RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksDelightfully weird and deliciously eccentric ... When I started reading, I found myself quite lost and without solid footing in the plotlines. My advice for readers is: like any train ride, let it take you where it wants to go. The structure of the novel definitely mirrors a meandering train track, but always with purpose and forward momentum. The sentences themselves are delightful puzzles to solve as they unfold, and I argue it’s worth the patience to see how paragraphs build...unfolds slowly, satisfyingly, and it’s not until the very end that we discover how it ties into the main storyline. The anticipation is much like boarding a train without a set destination and being rewarded for your trust ... conveys a feeling similar to a fever dream ... For some readers this level of confusion might become frustrating, but for others, the temptation for a reveal will keep the pages turning ... There are both tender and tense moments. Oyeyemi’s choice to have Otto narrate the story seems fitting, as we’re able to hear the sarcasm, wit, and loftiness of his voice, even as it’s clear he is confused or frightened by the happenings on the train. His love for Xavier is palpable, and his unreliability as a narrator makes the strange, hazy-faced man who attacks him and then ultimately jumps off the train a questionable reality. Otto, who is a self-proclaimed hypnotist, is the type of narrator who you both care for and mistrust in equal measures. The whole novel is quite unnerving, and it’s due in large part to Oyeyemi’s choice to conceal the truth, to keep you interested, eager to figure out the mystery ... As with most of Oyeyemi’s books, she asks you to have confidence in her craft and follow her through to the end. The conclusion especially picks up pace, like a speeding train taking curves much too quickly, the scenery out the window changing as drastically as the events upon the page. In the end, there are a few disjointed events and surprise appearances, but what else would one expect on such an extraordinary journey?
Katie M. Flynn
RaveChicago Review of BooksFlynn’s prose is sparse, but her messages are powerful ... As the story grows more complex, it’s a thought experiment come to life: what would it be like to meet yourself from five years ago? The characters are well-imagined, but the most impressive is Gabe, the spunky, aggressive, grieving girl who we watch grow up over the span of the 20-year arc. She is angry about the virus, angry about being alone, angry that she’s angry. But it’s all justified, and I found myself rooting for her anger and her distrust of even those closest to her. Flynn has done wonders with Gabe’s character, allowing space and time for a girl’s anger to land and be felt. It’s through Gabe’s eyes that we’re most led to question the morality of this world ... The beginning of the novel takes off with some speed, but it sags a bit in the middle. We are meant to feel the jolt of each chapter’s transition to a new character...but it takes some effort to keep up with the crossing timelines and narrative arcs. By the end third, however, there is a charge and a tension that keeps you turning the pages, questioning who is a companion and who is still fully human. The differences begin to dwindle to a point where the reality and the theory blend in a masterful stroke ... Though a quality dystopian science-fiction novel, The Companions’ most compelling aspect is its commentary on the advancement of technology and the root of what powers humanity at its core. It’s an engaging debut with both speculative and literary gems, one we should read and think about now more than ever.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksYou don’t have to enjoy baseball to find this semi novel-in-stories a richly layered, often tender and generous, exposé of the life of players, fans, and everyone in between ... gives the story the same held-breath sensation of waiting for a first pitch to be thrown—you think you know what’s going to happen, but don’t get too comfortable ... While I was trying to find footing with the characters and their stories, hoping to follow them through their own arcs, I should have been paying attention to the larger role they play in relation to the city, the game, and the environment ... At times [the wives\'] surface level lives feel clichéd and weak on a writing level, but the nature of their husbands’ careers supports their flighty behavior—they all know they could be upended from their routine at any moment, contract or no. This reality allows for sympathy when we might otherwise wrinkle our nose at their choices ... in between all of these well-rounded narratives is the pestering sports reporter we met at the beginning, belaboring metaphors of evolution and succumbing to digressive stories. The concept of this narrator having a bird’s-eye view of Scottsdale and the Lions is an interesting one that ultimately didn’t land for Nemens. Instead, halfway through the book, his interjections become clunky and sometimes unwelcome ... There is more to this book than the best sports reporting: peeling back the curtain, examining the people behind the statistics, and understanding that sometimes the most crucial plays are the ones happening off the field.
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... a deeply emotional and moving portrait of human desires, temperaments, and existence in the face of both mundane and extreme situations. Michael Crummey has fashioned a survival tale out of introspective musings and spellbinding settings, meshing both brother’s and sister’s interiority with the wildness and unpredictability of the landscape around them ... The beautiful language is what keeps the reader moving forward, since the daily tasks often repeat themselves and the danger of starvation loses its luster after too long as a threat ... To care about the plot – and whether or not Evered and Ada survive – the reader has to care about the characters themselves. And Crummey shines brightest here ... Most natural of the entire novel is the inevitable but perfectly paced erosion of innocence ... Crummey’s prose is compelling enough to pair with the languorous nature of the plot, and even though Evered and Ada’s fate becomes steadily more secure as they gain skill and knowledge of survival, there is an urgency to each page, each probe into the other’s psyche. Spending years with two characters with nothing but their daily tasks and the other’s company would falter in any other author’s hands, but Crummey explores much larger themes through these two youngsters’ experiences and development, ensuring The Innocents’ place as an unexpected period novel about survival and family.
RaveChicago Review of BooksWill Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog is one such collection that cuts through all the shiny and hyped-up rhetoric of wartime, and aggressively and masterfully draws a picture of the brutal, frightening, and even boring moments of deployment ... The authenticity screams from the pages, with details like how the rained smelled like feces and what blood sounds like dripping off of an elbow onto stone ... Mackin’s prose hits every note with accuracy, penning sentences that examine the wonder of the surroundings while also underscoring how alert one must be on these missions ... It peels away the hardened layers and shines a spotlight on the vulnerability of every one of them ... Mackin’s stories feel present and wholly realized ... There is no tidying up of the shameful and disgusting acts that are carried out in war, but with this unflinching honesty comes an unguarded look at the resilience of mankind, and the opportunity to improve.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksThe true power of this novel is in the young woman’s narration. She is not a victim. She is never passive. Her sexual desires are bold and sharp. In an exceptionally singular voice, she dreams vividly of what she wants ... It’s hard to imagine that a book so brief could tackle the Iraq war, grief over the loss of a parent, the longing for freedom, an enthrallment with the ocean, loneliness, sexual awakening, faith, and etymology, all in less than 200 pages, but Samantha Hunt has done it, and done it well. The conciseness of the novel is part of what makes it so artful ... We root for her [the narrator], and wish—up until the very last page—that she will grow a tail and escape into the ocean.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksThe eleven stories in this collection not only capture...cultural identity, but they also overflow with imagery so powerfully tangible that it’s hard to believe the humidity and rainstorms aren’t truly escaping from the page to touch you ... Groff writes Florida into the plot as a character unto itself. There is an undeniable agency as hurricanes rip through towns and catapult people, trees, and buildings through the air. The state is oppressive in its heat, demanding to be felt and feared. And most of all, it is remembered and longed for, by every character—especially those who try to escape ... These stories, each a bit stranger than the last, are deftly accomplished through Groff’s perfect command of prose ... If Florida needs a guidebook for the uninitiated traveler, Groff’s Florida can be a shining light.
Joyce Carol Oates
MixedChicago Review of BooksInstead, I found myself asking if Oates was trolling her readers — like her Twitter feed suggests — or if her ideas about men and women are simply outdated ... Beautiful Days does not offer the tender, complicated, flailing characters Oates is known for. Her previous body of work remains lustrous as ever, but I found nothing worth teaching or re-reading here.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of Books\"I’m not the biggest fan of NYC, yet Hoby’s prose paints the spirit of the city without romance or praise. It breathes and moves on the page, but it doesn’t demand anything. Around every corner is a new discovery for Kate, and on every rooftop a view that doesn’t draw attention to itself. These monologues are some of the most radical and arresting moments of the novel ... Where the structure of the narrative feels predictable at times, it’s the observations from our outsider protagonist that livens up the prose ... Neon in Daylight is Hermione Hoby’s debut novel, and her skill on the sentence level — along with a keen eye for detail — will catapult her to stardom.\
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksIt’s a riot of a plot, but one I had no trouble following. With a less skilled author, these characters might’ve grated on a reader. But with Gregory, each voice wins you over, and you root for each one even as they run headfirst into certain failure. Even though the action is never-ending, it’s fun, and the engaging plot is supported by a clever structure. I stayed up late into the night reading chapter after chapter, pulled in by yet another fantastic line that either made me laugh or gasp in surprise ... Through all the magic and the mob chases, Spoonbenders zeroes in on family bonds and love and deftly weaves quirk with real emotion. The greatest feat of this book is how it allowed me to relate to this crazy family even with my boring, non-psychic genetics. With characters like these, you’re bound to love one, and I’d wager you’ll end up loving them all.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksPerhaps the only weak point in the collection are the stories’ final pages — sometimes abrupt, sometimes trying too hard for ambiguity. Though I suppose, in keeping with the collection on a thematic level, this could be a reflection of the banality and mystery of modern life. As a collection, the everyday lives of these girls and women become exceptional when told through Hadley’s intricate and perceptive prose. The pace is often leisurely — sometimes a little too leisurely — but it’s obvious Tessa Hadley has the restraint and mastery of a great writer, and there is beauty and insight in all 10 tales.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksThe [second] section is a bit jarring in form: Clay begins annotating these collected bits of stories, footnotes in the form of chapters. It’s a story within a footnote within a story, but it works. Once you shake yourself free of the discomfort, the structure opens up an entirely new dimension to Clay’s character ... Many of the sections sound similar in voice, and while I enjoyed the cadence and the sentence structure, I would get confused about who was telling the story if I ever put the book down before finishing a section. The main pull of this book is that you don’t want to put it down, though. It is quick and witty and engaging, an intimate look into the lives of these Providence natives that are inexplicably linked by Clay and his brother Eli, even if they put little stock in their having known either of them ... Max Winters is confident and powerful with his prose, and the blend of humor and gravitas is done masterfully.
Deb Olin Unferth
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books...as delightfully witty as it is emotionally insightful ... The characters in these 39 stories are disillusioned, neurotic, and, most of all, endearing to the point of wondering if Unferth has a magnifying glass into your own life ... [The] compact pieces are sharp and shocking in their depth. The prose shows abundant restraint which makes the sentences that much more impactful and heartbreaking. And yet there are lengthier stories that wander and take their time weaving together various plot points. A collection that plays with form and structure like this adds a flavor that isn’t present in traditional short story collections ... smart, rich, and unforgettable stories.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksDebuts are always journeys through an author’s voice and style, but Benz pushes that envelope even further with these experimental stories and forms. Though her characters and plots stretch centuries and settings, they all share an elevated and microscopic study of race, history, and gender ... Benz pulls the rug out from under you in almost every story, both in expectation bending and in her gut-wrenching narrations. There is no doubting her range and talent, and with fans like George Saunders and Helen Oyeyemi, she is sure to make a name for herself in the short-fiction world.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksJumping around in time with this story is like watching a street artist complete a scenic depiction: there is no full picture until the end, but what a masterpiece it turns out to be ... Characterizing his grandfather through his passions is a talent of Chabon’s, but sometimes this technique goes too far. There are long descriptions of rocket parts and bomb compositions, not to mention a Pynchon novel and several unnecessarily lengthy sections ... through its myriad cracked, sharp fragments of a life lived, Moonglow comes alive through vivid storytelling. This novel is at once the most imaginative and personal book Chabon has tackled yet.
MixedThe Chicago Review of BooksAt times, the suspense misses the mark. Punch lines don’t land, or a big reveal is included in a run-on sentence, taking the air out of the surprise. The magical realism is often overdone, describing in minute detail the same thing again and again each time the characters chance upon it, until I was left with little room for my own imagination ... Dialogue sometimes feels forced and awkward; the things each character has to say are interesting, but phrases end up coming out like narration rather than natural conversation ... The ending, though, proves Shaw is a gifted writer when at his best. Push through the frustrating passages, and you’ll be rewarded with some truly captivating prose.