PositiveThe Guardian (UK)This book is showily postmodern, full of odd typographical elements, altered realities and intertextual jokes. Everything that happens is not just a plot point but a reference to that kind of plot point in other narratives. The psychology of the characters is deliberately stylised and artificial; the world they live in is supposed to be a comic-book universe with little plausibility. Even the sloppiness of the plot can be seen as an extended joke about the theme of entropy that runs through the book, and a play on Cupid’s Engine , the novel as a perfect, completely orderly machine. All this may seem convoluted, but Hall’s remarkably charming voice carries him past plot tangles that would have felled a less confident author, and the story develops in genuinely startling and ingenious directions ... consistently fun and often impressive. I suspect a reader’s experience of it will largely depend on their appetite for its genre.
Deb Olin Unferth
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... strange and brilliant ... If the book has a weakness, it’s in its relationship with the farming community in which it’s set...its least appealing element is how it draws rural, working-class lives as one-dimensional, meaningless and devoid of emotional connection...Presumably, [Unferth] is trying to make the point that all life is turning into a battery farm experience, but since only the rural working-class characters get this treatment, it remains jarring ... The chicken-related writing, however, is a force unto itself. If you thought you didn’t care about chickens, Unferth is here to prove you wrong. Throughout, she makes us feel them as minds ... The meticulous, science-fictional descriptions of the alien atmosphere of factory farming are also astonishing ... Perhaps from a fear of anthropomorphism, though, Unferth almost entirely forgoes making the chickens characters in their own right. We’re told the birds have names for each other, but none of them emerges as a personality; we’re told they are highly social creatures, but never see their relationships. None of the humans ever develops a bond with a particular chicken, either, so it’s hard to become emotionally invested in the heist’s success. The book’s realism also works against our caring: we’re repeatedly reminded that battery hens are unsuited to life outside and that, even as an act of public protest, their liberation is unlikely to change anything. It’s a tribute to Unferth’s charm that this never becomes depressing, and she even delivers a kind of happy ending ... Ultimately, although the book is uneven, the things in Barn 8 that work are so aesthetically perfect and philosophically profound that it doesn’t matter much if the caper plot falls a little flat, or if its depiction of working-class life feels heavy-handed. It’s an enthralling book whose parts are more than the sum of its whole. Most of all, it’s marvellously effective in making us feel the crisis at its centre: the everyday torture of billions of animals in the service of a system that will ultimately destroy us all.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)It’s difficult to convey what’s so special about Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line without spoilers, but suffice to say it’s transformed utterly by its concluding chapters. In a day, our child narrator changes beyond recognition, and through his eyes, the world he inhabits does too. A book that started by feeling like a cute comic novel about a ragtag gang of poor kids who ingeniously defeat the baddies turns into an unsparing portrayal of the real world. In this world, stories will not save your life, and, if the powerful will not protect them, poor kids can never be safe. There is no fun adventure story to be told about the trafficking of children ... This is a first novel, and it has some of the clumsiness that goes with that. The bad characters can feel like caricatures; at moments, Jai’s voice isn’t convincing as that of a child. Sometimes, too, the political message can be a little heavy-handed. But in the end Anappara, a journalist with a background in reporting on poverty and religious violence, delivers something more powerful and complex than the vast majority of more highly crafted novels. The narrative goes beyond portraying how the poor of India have been betrayed by their government, and suggests they might also be betrayed by the stories we like to tell about them. Jai has to grow up overnight: this book asks that the reader does, too.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)The Trump presidency has been exhaustively assailed by satirists, and it’s not Eggers’s fault if this parable feels overfamiliar. That he nonetheless makes his story engaging, disturbing and sometimes genuinely funny is a testament to his skill as a writer. This, combined with the pleasure many take in seeing Trump lampooned, will make the book a reliable stocking-filler in left-leaning homes ... That said, it’s mostly composed of the easiest jokes available: Trump as ignoramus, Trump as fat man, Trump as man-baby, Trump wanting to sleep with his daughter, Trump turning into a breathless teenage girl at the approach of the manly Putin ... It is possible this is meant to subtly mock people who believe impeaching Trump is all that’s needed to Make America Great Again, but the few who still harbour this belief will finish the book reassured that Eggers agrees. The broad comedy also becomes jarring as the mass murders of foreigners and dissidents escalate, culminating in a dinner thrown by a Kim Jong-un figure that features a hollowed-out corpse turned into a trough for guacamole. The cartoon gore feels dehumanising when the authoritarians being satirised have real victims ... In general, it is successful as a gift book, whose better jokes can be read aloud to approving chuckles after Christmas dinner. As a significant satire of the political crisis in America, it falls woefully short.
RaveThe GuardianMerritt Tierce’s debut novel is a stylishly brutal account of the life of a waitress working in a series of Texas restaurants ... The prose is laconic, vernacular; at first, the book seems like a well-executed but predictable entry in the genre of trauma lit. As it develops, however, it moves in a far more interesting direction ... Sex scenes and restaurant scenes bleed into each other; they have the same dissociated feeling and adrenaline rush ... Throughout, the story is elevated by Tierce’s fierce and elegant writing. The pace is that of a cocaine binge, and the voice moves from big-hearted to heartless to maudlin with the frank dispatch of a waitress dealing with a demanding dinner crowd. It is also quietly funny ... There are points at which the plot wanders ... Sometimes Marie’s voice feels a little glib; cool for cool’s sake. But these brief lapses scarcely matter: the scenes are too powerful, too real. We are unequivocally along for the ride. It is also heartening to read an American novel that takes working-class life seriously. Here, the world of waiting tables is an arena large enough for tragedy and glory, and Tierce is not documenting the lives of its people from the viewpoint of an anthropologist, but singing them as their Homer ... Nor does the heroic tone feel like hyperbole. It is the size of life seen from the inside – because we are never in any doubt that these are Tierce’s people. She is not just telling stories about them, she is bearing witness on their behalf, and she does so with a wholly writerly – that is, ruthless – love.
RaveThe GuardianIn many ways, The Binding is an unpretentious work of escapist fiction. The morality of the book is simple; the good are essentially noble and their enemies unambiguously wicked ... But while some elements are overfamiliar, every detail is bracingly specific and real ... Collins also masterfully conveys the interior life of her characters, particularly the altered states of love, and the book becomes truly spellbinding as Emmett is drawn vertiginously toward sexual love and its dazzling aftermath ... The Binding becomes a parable of \'Don’t ask, don’t tell\' and the #MeToo movement, one that makes it clear that even our memories can be colonized ... Many readers of The Binding will simply sink gratefully into the pleasures of its pages, because, like all great fables, it also functions as transporting romance.
PositiveThe Guardian\"The prose remains simple, but now it’s clearly skating over enormous depths, and Walker’s clear-sighted assessments of the army and the war cut effortlessly through generations of propaganda ... It’s true that Cherry often feels more like an improbably perfect series of war stories told in a bar than a novel. There are no real character arcs, and the relationships have no ultimate meaning; they last or fall apart for reasons the narrator doesn’t even try to understand. The plot refuses to yield significance. Throughout, the most exalted prose is devoted to drug experiences ... This all means that, despite the author’s remarkable storytelling ability, the novel can feel static. The peril is so constant it threatens to be boring. Nothing can happen but more of the same. But that is also part of what makes the book exceptional and what makes it true ... This is a book that feels casually hilarious if you read a couple of pages; if you read a chapter it becomes impressive; and by the time you’ve finished, it’s devastating.\
PositiveThe GuardianThroughout the novel, Clement maintains the intoxicating potency of the language. Gun Love is reminiscent of gushing lyrics you can imagine singing in the throes of crazy grief. Clement also deftly works in phantasmagoric touches reminiscent of books such as Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love ... We gradually lose the sense of Pearl as a human being. She becomes a stylised representation of a lost child, a vehicle for pathos. Sometimes the prose slips into the mawkishness that is the great attendant hazard of lyricism ... Despite these problems, the inventiveness and charm of Clement’s narrative voice are such that Gun Love never stops being a pleasure to read. Every paragraph is nutty and passionate and glamorous, and there’s even something winningly vulgar about the way the plot treats serious topics as a backdrop for melodrama. Even in the weakest sections of the narrative, there are moments of gritty magic. It’s a cup of sugar and a great pop ballad. That’s more than enough to make the book both readable and fun. It isn’t quite enough to make us care.
MixedThe GuardianIt’s hard to imagine approaching this debut collection of short stories, set in the US prison system, without the knowledge that Curtis Dawkins is a prisoner serving a life sentence without parole ... The existence of violence is acknowledged, but it’s left at the margins of the narrative ...Dawkins has a genius for bringing characters to life and making mundane situations compelling, if only because they feel so real ... Most of the characters reflect on the past; the empty days of prison become a mirror in which they continually face the shortcomings that brought them here ... is a debut, and like most debuts, it isn’t perfect. It has its overwrought images, its passages of cod Denis Johnson, its ill-judged foray into magical realism.
MixedThe Dallas Morning NewsThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness begins with Anjum, a Hijra — one of India's traditionally accepted transgender women. We follow her through her childhood and her coming of age as trans; from the outset, these sections have the bewitching prose, the bracing idiosyncrasy, the seductive pathos that made Roy's first book a universal favorite. However, the plot soon begins to meander ... there's no question that this novel is a pleasure to read. Roy is, above all, a lovable writer and, despite its frustrating qualities, this book has a lot to love. It's just a shame Roy didn't rein in a little more of her signature messiness.
PositiveThe GuardianPerhaps the most painful part of this book is its depiction of how victims can collude with an abuser. The boys don’t just cover up for their father, they hurt each other at his command, and in one particularly ugly flashback, take part in the physical abuse of their mother. Magariel’s portrayal of this process is remarkably lucid and unsparing. Some passages feel so true, you keep wanting to put the book down to applaud ... While the low-life characters and grim settings are wonderfully drawn, you begin to wonder: could Albuquerque really be that bad? ... Abusive relationships can make victims feel their identity has been stripped away, that nothing remains of them but a series of reactions dictated by the abuser’s behaviour. One wishes Magariel had been able to evoke this experience while also conveying that it’s not true. This is not to dismiss what he has achieved. In one of his many crises, the father challenges his sons, 'Tell me one true thing about life … Either of you. Tell me one true thing.' Magariel has triumphantly, unforgettably, told us one true thing.
MixedThe GuardianGay is a writer of formidable charm and intellect, with a knack for intriguing premises. She is especially masterful at writing striking openings ... Where there are flaws in individual stories, they are those one would expect from someone who is by temperament a popular writer. Gay’s language is powerful but sometimes careless, which can result in Fifty Shades prose...But we’re generally carried past these clumsy details by the force of Gay’s narrative voice ... In Difficult Women, abuse only occurs in the context of sex...Gay’s complex investment in this issue can produce fascinating results. But in most of the stories, the handling feels self-indulgent, even exploitative; it produces a torrid heat, but sheds no light.
RaveThe GuardianThe Natural Way of Things is a savagely, unapologetically feminist book; a throwback to writers like Joanna Russ and Angela Carter, who landed blows on the patriarchy without worrying about being labelled man-haters ... The Natural Way of Things is chillingly dark and unfashionably didactic. But it’s also compulsively readable, and bears its load of significance with effortless power. The fury of contemporary feminism may have found its masterpiece of horror.
Garth Risk Hallberg
PanThe Guardian“City on Fire often reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, an interesting book of obvious talent marred by pedestrian writing and half-baked characters. Here, the plot is more ambitious, and the style more richly lyrical, but the reader is left with a similar feeling of reading a messy early draft.”