PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Gary Shteyngart’s contribution to the burgeoning genre of the lockdown novel is very, very Russian—in the best possible way ... Here’s something of a departure—or at least a mellowing—for Shteyngart; the antic international satire of Absurdistan or the science-fictional Super Sad True Love Story is muted, while on his stylistic mixing board the slider marked melancholy has been notched up to 11 ... (The main fault of the book is Vinod’s overlong and slightly repetitious dream/hallucination scenes.) ... The real Chekhovianism is the way that Shteyngart’s comic style—the book crackles with good one-liners—is so consistently and to such effect shot through with plangency ... These characters, with their variously thwarted ambitions for love and fame, are wrangling with the realisation that they are ordinary, mortal, vulnerable, just like everyone else.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)This isn’t an overtly political novel, or state of the nation novel – it’s a family story – but history is its background music ... What gives this novel its special tenderness and torque – and later supplies a series of rug-pulling metafictional surprises – is its framing ... This novel is funny – Ferris has lovely comic timing and a great way with the sheer silliness of a family’s mental and physical bric-a-brac – and very moving. At times it tips over into outright sentimentality, only for that to emerge as part of the book’s design; a weakness not of Ferris’s but of Jake Barnes. This is the story of one disappointed idealist told by another, of one unreliable narrator described by another, and it is animated by filial love. Attention is being paid.
Laurent Bienet tr. Sam Taylor
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... reads more like a collection of primary sources than a conventional novel. What to call it? A historical systems novel, preoccupied with the roots of great power conflict, and the historical forces that underpin it? Or just a jeu d’esprit? It’s a bit of both, and it’s tremendous fun ... splendidly in the spirit of this book, which you could see as a world-historical version of the parlour game where you assemble a fantasy dinner party from the past.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)There is an odd echo of J. G. Ballard, in the sense that Hollywood is at once the most unreal and most truthful expression of the historical zeitgeist ... At barely over 300 pages, this standalone work qualifies in Ellroy’s canon as something like a novella. But it is chewy stuff, not only in its vast cast and complex tangle of betrayals, shakedowns, cover-ups and atrocities but in its language, too. Ellroy’s style has always been densely telegraphic – but here it is also as alliterative as Beowulf ... may not break new ground for James Ellroy, but it is a characteristically vigorous tour of his established territory. And more than usually in this one, to borrow the style, he milks his meshugenah muse for lascivious laffs.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)In this age of anxiety about cultural appropriation and suchlike, kudos to Nick Hornby’s bold move in Just Like You, He narrates one half of it from the point of view of a working-class black man in his early 20s and the other half from the point of view of a 42-year-old middle-class white mother. And, what’s more, he makes a social comedy of the two of them falling in love, one that gently dramatises their differences of class, race and generation ... By setting most of Just Like You in 2016, what’s more, Hornby stirs in that great exposer of fissures in class, race and generation: the Brexit referendum ... Hornby is surefooted around all these issues, amiable and forgiving ... Does he tell us much that we don’t already know or think we don’t already know? On this I’m not sure. Just Like You – as a comedy of class difference and of the soft racism of bien-pensant liberals – invites comparison with Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age and seems to me to lack some of that novel’s sharpness. I don’t think there’s much in here to challenge or discomfit ... But why should there be? It is frequently funny, consistently engaging and it’s not primarily a sociological treatise or a satire: it’s a love story. It may not have fire in its belly, but it has great warmth in its heart.
Phillipa K. Chong
MixedThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)We hear about \'interventions\' and \'boundary work\' and suchlike—which is to say that Chong herself does the sort of boundary work that means ordinary readers (ie the consumers of the newspaper reviews that are her subject matter) will find her book pretty indigestible. This is a shame, because she has a number of more or less sensible things to say, even if they run on a spectrum from the slightly interesting to the bleeding obvious ... Chong is really just an awkward writer, a disadvantage for someone writing about writing about writing ... although Chong acknowledges, with some rather bleak tables of percentages, that critics attempt to argue for their reactions to books with reference to characterization, prose style, structure, themes and genre expectations, she investigates in frustratingly sparse detail how that \'evaluating work\' is actually done, which is the heart of the matter. Good critics do make a coherent case, on the book’s own terms, for why its craft is or is not satisfactory—and they do so with their readers rather than the author in mind. That’s the counsel of perfection, and you don’t really need a statistical survey to arrive at it.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)It\'s impossible to overstate how meticulously his work hangs together: the symmetries on a single page; the motifs that worm through it; the multiple counterpointed stories ... through this almost diagrammatic style, he manages to achieve something like documentary realism ... These panels are crammed with everyday truth ... he is so attuned to the possibilities of the medium, so completely in control of what he\'s doing, that he finds expressive potential in it that you simply couldn\'t have anticipated ...
There\'s nobody else doing anything in this medium that remotely approaches Ware for originality, plangency, complexity and exactitude. Astonishment is an entirely appropriate response.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)...an extreme example of Will Self run riot ... the narrative runs in great associative stream-of-consciousness skeins, shot through with buried quotations from song lyrics, inane catchphrases and second-order cliches ironised with italics and, especially where they end a sentence, preceded with the little drum-fill of an ellipsis ... I dug it in the fiction, but I only half dug it here: it has an evasive quality where memoir seems to ask for more directness; or, at least, a different sort of indirectness. And sometimes it just seems like an affectation ... Self doesn’t shill for sympathy. His feelings towards most other human beings run the slim gamut between envy and contempt ... So Will is, in its way – because of rather than despite its protagonist being so unlikable – an honest-seeming memoir of the experience of addiction.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Abrams has a definite comic talent and a lively turn of phrase. The set-pieces are well done – there\'s an agonisingly plausible one involving an unexploded car bomb rammed up the backside of a tank – and the dialogue zings back and forth cheerily enough. Abrams is a good writer, in other words. I\'m less convinced that he\'s a novelist. He struggles to assemble a plot, and his characteristic mode of comic exaggeration doesn\'t leave him with anywhere much to go in terms of a gear change. When he shucks the cynicism, he risks mawkishness ... Much of the most interesting material in Fobbit is the stuff that reads like reportage or memoir ... It\'s not an insult to Abrams to say that Fobbit suffers badly from the comparison it invites. As Heller is said to have replied when someone pointed out that he\'d never written anything else as good as Catch-22: \'Who has?\'
John Jeremiah Sullivan
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Pulphead is a big, fat, frequently exhilarating collection of what in the US is portentously called \'long-form journalism\', aka magazine pieces. Books like this are always a hotch-potch, but here the potch is well and truly hotched ... What holds all this stuff together is the author\'s great curiosity (these pieces are written casually but researched to the nth degree), his warmth of tone and the sense under it of a sinuous intelligence. It\'s full of good jokes, tiny sharp bits of description, nuggets of gossip. He really knows music, too. You\'d think everything that could have been said about Michael Jackson has been, but Sullivan finds ways of making it fresh ... As to the erudition, with Wallace it was literature, maths and grammar. With Sullivan, it\'s literature, geology and Bible quotes ... Like Wallace, he\'s fastidious about not trapping his responses behind the glass of irony ... His engagement with religion is a pointer to one of the things that\'s most refreshing here. Most of the journalistic voices that seem to travel from the US are coastal. Sullivan, who grew up in Kentucky and southern Indiana and went to university in Tennessee, is declaredly a southerner.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)As Isaacson makes clear, Jobs wasn\'t a visionary or even a particularly talented electronic engineer. But he was a businessman of astonishing flair and focus, a marketing genius, and – when he was getting it right, which wasn\'t always – had an intuitive sense of what the customer would want before the customer had any idea ... But its sheer bulk bespeaks a sort of reverence, and it\'s clear from the way it\'s put together that there\'s not much Jobs did that Isaacson doesn\'t regard as vital to the historical record ... Isaacson writes dutiful, lumbering American news-mag journalese and suffers – as did Jobs himself – from a lack of sense of proportion ... Jobs\'s personal life is sketchily covered, but what details there are don\'t charm.
MixedThe GuardianIan McEwan’s enjoyable, cockeyed Brexit satire opens by tipping a gigantic wink to Kafka’s Metamorphosis a work it in no way resembles ... The big problem is that it’s not clear at all how the Brexit spoof meshes with the cockroach-turned-human premise. Kafka doesn’t ask you to consider the how or the why of his scenario. McEwan can’t swerve it – and scatters unanswered but nagging questions as he goes. How does a cockroach remember the 1960s song \'Walking Back to Happiness\'? Why does the transfiguration, which seems to be a baffling accident on the opening pages, end up looking like a worked-out plan by the cockroach hivemind in the closing ones? Were cockroaches behind it all along, even though the referendum had happened long before a cockroach woke up as the prime minister? As satire, it may cheer and invigorate the admittedly sizable constituency that regards Brexit as being no less insane an idea than unilaterally reversing the laws of economics, and one that could plausibly have been hatched by a cabal of nefarious, murderous, lie‑spewing human cockroaches. But that falls into the heat rather than light department. All McEwan’s fluency is here, and much of his wit...but, like Jim Sams or Gregor Samsa, the end result is neither one thing nor the other.
RaveThe Telegraph (UK)...[a] moving, sourly funny and virtuosically drawn book ... It’s hard to express in prose how imaginatively and effectively Ware marries words to images, how expressive his almost diagrammatically minimalist style can be, how he juxtaposes banality and trauma, how he sketches the passing of time and the sense of nowhereness in blank wide shots ... Amid all this bathos and desolation, there are little acts of kindness or connection, and memories of happiness or hope that the characters return to. It’s awful, but amid the awfulness there’s a tender attention to the individuality of each character.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... is, in some ways, an old-fashioned thing – and all the better for it. It’s a big, loping, digressive multi-generational novel, telling several stories, of the sort you don’t see all that much in literary fiction these days. Point of view scoots merrily from character to character, major or minor, as suits the narration. And Zink blithely ignores that silliest cliche of literary advice: show, don’t tell. She’s a teller, the book is full of information, and her pert authorial commentary is part of the fun ... The straight-edge idealism of late 80s hardcore bands resonates backwards with the hippie/boomer idealism of Pamela’s parents, and forwards to the millennial idealism of Flora’s generation ... This is no jeremiad, though. Sentence by sentence it is wry and very funny, generous in spirit and full of the quick of life. Its irony is warm. Like Joe, it sings - as Gerard Manley Hopkins would have it - in praise of everything fickle, freckled, swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim. It’s a doxology, after all.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)...an excellent writer making an enjoyable, absorbing and less than completely successful attempt to find the sweet spot of [a] sore point ... In its politics, just as in its gripes about public transport, this is a great big Centrist Dad of a novel ... And yet it’s never stronger or more convincing than when it’s furthest from political events ... One problem is that the historical scaffolding is so familiar, and yet will date so fast; this means that certain passages of exposition feel clunky ... And it is when the political discussion is out of the way that the novel becomes richer and less schematic ... Coe’s writing is as smoothly accomplished as ever. His comic set pieces...and scenes...are very funny. Yet this is also a surprisingly sentimental book ... It is an autumnal novel, and a sad one: poignant about the passing of time, the wishing for what has vanished, the decades lost to obscure hatreds, misplaced loves and unsatisfactory marriages – and about what, washing up on the brink of old age, we’re left with and what we can or can’t make of it. That a river, or two, runs through it is no accident.
RaveThe GuardianThe whole thing is very well crafted. Stibbe will drop the seeds of unwritten chapters into asides – glimpses of a wider comic world in little metonymies ... The book is set in 1980, and the period detail is exact and remorseless without ever quite shading into camp or kitsch ... as things progress the story changes gear, giving a fuller resonance to what could otherwise be taken as a simple assemblage of whimsy and kookiness ... The spirit of Victoria Wood, I think, hovers over the way Stibbe generates tender human sympathy through an accumulation of mundane provincial detail.
PositiveThe GuardianDoes Jackson Brodie know he’s in a detective novel? He at least half suspects it, and as in Transcription Atkinson can’t resist a little salt-sprinkle of postmodernism ... There’s considerable vamping about with tone in Big Sky. The novel enjoys the absurdities of its genre – winks at them, even – yet manages at the same time to do a lot of work with the melancholy and absurdity of ordinary life. This, in a way, is a book of aftermaths ... It’s a credit to Atkinson’s dexterity that despite...clashes of tone and register the novel manages to hang together, even though the subject matter...and the essentially comic mechanisms of the plot, its coincidences and confrontations, seem to be at odds. How seriously are we to take it all? Atkinson artfully avoids supplying or implying an answer.
MixedThe GuardianThe range and subtlety of [Aristotle\'s] thought are almost inexpressibly thrilling, and it’s a mark against Edith Hall’s mostly lucid trot through what Aristotle can do for us that, in modernising and domesticating him, and making him instrumental in a self-help format, some of that thrill is lost. Mind you, it may be that this wasn’t the book on Aristotle she wanted to write so much as the only one she could publish ... of its type this isn’t too bad. Here, largely, is Aristotle in paraphrase or boiled down ... But some of his freshness and particularity, in being packaged as formulas and bromides, is gone. And she’s loose-ish ... But if you ignore the fluff, here’s a clear and frequently interesting survey of Aristotle’s thought on everything from virtue, work and friendship to the natural world, God and the good death, together with biographical snippets and personal reflections, from an author who has clearly read Aristotle well.
RaveThe Times Literary SupplementUnlike, say, Chicago, you can read Dreyer’s English right through with unalloyed enjoyment, and learn a lot from it: not only from its rulings but from its attitude. Sane, tetchy, prankish and intensely pragmatic, Dreyer tells you how a good copy-editor thinks, how he finds compromises, and – above all – what close attention he pays ... Benjamin Dreyer is wise and bitterly experienced and fantastically good company. You should buy his book and read it and, if you’re British, ignore everything he has to say about the relationship between commas and quotation marks. But if you’re American, you may just have to suck it up.
MixedThe GuardianThere’s a lot of travel, a lot of violence, a lot of cartoony sex ... The characters stitch one another up, take revenge, bond again in a burst of drunken sentimentality—and rinse and repeat. It’s all wildly over the top and frequently very funny. Sensitive and inclusive, mind, it’s not ... women are, for the most part, either whining and needy or gagging for it, or both—though you could just about attribute the misogyny to the deplorable worldviews of the various narrators. Just about ... The plot, though entertaining, is even more rickety than usual. It’s bookended by a detached and oddly cursory subplot ... If you go for Welsh’s stuff, as I do, you’ll go for Dead Men’s Trousers with great enthusiasm. If you don’t … well, you were warned.
MixedFinancial Times\"For the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves to call a crime novel A Shot in the Dark does seem a bit of a hostage to fortune. The moment a panda shows up, it’s going to be bish bash bosh, case closed. Disappointingly — or prudently — these pages don’t contain a panda; but they do contain a theatre critic with terrible BO, a murderously angry Punch-and-Judy man, a charlady with an interesting hinterland, a phrenologist with an interesting hinterland, a bar-bending music-hall strongwoman with an interesting hinterland, a teenage dollybird with no hinterland whatsoever, and a number of more or less incompetent police officers ... This is amiable enough stuff, and in the closing pages rather ingeniously plotted. But the reader ought to be warned that this is the sort of unceasingly jocular novel where Italian mothers say things like \'Those Casino Boys done this to my Frankie!\'...A decent indicator of whether you will mostly chuckle or mostly sigh at A Shot in the Dark will be the extent to which you find saveloys intrinsically funny. A third category of reader, mind you, will simply be wondering whether the comma after \'missing\' should have been positioned after \'and\'; but those people are pedants and we don’t want to pander to them.
PositiveThe Guardian\"...engrossing ... Still, this isn’t Henry James and doesn’t aspire to be: it’s a rip-roaring beach read about literary life, the fools we make of ourselves in pursuit of love and fame, and the whirligig of time bringing in, as it always does, its revenges.\
RaveFinancial TimesA collection of ‘hilariously talky’ short stories in which lonely characters often walk away from their own lives ... a series of seriously good short stories ... It’s a faultless dismount. You almost imagine a row of judges holding up scorecards, like they used to in ice-skating: 6.0, 6.0, 6.0 . . . It sets the bar ... Lacey has a good ear for the inanities of both internal and out-loud conversation ... The 12 stories aren’t at all samey — but they have a common stamp. As the punning title hints, these are states of mind rather than federal states, and they are a narrowish band: uncertain states; states of breakdown ... It lives in its long sentences and they have, well, a sort of momentum. Lacey is absolutely the real thing.
MixedThe Financial TimesThere’s a certain sort of literary novel in which not much happens. Sight is such a book. In the opening sentence, marooned in the perpetual present by its lack of a main verb, Greengrass’s unnamed narrator tells us: \'The start of another summer, the weather uncertain but no longer sharply edged, and I am pregnant again.\' As far as the foreground of the novel goes, that’s about it: the narrator is on her second pregnancy, and at the end of the novel she will give birth ... We learn that the narrator has a young daughter, also unnamed, and a partner called Johannes who doesn’t say much. The occasion of her pregnancy causes her to ruminate on her relationship with her late mother and her psychoanalyst grandmother (“Doctor K”), on her first pregnancy, and on a number of moments in the history of science and art ... a style that’s brittly intolerant of unseriousness...I don’t want to be actively unkind. Her protagonist’s fug of self-absorption and self-consciousness may be rebarbative to the reader — but depression (of which this seems to be in part a study) isn’t cuddly, and grown-up novels don’t have to have \'relatable\' protagonists, particularly when they’re about protagonists who struggle to relate ... I read this nevertheless as work towards something freer and more thoroughly rooted in the world. If she really stopped putting her mind to it, in other words, she’d be a much more compelling novelist.
PositiveThe Guardian\"The reportage is some of the best stuff here. For someone who often doesn’t much seem to care for journalists, Amis is a very good journalist indeed ... When he puts his nose to a text, close up, there are few readers like him...But there’s also, sometimes, a slightly bullying tone to his literary pieces. He seldom sneaks up on a thing or allows himself to be tentative ... There’s a rhetorical voltage (as he notes on page 54) to that maximalism, that unwaveringly indicative mood – but you weary of it too, a bit. The same certainty, not always a virtue, is present in his political pronouncements. He obviously knows an awful lot – a surprising lot – about post-revolutionary Iran, for instance. But you wonder: can he really know as much as it sounds like he knows? Perhaps he does.\
PositiveThe Financial TimesThere’s very little if anything to say about Doyle’s writing, line by line. I mean that as a compliment. It does exactly what it needs to do without ostentation. I’m not sure I spotted a single metaphor or simile between the first page and the last. Doyle says what’s happening, without fuss and in the plainest language possible. His command of voice is absolutely sure, his dialogue authentic and the Ireland his characters inhabit — still a patchwork of fifties pietism and noughties cosmopolitanism — completely available to his and the reader’s understanding. What’s hinky in the book — the nagging sense that there’s something we’re not being told; something that Victor is concealing from himself — is thoroughly dispatched in the closing pages; a reveal I can’t discuss without giving spoilers to an absorbing and expertly told story. That said, a book of such unshowy accomplishment doesn’t necessarily need the showy twist that Doyle offers at the end. There are readers who will see it coming (I did, a bit); and what magicians call 'the prestige' that caps off a trick, here, is less impressive than the long skilful misdirecting patter routine that precedes it.
PositiveThe GuardianAfter the baddies in the previous novels, the morose retired admiral who serves as the muscle in this one seems a bit beige ... Obviously, Brown hasn’t got any better at writing since his last outing. If there were an antonym for 'unerring' – something that captured the way that over more than 400 pages he avoids producing a good sentence even by accident – it would be the one for Brown. He still lobs modifiers about like an out-of-control tennis machine. He still drops in Wikipedia-style paragraphs of factual boilerplate...But complaining that Brown can’t write is like complaining that crisps are crunchy. And you know what? It doesn’t really matter at all. The book is fun in its galumphing way. And the longer he keeps earnestly plugging away, the more the reader warms to him. There’s a winning innocence to Brown’s work, especially as rather than just produce a chase thriller with added sudoku, he is determined to take on the most fundamental issues of human existence. Dan Brown: novelist of ideas.
PanThe Financial TimesEssentially, it’s a 500-page whingeathon about JP/Theroux’s large, dysfunctional Cape Cod family … Let it be said that Theroux retails the snap back and forth of snarky dialogue to great effect, that he has an acidic sense of the inanity of clichés, and that his account of the psychological set-up is very plausible. It’s very funny, in bits. But the novel, if that’s what it is, is a baggy monster. And — the hazard of describing a compulsion to repeat oneself — it does nothing but recapitulate … Where’s the art? Where’s the selection and shaping? Had Theroux attacked this material with the tools of a novelist, which he undoubtedly owns, he might have shaped a venomously funny 150-pager out of his experience.
Roald Dahl, Ed. by Donald Sturrock
PositiveThe GuardianHere is an intriguing mixture of absolute intimacy, a total disregard for priggishness or decorum, fierce candour and, in certain respects, a complete absence of it. Love is between the lines ... The period detail is vivid – and not only in the language ... Sofie Magdalene had kept every one of them, binding them 'in neat bundles with green tape.' She never told him she had. We can be glad she did.