, the title of which perfectly encapsulates disturbing implications of conspiracy theorists and their beliefs ... Chapters mix poignant stories...with tales of darker factions ... Despite moments of humor, the tone of Off the Edge is elegiac, with sadness over the consequences of Flat Earthers\' beliefs.
PositivePittsburgh Post-GazetteElegant ... The new work is not as satisfying as previous novels, yet it contains scenes of emotional power sure to resonate with anybody who has cared for a loved one transformed by disease ... These chapters expertly demonstrate the way to introduce dozens of characters in a short amount of time. With delicate strokes, Otsuka shows how the pool offers \'a sense of comfort and order that is missing from our aboveground lives\' ... Therein lies the beauty of the novel, yet also it’s disconnect. The Swimmers is a gorgeous yet bifurcated book, two exquisite halves tangentially connected to one another. Each half contains some of the most heartbreaking passages in recent memory ... The book’s two sections are each so beautifully written that one can’t dismiss the elements of this achievement that are so strong. In the end, The Swimmers is like that priceless vase: marred by imperfections, but very much a thing of beauty.
RaveBookPageReaders will be happy to learn that Stuart’s follow-up, Young Mungo, is even stronger than his first book ... a marvelous feat of storytelling, a mix of tender emotion and grisly violence that finds humanity in even the most fraught circumstances ... Some plot elements in Young Mungo may disturb, but all are sensitively rendered, and the simplicity of Stuart’s writing makes them all the more powerful. One of the myths of St. Mungo is that he once brought a dead robin back to life. No such restoration occurs in young Mungo’s hardscrabble life, but as Stuart shows, hope often lies where you least expect it.
Sandro Veronesi, Tr. Elena Pala
PositiveBookPage[A] unique portrait of an enigma of a man ... a moving, black-humored work about family and the tragedies born of time and poor decisions. Veronesi has created complicated characters that don’t always behave nobly, are products of their time and are, from a literary standpoint, the richer for it.
PositiveThe Star Tribune... encouragement [to aspiring journalists], along with a supersize helping of nostalgia for a bygone newspaper era of Linotype, phone booths and carbon paper, is among the memorable features of Chasing History ... entertaining if occasionally dry ... a tale that mixes personal history with details of the most significant events of that half-decade, as seen from the perspective of a young man who loved the \'glorious chaos of typewriters\' and the debris on reporters\' \'institutional gunmetal\' desks, from dictionaries to parimutuel betting slips ... Bernstein occasionally dwells on insignificant details, such as the type of burger he ate before he covered a citizens\' association meeting. At its best, however, Chasing History offers a unique view on American history and one journalist\'s maturation.
PositiveBookPage...no one could ever accuse the author and award-winning creator of the television series Fargo of skimping on plot. His action-stuffed follow-up to Before the Fall is an exciting cautionary tale that addresses just about every social ill facing Western civilization ... Anthem touches on just about every contentious topic one could name, from gun culture and climate change to race relations, extremist politicians and the \'yelling box\' that is the internet. The novel would have been stronger if Hawley had blended his themes more seamlessly into the narrative rather than letting his characters give speeches, but many of his painstakingly crafted scenes read like an action movie in book form.
Olga Tokarczuk, Tr. Jennifer Croft
RaveShelf AwarenessMagnificent ... The novel contains dozens of beautifully drawn characters ... Tokarczuk addresses themes of racism...and the dangers of following a charismatic leader. The Swedish Academy singled out this work in Tokarczuk\'s Nobel citation and, thanks to this sterling translation, English-language readers will discover why ... Magisterial.
RaveShelf AwarenessRiveting ... Combination murder mystery, courtroom drama and trenchant commentary on racism. The Fortune Men is a sweeping indictment of British jurisprudence and the many forms prejudice can take ... Most poignant of all is the portrait of Mahmood, a proud Muslim who retains his hope and humanity even in the face of the most brutal of injustices ... A memorable portrait.
PositiveBookPageMuch of the story is predictable, but a ride can still be pleasant even when you know where you\'re going. Sympathetic readers will feel pangs for Sonya\'s experiences, and Harding\'s descriptions of intensified sensations are unforgettable ... Bright Burning Things is a redemptive portrait of addiction and the extreme emotions of a parent in distress.
RaveBookPageWinman’s plot at times relies too heavily on moments of serendipity like this one, but readers will nonetheless be charmed by Ulysses’ attempts to set up a pensione, as well as by Evelyn’s parallel story and her many lovers, and the ways in which her life and Ulysses’ become linked ... ultimately, a celebration of Italy, with loving descriptions of its buildings and countryside, of old women gossiping on stone benches, of Tuscany’s \'thick forests of chestnut trees and fields of sunflowers.\' It’s light yet satisfying, like foamed milk atop a cappuccino.
RaveThe Star TribuneThe pageant of animals in these pieces is equally spectacular, as is the writing ... Orlean strikes a perfect balance between hilarious and informative ... Throughout, Orlean has a gift for the indelible detail ... Lines like that are too numerous to mention here, but readers fond of seemingly effortless writing about animals will savor this book. One can imagine a sparkle in their eyes as they turn the page.
RaveThe Pittsburg Post-GazetteA reader would have to be spectacularly inattentive—unable, as one might say, to see the forest for the trees—to miss the point of the social satire in The Trees, Everett’s uproarious and grisly new work. Everett forces readers to confront atrocities endured by Black Americans in this briskly paced hybrid of whodunit, madcap comedy, and horror story. And he does it by employing a technique designed to make the willfully ignorant take notice: by creating a revenge fantasy that turns the tables on the usual perpetrators ... It’s a testament to Everett’s immense skill as a writer that he is able to take such grim material and make it hilarious, poignant, and infuriating. For all its comedy, The Trees is a provocative variation on a point others have made many times before: to get white people to understand Black people’s experiences, make a white person go through the same thing. Otherwise, they may never see the forest right in front of them.
MixedThe Washington Post... [a] heartfelt debut novel ... an arresting opening, told, as is much of the book, in a brief, punchy chapter ... Cemile turns out to be a well-drawn character, but the jump is jarring, primarily because the rapid jolt from 8-year-old Damla’s family life to 15-year-old Damla’s relationship with a school friend omits meaningful details about the inevitable transition over the intervening seven years. Perhaps Cin felt that the obliqueness would create tension, but it mainly disorients the reader. And it is the first of many abrupt transitions in a novel that continually moves on before bringing scenes to a satisfying conclusion. Even so, Cin has a gift for evocative writing ... Ultimately, Keeping the House turns into a family saga, coming-of-age story and thriller rolled into one ... The descriptions in [some] sections are precise and vivid, qualities that are sometimes missing in other parts of the book ... Keeping the House is, in many ways, the quintessential first work of fiction: ambitious yet uneven, with flashes that demonstrate the author’s considerable potential. The novel serves up a buffet of genres but never coheres into a satisfying whole.
RaveThe Pittsburg Post-Gazette... a complex and subtle work about profound societal changes as seen through the experiences of one American family. Yet this story about people who question tradition reads very much like an old-fashioned novel. Crossroads may lack formal daring, but it compensates with thoughtful prose and a sympathetic view of its characters ... That’s one of the book’s many strengths: Franzen’s willingness to take his time and slowly reveal the dramas and backstories of his characters ... Some of the writing in Crossroads is arch, as if Franzen is trying without irony to emulate big, prolix novels of the past ... Readers open to its rhythms, however, will savor the novel’s excesses and leisurely pace. And Franzen remains unparalleled in his ability to tell family stories populated by a large cast of distinctive characters. One might say that a novel like Crossroads, with its unapologetically old-school approach to storytelling, is its own act of defiance.
RaveBookPage... brilliant ... she triumphs over a tough assignment: to write an entire novel in the voice of a child ... Toews gives Swiv a voice that is sophisticated, childlike and utterly believable ... The novel features a supporting cast of men that allows Toews to comment on examples of the patriarchy at work ... This material could have been strident, but the wonder of Fight Night is that it’s a warmhearted and inventive portrait of women who have learned to fight against adversity.
PositivePIttsburgh Post-GazetteIf, in book form, the material loses some of the rhythm and poetry of the subjects’ speech, this volume will still be a welcome addition to any comedy fan’s library ... Steinberg tends to overpraise. He calls dozens of his mentors and contemporaries geniuses. That may be true, but the repetition wears after a while. One wishes the printed interviews were more than just partial transcripts from the shows. And the writing is often—no pun intended—sketchy. Perhaps he assumed his audience already knows his subjects well, but the lack of specificity about what makes them special makes the book lightweight and cursory. Inside Comedy is at its best when Steinberg shares anecdotes only he can tell ... It’s good for books, too.
PositiveBookPage[An] ambitious novel that deepens her earlier themes ... Unlike Rooney’s previous novels, parts of this one feel self-consciously artsy, with a chapter-long backstory and paragraphs that run for many pages. But on the way to its heartfelt destination, this flight is still smooth despite brief, mild turbulence. Rooney writes with uncommon perceptiveness, and her ability to find deeper meaning in small details, such as knowing how a friend takes his coffee, remains unparalleled ... Beautiful World, Where Are You is a brutally honest portrait of flawed characters.
MixedThe Star Tribune... intermittently effective but overwritten ... The key to universality in fiction is to be specific. Equally important, however, is the ability to know which items to flesh out and which are trivial. Especially in the first half, Butler dwells on unnecessary back story and minor details that halt momentum. Readers don\'t need to know the foods Gretchen orders for lunch, or the items in a pastry display case, or particulars about how a construction company gets paid ... Yet if one has the fortitude to keep reading, one eventually reaches nifty plot twists and fine character sketches. Butler\'s writing sharpens as the story turns grisly, and he excels at describing mysterious elements, such as the strange gleaming that comes from beyond the property\'s hot springs ... feels like a novel from a different era, with white, tough-guy protagonists driven by sex, money and power. Butler may not always know where to shine his spotlight, but he knows this much: A jog on a treadmill in pursuit of riches may produce fitness of a sort, but watch your step.
PositiveThe Star Tribune... charming ... filled with humor, if occasionally forced ... The book gets repetitive after a while, but MacDougall\'s writing is always witty and evocative ... MacDougall may be a menace to porcelain pigeons, but as a writer, she\'s no klutz.
PositivePittsburgh Post-Gazette... a multilayered work that is part detective story, part political thriller about graft and power—figures such as Boss Tweed make appearances—and part meditation on the many forms of prejudice that pervade society, then as now ... The book feels weighed down with research, which suggests the material may not have felt as natural to him as the British locales and politics of \'High Dive.\' But The Great Mistake entertains with its endless invention and its parallels to the personal and political challenges of contemporary society. Some lessons, alas, are hard to learn.
RaveBookPage... graceful ... a clever commentary on the changes in Western society as seen through Spufford’s characters ... derives considerable power from dramatizing the experiences its characters missed: the chance to build and lose a fortune, to see one’s dreams realized or else rerouted toward more modest achievements, or just to hold a loved one’s hand. Spufford shrewdly reminds readers that tragedy deprives the world of not only noble people but also scoundrels, and this fact is part of the fabric of history ... That’s the biggest message of this book: A road might lead to a dead end, but the journey could still be worthwhile.
PositiveBookPageReaders of Helen Oyeyemi’s latest mind-teaser will know they’re in for an unusual experience ... uncommonly inventive ... The story’s second half is convoluted, and Oyeyemi tends to overwrite ... But fans of the British writer’s previous work, such as the PEN award-winning What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, will enjoy this novel’s surreal twists and imaginative scenarios. Peaces is like the work of a hypnotist: Those open to its allure will inevitably fall under its thrall.
RaveThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette... elegant ... Unremittingly sad yet beautiful ... Occasionally, Ms. Lahiri tries too hard to be poetic ... But these are minor missteps. The book is filled with heartbreaking moments ... the novelistic equivalent of that grateful message, a lyrical if painful evocation of the fragility of life.
PositivePIttsburgh Post-GazetteIf Garcia takes on more than can fit into 200 pages, the result is an intermittently breathtaking narrative from an author whose voice is already as confident as that of more seasoned writers ... The main theme of these stories is survival ... All of these are stories worth telling, but by putting so many into one slender volume, Garcia renders some of them less powerful than they could have been ... Garcia shows how any event, even something as seemingly insignificant as an old Spanish translation of a Hugo novel, can assume unexpected meaning to one’s descendants.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
PositiveThe Star TribuneThe book\'s strongest parts describe the challenges the women faced ... For someone who \'grew up with the television on,\' Armstrong is surprisingly unfamiliar with many shows. She writes that when Berg was a mystery guest on CBS\' \'What\'s My Line?\' in 1954, the blindfolded panel \'quickly determined who she was.\' Anyone who has seen the show knows it took a comparatively long time. And the inclusion of minor details, such as how Berg liked her eggs, feels like filler. When Armstrong sticks to her subjects\' achievements, the book is exceptional ... catnip for TV fans and...a welcome addition to the literature of television history.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
PositivePittsburgh Post-GazetteMr. Nguyen explores many dichotomies in this book, from different interpretations of \'committed\'—commitment to a cause, the possibility of committing suicide—to the clash between capitalism and communism ... The richness of this book comes from its quieter moments and observations about politics and colonialism. The narrator offers cultural commentary throughout ... a thriller, but of the intellectual sort ... For the most part, the novel is a smart take on past events relevant to today’s struggles.
RaveBookPageIshiguro is an expert at slowly doling out information to build tension. The wonder of this book is that he incorporates many elements, from environmental damage to genetic testing, without the story seeming heavy-handed ... brilliant.
RaveBookPageLaird Hunt has a reputation for sensitively chronicling women’s lives ... He returns to the Indiana setting in his delicate new novel, Zorrie, a powerful portrait of longing and community in the American Midwest ... Hunt chronicles the events of Zorrie’s life with swiftness and precision ... Hunt tells their stories with a quiet sensitivity rarely seen in modern American fiction ... Despite occasional dry passages, Zorrie is a poetic reminder of the importance of being a happy presence in other people’s memories.
MixedPittsburgh Post-GazetteSome authors might have settled for giving Tiller one memorable adventure. Mr. Lee gives him two, a bounty that is a tribute to Mr. Lee’s powers of imagination yet also shows he may have complicated his tale more than was necessary. My Year Abroad is two separate stories that don’t quite comment on one another as Mr. Lee may have intended ... The novel’s more interesting story involves Pong Lou, a chemist at a huge pharmaceutical firm ... Tiller’s China adventures have a cartoonish denouement, but Pong’s story is a powerful tale that incorporates his artist parents’ difficulties with the Red Guards during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and much more. While the prose is gorgeous throughout, Tiller uses sophisticated phrases his character is unlikely to speak ... Despite its flaws, My Year Abroad engagingly confronts questions of conspicuous consumption, identity, and privilege. The book may not be a flawless jewel, but facets of it sparkle.
Peter Ho Davies
RaveBookPage...excellent ... Davies brilliantly describes the quotidian aspects of raising a baby ... Though the child comes across as an abstraction rather than a fully fleshed-out character, the eloquence of Davies’ writing will make readers sympathize with a father trying to be a good parent and a good person ... a poetic meditation on the nature of regret and a couple’s enduring love through myriad difficulties. It’s a difficult but marvelous book.
RaveBookPageRacism is an insidious beast. It can find its way into any situation, as Danielle Evans shows in the stories and novella in The Office of Historical Corrections. Evans emerged as an important voice in American literature with her 2010 debut short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, and she once again demonstrates impressive artistry and humor as she chronicles shocking episodes of discriminatory behavior ... the sharpest piece is the title novella, about a government agency that adds emendations to incorrect placards at historical sites, a job that becomes surprisingly dangerous. As a child, the novella’s protagonist consoled a Black friend who had lost a debate tournament, declaring her a better debater than her white competitors. \'But it’s never going to be enough,\' replied the friend. Evans’ book shows that that painful truth hasn’t disappeared.
Jeffrey H. Jackson
PositiveThe Star Tribune\"As Jackson expertly describes, Cahun and Moore may have seemed unlikely candidates for the resistance ... Jackson does an excellent job in piecing together their story to depict the deprivations of their time in jail. The book’s interrogation scenes are surprisingly flat, but the drama leading up to them is intense, as are scenes after which they are sentenced to death ... As this skillfully constructed book shows, art may not end a war or pandemic, but it can provide receptive audiences with needed clarity.
PositivePittsburgh Post-GazetteLike Ireland, the island on which Kevin Barry’s fiction is set, the characters that populate his works are remote yet tantalizingly close to others who may offer promise or enrichment ... The hallmarks of Mr. Barry’s writing are in evidence here, from the earthy dialogue to his many poetic descriptions ... Mr. Barry is always compassionate toward his characters, from cancer patients who refuse treatment because the medicine makes them impotent to abusive mothers who summon inordinate empathy at the most felicitous times. In the world of Kevin Barry, a working-class antihero sure is something to be.
MixedPittsburgh Post-GazetteIf The Silence is a missed opportunity, it’s still an intriguing crystallization of some of Mr. DeLillo’s obsessions ... a frightening read, but Mr. DeLillo’s decision to sacrifice character development in favor of a laundry list of disasters renders the story less powerful than it could have been. The Silence is a mini-jeremiad against the ills of a hyper-connected world, but it feels sketchy and obvious ... the literary equivalent of a terrified passenger screaming at the driver of a careening car to hurry up and turn this clunker around.
PositiveThe Pittsburg Post-GazetteThough no less witty or bold than his previous works, Mr. Alam’s latest, Leave the World Behind, skirts the edges of horror ... Mr. Alam dwells too long on domestic scenes in the opening pages as the family settles in to their Airbnb. Despite this, he shows a keen understanding of the psychology of his characters, especially when writing of Amanda ... In the book’s final quarter, the increasingly gruesome plot takes over, and Mr. Alam abandons much of the nuance and characterization that had distinguished the book ... Before then, Leave the World Behind is a quietly devastating commentary on both the need for people to unite during trying times and the mitigating factors, from class distinctions to racism, that can prevent some people from trusting others.
MixedThe Pittsburg Post-GazetteThe mixed results suggest Ms. Robinson should have stuck to her inclination ... a terrific opening ... Unfortunately, the scene, which goes on for 60 pages, doesn’t explore their lives in depth. Readers may wonder why they should care about them. The scene is written almost as if it were a play. As is often the case in a printed script, the writing is pedestrian, with a surprising amount of stage direction ... The novel, which goes back and forth in time, strengthens considerably after they leave the cemetery ... Especially strong are sequences that show the responses to Jack and Della’s deepening relationship ... If Jack doesn’t portray its protagonist with the same nuance Ms. Robinson has shown for earlier characters, its release in the year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and protests against systemic racism is timely. \'So many of earth’s grievances could be soothed by a little consideration,\' Ms. Robinson writes. Decades have passed since the period in which Jack is set. As this book shows, enduring prejudices can be hard to shake.
PositiveBookPageThe book’s most nuanced sections involve Akhtar’s father, a complicated man who grows to like Donald Trump after treating the future president for a mysterious ailment in the 1990s. In a powerful closing chapter, Akhtar documents his father’s disillusion with Trump as part of a larger story of a malpractice suit in which the elder Akhtar’s religion is a complicating factor ... Despite long tangents, Homeland Elegies shows what American life is like for people with dark skin, as when Akhtar and his father park their car poorly outside a convenience store, a miscue that gives a gun-toting white man an excuse to hurl racist imprecations. For readers unaware of such assaults, Akhtar’s latest will be a rude awakening, and an important one.
RaveThe Pittsburgh Post-GazetteConsider the perpetual inner turmoil that might plague a scientist brought up in religious instruction ... That dichotomy is at the heart of Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi’s follow-up to her debut novel, Homegoing. Rather than create another multigenerational saga, Ms. Gyasi has written a more intimate book that’s an intellectual study of a complex scientific topic and a heartbreaking account of family tragedy ... What makes Ms. Gyasi’s book so profound is Gifty’s more personal goal: to understand her mother’s source of strength and to reconcile her own feelings about religion. The novel is at its strongest in its more philosophical moments ... In this exceptional book, Ms. Gyasi shows that neither a religious nor a scientific mindset can prevent every jolt.
PositiveThe Pittsburg Post-GazetteSmall details and the power of suggestion reveal her characters’ unique forms of despair with devastating immediacy ... Calamities abound in these relentless bleak stories, most of them set in California, and none of them, to Ms. Cline’s credit, offering easy answers ... Not every story is successful ... For the most part, however, these pieces are admirably subtle. Ms. Cline doesn’t take the sensational route in her depictions ... there are lovely lines throughout ... Ms. Cline’s touch wasn’t as delicate in The Girls as it is here. Her discipline as a storyteller has grown since her 2016 debut. The result is a mature work that shows the humanity in her deeply flawed characters and demonstrates how a person’s reputation can precede them, often with disastrous results.
J Alison Rosenblitt
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune... well-researched ... richly detailed passages ... Rosenblitt occasionally gets bogged down in minor details: the cost of Harvard lab fees, the features of classmate John Dos Passos. But she convincingly argues that, in this period, Cummings \'shaped a vision of the world that was both caustic and deeply human\' and developed his \'radical ideas about the physical presentation of texts\' ... She presents one indelible image after another, as when she notes that, long after the war, he would still “light his cigarette by picking up a live coal out of the fireplace grate with his fingertips, as he had learned to do in prison when out of matches.\' The Beauty of Living is a welcome addition to the field of Cummings scholarship.
PositiveBookPage... thinly plotted but moving ... In spare prose, Donoghue documents Julia’s harrowing three days ... The book’s most touching sequences dramatize the budding friendship between Julia and Bridie Sweeney ... The Pull of the Stars confronts a reality as pertinent today as it was in 1918 Ireland ... a plea for an end to the inequality that pandemics make all the more stark.
MixedBookPage... One of the biggest surprises here is that an author who has built a reputation for creating original worlds now seeks originality in a seemingly familiar milieu ... more ramshackle than Mitchell’s earlier works. Some plot elements, including episodes of revenge, jealousy and blackmail, are exactly what one might expect to find in a story of newly celebrated musicians. Mitchell fans, however, will welcome the continuation of flourishes from such earlier works as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, including the reemergence of characters from those novels and the neologisms that made Mitchell’s previous works such mind-bending experiences. Mitchell’s song may be different, but readers will recognize the tune.
J. Courtney Sullivan
PositiveBookPage... quietly perceptive ... Sullivan does a fine job depicting Elisabeth’s and Sam’s respective dilemmas ... well-drawn supporting characters ... The tension sometimes wanes, but Friends and Strangers is at its best when Sullivan emphasizes the widening class difference in America between people who can afford $46 peony-scented hand soaps and those worried about meeting basic needs. Sullivan dares to further complicate her narrative by showing that financial security doesn’t guarantee happiness. The result is a poignant look at the biases of modern society.
PositiveThe Pittsburg Post-Gazette... ambitious ... A book this ambitious is bound to have missteps. Thula’s years in America are related largely through secondhand stories. Readers don’t see her transformation directly, which renders the painful lessons she learns less profound. And a long middle section told by Thula’s grandmother only repeats events better dramatized elsewhere ... But much of How Beautiful We Were is superb. The influence of the great Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o is evident, yet Mbue has her own distinct voice. It’s an impassioned one that grows stronger as the novel builds to its heartbreaking conclusion.
PositiveBookPageThis touching novel charts a star’s decline, from early Broadway and Hollywood fame in 1948 to her sad later years, when she was reduced to degrading stage roles and a commercial for Irish butter ... The pacing is too leisurely at times, but Actress is at its best when Enright examines the complexities of this unusual mother-daughter bond. Memorable descriptions of even secondary characters make this book a treat ... As Enright shows, love often looks glamorous, but sometimes it’s only a guise.
RaveBookPageAs Alvarez has done so beautifully in previous books, she offers a memorable portrait of sisterhood ... In one moving scene after another, Alvarez dramatizes the sustaining power of stories, whether for immigrants in search of a better life or for widows surviving a spouse’s death. True to its title, Afterlife cannily explores what it means to go on after a loss.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
PositiveThe Star TribuneCastillo movingly recounts his family’s history ... poetic language ... The narrative sometimes takes peculiar tangents — a digression on the protocol of late-night talk shows is especially odd — but most of this book offers a bracing reminder of the difficulties faced by immigrant families. Castillo writes one indelible scene after another.
RaveThe Pittsburg Post-Gazette... exceptional ... a moving portrait of the emotions that govern the politics of the region and the tragedies that befell these men and their families ... [McCann] brilliantly incorporates many literary techniques throughout, from sections written in the form of a play to the use of photos that calls to mind W.G. Sebald. He employs metaphors to great effect ... McCann cites many writers, most prominently Borges but also authors such as Mahmoud Darwish and Jerzy Kosiński, whose quoted writings offer added dimension to the depicted events.
PositiveBookPage... subtle if occasionally slow-moving ... Among the book’s many satisfying elements is the portrayal of the prejudice that Strafford and Nashe face in their careers, with Strafford being \'the only Protestant at detective level\' and an outlier among his countrymen, and Nashe dealing with male colleagues who don’t want \'bloody women\' among their ranks ... memorably shows the many forms that hatred can take.
PositiveThe Star TribuneThe Beckett chapters sometimes get bogged down with name dropping, yet they’re genuinely suspenseful ... Readers who aren’t writers may not care about the minutiae of writing a biography that Bair details here: the grants she applied for, the word processing software she used. But even readers uninterested in going deep into the weeds will find the broader landscape breathtaking. And some of those weeds are worth admiring ... At its best, the book is a unique glimpse into a bygone literary era. Whether you adore the works of Beckett and Beauvoir or cordially detest them, this memoir will deepen your appreciation of the impassioned feelings they provoked.
PositiveBookPage... Wilson doesn’t dwell on the science of human combustion. Instead, he uses the phenomenon as a clever metaphor for human behavior, especially as it relates to a seemingly privileged family ... Parts of the novel go on too long, but Nothing to See Here poignantly uses its high concept to make a larger point: Embarrassing behavior often stems from a person’s emotions and anxieties. The key is to address them before an easily resolved problem becomes a major conflagration.
RaveThe Pittsburg Post-GazetteThe diverse fusillade that constitutes early 21st-century life is memorably dramatized in Grand Union, Zadie Smith’s first collection of short stories. But “stories” is too simple a term for these pieces. Just as life presents a range of challenges, Ms. Smith presents a range of narrative styles, from traditional to experimental, and addresses such issues as racism, sexism and the current state of politics, especially the ongoing mud fight known as Brexit ... If these works have a common theme, it’s power and its many forms and abuses ... The strongest pieces, not surprisingly, focus on race ... Ms. Smith’s erudition in Grand Union is as riveting as it was in last year’s brilliant essay collection Feel Free. In the hands of a master, a diverse fusillade of thought-provoking stories is hardly a distraction.
MixedPittsburgh Post-GazetteOne heart-wrenching scene after another shows Olga’s dedication to Pasternak as he struggles to complete his novel ... The Secrets We Kept suffers from problems that often plague debut novels. Some of Ms. Prescott’s narrators sound the same. Many scenes are cinematic rather than literary, which is not necessarily bad, except when dialogue doesn’t define character, build tension or further the narrative, as is sometimes the case here. And although the novel is well-researched, Ms. Prescott has a tendency to include unnecessary details ... But one can’t help being impressed by Ms. Prescott’s ambition. The Secrets We Kept skillfully evokes the role women played in helping to win the Cold War, and the affair between Olga and Boris is beautifully rendered. It may not be a perfect book, but the bearer of determination like Ms. Prescott’s has many memorable novels in her future.
RaveBookPage... brilliant ... The importance of speech in the novel lets Lerner comment on the state of politics, from glancing references to some people’s inability to decode irrational arguments to more direct critiques ... \'How do you keep other voices from becoming yours?\' is a key question of our time, or, for that matter, any era. The Topeka School provides no clear answers, but it memorably demonstrates how hard it can be to recognize insidious utterances for what they are.
PositiveBookPage...a tale that is as poetic as it is harrowing ... The tone of some plot developments is too outlandish for the rest of the book, but When the Plums Are Ripe is a moving tribute to a people so little regarded that, as Nganang’s narrator puts it, if they appeared in Hollywood movies, they’d have no speaking parts, \'their story told by a narrator off-screen—someone like me.\'
MixedBookPage... isn’t as tightly plotted as Donoghue’s previous works, and many scenes play out like a Nice travelogue more than a novel. But Donoghue does an admirable job dramatizing the sacrifices people are often forced to make for younger generations, sometimes in unimaginably dangerous situations.
Amanda Lee Koe
PositiveBookPageMany of the novel’s most affecting scenes are of the women in old age ... The novel is sometimes overwritten, but Delayed Rays of a Star is a heartfelt tribute to extraordinary women who helped define modern cinema and a reminder that discrimination has always come in many guises.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneYou don’t have to be an author to appreciate the novel’s pleasures. This rapid-fire tale, which switches among five narrators, will keep readers entertained ... The prose in Rachel’s opening section sets the tone for the book. Dermansky’s characters speak in short sentences which, depending upon your perspective, is either an homage or a critique of minimalist writing ... With an impressively light touch, Dermansky pokes considerable fun at the literary world, from authors who are asked their opinion on the best bath products for writers to the unspoken suggestion that the wealthy are freer to pursue a career in the arts than those of lesser means ... The novel builds to a conclusion that may be too broad for some readers.
MixedBookPageThe pace sometimes flags, but this moving work about the immigrant experience is distinguished by Dennis-Benn’s compassion for her characters and her acknowledgment that issues related to sexuality and immigration require subtlety and understanding.
PositiveBookPageThe novel’s effectiveness lies in the power of its premise ... Although The Farm has too many digressions and sometimes makes its points too obviously, Ramos still does an excellent job posing complex questions surrounding surrogacy, immigration, capitalism and more.
Bret Easton Ellis
PanPittsburgh Post-GazetteHe mentions American Psycho often, congratulating himself on his prescience — he claims to have predicted the rise of Donald Trump — so the response to these incendiary rambling pieces shouldn’t have come as a shock. And how rambling and incendiary they are ... He jumps from topic to topic, from 9/11 to a critique of Charlie Sheen to a smattering of details about the bloodbath — narrative as well as financial — that was American Psycho: The Musical ... The main factor connecting these pieces is Ellis’ lack of self-awareness ... dissenting perspectives should be based on valid argument and thoughtful consideration. Ellis’ broad-brush statements rarely meet those criteria.
RaveBookPage\"... a work about cold, hard science that is also a warm and insightful look into human relationships and the mysteries of time ... Refreshingly, the science in Lost and Wanted is never window dressing, as the technical concepts that Freudenberger describes at length are integral to the plot. And the story takes unexpected turns on its way to a heartbreaking conclusion. It is a magnificent novel.\
RavePittsburgh Post-GazetteLaila Lalami...skillfully investigates the nuances of difference in The Other Americans, a novel that is as much a murder mystery as a perceptive depiction of how some folks are ruled by supposed disparities. Ms. Lalami’s intentions are clear from the ingenious way she has structured her novel ... As can happen in books with multiple narrators, voices in The Other Americans sometimes blur. If not for the circumstances described, readers might occasionally have trouble distinguishing among narrators. And the chapter told from Salma’s perspective feels superfluous. Yet The Other Americans is a powerful novel filled with magnificent details ... Ms. Lalami’s work beautifully dramatizes the issues that can preclude understanding.
PositiveThe Star Tribune\"Hustvedt is too smart to have turned this into a straightforward account of a year in the life of a budding artist. Like S.H.\'s protagonist, Hustvedt knows a good mystery when she sees one, and what\'s a more compelling mystery, at least to an artist, than the way time Mobius-strips one\'s existence into a smooth, if mystifying, continuum? ... The novel wanders in its more philosophical passages, and excerpts from S.H.\'s novel don\'t feel fully formed. But Memories of the Future shines in its observations on the fluidity of time and the ways in which one\'s older and younger selves can coexist. Early in the book, S.H. notes that Einstein worried about \'the problem of Now\' and how it links past and future. That\'s a mystery Sherlock Holmes would have loved.\
PositiveBookPage\"You can try, but you’re unlikely to find descriptions of basketball as elegant as those in Dana Czapnik’s debut novel, The Falconer ... There’s little plot here, and Czapnik’s characters tend to make speeches, but The Falconer offers astute observations on the difficulties women confront when trying to succeed in male-dominated fields. In Lucy, Czapnik has created a great character who refuses to conform to expectations.\
PositiveHouston Chronicle\"... ingenious if heavy-handed ... In the brilliantly executed scenes that open the novel, Englander shows Larry’s displeasure with having to sit shivah ... The novel’s ending is a little too pat, and coincidences further the narrative. But kaddish.com is an entertaining work about the challenges that tradition can pose ... Despite its flaws, kaddish.com convincingly shows how heavy [the weight of faith] can be.\
PositiveHouston Chronicle\"... powerful ... One of the most arresting aspects of this novel is the way in which Li subverts expectations ... The book gets repetitive after a while — much is made of Latin derivations, and some of Nikolai\'s dialogue is too stilted even for a sophisticated teen — but its message is nonetheless a sobering one. Nothing can ever fill the hollows formed by tragedy, though the desire to fill them is every bit as keen as the loss. If even a fraction of the emptiness is replaced, then the quest is worth the effort ... Anyone who has ever lost a loved one — that would be all of us — will relate.\
MixedBookPage\"If Mallon tries too hard to cram in references to every major news story of the day, Landfall is still a well-researched view of the jealousies and back-room dealings of early 21st-century American politics.\
PositiveHouston Chronicle\"Lanchester sometimes makes his points too obviously, and, oddly, as the goriness quotient increases, the dramatic tension sometimes flags. But The Wall is nonetheless a chilling reminder of the ease with which myopia can turn to dystopia.\
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
PositiveThe Houston ChronicleThe impression one gets from reading Jhabvala\'s work is that of a sculptor who reuses a favored armature to build nuanced depictions of similar likenesses ... Modern readers accustomed to arresting openings and dramatic clashes will find these stories quaint. Jhabvala\'s technique was to ease the reader into her stories with deceptively calm passages, a theater apparently devoid of theatricality. The cumulative effect, however, can be devastating ... Even at their weakest, these stories show the same elegance that marked Jhabvala\'s film collaborations with producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. At the End of the Century is a treasure for readers who savor quiet works of fiction and a fitting tribute to one of the most perceptive and sensitive writers of the 20th century.
PositiveThe Pittsburgh Post-GazetteAny reader who thought that, after Conversations With Friends, Ms. Rooney wouldn’t have more to say about vulnerable young adults navigating the rough terrain of love and relationships will be pleased to discover than her psychological acuity is every bit as sharp in this new novel ... An astute observer of one’s contemporaries who also possesses the talent to write about them is bound to have uncommon insight into their foibles, their insecurities, and the often self-defeating decisions they inflict upon themselves ... If some secondary characters skirt the edges of stereotype — Marianne’s abusive brother, Alan, is particularly one-dimensional — the novel is still an uncommonly acute portrait of the unease that questions of class, sex and social acceptance, especially among young people, can engender.
PositiveBookPage\"... [a] trenchant satire about the quest for meaning and the extremes to which some people will go to achieve it ... Oddly enough for a novel about the power of focus, Hark sometimes strays from its central story. But Lipsyte lands plenty of jabs at his targets, from internet trolls and conspiracy theorists to the desire for quick fixes to complicated problems. If acidic satire helps you fend off life’s challenges, then put Hark in your quiver.\
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneGrann infuses with the suspense of a thriller ... What makes The White Darkness so compelling is Grann’s gift for memorable detail...and Grann is expert at making readers feel as if they are on the journey with the team ... gripping.
PositiveBookPage\"... perceptive ... If the novel goes off on too many tangents, Roy is nonetheless a thoughtful writer who creates beguiling scenes, such as the emergence of women holding candles at nighttime, “a wavering line of fireflies,” as they sing a Muslim mourning chant. All the Lives We Never Lived is an affecting tale of loss, remarriage and rediscovery.\
PositiveBookPage\"Boyne sometimes paints in broad strokes, but he compensates with many wonderful touches. Exchanges between Vidal and Swift are deliciously venomous, and the digs at contemporary publishing are spot-on, as when Swift describes a debut novel he dislikes as, \'Bridget Jones meets A Clockwork Orange.\' A Ladder to the Sky is an entertaining, if deeply cynical, portrait of the literary world.\
PositiveBookPage\"The Clockmaker’s Daughter is overstuffed with incident, but readers who enjoy a symphony of voices and multiple storylines will find much to like here ... It’s an imaginative tale for fans of historical fiction.\
RaveThe Houston Chronicle\"What\'s most refreshing about this collection is that the women whose voices are rendered so beautifully here, not just the daughters and mothers but even Ariadne herself, shatter stereotypes of femininity and highlight truths that might discomfort but are a vivid testament to the world we live in today ... With candor and humor, Sotelo has given voice to women not often seen in the pages of American literature and has revealed in innovative ways the messiness that often characterizes relationships. Virgin heralds an important new voice in the world of poetry.\
RaveBookPage\"As heartbreaking as these works may be, the beauty of the language and Eisenberg’s sympathy for her characters will win over readers ... Eisenberg’s ability to dramatize family strife through small details has never been more acute, as when an aunt’s purchase of a baby doll for her niece intensifies the mother’s jealousy. And Eisenberg’s writing is glorious throughout, such as her description of a woman wearing \'a little vintage sundress, the color of excellent butter.\' A story about a teenage woman seeking a cure for episodes of confusion feels unfocused, but the other five are among the most astute works of short fiction this year. You may not like all the characters, but the book doesn’t disappoint.\
Haruki Murakami, Trans. by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
MixedThe Houston ChronicleTypically wild stuff from Murakami, but the impression one is likely to get upon reading Killing Commendatore is how dated some of it feels. Every female character is presented as a sexual object. And other touches feel equally old-fashioned, from the Balzacian tendency to describe in detail the contents of rooms to lengthy accounts of the dishes the narrator cooks and the music he listens to. Digressions in fiction can be fun, but Murakami digresses on the same subjects over and over ... If Murakami is covering well-trodden ground, he is as masterful as ever at building an intricate narrative and keeping his audience in suspense. Killing Commendatore is both a testament to the transformational power of art and a cautionary tale on the dangers of exploration.
PositiveThe Houston Chronicle\"Kingsolver lays out [the property\'s] background information too neatly in a conversation Willa has with a contractor who warns her about the house\'s \'nonexistent foundation\' and the expensive repairs it will require. But the novel quickly gains momentum thereafter ... Kingsolver sometimes tries too hard to remind us that America\'s current period of strife is hardly unprecedented ... The comparison of a fractured society being akin to a crumbling house may not be subtle, but it\'s apt. In its best moments, Unsheltered highlights the difficulty of all forms of repair, whether of one\'s home or the ripped fabric of society.\
PositiveBookPagePatrick deWitt has great fun with this premise. He populates the story with such characters ... If French Exit doesn’t always reach the zany heights it strives for, it’s still an entertaining portrait of people who are obsessed with the looming specter of death and who don’t quite feel part of the time they were born into.
PositiveBookPageThe novel includes many colorful characters ... Schumacher’s humor can be broad—a centenary celebration is called \'One Hundred Years of Payne\'—but the book has more laugh-out-loud lines than most novels, and she wields cutting remarks that are as sharp as ever. The Shakespeare Requirement is a bitter delight, perhaps, but a delight nonetheless.
PositiveHouston ChronicleGary Shteyngart is good at examining American culture ... an uneven novel that\'s more somber than Shteyngart\'s previous work ... Shteyngart wears his research heavily. After a while, one tires of repeated references to the fine points and inner workings of luxury watches and the personality traits they suggest in their owners ... Shteyngart sets up Cohen\'s dilemma beautifully, and the scenes of Cohen\'s travels contain gorgeous writing. Secondary characters, however, adhere to stereotypes and aren\'t fully fleshed out ... Lake Success frequently references Jack Kerouac\'s On the Road. Some readers might also be reminded of Lolita ... It is in these scenes that Lake Success is at its most powerful and offers the most pointed observations of present-day America ... an apt work for this strange era in American history.
PositivePittsburgh Post-Gazette\"Early scenes of Juliet’s transition are slow, with Ms. Atkinson laying out too much information about Juliet’s colleagues and Toby’s informants. But the novel gains considerable tension ... The postwar chapters may lack the drama of the wartime sections, but Juliet is always fascinating to follow. And Ms. Atkinson gives her a cutting wit.\
RaveBookPageTolstoy would have approved: In the short story collection Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, Kevin Wilson finds an impressively wide-ranging assortment of punishments to make 10 different families uniquely unhappy. Yet it’s a thrill to read these stories, proving yet again that even bleak material can be exciting in the hands of a great storyteller ... What makes Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine moving rather than lurid is Wilson’s compassion for his characters and his beautiful writing. He has a gift for heartbreaking detail ... a nuanced book.
PositiveBookPageTyler offers yet another astute portrait in Clock Dance ... If the concluding pages are more circuitous than necessary, Tyler’s touch is as light and sure as ever. Clock Dance is a tender portrait of everyday people dealing with loss and regret, the need to feel useful and the desire for independence.
Nell Irvin Painter
PositiveStar TribuneThis is a story of a woman determined to redefine herself, a task made more difficult by the casual racism she faced in school ... Painter’s tone can be self-congratulatory, but she tells an inspiring tale of an older person pursuing a long delayed passion. And she has an entertaining writing style.
PositiveHouston ChronicleJoseph O\'Neill is something of a bard of despair ... Here are more people who would empathize: the protagonists of the stories in Good Trouble ... Many of the stories here take satisfyingly unexpected turns.
Mia Couto Trans. by David Brookshaw
RaveBookPage\"Woman in the Ashes is the sort of novel in which fish fly through the air, the soil bears the footprints of angels, and a bundle of animal pelts hides a deep abyss. The tension flags at times, but the book’s richness stems from its recognition that many forms of conflict rend nations and their people. War and colonial oppression are among the most devastating, but tensions also flare between races, among compatriots and within families. This is a wise and powerful novel about war and its consequences.\
MixedBookPageYou won’t learn anything about her writing...but the Jean Rhys depicted in Caryl Phillips’ beguiling new novel...is not unlike the poorly treated and subjugated female characters from some of Rhys’ own books ... Readers of Phillips’ previous novels will recognize similar elements here, including the elegant formality of his prose and the criticisms of racism and colonialism. A View of the Empire at Sunset is a provocative portrait of one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic authors.
PositiveThe Houston ChronicleAt times, Farrow tries too hard to lighten the prose, perhaps in an attempt to make the material more accessible ... Even readers who are not foreign policy experts might wonder whether Farrow has given short shrift to some of the diplomatic successes of recent years, most notably the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the Obama-era policy changes regarding Cuba ... But War on Peace is nonetheless a well-researched work that lays out the case for diplomatic solutions to world crises. As former Secretary of State John Kerry tells Farrow, \'[I]t takes years to undo what\'s happening, because it takes years to build up expertise and capacity.\' And that\'s the tragedy of the picture painted here: Commission all the surveys you want, but they won\'t do much good unless diplomats are around to fill them out.
PositiveThe Houston ChronicleThe final installment, a 600-page single paragraph, is more exhausting and less focused than its predecessors, but it's a memorable jeremiad against the folly of war, the insidiousness of aging and the ways in which modern communications can push people apart as much as draw them together ... Self is more interested in the possibilities of language than the machinations of plot ... Self is as scatologically and libidinously freewheeling as ever. But one feels upon reading this book as if the say-anything shocks exist mainly for shock's sake. Much of Phone, especially erotic passages featuring prostitutes, wives and paramours, reads like an older male writer's idea of an edgy novel. Indeed, much of Phone feels like a book that, stylistically and thematically ... What's new, however, is the condemnation of the Iraq War and the colorful vitriol against Tony Blair and others who led the call for the conflict. And the prose is undeniably vivid throughout.
PositiveBookPage\"Welcome to Lagos casts an entertainingly scathing eye on many aspects of Nigerian society, from oil-hungry corporations to ambitious reporters and the rivalries among ethnic groups. If some characters aren’t fully fleshed out, the novel’s breakneck pace and intricate plotting are nevertheless a treat to savor. This is a winning sophomore effort from a writer to watch.\
RaveHouston ChronicleCurtis Sittenfeld is an astute observer of the lives of comfortable people and of those who aspire to levels of security that have been thus far unattainable ... If a couple of the pieces here aren\'t fully realized, the collection still showcases Sittenfeld\'s gifts for scrutinizing the psyches of the privileged and for sifting through the shards of the wreckage when that tablecloth gets pulled away ... Most of the pieces in this collection, however, are magnificent.
RaveHouston ChronicleNo one is likely to accuse Julian Barnes of being traditional...But look more closely at his output, and you\'ll notice how often he uses clever variations on the traditional three-act structure...Now, in The Only Story he finds yet another way to subtly subvert the three-act structure ... one of the best works of his career.
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneNgugi tends to write in generalities, yet this volume still devastates with painful details of his time at Kamiti ... And he writes with a cutting wit, as when he states that the highest artistic achievements of white settlers were murals in a hotel bar that 'still attract dozens of tourists who come to enjoy racist aesthetics in art' ... Wrestling With the Devil is a powerful testament to the courage of Ngugi and his fellow prisoners and validation of the hope that an independent Kenya would eventually emerge.
PositiveBookPage\"If Castillo overdoes some details—she references food too often—America Is Not the Heart is still an earnest contribution to the ongoing discussion of immigrant life in America.\
PositiveNewsday\"Rachman sometimes relies on caricatures...And some plot developments don’t emerge naturally from the narrative but feel engineered to drive home Rachman’s points. But the novel takes satisfyingly unexpected turns, especially when the reader might expect a clichéd depiction of father-son strife. And Rachman offers a nuanced portrait of talented people whose lives don’t work out the way they had hoped.\
PositiveNewsday\"But the novel takes satisfyingly unexpected turns, especially when the reader might expect a clichéd depiction of father-son strife.\
PositiveBookPageHollinghurst has a tendency to use dialogue too obviously to convey background information, but the Jamesian elegance and psychological acuity of his previous novels grace The Sparsholt Affair as well. This is a moving work from one of modern literature’s finest authors.
MixedThe Houston ChronicleLeave it to David Mamet ... to take a flower shop and the legend of the 1920s Chicago underworld and fashion a fresh take on a milieu one would have thought literature had thoroughly exhausted ... Alas, the plot takes too many unnecessary turns. The first half of Chicago somehow manages to move at a breakneck pace yet takes far too long to get where it wants to go. Narratives aren't required to follow a linear path, but even digressions should feel as if they belong on a narrative through-line. An abundance of asides, especially before a book's momentum, mood and main characters have been established, creates confusion rather than nonlinearity ... even if the novel isn't the bouquet Mamet fans had hoped for, it's nonetheless a vivid evocation of Prohibition-era organized crime.
PositiveBookPage\"The first section of Asymmetry feels sketchy, but the novel gains considerable momentum in ‘Madness.’ The prose becomes poetic and precise … In a third and final section, wherein the two novellas come together, Ezra tells an interviewer, ‘We have very little choice other than to spend our waking hours trying to sort out and make sense of the perennial pandemonium.’ Asymmetry is a thoughtful look at many forms of disorder and the eternal struggle to reconcile them.\
RaveThe Houston ChronicleIf the erudition on display in Smith\'s essay collection Feel Free is the work of a dilettante, then we should all be such dabblers ... That\'s the sort of insight that appears throughout this collection, in which Smith covers a range of cultural and political subjects, from Jay-Z to Billie Holiday, from contemporary artists Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Sarah Sze to Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli, from Wittgenstein to, of all people, Justin Bieber... The strongest essays showcase Smith\'s skills as an art, literary and cultural critic ... And, yes, Smith shines when writing about her supposedly narrow arena of expertise, with thoughtful essays on authors she admires... One of the pleasures of reading Feel Free is in savoring Smith\'s joy when she writes about formative cultural experiences ... But a collection of essays that doesn\'t prompt disagreements would be a dull book, and Feel Free is anything but dull.
PositiveThe Houston Chronicle\"The strongest essays showcase Smith\'s skills as an art, literary and cultural critic … One of the pleasures of reading Feel Free is in savoring Smith\'s joy when she writes about formative cultural experiences … ‘I\'m a sentimental humanist,’ Smith writes. ‘I believe art is here to help, even if the help is painful.’ These pieces may not be particularly sentimental, but Smith\'s nuanced belief in the ultimate goodness of art is so clearly in evidence that even a dabbler couldn\'t miss it.\
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...a remarkable hybrid: an adventure story about a coffee entrepreneur that is also a portrait of one man’s attempt to understand his ancestral country ... Eggers’ detached style can seem an odd and distancing approach for a story about someone so driven. But this is still a fascinating account of an enterprising man pursuing his newfound passion while honoring the achievements of his ancestors and their descendants.
Ismail Kadare, Trans. by John Hodgson
RaveThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette\"...a brilliant novel that captures the horrors of a totalitarian regime so repressive that its five-year sentences on political internees continued even after a prisoner’s death … By gradually doling out information to the reader, Mr. Kadare builds the mystery behind Linda B.’s death. Was Migena a spy for the government, as Rudian had once supposed? And did Migena have a connection to Linda B. and her family of royalist émigrés? … Mr. Kadare blends all of these elements into a mesmerizing whole that builds to a heartbreaking finale.\
MixedThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...thoughtful if uneven ... The Immortalists suffers from predictability. Readers will easily figure out the fate of many of the Golds. And the novel has too many secondary characters and too much unnecessary backstory. Yet it is still a provocative take on the age-old question of what constitutes a good life.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneO’Donnell masterfully documents the election’s subsequent events, such as Bobby Kennedy’s belated decision to run, his assassination after the California primary, the violence that marred the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and Vice President and former Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey’s last-minute entry as the Democrats’ establishment candidate ... Political junkies may already know much of the material here. But Playing With Fire is nonetheless a beautifully written account of an election that established strategies that, for better and worse, are still in use today.
PositiveBookPageIf parts of this novel are pulpier than Erdrich’s previous work, the result is still a chilling work of speculative fiction and a bracing cautionary tale about environmental deterioration and the importance of women’s control of their own bodies.
PositiveBookPageIt’s an old but effective technique: the use of oral histories—interviews with witnesses to past events—to paint a picture of an era through multiple perspectives. Cristina García employs this technique to great effect in Here in Berlin, a quilt of a novel that creates a hypnotic portrait of the former East German city during and after World War II ... If some of the histories are sketchy, most provide a powerful evocation of the continuing effect of the Nazi era on Berlin’s inhabitants. As the Visitor states at the end of the novel, there is 'poetry in the listening.' And that’s what Here in Berlin is: a poetic pastiche of rationalizations and regrets, and a testament to the challenge of reconciling a difficult past.
PositiveNewsdayDaniel Alarcón returns to that theme throughout his new collection of stories, The King Is Always Above the People. Alarcón’s characters deal with questions of identity, most notably: How do people see you, and how do you see yourself? And what is your place in a world in which you don’t feel you belong? ...Alarcón never explicitly identifies the Latin American countries in which these pieces are clearly set. These absences may seem affected, but they underscore his thesis: that people constantly assess their personalities, and the challenge of doing so affects everyone and happens everywhere ... A couple of stories misfire, but the majority brilliantly evoke their characters’ feelings of displacement. And Alarcón’s poetic prose gives his work a dreamlike quality... The strongest bridges of all, Alarcón suggests in this haunting book, are cherished memories and the places that evoke them.
PositiveBookPageOne of the surprises on Britain’s Man Booker Prize shortlist last year was Elmet, the fine debut novel from Fiona Mozley. American readers now have the chance to experience the novel’s atmospheric writing and its vivid portrait of a family struggling to outrun its past ... The escalation of these nuisances constitutes much of Elmet’s drama. The gothic violence of the later pages is out of step with the earlier tone, but Elmet paints a memorable picture of fraught familial relationships and the perils of revenge.
Edward St. Aubyn
PositiveThe Pittsburgh Post-GazetteReaders familiar with the play will recognize its elements, but Mr. St. Aubyn has mostly dispensed with the political machinations and fashioned a vicious critique of media empires and — a favorite target of the author’s — the lust for power and wretched behavior of the wealthy and privileged ... Dunbar maintains a frenetic pace throughout, an appropriate choice for a work about type-A sorts who will stop at nothing to satisfy their worldly and sexual appetites. Mr. St. Aubyn writes one masterful description after another, as when he describes Dunbar as the high priest of tabloid entertainment for the masses, the man 'who placed the wafer on their outstretched tongues.' If Dunbar’s late-novel epiphany and a couple of other plot resolutions are too abrupt, the book is still an enjoyable, breakneck ride through the misdeeds of one of the greatest stages of fools you’ll ever meet.
MixedThe Pittsburgh Post-GazetteMost of the characters here struggle to defeat adversity, but, alas, Mr. Eugenides also struggles in the earlier works to achieve his effects … Much of the prose reads like that of a young author trying too hard to be clever … Yet the book also contains many dazzling works, among them ‘Find the Bad Guy,’ a 2013 story that paints a devastating portrait of a crumbling marriage between a Texas radio consultant and the Bavarian woman who married him to get a green card; and ‘Early Music,’ about a frustrated musician avoiding the collections people who want the money for a clavichord he purchased in Edinburgh many years earlier. The book’s best stories are the last.
PositiveThe Houston ChronicleSimple doesn't necessarily mean inferior, of course. An old-fashioned story can provide as much room for creativity as an experimental work. The good news is that Egan, despite a few lapses, has met the challenge. If Manhattan Beach isn't as thrilling or doesn't feel as effortless as some of her earlier efforts, it's still a richly imagined portrait of a bygone era, and a sly commentary on the racism and sexism of an earlier generation ... Egan wears her research too heavily in this opening, as she does occasionally throughout the novel. The abundance of historical detail and brand name references gives the impression that she may have been less sure of her material, at least at the outset, than she has been in other novels. Fortunately, the novel gains assurance when Egan shifts to the years of America's involvement in World War II ... If some of the more romantic elements of Manhattan Beach skirt the edge of soap opera, Egan's storytelling prowess still makes this an entertaining read. As Egan proves, sometimes the most unorthodox act an author can perform is to write a seemingly conventional novel about characters we've seen before and point out the preconceptions that they, and we, may have taken for granted.
PositiveThe Houston ChronicleMidway through The Ninth Hour, Alice McDermott's brilliant new novel set in the early 20th century, teenage Sally accompanies Sister Lucy on the nun's visits to run-down Brooklyn, N.Y., tenement houses ...it is this dichotomy, the conflict between the corporeal and the spiritual, the desire for companionship and belonging versus a higher calling, that McDermott explores in what is perhaps her finest work to date ... From Jim's shocking suicide, McDermott fashions a riveting story that moves back and forth in time, spans multiple generations and shows the limits of faith and the challenge in maintaining it ... The Ninth Hour has its flaws.
RaveBookPageThis intricately layered story combines mystical elements with a brutal view of racial tensions in the modern-day American South ... Visitations from dead people, tales of snakes that turn into 'scaly birds' whose feathers allow recipients to fly—this material would have felt mannered in the hands of a lesser writer. But Ward skillfully weaves realistic and supernatural elements into a powerful narrative. The writing, though matter-of-fact in its depiction of prejudice, is poetic throughout ... Sing, Unburied, Sing is an important work from an astute observer of race relations in 21st-century America.
MixedBookreporter.comAt times, particularly in the first half of the book, ,em>A Tale for the Time Being could have benefited from more editing ... One wonders if Ozeki and her editor rushed to get the novel out in time for the second anniversary of the March 11, 2011 tsunami ... But Ozeki deserves praise for tackling subjects few novelists ever would have broached. A 750-word review can’t do justice to the many big ideas and lovely moments in this book ... The conversations between Nao and Jiko are smart and moving. In an era when American novels rarely have the courage to address large themes, it’s a pleasure to read a book that dares to think big.
RaveBookreporter.com...readers will recognize familiar themes: a young protagonist befuddled by outside forces; dreamlike meditations on alienation; and a conversational, deceptively simple writing style ...his banishment has perplexed him for 16 years. Sara suggests that Tsukuru track down his old friends and find out what happened. Much of the narrative depicts Tsukuru’s investigations as he learns the group members’ reasons for his swift rejection ... His prose style is chatty and straightforward, with a lot of stage direction and lengthy conversations. The philosophical heft of his themes makes this technique work ... Each of the five friends has had a heartbreaking transition from adolescence to adulthood, and Murakami beautifully dramatizes their challenges and tragedies.
MixedBookreporter.comThe new novel is set in the not-too-distant future. Peter and Beatrice Leigh are a young English couple on their way to Heathrow. Both are born-again Christians. As Faber tells us many times throughout this 500-page book, Peter has a checkered past ... Soon, Peter is setting up a mission for the natives, who tell him, in a dialect Faber occasionally renders unreadable with his use of made-up characters, that they are hungry for the word of God ... The title of each chapter is the chapter’s last line, a gimmick that wears thin quickly. And there’s not enough tension here to justify the novel’s length, an absence that makes stylistic tics more prominent ... And Faber’s ability to conjure strange new worlds remains impressive. How sad that a gifted storyteller who has done such fine work in the past has decided not to write anymore.
PositiveThe Houston Chronicle\"Kevin\'s artistic eye will wander many more times over the course of the book\'s interlocking narratives, as will his faithfulness to his wife and children. As he has done in previous novels, Everett explores the nature of artistic creation and the many effects an obsession can have on life and family … Parts of So Much Blue read like a detective thriller, but the novel is far more philosophical than a run-of-the-mill mystery. The many philosophical asides – Kevin discourses about the difference between good sense and common sense and refers to Hume and transubstantiation – are among the book\'s many distinguishing touches … The focus of So Much Blue is on an artist trying to communicate the vagaries of existence and wondering whether the quest for posterity is worth the struggle.\
PositiveThe Houston Chronicle[Puchner] is an old-fashioned major-scale composer, but, in the hands of a skilled artist, even a familiar tune can seem fresh and surprising ... two stories tiptoe to the edge of sci-fi, but, even here, Puchner's achievement is not the invention of unique new worlds but a unique take on themes of family and belonging.
PositiveThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...[a] hypnotic if occasionally rambling novel ... So far, so ghostly, but what distinguishes Lincoln in the Bardo are two ingenious decisions by Mr. Saunders. One is to create a Rashomon-like symphony of voices and contradictory perspectives, with quotes from actual historical accounts of the period mixed among the laments of the cemetery denizens...And, as Ó Cadhain did [in The Dirty Dust], Mr. Saunders uses his setting as a commentary on politics ... As sometimes happens when a short-story writer pens a novel, parts of Lincoln in the Bardo go on for too long, especially when Mr. Saunders chronicles the backstories of minor characters in the cemetery. But this is an original and devastating novel.
PositiveThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette\"\"\"When you begin 4 3 2 1, you may think you’ve entered the realm of Philip Roth, with its bookish, baseball- and basketball-loving protagonist growing up in the Weequahic section of Newark. But Mr. Auster has a clever twist in mind ... Your appreciation of 4 3 2 1 will depend on whether you savor the detail in long passages ... Fans of Mr. Auster’s straightforward style and frequent references to classical music, Russian and French novels, and classic works of art-house cinema, however, will find much to enjoy ... One’s destiny, Mr. Auster suggests, may be subject to gale-force winds, but, if you have enough luck, savvy and determination, you’ll eventually get where you want to go.\"\"
PositiveThe Houston Chronicle...most of these stories are like beautiful sculptures of unpleasant figures: You may not like the subjects, but you'll appreciate the artistry. Unlike much of contemporary short fiction, the works here don't necessarily show a protagonist with traditional literary wants. Rather, they show the protagonist as he or she is ... But for all of the pieces' assuredness, there's also a lot of repetition here...It's fine for an author to explore a theme repeatedly or, when crafting a story, to kick-start the process by inserting details he or she has used before. Some of Moshfegh's beautiful sculptures, however, have armature poking out of the clay: they're still accomplished, but you wish the stabilizers had been either removed or better concealed before exhibition. Yet the stories in Homesick for Another World are unquestionably the work of a gifted artist.
MixedThe Houston ChronicleIf the book is overstuffed with incident, it's still a moving family portrait and an entertaining trip through some of the 20th century's most significant events ... By now, you've probably figured out the main problem with Moonglow: Too much is going on ... feel[s] unfocused and heavily researched, as if Chabon learned so much interesting information about his subjects that he couldn't bear to leave any of it out. Yet Moonglow contains some of the most memorable scenes Chabon has ever written ... A reader in search of fiction that challenges its audience is better off with a flawed work such as Moonglow than with less daring fare.
PositiveThe Pittsburgh Post-GazetteAimee is too sketchy a character but the richness of Swing Time lies in Ms. Smith’s spot-on descriptions ... Equally powerful is her nuanced depiction of race and its role in her characters’ fates ... As Swing Time vividly dramatizes, it’s hard to locate one’s preferred associations, but it can be even harder to glide and twirl past their imperfections.
PositiveThe Philadelphia InquirerBoyle's focus is not science but the human effect of the experiment, the unforeseen romantic couplings and political machinations and barely suppressed resentments, a world not unlike the one on which the architects of Mission Two want to improve. Therein may lie Boyle's point, albeit a cynical one: You can create a self-sustaining, closed-off society anywhere in the solar system if you want to, but the seven deadly sins have an uncanny talent for finding the cracks and letting themselves in.
Jonathan Safran Foer
MixedThe Pittsburgh Post-GazetteSome readers may find it odd that Mr. Foer devotes far less time to the destruction of Israel than to a relatively ordinary story about divorce. And the plot device of Tamir arriving in the U.S., where he can discuss Middle East politics with his stateside relatives, at the precise moment that an earthquake strikes his country is too convenient. But amid the structural flaws is an eloquent novel about responsibility ... The richness of Here I Am is in its willingness to challenge accepted answers to common dilemmas.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune[The Return is] a moving new memoir that is as much a commentary on the power of art as it is a harrowing tale of life under totalitarian rule [with] prose that often has the pacing of the best spy novels ... That’s one of the messages of this gorgeously written book: Even in the face of unspeakable injustice, family and stories possess the power to help one endure.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneOne of the weaknesses of collections of reportage that span decades is that they can be heavy on facts and light on analysis. But an advantage is that they give a snapshot of an era. And that’s what Jackson, 1964 gives us: a chilling portrait of the discrimination, student protests and police shootings that have characterized African-American life ... Essay after essay reminds us that the history of this struggle consists of events that easily could happen today ... One of Trillin’s greatest gifts is his reporter’s eye for the telling detail. That skill is very much in evidence here ... The writing is sometimes too detached for the racial injustices described, but these essays still feature shocking passages.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneA few of these essays are short 'Talk of the Town' pieces from the New Yorker, with topics ranging from an elementary school’s discussion of derogatory racial terms to the colorful New Jersey bus driver — he lined his dashboard with toy ducks and tossed snowballs at passing police officers — who became more somber after 9/11. Longer pieces showcase Frazier’s wide range of interests and feature an eclectic mix of characters ... the Frazier wit is present even in his most serious essays ... We’re a long way from the zaniness of Frazier’s Cursing Mommy essays, but Hogs Wild offers subtler pleasures: humor-infused portraits of eccentrics and insightful analyses of the modern world.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneLerner’s tone can be overly formal, as when he says that the use of pronouns in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is 'discomfiting and a compelling refutation of the nostalgist fantasies of universality discussed above.' Yet he can also be wonderfully funny ... Despite his criticisms, Lerner is clearly on poetry’s side. He writes of terminal cases who write poems out of a need to express themselves before they die.
PositivePittsburgh Post-GazetteMr. Barnes focuses on the political environment in which Shostakovich worked, an emphasis that may disappoint readers more interested in the composer’s music. But anyone who has read Mr. Barnes’ previous works won’t be surprised to discover that he uses Shostakovich’s story as a meditation on death, one of the author’s recurrent themes...And that’s the author’s achievement here: to not only capture the mood of fear under which Shostakovich worked but also create a tribute to the struggle of all artists.
PositiveMiami HeraldAdam Haslett’s second novel has a traditional structure that we’ve seen before: a mother and father and their three children navigate a series of domestic crises, from job losses and abortions to mental illness. But Haslett’s considerable skills as a writer turn domestic conflicts into something more profound...Imagine Me Gone is a handsome work, but handsome doesn’t mean flawless. The book would have been stronger if Michael’s slide had been more gradual. But there are many gorgeous touches here, as when Margaret says that, of her three babies, Michael was the only one who wouldn’t stop crying when she picked him up.
RaveThe Philadelphia InquirerMuch of the joy in reading this book is the humor with which Callow infuses the narrative. It's hard to imagine a more engaging tour guide ... One-Man Band says little about Welles' personal life, which, in the years covered here, included marriage to his third wife and the birth of a daughter. But one can't fault Callow for keeping the spotlight on the work of a man who was all about his work.
RaveMinneapolis Star Tribune[Roiphe's] goal was to write about the deaths of 'writers and artists who are especially sensitive or attuned to death.' The result is a beautiful and provocative meditation on mortality.
Alvaro Enrigue, Trans. by Natasha Wimmer
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleBy turns intellectual and earthy, Enrigue’s fictionalized account of Renaissance Europe and 16th century Mexico is the best kind of history lesson: erudite without being stuffy, an entertaining work that incorporates the Counter-Reformation, the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, art history and even a grammar lesson on Spanish diminutives into one mesmerizing narrative.
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneLahiri wrote In Other Words in Italian. Her original text and Ann Goldstein’s English translation are on facing pages, a practice common to works of poetry in translation. Its use here reinforces that this is as much a work of poetry as prose. The book contains two short stories, but most of the chapters chronicle her attempts to master her new language and adjust to life in Italy. Many sentences begin with 'I think,' a weak construction that implies a lack of confidence. But it underscores her feelings of disenchantment, of 'trying to get away from something, to free myself.'
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneBuruma spends more time on the war part of his subtitle than the love, but the glimpses of tenderness are among the book's most moving passages. 'I shall be thinking of you all the time with the most loving wishes,' Win wrote to Bernard at the start of World War II. Think about each other they did, for almost 60 years, in a remarkable romance that their grandson has commemorated with this beautiful book.
PanChicago TribuneRepeated references to a woman's looks aren't the only excesses in Irving's work. In his more-more-more style of writing, he rarely mentions a topic once if he can mention it a dozen times.