PositiveThe A.V. ClubThe Down Days is one of the most accurate depictions of the strange realities of life during a pandemic. Hugo’s eerily prescient story depicts a world fundamentally transformed but still recognizable ... while so much apocalyptic fiction winds up dwelling on humanity’s worst impulses, Hugo’s novel is far more optimistic. There are no real villains here except for maybe the self-righteous and delusional who deny the plague’s power or claim to have a cure, like a group of evangelicals who believe that the disease can be prevented by cutting out processed foods. Mostly it’s a story of flawed people, each broken in some way by grief and the fundamental shift in how society functions. Even the people who do the worst things are sympathetic; they’re just trying to survive and help others through an impossible situation. Hugo’s strange version of Cape Town, rechristened Sick City, is vibrantly brought to life through her detailed descriptions. Punctuated with Afrikaans expressions, local slang, and Zulu mythology, The Down Days contains asides about South Africa’s history of colonialism, slavery, and corruption without preaching. In fact, it’s a surprisingly breezy novel with short chapters that jump between perspectives as the narrative moves with the bustle of city life, all of the action condensed over the course of just a few days.
PositiveThe AV ClubEach tale is powerful in its own right, the structure making the novel feel more like a collection of interconnected short stories ... The book also has a musical quality, picking up tempo and then slowing down before returning to familiar beats ... Jimenez knows just how to give each supporting character enough space to make them feel essential to the story and Nia’s makeshift family ... is at its best when it’s most intimate, spinning a story filled with romance, much of it queer, along with platonic relationships that demonstrate the power of found families. While most of the book’s characters are damaged by past tragedies and feel the heavy burden of regret, the heroes are those who work together to build and nurture something new rather than trying to reconstruct what they’ve lost ... The disconnected nature of The Vanished Birds means that it sometimes feels like less than the sum of its parts. It’s easy to want a reprise of the book’s stronger interludes ... Like any musical, not all the pieces in The Vanished Birds work equally well. But it’s still an impressively ambitious debut novel, promising a future where humanity might improve by learning from its past failings. The snapshots Jimenez provides of people, places, and time in his sprawling world leave the door open for more elaborate portraits to come.
MixedThe A.V ClubLike Isaac Asimov, Liu is far more interested in science than character development, and his heroes and villains are all thinly written. Liu constantly tells rather than shows when it comes to his characters’ motivations ... The novel also delivers physics-based scientific explanations, often in large and pedantic text dumps when characters are discussing or experimenting with technology ... That clunky text means The Three-Body ProblemThe Three-Body Problem sell a million copies in China just might not translate here. The result is a book that offers a unique perspective on science fiction, but isn’t much fun to read.
Carol Rifka Brunt
PositiveAV ClubThe novel provides an earnest look at the burdens of choice and the fear of missed opportunities, all while weaving a beautiful portrait of the complicated relationships between family members ... Brunt weaves a terrific coming-of-age story, painting a vibrant picture of June’s dreams and insecurities as she teeters on the border between childhood and maturity ... The complexity of the relationship between June and her older sister Greta provides the book’s richest material ... The book’s only real weakness comes when June’s narrative changes from the present to some future version of herself looking back on the events ... These interludes break up the action by describing June’s emotions, even though Brunt’s writing already does a good job of showing them. Her maudlin musings come particularly heavily at the end, and reduce the impact of the bittersweet climax. But the impact of the rest of Brunt’s novel makes this a striking first outing.
N. K Jemisin
PositiveThe A.V ClubA weak central character can make a book hard to get through, but there’s nothing disagreeable about Yeine...She’s simply a generic element in an otherwise refreshing book. Throughout Kingdoms, Yeine’s rivals mock her for being weak; fortunately the rest of N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel is commensurately strong ... As with any new fantasy series, an early chunk of Kingdoms is devoted to laying out the world’s rules and a bit of its history. But once the framework is established, Jemisin skillfully fills it with strange societies, explaining their beliefs and traditions in a way that makes them seem real rather than fantastical. At its heart, The Hundred Thousand Kingdomsis a story about love and forgiveness, and even hateful characters tend to have moments of human vulnerability that make them sympathetic. But the stars of the novel are the gods who come across as genuinely amoral and alien, capable of emulating humanity but never really a part of it.
N. K. Jemisin
PositiveAV ClubThe peeling away of secrets and lies makes for a compelling page-turner ... As with any new fantasy series, an early chunk of Kingdoms is devoted to laying out the world’s rules and a bit of its history. But once the framework is established, Jemisin skillfully fills it with strange societies, explaining their beliefs and traditions in a way that makes them seem real rather than fantastical ... The stars of the novel are the gods who come across as genuinely amoral and alien, capable of emulating humanity but never really a part of it.
RaveThe A.V. ClubAll of the best moments of The Testaments take place in Ardua Hall, a former college now occupied by the Aunts who rule over the female half of Gilead’s society ... Lydia’s plot is so involved that the other protagonists can’t help but feel like flimsy accessories by comparison. Nicole helps provide an outsider’s perspective on Gilead and the Mayday movement devoted to helping the people trapped there, but she reads as a generic dystopian YA protagonist, while Agnes comes across as a character from a feminist fairy tale ... While the characters are thin, Atwood breathes life into them with vibrant prose ... seems particularly keyed in to the #MeToo movement as it reveals that the oppression that the men of Gilead unleash on women is far from limited to official laws...Atwood is able to explore these issues in a way that feels honest without being exploitative, making the show feel even more gratuitous by comparison ... While The Testaments starts slow, the novel eventually delivers powerful drama that strips away the gray of moral relativism and lets its heroes shine through feats of courage, sacrifice, and cunning ... a far more empowering story of three women working together to make a difference for themselves and the world. It’s the sort of story that readers and viewers could use more of at a time when Gilead seems closer than ever.
PanThe A.V. Club... primarily a self-insertion fantasy where the 68-year-old author has written two stories about ... Miranda is a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a photographer who takes Samuel around Rome and snaps pictures of him as he regales her with tales of how happy he was when he worked in the city and slept with his students ... The whole thing would seem like parody if Aciman showed even a bit of self-awareness. As a kicker, Miranda’s whole purpose seems to be to produce a baby for Elio and Oliver to decide is theirs even though she’s still alive ... the author has no idea what to do with the characters ... What’s infuriating is that when Elio and Oliver finally do come together, Find Me manages to recapture the magic of Call Me By Your Name...Their emotional and sexual anxieties feel honest and relatable in a way that nothing else in the novel does ... Aciman wastes his readers’ time by delivering a lengthy preamble that has nothing to do with what made his original novel great ... Maybe someone can stretch the novel’s final chapter into a properly satisfying follow-up, but until then Find Me is a terrible disappointment.
Yoko Ogawa, Trans. by Stephen Snyder
RaveThe AV Club... feels like a desperate scream for readers to internalize its truths and take action ... While there are a few details that ground the story in Ogawa’s native Japan, the sparseness of the narrative makes The Memory Police feel like a fairy tale that could be set anywhere. The book is practically a novelization of German pastor Martin Niemoller’s post-World War II poem First they came …, but the environmental effects of the disappearances of things like roses and fruit make Ogawa’s prose feel applicable not just to political atrocities like genocide but to climate change or any other crisis made worse by general complacency ... a poignant examination about how struggles and people are interconnected and the fact that security is not enough to hope for.
MixedThe AV/AUX ClubImagining a Harry Potter novel written by Megan Abbott is a phenomenal setup for a book, and Gailey provides a decidedly more grounded version of the magic school experience ... Unfortunately, they never get the development needed to make them feel like anything more than moving pieces of the plot. While the story itself follows the beats of a noir perfectly, down to an ending that delivers only pain for everyone involved, it’s not quite twisty enough. I had the answer to the mystery figured out a full hundred pages before it was taking Ivy by surprise ... a lovely look at sibling rivalry, how misunderstandings can last for years, and the delicate and painful work required to admit fault and accept apologies ... Gailey still fails to imagine how mages fit into the world at large and what prospects await them besides the most obvious fields like magical healer, teacher, or law enforcement officer ... just a bit of extra information would have gone a long way toward making the setting feel better defined ... The book feels so close to being magical, but never finds a way to achieve its full power.
PositiveA.V. Club\"Famous Men Who Never Lived is a linguistic feat, as the author invents curses, slang, and a name for drugs that manage to feel authentic by virtue of just being a bit removed from the versions commonly used now. Those join fun touches like a musician who tries to pass off the music from the UDPs’ equivalent of The Beatles as his own, helping to bring levity to prose that focuses on the heavy subjects of survivor’s guilt, trauma, and the healing power of art ... Like its imagined anti-colonialist narrative, The Pyronauts, or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Famous Men Who Never Lived is science fiction executing its classic purpose of using a disturbing vision of the future to examine the real problems of the present.\
MixedThe A.V. Club\"McCracken’s prose... flows according to a clear plan, but then, like a rogue ball, veers off course. Sometimes McCracken hits her mark, delivering a surprisingly tender scene or laugh-out-loud funny line, while some of her passages don’t connect to anything at all ... Bertha is a wonderful character, bucking all tradition as she encourages the women of Salford to bowl with her without any separation from the male patrons ... Bowlaway’s narrative tree only gets weaker as its branches stray further from the solid roots provided by Bertha’s story. It’s a real shame that the novel is just never as good after its first half, when the story’s matriarch is a direct actor and not just a progenitor to other characters and narratives. Some characters simply can’t reconcile with Bertha’s death, and the book itself never really recovers either ... McCracken... has pieced together a series of small dramas that sometimes line up like perfectly set pins and sometimes feel as frustratingly separated as a seven-ten split.\
MixedThe A.V. Club\"The plot of Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective sounds like classic noir, except rather than following the detective, it’s about the woman offering the title character a job. And that’s a problem ... Like the election itself, Phoebe’s story feels like a failure of feminism ... When Lethem fully embraces the absurd, the story is a lot more entertaining ... This journey-over-destination approach to mystery is deeply unsatisfying. Phoebe might find what she went West looking for, but readers won’t get a worthy detective story.\
PositiveA.V. ClubIt’s a story filled with quirky characters and glimpses of bigger movements ... Orlean has a tendency to place herself in the narrative, and it’s a bit uncomfortable when she’s talking about the library’s homeless patrons or a day she spent signing them up for its outreach program ... Even worse is the self-indulgent segment where she writes about wanting to burn a book to experience a bit of Central Library’s historic fire ... Luckily part of the charm of a library, or an Orlean book, is that one might come looking for one thing and find something very different yet still enjoyable. B.
RaveA.V. ClubThe book’s critique of late capitalism is scathing if not especially subtle. Candace is both a nuanced individual and a stand-in for an entire generation ... Severance regularly mixes the mundane or silly with the grotesque ... While technically post-apocalyptic fiction, Severance shares as much with Then We Came To The End, Joshua Ferris’ meditation on the failure of an advertising agency, as it does with The Walking Dead; Ma plays with voice, alternating between the first-person singular and plural to show how easily an individual comes to identify as part of a collective and how hard it is to have that group fall apart.
PositiveThe AV Club\"The high school portion is compelling throughout, showing the brutal class divides that keep people with the same potential from realizing similar results ... One downside of this friendship is that the secret that drove the two of them apart stays hidden for too long, made worse by the somewhat tedious nature of the book’s first third ... Abbott is at her best when delving into the darker places of women’s psyches ... Throughout it all, Abbott keeps readers off guard with unsettling scenes of death, and perhaps even more disturbing inner monologues. From a high school senior’s tiny bedroom to a clean and orderly lab, Abbott can bring horror anywhere.\
PositiveThe AV Club\"It’s a testimony to Groff’s artistry that these stories can be at once satisfying while tantalizingly incomplete ... That mix of fear and intimate knowledge allows her to look at the state clinically, showing it as a place that is alternately seductive, brutal, and hard to escape, where warm sun gives way to dark predators ... As powerful a sense of place as Groff is able to provide, it’s a shame that she doesn’t venture further in her exploration of the state ... Florida is a state of wildly different ecosystems, both natural and cultural, and Florida is at its best when staying within its borders. Groff was never going to give readers the full story of what life is like in the Sunshine State, but this collection offers a new way to be a visitor.\
MixedThe AV ClubAbrams loosely organizes the chapters of his oral history by season, with breaks within for commentary on various themes like Baltimore as a character or the composition of the show’s writers’ room. Along with sometimes cutting away from a subject too quickly, it can feel like he’s jamming in a great quote he doesn’t otherwise have a home for or letting an actor repeat himself. But the amazing material makes up for the structural weaknesses … Abrams keeps his interviews focused on the show’s creation for most of the book. That immediacy makes the emotions feel fresh … All The Pieces Matter doesn’t provide much in the way of answers. But the stories Abrams tells deliver the same mix of humor and despair that made ‘The Wire’ worth writing so much about.
PositiveThe AV ClubAs Hollywood faces a reckoning about sexual harassment and, among other issues, equal pay, Benjamin’s book about the role two women played in the earliest days of movie making provides a depressing reminder of just how long these issues have plagued the industry ... The author of The Swans Of Fifth Avenue and The Aviator’s Wife brings her penchant for diligently researched historical fiction to chronicling the dawn of the American film industry ... The Girls In The Picture is at its best when the history takes a back seat and the book becomes more of a portrait of the complexity of female friendship ... It’s Benjamin’s attempt to tell the story from two different perspectives, casting both characters as alternately sympathetic and destructive, that falls short ... Flawed as the storytelling may be, The Girls In The Picture still succeeds at capturing a fleeting moment of time.
PositiveThe AV ClubVaddey Ratner’s debut novel, In the Shadow Of The Banyan, also blends love, creativity, horror, and genocide, but the mix is far bleaker. The results are emotionally draining, but well worth reading to provide a look at an atrocity few modern Americans know much about ... Ratner’s work is remarkable in that it’s based on her actual experiences growing up in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s brief reign, and she’s preserved real-life details here... Lovely tales of birds trapped in lotuses, divine beings playing in storms, and martyring rabbits, combined with a few rare moments of compassion from strangers, provide needed relief to the pages that so often show the worst humanity is capable of...a deeply personal work that celebrates the endurance of the human spirit and the possibility of rebirth.
PositiveThe AV ClubLitt’s knack for humor shines throughout the book, which is packed with laugh-out-loud anecdotes like the time he got caught in his underwear in the Air Force One coat closet or stories of dealing with the surly stray cat a member of the Secret Service fed outside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building ... even as Trump tries his best to destroy Obama’s legacy, Litt is confident it can survive. That may be the same kind of idealistic thinking that once led him to believe that Obama 'was the best possible version of a human,' but for readers playing that same game, a bit of hope and nostalgia is a powerful thing.
MixedThe A.V. ClubIn spite of Larson’s best efforts, Dodd and Martha don’t make particularly compelling protagonists. Both seem hopelessly naïve, with Martha’s anti-Semitism leading her to flirt with Nazism while Dodd repeatedly expresses his belief that Hitler sincerely wants peace and is working to rein in the brutality unleashed by his followers. Larson’s attempts to seize on Dodd’s few moments of import feel exaggerated … The book is at its best when it shifts its focus off the Dodds to the people who surrounded them during their time in Berlin. Larson provides surprisingly intimate portrayals of Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Röhm, and other Nazi figures, and striking descriptions of the creeping paranoia that spread through all spheres of German society.
MixedThe AV ClubWhile the book is overall light and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, it shifts tone quickly between a rom-com-style plot where David tries to set Hank up with Sue to David’s survivor’s guilt of managing a relatively normal life when so many of his fellow soldiers couldn’t ... In classic Quick fashion, the novel is full of intriguing supporting characters. But at only 240 pages, the book leaves most of them largely unexplored. That’s fine in some cases where it’s clear that David is just getting a glimpse into their lives, but it makes too many of the book’s conflicts feel glossed over ... The Reason You’re Alive too often feels divided into how David sees himself and how Hank sees him. It would have been nice to really get the perspective of one of David’s friends about how they were able to see through his often stereotypical rhetoric to get to like and respect the good man underneath.
PositiveA.V. ClubBut there’s no happily-ever-after in Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, as with the Russian folktale it’s based on. Its charm lies in blending beauty, magic, and happiness with tragedy in a way that merges fantasy with the hardships of real life ... The mystery feels less important than Ivey’s character portraits. The story spans more than a decade, and provides lovely looks at the comforts of old relationships and the fire of new love ... The folktale of an old man and woman who make a child out of snow has many different endings. All of them are told early in The Snow Child, giving the ending a feeling of heavy-handed inevitability.
RaveThe AV Club\"Obreht was the youngest person on The New Yorker’s list of the 20 best fiction writers under 40, and The Tiger’s Wife lives up to its hype. The book provides an intimate view of life in a place where war is always close to the horizon. She obligingly mentions commonly known hazards like teens being blown up by landmines years after the weapons serve any military relevance. The Tiger’s Wife also provides a deeper look at the less obvious effects of war.\
PositiveThe AV Club...a sweet and surprising story about young love ... As with the reference overload, it could be easy to become discouraged by what appears to be a clichéd story with clear good guys and bad guys. But Rekulak surprises, subverting tropes by adding bits of depth to most of his supporting characters to show that people who’ve taken bad turns sometimes deserve second chances and nice people can make very bad decisions. Most notably Rekulak uses the traditional 'boy loses girl' segment of the story to take a hard and honest look at misogyny and male entitlement with the previously highly sympathetic Billy going on a rejection-fueled rant ... Rekulak’s writing style is so visual and his story so neat and contained it practically begs to be adapted into a movie.
PanThe AV ClubAlexandra Oliva’s debut novel The Last One makes its biggest misstep in the book’s first chapter by telling the readers exactly what’s going on ... While the criticism can get a little heavy-handed, Oliva does an excellent job of imagining the people behind the television personas ... The Last One certainly doesn’t drag, but it also doesn’t produce an especially satisfying conclusion. A twist meant to produce both an emotional climax and something of a happy ending for Zoo feels forced.
PositiveThe AV ClubBarton executes her trashy concept with style, producing a highly compelling guilty read ... Given the subject matter, the book could easily feel exploitative or overly sensationalist, but Barton leaves any graphic details to the reader’s imagination.