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
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 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 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.
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 JournalMs. 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.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe author skillfully splices a barbed picture of the Czech Republic between Jakub’s misadventures in the cosmos. These include floating free inside the dust cloud and hitching a ride on a clandestine Russian space shuttle. The book suggests that every national hero has a dark side, though you may have to leave Earth to see it.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Kunzru is a first-rate writer with a weakness for experimentation. In the book’s latter chapters, he flattens the different time periods into a single, hallucinatory storyline, making it difficult to grasp even the basics of what is happening from moment to moment. But the novel resolves itself to a startling and memorable comeuppance at the finale. To fetishize the blues, Mr. Kunzru suggests, is to enjoy the fruits of suffering while ignoring the suffering itself. This ghost story is about balancing the ledger.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe Idiot is a coming-of-age novel that doesn’t arrive and a love story that goes no further than awkward handshakes ... The title is itself a dry joke, since the novel has only the faintest echoes of Dostoevsky’s classic account of a young man whose goodness is continually mistaken for stupidity. Instead Ms. Batuman adheres to the Karl Ove Knausgaard school of autobiographical realism, scrupulously resisting the temptations of plot development in order to achieve a more authentic effect. She is also notably abstemious. Not only is the book entirely chaste, Selin is possibly the only undergrad in America who doesn’t drink. 'I can’t believe you want to go through this sober,' Ivan tells her during one encounter, speaking for everyone.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalFollowing writers like Richard Matheson and Shirley Jackson,Dan Chaon writes in the spooky tradition of suburban gothic. His outstanding Ill Will hinges on unsolved murders over two time periods ... Central to Ill Will is its case study of delusion. Mr. Chaon connects the murder of Dustin’s parents to the satanic-ritual abuse hysteria of the 1980s, in which children were induced to testify to events that never happened ... An unreliable narrator can often feel like a cheap trick in the novelist’s playbook, but Mr. Chaon employs it masterfully, integrating unreliability into the book’s very typography ... the power of “Ill Will” is in its atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. Its eerily persuasive idea that we can’t trust our own minds left me with a shiver of.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWaking Lions, in a propulsive translation from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, yokes a crime story to thorny ethical issues in ways reminiscent of Donna Tartt and Richard Price. Its motor doesn’t always purr—the sections in the middle unpacking Eitan and Liat’s troubled marriage are laborious. But it’s a rare book that can trouble your conscience while holding you in a fine state of suspense.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIn his effort to move from specific current events to shared human experiences, Mr. Hamid straddles the border between the real and the fantastic ... The question that tugs at the start of Exit West is whether it’s supposed to take place in Syria. Not really, it turns out, because while Mr. Hamid borrows from aspects of Syria’s civil war, especially in the clash between militants and government forces, other details depart from recent history entirely, including a dip into outright fantasy: magic doors that open directly from one country into another...The magic doors make sense, conceptually, because they symbolize Mr. Hamid’s vision of a world in which boundaries are permeable and migratory pathways extensive and swarming...But the gimmick sands away the texture of a story that already studiedly blurs its settings and events. By eliding the actual passage between countries—often the most dramatic part of the refugee’s tale—Exit West makes Nadia and Saeed seem like simulations, players in a video game who can instantly jump from one realm to another. A hyper-globalized world that is completely flat produces writing to match ... It’s a stirring, ennobling appeal for compassion. But the richness of fiction is found in fine distinctions rather than broad-stroke generalizations, and the trouble is that Exit West collapses the differences between being an exile from a war-torn Middle Eastern country and splitting up with a loved one into a single, uniform experience of loss. This will assuage the consciences of Mr. Hamid’s Western readers, who can leave the book feeling that they truly empathize with the plight of refugees since they too are migrants. The refugees themselves might be less impressed.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalNK3 moves at a forceful clip, braiding numerous storylines together in short, punchy chapters unti . . . well, I’m not sure what. The abrupt cliffhanger ending is a major frustration, as though Mr. Tolkin decided at the last minute to leave us panting for the next installment in some serial. But the book’s plotting is ultimately less notable than its vision of social disruption, in which techies and underlings turn the tables on the ruling class of celebrities and executives.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWhat’s most impressive about Ghachar Ghochar—the title is a slang phrase Anita uses when things get all tangled up—is how much intricacy and turmoil gets distilled into its few pages. Mr. Shanbhag, who writes in the South Indian language Kannada and is translated here by Srinath Perur into clean, conversational English, is a master of inference and omission. The dimensions of the gilded cage that trap the family appear gradually, and then suddenly. 'They say the newly rich carry umbrellas to keep moonlight at bay,' the sister’s mother-in-law jealously muses. But there’s a deeper loneliness in this wise and skillful book that no covering can conceal.
J. M. Coetzee
PanThe Wall Street JournalThe good news (if you will) is that the parallels to the Gospels are not so schematic in this novel as in its airless predecessor. Mr. Coetzee gives himself more imaginative space to investigate the tension expressed by the murderer, who, seeking atonement, bemoans that 'the law takes no reckoning of the state of a man’s soul.' Even so, The Schooldays of Jesus is an anemic reading experience. Mr. Coetzee expends little effort in giving the story shape or texture. His world-building is haphazard and his descriptions incurious. About Davíd’s strange dancing, we learn only that it 'consists in gliding from point to point on the stage.' Too much of the novel is a drab receptacle for genuinely intriguing ideas; trapped somewhere inside it is a first-rate volume of essays.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...the 20th novel by this invaluable woman of letters, is unfiltered and unsentimental, but also curious and appreciative, for old age, Ms. Drabble writes, is 'a theme for heroism' ... One can spot a late style here in Ms. Drabble’s near total disregard for narrative structure. The Dark Flood Rises isn’t a story so much as a set of vividly detailed snapshots of the routines of aging. The pace, too, can feel oddly impatient ... The virtue of such a busy canvas, however, is the sense of connection that it fosters. Ms. Drabble’s beautiful 2013 novel, The Pure Gold Baby, explored the traditional role the English village had in caring for the mentally ill, and her new novel again takes up the question of collective responsibility. Ms. Drabble’s overarching insight is that no one grows old alone ... Death and accidents are the grim commonplace in these late bonds. Ms. Drabble doesn’t shy from the fact that her characters 'live in the world of obituaries.' But they are a community nonetheless, and one drawn with the perception and understanding of a great novelist with a lifetime of experience behind her.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalInto the phantasmagoria, Mr. Saunders introduces a chorus of dead souls representing all strata of American society, from soldiers to slaveholders to poor farmers. Each is granted a turn to speak, and their monologues contain despairing recollections of the persecutions they suffered as well as hopeless rationalizations for the crimes they committed ... The weakest parts of Lincoln in the Bardo are those that seek to evoke this signal era in American history. Some of the shades speak about racist oppression or the carnage of the Civil War, but such details feel patched in. The novel is too dreamy and philosophical to capture the passions and hatreds that animated these years ... Yet if readers can imagine away the novel’s historical ballast, Lincoln in the Bardo is a moving and heartfelt treatise about grief.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Ackerman, who lives in Istanbul and has written some fine reportage from the Turkish borderlands, knows Gaziantep well and sharply depicts its incongruities ... Abandonment forms a mournful theme in Dark at the Crossing. Daphne is haunted by the fact that her daughter’s body was never recovered and, with her husband’s fatalistic consent, decides to follow Haris to Aleppo on a hopeless quest to find it ... moral confusion gives Dark at the Crossing its bleak power ... Mr. Ackerman shows boldness and empathy in trying to envision modern conflagrations from foreign vantage points. But the book is less successful at capturing the illuminating particulars of the Syrian tragedy, the things that make it different from other blasted Middle East warzones. His writing is journalistic rather than imaginative.
PositiveHarper\'s\"The new novel may sound like a high-concept, formally pyrotechnic book, yet Auster’s approach to his material is hardly out of the ordinary — he draws on his own life experience, tweaking details and outcomes as it suits him. The pleasures 4 3 2 1 offers are fairly traditional as well. As a time capsule of New York and New Jersey in the Fifties and Sixties, it is consistently engrossing ... Auster’s late writing has shown something of a mania for inventories and in 4 3 2 1 at times this tendency metastasizes into unwieldy historical checklists. But more often the surplus description is born of generosity and exuberance ... Auster’s tilt away from the stifling control of locked-room mysteries toward the hail-mary risks of interwoven shaggy-dog coming-of-age stories is rejuvenating. He returns to many of his old hobbyhorses in 4 3 2 1, but here they are restored from the level of abstract metaphor to their rightful place in the real world ... Though the book’s plots are by and large little more than scaffolding for Auster’s lavishly appointed memory theater, they’re still fairly lively ... These latter portions flag. This is perhaps symptomatic of all coming-of-age stories, which address the process of relinquishing cherished attachments; the arc they describe moves toward loss and isolation. But it’s especially true for an author as single-minded as Auster.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalTransit is, again, a novel of anecdotes—confided by friends and colleagues, by men hoping to seduce Faye, by the workers, the realtor and even the hairdresser ... just what she—and by extension the reader—is learning from these conversations is less evident ... tension is uncomfortably ubiquitous in Transit, which faithfully captures the feelings of agitation and powerlessness that come with change. But these are not especially edifying feelings to develop, and as a stand-alone novel Transit is a puzzling spectacle of tetchy behavior ... Transit is a frustrating, fractious experience, but it should be a step toward a unique and rewarding whole.
PanThe Wall Street Journal\"Because the reasons for the bodily renunciation in The Vegetarian were enigmatic, the novel had the dark energy of a fairy tale. But there’s no mystery in Human Acts. Here the source of the violence is obvious, and the brutalities are desensitizingly repetitive. There is justice in Ms. Han’s emphasis on dead and mutilated bodies, but there’s very little art. A corpse is an important fact; the life it once contained is the deeper story.\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIt’s fun to imagine the picturesque insults [Twain would] hurl against Mr. Coover and his publishing house. Everyone else, though, is free to enjoy this sly bit of fan fiction ... Huck Out West doesn’t deconstruct The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so much as reprise it. Jim, Becky Thatcher and Tom Sawyer all make amusing cameos, the latter as a cheerfully amoral killer who sees the Indian Wars as a prime venue for more storybook adventures ... Dark events form the backdrop of this novel, but as in Twain’s original, the winsome humor of Huck’s 'muddytatings' lend the story a deceptive innocence ... Twain might have admired the sentiment, though that wouldn’t have stopped the lawsuits.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"...a sensuous, exquisitely crafted wallowing in grief and tragedy ... Ann is the novel’s protagonist, but Ms. Ruskovich assumes the perspectives of numerous characters and scene-shifts from the distant past to the near future. The effect is to create a complex spider’s web of telling moments that ensnares the reader in the deep, meaningless suffering at the book’s center. There’s no catharsis on offer in Idaho. The point is a sadness so totalizing that it begins to resemble pleasure.\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalClass resentment is the gasoline that fuels the brothers’ ambitions and gives this novel its noisy volatility. The gritty urban realism that animated The White Tiger (2008) and Last Man in Tower (2011) is again on display, and though Selection Day is a slighter work—more a slice of life than a sprawling social exposé—it churns with the same propulsive energy. The book’s most touching, if somewhat underdeveloped, aspect concerns the rivalry between Radha and Manjunath themselves, who begin as allies against their controlling father and the wealthier players who dominate the sport and end as rivals for a coveted place on the Indian national team. A story with biblical echoes emerges, as it’s Manjunath, an eerily coldblooded genius between the wickets, who steals his older brother’s birth rite. Their relationship will resonate with American readers who usually regard cricket with bewilderment.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalDespite the unfinished feel of some of these pieces, which are mostly set in the 1960s, the collection offers a stimulating glimpse at a roller-coaster era for civil rights ... Collins’s writing has much in common with Grace Paley’s wry vignettes of New York intellectuals. Her voice is sharp and sophisticated but leavened by vulnerability and self-deprecation. A sense of fatalism lingers near the surface, but so do the characters’ dreams and desires.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...a flamboyantly imaginative work of fiction dressed in the sheep’s clothing of autobiography ... though Moonglow plays some light postmodernist tricks with the line between fiction and autobiography, it sincerely exalts the era as an American Age of Heroes, a time of marvels and portents, valor and tragedy ... Prose is still Mr. Chabon’s best tool of persuasion. But the troubled figure of the grandmother, a refugee who arrives in the U.S. with a small daughter and a numbered tattoo on her forearm, is what makes Moonglow his most confident and complex performance ... a movingly bittersweet novel that balances wonder with lamentation.
Yan Lianke, Trans. by Carlos Rojas
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"This darkly absurd history trucks freely with the fantastic—the city’s airport is built in less than a week—but many of the more brazen events are taken straight from the news ... Mr. Yan’s burlesque of a nation driven insane by money is equally a satire of some of the excesses of the Chinese Revolution.\
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...[an] exceptional debut novel ... With rapt precision, the novel details the first hours of this makeshift union ... Mr. Arudpragasam depicts [war] realistically, as a meaningless, machine-like force of destruction. And in examining the basic particulars of human interaction, his book displays the devotional intensity that Mr. Foer’s characters endlessly pontificate about but rarely find.
Amos Oz, Trans. by Nicholas de Lange
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Mr. Oz has generous sympathy for the overmatched dreamers, yet Judas sets down no fixed answers. Aided by Nicholas de Lange’s lucid translation from the Hebrew, it challenges you to think afresh about stories and histories whose interpretations can seem chiseled in stone. It is a novel that prompts questions and self-questioning. What else can one ask from a book?\
Javier Marias, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"Thus Bad Begins delivers all of Mr. Marías’s trademark qualities—chewy philosophical meditation, prose of fastidious elegance and the suspense of an old-fashioned potboiler ... This is the 12th of Mr. Marías’s books that Margaret Jull Costa has brought into English, and it’s now clear that the two have forged one of the most fruitful author-translator partnerships in current literature.\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal[A] note of resignation appears early in the novel, and despite the sensitivity and intelligence of what follows, it’s something the book never quite transcends ... These are two vastly different storylines, and in truth they make incongruous partners. The only clear commonality is politics ... In depicting the nuances of social division, Ms. Smith has few peers...She can be wonderfully astute and funny ... Swing Time is dotted with superb touches. Why then does the book feel so flat? The trouble is that the commentary outstrips the drama...More often Ms. Smith analyzes the music and the problems behind it. You wish she would just sing.
PanThe Wall Street JournalBoth were evidently written in a matter of weeks, and both narratives vanish into random digressions and arch opinions on literature ... Should such a person as a Nell Zink completist exist, this overwrought inside joke might be of interest. Everyone else should save their money and sanity and read her other books instead.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalA thrilling shootout with a pack of such outlaws—the scene occasions Ms. Jiles’s best writing—seals the bond between Kidd and Johanna. But what stands out amid the gun smoke and the period detail is the moving friendship between a girl with no place to fit in and an old man who has outlived his usefulness. Add them to the list of the Wild West’s great odd couples.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...a hilarious perversion of the rom-com ... [Zink] has affectionate fun tweaking the pieties of her cast of businessmen, cultists and activists ... beyond the satirical flourishes, the novel’s real agenda is to be amusing. Ms. Zink’s world is bawdy and absurd but essentially harmless. After marching her characters through a succession of ridiculous mishaps, she rewards them all with happy endings. It’s freeing to read a novel that’s both so witty and so inconsequential. Nicotine is light reading in the best sense. Think Wodehouse for millennials.
PanThe Wall Street JournalAs in Ms. Semple’s 2012 best seller Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the shenanigans mask deeper fears of losing family members. But it’s hard to warm to this high-strung heroine who, like idle narcissists the world over, flatters herself that she is stressed beyond endurance. Really, there are no conflicts in the book that Eleanor couldn’t fix with three phone calls and her MasterCard.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Donoghue, a native of Dublin, is strikingly harsh in her depiction of the Irish; most are caricatured as blindly superstitious bog dwellers. But Anna receives the author’s full sympathies and is a lively, endearing foil to her incredulous nurse ... As in Room, Ms. Donoghue proves a shrewd observer of the parental urge to distort reality to protect children—and themselves.
Peter Ho Davies
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe episodes vary in quality. The strongest is the first, which imagines the Gold Rush-era arrival of Ling, an orphaned teenager, in California ... In contrast, the short middle chapters read like false starts, albeit flecked with sardonic humor ... This rewarding, unorthodox novel embodies those halting attempts and imperfections.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalLoner moves ahead to its climax (and a superbly executed plot twist) with the sickening momentum of a horror movie. Though the study of a brainy, insecure Harvard kid has parallels to the movie The Social Network, Mr. Wayne is working with far darker material. This is Neil LaBute territory, full of misogyny, compulsion and duplicity.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalClose observation and deadpan humor unite the episodes...But the pussyfooting treatment of Cal’s death is a reminder that for all the boldness of Ms. Patchett’s set-ups, she has often lacked the dramatic killer instinct ... It’s telling about this novel that although a gun is introduced in the early chapters, and Chekhov regularly invoked, it never goes off.
PanThe Wall Street JournalYou can provide your own 'to be or not to be' crack, but rest assured that Mr. McEwan is happy to do it for you. Nutshell is an arch, strenuous, one-joke performance, the reading equivalent of a grueling night at an amateur improv. Mr. McEwan no doubt enjoyed himself. As for his readers? As Hamlet complained, 'though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve.'”
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThis is a heavily stage-crafted novel and frequently sacrifices believability for polemic—one chapter crams together plots concerning police brutality, abortion and homosexuality. It’s Ms. Corthron’s command of dialogue that keeps things motoring. Complex personalities are revealed through long, absorbing conversations, even in the affecting New York section, in which the courting is done in sign. Binding this impressive novel is a beleaguered concept of justice.
Jonathan Safran Foer
PanThe Wall Street Journal...it’s difficult to sustain a novel with the kind of low-grade conflict that his ambivalence and inertia provide. To his credit, Mr. Foer is aware of the dilemma, and the book is replete with self-conscious diagnoses that might apply equally to Jacob and, one feels, to the current state of Jewish-American fiction ... A lot of Here I Am is just psychiatrist’s-couch platitudes ... In Here I Am, he invents the catastrophe, but he exploits it for the same kind of tackily ennobling personal transformation.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Thien’s writing is pensive and melancholy, with little tonal variation. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is, nevertheless, a graceful, intricate novel whose humanity threads through it like a stirring melodic line.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...though Another Brooklyn is being billed as her first novel for adults in two decades, it will still speak most powerfully to younger readers. The book communicates a sense of longing and loneliness that will instantly resonate with teenagers of a certain introspective temperament ... Older readers may wish that more irony and complexity shaded these reminiscences. But the purpose of Ms. Woodson’s touching memorialization is to return you to that age when experience cuts deep.
Rosa Liksom, Trans. by Lola Rogers
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Liksom conjures beauty from the ugliest of things. As she finds something wily and comical in the unforgettably horrible Ivanov, so she imbues the industrial wastelands with an inexplicable charm ... What emerges is a twilight-hued elegy to the sickly last days of a wicked empire.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe apps and nonstop social media updates are new, but otherwise Still Here is a brisk and amusing reboot of the familiar immigrant tale. Culture clashes, loneliness and mishaps in love and work fill the foursome’s days. Ms. Vapnyar throws in a bit of existential dread for spice. The novel jumps along episodically toward its implausible happy ending, a little in the way of a TV series. Think Friends with a heavy Russian accent.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalWar Porn concludes in an act of chilling brutality, a distillation of Mr. Scranton’s vision of the American misadventure in Iraq and a fitting end to one of the best and most disturbing war novels in years.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe chase drama advances in fits and starts, and Mr. Whitehead sometimes strains to fit it together with the extended scene-setting that goes into characterizing each state and which more obviously excites his gifts. What remains consistent, however, is the powerful intellectual undercurrent that courses beneath the story. For in its tour d’horizon of persecution, The Underground Railroad is inquiring into the very soul of American democracy, measuring the promise of its ideals against the facts of its history.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe effect of Sofia’s breakdown is richly destabilizing and unpredictable, and very much in line with Ms. Levy’s earlier barbed novels ... She has found a niche unpacking the lies and power struggles of families on holiday. She can show you fear in a handful of sand. Yet the novel lacks any semblance of a convincing plot. Ms. Levy advances the story not by creating a dramatic arc but by shuffling through a set of symbols like a fortune-teller turning tarot cards.
Donald Ray Pollack
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...a Bosch-like collage of the depraved and the grotesque ... a jauntily amoral, amusingly macabre and somewhat juvenile entertainment—a beach read to enjoy on the shore of a lake of fire.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"The book is reminiscent of a country diary, with entries that dwell on the narrator’s breakfast routine or her vegetable garden. One chapter is made up of worrywart ruminations on replacing a cracked knob on her outdated stove. But the homely themes hint at submerged fears and yearnings ... Hers is a mind in attentive communion with itself, building baroque and beautiful cloud castles of thought to distract from the storms of the real.\
Dorthe Nors, Trans. by Misha Hoekstra
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalGetting dumped: It happens to everyone. But when it happens to you, the agony seems unique in the annals of suffering. Danish writer Dorthe Nors covers the emotional spectrum of the experience in the two playfully experimental novellas of So Much for That Winter, finding as much material in the comedy of rejection as in its humiliations and heartbreak...The delightful 'Minna Needs Rehearsal Space' begins as a young Copenhagen composer is dropped by her boyfriend via text message in favor of a sexy pop musician...It’s here that Ms. Nors’s impish wit stands out.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThere’s a plainspoken toughness to this writer—nothing of the lofty soliloquizing of Ivan Doig or the verbal dash of Thomas McGuane—that has led to him be overlooked in the large herd of fine Montana novelists. As Good As Gone is the latest of his books to forge satisfying drama from the intersection of Western mystique and middle-class reality...Mr. Watson points up some grubby truths behind the archetypal Western tale of the loner who comes to town and dispenses rough justice. It’s typical of this thoughtful novelist that the ending of As Good As Gone is nuanced rather than explosive, and its traces of heroism are found not in violence but in a show of restraint.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journalan affectionate and very funny tribute to the gentle madness of sailing diehards ... Josh’s sardonic commentary on the mystique of sailing will amuse even readers who can’t tell a jib from a spinnaker. (His hilarious gloss on the Viagra commercial that confusingly features a middle-aged man alone on a boat is worth the cover price on its own.) And while Mr. Lynch often steers in the direction of sitcom whimsy—scenes of Josh’s dating misadventures are unneeded ballast—his writing is propelled by his appreciation of the obsessives and eccentrics who populate the country’s marinas.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAll the elements are here for a corking adventure yarn, perhaps in the style of Howard Carter’s account of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, which we see Mrs. Pretty reading. Yet despite the fact that most of the characters are real people, the novel’s interests are psychological rather than factual. Even as marvels are uncovered, an insistent strain of melancholy blows through these pages ... The ambient dread is partly due to the gathering storm of World War II. But the apprehension is also metaphysical, connected to the fact that the archaeologists are not digging for buried treasure so much as disturbing a grave. Mr. Preston delicately portrays the effect the specters of mortality and decay have on each narrator. As it brushes away the soil from the remarkable ship, The Dig stages understated excavations of marriage (both Basil’s and Peggy’s) and parenthood (Mrs. Pretty, who became a mother at 47, fears she won’t live to see her son grown up). Thus Mr. Preston creates an intriguing and ultimately moving concoction, a true-life chronicle that delves into secrets of the heart.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalGone are all traces of Ms. Proulx’s flowery ornamentation, and in their place we find a prose of directness, clarity, rhythmic power and oaken solidity. Barkskins is a potently imagined, if occasionally meandering, chronicle of mankind’s dealings with the North American forests ... The immense scale of the novel means we view its enormous cast as from a great height. There’s a dispassionate, easy-come-easy-go quality to most of these characters, who are cut down in life as quickly as a stand of white pines: by shipwreck, logging accidents, cholera and even Maori cannibals. Their ephemerality makes Barkskins a national epic without anything like a hero. In Ms. Proulx’s vigorous telling, the great American themes of progress and enterprise are reframed into an account of shortsighted plunder.
Adam Ehrlich Sachs
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalFilial ties, in all their tangled perversity, are the subject of Mr. Sachs’s debut. His brief comic sketches—each a darkly glittering gem of compressed neuroses—illustrate the astounding range of resentments and misunderstandings that exist between fathers and sons.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThere is a lot to synthesize, and Ms. Gyasi doesn’t always make it work. The biggest obstacle in a genealogical novel is the need to constantly explain how the families perpetuates their lines, and the result is that the stories in Homegoing repetitively focus on the hows and whys of marriage and childbirth. You start to feel that the only point to these characters’ lives is their ability to procreate. Yet it’s refreshing to read a novel with a sense of historical imminence. Contemporary American fiction frequently seems to exist in blank isolation from world events. Not so Homegoing, where wars and laws directly shape the characters’ destinies, often across generations.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...while appreciating this book doesn’t require knowledge of Hughes’s poems or the trickster myths on which they drew, those things certainly help. The constant literary allusions make Grief is the Thing with Feathers unpredictably playful, filling it with sarcasm, absurdity and black-winged humor.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe surprise of this novel is its almost studious avoidance of shock and sensationalism. There’s nothing here to do with 'Helter Skelter' or Manson’s ravings about an apocalyptic race war. The murders, when they come, are motivated by banal reasons of revenge. Even drugs and sex have relatively minor roles. What Ms. Cline delivers instead is an atmosphere of eerie desolation and balked desire thanks to her sensuous turns of phrase ... Of course heightened lyricism deployed in prodigal amounts will fall flat. And I suspect some readers will resent the bait and switch of turning one of the last century’s most lurid crimes into yet another low-simmering excavation of longing and anomie. Yet The Girls is a hypnotic, persuasively melancholy performance.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Hawley withholds the unpredictable truth about the plane crash until the final chapters, though veteran readers of thrillers may not be particularly impressed by the tricks he uses to draw out the suspense—a case of temporary amnesia that prevents Burroughs from remembering the flight and a black box that investigators take an eternity to fish out of the ocean. The real satisfaction of this addictive novel is in the face-off between Burroughs and the media mob spearheaded by Cunningham and his tabloid shock troops. On one side are the rabid forces of fearmongering, vulgarity and snide insinuation. To his surprise, Burroughs becomes a very public standard-bearer for patience and decency, and the quiet battle he wages for those virtues is cathartic. Before the Fall is about the gulf that separates perception and truth, and the people who fall into it.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal[T]he production of enriched confusion is equally a talent of the most adventurous novelists, and it is one that Mr. Seay confidently deploys in his wondrous debut, a deliciously intricate, centuries-spanning tripartite tale of money and mysticism...The immortal yearning to take occult powers in hand drives each story to a thrilling ending. Mr. Seay has conjured his own kind of sorcery, a sophisticated thriller that keeps the pages turning even as it teases the mind.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe slow story, full of alcoholism, suicidal nightmares, long-held vendettas and endless shades of guilt, rivals Hardy for gothic bleakness (the primal schism at the outset brings to mind The Mayor of Casterbridge). It feels like something of a capstone to Ms. Erdrich’s recent gray period. Her choral-voiced early books, such as the school syllabus staple Love Medicine (1984), juggled tragedy and comedy together. LaRose offers a unified vision of human suffering, which, however compelling, allows little space for life’s other emotions.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...an epic study of trauma and friendship written with such intelligence and depth of perception that it will be one of the benchmarks against which all other novels that broach those subjects (and they are legion) will be measured ... What’s remarkable about this novel, and what sets it apart from so many books centered on damaged protagonists, is the poise and equanimity with which Ms. Yanagihara presents the most shocking aspects of Jude’s life. There is empathy in the writing but no judgment, and Jude’s suffering, though unfathomably extreme, is never used to extort a cheap emotional response.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe writing is candid without being sensational, detailed without being clinical. This admirable novel reminds us that even when childbirth is overseen by caring professionals in state-of-the-art facilities, it still arrives on waves of blood.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalBy taking on such a politically divisive issue, Ms. Haigh is vulnerable to what you might call Barbara Kingsolver syndrome—dressing up sententious lectures in a gauze of melodrama. But as she demonstrated in 2011’s Faith, a deft and unpredictable novel springing from the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal, she knows how to isolate persuasive local conflicts from national news stories...There’s not a boring page in this fittingly chaotic chronicle of our 21st-century oil rush.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalGod Help the Child is stylistically consistent with Ms. Morrison’s whole body of work. The narrative is stereoscopic, jumping from the points of view of major and minor characters. There is also a touch of hallucinatory magic realism, as Bride’s transformation into a child takes a literal form—for a time during her breakdown her breasts and pubic hair seem to vanish, as though maturation is running in reverse. The noticeable difference, however, is a weakening in the power of Ms. Morrison’s prose ... the sense of poetic enlargement of her major novels is absent from God Help the Child.
Claire Vaye Watkins
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIt sounds like science fiction, but this splendid debut novel is really a reinvigorated version of the classic tales of settlement on the American frontier ... Gold Fame Citrus is the first of the recent outbreak to fully imagine the natural world in the wake of catastrophe. Ms. Watkins potently evokes the nightmarish and the spectacular.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[Eileen is a moody, spookily mesmeric tale of small-town murder ... Readers expecting a traditional crime novel may be frustrated by the book’s slow build-up and looping digressions. 'Some of my clearest memories may seem wholly irrelevant,' Eileen remarks, 'but I will include them when I feel they add to the mood.' But it is in that gritty, claustrophobic atmosphere that Ms. Moshfegh’s talents are most apparent. This young writer already possesses a remarkably sighted view into the bleakest alleys of the psyche.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Haslett is alert to the reality of others, and the insinuating power of this novel comes from its framing of mental illness as a family affair. Michael’s siblings are both wholly convincing characters, shaped by the abiding question of how much, or how little, they are meant to act as their brother’s keepers.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt would be easy to read this late work as a dark, oracular warning about 21st-century manipulations of mortality. But what Zero K actually demonstrates is that Mr. DeLillo’s true brilliance has always been as a satirist...Alas, Zero K does eventually become solemn, trading droll humor for portentous invocations of warfare and destruction that have little to do with the Convergence. This shift was also a weakness of White Noise (1985), which begins as a splendid academic satire and turns into an incoherent cautionary tale about nuclear annihilation. The temptations of prophecy—of terrible, beckoning insight—are too great for Mr. DeLillo to entirely resist. Zero K is best when he can’t figure out how to open the doors.
Marie NDiaye, Trans. by Jordan Stump
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe parallel but non-overlapping narratives of the two Ladivines provide the novel’s most haunting effects. Yet while Ms. NDiaye addresses her themes of separation and disappearance with artistry, it is overshadowed by the book’s grim, devoutly humorless tone. Translator Jordan Stump has done faithful, diligent work, but the prose is as solemn and droning as a church organ.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
RaveThe Wall Street JournalBlack humor seeps through these pages, as does a deepening sense of despair. In the brutal finale, when the narrator has returned to Vietnam only to be 'rehabilitated' by his supposed comrades, he has been so poisoned by dirty work that he has lost all conviction. Seeing things from two sides has simply meant that he has seen twice as many lies.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalHystopia's tale-swallowing metafiction ingeniously embodies the self-replicating mental prisons of war trauma (in Allen’s telling, even enfolded veterans feel caged inside their forgetfulness). But it also negates the writing’s emotional energy. Allen fantasizes about a 'reunification' with the past that would free victims from trauma’s grip, but the framing sections focusing on Allen’s suicide expose this dream as a sad delusion. Mr. Means’s novel is, in the end, a superbly stylized embellishment on emptiness and despair, a book that revives the narrative excitements of postmodernism at its peak while drifting into the moral vacuum so often at its core.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
PanThe Wall Street JournalIt’s the most charmless installment so far, composed in delirious haste and possessing none of the bird’s-eye-view meditations on art and mortality that threw the prosaic chronicles of the early volumes into interesting relief. But at this point it hardly matters. Yeoman readers who have already made it through 2,000 pages of these 'struggles' will simply hold on for dear life as the Knausgaard leviathan drags them where it will, little knowing where they’ll all end up next year when the final volume at last carries them back to shore.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalHemings is the novel’s outstanding character, eloquent and capable, morally exacting and self-aware, now overflowing with tenderness, now seething with hatred. Jefferson cuts a far more ambivalent figure, unmatched in intelligence but often paralyzed by guilt and reduced to nervous stammering. Most of all he’s capable of tremendous self-deception, which deepens as he grows old and attempts to bond with the children he has had with Hemings while at the same time refusing to recognize them publicly.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Mahajan’s writing is acrid and bracing, tightly packed with dissonant imagery. Development-scarred New Delhi appears 'baked in exquisite concrete shapes.' The survivors of the bombing are seen 'climbing over the corpses with the guilty look of burglars.' The sharpest passages examine the terrorist mind-set and the demented rationales for mass murder with such acid-etched clarity that it’s possible to feel the deadly magnetism of the arguments ... The Association of Small Bombs is not the first novel about the aftermath of a terrorist attack, but it is the finest I’ve read at capturing the seduction and force of the murderous, annihilating illogic that increasingly consumes the globe.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalInnocents and Others is more expansive [than Stone Arabia], but the same omniscient intelligence is employed in layering ironies and superimposing themes of memory, identity, reality and representation while building toward the two women’s inevitable convergence...But even as the book’s complexities turn into high gear, Ms. Spiotta’s writing stays cool to the touch.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"The loveliest aspect of this novel is its gentle, wondering portrayal of the Cavendish marriage. William, a poet and patron of the arts, encourages his wife’s ambitions even as they bring notoriety upon the household. Grasping that her genius will assure him a measure of posterity, he isn’t even unduly upset when the public credits her with writing his own stage plays. Ms. Dutton sensitively shows how Margaret’s iconoclasm complicates, but ultimately enriches their relationship.\
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe combination of grisly James Patterson thriller and melancholic suburban drama shouldn’t work at all. Yet Ms. Yun pulls it off. Kyung is petulant and unlikeable, but he’s also psychologically unstable. The proximity of his parents and the atmosphere of grief and panic launch him on a spiral of self-destruction that’s impossible to turn away from. The novel grows darker and darker, until all its internal contradictions are eclipsed by an ending as disturbing and bereft as anything you’ll read this year.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIt’s all quite tame, with none of the vengeance-is-mine anger that animated Mr. Wagner’s 2012 thrill ride of a novel, Dead Stars...The Greeks wrote their tragedies about kings and queens, and this curious novel positions the mega-famous as our modern day royalty.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal“Rush Oh! is an elegiac tale, recounting the dissolution of both the whaling outfit and the Davidson clan. But Mary’s voice is so fresh and Ms. Barrett’s sidewinding story so spry and amusing that readers will think less of endings than of the auspicious start to a novelist’s career.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...this intricately woven story of a group of Indians who have come to England seeking work powerfully reminds us of just what immigrants seek in the West ... Mr. Sahota’s superb novel helps to make the reality of migrants a little less unimaginable and a little more human.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...veers from flummoxed absurdity to macabre violence in a way reminiscent of a Coen brothers movie ... Absences and omissions, the unspoken and the unspeakable, carry much of the weight in this spare, witty riddle of a novel. For Ms. Novey’s characters, it isn’t just Beatriz who has gone missing, but some deeper truth essential to their self-knowledge.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal“Forty Rooms is a deft, engaging novel written with rare eloquence. But a ferociously uncompromising morality play lurks within it.
Maylis de Kerangal, Trans. by Sam Taylor
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"...his translation throbs with beauty, sorrow and an undimmed astonishment at the life of the body. At one point Ms. de Kerangal gives us a bird’s-eye view of nighttime Paris rising up \'under a dome of corpuscular light.\' Her novel is suffused with the same human glow.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMs. Cantor ingeniously matches the dilemmas of poetics to personal matters ... So it’s a letdown when, in the novel’s final third, this deft juggling act collapses ... Pat biographical summary takes the place of textual interpretation, and the book flattens into a soap opera. Good on Paper tantalizingly tinkers with storytelling novelties, but it ends up in old and familiar territory.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Greenwell is a scrupulous observer of this trajectory, and he describes with sensuous and often unflattering precision the union of shame and desire ... Yet for all the time devoted to it, What Belongs to You is insubstantial, more like a beautifully wrought character portrait than a full-blooded novel.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...the book’s true attraction is the poet’s wonderfully quotable running commentary on 'the grand discombobulation' of experience, which he regards with undimmed enjoyment.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal...part of the deep melancholy of this novel grows from Lucy’s gradual discovery of the inadequacies of therapeutic art. Writing, she learns, is tantamount to a declaration of solitude, and writing honestly means living close to your hurts and longings.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalHotels of North America has its eye-rolling distractions, too—the name R.E. Morse, for instance—but it’s a much more controlled performance and inflected by gentle humor. Mr. Moody has a perfect grasp of the new genre of online reviewing, which is faceless yet weirdly interactive.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWhen All the Houses turns to flashbacks to the 1980s to reveal...family secrets, it resolves into a smart, gregarious domestic drama. As to the facts of the Iran-Contra affair, Ms. Olsson is happy to let the historians try to figure them out.
PanThe Wall Street JournalMs. Brooks capably presents that enigma, but you will wish she went further toward unraveling it. David’s story is packed with incident, and she must resort to some dutiful summarizing in order to get everything in. What gets lost is the work of interpretation and the insights that make her reading of the story distinct from anybody else’s.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe painting is a fitting motif for this ingenious book. Mr. Marra depicts Russian history as a palimpsest of horrors, in which the crimes of the past never disappear even as tragic new layers are added.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMr. deWitt, whose previous novel was the fine Western pastiche The Sisters Brothers (2011), has a good time toying with fairy tale conventions. The story is farcical, macabre and surprisingly lewd (after the baroness finally returns there is one of the strangest orgy scenes you’ll ever read). As I read the book, I more than once made the sound the valet finds so base and unpleasant.