Michiko Kakutani is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the chief book critic for The New York Times. She can be found on Twitter @michikokakutani
David Foster Wallace
PositiveThe New York Times... shows off the 33-year-old Mr. Wallace as one of the big talents of his generation, a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything, someone who can write funny, write sad, write serious, write satiric, a writer who\'s equally adept at the Pynchonesque epic and the Nicolson Bakeresque minute, a pushing-the-envelope postmodernist who\'s also able to create flesh-and-blood characters and genuinely moving scenes ... Perfect, however, Infinite Jest is not: this 1,079-page novel is a \'loose baggy monster,\' to use Henry James\'s words, a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr. Wallace\'s mind ... The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of characters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscences and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent ... the whole novel often seems like an excuse for Mr. Wallace to simply show off his remarkable skills as a writer and empty the contents of his restless mind ... At the end, that word machine is simply turned off, leaving the reader suspended in midair and reeling from the random muchness of detail and incident that is Infinite Jest ... Somewhere in the mess, the reader suspects, are the outlines of a splendid novel, but as it stands the book feels like one of those unfinished Michelangelo sculptures: you can see a godly creature trying to fight its way out of the marble, but it\'s stuck there, half excavated, unable to break completely free.
RaveThe New York Times[Kolbert\'s] writing here is the very model of explanatory journalism, making highly complex theories and hypotheses accessible to even the most science-challenged of readers, while providing a wonderfully tactile sense of endangered (or already departed) species and their shrinking habitats. She writes as a popularizer — or interpreter — of material that has been excavated by an army of scientists over the years and, in many cases, mapped by earlier writers ... Ms. Kolbert is nimble at using dramatic scenes to make sense of larger ideas ... by the end of this book, she’s left us with a harrowing appreciation of the ways in which human beings have been altering the planet ... Ms. Kolbert shows in these pages that she can write with elegiac poetry about the vanishing creatures of this planet, but the real power of her book resides in the hard science and historical context she delivers here, documenting the mounting losses that human beings are leaving in their wake.
RaveThe New York Times Book Review\"In these pages, James conjures the literary equivalent of a Marvel Comics universe — filled with dizzying, magpie references to old movies and recent TV, ancient myths and classic comic books, and fused into something new and startling by his gifts for language and sheer inventiveness ... James is such a nimble and fluent writer ... Even when he is nestling one tale within another like Russian dolls that underscore the provisional nature of storytelling... he is giving us a gripping, action-packed narrative. What the novel could have used is a little judicious pruning: As in superhero movies, the action sometimes assumes a predictable, episodic rhythm — one violent, bravura showdown after another, strung together by interludes of travel and efforts to regroup and connect the dots ... With Tracker and the Leopard, James has created two compelling and iconic characters — characters who will take their place in the pantheon of memorable and fantastical superheroes.\
PositiveThe New York TimesThough there are plenty of lumps in the novel along the way, Salander and Blomkvist have survived the authorship transition intact and are just as compelling as ever ... Mr. Lagercrantz’s efforts to connect unsavory doings in Sweden to machinations within America’s National Security Agency are strained and fuzzy — a bald attempt to capitalize on Edward J. Snowden ... In Spider’s Web, Mr. Lagercrantz demonstrates an instinctive feel for the world Larsson created ... Mr. Lagercrantz captures the weariness, even vulnerability, that lurks beneath these two characters’ toughness ... Spider’s Web is less bloody, less horror movie lurid than its predecessors. In other respects, Mr. Lagercrantz seems to have set about — quite nimbly, for the most part — channeling Larsson’s narrative style, mixing genre clichés with fresh, reportorial details, and plot twists ... Instead of pausing to parse the implausibility of some of the interlinking conspiracies in Spider’s Web, the reader quickly turns pages to see how Salander and Blomkvist will put together the puzzle.
MixedThe New York TimesTo get an idea of how Eve Babitz writes, think of Joan Didion crossed with Cynthia Heimel. To get an idea of what the heroines of her stories are like, think of Nathanael West\'s Miss Lonelyhearts crossed with the Cosmo girl ... It\'s tiresome, reading a whole book of stories about ninnies as self-absorbed and self-deluded as this, and some of the shorter tales in this volume are little more than depressing sketches of narcissists in extremis. What redeems the better stories in Black Swans is the ironic tilt Ms. Babitz lends them and her gift for the odd, unexpected observation. Ms. Babitz is adept at drawing the volatile temperature chart of a love affair, and she\'s nimble, too, at capturing her characters\' taste for self-dramatization and hyperbole ... In the end, Black Swans leaves the reader impressed with the author\'s talents and wishing she would try writing about a less self-absorbed group of people—or maybe take a vacation from L.A.
James B Comey
PositiveThe New York Times\"The central themes that Comey returns to throughout this impassioned book are the toxic consequences of lying; and the corrosive effects of choosing loyalty to an individual over truth and the rule of law ... Comey’s book fleshes out the testimony he gave before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017 with considerable emotional detail, and it showcases its author’s gift for narrative ... The volume offers little in the way of hard news revelations about investigations by the F.B.I. or the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III...What A Higher Loyalty does give readers are some near-cinematic accounts of what Comey was thinking.\
PositiveThe New York TimesThe stories in her new collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, are no exception: they attest to her Chekhovian ability to create characters as real and flawed and sympathetic as people we know firsthand and to show us how those characters are shaped by love and loss and the simple passage of time … In most cases the reader is invited to sympathize with the characters, to experience their hopes and grudges as they do, so nimbly does Ms. Munro capture their passing moods and states of mind … It is tales like '’Nettles,’ ‘Family Furnishings’ and ‘Post and Beam’ that best showcase Ms. Munro's gifts as a storyteller. In them the narratives move seemingly artlessly back and forth in time, from past to present and back into memory, to give the reader the sense of an entire life.
MixedThe New York TimesMs. Smith is a wonderful ventriloquist, adept at throwing her voice into an astonishing array of characters. And while the chapters about the Smart family are written in the third person, she captures their thoughts, their dream lives, their sense of their place in the world with perfect and unwavering pitch … Curiously enough, Amber, the one character written in the first person, is also the one character who never comes alive on the page. No doubt she is intended to be more of a symbol than an individual — a sort of walking human catalyst, meant to stir up other people's lives — but she does not even seem credible in this limited role.
Mario Vargas Llosa, Trans. by Edith Grossman
PositiveThe New York Times...a fierce, edgy and enthralling book … Mr. Vargas Llosa dramatizes the crimes of the Trujillo regime — the corruption, the murder of political enemies and the terror wreaked by the secret police — while limning the intimate consequences it had on individuals' familial relationships, business dreams and private hopes … Although Mr. Vargas Llosa vastly oversimplifies the longterm aftermath of Trujillo's reign and the country's halting steps toward reform, he does a masterly job of narrating the chaotic events that immediately ensue in the wake of the assassination. In leaving the reader with a visceral understanding of the Trujillo regime and its bloody legacy, Mr. Vargas Llosa has pushed the boundaries of the traditional historical novel, and in doing so has written a book of harrowing power and lasting emotional resonance.
MixedThe New York TimesAt his best, Mr. Englander manages to delineate such extreme behavior with a combination of psychological insight, allegorical gravity and sometimes uproarious comedy. He can be as funny and outrageous as Philip Roth in describing the incongruities of modern life … In several instances, however, the delicate narrative balance slips from Mr. Englander’s grasp. Either from an over-kneading of themes or from a willful melodramatic impulse, moral insight gives way to moralism, irony to O. Henry contrivance … It’s the title story and Everything I Know About My Family that point to Mr. Englander’s evolution as a writer, his ability to fuse humor and moral seriousness into a seamless narrative, to incorporate elliptical — yes, Carver-esque — techniques into his arsenal of talents to explore how faith and family (and the stories characters tell about faith and family) ineluctably shape an individual’s identity.
MixedThe New York TimesInherent Vice not only reminds us how rooted Mr. Pynchon’s authorial vision is in the ’60s and ’70s, but it also demystifies his work, underscoring the similarities that his narratives — which mix high and low cultural allusions, silly pranks and gnomic historical references, mischievous puns, surreal dreamlike sequences and a playful sense of the absurd — share with the work of artists like Bob Dylan, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac and even Richard Brautigan … Though Inherent Vice is a much more cohesive performance than the author’s last novel, the bloated and pretentious Against the Day, it feels more like a Classic Comics version of a Pynchon novel than like the thing itself.
RaveThe New York TimesThese characters are all misfits of one sort or another. They are people who experience themselves as outsiders who never quite fit into the roles they have been assigned in life; people, poorly equipped by temperament or emotional history for the Darwinian struggle of life … Using her playwright's ear for dialogue and a journalistic eye for the askew detail, Ms. Eisenberg gives us — in just a handful of pages — a visceral sense of these characters' daily routines, the worlds they inhabit and the families they rebel against or allow to define them. By moving fluently back and forth between the present and the past, she shows how memories and long ago events shadow current decisions, how the gap between expectations and reality grows ever wider as the years scroll by.
Edward St. Aubyn
RaveThe New York TimesThe object of satire here is book awards: most notably, the well-known Man Booker Prize, depicted in barely disguised terms as the Elysian Prize...Both the judges on the panel for the Elysian Prize and the hopeful authors of submitted books are sent up here with a light, wicked hand reminiscent at once of Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark … Mr. St. Aubyn has a lot of fun giving us samples from these novels that underscore his gift for mimicry and parody, while at the same time charting the political alliances and alliances of convenience that develop among the judges as they jockey for position and influence, extracting — and trading — promises of support as if they were Iowa caucus voters, not judges of literary merit ... It’s simply an entertaining cartwheel of a book with a glittering razor’s edge.
Michel Houellebecq, Trans. by Frank Wynne
PanThe New York TimesThe reader of the newly translated English version can only conclude that controversy — over the book's right-wing politics and willfully pornographic passages — accounts for the novel's high profile. As a piece of writing, The Elementary Particles feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read … The women who try to connect with Michel and Bruno are mercilessly killed off by Mr. Houellebecq to underscore the futility of all human relationships … This is the vision not only of someone who despairs of the human condition, but also, the reader of this repellent book is reminded, of someone who wants us to believe that the psychotic Bruno is a ‘pretty typical’ human being.
RaveThe New York TimesAs she’s done so many times before, Ms. Erdrich uses several characters to narrate alternating chapters (the same technique pioneered by Faulkner in As I Lay Dying), giving us a choral story that unfolds from multiple perspectives. Only gradually are the relationships between these characters and their ancestors revealed, resulting in an elliptical, jigsaw puzzle of a narrative that italicizes the hold that time past exerts over time present … Writing in prose that combines the magical sleight of hand of Gabriel García Márquez with the earthy, American rhythms of Faulkner, Ms. Erdrich traces the connections between these characters and their many friends and relatives with sympathy, humor and the unsentimental ardor of a writer who sees that the tragedy and comedy in her people’s lives are ineluctably commingled … She has written what is arguably her most ambitious — and in many ways, her most deeply affecting — work yet.
PanThe New York TimesRunaway does not represent Ms. Munro's artistry at its height. Three overlapping stories (‘Chance,’ ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’) provide an affecting portrait of a woman named Juliet and the harrowing trajectory of her life, but most of the entries in this volume are more stilted affairs. Instead of assuming the organic, musical form of real life, they feel like self-conscious, overworked tales, relying on awkwardly withheld secrets and O'Henryesque twists to create narrative suspense … Many of these tales cut back and forth in time, and by doing so, Ms. Munro emphasizes how memory redraws the past, foregrounding some events while smudging others into shadows, and how the apprehension of mortality, the sense that time is running out, also colors characters' decisions … What's unfortunate about this collection is that Ms. Munro has failed to communicate these insights to the reader with her full array of dazzling talents, choosing instead to clumsily stage-manage her characters' fates.
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Bulawayo gives us a sense of Darling’s new life in staccato takes that show us both her immersion in and her alienation from American culture. We come to understand how stranded she often feels, uprooted from all the traditions and beliefs she grew up with, and at the same time detached from the hectic life of easy gratification in America.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe narrator of Teju Cole’s odd, sometimes striking, sometimes frustrating first novel is a med student named Julius who likes to wander through the streets of New York City, and the book is filled with arresting, strobe-lit glimpses of Manhattan, 'this strangest of islands' ...his glimpses of the city turn out to be fragments in a meandering stream-of-consciousness narrative that often reads like an ungainly mash-up of W. G. Sebald’s work and the Camus novel L’Etranger ...the author’s gift for portraiture, but other, more perfunctory exchanges with strangers have a solipsistic, dreamlike quality, as though these people were simply projections of Julius’s own sense of dislocation ...Mr. Cole’s failure to dramatize his alienation — or make it emblematic of some larger historical experience, as Sebald did with his displaced characters — impedes the reader’s progress while underscoring the messy, almost ad hoc nature of the overall narrative.
RaveThe New York TimesThe Yellow Birds is brilliantly observed and deeply affecting: at once a freshly imagined story about a soldier’s coming of age, a harrowing tale about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield in Iraq, and a philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory … Glimpses of ordinary life — a hyacinth garden, a swallow tracing the shape of an alley, an orchard on the edge of the city — alternate with scenes of horror that feel like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell … In conveying to the reader just how terribly young his heroes are, Mr. Powers gives us a visceral sense of the arcs their lives will trace and their bone-weary yearning to ‘return to ordinary.’ He somehow manages to write about the effect the war has on them — and, in Bartle’s case, its psychological aftermath — with enormous emotional precision.
John Le Carré
PanThe New York TimesWhile the first half of The Constant Gardener combines the speed and pace of a first-rate mystery with the author's interest in emotional detail, the novel slowly devolves into an altogether conventional thriller, quite devoid of the sort of psychological nuance and moral ambiguities that have distinguished Mr. le Carre's best work. In the latter portions of the novel, the good guys are very good and the bad guys are very bad, and the hero's sympathies are no longer in doubt … Mr. le Carre not only neglects to concoct enough convincing distractions to keep us from figuring out the answers to these questions halfway through the novel but he also fails to make those answers plausible to anyone but the most ardent Oliver Stonian conspiracy theorist.
PositiveThe New York TimesIn his new book, Nocturnes, Mr. Ishiguro gives us five stories that read like movements of a larger musical piece. All concern aspiring or failed musicians (or music lovers), who delude themselves about their talents or their prospects ...address the author’s favorite themes: the consequences of self-delusion, and the emotional acrobatics people perform in order to remain in control ...they read like heavy-handed O. Henry-esque exercises; they are psychologically obtuse, clumsily plotted and implausibly contrived ... Most of the stories in this volume are concerned with loserdom and ways in which people manufacture rationalizations that will enable them to remain in a state of denial about their failure to fulfill their dreams or their potential.
PanThe New York TimesMr. Pynchon tackles Sept. 11 head-on. And he also addresses the other great contemporary subject — the Internet and its transformation of our world — that happens to mesh so completely with his enduring fascination with hidden connections, alternate realities and the plight of people caught up in the gears of a ravenous and gargantuan techno-political machine. The result, disappointingly, is a scattershot work that is, by turns, entertaining and wearisome, energetic and hokey, delightfully evocative and cheaply sensational; dead-on in its conjuring of zeitgeist-y atmospherics, but often slow-footed and ham-handed in its orchestration of social details … Mr. Pynchon’s people have always verged on the cartoonish, but those in Bleeding Edge are especially poor specimens, neither resonant nor satiric in any memorable way.
David Foster Wallace
RaveThe New York TimesAlthough Consider the Lobster contains no fiction – it is a collection of literary essays and reportage pieces written for assorted magazines – the volume attests to a renewed sense of ambition on Mr. Wallace's part, and a new interest in writing shapely pieces that may meander but that meander meaningfully toward persuasive ends … Mr. Wallace is capable of writing about things like metaphysics and the politics of the English language with the same verve and irreverence he brings to matters like the pornography industry and the cooking of lobsters … This collection trains Mr. Wallace's acute eye not inward at the solipsistic terrain of people's minds, but outward at the world – at politicians, at writers, at ordinary and oddball individuals of every emotional stripe. Like his best fiction, it reminds the reader of both his copious literary gifts and his keen sense of the absurdities of contemporary life in America at the cusp of the millennium.
PanThe New York TimesThis latest book shows off his gifts as a satirist, but while it gets off to a rollicking start, its plot machinery soon starts to run out of gas, sputtering and stalling as it makes its way from one comic set piece to another … The last two thirds of this novel...are oddly static, as Mr. McEwan repetitiously harps on Beard’s gluttonous habits and growing waistline, his sexual promiscuity and his opportunistic efforts to cash in on global warming. As for the book’s final scenes, in which all of Beard’s earlier lies, betrayals and schemes come sliding down together in a gigantic avalanche, they feel oddly perfunctory and rushed: an unsatisfying ending to what is ultimately one of the immensely talented Mr. McEwan’s decidedly lesser efforts.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewAlthough The Poisonwood Bible takes place in the former Belgian Congo and begins in 1959 and ends in the 1990s, Barbara Kingsolver's powerful new book is actually an old-fashioned 19th-century novel, a Hawthornian tale of sin and redemption, and the 'dark necessity' of history ...grappled with social injustice, with the intersection of public events with private concerns and the competing claims of community and individual will — some of the very themes that animate the saga of Nathan Price and his family and their journey into the heart of darkness ... Moving fluently from one point of view to another, Ms. Kingsolver does a nimble job of delineating the Price girls' responses to Africa and their father's decision to uproot them ... One of the things that keeps The Poisonwood Bible from becoming overly schematic and lends the novel a fierce emotional undertow is Ms. Kingsolver's love of detail, her eye for the small facts of daily life.
PanThe New York TimesIan McEwan has inexplicably produced a small, sullen, unsatisfying story that possesses none of those earlier books’ emotional wisdom, narrative scope or lovely specificity of detail. Although On Chesil Beach grapples with some of Mr. McEwan’s perennial themes — the hazards of innocence, the sudden mutation of the ordinary into the awful, the inexorable grip of time past over time present — it does so in a mechanical and highly arbitrary fashion … Mr. McEwan vaguely suggests that Florence’s problem stems from some sort of incestuous relationship with her father, but his depiction of her past is sketchy and stilted, and he never succeeds in making her emotional life remotely palpable — or plausible — to the reader...As for Edward, he too emerges as a bizarrely opaque character: volatile, self-absorbed and incurious, a myopic twit who never seems to think it odd that Florence dislikes kissing him or making out.
MixedThe New York TimesIn the first half of this novel, Mr. Ford does a masterly job of turning the implausible into the inexorable: He shows how this supremely ordinary couple came to be bank robbers hunted by the police; how they allowed fantasy and unhappiness and desperation to put them on the highway to prison; how they failed, time and time again, to take any of the offramps that might have allowed them — and their children — to continue with their ordinary lives and their ordinary disappointments and hope … While Mr. Ford sympathetically depicts the isolation and crushing loneliness Dell experiences, the second half of this novel lacks the organic momentum and deeply felt emotion of the preceding pages...he also clumsily tries to build suspense with lots of portentous foreshadowing of the novel’s violent climax.
MixedThe New York TimesWe start off knowing how Serena’s story will end. The mystery, it would appear, has to do only with the details of her mission, the identity of her lover, and the nature of her undoing … About halfway through readers may begin to suspect what the story’s concluding twist might be, and when we reach the end, we realize that the puzzle pieces Mr. McEwan has hand carved don’t quite come together with the sort of authoritative click that might have made for a fully satisfying novel … Mr. McEwan seems to want to make the reader think about the lines between life and art, and the similarities between spying and writing. He also seems to want to make us reconsider the assumptions we make when we read a work of fiction.
MixedThe New York TimesMr. Mitchell is able to scamper nimbly across decades of Holly’s life, using his prodigious gifts as a writer to illuminate the very different chapters of her story. Like a wizard tapping his wand here and there, he turns on the lights in a succession of revealing little dioramas … Mr. Mitchell’s heavy arsenal of talents is showcased in these pages: his symphonic imagination; his ventriloquist’s ability to channel the voices of myriad characters from different time zones and cultures; his intuitive understanding of children and knack for capturing their solemnity and humor; and his ear for language — its rhythms, sounds and inflections. But while those gifts are more vibrant than ever, Mr. Mitchell’s writing has also become increasingly self-indulgent. The Bone Clocks is a novel desperately in need of an editor.
PositiveThe New York TimesThis is a heartbreaking book powered by the candor with which these veterans and their families have told their stories, the intimate access they have given Mr. Finkel into their daily lives, and their own eloquence in speaking about their experiences. The book leaves the reader wondering why the Veterans Affairs Department cannot provide better, more accessible care for wounded warriors. And why soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — which Mr. Finkel says studies show afflicts 20 to 30 percent of the two million Americans who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — must often wade through so much paperwork and bureaucracy to obtain meaningful treatment … The stories of the soldiers and their families portrayed in Thank You for Your Service possess a visceral and deeply affecting power on their own that will haunt readers long after they have finished this book.
RaveThe New York Times...[a] stunning debut novel ... [Stay With Me] has a remarkable emotional resonance and depth of field. It is, at once, a gothic parable about pride and betrayal; a thoroughly contemporary — and deeply moving — portrait of a marriage; and a novel, in the lineage of great works by Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, that explores the pull in Nigeria between tradition and modernity, old definitions of masculinity and femininity, and newer imperatives of self-definition and identity ... while readers may pick up on this novel’s many allusions and borrowings (for instance, its nods to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, in creating a stereoscopic portrait of a marriage), Stay With Me feels entirely fresh, thanks to its author’s ability to map tangled familial relationships with nuance and precision, and her intimate understanding of her characters’ yearnings, fears and self-delusions ... Adebayo is an exceptional storyteller. She writes not just with extraordinary grace but with genuine wisdom about love and loss and the possibility of redemption. She has written a powerfully magnetic and heartbreaking book.
MixedThe New York TimesWhile the portions of the book depicting the fictional Roth family of Newark do an understated – and at times, deeply affecting – job of showing how violently public events can intrude upon the private realm of family and dent the shiny daydreams of a young boy, Mr. Roth never, even momentarily, persuades the reader to set aside the knowledge that Roosevelt won a third term in 1940 and that Nazism did not triumph in the United States … The Plot Against America hurries toward a preposterous (albeit clever) ending and takes place in a political landscape that remains cartoony in the extreme – a sort of high-concept, comic-book landscape that might work in a big-screen extravaganza or satiric potboiler but that feels oddly flimsy here, especially when foregrounded with characters as realistic and psychologically vivid as members of the Roth family.
PositiveThe New York TimesIn the case of The Silkworm, it’s clear that two narrow genres of literature have been the source of inspiration: the old-fashioned detective story with its careful parsing of evidence; and the Jacobean play, renowned for its biting satire and dark fascination with betrayal and revenge, death and cruelty and corruption … This murder seems to have been staged to replicate a scene in Quine’s unpublished novel, Bombyx Mori (Latin for silkworm), a scandalous and pornographic roman à clef that smears a wide swath of people in the literary world. The killer, Strike and Robin reason, must have been one of the handful of people who read the story in manuscript or heard of its scurrilous details — and, most likely, someone who sought revenge on Quine, or wanted to silence him to prevent further revelations.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe Cuckoo’s Calling is not a novel that calls upon the wonderful gifts of inventiveness that Ms. Rowling used in Harry Potter to conjure a fully imagined world with its own rituals and rules ...concerned with decidedly more mundane matters, like midlife crises and class envy and the social anthropology of contemporary London ...seems to have similarly studied the detective story genre and turned its assorted conventions into something that, if not exactly original, nonetheless showcases her satiric eye...he’s part British-style Sherlock, using logic and deduction, not physical intimidation, to put together the puzzle pieces of his case ...is flawed by a Psycho-like explanatory ending — in which Strike explains how he put all the evidence together and identified Lula’s killer, but most of its narrative moves forward with propulsive suspense.
PanThe New York TimesFor one thing, it's hard to parody events that already verge on the absurd. For another, Mr. Pierre fails to use the sort of telling details or surreal developments that might lend his story an eerie verisimilitude, or jolt the reader into a recognition of a larger truth. Instead his tale ricochets mechanically between the predictable and the preposterous … For one thing, it's hard to parody events that already verge on the absurd. For another, Mr. Pierre fails to use the sort of telling details or surreal developments that might lend his story an eerie verisimilitude, or jolt the reader into a recognition of a larger truth. Instead his tale ricochets mechanically between the predictable and the preposterous.
MixedThe New York TimesAlthough Narrow Road turns out to be a deeply flawed novel, the chapters set in an Australian prisoner of war railway camp demonstrate his ability...to communicate both the abominations that men are capable of inflicting upon one another, and the resilience many display in the face of utter misery … Dorrigo’s memories of Amy help get him through his years as a prisoner, and Mr. Flanagan clearly wants their love or lust for each other to serve as a counterpoint to the death and cruelty of war...This novel would have been far more powerful and coherent if Amy were excised from the story. It is the story of Dorrigo, as one man among many P.O.W.’s in the Asian jungle, that is the beating heart of this book: an excruciating, terrifying, life-altering story that is an indelible fictional testament to the prisoners there.
RaveThe New York Times...revealing and timely book ... Soufan writes with immense knowledge and authority. He was the lead investigator of the bombing of the American destroyer Cole and a supervisor of counterterrorism operations and the investigation of events surrounding Sept. 11 ... Soufan brings firsthand, on-the-ground experience hunting down and interrogating Qaeda members. Anatomy of Terror not only tells a gripping story but is filled with insights that put today’s terror attacks by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in perspective with the history and complicated geopolitics of the region.
PositiveThe New York Times\"Ants Among Elephants gives readers an unsettling and visceral understanding of how discrimination, segregation and stereotypes have endured throughout the second half of the 20th century and today ... Although Gidla’s account of her uncle’s political activities — from his student days through his life in the Communist underground — can grow tangled for the reader unfamiliar with Indian politics, she writes with quiet, fierce conviction, zooming in to give us sharply drawn, Dickensian portraits of relatives, friends and acquaintances, and zooming out to give us snapshots of entire villages, towns and cities ... In these pages, she has told those family stories and, in doing so, the story of how ancient prejudices persist in contemporary India, and how those prejudices are being challenged by the disenfranchised.\
PanThe New York Times...a stilted, claustrophobic and numbingly pretentious tale about an aging widower revisiting his past … Max talks like someone with a thesaurus permanently implanted in his brain: his monologue is studded with words like ‘leporine,’ ‘strangury,’ ‘perpetuance,’ ‘finical,’ ‘flocculent,’ ‘anthropic,’ ‘Avrilaceous,’ ‘anaglypta’ and ‘assegais.’ Perhaps Max's grandiose language is meant to signify some sort of psychic defense mechanism on his part, but it's uncannily similar to the language employed by characters in Mr. Banville's earlier books. And together with his almost comical self-absorption, it makes Max sound like an annoying Peter Handke character on a bad day. Equally irritating is Max's penchant for describing and redescribing everyone in his life and everything he sees in minute physical detail that radiates a prissy disgust for the human body.
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Didion’s heartbreaking new book, Blue Nights, is at once a loving portrait of Quintana and a mother’s conflicted effort to grapple with her grief through words: the medium the author has used throughout her life to try to make sense of the senseless. It is a searing inquiry into loss and a melancholy meditation on mortality and time … In these pages the reader can feel Ms. Didion circling her subject, searching for a way to write about what turned out to be the worst fulfillment of the worst fears she’d harbored from the instant she became a mother: a fear of ‘swimming pools, high-tension wires, lye under the sink, aspirin in the medicine cabinet,’ a fear of ‘rattlesnakes, riptides, landslides, strangers who appeared at the door, unexplained fevers, elevators without operators and empty hotel corridors’ — in short, a fear of the perils of ordinary life that could threaten her daughter.
PositiveThe New York TimesLike John Updike, Danticat writes beautifully about fellow writers, dissecting their magic and technique with a reader’s passion and a craftsman’s appraising eye ... At times, Danticat’s references to books by other writers proliferate so rapidly that the reader can feel like a student cramming for finals in a seminar on the Literature of Death and Grief...Such passages obviously lack the intimacy of the sections of this book devoted to Danticat’s mother, but the reader gradually comes to understand why the author is circling around and around an almost unbearable loss: As a grieving daughter, she wants to understand how others have grappled with this essential fact of human existence; and as a writer she wants to learn how to use language to try to express the inexpressible, to use her art to mourn.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review...<em.Specimen Days reads like a clunky and precious literary exercise — a creative writing class assignment that intermittently reveals glimpses of the author's storytelling talents, but too often obscures those gifts with self-important and ham-handed narrative pyrotechnics ...three novellas that make up Specimen Days each play with a different literary genre — the ghost story, the detective story, the sci-fi thriller — and each takes place (at least in part) in New York City ... sympathetic characters who are both brought together and estranged from one another by their sense of being outsiders ...completely buried beneath a heavy lacquer of self-conscious writerly effects. Chief among these superfluous devices is the author's clumsy invocation of Walt Whitman in all three stories ...in the end [the novellas] amount to nothing but gratuitous and pretentious blather.
RaveThe New York TimesGritty, unsparing and fiercely observed, these stories leave us with a harrowing sense of the war in Iraq as it was experienced, day by day, by individual soldiers … The tales in Redeployment demonstrate a keen awareness of language and storytelling craft. Mr. Klay has a radar-sharp ear for how soldiers talk — a potent mix of bravado, sarcastic humor, macho posturing and military jargon — and he’s adept, too, at delineating the deeper emotions that lie beneath the swagger … The stories in Redeployment are told in the first person, but from a variety of points of view, coming together to create a kind of choral portrait of the war.
PanThe New York TimesSontag's latest novel, In America, is another historical production about a woman caught in a love triangle between her husband and lover, but it's an altogether more desultory – and unsatisfying – performance. Despite a playful preface that introduces the author as a postmodernist commentator on the story, the novel quickly devolves into a banal, flat-footed narrative that chronicles the characters' exploits through letters, journals and corny, omniscient voice-overs … Although Sontag does a convincing job of depicting Maryna's restless nature and ‘penchant for exertion,’ she too often resorts to explaining her behavior in terms of tired cliches about actresses and acting … [Sontag], who in essay after essay celebrated an art of complexity and ambiguity, gives us numbingly familiar comparisons of Europe and America delivered in stark, uninflected tones.
MixedThe New York TimesThe Sense of an Ending is dense with philosophical ideas and more clever than emotionally satisfying. Still, it manages to create genuine suspense as a sort of psychological detective story. We not only want to find out how Mr. Barnes’s narrator, Tony Webster, has rewritten his own history — and discover what actually happened some 40 years ago — but also understand why he has needed to do so … In the end there is something vaguely condescending about the author’s portrait of Tony, who is presented as such a myopic and passive-aggressive twit that the reader finds it hard not to be annoyed with him … Mr. Barnes does an agile job, however, of unpeeling the onion layers of his hero’s life while showing how Tony has sliced and diced his past in order to create a self he can live with.
Stieg Larsson, Translated by Reg Keeland
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewHornet’s Nest is the last novel in Larsson’s Millennium series…also a thoroughly gripping read that shows off the maturation of the author’s storytelling talents …Larsson effortlessly constructs an immensely complicated story line that owes less to the Silence of the Lambs horror genre than to something by John le Carré. It draws together many (though not all) of the loose ends scattered throughout the trilogy… Cutting nimbly from one story line to another, Larsson does an expert job of pumping up suspense while credibly evoking the disparate worlds his characters inhabit… The novel ends in a gory, made-for-the-movies confrontation between Salander and a malignant villain out of a James Bond novel… But the real showdown in this harrowing novel is between Salander and a ruthless government cabal: an equally familiar trope from movie and book thrillers, but one that Larsson manages to reinvent here with dexterity, ardor and a stoked imagination.
Stieg Larsson, Translated by Reg Keeland
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewNow Salander is back in The Girl Who Played With Fire in an even more central role. This time she is less detective than quarry, as she becomes the chief suspect in three murders ...it boasts an intricate, puzzlelike story line that attests to Mr. Larsson’s improved plotting abilities, a story line that simultaneously moves backward into Salander’s traumatic past, even as it accelerates toward its startling and violent conclusion ...Mr. Larsson builds suspense, while tracking the progress of several simultaneous investigations...precise, reportorial descriptions with lurid melodramatics lifted straight from the stock horror and thriller cupboard ... The ending of The Girl Who Played With Fire — like the revelation about Salander’s past, which gives the book its title — comes straight out of a horror movie: it’s gory, harrowing and operatically over the top.
Stieg Larsson, Translated by Reg Keeland
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewCombine the chilly Swedish backdrop and moody psychodrama of a Bergman movie with the grisly pyrotechnics of a serial-killer thriller, then add an angry punk heroine and a down-on-his-luck investigative journalist, and you have the ingredients of Stieg Larsson’s first novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo...Mr. Larsson’s two protagonists — Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter filling the role of detective, and his sidekick, Lisbeth Salander, a k a the girl with the dragon tattoo — who make this novel more than your run-of-the-mill mystery: they’re both compelling, conflicted, complicated people, idiosyncratic in the extreme, and interesting enough to compensate for the plot mechanics, which seize up as the book nears its unsatisfying conclusion ...his reportorial eye for detail and an instinctive sense of mood to create a noirish picture of Stockholm and a small island community to the north, showing us both the bright, shiny lives of young careerists and older aristos, and a seamy underworld where sexual and financial corruption flourish.
PositiveThe New York TimesThis is a story about fathers and sons, about best friends who grow apart, about the nervous subtext of race as it has played out in American society in the last three decades, and it demonstrates that Mr. Lethem does not need the tricked-up narrative strategies of his earlier books to hold the reader's attention … Despite the dubious Aeroman passages that pop up throughout this novel, Mr. Lethem does a magical job of conjuring up Dylan's day-to-day life: the multiple worlds that children inhabit – at home, at school, on the street – each world segregated from the other, each defined by unalterable codes and freighted with desperately guarded secrets.
Jonathan Safran Foer
PanThe New York TimesThis novel explores the nature of grief and the difficulty of human connection through the prism of 9/11 and the World War II firebombing of Dresden. While it contains moments of shattering emotion and stunning virtuosity that attest to Mr. Foer's myriad gifts as a writer, the novel as a whole feels simultaneously contrived and improvisatory, schematic and haphazard … Mr. Foer appears to want his tale to inhabit a limbo land located somewhere just beyond the world as we know it...There is something precious and forced about such scenarios, as though Mr. Foer were trying to sprinkle handfuls of Gabriel García Márquez's magical realism into his story without really understanding this sleight of hand … Clearly Mr. Foer has used these techniques as writers in Latin America and Eastern Europe have used them to try to get traction on horrific events that defy both reason and conventional narrative approaches, but all too often his execution verges on the whimsical rather than the galvanic or persuasive.
PositiveThe New York TimesAs in so many of Mr. Ishiguro's novels, there is no conventional plot here. Instead, a narrator's elliptical reminiscences provide carefully orchestrated clues that the reader must slowly piece together, like a detective, to get a picture of what really happened and why … The result, amazingly enough, is not the lurid thriller the subject matter might suggest. Rather, it's an oblique and elegiac meditation on mortality and lost innocence: a portrait of adolescence as that hinge moment in life when self-knowledge brings intimations of one's destiny, when the shedding of childhood dreams can lead to disillusionment, rebellion, newfound resolve or an ambivalent acceptance of a preordained fate … What Mr. Ishiguro has done so artfully in these pages is not only assemble a chilling jigsaw puzzle, but also create a distinct fictional world.
MixedThe New York TimesWhereas The Kite Runner focused on fathers and sons, and friendships between men, his latest novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, focuses on mothers and daughters, and friendships between women … In the opening chapters of the book the characters are so one-dimensional that they feel like cartoons … Gradually, however, Mr. Hosseini’s instinctive storytelling skills take over, mowing down the reader’s objections through sheer momentum and will. He succeeds in making the emotional reality of Mariam and Laila’s lives tangible to us … In the end it is these glimpses of daily life in Afghanistan — a country known to most Americans only through news accounts of war and terrorism — that make this novel, like The Kite Runner, so stirring, and that distract attention from its myriad flaws.
RaveThe New York TimesAlthough the plot of On Beauty hews remarkably closely to Howards End, Ms. Smith has managed the difficult feat of taking a famous and beloved classic and thoroughly reinventing it to make the story her own ... On Beauty is also a big-city novel (set mainly in Boston instead of London), alive with the cacophony of urban life and animated by a vibrant sense of how people live and talk today — be they upper-middle-class academics, disenfranchised Haitian immigrants, aspirational hip-hop performers or preachy neoconservatives ...Ms. Smith sometimes over-stage-manages her story, but these lapses are quickly steamrollered by her instinctive storytelling gifts, her uncanny ear for dialogue and her magical access to her characters' inner lives ...portrayal of the Belsey children not only reveals the traits and mannerisms they share with their mother or father but also underscores the many ways in which they have rebelled against their parents, eluding familial history and forging identities of their own ... On Beauty opens out to provide the reader with a splashy, irreverent look at campus politics, political correctness and the ways different generations regard race and class, but its real focus is on personal relationships — what E.M. Forster regarded as "the real life, forever and ever.
RaveThe New York Times...[an] insightful and harrowing new book ... this volume sometimes tries to cover too much in too little space, but it’s timely and informed, providing an important overview of the dynamics in an increasingly interconnected and fragmented planet ... Luce’s conclusions are pessimistic but not entirely devoid of hope. 'The West’s crisis is real, structural and likely to persist,' he writes. 'Nothing is inevitable. Some of what ails the West is within our power to fix.' Doing so means rejecting complacency about democracy and our system’s resilience, and 'understanding exactly how we got here.' Luce’s book is one good place to start.
PanThe New York TimesClaire Messud’s latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, is an incongruous mashup of a very self-consciously literary novel and one of those psychological horror films...in which someone, ominously, is not who she appears to be … To what degree is Nora imposing her own fantasies on her account of her interactions with the Shahid family? Is the story we’re reading a vague approximation of reality or a thoroughly warped vision filtered through the prism of Nora’s unstable psyche? ... Such questions, like the novel’s copious literary allusions, lend Nora’s story a depth lacking in your everyday psychological thriller. But the dense, self-reflexive writing and the willfully commercial plot combine here to create what is, in the end, an intriguing but ungainly Frankenstein monster of a novel.
PositiveThe New York TimesSet in New York City on the eve of 9/11, it begins, to put it glibly, as a sort of highbrow “Friends” — an antic comedy of manners about three college classmates, now on the cusp of their 30’s, trying to sort out questions about love and work and commitment … In tracing each of these characters’ trajectories, Ms. Messud does a nimble, quicksilver job of portraying her central characters from within and without — showing us their pretensions, frailties and self-delusions, even as she delineates their secret yearnings and fears.
PanThe New York TimesAs Gilead demonstrated, Ms. Robinson is better at describing spiritual yearnings and the metaphysics of faith than she is at mapping complicated psychological relationships. At the same time Home lacks the fablelike intensity and visual, metaphoric dazzle of her much-loved first novel, Housekeeping. Instead Home gives us scene after scene of Jack and Glory — and sometimes their father — talking to each other about their doubts and regrets and failed dreams. This results in a static, even suffocating narrative in which very little is dramatized, and much is recalled secondhand, and it makes the characters, especially Jack, seem terribly self-absorbed.
RaveThe New York TimesAlthough sentiment has always lurked beneath the antic, corrugated surface of Mr. Saunders’s work, there is a new sympathy for his characters in these pages, an emphasis on how bad luck, poor judgment, lack of resources and family misfortune can snowball into violence or catastrophe … In story after story there is a chasm between the characters’ fantasies and the grinding boredom of their daily existence, between their aspirations to wealth and wisdom, and the derailing of their dreams through foolishness, impulsivity or the simple passage of time … It’s a measure of Mr. Saunders’s talents as a writer — his brassy language, his narrative instincts, his bone-deep understanding of his characters — that he takes what might have been a contrived and sentimental parable and turns it into a visceral and moving act of storytelling.
PositiveThe New York TimesJhumpa Lahiri's quietly dazzling new novel, The Namesake, is that rare thing: an intimate, closely observed family portrait that effortlessly and discreetly unfolds to disclose a capacious social vision … In chronicling more than three decades in the Gangulis' lives, Ms. Lahiri has not only given us a wonderfully intimate and knowing family portrait, she has also taken the haunting chamber music of her first collection of stories and reorchestrated its themes of exile and identity to create a symphonic work, a debut novel that is as assured and eloquent as the work of a longtime master of the craft.
MixedThe New York TimesThe Lowland is certainly Ms. Lahiri’s most ambitious undertaking yet, and it eventually opens out into a moving family story. It is initially hobbled, however, by pages and pages of historical exposition, by a schematic plotline and by a disjunction between the author’s scrupulous, lapidary prose and the dramatic, Dickensian events she recounts. It is only in the second half that Ms. Lahiri’s talent for capturing the small emotional details of her characters’ daily lives takes over, immersing us in their stories and making us less aware of the book’s creaky and often noisy hydraulics.
MixedThe New York TimesAlthough its plot suffers from a schematic quality that inhibits Ms. Erdrich’s talent for elliptical storytelling, the novel showcases her extraordinary ability to delineate the ties of love, resentment, need, duty and sympathy that bind families together … it soon becomes clear that Ms. Erdrich wants to use this story to show how a tangle of laws can ‘hinder prosecution of rape cases’ on many reservations … It is Joe’s story that lies at the heart of this book, and Joe’s story that makes this flawed but powerful novel worth reading.
RaveThe New York TimesLike the Greek drama cuff links that Cal's father wears, Middlesex has two faces – one comedic, the other tragic – and the novel turns the story of Cal's coming of age into an uproarious epic, at once funny and sad, about misplaced identities and family secrets … Cal (or Calliope, as he was known when he was a girl) is a wonderfully engaging narrator: long-winded, perhaps, but capable of discoursing with equal verve and wit on everything from Greek politics to girls' makeup to the typology of presidential names … Mr. Eugenides has a keen sociological eye for 20th-century American life...But it's his emotional wisdom, his nuanced insight into his characters' inner lives, that lends this book its cumulative power.
MixedThe New York TimesUsing his fluent prose and instinctive storytelling gifts, Mr. Eggers does a nimble, and sometimes very funny, job of sending up technophiles’ naïveté, self-interest and misguided idealism … Though The Circle is never less than entertaining, it can sometimes lumber into the tendentious, with minor characters — like Mae’s former boyfriend Mercer — spouting diatribes that laboriously spell out the dangers of living online or the impossibility of quantifying emotions … It never really gives the reader the sense of being thoroughly immersed in a coherent, fully imagined universe with rules and an inevitability of its own.
David Foster Wallace
PositiveThe New York TimesIt feels less like an incomplete manuscript than a rough-edged digest of the themes, preoccupations and narrative techniques that have distinguished his work from the beginning. After all, Wallace always disdained closure, and this volume showcases his embrace of discontinuity; his fascination with both the meta and the microscopic, postmodern pyrotechnics and old-fashioned storytelling; and his ongoing interest in contemporary America’s obsession with self-gratification and entertainment … In this, his most emotionally immediate work, Wallace is on intimate terms with the difficulty of navigating daily life, and he conjures states of mind with the same sorcery he brings to pictorial description.
PanThe New York TimesDespite her often magical prose Ms. Smith does not manage to orchestrate such elements into a satisfying or original story, largely because her depictions of Leah and Natalie remain so slapdash and judgmental … Ms. Smith’s depiction of these women — not to mention, the novel’s absurdly melodramatic climax — is curiously haphazard … Ms. Smith’s attempts at satire — sending up snooty dinner parties and yuppie child care — are predictable in the extreme, as are her efforts to examine the psychological hold that class and money exert on rich and poor alike.
MixedThe New York TimesNo one’s more adept at channeling teenage angst than Jeffrey Eugenides. Not even J. D. Salinger … Mr. Eugenides’s own moving but long-winded book turns out to be a sort of modern-day variation on those old-fashioned narratives, meant, it would seem, to demonstrate that sexual equality and divorce haven’t killed the novel, as one of Madeleine’s pompous professors contends … [The Marriage Plot] turns out to be a lot less dramatic and a lot less daring than the author’s earlier novels.
RaveThe New York TimesBecause the hardships of real life in North Korea, described by defectors, can be Kafkaesque in their surreal horror, it’s harder to tell in these pages where Mr. Johnson’s penchant for exaggeration leaves off … The Orphan Master’s Son employs the techniques of magical realism to create a hallucinatory mirror of day-to-day circumstances that in themselves dwarf the imagination … Mr. Johnson does an agile job of combining fablelike elements with vivid emotional details to create a story that has both the boldness of a cartoon and the nuance of a deeply felt portrait.
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Franzen delves further into the state of mind of his creations, developing them into fully imagined human beings — not Nietzschean stereotypes easily divided into categories of ‘hard’ (shameless, ambitious brutes) or ‘soft’ (pathetic, sniveling doormats); not bitter patsies fueled by ancient grudges, but confused, searching people capable of change and perhaps even transcendence … Writing in prose that is at once visceral and lapidary, Mr. Franzen shows us how his characters strive to navigate a world of technological gadgetry and ever-shifting mores, how they struggle to balance the equation between their expectations of life and dull reality, their political ideals and mercenary personal urges.
MixedThe New York Times...an ambitious but highly discursive novel that eventually builds to a moving conclusion but bogs down, badly, in the middle, and is sometimes so lacking in centripetal force that it threatens to fly apart into pieces ... These horrifying incidents, and Roy’s introduction of myriad minor characters, however, do not result in a Bruegel-esque portrait of a country but instead feel like poorly stage-managed detours from the compelling stories of Roy’s two heroines ... Clearly, the intervening years of writing often didactic nonfiction — on subjects like nuclear tests, political corruption and Hindu extremism — have not damaged her gift for poetic description or her ability to map the complicated arithmetic of love and belonging...It’s when Roy turns from the specifics of her characters’ lives and tries to generalize about the plight of India that her writing can grow labored and portentous ... Happily for the reader who perseveres through such strained passages, Roy weaves the stories of Tilo and Anjum together in the novel’s musical and beautifully orchestrated conclusion — an ending that manages to extract hope from the copious tragedies these people have witnessed, a glimpse of the future in lives so burdened by the past.
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s a powerful story about the American experience in Vietnam, with unsettling echoes of the current American experience in Iraq … Skip believes in the goodness and promise of America with boyish innocence and ardor...Skip’s innocence, however, is tarnished when he witnesses the agency’s brutal assassination of a priest (falsely suspected of running guns) in the Philippines, and in Vietnam he quickly becomes lost in the wilderness of mirrors created by his fellow intelligence officers … Mr. Johnson intercuts the stories of Skip and the colonel with those of half a dozen other people caught up in the war … Mr. Johnson not only succeeds in conjuring the anomalous, hallucinatory aura of the Vietnam War as authoritatively as Stephen Wright or Francis Ford Coppola, but he also shows its fallout on his characters with harrowing emotional precision.
MixedThe New York TimesMr. Perrotta has trouble reconciling this high concept platform with his talent for smaller-scale portraits of awkward adolescents and angst-ridden suburban families. The result is a poignant but deeply flawed novel … The Sudden Departure, which occurred one Oct. 14, is never made remotely real — we’re told that various children and spouses just abruptly vanished into thin air — and laborious and unconvincing analogies to 9/11 are repeatedly hurled at the reader … It is the portions of The Leftovers where Mr. Perrotta avoids the more cartoony and melodramatic aspects of his story that are by far the most persuasive.
MixedThe New York Times[There's a Mystery There] is lazily written — it’s less a scholarly or journalistic essay than a kind of assemblage of Cott’s conversations with Sendak, and with various experts (including the psychoanalyst Richard M. Gottlieb and the Jungian analyst Margaret Klenck) about Sendak’s work ... What makes this volume worth reading, in the end, are Cott’s genuinely thoughtful insights into his subject’s work, and Sendak’s own wise, sometimes cantankerous musings about the relationship between words and pictures in illustrated books; the artists who inspired him (including Mozart, Melville, Blake and Emily Dickinson); and the kinetic dynamic between his life and art.
W. G. Sebald
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Sebald uses the same anomalous technique in this volume as he has in his last three books, combining fiction, reportage, photographs and travel writing in a digression-filled narrative that has the resonant texture of a memoir … Embedded in these asides is the story of Austerlitz himself, whose ongoing conversations with the book's nameless narrator slowly assume the shape of an autobiography … Austerlitz tells the narrator of his belated search for his past – how he revisited his childhood home in Prague, retraced his journey to England and tried to find clues to his parents' fates...Despite the gratuitous device of the narrator, Austerlitz possesses a harrowing emotional power.
RaveThe New York TimesTéa Obreht’s stunning debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, is a hugely ambitious, audaciously written work that provides an indelible picture of life in an unnamed Balkan country still reeling from the fallout of civil war … It’s not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez or Günter Grass as it is an extraordinarily limber exploration of allegory and myth making and the ways in which narratives reveal — and reflect back — the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies and hatreds … As Ms. Obreht parcels out chapters of these two fables, she gives us vivid portraits of Gavo, the tiger’s wife and other fairy-tale-like characters. By peopling The Tiger’s Wife with such folkloric characters, alongside more familiar contemporary types, Ms. Obreht creates an indelible sense of place.
RaveThe New York TimesChad Harbach’s book The Art of Fielding is not only a wonderful baseball novel — it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics … Mr. Harbach has the rare abilities to write with earnest, deeply felt emotion without ever veering into sentimentality, and to create quirky, vulnerable and fully imagined characters who instantly take up residence in our own hearts and minds … Mr. Harbach skillfully constructs a story with startling depth of field. Although his novel is strewn with literary allusions, it wears its literary borrowings lightly, focusing instead on the inner lives of its characters … What makes The Art of Fielding so affecting is that it captures these people at that tipping point in their lives when their dreams, seemingly within reach, suddenly lurch out of their grasp (perhaps temporarily, perhaps forever), reminding them of their limitations and the random workings of fate.
PanThe New York Times...a dreary slog of a read: a bloated, tedious and — given its highly intemperate epilogue — ill-considered book that is in desperate need of editing, and way more exhausting than exhaustive ... In the absence of thoughtful analysis or a powerful narrative through line, Garrow’s book settles for barraging the reader with a cascade of details — seemingly in hopes of creating a kind of pointillist picture. The problem is that all these data points never connect to form an illuminating portrait ... Whereas the rest of the book is written in dry, largely uninflected prose, the epilogue — which almost reads like a Republican attack ad — devolves into a condescending diatribe unworthy of a serious historian ... It’s odd that Garrow should seize on one former lover’s anger and hurt, and try to turn them into a Rosebud-like key to the former president’s life.
MixedThe New York TimesStudents of writing will find Watchman fascinating for these reasons: How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father? How did a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech (from the casually patronizing to the disgustingly grotesque — and presumably meant to capture the extreme prejudice that could exist in small towns in the Deep South in the 1950s) mutate into a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement, hailed, in the words of the former civil rights activist and congressman Andrew Young, for giving us 'a sense of emerging humanism and decency'?
MixedThe New York TimesA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius may start off sounding like one of those coy, solipsistic exercises that put everything in little ironic quote marks, but it quickly becomes a virtuosic piece of writing, a big, daring, manic-depressive stew of book that noisily announces the debut of a talented -- yes, staggeringly talented new writer.
RaveThe New York TimesIan McEwan's remarkable new novel Atonement is a love story, a war story and a story about the destructive powers of the imagination...It is, in short, a tour de force … The novel, supposedly a narrative constructed by one of the characters, stands as a sophisticated rumination on the hazards of fantasy and the chasm between reality and art … There is nothing self-conscious or mannered about Mr. McEwan's writing. Indeed Atonement emerges as the author's most deeply felt novel yet – a novel that takes the glittering narrative pyrotechnics perfected in his last book, Amsterdam, and employs them in the service of a larger, tragic vision.
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Franzen has brought a family and its problems center stage to try to write a sort of American ‘Buddenbrooks.’ In doing so he has harnessed his penchant for social criticism and subordinated it to his natural storytelling instincts, while at the same time, shucking off the influence of other writers to find an idiosyncratic voice of his own … While he is eviscerating the Lamberts' pretensions – and by extension, the culture they represent – Mr. Franzen also manages to make palpable the familial geometry of their problems … The Corrections remains a remarkably poised performance, the narrative held together by myriad meticulously observed details and tiny leitmotifs that create a mosaiclike picture of America in the waning years of the 20th century.
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Haddon has deliberately created a story defined and limited by his hero's very logical, literal-minded point of view. The result is a minimalistic narrative – not unlike a Raymond Carver story in its refusal to speculate, impute motive or perform emotional embroidery … Christopher's detective work eventually takes him on a frightening trip to London, a trip that Mr. Haddon makes us experience from the boy's point of view as a harrowing adventure, as scary as anything in an action thriller. And it also leads to an unraveling of his own family's past … Christopher emerges as a wonderfully vivid individual. He never for a moment feels like a generic teenager or a composite portrait of someone with Asperger's syndrome.
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Tartt has made Fabritius’s bird the MacGuffin at the center of her glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading … It’s a work that shows us how many emotional octaves Ms. Tartt can now reach, how seamlessly she can combine the immediate and tactile with more wide-angled concerns … Ms. Tartt is adept at harnessing all the conventions of the Dickensian novel — including startling coincidences and sudden swerves of fortune — to lend Theo’s story a stark, folk-tale dimension as well as a visceral appreciation of the randomness of life and fate’s sometimes cruel sense of humor.
RaveThe New York Times[A Brief History of Seven Killings is] epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex. It’s also raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting — a testament to Mr. James’s vaulting ambition and prodigious talent … [Bob] Marley...becomes an almost peripheral figure in this novel, as the story focuses in on fictional versions of ‘the people around him, the ones who come and go’ … Mr. James’s characters, old and young, male and female, Jamaican and American, exhale their thoughts in language that is casually profane, and as kinetic and syncopated as music. Many of this novel’s chapters are written in a kind of patois stream of consciousness, which, however confusing at first, works to immerse the reader in the world in which Marley grew up, the world that gave birth to reggae.
RaveThe New York TimesA novel that announces the debut of a preternaturally gifted new writer — a writer who at the age of 24 demonstrates both an instinctive storytelling talent and a fully fashioned voice that's street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time … In recounting the story of Archie and Samad's families, she shows not only how one generation often revolts against another — sons against fathers, daughters against mothers — but also how they repeat their predecessors' mistakes, retrace their ancestors' dreams, and in the case of those who are immigrants, commute nervously between the poles of assimilation and nationalism, the embrace of the Other and a repudiation of its temptations … These characters are all players in Ms. Smith's riotous multicultural drama, living out their stories on her chessboard of postcolonial dreams and frustrations, and yet at the same time, they've been limned with such energy and bemused affection that they possess the quirks and vulnerabilities of friends and neighbors we've known all our lives.
Ed. by Catherine Burns
RaveThe New York TimesSome [stories] are heartbreakingly sad; some laugh-out-loud funny; some momentous and tragic; almost all of them resonant or surprising. They are stories that attest to the startling varieties and travails of human experience, and the shared threads of love, loss, fear and kindness that connect us ... The stories here, for the most part, have translated seamlessly to the page. Though they are all relatively short — average Moth performances range from five minutes to 12 minutes — most possess a remarkable emotional depth and sincerity ... They are not random reminiscences, however, but closely focused, finely tuned narratives that have the force of an epiphany, while opening out to disclose the panoramic vistas of one person’s life or the shockingly disparate worlds they have inhabited or traversed.
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes
RaveThe New York Times...the blow-by-blow details in Shattered — and the observations made here by campaign and Democratic Party insiders — are nothing less than devastating, sure to dismay not just her supporters but also everyone who cares about the outcome and momentous consequences of the election. In fact, the portrait of the Clinton campaign that emerges from these pages is that of a Titanic-like disaster: an epic fail made up of a series of perverse and often avoidable missteps by an out-of-touch candidate and her strife-ridden staff that turned 'a winnable race' into 'another iceberg-seeking campaign ship' ... In chronicling these missteps, Shattered creates a picture of a shockingly inept campaign hobbled by hubris and unforced errors, and haunted by a sense of self-pity and doom, summed up in one Clinton aide’s mantra throughout the campaign: 'We’re not allowed to have nice things.'
Omar El Akkad
PositiveThe New York Times...a surprisingly powerful novel — one that creates as haunting a postapocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy did in The Road (2006), and as devastating a look at the fallout that national events have on an American family as Philip Roth did in The Plot Against America (2004) ... His familiarity with the United States’ war on terror informs this novel on every level, from his shattering descriptions of the torture endured by one of his main characters to his bone-deep understanding of the costs of war on civilians ... There are considerable flaws in American War — from badly melodramatic dialogue to highly contrived and derivative plot points — but El Akkad has so deftly imagined the world his characters inhabit, and writes with such propulsive verve, that the reader can easily overlook such lapses ... El Akkad has written a novel that not only maps the harrowing effects of violence on one woman and her family, but also becomes a disturbing parable about the ruinous consequences of war on ordinary civilians.
PositiveThe New York TimesAt a remove of more than four decades, she maps the divisions splintering America today, and uncannily anticipates some of the dynamics that led to the election of Donald J. Trump and caught so many political and media insiders unawares ... Her notes lack the depth and understanding of J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which depicts the frustrations and anger of poor white communities from within. And while Didion’s estrangement sharpens her reportorial eye, it can curdle, at times, into condescension ... What Didion does capture, powerfully, in this book is the insularity of many places in the South, and, by implication, how insular the elites (like herself) are in places like California and New York and Washington ... The other reason that readers will find this volume so fascinating is that it shows Didion at work, as a writer and reporter, gathering details, jotting them down and running her observations through the typewriter of her mind. Even these hurriedly written notes shine with her trademark ability to capture mood and place.
RaveThe New York TimesWriting in spare, crystalline prose, Hamid conveys the experience of living in a city under siege with sharp, stabbing immediacy. He shows just how swiftly ordinary life — with all its banal rituals and routines — can morph into the defensive crouch of life in a war zone ... In summary, it might sound perversely counterintuitive of Hamid to use a fairy-tale-like device as a way to move his characters from their war-torn homeland to a new life in the West...Hamid, however, is less interested in the physical hardships faced by refugees in their crossings than in the psychology of exile and the haunting costs of loss and dislocation ... By mixing the real and the surreal, and using old fairy-tale magic, Hamid has created a fictional universe that captures the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines, while at the same time painting an unnervingly dystopian portrait of what might lie down the road.
PositiveThe New York TimesMemories of these women — along with memories of acting jobs, travels and childhood exploits — are woven together here, along with dreams, fantasies and Bosch-like hallucinations. The overall effect recalls Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece 8 ½, in which the real, the surreal and the imagined converge, as its film director hero thinks back upon the women in his life ... As in Shepard’s plays, time past and time present blur and overlap in this story, just as boundaries — between, say, an actor and his roles, a writer and his creations — grow fluid and porous ... This volume, too, can feel improvised and impressionistic, but it’s glued together, collage-style, by the consciousness of the hero: an archetypal Shepard male, engaged in an Oedipal struggle with his cantankerous father, and caught in a passive-aggressive dynamic with his girlfriends, whose company he both craves and disdains ... [certain] scenes will remind Shepard fans of the surreal images that bloom in his plays — at once feverish projections of his characters’ imaginations, and richly complex symbols used by the author to create a metaphorical, Bunuel-like landscape. The One Inside may be a minor Shepard work, but it provides a sharp-edged distillation of the themes that have preoccupied him throughout his career, and serves as a kind of Rosetta stone to such remarkable plays as Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind, Buried Child and True West.”
PositiveThe New York TimesThe supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times — the novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning — but their voices gain emotional momentum as the book progresses. And they lend the story a choral dimension that turns Lincoln’s personal grief into a meditation on the losses suffered by the nation during the Civil War, and the more universal heartbreak that is part of the human condition ... In these pages, Saunders’s extraordinary verbal energy is harnessed, for the most part, in the service of capturing the pathos of everyday life ... Saunders’s novel is at its most potent and compelling when it is focused on Lincoln: a grave, deeply compassionate figure, burdened by both personal grief and the weight of the war, and captured here in the full depth of his humanity. In fact, it is Saunders’s beautifully realized portrait of Lincoln — caught at this hinge moment in time, in his own personal bardo, as it were — that powers this book over its more static sections and attests to the author’s own fruitful transition from the short story to the long-distance form of the novel.
RaveThe New York Times...[a] captivating new book ... Sax provides an insightful and entertaining account of this phenomenon, creating a powerful counternarrative to the techno-utopian belief that we would live in an ever-improving, all-digital world ... In these pages, Mr. Sax takes us on a spirited tour of the resurgent analog universe.
PositiveThe New York Times...elegiac and deeply poignant ... Mr. Chabon weaves these knotted-together tales together into a tapestry that’s as complicated, beautiful and flawed as an antique carpet. The novel would have benefited from some rigorous editing...But the fraying story lines seem to be a deliberate narrative strategy meant to convey the chaos of life and distortions of memory ... Although Moonglow grows overly discursive at times, it is never less than compelling when it sticks to the tale of Mike’s grandparents.
RaveThe New York TimesBy turns alarming, sad and funny, his book provides a harrowing look, through the prism of Mr. Noah’s family, at life in South Africa under apartheid and the country’s lurching entry into a postapartheid era in the 1990s ... Born a Crime is not just an unnerving account of growing up in South Africa under apartheid, but a love letter to the author’s remarkable mother.
MixedThe New York Times...the narrative cuts back and forth in time, alternating between persuasive chapters about the unnamed narrator’s memories of her childhood and adolescence, and dull, strangely generic chapters about her grown-up experiences ... The novel’s flashback chapters, set in London, possess the tactile energy and emotional detail of White Teeth. Ms. Smith conjures the electric pulse of the 1980s and 1990s ... Aimee is a complete celebrity stereotype...and the chapters that chronicle Aimee’s much publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country are beyond tedious ... [a] clumsy novel — a novel that showcases its author’s formidable talents in only half its pages, while bogging down the rest of the time in formulaic and predictable storytelling.
Elena Ferrante, Trans. by Ann Goldstein
PanThe New York Times\"...the publication of Frantumaglia turns out to be a hugely misguided endeavor on the part of both Ms. Ferrante and her publishers. It’s a padded, often self-indulgent volume that undermines her stated belief that \'books, once they are written, have no need of their authors\' ... Elsewhere, she sounds pretentious and self-important ... Such self-conscious and stilted statements stand in stark contrast to the visceral immediacy of Ms. Ferrante’s novels.\
PositiveThe New York Times...offers no new revelations, but it provides a smart, fluent overview of the director’s life and art, and the mysterious dynamic between the two. As with other serious books on Hitchcock, this volume will be judged, partly, by how closely the author’s take on various films accords with the reader’s own ... Mr. Ackroyd does deftly situate Hitchcock’s work in the rapidly emerging film industry.
PositiveThe New York Times...reads like a mashup of The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape, with a sprinkling of Ocean’s 11 thrown in for good measure ... Mr. Macintyre draws sharp, Dickensian portraits of these men and displays his usual gifts here for creating a cinematic narrative that races along ... Mr. Macintyre is masterly in using details to illustrate his heroes’ bravery, élan and dogged perseverance ... Mr. Macintyre has difficulty zooming out from his heroes’ story to give a broader understanding of how their operational work fit into the larger canvas of the war.
PositiveThe New York TimesThis is the first of two volumes (it ends in 1939 with the dictator’s 50th birthday) and there is little here that is substantially new. However, Mr. Ullrich offers a fascinating Shakespearean parable about how the confluence of circumstance, chance, a ruthless individual and the willful blindness of others can transform a country — and, in Hitler’s case, lead to an unimaginable nightmare for the world ... provides vivid insight into some factors that helped turn a 'Munich rabble-rouser' — regarded by many as a self-obsessed 'clown' with a strangely 'scattershot, impulsive style' — into 'the lord and master of the German Reich.'”
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Konar makes the emotional lives of her two spirited narrators piercingly real ... What is most haunting about the novel is Ms. Konar’s ability to depict the hell that was Auschwitz, while at the same time capturing the resilience of many prisoners ... [certain] plot points can seem melodramatic and contrived, and Ms. Konar’s prose occasionally eddies into self-consciously pretty writing...but these doubts are steamrollered by Ms. Konar’s ability to powerfully convey the experiences of her heroines.
John le Carre
RaveThe New York Times...recounted with the storytelling élan of a master raconteur — by turns dramatic and funny, charming, tart and melancholy ... this volume is filled with wonderfully drawn portraits of writers, spies, politicians, war reporters and actors who possess a palpable physicality and verve.
RaveThe New York Times...a smart, funny and utterly captivating novel ... Nutshell is a small tour de force that showcases all of Mr. McEwan’s narrative gifts of precision, authority and control, plus a new, Tom Stoppard-like delight in the sly gymnastics that words can be perform ... It’s preposterous, of course, that a fetus should be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his sleight of hand.
Michael Kranish & Marc Fisher
PositiveThe New York Times...provide[s] useful, vigorously reported overviews of Mr. Trump’s life and career ... deftly charts his single-minded building of his gaudy brand and his often masterful manipulation of the media.
MixedThe New York Times[Scranton has a] keen reportorial eye and [a] Michael Herr-like gift for conveying the surreal feel of modern war ... the novel is at its most persuasive not when Mr. Scranton is laboriously trying to illustrate his arguments but when he trusts his own myriad gifts as a storyteller.
RaveThe New York Times...a potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery. It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift ... [Whitehead] has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.
J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne & John Tiffany
RaveThe New York Times[Cursed Child is] a compelling, stay-up-all-night read ... this play nimbly sustains itself simply by situating its canny story line in that world and remaining true to its characters and rules. As in the books, the suspense here is electric and nonstop, and it has been cleverly constructed around developments recalling events in the original Potter novels.
MixedThe New York TimesMr. Stevens, a veteran of the George W. Bush and Mitt Romney campaigns, brings a full arsenal of gifts to this enterprise: humor, tactile prose and an insider’s knowledge of the hardball tactics employed on the campaign trail...The problem is that Mr. Stevens’s Donald Trump-like villain and a Hillary Clinton-like rival pale next to their real life counterparts ... By far the most interesting parts of this novel are the behind-the-scenes accounts of the tactical and strategic maneuvering of political operatives faced with a contested convention.
PositiveThe New York TimesIt’s not as moving as Hologram and hardly as bravura a performance as the author’s stunning debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but Mr. Eggers has so mastered the art of old-fashioned, straight-ahead storytelling here that the reader quickly becomes immersed in Josie’s funny-sad tale ... Mr. Eggers doesn’t inhabit Josie’s mind with the same depth of intimacy he brought to the hero of Hologram, and he depicts her adventures in Alaska in a breezy, almost improvisatory fashion ... That bone-deep knowledge of a child’s relationship with a parent informs Mr. Eggers’s portraits of Paul and Ana, and their love for and dependence upon Josie — by far the strongest and most deeply affecting parts of this absorbing if haphazard novel.
PositiveThe New York TimesSome characters pop up in different stories — set years, even decades apart — and together they create a kind of choral portrait of a place, which turns out to be less a real community than a collection of misfits and Isolatoes ... if Mr. Ryan is unflinching in depicting their liabilities, he also displays a gift for excavating the dashed hopes and yearnings that lie beneath. He is especially adept at capturing the point of view of children, with a Salingeresque understanding of their alienation, their vulnerability, their keen powers of observation.
RaveThe New York TimesHere, in The Return, [Matar] writes with both a novelist’s eye for physical and emotional detail, and a reporter’s tactile sense of place and time. The prose is precise, economical, chiseled; the narrative elliptical, almost musical, cutting back and forth in time between the near present, Mr. Matar’s childhood memories of growing up in Libya, and pieced-together accounts of his father’s work as an opposition leader and his imprisonment. The Return is, at once, a suspenseful detective story about a writer investigating his father’s fate at the hands of a brutal dictatorship, and a son’s efforts to come to terms with his father’s ghost, who has haunted more than half his life by his absence.
PositiveThe New York Times...does a compelling job of showing how a tough-guy counsel to the red-baiting, demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s became, in the next decade, 'a liberal icon' ... Mr. Tye has a keen gift for narrative storytelling and an ability to depict his subject with almost novelistic emotional detail ... conscientiously strips away the accretions of myth that have come to surround Robert F. Kennedy, while at the same time creating a sympathetic portrait of this complex, searching man.
RaveThe New York Times[Vuong] grew up listening to his grandmother’s stories and folk songs, and his poetry takes the musicality of that oral tradition and weds it, brilliantly, with his love of the English language. The poems in Mr. Vuong’s new collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds possess a tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work, combined with a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like appreciation for the sound and rhythms of words. Mr. Vuong can create startling images (a black piano in a field, a wedding-cake couple preserved under glass, a shepherd stepping out of a Caravaggio painting) and make the silences and elisions in his verse speak as potently as his words ... Mr. Vuong writes as an immigrant and as a gay man, and his poems capture what it means to be an outsider (a 'beast banished/ from the ark') and the brutal history of prejudice in America.
MixedThe New York TimesIt’s impossible not to admire the ambition and scope of Homegoing, and thanks to Ms. Gyasi’s instinctive storytelling gifts, the book leaves the reader with a visceral understanding of both the savage realities of slavery and the emotional damage that is handed down, over the centuries, from mothers to daughters, fathers to sons. At its best, the novel makes us experience the horrors of slavery on an intimate, personal level ... Ms. Gyasi’s workmanlike prose and brisk jump-cuts from one generation’s woes to another’s, however, mean that Homegoing never creates the sort of immersive, fully imagined fictional world that One Hundred Years of Solitude did — never makes the leap into the hyperspace of myth that Toni Morrison’s Beloved achieved. As a result, Homegoing often feels deliberate and earthbound ... It’s when she focuses not on the wide-angle aspects of her story, but on relationships — between parents and children, wives and husbands — that her writing is at its most potent.
RaveThe New York TimesHowever familiar the overall dynamics of Modern Lovers might be, Ms. Straub writes with such verve and sympathetic understanding of her characters that we barely notice. Reading this novel has all the pleasures of reading one of Anne Tyler’s compelling family portraits — but transported from Baltimore to Brooklyn, peopled with aging hipsters (instead of perennially middle-aged folks) and doused with a Lorrie Moore-like sense of the absurdities of contemporary life ... Like The Vacationers, this entertaining novel takes place during one momentous summer, and with its sunny cover and May 31 publication date, the book looks like designated vacation reading — but it’s just too deftly and thoughtfully written to be relegated merely to the beach.
Janine di Giovanni
RaveThe New York TimesMs. di Giovanni writes here with urgency and anguish — determined to testify to what she has witnessed because she wants 'people never to forget.' Her sorrow comes through in the writing — in the book’s staccato sentences, in its flashbacks to similar scenes of suffering in the Balkans, in its helpless empathy for people she met in Syria, like the ailing woman in a hospital who begged her to take her children away to some place safe ... Leaving Aleppo, she writes, she did her best 'to take photographs inside my head, pictures that I would remember, that would show a country that no longer existed.' Her testimony is contained here in this searing and necessary book.
MixedThe New York TimesIn recent books like The Lemon Table and The Sense of an Ending, Mr. Barnes has become increasingly preoccupied with characters looking back over the receding vistas of their lives. Here, he has tried to echo Shostakovich’s work with an aphoristic, irony-laden style of his own. His composer is so given to bellyaching and navel-gazing, however, that the novel gains power and resonance when it steps outside its hero’s head, and instead uses Shostakovich’s story to probe such favorite themes as the relativity of history and the subjectivity of experience (the same themes that animated earlier Barnes novels like The Porcupine and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters), and to chronicle the absurdities that artists suffer under totalitarianism.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe volume’s two standouts — the title story and 'Nirvana,' about a computer programmer who uses virtual reality to reanimate a dead American president — straddle the worlds of realism and fable, and attest to Mr. Johnson’s elastic and idiosyncratic voice: his ability to write with both tenderness and satiric verve, and his electro-magnetic feel for the absurdities of life and the human costs they represent ... The two weakest links in this collection — 'Dark Meadow' (about a pedophile) and 'George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine' (about a former East German prison warden) — feature such reprehensible characters that Mr. Johnson has a difficult time persuasively putting across their points of view ... The other tales in Fortune Smiles are worth everything: They reaffirm all the gifts Mr. Johnson demonstrated in The Orphan Master’s Son.
PositiveThe New York TimesThis novel does not aspire to the grand sweep of history in Ms. Morrison’s dazzling 1987 masterpiece, Beloved, but like Home (2012), it attests to her ability to write intensely felt chamber pieces that inhabit a twilight world between fable and realism, and to convey the desperate yearnings of her characters for safety and love and belonging ... Because so many lives are mapped in this slender book and because so many of these characters speak to us directly in the first person, God Help the Child jumps around a lot in time and space; it is up to us to connect — or not connect — many of the dots. The narrative also has touches of surrealism that may initially seem jarring and bizarre, but that gradually lend Bride’s story a fairy-tale-like undertow ... As the book flies toward its conclusion, the speed bumps in its early pages quickly recede in the rearview mirror. Writing with gathering speed and assurance as the book progresses, Ms. Morrison works her narrative magic, turning the Ballad of Bride and Booker into a tale that is as forceful as it is affecting, as fierce as it is resonant.
PositiveThe New York TimesThis novel does not possess — or aspire toward — the symphonic sweep of Underworld; it’s more like a chamber music piece. But once the novel shakes off its labored start, Zero K reminds us of Mr. DeLillo’s almost Day-Glo powers as a writer and his understanding of the strange, contorted shapes that eternal human concerns (with mortality and time) can take in the new millennium.
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Warrick has a gift for constructing narratives with a novelistic energy and detail, and in this volume, he creates the most revealing portrait yet laid out in a book of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the founding father of the organization that would become the Islamic State ... The final chapters of this volume have a somewhat hurried feel ... But for readers interested in the roots of the Islamic State and the evil genius of its godfather, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, there is no better book to begin with than Black Flags.
MixedThe New York TimesThere is a Manichaean tone to some of the passages in this book, and at times, a hazardous tendency to generalize ... Sometimes Mr. Coates can sound as though he’s ignoring changes that have taken place over the decades, telling his son that 'you and I' belong to that 'below' in the racial hierarchy of American society: 'That was true in 1776. It is true today.' ... Such assertions skate over the very real — and still dismally insufficient — progress that has been made. After all, America has twice elected a black president. At other moments in this powerful and passionate book, Mr. Coates acknowledges such changes. In fact, his book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.
PositiveThe New York TimesThese more cerebral aspects of Hystopia — the much anticipated first novel by a veteran short-story writer — can weigh the book down, like too-heavy ornaments and garlands on a spindly Christmas tree. At the same time, the reader cannot help but admire its ambitions, and Mr. Means’s potent language helps power the story over its more lugubrious sections...Hystopia is at its most haunting not when it’s trying to fulfill its big, visionary aspirations but when it’s focusing on singular moments in its characters’ lives when hope and disappointment and loss converge...
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Swift makes little nods and bows to Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, as well as Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. But Sunday wears such borrowings lightly. As a result, it feels less self-consciously literary than Mr. Swift’s earlier novels, and while it has a haunting, ceremonious pace, it also possesses a new emotional intensity.
PanThe New York TimesAlthough there are glimpses of Ms. Sittenfeld’s storytelling talents in the novel’s opening chapters, “Eligible swiftly devolves into the glibbest sort of chick lit; it reads less like a homage or reimagining of Austen’s classic than a heavy-handed and deeply unfunny parody ... It’s not just that many of Ms. Sittenfeld’s characters often seem more like the Kardashians than Austen heroines, but that the entire tone of this novel feels off: The layered satire and irony in Pride and Prejudice have been replaced here with high-decibel mockery, just as Austen’s sense of irony has been supplanted by sophomoric jokes.
RaveThe New York TimesVladimir Nabokov once observed that 'a writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.' The geobiologist Hope Jahren possesses both in spades. Her engrossing new memoir, Lab Girl, is at once a thrilling account of her discovery of her vocation and a gifted teacher’s road map to the secret lives of plants — a book that, at its best, does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.
PositiveThe New York TimesSome of Mr. Fair’s descriptions of Abu Ghraib and the National Security Agency facilities at Camp Victory recall the absurdities of Catch-22 and Animal Farm, but here the sense of the absurd is infused with real horror and injustice ... [a] profoundly unsettling book.
PanThe New York TimesUnfortunately, Innocents does not deliver on its ambitions. Despite the gifted Ms. Spiotta’s feel for the dislocations of modernity and her sharp, kinetic prose, Innocents turns out to be a lumpy, unpersuasive novel — enlivened by some arresting moments and thoughtful riffs, but ultimately a sort of hodgepodge of derivative scenes and ideas that have been cut together into a meaning-heavy montage.
PanThe New York Times[Burning Down the House] is a melodramatic mess: suspenseful, even moving at times, but atrociously overwritten and overstuffed with implausible plot twists, stereotyped characters and scenes oozing sweat and tears ... Burning Down the House is not without reminders of Ms. Mendelsohn’s evocative abilities. Sadly, these elements don’t make up for the ponderous, portentous storytelling in this high-strung and histrionic novel.
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. McGuire nimbly folds all these melodramatic developments into his story as it hurtles toward its conclusion. He has written an allusion-filled novel that still manages to feel original, a violent tale of struggle and survival in a cinematically beautiful landscape reminiscent of the movie The Revenant but rendered with far more immediacy and considerably less self-importance.
RaveThe New York TimesWriting with unsentimental candor, Mr. Sahota has created a cast of characters whose lives are so richly imagined that this deeply affecting novel calls out for a sequel or follow-up that might recount the next installment of their lives. (An epilogue, set more than 10 years later, is way too cursory and hasty.) At the same time, he’s written a novel that captures the plight of many immigrants, who count themselves lucky enough to have made it to the land of their dreams, only to worry that those dreams may be slipping out of reach.
Nancy Jo Sales
PanThe New York TimesThis book does an unnerving job of depicting the highly sexualized environment teenagers inhabit today on the web and the social anxiety created by spending hours a day online. But American Girls is hardly groundbreaking in its revelations ... Sadly, many of Ms. Sales’s common-sense observations are undermined by her lapses into psychobabble.
Vladimir Sorokin, Trans. by Jamey Gambrell
PanThe New York TimesThough a handful of dream sequences in these pages showcase Mr. Sorokin’s antic and sometimes grotesque imagination, the novel as a whole is a glum, predictable and cursory affair.
MixedThe New York TimesThe problem with Children of Paradise is that it can feel haphazardly assembled, hopping and skipping around, and sometimes providing only a fuzzy sense of political context ... What Ms. Secor does do in this book — with intense emotion — is convey the often harrowing stories of her subjects’ lives: their hopes, their aspirations and the often terrible prices they paid for dissent.
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Bergen does a nuanced job here of pointing out the difficulties of tracking lone wolves and the significant warnings missed by law enforcement. He also offers a judicious assessment of controversial F.B.I. sting operations, using often unsavory informants, and the overreach by intelligence agencies in their surveillance efforts.
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Gallagher has a keen reportorial eye, a distinctive voice and an instinctive sympathy for the people he is writing about, and he uses those gifts here to immerse us in his characters' lives ... an urgent and deeply moving novel.
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Reed writes in an utterly idiosyncratic pastiche of styles and genres — part confession, part jeremiad, part lamentation, part picaresque novel (reminiscent, at times, of Dickens and Defoe) ... Though Mr. Reed’s book suggests he found some solace in the act of writing, it is also a chilling reminder to the reader of the roots of an American prison system that has grown no more humane and grown so exponentially that it now houses a startling 2.2 million people.
PositiveThe New York TimesPerhaps most of all, Mr. Angell — like Updike and White — is a prime noticer: a sharp-eyed collector of details, gathered over the course of nearly 10 decades, and dispensed here, with artistry and élan, in these jottings from a long and writerly life.
PositiveThe New York Times“In John le Carré: The Biography Mr. Sisman creates an insightful and highly readable portrait of a writer and a man who has often been as elusive and enigmatic as his fictional heroes.”
PanThe New York Times[A]s this more-than-900-page book increasingly turns from Sinatra’s music to his life in Hollywood, Vegas and Palm Springs, it bogs down in gossipy anecdotes and details that feel tedious and beside the point. It’s as if Mr. Kaplan had decided, with the second part of this volume, to go for inclusiveness rather than insight, encyclopedic compilation rather than interpretive analysis.
PanThe New York TimesMore perplexingly, Ms. Schiff has decided not to really address the social, cultural and psychological reasons behind Salem’s witch hysteria (much the same way she curiously declined to grapple with Nabokov’s literary achievement in Véra). She mentions various factors in passing...But she never investigates such dynamics in any depth