RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewHilary Mantel’s short story collection Learning to Talk was first published in Britain in 2003, before long-overdue prizes and international fame came her way. It shares the qualities of the contemporary novels she wrote for 20 years: sharp observation, alertness to the tomfooleries of class and gender, an uncanny capacity for the child’s-eye view, a door always open to the supernatural. And like Mantel’s most famous books, these stories are dark and absurd, the piping children’s voices brewed in wisdom and worldliness ... an exemplary use of the passive voice ... In this more or less autobiographical time frame of the 1960s and 1970s, Mantel remains a historical novelist, which is to say one always thinking about how politics, trends and events shape character, one who knows in every sentence that the political is personal and vice versa, one who inhabits bodies shaped by the specificities of time and place. Part of her consistent brilliance lies in her attention to ghosts and mortgages, the light on the moors and 1980s educational policy, adolescent self-discovery and irregular accounting. These stories hold worlds as wide as those of her longest novels.
PositiveThe Irish TimesDespite having frozen on the starting block, turned her back on her Olympic hopes and repeated her Leaving Cert in the wake of a breakdown barely mentioned in the novel, Beth is not the fragile and self-destructive heroine of much new Irish fiction...She doesn’t drink much, eats well, and makes fully informed and interesting decisions about sex...As she begins to explore the archive in her grandmother’s attic room, it becomes clear that the abiding sense of darkness in Beth’s life is not about her athletic performance but about the untold story of her grandfather’s suicide...Crowe’s poems haunt the book, unspoken, and though the device is obvious it is successful...I enjoyed Holding Her Breath. The premise is familiar, but this is an appealing iteration, stylishly written, with strong female voices.
C. A. Davids
PositiveNew York Times Book ReviewAn intercontinental novel about neighbors, the dangers and consolations of having people next door under oppressive laws ... If this sounds complicated, it is. There are multiple narrative strands ... The effect is kaleidoscopic, sometimes verging on confusing, though as the story gathers pace and the voices become familiar, the writing is absorbing enough for moments of disorientation to feel like part of the ride ... This isn’t — couldn’t be — a book that claims to offer answers to these dilemmas, but it is an admirably ambitious and absorbing exploration of activism, betrayal and daily life in interesting times, of increasing relevance in many parts of the world.
PositiveThe Irish Times (IRE)Snowflake is well-written: Louise Nealon has the knack of neat similes and though the narrator Debbie is indeed an 18-year-old who can’t cope/won’t cope with the step from school to undergraduate life, she’s also curious, knowledgeable and darkly funny ... The pace is brisk and the narrative has an eye for comedy even when the narrator is enjoying a moment of self-pity ... Everyone in this novel thinks they have real problems – even, in the end, the secret psychologist in the village who can help some of the others – and most of them are right. The ending doesn’t exactly solve anything, but it does assert a joyously unconventional way forward for those broken in heart and spirit ... This isn’t a perfect book; a subplot about prophetic dreams is convenient to the plot but unconvincing, and a thematic emphasis on literal snowflakes doesn’t earn its keep. But Snowflake is much more than the tribute act suggested by its hype. It a sweet, clever coming-of-age novel that finds charity and depth for its older characters as well as the young, and I look forward to seeing what Louise Nealon does next.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)In some ways it feels like reading a 19th-century novel, though the focus on Mann’s middle years keeps us away from the Bildungsroman. Each house is lovingly constructed, each garden vivid and even minor characters’ lives brightly woven so that the possibility of confusion never occurs. Tóibín doesn’t write like Mantel but he shares her capacity for writing on a scale that is simultaneously intimate and transnational ... There are moments in the middle of this novel, in the long uncertain years when Hitler was rising and bourgeois liberals were beginning to wonder whether to take notice, that feel a little too enslaved by events; most sweeping political change begins incrementally, but incremental political change is not thrilling in fiction, especially when much of the drama is reported by minor characters. But for the great majority of its long sweep, this is deeply engaging, serious and beautiful writing that carries its echoing questions with grace.
RaveThe Irish Times (IRE)Barry is particularly impressive as a writer of men’s voices and stories, which means that he has the rare art of being able to convey in sentences what is not said, not even fully thought, by his characters ... We know what Séamus is thinking, and we can guess about Katherine. It’s not, exactly, that we need the happily-ever-after which appears to be receding, only that Barry’s writing of silence, of the ways we read silence, is uncomfortably excellent ... The \'heroic path\' is taken by the stories, by the whole collection, as well as by the characters within. Though they all begin more or less in literary realism, there is another tendency pulling towards capital-R Romanticism, towards the suggestion that we are all in the end creatures of landscape, buildings and weather, what we imagine to be our actions directed by dimly seen powers beyond our control ... But these playful, serious and beautifully crafted stories allow Barry to experiment as we need great writers to do.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)A defining strength in Emma Donoghue’s work is narrative voice, and here it is as strong and compelling as Jack in Room and Lib in The Wonder. ... the blooming friendship and admiration between the two young women lifts an otherwise necessarily grim account of suffering and deprivation ... There is nothing cheerful about the situation, and so the novel depends on the voices and relationships of its three central women. They are all – as one would expect from Donoghue – complex, well-developed characters with distinctive voices and lives based on thorough research, vivid in ways that only excellent writing can offer. I found this novel admirable right up to the final chapters, when it veers into a disappointing cliche. I’m trying not to spoil anything, but if you’d like a haunting and finely balanced literary novel in which the plot isn’t suddenly taken over by depressing convention, stop 20 pages before the end.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Reading Shuggie Bain cannot but be a grim experience ... comes from a deep understanding of the relationship between a child and a substance-abusing parent, showing a world rarely portrayed in literary fiction, and to that extent it’s admirable and important. I had qualms, about Shuggie’s precocity and particularly about the depiction of women, who are all scrawny or flabby, wearing too much makeup or not enough, and whose clothes are always wrong...Stuart’s prose is baroque, rich in adjectives with a habit of pointing out what he’s just shown. These things are partly a matter of taste and training, but sometimes impatience with the heavy-handed prose interrupted my interest in Shuggie and Agnes.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave
RaveThe Guardian (UK)The most interesting historical fiction speaks of the time of writing as much as of its subject. The Mercies has all the strengths of Millwood Hargrave’s children’s fiction: strong characters, gorgeous settings, a literary commitment to women’s lives, work and relationships with each other. However, the echoing truth here is simultaneously four centuries old and sadly modern. Strong men in power can remake reality and invert reason to defend that power at any cost. Having ordained that women are weak, evidence of women’s strength must be evidence of dark magic – the more a woman survives, the more dangerous she must be. I admired the way The Mercies shows us the patriarchal fear of women’s strength and reason. It is the men in power who give themselves up to hysteria and superstition, abusing their control of others’ lives and deaths in the service of self-justifying conspiracy theories: wouldn’t it be nice if the Enlightenment had put an end to such tales?
PositiveThe Guardian... sits in uneasy, challenging relation to contemporary popular fiction ... There is some good campus satire ... Presenting these pieces in the novel is a loop of metafiction that would floor a less assured writer ... When the denouement comes, it is well timed to feel both shocking and inevitable: early enough for satisfying resolution afterwards and late enough to keep the reader up long into the night. There is violence, but there is also a very modern interrogation of violent fiction. What were you staying up late for, exactly? ... sets itself large challenges: that fragmentary narrative, including an official complaint and some bureaucratic emails; the difficulty of using violence as a narrative device while questioning the politics of using violence as a narrative device; the task of combining the satire of the campus novel with the high drama of the thriller. Baker is a writer who can make it all work. Beyond the dubious fun of the chase, the pleasure of reading this novel is seeing writerly ambition fulfilled.
RaveThe GuardianZinovieff does well in requiring her readers to see the relationship from Ralph’s point of view as well as Daphne’s. The novel pulls off a tricky juggling of voices and times so elegantly that you may not notice when a new voice is heard 30 years before or after the preceding one, but it is worth attending to the technical skill behind its music ... It is rare to find oneself reading so compulsively a book that promises no resolution or easy answers; I admired this combination of intellectual honesty and bravura storytelling. The conclusion, when it comes, is morally satisfying and plausibly complex: there is no betrayal of the novel’s architecture for a neat ending ... the 40-year time frame, the large cast and the changing points of view lead to the occasional dumping of information needed to get you to the next time and place, and there is an assumption that readers know London intimately. But these are small quibbles about a novel that is accomplished, timely and unusually well wrought.
RaveThe GuardianGather the Daughters is set in the alternative reality of a misogynist dystopia ... Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has had many imitators, and nothing about Jennie Melamed’s setting is particularly inventive, but characterisation is strong and the focus on the leadership and strategic skills of pubescent girls is refreshing ... Narrative tension builds as skillful characterisation fills the reader with growing concern for the central voices ... This is not an unusual novel, but it is a strong example of its kind. And an account of what happens to the rising generation when islanders decide to cut themselves off from the neighbouring mainland to pursue a fantasy of conservatism.
MixedThe GuardianMaybe The Trees is as much Narnia as The Road, then, because the moral symbolism becomes increasingly explicit as the quest goes on ... Adrien’s inertia and despondency are the most interesting aspect of The Trees. He is an antihero, dependent on women for instruction, morale, food and shelter...The post-apocalyptic theme is familiar, and so is the eco-thriller, but both usually rely on the hero’s quest. What’s unusual here is that moral order is mystically reinstated by the apotheosis of a wimp.