Nathan Deuel is a frequent book critic for The Los Angeles Times and the author of Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East, which was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month. He has written essays, reviews, and short fiction for The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Harper’s, and The Paris Review, among others. He lives in Los Angeles and is on faculty at UCLA’s Writing Programs.
Michael Patrick F. Smith
RaveLos Angeles TimesThe Good Hand is in part a meditation on how central oil is to our lives, but it is just as much about the gruesome work of actually extracting that oil ... This book could have been as unsurprising as the privileged life Smith left behind. Man is bored, does hard thing, emerges with lessons. What makes Smith’s book matter is the wealth of world-building detail, as well as the journey through pain both physical and psychological ... There are about 600 chapters in this book. All are quite short. They jump around chronologically with astonishing success. From the first time Smith fits hooks and chains under a heavy piece of equipment to his sad attempts to make friends, from his first glimmers of self-doubt to his what-was-I-thinking agonies, what carries us along is imagery ripped from There Will Be Blood and replanted in striking prose.
RaveLos Angeles Times... haunting ... One thing that distinguishes Navarro in this genre of social nightmare fiction is that her central characters are almost entirely women — all smart and strong but deeply flawed, and more human for it. For another, she is a master anatomist of class and, particularly, money — both its power and the maddening indignity of its lack ... Like the best work of our modern satirists and fabulists, none of Navarro’s stories is particularly easy to read...But even Navarro’s darkness offers at least a bit of light, however unnatural or perverse.
RaveLos Angeles Times... a dazzling debut collection ... In a series of rich and varied portraits, mostly of life in China but including forays to Atlantic City, N.J., and Arizona, [Chen] unleashes a powerful and enticing new voice, at times as strange as the dark fairy tale master Carmen Maria Machado, at others as inventive as the absurdist king George Saunders — but always layered with the texture available to a foreign correspondent who has seen it all ... Story by story, in China and the U.S., Chen builds a world in which oppression and contentment coexist, not some awful near future but the bizarre here and now ... At its most elegant, a Chen story isn’t all an artful reimagining of a cool newspaper feature but instead something more imagistic and elemental, a reflection on how we all live, no matter where we live. The logic of her observations can be terrifying ... There is virtuoso writing, which serves to sharpen her political allegories.
PositiveLos Angeles TimesIn a poetic but disjointed second novel, at times as harshly illuminating as a fluorescent-lighted operating room and at others as confusing as an overwhelmed ER, British writer Emma Glass — herself a working nurse — depicts a London hospital nursery ward where tiny humans struggle to survive ... Glass’ character close-up generates the book’s most palpable and poignant scenes; they showcase Glass at her best. But the novel also gestures toward a larger story, one about a profession that gives its all and gets so little back ... Glass’ intimate knowledge of nursing can make her details feel breathtakingly authentic ... And yet, Glass makes the curious decision to veer away from such stark realism ... Another flaw is Glass’ tendency to amplify the pathos a few ticks too far ... Glass, from her vantage point as a nurse and a gifted young author, makes much of an awesome opportunity to report from the front lines of a quiet war.
RaveLos Angeles Times... beautiful, violent and almost perfect ... Missionaries is (among its many virtues) a prime example of what can ideally follow a first great war book. Intricate and ambitious, it’s a rich network of converging stories in which the plot itself becomes the destiny of its characters ... Missionaries is horrifying and refreshing, challenging us to reflect not just on the destruction of our own national institutions but also on the ugly and ongoing consequences of American power abroad.
RaveLos Angeles TimesMartin’s fictional universe of drugs and disappointment, cleverness and self-doubt, shot through with flashes of crackling lucidity, is funny but empathetic toward its deeply flawed characters. Reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s beautiful and insightful 1992 debut, Jesus’s Son, Cool for America thrives in the same gorgeous space between chaos and contemplation. In short: Bad people can be good, and they’re generally fun to read about ... Martin is maybe at his best when wringing as much meaning as he can from the collision of East Coast manners and Montana’s rough charm ... Taut, entertaining, sharp on literature and the way we live now, Cool for America is relentlessly pleasing and keen in a way that might make you crave more from Martin on the world beyond his established territory. Everything that falls under his purview feels simultaneously familiar and utterly original.
Laura van den Berg
RaveLos Angeles TimesThe terrain of Van den Berg’s difficult, beautiful and urgent new book, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, is an ecosystem of weird and stirring places you’ll want to revisit, reconsider, maybe even take shelter in. It’s easy to get going, because Van den Berg is such a master of setups ... Possessing some of Karen Russell’s spookiness and Otessa Moshfegh’s penchant for unsettling observations about the way we live now—personally incisive but alive with a kind of ambient political intelligence—Van den Berg feels like the writer we not only want but maybe need right now ... There is range here, particularly in characters and relationships: single people, mothers and daughters, loners, but also people engaged in the long dance of marriage ... Van den Berg is so consistently smart and kind, bracingly honest, keen about mental illness and crushing about everything from aging to evil that you might not be deluded in hoping that the usual order of literary fame could be reversed: that an author with respectable acclaim for her novels might earn wider recognition for a sneakily brilliant collection of stories.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesWhy do billionaires love Wrangler jeans? This is just one of many essential, puzzling and surprisingly heartbreaking questions asked by Yale sociologist Justin Farrell in Billionaire Wilderness, a sweeping new study of the ultra-wealthy who’ve moved to — or at least declared residency in — Teton County, Wyo., as well as the largely Latino underclass that serves them ... This is a serious, ugly, crazy amount of wealth, and while it feels extreme, it’s important to understand as a taste of what might be in store for the rest of America ... If the book stumbles at all, it’s in the hammy way Farrell sums up his approach and flaunts his equanimity, as well as his tic of referring back to and even quoting in bold earlier sections of the book — as if we weren’t stunned the first time by the super-rich guy claiming his fishmonger is a really good friend ... But for all the performances on display, this is ultimately a book about actions that speak louder than rationalizations ... The astronomical accumulation of wealth and the system built to perpetuate it is creating versions of Teton County all over the country and the world. It’s time, Farrell concludes darkly in this excellent and inspiring new book, to take some of that money back.
MixedLos Angeles TimesAn ambitious, often unsettling novel, Catherine Lacey‘s Pew hits hard in early chapters, landing concepts and provocations, asking big questions about race, personhood, citizenship, gender and how we make decisions with what can seem like pitch-perfect restraint ... Part of what makes the early going so good is this central character’s refreshing, chilling, ultra-articulate reverse perspective on a town that may not be so wellmeaning after all ... It’s a high-wire act, this tabula rasa of a narrator passing cool judgment on those around them, with potential disaster looming and readers primed by everything from \'The Lottery\' to Midsommar for a horrific payoff. The mechanism can withstand only so much tension, and only if the calibration is fine. Sadly, it isn’t. The whole story is thrown off balance by the introduction of another adopted outsider, Nelson ... All might have been forgiven if the true nature of the festival provided for a more forceful revelation ... the final scene has the kind of balloon-fizzling feel of a minor M. Night Shyamalan movie ... the vivid promise of a big finish gives way to a heart-sinking feeling that the real reckoning is yet to come.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesStories of unintended consequences, people behaving badly, some with cruelty and hatred, others with tough love or curious ways to test the bonds that bind us, come together in a gripping new collection, Last of Her Name. ... The book reflects the work of a young writer with the artistry and training to write beautifully. Lok also seems to have the worldly knowledge and heart to write about people (on a variety of margins), and she makes subtle but surprising arguments about why their stories matter ... These sophisticated and worldly stories are about how close you can come to not wanting to be married...Or how close you can come to not wanting to be yourself and not knowing of a better alternative ... But above all, nearly every piece seems to grapple convincingly with the matter of how we live and why and how easily it could (and maybe should) be different ... These stories are tough, gorgeous and humane. They feel universal and also deeply specific. I loved the brash intelligence, the way this debut collection can be fun, funny and incredibly serious. How many versions of each one of us are there? One hopes Lok will have time to find more.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesSome bumps in the resulting book, How to Be a Family, surface early as both a function of some less-than-stellar writing and a set of quotes and bits of history and news that aim to situate us ... Thankfully, Kois quickly recovers, returning to the kind of scene-based detail that animated his work from the Iceland trip that inspired the whole saga ... The book doesn’t just amusingly collect magazine-length anecdotes; it’s in Holland that the most important goals of the book begin to coalesce. This book shows how one family works, as a way of helping us all ask ourselves: How might (and ought) our own families best function? ... The family ends up in Kansas, which feels anticlimactic, but magically, these pages are the book’s best, featuring reporting and personal reflection and a section on faith that might be the start of a next big project ... This is, and the author owns up to it, a deeply upper-middle-class, white and East Coast book. Readers of a Los Angeles-based newspaper, for example, might have mixed feelings to learn that one apparent solution to the family’s problems might be … moving to California ... It’s hard to imagine it not being a fun project to discuss this book with people you care about, who also care about you. Because, spoiler: What matters most to the Kois/Smith clan, even more than ambition and being part of the national conversation? Friends and family.
PanLos Angeles TimesIf Chbosky’s debut was a crowd-pleasing account of bullying and love, heartache and being different, Imaginary Friend is a convoluted, deeply unappealing Christian-ish allegory that struggles to say something profound about good and evil. On a basic level of style, the writing stuns with its amateurish flatness. When someone screams? It’s a blood-curdling scream. When evil is on the move? The temperature in the room will drop several degrees ... Parsing the final 300 pages of this 700-plus page book, what had been just dull palaver becomes almost camp in its unserious effort to bring about a stirring conclusion ... Horror can cohere, it can rally around a compelling idea of good, and it can make clear for us a notion of courage or sacrifice. But here, an author who wrote an odd and affecting debut has followed it up with an undisciplined mess. Imaginary Friend should have stayed in Chbosky’s head.
Kimberly King Parsons
RaveLos Angeles TimesParsons’ is an exhilarating, enchanting, charming and irresistible new voice. Imagine the punk rock stylings of the criminally underappreciated Jeff Parker. Add the full-throated roar of weird Karen Russell, plus the deft sparkle of Denis Johnson and all of the gesturing and spooky direction of Carmen Maria Machado. This is real-deal fiction. You’ll want more ... Parsons is...a wiz at structure...with stories that go long and deep, narratives braided, balanced by a few pieces that are only a few paragraphs of tightly coiled howl. But, oh, her characters.They ache. They love. They suffer ... Somehow, no matter how unhinged everyone gets, they’re still appealing ... Occasionally a debut collection lands with such a wet, happy thud that you immediately start imagining the rest of the writer’s long career. It’s good luck that in this case Parsons is slated for at least one novel, with another one after that. Her characters are, after all, so real you’ll want them to escape, to get out of the arid wasteland of Texas. But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the very idea of escape, our yearning, is exactly what these characters want us to realize they don’t need and in any case won’t get. This is a book for the lonely, for the losers poised for more — it’s a celebration of and a deeply felt meditation on the injustice, cruelty and a million private horrors endured by the weak and the unloved. It’s not just that Parsons’ people are doomed. Even as they squirm and melt and seize, you love them, and root for them. How hard has Parsons herself lived? It doesn’t really matter, but from whatever good guts, she’s conjured up a sweet séance.
PositiveLos Angeles Times... powerful ... [Zink] balances...specificity (Coding! Punk rock! D.C. neighborhoods!) in the service of what feels like a larger goal ... One small problem, especially in the first half, is that everyone sounds the same ... Even if the book tries to do too much, the undeniable result is how much a reader will care about this girl and her dad and the mom and those grandparents ... At a moment when things are most dire, in the book and maybe in our own lives, a creaky but noble book brings us close to present day and concludes with an enviable familial quietude, and perhaps a small bit of implied advice.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesWhat makes Rawi Hage’s new novel distinct among similar efforts, and worth reading — transcending, as it does, a few moments of overwriting and sloppy summarizing — is the daring way the author illustrates the great and insane freedom that is actually possible in the most dire of circumstances ... Pavlov is an irresistible lead ... In reality, the \'hellfire society\' promised by the novel’s title never pulls together as the sort of phantasmagoria you might imagine in a book by a postmodern stylist like Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon. Hage is too wedded to a certain understandable verisimilitude, and the register he aims for, when he goes big, is poetic rather than systemic or a more muscular abstraction ... The book is a love note to Beirut, a lament for war, but above all a story of human frailty and our dogged, mammalian battle against failure.
MixedThe Los Angeles Times... wide-ranging but uneven ... a worthy project, going deep, making the space beneath us come alive, and it’s one Macfarlane seems uniquely suited to dispatch with aplomb ... Macfarlane tries his best for hundreds of pages ... starts strong, and any reader familiar with Macfarlane’s prose will find that precise and underloved stash of fabulous word ... But a brittle format begins to emerge: A paragraph-long, scene-setting passage, all detail, few verbs ...It can be a gorgeous experience, to consider any one of them, but trouble lies in their accumulation ... the delicate balance between profundity and profligacy tests a reader ... Astonishingly, the previously stoic, ageless and gifted Macfarlane feels corny, too sure, unedited: Perhaps he was unchallenged, allowed to conclude just about any given episode or epiphany or joke is definitely worth sharing ... Too many times, dialogue exchanges go on too long. We feel trapped ... Considering the book as a whole, you might say that Macfarlane is best when he’s honest, humble and specific ... [an] unbelievably talented but imperfect writer.
RaveLos Angeles TimesA deep melancholy persists in the grim, breathtakingly beautiful debut novel by Chia-Chia Lin ... riveting ... Lin excels when she gets small, with finely observed renderings of the family’s surroundings ... The way this chilling, captivating book concludes will delight as much as it challenges, offering as it does a blend of escape, tragedy, triumph, loss and what we’ve expected all along.
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of Books... elicits admiration and joy ... Am I churlish or unreasonable to say The Aquarium is one of the weakest pieces, that it pales in comparison to a book of sharper and more controlled essays, all loaded with heavy and significant, but also wry and rich, allusions? They feature distance and intelligence about old times made new with the keenest of lenses. We’ve all seen horror. Maybe Hemon’s seen more, but what makes him special is that he often knows how to make it mean something. And for the most part, he’s allowed himself the time to let raw emotions mellow into something stronger ... Whatever happens next, to any of us, I trust Hemon will continue seeking the right words, watching and waiting, and will remain among the most insightful voices of our time.
RaveLos Angeles Times\"Closely observed, funny, crushing, provocative, damaged, and sometimes desperate: Hempel also has the cool courage not to go too far, to build a world, stab at it a few times, let it bleed and then she’s done ... During one bonkers section, Hempel shows how much fun she can have probing first the quotidian and then the largest questions we can ask ourselves ...What do we want from short stories? What can they do? It’s tempting to greet another short-story collection with a sigh, to yearn instead for the sustained nourishment of a novel or memoir. But it’s almost audible, the delicious click when a Hempel idea clicks into place.\
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesFeatures some of [Novakovich\'s] darkest work and also somehow his most hopeful — Novakovich once again ranges widely, from Denis Johnson-esque slices of Americana to utterly original tales from various war-torn villages, showing again and again how he is one of our best writers in the English language.
RaveLos Angeles Times\"Quite simply, Heavy is one of the most important and intense books of the year because of the unyielding, profoundly original and utterly heartbreaking way it addresses and undermines expectations for what exactly it’s like to possess and make use of a male black body in America ... Indeed, the book thunders as an indictment of hope, a condemnation of anyone ever looking forward.\
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesGovernment can feel too big for any one man, woman or family to have made a real difference. But in an elegantly structured and engrossing new book, The Browns of California, longtime California writer Miriam Pawel argues it’s one family in particular that has helped California become not just an exceptional hunk of land on the edge of an ocean but an ever-updating blueprint for all the ways America can be better ... Flipping through the chapters, the book can take on the feel of a Forrest Gump romp: But in truth, from the Gold Rush to Apple Computers to the great trauma of Proposition 13, which gutted the tax code, there really was a Brown waving from pretty close to the center of every moment of California’s fascinating history ... Pawel\'s book slows a bit at the end, perhaps cowed by the difficulty of wrestling with a subject who is still alive and various decisions still being made ... the final fifth of this wonderful and essential book highlights what might be the most important—and most broadly relevant factor—that makes the Brown family and its home state of California so key to understanding where America is, and where it might be headed.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesAn electrifying new novel ... a stylish and alarming new book ... Handled with less inventive prose, a book like this might feel like a series of Stephen King-ish portraits of small people being horrible. But McGregor’s too inventive a writer not to dazzle and surprise, to create moments that confound and stir. In pages that recall some of our most excitingly dense and playful postmodern stylists, such as Padgett Powell and Robert Coover, it becomes clear, rather quickly, how dedicated to, among other pursuits, McGregor is to crafting first and final sentences ... Another of McGregor’s many talents is his stunning ability to render the landscape of the northern islands ... Not all of us live in a small town, but our lives are equally divisible into characters, one of which looks just like us.
MixedThe Los Angeles TimesThis book being about a Red State family, a certain reader might wait, tightly coiled, to read the words Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke or Cliven Bundy. But it\'s only the final name that appears at all—they think of the famous anti-government rancher mainly as a neighbor, and a smart cattleman. Are the Wrights so studiously small in their thinking? Or is it Branch himself who steers his book into feeling like it\'s more about people you might have over for dinner than a tough look at how powerful forces emanate from Washington and connect to this iconic Western landscape? ... But what Branch focuses on so beautifully is how one remarkable American family navigates the situation of wanting to do dangerous, peculiar and deeply impressive kinds of work.
Julián Herbert, Trans. by Christina MacSweeney
RaveThe Los Angeles Times\"Herbert, known previously mostly as a poet, is now — with this playful experiment of memoir, fiction, humor and tragedy — among the more interesting and ambitious prose stylists of our time ... Beyond all the power and poetry of a reckoning with poverty is the book\'s sly and wonderful handling of the literary world ... Herbert\'s ambitious novel is the pleasing work of a high stylist having fun, loving life, making a good story despite a country\'s miseries and his own.\
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times...it’s his rich perspective as a mover that makes this story of trucking life so insightful, given how many times life choices are tested with each family he helps relocate ... For what seems like forever, John McPhee and professional nonfiction writers like him have been the ones to explain things like trucking to us. For now, in a well-written story that rarely slows down, the driver can go it alone.
RaveBookforum...[a] wide-ranging and inspiring new book ... To unpack the specific burdens of being a female flâneur (or flâneuse) you might expect a trained academic to find her surest footing in literature and history, and indeed Elkin shines when she presents us with the potent image of Emma Bovary, dangerously moving through the city in a covered carriage ... Elkin is adept at evoking the ruminations and free associating that can accompany solitary wandering through familiar and unfamiliar cityscapes. But walking through cities is also about encountering other people, and the author is very good at looking beyond herself and analyzing broader cultural forces that affect how we move through a metropole ... No matter who you are, Elkin has written a book that will inspire one to take to the streets.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times\"...tart and rigorous read, a densely layered and ultimately agonizing series of stories in which our hero is haunted by a past he can’t seem to allow himself to forget ... The idea of what’s real and who’s in control is handled most memorably with an electrifying story within the story ... There’s a real tension reading The Angel of History, a discomfort in not knowing, accompanied by the vexing suspicion we’ll always struggle to make meaningful connections.\
MixedThe Los Angeles Times...there’s still an easiness to Lehrer’s writing about love, and it’s the speed of these pages — even when they share dense ideas — that probably helped him become so popular in the first place. The slurry of science is mercifully studded with juicy facts ... The most stirring parts of the book linger on the taunting idea that a perfect love is out of reach. In various passages that feel particularly meaningful, Lehrer is forthcoming — not about his situation as a writer or husband, but about his shortcomings as a parent ... As much as I enjoyed reading this exploration of love and loss, it was ultimately both too humble and too defensive.
MixedThe Los Angeles TimesA collection is a strange beast, and the order and tempo of things might be blamed as much as the quality of any given piece. Stuck in first gear, alarmed by the first 150 pages, you might skip forward. Midway through the book, Shacochis comes alive on open water, when he describes a friend caught in the waves and sinking ... Whatever stories endure, be they the ones from the mountains or the sea, it’s undeniably tough to travel, to be far from home, and to cut down an epic voyage into a smaller shape — for the rest of us. At worst, Shacochis seems tired of this task, annoyed by the rules of the road and the way an older body cooperates or doesn’t with these demands. But when he recaptures what I imagine is the spark that inspired his first travels, when he seems rested and ready, somewhere he cares about and wants to share, his best writing inspires us not to argue with destiny.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times...a highly engaging mosaic of finely told personal memories, rigorous thought experiments and various moments of cultural reference.