MixedSan Francisco Chronicle[The] richness of detail, both historical and in the natural world, that elevates the novel above the likes of Nancy Drew ... The whodunnit aspect of the book lacks urgency, mainly because we know neither the victims nor the suspects well. The red herrings are unexciting and, well, the antics and plans of the two girls get repetitive; they spend an awful lot of time walking around old Monterey, planning to meet up later, and chasing silly leads ... By the end, the mystery is solved, a limp motive is revealed and we’ve gotten to spend 224 pages with two very likable characters, a beautiful, moody setting, and some compelling California history. The plot is almost beside the point.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleIf you’ve forgotten what a distinct pleasure it is to read Nick Hornby, may I suggest Dickens and Prince, his odd, extended musings on the similarities between Charles Dickens, one of the most-read writers in the English language, and Prince, perhaps the most prolific and listened-to artist of the 20th and 21st centuries? ... Hornby stretches mightily in some cases to make the parallels stick ... But it doesn’t matter if some of his comparisons are sometimes a bit flimsy, because that’s not the point. The point is to be in the company of Nick Hornby, which is always a pleasure. His writing is so quick and generous and conversational and breezy that he could write an entertaining and informative book on the history of mayonnaise. Luckily, he’s chosen two of the most captivating artists of the last 150 years instead.
MixedThe San Francisco Chronicle... a strange hybrid that blends the fragmented story of Als’ fraught romance with his \'sensitive, ‘understanding’ white boyfriend\' with dreamlike images that read more like poetry than prose ... an examination that feels deeply personal but somehow intentionally vague and frustratingly opaque.
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleReading Hysterical: A Memoir by Elissa Bassist sometimes feels like sitting across from a delightfully bright and very amped woman while she tells you the story of her life. Well, the bad parts. Only it’s not really the story of her life; it’s a passionate, conversational and discursive exploration into all the ways in which women are oppressed, shunned, not listened to and hated, and how all of that is why she has such a hard time telling her story ... This memoir, which I suspect is a designation assigned by the marketing department because memoirs sell well, is more a feminist critique and primer on rape culture as seen through the lens of one woman’s personal experiences than it is a traditional memoir ... Bassist is herself very funny ... Let me admit here that I approached the book with a bit of a been-there-done-that attitude. Bassist’s examinations of her fraught early romantic relationships felt young and too familiar to me at first. I found it navel-gazing (a term often used to dismiss women writing about their lived experiences) and a little derivative (she cites and quotes feminist thinkers with abandon) ... By the end, “Hysterical” felt like a kind of a breakthrough, a celebratory whoop and a call to action all in one, even for someone who has identified as a feminist for decades. As I finished it, I found myself wanting to press it into the hands of everyone I know because whether it is a revelation or a reminder, Hysterical is part of the essential story of being female today.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleThe magic of this book lies not only in the beguiling voice of young Javier, or the harrowing journey and immense bravery of the migrants, or in the built-in hero’s journey of this narrative...The magic comes from the deep humanity with which Zamora tells the story...It is not romantic; no one is an angel or a superhero...No one is pure evil...These are flawed and complicated people caught in a flawed and complicated system that compels them to leave their countries and then punishes them for doing so...And while \'Solito\' has nothing overtly political to say about this deeply politicized subject, it feels like the beating heart at the very center of all the noise.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleGreatest hits of COVID-era angst that manages to avoid cliches and tired complaints while being reassuringly familiar at the same time ... This is the COVID novel I’ve been wanting to read — the COVID novel that feels brilliantly true to real life while elevating the monotonous drag of lockdown into something funny, sad and universal ... Clare Pollard is a poet, and although I normally avoid novels described as \'poetic,\' this one benefits from her compact, concise language. Characters, settings and even whole scenes are drawn in quick, exquisite precision full of wit and pathos. Its intimacy reminded me of Sally Rooney and its subtle, sly humor of Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows ... There is something deeply comforting about this whole story. The vulnerability, vanity and impotence our protagonist feels during this particular moment in history are, for this reader at least, completely recognizable. In the end, the novel is not a prophecy, but it is a reassuring reflection in the darkness.
RaveSan Francisco ChronicleEpically entertained ... It retains the noirish sensibility of the era ... Readers of his previous fiction...know that Marra is a masterful writer with characters that are deep, true and often very funny. But Mercury Pictures Presents is as much a novel about an era as it is a novel about its characters ... It asks the big questions ... And it answers, as all good fiction does, by enthralling its readers with stories that are personal, alive and heartbreaking.
Jamil Jan Kochai
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleIt doesn’t pay to try to connect the characters and stories too literally. The Haunting of Hajji Hotak is better taken as a whole, a brilliant, crazy quilt exploring filial devotion, religious beliefs, family, history and the effects of endless war. It’s also an education of sorts on the history of Afghanistan and the culture of Afghan Americans, although this is no primer for the non-Afghan reader. Kochai peppers his writing liberally with language and references that are up to you to look up if you don’t understand.
MixedSan Francisco ChronicleIf you are partial to the pedantic musings of precocious English majors and the stuttering inertia of young people emerging from sad and loveless childhoods, you might really like Nell Zink’s new novel, Avalon ... Zink is a brilliant creator of character, setting and, for lack of a better word, vibe, and there is much pleasure to be found in the way she gets so many things so precisely right in this novel ... It’s well-observed, archly funny and, unfortunately, a bit bland as a whole ... While Zink has lots to say about class, art, aesthetics and growing up, the story is nearly nonexistent.
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleLike the many con-artist biopics popular on TV right now, Cover Story is like a bag of Cheetos — you know it’s not great, but you find it very hard to stop snacking ... goes down easy, even if it requires a very willing suspension of disbelief ... If you can get over these stumbling blocks, however, Cover Story is a good read. The prose is not breathtaking, the exploration of the human condition is not revelatory, but, man oh man, it’s got suites at the Plaza, the FBI closing in, Russian hackers, designer clothes and a plot that stays ahead of the reader. Rigetti has written a need-to-read story, even if it’s a bit silly ... Whether Cover Story becomes the beach read of the season or is lost in the current frenzy for ripped-from-the-headlines stories is yet to be decided. What is established is that Rigetti, like her character Cat Wolff, has a knack for understanding our basest impulses and vulnerabilities and how far we are willing to go to believe a good story.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleWhile Pitkin does sometimes succumb to an inside-baseball approach to labor history (the acronyms alone are dizzying), the narrative is strong enough to pull the reader through the legal rigamarole and union infighting and into a more nuanced exploration of what solidarity truly means, why some people are driven to fight for what’s right, and what it means for a white woman of relative means to \'organize\' working-class women of color. In the end, Pitkin entwines these various threads into a heartfelt and persuasive argument for organized labor now more than ever.
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle[Mishra\'s] view of modernism and its promises of global wealth, growth and fulfillment is skeptical, curious and almost uncomfortably piercing. In his new novel, Run and Hide, he sweeps globalization, populism, cultural upheaval and the crisis of modern masculinity into the story of a modernized India ... Colorful ... The novel is deeply Indian, and surely readers like this one who are less familiar with the subtleties of the history, culture and language of that country will miss a lot, despite Mishra’s thrilling specificity and description. But like most things in this 21st century world, the book does not stop at borders ... Mishra’s scenes of life among the modern elites of Delhi, London and New York...are so precise and well-observed they are almost embarrassing ... Mishra is a masterful eyewitness to the modern world, equally unafraid of nuance, earnestness and absurdity. Run and Hide...is not plot-driven. It is a slow, careful book about a fast and reckless world. This is not a destination novel; it is a journey novel. One well worth taking.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle... so sprawling and ambitious and imaginative that the inclination is just to say, Read it. He’s a genius ... Doerr’s novel — part historical fiction, part love story, part war novel, part science fiction — asks you to just go with it, and it’s well worth your time to do so. Doerr’s imagined worlds are as precise and human as his re-creations of the historical world. He is a writer with the rare ability to achieve the universal and the specific simultaneously. His stories, both vast and intimate, are dazzling, sometimes dizzying in their scope ... At its essence, this novel is a 640-page testament to the power stories have to make life bearable. And it’s unlike anything you’ve read.
MixedHouston ChronicleIt is impossible to know or judge a marriage you are not part of ... Eleanor Henderson does her best to remedy that conundrum. And yet, as detailed and splayed out as her 20-plus years of marriage are in this memoir, this remains a very difficult relationship to understand ... It’s hard to critique this book without critiquing this marriage. Although the author failed to convince this reader, there must be something about this Aaron, about this relationship, that makes it worth the unceasing struggle. They do seem to have a lot of sex ... It is a continuous loop of illness, despair, hope and illness again. Henderson is smart and insightful, but this story is more litany than narrative. There are many rubbernecking moments. Metallic ooze coming from his navel? Insectlike husks collecting in his mouth? Frothing nipples? In the end, the empathetic pain the reader feels is for her, not for him.\
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleIn telling both stories, Sahota shows us the legacy of Mehar’s time, how one kind of trap gave way to another, how independence led to a diaspora, how being a \'lucky foreigner,\' as an uncle calls the great-grandson, comes with its own oppressions. It’s a tricky tapestry to pull off, and Sahota mostly does it beautifully ... an intimate page-turner with a deeper resonance as a tale of oppression, independence and resilience. But while Sahota’s writing is crisp and vivid and Mehar’s story is thrilling, the great-grandson’s chapters are less intriguing. His chapters serve as a modern counterbalance to his great-grandmother’s life, but they often feel like an interruption, crowding out the more urgent tale and leaving us with only a pieced-together picture of how Mehar’s bold actions affected the rest of her life. I almost want a sequel, but, again, it’s not that kind of mystery.
Paula Stone Williams
MixedSan Francisco Chronicle... a straightforward, chronological telling ... The most surprising part of the book isn’t her journey to transitioning or the fact that she knew she was meant to be in a female body from a very young age, but how long she fought against her own gender dysphoria and for the teachings of a religion that would eventually reject her for being herself ... Her insights into gender disparity are validating and perhaps somewhat obvious for anyone who has lived as a woman ... Meticulous in its detail, and thorough in its telling, this memoir often lacks intimacy and emotional depth. She tells us of her pain and sadness, but the connection the reader feels is more sociological than spiritual or poignant. In some ways, despite the fact that it is one person’s story, As a Woman is more of a trans primer for the unfamiliar than a deeply felt memoir.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle... has the feel of a sweeping family saga that’s hard to reconcile with its slender profile ... While Gloria’s agonizing story of modern immigration has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel of authenticity, the novel is richest when it delves into Jeanette’s family’s past and present in Cuba. Her ancestors’ lives are intimately entwined with the history of Cuba, and the writing in these chapters is lusher, less set on making a point, and more engaged in the particulars of telling a great story ... As the novel moves through time and place, Garcia explores how the political is always personal and how generations of women can pass along both strength and sorrow. At its heart, Of Women and Salt is a sad, deeply American story about the pieces of self people leave behind on their journeys to become \'Americans.\'
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleThe Blizzard Party feels like a life’s work, as if the author managed to include every keen observation, poetic rumination and theory of humanity he’s ever had. This is a good thing because Livings’ observations, ruminations and theories manage to be both satisfyingly recognizable and thrillingly original ... an expansive, discursive novel that allows us into the minds of dozens of bit players at seemingly minor moments. That the author somehow manages to fit it all together, puzzle-like, by the end is a feat of acrobatic storytelling. But this is not a book that exists for the sake of the story. This is a book that exists for the sake of getting at the truth of being alive. It explores the minutiae to get to the big questions ... There is something both exhilarating and a tad tiresome in the author’s desire to get every detail into the book. Livings’ sentences loop and meander. Sometimes, it is observant and funny ... Other times, the writing can verge on navel-gazing and self-indulgence, pulling the reader away from whatever story line she is trying to keep track of. Forgive the tired trope, but The Blizzard Party could be the love child of Jonathan Franzen’s merciless eye for human behavior and James Joyce’s elaborate wordsmithing. It has the feel of a \'big, important\' American novel, and it’s a reminder that sometimes fiction is the only possible way to get to the truth of a thing.
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleThis novel about a young trans man in New York trying to figure out his place in the world and find his true name did what good fiction is supposed to: It allowed me to enter the interior world of a character different from myself and empathize. And, in the process, it rewrote and deepened my understanding of what it means to be trans. But don’t worry, the novel is not a teaching manual, nor is it any sort of manifesto with an ax to grind. The Thirty Names of Night is a sensitive, multigenerational story about Syrian immigrants ... The novel’s gentleness is amplified by a lack of real bad guys. The Thirty Names of Night is mostly populated by good people ... Maybe because of this lack of a concrete threat, the story of Laila’s life, full of lost love, secrets and hardship, is the more exciting one to read. But the two stories come together beautifully. Joukhadar’s prose is poetic and painterly, mirroring the artistic bent of its narrator, and the book is ultimately a joyful one.
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle... propulsive ... more than plot twists and love triangles. It’s also an astute chronicle of cultures, gender dynamics and the complicated business of self-creation in America ... While the story of immigrant children straddling the two cultures to which they belong is well-trod territory, Yang manages to avoid any cliches with wonderfully precise writing and by creating in Ivy a deeply flawed character we aren’t sure we should root for at all ... Although the book is nearly addictive in its readability from the beginning, it’s in the unfolding of Ivy’s adult life that the story really stretches into something dark and thriller-like ... a rare thing: an insightful and keen observation of our culture and psychology cloaked in a plot that keeps you up past your bedtime.
MixedThe San Francisco Chronicle... a book peppered with some sloppy prose ... written from the comatose Stella’s point of view. Her dreamy, frustrated monologues are so particular and evocative that the reader can’t help but feel some of the character’s confusion and fear ... Because we see and hear the story through the voices of three different characters, it’s sometimes hard to know whose story this is. Who, exactly, do we really care about? Whose childhood trauma was the worst (Libby’s!)? Who do we hope will transform for the better? ... As it turns out, all of them emerge as the better angels of their natures. Their middle-aged awakenings are filled with some less-than-enlightening discoveries ... ultimately about how we turn catastrophe and regret into something transformative, and we can’t help rooting for these characters to finally find the fulfillment that so eludes them.
Jessica Pearce Rotondi
MixedSan Francisco ChronicleJessica Pearce Rotondi’s tragic family history has gifted her with one heck of a story to tell, a story she’d surely sacrifice if she could change the past ... Throughout, we see not only the tremendous emotional suffering of one family but also the eroding effects that the government’s multiple evasions, cover-ups and gaslighting have on their faith in their country. Rotondi’s strengths are her patience and journalistic curiosity as she meticulously traces several decades’ worth of family and government ephemera to tell the story of her uncle, her family and the POW-MIA movement after Vietnam. She is helped by a very quotable grandfather, but the book suffers from disjointed storytelling and a reliance on stilted cliches for expressing the most intimate and emotional aspects of the story. As readers, we want to love this family as she clearly does, but the players, even the author herself, never emerge as fully realized people. It’s as if it can’t entirely commit to being either a memoir or a political history ... But the true heart of this book lies in Rotondi’s quest to heal her family’s giant, open wound. And while the central mystery of what happened to Jack Pearce may never be solved completely, it’s clear that this book, published 48 years later, is the welcome end of the story.
PositiveSan Francisco Chronicle... while the book is full of short vignettes, it could be argued it contains almost no stories. In this way, it is an unusual memoir, less life story, more story of an intellectual evolution. It is, at its core, a deeply intimate and deeply internal book about how Solnit became one of the defining feminist thinkers of the 21st century ... Solnit writes beautifully and with much compassionate nuance about how the threat of violence and not just its execution colors all parts of a woman’s life, and how actual physical violence is just one of myriad ways that women are controlled, subjugated and silenced ... a best-of album, covering feminism, environmentalism, urbanism, human rights and the ways in which all these things intersect. Solnit is deliberate, poetic and formidable. She’s even, on occasion, funny ... The chapters and sections often read like stand-alone essays, but there is a pleasure in the chronology, even if it’s not exactly linear. Although we learn very little about her personal life, the book is deeply personal ... Sometimes this feels like sitting beside her while she’s at her desk or walking the streets of San Francisco while she muses on the development of her feminist consciousness. At its best, this is electrifying in its precision of thought and language. At its worst, it’s, well, like being on a long walk with someone who feels almost constantly attacked ... For those of us who knew the ’80s, it’s an exhilarating reminder, and it helps explain how she arrived in our troubled present with her insistence on hope intact.
Kate Winkler Dawson
MixedSan Francisco Chronicle... capitalizes on our current CSI,My Favorite Murder and Forensic Files true-crime obsessions, and the book delivers on its promise of gruesome murders, huge manhunts and the pleasures of clue gathering ... Dawson’s writing can be repetitive, but she tells a good story, and when she details a crime, the book satisfies all of our morbid, rubbernecking tendencies. Bay Area readers will get a particular reward from the retelling of early 20th century crimes involving the Fairmont Hotel, Alameda and Bay Farm Island, and Salada Beach in Pacifica ... The book bogs down when it veers into a biography of Heinrich, a dour, anxious egoist who was not nearly as interesting as his profession. He was undoubtedly a genius, but he was also a bit of a drag, living proof that not all geniuses make interesting subjects ... well-written, certainly well-researched but ultimately too much of a mishmash — part biography, part history of forensics, part true crime — to be truly satisfying. I would have loved it at 5,000 words.