Sam SacksSam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal and is a founding editor at Open LettersMonthly. He can be found on Twitter @Sam_Sacks
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe apology bug appears to have bitten him ... The characters’ meditations are now accompanied by the requisite handwringing about \'white lady problems\' and \'decadent unhappiness\' ... Ironic distancing is lethal to a writer who relies so much on sensory immersion. I usually begin Mr. Cunningham’s books rolling my eyes at his cossetted characters but finish them thoroughly won over, enchanted by the magic of the prose. With Day, which feels flatter and more ballasted by present sensibilities, my skepticism never dispersed.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMcDermott explores such vagaries with grace and consideration. Patricia’s thoughts always return, with great sensitivity, to the problem of goodness, which can appear inextricable from self-interest or mere docility ... These engaging reflections are mixed with, and to some extent diluted by, a ubiquitous note of apology. Patricia knows—as does the reader—that history has judged her very presence in Saigon to be ethically wrong, so she is anxious about even attempting to evoke sympathy for her life there ... This practice of begging the reader’s indulgence rather than simply telling a story is common in fiction today, but it is even more noticeable in writing as delicate and lovely as Ms. McDermott’s.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalO’Brien returns with more cynicism about his country’s lies than ever before ... The novel is something between an absurdist satire and a bitter lamentation of that national diagnosis ... Antic, hammy, caustic and very often funny, America Fantastica is a different kind of fiction than the novels and stories for which Mr. O’Brien will likely be remembered. But as a travesty of the American dream of reinvention, it has an essential point in common with his war novels. It, too, appreciates the addictive pleasure of spinning a story, of making things up. What’s notable about the novel’s host of liars and thieves is how much they seem to be enjoying themselves.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalBegins to artfully blur history, autobiography and fiction ... Mr. Torres is purposely coy about the information he presents, leaving it partially obscured like the blacked-out text ... Invites readers into the smaller consolation of shared sadness. Even if it had something transcendent to impart, after all, we would forget it anyway.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalDarkly absorbing ... It all makes for a brooding, heady narrative that is addictively interesting and, at times, somewhat troublingly unreliable ... While the streamlined story arc he fashions...makes The MANIAC highly readable, it brooks very little uncertainty or nuance. A bit of a Dr. Frankenstein himself, Mr. Labatut arrogates the power to imagine the innermost thoughts of real people, and he has shaped those thoughts to conform to a portentous vision of spiritual terror. The science and biography lend a veneer of factual validity to what is really a work of fantasy. Certainly read this gripping, provocative novel—but read it with utmost skepticism.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal[A] sprawling and sardonic work of geopolitical intrigue ... A fascinating, extremely talky book, whose thrills are layered with dry spells of information overload.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalA modest and homespun portrait of domesticity that explores, to immensely touching effect, the quiet sorrow of a parent abandoned by her child ... The novel’s heartbreaking ending is fringed with consolations. Ms. Boyt has written her novel with the honesty and kindness that a character like Ruth deserves.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[An] irresistible conceit ... Mason is a wonderfully fluent mimic and he reproduces styles from a long lineage of New England writing ... A rich, if nicely ironized, spirit of legend infuses the linked tales as well ... A shift makes for a very different novel and, in this reader’s opinion, a less exciting one. As the episodes fold in on themselves, any resonance with the progress of the wider world disappears, and North Woods becomes more of a clever narrative contraption, circular and self-contained.
Jayne Anne Phillips
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalPhillips presents harrowing, visceral scenes of war and rape, but a lot of this novel relates the daily business of convalescence in the asylum, with loving attention given to the motley staff that tends to the unwell ... Whether you’ll go along with the contrivances, some very far-fetched, depends on how persuaded you are by Ms. Phillips’s generous vision of wholeness. Goodness is a real thing in this novel—a verifiable force—and the question posed is whether we still have the sensitivity to discern it.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalChenneville has a moral awakening, which, though honorable, badly undercuts the book’s dramatic payoff. Ms. Jiles tries to compensate with a sudden and rather schmaltzy love story involving a plucky Texas telegraphist named Victoria. But the sentimentality seems out of place—almost like an obsolete genre artifact—in a Western that is otherwise so vivid and uncompromising.
J. M. Coetzee
RaveThe Wall Street JournalSvelte ... A kind of anti-rom-com results ... Dryly funny ironies abound ... A textual echo chamber...that never feels smothered by its allusions. Quick, deft, stimulating, stripped-down but unexpectedly moving, it’s a return to form by a writer who can make music from the fewest possible notes.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalSo convincingly has Ms. Enright conjured the archetype of the wandering Irish bard who leaves behind him a legacy of abandoned women and melodious, honey-tongued verse ... Is it possible for poems to be fictitious? In fact, these nostalgic odes to love and Ireland are limpid, lilting, wholly credible stand-alone works ... One of Ms. Enright’s remarkable feats is to write believably across three generations, capturing epochal differences but also a buried, or even repressed, continuity. The fullness of Ms. Enright’s talent is reflected as well in her treatment of what has come to be known, a bit glibly, as the \'art monster.\'
RaveThe Wall Street JournalOutstanding ... A very funny, very contemporary fable plays out as the novel entertains the absurdities of a world in which politics skews every aspect of daily life, from conversation to cuisine ... Comic.
PanThe Wall Street JournalIt’s all very nasty and spectacular, but to what end? One problem with Daughter is that the great art intended to justify the hideous behavior is merely notional ... The real play in this novel is the attempt to fob off self-importance for actual meaning.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalConsciously stylized prose—lilting, whispered, full of poetic archaisms ... Revelations prompt Ms. Groff’s most impassioned pronouncements, but it is impossible to fully shake the sense that she is forcing present-day political formulations—about feminism, colonialism and climate change—into the mind of a character from the past. If we think of The Vaster Wilds as a work of mythmaking rather than historical fiction, its mixture of wildness and moralism may be easier to reconcile.
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe narrator is defined by her lack of self-knowledge, but she is intensely knowledgeable about that lack of knowledge. Her sophisticated helplessness reminded me of the fin-de-siècle decadents who rhapsodized about the life-destroying pleasures of opium. If you’ve ever worried about the dangerous addictiveness of Instagram and TikTok, this uncomfortable novel won’t convince you otherwise.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt is...a fragile optimism, and Ms. Li’s art is in revealing glimpses of the shadows underneath it without hauling them to the surface, like darkness glimpsed beneath a crust of ice ... In this strange and distinctive collection, garrulity is a cover for a deeper speechlessness and hope is a disguise for fatalism.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalStrange and wondrous ... Part of me wishes that Ms. Leichter had not worried about trying to account for her fictional multiverse ... About dread and loss and the frustrations of finitude, yet its tone is comic and buoyant, almost obstinately optimistic. Ms. Leichter delights in banter and inside jokes, and she finds absurdity, even when it has a dark, Kafkaesque flavor, unfailingly affecting ... It’s love for the mess of humankind that makes this marvelously motley novel so poignant.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalA little cynicism goes a long way; a lot of cynicism perhaps goes less far, and Mr. Gillmor’s continual invocations of \'existential hollowness\' begin to seem reflexive and unexamined ... Intelligent but enervating.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalDelving ... Murderously serious ... The habit of overthinking affects The Fraud ... threatens to stall out in metafictional wheel-spinning. And yet—I say this with just a touch of Smith-ian ambivalence—I think that finally the book is a great success. Certainly it’s my favorite of this writer’s novels. Ms. Smith has always been superb at conjuring voices (in this she is more like Dickens than she might prefer), and the scenes come to life in whirlwinds of dialogue ... Though The Fraud is capacious, its chapters are short, vivid and contained ... Smith has allowed herself the freedom to be brilliant, without giving equal time to the dutiful rebuttals of guilt and misgiving.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"To note that this novel is Irish is to call up another, more flattering generalization: stylistically it’s outstanding, defined by supple, engaging prose and a preternatural sense for storytelling ... the new novel, while frequently funny, has more serious intentions. Mr. Murray has always been able to dazzle and entertain, but he has never before developed characters with this much depth or capacity for tragedy. So richly detailed is The Bee Sting that it reads like four books woven into one ... Through a succession of suspenseful twists and feints, Mr. Murray advances the stories of the characters individually and then collectively, in a bravura final section that draws all four together. It’s only in a final coup de theatre, when coincidences bring about a literal four-way collision, that the drama feels heavy-handed, manipulated rather than organically unfolding. But by this point, we have spent so much time with the characters that our investment in their lives has been vouchsafed ... In the faltering mixture of candor and deception, helplessness and desperate prevention, Mr. Murray creates a heightened but truthful portrait of family love.\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalConcerned with the work of observation, here with regard to black men and women in New York City ... Sensitive and moving ... A sense of stuckness occasionally mires the stories as well, and a claustrophobic sense of despair. But there is no denying the refinement of this writer’s perceptions, or his commitment to empathy.
Khaled Khalifa, trans. by Leri Price
RaveThe Wall Street JournalSpacious ... The novel reads at times like a love letter to the Syrian city where Mr. Khalifa grew up, and at times like a eulogy ... A gallery of side characters gives the book its amplitude ... It is, even so, a beautiful novel, and Mr. Khalifa’s partnership with Leri Price is one of the most fruitful writer-translator pairings in literature today.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe collision of mysticism and worldly interests gives rise to devastating satire ... If there is a quibble with this collection it is that Ms. Reich is only reluctantly interested in the art of narration, her brilliance lying more in startling premises and razor-sharp character sketches
RaveThe Wall Street JournalKathleen Alcott is the author of three novels distinguished by beautiful if sometimes gauzy prose. But her new story collection Emergency signals a remarkable stylistic sea change ... Gone are all traces of prettiness, replaced by sentences of startling aphoristic strength ... Impressive.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalHerschel’s motormouth narration and a compressed time frame make this a frantic, almost hysterically told story, which has the effect of muddling rather than sharpening its moral concerns. It’s not clear to me, at least, how involuntary manslaughter, stock-market rigging and meat-eating are at all related. But The Vegan races along so breathlessly that you hardly have time to question just what on earth is going on.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalTo call it excellent would be true but uninteresting, given her nearly unerring track record.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalSucker is his chance to branch out into macabre comedy and crime capers. In truth, there’s a feeling of forced wackiness to the writing, which is mottled with inelegant variations ... Increasing the silliness is a Gothic plot twist foreshadowed by a dripping fang on the cover art. Even so, the author has found a thoroughly entertaining guide to such nonsense in Charles, a dim but likable man-child born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Ridker will need to take care to not become pigeonholed as a Jonathan Franzen copycat (unless this is his aim) ... But if Hope is less burdened by Mr. Franzen’s Freudian hang-ups it’s not always clear what it offers in their place. Humor is one fine quality ... Hope has the commendable trappings of a big, meaty family novel but lacks the heft and vision to meet its ambition.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. deWitt’s smoothest book by far, one more prone than usual to clichés...but also more warmhearted. It shares the attributes of its hero: likable, unshowy, somewhat dull but reliably soothing.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalDesperation is what synthesizes the elements of this novel, as Dora is constantly projecting her own fears and melancholy onto her characters ... The many narrative screens set in place—Mr. Rachman is writing ironically about Dora, who is writing ironically about other writers—establish an overall sense of insufficiency, of hedging. Much of the pathos of The Imposters, one realizes, is meant to spring from its weaknesses, the ways in which the novel fails to fully move and persuade us ... In my opinion, it’s time for this author to write a book without the defense mechanism of metafiction. The fact that The Imposters is so frequently affecting despite its emotional buffers suggests to me that Mr. Rachman is a better writer than he thinks he is, or at least than he has yet let himself dare to be.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Flattery is Irish and has a keener sense than most American writers of class resentment, and the acrid, if somewhat sluggish, beginning of the book captures the sour fug of Mae’s loathing and loneliness, and her reckless search for something transformational ... Mae’s inevitable disillusion creates a bind for Ms. Flattery, who needs readers to share some belief in the romance of Warholia but makes a point to never conjure it ... Fine, closely observed scenes of the two on the town display an insight into loyalty and kindness that would have been alien to Warhol but briefly infuse this talented novel with something like beauty.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Lee energetically relates each episode of her protean narrator’s biography, stressing the attitude of defiance that inspired each metamorphosis ... Despite the darkness of the history it retells, this is primarily an adventure novel, fueled by the same righteous anger that turns ordinary mortals into masked superheroes.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe trouble in this novel is that everyone is funny (or trying to be) all the time, unrelentingly, in exactly the same bewildered-ironic fashion. The smart-aleck patter, which can seem so clever and poignant in isolation, comes to feel like a factory setting with no off-switch, and it’s hard not to feel that Ms. Moore has neutralized much of the appealing strangeness of this book with an increased dependence on familiar stylistic tics.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Ford’s tendency to write in chin-stroking proverbs has brought him critics...but what’s important is less the truth of these utterances than the extent to which Frank relies on them. In Mr. Ford’s hands, clichés become koans, simultaneously resonant and hollow depending on one’s fortunes at the time, and to Frank they double as sound, practical counsel and bitter jokes ... Mr. Ford has written these books in the first-person present tense. The immediacy of the narration not only communicates Frank’s moment-to-moment bewilderment, it leaves him unvarnished and exposed, deprived of the luxury of sanitizing impressions that might make him look bad ... But these weaknesses, however exasperating, are vital because they help to make Frank a convincing and three-dimensional everyman ... A wonderful voice ... The Bascombe books are unquestionably faithful to randomness, to the great human accident of existence. They are also works of tremendous craft and arrangement, full of tantalizing patterns and recurrences. In this balance of meaning and meaninglessness there has always been enough mystery to keep Frank occupied for a lifetime.
Agur Schiff, trans. Jessica Cohen
MixedThe Wall Street JournalAs Mr. Schiff explores these Kafkaesque absurdities, he also portrays a more concrete inheritance of racism ... Mr. Schiff is often too clever for his own good—he caricatures his black characters to ironically comment on the caricaturing of black characters—but at times this shrewd masquerade has real bite.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe novel as described—both a vexed homecoming tale and a young writer’s coming-of-age story—sounds identical to 50 other debuts that will be published this year. The difference is in the execution. Close to Home is a novel about the vulnerability of youth that feels altogether adult. The fragility and neediness that define most autobiographical first-person novels are absent here, replaced by a voice that is poised, colorful yet direct and confident of the worth of what it has to relate ... Refreshingly excellent.
Belén Gopegui, trans. Mark Schafer
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalGopegui’s novel brilliantly steps into the middle of volatile and troubling debates about artificial intelligence, ethics and the meaning of personhood ... The writing, in Mark Schafer’s fine translation, remains cultured and probing.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalSlim, potent ... What it wants...is to capture the sensory experience of living for a few hours inside Shy’s throttled mind ... The feeling of identification pays powerful dividends at the novel’s cathartic ending.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalEven as the story darkens, the writing remains light and campy, undermined by a constant barrage of chipper, laugh-track dialogue ... The result here is a jokey serving of ’80s nostalgia with a garnish of Satanism. That’s how I think of death metal, but I’m not sure Cannibal Corpse will be amused.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt is somewhat strange to say, then, that the parts of Grimmish that are billed as being the most form-breaking are really the parts that feel the most tired and derivative ... Mr. Winkler (or his narrative double) dwells constantly on his struggles in writing about Grim ... He includes tail-covering rationales for the book’s absence of indigenous characters and shortage of women. And he insistently twists Grim into a symbol for the sense of painful futility that has plagued his own writing career and the absurdity of his dogged endurance. The effect is not benign ... It’s as if he doesn’t trust us enough to do the thinking on our own.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"A staple of contemporary fiction is what is called, in writing-workshop terms, backstory, meaning an aspect of a character’s past that is revealed to explain her behavior, much in the way that psychoanalysts seek an understanding of their patients by excavating buried traumas. Ms. Cline generates an impressive amount of intrigue by the simple method of cutting backstory out entirely. Apart from Alex’s trouble with her ex, we know nothing of her background ... Ms. Cline’s writing thrives in the pure present. The descriptions are frequently bracing and acute, sharpened to icepicks by a stance of amoral neutrality. But as the story becomes more plotted and Alex’s deceptions come to a head, The Guest runs out of steam, finishing with an anticlimactic non-ending. The difficulty in depicting a cohesive larger picture plagued The Girls, as well, though the problem is less marked here, as Ms. Cline has come closer to finding an ideal novel form that recognizes neither past nor future but passes as Alex tries to live, \'in some alternate universe ruled by immediacy.\'\
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"The novel follows an obvious lineage of grisly pop epiphenomena from Squid Game to The Hunger Games to Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, but philosophically its antecedent may be the famous battle royal chapter in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as it operates from the clear design of illuminating the racism and barbarity of the American carceral system. This creates a catch-22: Since the novel assails the exploitation of black prisoners for entertainment, it cannot be freely entertaining itself, and a dampening sense of shame and reluctance permeates the scenes, which are often interrupted by footnotes dispensing sobering statistics about the prison system—not the one in the novel but the real one ... It will be easy for this novel’s readers to distance themselves from the racist bloodlust that underwrites its dystopia, which makes the book what I have come to categorize as an \'NPR satire\' (Gary Shteyngart is the king of these), in which proper-thinking liberal audiences are left basically unscathed by the critique. A straightforwardly realistic novel about prisons would be infinitely more damning—though, paradoxically, it would never be selected for book clubs.\
Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt’s a touching relationship—the teacher, who narrates half the novel, is especially sympathetic—but also a thickly symbolic one, and there is a tendency toward obvious melodrama throughout this book. The existential pain that was left fairly mysterious in The Vegetarian is here spelled out in overripe flourishes ... The result is something like a bel canto opera pitched at a whisper: a lot of writhing and grimacing but not much music.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Its multigenerational story progresses in the gradual, alternating fashion of a Victorian triple-decker ... The miraculous melds naturally with medicine in The Covenant of Water, whether in the form of artistic inspiration or religious awakening. One of the most moving sections concerns an expat Swedish doctor named Rune Orqvist, who is transformed by a nighttime vision and quits his practice in order to live out his days in service to a leper colony ... Such tender attention to the body—the sense that anatomy is destiny—elevates The Covenant of Water, but this is a long, elaborately plotted book and when Mr. Verghese takes off his surgical scrubs his storytelling markedly weakens ... Mr. Verghese’s portrayal of the medical practice is so stirringly noble that it seems even more critical to consider books by equally exacting standards. This strong, uneven novel fell short of mine, but only because it had moved me to set them so high.\
Joe Milan Jr.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe increasingly manic episodes lend The All-American a resemblance to comic picaresque novels ... His hotheaded bafflement over the question is part of this novel’s charm. Bucky, a highly likable meathead, thinks better with his fists than his brain, and the shortage of introspection allows the story to zip from one calamity to another.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAssured and formidable ... The cast’s banter—sometimes hilarious, sometimes aggressive—is a vital counterpoint to Sonia’s tendency to Hamlet-esque handwringing. Scenes of rehearsals rendered as play scripts provide anticipated respites from her smart but gravely serious (at times somewhat stiff) narration. And as the play becomes more and more the thing, Sonia’s tone warms considerably.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Ms. Link writes with a deadpan sense of humor and she loves winking meta jokes (two characters brunch at a posh restaurant called Folklore), but her project is not deconstructive: In the end she still embarks on traditional hero quests. Those quests are usually undertaken in pursuit of true love and require some kind of face-off with death, even when death is accompanied by a cute black lapdog ... A degree of opacity is normal in Ms. Link’s stories and part of their charm. C.S. Lewis wrote that he began his fantasies with a series of images and my guess is that Ms. Link does the same. But unlike Lewis, she does not then shape a coherent allegory around them. There is an essential lightness to these stories; their sparkling strangeness is often the point. If Ms. Link has a recurring theme it is separation, from family or loved ones or, in the outstanding final story \'Skinder’s Veil,\' from an aspect of oneself. The journey is toward completeness, in a way that will mirror this collection’s odd-couple marriage of the real and the magical.\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalVenturesome ... Mr. Comitta has assembled this book by suturing together hundreds of passages of natural description found in canonical, or at least well-known, works of English-language literature. He has edited these citations only insofar as to excise any mention of humans. The result is a sweeping drama of thunderstorms and seasonal changes and animal interactions composed of excerpts ... It’s remarkable how coherently the narrative reads, despite its countless patchwork pieces, a testament not only to Mr. Comitta’s diligence but to the likeminded ways that novelists have tended to write about natural phenomena like snowfall or sunrise ... Even more striking, however, is the extent to which Mr. Comitta’s experiment undercuts his premise. Because what one quickly realizes is that, though humans may have been removed from the scenes, they are still present in every single sentence, infusing the descriptions with their own emotions and interpretations ... Throughout this impressive but frustrating book, one wonders what clouds might actually do if some lovesick poet weren’t making them brood. To try to portray the natural world neutrally would constitute a truly radical experiment, but someone is going to have to write it on his or her own.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"The imagined details of the Great Disunion, as it’s called, yo-yo between the plausible and the preposterous (FDR chief-of-staff Emma Goldman?), but the effect, along with allowing Ms. Lacey a certain amount of ideological ax-grinding, is to create a backdrop that is as protean and unstable as the woman at the book’s center. All this fan-dancing with fact and fiction would seem puerile in the hands of a lesser writer, but Ms. Lacey imposes a truly outstanding narrative authority on her pseudo-biography, capturing the irreconcilable phases of X’s life with convincing texture and emotional intensity, using paradoxes to heighten the suspense of Lucca’s search for understanding ... Ms. Lacey has written three previous novels, all of them good, but the audacity of this book, joined with its vivid re-imaginings of countercultural scenes from the ’70s and ’80s and its glancing intersection with current-day debates about art and politics, seems likely to bring her to a much wider audience. If this does mark Ms. Lacey’s deserved elevation to mainstream attention, she has accomplished it without diluting the vital qualities of confusion, yearning and mystery. Like X—who appears to us simultaneously courageous and cruel, indomitable and desperate—this is a novel that will not fully reveal its meanings. What it does, instead, is hurl us into Lucca’s obsessive quest, as dogged as it is fatalistic, to somehow grab hold of the vagaries of love and creation.\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalFissures widen as the vexed questions of marriage and parenthood enter their private idyll, and Ms. Lucas captures their dissolution with the same heightened attention and clear expression: Grief emerges as love’s complement ... In the arc of this simple story, as with most of its insights, Thirst for Salt does not break any new ground, nor does it seek to. Its power is in the poignancy of recognition. It offers an honest, often beautiful reminder of the overwhelming emotions that all of us have felt but spend most of our daily lives trying to subdue.
Maylis De Kerangal, trans. Jessica Moore
RaveThe Wall Street JournalEastbound briskly unfolds the events of this crazy but thrilling little Mission: Impossible ... The crisp, cascading sentences; the delicious mixture of fear and romance; the harmonious balance of story and language: these are characteristics of each of Ms. de Kerangal’s books, which spring from subjects as diverse as a heart transplant, the construction of a suspension bridge and the Lascaux cave paintings.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt’s a lot to coordinate, and Mr. Bausch’s prose lacks the texture to differentiate the many characters. The author is instead an expert of dialogue, and the novel mostly plays out in long, candid exchanges ... Mr. Bausch’s dialogue is neither poetic nor especially witty. It stands out by sounding entirely ordinary yet still carrying every interaction toward some conflict or personal disclosure ... Though this talky novel offers the pleasures of glancing behind the stage curtain, it feels most like eavesdropping on a series of heated, heartfelt conversations.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalTo make such worked-over material new and interesting, in other words, you have to be extremely good. Well then, Ms. McFarlane must be extremely good indeed, because her novel is a thrilling success. The Sun Walks Down intelligently continues Australia’s historical and literary tradition but feels unburdened by its heritage and unconstrained by ideological agendas. Its retelling is both more down-to-earth than usual melodramas of disappearance...and more expansive ... There are instances when Ms. McFarlane’s messaging becomes explicit ... But mostly the novel exploits its premise to delve into the many meanings of settlement and lostness as they pertain to civilization, family, love and the creation of art ... Ms. McFarlane spins a novel full of mystery and wonder.
Kira Yarmysh, trans. by Arch Tait
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Yarmysh depicts these women with naturalistic humor and affection ... Ms. Yarmysh creates a cumulative portrait of ingrained social evils and violent retribution. I am pleased to say that the novel’s sudden unmasking as a work of Gothic terror caught me completely unawares. If Ms. Yarmysh has written a protest novel, after all, it’s as unpredictable as it is damning.
PanThe Wall Street JournalFor a confrontation like this to work, both sides need to be equally armed with strengths and foibles, and the problem is that Tessa is among the most one-dimensionally obnoxious characters I’ve ever encountered. She’s bossy and condescending but also pathetically thin-skinned ... Is there a more reflexively mocked figure in the entire republic of letters than the privileged, white, middle-aged, female memoirist? To make Tessa interesting, Ms. Craig would need to cut against those biases and conjure some kind of brilliant, Promethean rebel stalking the groves of academe. Now that would be magical storytelling.
Laurent Mauvignier, trans. by Daniel Levin Becker
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe scenes, captured in a fine, controlled translation by Daniel Levin Becker, are taut and propulsive, though not without plot holes ... Mr. Mauvignier follows in a prestigious French tradition of stylized improvisations on popular genre forms and The Birthday Party is not a book to pick up if you want a perfectly executed thriller ... It is instead a book about character ... Mr. Mauvignier peels back those layers of reality in order to better grasp the people they finally form, a composite far more profound than the sum of its parts.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Rushdie’s most explicit imagining of Utopia, yet even this fairy-tale civilization is riven by human folly ... We don’t yet know whether Victory City was finished before he was nearly killed by a knife-wielding fanatic in August or whether he completed it after the attack. But the novel’s levity and friendliness seem profound in either case. Amidst horrific violence he has brought forth a work of cheerful fabulism that puts far more emphasis on \'magic\' than \'realism\'—a warm space in which we might imagine a better world than our own.
Geetanjali Shree, trans. by Daisy Rockwell
MixedThe Wall Street JournalRhymes and puns and other wordplay abound, lending a feeling of spritzy frivolity to an otherwise long and death-haunted tale ... While the prize-winning and acclaim make for a terrific success story, I wish I could muster more enthusiasm for the novel itself. But too much of its burbling lyricism feels insubstantial, like a glass of beer that’s mostly froth ... No doubt the digressions and embroideries are part of this novel’s rejection of borders. It will wander as its whim takes it, and if its voice appeals to you, you won’t regret its rambles.
Selby Wynn Schwartz
RaveThe Wall Street JournalEvokes the lives of a loose arrangement of women across history who drew strength from Sappho’s example to fight for feminist causes and artistic independence ... Schwartz recounts pointed aspects of these women’s lives in a series of brief, cascading vignettes that are often organized around a line of Sappho’s poetry. The adulation of Ancient Greece is reflected in the prose, which is learned, refined and a touch mannerly. The tone, despite its emotional restraint, is resolutely celebratory, focused on the steady advancement of women’s rights and sexual freedoms. In this interesting passion project, art is put forth as an unambiguous force of beauty and inspiration.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe novel’s juggling act is in combining an affectionate depiction of Abigail’s neuroses with a contemplation of ideas, specifically those connected to Keynes’s economic theories, which it fascinatingly unpacks ... At times her stream of consciousness drifts into randomness and panicky hyperventilation, which is faithful to the nature of late-night mental rambling but not necessarily interesting. It’s always a relief when Keynes, calm and reasonable, reappears to gently usher her back to the subject at hand.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe elements are in place for another thriller, but to her credit, Ms. Cauley mostly sees the survivalism as a chance for some pretty withering comedy ... Splendidly dry humor.
Bret Easton Ellis
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"...[an] ungainly, interesting Frankenstein’s monster of a novel, which grafts a typical-seeming autobiographical reconstruction onto a work of outrageous pulp horror ... It’s all very eerie, yet for readers who know this writer, it will also be comfortingly familiar ... The semi-ironic nostalgia of The Shards casts back less to the era itself than the era as Mr. Ellis sensationalized it for his novels. It must be said that this gives the book the unmistakable feel of fan fiction; if you aren’t well versed in Ellis-iana, it’s likely to leave you cold. If you are a fan, however, Mr. Ellis’s subversions of his life and writing will seem cleverly done ... as his story becomes increasingly crazed and unbelievable his guise of emotional candor transforms into yet another provocative act of subterfuge, in a career already famous for them.\
Alessandro Manzoni tr. Michael F. Moore
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... important ... The novel shares the inviting characteristics of nation-defining epics by Scott, Dumas and Tolstoy: a taste for romance and adventure, an expansive interest in all strata of society, an ability to weave personal dramas into consequential historical events, and a focus on individual and collective moral improvement. It feels strange to have had a bona fide canonical classic hiding in plain sight for all these years. But with Mr. Moore’s vigorous and companionable translation, the book is now here for everyone to see ... Historical sweep is only part of the novel’s national significance. The rest lies with its role in consolidating a modern Italian language that would be crucial to unifying the country.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThey read less like novels than illustrations of a long-contemplated hypothesis—like elaborate thought experiments demonstrating the strangeness (to Mr. McCarthy, the nightmare) of a universe governed by quantum uncertainty ... Strikingly conceptual, and it works in complement with the existential intrigue of The Passenger, giving it a broader (if in nowise clearer) intellectual framework ... For all their exploration of rupture and loss, these novels do feel tightly bound—to each other as well as to Mr. McCarthy’s previous novels—by the elemental forces of style and theme. The author’s signature punctuation tics are still present ... I enjoyed these novels for their weirdness and originality, their intellectual provocations and the detective-like engagement they demand from their readers, who, quantum-like, bring them into reality. But my enjoyment was frustrated by the familiar feeling of being strong-armed into a predetermined lesson about the horror of existence.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... a novel that movingly dramatizes the conflicts between religious utopianism and worldly desires ... Mr. Banks, now 82, has reached the elegiac period of his long and distinguished writing career ... however melancholic, is wistful and tender ... The commune’s precarious existence on the Florida swamplands is depicted with pleasing fullness. And though Harley’s tale is riven by passion and betrayal, it has no obvious villains. Mr. Banks has created a quietly beautiful memorial to a transitory way of life that would soon disappear behind the theme-park attractions of contemporary America.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt’s a clever, if farfetched, premise that entertainingly explores the fallout of subversive art ... But the writing evinces a regression I find worrisome. Frankie retells events decades later, after a journalist uncovers the truth of what happened. But though she’s grown up, her narration is marked by teen-fiction preciousness—crying jags, roller-coaster emotions and prose with the breathlessly juvenile habit of beginning every sentence with \'And . . . And . . . And . . .\' There is, unfortunately, a market niche for adult-targeted novels with YA sensibilities. But I think Mr. Wilson is too talented a writer to settle for filling it.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... acerbic ... Dunn, who died in 2016, was the author of the cult-favorite Geek Love from 1989, about genetically modified circus freaks. There has long been speculation about a follow-up novel, but Toad is not that. It is, rather, an unpublished manuscript from the 1970s, when Dunn was a single mother in Portland working subsistence-level, and sometimes dangerous, service jobs. The stresses of her circumstances make this a highly uneven book, repetitive and unprocessed. But its anger is raw, bitterly comic and frequently startling. What most activates Dunn’s rage is the misogyny that only deepened amid all the pretended freedoms of the counterculture. Refreshingly, this is not a simple victim’s story, as Sally’s loathing for her so-called friends is matched by her disgust for her own past meanness and insecurity. Her isolation, in the end, is less a form of emancipation than a self-imposed penance.
Dorthe Nors tr. Caroline Waight
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIn a thorough but unsystematic fashion, the writing encompasses the nature, history and provincial customs of this harsh and highly romanticized corner of the country...as she explores the area she sensitively sifts the ambiguities of belonging in the world and the condition of loving a place she knows will never love her equally in return ... Curious, memorable details like this crop up everywhere in A Line in the World, as Ms. Nors is ever on the hunt for the secret seams of passion—whether from terror or jubilation—beneath the stark surface of the land and behind the faces of its button-lipped inhabitants ... possesses the humbler virtues of discernment and admiration. Ms. Nors’s fiction can be quite funny and outspoken but the tone here, in Caroline Waight’s translation, is gentle and considered. It has clearly been her intention to avoid both tourist gawking and big-city condescension, and the result is both revealing and respectful. It struck me as a rare thing to read a work of travel writing that was this beautiful yet did not provoke in me any desire to actually visit the place. I hope that Ms. Nors’s neighbors will appreciate her honesty and discretion and forgive her for the sin of speaking about their world.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWith shades of Salman Rushdie and David Mitchell, his book is a dark, frenetic work of magic realism that angrily confronts Sri Lanka’s recent history of political violence ... A sense of disorder is central to the effect of this sprawling novel, and keeping track of the cast of antagonists (and the acronyms of their various organizations) can pose a challenge. Yet amid the confusion, a pressing moral inquiry emerges.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt is perhaps a misfortune for Mr. Chatagnier to have published this book in the same year as Cormac McCarthy’s tandem novels about a schizophrenic female math genius. But Singer Distance is a much smaller and sweeter production, more romantically attracted to the discovery of a new mathematical system for understanding intimacy and communication.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... exquisitely nasty tales ... The characters eloquently philosophize about their predicaments, but that makes their fates no less savage, only more absurd ... The finest stories return to the inexplicable family hatreds that galvanized Pity the Beast.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe Passenger is grounded in the recognizable physical world. It is also Mr. McCarthy’s most sociable novel since Suttree, from 1979; a disarming amount of it is devoted to Bobby’s chatty meals at interesting New Orleans restaurants with charismatic “familiars” from the city’s underworld ... The author’s signature punctuation tics are still present, if less dogmatically enforced...Also accounted for are Mr. McCarthy’s outrageous flourishes of quasi-gothic language, which always fall somewhere between phrophecy and self-parody ... It is the inherent chaos of that knowledge—the \'endless nothing\' it seems to vouchsafe—that Mr. McCarthy tries to plumb more directly than ever before ... I enjoyed these novels for their weirdness and originality, their intellectual provocations and the detective-like engagement they demand from their readers, who, quantum-like, bring them into reality. But my enjoyment was frustrated by the familiar feeling of being strong-armed into a predetermined lesson about the horror of existence. Mr. McCarthy is committed to this lesson in a way that by now seems like a posture. How else could he write novels filled with ideas that unsettle assumptions about the fundamental nature of the universe, yet leave untouched, somehow, the convictions of his previous books?
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... like a diner jukebox, it faithfully sticks with the author’s hits ... The elegiac nature of Adam’s reflections accounts for the main difference between The Last Chairlift and a rampaging, weeping novel like The World According to Garp, especially as it manifests itself in this book’s frankly insuperable length ... as is characteristic of late works of fiction, the plot here has been thinned down to its barest elements and replaced by what could politely be called woolgathering ... Its diffuse, somewhat distracted, sense of déjà vu gives “The Last Chairlift” the feel of an unearthed time capsule, which contains many things from the past but lacks the organizational motive that brought it all together in the first place. Whether Mr. Irving, now 80, has fallen victim to the laws of diminishing returns or is simply indulging in a kind of protracted career retrospective is hard to know, but Irving addicts who endure to the end will leave the book thinking fondly, again, of Garp.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[Saunders] he wields the \'moral-ethical tool\' of fiction with more directness and efficiency than ever before ... Each story has been skillfully shaped into a moral parable touching on problems of loyalty, obedience, justice, sacrifice and kindness ... It can be hard to remember, reading Liberation Day, just how wildly angry and caustic Mr. Saunders could be in his early collections...Here he introduced his much-imitated stylistic trademarks—shabby dystopian settings; weird, jargon-inflected speech patterns; hapless everyman underdogs—in stories that blend despair with hilarity. These stories have deep moral concerns, as well, but they are so bizarre and unruly that you don’t notice any lesson unfolding ... This signature strangeness is still present in Liberation Day, but in a far more orderly fashion, since the stories have been pared down to the terms of whatever philosophical problem they embody. Insanity is no longer intrinsic to the composition of the writing; it’s an element that can be analyzed, empathized with and ultimately mastered. If this makes the collection irreproachable—few would dispute that Mr. Saunders uses the tool of fiction with exceptional assurance and to laudable ends—it also makes it a touch boring. These stories occupy a plane of existence that all but transcends surprise and innovation.
Orhan Pamuk tr. Ekin Oklap
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalOn one hand the novel is dense with researched information about medicine, religious custom, government protocol and turn-of-the-century international politics. On the other, it weaves in elements of romance and detective fiction, lending the production a consciously literary effect meant to offset its weightily topical material and create, in the narrator’s words, the appearance of a \'three-dimensional fairy tale\' ... while undoubtedly courageous, the politics in Nights of Plague require so much context and explication that the story takes a long time finding its feet. The degree of detail feels staggering—there are even paragraphs devoted to styles of mustache waxing—and because the characters are mostly pashas and princesses, the writing, in Ekin Oklap’s cultured translation, can seem mandarin and finicky. Mr. Pamuk has clearly hoped to add zip to the narrative by introducing a murder mystery at the start—Princess Pakize and Dr. Nuri investigate the assassination of a health official using the methods of Sherlock Holmes, beloved by the sultan—but the thread is half-hearted and ultimately dropped ... In the end it’s good old-fashioned plot and incident that bring this novel to life. By around page 450 the sediment of information finally settles and the story unfolds the scintillating events of Mingheria’s revolution and subsequent civil wars. It is here that Princess Pakize and Dr. Nuri are propelled from aloof bystanders to central actors in Mingheria’s destiny. There is a lesson in the way their sudden involvement, and the book’s intensified drama, bring about the kind of novelistic enchantment that Mr. Pamuk has so beautifully apostrophized. For too much of Nights of Plague, I think, the crucial compounds of fiction remain overly theoretical: The history is comprehensive but stodgy, the literary allusions clever but artificial. But by the end of this long book the artist’s alchemy has taken effect and readers may find themselves in that immeasurably strange and deeply cherished condition of being swept away by events they know perfectly well never happened.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... the notable thing about Dinosaurs is that no deviancy bubbles beneath its surface ... The wholesomeness of it all, combined with Ms. Millet’s effortlessly readable prose, sometimes slips into blandness. I think that the chorus of voices in the author’s superb linked-story collection Fight No More (2018) makes for a more engaging way to dramatize quiet acts of compassion. But there is something new and unusual about Dinosaurs, even so. The novel is conscious of intractable global crises yet it focuses on local problems that can be confronted and overcome in honorable ways. It wants to pioneer a trail out of generalized despair and into active goodness.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalDespair mixes with intellectual daring ... an academic satire expands into an ungainly portmanteau of texts and tales and literary forms ... The links connecting all this are tenuous and random; the sprawl, instead, creates a sense of profusion, the sort of thing aspired to in the maximalist heyday of David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo. What seems more contemporary, however, is the mechanical feeling of victimization that clings to the varied narratives and dampens the vigor of the prose. There is something wondrous and awful and bewildering in the conception of this big, inventive novel, but the writing never fully awakens to it.
Annie Ernaux, trans. by Alison L. Strayer
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe comparatively shapeless entries show up the tension Ms. Ernaux feels between distillation and comprehensiveness. She labors to create small, perfectly measured narratives, but, as she comments in Getting Lost, \'a story is never finished\' ... Armed with her usual penetrating and aptly chosen descriptions, Ms. Ernaux progresses from the rustic war period to the material explosion during the Trente Glorieuses to the 1968 rebellions to the ambivalent liberalizations of the 1980s, and onward to the 21st century. As Ms. Ernaux’s experiences become reduced in the solvent of time, the pointed, intimate details drawn from them gain autonomy and can be claimed by anyone. \'Other people’s memories gave us a place in the world,\' she writes, and it is to the service of that process of orientation and self-knowledge that her highly original books have been devoted.
RaveWall Street JournalThe latest from Helen DeWitt, an eccentric genius of our own day and age, is a delicious novella entitled The English Understand Wool ... With an impeccably straight face, Ms. DeWitt renders Marguerite’s prim, refined voice, in the process landing superb satirical shots at the publishing industry and the hypocrisies of the current marketplace for trauma narratives ... But no novelty attaches to this work, another of Ms. DeWitt’s classically understated comic jewels.
Andrew Sean Greer
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... stands out by offering repetition rather than evolution. Mr. Greer is simply doing more of what worked, which makes it easy for readers to decide whether the book is for them ... For me, the suspense in Less Is Lost
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... written conversationally and edged with absurdity and venomous sarcasm. The artist as self-centered bastard is a figure Ms. Jones ridicules but also reluctantly defends, and you can never quite tell whether the more macabre elements of The Birdcatcher are meant to be funny or serious.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe unmistakable quirks and charms of the debut are present in Jonathan Escoffery’s collection ... Patriarchal conflict is Mr. Escoffery’s stubborn theme, which he enlivens with biting wit and his use of a wonderful Jamaican patois ... The focus on Trelawny is the surest sign that this is Mr. Escoffery’s first book. The younger brother is morose and self-involved and he does less of interest than any other character but appears the most because he is the sort of figure writers tend to identify with. (Mr. Escoffery goes to lengths to persuade us that his self-pity is justified, but I’m not certain that makes it less tiresome.) The stories that keep Trelawny in the background have noticeably more dramatic verve ... This accomplished story bodes well for the future: Nearly every young writer draws from autobiography, but it’s good to know that Mr. Escoffery doesn’t depend on it.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe accretion of personal histories is skillful but not obviously interconnected, and you read in anticipation of the big magician’s reveal that will tie the disparate subjects in a neat bow ... It turns out that the real revelation—and for me, the great appeal—of Lessons is that nothing like this ever comes about. Mr. McEwan has created a lost, likable protagonist whose \'shapeless existence\' militates against the imposition of any grand order of meaning ... Which is not to say that Lessons lacks drama, as Mr. McEwan builds toward reckonings between Roland and the two influential women in his life. Yet these scenes, while emotionally potent, are essentially inconclusive ... This is quietly touching, as is Mr. McEwan’s decision to cede his habitual narrative control to more naturalistic forces. Lessons is more formless than previous books, and less obviously brilliant. It is also wiser and closer to the bone.
A. M. Homes
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Homes is good at exploiting holiday gatherings for seriocomic set pieces. Along with the political events, the one-two punch of Thanksgiving and Christmas plays a big role here. Scenes with Charlotte and Meghan are rich in outbursts and bewildered reconciliations ... There are oracular moments when their covert scheming about media manipulation and societal fracture darkly foreshadows our current political miasma. But just as often the gang comes off as bickering, over-privileged cranks playing at being power brokers to divert themselves from personal problems. Ms. Homes restlessly shifts between serious political critique, rollicking Pynchon-style absurdity and unabashed displays of sentiment. If the mixture leaves The Unfolding feeling somewhat gangly and unresolved it also saves it from falling into the ruts of ideological narrative. Beyond being good or bad, the characters in this impressive book are, above all things, unpredictable.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalSubtlety is sacrificed for the kind of pulsing intensity most often found in thrillers ... Ms. O’Farrell intelligently connects Lucrezia’s trapped circumstances with the art that her husband, a notable patron and collector, commissions to immortalize her ... There is a blinding power to the heightened, almost fetishistic beauty of Renaissance art, this novel suggests as it portrays a world of far greater brutality and fierceness.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalHonesty is perhaps the virtue that this novel, in its undemonstrative way, most extols ... Goodness is difficult to depict without becoming mawkish, but Mr. Gurnah does it superbly. This is owed, I think, to the masterly restraint of his storytelling, which patiently develops its characters and their fortunes without authorial interjections or overt literary effects. One can take away lessons and meanings from this novel, yet such things are perhaps less significant than the sheer seeming realness of the characters, whose presences Mr. Gurnah has faithfully crafted into existence, with all of their dreaming, their sorrow and their resilience.
PanThe Wall Street Journal... is like a great deal of current American fiction in that its absence of plot, humor or distancing irony make it impossible to disambiguate the narrator’s voice from the author’s. The accusatory tone of the writing creates the suspicion that its systemic critiques are really privately held grievances. There is a paradox here: The narrator presents herself as the sole empathetic caregiver in a heartless big-city hospital, but the only feelings she ever seriously contemplates are her own. It eventually becomes clear that the illness invoked in the title is not a general condition but the narrator’s alone. \'How do you recover from anything?\' she asks. One hopes that this anguished book has helped in the process.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe book crystallizes around one storm in particular—Hurricane Ike from 2008—which intensifies the quandary over leaving or staying. But even here the event is as unifying as it is destructive, bringing together the scattered cast in the collective work of reconstruction. Ms. Garza’s affection for Galveston is so heartfelt that she sometimes sticks bits of regional history into the chapters in clunky if charming ways, and the book ends with an annotated glossary of local terms. Artless perhaps, but every city would be lucky for such a tribute.
PanThe Wall Street JournalWith storytelling bravura, Mr. Langer alternates among the points of view of his characters. Though all are diverse in background, they share, with the author, an inclination toward scenery chewing. Everything is exaggerated in this book, whether it’s the gestures or the accents (one character speaks in jive; another in an unbearable Cockney-Aussie hybrid). The dialogue is often overtly scripted...There’s nothing wrong with this kind of shtick, but you wonder what Anne Frank ever did to get roped into it ... Topics like the #MeToo movement, illegal immigration and even the changing media landscape are rapidly incorporated into the dramas. As in all Trump-era fiction, the lessons of this novel rely on the assumption of a shared (liberal, suburban) politics, turning a hammy but outsized story into something extremely generic.
PositiveWall Street Journal[Wiggins\'] characters are given to the lively, comic backtalk of the golden-age Hollywood movies often filmed nearby. Tonally, this is tricky to reconcile with the running of a concentration camp ... Ms. Wiggins stresses that her characters are all honorable people doing their best in a bad situation, even working together to provide seed money and business opportunities for the dispossessed prisoners. The vigor and sweep of her writing has real rhetorical potency. I still don’t think this is a fit subject for Greatest Generation heroics but Properties of Thirst comes as close as anything will to persuading me.
RaveWall Street JournalThe aspect of unreality—albeit carefully constructed unreality—is central to Ms. Gunty’s presentation of American malaise, which occupies an unstable realm between portraiture and allegory. It is never altogether clear whether her characters are in the grip of some transformative religious awakening or simply suffering from untreated mental illness. The ambiguity is the source of this novel’s remarkable nervous energy. A feeling of genuine crisis—unrooted but ferociously tangible—propels the narrative through its many twists to the catharsis of its bizarre ending ... The tension is not uniformly unflagging. An extended middle section recounting Blandine’s doomed love affair with her high-school music teacher is out of proportion in both length and tone, seeming to belong to a more realistic coming-of-age debut. But this does little to offset the unnerving vision and conviction of the most promising first novel I’ve read this year.
RaveWall Street JournalIt’s the particularity of those voices that makes Mr. Fofana’s debut a standout achievement. Each first-person story is written in vivid dialect, through which the characters’ backgrounds and personalities—and to an affecting degree, their destinies—are revealed. The conversational informality means that desperation is often delivered with wry humor ... American speech is an underused commodity in contemporary fiction and it’s a joy to find such a vital example of it here.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe infusion of technical jargon throughout Mr. Calder’s balanced prose has an eerie effect on the stories, as though the algorithm had begun colonizing the writing as well. These are, broadly speaking, portrayals of the mess of millennial life in the vein of Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, but the temperament is cooler and the corners are rounder, like on a MacBook Air. Generational zombification, in Mr. Calder’s penetrating depiction, has been a largely smooth and painless process, and there is no discontent brought about by the smartphone that the smartphone can’t also distract us from thinking about.
Alice Elliott Dark
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe sense that these characters are still growing, despite their old age, contributes to the novel’s wonderful texture, its feeling of depth and ongoingness. Both women are superbly depicted, but Polly is the more memorable, partly because the reader (like Agnes) is prone to underestimating her ... there are passages following Polly’s sleepless musings that are fired with so much sadness and private satisfaction and unexpressed passion that they lift off the page ... If a friendship novel is by nature episodic rather than plot-driven, how can it end, except in the abrupt way that everything ends? Ms. Dark’s solution is to introduce a fairy-tale element that vaguely connects to Fellowship Point’s Native American religious heritage. Whether this works is probably a question of taste (it is not at all to mine). Ultimately, conclusions may matter far less than what people do while the story is still underway.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... engrossing ... Though it contains plenty of nostalgia for the pioneer age of 1990s game design, this isn’t primarily a novel of nerdy insider references ... Ms. Zevin’s great strength as a storyteller is her easygoing nature, and she’s mostly content to advance the novel slowly and patiently with well-realized landmark events. But the spell of her narrative is broken by a random explosion of violence in the novel’s final third, which introduces the sorts of traumas and mawkish life lessons characteristic of young-adult fiction ... Which makes me wonder if it’s possible for novels involving videogames to ever fully mature, even as relationships built on them continue. What do gamers do together when they grow up? Ms. Zevin’s pleasingly immersive book is on surest ground when exploring the meanings and metaphysics of play, an inherently youthful activity.
MixedWall Street JournalNot even Mr. Talty’s dark wit can compensate for the unrelenting amount of suffering his collection depicts. Readers of contemporary literary fiction are accustomed to their books rating high on the misery index; yet this collection’s catalog of addiction, abuse, neglect, injury, betrayal, death and despair adds up to a whole new level of human wretchedness ... Which creates the sense that there is more going on than the usual suspects of trauma and social injustice. David comments that his reservation is \'for the dead\' because it was built on a burial ground, but he also means something more bitter: There is no real life in this cursed place, only a shambling sort of living death, and the traditional spells that might have reversed the impulse to destruction have all been lost or forgotten.
PanWall Street Journal... with the studied boredom of a teenager using swear words, Ms. Moshfegh piles on the barbarisms ... This stuff doesn’t even have the cheap integrity of the gross-out; it’s simply too puerile and dumb to excite any reaction beyond impatience. It’s normal for children to go through phases of insolence, but Ms. Moshfegh is on her sixth book, so what’s her excuse?
RaveWall Street JournalThe trajectory that took Melville from youthful celebrity to total obscurity to, finally, posthumous renown as the author of the greatest of all American novels has become the stuff of legend, a parable about the mercurial ways of literary fortune...What remains unclear, though, is the lesson that ought to be drawn from it. Is it the bitter tale of a visionary doomed to go unappreciated in his time?...This ambiguity speaks to something profound about Melville’s life and work and serves as the crucial theme of Aaron Sachs’s Up From the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times, which emphasizes the \'offsetting forces\' of disenchantment and optimism, of failure and grandeur...Up From the Depths takes up the dialectic method so central to Melville’s writing for its unique investigation of parallel lives...Mumford is a fitting counterpart to Melville, both as his biographer and as an avid disciple who found in his subject the guidance to navigate his own tragedies and disappointments...At the core of the exploration is the question of how technology has shaped or deformed human behavior...Fittingly, Mr. Sachs’s chapters interweave periods of the two men’s lives, creating a dappled effect of shared shadows and light...Certain biographical overlaps are particularly striking...Both men, too, were hounded by depression—what Mumford called \'a bleak, Melvillean feeling of despair\'—and while Mumford enjoyed more critical favor than Melville, he couldn’t shake a similar sense of futility...Up From the Depths is on firmer ground—or rather, over deeper waters—when it returns to the subjects of renewal and rediscovery...
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... unfolds the romantic and professional misadventures of this group in the dishy, funny style of Armistead Maupin and Candace Bushnell, albeit with even more cheerfully raunchy sex ... And like Mr. Maupin’s and Ms. Bushnell’s iconic series, Boys Come First is also a tale of the city, in this case Detroit in the throes of gentrification. The dilemmas of family—and what such a thing might look like for gay men—are fruitfully bound up in broader questions of community as Detroit’s manic development threatens its identity. Mr. Foley knows the Motor City as intimately as he knows the workings of dating apps like Scruff and Grindr, and he details both with the swagger and fluency of a quality TV script. The only mystery, in fact, is which will come first: the HBO option or the sequel.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens
MixedWall Street JournalDisaster has a...abstract, consciously literary shape in Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s novel The Visitors ... Collapse is Ms. Stevens’s murmured theme ... The Visitors addresses it subjects through a blurry, somewhat hypnotic dance of symbols and signifiers. Ms. Stevens operates mostly by way of vague implications. Recurrent motifs such as looms and rainbows and Rubik’s Cubes are offered up—I suppose to suggest analogous codes and networks—but never developed. The gnome is mysterious largely because it’s given so little to do—something invented, it seems, in order to be ignored ... Obstinately sketchy and draft-like, a degree removed from whatever vivid thing the author must have imagined for it.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... quiet resolve, an exquisite eye for observation and (on the debit side) a slight habit of repetition ... There is a strange and urgent life force in The Kingdom of Sand, deriving from its delight in faithful description, that is inseparable from its inherent melancholy. And though it requires a little more patience than other books by Mr. Holleran, it builds to an amazing emotional pitch. The final chapter is either the saddest thing this author has ever written or the most subversively joyful—no small accomplishment whatever the case.
Peter C Baker
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... subtle and unsettling ... Complicated questions of complicity and responsibility emerge alongside planned local protests, yet the insistently uncomfortable thing about “Planes” is the ease with which these questions are put to the side. Although torture and extraordinary rendition are the novel’s headliner issues, almost all of its dramatic tension is bound up in whether or not Melanie’s husband will find out about her affair with Bradley. This discrepancy is, I believe, a feature rather than a bug, as it implicates the reader in a broader complacency. How smoothly are the politics in Planes overshadowed by the familiar excitements of a domestic crisis! The novel’s slyly muted ending is, perhaps, even more damning than any imagined confrontation.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalKiara’s retelling of these events is clipped, demotic and, apart from a few moments of emotional catharsis, focused on the brass tacks of staying alive. Her story becomes more and more gripping and desperate as the trap around her closes. Ms. Mottley accesses the feelings one sometimes has while reading Dickens, the breathless sense that some massive unfairness is being inflicted on a good and innocent person ... Kiara’s true outlet for hope is in the makeshift family of friends and relatives she manages to hold together. From such connections Ms. Mottley’s seemingly fatalistic book finds its buoyant humanity.
PositiveWall Street JournalAnyone who grew up in the suburbs will recognize the kind of accident at the heart of Alison Espach\'s novel...High-schooler Billy Barnes is driving his girlfriend Kathy Holt and her younger sister Sally to school one morning; he isn\'t drunk and he isn\'t reckless but he\'s distractible and inexperienced, and, swerving from a deer, he hits a tree, killing Kathy...The novel is Sally\'s story, told when she is 28 and addressed to the memory of her sister...It is a confessional about the effects Kathy\'s death had on their Connecticut town, on their struggling parents and on Sally\'s own passage into adulthood...The novel is congruously funny...This is the humor of irony and conversational banter, the deflections used when intense grief threatens to overwhelm ordinary middle-class existence.
PositiveWall Street JournalI like almost everything about Nell Zink’s comic novels and the merry chaos they bring to a rather static American book scene. I like their ridiculously overelaborate storylines and I like their willingness to end happily. I like Ms. Zink’s habit of direct address ... I like that the books are actually funny. Her customary lunacy is on display again in Avalon ... A dab of nonsense is the crucial component that keeps the discussions lively and entertaining ... Having set down so much praise, it feels churlish to complain about Avalon. But as my toddler says whenever I present him with a thoughtfully prepared meal, this isn’t my favorite ... The decision to deliver the novel from Brandy’s point of view doesn’t show Ms. Zink in her best light—the first-person voice is paradoxically more buttoned-up than her omniscient third-person narratives. And there’s a comparative shortage of comic set pieces here, as well as a needlessly fractured ending. But despite its seeming hastiness, its overall underdone quality, Avalon contains delights.
Jon Fosse tr. Damion Searls
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... masterly translation ... Mr. Fosse writes with no full stops, each unending sentence flowing imperceptibly between Asle’s memories and present actions and often incorporating his incantations of Latin prayers. The effect can be both mesmerizing and dulling, but there are moments when it reaches a pitch of extraordinary catharsis. Amidst a field of writers intrigued by the potential of religion, Mr. Fosse has created something of a different order: a work of art that itself approximates a religious experience.
RaveWall Street JournalMyers\'s duo of crop circlers consists of Redbone, a \'crust-punk\' hippie who dreams up increasingly complex geometric patterns, and Calvert, a severely traumatized veteran of the Falklands War who does the legwork of finding usable fields...The odd couple is united by a complementary hatred of England and love of its land and roots...Begun as a lark, the crop circles provide them a lifeline...Their shared code is to \'fuel the myth and strive for beauty\'...The contrasting public and private aspects of the stunt are shown in parallel...In the background, through invented newspaper clippings, we read of the growing media sensation surrounding the crop circles, the mass pilgrimages by UFO-spotters, and the farmers who make a mint charging for access...But Mr. Myers focuses more on the creative act itself...The chapters chronicle each midnight mission in the fields, depicting both the challenge to remain undiscovered and the illicit thrill of completion...Anonymity and secrecy are key to the work but also a source of deep melancholy, and the novel uncovers a plaintive connection between artistic transcendence and personal loneliness...The controversies attached to crop circles ultimately fade out behind the touching individual quests for meaning...\'The next one is always a beacon,\' the outcast artists think, \'beaming hope across the strange and haunted landscapes of their solitary existences.\'
Georgi Gospodinov, trans. by Angela Rodel
RaveWall Street JournalMr. Gospodinov...is a nostalgia artist ... His books are preoccupied with memory, its ambiguous pleasures and its wistful, melancholy attraction. He is most drawn to minor and personalized details ... The book flows between the remembered and the purely imagined as easily as it wanders through time ... The novel rambles among elaborations of its fantastical conceit, flashbacks to the narrator’s youth, and meditations on the current condition of Europe with no apparent cohesive structure. Caveat lector: This makes for an extremely diffuse and piecemeal book. But the absence of a stabilizing center of gravity is symptomatic of a continent still recovering from the hammer-blows of World War II and the Cold War ... Mr. Gospodinov also grasps the dangers of escapism ... This difficult but rewarding novel concludes with an image of Europe brought to the brink of renewed conflict—an abstraction that recent events have imbued with the terrible force of reality.
MixedWall Street JournalAn experimental novella obsessed with questions about the meaning—should any in fact exist—of experimental artwork ... She does her best ... Somehow none of these attempts seem to signify anything artistic. The silliness of the gestures and the absurd recursions of the narrator’s inner monologue give The Longcut a humorous flavor, though it is not the sendup of the contemporary art world that I briefly expected (and, I admit, sort of hoped for). Instead the wheel-spinning resolves in a final crescendo of stirring if desperate affirmations about the creative act, with its constant failures and essential hopefulness. For those few pages, at least, all the pointless frustration suddenly makes sense.
MixedWall Street JournalTrust is a rich and prismatic—though ultimately anticlimactic—novel interested in the twin meanings of speculation, both the act of amassing wealth through the stock market and of creating stories to explain and define the past. Mr. Diaz’s method is to juxtapose competing interpretations of the life of his character Andrew Bevel ... Mr. Diaz’s skillful mimicry...pays real dividends in the complex portion of the book narrated by Ida, whose memories, not all of them reliable, mediate among the portrayals of Bevel created by his critics and the one Bevel sought to establish for himself ... A highly stimulating sense of narrative pressure builds up as the fictions invented around these enigmas collide and bleed into one another ... I am chagrined to say that much of this excellent work is undone in the concluding entries from Mildred’s diary, which effectively erase all of the novel’s finely poised mysteries. With these Mr. Diaz chooses straightforward explanation over ambiguity, leaving readers with a predictable—and, in itself, highly artificial—lesson about the way women have been written out of history. The coda left me with only one remaining unanswerable question: In the final estimation, just how good or bad is a good book with a bad ending?
RaveWall Street JournalIn Sara Baume’s Sevem Steeples, a pair of \'solitary misanthropes\' named Isabel and Simon, or Bell and Sigh, leave Dublin for a decrepit rental house in a rural patch of southern Ireland ... With calm scrutiny and a vividly beautiful poetic touch, Ms. Baume describes the world they come to inhabit ... The easy strain of music in that brief litany is characteristic of Ms. Baume’s writing, as is the image of messy interconnectedness. In time, habit and isolation turn Bell and Sigh and their dogs into a kind of ungainly single organism specifically adapted to their narrow surroundings. No story is imposed on this gradual evolution (or devolution, perhaps). Ms. Baume only means to see it, and to make us see it as well, in all its oddness and silliness and tender fragility. She succeeds wonderfully.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... evokes the expected 1970s trio of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll—the music of David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and of course the Pogues always seems to be blasting in the background—but the psychedelia has a demonic aspect that Dan and Una are prone to attribute to some malign spirit ... The notable feature, though, is the writing. This is free verse in the freest possible sense—nothing more, really, than line breaks imposed on an otherwise unbroken monologue. The style operates under the assumption that the Irish oral tradition is intrinsically poetic, which is true to an extent, but perhaps not to the extent that this verbose, frequently repetitive novel thinks. Mr. McCabe takes exaggerated liberties with the reader’s time and patience in the way that an elderly patron might with a stranger at a pub. There are plenty of outrageous stories, all delivered with unflagging flair, but prospective readers are advised to equip themselves like that cornered pub-goer: with a tall glass of whiskey at hand.
MixedWall Street JournalEven after reading this novel, I still have no clear notion of what Unitarian Universalism is or what its beliefs entail, beyond its mandate to be uplifting and \'nonjudgy.\' Search puzzled me in a similar way: it’s amusing but not funny, sentimental but not dramatic, copiously detailed yet completely inconsequential—a cheerfully creedless novel about a \'creedless denomination.\'
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... page-turning ... If there is a weakness to this book it is in the incongruity between the two paths it follows from this point onward. Marcus’s story, which involves a polygamous Mormon compound in Mexico, is bizarre and largely unbelievable. The official scapegoating of Antonio Saenz, however, is carefully and convincingly presented, building to a devastating portrayal of systemic injustice ... The novel’s dark, exciting ending finds Lorena searching for the missing scorpion researcher with the help of a police officer tormented by his role in railroading her brother. Mr. Almond’s writing is always swift and absorbing, even when the book grows somewhat miscellaneous, and a sense of enigma persists beyond the final explanations. There are some secrets that remain hidden simply because no one is willing to believe them.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWill is sweet, sentimental and severely traumatized (he microdoses LSD to stay upbeat)—appealing company if something of a stock character: the hit man with the heart of gold ... It’s wild and entertaining, don’t get me wrong. But I doubt it will trouble my dreams in the same way as its predecessor.
Antonio Scurati tr. Anne Milano Appel
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe feeling of historical destiny that drives the narrative is so dramatically potent that it raises doubts in the reader’s mind. Is it possible that the portrayal of Mussolini as a masterful tactician who alone perceives the route to power has been over-determined, a known historical outcome conflated with an historical inevitability? There isn’t much room for randomness or luck in this depiction of events. Though nothing about the rise of Fascism has been softened or elided, the account sometimes seems like one that Mussolini himself would approve of. He may be evil and amoral but—in this volume at least—he never looks dumb ... This is unquestionably disturbing. Yet I would defend Mr. Scurati’s characterization on literary grounds. I have often heard readers wonder what the point of historical fiction is, and why anyone would read it rather than a good work of history proper. M: Son of the Century is not the book to turn to for an explanatory blow-by-blow of Mussolini’s rise to power, nor is it interested in presenting an objective, wide-angle view on the complex, interdependent factors that brought about his dictatorship ... What it does instead is re-create the sensations of the era: the dry-mouthed claustrophobia of looming confrontation, the bitterness of resentment and humiliation and the wild exhilaration of violent reprisal. Most of all, it makes us feel the perverse seduction of Fascism, which is connected to the universal allure of victory and control. Readers will find themselves swept up by the story, thrilled by its conflicts and strangely forgetful that its \'hero\' is a murderous despot. It’s a dangerous lesson for a novel to convey, but a profoundly important one.
PositiveWall Street JournalMs. Wuehle pursues her gonzo premise with satirical gusto, mixing together some curious brew of Robert Ludlum and Don DeLillo ... For much of Monarch there’s nothing to do except surf the strangeness and enjoy the ride ... The strangeness takes the more familiar form of a thriller. But the writing is still animated by the inexplicable ... A lively debut.
Joe Mungo Reed
MixedThe Wall Street JournalWhile Hammer is unfailingly entertaining it suffers from a nagging sense of disconnection ... Hammer has the smoothness of a good cable drama. It’s harmless fun, but all the discussion of groundbreaking artistic visionaries makes me wonder whether, in his heart of hearts, Mr. Reed aspires to something more original.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Osunde discusses the draconian same-sex marriage prohibition bill passed in Nigeria in 2014, which even criminalizes public displays of affection, and her stories, increasingly animated by righteous anger, turn to covert relationships and the goings-on in secret gay nightclubs. A note of empowerment appears, turning this vitally written miscellany into a kind of rallying cry. It is in the hidden margins of a corrupt metropolis, the stories affirm, that truth and bravery are to be found.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe California depicted in Ms. Straight’s ambitious book is both heavy with history and dangerously unstable ... She goes about building that portrayal through an assemblage of loosely connected episodes that could fit just as easily in a story collection ... Johnny harbors the secret of a killing in the mountains when he was a young man and that event becomes implausibly tied to another drama involving an abandoned baby, providing the linked chapters with a soap-opera-worthy through-line. This uneasy composite of closely observed character sketches and bizarre melodrama make Mecca feel somewhat lumpy, as does the regular interjection of newsy events—fires, crackdowns by ICE officials, the racially motivated police shooting of an unarmed teenager, and so on. Yet Ms. Straight has the great virtue of being genuinely interested in her characters. She’s best in times of quiet, when she can live in their thoughts, and over the course of this involving novel nearly all of them come to stand out on the page, more textured and real than the scenarios contrived around them.
María Gainza, tr. Thomas Bunstead
MixedThe Wall Street JournalAs in her striking if uneven debut Optic Nerve, Ms. Gainza proves herself a dab hand at concisely digesting artists’ lives, finding delight in idiosyncrasy and social rebellion ... The power of deception, and its usefulness in unsettling bourgeois certitudes, is central to the depictions, which draw from yet playfully fictionalize real periods in Argentine history ... But there is another level of dissimulation that seems at odds with this gamesome trickery. Cuellar, a real figure, was known by friends and admirers as La Negra, which is how Ms. Gainza refers to her in the Spanish text. The sobriquet has resonances with Ms. Gainza’s original title, La Luz Negra, or The Black Light, deriving from the tool used by art authenticators. But, presumably for reasons of political sensitivity, all of this has been scrubbed from Thomas Bunstead’s translation, in which Cuellar is only called Renée. A significant amount of racial and political subtext has thus been excised from Ms. Gainza’s book, which may account for its overall thinness. A bowdlerized version of a novel celebrating artistic radicals is a dispiriting kind of oxymoron.
Yevgenia Belorusets, tr. Eugene Ostashevsky
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis juxtaposition of the pedestrian and the cataclysmic lends the sketches their sense of irreality, or what Ms. Belorusets calls \'that clinging bewilderment, the distractedness that does not let go.\' However unstable or absurdist it may appear, though, one vital aspect of daily living in Lucky Breaks is its insistence on continuing.Often, the writing turns tender and wistful. Some stories are about the sudden forging of close friendships, which the characters find just as unaccountable as war, but now unaccountably joyous. This, too, is the nature of a world defined by unpredictability.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThere is a great deal of eloquent commentary in this book—on Naipaul, on Modi, on life in rural India and in London literary salons alike. Mr. Mishra, a prolific writer of nonfiction, possesses a rare and intangible quality that you might call personality, which ensures that nothing he publishes will ever be boring (he is like Christopher Hitchens in this regard). But such a voice is not the same thing as literary style, and Run and Hide has little narrative nuance or storytelling guile, the things that typically distinguish works of fiction. Ultimately, Naipaul, whose novels are far more ambiguous than the lessons Aseem takes from them, comes away from the encounter unscathed.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAt the heart of the book is Alice’s awkward (if sometimes giddy) transformation into a member of the aristocracy. Ms. Messud is excellent on the complications of finding and managing household employees and hosting garden parties—or \'fetes,\' as the upper-crust primly call them. Carefully observed domestic details are thrown into relief by the sense of disorientation that undermines the narrative ... Not all of A Dream Life strikes me as successful. The ending, especially, is oddly anticlimactic considering the richness of the book’s characters and conflicts. But Ms. Messud is clearly well suited to the novella’s compact form, alive to the specifics of the sentences but able to draw back to see the mystery of the whole.
Yoko Tawada, tr. Margaret Mitsutani
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... possesses both the looseness and wistfulness of extreme displacement ... Ms. Tawada’s characters are similarly impressionistic: mobile, protean and evanescent, whirled together in a manner that can seem insubstantial but combines to form a vision of beauty and calm.
Antonio Di Benedetto, Tr. Esther Allen
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe books [in the Trilogy of Expectation] have a spiritual kinship with Samuel Beckett’s postwar trilogy of monologue novels in their deadpan rendering of comic futility and monomania. The narrator’s voice is disturbed and disassociated, yet, somehow, strangely pithy and clarifying ... A vital difference from Beckett, however, is that di Benedetto’s fever dreams are lodged within the trappings of realism. The invasive din of traffic and machinery and dance halls is metaphoric but, for city-dwellers at least, will be distressingly familiar, and there may be many who come to understand the narrator’s journey into madness better than they might wish.
Hans Von Trotha tr. Elisabeth Lauffer
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. von Trotha is a German historian and journalist, and this sturdy, somber novel, translated by Elisabeth Lauffer, holds one’s attention more for its exploration of classical antiquities than for any literary flourishes. Pollak’s late-night meditations turn often to the intersection of art and empire.
Alejandro Zambra, tr. Megan McDowell
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThere is a gentle joke in the title of Alejandro Zambra’s Chilean Poet that leads readers to expect some kind of highbrow Künstlerroman while actually delivering a novel of domesticity filled with prosaic records of daily life. This is partly because, as Mr. Zambra teases, Chile has so many damn poets that the calling has lost its mystique and become a national industry. But the greater meaning has to do with the difficult poetic potentiality for inspiration and transcendence, which this splendid book finds in family relationships as much as in artistic creation ... moves deftly among different points of view, arriving at Vicente’s maturation—inevitably, he too becomes a moody wannabe poet. His complicated reunion with Gonzalo is one of the best endings to a novel that I have read in years, a scene of beautiful emotional improvisation.
PanThe Wall Street Journal[Two] discrete parts are connected—and, for me at least, further muddled—by Ms. Otsuka’s striking use of pronouns. The opening sections are narrated with the first-person plural \'we.\' But sections concerning the memory residence adopt the second-person \'you.\' These are different voices, one choral, one individual, and it isn’t clear to me how they relate, or how they relate to the reader. This is a painful, personal story that feels oddly constrained by its formal conceits.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThere’s a great deal of disgruntled vitality in this novel, which unfolds during a succession of snowstorms ... But while Mercy Street is terrifically readable, it lacks some of the friction of [Haigh\'s previous novel] Heat and Light simply because many of its scenes (especially those involving Victor Prine) depict people alone on their computers. Technology poses a problem that the social novelist has not yet resolved: If no one meets in person any more, how do you make the sparks fly?
Adrian Nathan West
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThis debut offers an acute, painfully funny front-row view of a midlife crisis in action. Mr. West writes in the vein of what has been called dirty realism, bringing style and erudition to the subject of Middle American drudgery. Unfurnished apartments, tacky mall restaurants and public buses are all depicted in unflattering close-ups ... Under the microscope are the strange habits of men who are incapable of discussing their emotions with one another yet constantly reveal them in the most tortured, vulnerable ways. The narrator’s father, ridiculous and resilient, is a desperately touching character and I was anxious for the book to not make too much fun of him. Apart from a misbegotten final sentence, it doesn’t—Mr. West is unsparing but tender. His narrator is also a man, after all, yearning for love but with no idea how to ask for it.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThere are aspects of “Pure Colour” that seem merely whimsical or dippy, but the long passages that flow from the death scene, and the fables invented to encompass and poeticize it, are by far the best writing Ms. Heti has ever done and alone make this book well worth reading. These chapters are forthright, attentive, unembarrassed, radiant with wonder, serious yet feather-light—and, to me, courageous in their willingness to plunge so wholeheartedly into the unknowable ... the fantastical quality of Pure Colour has given her the unfettered freedom to create, in the knowledge that every creation can only be provisional, a flawed first draft. Uncertainty is the paradoxical binding agent of Ms. Heti’s myth-making and this lovely book.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalShuggie Bain is powerful but grueling, a repetitive, marathon depiction of alcoholism. But the crafted storylines in Young Mungo develop with purpose and converge explosively, couching all the horror and pathos within a tighter, more gripping reading experience—an impressive advancement, in other words, from an already accomplished author.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. James’s epic takes place in a fantastical precolonial Africa and it draws deeply on the stories preserved from the oral traditions of kingdoms in present-day Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Ghana and elsewhere. Because these empires antedate the influence of Christianity or Islam, their visions of the world, from cosmologies to sexual mores, are wildly unfamiliar, and that scintillating strangeness infuses the books’ sprawling cast of monsters, magicians and mercenaries ... Mr. James is such a ferociously powerful and fast-paced storyteller that one rarely has time to worry about the grander scheme of the plot. Although the book covers a huge span of time, no grass grows between the action. Galvanized by a vernacular writing style modeled on the oral tradition of African griots, the scenes are ribald, declamatory and quick to confrontation. Events are so crazed and swirling they become almost hallucinatory. What the larger picture amounts to, when considered from a distance, remains something of a puzzle ... It is this trilogy’s prodigious passions, and not any obvious narrative purpose, that make it so gripping.
Sandro Veronesi, Tr. Elena Pala
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe protagonist...can\'t see what\'s coming at him. Mr. Veronesi sharpens this irony by scrambling the presentation of Marco’s life, alternating between scenes of his youth and his snake-bitten adulthood, and frequently introducing the aftermath of an event before its origins. (Scenes of his acrimonious divorce, for instance, precede the story of his marriage.) This makes knowing gods of readers: we’re aware of every trap he blindly marches into. It’s a blunt but effective means of portraying him as a hostage to fate. The novel’s most memorable set pieces—one takes place at a high-stakes gambling hall, another describes the freak occurrences that save Marco from an airplane crash—evoke the designs of an unknown cosmic order ... It’s a stirring portrait, as Mr. Veronesi is an expert at playing on the reader’s deepest fears and hopes in emotionally involving ways—though for me the manipulations in the novel’s redemptive ending passed the limits of credulity. But there is no clear line that separates how much higher meaning readers want to believe in and how much they can finally accept.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMuch of Very Cold People wields a kind of detached, anthropological power, portraying the world through the accumulation of telling details. But abruptly, near the end, the narrator has an awakening to the terrible reason for her mother’s repression, a trauma that afflicts young women that runs even deeper than class. The diagnosis is not new—just the opposite—but it is startling to find the narrator bursting into passionate appeals after so much cold-eyed recollection.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThough the book is invigorated by the bite of authenticity, the story it unfolds is necessarily unoriginal—indeed, as Mr. Sanchez recognizes, a fear of recovery clichés is one of recovery’s major obstacles. Yet what makes this debut stand out are its fascinating philosophical qualities. While the narrator flashes back to memories of his childhood, he does not connect his addictions to some buried trauma but rather to a more general and inexplicable terror of his own mind ... The depths that Mr. Sanchez depicts may be specific to the experiences of the most down-and-out addicts; the moving journey back into the world has universal application.
Olga Tokarczuk, Tr. Jennifer Croft
RaveThe Wall Street JournalDense, monumental ... he novel recapitulates an astonishing amount of esoteric learning. Ms. Tokarczuk is as comfortable rendering the world of the Jewish peasantry as that of the Polish royal court. And she has made matters even more challenging for herself—and certainly for her readers—by adopting an experimental narrative technique that draws back from the dramatization of historical events to explore the question of salvation, and of humankind’s perpetual longing for it ... An incredibly juicy tale of villainy and intrigue, yet the striking thing about The Books of Jacob is that Ms. Tokarczuk has taken advantage of almost none of the story’s inherent drama ... The pace of events never slackens—there is plague, betrayal, imprisonment, war, exile, death and succession—but their presentation is distant and uninvolved, conveyed in summaries rather than engaged re-enactments ... The treatment of messianic passions through an attitude of Zen detachment is so pointedly ironic that it colors every aspect of the novel, making this a curiously abstracted historical epic. In Jennifer Croft’s translation—a feat of tremendous diligence and care—the prose remains urbane and unruffled whether it describes religious ecstasy or sickening violence. On the practical level, this makes reading the novel extremely slow going ... There are important exceptions to the governing dispassion, however, and they concern the medley of side characters...whom Ms. Tokarczuk allows herself to inhabit more intimately ... Difficult and rewarding ... Encyclopedic, impersonal, incalculably rich in learning and driven by a faith in the numinous properties of knowledge.
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe essential conflicts in the connected sections are familiar from A Little Life: the struggle to care for the \'fragile or different or damaged\' and the tension between protection and stifling repression. But although To Paradise is just as big and grueling and terror-strewn as its predecessor, the result is strangely lifeless. Indeed—and not even detractors would say this about A Little Life—it’s boring. How did that happen? ... The problem, to my mind, goes back to Ms. Yanagihara’s strength as a sentimental storyteller and her lack of interest in ideas or root causes. A Little Life narrows itself down as it advances until its frame contains almost nothing beyond its tormented hero. But the structure of To Paradise means that it must work by accretion, imbuing recurring objects, actions and motifs with accumulated meaning. But Ms. Yanagihara doesn’t really do metaphor, as odd as that sounds, so while the novel’s many echoes are apparent the reasons for them are not ... There is no particular exploration into gender hierarchies here...nor is there any real curiosity about the different conditions experienced by homosexuals across eras ... As far as I can tell, Ms. Yanagihara is just randomly switching stuff around ... The suspicion of pointlessness settles upon To Paradise early and makes the effort to sort out the details of its multiple settings hard to commit to. This is a novel steeped in politics and sociology by an author who seems defiantly indifferent to such matters.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... the key to Checkout 19 is its principled refusal to entirely wise up ... The language is showy in the precocious way of young writers who take profound pleasure in deploying fancy words ... This grows self-indulgent, of course. Mimicking juvenilia yields both freshness and triviality. But book lovers will identify enough not to mind Ms. Bennett’s stubborn naiveté, especially when it brings about jubilant passages[.]
John Edgar Wideman
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... probing, exploratory ... remarkable stylistic range ... Mr. Wideman is one of the great tragedians of American literature ... A sense of existential mystery that transcends time binds together the many and disparate voices the stories assume...[a] technique of blending together elements of ancestry, history, philosophy and literary theory into a somber, incantatory unified whole ... this collection, Mr. Wideman’s artistic consummation, is also the site of his unraveling, and there are moments of unbearable vulnerability when the author puts aside his great gifts to lie down in the rag and bone shop of the heart.
László Krasznahorkai, Tr. John Batki
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe novella reads much like a parable of Kafka’s, but it invokes the wanderings of Homer’s Odysseus ... The mood of paranoia is conveyed by the author’s signature long, pulsing, run-on sentences, although the translation by John Batki is much more casual than the virtuosic work of Mr. Krasznahorkai’s usual collaborator, Ottilie Mulzet. Slang phrases like \'in a hot second\' tend to disrupt the writing’s hypnotic effect. More successful is the novella’s packaging as a multimedia art object. Accompanying the text are eerie illustrations by Max Neumann and percussive, arrhythmic music by Szilveszter Miklós, which is accessed by QR codes at the start of each chapter.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... suspenseful, disorienting ... where Mr. McCarthy is grandiose and portentous, Ms. McLean is strikingly down-to-earth. Her characters may amuse themselves with flights of philosophizing, but mostly they bicker, wisecrack and daydream, their behavior—crude but engaging, and often even endearing—so grippingly at odds with their drift into savagery. It sounds impossible but for all its horrors, there is little that is lurid about the writing in Pity the Beast. I have never read a book that made evil seem so natural—which is both the most unsettling thing about this novel and its greatest accomplishment.
PanThe Wall Street JournalOnly an author so zealously devoted to a particular theory of literature could produce a novel as boring as this one, which promotes the theory at the expense of everything else. The characters are nothing more than proper names. The scenes exclusively focus on in-depth workplace conversation, briefly interrupted only when people order food. The language is an immense composite of colorless technical jargon ... Since Mr. McCarthy thinks that writing is about retransmitting pre-existing ideas, he likely does not care that his novel cribs so heavily from Don DeLillo ... But The Making of Incarnation, being evangelical, lacks Mr. DeLillo’s humor, his pleasure in absurdity. If the novelist ne plus ultra is a computer then so is its ideal reader, and reading itself becomes a matter of scanning texts for codes and patterns. Enjoyment doesn’t enter into it.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... if every pandemic-inspired novel has half the intensity of Ms. Hall’s short, acrid book then my worries will be misplaced ... Ms. Hall’s rendering...is sensual and messy, hot on the page. And when the bliss of Edith and Halit’s confinement is transformed into agony by the intrusion of the virus the writing loses none of its rough, demanding physicality. The paradox of passion is always at the fore of the story.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalHistorical reconstruction takes both figurative and literal forms in Susan Daitch’s ingenious contrapuntal novel ... [a] brutal motif, as well as the novel’s mangled chronology and open-ended, fragmentary sections, makes Siege of Comedians sound something like Roberto Bolaño’s gothic 2666. Yet for all its latent darkness, the novel is inquisitive rather than morbid, exhibiting a boundless curiosity in its characters’ unusual professions, a delight in the uncanny ways that history connects and repeats itself and a quixotic sense of hope that whatever has been lost to time might, one day, be found and restored.
PositiveChicago Review of Books\"It’s a particular joy to find oneself immersed in the minutiae of complicated, highly specialized work, and Daitch excels at zooming in and making us feel like experts ... three novellas, each of which could easily stand on its own...can be read as a meditation on the nature of storytelling, Siege of Comedians drills down one level further, to the building blocks of communication itself ... Some readers will surely find Siege of Comedians a bit dizzying. Indeed, it can be a challenge to keep track of the many names, places, timelines, and histories without feeling under siege yourself. But the experience of thinking about Siege of Comedians in the days and weeks after consuming it is your reward for the effort that a close reading of this novel requires.
PanThe Wall Street JournalMr. Shteyngart’s exploration into the pleasures and pitfalls of the American Dream is infused with the sort of liberal guilt that requires that all portrayals of luxury be accompanied by performances of abasement ... Mr. Shteyngart is a comic writer, yet he embodies this attitude far more than he satirizes it. \'Most of literature is about privileged people being unhappy,\' the Southern writer argues, and you often wish the book weren’t so tortured about the claim ... there are amusing nods here in the direction of Anna Karenina and Uncle Vanya. But the book’s silly plot twists—love triangles, betrayals, public scandals, the appearance of a menacing stranger and of course a collision with mortality—have much more in common with the kind of prestige cable melodrama that Sasha is trying to get off the ground. A pandemic novel that counts as a work of escapism is something of a feat, though the author himself doesn’t seem quite convinced.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalPaul Auster has written some unexpected books before now...but none so surprising as this one ... One of the strong points of Burning Boy is Mr. Auster’s attention to domestic detail ... Crane as presented here is morally irreproachable (likewise Cora), his literary achievements beyond criticism ... The editors of a biography this long might have asked its author for at least a full bibliography, if not a chronology into the bargain. They might also have advised Mr. Auster that his 21st-century squirming over his hero’s occasional insensitivity toward black, American Indian and Semitic peoples is unnecessary. It is nonetheless surprising to recall that Crane’s novel of America’s Civil War includes a single passing reference to an African-American. There is much to enjoy in this tour of what John Berryman, in his penetrating short biography of 1950, called the \'majesty and trash\' of Crane’s work—a phrase that can be applied equally to the life.
PanThe Wall Street JournalEverything and Less...relies on the flash and surprise and ingenuity of its arguments to distract you from the sleight-of-hand taking place in the background. Mr. McGurl’s impressive ambitions—his willingness to synthesize huge and diverse periods of literary history—is hardly in doubt ... Mr. McGurl has a funny chapter on the explosion of fetish lit ... The question is whether these increased opportunities in \'authorpreneurship\' affect the people principally motivated to express themselves artistically. Here the arguments grow more vague ... what is maddening about Everything and Less is how little literary analysis it actually contains. Mr. McGurl has the obnoxious habit of simply reiterating his claims without demonstrating them ... The absence of both wide-angle historical context and close textual reading makes Everything and Less a very curious kind of literary study, one startling enough to demand attention but too thin to successfully hold it. In many ways it most resembles that paradigmatic Amazonian genre, the apocalyptic fantasy, imaginatively suggesting an alternative present in which customer desire is the single criterion determining literary creation. Mr. McGurl, for all his adventurousness, reifies this dystopian vision by adopting the language of commodification. There is hardly a mention in this book of aesthetics, or morality, or uncertainty, or truth—only of production and consumption, demand and fulfillment. But we are captives to an age only insofar as we submit to its terms.
MixedWall Street JournalThe Days of Afrekete...intertwines a biting satire of upper-middle-class mores with a wistful love story ... Ms. Solomon lands some excellent blows in her depiction of the personalities and posturing that fill the dinner party ... The flashbacks with Selena, which are briskly recapped rather than fully dramatized, lack the same vividness, creating an ironic imbalance, since the novel means to champion the challenging, heterodox life Liselle and Selena might have dared to make together above the conventional one Liselle settled for. Ms. Solomon brings the novel to a climactic reunion scene that is sweet but frustrating—it is here, at the book’s conclusion, that I was most eager to discover what might happen next.
RaveWall Street JournalElizabeth’s Strout’s Lucy Barton novels, of which Oh William! is the latest, have become essential to the contemporary canon by taking a wider view on the interpersonal responsibilities...shared among a society bound by its traumas ... This story...is well told, though one can’t shake the sense that its details are slightly beside the point. When trauma is universal, its specifics are interchangeable ... [Lucy\'s] thoughts are pulled by two conflicting impulses: the self-absorption of addressing one’s own sorrows and the selflessness of acknowledging those of others ... This is a struggle beset by confusion...but it’s a lucid, disarming, wholly approachable kind of confusion, one that bespeaks humility rather than despair.
Claire Vaye Watkins
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe brazenly frank depiction of Claire’s bad behavior offers constant reminders of just how sharp and funny Ms. Watkins’s writing can be ... Her unapologetically self-involved wanderings from therapy to drugs to extramarital flings have some of the depraved zaniness of a Hunter S. Thompson road trip. For a time the narrative seems animated by the same death drive that has possessed its heroine, and if the depths it reaches are disturbing they are also strangely exhilarating ... But this doesn’t last, and soon enough Ms. Watkins pulls out of free fall and back toward respectability, obedient to the formula of confession and absolution that describes nearly every work of autobiographical fiction ... The evidence of her rehabilitation is that she is able to write again, yielding the book we have just read. And so at last readers perform their true function in relation to this novel: as witnesses to the author’s therapeutic breakthrough.
Benjamin Labatut tr. Adrian Nathan West
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis fleet, darkly dazzling survey of modern innovations in chemistry illustrates the unbreakable bond between horror and beauty, life-saving and life-destroying ... Given a fine, exacting translation from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, these pieces possess an insidiously persuasive power, even if one senses the dice have been loaded in the portrayals that make all the scientists madmen and monomaniacs prone to febrile ravings. The famous elegance of quantum field theory, likewise, receives no discussion here. Instead, this book—as haunting as it is erudite—stubbornly insists on connecting the wonders of scientific advancement to the atrocities of history, creating a morality play with no obvious moral but much to keep the reader awake at night.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalPrin first appeared in Mr. Boyagoda’s 2018 novel Original Prin, and while Dante’s Indiana can be read on its own, newcomers to the series may have a tough time getting up to speed on this character’s unlikely history (he survived a terrorist bombing in the first book) and the reasons for his estrangement from his wife, Molly, with whom he has four daughters. When the novel gains momentum, however, it mixes the outrageous social satire of George Saunders or Salman Rushdie with Prin’s more solemn and inward religious searching. The unique result juxtaposes the ridiculous and the sublime—fitting as both an homage to Dante and a portrayal of America.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalRobert’s painstaking recuperation from the stroke occupies the rest of the book, which pays special attention to his diminished capacity to speak. Long, grueling passages depict these struggles, and Mr. McGregor presents them with much the same obsessive stylistic mastery as displayed in the storm scene. There is something a little bit punishing about this single-minded demonstration of skill. The meanings of the actual story seem curiously unexplored and the redemptive ending almost an afterthought. Memorable writing, yes, but I still don’t really get what happened out there in Antarctica.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... that rare thing, a life’s work ... It is the first half that is the most clear and accessible, and which affords far more of the traditional pleasures of historical fiction ... Ms. Jones has always sought to imbue her writing with musicality, and if previous first-person voices drew upon blues singing and jazz riffs, Almeyda’s reminiscences are mellifluous and subdued, almost murmured, holding the reader’s attention not through emphasis but a kind of determined incantatory rhythm. There are no dramatic rises and falls here, only the solemn aggregation of events, as of knowledge, and this is most conspicuous in Ms. Jones’s choice to elide the destruction of Palmares entirely, explaining it only after a leap ahead in time to when Almeyda is wounded and alone ... the novel’s momentum grinds pretty much to a halt. There is a sense that each discrete episode, clearly the product of years of contemplation, is intended to be read and studied independently rather than experienced within the flow of a narrative. Palmares comes to resemble a kind of wisdom book, trading away plot for parables ... Might that account for its abrupt, exhausted and completely anticlimactic ending? One puts down Palmares with a feeling that this book is not just unfinished (and Ms. Jones has written poems imagining Almeyda’s children, so perhaps there is more story to come) but unfinishable, one of those works whose questions and mysteries will be occupying its creator until the end of her life. Whether one is drawn to or warned away by the book’s challenges, this much is certain: It is unlike anything else that will be published this year.
Laurent Bienet tr. Sam Taylor
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe details of the Inca ruler’s eventual conquest of Western Europe are so surprising in their ingenuity and so deliciously funny that I want only to regale you with all of them ... Mimicking the sober, informational style of historical epics, and seamlessly translated from the French by Sam Taylor, Civilizations constructs an alternate timeline that is at once an exquisitely ironic funhouse-mirror reflection of the past and, in itself, a wonderfully exciting account of political and military intrigue. The flourishes are irresistible ... Enriching the entertainment of these inventions is the deep-lying sense of subversion created by a record in which history is not ordained or inevitable ... as this sublime book shows, the supremacy of chance makes history no less thrilling to contemplate.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThis is coming-of-age fiction in extremis...and the reader is dragged well beyond safe emotional boundaries as well. The poise of Mr. Lish’s writing makes this bleak story so dangerously absorbing. Gloria’s inexorable degeneration from ALS is charted with devastating care and observational finesse ... This is a far fuller novel than I can indicate here ... A brutal murder late in the proceedings carries it toward the formulas of Boston crime noir, somewhat weakening Mr. Lish’s spell. But the powerfully ambiguous ending brings to a fitting close a remarkable portrait of a sensitive boy forced into a life of hardness and violence.
RaveWall Street JournalNovelist Kia Corthron has designed a character well positioned to confound a priori judgments ... Narration is distributed democratically, and dialect—fine-tuned for each character based on race, class and education—is a great humanizing force, even when the story takes its cruelest turns ... Theo is the lone narrator in Moon and the Mars, but her voice is so rich with the locutions and grammatical tics of her joint heritage that it sounds almost choral ... The novel’s scrupulosity and broad-mindedness are refreshing virtues, but they aren’t always consistent with stirring drama. In order to give voice to all sides of an issue Ms. Corthron has to engage in a truly vast amount of explanation ... Ms. Corthron’s humility and curiosity match her outsize intellect and ambition. Her big, immersive novel almost never sermonizes; it is, however, eager to teach.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... a blackly comic portrait of futility ... This is sarcasm of a high, artistic order, reminiscent of no one quite so much as William Gaddis. The story occupies the boundary of absurdity and incomprehension in the same way that humankind exists on the verge of annihilation, perpetually undermining itself in the process of rebuilding. The book’s structure is equally volatile ... This seems perverse until one recalls that it’s what Moby-Dick does, as well. Ms. Williams’s novel, a work of strange, disruptive \'holy havoc,\' presents a ship of fools adrift in a drowning world.
PanThe Wall Street JournalAs always in Mr. Powers’s novels, the science itself occasions the most involving passages, and Decoded Neurofeedback is energized by the strange and tantalizing prospect of mainlining the behavioral essence of one’s loved ones straight into the mind. How this actually works is secondary to its potential psychological effects. For Mr. Powers, science is fully analogous to art in its mysteriousness, creativity and healing potential ... Maybe the problem, then, is that this book doesn’t have enough science to work with. Set amidst a caricatured version of the Trump presidency (which you wouldn’t think required caricature), it sketches a society that has turned against its researchers, accelerating its route to climate collapse. The one-dimensional dynamic of political messaging bleeds into the characterizations. On every page, in every interaction, Robin is entirely defined by his sorrow over his mother and his linked outrage at environmental destruction. Plot events are obedient to an equally simplistic mode of cause and effect ... Has Mr. Powers ever written a novel with less capacity for surprise than Bewilderment? I’ve read most of them and I don’t think so, and it’s hard not to connect this novelistic narrowing with the contraction in the genre of science and nature writing to works of doomsday proselytizing. The trend is melancholy even if it’s justified. Despair is an impatient muse; it doesn’t have much time for art.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalDeath, disaster and abuses of power are as frequent as Marie’s triumphs, and all are depicted with a degree of detail and specificity that make this historical fantasy feel far more real than the rickety allegorizing of Ms. Groff’s highly praised earlier novels ... For all its moral ambiguities, though, it is finally its spirit of celebration that gives this novel its many moments of beauty.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... the tone of the novel...conveys the banality of professional failure with a clear-eyed absence of histrionics. The grandeur of England’s past provides a honed edge of irony ... This is a book about waiting for a reality that no longer exists. It necessarily has few secondary characters and no drama, and while you wouldn’t want Ms. Hamya to always write under such narrow limitations, her intelligence and stylistic restraint make this snapshot of England all the more damning.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWhat an astonishing amount of family love, confusion and sadness Hilma Wolitzer fits into the short stories in Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket ... The book comes to a fiercely affecting conclusion in The Great Escape, written last year, in which Paulette and Howard, nearing their 90s, face a frightening new challenge: the coronavirus pandemic. Somehow, this heartbreaking story is infused with the same candor and comedy as those written in the 1960s. It’s an unforgettable ending to a wonderful collection.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a loose, unbuttoned work in contrast, more interested in colorful character studies than coherent plotting ... aims for hopefulness, as well, extracting a kind of madcap euphoria from the most painful struggles. \'Joy is resistance,\' Swiv’s grandmother tells her, and if the motto can feel cutesy it inspires lovely moments of tenderness and humor.
Jonas Eika, tr. Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... reads a bit like Thomas Pynchon taking on late capitalism. The writing is surrealistic, granular in its details, and concerned with social entropy and desperate attempts at communion ... In a translation of unsettling intensity by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg, the stories derive much of their force from their insistence on transformation. Not only do the settings and characters abruptly alter, as in a dream, but the mood can instantly switch from light to dark.
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe compromise the novel strikes is, alas, cautious and unsatisfying. In place of a story, Mina recounts small interactions and collegial chats alongside personal memories and choice anecdotes. All this is warm and disarming...but it quickly comes to seem like filibustering ... Mr. Alameddine follows in the popular and lamentable trend of making his own novelistic failures part of the texture of the narrative. \'Metaphor seems useless now, storytelling impotent,\' the fictional Alameddine complains, but absent those there’s just . . . talk.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalWhat’s it like to have one’s consciousness tinkered with in this way, so fundamentally and so easily? Ms. Westgate reproduces some of the effects of the drugs—an italicized voice competing with Sophie’s internal monologue; a slide reel of images from Lucien’s grandmother’s past—but for the most part the ramifications of memory alteration are left unimagined. Los Angeles, rather than the landscape of the mind, is the novel’s most developed setting. The cast of Left Coast archetypes...is entertaining, but it’s hard not to think that after a breakthrough as frightening as Memoroxin, the world would be a much less recognizable place.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe actual issue Beautiful World, Where Are You struggles with is not whether to exist but how. How, that is, to reconstruct the traditional marriage plot for a generation that no longer believes in marriage, or, really, in any of the foundational verities—monogamy, parenthood, property—that once gave people (and books) their direction ... Ms. Rooney’s writing strengths continue from her previous novels. The incongruous pairing of Alice and Felix is not as sexy as the one in Conversations With Friends (which matched an ordinary girl with a hunky actor) but it still generates friction. And the sex scenes—which in the author’s signature style are presented largely through dialogue—impressively capture a wide and subtly graduated range of sensations ... Her technical weaknesses, though, haven’t changed either. The writing is stuffed with empty descriptions of people lighting cigarettes, opening wine bottles, scrolling smartphones and so on, creating a tonal flatness that is aggravated by the complete absence of irony. This is a novel that asks readers to take the characters exactly as seriously as they take themselves—an impossibility, when they are prone to adolescent outbursts ... we are finally defeated by the humorless, almost wounded quality of the narration from an author who has not established any psychological distance from her characters.
David Hoon Kim
PanThe Wall Street JournalHenrik’s narration, which stretches over more than a decade, is portioned into halting episodes about friends and lovers whose role in his life tend to be spectral and short-lived ... The book’s most arresting chapter is an outlier narrated by a medical student who dissects Fumiko’s corpse ... From this ghostly Paris comes a sensitive, vague and often maddeningly insubstantial novel. Its frustrations are illustrative of a crisis in the subject and form of a literature that takes trauma to be the defining quality of personhood ... because Mr. Kim’s [Paris] is characterized by an inviolable sense of detachment, it is doomed to remain unrealized, a shadowy backdrop for his sad hero’s tail-swallowing cycle of fear and regret.
Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... fascinating ... The free-associations make this a lengthy, extremely self-indulgent book that will at some point try even the most generous reader’s patience, but the reward for perseverance is a unique work that captures an uncanny aspect of the lonely but bewilderingly overpopulated contemporary experience.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Sahota’s previous novel is the 2015 immigrant saga The Year of the Runaways, and beside that terrifically imagined triple-decker China Room feels somewhat quaint and rounded off, perhaps more of a pet project (it appears to spring from the author’s ancestral history). Even so, it forges telling and skillful connections between the two very different eras, showing the ways that a place—a house, a room—can store up pieces of a remarkable past and release them, generations later, when someone comes looking.
Shirley Jackson, Ed. by Laurence Jackson Hyman
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalHer fiction, full of misanthropy, madness and murder, tends to be viewed through the lens of her personal torments and, more generally, of the misogyny of the age. What is striking about Jackson’s letters, however, is that while they testify to pretty outrageous domestic double standards (Hyman was a man unwilling to even heat up a bowl of soup for his lunch), they show very little sign of unhappiness. The mood of the missives is buoyant, garrulous and eager to amuse, and while Jackson often seems stressed and exasperated, she’s rarely despairing. The merry anarchy in the world she evokes has a lot in common with the scenes evoked in her hilarious motherhood memoirs ... The labors of domesticity and artistry are fused in these letters in a way that seems to me unique.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Arudpragasam’s calibrated, carefully observed prose gives the novel, with all its tangents, its sense of perfect wholeness ... absorbing. So gracefully rendered are the long, balanced sentences that they envelop you—bring you to focused attention—without making a show of themselves. If there is a weakness, it is in the deployment of the book’s ideas, which are not so subtly conveyed ...The book takes a self-conscious and rather explanatory approach to evoking an experience defined by its absence of consciousness. This is a quibble—and I strongly recommend both of Mr. Arudpragasam’s novels—but it is the difference between excellence and the transcendence that this author is capable of producing.
RaveWall Street JournalIn his short, spirited biography of Crazy Horse, Larry McMurtry pointed out that there are fewer verifiable facts about the Lakota war leader than there are about Alexander the Great, who lived some 2,000 years earlier ... from the beginning the warrior is presented as a man apart ... Ridgeline builds toward the skirmish that is sometimes called the Fetterman Fight, after Capt ... Mr. Punke makes him the mastermind behind the military strategy, the man with the insight and authority to impose tactical discipline on tribes accustomed to winning glory through individual feats of combat ... Like the Lakota fighters, the reader is eager for the waiting to end and the showdown to arrive. It eventually does, in a thrilling, gut-twisting series of sprung traps and harrowing violence—an action sequence that’s very much the stuff of legend.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... searching and seriously considered—the glimpses into the protocol at the Court are highly intriguing—but the clean, blank surface of the prose inhibits deep engagement. The theme of ambiguity shades easily to vagueness, most notably in the encounters between the narrator and the accused war criminal, which ought to be climactic but instead feel uncertain.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt’s an appealing, cross-grained cast of characters and the writing—colloquial, sarcastic, a bit blowsy—is funny and down-to-earth. And yet ultimately the novel is a mess. At about the two-thirds mark, for reasons passing understanding, Ms. Spiotta introduces a sequence of histrionic non sequiturs that carry the once steadily absorbing family drama to a breathless, bathetic ending. The most egregious insertion is a police shooting, a plot twist that parasitizes current events in exactly the cheap way that Sam has come to decry. In these inexplicable final chapters, the novel’s protagonist seems wiser than her own creator.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... thoroughly charming ... A delightful comedy of manners involving the entire extended family ensues, spiced up by an unlikely pregnancy. Even when the proceedings become a touch tawdry, there’s a blessed absence of American puritanism in their presentation. Ms. Johnson, now 87 years old, is the least scandalized of authors and she deals with sex and other secrets with an amused c’est comme ça attitude learned from her adopted country of France.
Emilio Fraia, trans. by Zoë Perry
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... it shuffles through a selection of pointillist short stories and metafictions ... The fragmentary character of this allusive, mercurial book is such that, when you finish it, you have an assortment of eye-catching puzzle pieces but no clear sense of how they’re meant to go together.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalRyan writes conspicuously beautiful prose, and he is at his best when he blends the music of rural speech with fiddle-reels of natural description ... The storytelling need not be sentimentalized—Mr. Ryan’s books are usually quite dark—but it is inherently romantic, entrancingly so ... But it is to Mr. Ryan’s credit that he has continually sought to expand his reach ... brings out Mr. Ryan’s most sensuous and emotive writing. Scattered allusions to biblical tales reinforce the feeling that though its specifics are updated, the story in Strange Flowers is as old as civilization. In the final section, Joshua, troubled and misunderstood like his mother, repeats her rejection and flees to London. But the cords of family and place are stronger than distance for Mr. Ryan, and though this is his most expansive novel yet, it is still, at heart, about homecoming.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Bernofsky wants to peer behind the smiling naïf to better glimpse the lonely, erratic artist beset by poverty and oppressed by failure who would spend the final 28 years of his life institutionalized, writing almost nothing at all ... For a figure as quirky as Walser, Clairvoyant of the Small can be surprisingly hidebound, dwelling mostly in dry historical records, but it improves in the final period of Walser’s life, when the archives thin out.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Cohen has fictionalized the episode to brilliant effect, producing a novel that is in part a seriocomic portrayal of postwar American domesticity, in part an ideological origin story, and most of all a parable dramatizing the intra-tribal disputes that divided Jews in the wake of the Holocaust ... Mr. Cohen proves himself not just America’s most perceptive and imaginative Jewish novelist, but one of its best novelists full stop.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... stirring and occasionally hagiographic episodes ... While the novel is decidedly an homage it is also a study of false steps and evolving ideas ... The confidences between the women are the most purely imagined in the novel and also the most moving, and they help us understand what another character means when he tells Mary, \'You make everyone’s world bigger.\'
Zakiya Dalila Harris
MixedThe Wall Street JournalSome of Ms. Harris’s office-place burlesques are straightforward and effective, especially those that portray the ways that the white corporate world’s purblind attempts to \'diversify\' result in tokenism and minstrelsy. The story’s intrigue ramps up as its bizarre supernatural element emerges (it involves a secret cabal and a means of mind control through which black women are brainwashed into tolerating everyday racism), but likewise its vision of society clarifies into something...bleak and predetermined ... For black women, authenticity has been banished to the underground and the only way to succeed in the world is to sell out.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalWhile the writing in Dead Souls contains playful puns and allusions, it is also loaded with vapid business jargon and pages of inconsequential \'microanalysis.\' The standout stylistic signature is the lack of paragraph breaks. Typically, this is a technique used to convey a stream of consciousness, but in this case we are not getting the narrator’s wandering thoughts but rather his summary of Wiese’s confession. Delivering it with no breaks or pauses makes him seem like a sociopath, or some kind of post-human android. His soul is the deadest of all ... Mr. Riviere’s clever but enervating novel, then, is an instance of the imitative fallacy writ large, a book that embodies the aspects of culture it deplores (Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts is another recent example in the trend). Poetry itself, Wiese admits, \'remains a continual possibility,\' a space of potential regeneration. Obviously, no poetry appears in the book.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWith a textured, naturalistic writing style [...] Ms. Fuller weaves between ordinary village life and the Seeders’ shadowy family saga, which is marked by illicit love, violence and blood debts. The close attachment to Jeanie’s and Julius’s limited points of view enrich the suspense as long-kept secrets are gradually revealed. But even the disclosures and resolutions can’t entirely domesticate Unsettled Ground, which carries its lonely, stirring music of loss to the end.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe worry about the spate of coronavirus literature that is soon to bombard us is that it will be cheap and bathetic, but Phase Six sits at the opposite extreme, so densely researched and unemotional that it might have been written by committee at the CDC ... This is part of Mr. Shepard’s distinctive style, of course. The author is one of the great mimics of contemporary literature, capable of producing convincing, authoritative narratives on anything imaginable, from the Cuban baseball league to Polish Himalayan mountaineering to life in the Warsaw ghetto, to name just some of his past topics. Phase Six again demonstrates his detached, ironized mastery of a complex and highly technical subject. I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe crime drama in How Lucky is, it has to be said, pretty ludicrous ... If you can overlook all that, however, you’ll find a touchingly imagined portrait of friendship and community ... The illness, violence and pathological hatreds that dominate our news feeds run throughout How Lucky, but Mr. Leitch is one of many novelists trying to bring to life the connections that persist despite them.
PositiveWall Street JournalThe narrator, nicknamed Buddha, is a recovered heroin addict who has been given shelter in a local convent, but though this naturally allies him with the nuns, he finds a second home in the streets, befriending a starlet-turned-prostitute and her fearless teenage daughter, who has been the mafia’s point person for the drug trade since she was a child ... The dark drama that unfolds is an elegy to that vanished vanishing world.
Virginie Despentes tr. Frank Wynne
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... [a] kinetic translation ... The broadening of the trilogy’s themes, occasioned by its desire to encompass French current events, brings about qualities of haste and summarization. The first (and best) volume is extraordinary for its uncensored, hyperrealist character sketches of deadbeat Parisians of all stripes. Volume 3 is more of a political fable, an impression solidified by a weird and memorable coda that traces the afterlife of the \'Subutex sect\' across the coming centuries all the way to the \'twilight of the third millennium.\'
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... the novel’s electric charge comes from the asymmetric relationship between L and M. L’s artistic genius is connected, like Satan’s, to his claims of absolute freedom ... He needs M and also needs to cast her as his nemesis. M, meanwhile, is desperate for a kind of transcendence by proxy, a view of life that is more potent than what she has found in her conventional roles as wife and mother, so she becomes an unstable co-conspirator in L’s program of humiliation and destruction ... a sharp feeling of estrangement is crucial to Ms. Cusk’s fictions. The writing, so heightened and epigrammatic, seems almost to mock the homespun fashions of traditional realist prose. Its beauties are glittering and mirrored in the way of razor wire: Artistic truth, in her books, is always a savage thing ... the voice here—loving, bitter, impassioned—is gripping in its volatility.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalRotating between the viewpoints of an eccentric cast...Ms. McNamer unfolds the mystery of the crime while developing a dark, at times comic, portrait of the \'final aloneness\' of old age. This is, on one level, an infuriating cautionary tale about the opportunities available to those willing to fleece aging Boomers ... Why should they fight back? But by the end of this underdog novel, Ms. McNamer has developed poignant reasons that they do.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalQuin’s writing was always dreamlike and fragmentary, but here she had gained the confidence to dispense with plot almost entirely, creating a heady effect with a dense brew of aphorisms, oracles and strands of prose poetry ... Quin’s spare prose line—Delphic, obscure and hauntingly suggestive—creates a comparably vertiginous kind of enchantment. To submit to this unique book’s spell is to experience, in language, a \'fantastic dance of images, shapes, forms.\'
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAs with his totemic travel writing, exotic settings and a flair for adventure invigorate the otherwise workmanlike prose, and the scenes flash with surfer’s lingo, snatches of Hawaiian pidgin and odes to the ocean ... True, the anecdotes can get a touch long-winded. There’s an extended section recalling Sharkey’s odd-couple friendship with a strung-out Hunter S. Thompson (aka the Duke of Puke) that was probably more enjoyable to write than it is to read. But what Mr. Theroux nicely captures are not just surfing tales but a surfer lifestyle dedicated to self-sufficient contentment, what Sharkey calls \'the economy of enough.\' Here is a book about losing happiness and the struggle demanded to recover it.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalPatrick’s \'obliviousness\' makes Robert \'feel charged with potency, as if he had the other man under his control.\' Mr. Power allows him to dwell in that illusion for a long time, smoothly blending prosaic day-to-day events with Robert’s fictionalized renderings of Patrick’s disclosures. But gradually the \'le Carré stuff\' Robert saw merely as material presses in from the edges, and a story that seemed slightly thin and diffuse abruptly consolidates for a killer payoff ending.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe pressures of poverty give the novel its vivid unpredictability, creating an almost constant temptation to lawlessness. Lynette feels speared on a paradox of the American Dream—realistically, in order to become a responsible homeowner and caretaker, she has to cheat and steal ... Mr. Vlautin has some trouble integrating his characters’ pasts into the narrative. Here it comes out in a number of unnaturally long-winded monologues. Nevertheless, The Night Always Comes is a taut, action-packed production with a memorable protagonist who never abandons her sense of moral truth amid the Darwinian scramble for cash.
Caleb Azumah Nelson
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalOn one hand, then, Open Water is an exceptionally topical novel, its academic vocabulary (\'plunder,\' \'gaze,\' \'Black body\') and its intellectual referents—writer Zadie Smith, director Barry Jenkins, African-American studies scholar Saidiya Hartman—tying it closely to the political moment in ways that will reverberate deeply for some readers and, for others, simply convey information. But there is also something universal about the ragged vulnerability the love affair accesses in Mr. Nelson’s writing, and in his willingness to portray naked, often weepy, emotion. Everyone has experienced these things and yet in literary fiction scarcity has made them precious.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... the surprise in this debut is that it’s power rather than money that drives the disparate cast of characters ... Through these loosely linked storylines, Mr. Diofebi, a former poker professional, aims to present a complete picture of Las Vegas in all its sprawl and chaos ... Dickensian ambitions, though it has more in common with slangy, hyperverbal David Foster Wallace-inspired doorstoppers that are sometimes affixed with the label \'hysterical realism.\' There aren’t scenes so much as onslaughts of information ... It’s a dizzying experience, full of noise and flashing lights and only infrequent brushes with believable human behavior. Extraordinary and dull gets it about right.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalBUG is interested in the way personhood merges with technology ... The novel’s language is brainy and technical yet inflected by childhood naiveté, a high-wire act that translator Frederika Randall superbly conveys ... A Faustian bargain comes to the fore, as BUG’s camaraderie is really a power play for more processing capacity. Though its backdrop is dystopian, the novel is always on the side of erring humanity. Between BUG and the young narrator, only one has a conscience and an ability to love.
PositiveWall Street JournalZabor thinks that he possesses the power to save the lives of the dying by furiously writing stories about them ... Confidently translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, it is a somewhat frantic, rambling thing, allowing full vent to Zabor’s \'predilection for digressions.\' But if it lacks the compression of Mr. Daoud’s 2013 novel ...it is animated by the same zealous faith in the messianic potential of narrative.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe short novel is partitioned into brisk, fleeting chapters ... A subtle progression can be detected as the vignettes build to her decision to finally leave her city for a visiting position at a university elsewhere. But primarily this is a mood novel, in which the theme of alienation familiar from Ms. Lahiri’s earlier books has been both transformed and aestheticized ... The tough, clipped sentences, dry and flammable as tinder, impress the qualities of her self-enforced isolation upon us, both its orderly comforts and its weightless moments of terror ... The book’s sparse, fragmentary form informs its feeling of emotional starvation. Be warned, then, that although this is the same Jhumpa Lahiri so many have read and loved in the past, it is also someone who has translated herself into a new style, one that may initially chafe and perturb.
PositiveWall Street JournalThe sum of the action is Asle’s trip to the city to drop off paintings with his gallerist and visit his namesake. Regularly the narration blends into his memories as a young man leaving home and taking up painting. A haunting sense of doubling recurs, not only with the second Asle but with a lost love named Ales who persists in a ghostly form in his work. What is even more palpable in this book is the way that the writing is meant to replicate the pulse and repetitive phrasing of liturgical prayer ... These unique books ask you to engage with the senses rather than the mind, and their aim is to bring about the momentary dissolution of the self.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalA novel of suspense that follows Henry’s attempt to hold things together for the interview in spite of the obstacles—illness, malnutrition, vagrancy laws, thieves, scammers and any of a thousand small, unforeseen expenses—that make every day a tightrope act ... Mr. Guanzon has also chosen to widen his story through lengthy interspersed flashbacks recounting Henry’s marriage, his fateful friendship with a small-time drug pusher and his struggles to rehabilitate after his prison term. The context fleshes out Henry’s active role in his poverty—he’s not simply a random victim of the system—but it seriously diffuses the tension of the scenes in the razor’s-edge present. The writing suffers in the shift from particularities to the kind of artsy, metaphor-laden exposition cultivated in creative-writing programs ... Ultimately, this promising first novel can feel curiously loose and profligate, as though it might have learned more from the punishing discipline that is all that separates Henry from disaster.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalHis unique new collection...continues his quiet, wondering, taxonomic approach to envisioning the spirit world. Included are 100 quicksilver sketches ... These entries are too spacey and speculative to be read straight through; one ought to approach them in snatches, as with prose poems or philosophical pensées. Sometimes a phantom’s primary role seems to be to allow Mr. Brockmeier a flight of lyricism ... But always they offer a strange kind of comfort: Who could ever feel wholly alone in a universe as teeming as this one?
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt’s seemingly all here, every relationship, every affair, every tryst, from Roth’s days as a brash whiz kid out of Newark...to his Viagra-popping dotage as a literary Olympian. We learn of favored positions and accessories, styles of foreplay and dirty talk ... Mr. Bailey’s bird’s-eye style works best in depicting the whirlwind of Roth’s youth ... this all makes for glamorous reading, and there are sparkling scenes ... Roth had endured a terrible marriage to a young mother-of-two named Maggie Martinson. Mr. Bailey is excellent on this bitterly codependent relationship, which Roth’s inexperience endows with real pathos, despite his habitual philandering ... [Roth\'s] artistic journey, however, is obscured by Mr. Bailey’s clinical treatment of the books: he’s more inclined to explicate their real-life models than to speculate on their aesthetic intentions. But the bigger trouble is that Roth’s private life obtrudes once again in the form of another disastrous marriage, this time to the famous British actress Claire Bloom ... This section of the biography reads less like a rebuttal than the findings of a third-party arbitration in a divorce hearing, as Mr. Bailey goes through the weeds of every accusation, picking out inconsistencies ... Like a hangover headache, a certain sourness lingers throughout the rest of the biography, which snags constantly on Roth’s accumulating feuds ... perhaps [Roth] would be struck by the strange way that such a big, rigorously researched, consummately written biography can make a man look small.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... [an] excellent debut ... Its difficult heroine is Dorothy, an overqualified adjunct literature professor who is enduring the prolonged aftereffects of a miscarriage. The \'blight\' in her womb, as her doctor calls it, reminds her all too readily of her barren career prospects and of the imperiled future of life on Earth in general. It’s a powerful metaphor, if fairly on the nose, and there are moments when the ax-grinding in The Life of the Mind is too predictable. Ms. Smallwood’s streak of dry, dark humor does much to dispel any restlessness, however, and the vignettes include some superb glancing satires of academia and the psychiatric racket. But it’s the miscarriage, treated not as a literary device but as a fact in itself, that occasions the best passages ... In one breathtaking scene set during an OB-GYN appointment, Dorothy is mesmerized by a sonogram of her empty womb ... And a bracing penultimate chapter that takes a hard, ambivalent look at another kind of termination—a friend’s abortion—leaves the novel in an aptly unsettling place of \'nonconclusion.\'
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe mixture of bravado and vulnerability is characteristic of Mr. Banks’s impressive body of work, whose range has been underappreciated ... a gruff exterior covers an abyss of sentimentality ... This is a sensitive but dreary novel of valediction that pursues atonement without any apparent belief that such a thing is possible.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... fascinating, but the trouble is obvious. The friction that results from imposing a dual-language text onto a story about choosing between languages has been lost in “An I-Novel.” In fact, the book’s untranslatability is a feature rather than a bug ... English-speakers are left out, since a bilingual book cannot be reproduced for monolingual societies. As translating failures go, then, this one is healthy and instructive ... Americans are prone to the complacent expectation that every book of worth will eventually be delivered to their doorsteps. It is good to be reminded that some experiences are closed to us unless we work for them.
Yaniv Iczkovits, trans. by Orr Schar
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIsraeli writer Yaniv Iczkovits’s debut The Slaughterman’s Daughter approaches history in a fabulist style reminiscent of Sholem Aleichem and his disciples ... The folktale tradition evoked in the storytelling has an estimable history, but perhaps even more old-fashioned is this novel’s length and leisurely tempo. Mr. Iczkovits slowly elaborates his scenes, indulging in every tangent and scrap of context, as though there weren’t countless forms of instant entertainment vying for the reader’s attention. (One interlude about Zizek’s exploits in the army is as long as a stand-alone novella.) I appreciated the pace, even if it sometimes made me antsy. Today it would be a quick drive to Minsk; once upon a time the trip was the stuff of epics.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThough the book is written in the first person, it freely enters the thoughts of a roving cast of characters ... But even with the steady disclosure of secrets—some of them quite moving—I found it difficult to gain a foothold on this book. The wide spread of characters has a whiteout effect, and a snowdrift of newsy period details—the gas crisis, looming problems in Iran—are blandly generalizing. Mr. Livings tends to use skill and suaveness as placeholders for style. Personal memory, I couldn’t help but feel, should be more idiosyncratic.
Maria Stepanova tr. Sasha Dugdale
RaveWall Street JournalThe hybrid book that Ms. Stepanova has finally produced presents gleanings from her family archives alongside the labyrinthine narrative of her \'search for the past,\' which she concedes is incomplete and in many ways unsuccessful. And amidst the personal artifacts are essay-like meditations on the tensions that inhere within any act of remembrance. The result is a rich, digressive, deeply introspective work ... \'There is too much past, and everyone knows it,\' she writes at a moment of sharpened despair. The surplus means that memories are necessarily invidious and sorted into two sets, \'the interesting and the less interesting,\' those \'fit for retelling and those . . . only fit for oblivion.\' A fanatical, itemizing approach to history can help overcome prejudice, but even the most straightforward documentary material becomes distorted across time ... You can sense the decades of contemplation Ms. Stepanova has dedicated to these questions in the sparkle and density of her prose, which Sasha Dugdale has carried into English so naturally that it’s possible to forget you are reading a translation. This is an erudite, challenging book, but also fundamentally a humble one, as it recognizes that a force works on even the most cherished family possessions that no amount of devotion can gainsay.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalByrd is woven into the conflict, but in a complicated way, since Ms. Davies is eager not to fit him into the colonial-era role of the white savior. The Mission House is a careful, quiet, skillful drama of well-meant misunderstandings and cultural divisions. The interactions are polite and repressed, but the story is galvanized by the \'passion simmering under the surface of things. Always, every once in a while, the lid blowing off, and nothing, it seemed, that anyone could do to stop it happening.\'
Viet Thanh Nguyen
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[Vo Danh\'s] roiling, pox-on-both-their-houses cynicism often comes across like bits from a stand-up comedy routine ... The funny, excoriating voice delivering these observations has lost none of its energy since The Sympathizer. What has changed is the balance between action and ideas. The plot of The Committed, which mostly dwells on Vo Danh’s misadventures with the mafia, has no specific grounding in historical events and often seems incidental to its protagonist’s intellectual evolution. Postcolonial and critical race theories exist in the underpinnings of The Sympathizer; now they have come to the surface, sometimes in ham-handed ways ... The biting back and forth of this double-edged novel remains a thrill and a provocation, but there are aspects of The Committed that seem written for the Academy.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... another uncertain meeting between the horrifying and the heartwarming ... Only the restraint of the prose guards the scenes that elaborate her ingenuous belief system against becoming altogether cloying ... The dystopian side of things is familiar in the novel today. What is surprising, and even uncomfortable, about Klara and the Sun is how much Mr. Ishiguro wants to emphasize and honor the persistence of kindness amid it all. The story focuses on Josie’s battle with her illness and the friends and family who, with Klara, rally around her. As though overcorrecting after the dark response to Never Let Me Go, Mr. Ishiguro closes with a Hallmark-movie deus ex machina and a load of sentimental pabulum about \'real and everlasting\' love ... Is this a work of dogged hopefulness or subversive nihilism? Is Klara a paragon of fidelity or a tool of suppression? Are we meant to admire her or be disturbed by her uncanny reproduction of admirable behavior? Maybe the only thing we can take away for sure from this crafty and troubling book is the realization that the dichotomy between these either/or readings must be a false one. Nobody can be just one thing, either an optimist or a pessimist. The complexity of experience all but guarantees that everyone will be involved in goodness and evil simultaneously. That is the foundational paradox that, in Mr. Ishiguro’s work, ceases to be paradoxical and becomes simply defining—both of humankind and of the strange creations it models in its image.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThese scattered lines of thought, which Ms. Schofield sometimes arranges like verses of prose poetry, compress a remarkable amount of humor, anger and sadness ... The novel holds out no consolation except the vigor of its telling. If she has nothing else, Bina has had her say.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Vida’s novel doesn’t generate much suspense from its lies—the plot, so reliant on adult gullibility, is pretty hard to believe. But it’s insightful about the ways that girls of a certain age feel pressured to let their imaginations run wild.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... involving, morally complex ... Ms. Finn is a sensitive observer of Rosie’s circumstances and the depictions of poverty, in particular, are real and omnipresent, yet they’re never essentializing. Rosie is a difficult character, full of anger, generosity and self-doubt, and her muddle is the stuff of true tragedy.
RaveWall Street JournalThat he was writing to entertain there is no doubt, and as a satire of the self-important aesthete the book is witty and frequently hilarious ... this sarcastic ode to stagnation is foremost a comedy of ideas, a superb example of the genre the Hungarian author Antal Szerb dubbed \'neo-frivolity.\' The translator Damion Searls has kept the language jokey and loose, emphasizing the mood of casual absurdity.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe chapters jump among their points of view, taking the form of close third-person internal monologues ... Mixed among these chapters are quick, ominous meditations on the surrounding environment—glimpses of the animals threatened by the downpour, or of the ancient bark canoes and skin coracles corroding on the lake bottom. The juxtapositions are simple but effective: intertwined with the pedestrian concerns that occupy the characters’ minds are the elemental dramas of death and survival ... In Summerwater the aura of menace comes not only from the biblical weather but the mounting anger against a cottage of foreigners who blast their music all night. The chapters build a superb sense of foreboding that is ultimately deflated in the oblique, mostly incoherent final scene. Ms. Moss is masterly with loomings and premonitions, but she loses her nerve when the confrontations arrive.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThroughout this blighted coming-of-age story, Ms. Watts seeds curious capsule histories about Australia’s earliest colonizers and their disappointed dreams of finding an Eden-like oasis at the heart of the barren continent. One comes to look forward to these tangents, not only because they are odd and evocative but because they impose some variety upon the narrative. Ms. Watts writes with unquestionable poise and intelligence, but the tone of the writing is uniformly flat and too little happens in the scenes themselves to create any ripples.
Peter Ho Davies
MixedThe Wall Street Journal...the self-flagellation is so intense and unremitting that the book quickly comes to feel like a purely therapeutic exercise ... What matters isn’t the technicality of \'truth\' but the impression conveyed to the reader, and the overwhelming sense here is that this is not a work of literature, in which experience has been transmuted by language and reflection, but the unmediated confessions of a troubled stranger ... Mr. Davies is a good writer...but the wounds he exposes in this work are so raw and open that the only proper response for those who don’t know him personally is sorrowful silence.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe novel tracks...intersecting paths to the truth, building suspense until the dramatic payoff. There’s good fun in the investigations ... There’s also some genre silliness ... One slightly ticklish issue is that the supernatural elements of The House on Vesper Sands are remarkably similar to those in David Mitchell’s recent fantasy novels ... Yet such concerns become quibbles once you’re ensconced in the rich, Gothic embellishments of Mr. O’Donnell’s prose ... The House on Vesper Sands performs a...kind of enchantment, transforming a chronicle of sordid crimes into an enjoyably eerie ghost story.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe novel, the first volume of Mr. Ge’s Jiangnan Trilogy, takes place at the start of the 20th century during the lawless final years of the Qing Dynasty, and although the Xinhai Revolution and the establishment of the Republic of China provide it backdrop, this sinuous, captivating epic is less interested in textbook history than in the madness and illusions that underwrite it ... Peach Blossom Paradise—it was originally published in 2004—has the crowded cast, the close attention to setting and the dramatic twists of traditional historical fiction, yet its fixation with dreams, disguises and delusions gives it the feeling of an otherworldly fable ... the narrative sustains its mysterious atmosphere by occupying the points of view of children.
Breece D'j Pancake
RaveWall Street JournalPancake possessed a hard-earned authority on various facets of West Virginia life, including \'doghole mining, long-distance trucking, Holiness congregations, serpent handling,\' to which you could add boxing competitions, tugboat operating, fox hunting and farming. The depictions are unsentimental and often brutal, sharpened by regret and a desperate longing for escape. But the harshness is conveyed with a level of intensity and clairvoyance that we associate with adoration—and indeed, conflicted love is at the heart of each of these stories ... Pancake was an extraordinarily tactile writer. The naked emotions he summons are tangible in the rhythms of his sentences, the heavy, vibratory cadences that you can feel beneath your skin ... While Pancake could be humorous—the apostrophe between the middle initials of his name was a wry joke, adopted from a printer’s error at the Atlantic—these are in general earnest, serious stories, preoccupied with purity and evil. They are a young man’s stories, in other words, and it is impossible not to feel the loss of the work he would have created as he both mellowed and grew more confident ... these stories survive him, heartbreaking not for their potential but their perfection.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWith a degree of savviness that would impress even the most experienced product management consultant, Jane Smiley has combined two foolproof genres of escapist fiction for her latest book, Perestroika in Paris: the Parisian fairy tale and the equestrian novel ... I like that Ms. Smiley has leaned into the fantasy, hiding Paras not in some random greenspace hugging the Périphérique but in the Champ de Mars, the crowded park in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower ... Ms. Smiley places herself in the consciousness of her characters, imagining the various ways that each creature perceives the world, but the feel-good charm of her novel flows from the fact that they are all able to understand each other, creating a species-crossing conspiracy of kindness.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... entertaining ... While bringing the storylines to a convergence, Ms. Williams indulges in delightful digressions ... Underneath this novel’s extremely bookish mystery is the idea that our identities are as improvisatory as the words we affix to them, and that even the dictionary, the most seemingly staid and impartial arbiter of truth, is an \'unreliable narrator.\'
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... another enormous, endlessly fortifying mixture of famous works and neglected gems that can take pride of place on anyone’s bedside table for months before its pleasures come close to being exhausted ... Juxtaposition is one consequence of variety, and it’s delightful to find Albert Einstein nipping at the heels of James Thurber, or Norman Mailer and Rachel Carson writing from the same year (1955) but in wildly different registers.
Sigrid Undset, trans. By Tiina Nunnally
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... a captivating new translation ... This is an absorbing, psychologically rich tale that promises to grow deeper and more memorable in each successive volume.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Baxter continues to chip away at the myth of the Midwest’s innocence, probing the anarchy and fear that gape beneath the mown lawns and mini-malls ... The Sun Collective wobbles between the prosaic and the suburban ... the likeness that occurred to me is with Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, where the underlying chaos is both concealed and somehow deepened by the inviting, mannerly prose. While Mr. Baxter is not as formally daring as Mr. Ishiguro, he possesses many of the same insights, not least about the mysteries of old age.
Jonas Lüscher, tr. Tess Lewis
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... slow going in comparison [to Lüscher\'s previous book], as most of the action involves a washed-up professor trying to overcome writer’s block. The humor tends to be extremely specialized, such as Kraft’s stinging barbs about the \'inadequate intellect\' of former chancellor Helmut Kohl. These jokes will land with the right readers. I readily admit that my own intellect was inadequate to appreciate them.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis is a topical conflict and the stories perceptively touch on current controversies like cancel culture and the disputes over historical monuments. But these are, first and foremost, character-driven stories, and the arguments play out most forcefully in the minds of the young black women searching for some livable balance between guilt and forgiveness. As such, the stories are expository rather than dramatic—that is, they tell more than they show. This works for Ms. Evans because her writing is remarkably fast, conveying information and moving across time periods with a velocity that can induce whiplash ... Ms. Evans is also funny in a droll, puncturing way, as inclined to mine trauma for mordant humor as for sentimentality.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalEasygoing in their elegance and capacious in their emotional range, these stories draw naturally from Ireland’s literary tradition without becoming distorted by nostalgia or homage ... in these stories the environment is uncannily responsive to the mood of the scene, a mysterious intelligence of its own ... In these splendid stories, Mr. Barry portrays the two opposing faces of passion.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... what impresses most is the patient, unforced manner with which she delineates her story of tragedy and gradual renewal. Naturally and ineluctably, like a river finding its way to the sea, the characters drift into lives that are unrecognizable from what they intended for themselves ... the counterweight to the grief that besets Beneficence is the profound satisfaction the Senters take from their daily labor on their land. This is also a finely observed novel of chores and routines and seasons, and of the sense of agency that can be reclaimed through the \'covenant\' of work. As organically as it traveled to heartbreak, Beneficence progresses to the place of wisdom that lies beyond it, where we learn that a home is part of the \'vast world of innocence and harm,\' not an island beyond it.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIronically, the problem is that these leaps into unreason can feel formulaic. Adultery and natural disasters are freighted with overt symbolic meanings that tend to lessen the insecurity they’re intended to produce. Is there anything more difficult for a skilled, sensible writer than to reinvent herself? Ms. Krauss isn’t quite there yet, but it’s well worth following her journey.
Wolfgang Koeppen, trans. Michael Hofmann
RaveThe Wall Street JournalGiven a rousing translation by Michael Hofmann, Wolfgang Koeppen’s 1951 novel Pigeons on the Grass now appears in English. This modernist homage—the title draws on a line from Gertrude Stein—takes place in a single day in postwar Munich, stitching together the wanderings of various down-at-heel Germans, as well as their American occupiers ... In Heinrich Böll’s postwar German classic Billiards at Half-Past Nine, a guilt-plagued architect envisions \'a monument of dust and rubble.\' Pigeons on the Grass is this kind of monument.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe Silence is about the glimpse—the abrupt, jarring semi-premonition—of a post-technological void ... This all sounds fairly timely and will no doubt burnish Mr. DeLillo’s reputation as an oracle dispassionately communicating the news from the future ... Judged on the basis of topicality, The Silence is less than a trifle. It doesn’t take a guru, after all, to tell us that we’re addicted to our devices. But there is another DeLillo that I have learned to take pleasure in, and that is DeLillo the ironist, the jokester, the sideline observer who delights in, rather than despairs over, the absurdities of modern experience. Behind its deadpan delivery, The Silence abounds in silliness ... The field of language is the real setting of The Silence, and for all the talk of Mr. DeLillo’s contemporary relevance, it’s notable that the book of his it most recalls is End Zone ... If The Silence turns out to be Mr. DeLillo’s final book, he ends having imagined a space for re-creation.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalOn one hand Mad at the World is condensed, clear and readable. (Mr. Souder’s previous books include brisk lives of Rachel Carson and John James Audubon.) But it achieves its relative brevity by omitting excerpts from Steinbeck’s journals and letters. What remains are the gloomy externalities of divorce and depression, which inform Mr. Souder’s argument that anger was the animating force behind Steinbeck’s art. There’s a lot to this, and certainly the bitterness toward domestic life in later works like East of Eden and The Winter of Our Discontent is hard to miss. But I’m more persuaded by Mr. Benson’s claim that Steinbeck holds our attention because \'he was a lover of life, rather than a hater of life.\'
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... a crowded and vital cast of characters whose conflicts illuminate Colombia’s anarchic, decades-long civil war and the ugly compromises required by the peace treaty between the government and the FARC rebel group. But Missionaries is much more than a regional drama: This is a sweeping, interconnected novel of ideas in the tradition of Joseph Conrad and Norman Mailer that seeks to explicate the way war is waged in the American 21st century—and, in the process, to disabuse readers of their faith in anachronistic concepts like \'winning\' and \'losing\' ...So much complex information appears in Missionaries that Juan Pablo is forced to act as something of an explainer for the general reader, yet he’s so urbane and eloquent that he rarely becomes didactic. In general, the Colombian characters are rich and complicated ... By taking a long view of the \'rational insanity\' of global warfare, Missionaries brilliantly fills one of the largest gaps in contemporary literature.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... the latest entry in that strangely popular form of middle-brow escapism, the apocalypse novel ... In essence this is good schlock horror—think Stephen King’s The Mist with much better writing ... it nibbles at Zeitgeist subjects like race relations and conspicuous consumption ... This makes the novel vividly relatable to the NPR listeners who are most likely to read it. It’s a shrewd move, to caution against late-capitalist decadence while partaking in it.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... splenetic riffs on the ingrained human need to search for meaning in ancient customs, no matter how repugnant they are ... The jokes are dependably good ... If Mother for Dinner tickled me less than Hope: A Tragedy it’s partly because its scenes are so physically revolting ... I’m not sure if this will offend pieties or just turn stomachs.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... bewitching ... winks at the great quest epics organized around the hunt for some lost ancient power. It is also what you might think of as an academic thriller in the vein of Umberto Eco or Dan Brown ... because Ms. Clarke’s novel assumes Piranesi’s point of view—the narrative is related by way of his journal entries—these standard plot elements appear blurry and distorted, as though refracted through water. The happy reversal in this novel is that the genre conventions pitting power-mad villains against crusading good guys are entirely foreign to Piranesi, and for much of the novel beyond his comprehension ... a high-quality page-turner—even the most leisurely reader will probably finish it off in a day—but its chief pleasure is immersion in its strange and uncannily attractive setting ... Ms. Clarke is a cool and meticulous stylist—Piranesi’s journal entries about the House are loaded with measurements and calculations and painstaking architectural descriptions—but the territory she evokes transcends rationality ... Establishing that sense of totality—and the feeling of peacefulness that accompanies it—is Ms. Clarke’s standout feat ... The rub, however, is that Piranesi is mistaken, as there are gaps both in his memory and in his conception of the House. As the anthropologists’ skulduggery intrudes on the well-being of the House, the book merges with another literary genre: the puzzle novel, whereby Piranesi pieces together clues—some buried in his early journals, some from pages that have been torn up and woven by seagulls into their nests—to uncover the Other’s true identity, as well as his own. This is neatly done, and it will keep you reading, but it does shift the focus of the book away from its capacious worldbuilding to the practical mechanics of its plot. The trouble with the puzzle novel is that the story becomes so concerned with its solution that it ceases to pay attention to the image it reveals ... It is probably inescapable that Piranesi should undergo a disenchantment of a kind, and that the captivating mystery of its setting pass into a generic mystery in which the point is to figure out what has happened and learn how things will end. But as the ending unfolded, I admit that I was wistful for those earlier passages when Piranesi was still innocent of the complicated novel being constructed around him, serene in the belief that nothing other than his House was real.
Philippe Djian, trans. by Mark Polizzotti
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Djian lays out his brief novel of bad habits, betrayals and unrivaled family dysfunction in a starved, detached manner that echoes elements of American minimalism. The characters’ emotions are raw but the writing is flat, laconic and almost pathologically suppressed, as though the syntax itself had suffered some kind of trauma. Mr. Djian’s feat is to tell a story of such dramatic disintegration with so few pen strokes ... Yet something is off about this book. The scenes are mostly rendered in elliptical dialogue, so it’s awkward to run up against lines like \'He’d bet his bottom dollar on it\' or \'You think you can just waltz in and screw up twenty years of marriage. Give me a break, not in your wildest dreams.\' The idioms are wrong; it’s impossible to imagine Iraq War veterans speaking this way. Mark Polizzotti is one of the best French translators working, but Mr. Djian’s imitation of American stylists may have posed an insuperable obstacle—sometimes Marlene reads as though Hemingway had been translated into French and then back into English. The catch with the novel of few words is that they have to be the right ones.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIn its simplest sense, Jack is about salvation, though of a more earthly kind than that theorized by the Gilead elders. Even so, the obstacles are as daunting as any pilgrim’s progress ... her fiction is transcendent in its compassion and generous subjectivities. Ms. Robinson eschews absolutes not only with those gaps and silences in her storytelling but on the more intimate level of the sentence. I have never read another writer for whom qualifiers were such constant companions ... her series is so big and rich and open-ended that it is impervious to closure. These novels honor creation by affording us something we only occasionally find in the vastness of existence: a glimpse of eternity, such as it is.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... conducts a meditative, closely observed exploration of the quotidian aspects of a life in the shadow of its annihilation ... Ms. Nunez possesses a flaneurial intellect; she strolls with ease between homespun personal anecdotes and musings on the writings of Kafka and Simone Weil. There is a mood of matter-of-factness to this book that feels both wise and unsettling. To live frankly in the time of \'too late\' is to cross beyond despair and back into the world of the everyday. This book’s quiet discovery is that, no matter how extreme the circumstances, \'life must be dealt with.\'
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Mosley is a famous crime writer, but this collection is nearer to the recent work of Julian Barnes and Roddy Doyle, compiling vignettes and character sketches about lonely men undergoing the bewilderments of aging. In practiced, plainspoken prose, he presents a gallery of old men facing divorce, illness or perhaps some more unnamable crisis of existence ... The humble stories befit their soft-spoken antiheroes ... The collection’s representative character may be Michael Trey, who becomes a viral internet sensation by refusing to leave his apartment. This is passive resistance at its most extreme, seemingly the one recourse available to the book’s sympathetic catalog of outcasts.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"...an absorbing parable of contemporary paranoia ... Mr. Kunzru has always paired his sharp, elegant prose with visions of pandemonium, and in novels like Transmission (2004) and Gods Without Men (2011) the chaos is reflected in the deconstruction of the narrative—it is hard to follow what happens at the end of these books. But in Red Pill Mr. Kunzru concludes with a strictly realistic blow-by-blow of the 2016 presidential election. Current events, he suggests, illustrate the madness of the world more effectively than any literary device. Readers will decide for themselves whether this is farseeing or another instance of hysteria.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...[an] entertaining micro-biography ...The book is a chronicle of distractions and peevish excuses that also shows how the consuming labor of procrastination became a crucial part of the novel’s texture ... Tolstoy’s endless side projects seem at first like nuisances deterring him from the single-minded production of art, yet it’s in the daily minutia, and the passionate convictions his characters could inject into it, that we find his great novel’s soul.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalA loose-fitting plot ... The manic, rapid-fire chapters, switching among a large cast of intersecting characters, from police to protesters to entrepreneurs, are confusing to keep up with, but they give Mr. Wilson the freedom to embark on a range of cultural digressions. Sensation Machines reads a little bit like Tom Wolfe in a futurist dystopia. There are full-throated riffs on materialism and tech surveillance, on simulation video gaming, white privilege and the lyrics of Eminem. A spirit of exhilaration fires the book’s best moments. We may be going to hell, but at least it’s fun to rant about.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Gyasi has trained her ambitions inward, applying the same rigorous attention to the quality of her sentences and to the laser-like interrogation of her themes. She has produced a powerful, wholly unsentimental novel about family love, loss, belonging and belief that is more focused but just as daring as its predecessor, and to my mind even more successful ... The narrative of difficult, immigrant striving is derailed by a slow-motion tragedy ... Unlike many novels centered on suffering, Ms. Gyasi’s book is not interested in eliciting sympathy or activating the reader’s guilt. It is, instead, burningly dedicated to the question of meaning ... confidently shuttles between the poles of faith and science—it quotes the Bible as fluently as it discusses neural circuits in the medial prefrontal cortex—plumbing each for comforts and insights but also dispassionately studying the ways that each falls short ... a hard, beautiful, diamantine luster.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalEach story is smart and capably written, and each strives, with mixed success, to look beyond the gimmick of its premise to study the human cost of ideological perfection. If the collection were to carry a warning it would say: Be careful what you wish for.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... pure Gothic horror, filled with phantoms and demons and other avatars of the uncanny ... Mr. Cameron’s ability to flicker between the eerie and the grubbily banal defines his fascinating recent project of revising classic literary genres ... The novel’s indeterminacy is both intriguing and moving, because it means that one character’s loss is another’s consummation, and an unbroken night is both a source of terror and the condition of a long-desired resting place,
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalFranny’s woes, revealed in staggered flashbacks, are so extensive and extravagant that they begin to be slightly funny. But a bit of melodrama is permissible in a good nautical adventure, and Migrations moves at a fast, exciting clip, motored as much by love for \'creatures that aren’t human\' as by outrage at their destruction.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThese recovered memories make up most of the book, and Ms. Bender depicts them in a clear and gentle light, their details precise but never threatening. There is a resemblance to Haruki Murakami in the brushing of the fantastic against the ordinary, but in The Butterfly Lampshade the intersection isn’t sinister, or even especially revelatory. Ms. Bender is interested in the integrity of private mysteries, and her wise, perceptive novel calmly insists that reality is not a fixed place but a journey that everyone travels by different routes.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAs in her vivacious 2016 story collection Scary Old Sex, Ms. Heyman writes with mature, unembarrassed frankness about attraction and lovemaking. Nor does she neglect the ravages the flesh is heir to—the novel’s most difficult scenes detail a stillbirth and a rape ... But even if Lottie’s story is partly an account of scars and stretch marks, the tone of Artifact is celebratory, an homage to the body’s capacity to impart amazement even after death.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalHaving presumably left the writing part of this project to the capable Mr. Vachon, Mr. Carrey affects a tone of jaded contempt for the Hollywood star system. And while he pokes fun at the narcissistic, mystically inclined habits of coddled movie stars, the gibes double as zany gossip about his celebrity buddies ... The nifty thing about Mr. Carrey’s caricatures is that they simultaneously serve as self-promotion. The story ends with Carrey and other stars battling an alien invasion, an antic, hammy finale that points up the book’s essential silliness while also highlighting the fact that, in Mr. Carrey’s mind, his career misfortunes and Armageddon are inextricably connected. This novel is harmless fun, but it’s still more press release than satire.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a nostalgic, even rather fond, view of the lusty womanizers of yesteryear ... The novel moves between the illicit excitement of Lilia’s assignations and her heartbreak over Lucy’s death, and Ms. Li wisely refuses to contrive any resolution between the two moods. Lilia is grief-stricken yet resolutely without regrets, and the seeming contradiction informs her unforgettably ornery and impolitic view of the world. Must I Go is most bracing in its refusal to apologize for its follies, to perform any acts of literary penance.
Virginie Despentes, Trans. by Frank Wynne
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... a bona fide magnum opus ... A master of the free indirect style, Ms. Despentes inhabits the minds of a diverse cast of characters while doing for Paris what Joyce did for Dublin ... While Ms. Despentes can be a savage observer of that world, she’s also capable of creating moments of surpassing vulnerability. Yet the quality that struck this reader most forcibly is her freedom of thought. She simply does not care about political niceties, which allows her to extend imaginatively—though always unsparingly—into the lives of the losers, abusers, outcasts and reactionaries who brush shoulders on the Métro every morning. In contrast to the cautious moralizing of so much American fiction, Ms. Despentes’s teeming feat of negative capability is all the more exhilarating.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalHoward is lewd, manipulative, commanding and voraciously horny, and his dirty talk...verges on parody ... In a way Ms. Merkin’s novel is casting back to an earlier era of feminism that prioritized sexual satisfaction, recalling not only the frank carnality of Updike and Roth but also of Erica Jong and Lisa Alther. There are a few ambivalent nods to present-day mores—Judith recognizes that Howard is inappropriate and possibly dangerous. But Ms. Merkin is more inclined to take her antihero down a peg by showing him to be essentially childlike, no more in control of his sexual appetite than a teenager ... This is a study of sex as a great and terrible adventure, a bad decision that Judith will think longingly about for years to come.
Lynn Steger Strong
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Strong’s prose articulates the narrator’s relentless day-to-day routine: quick, direct sentences packed into short, granulated scenes that lack the usual buffers of exposition or transitions ... The story, being rushed, is somewhat unformed, touching on the various compromises the narrator makes to once-cherished ideals for the sake of pragmatism and subsistence. But Want isn’t without hope or insights, and in the extremity of her exhaustion, the narrator has moments of sharp, delirious clarity.
Tara June Winch
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... wily, appealing ... While there is no shortage of darkness in The Yield, both in August’s life and in the history of Massacre Plains (which has its name for a reason), the writing is disarmingly chatty and casual, almost familial in its confidences. Most readers will be cheering on the characters by the time of the somewhat tidy resolution. Australia’s past may be stained with blood—or guwany, in the native tongue—but that also means that it once pulsed with a living tradition.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThough the plot revolves upon a series of canned recognition scenes, the underlying interest is in the cousins’ attempts to forge a livable combination of self-knowledge and self-invention ... Ms. Bennett’s second novel, but she marches through it with the professional assurance of an author with a dozen books under her belt. Such poise is an ambiguous blessing. Streamlined for readability, the writing can be generic, and in the motif of twins with contrasting fortunes (by now a cliché in literary fiction) it’s hard to avoid reductive symbolism ... The novel finds itself in the later chapters with Kennedy and Jude, where it allows its headliner themes to drift into the background of, and become complicated by, the flow of the cousins’ daily lives. My hope is that the warranted praise Ms. Bennett receives for this novel will have less to do with her efficient handling of timely, or \'relevant,\' subject matter than for her insights into the mysterious compound of what we call truth: a mixture of the identities we’re born with and those we create.
Dola de Jong, Trans. by Kristen Gehrman
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe novel presents a fine study in unreliable narration, as it takes time to discern the desperate emotions screened behind Bea’s plain, dispassionate storytelling ... a careful and muted lament about the sorrow of restraint, and what moves the reader is not only Erica’s fate but Bea’s belated interrogation of \'the haunting question as to why I imposed certain restrictions on our relationship [that were] the legacy of the time, a legacy that has nestled into my tissue like a tumor.\'
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe fantastic infiltrates the story in overtly metaphoric ways...But Ms. Bertino establishes a rationale for the madness beyond matrimonial jitters ... Like most trauma fiction, Parakeet becomes narrowly preoccupied by a single, all-defining moment that somehow both reconfigures the past and sets the course for the future ... But unlike most books in the genre, the novel isn’t lugubrious, instead steering into the experience of absurdity with a recklessness that keeps you guessing.
PanThe Wall Street JournalWe are, of course, in that new-found land called autofiction, but Drifts is different in a crucial way from such celebrated examples of the genre as Rachel Cusk’s Outline or Ben Lerner’s 10:04. However much those books blur into memoir, they are stylized and arranged so as to give them literary autonomy. One can just read them, knowing nothing of their authors. This isn’t so with Ms. Zambreno’s \'nervous and diaristic text,\' whose sketchy, unfinished nature emphasizes the faltering process rather than the end product. It can only be appreciated as an accessory to Ms. Zambreno’s larger and ongoing public performance of being a writer...This accounts for its overwhelming mood of ambivalence. A book that drifts, that never arrives at a vision or resolves upon a point of view, that is simply a journal of the various and contradictory things that a person feels and does from day to day, is fated to spend its time waffling over countless artistic dilemmas...but of the writing, which sometimes seeks to be fragmentary and poetic and at other times is confessional and expulsive, dispatched in hurried summaries ... The nullifying force of self-actualization lies behind these inconsistencies. If the author’s struggle counts for more than what she actually writes, distinctions of quality are flattened into irrelevance—and by extension, reading the book becomes a bizarrely passive experience, virtually the same as not having read it. Ms. Zambreno may like the idea of eschewing \'salable physical objects\'—of writing as a means of purely private expression—but Drifts has a bar code on it, nevertheless. Ambivalence is human, as are confusion, tedium and failure. But art is more than a transcription of life, thank God, or else we’d have no need for it.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... with impressive craft Mr. Beha arranges their individual collapses into a chain of toppling dominos ... In his 2012 debut, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Mr. Beha struggled to work out a private quarrel with postmodernism and narrative irony, but in this novel he has confidently embraced a style of traditional realism. What is striking is the absence of satire or polemic. Mr. Beha never exaggerates the tawdriness of his characters, and the sympathetic portrayals are all the more damning because they make their transgressions seem inherent to the environment rather than the aberrations of a particularly nasty class of people. Realism is in fact the costume he has patiently designed to disguise a vision of fallen humanity ... The only irony in this absorbing and satisfying novel is the cosmic kind. There is a force operating on their lives that eludes analysis and that can only be glimpsed once it’s too late to escape.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... absolutely nothing in this baggy, voluminous debut novel is succinct—but it takes a similarly jaundiced attitude toward questions of free will, cultural manipulation and the possibility of independent thought and creation ... The humor in Antkind is as broad as the novel is long ... Mr. Kaufman’s method is to introduce a farcical non sequitur and then to retcon it into a semblance of a narrative ... The book’s shifting parameters of reality make this possible—or, rather, they cancel out the concept of a meaningful narrative. Mr. Kaufman is obsessed with the flaws in consciousness: the ways that experience blurs with dreams and imagination, the ways the mind is vulnerable to persuasion and memories to revision. As in his films, there are concentric circles of meta-worlds, there are doppelgängers, and there are lots and lots of puppets ... How much you like his films will give you a fair sense of how much patience you’re willing to extend to this novel. For my part, I have a soft spot for Mr. Kaufman’s Catskills-lodge humor, even if it does sometimes reek of flop sweat. And while the book’s endless recursions and self-references seem like the stuff of undergraduate philosophy, there’s something touching about the narrator’s hapless attempts to navigate that nonsensical world and extract truth and significance from it. I wouldn’t want to be a captive in Mr. Kaufman’s consciousness either, but being a voyeur is a different matter. There is something about this book’s extravagantly appointed lunacy that makes the lunacy of real life feel (briefly) more manageable.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalGod bless Percival Everett, whose dozens of idiosyncratic books demonstrate a majestic indifference to literary trends, the market or his critics ... The unknown both haunts and inspires Mr. Everett’s books, and while the plot of Telephone may be straightforward, the world it depicts is no less bewildering.
Marion Poschmann, trans. Jen Calleja
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe pair’s travels, which veer between the ridiculous and the macabre, satirize Orientalist clichés about enlightenment ... Gilbert’s notion of Japan is a scholar’s simulacrum. There’s something queasily hilarious about this self-centered pedant, who wouldn’t be out of place in the brainy comic novels of Don DeLillo or Nell Zink ... But even as this twisted little novel darkens, Gilbert’s self-regard remains untouched, and his pilgrimage brings him back the same person he was when he set out.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThese are likable, unassuming pieces that often read like exploratory outlines for longer works. Their interest to L’Engle’s admirers will be in the way they trace the arc of the author’s biography ... the heroines possess passionate sensibilities that the people around them are too dull or preoccupied to appreciate. The inborn hope that animates even the most bittersweet stories is also rooted in autobiography.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWith Naoise Dolan’s debut novel...we return to contemporary fiction’s irony-industrial complex ... Being a detached, acerbic, amoral smartass is a powerful kind of currency in the world of commitment-phobic businessmen, and Ms. Dolan is funny and touching about the internal drama of shedding a miserable identity that yields material rewards for something as incommensurable as love. The novel’s limitations are most apparent in the hasty ending: Since sarcasm is what it does best, it isn’t quite willing to risk going for long without it.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Sofer is at her best evoking Hamid’s pugnacious youth ... The aphoristic elegance of Ms. Sofer’s writing is one of the book’s attractions, but it is hard to square Hamid’s lucid, cultured narration with what we know of his character. Though he possesses an omniscient understanding of his descent into evil, his insights never bring about any interesting transformations. Instead, as Iranian history vanishes into the background, the chapters wallow in his feelings of shame ... While much in this book captured my imagination, the torturer’s tears left me unmoved.
Andrés Barba, Trans. by Lisa Dillman
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIn an acute translation by Lisa Dillman, [the narrator\'s] excavation draws on his memories, but also on the documentaries and scholarly studies that sought to explain the freakish episode, giving a gripping metaphysical dimension to the horror story ... In a manner that resembles the startling allegorical inventions of J.G. Ballard, Mr. Barba thrillingly assails the myth of childhood innocence, showing childhood to be both more euphoric and more savage than anyone had imagined—a foreign country that the rational adult mind can never fully comprehend.
Anton Chekhov, Trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWhat we have...is a compilation of B-sides. Mr. Pevear says nothing of this in his rather cagey preface ... the value of Fifty-Two Stories is that it humanizes Chekhov himself, reminding us that this often deified figure wrote a great deal of stuff that is decidedly mortal ... On the other hand, a few of Chekhov’s most brilliant and moving profiles in disenchantment appear ... most interesting are the first-rate stories that are less commonly anthologized.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWhat unfolds is a kind of running argument, as Juliet’s remorseful and contemplative account is interrupted by Michael’s boisterous, in-the-moment impressions. Both have wonders and calamities to relate ... Each drama is plentifully conceived on its own terms, but there’s a powerful cumulative effect as the strain and isolation lay bare the heart of their marital trouble ... At its best, Sea Wife achieves a lovely balance between the real and the metaphoric ... Somewhat late in the novel, Ms. Gaige introduces two plot wrinkles ... The additions take away from the book’s symmetry and momentum, and they force Ms. Gaige to spend a lot of time tying up loose ends. What readers will remember instead are the charged images of Juliet and Michael sailing with their kids toward foreign coordinates, forced to depend on each other to stay afloat.
Linda Bostrom Knausgaard, Trans. by Rachel Willson-Broyles
MixedThe Wall Street JournalSolitude is in this novel purely a torment, the painful consequence of Anna’s separation from her father, whom she imagines to be the one person who understands her true nature. Ms. Boström Knausgård is good at evoking the fragility that can afflict even the most loving families. Her sentences, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles, are short, dry and brittle, like tinder on the verge of combustion. The writing then takes fire in the desperate and disturbing portrait of mental illness ... The mythology, on the other hand, is vague and confusing. I wasted far too much time trying to figure out what Athena has to do with any of this—the answer seems to be very little. Ersatz allusions to antiquity litter the narrative, interrupting a powerful story in the most needless way: by goading the reader to stop to look things up on Wikipedia.
Henri Bosco, Trans. by Joyce Zonana
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... [a] charming back-to-nature fantasia ... has a timeless, romantic quality ... Bosco was an ornately old-fashioned stylist even in his day, and Ms. Zonana’s unabashedly baroque translation—words like \'grandeur\' and \'majesty\' appear regularly and without irony—seems appropriate ... The doors of perception swing wide open.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalBraised Pork produces its own kind of mind trip ... it’s written with a shimmering lightness ... Ms. An also tucks a touching love story into the strange proceedings, which supplies enough incentive to keep Jia Jia—and the reader—equally invested in boring old reality.
Heinrich Von Kleist, trans. by Michael Hoffman
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalKohlhaas’s monomaniacal quest for justice, which entangles many of the region’s feuding noblemen, Martin Luther and a mysterious fortune-teller, is at once a savage indictment of a corrupt legal system and an object lesson in the ways that all-out combat can ignite from the most picayune personal slights. The remarkably distilled narrative is presented as a straight-faced historical chronicle, whose formal language is pushed toward incoherence by the insanities it relates. In Michael Hofmann, whose own writing style is frenetic and steeply erudite, the novella may have found the perfect translator.
Alberto Barrera Tyszka, Trans. by Rosalind Harvey and Jessie Mendez Sayer
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Tyszka is a versatile writer who merits wider attention...blending brisk, ironic parables with dryly disenchanted commentary. This novel is, on balance, more analytic than aesthetic (the translation, by Rosalind Harvey and Jessie Mendez Sayer, is clear and straightforward), valuable especially for Sanabria’s insights into the destructively politicized nature of Chávez’s death.
Zülfü Livaneli, Trans. by Brendan Freely
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe novel splits along two paths. Though Mr. Livaneli’s account of the Struma disaster is compelling, it depends on lengthy information dumps to keep the reader up to speed. But his attacks on Turkish censorship are fearless and eloquent, and all the more impressive considering his country’s propensity for imprisoning writers. A smear campaign waged against Maya speaks to a type of paranoid nationalism built on erasure and ignorance.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... the stark, mesmerizing book reads like an existential argument between...irreconcilable truths, a Beckett play bobbing in the open water ... If the two characters seem schematically opposed—will versus fate—Mr. Lynch takes pains to confuse their relationship, changing it from mood to mood into something bitter, paternal, generous or adversarial. The novel’s foundations are like the ocean, too unfixed and unfathomable to allow the philosophical disputes to advance in a linear fashion. Both men appear courageous or cowardly, insane or transcendently wise, depending on the angle of the sunlight—as if the immensity of the setting renders even the firmest distinctions indistinct ... Mr. Lynch’s prose style is suitably rationed and sun-cured ... Though bare and isolated, this fine book contains multitudes of experience.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalClosely observed, profusely detailed and probably overlong, Marguerite is what a friend of mine calls, with some annoyance, a Lives of Quiet Desperation book ... Yet there is also, happily, a great deal of engaging writing. Ms. Kemp has an uncommon ability to keep her scenes ticking along, and she’s terrific with dialogue, injecting the interactions with a brusque, colorful candor at odds with the theme of repression. Ironically, Jérôme is the life of the novel, and the sparring friendship he forges with Marguerite by way of complaints and insults provide its best moments. There’s nothing like an old man raging against the dying of the light to rouse you from stupor, and with him Marguerite gives as good as she gets.
Fernanda Melchor, Trans. by Sophie Hughes
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... a bilious, profane, blood-spattered tempest of rage against what one character calls \'the full, brutal force of male vice\' ... The chapters, written in obscenity-laden free indirect speech, are not monologues so much as diatribes. Sophie Hughes’s translation carries their furious momentum into English. They have no paragraph breaks, as if a moment’s pause would represent an unforgivable show of weakness ... This is the Mexico of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, where the extremes of evil create a pummeling, hyper-realistic effect. But the \'elemental cry\' of Ms. Melchor’s writing voice, a composite of anger and anguish, is entirely her own.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... marvelously elusive ... despite the book’s fundamental enigmas, the depiction of the community, with its hidden fears and traumas, is splayed-open and movingly vulnerable ... Ms. Lacey is interested in peeling back the ritual of confession and forgiveness, finding dark correspondences with cruelty (the way that confession resembles interrogation) and collective amnesia (the way that forgiveness prompts forgetfulness) ... Ms. Lacey’s is a ghostly, largely ungraspable fiction that dreams of \'the idea of a disembodied world.\'
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIn one sense, Godshot is as predictable as its villains are evil. The ritualized atrocities of the religious sect that considers women’s bodies to be \'church property\' has much in common with the world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and its thousand-and-one imitators. The story also takes a turn toward the sort of New Age feminist empowerment that has been in vogue since Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. But dwelling on comparisons doesn’t do justice to the surreal qualities of Ms. Bieker’s imagined cult, whose gimcrack hoaxes are set alongside the most sinister megalomania ... Lacey May’s account of her part in the nightmare is softened by her innocence and unspoiled instinct for love ... Godshot culminates in a dizzying depiction of childbirth—a true holy rite that instantly reveals the falseness of the rest.
Jon Fosse, Trans. by Damion Searls
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalLike most of Mr. Fosse’s numerous works of fiction, The Other Name is stark, serious, thoroughly interior and written in an unbroken stream of consciousness that does not call to mind the flowing of a river so much as the steady drip of a thawing glacier ... In Damion Searls’s expertly restrained translation, the writing has the artless, improvised feel of an extended prayer, passing through repetitions, drab descriptive formulas and sudden moments of fervency ... in this book’s rhythmic accumulation of words, something incantatory and self-annihilating—something that feels almost holy.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal...[a] pensive, downbeat debut ... Mr. Nguyen is insightful and precise about the particular kind of emptiness that can infect the tech world, where actual people have less value than the user data they represent ... But the atmosphere of pointlessness, however finely observed, derails the storytelling. Subplots are introduced—such as the cybercrime Lucas and Margo collude on at the start of the novel—and then simply drift away like forgotten ideas. It isn’t just Lucas who misses Margo; Mr. Nguyen doesn’t seem quite sure what to do without her.
J. M Coetzee
MixedThe Wall Street JournalWith The Death of Jesus...J.M. Coetzee concludes a trilogy of obscurely allegorical novels...whose mixture of aloof understatement, philosophical discourse and cryptic symbolism has managed to bore and intrigue in equal measure ... The Death of Jesus is much more emotionally involving because of its wrenching portrayal of David’s death—that is, its version of the Passion. But other scriptural allusions seem contrived. There is a sense that Mr. Coetzee has simply stripped the Bible for parts, losing its meanings in the process. The meaning most missed, I think, concerns the nature of faith, which Mr. Coetzee approaches from a strictly secular point of view, conflating it with desire and desperation and a kind of intellectual abandon. His fundamental skepticism extends to the writing, which rummages provocative ideas but never creates the novelistic texture or density to reach a pitch of real mystery, settling instead for mere incomprehension ... however probing and intelligent, the trilogy’s inquiry into belief is too speculative—too much of an exercise—to bring about that suspension of disbelief in the reader.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe problem of truly knowing the people one is closest to haunts this behind-the-curtains drama ... For all of the emotional tumult in Actress, however, there is also a great deal of simple and wonderfully immersive storytelling, particularly in the evocations of Katherine’s beginnings in an itinerant theater troupe ... There is something that seems effortless about Ms. Enright’s writing—an illusion, of course, but one brilliantly sustained. Her anecdotes are charming, perceptive and raconteurial without histrionics. Like a great actress, the author is made invisible by the spell of her performance ... By the end of Actress the prose has become high-strung and insistent, an outlet for long-repressed anger ... I will confess that I missed the glamour and excitement of the opening of the book, when the play was the thing. But I don’t deny the bare-knuckled force of Ms. Enright’s unanswerable concluding question. Who are we, to ourselves and to others, when our illusions finally fail?
MixedThe Wall Street JournalHe’s great at front-stoop banter and again he creates fond, funny portrayals of community old-timers ... But with this book he may have spread himself too thin ... He shifts from broad, slapstick comedy to shoot-’em-up violence to nostalgic meditations on New York history. There is even, for reasons I couldn’t quite grasp, a subplot involving a hidden work of art that was smuggled out of Europe after World War II. All of it is readable but none of it stands out, making the novel, much like its shambling hero, a likable but minor eccentricity.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... gorgeously seamy ... An unshackled and bitingly funny melodrama plays out in the bars of Marseille’s Vieux Port ... McKay revels in this human glue pot of blacks, Arabs, whites, straights and gays, prostitutes, gigolos, dockworkers and seamen, schemers, dreamers and political rabble-rousers. The language he fashions mirrors the mélange, blending vernacular with showy archaisms and words of McKay’s own invention. The fusion is as heady and bewitching as the scene of a Vieux Port dance floor, where \'everybody was close together in a thick juice melted by wine and music.\'
Tina May Hall
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Hall is my favorite kind of writer, a born poet who turns to prose and imbues that rather proletarian form with the grace and lightness of verse ... But the mishmash of The Snow Collectors defeated me. Grafted onto Henna’s psychological drama are acts of sudden violence that could come, as Henna puts it, from \'some cut-rate thriller.\' Added to all that is a bizarre gothic romance involving the village police chief, whose ancestors were connected with the Franklin expedition. The story wobbles between these genres like the needle on a broken compass. It doesn’t lead you into mystery so much as simply get you lost.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... intelligence, originality and poetic grace ... Ms. Cook reflects on the momentous change by tenderly humanizing all of these larger-than-life characters. Her portrayal of Bathsheba is both more compassionate and more convincing than the usual caricature of a power-hungry seductress. Her David, too, is remarkably approachable ... Again and again in this discerning novel, sin and suffering culminate in a majestic work of humility and praise.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...delirious and deeply humane satire ... Temporary has the manic, goofing energy of a lounge act. Its target isn’t only corporate drudgery or amoral profiteering but also the precarious state that makes people feel desperately lucky to even get a shot at the terrible jobs. Being a novelist is also an insecure racket, and like her endlessly accommodating temp, Ms. Leichter works hard to keep the audience amused ... But behind the painted-on smile is the melancholy of impermanence.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIf Ms. McBride really believes that elevated writing is insincere, she shouldn’t do it. But for me, the gamesome, Joycean wordplay is the best thing about Strange Hotel, however mannered it sometimes becomes. Certainly the baroque tangle of the main character’s \'inverted chats,\' as she dubs her monologues, is more interesting than yet another plainspoken confrontation with repressed trauma. Ms. McBride’s brilliance lies in her arrangements of the glorious garble of language. I hope she won’t keep apologizing for it.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... strange and strangely tender ... Mr. Krivak balances this sort of mysticism with closely observed descriptions of sewing leather for shoes, carving wood for bows and arrows or spotting eddies to fish for trout. These activities are endowed with such fullness of meaning that you have to assign this short, touching book its own category: the post-apocalypse utopia.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalCounterfeiters are everywhere in the scam-or-be-scammed rat race Mr. Tel entertainingly depicts ... Mr. Tel is excellent at subtly warping the ordinary experiences of his characters, blending the real with the absurd. His one misstep is in a kind of narrative distortion, in which the Western Sinophile \'author\' of these stories appears as a character to warn about his own reliability. This reads like a sop to critics of cultural appropriation. But Mr. Tel’s stories are good enough to need no disclaimer.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... there are a few enjoyable deep dives into the musty subculture of antique selling. Disappointingly, Mr. Geddes treats that subculture largely as a backdrop for zany eccentrics. The comedy is aggressively quirky, a word that should be listed as an antonym of \'funny\' ... In the novel’s most torturously contrived twist, a lonely, misunderstood deltiologist—or postcard hobbyist—accidentally kidnaps a toddler, which sets the novel’s few plot gears into creaky motion.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... [Applefeld\'s] novels are ahistorical and philosophic, moral dramas that have left the confines of eyewitness testimony for the realm of fable and allegory ... is in part a hymn to the vitalizing force of Jewish tradition. But its battered optimism is universal, as well. Where do you go for wisdom? the book asks. What is your community? What are the convictions that charge your daily tasks with meaning? Find those things, and no trial is unendurable.
Zora Neale Hurston
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe splendid stories that editor Genevieve West has gathered, written between 1921 and 1937...demonstrate the author’s double vision. They combine the warmth and affection of an insider with the documentary rigor—and ironic amusement—of a neutral observer. In form, the stories are hardly groundbreaking: slices-of-life in Eatonville and Harlem or dramas involving low-down men who either are reformed by good-hearted women or meet a fitting comeuppance. But each is a showcase for a remarkably vital dialect ... This whole collection is, in one character’s words, \'big as life an’ brassy as tacks.\'
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... [an] intelligent page-turner ... The throwaway suspense plot involves a paternity secret that links the characters in the two time frames. But the fun of Followers is the way it carries today’s social media bread-and-circus to possible extremes.
Varlam Shalamov, trans. by Donald Rayfield
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... remarkable for both [its] historical witness and their literary integrity ... The stories will change the way you think about the miracle of basic bodily functions. I have never read a writer who paid such serious attention to the act of defecation—for malnourished prisoners a fraught, agonizing process ... Shalamov writes from a place beyond embarrassment, beyond fear and beyond consolation. The stories are fiction by a man who had long ceased to believe in fictions ... In Mr. Rayfield’s highly readable translation, the main qualities are directness and spontaneity, as though Shalamov were describing a picture in his mind ... It is the precision, and often even the beauty, of these descriptions that astonishes most. Strange as it sounds, although there is no hope in these stories, there is no sense of nihilism either.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThis is narrative in the full-throated, small-D democratic spirit of John Dos Passos, moving among a huge cast of interconnected characters, from the city’s pushover mayor to an itinerant pole-dancer who makes a killing at the pop-up strip club catering to the platoons of oil riggers with unaccustomed cash to burn ... However rigorously grounded in research, Yellow Earth is at heart a fable about capitalism in its purest form ... The finest passages illustrate how far the siren song can travel ... It’s easy to feel lost in a novel with this much sprawl. Complex information—historical, political, legal, environmental, geological—is sprayed with fire-hose force and volume. But Mr. Sayles writes with such verve and colloquial humor that even the most esoteric issues brighten with fascination ... Mr. Sayles superbly dramatizes the man-made disruptions in his novel’s small pond, but in a book motored by anarchy the most unsettling section occurs when the boom goes bust, bringing Yellow Earth to a surprisingly quiet conclusion: the depiction of a modern-day ghost town.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Charyn, who is now 82, writes with the sort of whirlwind energy that turns the seediest story into a breakneck adventure. Whole chapters seem to have been expelled in single exhalations, as though the author had the breath control of an opera tenor. It’s a dark art to make a subject this grotesque quite this much fun.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... although Mr. Curtis again complicates the expected adventure-novel payoff, the truth is that Debra just isn’t interesting enough to justify the amount of ink used on her ... Or maybe she’s only uninteresting compared to Cloris, whose narration grows increasingly vulnerable, surprising and profound.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... whirling, kinetoscopic ... brief, brightly flashing chapters ... The vertiginous feeling created in these chapters is one of all the parts of history plummeting together toward an appointed destiny. Mr. Olsen understands that his setting—Berlin in 1927—is inherently portentous, weighty with foreshadowing, and he freely darts ahead in time to describe the fates of each famous personage. Their endings are inscribed on their lives, making the city a kind of phantasmagoria filled with the living dead ... To differentiate these perspectives, Mr. Olsen likes to toy with typography. Words are arranged on the page with the same variety as accents and personality traits. The effect is disorienting but rarely opaque, because on the sentence level Mr. Olsen is a fine, clear stylist. The jostling, headlong pace of the novel means that the experimentations don’t have time to harden into gimmickry ... More than anything, My Red Heaven captures the eeriness of a city on the brink of an epochal descent into barbarism. For all its strangeness, the novel’s meaning is unmistakable.
Daniel Kehlmann, Trans. by Ross Benjamin
RaveThe Wall Street JournalYou don’t need any knowledge of the Ulenspiegel legend to appreciate this brilliant, blackly sardonic retelling ... In Mr. Kehlmann’s unforgettable joker we have a picture of humankind in all of its madness and strutting pride
MixedThe Wall Street JournalAs a critique of totalitarianism, The Freedom Artist is unimpressive, but it stands out for its philosophical dimensions. It can be read as a kind of revision of Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which art, rather than offering distracting illusions, can tap into foundational truths and help us free ourselves from the prison of existence. The concise, declarative prose and the parable-like architecture of the stories resemble ancient forms of wisdom literature ... strange and rousing.
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe novel’s form is so transparently indebted to Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy—narrated by a woman in crisis who seems to rebuild her identity by drawing from the stories people tell her—that one looks for ways that Ms. Popkey has distinguished her work from its model. One way, unfortunately, is in style. Where Ms. Cusk’s prose is stern, mandarin and sharply aphoristic, Ms. Popkey’s is slow and tongue-tied, circling the same few ideas and further belabored by pointless stage directions that read like the nervous tics of a writer who distrusts the worth of what she’s saying ... The result is a book that, set against Ms. Cusk’s pitiless transcriptions, feels maudlin and needy, as though it sought absolution for the narrator’s behavior instead of simply presenting it ... These bits tell us how to think about the narrator, but like too much in this unfocused book, do nothing to reveal who she is.
Stefan Hertmans, Trans. by David McKay
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe story Mr. Hertmans tells is drawn from real historical sources; his book is what is sometimes referred to as a nonfiction novel. Following such writers as W.G. Sebald, Emmanuel Carrère and Patrick Modiano, he splices his own travels and research into the rendering of the past. It is easy to see why this technique attracts writers from Europe, where history is omnipresent ... The limpid translation, from the Dutch, is by David McKay ... The double narrative has a practical purpose, too. Hamoutal’s fortunes are almost unrelievedly heartbreaking, so Mr. Hertmans’s detours into the \'mundane world\' of the present, though uninteresting in themselves, offer a reprieve from the piled-up miseries of her life. I confess to being divided in my opinion about this. Part of me thinks it’s something of a cheat, a way to make tragedy more palatable. But part of me is grateful for the consolations of context and hindsight. Leavening the story’s many horrors is the miracle of its preservation. Somehow, nearly a millennium later, Hamoutal has been remembered and honored.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens
PanThe Wall Street JournalIs it, as the exhibition catalog [in the book] contends, \'a profound exploration of privacy, memory, and the instability of truth\'? Or is it all a somewhat random muddle from a debut writer prone to mistaking weirdness for profundity? I lean toward the latter. Though Ms. Stevens conjures a tantalizing vision of the city at night—a murky, unreal space, like Persephone’s underworld—her story is too slight to make the setting meaningful. We follow Percy as she wanders around, buys kitchen appliances, chats with neighbors or drafts emails to her perfidious fiancé. There’s a narcoleptic quality to her commentary ... Ms. Stevens uses it to break up continuous action, as though Percy is constantly dozing off for a second or two as she moves through the world. The novel resembles one of those dreams in which you are trying to run but your legs feel stuck in quicksand. However curious and intriguingly symbolic the dream may be, it’s a relief to wake up.
Edward St Aubyn
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe British author has let it be known that virtually everything that has happened to Patrick is based in autobiography. Yet instead of recording his experiences in tear-jerker memoirs, Mr. St. Aubyn has transmuted them into stunning, sparkling fiction ... Patrick is \'desperate to escape the self-subversion of irony and say what he really meant.; Yet Mr. St. Aubyn\'s feat is in exploiting the same ironical trap for the purposes of art. That sense of detachment—the state of simultaneously being yourself and viewing yourself as though from a distance—is the key to his ability to evoke the pitch and heave of trauma while describing it with devastating lucidity. Who knows how much payment in tears and blood it cost him to forge his style from the material of a harrowing life, but the Patrick Melrose novels justify the often denigrated (often with good reason) form of the autobiographical novel ... for readers who have followed Patrick through Mr. St. Aubyn\'s unforgettable novels, the story\'s conclusion is deeply affecting ... It is a beautiful and startlingly hopeful place to leave Patrick once and for all.
PanThe Wall Street JournalDavid Shields\'s Reality Hunger has...immodest ambition and exhorter\'s zeal ... there will be readers (and I\'m among them) who take issue with the way that Mr. Shields divorces a novel\'s form from its content. Reality Hunger makes virtually no mention of fiction\'s capacity for emotional discovery or, as old-fashioned as it sounds, moral instruction. Many people have little interest in reading things that are purely simulacra of anxious everyday disorder; they look to books to escape that disorder or to make sense of it, to stir their deepest feelings or their noblest impulses in ways that real life rarely does ... Reality Hunger is less a manifesto than a narcissistic exercise. By the time you reach entry No. 194 or so, it\'s hard to avoid the suspicion that Mr. Shields is indifferent to perspectives that vary from his own. Instead, because he has a short attention span, so must the rest of the world.
Julio Ramon Ribeyro, Trans. by Katherine Silver
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe book’s title alludes to the voices of the underclass within these stories, which often center on Peru’s bricklayers or fishermen ... Balancing the naturalism are paranormal tales reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe. A character becomes obsessed with, and haunted by, his double. Others stumble upon signs of their approaching death. I like the spooky absurdity of \'The Insignia,\' in which a man finds a curiously engraved ring in a trash can. Upon wearing it, he is invited into a shadowy cabal, and over the years he rises in its ranks and is eventually appointed president—without ever learning what exactly the group is...
MixedThe Wall Street JournalWhat further unites the books is Mr. Greenwell’s distinctive grammatical signature of connecting independent clauses with comma splices...Though the sentences are run-ons, their parts have been carefully balanced so as to achieve a sense of equilibrium—a syntactical cleanness—that contrasts with the narrator’s disorderly emotions ... Yet Mr. Greenwell’s stylistic accomplishment can only do so much to compensate for his books’ essential self-absorption. Sofia continues to be a vaguely exotic backdrop for the narrator’s escapades, a motif rather than a setting. And though R. is treated more tenderly than the street hustler patronizingly portrayed in What Belongs to You, he’s still fundamentally a cipher, the archetypal beautiful foreigner who always seems to be available to carpetbagging Americans, straight or gay. Cleanness
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... howling, savagely powerful short stories ... They abound in grace, but as in O’Connor’s short fiction, the appearance of grace is grotesque and horrifying—it arrives, as Jesus said he came, not to bring peace but a sword ... The flaming sword of irony cuts a swath through all of L’Heureux’s stories ... For all of their severity, these stories are almost wholly free of judgment. The universality of sin and guilt is the source of the wild, jagged laughter that blasts through the pages. There is something scarily exhilarating about the intransigence of L’Heureux’s vision for humankind. Most contemporary fiction travels a safe, well-trod path from crisis to redemption; the author plays God, throwing his characters a life preserver. Redemption is available for L’Heureux’s characters, too, of course. But, in one last irony, not while they are still in the world to yearn for it.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... beautifully reissued with an effusive introduction by John Banville ... passions, hatreds and heartbreaks are hidden amid the prosaic effects of the drawing room and the boudoir, like a leopard camouflaged by savannah grass. Bowen (1899-1973) was a master of concealment, and though her stories deal in the ordinary and the everyday, they are disturbed by the immense spectral presence of the unspoken.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalTitling the novel after Shuggie rather than the woman who dominates him seems like small gesture of defiance on Mr. Stuart’s part. Shuggie is a pariah twice over, both because of his allegiance to his mother and because of the effeminate tendencies that single him out to bullies and sexual predators ... Both are legion in the novel’s unvarnished characterization of Glasgow’s slums ... If the portrayal is unsparing, it is also familial, because Mr. Stuart vividly inhabits the city’s singular \'Weegie\' dialect and vocabulary ... But most of all, Shuggie Bain is a novel of addiction, and as is the way with addicts, Agnes belligerently demands the bulk of the book’s attention. There is a powerful, if wearying, consistency in her perpetual relapses, her outrageous lies and public spectacles, as well as in Shuggie’s thwarted attempts to get out from under her. It’s the obstinate Bain pride that prevents this novel from becoming a wallow in victimhood and gives it its ruined dignity. Agnes will suffer any humiliation for a drink, but she’ll give you an earful at the first suggestion of pity.
Virginie Despentes Trans. by Frank Wynne
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... translated by the reliably outstanding Frank Wynne ... with Vernon Subutex, a sprawling, scintillating panorama of contemporary Paris, [Despentes] has produced a bona fide magnum opus ... A master of the free indirect style, Ms. Despentes inhabits the minds of a diverse cast of characters while doing for Paris what Joyce did for Dublin ... While Ms. Despentes can be a savage observer of that world, she’s also capable of creating moments of surpassing vulnerability. Yet the quality that struck this reader most forcibly is her freedom of thought. She simply does not care about political niceties, which allows her to extend imaginatively—though always unsparingly—into the lives of the losers, abusers, outcasts and reactionaries who brush shoulders on the Métro every morning. In contrast to the cautious moralizing of so much American fiction, Ms. Despentes’s teeming feat of negative capability is all the more exhilarating.
Juan Carlos Onetti, Trans. by Katherine Silver
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMany stories take macabre twists ... Here too is an eerie doppelgänger tale, \'The Twins,\' about a pair of desperate Spanish prostitutes. In the collection’s title story, a woman contracts a theater company to stage the events of a dream she has had, to be viewed by her alone ... The strange, evanescent scene they perform curdles into a nightmare, and in the story’s hallucinatory effects one can see the seeds of the magical-realist style that would soon revolutionize fiction.
Rosa Liksom, Trans. by Lola Rogers
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Liksom is fearlessly good at portraying wicked men in all their moods and disguises. (Her fantastic novel Compartment No. 6 features a similar, and similarly compelling, figure.) The narrator herself is not always as persuasive. It is only after the war, when the Colonel makes her the outlet for his sadism, that she repents of her past ... the novel is strongest when it’s most direct about why people engage in evil: Because they enjoy it.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... moody, furtive ... [Pufahl] depicts her characters in elegant chiaroscuro, always half sunken in shadows. She is especially good at a form of elliptical poker-table dialogue that says everything except what it really means. The tumbleweed desolation exacts a toll, as well, as the novel is somber and humorless, with long arid stretches in which no one feels any emotion at all.
Jorge Comensal, Trans. by Charlotte Whittle
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIn this caustic, pitch-black comic debut, the insights all point toward the fundamental frailty of the body and the overpowering strength of death ... In brusque, bitten-off prose Mr. Comensal captures the patient’s rapid and humiliating decline, allowing him nothing in the way of redemption. This is a mean and narrow, if creditably undeluded, little novel. The last word goes to the parrot.
Fleur Jaeggy Trans. by Tim Parks
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Jaeggy, a Swiss author who writes in Italian, excellently conjures the mortuary eroticism one finds in other European novelists like Thomas Mann and Alberto Moravia...The difference is that Ms. Jaeggy’s prose is whittled and blade-like. Tim Parks’s translation has a startling directness that can almost feel over-pronounced ... Like the boarding school, this short, piercing book maintains an illusion of order, of control. In reality, madness reigns.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[an] inventive and hilarious debut novel ... Mr. Wilson\'s depictions of the blithely cannibalistic nature of the movie industry are worthy of Bruce Wagner, the modern master of Hollywood satire ... Even grown up, Buster and Annie find it hard to shake the fear that they have no reality other than as performance pieces.But the two are artists themselves, an actress and a writer. As The Family Fang unfolds a cunning and comic final act, they bravely subsume themselves in their callings, finding a means to recover their identities. This is complex psychological ground, and the 32-year-old Mr. Wilson navigates it with a calm experience that his tender age shouldn\'t allow.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... is in many ways a soothingly traditional production ... The complicated family unit [the protagonist] ultimately forms is very much like this rewarding novel: something that may appear basic and old-fashioned but is in reality built on uncharted ground.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Rowland takes a businesslike attitude toward the novel’s plot, introducing his cast of characters and digging into to their respective problems like a worker carving out a posthole. Awesome natural beauty is a staple of Montana fiction, but Cold Country has little time for reveries of that sort. Much of the action is set during the \'dull season\' of winter, when \'every speck of color drains from its home and soaks into the soil.\' Mr. Rowland means to put paid to any idealization of the West you might still be clinging to ... the [last] scene has the quality of one of Agatha Christie’s country-house mysteries. But this is Montana, so there’s no genteel detective to finger the culprit. Instead, there’s a massive brawl and the truth is beaten free.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... a work of reclamation in a number of ways. For one thing, the story, which dramatizes the invasion and the tenacious Ethiopian resistance, shines a light on a conflict that has often been forgotten behind the battles of the world war that followed it. Ms. Mengiste furthermore centers on the Ethiopian women who played a vital but almost completely unrecognized role in the insurgency. But most important, The Shadow King is not a story about helpless victims of colonial conquest. Against the odds, it is written in a key of pride and exaltation, and its characters have the outsize form of national heroes ... Ms. Mengiste ambitiously stretches her canvas to include colliding perspectives ... The battle scenes—the best passages in this busy, stirring novel—also have a strongly visual, even cinematic, flair.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIn the pre-modern idyll fashioned by Mr. Williams, beauty stands out a little more sharply, and feelings are experienced with more directness and intensity ... A meandering, often delightful, rural rhapsody, This Is Happiness recalls only what was sublime about the simple life in Faha. The people are phlegmatic, God-fearing, and generous to the point of martyrdom. There is no small amount of blarney in this. I laughed out loud at Noel’s astonishing claim that \'there was little culture of complaint\' during that era, as though glorious grumblers like Sean O’Casey and Patrick Kavanagh had never put pen to paper.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Evans\'s strong voice seems to be doing battle with constricting workshop rites and formulas ... The characters tend to be stuck in an unhappy emotional standstill—\'waiting to be a different person,\' as one puts it. The stories have little action, and their central metaphors are lit up in neon ... What\'s distinctive about Ms. Evans\'s voice is most apparent in her best story, \'The King of a Vast Empire,\' which takes on severe familial dysfunction in a dry, funny way ... Now that Ms. Evans has gotten the requisite stories about minor-key, quarterlife dejection out of the way, she can move on to the hard work of developing the individual style she clearly possesses.
Hiroko Oyamada, Trans. by David Boyd
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Oyamada toys with some interesting narrative effects ... captures the woozy, disassociated feeling of plugging along in a pointless office routine. In this case, though, you’re paying for the experience, not vice versa.
Juan Jose Millas, Trans. by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] brief, elusive novel ... What I love about this book, in its low-key translation from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, is the way that the story, which begins as entertaining slapstick, subtly metamorphoses into fable ... Damián becomes a living ghost—\'closer to being a thought than a flesh-and-blood human being\'—and as his vivid imaginary world fuses with reality this deceptively ethereal novel advances toward a dark and startling finale.
Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, Trans. by Frank Wynne
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Del Amo concentrates on the brute physical aspects of life on the farm, describing with stomach-turning flamboyance the slimy, spurting realities of breeding, birthing, castration and culling ... Animalia is not only a showpiece for obscure anatomical diction, it is also a broadside against the horrors of animal farming. But as a polemic the novel is incoherent, as it can’t decide whether humans make themselves beast-like by their vile treatment of animals or whether they are, like animals, simply vile in their very nature ... The relish with which Mr. Del Amo displays his repugnance at decay and all other bodily processes makes for a weird mixture of shock effect and prudishness.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Miller strikes an impressive balance between adventure and atmosphere. As in a good thriller, madness bubbles beneath the surface of the scenes, especially those involving Calley, whose version of the massacre grows less reliable as his monomania for finding Lacroix intensifies ... But while the threat of violence keeps the story’s wheels in motion, its greatest pleasures owe to its unhurried, ambulatory pacing. Mr. Miller takes his time describing the parallel journeys to the Scottish wilderness, and as he fills the chapters with rich, scenic details he disperses the fog of secrecy obscuring past events ... Freedom arrives in this lush and satisfying novel not by way of escape but from a final confrontation with the truth.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalCanonicity is very much at issue in The Testaments ... while many details sync with the TV show’s unfolding storyline, others appear to purposely diverge from what devoted viewers have been led to expect...Suffice it to say that certain nuances of The Testaments will be missed by those who have merely read The Handmaid’s Tale. All sequels presuppose a certain degree of background knowledge, but this is the first time you need a subscription to Hulu ... We are here dealing with something categorically different from a literary sequel. More accurately, The Testaments is a new installment in a multimedia franchise ... What if you were to read it without boning up on episode recaps? You’d find an engaging if largely insubstantial page turner ... The most disappointing effect of this streamlining is the way it flattens the writing ... it is in the subtle warping and twisting of values we share as our own that The Testaments is at its best ... a work of explanation ... Ms. Atwood has written one for the fans.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Strout steers us away from the feel-good finish line of compassion and toward the stony terrain of objective truth ... It’s worth noting that while newcomers can still enjoy this book, Ms. Strout’s constant readers will get the most out of it ... Olive is a brilliant creation not only because of her eternal cantankerousness but because she’s as brutally candid with herself about her shortcomings as she is with others. Her honesty makes people strangely willing to confide in her, and the raw power of Ms. Strout’s writing comes from these unvarnished exchanges, in which characters reveal themselves in all of their sadness and badness and confusion ... The great, terrible mess of living is spilled out across the pages of this moving book. Ms. Strout may not have any answers for it, but she isn’t afraid of it either.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalErasure is more than a decade old, but the depiction of Oprah Winfrey as a clucking, mugging Aunt Mammy still seems breathtakingly illicit—and even extend to the masterpieces of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Monk, who rejects racial distinctions, is portrayed as the contemporary invisible man, black in the eyes of the white world, not \'black enough\' in the black world ... Mr. Everett of course knows that trying to deny racial classification is hopeless; his awareness charges Erasure with both quixotic idealism and mordant resignation.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a witty, tonic rebuttal to the latest round of doomsday prognostications about the fate of literature ... it’s hard to disagree with Ms. Price’s tacit argument that the book community would be a healthier place if its gatekeepers were a little less precious about what happens there.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... bristling ... fast and focused and it inhabits Maryam’s point of view with unapologetic authority ... unflinching in her depictions of rape, though the dispatch and descriptive restraint of these scenes prevent them from seeming gratuitous. Maryam relives her story with a kind of numbed impartiality, as though recalling something from a great distance. Yet a striking effect of syntax belies her stoicism. Her narrative switches continuously between the past and the present tense, emphasizing the way her memories flood into the moment of their telling, as though they were happening all over again. You could call this compression of past and present the omnipresent tense, and it’s an ingenious way of evoking the feeling of recurrence suffered by trauma victims ... Still, stylistic virtuosity has a price, and in Girl it’s the sense of disconnection between Maryam and the novel’s poeticized language ... The formal elegance of this writing, with its alliteration and elevated diction, comes from the author rather than the character, and the sheen of artificiality may stop readers from fully releasing themselves to the dark spell of the tale.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Coates smoothly melds the characteristics of comic-book fantasy with his period setting. The writing is fluent and appealing and the dialogue moves effortlessly into elevated pronouncements ... Often when public intellectuals turn to fiction, their storytelling tends to be just another means of working out arguments and ideas: Its allegorical trappings make it seem artificial. In The Water Dancer this problem is most apparent in the conceit of Conduction, which Mr. Coats is torn between treating as an actual superpower that motors the plot and as a metaphor for the process of emancipation ... eloquent but vague. (If the power is activated by memories and stories, why would only select people possess it?) Conduction is tirelessly analyzed but only rarely carried out—which is to say, there’s a lot of talk in this novel, but not enough tale.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalSocial dominance, and the violent means used to maintain it, unites the various storylines in The Warlow Experiment. In the novel’s hectic conclusion Ms. Nathan stages a series of moral awakenings and comeuppances that overturn the expected order of things. These feel forced and not terribly convincing. But Warlow’s plight itself is indelible, both pungent and horrifying in its details and profound as a metaphor—a symbol of upper-class barbarity stashed away in the cellar like a telltale heart beating beneath the floorboards.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalHow can novelists address climate change without turning their books into seminars? Mr. Ghosh’s neat trick is to fold the subject into a juicy (if somewhat breathless) academic mystery of the sort popularized by Umberto Eco. The difference is that Deen’s discoveries don’t expose some all-explanatory conspiracy but rather a deeper sense of uncertainty and disorder. The more puzzle pieces he fits together, the more chaos he reveals—which makes for an accurate depiction of the world as we know it.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... marvelous ... wonderfully embellishes the world through which Satie wandered like some kind of marooned alien visitor ... Bohemian Paris is the setting of a lot of romantic kitsch, but not here. The art is real but so is the squalor, and usually, Ms. Horrocks suggests, the latter defeats the former ... It’s the family and friends who give breadth and dimension to this novel...Their stories ground The Vexations in the realm of ordinary mortal travail.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThis is pretty cheeseball stuff, but the real food for thought in The Warehouse is in the story of Cloud’s ascent, which is achieved less through force than by exploiting recognizable fears of climate change and gun violence ... Cloud has eliminated mass shootings, reversed global warming, created record-low unemployment rates and made shopping faster and easier than ever. Are we certain that the average person wouldn’t willingly trade his freedoms for all of that?
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a posthumous collection of regional sketches that remind us of our coequal status in the animal kingdom ... The brief essays in Seasons were written to be read for local radio and they’re buoyed by a wonderful conversational ease and puckish sense of humor.
James Alan McPherson
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... unsparing, caustically funny ... Not everything in Hue and Cry has escaped the ravages of time. The portrayals of hipster counterculture seem dated, as do the caricatured renderings of homosexuals. What continues to impress is the moody, bluesy feeling of loneliness, and the connected yearning to belong.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... disputation is the soundtrack to this delightfully raucous debut novel ... Ms. Ffitch’s superb comic novel evolves as well, touchingly depicting the tangled and tenacious family bonds that develop in wild places.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... quietly wonderful ... Like her unforgettable main character, Ms. Savage addresses these moral dilemmas with no judgment whatsoever, but rather a kind of awe at her own temerity in even thinking about them ... will likely make you cry, as well, but this is a rare novel in which such responses feel clean and ennobling, free from manipulation. It is a book written for the better angels of our nature.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... [a] bonkers business satire ... The novel is pure in its cynicism, in that it doesn’t offer a single sympathetic character to throw these soulless buffoons into relief. (In this it reminded me of Helen DeWitt’s savage office farce Lightning Rods from 2011.) The nauseating extra irony is that, for all its noise and passion, the battle between Wharton and Fink signifies nothing, since the corporate world is protected in such a way that even its so-called losers don’t actually lose anything beyond a modicum of prestige.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Russo is off and running, effortlessly shifting between past and present as he furnishes the details of the men’s lives. Regular readers of the author will encounter some very familiar pleasures, whether it’s his portrayal of the jokey, spiky back-and-forth of longstanding friendship or the appearance of colorful side characters ... But while Mr. Russo has never been averse to Dickensian melodrama, he’s added more schmaltz than usual to Chances Are . . . Indeed, the nostalgia reaches threat level orange. More troublesome is the somewhat half-hearted grab at topicality in his reliance on a missing girl, the single most overused gimmick in fiction today. The homiletic conversations about violence against women amplify the awkward absence of women’s perspectives. Mr. Russo is often sure-handed with current events...but this time you get the sense that he hasn’t caught up with the news cycle.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a striking mixture of allegory and paranormal horror ... The eerie drama that unfolds seems to symbolize the deranging doubleness of motherhood—its simultaneous states of love and exasperation, and of joy and the fear of \'the abyss, the potential injury flickering within.\' The duality also has a physical component. Ms. Phillips is particularly good as portraying Molly’s feeling of estrangement within her postpartum body, which produces milk and floods with hormones as though inhabited by an alien life force ... Ms. Phillips is not always in control of the supernatural elements of her story. Some of the scenes seem creepy for the sake of creepiness, and the ending is oracular rather than climactic. Still, considering its truly bizarre premise, impressive amounts of The Need feel real and true.
Natalia Ginzberg, Trans. by Frances Frenaye
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... cold-blooded ... At one point Ginzburg describes their baby as having \'a faraway, bitter look, unreproaching but at the same time pitiless, as though she had nothing more to ask.\' The author’s gaze is similarly chilling. Though a marvel of focus and compression, The Dry Heart pushes the outer limits of how much despair readers will be willing to open themselves up to.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe novel’s chapters, each recounting a brief dalliance, provide a tantalizingly incomplete mosaic of this elusive Casanova, from his lusty school days to his sad final years seducing housewives ... He’s the Don Draper of Japanese fiction, the sort of person everyone knows without ever really knowing ... The Freudian explanation is anticlimactic, not least because it rings false—people are greater than the sum of their childhood traumas, after all. As with Nishino himself, it’s mystery that makes Ms. Kawakami’s book so enticing.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... moving ... The refined, melancholic mood of their story extends to Roya’s feelings about the Iran she left behind, which vanishes completely as the Shah’s authoritarian government gives way to an even more despotic clerical rule after the 1979 revolution.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"In ungulate fashion, Inland too unfolds like a dream ... despite Ms. Obreht’s inspired mimicry of the conventions of the Western, one never senses that Inland belongs to that genre, any more than The Tiger’s Wife was a novel about war in the Balkans. The true setting of both books is a smoky borderland between East and West, reality and fantasy, the living and the dead, textbook history and fairy tales. Ms. Obreht has the extraordinary ability to make a seamless whole from these fused parts, creating a fully immersive imaginary world governed by its own logic and oriented around its own truths ... Inland is a continuation rather than a departure, so it shares certain weaknesses with The Tiger’s Wife. The bedtime-story elements can become twee and caricatured...And the novel feels sanitized ... Yet that effect is so beguiling that when you’re under its spell the objections seem beside the point ... Inland is a place of killers, camels, families and phantoms. Reading it, you may feel as Lurie does: \'I had somehow wanted my way into a marvel that had never before befallen this world.\' ”
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...stark and absorbing ... At first the flat, impersonal nature of the writing muffles the volatile emotions. There are scathingly funny scenes about the bewilderment and boredom of jury sequestration ... This is a smart, compact, refreshingly unsentimental exploration of the persistence of desire amid the fact of death.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... wonderfully entertaining ... Ms. Stibbe’s brand of humor is refreshingly sweet and light-fingered even when events turn tragic, though it’s also steeped in its time and place, so some of the jokes will be lost on non-British readers who haven’t heard of Kevin Keegan or Sue Arnold. No familiarity with Lizzie’s previous adventures is required to enjoy Reasons to Be Cheerful, however. As an entry point into Ms. Stibbe’s growing epic of idiosyncratic provincial youth—her Vogeliad—it works just fine.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThere are few surprises in Lauren Mechling’s How Could She...but that doesn’t detract from the novel’s wit and spritzy entertainment ... In the lineage of Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City and, well before that, Edith Wharton’s novels of New York status-striving, How Could She is enjoyably rich in taxonomic details about fashion, real estate and men. Ms. Mechling is fluent in the milieu of East Coast corporate media without being unduly impressed by it, and a light-fingered sense of satire accompanies her set-piece business lunches and dinner parties where jealous psychodramas ... The ever-shifting media landscape is a fitting backdrop for Ms. Mechling’s trenchant look at the subjective nature of status envy.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe meetings [in the novel among government officials] capture some of the tawdry excitement of the fly-on-the-wall reportage of Bob Woodward or Michael Wolff ... Mr. Wheelan’s big dramatic misstep is his decision to call the characters by their job titles, leading to needlessly confusing interactions between indistinguishable Secretaries and Directors and Acting Secretaries. But the point is to stress the egoless professionalism of this would-be administration ... This is, in the end, a hopeful future in which the White House is once again occupied by responsible adults capable of making tough decisions for the good of the nation.
Natalia Ginzburg, Trans. by Minna Proctor
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... Ginzburg had mastered her method and was complementing the sharp, glittering edifice of her prose with buried seams of humor and pathos ... Letters proved to be an ideal medium for Ginzburg, a flexible, associative form that can shift from brutal frankness to longing in a matter of sentences, and which are symptomatic both of isolation and tenuous connection.
Robert Menasse, Trans. by Jamie Bulloch
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... [a] stinging office satire ... the jumbled, cacophonous narrative of The Capital is made up mostly of arguments ... despite Mr. Menasse’s pessimism—you close the book convinced that the only thing keeping the EU alive is the same inertia that dooms it—The Capital isn’t a polemic. An extended scene in a Belgian cemetery quietly invokes the countless lives lost to European wars. And even the most cynical characters have glimmerings of the \'interrelationships, entanglements and connections\' that bind the continent. \'Something cannot fall apart without there having been connections,\' Mr. Menasse notes, and it’s in tracing the deterioration of a very real fellowship that The Capital comes to resemble a tragedy after all.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... an indefinable mixture of counterfactual history and surrealist dreamscape ... It’s amusing to imagine this motley assortment bickering at the dinner table, but the glimpses we have of them are brief and undeveloped. Ms. Maum is so reliant on the reader’s ability to figure out their historical models that it’s not quite clear what she’s gained by giving them made-up names ... The exception is the novel’s narrator, Lara ... Movingly, Lara communicates her loneliness in frank and naive paintings that are never good enough to hold her mother’s attention ... For all the strangeness of Costalegre, its core is solid and affecting: A teenage girl who wants her mother to notice her.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalDual Citizens is a slow, unshowy novel with little in the way of tension. It creeps along at such a benign, caterpillar pace that I expected some kind of dramatic metamorphosis for the sisters, but though the ending enacts a touching reconciliation it only lightly disturbs the overall atmosphere of quiet resignation. This is largely due to Ms. Ohlin’s decision to couch the novel in Lark’s perspective, allowing only an obstructed view of her far more compelling sister.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalSuch folderol culminates in a terrible crime, which doesn’t shock so much as perplex. Is The Paper Wasp an exploration of the poisonous effects of vanity and envy, or is it simply the testimony of a lunatic? The book confounded me. When you consider how linear and predictable most novels are, that is, I suppose, a virtue of a sort.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalDespite these glimpses of the macabre, the future outlined in Oval focuses on the drudgery of corporate serfdom ... Ultimately Oval describes a neoliberal zombie-world in which everything, from creativity to ethics, has become privatized. But the true scope of these changes is revealed only slowly ... Oval is a chore to read because its scenes are so pointedly trivial. The soulless banality connects Ms. Wilk’s future with her critique of the present.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... the novel, though playful on the surface, is rich in the sorts of ideas one could turn over and debate into the small hours. A fantasia about artificial intelligence, it also fruitfully toys with concepts as varied as artistic creation, gender reassignment and the future of sex. This is a book whose mismatched parts—subtle historical drama and philosophical allegory; bawdy humor and profound moral inquiries—somehow combine to form a powerful, living whole ... Ms. Winterson masterfully captures the damp, claustrophobic, sexually charged and slightly hostile atmosphere of the holiday, and the pressurizing impulses of ambition, arousal and grief (Shelley had already lost one child) that brought about her landmark work ... a book that manages to be as heady as it is hot-blooded.
Adam Ehrlich Sachs
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a delightful perversion of history ... After the zingers of Inherited Disorders, the novel reads like an elaborate shaggy dog joke. But the punch line is a good one, if you can hold out for it.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Cobbs is a capable chronicler of the operation ... Ultimately, the novel depicts a heroine as willing to out-argue a room of grizzled white officers as to sail into battle at the bow of a gunship. For reasons unknown, the U.S. Treasury appears to have shelved plans to put Tubman on the $20 bill. For those responsible for the decision, this book ought to be assigned reading.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Whitehead’s story is fictional in its particulars, but it hews strictly to realism. The author has, for the moment, put away his bag of tricks to stand alone with this grisly chunk of American history ... Without the usual bells and whistles, one better appreciates how good Mr. Whitehead has gotten at the fundamental elements of fiction. The dialogue, the efficient character sketches and the unobtrusive but always-advancing plot are evidence of mature ability. The Nickel Academy may be a \'Perpetual Misery Machine,\' as Elwood thinks of it, but the writing voice that depicts it is spry and animated and seamed with dark humor, true to the irrepressible curiosity of its teenage protagonists. A friendship emerges between Elwood and a streetwise Nickel veteran named Jack Turner that is both natural in its development and shrewdly representative of the different ways in which boys respond to the school’s horrors ... Their arguments and shared affection culminate in a dazzling final twist that Mr. Whitehead stages with such casual skill that one only begins to unpack its meanings well after the book has ended ... The excellence of The Nickel Boys carries an added feeling of hope, because it’s evidence of a gradual, old-fashioned artistic progression that fewer and fewer writers are allowed the time to pursue ... the control and craft of The Nickel Boys demonstrate the versatile gifts of a writer who is rounding into mastery. The impression left is that Mr. Whitehead can succeed at any kind of book he takes on. He has made himself one of the finest novelists in America.
Fernando A. Flores
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... while Tears of the Trufflepig details a scabrous alternate version of the border region, it eventually inhabits a strange, dreamlike landscape of mystical encounters and psychedelic visions. The hallucinatory ending is right out of Pynchon and will leave readers of this breakout work thrilled and disoriented in equal measure.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalUnreliable nostalgia, a fear of new arrivals—a chronicler of our contemporary moment could find much the same attitudes without crossing the street, much less crossing the globe. Thus the fascinating paradox of Ms. Phillips’s novel, which is set in one of the most remote and mysterious places on the planet, but whose concerns are instantly, and disturbingly, recognizable ... [The] stand-alone dramas are so engrossing that you wonder if the kidnapped girls are going to be forgotten...but Ms. Phillips returns to their fate, tying together subtly dropped clues to arrive at an immensely moving resolution.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe hurdles of bureaucracy ought to be a lethally boring source for dramatic conflict, yet the most exciting passages of The Flight Portfolio concern Fry’s tireless and often inventive methods for helping his growing clientele ... \'How much did the will of a single person count for?\' Fry wonders in exhaustion near the book’s end, but by this point Ms. Orringer’s passionate and thoroughgoing tribute has reminded readers that in some instances it counts for a great deal indeed ... The account of Fry’s mission is drawn closely from history, but alongside it Ms. Orringer has attached an entirely imagined love story ... Ethically, I think, this is somewhat murky. Fry wrote several autobiographical books and never discussed his sexuality ... The bigger trouble is that the graft of Fry’s love life onto his war work fails to take ... the implied correlation between Fry’s sexuality and his heroism is reductive, as though he were an uplifting case study rather than a fully dimensional human being. The sense of artificiality dogs the writing, which veers between unconvincing romantic raptures...and operatic clichés ... Ms. Orringer’s hero is a poetry-quoting gay pioneer whose private persecution awakened him to the plight of Jews and refugees under Nazi rule: A different kind of hagiography, to be sure, but hagiography nonetheless.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe worry from the start of Chip Cheek’s debut Cape May is that the story is going to be an exercise in hindsight moralizing ... But a few things help Mr. Cheek dodge the shoals of cliché. First is his beguiling, undemonstrative writing style. The parties are raucous affairs but Mr. Cheek portrays them from a calm remove ... He wields the same observational control over the sex scenes, which are plentiful and, against the odds, extremely well done. It’s the spell of sexual desire rather than the era’s social mores that interests Mr. Cheek ... A dozy, luxurious sense of enchantment comes over the story ... Cape May does something better than critique or satirize: It seduces.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMob rule is Mr. McGuinness’s quarry here, both in the ensuing tabloid hysteria that makes a monster of Wolphram before any evidence has been brought against him and in Ander’s flashbacks to the dog-eat-dog world of boarding school. This is a crime novel with a philosophical bent. The seamy, corrupted atmosphere of present-day London is reminiscent of James Ellroy’s Los Angeles. But the detective procedural is anticlimactic, since Wolphram’s innocence is obvious from the start.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Alcott is an impressionistic stylist capable of lovely, luminous effects on the brushstroke-level of the sentence ... The book’s chapters are short and evanescent, inspired sketches rather than developed scenes. The vagueness of the aesthetic fits incongruously with a decade-spanning historical chronicle, and particularly with subjects like the Vietnam protest movement and, later on, the AIDS epidemic. Such writing seems well suited to fantasy, and because nothing is more like a fairy tale than space travel, it makes sense that Ms. Alcott is at her best in zero gravity.
Lina Wolff, Trans. by Saskia Vogel
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Houellebecq’s books diagnose the soullessness of contemporary liberal democracies, where people futilely seek meaning for their lives in pornographic sex. The Polyglot Lovers shifts the focus from Mr. Houellebecq’s destructive men to the women who are both victims of and accomplices to the cycle of narcissism. In Ms. Wolff’s telling, intellectuals—the writers and theorists who wax poetically about falling in love—are the worst of the abusers.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAs a stylist, Mr. Parini is decidedly Luke-like, stressing clarity and directness. This may explain his fascination with passionate, impulsive figures like Paul (he has also written novels about Herman Melville and the final, fanatical days in the life of Leo Tolstoy), but it hampers his attempts to channel the apostle’s voice. These chapters can seem staid in relation to the wonders they unfold ... Such wonders are formidable nevertheless, and The Damascus Road will serve as an appealing introduction for readers who know little of these figures beyond the scripture they left. Well-wrought scenes describe Paul’s debates with other pillars of the Church, like St. Peter and Jesus’ brother James, and there is an undeniable thrill in picturing these men making up rules on the fly that will not only define Christianity but shape the world as we know it today.
Olga Tokarczuk, Trans. by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...while it adopts the straightforward structure of a murder mystery, its macabre humor and morbid philosophical interludes are distinctive to its author ... Until the excellent payoff at the finale it’s hard to decide whether she’s a kook or a prophet. As for Ms. Tokarczuk, there’s no doubt: She’s a gifted, original writer, and the appearance of her novels in English is a welcome development.
Sergei Lebedev Trans. by Antonina W. Bouis
RaveThe Wall Street JournalAntonina W. Bouis has once again delivered a translation of determined, adamantine beauty. To my mind, the most exciting prose works being translated from Russian today concern reckonings with the past: These include Svetlana Alexievich’s oral histories, Mikhail Shishkin’s time-traveling experimental fictions and, completing the troika, Mr. Lebedev’s tenacious, powerfully imagined adventures in the archives.
Valeria Luiselli, Trans. by Christina MacSweeney
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...lovely and mysterious ... Ms. Luiselli shuffles among the events in a staccato succession of short passages. These storylines are not simply alternating, but, the author implies, unfolding simultaneously in an uncanny correspondence ... The effect of the legerdemain is to present time as a kind of accordion, capable of being stretched apart and then folded back into single moments—which is what seems to occur in the book\'s phantasmagorical coda. If Ms. Luiselli\'s interest in the novelistic ambiguities of reality and temporality is not original—she is in debt to the great South American artificers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar—the multilayered book she has devised brings freshness and excitement to such complex inquiries.
Yannick Haenel Trans. by Teresa Fagan
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"... unique, ecstatic ... Mr. Haenel is French and therefore a romantic. Against all odds, he gives his hero a happy ending.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... propulsive ... Mr. Wilkins charts that course with skill and concision, if perhaps an over-reliance on coincidences. And though he too stresses the persistence of kindness and community, the enduring depiction in Fall Back Down When I Die is of a small-scale civil war pitting towns, neighbors, childhood friends and family members against one another.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"The shimmer of illusion has a dissolving effect on the otherwise quotidian world Ms. Freudenberger evokes, and the story stands poised between the known and the provable and theoretical alternate realities. It’s a tough balance to sustain over the course of this slow-moving novel, and as Lost and Wanted advances its sense of mystery retreats. The scenes that keep their freshness, however, involve children, both Simmi and Helen’s young son Jack. Kids are usually patronized in works of fiction, made either adorably naive or preternaturally wise. But in this book they’re on equal footing with the adults, who have no clearer understanding of what awaits us after death than they do. Lost and Wanted is smart about the ways that parents try to explain mortality to children, but it’s also insightful about the ways that children try to illuminate it for them.\
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... offers readers a word of caution on fiction about accusations of sexual assault, this novel’s fraught subject. Because the writer has to decide which character is telling the truth, he gives the appearance of choosing a side in a broader public debate and his story is reduced to \'polemic or propaganda.\' The lofty literary ideal of negative capability is impossible to achieve. Or is it? This is the question Mr. Lasdun unravels in his slippery, provoking and very timely new book ... Something fascinating and disturbing takes place: The book’s villain is neither the accused nor the accuser but the ostensibly impartial onlooker spinning a painful and private event into a morality play. In our moment of rampant #MeToo voyeurism, this sleight of hand works to devastating effect. The term #MeToo was coined to suggest solidarity but in Mr. Lasdun’s unsettling book it speaks to something else: collective guilt.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Ms. Beattie captures the exhilarating feeling of being young and gifted and specially selected for stardom, but the bulk of her novel is about the long anticlimax that is real life ... This is Ms. Beattie’s first novel since 2002, but readers of her short stories will be fully at home with its discursive style ... the scenes in A Wonderful Stroke of Luck are punctuated by freak accidents and amusing non sequiturs ... There’s humor throughout this novel, but you can’t always tell whether you’re laughing at Ben or with him.\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe pieces are in place for an effective if generic thriller with a side of social critique. But again, the quality of the prose carries the book beyond conventions, as Mr. Foulds is able to conjure, with the unsettling immediacy of a person breathing against your neck, both Henry’s and Kristin’s private fixations and fantasies ... That Kristin succumbs to the dream makes her earnest madness sympathetic and excruciating.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"Rage simmers throughout Ms. Lalami’s novel, though it’s mostly kept under the surface ... stylistically, the emotional uniformity is a weakness. The same precise, introspective sensibility informs all the first-person voices, even in the curious chapters narrated by Driss, apparently from the grave. A mutual sadness drapes the book like a shroud. The story is remarkably calm and subdued given the emotions it confronts. I wished that, once or twice, it had been allowed to snap.\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"... ambitious ... This is a founding epic ... [The book explores] heavy subjects, but Ms. Serpell’s approach is jocular and mischievous, with an eye for the absurd ... The florid prose, which ranges from parodies of Victorian memoirs to the music of contemporary street slang, adds to an ironic effect that sometimes borders on glibness ... Irony is generally not a strong enough posture to sustain the weight of an epic, and stretches of this long book wander along with little discernible purpose. This is frustrating but likely intentional, as it captures the arbitrary, chaotic nature of the country it celebrates...\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"... Ms. Hustvedt’s novel is both a tender elegy and an extended boast about all the cool places she used to frequent before the city became rich and boring ... Ms. Hustvedt’s earnest novel depends a bit too much on shared nostalgia—if you’re not already in love with late-70s New York, the book is unlikely to convert you—but it does get the narrator’s strange relationship with Lucy just right: In a city so crowded, a person can change your life before you’ve even met her.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"... tender and perceptive ... better still is Mr. Butler’s sensitive exploration into the condition of being old, which demands a radical change in the way one loves ... Little Faith is [Butler\'s] best so far, unafraid of sentiment yet free of the kitsch that colored his earlier depictions of the region
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Like Mr. Franzen, Mr. Ridker has a weakness for pop psychology and his characters can come across as one-dimensional manifestations of personality disorders ... The good news is that, unlike its characters, The Altruists has a sense of humor. Mr. Ridker has a gift for comic asides ... For all of the psychoanalysis, Mr. Ridker doesn’t worry too much about affirming resolutions. The fun is in the dysfunction.\
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"The book’s confined setting and its tight timeframe combine to superb dramatic effect—indeed, Women Talking could be adapted without much difficulty into a first-rate play. Ms. Toews condenses a unstable array of emotions into the meetings, from bickering and lamentation to riotous laughter and the uplift of communal prayer. Movingly, the women are preoccupied with saving their religious faith in spite of the abuses it has given cover to ... The characters of this outstanding book don’t have the luxury to feel victimized. They have a decision to make, and the rest of their lives to take control of.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt’s not altogether clear what to make of this kind of revisionism. What are the ethics of leveling shocking fictionalized allegations against real historical figures? Is the accusation something Ms. Gornick unearthed in her research (she lists her sources at the end of the book) or is it pure invention? The fact that the reader cannot tell seems like a violation of the historical novelist’s contract with the past. The novel is on firmer ground when it relates the lives of women who have tended to go overlooked by biographers ... The Peacock Feast dwells on suffering and trauma but it’s at its best in the key of celebration.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"True to form, Ms. Lipman blends a pair of highly appealing love stories into this farrago. The author has long been one of our wittiest chroniclers of modern-day romance ... the most touching subplot in Good Riddance follows Daphne’s widowed father’s intrepid attempts to rejoin the dating scene ... Ms. Lipman’s writing is brisk and intelligent, and if the plot of this novel is zanier than her usual fare, that too may show just how plugged-in she is to our farfetched times.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Wright’s imagined history of the rise and fall of the sugary drink empire is so robust and recognizable that you might feel nostalgic for the taste of a soda you’ve never had ... Mr. Wright loads his account with feuds, shifting alliances and skeletons in the closet ... The dizzying structure places the emphasis on spectacular incidents rather than sustained drama, so, perhaps fittingly, the short chapters go down like snack food.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"... [an] expert collection ... Mr. Means’s pared-back stories attempt to distill memory to its essence so that it recaptures the sensation of immediacy. The best scenes possess a high-definition exactitude that makes them seem like flash photographs of the soul.\
Maria Gainza, trans. by Thomas Bunstead
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"... roving, impassioned ... If only Ms. Gainza’s personal recollections were as charismatic [as her descriptions]! Even in Thomas Bunstead’s nimble translation from the Spanish, these passages seem thin and unrealized, their significance far too private in nature to communicate much to the reader. Optic Nerve is being called a novel, if only because that label is affixed to just about anything these days (autobiography, history, TV shows, espresso drinks). But if you approach it expecting it to resolve into an organic whole you’ll be disappointed. It’s wiser to treat the chapters like stand-alone essays, each one enlivened by the delightful variety and idiosyncrasy of artistic obsession.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"It’s a wonderfully nimble performance, the author’s best book since his heralded debut ... Mr. Englander is particularly astute in his exploration of the vital inconveniences that religious observance vouchsafe in a world in which all technological progress conspires to make experience more passive and remote. Is there a future for ancient rituals if an app can take care of them for us? kaddish.com smuggles profound moral questions under the dress of its light and diverting story.\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"Revising a writer as great as Le Guin is dangerous business and The Heavens suffers in comparison, especially in its philosophical underpinnings. Ms. Newman wants to say something about how individual aspirations are antagonistic to the collective good, but the point feels forced and by the end the novel has become ensnared in the web of its gimmick, preoccupied with murky explanations of how the dream worlds work (something to do with subatomic particles) ... Ms. Newman sensitively captures the heartbreak and confusion that follows from Kate’s seeming mental illness. There are complexities enough in this timeframe to make you wish the novel stayed in it.\
H. M. Naqvi
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"... delirious love letter to the Karachi that was ... Behind these slapstick dramas, Mr. Naqvi colors in a vibrant portrait of the sprawling port city. Abdullah’s account, larded with footnotes and digressions, dilates on such subjects as history, horticulture, architecture, poetry, music and \'culinary anthropology ... Continuing in the tradition of cultural largess, Mr. Naqvi includes a recipe for a first-rate chicken karahi—a dish best served with a glass of Rooh Afza and, if you’re Abdullah, a chaser of insulin.\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"There is something of the creepy campfire tale to this book ... Mr. Lee’s book loses some of its latent horror by being stretched into a novel, even a short one. Yet there are moments—sudden ghostly noises and involuntary spasms—that make us see the well-mown suburbs as James does, a \'brittle veneer on reality, one that might fracture or shatter entirely at any time.\'\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"The thematic layering of absences and silences, and the real and invented meta-texts sown throughout the narrative, make this a highly conceptual novel. Ms. Luiselli has a wonderful mind, and there are pleasures in watching her slowly unfold her ideas to reveal hidden resonances ... But her bookish approach fits uncomfortably with the immigration crisis, turning the subject of missing and separated children into a literary device ... The personal becomes a means by which to understand the political. In truth, the gambit doesn’t entirely work. Though the children bring the story a much-needed burst of vitality, they labor under their metaphoric burden ... This is a searching, cerebral, nobly intentioned novel that never manages to move from the abstract into the real.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"... elegant and restrained ... The generational amnesia gives the novel its mood of melancholy. The characters are like isolated islands, marooned in their moment of time, incapable of seeing past the horizon behind or in front of them. Mr. Sudbanthad’s serene, almost otherworldy omniscience makes his fictional biography of the city an original and quietly memorable reading experience.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Vijay makes shrewd use of parallels and asymmetries in these mirrored narratives ... the decision to fasten the novel to Shalini’s point of view seems like a missed opportunity. Ms. Vijay is an effortlessly assured prose writer. The book’s length led me to expect something slow and atmospheric, but to my surprise I snapped it up in two sittings. Yet that ease is partly due to the shortage of sustained friction. Like too many novels that take aim at living history, The Far Field begins in idleness and comfort, tentatively seeks out a meaningful encounter in a volatile corner of the globe, and then, at the first sign of genuine hardship, scampers back to the low-stakes safety of the First World. Shalini never quite seems like more than an interloper, a tourist. The Far Field goes some distance toward reminding readers of the realities of Kashmir, but not all the way.
Hubert Mingarelli, trans. Sam Taylor
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Mr. Mingarelli’s trademark writing style, in a typically solid translation from the French by Sam Taylor, is so rudimentary that it seems like no style at all, but a firsthand account unearthed from an archive. Four Soldiers is a sentimental book, lacking the cutting moral dimensions of the author’s amazing 2012 novel A Meal in Winter, about soldiers in the Wehrmacht. Still, its simplicity lends it grandeur. One thinks of Maxim Gorky, or even the early sketches of Tolstoy.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Sugar Run throttles along from mishap to mishap like a vehicle with a busted navigation system. The clip is fast and exciting, but it’s hard to figure out whether Jodi’s driving the story or is merely a passenger in it. Ms. Maren links her symbolically to the Georgia hills, depicted as both the defenseless victim of rapacious industrialists and, in the Southern Gothic tradition, a ghostly source of wickedness. The attributes of innocence and guilt cancel each other out, making Jodi something of a cipher. If time repeats itself then she—and the reader—seems doomed to rush ahead not knowing what she wants or why she’s doing what she does.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Looker is a sugarcoated poison pill of psychological terror, whose wit and fluency cover its lacerating diagnosis of the deranging effects of envy, perhaps the most widespread social sickness of our age. The novel disturbs because we are all, to some degree, susceptible to the bacillus of the narrator’s insanity. And her symptoms may be more recognizable than we care to admit.\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe fear produced by this fine-honed, piercing novel springs not from the superstitious customs of prehistory but from the more intimate horrors of human nature.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"[The plot] may sound like something of a forced march through the Stations of the Cross, but Mr. Obioma keeps a philosophical distance from the hardships through a striking narrative framework ... Originality is a rare commodity in fiction, and Mr. Obioma’s writing sounds like nobody else’s ... And it’s amid the sweat and cries of humankind that Mr. Obioma is best[.]\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"To me [the writing] goes down like treacle and quickly becomes indigestible ... Bowlaway is ersatz history, dressing up contemporary values and concerns in period costume. In its singsong quirkiness it reminded me of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! If you like those books and you’re a fan of the lanes, you may be the target audience.\
Khaled Khalifa Trans. by Leri Price
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Mr. Khalifa skillfully condenses the trip’s detours and delays into a breakneck narrative that seems unstoppably tilted toward tragedy ... The living have the wheel in this unforgettable book, but it’s the dead—and those doing everything in their power to join them—who give the directions.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Like some of its characters, the book is a shape-shifter, at times assuming the form of a classic fantasy epic and at others that of something ambiguous and bewildering, a fantastical creature that won’t stop moving long enough to submit to classification ... Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a treasury of stories shaped in the ancient oral tradition, a Decameron of spectacularly embellished African history and myth. That makes it somewhat erratic, of course. Mr. James is excellent at individualizing characters but less so with settings, and the cities through which Tracker passes can seem indistinguishably murky and savage. The plot feels slightly too dependent on improvised magical powers and the fight scenes verge on superhero silliness. But against the virtuoso storytelling, these are quibbles ... Open [this book] and you will have the tale, and then some.\
Yukio Mishima Trans. by Andrew Clare
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalA morose little gem from Mishima’s middle period, boasts its share of sensuous depravity ... These influences—romantic Sturm und Drang and formalized gestures and expressions from the stage—aren’t integrated so much as piled on top of each other, like a face gaudily layered in makeup. It’s a train wreck of styles, but because the book is about moral catastrophe the collision seems fitting.
Yukiko Motoya, trans. by Asa Yoneda
PositiveSam Sacks\"The stories are openly fantastical, inventing the sorts of feminist fairy tales that were popularized by Angela Carter and have been adapted with wit and ingenuity by writers like Han Kang and Carmen Maria Machado. Ms. Motoya’s writing falls on the quirky end of the spectrum. The voices, in Asa Yoneda’s translation, can be risibly naive ... The novella concludes with a final metamorphosis, one both strange and strangely hopeful.\
Miguel De Cervantes and Ilan Stavans
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIf you’ve ever wondered what Don Quixote would say if he saw Man of La Mancha on Broadway, this is the book for you ... Roberto Weil’s delightfully bonkers illustrations heighten the sense of instability; he has a habit of stretching speech bubbles across multiple panels, making a tangle of their chronology. The novel’s greatness, Mr. Stavans suggests, flows from the infinite readings and misreadings it inspires.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"... bleak and transporting ... What will likely divide opinion among readers is Ms. Harvey’s decision to tell the story in reverse chronological order, working backwards toward Newman’s death. The Western Wind contains the staple ingredients of traditional mysteries—a hidden will, illicit love affairs, an extremely unreliable narrator—but the trick changes the novel from a standard procedural to something more philosophical ... What the muddled timeline sacrifices in dramatic effect it gains in atmosphere. Ms. Harvey has summoned this remote world with writing of the highest quality, conjuring its pungencies and peculiarities ... The dialogue throughout is excellent, blessedly free of the \'thou\'s and \'thee\'s that often oppress novels set in the Middle Ages, yet still strange and uncanny, just slightly displaced from conversation as we experience it ... In this superb novel, time, like guilt, is a murky medium, at once advancing and circling back, and pulling humankind helplessly between its battling currents.\
PanThe Wall Street JournalHark...presents itself as a spoof of the wellness industry but in short order it becomes the kind of mopey family psychodrama you find on daytime TV ... Though the novel offers a few satirical feints...it’s mostly stuck in the morass of Fraz’s depression ... Raymond Chandler famously advised that when you run out of ideas writing a crime story, have a man come through the door holding a gun. For the writer of serious literary fiction, the analogous trick is to inflict a traumatic injury on a child. This is what Mr. Lipsyte does at the book’s midpoint, a plot twist so desperate and manipulative that it puts paid to any further prospect of laughter.
Dror Burstein, Trans. by Gabriel Levin
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Burstein, with translator Gabriel Levin, revisits this dark episode with an absurdist blending of ancient and contemporary details ... Ruination and farce go hand in hand—Judah’s king Jehoiakim dies by leaping into a giant bowl of hummus—in the kvetching style of Joseph Heller ... Mr. Burstein’s funny and unwieldy book dares you to disagree.
William H. Gass
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe collection conveys all the pleasures and accompanying frustrations of the Gass experience, a fitting memorial for a writer and theorist truly in the American grain ... Naturally, one can quibble with the selections for this omnibus. Gass was clearly proud of his essays on theory, but some of these, replete with charts and diagrams, are impenetrably wonkish. I would have plumped for an excerpt of \'On Being Blue\' (1975), a \'philosophical inquiry\' into the connotations of a color written with the searching, digressive quality of an extended jazz riff. And it’s a pity to ignore the bawdy, singular novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), an experiment in the visual effect of words on the page. The book is a banquet, nonetheless, and for all of Gass’s poses of curmudgeonliness and the darkness of his fixations, it’s a surprisingly joyous one. The central drama of Gass’s writing was his passionate struggle to release the beauty bound within words.
Giorgio Bassani, Trans. by Jamie McKendrick
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt is justice delayed but justice nevertheless served to have this attractive English-language edition of The Novel of Ferrara ... The narrator is a double agent, both a witness of a vanished era and, as Bassani put it, a \'historian of oneself\' ... the war years seemed to confirm Bassani in his sensibilities, which were shaped by the 19th-century realists, in particular Gustave Flaubert. An early moment in one story shows the descriptive exactitude of the narrator’s summoned memories ... Bassani’s worldview is tragic and melancholy, but it is also comfortingly orderly, steeled by the belief that precisely deployed language is still capable of capturing truth. His great theme was exclusion, a subject broad enough to allow him to move continuously between his books’ political and emotional landscapes ... the power of Bassani’s writing is such that, for a moment, his transitory world seems beautifully everlasting.
Mathias Enard, Trans. by Charlotte Mandell
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[Énard’s] beguiling, feather-light fantasy follows Michelangelo’s reluctant immersion into the wonders of the city, a far more sensuous place than the ascetic artist has known in Italy. Mr. Énard fits a thwarted love story and a murder into his tale but his deepest engagement is with the bridge ... In this charming little reverie of a book, inspiration springs from our unguarded confrontations with the unfamiliar.
Taeko Kōno, Trans. by Lucy North
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"[Kono\'s] stories are plainspoken, realistic and often pedestrian in their descriptions of day-to-day life, which make the sudden intrusions of violence and perversion both more startling and more transgressive ... Two currents are constantly crossing in the stories, the first depicting the polite forms of public interactions and the second pulsing with taboo fantasies and hallucinations. There are resonances here with Japan’s greatest midcentury writer Junichiro Tanizaki, who explored sexual fetishes in novels... But the subversions feel somehow scarier in Kono’s case, in part because of her deadpan prose and in part because she strikes at sacred paradigms of motherhood and femininity. The scenes frequently have the feel of horror stories.\
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"... Mr. Folman’s has succeeded in capturing the humor and vitality of the diaries—the hilarious sarcasm, the passionate declarations, the contemplative self-reproach—without a trace of retrofitted sentimentality. He owes much to David Polonsky’s sublime illustrations. Every one of Anne’s flights of fancy finds a thrilling and ingenious visual representation ... A wonderful, full-page composite image of Anne in her many moods—dreamy, snarky, silly, pensive, outraged or lovesick—is a reminder that the diaries are less about a life’s senseless destruction than about a brilliant young woman eternally coming into being.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"... caustic, curious ... For all her political concerns, then, the writer Ms. Apostol most resembles is Paul Auster, who made his name by constructing self-referential narrative puzzles. The prevalence of jargon—terms like \'diplopia\' and \'alternity\'—add to the academic flavor. Insurrecto will be brain candy for the theory-minded, but it leaves the war itself feeling as abstract as ever.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalLike those of his contemporary Denis Johnson, the stories are feral things, freed from polite convention by the sense of abandon that results from gazing too long at the abyss ... The imminence of death gives rise to the inimitable bawling, laughing, macabre narrations ... It’s impossible not to marvel at the urgency of these stories. Reviewers like to say that good writing feels alive, but living things are subject to the laws of decay, and the miracle of literature is that the truly great stuff has no half-life ... there are moments in Jones’s stories...where the writing seems capable of transcending the forces of destruction it so unforgettably evokes[.]
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalA useful point of comparison, doubling as a compliment and a caveat, is with Samuel Beckett. Next to nothing happens in Milkman, yet Ms. Burns, like the novel’s many gossips, constructs a monument from middle sister’s digressive, repetitive, idle, sardonic, amused and amusing talk. The story doesn’t advance so much as thicken, reaching a critical mass of absurdist misapprehensions. The bright thread of exasperated sarcasm that runs through the narrative compensates for its wheel-spinning. Ms. Burns, while frank about the brutality of the state forces, is refreshingly disrespectful to the insurgents.
Ersi Sotiropoulos, Trans. by Karen Emmerich
RaveThe Wall Street JournalHis younger contemporary George Seferis meant it admiringly when he said, \'Outside his poetry Cavafy does not exist.\' This doesn’t give Ersi Sotiropoulos a lot to work with for her biographical novel...which makes the book’s triumph all the more impressive. Poised on the cusp of change, Ms. Sotiropoulos’s Cavafy is a memorably unstable character, a human pendulum swinging from arrogance to insecurity, from self-loathing to exhilaration. His querulous inner monologues draw from his impressions of the city and particularly its young men, his memories, his poetry—the novel seamlessly integrates lines from some of his best known work—and his contentious relationship with his influences ... The fiercest passion in What’s Left of the Night is homoerotic attraction, and Ms. Sotiropoulos suggests that Cavafy’s artistic transformation hinged on his ability to take possession of his desires and redirect their energy toward poetry. Aided by a shimmering translation from the Greek by Karen Emmerich, the novel is as sensual as it is erudite, a stirringly intimate exploration of the private, earthy place where creation commences.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"... brilliantly executed ... Mr. Wray’s novel is on one hand an entirely familiar story of youthful rebellion and on the other an unimaginable depiction of a cold-blooded killer groomed by the world’s most notorious army. Such tensions make Godsend relentlessly gripping ... Subtly, Godsend also illuminates the momentous transformation in Islamic holy war from localized crusades to a conflict of global proportions.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalRay Eccles is struck on the head by a dying bird as he walks on the beach. From that moment Ray becomes obsessed with a single image—the face of the woman he was looking at when he was concussed—and compelled to draw it again and again using any materials at hand (condiments and bodily fluids included). Rumor of his habit reaches a prominent gallerist and soon Ray is a nationally celebrated outsider artist, his ever-expanding \'She\' series exhibited beside Hockney and Lucian Freud ... At its simplest, this is a commemoration of the lost art of seeing. The holy intensity of Ray’s vision stands out against the countless missed connections, distractions and estrangements that mark a life’s relationships. The book reminds us that a single act of attentiveness—of passionate noticing—can cause beauty to drop unexpectedly into the world, \'like something fallen from the sky.\'
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalFroderberg’s novel Mysterium takes place in \'the wilds of altitude\'; it imagines a 1981 expedition to a fictional peak in the India Himalayas. At nearly 26,000 feet, Mount Sarasvati—\'a giantess, splendid, luminescent\'—has long transfixed alpine explorers, and none as much as Sara Troy, who was named after the mountain. With her father and a team of other expert climbers, Sara hopes to be part of only the second group to reach its summit ... Mysterium conveys the foolhardiness and sublimity of extreme climbing, which renders human life so breathtakingly small and fragile. In the end, it’s not the summit that Sara and her cohort seek, but some undiscoverable place of transcendence.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalDespite its curiously bad title, this is an urbane, silkily written romance enlivened by late-in-the-day plot twists. The period detail is authoritative—you’ll close the book with a cache of unexpected knowledge about the tobacco, the spectacles and the concert pianos of the era—but rarely cumbersome. If anything, Love Is Blind moves along too quickly, the narrow focus on Brodie and Lika’s dangerous affair making the story somewhat one-dimensional. Like Kilbarron’s playing, this is a performance that puts speed and dazzle over depth. Why not? If you’ve got a gift, flaunt it.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Bhuvaneswar is not always in control of her volatile material and some of the stories seem more like explosions of grief or outrage than crafted dramas. But a pleasingly devious streak, at times reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith, winds through the collection, offsetting the latent melodrama. Shocking late twists and disclosures furnish a sense of unpredictability ... In this erratic but compulsively readable debut, the manipulations extend to the reader as well.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Taneja captures the sense of chaos but not the moments of heartbreak. Fractious, voluble and often spiced with snatches of untranslated Hindi, her writing is most at home in denunciation and invective ... Madness simmers from the opening pages, often boiling over into incoherence. This is frustrating—the novel is long and at times difficult to follow—yet the feeling of barely restrained mania seems suited to the subject ... King Lear makes a shrewd metaphor for the country’s generational revolt. Ms. Taneja portrays an India in which \'the old eat their young and the young whip their elders all wearing the birth masks of respect.\' Money is the agent of insanity. There’s a lot of it out there, and this ambitious, unwieldy novel chronicles the scramble for the spoils.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe words \'genre\' and \'gender\' have a root in common, and in his western...John Larison looks to subvert both ... Mr. Larison can turn a sharp phrase...but he’s a writer who takes his time, filling scenes with atmosphere and reflection. (As though to signal his departure from Leonard’s rulebook, he opens by mentioning the weather.) The novel suffers from inconsistency. The propulsive first section follows Jessilyn’s search for Noah. In the second, she joins his mountain redoubt and idles the time hiding from authorities. A more disciplined writer would have tightened the latter portion considerably. Even so, there are pleasures to be had from a book that moves at an amble—that sometimes takes a detour for no reason except to admire the view.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"And true to form, the writing bears the traits of the stereotypical New York short story: urbane, quippy, elliptical and ironic, lacquered in atmospheric detail and heavy on existential dread... The stories at times seem like mere storage containers for Ms. Eisenberg’s vinegary aphorisms ... Wealth, politics, age difference, technology, pharmaceuticals—all conspire to strand these characters on islands of self-centered incomprehension.\
Haruki Murakami, Trans. by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe leisurely, genially bizarre novel Killing Commendatore is the Japanese author’s latest excursion through the looking glass, and fans worldwide will be familiar with the attributes of the adventure. Does it center on a taciturn everyman who is yanked from his ordinary life and impelled on a mystical quest through an alternate realm? Of course. Does the hero encounter a series of mysterious strangers with dubious motives? Natch. Are there tiny paranormal beings in this world? You bet ... (Murakami) builds his self-contained world deliberately and faithfully, developing intrigue and suspense and even taking care to give each chapter a cliffhanger ending as in an old-fashioned serialized novel. Killing Commendatore seems like sheer silliness from a distance, but when you’re under Mr. Murakami’s trance you’re likely to keep flipping the pages.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalFortunately Mr. Markley comes to the zeitgeist honestly, and this is a book of genuine substance and style ... Mr. Markley’s skill is apparent in the novel’s structure. Roving between points of view and snaking backward and forward in time, the chapters interlock like puzzle pieces, gradually revealing a series of violent crimes.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] witty anti-novel ... The irony of a female artist becoming subordinate to her male editor is central to Ms. Moschovakis’s subversion. At the root of this book is the idea that the traditional novel that traces a trajectory toward love or marriage or some manner of self-realization is the invention of men ... Ms. Moschovakis’s novel is braided and experimental, yet it looks for illumination in the plainspoken and the authentic.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Mr. Peace is a blunt, forceful stylist with a habit for obsessive repetitions and a taste for the weird, all of which makes him is a good match for Akutagawa. The most disorienting aspect of Patient X is the author’s decision to blend scenes from Akutagawa’s fiction with those from his life, as though the wall dividing the two had been irreparably breached. The effect is fittingly hallucinatory, but for those who know little about Akutagawa’s books it may seem merely opaque.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Mr. Enger is a gentle, jokey sort of writer, so although tragedy lurks at the edges of the story it never seriously encroaches on the atmosphere of rueful cheeriness ... Virgil Wander is full of such fading pleasures, a reminder that another oddity of the mythology of the Midwest is that it exists in a state of permanent twilight, always disappearing but never quite gone.\
Andre Dubus III
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal“Gone So Long is as pure an example as you will find of the mainstream trauma novel, which is today the one narrative that transcends the genres and regionalisms that divide American fiction... This means that, although Mr. Dubus is a clear and sensitive writer, his story observes the formula of trauma therapy. Both Daniel and Susan are struggling to confront a repressed horror and thereby achieve the emotional catharsis that will allow them to make a separate peace with the past.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalAs the novel unfolds the troubles of their relationship before Eden’s decision to re-enlist, it gives an uncompromising picture of the war on terror as it’s waged at home, by the wives of soldiers fighting for the idea of family as their husbands expend the best of themselves in unending conflicts overseas. The interest in understanding contemporary war from all angles binds Mr. Ackerman’s novels (his previous books centered on a young Afghan villager and an interloper in the Syrian civil war). But while this author is empathetic, he’s also pitiless. There are as few consolations in Waiting for Eden as there would be in a novel set on the battlefield itself.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe harried run-on sentences of the writing simulate what Daphne calls her \'mother machine brain,\' which, cyborg-like, is forever calculating risks and formulating duties (\'diaper jammies milk story teeth bed\'). Seeking serenity, she attends the local church but spends the service chasing her daughter through the aisles and hissing apologies ... The depictions are remarkably faithful, like a trompe l’oeil painting of a single parent’s mental state. Less persuasive are the plot lines that Ms. Kiesling strings together late in the book about a bizarre group of secessionists and an elderly stranger waylaid on a road trip. These stories need development, but as in life, it’s the baby who gets all the attention.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThese deep dives into the turmoil of Wash’s soul are bracing but brief, quickly abandoned for the next fantastical plot turn. Ms. Edugyan is such a fluent, intelligent, natural writer that there’s little doubt she could succeed producing popular page-turners. But I’d miss the texture and emotional intensity she sometimes reaches here (and which were on fuller display in her gritty Nazi-era novel Half-Blood Blues). The story’s ambiguous conclusion suggests her uncertainty about which road to take. Wash has jeopardized everything to reunite with Titch, and a powerful confrontation about their shared history seems promised—and then isn’t delivered. The abrupt, unresolved ending leaves Wash, like the reader, hanging in midair.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Don Bartlett & Martin Aitken
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe trademark of My Struggle is its microscopic degree of detail. Every meal, every visit to the playground, every trip to the grocery store is faithfully recorded for posterity—during one checkout we learn Karl Ove’s PIN code—just as a historian might recount the minutes of some world-changing event ... Book 6, too, bears the marks of blind haste. For all its length and elaboration, it feels oddly cursory, like an assignment pounded out on the bus before class ... This is the logical end point of the autobiographical novel—it becomes indistinguishable from a personal diary. Any creative freedoms the form seems to promise are belied by Mr. Knausgaard’s evident impatience with the daily chore of transcribing his memories like an overworked office clerk. He’s fed up with being trapped inside his own consciousness, and so is the reader ... The lack of objectivity bedevils the book’s most interesting portion. Smack in the middle is a 400-plus page account of the youth of Adolf Hitler ... It’s not that Mr. Knausgaard denies Hitler’s anti-Semitism, but because it isn’t a trait that he shares he has comparatively little to say about it. Yet a Hitler who isn’t primarily animated by race hatred is not Hitler at all. A strangely incomplete interpretation of history results, one shaped to conform to the author’s reflection ... It’s only at the extreme end of Book 6 that circumstances jar Mr. Knausgaard from the ruts of self-absorption ... This is a moving self-rebuke, but how late in the day it arrives!
PanThe Wall Street JournalMr. Shteyngart is an esteemed comic novelist, but what’s the joke here? A white guy listening to rap music? Cohen’s journey toward reinvention, which carries him to the West Coast, slumming it with \'real\' Americans all the way, is self-evidently bigoted and stupid, yet Mr. Shteyngart is strenuously determined to squeeze something redemptive from it ... The characters are cartoons, yet we’re supposed to find them representative and profound. Which gave me a sickly feeling, I have to say. I don’t like to bring politics into this column, but it’s rare that I’ve encountered a novel that seemed so cynically engineered to pander to the biases of its readership ... A good satire explodes its readers’ assumptions, but Lake Success unctuously celebrates them.
Crystal Hana Kim
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIn alternating first-person chapters, Ms. Kim chronicles her characters’ discontent. Haemi tries to settle into her marriage and find consolation in her four daughters, but her family acts as a living reminder of her distance from Kyunghwan and, as Jisoo puts it, \'If the smallest thread in her happiness loosened, she followed it without reason.\' Kyunghwan becomes an eternal bachelor, living only for the few tortured and short-lived reunions Haemi allows him. Late in the novel, Jisoo springs for a beach vacation in Busan, but the return to the place of Haemi’s decision to marry him triggers a psychological collapse that shoves the story to its painful ending. Ms. Kim possesses a pleasingly clear and fluid style of writing, and in the opening chapters she deftly intertwines personal and political conflicts ... Like its characters, this sensitive but rather grueling novel becomes trapped inside a moment in the past, fated to relive the same mistake to the exclusion of anything else.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe prospect of parenthood provokes the crisis in Elyssa Friedland’s novel The Intermission. For five years Cass and Jonathan Coyne have enjoyed what is to all appearances a happy and enviable marriage. Yet on the very night that they’ve designated to begin trying for a baby, Cass announces that she wants to take a six-month break: \'Just some space. A refresher. A chance to think.\' Or what, with strained nonchalance, Jonathan comes to call \'a trial separation,\' as if it were akin to sampling a new kind of shampoo ... The chapters switch back and forth between their stories, layering deceptions and misunderstandings. The snappy dialogue makes this an effortless page-turner, almost a movie treatment more than a novel.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWith deep tenderness and a wonderful, feather-light sense of humor, Mr. Thier rehearses ancient conundrums over free will and the existence of evil while itemizing the blessings that make life worth the suffering ... Despite its irreverence, The World Is a Narrow Bridge is genuinely religious, a book that looks at existence with equal measures of fear, humility and gratitude. In a time when novelists tend to be more concerned with psychology than the soul, that makes it a rare and valuable thing.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis is a road novel without a destination. It’s set in 1955, when Navy veteran Billy Edgewater is traveling east across Tennessee to see his dying father. But Edgewater gets side-tracked so often in his journey—he takes day jobs, falls in with bad company, gets into bar fights, gets tossed in jail—that it’s quickly clear that the side track is the main road and the wandering itself is the homecoming ... The Lost Country is unabashed about its influences, and the allusions to Huckleberry Finn, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and Flannery O’Connor’s story Good Country People are so pointed they’re almost homages. James Joyce’s Ulysses is another touchstone, especially in Gay’s love of compound words (he describes \'paintlorn Victorian mansions\' and the \'lichencrept concrete of the stairs\'). Edgewater is an Odysseus with no inner compass. It may be impossible to say how much Gay’s sudden death contributed to the novel’s indeterminate ending. But Edgewater is like the crumbling Southern towns he passes through, haphazardly drifting toward oblivion, revived only in the beautiful daydream of Gay’s art.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Ms. Franqui covers the latent melodrama of this story with the amusing misadventures of the tour. The culture clash is rooted in rules of propriety ... The pleasure of this smart, mild-mannered novel is that, through its juxtapositions, the reader, too, begins to see the country afresh. Pival acutely reflects on the unruly power of Niagara Falls, the deep sadness of the Lincoln Memorial and the contrived prurience of Las Vegas. The novel returns the embattled promise of freedom to the heart of the immigrant’s tale. The old idea that America is where you come to re-create yourself, to live according to your own lights, animates this book like a misplaced truth newly rediscovered.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalHe’s often grouped with (and unjustly overshadowed by) contemporaries such as Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, but the comparison is misleading. Though a dedicated story writer skilled in dramatic compression, Dubus was no minimalist. His writing is often quite chatty and descriptive. Laconic disillusion was a hallmark of the era, but Dubus’s stories tend to be crowded and argumentative. He was drawn to large families in turmoil ... these stories are remarkable for the absence of blame. Sin is not an act to be judged in Dubus’s moral universe; it is, rather, a place where we reside, or an element of the atmosphere that we breathe. His characters can seem almost helplessly compelled toward their wrongdoing ... the beauty of the stories is their ability to inspire in the reader the qualities that they practice. Their compassion begets compassion. Their forgiveness begets forgiveness. Absent either resolution or transcendence, their power is in the example of their unflagging love for the fallen world.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalHe’s often grouped with (and unjustly overshadowed by) contemporaries such as Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, but the comparison is misleading. Though a dedicated story writer skilled in dramatic compression, Dubus was no minimalist. His writing is often quite chatty and descriptive. Laconic disillusion was a hallmark of the era, but Dubus’s stories tend to be crowded and argumentative. He was drawn to large families in turmoil ... these stories are remarkable for the absence of blame. Sin is not an act to be judged in Dubus’s moral universe; it is, rather, a place where we reside, or an element of the atmosphere that we breathe. His characters can seem almost helplessly compelled toward their wrongdoing ... the beauty of the stories is their ability to inspire in the reader the qualities that they practice. Their compassion begets compassion. Their forgiveness begets forgiveness. Absent either resolution or transcendence, their power is in the example of their unflagging love for the fallen world.
Martin Michael Driessen, Trans. by Jon Reeder
PositiveWall Street JournalMartin Michael Driessen’s Rivers brings together three novella-length dramas set on or alongside bodies of water. In Fleuve Sauvage an alcoholic actor takes a solo canoe trip down the Aisne River in northeastern France in order to sober up before a performance. Pierre and Adèle recounts the generational feud between two Breton families—one Catholic, the other Protestant—whose adjoining land is divided by an ever-shifting stream. Konrad, the gentle hero of Voyage to the Moon, steers logging rafts down Germany’s Main River. A lifelong bachelor, he’s a man of faithful habits, endlessly traversing the same waterway just as, in the evenings, he reads and rereads the same six books by Jules Verne.
PanThe Wall Street JournalMr. Kumar makes much of his status as an exile, yet it’s not clear how his experiences differ from those of any other randy grad student ... The crux of the problem is that Mr. Kumar follows in the current vogue for mixing fiction and memoir (this is, he writes, an \'in-between novel\'). The suspicion of autobiography turns these wistful evocations into something crass and embarrassing: a middle-aged guy bragging about his college conquests ... the very possibility that an actual person has had the most private and distressing details of her life made public hangs like a toxic cloud over the rest of the book.
R O Kwon
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"The main attraction and reward of this book is Ms. Kwon’s prose. Spiky, restless and nervously perceptive, it exhales spiritual unease ... There’s something crucial missing from the novel, however. Phoebe evolves from being a vulnerable college kid to perpetrating \'the biggest attack on U.S. soil since 9/11\' with unbelievable speed. How does it happen? What exactly makes Leal so compelling? Who are the other members of Jejah? Why have they, unlike most fringe groups, turned to terrorism? Ms. Kwon largely elides these questions, focusing on the overly familiar subject of Phoebe and Will’s relationship troubles. Her writing is stylish and risk-taking; her story, despite its explosive premise, plays it safe.\
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"Depicting their tightly bound relationship triangle and its remnants in the aftermath of the tragedy, Mr. Chariandy’s novel is small but emotionally dense, a dwarf star of mourning and regret ... the neat trick of Brother is its ability to explore the disorienting effects of grief without sacrificing any sharpness in its portrayals. Mr. Chariandy’s descriptions of life in the Park—the hangouts, the late-night dangers, the home cooking and most of all the music—have the texture of felt experience. Most memorable is the character of Ruth, whom we see as both a redoubtable matriarch and a confused, heartbreakingly bereft woman. In her strength and her suffering, she seems as ageless as literature itself.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalLike his heroine, Mr. Goolrick also yearns to turn back the clock, writing a chivalric melodrama that resembles nothing so much as Gone With the Wind. The elegance of the surfaces and the mad passions that boil underneath are meant both to attract and appall. But for all the author’s earnestness and skill, I think that novels like this are really no longer possible. The fabled grandeur of the Plantation South has been so thoroughly (and correctly) discredited that even its refinements appear grotesque. When the conflagration arrives in Saratoga it seems less a tragic climax than an overdue deliverance.
Maria Dahvana Headley
MixedThe Wall Street JournalImagine the centaur-like hybrid of a Middle Ages warrior saga and a slow-burning drama of domestic ennui and you begin to get a sense of this spiky, arresting story ... Readers will find it helpful to bone up on Beowulf before embarking on The Mere Wife to catch the ways in which Ms. Headley borrows from the poem’s rhythm and language while altering its narrative to throw light on the distaff side of the dramatis personae. But while the novel plays ingeniously with its ancient source, its modern aspects are over-reliant on hackneyed stereotypes about white-bread suburbia. There’s too much of the Stepford Wives in Willa. \'This isn’t supposed to happen here,\' she simpers about the barbarians at the gated community. Ms. Headley’s domestic goddess is more fantastical and unreal than her underground monsters. The idea may be to make us rethink our sympathies. In that case, her story succeeds.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Beautiful Music is a sweet and endearing coming-of-age tale measured in album tracks ... Eventually, with help from Sly and the Family Stone, he comes to understand that music has a political significance that can’t be entirely overlooked. Still, he loves it for its liberating power.\
MixedThe Wall StreetMr. Ryan has a sensitive feel for the process of atonement, the gradual shifts in the human heart that steer his characters from wrongdoing or despair toward some form of redemption ... From a Low and Quiet Sea has similar moments of vulnerability and grace [to his previous novel], but overall it’s less fulfilling, an arrangement of character sketches rather than a fluent story. A final section cleverly links the three men, but the narrative legerdemain speaks less to interconnection than to mere coincidence. Farouk spells out the book’s moral on the first page: \'Be kind.\' That applies whether the characters are bound together or all on their own.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Christensen gamely traverses both worlds in this excellent waterborne upstairs-downstairs drama ... As Chekhov decreed, if a cruise ship is introduced in act one, half of its passengers must be sick from a gruesome intestinal virus by act five. Along with illness and walkouts, an engine fire strands the ship in the Pacific ... Ms. Christensen revels in the state of contained anarchy. The disasters shatter class lines and rearrange alliances. By the end the passengers are lucky to be eating Spam and power bars. Oh, the humanity!
Dubravka Ugrešić, Trans. by Ellen Elias-Bursać
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalTranslators Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams have succeeded in carrying over this writer’s pokerfaced humor and love of irony. The book’s episodic chapters follow the rootless narrator on expeditions (sometimes to attend writing conferences) to Japan, Moscow, Naples, rural Croatia and all across England. Her voyages mingle with sketches of writers like Boris Pilnyak and Vladimir Nabokov, which explore these artists’ lifelong work of self-mythologizing. Ms. Ugrešić\'s self-portrait is equally elusive. At one point she discusses the foxes who haunt the streets of London, and in the image of that contradictory creature—a lover of solitude who lives in the thick of a big city—we have a glimpse of this rare and inimitable author.
Chico Buarque (trans. by) Alison Entrekin
PositiveWall Street Journal...Ciccio’s search for this long-lost half-brother becomes a lifelong obsession, bringing him into contact with Brazil’s sprawling community of German expats and summoning the manifold horrors of the war years ... Meanwhile, Brazil is generating its own horrors. Ciccio’s full brother, Mimmo, a louche ladies’ man but hardly a dissident, falls in with the wrong crowd and is \'disappeared\' by the military government. The twin absences blend together, forming a void that Ciccio fills with books, music, women and increasingly lunging efforts to discover the fates of his missing siblings ... Mr. Buarque combines documentary records with imaginative leaps into the unlit recesses of history. Just as ghosts mingle with their survivors, fact bleeds into fiction to create a book of potent emotional force.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalBlending history, ecology, current events and personal encounters, The Immeasurable World courts comparisons with the capaciously learned nature writing of John McPhee. But there’s also an open-ended spiritual quest to Mr. Atkins’s sojourns, which follow closely in the footsteps of religious and literary forerunners who were lured by the rewards of extreme renunciation ... Peace of mind, isolation, a heightened attentiveness spurred by the proximity to death—these are conditions for clear, beautiful writing, and Mr. Atkins frequently meets the high standards of his precursors ... Yet an uneasy subtext of The Immeasurable World is that true solitude is growing harder to come by. The book is surprisingly populated. Mr. Atkins is almost constantly attended by guides or helpful locals ... What I sometimes missed in The Immeasurable World was an interest in the desert for its own sake rather than as a place useful to people when they’ve wanted to escape civilization, win fame in exploration, test nuclear weapons, or consume psychedelics and light a giant effigy on fire.
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe conflict in A Terrible Country is both political and spiritual ... I wish I could say these questions held much suspense, but from the outset the style of the novel gives away the game. Mr. Gessen continues in that depressing trend among American writers for diaristic first-person accounts favoring banal verisimilitude over drama and imaginative reach ... Having prepared the ingredients for an epic, Mr. Gessen has fashioned another work of narrow confessional realism that trucks in mundane observations and rueful ironies—something that feels, unfortunately, very American indeed.
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe found poetry of pharmaceutical names furnish the rare moments of charm in this book, whose writing is as dead-eyed and apathetic as its heroine, as though to provide a textbook example of the imitative fallacy. Ms. Moshfegh’s dubious trademark is frank descriptions of bodily excretions...but there’s too much maudlin pop psychology in this novel for it to be edgy or startling.
Ismail Kadare, Trans. by John Hodgson
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe event that informs the novel is the rebellion of Ali Pasha, the Albanian governor who tried to break away from the Ottoman Empire and was killed by the Sultan’s forces in 1822. The focus is not on the uprising so much as its grisly souvenir: Ali Pasha’s severed head, which is preserved in ice, transported to an appointed plaza in Constantinople and displayed as a warning to would-be insurgents ... The book’s political intentions are shrewd and unmistakable. By depicting the corruption and whimsical cruelty of the Ottoman Empire...but it would be wrong to think of this novel as an Orwellian political allegory.
RaveWall Street Journal\"We read with the faith that the book will give sense and structure to a system of meaning. Mr. Murnane’s fiction doesn’t offer that baseline assurance. It replaces metaphor with metonymy, essences with chance effects. The relation of one thing to another can be completely arbitrary so long as it is honest to the mind of the individual thinking about it ... Mr. Murnane’s challenging, rewarding books push this proposition to its logical endpoint, elaborating a fictional world grounded in the imagery of the everyday, in which God is no longer found in the details but is replaced by those details altogether.\
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe new volume, the first in English to bring together all seven of Machado’s story collections, illustrates both the refined pleasures and the somewhat ungraspable nature of his art ... Some [stories] validate Machado’s reputation as a missing link in the lineage of comic experimentalists running from Laurence Sterne to John Barth. Others foreshadow the metafictional techniques that Jorge Luis Borges would immortalize ... Madness becomes the new normal in Machado’s tales, which start to invert and parody, rather than simply imitate, European storytelling conventions. The Western canon is his playground ... Just as ghosts mingle with their survivors, fact bleeds into fiction to create a book of potent emotional force.
Alicia Kopf, Trans. by Mara Faye Lethmen
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[A] curious book, a composite of capsule history, essays and fictionalized memoir... Brother in Ice is something like a scrapbook of the years she devoted to researching these explorers and the mythology around them.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Wheeler does not seem especially charmed by the strangeness of his corner of the country...the essays in Acid West feel oppressed by the unresolved childhood resentments of a native. The cynicism and verbosity of the writing—some of the footnotes are nearly as long as the essays themselves—suggest an author trying to work out personal issues on the page. The material is rich but Mr. Wheeler hasn’t yet found his way on the level of craft. Excess is one thing the desert doesn’t abide.
PanThe Wall Street Journal...his depiction of her sad circumstances is sympathetic though narrow and often drab ... Rhys shaped her brutally stark vision of urban despair in a pared-back, deceptively artless style reminiscent of Hemingway and Dos Passos ... Mr. Phillips’s more formal prose can seem muffled in comparison. More frustrating, though, is his decision to skip over Rhys’s emergence as a writer. Rhys wrote constantly, if painstakingly, yet this side of her is entirely missing from the story. Indeed, \'Jean Rhys\' is missing, as that was a pen name invented by Ford Madox Ford. (The novel uses her given name, Gwendolen Rees Williams.) The omission makes her seem distant and featureless, as though viewed through the wrong end of binoculars. It may be that Mr. Phillips’s real subject is the British Empire in decline, and Rhys’s bleak personal history has given him a mannequin on which to show its moth-eaten decadence, the moral stains on the sleeve of its dinner dress.
Sergio De La Pava
RaveWall Street Journal\"Mr. de la Pava’s new book, Lost Empress, is another overstuffed portmanteau—half farce, half serious social novel, half compendium of meditations on everything from Joni Mitchell’s early albums to the superiority of football’s 4-3 defensive alignment. That’s three halves, but as with A Naked Singularity,Lost Empress feels bigger than a single book. It gives you your money’s worth ... Lost Empress can feel loose and arbitrary, and it takes a while for its many moving parts to start humming. But once this monster of a book gathers momentum, it carries the reader into a teeming, complex world guided by a logic that’s never far removed from lunacy.\
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"This important trilogy, then, through its eloquent polyphony of voices and opinions, arrives at an idea of feminist art in opposition to the confessional mode that has long been in ascendance. Ms. Cusk’s tools are ambivalence and elusiveness—or, to rearrange James Joyce’s terms of independence: exile, cunning and silence.\
RaveWall Street Journal...terrifically entertaining debut ... [Gabel] flings herself in this episodic novel into one crisis after another, rarely relaxing the rather harried tempo. But an overabundance of conflict is a promising imperfection, the sign of a writer with an appetite for drama and outsize characters.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Frazier’s superb novel is both a large-hearted homage and a sensitive reckoning of the guilt that accrues to those who \'profited from pain in the face of history’s power to judge\' ... The prose in A Shout in the Ruins gets pretty high-flown...in clunky imitation of Faulkner or the Frazier of Cold Mountain ... Elsewhere the descriptions are more potent ... Pain and emptiness are the eternal qualities of Mr. Powers’s desolate novels, whether they grapple with the Civil War or Iraq. \'Nothing changes,\' he writes, \'but the names we give to things.\'
RaveWall Street JournalMs. Genova is far more serious and readable, concerned as much with depicting the clinical realities of ALS as in wringing it for emotional catharsis. You might drop a few tears reading Every Last Note but you won’t feel bullied into doing so
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe misunderstood nature of female desire is at the center of her inquiries, both in how it guides the bonobos, who are ruled by a bald, benevolent dictator called Mama, and in how Burk experiences it in her own surgery-scarred body. Ms. Schulman is a swift, confident, engaging writer who wields her considerable research—the novel includes a five-page appendix documenting her sources—with a nimble touch. And when, near the conclusion, disaster inevitably strikes, it yields the unforgettable image of Burk, Stotts and a troop of randy bonobos trekking together across an evacuated middle America, the hope for the future found in the secrets of the evolutionary past.
Patrick Chamoiseau, Trans. by Linda Coverdale
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"Slave Old Man conjures a metamorphosis of similar pathos and wonder ... Mr. Chamoiseau writes in a wild medley of French and Creole, sliding from dialect to classical expression like a freeform jazz musician. Linda Coverdale’s translation, the first in English, is gloriously unshackled, reveling in what she calls Mr. Chamoiseau’s \'fond disrespect for words\' to forge innovative musical phrasings. The forest of world literature can be a bewildering place to navigate and one good trick is to find a translator you trust and follow her wherever she leads. Those who do so with Ms. Coverdale, one of the best French translators working, will discover such marvelous writers as Jean Echenoz, Emmanuel Carrère and Annie Ernaux. And they will come to this beautiful book, by a writer who’s as original as any I’ve read all year.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Warlight is a thoroughly fogbound book about childhood and espionage in postwar Britain that feels its way forward with little sense of direction, creating intrigue and allure from the \'mysterious cloak\'—to borrow again from Monet—that covers and conceals its story ... Mr. Ondaatje has stepped into John le Carré’s world of spies and criminals but he has left his resolutions tantalizingly incomplete. His novel views history as a child would, in ignorance but also in innocence and wonder at the scope of its unknowns.\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"Ms. Shriver has a history of grappling with big issues but with Property she’s playing for smaller stakes. Most of these stories are amusing comic vignettes with the heft of network sitcoms. The book’s best work, the novella \'The Standing Chandelier,\' does more to develop its premise, exploring the painful dissolution of a longtime male-female friendship after one of the pair gets engaged. But even this turns on a quirky conflict: Should a married couple have to return a wedding gift if they stop being friends with the person who gave it? Seinfeld fanatics will remember a similar argument in an episode from season four.\
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"How do you write about a place outside of hope? If you’re Ms. Kushner, you do it by focusing on character. The Mars Room presents a gallery of the damned worthy of Dante ... The array of souls gives a spacious, rounded feel to the static setting, and Ms. Kushner’s in-depth portrayal of the patterns of prison life—its paid jobs and adult education classes, its barter economy of shampoo packets and bootleg hooch, its endless downtime punctuated by random cruelties—seems wholly authentic ... None of these threads add up to full stories, exactly. They’re almost-stories, fantasies preordained to dead-end against reality. Romy pursues them with a movingly desperate determination that gradually shades into a profound kind of comprehension of what she has lost and what remains. By the novel’s surprisingly luminous ending, Ms. Kushner has accomplished what feels like a minor miracle—she has brought about a change in Romy where no change seemed possible.\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"...this is on the surface a short, spare, parable-like drama that presents the past as a kind of puzzle. But beneath the orderly veneer is an overwhelming feeling of despair over missed opportunities and the persistence of loss. Don’t be fooled by the neatness of the narrative: This isn’t a two-sided examination of the past so much as a melancholy lament for its paltriness. Early on, Susan tells Paul that a person’s great love affair is the single event that defines him—his \'only story.\' The notion seems romantic at first, but Mr. Barnes has rigged things so that by the book’s close it’s merely depressing.\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis piece and much of the rest of his writings Mr. Murnane has labeled \'fictions,\' but another term he favors is \'reports\'—thorough, fastidious and neutral in tone, they read like field notes from a journey through the interior ... Later in Border Districts, the narrator paraphrases a quotation from Kafka suggesting that \'a person might learn all that was needed for salvation without leaving his or her own room.\' Mr. Murnane’s challenging, rewarding books push this proposition to its logical endpoint, elaborating a fictional world grounded in the imagery of the everyday, in which God is no longer found in the details but is replaced by those details altogether. \'Eternity is just another name for this endless scenery where we wander from one place to another,\' he once wrote. Or it’s a map we spend our lives completing.
John Edgar Wideman
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"With the scrupulous intelligence and meditative intensity that define all this author’s work, the stories move from subjects like the Civil War and Nat Turner’s rebellion to Mr. Wideman’s family’s tribulations, the two threads twining so intricately that they’re impossible to separate ... Mr. Wideman’s explicit subject is racial injustice but his treatment of it quietly deepens into existential horror ... This, then, is not a book for the unwary. Mr. Wideman possesses a true and terrible vision of the tragic.\
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"You expect descriptions like this to be accompanied by eerie banjo plucking from Deliverance. But Mr. Offutt impressively inhabits this impoverished, fiercely private world without condescension or romance, fashioning a lean, atmospheric story that moves fluidly between the extremes of violence and love ... The rumblings of Southern Gothic horror are audible in the distance of Country Dark, but Mr. Offutt is such a measured and unexcitable stylist that the story never wallows in the grotesque.\
PositiveWall Street JournalMr. Frazier’s superb novel is both a large-hearted homage and a sensitive reckoning of the guilt that accrues to those who \'profited from pain in the face of history’s power to judge\' ... easygoing, spacious and jocular, replacing verbal flash with a calmly mature perspective on suffering. Cold Mountain will always be more famous, but Varina is the better novel, a masterful portrait of a woman who brings uncommon dignity to her remembrances, and to the lifelong work of atonement.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe Overstory has much in common with Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, an epic viewed through the history of a timber company...but Mr. Powers is far more strident about the wages of deforestation. The story of his eco-activists is virtually operatic in its melodrama ... But if Mr. Powers is clumsy in his depiction of persons, he’s brilliant on the strange idea of \'plant personhood.\' The novel is interested in what one character calls \'unblinding\'—opening our eyes to the wondrous things just above our line of sight. Memorable chapters unfold when two protestors \'tree-sit\' in the canopy of a giant redwood being threatened by loggers ... It’s one of many unforgettable images in a novel devoted to \'reviving that dead metaphor at the heart of the word bewilderment.\'
Tatyana Tolstaya, Trans. by Anya Migdal
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAetherial Worlds, in a high-spirited translation by Anya Migdal, is playful and poetic, with a lightness that verges on flippancy. Even when Ms. Tolstaya writes about adulthood her setting is the world of children, which outwardly resembles ordinary life yet is touched by fantasies, ghosts and magic ... Mingling memoir with flights of fancy, many of the stories follow Ms. Tolstaya’s extended travels to the U.S., France and Italy ... A sense of permanent impermanence, both forlorn and liberating, inflects her reveries, and never is Ms. Tolstaya more luxuriantly homesick than when she recalls her childhood
RaveWall Street JournalLearned, charismatic, secretive and magnetic, he begins to mentor the impressionable narrator, and before long he’s paying her to deliver mysterious packages throughout the city ... It’s a jarring and curiously incomplete U-turn into political intrigue, and one feels that a more confident novel would have cut out the thriller formulations. Ms. Tamirat has reason to be confident. When her novel is good, it’s very good indeed.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"...a big book on the hot-button subject of feminism that seems, like its predecessor, ambivalent about its attention-grabbing scope and topicality ... Ms. Wolitzer is very smart about the gritty realpolitik of activist movements, both in the concessions they make to corporate money and in the cutthroat tactics their leaders use to gain acclaim ... Curiously, the ancillary storylines about Zee and Cory are the novel’s most affecting portions ... Near the end of The Female Persuasion Greer comes to realize that even flawed messages have the power to encourage and inspire. In that sense the novel is a meaningful statement, a drawn-out work on big issues written by a woman at the pinnacle of her career. Still, I missed the perfect short book hidden somewhere inside it.\
Michelle de Kretser
RaveThe Wall Street JournalReflecting a pessimism that’s almost refreshing in its candor, The Life to Come is mordantly skeptical about mankind’s capacity for empathy. Its characters are largely unburdened by hidden depths. On balance, they’re exactly as vain and dull and silly as they appear to others ... The novel is filled with brilliant, quick-fire characterizations ... The Life to Come is a scalpel-sharp work of Flaubertian social realism—but now the provincial setting whose customs it mercilessly dissects encompasses all Australia, if not all the world.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Sachdeva’s book, a debut, is notable for its exuberant variety ... There’s an element of whimsy to this assortment, and sometimes Ms. Sachdeva is content with an easy laugh ... The range of her gifts is best seen in the title story, about two young women who are forced to become child brides to Islamists but gradually turn the tables on their captors through the practice of mind control ... The story’s delicate sadness mingles beautifully with the boldness of its conception.
PanThe Wall Street JournalMr. Lazar’s book is hesitant, self-conscious and anxiously preoccupied with 'the problem of seeing anything clearly in the time and place in which we live.' The terror and pathos of King’s tragedy are muffled beneath pages of embarrassed woolgathering about the propriety of writing about the case at all. This is doubly strange because it seems evident fairly early on that King was railroaded into his confession. Vengeance worries a great deal about the relativity of truth when its real subject should be the permanence of injustice.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThese themes are slowly layered and mingled throughout the ornately rendered table talk and passing encounters that make up Mr. Hollinghurst’s novel, and it must be said that his gradualist approach will not be to everyone’s taste. The opening section can feel particularly trying ... Mr. Hollinghurst asks the reader to practice the perhaps antiquarian virtue of bearing with him, like a sitter for a portrait, as he gives his canvas shading and depth ... Those who do will have their patience handsomely rewarded. The novel’s confident passage through the decades traces both a satisfying and touchingly hopeful life’s trajectory for Johnny ... The restraint and narrative control by which Mr. Hollinghurst sustains the mystery that surrounds this figure is the novel’s signal accomplishment.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe capstone to this hopeful, enriching collection is the small masterpiece 'Requiem,' set in Alaska in a future scarred by climate change and dominated by massive tech corporations ...The more mechanized our future, Ms. Singh suggests, the more precious our connections with the living will be.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"McGuane has less in common with icons of Western machismo like Jim Harrison and Hemingway than with John Cheever, that meticulous observer of bridge-and-tunnel loneliness ... the essence of McGuane-ism is very much here: dry wit, wry confusion and prose as chiseled and striking as a Rocky Mountain butte ... Like all collections of this kind, repetition magnifies the author’s limitations. Mr. McGuane’s men are cut from the same sad sackcloth and his women are either humorless martinets or the type who start drinking at lunch. But even when the stories plow similar grooves, the brightness and humor of the writing never fails to delight.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe material is here for an epic, and the frustration of Winter Kept Us Warm is that it’s been packed into too few pages, forcing Ms. Raeff to rush through the decades in her haste to catch up with the present. Many scenes feel merely summarized—a pity, because when she does fully imagine the past, as in her depiction of Berlin after the war, the results are memorable.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"...[a] witchy, electrifying story of danger and compulsion ... Ms. Emezi has wholly reshaped and reinvigorated the painful spectacle by imagining it from the perspective of the trickster gods who possess her ... Its conclusion is as striking and mysterious as the ways of the gods who narrate it. In recent years, books like Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen and Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me have found new angles of perception for familiar stories of love and grief. Ms. Emezi’s debut is the latest standout in this exciting boom in the Nigerian novel.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Mr. Goldberg apes the comic novels of centuries past by filling his omniscient narration with entreaties to the \'dear reader\' (\'Our role is to convey these events as they occur,\' he writes) while following Bill’s increasingly preposterous travels through the condo ... Mr. Goldberg has written a funny, antic novel for the masochists who don’t get their full of political farce from cable news—in other words, alas, for all of us.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"This all sounds like a daytime soap opera, but it doesn’t read that way because Ms. Jones writes with such companionable intelligence ... Her confusion, though, makes for a muddled finale. Since Celestial appears to have no clear idea of what her marriage means to her—was it founded on love? desire? mere convenience?—it’s hard to become invested in Roy’s attempts to salvage it.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalLisa Halliday’s debut, Asymmetry, a brilliant and complex examination of power dynamics in love and war, begins by redressing a longstanding imbalance in the world of fiction ... In countless books by a pride of literary lions from Saul Bellow to John Updike to Philip Roth, vacuous young mistresses have served as symbols of erotic salvation for the aging men who command our attention. Ms. Halliday has at last turned the tables ... The novel touches on the imbalances that skew and distort relationships between genders, between nations, between citizens and the State, even between writers and their subjects. Ms. Halliday matches her voracious intellectual curiosity with storytelling restraint, so these myriad thematic resonances never drown out the book’s comic flourishes and tragic twists ... But perhaps the most interesting thing about this stimulating novel is its fundamental instability.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWith Fools and Mortals Bernard Cornwell joins the speculative fun, presenting a portrait of Shakespeare that seems impressively original ... This book is a change of pace for Mr. Cornwell, who is best known for his historical novels... Fools and Mortals features a bit of swordplay — as Richard points out, any actor worth his salt needed to know how to handle a rapier — but readers should still expect less action here than in the author’s usual fare ... The plot is almost insouciantly slight ... Mr. Cornwell fattens up this story with a splendor of period detail, introducing a range of London characters from cutpurses and bear-baiters to noblemen, and distinguishing each through colorful speech and dress.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"Johnson’s stories tread a crooked path through illness, addiction, criminality, mania and simple existential confusion. His gift is to extract the beauty in all that brokenness, like the painters who pulled holy light out of the wounds of martyrs … Though these are longer, fuller, rangier stories than the strobing fever dreams of Jesus’ Son, they possess the same incredible emotional density. They feel squeezed, to borrow Johnson’s phrase, ‘in the almighty grip of the truth’ … Grace and oblivion are inextricably yoked in these transcendent stories, the testament of a writer who lived and worked on unusually close terms with death, until that great mystery finally stole him.\
Ismail Kadare, Trans. by John Hodgson
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Kadare’s dialogue with the Western canon continues in the novel A Girl in Exile ... Mr. Kadare gradually unravels a parable about the temptations of power ... [with] stark expository writing and sudden swerves into hallucinatory imagery ... The past is uncannily present in his books—a phantom that walks among the living, or a severed head that seems to lock you in its gaze.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"Ms. Quatro’s attempt with Fire Sermon is to meld a story of midlife adultery with an enquiry into the fate of religious faith in the secular world...It’s a daringly unguarded experiment that matches some of its overwrought silliness with generous samplings of poems and sermons, as well as Ms. Quatro’s own fine turns of phrase ... Still, a frustrating imbalance persists. As is usually the case in contemporary fiction, faith is honored more in the breach than the observance, and while we get a vivid picture of the love Maggie transfers from God to James, it’s hard to see what God did for her in the first place. Churchgoing, worship and even prayer are all but absent. Was she ever a real believer or did she just play one in academia? Maggie quotes T.S. Eliot’s worry that there will one day be two literatures, \'one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world.\' Ms. Quatro commendably seeks to close the divide, but pagan rites still take up all the space.\
Leila Slimani, Trans. by Sam Taylor
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...a prizewinner and succès de scandale in France... In a stripped-down translation by Sam Taylor, the novel proceeds gradually but ineluctably to the scene foreshadowed in the prologue, the murder of both children in their bathtub ... The murders have understandably commanded the novel’s publicity efforts, but in truth Ms. Slimani mostly leaves them off the page ... less a thriller than a sociological study, and it doesn’t shock so much as usefully destabilize current bourgeois customs of parenthood ... Ms. Slimani is brilliantly insightful about the peculiar station nannies assume within the households of working families, at once intimate and subservient.
Yan Lianke, Trans. by Carlos Rojas
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThese are emotionally loaded stories, and the clichés in Carlos Rojas’s translation frequently pitch them into outright melodrama. But it’s hard not to be moved by the running theme of self-sacrifice. The solitary elder gives his body to fertilize the cornstalk that will eventually replenish the village. When she is told that bone-marrow soup has miraculous healing powers, the mother in 'Marrow' does the same for the sake of her disabled children. The stories echo books like Yu Hua’s Chronicle of a Blood Merchant and Mr. Yan’s own Dream of Ding Village, in which characters literally drain their blood for the wellbeing of the state. The Years, Months, Days avoids the tripwire of politics, yet still pays homage to the fated generation upon whose flesh and bones modern China was built.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe comic grotesqueries that emerge from this collection owe a bit to Dickens, Kafka and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter, but their total effect is delightfully unclassifiable. The stories are unconnected but mostly of a piece … Ms. Grudova strikes a tone that is amusingly earnest, as though she intended to make these stories gallant and romantic but then screwed up the recipe. Everything is a little off, broken or soiled or deformed … The Doll’s Alphabet is clearly a revisionist undertaking. It unsettles assumptions about motherhood and marriage. But it also separates itself from its feminist predecessors. The world it inhabits—droll, inexplicable and even beautiful in its slovenly fashion—is unlike any other I’ve encountered.
László Krasznahorkai, Trans. by George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet & John Batki
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"The stories in The World Goes On, by the Hungarian magus László Krasznahorkai, rebel against a different ruling power, the totalitarian regime of individual consciousness … The key to Mr. Krasznahorkai’s sorcery is the run-on sentences that extend across dozens of pages, embodying the kind of demonic labyrinth in which his characters are trapped yet also achieving an incantatory catharsis that liberates one, however fleetingly, from the prison of self-awareness. John Batki has provided translations for the bulk of the stories, joined for the remainder by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes. The trio’s work is astonishing.\
Ursula K. Le Guin
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"Ms. Le Guin’s brilliance lies beyond nomenclature. Few writers have been so conscientious of the ways that societies are defined by the nuances and omissions of their language ... This delightful book, inquisitive and stroppily opinionated in equal measure, assembles stray pieces from her recent adventures in blogging. Despite her reservations with the hideous word \'blog\'—which sounds like it should refer to \'an obstruction in the nasal passage\'—she takes to the digressive form with ease, ruminating on the value of literary awards, the Great American Novel (her pick may surprise you), the \'existential situation\' of old age and her outsize love for a newly adopted black-and-white cat called Pard. In even these miscellanies, composed in her off hours, the sentences are perfectly balanced and the language chosen with care. After all, she writes, \'Words are my matter—my stuff.\' And it’s through their infinite arrangements, \'the endless changes and complexities of their interrelationships,\' that Ms. Le Guin’s extraordinary imaginary worlds have been built and shared.\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe ticklish, and ultimately unanswerable, question of how much is autobiography and how much is imagined adheres to all of Shepard’s fiction. His stories are not exact reflections of memory but more like portraits in a convex mirror—realistic depictions of a distorted version of the truth, in which an unrelenting loneliness is stretched and elongated all out of proportion to his protagonists’ other attributes ... Spy of the First Person returns to the uncanny experience evoked in all of Shepard’s fiction of being both the observer and the observed. In the midst of that standoff, fragments of the past resurface. Shepard has always been a spare and oblique writer, creating a sense of dreamy discomfort by starving his prose of basic identifying details like years or proper names ... as always, the itinerancy masks a profound feeling of imprisonment, as the scenes inevitably circle back to the old man on the porch, who has been rendered so immobile that he has to ask for help to scratch an itch on his face. Yet that appeal for help marks a small but significant change. Shepard’s wanderers have usually been on unaccompanied journeys with no departure or destination, only an ever-repeating present instant. But Spy of the First Person ends with a scene of family solidarity.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"The gorgeous though damaged Turkish rug that adorns the dust jacket of Joan Silber’s Improvement is a fitting symbol for this exceptional novel, and not just because one of its subplots concerns carpet dealing. Ms. Silber is a weaver of disparate lives … The constellation of characters share a propensity for petty schemes and deceits. Everyone has a side hustle, whether it’s selling cigarettes, Bronze Age amphorae or, in Kiki’s case, Turkish rugs … Ms. Silber’s generous canvas ensures that we see each of them in relation to the others, part of a community they don’t even know they belong to. Small kindnesses ripple out through time and across continents.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalTwining music history with the political tumults of the 20th century, The Prague Sonata is a sophisticated, engrossing intellectual mystery. And unlike [Dan] Brown’s potboilers, its prose won’t leave you feeling ashamed in the morning ... At the heart of the adventure story is a sensitive exploration of music’s strange power to encode memories into its themes and progressions ... His captivating, hopeful book presents a vision of the broken past, restored.
PanThe Wall Street JournalWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank...is head-scratchingly inferior in every way to his previous collection and does not even have the excuse of being a debut … Only in ‘Sister Hills,’ about the war-torn life of a woman who helped to create an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, does Mr. Englander display something like a singular artistic vision. The story is a cleverly constructed parable about the collision of orthodoxy and modernity, and it illustrates the author's most rewarding themes: the emptiness of living without traditions and the perils of stubbornly clinging to them … More often, though, the collection conveys a sense that Mr. Englander is using the Holocaust to extort emotional responses from his readers.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal[Helprin's] books are romances in the chivalric mold, in which beauty, love and bravery possess a greater reality than the characters dedicated to honoring them. This is true again in his enchanting new novel, Paris in the Present Tense, a ballad to the cardinal virtue of loyalty ... despite the catastrophes and forebodings that beset the story, Paris in the Present Tense is joyful and celebratory. Part of the pleasure of the novel is in its ecstatic asides, eulogizing the glories of Paris or the transcendent power of music.
Mihail Sebastian, Trans. by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[Sebastian is] known for the diaries he kept between 1935 and 1944, in which, like Victor Klemperer in Germany, he chronicled his country’s headlong descent into fascism. For Two Thousand Years, a fictionalized diary based on Sebastian’s experiences in the decade prior, is a pendant to that vital document. It reveals a young, idealistic man grasping for freedom from the external oppression of anti-Semitism but also, paradoxically, from the beholdens of his Jewish heritage. The diary entries (in a vigorous translation by Philip Ó Ceallaigh ) follow the unnamed narrator from his time at university, when right-wing thugs beat up Jewish students when they attended classes, to his maturation as an emerging architect. The slender plot serves mostly as a vessel for passionate arguments. The narrator records his interactions with budding fascists, nihilists, Marxists and Zionists. But his fiercest debates are with himself.
C. Morgan Babst
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"The mystery of the death propels the novel in a zigzag fashion, flashing back to the storm and then leaping forward in time to a hard-earned resolution. The force of Katrina has opened old wounds among the Boisdorés, and tangents in the story brush against marital infidelity, mental health and biases in class and race. Ms. Babst has a delicate way of depicting souls confronted by more hardship than they can bear, but the cataract of fears and grievances can make for punishing reading. Troy likens the flood to a great welling-up of sorrow. Once a feeling that powerful breaches the levees erected to contain it, it becomes all-consuming.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalWhat kind of experimental novel is theMystery.doc? From the early going it’s plain that the goal of this book is not to entertain but to sow discomfort. The passages are short, splintered and disconnected, sprays of 'random buckshot,' in Mr. McIntosh’s words...The writing throughout is numbed and uninflected, perceiving the world in the unfocused way of someone groggy from too much cold medicine. The mood ranges from puzzlement to muted horror ... The disjecta membra of disembodied voices and absurdist visuals are common in experimental novels that look to give form to a perceived breakdown in conventional narrative or in human relations more generally. But theMystery.doc goes further than anything before it: It reads like the first posthuman novel, an arbitrary sampling of web-searched text and images aggregated by no one for the benefit of no one. Much ink has been spilled pondering what the growing technological divide will do to the art of novel writing. There’s an answer in this book’s near-infinite feedback of glyphs and fragments, but you may have to be a machine to understand it.
PanThe Wall Street JournalMixed with this family drama is a half-formed political subplot. Frida's older brother, we learn, was once a member of a cadre of student radicals called the Group and killed himself in a shopping-mall suicide bombing. The Group looms large when Frida and Cal leave their forest hideaway for an egalitarian settlement called the Land, which is run by a charismatic cult leader with shady—and ultimately rather incoherent—intentions … As California concludes, the schemes come to light, and the Land's community spirit fractures. But by this point, Ms. Lepucki is just ticking off items on a dystopian fiction checklist. After the apocalypse, when survivors scavenge the midden-heap of our lost civilization and find all these post-apocalypse novels, will they marvel at our prescience or just wonder at our lack of originality?
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt all makes for a good story, a convincing portrait of a middle-aged man enduring a rough patch after years of riding high. But worming through it are disturbing memories from his schooldays: a flirtatious comment from one of the Brothers who taught his French class, a grope at the hands of the wrestling instructor. Victor shrugs these things off, but gradually 'the lies, the gaps, the facts, the bits of my life' that he’s omitted come tumbling out. Mr. Doyle’s signature clipped dialogue is still a feature of Smile, but this short, effective novel is about the truths that emerge when, despite himself, Victor lets himself talk.
Carmen Maria Machado
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"As with [Angela] Carter’s reconfigurations, Ms. Machado’s stories are frank, sensual, often raunchy. The mythologies they mean to dispel concern the female body and the ways that it’s used, molded, mutilated, coveted, stigmatized or disregarded. Hidden within these objectified forms are the women’s true selves, made of forbidden secrets and unruly desires ... In the life cycle of an idea, something that was initially subversive is rapidly absorbed into the public consciousness and converted into yet another convention. \'Do you ever worry about writing the madwoman-in-the-attic story?\' a fellow writer asks the narrator. That \'old trope\' shadows the book, and related themes, like sexual trauma and dystopian horror, have had their edges softened by constant use. Ms. Machado’s best stories—\'The Husband Stitch\' and \'Real Women Have Bodies\'—deliver high-voltage shocks to the system. The others show how difficult it is to outpace the status quo.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe stories in this collection, which were written over the past 30 years, take on the disappointment of modern life, with all its self-inflicted failures and moral compromises … Mr. Eugenides seems to stick a dead key in each of these stories, making them intentionally flat or anticlimactic. This can result in some fine straight-faced comedy, particularly in ‘Baster,’ about a middle-aged woman on an extremely public search for high-quality sperm. But many of the stories read like early drafts for the author’s novels … ‘Great Experiment’ is one of the few stories here that feel satisfyingly complete.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThese are a lot of stories to set in motion, and it takes Manhattan Beach a long time to get them running at full clip. The absence of any overriding vision tells in the novel’s dawdling middle sections. In places Ms. Egan re-creates archetypal mobster myths, reveling in all the usual gangland hokum: gats in ankle holsters, slipped mickeys, cement shoes. But elsewhere she tries to give an accurate historical representation of the Naval Yard during World War II, leading to information overloads...The prose is at loggerheads with itself in the same way. Damon Runyon-inspired slang sits awkwardly with SAT vocab words like 'invoke' and 'assuage' ... Fortunately, the novel’s exciting ending helps to compensate for its longueurs. It makes sense that Ms. Egan, with her attraction to the unfathomable, finds her groove when her story takes to the sea. Eddie’s ship is torpedoed by a U-boat and the suspenseful pages dramatizing his trials on the open ocean are almost worth the book’s price tag on their own.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe Good People concerns the collision of ancient customs with the forces of modernization, in medicine, local government and the law. Ms. Kent has a knack for conjuring the unsettled spirit world through deft stylistic flourishes … The Good People is far from a high-handed condemnation of superstitious belief. It makes the terrors of the past feel palpable and imminent.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalAnyone who enjoyed James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, the swaggering picaresque about a runaway slave that won the 2013 National Book Award, will be instantly at home with the stories in his new book Five-Carat Soul ...motley collection wields the same narrative bravado and acerbic sense of humor to peek at American history from unusual angles ...centerpiece is a quartet of stories set in a poor neighborhood of Uniontown, Pa., around the time of the Vietnam War ... The book’s single fault is that these characters are so engaging and their world so richly conceived that the four stories only whet the appetite for more.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt’s in sifting these homespun details that the formal risk pays such big dividends. The restlessly onrushing sentence confers a sense of urgency and holiness to Marcus’s 'daily rites, rhythms and rituals.' The ordinary is hallowed by the originality of its expression. And because the writing is so precise and consistent, one quickly adjusts to Marcus’s exhalations of thought and the reading becomes easy and natural. 'All good human stories no matter how they will pan out, you can feel that, the flesh and blood element twitching in them,' Marcus thinks. Solar Bones is a successful experimental novel, but more than that it is a good human story.
Jenny Erpenbeck, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Though Go, Went, Gone hints at the epic in its storytelling—Richard gives the men he befriends sobriquets from ancient mythology—it dwells primarily in the prosaic, content to document everyday conversations and outings. The immigrants face little direct bigotry; their main adversary is German law, which with frosty indifference throws up insuperable obstacles to their efforts to apply for asylum. The often exasperating reportorial quality of the writing—the understated translation is by Susan Bernofsky —calls to mind J.M. Coetzee, whose flat, affectless prose wrests coherence from immense social turmoil. By making the predicament of the refugee banal and quotidian, Ms. Erpenbeck helps it become visible.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] searching and intelligent novel ... By design, both of these stories drift and undulate like sand dunes, allowing Ms. Krauss to eloquently ruminate on marriage, memory, scripture, storytelling and of course Kafka. One of the steep pleasures of Forest Dark is how unabashedly bookish it is, a tendency that would seem to work against the novel’s embrace of uncertainty and intuition ... a book that’s as slippery as it is impassioned.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...[an] entertaining if at times exhaustingly madcap tale ... A story this outsized would be incomplete if it only featured the living. Michael was badly wounded by the explosion in Ireland and in his shell-shocked state he is visited by the ghost of the mystic poet William Butler Yeats, who leads him on a quest through Manhattan for a fortune teller who will reveal the directives of the 'spiritus mundi,' 'the universal memory that binds us all.' Reveling in bold twists and fantastic coincidences, Mr. Mathews’s big, expressive debut inhabits a world that’s neither of the past nor the future but wholly of the imagination.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...a moving, if sentimental, story of espionage, disappointed idealism and love across borders ... A twisty tale of spycraft and false allegiances unfolds, but what stands out is Mr. Englander’s insistence on finding romance amid the violence and deception. Spies fall in love with counterspies, Israelis with Palestinians, Prisoner Z with his guard. During the aborted peace process, the General strikes up a warm rapport with Yasser Arafat. The ageless struggle between Jews and Arabs comes to resemble a desperate lover’s embrace. But some of Mr. Englander’s most fervent devotionals are to the land itself, with its flowering deserts, 'the waterfalls and Nubian sandstone, the great dusty mountains and their spectacular views.' That ingrained attachment—and the conflicts it causes—continues to pull Jewish writers from the known world of America to this maddeningly unsolvable puzzle of a nation.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal[Ng] captures her setting with an ethnologist’s authority, fleshing out the region’s politics (progressive), its local scandal (a divisive custody battle), its infamous high school prank (the legendary Toothpick Day incident). And there are time-capsule pleasures in her evocation of 1997, when Jerry Springer ruled afternoon TV and internet searching was done on AltaVista. The writing is poised and tidy as well—too tidy, in fact, for a novel whose allegiances are with rebels and freethinkers. The characters’ central traits are so baldly stated that they may as well be spelled out in topiary ... Suburbia’s insidious power is that it, much like high school, transforms people into stereotypes, defining them exclusively by the degree to which they 'fit in.' Ms. Ng doesn’t dodge this trap. Which isn’t to say that Little Fires Everywhere isn’t smart and readable. It’s both, eminently so. But 2017 has seen unforgettable breakdowns of suburban domesticity in treatments as various as Nicole Krauss’s intellectual fantasia Forest Dark, Dan Chaon’s gothic horror novel Ill Will and the undiluted surrealism of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot. Ms. Ng’s book seems, in contrast, a little too orderly.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt’s difficult to reconcile the meanness of [Leonie's] behavior with the writerly sophistication of her interior monologue (peeking at Jojo she notices 'the moue of his lips, the low eyebrows'), and readers aren’t alone in being nonplused. Leonie is accompanied by the ghost of her brother Given, who was murdered by a cousin of Michael’s and who seems to sit in silent judgment of her marriage and the drug habit she nurtures to achieve forgetfulness ... Haunted by these spirits, the living also seem lost and unmoored, 'crying loose' in an age of perpetuated iniquity. Though provocative on their own, these vagrant personal dramas don’t hook together into a coherent pattern. Yet one relationship feels powerfully developed. Jojo has looked after Kayla since her birth and their connection is bone deep, beyond language. He alone knows where he’s needed and where he belongs.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...you’re on red alert every time [Martin] enters the room. Impressively, this is also a novel of great beauty, filled with lush evocations of the woods and 'the ocean broken by kelp beds, the bulbs and fronds stirring the surface' ... her interior monologue seems impossibly articulate. The only way to escape her father’s virtual suicide pact is through violence, and the novel culminates in an irruption of gunplay. Naturally, she’s also a crack shot. [Turtle] is different from the child abuse victims in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. She has more in common with Batman, another crusading outsider who came to his powers through unimaginable trauma. Abuse narratives and superhero adventures may be the most popular storytelling genres of our age—it was only a matter of time before they merged.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Messud is at her most incisive in exploring the volatile transition from childhood to adolescence, 'a world of adult actions and of adult conjecture' ... [Cassie] makes for a very poignant character—rough, rebellious and nakedly vulnerable, giving the best of her love to someone who can’t return it ... Why, then, does the novel lack the careening intensity of The Woman Upstairs? The problems are mostly technical. Julia recounts Cassie’s tale two years after the fact, as she, Julia, enters her senior year of high school, but her narrative voice sounds too filtered and elegant to come from a 17-year-old, even one who stars on her school’s speech team ... Cassie is the sort of girl who sails toward the face of the storm. The novel stays in safe harbor, straining to keep her in sight.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] wrenchingly intimate depiction of a couple in the chilly, hibernal years of their marriage ... Mr. MacLaverty’s telescopic observational powers imbue these routines with rare and unexpected beauty ... Spliced into these prayer-like scenes are glancing flashbacks to the attack in Belfast. Midwinter Break gradually expands to reveal a couple both scarred and soldered together by near tragedy. Even as Gerry and Stella float apart, their shared memories are like cords that keep returning them to one another.
Orhan Pamuk, Trans. by Ekin Oklap
MixedThe Wall Street Journal...the first half of the novel [is] allusive, enchanting and perfectly controlled ... Haunted by his past, Cem grows obsessed with ancient tales of patricide and filicide, particularly Oedipus Rex and the tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab from the Persian epic the Shahnameh. Whole chapters are devoted to recondite scholarly investigations, à la Umberto Eco, to unpack the hidden meanings of these texts. When a real estate opportunity returns Cem to Öngören, Mr. Pamuk forces an inevitable reckoning with the red-haired woman and others who know what he did at the well, contriving events so that they mirror those of the famous stories. This, combined with a late-occurring narrative switcheroo, makes it impossible to discern what in the story has been the result of Cem’s actions and what has 'been dictated by myth and history.' An enticing book cedes, in the end, to storytelling at its most pointlessly rococo, the kind that invariably seems more fun to dream up than to read. Mr. Pamuk’s postmodern tricks may make him appear contemporary, but it’s when he’s being old-fashioned that his writing is most vital and alive.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
PanThe Wall Street Journal\"It’s an impressively cynical hustle, a publishing Ponzi scheme designed to attract interest to a new series in the narrowing interval that the Norwegian’s star is in ascendance. In fairness, something as thin as Autumn requires such machinations ... The author has always been an heir to the Romantics, but here he has dropped the bad-boy Byronic posturing of My Struggle in favor of gaseous Wordsworthian odes. The entries are either maudlin (to see porpoises swim is to feel that \'they are touching you, as if you have thereby been chosen\') or jejune (churches, you will be amazed to read, \'represented another level of reality, the divine\').\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Shamsie develops crosscutting lines of loyalty to family, faith and public duty. Isma and Aneeka are divided on the question of whether their responsibility is to report their wayward brother to officials or try to covertly secure his return. Lone, the book’s most complex and intriguing figure, has won the acceptance of the suspicious populace through unforgiving crackdowns of his fellow Muslims. Alas, Ms. Shamsie disperses much of the tension in these conflicts by fragmenting the story among different points of view. Home Fire is thoughtful and thought-provoking, but too piecemeal to build to a satisfying tragedy.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMaria’s confusion is central to the breakdown that follows her obsession, and Ms. Senna deftly draws it out in the way of an espionage thriller, peeling back her characters’ racial personas as though they were so many disguises ... The frankness with which New People treats race as a kind of public performance is both uncomfortable and strangely cathartic. Being a performance, it transforms easily into deception, and the story hinges on two hallucinatory sequences in which Maria falsifies her identity in order to sneak into the poet’s apartment. The ending of this brittle, provocative novel carries the fated sense of a utopia heading inexorably toward collapse.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"...this novel partakes in the inexplicably chic trend epitomized by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot of merely recording everything its characters do or say, like a video feed, with no effort to discriminate between the trivial and the significant. Readers, therefore, have to push through reams of banal small talk and hackneyed dinner-party imagery ... Then things change...Suddenly the book takes on the excitement of a romance novel or Hugh Grant film about ordinary folk who have relationships with gorgeous celebrities. The writing picks up purpose and intensity. The sex scenes are, well, sexy, which is rarer than you’d think. Ms. Rooney’s trick is to render them largely in dialogue, avoiding awkward anatomy lessons. A breathless page-turner emerges ... A lot of affectation encrusts Conversations With Friends and the ironic repartee gets old quickly. But even the filler can’t disguise that Ms. Rooney is a natural-born storyteller.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalLife After Life is a drama of failures and providential rebirths. It follows the repeating life of Ursula Todd, born in 1910 on a small family estate in the English countryside and endowed with the gift (or is it the curse?) of second chances ...the novel advances like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill but progressing a bit further each time before it rolls back down to the start ... One of the pleasures of Life After Life is watching these characters grow and change ...plot twists were a staple of the author\'s detective novels, but here they are put into service for the most unsatisfying aspect of Life After Life—the attempt to make Ursula\'s personal revisions change history ... Not only does she bring characters to life with enviable ease, she has an almost offhand knack for vivid scene-setting.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt’s material for another grueling exploration of loss, and yet, against all odds, Ms. Khong has produced a book that’s whimsical and funny. This is because the author, like her guiding spirit, Lorrie Moore, has a love for the ridiculous in the mundane ... Amid the fear and heartache there’s plenty of absurdity, too, in her father’s erratic behavior, though Ms. Khong never descends to mockery. In the main storyline, the professor’s former students invent a fake class for him to teach, to boost his morale. But the charade doesn’t last long. Mostly this sweet-natured novel is about Ruth’s attempts to come to terms with a past her father can no longer remember while still attending to the quirky, fleeting joys of the present.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe book’s chapters are succinct, often shorter than a page; the sentences are concise and declarative. Non-fictional material like blog posts and news photos intersperse the story, as if this were an academic study rather than a novel. Thandi, a math tutor, illustrates her emotions with graphs and charts, and when she encounters events that cannot be tamed by logic she explains them to herself using the concept of the asymptote, a line that a curve continuously approaches but cannot reach ... When Thandi finds herself pregnant and unsure of how to proceed, the novel’s intellectual poise has been fatally undermined. This makes for anguished but rewarding reading. It’s bracing to find irruptions of passion shoot through the varnished prose like hairline cracks in porcelain. What We Lose finds itself when it accepts free fall, morphing from an arid work of assertion into a richly volatile study of grief, wonderment and love.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe violent standoff between the mob and those inside the building is riveting, full of cliffhanger chapter endings and surprise twists ... Mr. Platzer deftly swivels among the clashing points of view, and the climax, in which Aaron returns to disperse the crowd with an improvised sermon, is powerfully done. But the scene is vexing as well. To Aaron, the sermon is his wake-up call to return to the rabbinate. But that it casts him in the role of the redeemed hero highlights just how much he and Amelia have dominated a novel whose flashpoint is police violence against African-Americans ... Mr. Platzer is a direct and revealing observer of the habit white Americans have of making themselves the centerpieces of other peoples’ stories. Yet even in this novel, the gentrifiers have still managed to claim the choicest real estate.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThere are two halves to this novel. The first is a superbly drawn portrait of King, a man raised in a cramped Queens apartment where his parents argued 'in the Yiddish of banged cabinets' who went on to make a fortune at the cost of his soul. Bluff, funny, amoral and likably scrappy—he brings the dented company van to glitzy fundraisers—King seems both archetypal and vividly sui generis. But the book’s second half drops him in order to enact a creaky allegory of Israeli occupation. Yoav and Uri unwittingly reprise their mission in Gaza by helping to dispossess poor evictees ... The idea is that the cycle of violence that afflicts Israel is analogous to the predatory practices of urban capitalism. This is, to put it mildly, a tricky parallel, and Mr. Cohen’s parable-like tale is too sketchy to make it persuasive.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThroughout Redeployment, Mr. Klay juxtaposes the frenetic disorder of combat with the drawn-out bewilderment of civilian life … Mr. Klay's soldiers and veterans are preoccupied with storytelling, or at least with figuring out how to authentically convey their own exploits to people who weren't there. Despite their ‘Oo-rah!’ tough-talk—which they usually admit is an affectation—these are sensitive, introspective figures … ‘Prayer in the Furnace,’ the book's longest and most engrossing story, cuts to the hopeless difficulty of trying to distinguish Iraqi enemy combatants, whom soldiers are supposed to kill, from Iraqi civilians, whom they are supposed to protect … Mr. Klay gives a deeply disquieting view of a generation of soldiers reared on war's most terrible contradictions.
Yuri Herrera, Trans. by Lisa Dillman
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis cunning little drama about the line separating art from agitprop is, like the other books, translated with colloquial verve by Lisa Dillman. The Artist’s mission statement could speak for the whole of Mr. Herrera’s daring and memorable project: 'Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?'
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe Chalk Artist offers antidotes to this apparent technological scourge. Nina and Collin enjoy a highly symbolic stroll in Walden Woods and Nina’s classroom efforts go toward awakening her students to the glories of Emily Dickinson. But though there’s undeniable charm in Ms. Goodman’s celebration of nature and poetry, the novel’s moral binary feels superficial. Characterizing video games as little more than digital opiates leaves Aidan’s coming-of-age story frustratingly underdeveloped ... The immersive, collaborative worlds of his role-playing games, with their elements of questing, violence and sexual ideation, form a powerful backdrop to the shocks of adolescence. A novel that appreciated the complexity of these games would tell a darker but more truthful story about growing up in contemporary America. Instead, Ms. Goodman has written a feel-good fantasy about kicking a bad habit with help from the Belle of Amherst.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe story's surface is simple, polished almost to dullness and dependent on the revelation of a great secret that comes in the final pages. But what is hidden between the lines and perceived only through cracks of the controlled façade is far more chaotic—and likely to leave the reader unsettled for days … Mr. Barnes generates much suspense by withholding the final twist, but the typical aim of surprise endings, even sad ones, is to provide a feeling of order and comfort … Why, then, is The Sense of an Ending so ominous and disturbing? Because we have the constant suspicion that Tony is an unreliable narrator, but unreliable in a distinctive way—he seems to be lying more to himself than to the reader.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...a bracingly compact tale of Irish village life whose powerful undercurrents of loneliness and heartache rush along in streams of gorgeous, rippling prose. So fine is this novel, and so purely told, that it establishes Mr. Ryan as the heir apparent to the late, great Irish stylists John McGahern and William Trevor ... There are countless passages that are so sculpted and beautiful that one’s lips begin to shape their words unbidden, the way a song can move a crowd to its rhythm ... With this book Mr. Ryan moves to the head of a brilliant young class.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalSociety’s darkest impulses are on graphic display in Nick Laird’s novel, which takes on the atrocities committed in the name of religion and politics ... Mr. Laird is alive to the ways that adamant moral certitudes tend toward violence. 'Righteous fury is so easy, can be slipped on like a coat,' he writes. Yet the novel’s real source of discomfort is not its ideas but its prose. Modern Gods opens with a dramatization of the mass shooting in the pub ... Mr. Laird, a poet as well as a novelist, has a gift for language—but I wish he hadn’t made these awful scenes so pretty.
Haruki Murakami, trans. Jay Rubin & Philip Gabriel
PanThe Wall Street JournalMr. Murakami's infinite patience in revealing the secret connections between Tengo's and Aomame's lives has the benefit of charging quite banal scenes with an aura of unearthly import. But it can also seem stubbornly vague, as many of the novel's most nagging questions are left unanswered …. Among the many paradoxes that Mr. Murakami inhabits is the ability to be both over-explanatory and enigmatic at the same time. Despite the allegorical role that the Little People play, the novel is covered in a veil of mystery because we never learn precisely how they operate … There is something fundamentally insubstantial about Mr. Murakami's work. You tend to forget the books the moment you finish them, and this is no less true after an immense production like 1Q84...Mr. Murakami's books are wrapped in a cocoon—or an air chrysalis—of cultural amnesia. It's one last paradox: They are themselves too empty to say anything meaningful about emptiness.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThese are busy, gregarious stories, more active and unbuttoned than the so-called Minimalist writing that defined Ms. Beattie’s heyday in the 1980s, but still possessed of her eye for quirky relationships and her sidelong sense of humor.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe Woman Upstairs updates the dictum of Virginia's Woolf's manifesto: It's not only a little money and a room of one's own that women need to produce art—it's a willingness to use and manipulate other people; it's a capacity for cruelty … The writing in The Woman Upstairs bears little resemblance to Woolf's crystalline prose. Perhaps surprisingly, Ms. Messud's strongest influence here is Philip Roth...Of course, Ms. Messud's unsparingly frank narration comes from a woman, which makes the novel a kind of rejoinder to Mr. Roth's decidedly male-centric universe … It forces itself on you, demands your attention, impresses and irritates. There is a genuine sense of unease in these pages, of something solid being overturned by the sheer force of Nora's rage.
Minae Mizumura, Trans. by Juliet Winters Carpenter
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"The 66 chapters are brief, emotionally combustible and, in Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation, liberally strewn with clichés (blood freezes, people stop in their tracks and reach for the stars). There are also fascinating asides about the history of the serial novel in Japan, because Mitsuki believes that these fairy-tale melodramas were responsible for shaping her mother’s acquisitive personality and may have contributed to her own marital unhappiness. So Ms. Mizumura craftily mixes the old with the new, creating a highly readable throwback to popular dime novels that replaces gilt with guilt and romance with real talk.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIn its sacramental respect for faith and doubt alike, and its reverent uncertainty about everything except the dignity and pathos of its characters, Lila is a book whose grandeur is found in its humility. That’s what makes Gilead among the most memorable settings in American fiction … Most striking of all is the bluesy beauty of the exposition. The novel is told in the third person, but it seamlessly inhabits the motions of Lila’s mind, and the irregular and imperfect hitches of her thinking are the legacy of her transience, her nearness to nature and her intimacy with the ‘great, sweet nowhere’ of homelessness.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Saunders's characters cling to hope as tenaciously as ever in his new collection, Tenth of December, set in a kind of Dark Ages middle America defined by Darwinian class striving, simulated bread-and-circus distractions (Mr. Saunders is fascinated by amusement parks and reality television) and the substitution of bureaucracy for ethics … Many of the stories are about average people facing extreme tests of moral or physical courage…[they] powerfully dramatize the author's belief that heroism springs from selflessness and compassion.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe writer Jesmyn Ward, however, has not entangled herself in the politics of the catastrophe...Katrina is portrayed strictly as a primal explosion, a thunderbolt hurled by a punishing god … Ms. Ward reminds us a little too insistently of the Medea story; the allusion begins to seem less symbolic than instructional. And while her dense, descriptive prose has many lovely touches, it can also turn humid with melodrama … The novel's power comes from the dread of the approaching storm and a pair of violent climaxes.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"Proceeding at a steady, entrancing pace, Mr. Everett pays out the lines of his story until he reaches the twin traumatic secrets at the core of Pace’s personality. Thus So Much Blue potently explores the Faustian bargain by which artists fertilize their guilt and estrangement for the sake of their creations ... So Much Blue is a comparatively accessible work yet still displays his narrative prowess, erudition and sense of enigma. It is, in short, an ideal place to start with this great but neglected novelist.\
PanThe Wall Street JournalMr. Eggers's dystopia, filled with unnerving details drawn from today's Silicon Valley colossi, builds on charged, timely fears about a world that is replacing personhood with data and reality with the pale simulacra of cyberspace … It's frustratingly evident that The Circle contains nothing in the way of insight or sophistication … A writer with no respect for the intelligence of his characters usually has little for that of his readers, and there's a creepy sense that Mr. Eggers has intentionally dumbed down his storytelling. The novel's lessons seem both obvious and sanctimonious.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Lee plucks familiar chords with a sure hand, glancing on themes of grief, jealousy and second chances ... But what really stamps this book on the heart is Yadin’s vulnerable spiritual journey from loneliness toward something like grace.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] lovely and fortifying book ... Mr. Finch is a practiced hand at this kind of essay yet, as he admits, he is following the vanished footprints of a remarkable roster of Cape Cod nature writers. The Outer Beach doubles as a rich literary tour ... Eventually the sea is going to win the war. 'Who’s protesting?' he asks. 'Who’s taking the ocean to court to "save the Cape"? We make such a mighty fuss, as if it matters, even to us. We are spindrift, and we know it.' Until it goes, may there continue to be writers as good as Mr. Finch to commemorate it.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalOne of Mr. Eugenides's many subtle tricks in The Marriage Plot is to make these three characters embody the ideas that disable them … It is in developing a story that The Marriage Plot encounters problems, because when Mr. Eugenides leaves behind collegiate jeu d'esprit and advances to more adult subjects like illness, marriage and religious faith he is far less assured … The glibness of the storytelling in The Marriage Plot seems gimmicky—in a book assailing literary gimmickry. The novel's worst contrivance is that it doesn't just obliquely call to mind David Foster Wallace; it practically brings him onstage in the character of Leonard.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Given a smooth and pithy translation by Neil Smith, Beartown shuttles among a wide cast of local zealots, from driven teenage athletes to antacid-popping coaches to mucky-mucks on the club’s board of directors ... The obsession with winning is responsible for the novel’s thrills—in the fashion of underdog sports dramas, the games tend to be decided by last-minute goals—but also for its abrupt and tragic turn. At a drunken house party after a victory, Kevin sexually assaults Maya. The he-said-she-said nature of the crime divides the town, and Mr. Backman charts the struggle many have in elevating loyalties to friends and family over those to the team. There are, in the end, real acts of bravery and sacrifice in this appealing novel, but they mostly take place off the ice.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalSet during the recently ended reign of Kim Jong Il, the book is a work of high adventure, surreal coincidences and terrible violence, seeming to straddle the line between cinematic fantasy and brutal actuality … Mr. Johnson is careful to temper the inherent comedy of a nation run according to the whim of someone called Dear Leader, showing us how his power is sustained through depravity and terror. Torture, in this novel, is the most important instrument used by the state to convert fiction into fact—truth is abandoned and lies are adopted, if the object of torture survives.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Maum’s appealing debut, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, followed a husband’s efforts to win back the love of his wife after being caught in an affair. Like that book, Touch uses antic humor to mask its rather stern traditional message about the importance of nuclear families and the magic of baby-making. The author’s conservative streak occasionally dampens her storytelling. The book’s settings, drably confined to conference rooms and the company car, could have used shaking up, and its ending is too easy to forecast. But it’s impressive that Ms. Maum has managed to make a return to old-fashioned family values—and even commonplace acts of physical intimacy—seem daring and subversive.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe Answers is in part a sparkling satire of our era of big data, sending up the all-too-believable idea that, by optimizing human emotions, technology can be put to use 'solving love.' But the novel is also a poignant spiritual lament, deepening the themes of Ms. Lacey’s excellent debut, Nobody Is Ever Missing ... The specter of holiness haunts Ms. Lacey’s book like a phantom limb. 'I came close to praying a few times,' Mary says during a period of acute suffering, 'but everything felt unanswered enough and I didn’t want another frame for the silence.' These searching, religious dimensions add to the fresh commentary on present-day godheads to make The Answers not just one of the most ingenious novels of 2017 but also one of the most moving.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalAspects of this fragmentary novel echo The God of Small Things, a lushly written melodrama that took on caste inequalities and taboo love affairs. Others draw from Ms. Roy’s numerous nonfiction polemics against government abuses and the costs of rapid modernization ... The continuities make it apparent that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness isn’t a work of literary re-creation so much as an extension of Ms. Roy’s undertakings as a political dissident. This explains her eagerness to cram her protest novel with as many subjects as possible, at the expense of a coherent story ... The 20-year hiatus from fiction has given Ms. Roy a stockpile of rich stories and characters; synthesizing it all into a powerful novel would seem to have needed more time.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
PanThe Wall Street JournalThroughout Americanah there is a sense that Ms. Adichie believes the world requires a good lecturing and that she is the person to deliver it. The story balloons with unearned smugness. Virtually every secondary character seems to have been introduced for no other reason than to be scolded or belittled … There's something strangely old-fashioned about the strain of intolerance that runs through this book—artistically, it's no different than tendentious Victorian novels in which women of loose virtue are identified by their immodest apparel and saucy table manners. In both cases, morality is confused with moralizing.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"The Tiger\'s Wife, in its solemn beauty and unerring execution, fully justifies the accolades that Ms. Obreht\'s short fiction inspired. She has a talent for subtle plotting that eludes most writers twice her age, and her descriptive powers suggest a kind of channeled genius. No novel this year has seemed more likely to disappoint; no novel has been more satisfying ... With her blending of folklore and naturalism, Ms. Obreht calls to mind Gabriel García Márquez ... Care has been taken with each line of this book, not least in the description of the tiger itself, \'bright and real, carved from sunlight.\' The author imposes a stillness on the reader as the novel\'s imagery and cadence seem to call to the mysteries of life and death.\
J. Courtney Sullivan
RaveThe Wall Street JournalBut one such kindred spirit [of Meave Binchy] is J. Courtney Sullivan, whose Irish-American family drama Saints for All Occasions is touched with the same warmth, kindness and gentle wisdom ... A low, steady voice urging faithfulness and forgiveness is audible in Saints for All Occasions as Ms. Sullivan draws her characters together in a moving conclusion. Despite the secrets between them, and despite the colorful South Boston bickering that animates their conversations, the novel eloquently testifies to the durability of the fabric of family.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Hadley seeks out the secrets embedded in the ordinary, and though this collection is more variable than her best work—the 2013 novel-in-stories Clever Girl—it’s filled with odd and glittering nuggets.
J. Robert Lennon
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAlong the way, something interesting happens to the Observer: It becomes sentient, and as it perceives 'the gears of cause and effect locking together, increasing in rotational velocity,' it grows curious about the fates of the characters. The conceit adds a layer of awareness to a skillful if otherwise conventional crime story. Broken River is a novel that watches as its own plot unfolds, wondering at the way that 'everything is exquisitely interconnected, malevolent, and dangerous.'
Brian Van Reet
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...original, deftly plotted and incisively intelligent ... Mr. Van Reet occupies these sparring perspectives with impressive balance and dispassion, avoiding the sense of victimhood that often saturates fiction about American soldiers in Iraq. Though the novel offers no pat resolutions, a strange and surprising connection emerges between captive and captors.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalA feeling of spectral unreality characterizes House of Names, as if it were all a dark Freudian dream, hazily imagined rather than fully inhabited. Mr. Tóibín has traded out the rage and horror of The Oresteia for ambivalence and disquiet. His adaptation is as finely written as any of his books, but it occupies an artistic nether region, lacking the archetypal power of the ancient dramas and the plausibility of realism.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] spare and sensitive pendant piece [to My Name is Lucy Barton] ... Ms. Strout is hardly a sentimentalist, however. In this wise and accomplished book, pain and healing exist in perpetual dependence, like feuding siblings. 'It made me feel better, it made me feel much less alone,' Patty tells Charlie Macauley after reading Lucy’s memoir. 'Oh no,' he replies. 'No, we’re always alone.'
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] beautifully imagined novel ... When reduced to summary, The Golden Legend can seem to feature violence in melodramatic excess. Death is meted out by Americans, Hindu nationalists, the Pakistani government and the swelling ranks of Muslim fundamentalists. Yet Mr. Aslam describes it all with otherworldly calmness and simplicity. Some writers have the gift of making the prosaic remarkable; this author makes the unfathomable appear almost ordinary, drawing readers into his multifaceted story and making its brutality more recognizably terrible.
PanThe Wall Street JournalAs Mr. Mason spins out an elaborate and highly confusing techno-thriller, he explores a future in which humanity has increasingly subordinated itself to machines it doesn’t understand ... Mr. Mason writes with a mathematical precision that often crystallizes into lines of clean, poetic beauty...But the whole feels recondite and detached, as if it were intended to evoke the 'opaque complexity' of artificial minds. As the story merges the physical world with virtual realms it becomes difficult to grasp just what is going on. One puzzled character sums it all up: 'There’s a pattern but I can’t quite see it.'”
Bandi, Trans. by Deborah Smith
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[a] remarkable collection ... In an unfussy translation by Deborah Smith, their power is in the plain-spoken, almost artless way they convey daily life under an ever-watchful, whimsically cruel regime ... In an unforgettable story about a deadly train-station stampede caused by Kim Il Sung’s entourage, 'Pandemonium,' an old woman marvels at the nonstop acting. Where else, she wonders, are cries of suffering 'wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter?' This courageous book offers an important reminder that not all dystopias are invented.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Baume’s debut was a strange and wonderful book called Spill Simmer Falter Wither, about a hapless loner whose world turns on its head after he adopts a one-eyed dog. Frankie is another misanthrope, but she’s more difficult to warm to ... It’s evidence of Ms. Baume’s sizable talent that she still makes Frankie’s quarter-life crisis worth reading. Much of the appeal is in the burnish and confidence of her prose.
Mathias Enard, Trans. by Charlotte Mandell
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"Mr. Enard fuses recollection and scholarly digression into a swirling, hypnotic stream-of-consciousness narration ... The immediate reward to the novel’s challenges—in addition to the pleasures of Mr. Enard’s intricate sentences in Charlotte Mandell’s deft translation—is the astonishing banquet of learning on display ... [Franz\'s] warm-blooded humanism transforms what might have been a dull catalog of textual arcana into a moving appeal for the importance of culture ... this sad yet invigorating novel is both a love letter to a vanishing discipline and an elegy.\
Omar El Akkad
MixedThe Wall Street Journal...a vision of approaching ruin that doubles as a sharp critique of current American foreign policy ... American War is not a subtle book, and Mr. El Akkad is using the future to make a blunt point about the present. By substituting defiant Southerners for Muslim fundamentalists, he seeks to make the victims of the 'War on Terror' more recognizable and the blowback more coherent ... Yet the parallels only stretch so far. Somehow neither race nor religion figures into this civil war, which makes the implied connections between Confederate rebels and jihadist insurgents superficial at best ... Even so, American War is a provocative thought experiment and a rewarding conversation piece.
Jean Hanff Korelitz
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...a sharp and insightful novel exploring the current explosion of student discontent ... Ms. Korelitz hits on a trenchant observation about the nature of contemporary activism: Its object is not resolution but renown ... The Devil and Webster is very much Naomi Roth’s book. In the midst of the furor, she undergoes a midlife coming-of-age, completing the switch from a person committed to challenging the rules to one whose duty is to enforce them.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe rapid-fire switching between the story lines gives the book an irresistible velocity that Ms. Tinti sustains to the end, by which point she’s settled the last of Hawley’s old scores. What works less well is the book’s gesturing toward mythology. Ms. Tinti has modeled the flashbacks to Hawley’s gunfights on the 12 labors of Hercules, and though those connections are tenuous ... Ms. Tinti is on surer ground detailing Hawley and Loo’s unusual relationship.
Leonardo Padura, Trans. by Anna Kushner
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...[an] ample feast of a historical novel ... Mr. Padura displays a painter’s eye worthy of his expansive canvas, which includes Dutch burghers in 1647, Jewish refugees escaping Hitler, Cuban baseball fans in the 1950s and disaffected Havana youth of the mid-2000s. This rich prose-panorama proves to be as much a spiritual meditation and a paean to individual freedom as it is a murder mystery and a treasure hunt.