Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and the host of The Totally Hip Video Book Review at The Washington Post. Before coming to Washington, he was editor of the Books section at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston. He can be found on Twitter @RonCharles
Omar El Akkad
RaveThe Washington Post... riveting ... surprising ... vibrates between parable and particular. While the story is soaked in the sweat and blood of millions of wasted wanderers, it comes to life in the experiences of this one boy ... The simplicity of their friendship belies the novel’s true complexity — the way El Akkad has wrapped an adventure in a blanket of tragedy ... The scenes of their disastrous passage at sea are drawn with gorgeous and horrible strokes, sometimes Melvillean in their grandeur. In this way, the book functions on several levels at once, critiquing the West’s indifference while interrogating the refugees’ blended cynicism and naivete ... Nothing I’ve read before has given me such a visceral sense of the grisly predicament confronted by millions of people expelled from their homes by conflict and climate change. Though What Strange Paradise celebrates a few radical acts of compassion, it does so only by placing those moments of moral courage against a vast ocean of cruelty.
RaveThe Washington Post...intense, unsettling ... Intimacies is very much a story that seems to be something familiar but soon morphs into something disorientingly strange ... The incongruity between [the narrator\'s] domestic life and professional life is what makes Intimacies so fascinating ... Through parts of this story, Kitamura is exploring impossibly remote territory ... Her narrator’s experiences in the translation box raise some of the same questions as Edna O’Brien’s novel The Little Red Chairs ... But with her Jamesian attention to the slightest movement of bodies and words, Kitamura keeps Intimacies rooted to the ordinary domestic experiences of her narrator, her petty jealousies, her passing suspicions. The effect is a kind of emotional intensity that’s gripping because it feels increasingly unsustainable.
PositiveThe Washington PostDepending on the light, it’s either a very funny serious story or a very serious funny story. But no matter how you turn it, The Vixen offers an illuminating reflection on the slippery nature of truth in America, then and now ... As a work of historical speculation, this is unlikely. But as a satire of the publishing industry, it’s hilarious ... You can practically hear Prose guffawing over these excerpts; they provide a wonderful excuse for this superb stylist to dress up like a literary tramp ... Ultimately, The Vixen is about guilt and innocence, but not the Rosenbergs\'.
RaveThe Washington PostThat this powerful book is Nathan Harris’s debut novel is remarkable; that he’s only 29 is miraculous. His prose is burnished with an antique patina that evokes the mid-19th century. And he explores this liminal moment in our history with extraordinary sensitivity to the range of responses from Black and White Americans contending with a revolutionary ideal of personhood ... All of this is drawn with gorgeous fidelity to these cautious characters, struggling to remake the world, or at least this little patch of it ... Harris stacks the timbers of this plot deliberately, and the moment a spark alights, the whole structure begins to burn hot ... What’s most impressive about Harris’s novel is how he attends to the lives of these peculiar people while capturing the tectonic tensions at play in the American South ... As an author, Harris eventually exercises a kind of fiery Old Testament justice, which is at once satisfying and terrifying. But if this is an era — and a genre — that has no room for encouragement, The Sweetness of Water is finally willing to carve out a little oasis of hope.
RaveThe Washington PostVo’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is completely ridiculous, and I love it with the passion of a thousand burning hearts ... Not only does Vo capture the timbre of Fitzgerald’s lush prose, but she follows the trajectory of the novel’s contrails into another realm ... sounds like some monstrous act of literary desecration like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doing the Charleston. But The Chosen and the Beautiful is much closer to Joyce Carol Oates’s 2013 novel, The Accursed, her fiend-infused history of Princeton University ... Vo’s audacious amendments shift the register of The Great Gatsby, creating a story that galvanizes Fitzgerald’s classic and leaves a new one vibrating alongside. It may sound counterintuitive, but Vo’s introduction of witchcraft, necromancy and enchantment miraculously produces a more relevant novel than that poetic tale of a gaudy stalker and his closeted pimp that’s been passed off for decades as the ultimate interrogation of the American Dream. By inflating the story’s most fantastical implications, The Chosen and the Beautiful offers a timely consideration of class exploitation, sexual aggression and racial privilege ... Even the smallest enchanted details are tinged with infernal infection ... This novel’s wry wit and eerie eroticism are surely not for every mortal, but from the old bones of an American classic, Vo has conjured up something magically alive.
PositiveWashington PostMore interested in the bloodless crimes committed in country club dining rooms and at private school parties ... For its merciless humor and brazen exposure of salon secrets, \'The Cave Dwellers\' should join that small collection of essential Washington books. And don’t worry if you haven’t recently visited — or stormed — the Capitol. Between chapters, McDowell provides potted explanations of Embassy Row, Washington Life Magazine, Cafe Milano — everything you need to follow along this new-old vanity fair ... But if the melody of \'The Cave Dwellers\' is satire, its baseline is sorrow. That sometimes produces a strange clashing of tones, as though the author is still recovering from her own trauma while mocking her old peers.
PanThe Washington PostReaders expecting a sequel, though, will discover that this new novel offers an entirely different cast of characters. The President Is Missing gave us President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, a former Gulf War hero who battles a dastardly terrorist. But The President’s Daughter gives us President Matthew Keating, a former Navy SEAL hero who battles a dastardly terrorist. It’s a change as startling as the shift from tan to beige ... With this brave and monogamous hero, Clinton has once again revealed such a naked fantasy version of himself that you almost feel embarrassed for the man. And that’s pretty much where the revelations peter out. The publishers claim that Clinton has contributed information that could be provided only by a former president — or, I would add, by somebody who’s watched an episode of Homeland ... it would be unfair to say that there’s no suspense in The President’s Daughter. Again and again, I was on the edge of my seat, wondering, \'Can this story get any sillier?\' In that respect, this is a novel that continually defies expectations — all presented in chapters so short you could read one during a yawn ... Drawing inspiration from America’s most advanced missiles, the text of The President’s Daughter is capable of hitting multiple stereotypes simultaneously ... Save yourself.
RaveThe Washington PostThe comedy that runs through Everyone Knows is a magical brew of absurdity and brutality. Galchen has a Kafkaesque sense of the way the exercise of authority inflates egos and twists logic ... There’s real sorcery here, but it arises only from the way Galchen fuses ancient and modern consciousness ... testimonies present a jaw-dropping catalogue of anxieties, irritations and non sequiturs—all the various ways human beings can make themselves believe whatever they must to avoid acknowledging that they’re afraid, that they’re jealous, that they can’t control their lives. Late in the novel, all the most bizarre accusations are enumerated in a list that could pass for Renaissance Twitter ... The fate of Kepler’s mother is a matter of historical record, but Galchen arrives at something the facts can’t catch: The exhaustion, the bone-weariness of fighting such misogyny year after year. It’s enough to break a weaker person.
MixedThe Washington PostWho could possibly trace another erotic tension or envious impulse through the groves of academe? Answer: Susan Choi. She’s never sounded smarter or wittier ... by the force of her stylistic virtuosity and psychological precision, Choi gives this worn setup all the nubile energy of a new school year ... a hilarious parody of self-righteous feminism and political correctness ... Choi’s great triumph here is her ability to create a voice that enacts Regina’s cluelessness while simultaneously critiquing her. She’s the embodiment of that uniquely modern educational disaster: the brilliant student who knows nothing ... Choi tries—and largely succeeds—to convey the overwhelming sensation of Regina’s first experience with \'lovemaking’s arduous toil.\' Sometimes, that’s thrilling. Sometimes, it involves effusing lines that might catch the attention of the judges for the Bad Sex Award ... The impossible highs of youthful passion, the inevitable despair of asymmetrical devotion, and especially the withering bickering between two lovers of such wildly different levels of maturity—it’s all here in engorged Technicolor. What makes this so delicious, though, is Choi’s relentless style, the unflagging force of her scrutiny. She spins Regina’s voice into a breathless parody of Jamesean analysis ... few other writers alive today make their sentences work so hard ... Although...I’ve got to say that I found the 80-page coda of My Education distractingly poor ... this conclusion wastes the focused energy that the body of the novel generates. It thrusts a side character awkwardly into the center of the plot and introduces new characters whom we can’t care about. Worse, this novella-length section revolves around a series of quickly developed, even zany events that lack the necessary combination of wit and plausibility.
PositiveThe Washington PostDead Souls, by the English writer Sam Riviere, is hard to stop reading because it’s written as a single paragraph almost 300 pages long. Never in my life have I so missed the little periodic indentations of ordinary prose. It felt like wandering around the mall for six days looking for a place to sit down. But the structure is not the most daunting aspect of Riviere’s novel. There’s also the matter of its subject: Dead Souls is an exceedingly cerebral comedy about the viability of contemporary poetry ... This is not a negative review. Indeed, I think Dead Souls is one of the wittiest, sharpest, cruelest critiques of literary culture I’ve ever read. Riviere unleashes a flock of winged devils to tear apart the hermetically sealed world of privilege, praise and publication in which a few lucky writers dwell.
MixedThe Washington Post... is best when it draws us into these three lives reshaped by a mysterious disease ... Shepard is peerless when it comes to the way children experience trauma. The sections that describe Aleq scampering around Ilimanaq and then hermetically sealed in a biosafety lab are harrowing and heartbreaking ... overall, Phase Six is an odd act of genetic manipulation that results in what might be called Apocalypse Minimalism. Beautifully drawn episodes of private anguish are interrupted by quick-cut scenes and potted explanations of the way viruses and bacteria kill. You can spot strains of Michael Crichton in these thoughtful pages like panther paws grafted onto a lab-created sheep. That could satisfy fans of cinematic thrillers and literary fiction, but I suspect the clash of tones and approaches will, instead, disappoint both audiences. There simply isn’t room here to accommodate what this novel wants to do. The thriller elements feel familiar and undercooked; the personal stories are rushed and cramped ... The essential problem, though, may be one of motive. They mean well, of course, but pandemic apocalypses are the most schoolmarmish of all apocalypses. Asteroids, vampires, zombies — these scourges lunge at us from out of nowhere. It’s not our fault! A virus that wipes out humanity, though, could have been avoided if only we’d protected the environment, monitored transboundary animal infections and nurtured global coordination ... Those are great points for a persuasive op-ed, but the nuance of Phase Six sometimes gets rubbed away by such declarations and its cursory re-creation of our recent history. The best apocalyptic fiction doesn’t convince; it inspires.
RaveThe Washington Post... the perfect baby shower gift for someone you hate. Absolutely captivating and scathingly frank, it’s a story of motherhood stripped of every ribbon of sentimentality. Arnett conjures up the disturbing mixture of devotion and alienation endured by anyone raising a child they don’t understand, don’t even like ... Arnett’s sympathetic attention to the cascading flow of Sammy’s depression is heartbreaking. But between every chapter, the novel offers one-page moments, each from a different minor character’s point of view. It’s just a fleeting switch in perspective, easy to discount, but oddly base-shifting if you pay attention. Again and again, we’re reminded that Sammie’s hermetically sealed understanding of her dismal situation is not necessarily complete—or even correct ... strangely shrewd and tender ... Arnett is that rare, brave writer willing to articulate the darkest thoughts even the best parents entertain while trudging along through the most challenging job in the world.
RaveThe Washington PostSecrets of Happiness looks like a series of linked stories, but it’s more like a roulette wheel in print: Each chapter spins to some other character in a large circle of possibilities. It takes only a moment to get your bearings, and the disappointment of leaving one narrator behind is instantly replaced by the delight of meeting a new one ... These stories unfurl with such verbal verisimilitude that they’re like late-night phone calls from old friends. Every imperative page trips along with the wry wisdom of ordinary speech — the illusion of artlessness that only the most artful writers can create ... One senses throughout this novel that Silber knows something crucial about the secrets of happiness.
RaveThe Washington Post... another surprising act of reinvention: a soaring work of historical fiction about a \'lady pilot\' in the mid-20th century. Indeed, so convincingly does Shipstead stitch her fictional heroine into the daring flight paths of early aviators that you’ll be convinced that you remember the tragic day her plane disappeared ... Shipstead creates this catastrophe in all its watery terror, but what’s even more impressive is the way she sets up these characters so that we feel the full weight of the fears and passions pulling on them as the boat burns and sinks. Although we’ll never see some of these people again, the author’s careful investment in them sets down a thicket of secrets and obligations that will play out over the coming decades ... a relentlessly exciting story about a woman maneuvering her way between tradition and prejudice to get what she wants. It’s also a culturally rich story that takes full advantage of its extended length to explore the changing landscape of the 20th century ... A novel that switches between two different periods and tones confronts the essential challenge of rendering both competing story lines engaging, and Great Circle struggles to make that case. Hollywood, with all its hypocrisy and excess, may be a fat target, but it’s also a tattered one, and Shipstead has far more success bringing 1914 to life than 2014. The extraordinary realism of Marian’s chapters can make the broad strokes of Hadley’s sections feel light in comparison ... But fortunately, when Hadley gets serious about discovering the real story of Marian, the novel’s parallel stories begin to resonate with each other in interesting ways. Though separated by decades, the aviator and the actress are both powerful women, rising from devastating tragedies to forge their own way ... Whether you’re planning a trip or settling in for a staycation, Great Circle is my top recommendation for this summer.
RaveThe Washington Post... a work of 24-karat genius. This remarkable debut novel melts down striving immigrant tales, Old West mythology and even madcap thrillers to produce an invaluable new alloy of American literature ... Charting the route that generations of Indian immigrants have taken to these shores, Sathian locates the precarious nexus of pride and anxiety where so many newcomers reside ... in the process, she plumbs the universal challenge of satisfying the hunger for more — more money, more prestige, more time — an obsession that would make any of us strangers to ourselves ... Sathian creates that cul-de-sac with a wry and loving eye — a kind of South Asian version of The Wonder Years, with Neil’s awkward antics narrated by his older self ... Sathian’s portrait of this mania is tempered with enough tenderness to make it witty but never bitter ... Sathian’s effervescent social satire breaks the bonds of ordinary reality and rises to another level ... the real miracle here is the way Sathian melds that ancient magic to the contours of her otherwise natural story of contemporary life. Like Aimee Bender, Karen Russell and Colson Whitehead, she’s working in a liminal realm where the laws of science aren’t suspended so much as stretched ... In a dazzling demonstration of Sathian’s range, the book’s second half jumps a decade later, beyond the tragedy of Neil’s adolescence to the smoldering wreckage of his adulthood. It’s a jarring transition — and meant to be ... With Neil’s struggle to find a usable past and a viable future, Sathian has created a funny, compassionate, tragic novel of astonishing cultural richness. She understands the contradictory, sometimes deadly demands that second-generation young people face, but she commands the narrative power to demonstrate that this struggle is central rather than merely tangential to the American experience. The result is a novel of Indian magic and modern technology, a parody of New World ambition and an elegy of assimilation. Looking up from the pages of this sparkling debut, I experienced something like the thrill the luckiest 49ers must have felt: Gold! Gold! Gold!
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
RaveThe Washington PostGood Company is a sweeter novel [than The Nest], gentler all around, though the stakes are higher than the disappointments of a few middle-aged leeches ... For most readers...Good Company will resonate as a story about those rare choices that define life by cleanly dividing it into Before and After ... It’s a moment caught in time, but its meaning is informed by everything around it ... this novel plays with time in a similarly complex way, moving back into the history of a small group to bring everything to bear on the perfectly staged image of \'the couple everyone wanted to be\' ... There are no villains in Good Company, which only makes the theme of betrayal more poignant—and more realistic ... Sweeney’s effectiveness as a novelist stems from her protean sympathy, her ability to move among these characters and capture each one’s feelings without judgment ... we get a poignant, sometimes comic sense of the way we each experience the same events, the same decisions, the same mistakes.
MixedThe Washington Post... strikes a victory for female representation ... [Lahiri] wrote Whereabouts in Italian and then translated it into English, which contributes to its sheen of deliberateness and distance ... Although Whereabouts is not a long novel, it offers plenty of time to kill. In place of a traditional plot, we’re given vignettes of quiet despair or anecdotes of minor irritation all distilled into a syrup of poisonous self-absorption. At times, I was tempted to hear a note of parody in the narrator’s relentless melancholy ... Depression is a perfectly legitimate subject for fiction, of course, and God knows it’s an exigent aspect of modern life. But the insular nature of the condition makes it extraordinarily difficult to render in an emotionally compelling way. The late, great Anita Brookner managed to pull off that feat to haunting effect, but in Whereabouts, descriptions of chilled despair have been so aggressively honed that there’s little for us to hang on to but the sighs.
RaveThe Washington PostAustralian writer Claire Thomas has just published The Performance, a curious novel about three women watching Happy Days. It begins moments before the lights go down in the theater. Some 228 pages later, members of the audience file out to the parking lot. The end. Thank you for coming. As a plot, that sounds like Beckett squared. The fact that The Performance works at all is noteworthy; that it’s engaging and evocative is something of a miracle ... Although, in one sense, nothing \'happens\' in this novel, there’s something uniquely revealing about it ... It feels oddly intimate ... The structure of The Performance forces Thomas to create movement even while her characters are sitting stock still, but she rises to the challenge ... The Performance is an insightful response to Beckett’s 60-year-old classic and a thoughtful reflection on what’s burying women in the modern age.
RaveThe Washington PostDrawing at times on the broad outlines of his own life, Banks presents the story of a man tearing through the affections of others in search of a sense of purpose commensurate with his ego. In many ways, this is a well-worn story in America and American literature — the facile White male darting from responsibilities he considers too restrictive and too beneath him ... But Banks has embedded that self-indulgent tragedy in the larger context of an anguished confession ... Without ever collapsing into nonsense, it’s a remarkably fluid use of prose to represent the experience of delirium while wrestling to the final moments with the challenge of absolution ... in this complex and powerful novel, we come face to face with the excruciating allure of redemption.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
MixedThe Washington PostIf you read The Sympathizer, you’ll immediately recognize this ironic and endlessly conflicted voice. If you haven’t read The Sympathizer, you’ll be hopelessly lost, so don’t even think of jumping in here. The setting and action of this second book are different, but The Committed is so dependent on earlier relationships and plot details that these two novels are more like volumes of the same continuing story ... Just as The Sympathizer transformed the hulk of an old spy novel, The Committed does the same with a tale of noir crime ... \'The French and the Vietnamese shared a love for melancholy and philosophy,\' the narrator says, \'that the manically optimistic Americans could never understand.\' The same hurdle will challenge American readers of The Committed, which is heavily fortified with philosophical rumination. In this novel, even the whorehouse bouncer reads Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire. If the man’s size doesn’t scare you away from the pleasures within, his bookshelf might.
RaveThe Washington PostReaders still reeling from his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go will find here a gentler exploration of the price children pay for modern advancements ... There’s a Jamesian quality to the searching, deliberate portrayal of life in Josie’s remote house. Like Klara, Ishiguro attends closely to the way apparently innocuous conversations shift, the way joy drains from a frozen smile. This is a home recovering from grief and bracing for more ... Beyond the dark enchantment of this peaceful house, Ishiguro suggests a world radically transformed. Another author would have been eager to elaborate on the dystopian features of the not-too-distant era, but Ishiguro always implies, never details. One reads Ishiguro in a defensive crouch, afraid to have our worst suspicions confirmed ... That’s the real power of this novel: Ishiguro’s ability to embrace a whole web of moral concerns about how we navigate technological advancements, environmental degradation and economic challenges even while dealing with the unalterable fact that we still die ... Ishiguro has perfectly calibrated Klara’s uncanny tone, with a personality just warm enough and alien enough to feel like the Artificial Friend we all need ... Ishiguro brings to this poignant subgenre a uniquely elegant style and flawless control of dramatic pacing.
RaveThe Washington PostFinally, a novel about the travails of a successful White guy! What could pull the heartstrings of our afflicted nation tighter than a story of brief, emotional setback suffered by a handsome movie star? Ethan Hawke has got a lot of nerve. But he’s also got a lot of talent ... what’s most irritating about A Bright Ray of Darkness is that it’s really good. If you can ignore the author’s motive for creating such a sensitive and endearing cad, you’ll find here a novel that explores the demands of acting and the delusions of manhood with tremendous verve and insight ... I want to be immune to Hawke’s charms, but I admit it: He’s written a witty, wise and heartfelt novel about a spoiled young man growing up and becoming, haltingly, a better person. A Bright Ray of Darkness is a deeply hopeful story about the possibility of rising above one’s narcissism. Bravo.
PanThe Washington Post... the echoes of Steinbeck’s classic are sometimes so strong that I expected to see the Joads’ Hudson Super Six chugging along the road ... In fact, despite the strong echoes to The Grapes of Wrath, Hannah may be working closer to 19th-century melodrama. The heroines of The Four Winds are purely heroic; its villains wholly evil. Hannah never risks ambiguity; her pages are 100 percent irony-free. And she moves with a relentless pace. Her prose, so ordinary line by line, nevertheless accumulates into scenes that rush from one emergency to the next—starving! beating! flooding!—pausing only for respites of sentimentality ... the snob in me wonders what this indefatigable author could produce if she endured a little tougher editorial criticism and gave herself a little more time. (She’s published 24 novels in 30 years.) But that would mean fiddling with the well-oiled machine that reliably produces such marketable passion. I confess, I spent too long rolling my eyes at the flat style, the shiny characters and the clunky polemics of The Four Winds before finally giving in and snuffling, \'I’m not crying—you’re crying!\'
RaveThe Washington Post... brilliant ... The short sections that pour across these pages — most not much longer than a couple of tweets — offer a tour of our collective consciousness, the great cacophony of images and voices that catch the virtual world’s attention ... You can hear in these moments Lockwood’s experience as a poet. She’s a master of startling concision when highlighting the absurdities we’ve grown too lazy to notice ... Despite her novel’s wit, there’s something almost brutal about the relentless way Lockwood draws us, eyes pried open, through the social media morass we’ve grown accustomed to: Steeped in the unfiltered flow of manicure advice, torture videos, ferret selfies, traffic accidents, birthday-cake disasters and tornado sightings, we float in a state of blasé disregard and treacly sentimentality, knowing everything and nothing ... the story’s second half may be too much for some readers. It’s a vertiginous experience, gorgeously rendered but utterly devastating. I rattled around the house for days afterwards, shattered but grateful for the reminder that the ephemeral world we’ve constructed online is a shadow compared to the pain and affection we’re blessed to experience in real life.
RaveThe Washington PostAvni Doshi’s debut novel has cut a slow but inexorable path around the world, dazzling readers in country after country ... And now, trailing clouds of international praise, it has finally arrived in the United States. Burnt Sugar is a work of extraordinary insight, courage and sophistication. It is also the world’s worst Mother’s Day present ... This is a novel stained with all manner of fluids, excretions and smells, and the narrator fights an almost constant sense of nausea. But if Burnt Sugar is often as unpleasant as a sinus infection, it’s just as hard to shake off ... \'Burnt Sugar\' perfectly captures this story’s complex flavor, the taste of something sweet transformed into something deep and melancholy. I don’t mean to scare you away; only to make sure you know what you’re getting into. This is, among other things, a challenging interrogation of the presumption that a book’s protagonist should be likable. Where can our sympathies find purchase with this woman who is devoted to her mother and yet filled with rage toward her? Our simultaneous revulsion and attraction stems, I suspect, from the nagging suspicion that Antara is dragging us toward a species of candor that’s terrifying.
RaveThe Washington Post... [a] witty novel that captures a certain species of Internet life better than any other book I’ve read. A century ago New York City got Edith Wharton; now the World Wide Web gets Lauren Oyler. We’re even ... That disarming candor extends throughout the novel, which is delivered in the cool, confidential tone of a narrator who anticipates every charge against her. Each scathing criticism she delivers twists into a mortifying admission ... isn’t just a comedy of manners, it’s a literary snake that eats its own tail ... Oyler seems to have gathered the despairing 3 a.m. thoughts of a whole class of media professionals and published them ... There is a plot here, though it’s somewhat incidental to the book’s success, which rests on the narrator’s deadpan skewering of everything from podcasts to Instagram feminism to online dating. Fake Accounts is particularly sharp when it comes to the trite, self-aggrandizing liberalism that arose along with Donald Trump ... Among the tiny group of people concerned with such things, Oyler is known as a fearsome literary critic, but Fake Accounts should bring her the vastly larger audience she deserves.
PositiveThe Washington PostFranzen once again begins with a family, but his ravenous intellect strides the globe, drawing us through a collection of cleverly connected plots infused with Major Issues of the Day ... Everybody harbors secrets: shameful, disgusting, sometimes deadly secrets. If that adolescent revelation gets a bit too much emphasis in these pages, at least it’s smartly considered and reconsidered in the seven distinct but connected sections that make up the book ... Purity demonstrates Franzen’s ingenious plotting, his ability to steer the chaos of real life toward moments that feel utterly surprising yet inevitable ... one hears Franzen’s well-known complaints about the tyranny of the Web and the inanity of social media, but these criticisms are so effectively integrated into the mind of this hypocritical Internet warrior [character] that the novel never dissolves into a cranky essay ... almost 600 pages requires an extraordinarily engaging style, and in Purity Franzen writes with a perfectly balanced fluency that has sometimes eluded him in the past. He’s grown more transparent as a narrator, still brilliant and endlessly allusive, but less nervous about mugging for attention. And when he switches—only once—to narrate a section in the voice of one of his characters, it sounds wholly authentic ... if Purity isn’t as much fun as The Corrections, it’s free of the self-indulgence that sometimes marred that fantastic novel.
RaveThe Washington Post... irresistible ... marks the launch of an effervescent new career ... alternately sly and sweet, a work of cultural criticism that laments and celebrates the power of money ... Depending on the light, the magical sheen of Askaripour’s prose can make those bits of homespun advice look wholly sincere or wickedly parodic ... what makes Black Buck rise above other corporate satires is Askaripour’s dexterous treatment of race in the modern workplace ... This is satire richly fertilized with Trumpist anxiety. Darren — Buck — confronts fragility so finely attuned that even to suggest the existence of racism incites a White backlash of racist attacks cloaked in sententious outrage. It’s a brilliant sendup of the way some privileged people respond to the gentlest, most practical efforts to combat discrimination ... But don’t imagine you’ve got Askaripour all figured out. The syncopated tone of Black Buck keeps the story constantly shifting. In these pages, even cringe-inducing moments can suddenly slip into wise counsel or heartfelt confession. No matter how lacerating this vision of systemic racism is, Darren seems buoyed by a generous spirit, a well of joy that feels downright miraculous.
RaveThe Washington Post\"...stirs up the western with a provocative blend of alt-history and feminist consciousness. The result is a thrilling tale eerily familiar but utterly transformed ... There’s nothing formulaic or dogmatic about North’s approach, but she has cleverly repurposed the worn elements of 19th-century mythology to explore the position of childless women. The shame and sorrow these young women suffer in the 1890s is not so different from what women trying to get pregnant — or end a pregnancy — endure in our own supposedly enlightened era ... In North’s galloping prose, it’s a fantastically cinematic adventure that turns the sexual politics of the Old West inside out. But if this is a legendary story, it’s a legend with its own idiosyncratic and highly satisfying ending.\
Michael Farris Smith
MixedThe Washington PostSmith, the author of several Southern Gothic novels, is a talented writer who approaches Fitzgerald’s work with reverence and close attention to detail. Anyone who knows The Great Gatsby will hear echoes of that book’s luxurious melancholy ... Creating a worthy homage to Fitzgerald’s finest novel is a remarkable accomplishment, and Smith’s explanation of Nick’s detached personality makes perfect sense. It feels, though, more like confirmation than expansion of the original story. If Smith does no violence to The Great Gatsby, he also breaks open little space for himself ... as polite and well-behaved as Nick Carraway himself ... What develops offers a macabre counterpoint to The Great Gatsby. The mansions of Long Island have been replaced by the saloons of New Orleans ... Withdraw Nick’s perspective and the lurid plot sticks out of the water like a shipwreck at low tide. By denying Nick that crucial role and pushing him aside, Smith asks that we become invested in a set of noir caricatures and their lurid spat simply for its own sake.
RaveThe Washington Post[An] immensely lovable debut novel ... I read most of Gallen’s mournful comedy aloud to my wife, and even with my mangled Irish brogue, we loved it ... The listicle structure is surprisingly expansive in Gallen’s hands. What at first feels artificial to us gradually proves its function as Majella’s effort to systematize the chaos swirling around her ... They’re all hilariously odd and desperately tragic — the razor’s edge on which Big Girl, Small Town is balanced. Because behind the persistent comedy of this quirky village, the ground is damp with blood ... But if Majella’s spoken range is curtailed, her interior range is vast and illuminated by a prose style at once accessible and stippled with strangeness ... It’s the kind of magic you’ll feel lucky to find.
MixedThe Washington PostThe setting of The Archer is the world of parables that we might think of as Meaningville, an abstract realm with muted colors and a fuzzy periphery signaling Lessons are about to be unfurled ... The superficiality of The Archer is exacerbated by its deadening style ... My only relief came from moments of unintended humor ... You may think I’m being too hard on this slim volume, but I’ve started to worry that Coelho and his ilk aren’t nearly as harmless as we imagine ... Critics are advised not to be so snobby or to take solace in the assumption that these books will eventually lead readers to more substantive works. But what if, instead, trite literature dulls the senses and makes one less able to appreciate quality, complexity, real insight? ... Fortune cookies bound into lovely little books won’t get us through the dark night of the soul.
Jonas Lüscher, tr. Tess Lewis
PositiveThe Washington PostSome books are a hard sell. Some are well nigh impossible to recommend. And then there’s Jonas Lüscher’s Kraft. It’s an exceedingly cerebral comic novel about Leibnizian optimism translated from the German ... This is the kind of review in which I have to say things like Kraft is the best novel about theodicy I’ve read all year! ... the perspective is foreign, but the setting familiar ... Writer’s block is painful to endure, harder to write about and even harder to read about. But anyone who’s stared at a blank screen while an important deadline creeps closer will laugh nervously at Kraft’s plight ... Lüscher’s style, a hybrid of intellectual posturing and absurd slapstick, is sharply translated by Tess Lewis, who captures Kraft’s pomposity and the indefatigable march of German syntax ... this peculiar book is not for everyone. The philosophical allusions present a hurdle. But a greater one may be the references to late-20th-century European politics, which will challenge American readers who can’t quickly distinguish the economic policies of Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt...Indeed, as much as I enjoyed Kraft, it sometimes felt like the humor was taking place in an adjacent room that excluded me ... But for all its intellectual scaffolding, “Kraft” is essentially the story of a man realizing what a jerk he’s been. Whether that’s a comedy or a tragedy is the abiding suspense of this plot. I’m not optimistic that Lüscher’s satire of neoliberalism will attract a large audience in America, but if Kraft finds the right readers, the laughter will trickle down, right?
RaveThe Washington Post[D]esperation pervades every page of Simon Han’s debut novel, Nights When Nothing Happened. ... What’s most fascinating about Nights When Nothing Happened is the way Han, who was born in China and raised in Texas, explores how anxiety thwarts the archetypal experience of immigrant success. In his telling, the American Dream is disrupted by nightmares that a good job and a house in the suburbs can’t quell ... Han builds the tension in this story slowly, but he builds it with exquisite care, and it’s entirely worth the investment ... Physical attacks, name-calling, job discrimination — such dramatic expressions of prejudice naturally draw our attention, but Nights When Nothing Happened captures a more insidious breed of racism: an atmosphere of White wariness that the Chengs must constantly navigate ... Han’s expansive sympathy and twilight lyricism make Nights When Nothing Happened a poignant study of the immigrant experience. This is an author who understands on a profound level the way past trauma interacts with the pressures of assimilation to disrupt a good night’s sleep, even a life.
PositiveThe Washington Post\'Some say the world will end in fire,\' Robert Frost wrote, \'Some say in ice.\' But in this era of terrifying dystopias, Jonathan Lethem imagines a kinder, gentler apocalypse ... In Lethem’s new novel, The Arrest, all technology simply grinds to a halt ... but without crime or crisis, The Arrest is the sort of cruelty-free dystopia you might pick up at Whole Foods ... From this eccentric premise, the plot of The Arrest settles quickly into an odd stasis, sustained only by the cerebral wit of Lethem’s voice ... It’s clever but not funny; a satire that never pricks its target. And there’s something frustratingly elliptical about this plot, as though pages may have fallen out on the way to the binder ... In the end, Lethem designs a vast contraption to bring this apocalyptic plot to a mini-climax, but what’s at stake remains oblique. So, if you want a post-apocalyptic story that thwarts the expectations of the dystopian genre, here it is — with a slice of artisanal cheese. This is the way the novel ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.
RaveThe Washington PostIn 2012, Jess Walter’s breakout bestseller, Beautiful Ruins, brought movieland hilariously and brilliantly to life ... But now, with his new novel, The Cold Millions, Walter attempts to bring that same verve to the pitiless realm of Spokane, Wash., in 1909 ... The Cold Millions is a work of irresistible characters, harrowing adventures and rip-roaring fun ... Walter’s new tragicomedy about this moment of American history is one of the most captivating novels of the year.
emily m. danforth
RaveThe Washington Post[A] shapeshifting novel ... A hot amalgamation of gothic horror and Hollywood satire, it’s draped with death but bursting with life ... Indeed, Plain Bad Heroines may be the only novel I know that should come with an EpiPen. What makes all this so much fun is Danforth’s deliciously ghoulish voice, a kind of Victorian Gossip Girl ... The supernatural elements grow across these pages as slowly — and ominously — as black mold ... It stings — but oh, the sensation is exquisite.
PanThe Washington Post\"The kindest response to Don DeLillo’s new novel may be suggested by its title ... The Silence is one of DeLillo’s short, curious novels, possibly the shortest and the curiousest. Harper’s recently published an excerpt, which may have tempted you to hope that something more substantial lies in the book itself. It does not ... Our dangerous reliance on technology is a well-trod concern—trod brilliantly, in fact, by DeLillo’s own earlier novels. In these latter days, it’s not possible to articulate something profound about society’s fragility by striking a series of eccentric affectations. After The Road, Oryx and Crake, Station Eleven and other unnerving dystopias, The Silence feels like Apocalypse Lite for people who don’t want to get their hands dirty.\
RaveThe Washington Post... a sophisticated thriller ... O’Connor has constructed the plot of Zero Zone as a kaleidoscope, frequently shattering the chronology of events and remixing the parts. That may sound baffling, but it’s compellingly done — a constant process of filling in context and meaning, solving some mysteries and raising others ... One of the challenges of writing fiction about a great artist is how to convincingly create the presence of artistic genius. For instance, if the novel is about a brilliant poet, sooner or later we’ll want to read some immortal verse. If, as in this case, the central character is a famous installation artist, we need to see some of those astonishing sites. Fortunately, O’Connor meets that burden. He provides alluring descriptions of Jess’s famous pieces ... I wish O’Connor hadn’t felt it necessary to give Tanner a gruesome skin disease that covers his entire body. At its best, that \'ugly equals evil\' motif is a remnant of cheap fairy-tale propaganda. At its worst, it’s a pernicious moral equation that perpetuates prejudice against people with disfiguring conditions ... Aside from that misstep, though, Zero Zone is an engaging reflection on the function of art and the responsibilities of the artist. Following these characters along their circuitous routes offers a rare chance to consider the risks that great creators take when they try to inspire us to action — but not too much.
RaveThe Washington PostMemorial is a profoundly sensitive story about the rough boundaries of love in a multicultural society. In fact, no other novel I’ve read this year captures so gracefully the full palette of America. The range of cultures, races, generations and sexual identities contending with one another in these pages is not a woke argument; it’s the nature of modern family life fully realized ... Memorial unfolds as a series of isolated moments, many only a page long, some merely a single line. Told first from Ben’s perspective and then from Mike’s, these moments continually blend past and present, enacting each narrator’s confession as a kind of prose poem ... Washington inhabits these two men so naturally that the sophistication of this form is rendered entirely invisible, and their narratives unspool as spontaneously and clearly as late-night conversation ... In a disposable society, Memorial is a testament to the permanence of filial connections, a clear-eyed acknowledgment that our relatives don’t always behave nicely, but they’re with us for life.
RaveThe Washington PostWe believers have waited a long time for a second novel from Clarke, and so it’s especially exciting to see that none of her enchantment has worn off—it’s evolved. Reading her lithe new book, Piranesi, feels like finding a copy of Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler in the back of C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe ... The hypnotic quality of Piranesi stems largely from how majestically Clarke conjures up this surreal House ... an unusually fragile mystery—as delicate as the slender fingers and wispy petals on the marble statues that fill the House. Clarke’s power certainly extends beyond mere suspense, but her story relies on the steady accretion of apprehension that finally gives way to a base-shifting revelation. Until you read the book yourself, keep your wand drawn to ward off the summaries of enthusiastic fans and clumsy reviewers. I promise to tread carefully here ... Perhaps Clarke’s cleverest move in this infinitely clever novel is the way she critiques our obliterating efforts to extract deeper meaning and greater value from everything in our world ... This is the abiding magic of Clarke’s novel: We’re as likely to pity Piranesi for his cheerful acceptance of imprisonment as we are to envy him for his ready appreciation of the world as he finds it. Clarke conceived of this story long before the coronavirus pandemic, but tragedy has made Piranesi resonate with a planet in quarantine. To abide in these pages is to find oneself happily detained in awe.
MixedThe Washington Post... particularly dependent on those previous books. If you’re tempted to read them out of order, be warned...Jack rests on what came before, and its poignancy arises from what we know lies ahead for these characters ... ferociously restrained ... Jack is a distinctly Robinsonian bum: genteel to the point of parody and well-versed in the conundrums of 16th-century theology ... It’s Della’s ability to see through Jack’s persona that saves him — and this novel — from pretentiousness ... I only wish we got to see more of that fire in this novel. Robinson remains so focused on Jack’s ruminations that whatever Della may be thinking by loving him back is exalted as an ontological fact beyond scrutiny. Sweet as their affection for each other is, the story’s asymmetrical insight into their motives makes Della feel flat. That’s particularly surprising since a peripheral character watching out for her interests is more fully drawn, more conflicted by the complicated rules of success in a racist society ... But Jack is wholly Jack’s story. And Robinson cradles his love for Della with the tenderness of a gracious creator.
RaveThe Washington Post... remarkable ... a phenomenal coalescence of memoir, fiction, history and cultural analysis ... One of the most fascinating themes of this tour de force is the sustained tension between memoir and invention that runs through any creative person’s life ... Akhtar’s portrait of the artist as a young Muslim exposes both his vanity and his capacity for obsequiousness, particularly around wealthy people ... Everywhere one can hear Akhtar’s award-winning ear for dialogue that conveys the unexpected rhythms of conversation and drama. But what’s surprising is his equally engaging mode as a lecturer. Personal episodes mingle effectively with engaging disquisitions on, say, the dilution of antitrust law ... paradox runs like a wire through this book, which so poignantly expresses the loneliness of pining for one’s own homeland.
RaveThe Washington PostHomegoing wasn’t beginner’s luck. Gyasi’s new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is a book of blazing brilliance. What’s more, it’s entirely unlike Homegoing ...still and ruminative — a novel of profound scientific and spiritual reflection that recalls the works of Richard Powers and Marilynne Robinson ... Not that there’s anything derivative about this story. Indeed, Gyasi’s ability to interrogate medical and religious issues in the context of America’s fraught racial environment makes her one of the most enlightening novelists writing today ... A double helix of wisdom and rage twists through the quiet lines of this novel ... remarkable.
RaveThe Washington PostSuch reverie is more intoxicating than a tall glass of Vitameatavegamin ... if you want a biography of the comedian, look elsewhere ... So much of what The Queen of Tuesday describes hews to the general outlines of our cultural memory that it’s easy to elide Strauss’s creative license, but the alterations start right on the title page: I Love Lucy ran on Mondays — not Tuesdays ... if you give yourself over to his premise, The Queen of Tuesday is a striking exploration of how fame confounds the lives of prominent and obscure people ... Strauss conjures up those heady days of I Love Lucy with such vibrancy that it’s impossible not to hope that everything might work out after all ... what makes The Queen of Tuesday so peculiar and fascinating is the story that Strauss weaves through it about his grandfather, Izzy ... impossibly daring ... tragic and poignant.
PositiveThe Washington PostAfter months of nerve-racking social isolation and a gazillion unhinged tweets from President Trump, The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures may sound like the last book you want to read right now. But in this era of death and gaslighting, there’s something cathartic about Jennifer Hofmann’s debut novel. She’s created a story that John le Carré might have written for The Twilight Zone, the tale of a spy who comes in from the cold while his world turns inside out ... Hofmann, who lives in Berlin, writes with a wit so dry that it allows her to retain complete deniability. She has constructed this story as a quest, but the path forward feels like descending stairs in an Escher drawing ... It’s not easy to make such a bureaucratic monster sympathetic, but by plumbing Zeiger’s existential crisis, Hofmann manages to reach his essential humanity ... Like Marisha Pessl and Rivka Galchen, Hofmann knows how to create intricate illusions of certainty in the midst of derangement. The result is a rare novel that encourages you to read as though your sanity depends on it — just a little further, just a little faster. It’s an unsettling simulation of living in a state that denies basic facts and perpetuates the most inane claims. Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, one wishes this mind-set didn’t feel quite so familiar.
PositiveThe Washington PostVivek’s death is emphasized so often that it acquires an odd kind of mystery, like the blurry edges of a legend. Although the presence of spiritual forces is muted in The Death of Vivek Oji, the possibility of ancestral reincarnation frames the story in tantalizing ways ... The Death of Vivek Oji swirls around incidents, before and after Vivek’s passing, not so much rising toward its climax as gradually accruing power. Again and again, we learn of events long before we understand their cause or significance. Such a presentation could easily become a muddle, but Emezi is a remarkably assured and graceful guide through this family’s calamity of silence ... There’s just no way to finish this powerful novel and not feel more deeply than ever the ghastly consequences of intolerance. But in these intense pages of tightly coiled desire and dread, Emezi has once again encouraged us to embrace a fuller spectrum of human experience.
RaveThe Washington Post... an outrageously funny novel equal to the absurdity roiling Washington ... There’s much to choose from here, but perhaps the funniest aspect of Make Russia Great Again is how calmly Herb conveys the craziness of the Trump administration. With the unruffled decorum of a five-star resort manager, he describes all the complicated maneuvers needed to entertain a president who does not read, who cannot concentrate for more than a few minutes and who will not listen to anything but soliloquies comparing him to \'Napoleon, or God\' ... There’s a Twain-like quality to this loyal naif who skewers without intending to. While Make Russia Great Again rushes along from one folly to the next, Herb’s increasingly pained efforts to see only the bright side of Trump’s reign is the joke that keeps on winning. Amid the twin economic and health catastrophes of our era, Buckley has done the impossible: Made Politics Funny Again. Laughter may not be the best medicine for covid-19, but it’s a heck of a lot better than bleach.
RaveThe Washington PostDavid Mitchell’s groovy new rock novel belts out the lives of a fictional band in such vivid tones that you may imagine you once heard the group play in the late ’60s ... Mitchell — cult writer, critical darling, popular novelist — knows much about the unpredictable currents of fame, and he brings that empathy and his own extraordinarily dynamic style to this tale of four musicians ... One of the many delights of Utopia Avenue is seeing the cosmic dust of genius swirling in chaos before the stars are formed ... Mitchell’s magic chemistry is certain; this band’s not so much ... Mitchell captures the tension between artists and their labels trying to divine the next turn of teen tastes. He re-creates the music shows in all their cringing giddiness. And the pages of Utopia Avenue are a veritable Who’s Who of the era ... Even the syncopated structure of Utopia Avenue demonstrates how attentive he is to the rhythm of human experience.
J. Courtney Sullivan
RaveThe Washington PostFriends and Strangers captures the conflicting emotions of parenthood with palpable sympathy ... We’ve seen this scenario played for satire and terror, but Sullivan approaches her story with deep-seated compassion for both sides ... With its carefully drawn scenes of home life and its focus on the trials of motherhood and infertility, Friends and Strangers will be shelved as domestic fiction. But it’s as much a story about money and politics. Everywhere in the background we can detect the wreckage of an economy no longer capable of sustaining middle-class life ... But if Sullivan’s vision of this country sounds cynical, her faith in individuals remains profound. There’s a rare degree of emotional maturity in Friends and Strangers, a willingness to resist demonizing any of the players, a commitment to exploring the demands of family with the deliberate care such complex relations require. Once again, Sullivan has shown herself to be one of the wisest and least pretentious chroniclers of modern life. Every hard-won insight here is offered up with such casual grace.
MixedThe Washington PostThis marks a significant change for Brooks, who is a well-known expert on zombies, which are still widely disputed, like werewolves or climate change ... With Devolution, Brooks brings his considerable investigative powers to a cryptozoological controversy that has been raging in the Pacific Northwest for decades ... Cleverly, some of the elements of this story do seem reasonably plausible, which, as we’ve learned, is the key to any abominable conspiracy theory ... Given the monster stories set upon the world by Mary Shelley and other masters of the macabre, Brooks is trying to fill some awfully big shoes here. The results are uneven ... for far too many pages, Devolution plods along a dull middle ground, not so much building suspense as venting it ... Part of the problem is the diary format. We’re stuck in Kate’s limited perspective trudging through her flat prose ... There’s probably a great horror novel about Sasquatch out there somewhere, but I won’t believe it till I see it.
RaveThe Washington Post... that familiar desecration is made wrenchingly fresh by the power of Mbue’s storytelling. Through some rare alchemy, she has blended the specificity of a documentary with the universality of a parable to create a novel that will disturb the conscience of every reader ... With a style that conveys the musical cadence of a local dialect, Mbue creates the African village in all its ancient nuance. Time flows and eddies in this telling, rushing forward and looping back the way legends gradually coalesce in the shared memories of scattered people ... polemical as the novel may be, it never loses its moral complexity. Although How Beautiful We Were is a love letter to a communal way of life lived close to nature, it’s not a wholly romantic vision that ignores the villagers’ own flaws. Despite their \'brand of fragile innocence,\' Mbue affords the people of Kosawa the full range of human decency and selfishness. And though Thula eventually enjoys considerable respect as the leader of an opposition movement, she must always contend with her own chauvinistic culture that’s deeply skeptical of an unmarried woman who asserts herself ... the fatalism of this story is countered by the beauty of Mbue’s prose and the purity of her vision.
RaveThe Washington Post... enthralling ... The style of The Taste of Sugar is heavily inflected with Spanish words and phrases, conveying the rich linguistic culture of this place. And sometimes, without warning, Vera drops her own narrative voice and shifts into the higher register of a character’s excited monologue. It’s a tremendously enlivening dramatic effect ... One of the many pleasures of this story stems from Vera’s emotional range ... a passionate love story purified in the crucible of suffering .... All these intimate and finely drawn details are nested within a masterful work of historical fiction that traces monumental economic and political currents ... Vera never reduces him or any of her characters to mere cogs in this vast system. Her vision is always grounded in this hard-working family, their struggles, their flaws, their persistent decency ... One of the great challenges of globe-spanning stories about the forces that raise and cripple nations is maintaining a fragile realm of free will in which ordinary characters can still act, even in their highly oppressed circumstances. That’s the rich feat of The Taste of Sugar. Here, the drama always stays rooted in the suspenseful ordeal of these farmers to whom we grow more and more attached. Vera writes as confidently about the mechanics of international markets as she does about the hopes whispered between grieving lovers.
RaveThe Washington PostAt 82, [Godwin] is still challenging herself and us. Her latest book is a richly layered novel based on a lifetime of reflection on friendship and storytelling. In a culture obsessed with youth, it’s a welcome reminder that age and wisdom can confer certain advantages, too ... Godwin writes women’s fiction that deconstructs the condescending presumptions of that label. Her new book is a brilliant example of the way she can don even the most ladylike concerns while working through issues of independence, power and artistic integrity ... This campus, with its overlay of Southern evasiveness, is tempting grounds for satire, but Godwin has something more complex in mind. She’s created these genteel administrators in such fullness that they exemplify Lovegood’s noble values even as they take pleasure in their own slightly parodic performance ... the story travels nimbly through an enormous swath of American history, while remaining grounded in the particular experiences of these women who would seem to have nothing in common ... an extraordinary novel about the nature of those rare friendships that fade for long periods of time only to rekindle in an instant when the conditions are right again.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleIn these Dark Ages of the Reign of Trump, Curtis Sittenfeld\'s Rodham descends like an avenging angel ... This isn\'t just fiction as fantasy; it\'s fiction as therapy for that majority of Americans who voted for Clinton in 2016 and are now sick and unemployed under the current calamitous administration ... Rodham, though, is a high-profile novel - not a parody or a joke book, but a serious work of literary fiction - designed to rally the political spirits of liberal readers ... [The] erotic trysts might seem over the top, but they\'re all part of the novel\'s corrective impulse, its determination to rebalance the way men and women exist in our political imagination. After all, if Bill can carry on and Donald Trump can grab women, why can\'t a female politician have a healthy sex life? ... Yes, this is an implicitly polemical novel. It\'s devoted to exonerating a politician who has been maligned for decades. But that motive doesn\'t crimp the book\'s energy or its suspense because there are other larger themes at work besides Hillary\'s basic goodness. While telling a compelling story, Rodham provides an insightful analysis of the function of sexism in our political discourse ... And as an extra bonus, Rodham captures Trump better than any other novel has so far. Sittenfeld showcases the real estate developer in all his bombastic narcissism and self-delusion. It\'s an astounding, slaying parody, while also, mercifully, offering us a future that avoids today\'s ever-expanding disaster ... The novel\'s exculpatory impulse exacts a cost, though. As a study of sexism and American politics, Rodham is rich. But as a character study, it knows everything. That leaves little distance between the narrator and her words in which we can sense the mysteries of an actual mind. In that sense, Rodham mimics Hillary\'s own careful presentation of herself. Perhaps what I\'m tempted to call a flaw is merely another element of the novel\'s verisimilitude.
PositiveThe Washington PostIn these Dark Ages of the Reign of Trump, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham descends like an avenging angel ... a high-profile novel — not a parody or a joke book, but a serious work of literary fiction — designed to rally the political spirits of liberal readers ... These early chapters follow the general outlines of Hillary’s life, and sometimes it’s hard to remember we’re reading fiction, not autobiography. But that becomes easier to remember when Hillary describes having sex with Bill ... These erotic trysts might seem over the top, but they’re all part of the novel’s corrective impulse, its determination to rebalance the way men and women exist in our political imagination ... While telling a compelling story, Rodham provides an insightful analysis of the function of sexism in our political discourse ... Sittenfeld is at her wittiest when re-creating the men who dominate modern American politics ... captures Trump better than any other novel has so far...It’s an astounding, slaying parody, while also, mercifully, offering us a future that avoids today’s ever-expanding disaster ... The novel’s exculpatory impulse exacts a cost, though. As a study of sexism and American politics, Rodham is rich. But as a character study, it knows everything. That leaves little distance between the narrator and her words in which we can sense the mysteries of an actual mind. In that sense, Rodham mimics Hillary’s own careful presentation of herself. Perhaps what I’m tempted to call a flaw is merely another element of the novel’s verisimilitude.
PanThe Washington PostSitting on the couch reading a slaying satire about exercise fanatics should be as satisfying as a chocolate chip cookie, but Lionel Shriver’s new novel is exhausting. I’ve never felt so worn out by the labor of wincing ... the fitness industry is a fat target for satire. And Shriver brings all her ferocious wit to bear to mock its hucksters and disciples. Readers who have endured condescending pity from well-toned gods and goddesses will initially relish Shriver’s merciless ridicule ... As a character, Serenata is a fascinating and daringly unsympathetic heroine, burdened with the loneliness of her greater insight. But she can also be a hectoring bore. Many pages of the novel are given over to acerbic arguments in which Serenata spars with her husband about his rabid training. She claims the two of them are engaged in Noël Coward-like repartee, but their interactions sound wholly mirthless. This is satire that moves, like Remington, with heavy weights strapped to its legs ... Unfortunately, beneath its parody of fitness fanatics, the plot is premised on whiny canards about the insidious effects of reverse racism ... tremendously disappointing because there’s a rich and sympathetic story here about how aging can disrupt a marriage in strange and surprising ways. Remington’s frantic efforts to run himself back into virility and purpose will resonate with anyone staring at the prospect of a long, useless retirement. And Serenata’s resentment toward her failing knees feels poignant and universal. But this is a novel more determined to make its point than to make us consider the profound mystery of what it means to tend a body for the long haul.
RaveThe Washington PostThis all-consuming story rages along, bright and scalding, illuminating three intertwined lives in contemporary India ... [Majumdar] demonstrates an uncanny ability to capture the vast scope of a tumultuous society by attending to the hopes and fears of people living on the margins. The effect is transporting, often thrilling, finally harrowing ... Majumdar’s outrage is matched only by her sympathy for these ordinary people so deft in the practice of self-justification. Building on their perfectly natural weaknesses, the short, intense chapters of A Burning present a society riven with influence peddling and abuses of power but still wholly devoted to the appearance of propriety.
RaveThe Washington Post... deeply affecting ... the experiences of Beah’s characters are the experiences of the powerless everywhere ... Much is silent and unspoken in this subtle novel about people we rarely hear from. Beah’s narration rests lightly across these lives, suggesting only the outlines of their ruined childhoods ... Tender as this is, Beah has no interest in romanticizing their little family. He means only to insist on their humanity, which the upper classes so aggressively deny. The novel conveys the precariousness of their position with shocking clarity ... What endows the novel with such stirring energy is the way Beah focuses on their remarkable skills. To work the streets as grifters, shoplifters and pickpockets, the five members of this family must be extraordinarily observant and disciplined ... an empathy-expanding story without the heavy gears of polemical fiction. In a sense, Beah has written an African social novel that complements earlier novels by Dickens and Twain, but he conveys his unsettling assessment with a more delicate balance of tenderness and dread. Elimane, Khoudi and the other members of their little family have such a clear-eyed sense of their place as disposable members of society. To hear their story should make our confirmed blindness a little harder to maintain.
PositiveThe Washington Post... endearing ... sweeter than Jiles’s previous work but no less attentive to the texture of the American Southwest ... if you understand how a romantic quest works, you know the conclusion is already locked and loaded. And if the plot of Simon the Fiddler unfolds at a fairly leisurely trot, well, at least it’s never anything less than thoroughly charming. And when the final battle royal arrives in San Antonio, it’s just the rousing ballad we want to hear.
Sue Monk Kidd
PanThe Washington PostFor better or worse, Kidd has succeeded in writing a novel about Jesus’s wife, not Jesus. She also sidesteps the Mary Magdalene controversy by presenting a fully invented character ... Kidd has constructed the plot to keep Jesus offstage through much of the novel. That’s crucial to elevating Ana’s position but tends to reduce her beloved to a really sweet guy with gorgeous eyes ... The period details are fascinating, but the dialogue can feel over-starched ... Pronouncements mingled with casual banter make the book sound like a costume drama trying to find its tone. Also, Ana’s feminist consciousness seems immaculately conceived, wholly uncontaminated by the trappings of her culture ... Confined in Ana’s earnest narration, the story provides no critical distance, no irony, no real thematic ambiguity. Despite its efforts to deconstruct Christian orthodoxy, The Book of Longings insists on its own orthodoxy ... The best historical fiction disorients us by demonstrating the uncanny nature of the past—a world like and not like ours, woven through with strands of ancient DNA. Unfortunately, The Book of Longings rarely confronts us with anything that might challenge our contemporary liberalism.
RaveThe Washington Post... told with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse ... Unintimidated by the presence of the Bard’s canon or the paucity of the historical record, O’Farrell creates Shakespeare before the radiance of veneration obscured everyone around him. In this book, William is simply a clever young man — not even the central character — and O’Farrell makes no effort to lard her pages with intimations of his genius or cute allusions to his plays. Instead, through the alchemy of her own vision, she has created a moving story about the way loss viciously recalibrates a marriage ... This is a richly drawn and intimate portrait of 16th-century English life set against the arrival of one devastating death. O’Farrell, always a master of timing and rhythm, uses these flashbacks of young love and early marriage to heighten the sense of dread that accumulates as Hamnet waits for his mother ... None of the villagers know it yet, but bubonic plague has arrived in Warwickshire and is ravaging the Shakespeare twins, overwhelming their little bodies with bacteria. That lit fuse races through the novel toward a disaster that history has already recorded but O’Farrell renders unbearably suspenseful.
PositiveThe Washington Post... the real magic may be the way Swift moves through time ... Then and now, so much depends on the alchemy of luck and desire. With a sigh, Swift captures the tragicomedy of human life in a single phrase.
RaveThe Washington Post... a novel that serpentines around our expectations ... This is the story of their lives in a backwater oil town in the mid-1970s, which Wetmore seems to know with empathy so deep it aches ... If these chapters weren’t so carefully wrought and emotionally compelling, they might feel like mere distractions from the prosecution of Gloria’s attacker ... Several of these chapters are masterful short stories in their own right, but Wetmore knits them together with increasing intensity ... Wetmore has written something thrilling and thoughtful. Don’t let the launch of this novelist’s career be drowned out. Someday book clubs will meet again, and this would be a rousing choice.
MixedThe Washington Post... is either wholly irrelevant or just what we need — or possibly both. Slight and slightly charming, it’s like the cherry Jell-O that Mom serves when you’re feeling under the weather. Not much of a meal, perhaps, but who could handle more now? ... I have switched dry cleaners with more drama ... If you’ve read and adored as many of Tyler’s novels as I have, such idiosyncrasies convey all the reassuring warmth of an old hymn ... There is nothing necessarily objectionable about a novel focused on \'such a narrow and limited man,\' as Tyler calls Micah...But in this case, the mold growing on Micah’s airless character seems to have spread to the narration itself. These characters are a series of moderately eccentric poses presented without much wit or psychological insight ... Although the real world exists in this novel, it’s safely off to the side. Here, sadness is possible, even loneliness, but the bumper guards are up: No one risks slipping into despair or, for that matter, tasting anything like elation. The movie adaptation should be filmed entirely in shades of beige ... Tightly compressed, Micah’s gentle quest for a better life would feel more buoyant — and this novel’s lovely final page wouldn’t feel so needlessly delayed.
RaveThe Washington PostA brilliant young critic ... Her daring approach is a hybrid of memoir, literary criticism and cultural commentary. She moves fluidly between grade-school memories and scholarly analysis. She quotes from medieval texts and TV shows. She’s equally familiar with the Brothers Grimm and the X-Men ... long overdue. Watch your language. Challenge your stories. Read this smart, tenacious book.
RaveThe Washington PostThe light from Laura Zigman’s new novel is generated by a kind of literary nuclear fusion: an intense compression of grief and humor. The combination of those elements usually produces cynical black comedy, something witty and bitter, but Zigman’s work is too tender for that ... Zigman digs into the self-confirming nature of depression with the authenticity of someone who’s been hounded by that black dog. But the sorrow here is always twined with comedy ... [a] deliciously absurd tone runs straight through this novel ... what keeps Separation Anxiety from spinning off into some surreal parallel universe of silliness is Zigman’s attention to the ordinary absurdities of middle-class life. She has a great humorist’s eye for the comedy we’ve seen but overlooked...She’s particularly witty about the vapidity of our self-help culture ... Perhaps the most admirable aspect of Separation Anxiety is the way Zigman subtly choreographs the novel’s apparently random goofiness ... Stalked by the loneliness of middle age, you may think the last thing you need is a novel about a woman driven to wearing her dog. You’d be wrong.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe story Miller tells in Independence Square is a double helix of espionage and regret ... a tense, private tale set against the Orange Revolution but evoking the whole complicated enterprise of spycraft and nation-building.Short but complex ... He’s particularly acerbic when portraying Western journalists ... Miller spins the chaotic exuberance ... it’s still harrowing to see the way power radiates through nations and lives, raising some, crushing others.
RaveThe Washington PostAnne Enright writes so well that she just might ruin you for anyone else. The deceptively casual flow of her stories belies their craft, a profound intelligence sealed invisibly behind life’s mirror ... thoughtful, sometimes wrenching ... The chronology would appear no more ordered than the flow of anecdotes around a dinner table, but there’s always a design to Enright’s novels, a gradual coalescing of insight. Early on, Actress glides from one hilarious, calamitous theater story to the next ... the epitome of Enright’s subtlety: the way she can suggest the anaerobic pain of a strained marriage with just a few lines ... Stripped raw of any sentimentality, the result is a critique, a confession, a love letter — and another brilliant novel from Anne Enright.
PositiveThe Washington Post... rich ... All this historical and theological detail is not so much the content of the novel as its premise, which sets the bar for entry fairly high. But Phillips is a terrifically engaging teacher, and he’s devised the perfect guide ... Ezzedine is an ingenious foil for exploring the treacherous territory of Elizabethan England. He’s essentially a Turkish Gulliver ... Phillips laces Ezzedine’s sojourn in England with melancholy wit, but the novel’s real energy comes from its exploration of two related industries that flourished under Queen Elizabeth: theater and spycraft.
RaveThe Washington Post... wonderful, witty, heartfelt ... Writers & Lovers is a funny novel about grief ... it’s dangerously romantic, bold enough and fearless enough to imagine the possibility of unbounded happiness ... This is a bracingly realistic vision of the economic hopelessness that so many young people are trapped in: serving extraordinary wealth but entirely separate from it ... the arc of this story [is] so enchanting. All of these tragedies and obstacles are drawn with stark realism and deep emotional resonance. But even during the early pages, we can sense Casey’s spirit crouching in determined resistance ... As in her previous novels, King explores the dimensions of mourning with aching honesty, but in Writers & Lovers she’s leavened that sorrow with an irreducible sense of humor ... With Casey, King has created an irresistible heroine—equally vulnerable and tenacious—and we’re immediately invested in her search for comfort, for love, for success ... The result is an absolute delight, the kind of happiness that sometimes slingshots out of despair with such force you can’t help but cheer, amazed.
RaveThe Washington PostErdrich’s career has been an act of resistance against racism — the hateful and the sentimental varieties — and the implacable force of white America’s ignorance. In one powerful book after another, she has carved Indians’ lives, histories and stories back into our national literature, a canon once determined to wipe them away ... The Night Watchman is more overtly political...but it’s a political novel reconceived as only Erdrich could ... As usual, modern realism and Native spirituality mingle harmoniously in Erdrich’s pages without calling either into question ... This tapestry of stories is a signature of Erdrich’s literary craft, but she does it so beautifully that it’s tempting to forget how remarkable it is. Chapter by chapter, we encounter characters interrelated but traveling along their own paths ... This narrator’s vision is...capacious, reaching out across a whole community in tender conversation with itself. Expecting to follow the linear trajectory of a mystery, we discover in Erdrich’s fiction something more organic, more humane.
Emily St. John Mandel
RaveThe Washington Post... may be the perfect novel for your survival bunker. It remains freshly mysterious despite its self-spoiling plot. Mandel is always casually revealing future turns of success or demise in ways that only pique our curiosity. Indeed, the fate of the story’s heroine appears in a brief, impressionistic preface, but you won’t fully appreciate that opening until you finish the whole novel and begin obsessively reading it again ... Mandel is a consummate, almost profligate world builder. One superbly developed setting gives way to the next, as her attention winds from character to character, resting long enough to explore the peculiar mechanics of each life before slipping over to the next ... The 300 pages of The Glass Hotel work harder than most 600-page novels. When she turns to the art world, to a federal prison, to an international cargo ship, each realm rises out of the dark waters of her imagination with just as much substance as that hotel on the shore of Vancouver Island. The disappointment of leaving one story is immediately quelled by our fascination in the next ... The complex, troubled people who inhabit Mandel’s novel are vexed and haunted by their failings, driven to create ever more pleasant reflections of themselves in the glass.
PositiveThe Washington PostThere’s something brutal about killing a planeload of people and then introducing a handful of them and killing them all over again. But the cruelty of this aspect of the novel’s structure is countered by the astonishing tenderness of other sections ... Napolitano has written a novel about the peculiar challenges of surviving a public disaster in the modern age. She shows with bracing clarity just how cable news and social media magnify misery and exposure as never before ... Napolitano attends to this cultural context deftly, letting the world’s agony and curiosity play out largely on the sidelines of what remains a delicate story of one boy’s physical and psychological recovery ... That blankness at the center of this novel could have become a kind of black hole absorbing all light and interest, but Napolitano captures the subtle shades of Edward’s spirit like the earliest intimations of dawn ... in Napolitano’s gentle handling, it’s persistently lovely ... one of the most touching stories you’re likely to read in the new year.
RaveThe Washington Post... a tightly integrated collection of six masterfully written stories ... Yoon’s perspective shifts nimbly from one teenager to another, catching the currents of delight, confusion or terror flitting through this \'orbit of chaos\' ... We know, of course, how impossible that modest dream is for these three young friends working in the most dangerous spot on Earth. But Yoon’s narration is so closely pared, so free of excess drama that when violence rips through these lives, it feels especially shocking. In a sense, he’s re-created the psychological experience of battle: the weird interludes of happiness and boredom suddenly shattered by incomprehensible disorder ... Individually, the chapters exercise hypnotic intensity, but the overall effect is even more profound. With his panoramic vision of the displacements of war, Yoon reminds us of the people never considered or accounted for in the halls of power ... Yoon makes us care deeply about these adolescents and what happens to them. For all that he eventually reveals, some details are forever dropped between the shifting plates of survivors’ memories. That’s cruel, but like everything else here, entirely true to the lives of people scattered by war.
RaveThe Washington PostThree of these nine stories have appeared in the New Yorker — and almost all of them are extraordinary. Although the form is smaller, the scope is broader, and the overall effect even more impressive than his novel. Greenwell’s style remains as elegant as ever, but here it’s perfectly subordinated to a fuller palette of events and themes ... Greenwell is repeatedly drawn to precarious moments of emotional transition, particularly in regards to romantic attachment and erotic compulsion ... The intimate physical detail of this disturbing story will exceed some readers’ tolerance, but that’s entirely Greenwell’s point ... But Cleanness is not unrelentingly bleak. Indeed, the range in these stories is part of their triumph and part of what makes their existential sorrow so profound ... incomparably bittersweet ... Fortunately, it almost feels too late or at least superfluous to celebrate the fact that this remarkable collection will not be shunted away to a back shelf for \'Gay & Lesbian Literature\' ... brilliant.
A. R. Moxon
PositiveThe Washington PostI was baffled, dazzled, angered and awed. In between bouts of hating it, I adored it ... a self-indulgent muddle; it’s a modern-day classic ... action gushes off the page ... Moxon is a literary demon, constantly exploiting and thwarting our need for coherence and logic. He grabs other stories and motifs like he’s charging through a three-hour sale at Filene’s Basement ... All these elements — past and present, real and surreal, serious and absurd — are stacked like some Olympic version of literary Jenga. Admittedly, sometimes it feels like reading a novel by Murakami in the original Japanese if you don’t speak Japanese ... This is as plastic as narrative can be; in the eeriest parts, the story feels like it’s melting in our hands. Exploring the fluid relationship between writer, reader and interpretation, it’s equally audacious and brilliant ... As a satire of psychiatric hospitals and prisons, the novel is frighteningly insightful. Its critique of masculine solipsism is devastating. And finally, as this bizarre story expands like the Big Bang, sections start to cohere around what are essentially theological themes. The result is Paradise Lost but with more gangsters: a zany interrogation of religious concepts in a wholly secular context ... In his own strange way, Moxon has translated his eschatological revelations into the lurid colors of a comic book universe ... If you make it through this brazen novel, the only thing you’ll want to do is find another survivor to talk about what it meant and what you missed. Call me.
Perumal Murugan, trans. by N. Kalyan Raman
PositiveThe Washington Post... jumps nimbly from fantasy to realism to parable. How much it resonates with you will depend on the breadth of your sympathies and your interest in adult tales that include the thoughts and feelings of animal characters. The effect is not so much escapist fantasy as existential reflection ... You may be tempted to think this novel doesn’t interest you, doesn’t relate to the sophisticated architecture of your experience, but the elegance of Murugan’s simple tone will lull you deeper into his story. If there’s something remote about the work of subsistence farming and the friction of a small village, there’s also something hypnotic about the rhythms of such a life ... Woven through this slim novel is an acidic satire about the burdens and humiliations of the over-regulated country in which the old man and woman live. His portrayal of arrogant officials who intimidate these poor people with a blizzard of regulations and forms will make you pine for the relative graciousness of the DMV. Murugan never pushes the point, but it’s clear that the human characters are not much freer than the goats they keep penned in their yard ... as The Story of a Goat demonstrates, just because we’ve put away childish things doesn’t mean we have to deny ourselves the strange pleasure of fiction in which animals articulate their own curious perspectives on their lives — and ours.
Michael Crichton and Daniel H. Wilson
PositiveWashington PostYes, the end is near — but not for Crichton’s brand. If you thought his death in 2008 was enough to stop another outbreak, you know nothing about extraterrestrial germs or American publishing ... Wilson is a good choice for carrying the master’s work forward. He’s a robotics engineer, a writer of witty books about technology and the author of a ridiculous thriller called Robopocalypse. ... With little genetic decay, Wilson replicates Crichton’s tone and tics, particularly his wide-stance mansplaining. Each chapter begins with a quotation by Crichton selected, apparently, for its L. Ron Hubbard-like profundity ... And the pages — sanitized of wit — are larded with lots of Crichtonian technical explanations, weapons porn, top-secret documents and so many acronyms that I began to worry Wilson had accidentally left the caps lock on ... But who cares? These various lapses may be irritating, but ultimately they don’t derail what is a fairly ingenious adventure.
RaveThe Washington PostHere, one is tempted to believe, is a writer crazy enough, crude enough and gluttonous enough to swallow the whole Trump era and then belch out its poisonous comedy ... The premise of Processed Cheese is simple; its execution is cuckoo — a critical term I don’t think I’ve ever used before ... You want subtlety, read a different book ... a broiling parody of American excess, fermented with wild violence and crazy sex acts. (Attention Bad Sex Award judges: Look no further than Pages 236-237, although all of Chapter 15 is perhaps the most repulsive thing I’ve ever read) ... a retail fantasy clotted with gangster thrills. But its sharp taste stems entirely from Wright’s attention to detail: an indefatigable piling on of ludicrousness. Here, finally, is that rare satirist who doesn’t feel outstripped by the actual details of today’s culture. There is no page, no paragraph, not even a line that doesn’t feel crammed with Wright’s comic bile ... Like President Trump, this absurdity can be grotesquely funny. But like the Trump presidency, it runs on way too long. That, I suspect is the point. Nothing else I’ve read is as faithful to the obscenity of these latter days, the consummation of vacuous pop culture and complete social bankruptcy. For readers who can stomach it, Processed Cheese is jolting enough to reveal what degradation we’ve become inured to.
PositiveThe Washington PostBeware. A novel like this — not that there are many like it — presents a peculiar challenge. I don’t necessarily want to scare you away, but I’d hate to see you stumble into The Lake and the Woods expecting anything like [Karen] Russell’s witty alligator farm. Think instead of the magical realism of her most bizarre story in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Then imagine that story chanted by a druid on mushrooms ... Bell is working in a tradition that stretches from Aimee Bender to Richard Brautigan to Walt Whitman and much, much further back into the mists of myth. For readers weary of literary fiction that dutifully obeys the laws of nature, here’s a story that stirs the Brothers Grimm and Salvador Dali with its claws ... Bell is doing fascinating, unnerving things here in his exploration of the most painful aspects of family life. This is the Oedipal complex flipped on its head ... But like its title, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods runs on longer than it should ... Eventually, his ideas are buried in the house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods by the bear and the squid and the fingerling and the moon and the cave and the stars and . . .Well, you get the idea.
RaveThe Washington Post... [Evaristo] is an astonishingly creative, insightful and humane writer ... Girl, Woman, Other is a breathtaking symphony of black women’s voices, a clear-eyed survey of contemporary challenges that’s nevertheless wonderfully life-affirming ... choreographed with such fluid artistry that it never feels labored ... There’s nothing forced about the virtual exclusion of white characters from this novel; they have simply been shifted to the periphery, relegated to the blurry sidelines where black characters reside in so much literary fiction written by white authors ... The complex movements of this large group could easily have overwhelmed all but the chess masters among us, but Evaristo doesn’t shove us into the whole crowd at once. Instead, we meet these women in a series of elegantly layered stories ... Together, all these women present a cross-section of Britain that feels godlike in its scope and insight ... With the passage from gentle empathy to steely realism to wry satire, one marvels at the dimensions of Evaristo’s tonal range ... a novel so modern in its vision, so confident in its insight that it seems to grasp the full spectrum of racism that black women confront, while also interrogating black women’s response to it ... But just as crucial to this novel’s triumph is Evaristo’s proprietary style, a long-breath, free-verse structure that sends her phrases cascading down the page. She’s formulated a literary mode somewhere between prose and poetry that enhances the rhythms of speech and narrative. It’s that rare experimental technique that sounds like a sophisticated affectation but in her hands feels instantly accommodating, entirely natural. It’s just the style needed to carry along all these women’s stories and then bring them to a perfectly calibrated moment of harmony — a grace note that rings out after the orchestral grandness of Girl, Woman, Other draws to a perfect close.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
PositiveThe Washington PostSexton explores these unspoken tensions brilliantly. Her subtle portrayal of a black mother’s competing desires is layered with both pathos and wit ... that structure is complex, particularly for such a relatively compact novel, but Sexton writes with such a clear sense of place and time that each of these intermingled stories feels essential and dramatic in its own way ... That life-or-death drama on the plantation provides the novel’s most terrifying moments, which could easily have rendered the other sections slight by comparison. Instead, Sexton echoes and complicates Josephine’s experience in each of the later two story lines in ways that feel both historically accurate and socially illuminating ... a novel marked by acts of cruelty but not, ultimately, overwhelmed by them. The line stretching from Ava back to Josephine and beyond connects a collection of women attuned to danger, quick to adapt, remarkably hopeful about the future.
MixedThe Washington PostClinch creates wholly original stories that snap together with the edges of classics we all know ... an amusing imitation of Dickens’s style ... Although Clinch relies on the details provided in A Christmas Carol, he never seems cramped by them .. If Marley has any flaws, it’s that this Battle of the Bookkeepers is not sufficiently dramatic to carry along the whole story. To its own detriment, the narrative concentrates too much on genteel domestic scenes and refined romantic conversations. Inexplicably, a potentially fantastic story line involving Marley in America takes place offstage. Alas, we hear just the barest details of that New World adventure, which gives us more time for drawing-room chatter. Unfortunately, that’s typical of this novel: Its violent acts are related with Victorian decorum; its emotional range is as tightly drawn as Mother Scrooge’s corset ... The result is a costume drama that pleasantly mimics Dickens’s tone and presents a plausible backstory to his most familiar creation but fails to generate enough of its own energy...We’re never chilled by anything close to the terror that Scrooge feels before his own gravestone. We never feel anything like the elation of his early-morning reformation. We never brush away embarrassed tears at anything like Tiny Tim’s sappy blessing ... Dickens, after all, offers more than complicated plots and comical characters. He knew the profound pleasure of succumbing to unbridled pathos and joy. If you can’t give us that, well, then . . . bah, humbug.
Bret Anthony Johnston
PositiveThe Washington Post... great tenderness ... This portrayal of a family struggling through what should be its happiest moment is tremendously moving, but there’s a taunting quality to Johnston’s refusal to admit any of the usual elements of the abducted-child story. The novel seems allergic to the legal details a case like this would involve. While therapists and prosecutors warn Eric and Laura not to ask their son about what happened to him, Johnston adheres to that advice, too, and so we learn almost nothing about those four missing years. Even Justin’s kidnapper remains a shadowy, off-stage figure ... Although I respect Johnston’s willingness to eschew the cheap titillation of lurid details, he’s clearly sensitive enough and talented enough to have delved into the horror of whatever Justin experienced during that crucial quarter of his life. Avoiding it entirely seems like a failure of nerve. Even Eric’s adulterous affair fades away with no more trouble than a magazine subscription expiring. With so many of the story’s inherently exciting elements ruled inadmissible, the novel risks bloating with rumination ... there’s real humanity in Johnston’s writing, and it’s heartening to spend time with these folks as they relearn how to be a family. Rendered in these compassionate, candid chapters, theirs is a struggle that speaks to those of us who have endured far less.
RaveThe Washington PostHer first novel, Panic in a Suitcase, is equal parts borscht stew and Borscht Belt — an immigration comedy that can’t tell whether it’s leaving or coming to America ... Her prose retains a Slavic accent and sense of humor pickled in Eastern European endurance ... Written as a comic corrective to those dynamic rags-to-riches tales, Panic in a Suitcase is skimpy with plot ... In place of some carefully developing story, Akhtiorskaya delivers a series of scenes and irresistibly grotesque character studies ... One wonders if Akhtiorskaya hasn’t descended from some unacknowledged Russian branch of Kingsley Amis’s family ... Akhtiorskaya’s genius is her ability to throw off observations that sound — if they weren’t so witty — like lines from a folktale.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe Ireland that Niall Williams writes about in this novel is gone — or would be if he hadn’t cradled it so tenderly in the clover of his prose. Escaping into the pages of This Is Happiness feels as much like time travel as enlightenment. Halfway through, I realized that if I didn’t stop underlining passages, the whole book would be underlined ... If Faha isn’t for everybody, then neither, frankly, is Williams’s novel, delivered in the pensive voice of a man in his 70s recalling his youth. \'This in miniature was the world,\' he writes, but that demands a kind of attention and patience that’s increasingly scarce. If you’re in a hurry, hurry along to another book. Williams is engaged in the careful labor of teaching us to hear the subtler melodies drowned out by the din of modern life ... The sweetness of this novel would curdle if it weren’t preserved by a tincture of tragedy that runs through so many of these lives ... Williams’s most affecting skill is his ability to narrate this novel in two registers simultaneously, capturing Noe’s naivete as a teen and his wisdom as an old man ... If you’re a reader of a certain frame of mind, craving a novel of delicate wit laced with rare insight, this, truly, is happiness.
RaveThe Washington PostWilson scrapes away all the cloying sentimentality that so often sticks to young characters ... that’s the most wonderful aspect of Wilson’s story: It’s entirely true to life . . . except that now and then, the kids spontaneously combust ... Wilson understands the mixture of affection and embarrassment that runs through all loving families. His satire is always marbled with tenderness ... his most perfect novel. Paradoxically light and melancholy, it hews to the border of fantasy but stays in the land of realism ... you can sense the real heat radiating off these pages ... offers a brutal critique of American aristocrats and especially the distortion field around them that makes their selfishness look like duty to a higher cause ... Wilson is clearly writing from a point of deep sympathy ... This novel may seem slight and quirky, but don’t be fooled. There’s a lot to see here.
RaveThe Washington PostIn the crucible of her genius, tears and laughter are ground into some magical elixir that seems like the essence of life ... There are conversations in this novel so heartbreaking that you will be tempted to recoil, but Toews is working near the emotional territory of Lorrie Moore, where humor is a bulwark against despair ... Toews mines the frustration and absurdity of caring for someone set on self-destruction ... Between those distant poles, Toews hangs a tale about the unspeakable pain and surprising joy of persisting in the world, puny sorrows and all.
RaveThe Washington PostThe Testaments opens in Gilead about 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s an entirely different novel in form and tone. Inevitably, the details are less shocking ... Atwood responds to the challenge of that familiarity by giving us the narrator we least expect: Aunt Lydia. It’s a brilliant strategic move that turns the world of Gilead inside out ... Aunt Lydia’s wry wit...endows The Testaments with far more humor than The Handmaid’s Tale or its exceedingly grim TV adaptation ... That’s the genius of Atwood’s creation. Aunt Lydia is a mercurial assassin: a pious leader, a ruthless administrator, a deliciously acerbic confessor ... Interlaced among her journal entries are the testimonies of two young women ... Their mysterious identities fuel much of the story’s suspense — and electrify the novel with an extra dose of melodrama ... The Testaments is not nearly the devastating satire of political and theological misogyny that The Handmaid’s Tale is. In this new novel, Atwood is far more focused on creating a brisk thriller than she is on exploring the perversity of systemic repression ... the fact that Atwood keeps challenging such categories is all part of her extraordinary effort to resist the chains we place on each other ... Praise be.
PanThe Washington Post... an alternately cerebral and goofy novel ... [a] chronic lack of restraint. Rushdie’s style once unfurled with hypnotic elegance, but here it’s become a fire hose of brainy gags and literary allusions — tremendously clever but frequently tedious ... Unfortunately, Quichotte is such a brittle pinwheel of parody that its sharp edges never cut very deep. Much of the novel is a satire of TV stars and by extension the easily manipulated country that adores them. Meanwhile, racism, the opioid crisis, Brexit, gun control, immigration, assisted suicide, corporate fraud, the existence of God, sexual abuse, cyberterrorism — these issues rumble by just as fast as that old Chevy Cruze can drive. Then Jiminy Cricket pops up — yep — and another town is overrun with mastodons. A statue of Hans Christian Andersen talks. Whatever ... I barely have the heart to tell you that this modern-day take on Don Quixote is merely a story within another story ... Even as its various subplots shamble on, the novel keeps reminding us about the rising conflation of reality and fiction ... It would be easier to step over these thematic bricks thrown in our path if the novel’s characters offered any emotional substance, but by design they’re just constructs in this literary game. And so we die-hard fans of Salman Rushdie keep turning the pages, hoping for a reward commensurate to the journey.
MixedThe Washington Post...surprisingly conventional. This time around, there is no straining against the dimensions of reality, no postmodern backflips. It feels like a quirky genius trying her best to behave at the dinner table ... Her portrait of the parasitic relationship between fans and their idols is hilarious; her take on the record business exposes an industry of endemic pomposity and abuse. Doxology includes an interview from Rolling Stone that is so spot on the magazine could sue for plagiarism if Zink had not made the whole thing up. But about halfway through the novel, history crashes into this plot, and it feels like somebody unplugged the electric guitars. What was initially a brash riff on pop culture becomes, in the story’s next generation, a fairly labored postmortem of the Clinton/Trump campaign ... Zink is an astute critic of our recent election and its alarming abuses, but this shift seems designed as a grasp for weightiness and relevance, which succeeds at the expense of the novel’s humor and surprise. In the same way, a final section about a privileged young woman trying to choose between a wealthy older suitor and a penniless young lover is pleasant, but surprisingly bland. Bring back Minor Threat—and Zink’s electric wit.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorA story of almost ludicrous breadth and depth, winding around handwriting analysis, birds, racism, railroads, universities, and God. The threat of philosophical textbookism hovers in the margins, but Menand\'s determination to \'see ideas as always soaked through by the personal and social situations in which we find them\' fends off that danger with sometimes dazzling effect ... The triumph of The Metaphysical Club is the author\'s dramatic demonstration of the parallel between developments in science and philosophy ... He catches the rhythms of 19th-century America with striking clarity, swinging from complex explanations to epigraphic summaries. The doors of The Metaphysical Club look intimidating, but don\'t be put off. It\'s engaging, wise, and touched with wit - a chance to follow an inspector around the foundations of American thought and understand this house of mirrors we\'ve inherited.
Carmen Gimenéz Smith
RaveThe Washington Post...all [the poems] knocked me out ... Smith...can be sardonic, insightful and worried all in the same line—and she’s never afraid to express her anger ... Moving between short lines and prose poems, Smith’s urgent verse can be sharply political or tenderly intimate, confronting the persistence of racism or exploring her mother’s decline into dementia.
RaveThe Washington PostWhile neither polemical nor wholly fantastical, the story draws on skills [Coates] developed in those other genres ... Coates isn’t dropping supernatural garnish onto The Water Dancer any more than Toni Morrison sends a ghost whooshing through Beloved for cheap thrills. Instead, Coates’s fantastical elements are deeply integral to his novel, a way of representing something larger and more profound than the confines of realism could contain ... Despite his extraordinary skill as a modern-day social critic, Coates never intrudes on the stately, slightly antique voice of his narrator. But his understanding of modern-day racism illuminates this portrayal of the 19th century, and it’s not difficult to hear the contemporary echoes of Hiram’s observations.
RaveThe Washington PostThe final chapters of Elizabeth Macneal’s delightfully creepy novel kept me screwed to my office chair ... What more could one want from a Victorian thriller? But Macneal delivers even more. The Doll Factory, which is already a hit in England, offers an eerily lifelike re-creation of 1850s London laced with a smart feminist critique of Western aesthetics. It’s a perfect blend of froth and substance, a guilty pleasure wrapped around a provocative history lesson ... Macneal deftly paints her fictional heroine into the colorful lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ... They strut through these pages radiating all their brash brilliance, fragile enthusiasms and comic eccentricities (including their fondness for wombats) ... This exuberant re-creation of London is fascinating, but it wasn’t Macneal’s feminist critique of the Pre-Raphaelites’ aesthetics that almost made me miss a flight to California. Credit for that goes to a taxidermist named Silas, whose story slithers along underneath the tale of Iris’s liberation.
PositiveThe Washington PostIf Room was a horror novel laced with sweetness, Akin is a sweet novel laced with horror ... Yes, this odd-couple situation is contrived, but it’s also continuously charming ... Donoghue, a mother herself, has a perfect ear for the exasperated sighs of preteens ... offers little in the way of plot. Instead, “Akin” is true to the quiet investment of time needed to win a child’s trust. The movement here is the slow accrual of affection ... For us, the reward stems from Donoghue’s ability to wring moments of tenderness and comedy from this mismatched pair of relatives who never crossed paths in their own country.
PositiveThe Washington PostOne wants to say that The Gifted School is preternaturally timely, but it feels, instead, like a faint imitation: a story dripped from the headlines. And even if current events didn’t overshadow The Gifted School, the novel’s opening would still feel weighed down by its desultory pace ... Although The Gifted School starts too slowly, once the story gets moving, it builds impressive momentum ... There’s plenty of wry humor in Holsinger’s portrayal of this dysfunction, especially the moral gymnastics that liberal parents perform to preserve the purity of their ideals ... But Holsinger is not at heart a satirist, or at least not a mean one. These harried parents and their children are drawn with real sensitivity, and despite how horribly some of them act, he doesn’t sacrifice anyone on the altar of his wit. His regard for their dreams and fears, regardless of their weaknesses and failings, remains deeply humane. Indeed, for such a relentless diagnosis of the toxic culture we’ve created, The Gifted School is, ultimately, a surprisingly hopeful novel. There’s a sweetness to its resolution, a satisfying possibility that no matter what monsters we parents are at times, we can still graduate to something better.
MixedThe Washington PostRusso has become our senior correspondent on masculinity. No one captures so well the gruff affection of men or the friction between guys from different classes ... rotates gently through these characters — each one so appealing that you hate to let him go, though you’ll quickly feel just as fond of the next one ... Russo clearly knows the pleasures and perils of retrospection, and he’s constructed a novel about the way the past constantly bleeds into the present ... One of the great pleasures of Chances Are. . . stems from how gracefully Russo moves the story along two time frames, creating that uncanny sense of memories that feel simultaneously near and remote ... best when it focuses on that tantalizing interplay of past and present, the insistent way that adolescent experiences and parental expectations continue to circumscribe our hopes and dreams ... What’s more disappointing, though, is the way the novel doubles down on the hackneyed cliche of the tragic, unattainable beauty...As college students, these smitten guys never really knew Jacy, and four decades later on Fantasy Island, they don’t seem to understand the fundamental immaturity of their regard ... Unfortunately, Russo tries to complicate our understanding of Jacy by diving deeper into the mystery of her disappearance. That results in a long section of increasingly melodramatic revelations involving a host of offstage characters. But this isn’t storytelling; it’s gossip ... Once the novel gets back to the present day, it regains a more nuanced and satisfying tone ... It’s disappointing to see how firmly such complexity is denied the female characters.
MixedThe Washington PostZink writes with such faux innocence that her cracks about sexuality and race detonate only after she has riffed off to the next unlikely incident. If you’re easily offended or confused, mislay this book and go back to All the Light We Cannot See. ... one picks up this novel ready to be transformed by the afflatus of its hipnicity. And at first, the advance praise sounds wholly deserved. Not a drop of acid mars the surface of this deadpan satire as it darts along, mocking and skewering the racist, homophobic and generally dingbat ideals of its characters ... Mislaid feels like a subversive minstrel show sprung from an encyclopedic mind drunk on the Mad Hatter’s tea. ... her satire has blood on its fangs, but she’s still smiling ... While the improvisational quality of her storytelling keeps Mislaid engagingly off-balance, it also creates thin stretches and dead ends as the plot lurches toward a romantic-comedy ending. It’s tempting to hope that Zink’s unnerving humor might pry open a space for us to think more reflectively about racism, homophobia and sexism than our earnestness usually allows. But the audience for Mislaid is surely limited, not by its politics so much as by those spores of tedium that eventually germinate and spread across the pages. This is a slim novel that reads better in excerpts.
RaveThe Washington PostElif Shafak is vexing officials in Turkey again. Good. A brilliant writer fluent in both English and Turkish, Shafak is a difficult problem for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repressive government ... a deeply humane story about the cruel effects of Turkey’s intolerant sexual attitudes ... These early sections of the novel are a heartbreaking portrayal of the way misogynist social and religious attitudes conspire to crush a girl’s spirit. Shafak demonstrates with piercing insight how young Muslim women in Turkey are caught between religious ideals of purity and male fantasies of debasement ... Shafak is a master of captivating moments that provide a sprawling and intimate vision of Istanbul ... What’s most surprising, though, is the novel’s bright humor, even, at times, its zaniness: Weekend at Byzantine Bernie’s! ... truly subversive.
RaveThe Washington PostIt’s a voyage of hilarious and harrowing adventures, told in the irresistible voice of a restless, superstitious man determined to live right but tormented by his past. At times, it feels as though Obreht has managed to track down Huck Finn years after he lit out for the Territory and found him riding a camel. She has such a perfectly tuned ear for the simple poetry of Lurie’s vision ... On the day we meet her, Nora has run out of water—a calamity that Obreht conveys with such visceral realism that each copy of Inland should come with its own canteen ... The unsettling haze between fact and fantasy in Inland is not just a literary effect of Obreht’s gorgeous prose; it’s an uncanny representation of the indeterminate nature of life in this place of brutal geography ... Sip slowly, make it last.
RaveThe Washington Post...a brainy, batty story—an unholy amalgamation of scholarship and comedy. She manages to pay homage to Shelley’s insight and passion while demonstrating her own extraordinary creativity ... From the start, these contemporary scenes feel like they’ve got a screw loose in the best possible way ... The dialogue is slick and funny, often delightfully obscene, but beneath all the kookiness, Winterson is satirizing sexual politics and exploring complicated issues of human desire. (Ian McEwan’s recent novel Machines Like Me buzzed through similar material, but it feels a little lifeless compared to Frankissstein) ... in Winterson’s hands it’s a bag of provocative tricks and treats. With diabolical ingenuity, she’s found a way to inject fresh questions about humanity’s future into the old veins of Frankenstein ... Winterson’s cleverest maneuver may be suggesting that transgender people are the true pioneers of a self-determined future in which we’ll all design our own bodies. Recast in that way, Frankenstein’s creation was not monstrous; he was just too early.
Leah Hager Cohen
RaveThe Washington Post... it’s an absolute delight... if anything about Strangers and Cousins sounds tepid or old-fashioned, know that Cohen has infused this story with the most pressing concerns of our era. The result is an unusually substantive comedy, a perfect summer novel: funny and tender but also provocative and wise ... Zoning, pollution, racism, anti-Semitism—these are heavy themes that could easily overwhelm Strangers and Cousins or, worse, look tritely exploited by it. But that’s the real artistry of Cohen’s work: her sensitive exploration of the whole range of our complicated, compromised lives. And she puts to rest the smug assumption that there’s anything minor or unambitious about a witty domestic novel ... Cohen’s ability to acknowledge the agony of that strife in the context of a modern, loving family makes this one of the most hopeful and insightful novels I’ve read in years.
PanThe Washington PostThe story is mostly a snooze: not so much The Silence of the Lambs as The Counting of the Sheep ... the novel plods along with a hodgepodge of macabre silliness ... Which is the central problem with Cari Mora. Despite all its ghastly goings-on, this creaky thriller constantly slips on banana peels of its own unintentional comedy ... Even Anthony Hopkins would strain to make this gory goofiness frightening ... A couple of sentimental side stories eventually lead off to nowhere ... Toward the end of the novel, a man-eating crocodile in Biscayne Bay suffers a small bout of indigestion while passing one of the gangsters he ate. Readers of Cari Mora are likely to suffer similar but wholly temporary discomfort.
RaveThe Washington PostMark Haddon has written a terrifically exciting novel ... The whole thing would be a postmodern mess if it weren’t for Haddon’s astounding skill as a storyteller. The Porpoise is so riveting that I found myself constantly pining to fall back into its labyrinth of swashbuckling adventure and feminist resistance ... In the most magical way, the narrative seems to melt, transforming this modern-day crime into the ancient tale of Pericles ... We’re used to such molten transitions in film, but seeing one take place so flawlessly on the page feels like sorcery ... The way Haddon has streamlined this ramshackle tale into a sleek voyage of gripping tribulation is fantastic. But what’s especially remarkable is that the modern-day scenes interwoven with Pericles’ ancient adventures feel no less electrifying. The contemporary events have been polished to an antique patina and endowed with classical weight ... Please don’t let the obscure source material of The Porpoise scare you away. I promise its intimidating tangle of backstories will yield to your interest, and its structural complications will cohere in your imagination. The result is a novel just as thrilling as it is thoughtful.
RaveThe Washington Post... no mere sequel. Despite its focus on a subsequent chapter of black experience, it’s a surprisingly different kind of novel. The linguistic antics that have long dazzled Whitehead’s readers have been set aside here for a style that feels restrained and transparent. And the plot of The Nickel Boys tolerates no fissures in the fabric of ordinary reality; no surreal intrusions complicate the grim progress of this story. That groundedness in the soil of natural life is, perhaps, an implicit admission that the treatment of African Americans has been so bizarre and grotesque that fantastical enhancements are unnecessary ... Whitehead reveals the clandestine atrocities of Nickel Academy with just enough restraint to keep us in a state of wincing dread. He’s superb at creating synecdoches of pain ... feels like a smaller novel than The Underground Railroad, but it’s ultimately a tougher one, even a meaner one. It’s in conversation with works by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and especially Martin Luther King ... what a deeply troubling novel this is. It shreds our easy confidence in the triumph of goodness and leaves in its place a hard and bitter truth about the ongoing American experiment.
RaveThe Washington Post... even better than we were promised. Taffy Brodesser-Akner brings to her first novel the currency of a hot dating app and the wisdom of a Greek tragedy. The result is a feminist jeremiad nested inside a brilliant comic novel—a book that makes you laugh so hard you don’t notice till later that your eyebrows have been singed off ... Brodesser-Akner demonstrates an anthropologist’s thoroughness in her study of contemporary adult dating and its catalogue of sexual practices, but her prose, ringing with manic energy, is obscenely funny ... With merciless precision, Brodesser-Akner traces the arcing trajectory of doomed affections: the glorious takeoff, the deluded calm, the shrieking descent ... I haven’t felt this much energy sparking off a novel since Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. ... Conveying the full tragedy of that predicament in a story that’s often blisteringly funny is the real triumph of this book. Few novels express so clearly that we’re all in trouble.
RaveThe Washington Post... a compact cluster bomb of satire that kills widely and indiscriminately ... If you get it, there’s something rewarding about Chapman’s manic humor, the special satisfaction of catching his references to Foucault, Pentagram or Martin Baron. His satire of academic pomposity, the commercialization of the prison system and the infectious influence of marketing zaps with the power of a highly charged stun gun ... if you’re part of the Venn diagram that subscribes to N+1 and McSweeney’s, this is the most fun book you’ll read all year.
RaveThe Washington Post... a slim book of unbearable heft ... not a creation of psychological realism so much as an act of therapeutic imagination ... may be a very personal act of therapeutic recovery for the author, but Ensler also offers it as model for others.
MixedThe Washington PostFans of Jennifer Egan’s last novel, Manhattan Beach, will recognize the same setting and time period, though the tone here is humorous rather than noirish ... Unfortunately, what should have been a mere 300-page novel became a 470-page tome. The best and worst thing that can be said about City of Girls is that it’s perfectly pleasant, the kind of book one wouldn’t mind finding in a vacation condo during a rainy week. In exchange for a series of diverting adventures, it demands only stamina from its readers. Not that it’s without charm ... [Gilbert\'s] got a good ear for the arch repartee of 1940s comedy. In the best passages, her witty dialogue sparkles like diamonds in champagne ... a story that takes a half-hour to travel a New York minute. And that leisurely pace pushes hard against the novel’s form ... the issue of female pleasure becomes the novel’s central, surprisingly pleasureless theme...never infuses the novel with much erotic energy. Vivian might as well be telling us how much she enjoys bowling ... Novels so rarely get better that I was shocked to discover that the ending of City of Girls is genuinely moving...it’s a delight to see Gilbert finally invest these characters with some real emotional heft and complexity.
RaveThe Washington PostMay 31 marks the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth, and the best present we could possibly receive is Ocean Vuong’s debut novel ... with his radical approach to form and his daring mix of personal reflection, historical recollection and sexual exploration, Vuong is surely a literary descendant of the author of Leaves of Grass. Emerging from the most marginalized circumstances, he has produced a lyrical work of self-discovery that’s shockingly intimate and insistently universal ... this narrative flows—rushing from one anecdote to another, swirling past and present, constantly swelling with poignancy ... At times, the tension between Little Dog’s passion and his concern seems to explode the very structure of traditional narrative, and the pages break apart into the lines of an evocative prose poem—not so much briefly gorgeous as permanently stunning ... Kindness and wisdom, always flickering through these pages, begin to accrue more thickly. The healing that finally arrives is fraught with pain and paradox, but no less welcome and remarkable.
MixedThe Washington PostThis is very much a novel about what is left unsaid, which is ironic considering that so much is said — hundreds and hundreds of pages of repressed grief and strained smiles. Despite its dramatic opening, the bulk of the story is far more immersive than propulsive ... This rare species of gilded immutability is easy to mock, but it’s difficult to locate the author’s sympathies. Blake...seems to waver between satirizing these people and romanticizing their opulence ... ... Perhaps it’s appropriate that The Guest Book feels as conflicted about its values as several generations of Miltons do — or maybe I’m just trying to stabilize my feelings toward this frustrating novel. There’s no denying that Blake writes powerfully about these people ... Indeed, The Guest Book is monumental in a way that few novels dare attempt. But is the loss of a $3.5 million vacation home a relevant subject for a great American novel at this moment? Or does the whole lyrical enterprise feel overwrought, even precious?
PositiveThe Washington Post... a slit-your-wrist satire illuminated by the author\'s absurd wit ... what pulls on our affections and keeps the satire from growing too brittle is Lenny\'s earnest voice as he struggles to fit into a world that clearly has no more use for him ... light on plot but studded with hilarious and sometimes depressing details of our culture\'s decay ... Shteyngart\'s most trenchant satire depicts the inane, hyper-sexualized culture that connects everybody even while destroying any actual community or intimacy. This may be the only time I\'ve wanted to stand up on the subway and read passages of a book out loud ... Perhaps the saddest aspect of this Super Sad True Love Story is that you can smell Shteyngart sweating to stay one step ahead of the decaying world he\'s trying to satirize. It\'s an almost impossible race now that the exhibitionism of ordinary people has lost its ability to shock us.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorThe boiling wit of Amsterdam won\'t be everyone\'s cup of tea, but those thirsty for satire will gulp down this little book ... McEwan writes the sort of scathing retorts and witty repartee we wish we could think of in the heat of battle. On a broader scale, his portrayal of the symbiotic relationship between politicians and journalists is as damning as it is comic ... This is a dark morality tale in the spirit of Evelyn Waugh\'s best work.
PositiveThe Washington Post\"... [a] carefully constructed comedy of terrors ... McEwan... is a master at cerebral silliness ... McEwan is incapable of writing a dull line, but his AI conundrums feel as fresh as a game of Pong ... McEwan’s special contribution is not to articulate the challenge of robots but to cleverly embed that challenge in the lives of two people trying to find a way to exist with purpose. That human drama makes Machines Like Me strikingly relevant even though it’s set in a world that never happened almost 40 years ago ... [McEwan] is not only one of the most elegant writers alive, he is one of the most astute at crafting moral dilemmas within the drama of everyday life. True, contending with an attractive synthetic rival is a problem most of us won’t have to deal with anytime soon (sorry, Alexa), but figuring out how to treat each other, how to do some good in the world, how to create a sense of value in our lives, these are problems no robot will ever solve for us.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"As you’ll learn, [Choi\'s] a master of emotional pacing: the sudden revelation, the unexpected attack. She’s equally astute at portraying the exaggerated passions of teenage life and the way that youthful energy warps the fabric of reality ... How cunningly this novel considers the way teenage sexuality is experienced, manipulated and remembered. And no one writes about erotic misadventures with more vicious humor than Choi ... Don’t fancy you know where this is going; Choi will outsmart you at every step ... Committing time and attention to a novel is always a trust exercise. This author never takes you where you thought you were going, but have faith: You won’t be disappointed.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"... we can feel Boyle’s censorious attitude pumping through these pages like a naloxone drip. That’s not to say that Outside Looking In is one long buzzkill, but it is a farce laced with tragedy: the story of a good man’s increasingly tortuous moral gymnastics ... There’s plenty of zany comedy here — including a poo-flinging monkey and a sombrero from which Leary picks the names of sex partners like some kind of libidinous predecessor of the sorting hat in \'Harry Potter.\' The humor, though, is tempered by the damage that Leary wreaks on Fitz and his family ... This is a superbly paced novel that manages to feel simultaneously suspenseful and inevitable ... Yes, it’s a drag, man, but any enlightenment that comes from a pill isn’t worth having. Better to get high on a good book.\
RaveThe Washington PostJones is a patient sower of dread. The tiny seeds of concern she plants along the way germinate and blossom in lurid hues ... The disaster that unfolds is like something Shirley Jackson might have spun from Meet the Parents and Snakes on a Plane — which is such an absurd description that I suspect Jones’s special venom has already coursed its way to my brain. But that’s the effect of this clever writer who undulates so eerily from phantasmal excess to psychological realism ... The Snakes eventually sloughs off its spookier elements, but the criminal story that emerges grows more shocking because of the rare quality of brutality in Jones’s prose. Of course, we’ve no shortage of gruesome writers, particularly in the thriller genre, but that’s not Jones’s technique. She excels, instead, at drawing us into tender sympathy with her characters even as she coolly subjects them to the most monstrous treatment. The result is hypnotic — like staring into the serpent’s eyes just before it strikes.
PositiveThe Washington Post\"What follows for the next 150 pages is a volcanic explosion of personal memories, political rants, social commentary, environmental jeremiads and cultural analysis all tangled together in one breathless sentence that would make James Joyce proud. Do I recommend it? Yes I said yes I will Yes ... As he swoops back and forth through the impressions and highlights of his long life, Ferlinghetti spits on conventional grammar and mocks the very idea of linear coherence. A Beat sensibility? Sure, but there’s also a dose of Robin Williams’s manic comedy here: the hairpin turns, the interior voices bantering with each other, the constant spinning of an idea till it ricochets off to another. He’s the silliest, angriest, kindest, smartest man you’ve ever heard — a whirling dervish of scholarly asides, literary allusions, corny puns and twisted aphorisms ... Yes, [reading this book] can feel like trying to set the table while falling down the stairs, but there’s something hypnotic about Ferlinghetti’s relentless commentary, a style that amuses him, too ... Stick with this book long enough, and you’ll start to hear the central concerns of Ferlinghetti’s life.\
PanThe Washington Post\"All of this is fairly engaging, though it’s tempting to think we’ve seen this buddy film before ... Which brings us to what this novel is missing. Eggers has pared his clever style down to a series of flat, declarative sentences. The characters have been crunched into types. The details of this place have been sandblasted away. At best, we’re left with the stark elements of a parable, which raises the book’s pretentiousness quotient to dangerously high levels. At worst, we have a story that conforms to the West’s reductive attitudes about the developing world ... But what’s truly disappointing is the novel’s final paragraph, which lands like a molotov cocktail of toxic cynicism.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"... a challenging, mind-bending exploration of class and female power heavily spiced with nutmeg and sweetened with molasses. If you think you know where you’re going in this forest, you’ll soon be lost. Oyeyemi has built her house out of something far more complex than candy ... dizzying ... Anyone who resists Oyeyemi’s absurdism will find Gingerbread a very bitter meal, indeed. A fan of Aimee Bender, Oyeyemi works in an adjacent realm of dreams where things simultaneously make perfect sense and no sense at all. What’s always clear, though, is Oyeyemi’s wit, often tossed off in satirical asides — sometimes silly, sometimes sharply political.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"This is fiction as deliberation, and yet it feels packed with drama. It also feels infused with a deeply sympathetic understanding of the way women talk — a subject that has drawn the attention of scholars as diverse as Luce Irigaray and Deborah Tannen. Toews captures the Mennonites’ antique way of speaking, a language thick with biblical tropes and Christian ideals challenged by the obscenity of what has been done to them ... Toews conveys not only what these women suffered but how stoically and graciously they endure ... Though Toews remains frustratingly unknown in the United States, she has long been one of my favorite contemporary authors. The compressed structure of Women Talking makes it unlike her earlier novels, but once again she draws us into the lives of obscure people and makes their survival feel as crucial and precarious as our own.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"... a charming autobiographical novel that comes honey-glazed with nostalgia ... Whitehead is sharpest on the plight of well-off black kids, his tone wavering between resigned sympathy and impatient mockery ... [Benji\'s] fragile hope may be the most irresistible quality of this wise, affectionate novel.\
RaveThe Washington PostHer new novel, Home, is a surprisingly unpretentious story from America’s only living Nobel laureate in literature ... This scarily quiet tale packs all the thundering themes Morrison has explored before. She’s never been more concise, though, and that restraint demonstrates the full range of her power ... a transparent narrator who re-creates scenes and conveys dialogue in sharp but unadorned prose—no ghosts, no magical realism, none of the famous (or infamous) impressionism that so annoyed John Updike ... Morrison is composing a kind of prose poem here in which only a few tightly described incidents convey the ill health of the larger culture ... Despite all the old horrors that Morrison faces in these pages with weary recognition, Home is a daringly hopeful story about the possibility of healing—or at least surviving in a shadow of peace.
RaveThe Washington Post\"But I don’t care what the magic mirror says; Oyeyemi is the cleverest in the land ... Oyeyemi aggravates our anxieties about maternal jealousy and the limits of parental love, subjects we’ve been trained from childhood to consider in black and white ... Oyeyemi proves herself a daring and unnerving writer about race. This isn’t one more earnest novel to reward white liberals for their enlightenment... Boy, Snow, Bird wants to draw us into the dark woods of America’s racial consciousness, where fantasies of purity and contamination still lurk. Under Oyeyemi’s spell, the fairy-tale conceit makes a brilliant setting in which to explore the alchemy of racism ... Oyeyemi captures that unresolvable strangeness in the original fairy tales that later editors — from Grimm to Disney — sanded away.\
RaveThe Washington Post\"There’s nothing derivative about this clever novel, but its tragicomic treatment of death, guilt and Jewish orthodoxy surely pays homage to the late great [Philip Roth] ... [the novel\'s] first part serves as another reminder of Englander’s extraordinary skill as a short story writer ... When the main part of the novel picks up 20 years later, Englander keeps pushing on [specific] issues with the same fertile wit and tender compassion ... Larry’s fanatical devotion and his anxiety about fulfilling it might look ridiculous to those who don’t feel the vitality of tradition, but the humor of kaddish.com is infused with delight rather than mockery. What a rare blessing to find a smart and witty novel about the unexpected ways religious commitment can fracture a life — and restore it.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"But Sudbanthad’s skills are more than just meteorological. A native of Thailand now living in New York, he captures the nation’s lush history in all its turbulence and resilience. Even the novel’s complex structure reflects Bangkok’s culture ... The connections between [the book\'s] stories are sometimes clear, sometimes opaque, a structure that demands an extra degree of tolerance (a few brief chapters are told from the perspective of birds). But allow yourself to sink into that ambiguity, and you’ll find Bangkok Wakes to Rain entrancing. Individual incidents are dramatic and striking ... Sudbanthad’s narrative is not just a tribute to his home, it’s an act of resistance against the city’s mildew and amnesia: Bangkok’s unwillingness to retain what came before. These stories, loosely linked together, become a way of preserving what is otherwise inscribed only on the liquid surface of memory.\
MixedThe Washington Post\"As a parable, [the direction of the novel] is all highly relevant. As a novel, it’s fairly dull. Boredom is a hard state to portray effectively without succumbing to it. And Lanchester doesn’t have the chilling style of, say, Cormac McCarthy or the wry satire of Margaret Atwood, which could have charged this apocalyptic vision ... There are moments of excitement — incursions from those mysterious Others — but what the story really needs is a richer sense of this complex society ... Floating somewhere between realism and fabulism, The Wall doesn’t fully harness the benefits of either mode.\
RaveThe Washington Post\"Vijay ... captures Shalini’s wary curiosity about the mountainous realm far to the north of her hometown ... What seems at first like a quiet, ruminative story of one woman’s grief slowly begins to spark with the energy of religious conflicts and political battles. Vijay draws us into the bloody history of this contested region and the cruel conundrum of ordinary lives trapped between outside agitators and foreign conquerors ... The Far Field is most poignant when it exposes the unintentional havoc of good intentions ... The Far Field offers something essential: a chance to glimpse the lives of distant people captured in prose gorgeous enough to make them indelible—and honest enough to make them real.\
RaveThe Washington PostNow in his 80s, [Charyn] seems ever more daring ... Charyn has found a path all his own — neither a substitute for biography nor a violation of it ... For fans of Roosevelt, this is tremendous fun. But readers unfamiliar with his life and the political history of the late 19th century should be forewarned: There will be no coddling on this breakneck tour. The five dozen names listed in the novel’s dramatis personae offer a handy guide to who’s who, but those terse descriptions will hardly bring the uninitiated up to speed ... [the front cover] strikes just the right tone, as does this delightful novel.
PositiveThe Washington Post\"...nothing is ordinary in this story ... this is really a novel of characters, not mysteries, and Bertha is a whirlwind of personality capable of disrupting the staid patterns of Salford and drawing people into her orbit ... Indeed, the tone of Bowlaway wobbles like a knocked pin that might fall toward comedy or tragedy. There’s a wickedness to McCracken’s technique, the way she lures us in with her witty voice and oddball characters but then kicks the wind out of us ... Several of these episodes also serve as a reminder of what a masterful short story writer McCracken is ... Such is the endlessly surprising course of genealogy in this novel with compassion to spare.\
RaveThe Washington Post\"... the first spectacular volume of a planned trilogy ... James has spun an African fantasy as vibrant, complex and haunting as any Western mythology, and nobody who survives reading this book will ever forget it ... \'Ocean’s Eleven\' has got nothing on this ensemble ... Harvesting mythology and fantasy from the rich soil of Africa — from the Anansi tales to the Sundiata Epic and so much more — James hangs a string of awesome adventures on this quest for the missing boy ... As these bloody stories and their mysteries pile up, I sometimes felt as lost as Tracker does in the woods, despite the inclusion of James’s five hand-drawn maps ... But I didn’t much mind the bouts of discombobulation because I was always enchanted by James’s prose with its adroit mingling of ancient and modern tones ... Scene by scene, the fights are cinematic spectacles, spellbinding blurs of violence set to the sounds of clanging swords and tearing tendons.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"With each new book by Tessa Hadley, I grow more convinced that she’s one of the greatest stylists alive ... [The events in the book are] nothing unusual, I suppose, just the everyday tragedies and betrayals of domestic life but rendered by Hadley’s prose into something extraordinary ... The tone of Late in the Day is perhaps Hadley’s most delicate accomplishment. This is romantic comedy pulled by a hearse. The whole grief-steeped story should be as fun as a dirge, but instead it feels effervescent — lit not with mockery but with the energy of Hadley’s attention, her sensitivity to the abiding comedy of human desire.\
MixedThe Washington Post\"North of Dawn is bracingly honest about the difficulties of assimilation, the way hospitality curdles into condescension and gratitude sours into resentment ... [The idea that Muslim radicalism is one side of the coin of intolerance that’s gaining currency in liberal democracies] is such a timely, necessary argument, but I wish it were expressed more gracefully in these pages. North of Dawn suffers from a ramshackle quality one might expect from an exciting but not quite finished draft. There are strange gaps in the plot, and the prose sometimes slips into antique cliches ... And Farah’s characters sometimes speak in weirdly artificial ways ... The story Farah shows us through these characters’ derailed lives is more illuminating than anything they can explain to us.\
PositiveThe Washington PostWhy Religion? is, as its subtitle states, a personal story, but it’s also a wide-ranging work of cultural reflection and a brisk tour of the most exciting religion scholarship over the past 40 years ... She is consistently, sometimes hilariously humble. She mentions that she started reading Greek the way one of us might mention that we started watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ... Her controversial professional triumphs and critical discoveries are recounted with head-spinning speed ... As she speaks of profound spiritual and religious matters, I pined for a more poetic and contemplative style, something along the order of Marilynne Robinson or Christian Wiman ... But when the memoir arrives at the death of her little boy, Pagels’s tone feels bracingly appropriate ... One gets the impression that studying herself in the crucible of grief was often the lone activity that kept her sane ... Pagels is as fearless as she is candid. In the depths of her sorrow, she recalls uncanny coincidences, acts of precognition, ghostly visitations and even a confrontation with a demon one night in the hospital. These episodes are never submitted as factual evidence of supernatural intervention. Instead, Pagels offers her subjective experiences to demonstrate the way our lives are molded by ancient stories, consciously and unconsciously ... Why Religion? feels miraculous and yet entirely believable.
PositiveThe Washington PostFor many Americans who know little about the Muslim faith, reading this book could be a crucial step out of ignorance at a time of rising Islamophobia.
RaveThe Washington Post\"[Roy\'s] new novel, All the Lives We Never Lived, is once again filled with impossible longing ... Indeed, some of the novel’s most fascinating incidents involve his mother’s unlikely friendship with two real-life artists: the English dancer and scholar Beryl de Zoete (1879-1962) and the German painter and musician Walter Spies (1895-1942) ... Many readers may not be familiar with de Zoete and Spies, which makes Roy’s graceful reanimation of them even more enchanting ... All the Lives We Never Lived begins in such intimate, private pain, but as Myshkin’s sympathies expand, so does the novel’s scope. The result is a story that eventually encompasses the world far beyond a boy’s little town ... Even more captivating than the unexpected turns of this plot is the way [Roy] reaches into the depths of melancholy but never sinks into despair.\
MixedThe Washington PostThe Kingfisher Secret, an anonymous novel about how the KGB engineered Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House. The publisher claims the author is \'a respected writer and former journalist,\' whose \'identity is being kept secret in order to protect the source of the ideas that inspired this novel.\' ... According to The Kingfisher Secret, Russia’s efforts to disrupt American democracy at the highest levels began in the late 1960s when a pretty athlete named Elena was plucked from Czechoslovakia for an elite spy program ... \'The goal of the program was achingly simple,\' the narrator explains with aching simplicity: \'to encourage and create agents of disorder and chaos in America, to use democracy as a weapon against itself.\' ... in general, though, The Kingfisher Secret is a silly confection about Russian scheming spun within the broad outlines of Ivana’s life. Aside from a few car chases and thuggish murders, the author demonstrates neither the narrative ingenuity nor the stylistic vitality to make the story engaging. Admittedly, the confirmed and speculative details of the president’s malfeasant career are hard for fiction to match, but this plot doesn’t exert itself any more than Donald Trump lumbering around his golf course ... Someday, we’ll get a great novel about this era, and when it comes, it won’t need anonymity to grab our attention.
Yan Lianke, Trans. by Carlos Rojas
PositiveThe Washington PostIt’s the creepiest book I’ve read in years: a social comedy that bleeds like a zombie apocalypse ... an artfully organized, minute-by-minute description of \'the great somnambulism,\' a horrific night of sleepwalking ... A macabre subplot pushes this theme even further into the realm of the grotesque that stretches from Jonathan Swift to Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah ... Yan’s understated wit runs through these pages like a snake through fallen leaves, but if you don’t appreciate the harmonic repetitions of his narrative, it will seem maddeningly dull. And if you insist on traditional character development, you will be completely disappointed. You either fall under this incantation, or you break away in frustration. The novel’s style poses special challenges, too. The plot’s dreaminess is emphasized by Yan’s repeated phrases, relentless recycling and extraordinarily metaphoric language ... it’s a wake-up call about the path we’re on.
RaveThe Washington Post\"[Milkman is] the last great novel of the year. Possibly the most challenging one, too ... Lovers of modernist fiction by William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce — I know you’re out there, waiting for a book to slake your thirst for something strange and complex — Milkman is for you ... The counterweight to [the novel\'s] grim predicament is the narrator’s irrepressible wit ... The narrator’s thick patter, with its long sentences and infrequent paragraph breaks, rings with such a curious sound. It’s as though the intense pressure of this place has compressed the elements of comedy and horror to produce some new alloy.\
RaveThe Washington Post\"I’m embarrassed by how much I enjoyed John Boyne’s wicked new novel, A Ladder to the Sky. It’s an addictive Rubik’s Cube of vice that keeps turning up new patterns of depravity. By the time every facet clicks into place, the story feels utterly surprising yet completely inevitable ... A Ladder to the Sky is a satire of writerly ambition wrapped in a psychological thriller. Beware reading this in public: Boyne’s prose inspires such a collision of laughing and wincing that you’re likely to seem a little unbalanced ... Clearly, decades in the business have rendered Boyne fluent in the language of literary combat. He knows just how certain writers pierce their colleagues with barbed compliments and hobble them with belittling praise.\
PositiveThe Washington PostA collage of charming, bracing and scarring moments ... There’s much to love about this capacious novel, but there’s also so much. In addition to its obvious symbolic weight, the story feels freighted ... an extravagantly overengineered story ... overstuffed as it is, Bridge of Clay is one of those monumental books that can draw you across space and time into another family’s experience in the most profound way.
PanThe Washington Post\"The Next Person is so packed with sweet aphorisms that it’s like scrolling through the Instagram account of a New Age masseuse ... What’s surprising about The Next Person You Meet in Heaven is how unmoving it remains, even during moments of horrible suffering. Cruel fathers, dead babies, severed limbs—these tragedies don’t catch at our heartstrings because, despite approaching the mysteries of life, death and salvation, the story always retreats into sentimentality, which can’t satisfy our most profound questions.\
PositiveThe Washington Post\"You’ll chew through a few chapters of Elevation before realizing there is no razor blade in this caramel apple. King’s new novel is trick and treat, a poignant parable of prejudice overcome and resentment healed ... And yet this novel may repel stridently progressive readers as much as it does staunchly conservative ones — which, I suspect, will not trouble King too much ... [King] has written a slim book about an ordinary man in an extraordinary condition rising above hatred and learning to live with tact and dignity. That’s not much of a Halloween book, but it’s well timed for our terrifying season.\
Joyce Carol Oates
MixedThe Washington Post\"Poor Adriane is never certain what’s happening to her, and anyone who reads Hazards of Time Travel is likely to feel the same way. At first, the story’s clunky political satire and feverish tone suggest the makings of a young-adult novel, but that’s another ruse. The plot quickly gets snarled up in B.F. Skinner’s theories of behaviorism, which the kids won’t find all that rewarding. Adults, though, may be intrigued to see Oates’s sly efforts to create a time-loop ... the story’s unpredictable shocks may reduce readers to a state of learned helplessness. Nothing — including a happy ending — is as it seems in this accelerating swirl of political and academic satire, science fiction and romantic melodrama. At 80, after more than 40 novels, Oates is still casting some awfully dark magic.\
RaveThe Washington PostThe good news is that Lethem is back in the PI game, and there is no bad news. The Feral Detective is one of his nimblest novels, a plunky voyage into the traumatized soul of the Trump era ... his celebrated parody of hard-boiled detective fiction is now distilled to a clear amber spirit ... The elements of detective fiction fit in Lethem’s hands as comfortably as a snub-nose .38. He can hit an old Ross Macdonald motif at 50 yards ... This Jerry-rigged contraption of Sam Spade and Mad Max could buckle under the weight of pretension and political anger, but The Feral Detective is too agile for that—thanks to its narrator, Phoebe. She’s sharp and sassy and always willing to confess her own contradictory feelings, which sway erratically from lust to terror. It’s a pleasure to see a smart writer having so much grisly fun ... What’s more, the plot maintains its centripetal acceleration, easily soaring over those swamps of Lethemian introspection that sometimes swallowed his previous novels ... Who can really be saved in our collapsing society is the question that rumbles below these pages, but the story races along so fast you’ll barely notice you’ve entered such dark territory till it’s too late to head back.
RaveThe Washington Post...a wide-ranging, deeply personal and terrifically engaging investigation of humanity’s bulwark against oblivion: the library ... As a narrator, Orlean moves like fire herself, with a pyrotechnic style that smolders for a time over some ancient bibliographic tragedy, leaps to the latest technique in book restoration and then illuminates the story of a wildly eccentric librarian ... With a great eye for telling and quirky detail, she presents a vast catalogue of remarkable characters ... If the spine of The Library Book seems strained to contain so much diverse material, that variety is also what makes this such a constant pleasure to read ... You can’t help but finish The Library Book and feel grateful that these marvelous places belong to us all.
RaveThe Washington PostThe beauty of Daniel Mason’s new novel, The Winter Soldier, persists even through scenes of unspeakable agony. That tension reflects the span of his talent. As a writer, Mason knows how to capture the grace of a moment ... he’s extraordinarily good at conjuring up journeys into unfamiliar places ... The story that unfolds in this forsaken place is so captivating that you may feel as unable to leave it as Lucius does ... The descriptions of maggots are a vision of hell you will never forget ... The redemption the story ultimately offers is equally unlikely and gorgeous, painfully limited but gratefully received in a world thrown into chaos.
PanThe Washington Post\"...the only thing you really need to know about Katerina is that it’s ridiculous, a book so heated by narcissism that you have to read it wearing oven mitts ... Katerina offers a volcanic regurgitation of Frey’s dream of writing a bestseller, his descent into addiction and the literary scandal that made him infamous. The author seems to believe that his fall from grace is burned into America’s consciousness like the fall of Saigon ... I don’t know if his life would be easier, but his prose would be better if he actually looked at anything, if he tried to capture on the page something specific and fresh about his experience instead of leaning on a few trite rhetorical flourishes.\
MixedThe Washington PostWhen does a publishing trend give voice to our anxieties, and when does it merely exploit those anxieties? ... That’s the uncomfortable question I kept asking myself as I read Christina Dalcher’s Vox, the latest novel to give us a fully inflated misogynist nightmare ... Unfortunately, the novel’s most interesting ideas are quickly muzzled. Almost as soon as Vox pivots from exposition to action, it loses its edge. It shifts from a sharp work of feminist speculative fiction to a frothy thriller ... Vox never plumbs the depths of its clever foundation.
RaveThe Washington PostCherry is a miracle of literary serendipity, a triumph born of gore and suffering that reads as if it’s been scratched out with a dirty needle across the tender skin of a man’s forearm ... Walker credits Tim O’Connell, his editor at Knopf, with transforming those typewritten pages into this tour de force. But when I contacted O’Connell, he claimed ... \'Nico simply poured everything he had into it.\' That sounds right—and true to the searing authenticity of this novel, which tries to answer the question, \'How do you get to be a scumbag?\' But in the process of laying out the road to perdition, Walker demonstrates the depths of his humanity and challenges us to bridge the distance that we imagine separates us from the damned.
MixedThe Washington Post\"And now, a full decade after [So Brave, Young, and Handsome], comes Virgil Wander, another small-town tale that struggles to be something more than merely charming ... I wanted to like Virgil Wander, and I appreciate Enger’s attempt to capture the subterranean tremors that can unsettle a person or a town, but the story’s assorted eccentricities never gain much forward momentum — until, suddenly, all its little puzzles explode in the final, absurd pages. What Virgil calls the \'fable-like atmosphere\' remains simply cloudy, clotted by earnest pronouncements ... Enger tempts us to imagine we can catch the scent of magic wafting through this story, but too often we get these limp aphorisms instead. For all their studied quaintness, Virgil and his town aren’t vital enough to offer us a world that can shake ours.\
PositiveThe Washington PostHere comes the first major novel to tackle the Trump era straight on and place it in the larger chronicle of existential threats ... That may sound like the makings of a deadly polemical novel, a strident op-ed stretched out for more than 450 pages. But Unsheltered is not that — or it’s not just that — largely because Kingsolver has constructed this book as two interlaced stories, separated by more than a century ... there’s something a little claustrophobic about being confined within these axioms of liberal orthodoxy ... Ironically, the alternate chapters of Unsheltered, set in the 1870s, are fresher and more rewarding ... Unsheltered re-creates this post-Civil War period with wonderful fidelity to the tenor of the era ... these alternating stories about Willa and Thatcher maintain their distinctive tones but echo one another in curious, provocative ways.
PositiveThe Washington PostAlice Mattison’s new novel wrestles with the irreducibly complex demands of having a conscience in an age of political depravity ... Conscience offers a thoughtful reflection on who gets to curate history and what responsibility we have — if any — to our loved ones’ myths ... a big, messy novel of ideas encompassing more subplots involving racial tensions, sexual betrayal, shifting standards of privacy and the rights of the homeless. Some readers may find this story as inviting as a ball of tangled yarn, but Conscience will please those who complain that so much literary fiction is a little too neat, ironical or even adolescent ... the real triumph of this ruminative novel is that it transports us back to a period when exercising one’s conscience was a national emergency.
RaveThe Washington PostWashington Black — one of the most anticipated books of the year — should finally get American readers to wake up to this extraordinary novelist across our Northern border ... Washington Black is an engrossing hybrid of 19th-century adventure and contemporary subtlety, a rip-roaring tale of peril imbued with our most persistent strife ... Wash’s wide-eyed adolescence gives way to hard-won wisdom to produce a narrative voice that’s tinged with equal parts wonder and sorrow ... it’s those brittle tensions between the privileged and the powerless that Edugyan explores so elegantly in Washington Black ... Washington Black doesn’t suggest that slave and master suffer equally, of course, but it raises provocative questions about the way privilege poisons even those who benefit from it ... Edugyan is a magical writer.
RaveThe Washington PostThe epistolary structure of her previous novel is gone—this is a straight narrative delivered with acrid wit—but [her character Jason] Fitger is still here at its center, just as irritated and harried as ever ... anyone who’s taught will recognize these characters, tightly bound in their arcane knowledge and rancid grievances ... Fitger is delightfully acerbic and self-destructive in these pages, raging against the dean (\'the human windsock\') and especially his arch-nemesis, Dr. Roland Gladwell, chair of the lavishly funded economics department ... That clash of cultures—mammon vs. art—burns through this novel, which provides a wry commentary on the plight of the arts in our mercantile era ... Enrollment is now open. Don’t skip this class.
RaveThe Washington PostAdjust your expectations when you pick up Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success. His new book is not insanely funny nor hilariously absurd. It’s better than that. A mature blending of the author’s signature wit and melancholy, Lake Success feels timely but not fleeting ... There’s something uncanny about Shteyngart’s ability to inhabit this man’s boundless confidence, his neediness, his juvenile tendency to fall in love and imagine everyone as a life-changing friend ... comedy and pathos are exquisitely balanced.
R O Kwon
RaveThe Washington Post\"The Incendiaries is a sharp, little novel as hard to ignore as a splinter in your eye. You keep blinking at these pages, struggling to bring the story into some comforting focus, convinced you can look past its unsettling intimations. But R.O. Kwon doesn’t make it easy to get her debut out of your system ... Kwon’s crisp, poetic style conveys events that feel lightly obscured by fog, just enough to be disorienting without being frustrating ... One of the cleverest aspects of The Incendiaries is the way Kwon suggests that all three of these people are lying, though for different reasons and with wildly different repercussions ... In a nation still so haunted by the divine promise, on the cusp of ever-more contentious debates about abortion and other intrinsically spiritual issues, The Incendiaries arrives at precisely the right moment.\
Maria Dahvana Headley
RaveThe Washington Post\"Her modern-day reimagining of Beowulf is the most surprising novel I’ve read this year. It’s a bloody parody of suburban sanctimony and a feminist revision of macho heroism. In this brash appropriation of the Anglo-Saxon epic, Headley swoops from comedy to tragedy, from the drama of brunch to the horrors of war ... One of the great pleasures of this novel is how cleverly and unpredictably Headley translates the actions of upper-class life into the sweep and gore of Beowulf ... But this is no mock heroic — or not merely a mock heroic. In her own destabilizing way, Headley vacillates between a wicked parody of privileged families and a tragic tale of their forgotten counterparts ... Headley is the most fearsome warrior here, lunging and pivoting between ancient and modern realms, skewering class prejudices, defending the helpless and venturing into the dark crevices of our shameful fears. Someday The Mere Wife may take its place alongside such feminist classics as The Wide Sargasso Sea because in its own wicked and wickedly funny way it’s just as insightful about how we make and kill our monsters.\
RaveThe Washington PostChristensen is a discerning and witty writer ... Having gathered these disparate people together, Christensen gently rolls and pitches the stage, dislodging stones of sadness that had been safely stuck in the crevices of their everyday lives. That discombobulation is the key to the story’s appeal, its unstable mix of romantic comedy, class oppression and spiritual angst ... Christensen is a master at drawing us into the interior lives of her characters, toeing the line between satire and sympathy ... Although that geopolitical metaphor is convincing, it would ultimately make for a rather schematic and dull story. Fortunately, Christensen has something more mysterious and existential in mind. She’s interested in the most intimate and profound changes we’re willing to make only when tossed by the tempest of life.
MixedThe Washington PostUnfortunately, Tyler doesn’t supply many incidents as unsettling as that encounter with the real or imagined hijacker. Instead, the first half of Clock Dance skates through the decades of Willa’s life, from childhood to motherhood to widowhood. Characters are introduced and cast off the way one might rifle through old clothes in the attic—with the same amused sense of familiarity. If these chapters aren’t wholly engaging, at least they’re great for Anne Tyler Bingo Night ... Even as the story moves into the 21st century, it still feels fusty, like an antique speculation about how people might live in the year 2017 ... Still, despite those sepia tones, Clock Dance finally starts to work in its second half when all its largely superfluous foundation-setting is mercifully finished ... Tyler’s novels may feel too conciliatory toward the strictures of domestic life, too free of erotic energy to be feminist works, but her stories are often concerned with the central challenge of the feminist movement: How to imagine and then inhabit possibilities beyond those circumscribed by convention?
RaveThe Washington PostTim Winton’s new novel hovers between a profane confession and a plea for help. A distinctly Down Under story by this most Australian writer, The Shepherd’s Hut is almost too painful to read, but also too plaintive to put down ... If too many contemporary novels strike you as effete and suburban, here’s survivalist fiction at its rawest from a novelist who sometimes sounds as bleak as our own Cormac McCarthy.\
MixedThe Washington Post\"Israel reportedly wrote his previous novel largely on a cellphone, which may have accounted for that book’s antic comedy. His new novel is a more polished affair, but also flatter. Too often the humor shoots blanks ... Where we crave something subversive and shocking, a satire commensurate to the American carnage, we get, instead, one-liners that feel Bob-Hope-fresh. And ridiculous as the characters in Big Guns are, they pale next to the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre or politicians like Marco Rubio and Rob Portman, who tweet their prayers at grieving parents while accepting millions from the gun lobby.\
Fatima Farheen Mirza
RaveThe Washington Post...absolutely gorgeous ... Mirza writes about family life with the wisdom, insight and patience you would expect from a mature novelist adding a final masterpiece to her canon, but this is, fortunately, just the start of an extraordinary career ... Has a household ever been cradled in such tender attention as this novel provides? Possibly, but in a different register. As Marilynne Robinson has done with Protestants and Alice McDermott has done with Catholics, Mirza finds in the intensity of a faithful Muslim family a universal language of love and anguish that speaks to us all ... In prose of quiet beauty and measured restraint, Mirza traces those twined strands of yearning and sorrow that faith involves. She writes with a mercy that encompasses all things.
RaveThe Washington Post\"Everything about There There acknowledges a brutal legacy of subjugation — and shatters it. Even the book’s challenging structure is a performance of determined resistance. This is a work of fiction, but Orange opens with a white-hot essay. With the glide of a masterful stand-up comic and the depth of a seasoned historian, Orange rifles through our national storehouse of atrocities and slurs, alluding to figures from Col. John Chivington to John Wayne. References that initially seem disjointed soon twine into a rope on which the beads of American hatred are strung ... Orange makes little concession to distracted readers, but as the number of characters continues to grow we begin to grasp the web of connections between these people ... As these individual stories intersect, the plot accelerates until the novel explodes in a terrifying mess of violence. Technically, it’s a dazzling, cinematic climax played out in quick-cut, rotating points of view. But its greater impact is emotional: a final, sorrowful demonstration of the pathological effects of centuries of abuse and degradation.\
Bill Clinton & James Patterson
PanThe Washington Post\"The President Is Missing reveals as many secrets about the U.S. government as The Pink Panther reveals about the French government. And yet it provides plenty of insight on the former president’s ego ... As a fabulous revision of Clinton’s own life and impeachment scandal, this is dazzling. The transfiguration of William Jefferson Clinton into Jonathan Lincoln Duncan should be studied in psych departments for years ... for much of The President Is Missing, Patterson seems to have deferred to the First Writer. That’s a problem. When we pick up a thriller this silly, we want underwear models shooting Hellfire missiles from hang gliders; Clinton gives us Cabinet members questioning each other over Skype ... The larger problem, though, is how cramped the novel’s scope remains. There’s no thrum of national panic, no sense of the wide world outside this very literal narrative. And so much of the plot is stuck in a room with nerds trying to crack a computer code. That struggle feels about as exciting as watching your parents trying to remember their Facebook password.\
MixedThe Washington PostA Shout in the Ruins marches with a phalanx of great novels by Colson Whitehead, Toni Morrison, Edward P. Jones, Geraldine Brooks, E.L. Doctorow, Paulette Jiles, Charles Frazier, Jeffrey Lent, Michael Shaara, Gore Vidal, Stephen Crane and so many more. Any new writer who tries to join the ranks of these authors risks tripping over their feet or, worse, being set upon by the cliches that scamper after them like mangy dogs ... Powers brings to Virginia battle scenes the same searing immediacy he brought to his stories of carnage in The Yellow Birds. Once again, we come to feel the mix of agony and absurdity suffered by soldiers caught between the tectonic plates of history ... Powers has curdled the gothic tradition into a thick paste and spread it all over these pages. Rather than highlighting the perversity of slavery, his sententious prose strains to upstage it ... That’s particularly lamentable because Powers can be such a forceful writer when he resists the temptation to substitute grandiose gestures for his own hard-won wisdom.
PositiveThe Washington Post\"...this may be the only novel ever to start with epigraphs by W.B. Yeats and Ed Koch. Take that incongruity as fair warning for the blarney that lies ahead ... But Duchovny is in no hurry to cycle through that doomed romance. Miss Subways is definitely single-tracking, with lots of unloading along the way. If you can get yourself to sit back and stop focusing on the destination, there are plenty of oddly charming incidents to enjoy. Duchovny is particularly funny on the antics of schoolchildren and their uptight parents. He’s also got a great ear for the anxieties of dating, and the sweet comedy of middle-aged sex ... dark elements provide emotional ballast to what might otherwise have been a merely silly tale. That darkness can’t permanently overshadow the story, though. This is, after all, a classic romantic comedy — not a grim Celtic myth. It’s a novel that wonders, \'How steadfast is your belief in what is real?\' — just the kind of question Agent Mulder might ask.\
MixedThe Washington Post\"As openings go, this is terrific — a handful of taut pages steamed with confusion, sex and dread. But no sooner does Charlie climb out of that ditch than this novel careens into another one and stays there, spinning its wheels for 150 pages of leaden back story before we finally arrive again at that fateful morning crash ... Once all this cloak-and-dagger is methodically laid out, The Hellfire Club finally lurches into the crazy Dan Brownish adventure it was meant to be ... As the country’s future hangs in the balance, Tapper dutifully attends to the clashing racial attitudes of the era. Charlie, precocious as ever, possesses all the enlightened attitudes of a Brooklyn barista in 2018...I’m not complaining. The Hellfire Club is most enjoyable when it’s most groan-worthy.\
MixedThe Washington Post\"The Mars Room shuffles along shackled with so much Importance that it barely has room to move. Swollen with certainty, the story tolerates little ambiguity and offers few surprises ... constrained by the prison setting, the plot mostly relies on shifts in focus and point of view to create movement. Kushner cycles through the women’s tragic stories, mingling horrific anecdotes from before they were incarcerated with grim events in prison. The result is a terrifying survey of what it means to be poor and female in the United States ... there’s something so calculated about The Mars Room that even the most progressive readers are bound to feel like they’re being marched down a narrow hallway. I never felt those heavy paws in Kushner’s previous, far more dynamic novels.\
PanThe Washington PostIt feels heretical to confess, but for all Barnes’s writerly skill, I couldn’t help feeling like the aliens who appear in Stardust Memories and tell Woody Allen, \'We like your movies, particularly the early, funny ones.\' Where’s the biting wit of England, England or the knowing irony of Love, Etc.? By contrast, The Only Story is so full of grieving sighs that it practically hyperventilates. While the early parts of the novel contain striking vignettes about Paul’s naivete—his passion, his earnestness—the plot’s forward motion soon stalls in ruminations on the nature of love, the loss of innocence and the unreliability of memory. There’s a staleness to these themes that’s only partially camouflaged by Barnes’s elegant style, the way an expensive cologne might distract us, for a time, from the mustiness of a well-appointed sitting room. Indeed, despite its brevity, there’s something claustrophobic about The Only Story ... \'Perhaps love could never be captured in a definition,\' Paul thinks. \'It could only ever be captured in a story.\' Perhaps, but not in this one.
RaveThe Washington Post\"Although she writes in prose, Miller hews to the poetic timber of the epic, with a rich, imaginative style commensurate to the realm of immortal beings sparked with mortal sass ... While working within the constraints of the The Odyssey and other ancient myths, Miller finds plenty of room to weave her own surprising story of a passionate young woman banished to lavish solitude ... There will be plenty of weeping later in this novel, although it’s likely to be your own. In the story that dawns from Miller’s rosy fingers, the fate that awaits Circe is at once divine and mortal, impossibility strange and yet entirely human.\
RaveThe Washington Post\"Tom McAllister’s How to Be Safe is as startling as the crack of a bullet. The story’s volatile tone tears through the despair of our era’s devotion to guns ... Unemployed, depressed and allergic to sentimentality, Anna offers a vicious critique of her own experience in a poisonous male culture ... acid wit makes How to Be Safe particularly unnerving. Anna delivers the most caustic lines with a straight face sharp enough to cut your throat ... Like nothing else I’ve read, How to Be Safe contains within its slim length the rubbed-raw anxieties, the slips of madness, the gallows humor and the inconsolable sorrow of this national pathology that we have nursed to monstrous dimensions.\
RaveThe Washington PostThis ambitious novel soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction ... What makes The Overstory so fascinating is the way it talks to itself, responding to its own claims about the fate of the Earth with confirmation and contradiction. Individual stories constantly shift the novel’s setting and pace, changing registers, pushing into every cranny of these people’s lives ... In harrowing scenes of personal sacrifice — or deadly self-righteousness — we see an unlikely group drawn together by their absolute conviction that our rapacious destruction of trees is an act of mass suicide. The urgency of that belief gives rise to the novel’s most unsettling theme: the tension between complacency and stridency in the face of existential threats.
RaveThe Washington PostWe fathers eventually become like wildlife photographers, quiet but hyperattentive, grateful for any sighting. Upstate, a new novel by the literary critic James Wood, brought this into focus for me as never before. It’s a slim book with a tiny cast doing little in a remote place, but it captures the anxious plight of a loving father with exquisite delicacy. Indeed, Upstate feels like a finely cut rebuttal to the hysterical realism of those sprawling social novels that Wood has famously criticized. But its affections are large, and its wisdom deep—a wonderful exception amid the voluminous literature of bad fathers ... Wood is a master of introspective domesticity. If his palette looks small, his attention to the subtle hues of human emotion is revelatory. He’s attuned to every fluctuation in the room’s frequencies, the frayed wires of sibling rivalry, the cloying taste of parental concern ... Watching can make all the difference on this darkling plain, as Wood’s thoughtful novel shows.
RaveThe Washington Post\"There’s an echo of Emma Donoghue’s Room in this story. Pearl speaks in a raw voice that can sound awkward one moment and precocious the next — a wholly believable consciousness for a child raised in such strange, constrained circumstances ... Full of sorrow and aching sweetness, Gun Love provides a glimpse of people who dwell every day knee deep in the toxic waste of our gun culture. They may be America’s forgotten children, but after reading this novel, you are not likely to forget them.\
RaveThe Washington PostHe has a deft way of describing atrocious behavior without damning his characters, without suggestions that they’re entirely circumscribed by their worst acts. His comedy is tempered by a kind of a gentleness that’s a salve in these mean times ... At several points, in fact, I was reminded of Peter Carey’s brilliant little novel Theft (2006), about a complicated trio of art forgers. But Rachman brings his own, warmer touch to the crime, transforming it into a surprising act of defiance that’s both deliciously ironic and deeply affectionate.
PositiveThe Washington PostI have to confess that as the pages of Madness Is Better Than Defeat furled on toward 400, I wasn’t always entirely sure what was happening (I was never sure why it was happening), but it’s all so weirdly delightful that I kept racing along after him ... This is a novel that never takes a breath, that works for our attention like a stand-up comic in front of a firing squad ... I spent far too long flipping back and forth trying to figure out who was who and where we were before I just gave up and let the river of Beauman’s genius sweep me along.
MixedThe Washington PostThe early chapters, set in postwar Australia, feel like the setup for a rom-com road race … Prescient readers might catch sounds here and there of the drama that lies ahead, but everyone else will probably jump out of this slow-moving plot before it reaches the main event. That’s too bad because Carey eventually arrives at a profound and poignant story, though it has little to do with the zany car race … The action in these latter chapters is often oblique, obscured further by elliptical conversations, partly in dialect. But that’s an intentional and rather brilliant representation of Willie’s plight. He’s a man determined to unearth the richness of Aboriginal culture even while respecting its secrets. Those conflicting goals ultimately find perfect expression in Carey’s strange narrative.
MixedThe Washington PostAlthough the characters in David Mamet’s new novel, “Chicago,” never sound like real people, they always sound like David Mamet people, which is a strange indication of his success ... There’s a lot of that winking playacting. If only Mamet had taken the city editor’s advice: 'We require bold, clear words and gruesome pictures.'
PositiveThe Washington Post\"...a quirky romcom dusted with philosophical observations ... Haig brings a delightfully witty touch to this poignant novel. His hero is just like us, an ordinary 439-year-old guy trying to figure out \'how do you inhabit the now you are in? How do you stop the ghosts of all the other nows from getting in? How, in short, do you live?\'\
MixedThe Washington PostKristin Hannah’s new novel makes Alaska sound equally gorgeous and treacherous — a glistening realm that lures folks into the wild and then kills them there … We experience this harrowing tale from the point of view of their teenage daughter, Leni. She’s a book-loving girl, toughened by years of frequent moving, and a close student of her father’s capricious moods...While Ernt and Cora play out the captivating disaster of their union, Leni remains an irresistibly sympathetic heroine who will resonate with a wide range of readers … The weaknesses of The Great Alone are usually camouflaged by its dramatic and often emotional plot. It all skates along quickly, but slow down and you’re liable to crack through the thin patches of Hannah’s style. No Alaskan trail is marked as clearly as the path of this story, which highlights every potential danger.
RaveThe Washington Post\"Each character speaks directly to us, alternating chapter by chapter, as though Roy and Celestial are pleading for our understanding — and our forgiveness. But Jones offers no clear lines of culpability here, which is what makes An American Marriage so compelling ... These are punishing questions, but they’re spun with tender patience by Jones, who cradles each of these characters in a story that pulls our sympathies in different directions. She never ignores their flaws, their perfectly human tendency toward self-justification, but she also captures their longing to be kind, to be just, to somehow behave well despite the contradictory desires of the heart.\
RaveThe Washington Post\"The ordinariness of the world that Zumas imagines is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Red Clocks … As much as Red Clocks is about the repressive legal proposals that threaten women’s lives in America, the novel is equally astute on the cultural constraints that women contend with — and enforce on each other. They’re all subjected to grinding, fruitless competition over their careers and their sexuality … Her prose sports a kind of rawness that’s really the fruit of subtle artfulness. She’s flexible enough to reflect each woman’s differing concerns and personality, from the high schooler’s fear and earnestness, to the mother’s conflicted depression and the hermit’s earthy insight. Her phrasing stays exquisitely close to these minds, not quite stream of consciousness, but shadowing the confluence of anxiety and rationality they all harbor.\
Gregory Blake Smith
RaveThe Washington PostGregory Blake Smith’s staggeringly brilliant new novel luxuriates in those demarcations of time. It is an extraordinary demonstration of narrative dexterity. Moving up and down through the strata of history, Smith captures the ever-changing refractions of human desire ... Separately, their stories are captivating, flush with peril and sexual tension ... What’s even more remarkable are the chameleon shifts in tone and style as Smith jumps from story to story with perfect fidelity to each era. Open to any page at random, and you’ll know exactly where and when you are ... The cumulative effect of this carousel of differing voices is absolutely transporting. The novel grows richer as we hear echoes among their stories ... Looking up from this remarkable novel, one has an eerie sense of history as a process of continuous erasure and revision. You’ll start The Maze of Windermere with bewilderment, but you’ll close it in awe.
PositiveThe Washington Post\"Thomas Pierce approaches the interplay of technology and immortality with...subtlety in his debut novel … [Pierce] wanders wherever the spirit moves him, which may frustrate readers looking for drama, but I was enchanted by his thoughtful ruminations and wry comments about church and spirituality. Intercalary chapters about the haunted house’s original residents vibrate with ectoplastic energy.\
RaveThe Washington PostThe cover of her [Medoff's] new novel, This Could Hurt, is an employee termination checklist ... Together, Rosa and her team of desperate middle-managers are charged with guiding the company’s 'human relations'... While the recession grinds on, This Could Hurt rotates through these characters, one per chapter, sometimes showing us the same meeting or conversation from different points of view ... Medoff exploits that structure to illustrate how delusional Rosa’s staff can be, how willfully they misinterpret what’s happening ...plays lightly with the conventions of corporate discourse ... As smart as Medoff’s critique of corporate inanity is, it’s tempered by compassion for these people, who are ultimately tender with each other, too.
RaveThe Washington PostIn the prologue, four young siblings in New York City scrape together their money to see a fortune teller who reveals each child’s eventual death-date. That spooks the kids, of course, but the only real magic here is Benjamin’s storytelling. What follows is a poignant quartet of linked novellas: one for each sibling as an adult. Despite the novel’s whimsical opening, this is largely a story of sadness and smothered hope.
RaveThe Washington Post“The Music Shop is an unabashedly sentimental tribute to the healing power of great songs, and Joyce is hip to greatness in any key. Her novel’s catalogue stretches from Bach to the Beach Boys, from Vivaldi to the Sex Pistols. Crank up the turntable and let these pages sing ... you’ll want to file this book right between Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue ... Given the general melody of romantic comedy, you can probably guess how this tune develops, but there’s real delight in hearing variations on a classic form ... Joyce’s understated humor around these odd folks offers something like the pleasure of A.A. Milne for adults. She has a kind of sweetness that’s never saccharine, a kind of simplicity that’s never simplistic. Yes, the ending is wildly improbable and hilariously predictable, but I wouldn’t change a single note.
MixedThe Washington PostAfter publishing more than 200 novels, Roberts knows exactly how to spellbind an audience. And Year One barrels along for a couple hundred pages with heartbreaking losses, hair-raising escapes and gruesome attacks ... Once the cast of likable human and Uncanny survivors starts rebuilding society, the plot shifts down from the thrill of apocalyptic disaster to the tedium of inventory control ... Unfortunately, having concocted a worldwide calamity, Roberts seems unwilling to imagine just how radically civilization would react to such historic decimation — and the arrival of magical creatures.
RaveThe Washington PostElif Shafak’s new novel reveals such a timely confluence of today’s issues that it seems almost clairvoyant. Sexual harassment, Islamist terrorism, the rising tension between the faithful and the secular, and the gaping chasm between the rich and the poor — all play out in the pages of Three Daughters of Eve ... an ingenious act of compression that works several decades into a single evening ... the story that develops keeps circling around that struggle, moving from her parents’ domestic squabbles to the central conundrum of theodicy: the challenge of reconciling an all-good, all-powerful God with an often-evil and chaotic world. Peri is such a fascinating heroine because she remains intensely engaged in this debate but resolutely disinterested ... in the process, Shafak explores the precarious state of Turkish politics, the evolving position of women in Islam, the sexual ambiguities of college life, and the most profound questions of faith. There are novels you want to cherish in the sanctity of your own adoration, and then there are novels you feel impatient to talk about with others. Press Three Daughters of Eve on a friend or your book club for a great conversation about this flammable era we live in now.
RaveThe Washington Post\"Sarah Waters ain\'t afraid of no ghost. Her new novel, a deliciously creepy tale called The Little Stranger, is haunted by the spirits of Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe … The supernatural creaks and groans that reverberate through this tale are accompanied by malignant strains of class envy and sexual repression that infect every perfectly reasonable explanation we hear. The result is a ghost story as intelligent as it is stylish … Waters teases us with clues that send us running off in every direction: psychological, paranormal and socioeconomic. But the story\'s sustained ambiguity is what keeps our attention, and her perfectly calibrated tone casts an unnerving spell over these pages.\
MixedThe Washington PostThe early parts of the novel are taken up with Vern’s podcast monologues...We get whole pages of explanation about the evils of industrial farming, the sources of modern alienation and the highlights of Vermont’s proud history. That could be tiresome, for sure, but McKibben, who lives in Vermont, has re-created on the page the pleasures of a good old radio voice: a lulling mixture of curious detail, dignified outrage and self-deprecating humor ... To say this is a small novel would be no offense to the author, who praises smallness throughout, but I wish McKibben sounded a little more anxious about the sinister trappings of secession movements ... Given the current reign of chaos in the White House, it must feel tempting to give up on America and go your own inspired way, but we need everybody now more than ever. Don’t run away, Vern. Stay and help us.
RaveThe Washington PostHere is a big-hearted novel you can fall into, get lost in and finally emerge from reluctantly, a little surprised that the real world went on spinning while you were absorbed … Most of the story comes to us through a masterful, transparent voice: The author, the narrator, the pages -- everything fades away as we're drawn into this engrossing tale. But there are also a few inventive variations. Once in a while, we see events from a dog's point of view, in a strangely humane but inhuman perspective. Another chapter is made up of Edgar's first memories as a baby and toddler, and there's a chilling section told from the murderer's perspective … The final section gathers like a furious storm of hope and retribution that brings young Edgar to a destiny he doesn't deserve but never resists.
Glen David Gold
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorIn the tradition of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Gold weaves the rich history of this period through his own stagecraft, creating a novel worthy of the hype that announced those great Vaudeville magicians. This was, after all, a time of perpetual gasping at new scientific and consumer miracles … In a book full of conjurers, Gold emerges as the best magician of all, pulling surprises out of his hat throughout this wildly entertaining story, which captures America in a moment of change and wonder. The third and final act alone is worth the price of admission, but I'd rather face the devil himself than reveal any details about that part of the show.
MixedThe Washington PostVikas Swarup provides a strange mixture of sweet and sour in this erratically comic novel … The theme here couldn't be any more obvious if Vanna White spelled it out for us, but what Q & A lacks in subtlety it makes up for in charm and melodrama. While Ram's interrogators are torturing him, a mysterious young defense attorney bursts into the cell and demands a private interview with her client. Almost the entire novel consists of their conversation … Through murders, robberies, rapes and close scrapes, Ram speaks in a voice that turns from wide-eyed innocence to moral outrage.
PanThe Washington Post...the political and environmental context is only vaguely and rarely hinted at in Future Home. Erdrich is not so much tantalizing as miserly with the details of her fantastical conceit. 'Nobody knows exactly what is happening,' Cedar says, and neither do we. Throughout the novel, we’re kept largely in the dark with her as she hides or flees from people out to capture her and steal her unborn baby. Her plight is intermittently exciting. Whom can she trust? Who might betray her next? But the novel remains weirdly depth-resistant ... Perhaps the problem stems from this novel’s abnormally long and then rushed gestation period. Maybe it suffers from the conflicting motives of wanting to make a point but knowing that polemical novels are a drag. Or maybe if Future Home weren’t sitting next to Erdrich’s masterpieces, such as The Plague of Doves and The Round House, along with Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, it wouldn’t seem so slack and minor.
RaveThe Washington PostFollowing the form Erdrich developed in her first novel, Love Medicine, other narrators take over parts of this book, either shading events Eve understands only vaguely or adding whole new branches to the community's history. Some of these discontinuous episodes — from the arrival of white settlers to the social problems of the 1970s — relate tangentially to each other, but the connections among many parts of the novel are invisible until much later … What marks these stories...is what has always set Erdrich apart and made her work seem miraculous: the jostling of pathos and comedy, tragedy and slapstick in a peculiar dance. As horrific as the crimes at the heart of this novel are, other sections remind us that Erdrich is a great comic writer.
MixedThe Washington PostIn the Midst of Winter is a light tragedy, an off-kilter mix of sweetness and bleakness held together only by Allende’s dulcet voice … Allende is following the classic rom-com structure: a vivacious woman and a dyspeptic man who claims he’ll never love again. And In the Midst of Winter develops that late-in-life romance between Lucia and Richard with all the humor and charm one could ask for … It’s as though Allende has shifted from magical realism to magical feelism, some kind of synthetic hopefulness that asks us to brush off the agonies that her novel’s alternate chapters so indelibly portray.
PositiveThe Washington Post...there’s barely a nutshell of music or magic in Hiddensee. Maguire has a style glazed with a patina of Old World formality. Don’t look for the passion and color of Tchaikovsky here; this is a novel with its own palette of darker, woodland tones ... like Dirk, the novel feels suspended between realism and fantasy ... But this remains very much a study of a man who left the forest of fairy tales and never fully joined the world of getting and spending. Dirk doesn’t really belong anywhere, a condition that eventually causes him a certain amount of tightly repressed anguish. Maguire explores this theme most sensitively over Dirk’s long friendship with a gay musician ... Maguire suggests that we all pine for some vaguely recalled but tantalizing moment from childhood.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe broad social and political range of The Burgess Boys shows just how impressively this extraordinary writer continues to develop … Having set up this triangle of unequal siblings, Strout immediately places them under stress that will reshape their long-settled relationships to one another … Strout is something of a connoisseur of emotional cruelty. But does anyone capture middle age quite as tenderly? Those latent fears — of change, of not changing, of being alone, of being stuck forever with the same person. There seems no limit to her sympathy, her ability to express, without the acrid tone of irony, our selfish, needy anxieties that only family can aggravate — and quell.
MixedThe Washington PostThe Testament of Mary was originally presented as a monologue, first performed last year in Dublin, and the story still shows the imprint of that form: It’s dramatic and poetic rather than analytical and expansive. And it’s not so much a testament of faith as a confession of guilt … Her insistence on the truth becomes the book’s central concern and flavors this moving drama with an acrid polemic taste. The Gospel writers caring for Mary (or keeping her locked up) have ‘outstayed their welcome’ while interrogating her about what happened to her son … Devoid of any inspirational motive, Mary’s descriptions of long-hallowed events are jarring, inserting psychological details into the Gospels’ lacunae. Tóibín isn’t so much interested in denying the miraculous as he is in placing that question in the background to focus, instead, on Jesus’ disruptive presence, the political and social chaos he fomented.
RaveThe Washington Post[Doyle] is the Irish master of crumpled hope — and no country provides stiffer competition in that category. His new novel offers a deceptively languid plot laced with menace. Paced more like a short story than a novel, Smile creates contradictory feelings of poignant stagnation and accelerating descent ... This is a performance few writers could carry off: a novel constructed entirely from bar stool chatter and scraps of memory. But you can’t turn away. It’s like watching a building collapse in slow motion ... Doyle draws adolescence with such crisp empathy and humor that Victor’s memories feel as real as photos of your own childhood. His Catholic schooling under the brothers is charged with excitement and the possibility of violence ... as the novel reaches its crescendo, Doyle shatters the natural structure of his narrative and manages to disorient us despite our weary confidence that we know the dimensions of the molestation tale. It’s a daring move, an attempt to trace the penumbra of abuse across a shattered psyche. For one horrible moment, we get a sense of the victim’s unspeakable confusion, the terror that diverts a life and wrecks a mind.
MixedThe Washington PostThe Yellow Birds reads like a collection of 11 linked short stories. Except for one that takes place in Germany, they move back and forth between Iraq in the fall of 2004 and the United States from 2003 to 2009. The narrator is John Bartle, a pensive, guilt-ridden vet recalling his friendship with another young soldier he calls Murph … The first chapter demonstrates what Powers can do so well, and anthology editors should be fighting over the rights to excerpt it from the novel...Throughout The Yellow Birds, amid the gore and the terror and the boredom, you can hear notes of Powers’s work as a poet … Frankly, the parts of The Yellow Bird are better than the whole. Some chapters lack sufficient power, others labor under the influence of classic war stories, rather than arising organically from the author’s unique vision. Murph risks being a hick cliche, and moments of recycled Hemingway sound glib.
RaveThe Washington Post...should have known that Whitehead, the 41-year-old MacArthur Foundation 'genius,' wouldn’t do the zombie walk in lock step with George Romero, but what’s most surprising about Zone One is how subtly he reanimates those old body parts for a post-9/11 world ... Readers who wouldn’t ordinarily creep into a novel festooned with putrid flesh might be lured by this certifiably hip writer who can spin gore into macabre poetry ... That grim humor slithers through most of this novel, along with touches of Whitehead’s topical satire... Mark’s soul-weariness infects the tone and pace of the novel, too, which offers more eulogy than suspense ... Everything comes to life in this perfectly paced, horrific, 40-page finale shot through with grim comedy and desolate wisdom about the modern age in all its poisonous, contaminating rage.
RaveThe Washington PostIt’s a charming mixture of eccentricity, serendipity and impish fun. ‘Twenty-one days is a very brief period in a life,’ the narrator admits, but Ondaatje folds all the boys’ escapades into the human comedy … The tone grows darker, the drama more treacherous. Wisps of rumor that Michael and his friends have breathlessly collected erupt in a climax that outstrips their childish fantasies. How frighteningly the pieces of this puzzle snap into place, and we’re left staring just as dumbstruck as young Michael at a melodramatic tableau … On the powerful waters of Ondaatje’s prose, The Cat’s Table finally arrives at a deeper destination than we could have anticipated when the voyage began.
RaveThe Washington Post\"Alderman has written our era’s Handmaid’s Tale, and, like Margaret Atwood’s classic, The Power is one of those essential feminist works that terrifies and illuminates, enrages and encourages ... Alderman’s greatest feat is keeping this premise from settling toward anything obvious as she considers how the world would adjust if women held the balance of energy and could discharge it at will ... That globe-spanning ambition could easily have dissipated the novel’s focus, but Alderman keeps her story grounded in the lives of four characters who are usually sympathetic, sometimes reprehensible ... In her acknowledgments, Alderman thanks Margaret Atwood, Karen Joy Fowler and Ursula Le Guin — possibly the most brilliant triumvirate of grandmothers any novel has ever had. That lineage shows in this endlessly surprising and provocative story that deconstructs not just the obvious expressions of sexism but the internal ribs of power that we have tolerated, honored and romanticized for centuries.\
MixedThe Washington PostNo story in the conventional sense ever develops, and no individuals emerge for more than a paragraph...Each chapter focuses on some general aspect of Japanese immigrant life — sex, employment, children — and the great variety of their experiences is blended, often sentence by sentence … The very best sections of the novel reminded me of the poetic catalogues in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but periodically the rhythm turns flat and the lists betray a kind of pedestrian pattern … As the internment demanded by Executive Order 9066 approaches, the book’s communal voice again becomes more appropriate to the paranoia and confusion these women feel. Their voices mingle, and isolated images, so precisely captured by Otsuka, deliver an explosion far beyond their size. And yet I’m troubled by the friction between this novel’s theme and its style.
PanThe Washington PostDan Brown is back with another thriller so moronic you can feel your IQ points flaking away like dandruff ... All the worn-out elements of those earlier books are dragged out once again for Brown to hyperventilate over like some grifter trying to fence fake antiques ... Brown may not have discovered a secret that threatens humanity’s faith, but he has successfully located every cliche in the world. Some sentences are constructed entirely of hand-me-down phrases ... All right — I get it — this is cotton candy spun into print, but why then must every reference, no matter how pedestrian, be explained in a Wikipedia monotone that Siri would pity? ... All this might be worth enduring if the story’s infinitely hyped revelations didn’t finally show up at the end of a trail of blood sounding like an old TED Talk. Kirsch’s posthumous answers to the big questions — Where did we come from? Where are we going? — will surprise no one technologically savvy enough to operate a cellphone. Darwinians, fundamentalists, atheists and believers: Pray that this cup pass from you.
PositiveThe Washington PostAll the harbor details — from the dangerous mechanics of underwater work to the irritating chauvinism of Navy officers — feel dutifully researched. The whole novel, in fact, boasts its tweedy historical accuracy...But there’s something predetermined about this story of a spunky young woman breaking through gender barriers in wartime. Far more engaging are the shadowy actions swirling around Anna. Her crafty father kept the family fed and clothed through the Depression by working for a racketeer named Dexter Styles ... Manhattan Beach may not offer the brilliant variety of forms found in Goon Squad, but Egan is still blending a jazzy range of tones in these chapters, from Tennessee Williams’s apartment-trapped despair to Herman Melville’s adventures at sea ... All these strong currents — from noir thriller to family drama to wartime adventure — eventually return to the private moment that opens Manhattan Beach. If that ending is surprisingly hopeful, it’s never false, and it dares to satisfy us in a way that stories of an earlier age used to.
Stephen King & Owen King
PanThe Washington PostAlthough Sleeping Beauties offers glimpses of trouble around the world — riots in Washington, a downed jet, etc. — the story stays focused on Dooling, particularly the women’s penitentiary where prisoners are quickly succumbing to the Aurora Flu. But before these inmates go gentle into that gooey night, we get to know several of them: lonely souls, abused girlfriends, unstable killers with hearts of gold. It’s a very special edition of 'Orange Is the New Black Death' ... The story is flecked with the gossamer wings of fairy tales that fall awkwardly in this contemporary setting. More than 70 characters rage and snore through these pages. They’re all listed at the front of the book, a feature that has the unintentional effect of making the cast feel even more bewildering ... Stephen King, the author of more than 50 best-selling novels, and Owen, whose debut novel, Double Feature appeared in 2013, can be wonderful writers, but this yawning collaboration doesn’t bring out the best in either of them. The pacing in the first 300 pages is deadly — and not in a good way.
MixedThe Washington PostThe novel opens in 2000 in the final, agonizing months of Beard's fifth marriage, with a section that brandishes everything that makes McEwan such a terrific writer. His satire snaps wittily, his interweaving of scientific research and romantic intrigue is startlingly clever, and his psychological insights feel both genuine and comic. For the first time in Beard's life, he's desperate to win back an estranged wife, but this one won't have it … But the novel's fortunes sag from this point forward. Solar remains focused myopically on Beard, the self-pitying snob who grows more corpulent while all the other characters remain thin and faint. What's worse, the plot seems allergic to itself, constantly arresting its own progress with not terribly pertinent flashbacks or abrupt jumps forward.
PanThe Washington PostNow, finally, comes the long-awaited second volume, and as much as it pains me to say it, The Twelve bites … What’s truly bizarre is that a novel so burdened with exposition manages to provide so little necessary explanation. Don’t even think about starting this volume if you haven’t committed the first one to memory … Again and again, suspense is drained away by the book’s choppy structure, as though the dastardly government virus that caused vampirism also caused attention deficit disorder. When the various parts of this ramshackle plot finally came together, I couldn’t tell if I were truly grateful or just suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
RaveThe Washington Post\"Her novel comes to us in five distinct parts, each focusing on a different woman affected by Avivagate. That structure rotates the scandal in curious ways, and it also shows off just what a clever ventriloquist Zevin is ... The most radical chapter is constructed as a choose-your-own-adventure story. This sort of super-duper-cleverness can start to feel like you’re being force-fed eight pounds of cotton candy, which makes Zevin’s success all the more impressive. Her narration in the second person insists that we stop peering down at this young woman and begin, instead, to imagine ourselves as her.\
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorDespite its uneven quality, The Poisonwood Bible is a vessel that holds our attention and some powerful ideas ...story rotates through a series of monologues by the wife and four daughters of a ferocious Baptist preacher from Bethlehem, Ga., who's determined to bring his version of salvation to the incendiary Congo in 1960 ... The daughters react in strikingly different ways, but Kingsolver's success at portraying them is uneven ... It's weakest when the family splits apart and the characters become mouthpieces for not particularly fresh statements about the abuses of colonialism ...this exciting story will make for particularly good discussion.
PanThe Washington PostThose who enter this dark forest are fated to wander through a thicket of esoteric reflections on Jewish mysticism, Israel and creation. Krauss can sometimes sound like a modern-day Ralph Waldo Emerson, so long as you don’t push too hard on her orphic pronouncements...Indeed, much of this material feels more essayistic than novelistic, except that an essay is meant to deliver us to greater understanding of something besides the author’s pathos. Eventually, a subplot involving Franz Kafka scurries into the story and offers a bit of cerebral intrigue — along with Krauss’s illuminating commentary on Kafka’s life and work. But that still leaves a lot of room for Nicole to moan about imposing form on the formlessness of narrative. Such writerly consternation may send students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop into fits of ecstasy, but most readers will be more moved by Nicole’s reflections on the loss of love, on that indeterminate moment when romance evaporates ... Nothing in these pages discourages the assumption that Krauss is revealing her own laments about the failure of their marriage, which makes Forest Dark feel uncomfortably passive aggressive: an act of relationship revenge with deniability built into its fictive frame.
PanThe Washington PostSpeaking of Trump’s unlikely election, Rushdie recently told an interviewer, 'This thing that is very bad for America is very good for the novel,' but that sounds like fake news. In any event, Trump’s election is not very good for this novel, in which Rushdie pokes through the story whenever he wants to pop off about America’s poisonous political culture ... The story of Nero and his golden house is told by a handsome young neighbor named René, a far more involved and, alas, far less poetic narrator than Nick Carraway...Everything about this family spreading its influence and then crashing like the House of Usher comes to us in René’s confidential but bland voice ... Perhaps it wouldn’t feel so arduous to plod through this pile of worn phrases if the plot moved more quickly. There are elements of intrigue, including a bizarre sexual bargain on which the story hinges, but the most exciting revelation erupts late in the book, long after the mystery of Nero’s origins has cooled. Then, finally, we have to endure René nattering on about the loss of innocence, a theme we can smell like mildew as soon as we enter this airless novel.
RaveThe Washington PostWard employs several strangely tethered narrators and allows herself to reach back in time while keeping this family chained to the rusty stake of American racism ... These are people 'pulling all the weight of history,' and Ward represents those necrotic claims with a pair of restless ghosts, the unburied singers of the title. Readers may be reminded of the trapped spirits in George Sanders’s recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, but Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a more direct antecedent ... If Sing, Unburied, Sing lacks the singular hypnotic power of Salvage the Bones, that’s only because its ambition is broader, its style more complex and, one might say, more mature. The simile-drenched lines that sometimes overwhelmed Ward’s previous novel have been brought under the control here of more plausible voices. And the plight of this one family is now tied to intersecting crimes and failings that stretch over decades. Looking out to the yard, Jojo thinks, 'The branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves.' Such is the tree of liberty in this haunted nation.
PanThe Washington PostThe story comes to us as a series of soliloquies delivered — chapter by chapter — by the distressed members of the Oh family. The patriarch is Orion Oh, an affable psychologist descended from a Chinese grandfather with ‘inscrutable eyes.’ Orion has endured a rough year: He’s been forced into early retirement by a sexual harassment claim, and his wife has left him for a woman … Eventually, we hear soliloquies from the Ohs’ three unhappy adult children, a couple of neighbors and even Annie’s old sexual abuser. Together they present an exhaustive inventory of woe … The problem with We Are Water, though, isn’t an excess of trauma, it’s a dearth of immediacy and subtlety. The present-day action of the novel is overwhelmed by recollections.
RaveThe Washington PostA Constellation of Vital Phenomena opens in a tiny, blood-soaked village of Chechnya, that part of the world that drifts into our consciousness only briefly — when, say, the Russians crush it again or, more recently, when young zealots detonate pressure cookers in Boston. But the unforgettable characters in this novel are not federalists or rebels or terrorists...these are just fathers and mothers and children — neighbors snagged in the claws of history … On one level, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena covers just five days in 2004. But these are people shaken from the linear progress of time. Their experiences come to us in pungent flashbacks of trauma and joy — meals and games, marriages and affairs, offenses small and shocking that knit their lives together.
RaveThe Washington PostCanada may strike recent fans as a departure, but it’s actually a return to the plains of his first celebrated story collection, Rock Springs … Ford can be sympathetic and yet clear-eyed about the limits of these poor, mismatched people. His delineation of their characters is insistent without seeming relentless, moving further and further into the conflicted desires and misimpressions that motivate them … Always a careful craftsman, Ford has polished the plainspoken lines of Canada to an arresting sheen. He’s working somewhere between Marilynne Robinson (without the theology) and Cormac McCarthy (without the gore). The wisdom he offers throughout these pages can be heard in the hushed silence that follows this harrowing tale.
MixedThe Washington PostThe book’s success stems from Kingsolver’s willingness to stay focused on a conflicted young woman and her faltering marriage, while a strange symptom of the degraded environment overwhelms her remote Tennessee town … Flight Behavior is never dull, but the energy leaks out of the story, which sometimes seems allergic to its own drama. And for a heroine reputed to have a wandering eye, Dellarobia has a remarkably low libido. This may be the saintliest novel ever predicated on the persistent temptation of adultery … Kingsolver has written one of the more thoughtful novels about the scientific, financial and psychological intricacies of climate change. And her ability to put these silent, breathtakingly beautiful butterflies at the center of this calamitous and noisy debate is nothing short of brilliant.
PanThe Washington PostNow that the entire catalogue of pornography is accessible on every cellphone and laptop, Handler’s novel isn’t nearly filthy enough. And — major buzzkill — it’s an ironically pious tale ... All his adventures — straight, gay and solitary — are conveyed in the novel’s spindly structure, not so much impressionistic as elliptical. With most of the narrative flesh stripped away, we’re left with just snippets and moments, dialogue and thought freely mixed and undifferentiated ... That his Lotharion ways eventually bring him low is not so surprising — after all, even creeps can get their hearts broken. But what’s strange is that Cole enjoys so little pleasure along the way. Where’s the thrill of sexual passion? The earth-moving excitement? The mind-blowing arousal? For some reason, despite all the sexual mechanics, All the Dirty Parts includes none of the good parts. Handler says he hates all the finger-wagging moralism in most YA lit, but if you’re a certain kind of uptight parent, this may be just the depressing and joyless novel you want your horny son to read. Good luck with that.
MixedThe Washington PostTocqueville, recast here in garish tones as Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont, strolls out of his famous Democracy in America and into the pages of this kaleidoscopic story along with the whole grasping, bragging, bargaining cast of our ravenous nation. It's another feat of acrobatic ventriloquism, joining Carey's masterpieces … Parrot & Olivier starts poorly, particularly for a novel by Peter Carey, who usually sells his work hard in the opening chapters. We don't even reach America for well over 100 pages, and while the section on Parrot's childhood in England as a printer's devil contains the book's most inflammable scenes, Olivier's early, whiny section in France is tedious...There are engaging, funny scenes throughout this picaresque tale, but the travelogue grows rickety and stalls too often.
MixedThe Washington PostIf you remember the fevered fury of The Woman Upstairs, you’ll be surprised by the muted, reflective voice of The Burning Girl. Julia views her adolescence through a scrim of remorse. It’s also a shock to learn that she’s supposedly a junior in high school; she sounds 35. The plot, despite its thriller gloss, seems captured in amber, cloudy and still. Julia keeps turning over events, trying to comprehend the end of her 'defining friendship,' the failure of her own compassion. 'Everybody wanted a story,' Julia says, 'a story with an arc, with motives and a climax and a resolution.' If The Burning Girl demonstrates anything, it’s that the sorrows of adolescence don’t fit that familiar archetype.
Karen Joy Fowler
PositiveThe Washington PostWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves isn’t just about an unusual childhood experiment; it’s about a lifetime spent in the shadow of grief. Clearly, something traumatic happened when Rosemary was 5, something that turned her from a loquacious little girl into a quiet young woman. But unearthing the details of that event means digging in a mental landscape strewn with psychological land mines … Although there’s little doubt where her sympathies lie, Fowler manages to subsume any polemical motive within an unsettling, emotionally complex story that plumbs the mystery of our strange relationship with the animal kingdom — relatives included.
MixedThe Washington PostThe Dovekeepers is an enormously ambitious, multi-part story, richly decorated with the details of life 2,000 years ago. What’s more, as Anita Diamant showed so popularly with The Red Tent, the world of ancient Judaism provides fertile ground for exploring the challenges of women’s lives, and, fortunately, this time Hoffman treats her favorite issues without throwing up much of the fairy dust that too often clogs her work…The result is a high-minded feminist story of unassailable seriousness … Many of the incidents these women relate — family conflicts, cruel assaults, romantic trysts, difficult births, jealous conflicts, magical incantations — are dramatic and engaging, but their sheer number eventually feels relentless, a tiresome delay of the bloodbath we know is coming.
MixedThe Washington PostThis new novel offers up a rich selection of domestic realism, gothic fantasy and apocalyptic speculation, stretching around the world from the Margaret Thatcher era of the 1980s to the Endarkenment of 2043 … We climb this steep mountain expecting that we will be rewarded with the wizardry of The Night Circus, The Magicians or Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — but somehow, as The Bone Clocks winds up for its long-anticipated climax, Mitchell abandons his exploration of character, sexuality, class and politics for an old warlock’s sack of cliches. In the words of one of the book’s courageous, jargon-laden soldiers, the ‘psychovoltage is low.’
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorClearly Roth's real target isn't an anti-Semitic aviation hero who died 30 years ago. It's an electorate he sees as dazzled by attractive faces, moved by simple slogans, and cowed by ominous warnings about threats to our security. The result is a cautionary story in the tradition of The Handmaid's Tale, a stunning work of political extrapolation about a triumvirate of hate, ignorance, and paranoia that shreds decency and overruns liberty … In a voice that blends the tones of the author's nostalgia with the boy's innocence, Phil describes the national crisis through its effect on his own family. It's a narrative structure fraught with risks, particularly the danger of making this 7-year-old boy look cloying or inappropriately sophisticated, but Roth keeps his bifocal vision in perfect focus.
RaveThe Washington PostYes, the novelist who's been showing us the future of fiction has published a classic, old-fashioned tale. It's not too early to suggest that Mitchell can triumph in any genre he chooses … Mitchell is working within a literary tradition stained by Western slurs about the inscrutable ways of orientals, their seductive mysticism and occult sensuality, but he represents and deconstructs those racist stereotypes with a shipload of fascinating domestic and imported characters … Even as the forces of evil ramp up, this remains a resolutely thoughtful novel about a country wrenched into the modern age. Carefully controlling all contact with the West, Japan reveres its official translators, its only windows on the world. And so language serves as Mitchell's central subject throughout The Thousand Autumns.
RaveThe Washington PostThis thoroughly charming novel wraps Old World sensibility around a story of multicultural conflict involving two widowed people who assume they're done with love. The result is a smart romantic comedy about decency and good manners in a world threatened by men's hair gel, herbal tea and latent racism … The gentle, reticent affection that develops between these two older people from different worlds is immensely appealing. They continue to call each other ‘Major Pettigrew’ and ‘Mrs. Ali,’ and for most of the novel their simmering passion leads them into nothing more unseemly than reading Keats together, but even that familiarity rubs up against the prejudices of local busybodies. For all the pride Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali take in being independently minded, they share a deep regard for decorum and respectability that's not easily assuaged.
PanThe Washington PostFour main narrators, thousands of miles apart, deliver somber testimonies of their lives and their interactions with this errant piece of furniture. How are these narrators related? Where did the desk come from, and what are its ‘hidden meanings’?…The dispiriting punch line to this complicated novel is that these mysteries are the least interesting thing about it. The desk turns out to be rather incidental, and the obscure relationships among some of these characters are merely accidental. The riddles that soak up so much attention are distractions from the moving stories that these disparate narrators have to tell … Despite these several narrators and their widely differing stories, a kind of tonal monotony lies across the novel, which is devoid of the charming humor that leavened The History of Love. Great House remains unrelentingly serious, even dreary in its portrayal of ‘extreme solitude’ coalescing into remorse.
RaveThe Washington PostThe Passage, the first volume of a planned trilogy, doesn't have any interest in pursuing ol' Count Dracula; it's all about stitching together the still-beating scraps of classic horror and science fiction, techno thrillers and apocalyptic terror. Although a clairvoyant nun plays a crucial role, Cronin has stripped away the lurid religious trappings of the vampire myth and gone with a contemporary biomedical framework … Cronin proves himself just as skillful with the dystopic future as he is with the techno-thriller that opens The Passage. This second section sinks deep into the exotic customs of these beleaguered survivors. We meet a vibrant cast of citizen warriors, who have to ask themselves each day if it's worth fighting against the dying of the light.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe Locals feels attuned to the broader currents of our culture, particularly the renewed tension between competing ideals of community and self-reliance ... there are lots of unhappy characters, all elegantly choreographed in a dance of discontent ... With this little town, this idyllic-looking version of America, Dee has constructed a world — harrowing but instructive — where no one feels content ... You don’t have to be a Pollyanna to believe that there is such a force as love in the world, and graciousness and selflessness, too. But those qualities are missing in these characters, as though they were suffering some kind of moral vitamin deficiency. Hardly any of these people are allowed even a moment of inspiration or elevation ... Amid the heat of today’s vicious political climate, The Locals is a smoke alarm. Listen up.
RaveThe Washington PostAt first, nothing the brothers do or encounter is particularly unusual for this time and place: starving children in the woods, men driven insane by solitude, noisy whorehouses and dirty saloons … It’s all rendered irresistible by Eli Sisters, who narrates with a mixture of melancholy and thoughtfulness. He’s a reluctant murderer — he’d rather be a shopkeeper — but assassination is a job, the only one he’s ever had, and it keeps him close to his brother, which is nice. He describes their progress toward Sacramento with deadpan sincerity flecked with earnestness and despair … DeWitt catches Eli’s patter just right, the odd formality and naked candor of a man who’s tired of killing, who longs for ‘a reliable companion.’
PanChristian Science MonitorBroad as this comedy is, Pierre takes his toughest shots at American media. Even before the police descend, ‘Lally’ Ledesma, a CNN reporter, is already lurking in the yard, greasing his way into Vernon's confidence, seducing his mother, and flattering her chubby friends. He's a fount of journalistic clichés and faux sympathy … Vernon God Little ultimately descends to the same simplistic level it rails against in American culture. Psychologists, religious leaders, law enforcement officers, educators, and parents have sweat blood trying to fathom the dark forces that motivate these rare but terrifying acts of school violence. But here, we learn that it's all perfectly simple: The murderer was publicly humiliated as the victim of a gay porn ring. Ah hah! This is the sort of psychological depth we might expect from one of Vern's favorite made-for-TV-movies.
RaveThe Washington PostThe story casts its roving eye on 77-year-old Dr. Dorrigo Evans, a celebrated war hero whose life has been an unsatisfying string of sterile affairs and public honors. He loved a woman once, but tragedy intervened, and since then each new award and commendation only makes Dorrigo feel undeserving and fraudulent … For many pages, the novel shimmers over the decades of Dorrigo’s life, only flashing on the horrors of war and the ghosts who haunt him. But soon enough, that unspeakable period comes into focus in a series of blistering episodes you will never get out of your mind … The novel doesn’t exonerate these war criminals, but it forces us to admit that history conspired to place them in a situation where cruelty would thrive, where the natural responses of human kindness and sympathy were short-circuited.
RaveThe Washington PostThe two novellas make frequent references to each other, but how you interpret those references will depend on whether they’re looking forward or backward...As one character says, it’s a lesson in ‘how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it’ … It’s a fascinating bricolage of history and speculation enriched with Francescho’s audacious patter, often comically incongruous with the Renaissance. Freely mixing genders and pigments, the young artist distinguishes herself early as a magician with paints — and she knows it … This sounds like a novel freighted with postmodern gimmicks, but Smith knows how to be both fantastically complex and incredibly touching. Just as Francescho’s story is laced with insights about the nature and power of painting, George’s story offers its own tender exploration of the baffling and clarifying power of grief.
PanThe Washington Post\"Perrotta is an affectionate comic writer, but to his own detriment, he has mastered the art of suburban titillation — and he rests on it. Although lusty subjects thrum through this novel, they’re often blanched. The effect can feel like reading the essays of Camille Paglia printed on slices of Wonder Bread ... In the libidinous groves of academe, Brendan finds his romantic thrusts blunted by women more sophisticated, enlightened and aggressive than his pliant high school sweetheart. And yet his story never develops the psychological depth or satiric edge to make these scenes sufficiently moving, witty or arresting ... Without a more discerning narrative voice and a greater willingness to explore the complexity of desire, there’s nothing to disturb the comfortable patter of Mrs. Fletcher. The novel hovers awkwardly between farce and psychological realism. Its neat checklist of sexual experiences — Lesbians! MILFs! Three-ways! — starts to feel like a weird session of Wednesday night bingo.\
PositiveThe Washington PostAlthough there is a plot, The Finkler Question is really a series of tragicomic meditations on one of humanity's most tenacious expressions of malice, which I realize sounds about as much fun as sitting shiva, but Jacobson's unpredictable wit is more likely to clobber you than his pathos … No other book has given me such a clear sense of the benevolent disguises that anti-Jewish sentiments can wear. And no one wears them more attractively than Julian Treslove, the handsome, middle-aged gentile at the center of The Finkler Question … Even while we're trying to disentangle what's so disturbing about Julian's special regard for Jews, the book pursues (and belabors) another line of comedy, this one about self-loathing Jews...Jacobson has stirred this pot before (and Philip Roth stirred it before him), but the novel's real depth develops slowly beneath the satire, as anti-Semitic attacks begin to filter into the story from around London and the world.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorAdd Shirley Hazzard's new novel to the shelf of haunting post-war stories. The Great Fire smolders in the aftermath of World War II, when the ashes of that calamity threatened to flash back into flame or choke estranged survivors … Her story comes into focus two years after the destruction of Hiroshima. The war is over, but the peace is hardly satisfying, leaving a world grimy, lame, and troubled by rumors of resuming conflict … Hazzard writes with an extraordinary command of geography and time, moving around the world to gather fleeting but arresting impressions of fascism in Italy, battle in Germany, and defeat in Japan – all the shattering chaos that through a million permutations has brought Leith into the company of these two ethereal siblings.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorWith this remarkable novel, Carey has raised a national legend to the level of an international myth. If the world thinks of America through the voice of Huck Finn, from now on they'll think of Australia through the testimony of Ned Kelly … Ned's good nature isn't enough to spare him from the assaults of English injustice. At school, he endures a barrage of dispiriting prejudice. The police harass his family relentlessly. ‘All my life all I wanted were a home,’ he sighs, but the authorities are determined to catch his relations stealing or lying or fighting or drinking – anything to put one of them away in the ‘gaol’ and encourage the remaining clan to move out … In this bracing narrative, Carey has given Kelly back his tongue with a style that rips like a falling tree. The Australia-born author is something of a genius in these acts of literary ventriloquism.
Andrew Sean Greer
RaveThe Washington Post...[a] thoroughly delightful novel ... Greer is an exceptionally lovely writer, capable of mingling humor with sharp poignancy ... Greer is brilliantly funny about the awkwardness that awaits a traveling writer of less repute ... Whether he’s pining after an old lover or creeping along a ledge four flights up, hoping to climb through the window of his locked apartment, this is the comedy of disappointment distilled to a sweet elixir. Greer’s narration, so elegantly laced with wit, cradles the story of a man who loses everything: his lover, his suitcase, his beard, his dignity.
PositiveThe Washington PostInto this pungent historical setting wafts Miller with a grave story about a man charged with emptying the cemetery and tearing down the church. It’s Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth in reverse. Miller’s hero, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is a work of fiction, but the 1785 country Miller describes is redolent of real life … Jean-Baptiste is an endearing fellow, serious and earnest, torn between his ambitions and his good nature. He’s so committed to rational self-improvement that every night in bed he recites a little godless affirmation about his devotion to reason. He prides himself ‘on possessing a trained and shadowless mind,’ but just wait till the miasma of the graveyard begins to work on him. Not exactly a country bumpkin, he’s still dazzled by Paris. The early scenes of him stumbling around the city — trying to buy the right suit, trying to hold his liquor — are delightful.
RaveThe Christian Science Monitor[March] promised to write to his beloved Marmee every day, but he admits privately in the opening chapter, ‘I never promised I would write the truth.’ So begins a double helix of entwined narratives – cheery letters to his little women about the noble fight against slavery and searing descriptions for us of the ghastly defeats of war … What becomes increasingly fascinating in this novel is the complicated nature of idealism in the real world and the way that stress twists March's conscience and warps his once pure relationship with the woman he loves. Again and again, March does everything possible to save others but, failing that, can only berate himself for the shame of surviving … In this highly sympathetic portrayal, Brooks nonetheless suggests that there's a narcissistic quality to the drive for perfection that can lead a man to ignore the common but no less pressing needs of those who depend on him.
RaveThe Washington PostKingsolver neatly weaves this quiet, watchful man through tumultuous events that rocked two countries, and one of the most impressive feats of The Lacuna is how convincingly she tracks his developing voice, from when he's a sensitive teenager in 1929 until he becomes a national celebrity in the early 1950s … A ‘permanent foreigner,’ not at home in the United States or Mexico and aware that his budding homosexuality must not be expressed, young Shepherd quickly develops an outsider's detached perspective, tinged with loneliness. He has a sharp eye for the beauty of Mexico, its lush tropics and its colorful towns, and Kingsolver convincingly positions him near some of the era's larger-than-life figure.
RaveThe Washington PostGranta recently named Cohen one of the best young American novelists, and his new book, Moving Kings, is a svelte comic triumph that concentrates his genius ... The clash of expectations between a rough American businessman and an Israeli innocent abroad provides the basis for some smart comedy, and Cohen is particular adept with moments of silly absurdity ... As subtly as water seeps into sand, the comedy drains from this story, and we’re left in the stark moral desert where Yoav is stranded.
RaveThe Washington PostThis is an irresistible comic novel that pumps blood back into the anemic tales of middle-aged white guys. Klam may be working in a well-established tradition, but he’s sexier than Richard Russo and more fun than John Updike, whose Protestant angst was always trying to transubstantiate some man’s horniness into a spiritual crisis ... In paragraphs that flow like conversation with a witty, troubled friend, Klam captures Rich’s squirrelly consciousness, swinging from lust to despair, turning his comic eye on others and then on himself ... But for all its wise gender comedy, Who Is Rich is also a brilliant rumination on the trap of cannibalizing one’s life for art.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is no Harry Potter knockoff. It's altogether original — far closer to Dickens than Rowling ... Clarke has concocted a thoroughly enchanting story of the early 19th century when Gilbert Norrell tried to bring 'practical magic' back to England ... In Clarke's wry, slightly arch tone, they provide faux bibliographic references and fill out England's magical history with myths and legends of the Raven King, who once ruled both human and faerie kingdoms ... Mr. Norrell is a wonderfully odd character in what's practically an encyclopedia of wonderfully odd characters ... Either by instinct or design, Clarke drops supernatural elements into the plot slowly and sparingly, luring fantasy readers along, while acclimating skittish newcomers to this genre gradually ... Move over, little Harry. It's time for some real magic.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorThe novel opens with a daring, almost mystical chapter in which Sontag imagines herself conceiving of her characters at a lavish dinner in Russian-occupied Poland in 1875. It's like watching a projectionist trying to bring the film into focus. This kind of self-referential, post-modern trick could be annoying, but Sontag is a brilliant writer who doesn't gauge her intelligence by how confused she can make her audience … Maryna hopes to reincarnate her former theatrical glory. But she discovers painfully that the costs and rewards of being a great European actress are not the same as being an American celebrity. The result is a fascinating exploration of what's real in a culture that preaches authenticity but worships artificiality … Sontag is so comfortable spinning these big ideas through the details of her novel that they never seem heavy or intrusive. In In America we discover the country as the curtain rises on the modern age.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorEmpire Falls holds the fading culture of small-town life in a light that’s both illuminating and searing. It captures the interplay of past and present, comedy and tragedy, nation and individual in the tradition of America’s greatest books … Just as the past lingers around Empire Falls, italicized chapters rise up in the main story to trace the strange involvement of Miles’s family with the Whitings. These episodes, tinted with gothic motifs and punctured with tragedy, emphasize the tremors of will and affection that continue to quiver in the survivors … The pressure that directs the Knox River to dump debris along the banks of Empire Falls is no more powerful than the urges of these alienated people to wreak havoc on those nearby. Throughout this mammoth book, Russo describes the politics of town, school, and family with a sense of moral outrage, tempered by comic appreciation of the grotesque.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorLine for line, Hollinghurst's novel about London during the 1980s is the most exquisitely written book I've read in years. Witty observations about politics, society, and family open like little revelations on every page … It's also an explicitly gay novel. Not just a novel with some gay characters, comfortably on the side or reduced to floppy antics, à la Will and Grace. Hollinghurst rarely strays far from his protagonist's sexual fantasies and exploits … As AIDS ravages the gay community and scandal rocks the Fedden household, Nick finds himself as abandoned as he ever feared, and the compensation of beauty seems heartbreakingly tragic.
MixedThe Christian Science Monitor… a novel of boundless energy and startling insight about the conundrum adults impose on children by demanding that they live the ideal of integration that we've been unable to demonstrate ourselves … This is daring stuff, as dazzling for its style as for its politics. And it's packed full of enough pop culture references to send Dennis Miller scrambling to the encyclopedia … Lethem's sentences can just barely contain all he makes them accomplish as he spins ‘the ironized, reference-peppered palaver which comprises Dylan's only easy mode of talk.’ In fact, almost inevitably the book's structure begins to creak and break apart … The novel never regains the breathtaking verve of its childhood section. Then again, Dylan never regains the breathtaking verve of his childhood either, and that ultimately is the tragedy of The Fortress of Solitude.
Jonathan Safran Foer
PositiveThe Washington PostDespite the dramatically contemporary subject of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer hasn't invented something new as much as shifted the plot of his spectacularly successful Everything Is Illuminated … Journeys like this are dangerous – a little boy could get mugged; an author could get mawkish – but Foer is an extraordinarily sensitive writer, and Oskar's search for a missing parent scratches one of our first anxieties … This novel and his first one effectively trace the smoke from one horror to the next, from New York to Dresden to Hiroshima to the gulag – to every baffled survivor whose happiness was burned away by conflations of politics and hatred that were entirely irrelevant to his life.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorThe title of [Atwood’s] latest book, The Blind Assassin, announces its recklessness right up front. It's a killer novel, all right, but it can see exactly where it's going, even when we can't … In fact, for the first 30 self-consciously oblique pages, The Blind Assassin drags us through a pawn shop of incongruous objects … It's a wild ride, but if you can hang on through this opening, you'll be hooked till the whole tragic story finally comes to rest in the most surprising place … Atwood's crisp wit and steely realism are reminiscent of Edith Wharton – but don't forget that side order of comic-book science fiction.
RaveThe Washington PostThis may be rage, but it’s fantastically smart rage — anger that never distorts, even in the upper registers...Wherever she digs, she hits rich veins of indignation … Anger provides the heat, but the novel’s real energy comes from its intellectual fuel, its all-consuming analytical drive … Between the heaves of storm, Nora can be an engaging commentator on everything from aesthetics to international relations to aging … Even as that psychological drama races toward a dark climax, Nora seduces us with her piercing assessment of the way young women are acculturated, the way older women are trapped.
PositiveThe Washington PostBut even if you’re not ready for clown shoes, you’ll enjoy escaping into Erin Morgenstern’s enchanting first novel, The Night Circus ... more than merely re-creating the Greatest Show on Earth, Morgenstern has spun an extravaganza that makes P.T. Barnum look smaller than Tom Thumb ... Echoing the immense pleasure of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell ... In ominous, atmospheric chapters of just a few pages each, Morgenstern moves quickly through the children’s supernatural preparation ...In fact, there’s probably too much going on here, even for a three-ring circus, and so many colorful characters that the protagonists can seem a bit underdeveloped ...Indeed, one of the most enthralling aspects of this novel is watching two lovers unfettered by the laws of nature or physics cast secret tokens of their affection to each other.
RaveThe Washington PostThe three wunderkinds at the center of Messud's engrossing satire are friends from Brown, strutting through life with élan but also with a sense of floundering that chafes at them like a new pair of Christian Louboutin shoes … Yes, they're spoiled, they're self-absorbed, and they're whiny, but above all else they're irresistibly clever and endowed with the kind of hyper-analytical minds that make them fascinating critics of each other and themselves … Beneath the rich surface of this comedy of manners runs Messud's attention to ‘authenticity’: its importance, its elusiveness and the myriad tricks of self-delusion we pursue to imagine we possess it in greater degree than our friends and family.
PositiveThe Washington PostOwing to the power of Gay’s prose, the immediacy of the narrator’s voice and the graphic nature of this ordeal, it’s some of the most emotionally exhausting material I’ve ever read … In An Untamed State, she considers questions of class, parental responsibility and especially sex as a weapon of terror in a fantastically exciting novel … it’s easy to imagine An Untamed State pleading for the moral innocence of desperately poor people who have no options except crime and extortion … But the boundless savagery of Mireille’s kidnappers soon makes any kind of sociological apology for their behavior sound obscene. Despite the beatings she receives for talking back, she shreds her captors’ pompous class-warfare cant, refusing to let them imagine that the injustices they’ve suffered absolve them.
RaveThe Washington PostThese three exquisite books constitute a trilogy on spiritual redemption unlike anything else in American literature … Lila crawls into Gilead from another world altogether, a realm of subsistence living where the speculations of theologians are as far away — and useless — as the stars … Robinson has constructed this novel in a graceful swirl of time, constantly moving back to Lila and Doll’s struggles with starvation, desperate thieves and vengeful relatives. We see that dark past only intermittently, as a child’s clear but fragmentary memories or a trauma victim’s flashbacks.
PositiveThe Washington PostAt first, that setting might sound infantile for the adult machinations of Shakespeare’s play, but give it a moment, and the anachronisms of this mash-up start to feel oddly appropriate. In Chevalier’s handling, the insidious manipulations of Othello translate smoothly to the dynamics of a sixth-grade playground, with all its skinned-knee passions and hopscotch rules ... How Chevalier renders Iago’s scheme into the terms of a modern-day playground provides some wicked delight. She’s immensely inventive about it all ... Of course, Othello works better, but that’s inevitable. Shakespeare’s highly stylized language accommodates equally artificial actions on the stage, while that harmony is thrown out of whack in Chevalier’s novel. Her realistic prose and naturalistic characters eventually clash with the melodrama that overtakes the plot. But by that time, the story of O has reached such a disturbing pitch that you can’t do anything but stand stock still in the sand and watch this poor boy’s life crash.
PositiveThe Washington PostA childless couple forms a girl from snow and, in answer to their longing, she comes to life. That’s essentially what happens in Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, but the author has transported the story to her native Alaska and fleshed it out with an endearing set of characters ... Whether she really exists or not, Faina, as they eventually call her, will capture your imagination just as she captures Jack and Mabel’s...[Faina is] another in the growing crowd of fiercely independent girls we’ve seen in recent fiction including Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones ... Although Ivey teases us with surreal elements, they remain an elusive scent in these pages, which are grounded in the deadly but gorgeous Alaskan landscape ... Sad as the story often is, with its haunting fairy-tale ending, what I remember best are the scenes of unabashed joy. That isn’t a feeling literary fiction seems to have much use for, but Ivey conveys surprising moments of happiness with such heartfelt conviction.
RaveThe Washington PostRobinson has constructed a plot so still that it seems at times more a series of tableaux than a novel. The tension in Home is palpable but invisible … Even more than their stylistic beauty, what's miraculous about Gilead and Home is their explicit focus on spiritual affliction, discussed in the hard terms of Protestant theology. Robinson uses the words ‘grace,’ ‘salvation’ and ‘prayer’ frequently and without embarrassment and without drifting into the gassy lingo of ecumenical spirituality. Her characters cower in the shadow of perdition … As a disquisition on the agonies of family love and serial disappointment, Home is sometimes too illuminating to bear.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorThis quiet new novel from Marilynne Robinson couldn't be less compatible with the times – or more essential … Ames's narrative is a mixture of wry commentary on the ministerial life, heartfelt reflections on God, and passing observations on what's happening that day. He makes a good effort to keep the preachy inflection out of his voice, but when it comes through, you can hear what fine guidance he must have given over the course of 2,250 sermons … There are passages here of such profound, hard-won wisdom and spiritual insight that they make your own life seem richer.
MixedThe Washington PostAmong other things, this multigenerational story is about ‘the intimacy of siblings’...but The Lowland has complicated the ancient story of sibling rivalry by infusing it with real affection, capturing the way these two brothers need and rely on each other … Given the trauma Subhash and Gauri have experienced, their whispered lives are perfectly understandable, and Lahiri renders them in clear, restrained prose. But are catatonic grief and alienation enough to sustain a novel?...Although writing this fine is easy to praise, it’s not always easy to enjoy. And there’s something naggingly synthetic about this tableau of woe … If parts of The Lowland feel static, it’s also true that Lahiri can accelerate the passage of time in moments of terror with mesmerizing effect.
RaveThe Washington PostOn one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy … [Ward’s] description of the storm, the blind terror, the force of wind and water, is filled with visceral panic. What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
RaveThe Washington PostThe question of who is and who isn’t an Indian gradually becomes the heart of the matter as the crime gets caught in the tangled branches of family and retribution, ‘the gut kick of our history’ … Joe is an incredibly endearing narrator, full of urgency and radiant candor. Looking back over a distance of many years, he describes his wrenching passage from innocence to experience … Beyond the rape and the investigation and any possible retribution, Joe’s sobering evaluation of his relationship with his parents is the most profound drama of the novel.
MixedThe Washington PostMcBride writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that reflects her narrator’s fragmented and damaged psyche. It’s a method as clever and effective as it is opaque and confusing … In some sections, the novel’s halting, elliptical style conveys confusion and terror more honestly than coherent paragraphs ever could. McBride has perfected a language commensurate with the scrambled strains of shame, pain and desire felt by a girl being raped by her uncle. Her garbled sentences capture the lacunae of intoxication … I appreciate the stylistic theory behind her tortured style, but I also couldn’t help but wish that these linguistic shenanigans would get out of the way once in a while and let this plaintive story come through unimpeded.
PanThe Washington PostThis relentless broadside against the corrosive effects of the connected life is as subtle as a sponsored tweet. Make no mistake: Eggers has seen the Facebook effect, and he does not ‘like’ it. His parable of technological madness reads like a BuzzFeed list of ‘Top 10 Problems With the Web.’ … Given how self-evident these satiric points are, though, it’s a shame Eggers can’t trust his readers more. We hardly need Mae’s ex-boyfriend to look directly into the novel’s webcam and hector us like some Luddite preacher … Part of respecting privacy might be leaving readers space to draw their own interpretations.
RaveThe Washington Post… a big, challenging new novel about the forces that poison our dreams of economic ascendancy. The title is the only thing abbreviated about NW. Everything else is luxuriously spun out, pulled and examined from various angles by an author who, like London, seems to have a camera on every street corner … [Felix’s] section — really a masterful novella in its own right — seems at first like a lengthy aside from the story of Leah and Natalie, but nothing is accidental in this tale of collision and ambition … The impression of Smith’s casual brilliance is what constantly surprises, the way she tosses off insights about parenting and work that you’ve felt in some nebulous way but never been able to articulate.
PositiveThe Washington PostThis is a story about romance and novels — and the bright young people who read them. Or misread them … Eugenides’s love affair with fiction embraces all those contradictions: the novel’s potential to confuse and enlighten, to teach what love is really like even while confusing us with impossible ideals … The novel’s first section, a 127-page masterpiece that takes place on graduation day, twists and soars through one witty, erudite, perfectly choreographed sentence after another...These later sections are not as compelling, although the portrayal of life with a manic-depressive is distressing enough to shred anyone’s 19th-century illusions of romance. Eugenides is frighteningly perceptive about the challenges of mental illness.
MixedThe Washington PostThis finely fanged tale of neighborly spite and camouflaged jealousy lets you relish your own superiority – if you don't recoil at the narrator's smugness, which is perhaps what always separates Franzen's fans from his detractors … Unfortunately, the novel doesn't offer its themes so much as bully us into accepting them with knife-to-the-throat insistence. The word ‘freedom,’ for example, beats through the book frequently enough for a frat-house drinking game. As the characters attain the freedom they craved – from children, from spouses, from work – they inevitably discover that it's unsatisfying and self-destructive … The point to remember is that Freedom is big enough and thoughtful enough to engage and irritate an enormous number of readers.
RaveThe Washington Post... irresistible ... an absorbing story told in a style that’s antique without being dated, rich but never pretentious. The narrative sometimes shifts into an interchange of intimate letters, a bittersweet reminder of what we gave up to send each other emoji and self-destructing snapshots. Raised on the classics and the Bible, Perry creates that delicate illusion of the best historical fiction: an authentic sense of the past — its manners, ideals and speech — that feels simultaneously distant and relevant to us ... By the end, The Essex Serpent identifies a mystery far greater than some creature 'from the illuminated margins of a manuscript': friendship.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe Road is a frightening, profound tale that drags us into places we don't want to go, forces us to think about questions we don't want to ask. Readers who sneer at McCarthy's mythic and biblical grandiosity will cringe at the ambition of The Road. At first I kept trying to scoff at it, too, but I was just whistling past the graveyard. Ultimately, my cynicism was overwhelmed by the visceral power of McCarthy's prose and the simple beauty of this hero's love for his son … The book's climax – an immaculate conception of Pilgrim's Progress and 'Mad Max' – is a startling shift for McCarthy, but a tender answer to a desperate prayer. ·
RaveThe Washington PostTruly, this is a remarkable creation, a story both intimate and international, swelling with comedy and outrage, a tale that cradles the world’s most fragile people even while it assaults the Subcontinent’s most brutal villains. It will not convert Roy’s political enemies, but it will surely blast past them. Here are sentences that feel athletic enough to sprint on for pages, feinting in different directions at once, dropping disparate allusions, tossing off witty asides, refracting competing ironies. This is writing that swirls so hypnotically that it doesn’t feel like words on paper so much as ink in water. Every paragraph dares you to keep up, forcing you finally to stop asking questions, to stop grasping for chronology and just trust her ... [it] will leave you awed by the heat of its anger and the depth of its compassion.
RaveThe Washington PostWhat a range Meyer has: He can disembowel a living soldier with just as much color and precision as when he slights a preppy debutante at a sleepover. He shows us Texas evolving from cattle to oil, from hardscrabble grassland to unimaginable opulence … I could no more convey the scope of The Son than I could capture the boundless plains of Texas. With this family that stretches from our war with Mexico to our invasion of Iraq, Meyer has given us an extraordinary orchestration of American history, a testament to the fact that all victors erect their empires on bones bleached by the light of self-righteousness.
RaveThe Washington PostWhile the story is sometimes terrifying, Donoghue consistently de-emphasizes Old Nick, a strategy that reflects Jack's limited perspective but also demonstrates that she has no intention of trafficking in the sexual charge of abduction thrillers. Instead, the novel stays focused on Jack's elemental pleasures and unsettling questions … For such a peculiar, stripped-down tale, it's fantastically evocative … Not too cute, not too weirdly precocious, not a fey mouthpiece for the author's profundities, Jack expresses a poignant mixture of wisdom, love and naivete that will make you ache to save him -- whatever that would mean.
PositiveThe Washington PostWith a mixture of comedy, terror and nostalgia, [Russell] conjures up a run-down theme park 30 miles off the Gulf Coast of Florida, a tourist trap run by a family of phony Indians named the Bigtrees … On this almost make-believe island, the Bigtree children home-school themselves with moldy books from a Library Boat abandoned in the 1950s. They speak with preternaturally mature knowledge without realizing how little they know of the real world. One wrong move and the novel's poignancy could slip into cuteness … She's charted out a strange estuary where heartbreak and comedy mingle to produce a fictional environment that seems semi-magical but emotionally true.
RaveThe Washington PostThe Flamethrowers is a high-wire performance worthy of Philippe Petit. On lines stretched tight between satire and eulogy, she strolls above the self-absorbed terrain of the New York art scene in the 1970s, providing a vision alternately intimate and elevated … Kushner’s seductive prose is never truly surreal, but she doesn’t present Reno’s adventures in chronological order, which reflects the dreamlike flow of her experiences … The breadth of Kushner’s historical and critical knowledge could be oppressive if this weren’t such an alluring performance. What really dazzles, though, is her ability to steer this zigzag plot so expertly that she can let it spin out of control now and then.
RaveThe Washington PostSaints and sinners, Christians and Muslims, even atheists and homosexuals have all been gathered up indiscriminately by the Son of God. Or something. It’s impossible to say … What we have is a novel soaked in mourning from its very first pages: a survivor’s tale, like a story of 9/11 without any ashes or anyone to blame, which, of course, is a recipe for self-mutilation in the dark minds of the inconsolable … Leavened with humor and tinged with creepiness, this insightful novel draws us into some very dark corners of the human psyche. Sad as these people are, their sorrow is absorbing rather than depressing.
RaveThe Washington PostObreht\'s swirling first novel, The Tiger\'s Wife, draws us beneath the clotted tragedies in the Balkans to deliver the kind of truth that histories can\'t touch … Her thoughtful narrator must navigate the land mines – literal and political – that still blot the countryside. Natalia\'s world is a steampunk mingling of modern technology and traditional tools – cellphones and antibiotics alongside picks and poultices … Its sentiments are refreshingly un-American. Anxiously youth-obsessed, we\'ve always been awkward and weird about death; our rituals for grieving and commemorating are still chaotic and ad hoc. But The Tiger\'s Wife never strays far from the desire of desperate people to do right by the dead, no matter how much time has passed.
RaveThe Washington PostThis is a story packed with wicked and wickedly funny confessions about a host of hallowed subjects ... Woman No. 17 tastes like a juice box of suburban satire laced with Alfred Hitchcock. Lepucki’s witty lines arrive as dependably as afternoon playtime, but her reflection on motherhood and women’s friendships is deadly serious ... Despite the novel’s persistent humor, Lepucki captures the cocktail of love, desperation and guilt that can sometimes poison parents of children with special needs. This is, among many things, a story about the ways we imagine we hurt our children and the ways we imagine they hurt us ... The disclosures that Lepucki engineers in this smart novel are sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious, always irresistible.
RaveThe Washington PostIf Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile. Her new novel, is a medley of voices -- in first, second and third person -- scrambled through time and across the globe with a 70-page PowerPoint presentation reproduced toward the end.
I know that sounds like the headache-inducing, aren't-I-brilliant tedium that sends readers running to nonfiction, but Egan uses all these stylistic and formal shenanigans to produce a deeply humane story about growing up and growing old in a culture corroded by technology and marketing. And what's best, every movement of this symphony of boomer life plays out through the modern music scene, a white-knuckle trajectory of cool, from punk to junk to whatever might lie beyond. My only complaint is that A Visit From the Goon Squad doesn't come with a CD.
J. Courtney Sullivan
RaveThe Washington Post...[a] quiet masterpiece ... In a simple style that never commits a flutter of extravagance, Sullivan draws us into the lives of the Raffertys and, in the rare miracle of fiction, makes us care about them as if they were our own family ... Indeed, the ferocious discipline of these two sisters is matched only by the author’s. Sullivan never tells too much; she never draws attention to her cleverness; she never succumbs to the temptation of offering us wisdom. She trusts, instead, in the holy power of a humane story told in one lucid sentence after another.
RaveChristian Science MonitorThere are so many reasons to dislike this super-hip, self-consciously ironic autobiography that it's something of a disappointment to report how wonderful it is...Of course, his book isn't for everyone (people who don't speak English will find it particularly oblique), but this may be the bridge from the Age of Irony to Some Other As Yet Unnamed Age that we've been waiting for.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorThe extraordinary range of Atonement suggests that there's nothing McEwan can't do … McEwan's knowledge of the inner workings of these characters is so piercing that you can't help feeling sorry for them; only God should have such intimate knowledge … These disparate parts, alike only in their stunning effectiveness, combine to produce a profound exploration of the nature of guilt and the difficulty of absolution. As she clears the fog of adolescence, Briony must confront the destructive power of her fiction, even while pursuing its redemptive possibilities … We're each of us, McEwan suggests, composing our lives. And in those stories we can illustrate ‘the simple truth that other people are as real as us ... and have an equal value.’
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorThe Corrections represents a giant leap for Jonathan Franzen – not only beyond his previous two novels, but beyond just about anybody else's … The book is wildly brilliant, funny, and wise, a rich feast of cultural analysis... Franzen's powers of description are exhaustive but unfailingly witty. His vision is at once enormous and minute, scanning the whole world but still attending with remarkable sympathy to the challenges of this one family … Despite its hooting comedy, The Corrections is ultimately the tragedy of people who believe that their minds, their very thoughts, are essentially chemical. Franzen diagnoses the empty horror of this notion with searing precision.
RaveThe Washington PostWhile the world has been transformed over the past decade, one of the most remarkable qualities of The Goldfinch is that it arrives singed with 9/11 terror but redolent of a 19th-century novel … This is, among many other things, a novel of survivor’s guilt, of living in ‘the generalized miasma of shame and unworthiness and being-a-burden’ … While grief may be the novel’s bassline, Theo’s wit and intelligence provide the book’s endearing melody … Free will and fate, pragmatic morality and absolute values, an authentic life and a dutiful one — those fusty old terms spring to life in an extended passage of philosophical trompe l’oeil as Theo expounds with the authority of a man who has suffered, who knows why the chained bird sings.
RaveThe Washington PostThis isn’t just a captivating retelling; it’s a creative reanimation of these indelible characters who are still breathing down our necks across the millennia. And far from feeling constrained by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, Tóibín ventures into the lacunae of the old legends and pumps blood even into the silent figures of Greek tragedy ... Despite the passage of centuries, this is a disturbingly contemporary story of a powerful woman caught between the demands of her ambition and the constraints on her gender ... Never before has Tóibín demonstrated such range, not just in tone but in action. He creates the arresting, hushed scenes for which he’s so well known just as effectively as he whips up murders that compete, pint for spilled pint, with those immortal Greek playwrights.
Omar El Akkad
RaveThe Washington PostThe American War he creates is an unsettling amalgam of 19th-century hatred and 21st-century technology: the War Between the States amplified by the wonders of modern engagement to claim tens of millions of victims ... El Akkad demonstrates a profound understanding of the corrosive culture of civil war, the offenses that give rise to new hypocrisies and mythologies, translating terrorists into martyrs and acts of despair into feats of heroism ... this story is always Sarat’s. El Akkad has done nothing less than reveal how a curious girl evolves into a pitiless fighter. Her change appears subtle month to month, but shocking by the end ... perhaps most relevant is the way El Akkad re-creates the rhetoric of factional righteousness, the self-validating claims of the aggrieved that keep every war fueled.
Stephanie Powell Watts
RaveThe Washington PostSurprise: Watts’s novel is unfairly freighted with this allusion to its distant, white ancestor. If you know Fitzgerald’s story intimately, it might be interesting, in some minor, academic way, to trace the lines of influence on her work, but in general that’s a distraction. Watts has written a sonorous, complex novel that’s entirely her own ... [the] plural narrator, knowing and wry, is just one of the novel’s rich pleasures. Without yoking herself to some cumbersome Greek chorus, Watts has invented a communal voice that’s infinitely flexible, capable of surveying the whole depressed town or lingering tenderly in a grieving mother’s mind ... Little happens in this novel in any traditional sense, but it seems constantly in motion because Watts is so captivating a writer ... All of this is conveyed in a prose style that renders the common language of casual speech into natural poetry, blending intimate conversation with the rhythms of gossip, town legend, even song lyrics ... What Watts has done here is more captivating than another retread about the persistence of a crook’s dream. She’s created an indelible story about the substance of a woman’s life.
RaveThe Washington PostThis is the ancient myth of Hercules — the plot of all plots — re-engineered into a modern-day wonder. Tinti knows how to cast the old campfire spell. I was so desperate to find out what happened to these characters that I had to keep bargaining with myself to stop from jumping ahead to the end ... a master class in literary suspense. Hercules himself might feel daunted by the labor of writing tales for 12 bullets, but Tinti is indefatigable. Each one of these stories drops us into a different setting somewhere in the country, establishes a tense situation in progress and then barrels along until slugs start tearing into flesh. Given the repetition, you would think we would come to anticipate Tinti’s methods and grow weary with these near-escapes, but each one is a heart-in-your-throat revelation, a thrilling mix of blood and love ... This would all be empty calories if Tinti weren’t also such a gorgeous writer, if she didn’t have such a profound sense of the complex affections between a man wrecked by sorrow and the daughter he hoped 'would not end up like him.'”
PanThe Washington PostIn these latter days of 'alternative facts,' the idea of someone fearlessly dedicated to total, literal honesty sounds awfully appealing. I only wish I could say that this absurd story feels more subtle in execution than in summary. Alas, the plotting is sketchy, the social satire clunky. K.’s Socratic assault on the illogical, racist and shortsighted beliefs of his fellow citizens raises not a single surprisingly or truly provocative moment ... [Currie] knows what surprising havoc the persistence of grief can wreak on the heart. He doesn’t need a gimmicky plot premise; human life is strange and existential enough.
RaveThe Washington PostBefore beginning his exceptionally unnerving new book, go ahead and lock the door, but it won’t help. You’ll still be stuck inside yourself, which for Chaon is the most precarious place to be ... Chaon, who lost his own wife — the writer Sheila Schwartz — in 2008, captures the obscuring effects of grief with extraordinary tenderness. But he sows that misery in the soil of a literary thriller that germinates more terror than sorrow. There’s something irresistibly creepy about this story that stems from the thrill of venturing into illicit places of the mind ... Chaon’s great skill is his ability to re-create that compulsive sense we have in nightmares that we’re just about to figure everything out — if only we tried a little harder, moved a little faster ... Chaon’s novel walks along a garrote stretched taut between Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock. By the time we realize what’s happening, we’ve gone too far to turn back. We can only inch forward into the darkness, bracing for what might come next.
MixedThe Washington PostFans of his short stories and autobiographical writings will hear echoes of the playwright’s life all across this familiarly bleak landscape ... much of the book’s contemporary story has the substance of an extended, self-pitying sigh...There’s an awful lot of wandering around the house, looking for the dogs, feeling bereft. He thinks about suicide, mulls his dreams, considers the smell of his urine ... insights, often evocatively phrased, are the erratic rewards of reading this fitful book. Sometimes, they come in a single phrase, such as Shepard’s appraisal of T.S. Eliot: 'essential ideas redolent of stale gin and suicide.' But the best parts of The One Inside are those least hobbled by its fractured structure and mannered dialogue. When he stops letting vagueness masquerade as profundity, when he actually tells a story about a real man caught in the peculiar throes of a particular moment, he can still make the ordinary world feel suddenly desperate and strange.
J. M. Coetzee
PanThe Washington PostThe details of these novels cannot be matched up in any schematic way with the events of Jesus’ life. Some readers may find this dissonance freeing. To me, it’s irritatingly coy. Like the bystanders in the Gospel of John, I’m left asking: 'How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly' ... The most satisfying parts of the novel come early as Simón struggles to provide David with the love and direction the boy needs. Coetzee has an impeccable ear for the tender patter between a curious child and a conscientious father figure who never wants to lose his patience ... There’s no denying the haunting quality of Coetzee’s measured prose, his ability to suspend ordinary events in a world just a few degrees away from our own. But to what end? Although The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus are presented as allegories, they never yield any interesting allegorical meaning. The result is a story that suggests more profundity than it ever incarnates.
RaveThe Washington PostMargaret Drabble has written a novel about aging and death, which for American readers should make it as popular as a colostomy bag. That’s a pity because Drabble, 77, is as clear-eyed and witty a guide to the undiscovered country as you’ll find ... The irony of Fran’s perpetual motion — and a source of the novel’s humor — is that she’s annoyed by the way her fellow senior citizens resist their golden years, years that now stretch on further for more people than ever before ... There’s nothing schematic about the range of these characters, but eventually it becomes clear that they make up a kind of catalogue of doom ... Running through all these aging lives are recurring references to a London revival of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Although less famous than his Waiting for Godot, it’s the perfect complement to Fran’s manic efforts to stay above the ever-rising grains of sand collecting around her. Drabble never sinks to the level of Beckett’s despair, but she’s refreshingly frank about the tragicomedy of aging. Remembering one of her dearly departed friends, Fran thinks, 'She never said a dull word.' The same might be said of Margaret Drabble.
PositiveThe Washington Post...a strikingly original production, a divisively odd book bound either to dazzle or alienate readers ... This is a book that confounds our expectations of what a novel should look and sound like. It seems at first a clever clip-job, an extended series of brief quotations from letters, diaries, newspaper articles, personal testimonies and later scholars, each one meticulously attributed...But quickly Lincoln in the Bardo teaches us how to read it. The quotations gathered from scores of different voices begin to cohere into a hypnotic conversation that moves with the mysterious undulations of a flock of birds ... Indeed, the ghosts threaten to overtake the novel. Clearly, Saunders enjoys their macabre antics — but the heart of the story remains Abraham Lincoln, the shattered father who rides alone to the graveyard at night to caress the head of his lifeless boy...It’s at this point in the novel that Saunders’s deep compassion shines through most clearly.
Joyce Carol Oates
RaveThe Washington PostAs the Republican Congress plots to cripple Planned Parenthood and the right to choose hinges on one vacant Supreme Court seat, American Martyrs probes all the wounds of our abortion debate. Indeed, it’s the most relevant book of Oates’s half-century-long career, a powerful reminder that fiction can be as timely as this morning’s tweets but infinitely more illuminating. For as often as we hear that some novel about a wealthy New Yorker suffering ennui is a story about 'how we live now,' here is a novel that actually fulfills that promise, a story whose grasp is so wide and whose empathy is so boundless that it provides an ultrasound of the contemporary American soul ... They are American families so separated by opportunity and ideology that they could be living in different countries, but Oates’s sympathetic attention to the dimensions of their lives renders both with moving clarity ... Oates has mastered an extraordinary form commensurate to her story’s breadth. The book is written in a structure fluid enough to move back and forth in time, to shift from first to third person without warning, sometimes breaking into italics as though this febrile text couldn’t contain the fervency of these words ... To enter this masterpiece is to be captivated by the paradox of that tragic courage and to become invested in Oates’s search for some semblance of atonement, secular or divine.
RaveThe Washington PostIs this resurrection something to celebrate, like the boys showing up at their own funeral? You may be tempted to sigh, 'I been there before,' but you ain’t been here before, not like this anyways ... Coover sustains that magical act of literary ventriloquism for 300 pages, preserving Twain’s raggedly, tall-tale patter spiced with the same accidental aphorisms. But Coover’s feat of transformation is ultimately more interesting than his imitation ... despite a rich vein of slapstick humor, Huck Out West is a more melancholy novel than Twain’s original. 'All stories is sad stories,' Huck says, and we come to see that his “desperate low-spiritedness” stems from the trauma of witnessing so much of the human slaughter that federal expansion demanded ... f the story meanders as much as the Mississippi River, it also gathers considerable force as Huck struggles to stay out of trouble, avoid Gen. Hard Ass and resist Tom’s increasingly malevolent friendship.
RaveThe Washington PostAdiga’s wit and raw sympathy will carry uninitiated readers beyond their ignorance of cricket ... There’s nothing boring here, though. Adiga’s paragraphs bounce along like a ball hit hard down a dirt street. One gets the general direction, but the vectors of his story can change at any moment as we chase after these characters ... What’s uncomfortable about this story begins like an itch, but for a time, the zaniness of Adiga’s novel camouflages its darker themes ... Selection Day evolves into a bittersweet reflection on the limits of what we can select ... Adiga’s voice is so exuberant, his plotting so jaunty, that the sadness of this story feels as though it is accumulating just outside our peripheral vision.
RaveThe Washington PostMoonglow is a wondrous book that celebrates the power of family bonds and the slipperiness of memory ... [The] fusion of history, slapstick and menace sets the trajectory for the rest of this lovable novel ... This is Chabon at his magical best, stitching his grandfather into the fabric of the 20th century in a way that seems either ludicrous or plausible depending on how the light hits ... a thoroughly enchanting story about the circuitous path that a life follows, about the accidents that redirect it, and about the secrets that can be felt but never seen, like the dark matter at the center of every family’s cosmos.
Amos Oz, Trans. by Nicholas de Lange
RaveThe Washington\"Plotless novels about lost young men represent a tedious subgenre of contemporary literature, but, naturally, Oz rises above that by rendering his hapless hero so comically sympathetic ... depends entirely on the complexity of Oz’s themes and the tender elegance of his style ... Although a certain degree of familiarity with mid-20th-century political history is helpful, Oz gracefully weaves that exposition into this novel of ideas. And although the story certainly involves arguments about the Israeli-Arab conflict that Oz has made in his nonfiction work, it never reads like an allegory of the author’s political views.\
RaveThe Washington Post...a story at once intimate and global, as much about childhood friendship as international aid, as fascinated by the fate of an unemployed single mother as it is by the omnipotence of a world-class singer ... The grade school scenes are small masterworks of storytelling in which the child’s innocence is delicately threaded with the adult’s irony. If the style of Swing Time is less exuberant than her previous work, Smith’s attention to the grace notes of friendship is as precise as ever ... Swing Time may be the most perceptive one I’ve read about the distortion field created by fame and wealth ... Swing Time uses its extraordinary breadth and its syncopated structure to turn the issues of race and class in every direction.
RaveThe Washington Post...a strange, intense novel from Ha Jin about the glories and limits of the freedom of the press ... one of the most unsettling books about the moral dimensions of modern journalism ... Aside from a delicious satire of book publicity — an industry so unhitched from reality that it’s hard to parody its exaggerations — The Boat Rocker also dramatizes the vast shadow world of Internet news.
PanThe Washington Post...how a writer as exciting as Boyle could produce such a dull novel remains a mystery. As it drags on for more than 500 pages, The Terranauts inspires a sense of tedium that could only be matched by being trapped in a giant piece of Tupperware ... like watching The Bachelor: Terrarium Edition. The adolescent souls in these adult bodies are numbingly petty — and the novel offers no relief from their flat voices, their obvious confessions, their poisonous jealousy.
PositiveThe Washington PostFertile as the play is for drama and satire, Prose’s novel leaps out beyond the circle of theater people ... this [elderly widower] chapter — a masterful short story, really — is almost too good, in that it casts a shadow over the others, which don’t attain the same level of complexity or poignancy ... a lovely tribute to the transformative value of imagination.
MixedThe Washington PostLethem adopts just the right tone for this handsome rake, who can hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near ... Lethem’s reflections on faces and identities would enlist more interest if we could feel a stronger pulse in Bruno — or if the concept of a man without a self were developed to more harrowing existential effect ... Lethem’s wit germinates and blooms within single sentences, which makes him a pleasure to read. And he’s a master at letting the weirdness of situations slowly accrue. But too many of the strange elements in A Gambler’s Anatomy merely bleed away.
MixedThe Washington PostAtwood gives over several chapters to Felix’s discussions of The Tempest, and despite the essentially academic content of these scenes, they’re delightful ... Although Atwood acknowledges this painful issue in passing, it never attains the emotional weight one expects given her cast of prisoners and the racial taint of modern incarceration. Instead, this is, weirdly, a revision of The Tempest in which the monster-slave is even more defanged than in the original story ... And the book’s erratic tone is exacerbated further by a tragedy that Atwood has inserted into Shakespeare’s plot ... an exercise like this volume feels limited to teachers and students of The Tempest. Others are likely to find that for all its clever echoes and allusions, the whole production melts into air, into thin air.
RaveThe Washington Post...very soon, we’re thoroughly invested in these families, wrapped up in their lives by Patchett’s storytelling, which has never seemed more effortlessly graceful. This is minimalism that magically speaks volumes ... Drawing us through this complex genealogy of guilt and forgiveness, Patchett finally delivers us to a place of healing that seems quietly miraculous, entirely believable.
RaveThe Washington PostIan McEwan’s preposterously weird little novel, is more brilliant than it has any right to be ... surprisingly suspenseful, dazzlingly clever and gravely profound ... Nutshell offers the unmatched pleasure of McEwan’s prose, inflected with witty echoes of Shakespeare.
PositiveThe Washington Post...we’re in the presence of a major new comic novelist ... The Nix presents that strain of gigantism unique to debut novelists who fear this will be their only shot. The book practically tears off its own binding in its desperation to contain every aside, joke, riff and detour ... hundreds more pages could have been sliced away from The Nix. And yet there’s no denying what a brilliant, endearing writer Hill is.
RaveThe Washington Post...illuminates the immigrant experience in America with the tenderhearted wisdom so lacking in our political discourse ...Mbue is a bright and captivating storyteller, inflecting her own voice with the tenor of her characters’ thoughts and speech. She can enjoy the comedy of their naivete without subjecting them to mockery ... There’s a persistent warmth in this book, a species of faith that’s too often singed away by wit in contemporary fiction. For all its comedy, Mbue’s social commentary never develops that toxic level of irony.
PositiveThe Washington Post...a short but complex story that arises from simmering grief. It lulls across the pages like a mournful whisper ... It’s as much as a compliment as a complaint to say that I wish the story were fuller. There’s enough material here for a much longer novel, and, though Woodson’s prose is always carefully constructed, she’s sometimes so elliptical that complicated issues are illuminated only obliquely ... But that’s the real attraction of this novel, which mixes wonder and grief so poignantly.
MixedThe Washington PostMcInerney has long been a distinctly New York novelist, but Bright, Precious Days looks downright myopic in its focus on the rarefied concerns of a certain class of New Yorkers ... Still, as a social satirist, McInerney can be so spot-on that you want to call your housekeeper upstairs and read her some of the funny bits ... despite the dazzlingly smart style of McInerney’s prose, there’s a wavering tone in this novel, a sense that the author is still lusting after the very things he’s mocking.
RaveThe Washington Post...a book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. The Underground Railroad reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era ... [the railroad] gains real heft as a symbol of bravery and perseverance, a subterranean force in the story, which usually remains strikingly realistic ... The canon of essential novels about America’s peculiar institution just grew by one.
MixedThe Washington PostClearly, Stevens has assembled all the accoutrements for a crazy political novel, but it suffers from a disappointing lack of satiric courage ... Pining for a satire fit for our times, we get instead a perfectly reasonable Romneyesque comedy that probably has binders full of uproarious incidents stuffed away in a drawer somewhere.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe Hopefuls is a hilarious gripefest about what it feels like to be caught in the gravitational pull of Washington ... [the] winking humor and especially the real affection between Beth and Matt make The Hopefuls a pleasure to read. Close has a light, precise touch about the way a young marriage works when the partners are caught between old ideals and new realities ... Unfortunately, leaving D.C. robs the novel of its rich satirical milieu — the Texas setting is not as entertaining — and it cramps the story into the narrow confines of a souring friendship ... The Hopefuls offers a welcome mixture of humor and wisdom about the good people who run this country — or, for some reason, want to.
RaveThe Washington PostBarkskins is an awesome monument of a book, a spectacular survey of America’s forests dramatized by a cast of well-hewn characters ... such is the magnetism of Proulx’s narrative that there’s no resisting her thundering cascade of stories. By drilling deep into the woods that enabled this country to conquer the world, Proulx has laid out the whole history of American capitalism and its rapacious destruction of the land ... With its dozens of characters spread over hundreds of years, Barkskins could easily have collapsed into a great muddle of voices, but each of them is so distinct and so brilliantly choreographed that they never blur ... a towering new work of environmental fiction.
RaveThe Washington Post[Gyasi is] asking us to consider the tangled chains of moral responsibility that hang on our history. This is one of the many issues that Homegoing explores so powerfully ... [the] structure — essentially a novel in linked stories — places extraordinary demands on Gyasi. Each chapter must immediately introduce a new setting and new characters making fresh claims on our engagement. (The family tree at the front of the book is an invaluable reader’s crutch.) But the speed with which Gyasi sweeps across the decades isn’t confusing so much as dazzling, creating a kind of time-elapsed photo of black lives in America and in the motherland ... Gyasi, who is just 26 and reportedly received more than $1 million for this book, has developed a style agile enough to reflect the remarkable range of her first novel ... truly captivating.
RaveThe Washington PostThe most remarkable quality of this novel is Cline’s ability to articulate the anxieties of adolescence in language that’s gorgeously poetic without mangling the authenticity of a teenager’s consciousness. The adult’s melancholy reflection and the girl’s swelling impetuousness are flawlessly braided together...[F]or a story that traffics in the lurid notoriety of the Manson murders, The Girls is an extraordinary act of restraint. With the maturity of a writer twice her age, Cline has written a wise novel that’s never showy: a quiet, seething confession of yearning and terror.
MixedThe Washington Post...before anybody does any leaping, The City of Mirrors”slows down so much you can barely find a pulse. There’s even a 100-page novella dumped in here about a lonely kid who goes to Harvard, falls in love with his buddy’s girlfriend, and eventually gets jilted as he waits for her in Grand Central Terminal ... But at least from this point onward, The City of Mirrors is a flesh-ripping terror-fest ... It’s all deliciously exciting — right up until the epilogue, which zooms ahead 900 years to a world that seems as alien as last Thursday.
RaveThe Washington PostLouise Erdrich’s new novel, LaRose, begins with the elemental gravitas of an ancient story: One day while hunting, a man accidentally kills his neighbor’s 5-year-old son. Such a canyon of grief triggers the kind of emotional vertigo that would make anyone recoil. But you can lean on Erdrich, who has been bringing her healing insight to devastating tragedies for more than 30 years...The recurring miracle of Erdrich’s fiction is that nothing feels miraculous in her novels. She gently insists that there are abiding spirits in this land and alternative ways of living and forgiving that have somehow survived the West’s best efforts to snuff them out.
PositiveThe Washington PostThree dead — and we’re just getting started. But that’s the abiding wonder of Russo’s novel, which bears down on two calamitous days and exploits the action in every single minute. From the cemetery, this ramshackle plot quickly starts grabbing at mudslides, grave robbery, collapsing buildings, poisonous snakes, drug deals, arson, lightning strikes and toxic goo. North Bath is a sleepy little town that never sleeps...That’s a testament to Russo’s narrative skill, which keeps all of these characters careening through a long book devoted to a very short period of time. His success stems largely from the fact that no tangent ever feels tangential in these pages, even if Russo sometimes leans too heavily on his sad-sack shtick.
RaveThe Washington PostThe six stories in Adam Johnson’s new collection, Fortune Smiles, will worm into your mind and ruin your balance for a few days ... Johnson’s style is quiet and unassuming, a gentle reflection of the muted people he usually writes about. But restraint only increases the intensity of these stories and makes their visceral effect more surprising. His characters are cramped by circumstance or weakness, struggling to make sense of situations they can’t entirely understand or even believe.
PanThe Washington PostBecause her latest work offers curious reflections of where she began in The Bluest Eye, it’s tempting to read God Help the Child as a capstone of her jeweled career. Once again, we have a young woman whose life is overdetermined by the pigment of her skin in a culture torn with sexual violence. But unfortunately, God Help the Child carries only a faint echo of that earlier novel’s power ... [Morrisson] leaves these people no interior life, a problem that grows more pronounced as the novel rolls along from trauma to trauma, throwing off wisdom like Mardi Gras bling. While attempting to create a kind of fable about the lingering effects of maternal neglect and racial self-hatred, Morrison ends up instead with characters who keep phasing between skimpy realism and overwrought fantasy.
Claire Vaye Watkins
RaveThe Washington PostWatkins is a master of tantalizing details, the unspoken tensions and disappointments of these lovers scraping around in the arid opulence of scorpion-infested bathrooms and empty swimming pools ... But the real genius of Gold Fame Citrus is its speculation about the isolated colonies that might survive in this aboveground hell. How might laggards, wanderers, fanatics and thieves coalesce? Once civilization decamps to the relatively moist East Coast? Watkins conjures the mythologies and mores that might sprout in such infertile soil.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
RaveThe Washington Post...surely a new classic of war fiction. Nguyen has wrapped a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age. Startlingly insightful and perilously candid ... The contemporary relevance of [the] devastating final section can’t be ignored, but The Sympathizer is too great a novel to feel bound to our current soul-searching about the morality of torture. And it’s even more than a thoughtful reflection about our misguided errand in Southeast Asia. Transcending these historical moments, Nguyen plumbs the loneliness of human life, the costs of fraternity and the tragic limits of our sympathy.
PositiveThe Washington PostNext to Swift’s previous novels, such as Last Orders or his emotionally devastating Wish You Were Here, Mothering Sunday feels elliptical, even minor. But it’s an elegant reflection on the impulse to tell stories. For Jane, he writes, 'it would always be the task of getting to the quick, the heart, the nub, the pith: the trade of truth-telling.' Surely, Swift is describing himself, too.
PanThe Washington PostAs a long game of literary Mad Libs, Eligible is undeniably delightful. Sittenfeld’s cleverest move may be working a reality-TV dating show into her story. What might seem like a bit of pandering to pop taste is really a feat of metafictional satire ... It helps tremendously that Eligible moves along so breezily, but changing the scenery and the props isn’t sufficient to modernize Pride and Prejudice, even if such a thing could (or should) be done. We crave a witty vision of our culture commensurate with Austen’s of hers. Too often Eligible delivers humor that’s merely glib or crude.
RaveThe Washington Post...a colossal postmodern novel that’s often baffling, possibly offensive and frequently bizarre ... With its magically engineered collection of fiction, history and fantasy, and particularly with its own capacious spirit, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings doesn’t just knock Jefferson off his pedestal, it blows us over, too, shatters the whole sinner-saint debate and clears out new room to reconsider these two impossibly different people who once gave birth to the United States. It’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant.
PositiveThe Washington PostAny summary is bound to lay a heavy hand on [the book's] jumbled structure, the way peculiar characters and strange events are introduced only to be identified and tied together in surprising ways much later. I wouldn’t blame you for assuming the book contains more reels of weirdness than you’re willing to sit through. But, honestly, while the novel’s form is promiscuous, its moral dimensions feel vast. Once Spiotta has her disparate storylines in motion, they resonate with each other in ways you can’t stop thinking about.
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
PositiveThe Washington PostFor all the acerbic humor that Sweeney wrings from this family’s self-absorption, she maintains a refreshing balance of tenderness. Rather than skewering the Plumbs to death, she pokes them, as though probing to find the humanity beneath their cynical crust. And because we need some relief from the Plumbs — lest they grow intolerably annoying — the book expands to explore their far more mature friends, relations and victims.
RaveThe Washington PostIn the end, what leaves one in humbled awe of The Little Red Chairs is O’Brien’s dexterity, her ability to shift without warning — like life — from romance to horror, from hamlet to hell, from war crimes tribunal to midsummer night’s dream. And through it all, she embeds the most perplexing moral challenge ever conceived in the struggles of one lonely, middle-aged woman who just wanted a baby but now wanders the earth along with so many others, 'craving the valleys and small instances of mercy.'”
PositiveThe Washington Post[A] haunting little book ... While acknowledging that his compendium of mayhem may read like a political argument against guns, that wasn’t his intention. The people he’d really like to reach are gun owners. Their adaptation of smart guns, which electronically limit who can fire them, is our best chance for progress, he says.
RaveThe Washington Post“The Year of the Runaways is essentially The Grapes of Wrath for the 21st century: the Joads’ ordeal stretched halfway around the planet, from India to England. By following a handful of young men, Sahota has captured the plight of millions of desperate people struggling to find work, to eke out some semblance of a decent life in a world increasingly closed-fisted and mean. If you’re willing to have your vague impressions of the dispossessed brought into scarifying focus, read this novel.
RaveThe Washington Post“A Doubter’s Almanac is a long, complex novel about math, which sounds like the square root of tedium, but suspend your flight instinct for a moment. Ethan Canin writes with such luxuriant beauty and tender sympathy that even victims of Algebra II will follow his calculations of the heart with rapt comprehension.
PositiveThe Washington PostNot everyone will take this little book and eat it up. Readers who treat the Scriptures as fragile goblets of orthodoxy may find This Is Why I Came upsetting or distasteful. And yet, an unmistakable glimmer of faith radiates from these biblical reimaginings, even though they’re presented as the work of a woman who “can’t believe in God.” What the novel demands is a willingness to enter the lacunae of the familiar Bible stories and wrestle with the angel of Rakow’s poetic vision.
PositiveThe Washington PostWith Martel’s signature mixture of humor and pathos, these three stories explore the rugged terrain of grief. But they also contain the author’s reflections on the connection between storytelling and faith ... Martel’s writing has never been more charming, a rich mixture of sweetness that’s not cloying and tragedy that’s not melodramatic.
RaveThe Washington PostThis is a novel of aggressive introspection, but Greenwell writes with such candor and psychological precision that the effect is oddly propulsive. The sustained tension between the narrator and Mitko will remind some readers of Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room ... [a] perfect articulation of despair that anyone with a heart will hear.
RaveThe Washington PostBy following the attenuation of moral responsibility that political leaders depend on, Yapa demonstrates the grotesque process that encourages otherwise good, reasonable people to perfect methods of maiming and blinding peaceful protesters.
PositiveThe Washington PostWith its wry humor and gentle insights into the way we draw away from one another at exactly the wrong time, All the Houses is more than just an illuminating story about the nameless victims of political scandal. It’s a story about how our insecurities encourage us to smother our affections — and a reminder that we’re running out of time to make amends.
PositiveThe Washington PostThrough this storm of female voices gallops that fierce mare, the object of Velvet’s affection, the subject of her dreams, the creature that could deliver her from turmoil — or kill her. Gaitskill’s ability to control all this energy, all this yearning, is just one of the many rewards of her brave novel.
PositiveThe Washington PostHunt refuses to let any conclusions solidify in her wry prose...Turned around and around in these woods, you won’t always know where you are, but there’s a rare pleasure in this blend of romance and phantoms.
RaveThe Washington PostReaders hoping for a British telenovela will be disappointed. But for anyone who cherishes Anne Tyler and Alice Munro, the book offers similar deep pleasures. Like those North American masters of the domestic realm, Hadley crystallizes the atmosphere of ordinary life in prose somehow miraculous and natural. If the surface of her stories is lightly etched with charm and humor, darker forces burrow underneath.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe Japanese Lover feels, at first, as nutritious as Grandma’s freshly baked sugar cookies. But there’s nothing cloying about this unabashedly sweet story — and nothing unambitious about it, either.
PositiveThe Washington PostThe novelist’s reflections on his life and work attain a sweet profundity that should win over anyone who follows his journey to the end.
PositiveThe Washington Post...a rich, multilayered story, a whole syllabus of compelling topics. As a novelist, Aboulela moves confidently between dramatizing urgent, contemporary issues and providing her audience with sufficient background to follow these discussions about the changing meaning of jihad, the history of Sufism and the racial politics of the war on terror.
RaveThe Washington PostThe irreducible mystery of human experience ties this small collection together, and in each of these stories McCann explores that theme in some strikingly effective ways.
PositiveThe Washington PostThat structure sounds repetitive, like five identical tombstones lying in a row...But the sticky web of repetitions and parallels in these stories grows increasingly ominous and, yes, ghoulishly funny.
RaveThe Washington Post\"Swelling with a contrapuntal symphony of passions, Fates and Furies is that daring novel that seems to reach too high — and then somehow, miraculously, exceeds its own ambitions.\