PositiveThe New York Times Book Review... attests to [Binet\'s] status as one of the most intellectually game writers of our time ... Deploying the dutifully admiring voice and stilted, decorous style of an unnamed historical chronicler, Binet recounts court intrigues, diplomatic negotiations, religio-political conflicts, military expeditions, major battles, alliances made and broken through money and marriage and regencies, and also the expenses and problems of governing ever more land and people ... If Binet played around with literary forms, genres and voices in his earlier fiction, here he and his translator, Sam Taylor, adopt them more straightforwardly, to balance out his imaginative incursion against history itself, even if this means the book can often be boring. This is a defiant, purposeful, unapologetic kind of boring. The very nature of a comprehensive chronicle of large-scale geographic, political, financial, religious and lineal conniving and convolution is necessarily complicated and dry, whether as history or counterhistory ... Fortunately, Binet’s historical feints afford imaginative frissons and relief from paragraph after paragraph of dutiful play-by-play about an empire in the making ... after 300 pages, the counterhistorical starts to lose its charge, more predictable than provocative ... Binet proves, however, more than only a Borgesian magician. As much is evident, for instance, in the letters Atahualpa exchanges with Higuénamota while the Mexicans are advancing across France and the emperor is losing battles and allies fast. They write with the high tone and reserved style befitting both their stations and Binet’s unstinting devotion to form and genre, but greater feeling nevertheless emerges. It’s the feeling two people have when they have gone through much together, only to discover that they are suddenly, decisively living through history — on the losing side.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
PositiveThe Financial Times (UK)... brainy, brawny ... The plot is shaggier than high-pile carpeting, and features many unsettling sequences ... Telling the story occasions a great deal of polemical wordplay on the part of the narrator about what it means to be a knowing arriviste in the imperial metropole ... Less incisively clever and far more self-righteous are his endless monologues, thought and spoken, about identity, ethics and action ... The protagonist and the characters around him are as willing to theorise themselves as they are to get high or point a gun, and often these three actions happen in concert. The result is a didactic presentation of thugs, addicts and hustlers as salon-grade thinkers and revolutionary polemicists ... Unlike its demanding predecessor — idea-filled and irreducibly searching in its mood and effects — The Committed is a work of assuredly settled and excessively well-demonstrated points. Its rawness and ideated rage make it easy to admire and perfect to study, a bravura impersonation of a major novel.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe Revolution According to Raymundo Mata wreaks playful and learned havoc on the life and work of the 19th-century writer José Rizal ... She writes historical fiction like Hilary Mantel on acid. The result is demanding, confusing, exhausting and impressive, and justified, at base, by the origin story of her native archipelagic nation ... The deranged scholarly contours of the novel manifest as a short passage per page from Mata — usually about his reading, his travels and his intrigues, political and romantic — that is otherwise dominated by multiple, rivaling footnotes. The results can be both confidently obscure and also very, very funny ... Apostol’s novel adopts absurd premises that are treated with graven seriousness by wordplay-obsessed narrators who are equal parts unreliable and cerebral ... the book occasionally seems as if it might have been more fun to write than to read. But that’s a minor footnote to this marvelous welter of Filipino storytelling.
MixedThe Globe and Mail (CAN)In Azadi-- a word that connotes freedom in Persian and in several subcontinental languages, and has related, particular resonance in relation to activist politics and social justice movements-- Roy strides, stalks, and marches back and forth across the contemporary Indian scene. She is frequently caustic, hard-minded, and confidently leftist in her observations and critiques of her \'poor-rich country\' ...
MixedFinancial TimesUnless you find yourself to be a juror for the 2020 Bad Sex in Fiction Award, begin reading Rodham at its second section ... The Hillary she first introduces has a wooden interior life, and is as socially awkward as she is steely and serious about serving the common good ... Far more demanding of imagination is Sittenfeld’s later attempt to work out Hillary Rodham’s trajectory after she decides that Clinton’s congenital lack of discipline would cause too much harm, in both personal and political terms ... Rodham is far from an answer to the finest novel about American politics proper, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, if more imaginatively agile as a character study than Primary Colors, Joe Klein’s gossipy fictionalisation of Clinton campaign machinations ... at its strongest, Rodham explores the mysterious territory between the inner and outer lives of a person who has long been a source of fascination, adulation and loathing ... When Sittenfeld details Rodham’s capacity to be so furious-minded and pleasant-spoken, and explores her greater reasons and purposes, we finally meet the Hillary who commands attention.
S. D. Chrostowska
RaveThe Walrus (CAN)The Eyelid imagines a future in which wakefulness is a pharmaceutically powered state imperative to keep people productive and compliant. At odds with this arrangement is an unnamed narrator ... Together, the narrator and the ambassador aid and abet nocturnal imaginations across Paris (now part of the globe-spanning Greater America). These revolutionary acts reveal other lives, stories, and possibilities for people living in a waking nightmare of totalitarian, market-driven, pill-popping, screen-surfing drudgery. S. D. Chrostowska’s dystopian fiction, learned and lithe in its storytelling, holds up a cracked mirror to our time and place, daring us to take an honest look—and dream.
Jorge Comensal, Trans. by Charlotte Whittle
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewAmong other things, The Mutations, a feisty first novel by the Mexican writer Jorge Comensal, is a dark, extended lawyer joke, made at the expense of Ramón Martinez ... Comensal’s brisk, if at times diffusive, storytelling — in a translation by Charlotte Whittle that conveys both his blunt and sharp humor — coheres around the question of how a person (as well as his family members, friends and colleagues) deals with the felt and future consequences of sudden dire news ... [Carmela\'s] is one of the novel’s straggling secondary plotlines, which generally feature characters connected to Ramón through his illness, none of which hold the same charge of high-stakes black humor as his ... The only other character in the novel that Comensal invests with an interior dimension and sense of life and death capable of matching Ramón’s (if not besting it) is Elodia, the family’s pious Roman Catholic maid ... At novel’s end, Comensal turns to a more provocatively ironic situation, when the character most concerned with God’s mercy must decide what kind of mercy she should offer the character who is least interested in it. This makes for a little too neat and obvious a dilemma and resolution, especially when compared with the case Comensal prosecutes elsewhere in The Mutations for the funny, messy unexpectedness of life, death and potty-mouthed pet birds.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe King and the Catholics isn’t as magisterial as Mary Queen of Scots or as flat-out exciting as Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. Instead, it’s a convincing and worthy addition to the already impressive Fraser corpus ... Fraser’s presentation of this story is free of both footnote skirmishes and extravagant claims, but she devotes too much attention to the many minor players’ biographical minutiae at the expense of commentary and analysis of the complex, even self-contradictory situations that emerge in the course of her narrative ... There’s readerly consolation, however, in the book’s many small and wonderful discoveries.
MixedThe Financial TimesThe challenge of a novel like this is to avoid creating a protagonist confined to self-loathing and self-involvement, as can sometimes be the case in Paul Bowles and Graham Greene, while at the same time plotting an engaging story that exposes the stakes and consequences of her implication in the world around her. MacKenzie does especially well in this regard by endowing Emma with a gift for cool and scouring observation. Unfortunately—and this happens more than enough in the novel—Emma offers a little too much grad-student smart analysis of this evocation herself, which saps some of the potency. Equally enervating is her need to ensure we know she reads all the right writers and knows of the relevant high-end literary connections between the Anglosphere and Brazil ... This book, like any other, has a beginning, middle, and end. But unlike most—and this is MacKenzie’s subtly bold gambit — this novel never really offers any crisis or culminating event or revelation or heroic accomplishment set up along that natural narrative line. Instead, Feast Days offers a series of non-climactic episodes and vignettes and flashbacks, all sporting clever and ironic titles, that trace out Emma in her circulations through the crammed-together, antipodal world of the decadent couple day trips, dismal refugee shelters, posh children’s birthday parties and tear-gas-filled street riots ... it leaves you, fittingly, with cool irony.
Jo Nesbø, Trans. by Don Bartlett
MixedThe Financial TimesShakespeare lovers will probably find Nesbo’s book clever and entertaining in its many intensely plotted sequences and in its offerings of high-toned tough guy talk ... Despite many engaging moments, however, the book is too long and loose. Nesbo indulges in momentum-breaking back stories for his characters and devotes too much time and space to their speculations about each other’s motives. He also drags out the story’s denouement, which involves a hostage situation and a large-scale assault on Inverness. 'What happens now?' Macbeth asks, near the end. You don’t need this many pages to find out.
MixedThe National Review of BooksFor readers new to his work, its frankness about sex might be unnerving; more formidable still is his decision to create expectations of important, even crowning revelations — about important events and the characters’ involvements in them — without ever entirely fulfilling them ... Thin smiles and ellipses, and later barely but definitely moved Venetian blinds, suggesting someone has just seen something not meant to be seen, suggest a great deal and build expectations of exposure that are answered only partially ... a phrase that suggests Hollinghurst’s commanding position, only strengthened by his latest novel, as a very contemporary English writer deeply formed by the tradition: When asked why, despite his successful career as an artist, Johnny never painted a portrait of his father, he explains, 'We never really knew each other, . . . what with everything.'
RaveThe Financial TimesSharma conjures the seeming marvels of America for the new arrivals – Ajay’s father proudly introduces them to carpeted flooring and hot water on demand while Ajay directly discovers the just-as-remarkable delights of snowfall, 1980s television and lobby doors that open automatically. Meanwhile, true to Indo-American form, Ajay’s parents pressure his bright and assured older brother Birju to study and study and study. He gets into a prestigious high school, only then to suffer the catastrophic swimming pool injury ... The most moving material in this novel concerns Ajay’s reactions to his father’s anger and sadness as it roils alongside his mother’s more placid sadness and endurance. Trying to help and love each of them, and to help and love his brother, and to understand his own part and position in all of it, Ajay turns to reading and writing as his best possible means of doing all of this. Family Life is the hard-earned and impressive result.
RaveThe Financial TimesAtkinson explores almost 100 years in the life of this quiet Englishman and his family and comrades-in-arms via a thoroughly disjointed chronology. She has statements, actions and decisions repeat at intervals, across hundreds of pages. Time passes and events take place in a jumble but eventually disclose the fuller meaning and tragic gravity of matters first understood only dimly or, like Teddy with respect to a mysterious period in his wife Nancy’s life, understood absolutely wrongly … In all of this, Teddy endures a series of revelations and reversals of fortune that find continuity and fine tension through his private vow, before a 1944 bombing run over Nuremberg...With her excellent new book, Atkinson reveals just how admirable such an ordinary man’s life can be, and what heroism lies in living as decently as possible through times that are far from decent.
RaveThe Financial TimesMitchell unfolds Holly’s larger story from the 1990s to the 2050s through narrators who are each directly linked to her...These intensely told, brightly imagined sequences are riddled with the sudden entry and exit of shadowy characters who are keenly interested in Holly and given to making crazy declarations … Holly and reader alike at last learn more definitively about the theological origins and the time, space and logic-defying nature of the labyrinthine conflict that has surrounded her, claimed her little brother (who is more than just her little brother) and invaded her consciousness and very being for decades … This all must sound ridiculous, exhausting, cheaply exciting and dangerously lowbrow and yes, by every measure it is, save one: David Mitchell has written it.
PanThe Financial TimesLahiri’s people imperfectly answer the duties of family life and the demands of cultural adaptation while struggling with personal longings inevitably at odds with both. To all of this, at her best Lahiri brings a sharp and patient eye. But with her latest, Lahiri’s eye is languorous rather than patient, compulsively pointillist rather than sharp … There could be much to recommend here, but for how neatly and carefully Lahiri confines politics to serve as an inert source of passing spectacle, domestic tragedy and immigrant memory-spinning. The greater problem is Lahiri’s prose. The story seems too often like an extended occasion for the writer’s artful displays (not that they’re always that artful).
Omar El Akkad
PositiveThe Financial TimesNever mind the obvious allure of this bold debut novel’s cracked-mirror patterning on our present moment. With dystopian stories, the frisson of partial recognition can only sustain so much attention; what matters more is the capacity of plot and character to do more than merely fill out a clever premise. Despite some busy and overdone elements — a pseudo-academic framing of the main story and frequent reportorial inclusions of background information — American War commands our attention by focusing it on the trials of one Sara T Chestnut … El Akkad smartly makes it hard, near the novel’s culminating event, to line up political imperatives and personal motives. It is the humane view of this consuming novel that ‘in some circumstances, even someone hell-bent on revenge might find a temporary capacity for kindness.’
PositiveThe GuardianThe novel both implicitly and explicitly raises crucial questions about the aesthetic and ethical stakes involved in regarding the suffering of others. Arudpragasam uses placid, even poetic prose, with results that range from brilliantly unsettling to questionably indulgent ... [an] often formidable novel.
PositiveThe Financial TimesNathan Hill’s grand and sprawling debut immediately brings to mind books by the likes of John Irving, Tom Wolfe, Michael Chabon and Donna Tartt ... Hill never really involves the otherworldly figure of the Nix with full-on magic realist conviction. Instead, it is little more than a plot device that affords a bit of Nordic exotica while providing convenient explanations for bad luck, fatalistic worrying and hallucinations ... Hill’s grandiose plays with history and politics and famous people are fine and impressive but also sort of familiar and forgettable. He offers more lasting matter with his late, quiet evocation of an ageing daughter tending to her aged father, with mercy and hard-earned forgiveness.
RaveFinancial TimesIt’s in Michael’s storytelling about himself and his family that Haslett has created a distinctive and winning voice and character that transforms what might have otherwise been just-another-accomplished-literary-novel about an American family’s tragicomic goings on into something far more affecting and beguiling...Haslett is at his very best in the sections where he unfolds Michael’s chaotic and exuberant interior life as answers to banal medical form questions. The result is a tour-de-force of manic brilliance, both zealously funny and painfully sad, as when he recounts his life story as anecdotes associated with the various prescription drugs he’s taken over the years (to ever diminishing returns).
Viet Thanh Nguyen
PositiveThe Guardian...this impressive debut contains a Whitman-like multiplicity. The Sympathizer can be read as a spy novel, a war novel, an immigrant novel, a novel of ideas, a political novel, a campus novel, a novel about the movies, and a novel, yes, about other novels. This overreaching mixture leads to occasional missteps that matter little set against the greater result: a bold, artful and globally minded reimagining of the Vietnam war and its interwoven private and public legacies. Indeed, this book reads like the absolute opposite of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the clipped, cool fragmentary narrative that has long served as the canonical US literary account of that divisive conflict and its ongoing aftermath.
MixedThe Financial TimesAlong the way, there are some funny little moments and a growing sense that Maya and Alex’s ongoing argument about the point of this trip speaks to a crisis in their marriage, which turns out to be more profoundly Maya’s own personal crisis ... Sadly, the beguiling young Max remains little more than a conveniently opaque presence; Fishman could have devoted more attention to exploring an eight-year old’s views of life and family, irrespective of how much or little his particular eccentricities figure. Indeed, when Max finally learns the truth of his origins, his shock and confusion are so heart-rending to read about, for a moment you stop caring about why this kid should never do rodeo.
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewIt’s all so very straightforward and self-explanatory and biscuit bland, you can’t help expecting, especially in light of the novel’s unsettled opening, that this presentation is meant to conceal a mind and a life profoundly fraught by difficult memories, but this is never the case. Rather, Hendricks knows himself far too well and tells us much too much about things that matter far too little, as when he describes beginning his book on the chaotic 20th century: 'I typed the first word. It was It.' Faulks’s novel is accomplished in its historical war sequences, but when it comes to its intellectual demands, this is it.