RaveThe Observer (UK)Doyle writes dialogue so natural and confident in its rhythms and silences that his novels can read like play scripts ... there is an immediacy to the stories in Life Without Children, an emotional charge that comes with writing in real time, and an optimism too. In the stripping away of everyday anxieties, the virus reveals what matters most, those qualities that are always at the heart of Doyle’s fiction: love and connection, however clumsily expressed. The two final stories, \'Worms\' and \'The Five Lamps,\' both feature loved ones finding each other after a long estrangement as a result of the lockdown. If there’s an element of sentimentality in that, it is balanced by Doyle’s irreverent humour, and reflects our experience of living through a crisis. More than anything, these stories are about the vital importance of communicating with one another before it’s too late.
Alex Schulman trans. by Rachel Willson-Broyles
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Schulman sets himself a complex technical challenge; he tells his story in two parallel narratives, one running backwards through the day of the funeral, the other moving forwards through childhood summers to the climactic point of the catastrophe, whose exact nature is only hinted at until the very end. For the most part, he makes this work ... The difficulty with telling a story in reverse is (obviously) that the reader already knows how it ends; all the narrative tension therefore rests on the events leading up to the tragedy 20 years earlier. The big reveal, when it comes, is not wholly convincing; it feels like an attempt to give the novel a thriller-esque twist and relies on a slightly implausible degree of suppressed memory. But as a study of complex sibling relationships and the layers of guilt and resentment laid down over a lifetime of burying the past, The Survivors is an accomplished debut.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Chambers deftly conjures how much these small pleasures mean to people living pinched lives of making do ... She also writes with compassion of the bigger passions and unspoken sorrows that lie buried under the respectable surface, and how these can threaten to derail a life, especially in a society that expects women to behave a certain way ... Small Pleasures celebrates the kind of ordinary miracles that don’t warrant a front-page headline, but it also reminds us that questioning a woman’s credibility, particularly when it comes to her own sexual history, is nothing new.
Alaa Al Aswany, tr. S. R. Fellowes
RaveThe Observer (UK)... a polyphonic novel, in a lively translation here by SR Fellowes, whose various narratives offer glimpses of the gathering unrest across Cairo society as the characters’ lives converge on Tahrir Square ... Al-Aswany has always had a sharp eye for the inflated self-love of the powerful and knows that the most effective attack is mockery; in this respect, he is often compared to Mario Vargas Llosa. If the general appears almost cartoonish at times, he is intended as the caricature of a type ... Elsewhere, the author draws his characters with more delicate strokes ... a glorious, humane novel that chronicles the failure of a revolution and its personal cost without ever quite extinguishing hope of a better future.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)The book asks more questions than it answers, most of which circle back to the idea of a woman’s desires and how those would look if they could be separated from the expectations of a patriarchal culture ... In a series of vignettes that cross continents, Levy foregrounds the quotidian – shopping, clothes, incidental conversations – and through it allows the association of ideas to lead her into a dialogue between art and life, mothers and daughters, past and present ... The narrator of Real Estate is drily funny, irreverent, curious, even wise; she makes the reader want her for a companion ... Each of these books [in Levy\'s trilogy] bears several re-readings; together, they offer one version of how a woman might continually rewrite her own story.
A K Blakemore
RaveThe Observer (UK)AK Blakemore’s exceptionally accomplished debut feels especially pertinent now ... The novel’s shining quality is its language. Blakemore is an award-winning poet, and she is as precise in evoking the liminal landscape of the Stour estuary as the inside of a jail cell.
MixedThe Observer (UK)Her combination of raw need, self-absorption and cynicism is initially refreshing, until it starts to feel arch. She is prone to pronouncements that have an air of hard-won wisdom, but on closer inspection sound hollow ... Having staked out her territory – of extreme candour around sex – in Three Women, Taddeo more than fulfils expectations on that score. There is barely a sexual experience that doesn’t feature, and most have a negative taint ... \'You are all of us. You are the parts of us that no one wants to admit to,\' Alice tells Joan, and perhaps this is what Taddeo intends, for Joan to represent the animal nature that women are taught to deny or repress. But it doesn’t quite work. Three Women was so compelling because the frankness had the stamp of authenticity; these were real lives, real damage, patiently elicited from years of conversations and transformed into narrative. In fiction, the same explicitness necessarily feels manufactured. In addition, there is a Grand Guignol level of excess to Joan’s trauma and its consequences that has the effect of distancing the reader from the serious questions at the novel’s heart ... Animal’s biggest flaw is that there are simply too many bad things piled on one another and as a result they lose their emotional impact ... None of which is to say that it isn’t also a compulsive read. Taddeo’s prose glitters with all the dark wit and flashes of insight that readers and critics admired in Three Women, and she is especially sharp on the ways in which women perform for one another. Like Coel’s I May Destroy You, Animal is unafraid to wrestle with big questions about sexual empowerment and consent, and doesn’t pretend to have found neat answers.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)... daringly ambitious ... Shipstead writes with precision on both macro and micro levels, bringing a sure-footed fluency to descriptions of landscape, potted highlights of aviation history and close-up details of people and places ... this is a novel that invites the reader to immerse themselves in the sweep of history, the rich and detailed research, and part of the pleasure is being carried along by the narrative through all its digressions and backstories ... The danger of any novel with a dual plot is that one strand outshines the other, and that is Great Circle’s weakness; Marian is a more compelling and original character than Hadley, whose satirical observations on the absurdities of life in LA, though very funny, can feel like well-trodden ground. But Shipstead is interested in the way stories and lives alter through successive interpretations, like \'a game of telephone\', and so Hadley’s pursuit of the truth about Marian is necessary for closing the circle. Like her fictional pilot, Shipstead has aimed high; in both cases, the result is a breathtaking, if flawed, achievement.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... as Katherine Angel shows in her succinct and thought-provoking book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, consent itself is a murky concept that cannot be separated from existing power dynamics ... To insist that women discover their sexual preferences independently and then communicate them clearly to prospective partners, or otherwise bear the blame if the experience turns out to be unsatisfactory or damaging, is just another, subtler version of the idea that it is a woman’s responsibility to avoid being raped ... she makes a clear and well-researched case.
Vanessa Springora, tr. Natasha Lehrer
RaveThe GuardianVanessa Springora’s memoir, Consent, is a troubling reminder that our horror at the idea of sex between adults and minors is relatively recent, and dependent on shifting cultural attitudes ... [a] frank account ... Consent is not a comfortable read, but it is immensely powerful, both in showing how a victim can regain control of her own story, and in considering how such men might be held to account.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Joyce has a clear-eyed, unsparing view of regret, failure and loss, and the cost that life exacts from so many, even while she counters it with a belief in the resilience of the human spirit and the possibility of second chances ... There are echoes of classic travel adventures such as Around the World in Eighty Days, as genteel British explorers attempt to maintain their customs and decorum in the most un-British environments, and plenty of madcap capers to hinder our heroine, who regrets her impulsiveness almost as soon as she has set foot on board the ship to Australia. But there is a darker side too ... Joyce is at her most insightful in the novel’s moments of quiet reflection ... There’s a danger that novels affirming the value of kindness and connection can tip into cliche; Joyce knows her material well enough to avoid this for the most part, and her deadpan humour undercuts any sentimentality. Her endings may not always be neatly happy, but they are fiercely hopeful.
PositiveThe SpectatorFrench’s novels frequently consider questions of identity, and what happens to characters when their sense of self is tested to breaking point. The Searcher is her first book not to be set in Dublin, and though she relishes the spare beauty of the landscape, her interest is in the relationship between the land and the people who spend their lives working it ... If French’s popular ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ novels unfold like a long-form television series with multiple subplots and red herrings, The Searcher is appropriately cinematic, with the neat economy and momentum of a classic feature film. Like John Ford’s near namesake, it asks questions about moral codes, and the price to be paid for enacting justice outside the law. There’s a residual snobbery, particularly when it comes to literary awards, that still sees crime fiction and literary novels as mutually exclusive. French has bridged that false divide from the beginning of her career, and The Searcher might just be the book that sees her properly recognised as one of our finest contemporary novelists, of any genre.
RaveThe GuardianOften by portraying its absence, these stories assert the importance of true connection, in the elegant, scalpel-sharp prose for which Hazzard has been admired since her earliest work. Devoted fans may feel a little cheated – only two of the stories here are truly \'new\', discovered in typescript among her papers after her death – but the collection offers a fine introduction to a remarkable writer who deserves to go on finding new readers.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... four new stories, all offering vintage King themes with their own particular twist ... King marries an obvious affection for the tropes of old gumshoe movies with carefully researched forensic technology to create an odd hybrid of procedural and horror that ratchets up the suspense, even if it feels a little familiar to readers of The Outsider, or the trilogy of Bill Hodges novels in which Holly first appeared ... King, as always, is right on the money.
MixedThe Observer (UK)Her Mary is a sensitive, well-meaning young woman, who strives for the affection of her remote, sardonic father and beloved older sister, Lizzie. Hadlow invents for Mary an inner life that Austen denied her, complete with romantic yearnings that she tries to dampen. The difficulty with trying to rewrite one of the best-loved novels in the English language is that the original is always there as the gold standard. So it is in the second part of the novel ... The Other Bennet Sister reads as an enjoyable kind of fanfic and if it feels a little pedestrian by comparison, the fact that the appeal of these characters endures in hands less deft than their original creator’s is testament to how vividly they were first drawn and the place they have established in readers’ affections.
RaveThe Observer (UK)O’Farrell’s great skill throughout the book is to treat obviously \'Shakespearean\' themes, such as...gender-blurring or the affinity between boy and girl twins, with subtlety, making them almost tangential when they occur in the playwright’s own life ... This is not O’Farrell’s first foray into historical fiction...but it is quite unlike anything she has written before. There is an elliptical, dreamlike quality to her prose in Hamnet that, though not obviously steeped in 16th-century language, is essential to creating a world that feels at once wholly tangible and somehow otherworldly, as if the membrane between the natural and supernatural was more porous then. The depth of her research is evident on every page ... Hamnet is evidence that there are always new stories to tell, even about the most well-known historical figures. It also confirms O’Farrell as an extraordinarily versatile writer, with a profound understanding of the most elemental human bonds – qualities also possessed by a certain former Latin tutor from Stratford.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Most striking, perhaps, given the amount of suffering [Gleeson] has endured, is this absence of self-pity. Pain is a reason to look outwards, to find expressions of her experience in the work of artists who have given a voice to physical trauma ... There are essays...that will leave the reader wanting more, and one or two pieces that feel like filler, but it’s clear that Gleeson’s insight is hard-won, and that, like the women who inspire her, she has found a way to transmute her experience into something powerful that demands to be heard.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)...we all know how the story ends. And this is where Mantel’s supreme artistry is most evident: she creates suspense and apprehension where none should exist ... These books are precision-engineered, and none more so than The Mirror and the Light. It may be less obviously dramatically focused than Bring Up the Bodies, which spanned less than a year and concentrated almost exclusively on events leading up to Anne’s death, but the plot here is shaped as meticulously as any thriller. Chekhov’s gun is there on every page: words spoken carelessly or in jest are later repeated in a court of law, their meaning twisted; gifts given in innocence are produced with new motives ascribed. The technical skill required to marshall the events of these four years between 1536 and 1540...while rendering those events comprehensible and dramatic to contemporary readers, is breathtaking ... There is nothing sentimental in Cromwell’s end, only the most devastating humanity, leaving the reader with stopped breath and a sense of amazement, after closing the book, that the real world is continuing outside. It feels redundant to state that The Mirror and the Light is a masterpiece. With this trilogy, Mantel has redefined what the historical novel is capable of; she has given it muscle and sinew, enlarged its scope, and created a prose style that is lyrical and colloquial, at once faithful to its time and entirely recognisable to us. Taken together, her Cromwell novels are, for my money, the greatest English novels of this century. Someone give the Booker Prize judges the rest of the year off.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Anyone hoping that this book, which is billed as a memoir, will offer a more intimate glimpse of the writer, might be disappointed in that regard; Solnit does not go in for soul-baring, and even in this personal history she keeps her gaze focused outward, on what her particular encounters can tell us about the prevailing culture of publishing, or the art world, or the environmental movement, or the city at the time ... at times Recollections does cover ground traversed in previous essay collections, most obviously as it catches up with her present work. But it is a rare writer who has both the intellectual heft and the authority of frontline experience to tackle the most urgent issues of our time. One of the reasons she has won so many admirers is the sense that she is driven not by anger but by compassion and the desire to offer encouragement ... That voice of hope is more essential now than ever, and this memoir is a valuable glimpse into the grit and courage that enabled her to keep telling sidelined stories when the forces opposing her seemed monolithic.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)The paradox (for a feminist reader, anyway) is that, while you want to celebrate the story of a woman carving out a space in a culture of male entitlement, there’s no escaping the guilty sense that the book becomes a great deal more lively once the famous male writer takes centre stage ... Miller tries at times to confront [David Foster Wallace\'s] behaviour, but she offers frustratingly vague analyses of why her younger self found ways to excuse it every time ... too often she finds a way to blame herself for his narcissism ... Whether the book brings us closer to understanding Wallace or his work is debatable, but it is disappointing that in a memoir about a woman’s progress in a man’s world, it is his presence that dominates.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... a multilayered allegorical narrative that cuts to the heart of our current political and cultural malaise, while maintaining a mythical, mesmeric flavour that makes the reader feel these are stories they have always known ... The pared-back style often feels closest in tone to the Fictions of Borges. Character takes second place to symbolism; few of them are named, and those who are embody representative qualities, like figures from myth. It is often repetitive, in a way that reflects the historic cycle of hope and disillusion, as the people flock to rumours of warrior heroes and Messiah figures who might save them ... It is possible to read particular instances of current affairs or recent history into The Freedom Artist, but this is not a book that is so easily pinned down. It’s savagely political, disturbing and fiercely optimistic, the deeply felt work of a writer who refuses to stop asking the hardest questions.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... a novel 10 years in the making that bears witness to the author’s extensive research and first-hand experience of the lives of those who fall through the cracks ... is being marketed as a thriller, but, as with the best crime novels, its scope defies the constraints of genre; it is family drama, history and social commentary wrapped up in the compelling format of a police procedural ... although the tropes are familiar to the point of cliche, the result feels startlingly fresh ... At the heart of the novel are questions about moral responsibility, and what it means to be honourable. It’s also an exploration of the vulnerability and strength of women. Moore – who volunteers with women’s groups in the area – has created a memorable portrait of the devastation created by poverty and addiction, and the compassion and courage that can rise to meet it.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Solnit has been criticised on occasion by younger feminists for the fact that her essays are exercises in consciousness-raising, often stating the obvious without proposing concrete solutions beyond telling our stories. She appears to address this obliquely in the introductory piece, by pointing out that \'we live inside ideas\', and emphasising that the reshaping of these ideas over time demands work.
RaveThe Observer (UK)As the title ironically implies, this is a book about seeing and being seen; about who does the looking and how our gaze is always selective. Eyes and lenses are recurring motifs ... Levy handles her weighty themes in this slim novel with a lightness of touch and a painfully sharp sense of what it means to look back on a life and construct a coherent whole from its fragments. The Man Who Saw Everything has already been longlisted for the Booker prize; a third shortlisting for Levy would be well deserved.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Rachel Cusk has always written fearlessly about personal experience as a way of considering the expectations on women, from the inequalities of motherhood to the destruction and reinvention that comes with divorce, and has often faced considerable backlash from other women for her frankness, so a new collection of her nonfiction is always to be eagerly anticipated ... Cusk is rarely political in the explicit sense, but \'On Rudeness\' begins with an observation of immigration officers at an airport in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum and expands to examine the role of language and expression in the social divisions made visible by the vote. Cusk’s unsparing ability to see links between her own experience and broader literary and historical perspectives has always elevated her personal writing above mere memoir, and this collection cements her reputation as one of the most fierce and elegant chroniclers of how we live now.
PanThe Guardian (UK)... a pale imitation of his own greatest success ... The novel seems permanently balanced on this edge between menace and black comedy, meaning it never quite achieves either ... the book contains the ghost of a different, far more interesting story that might have existed ... leaves you wondering what he might have written, if he hadn’t felt obliged to write something that reads like a knock-off Thomas Harris novel.
PositiveThe Guardian[Atkinson] has never been a straightforward crime writer, and in Big Sky, as in the four previous Brodie novels, she gives the impression of winking at the reader, making us complicit in the recognition of cliches and expectations ... Big Sky is laced with Atkinson’s sharp, dry humor, and one of the joys of the Brodie novels has always been that they are so funny, even when the themes are as dark as child abuse and sex trafficking ... If Atkinson relies heavily on coincidence, that too is entirely deliberate; \'a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen,\' is a favorite adage of Brodie’s. These have always been novels about character, and there are enough moments of tenderness between parents and children to balance out the cruelty inflicted on the young. Anyone familiar with Atkinson’s work will know not to look for easy resolutions or happy endings.
RaveThe GuardianE.L. Doctorow\'s teeming fictional account of the army\'s progress through Georgia and the Carolinas, razing cities and plantations and sweeping up in its wake a mongrel procession of freed slaves and white refugees, is an extraordinary achievement, bringing together historical and invented characters and reviving with abundant color and energy an episode of American history whose consequences still reverberate in contemporary race relations. In the hands of a less skilled writer, such moral echoes might easily have been overplayed, but Doctorow treads with care and subtlety around the subject of slave-holding and introduces no anachronism; his characters\' thoughts on freedom, predestination and race are consistently of their time and the reader is left to draw whatever inferences he or she may. Most remarkable is the author\'s expert choreography of his enormous cast ... Part of Doctorow\'s purpose is to reproduce the chaos and random cruelty of war; a number of other characters are introduced, complete with loves, fears and dreams, only to die horribly a few pages later. The obvious flaw with this approach is that the novel feels too diffuse and the reader grows wary of becoming attached to any one character ... Yet Doctorow invests even the smallest cameo with humanity and significance. Both dialogue and inner monologue are exquisitely rendered ... Doctorow\'s masterly novel resurrects a bloody conflict whose causes are not necessarily buried in the past.
C. J. Sansom
PositiveThe GuardianThe novel’s murder plot rather slips into the background, as Sansom creates a vivid picture of life in Kett’s camp outside Norwich, as the rebels prepare to take the city; the echoes of a popular leader promising to lead desperate people against self-serving elites are there for readers to interpret as they wish ... Tombland is more of a grand historical epic than a tightly packed whodunnit, like some of the earlier novels; but 800 pages in Shardlake’s company will always fly by.
RaveThe Guardian\"There is little action in the novel, except at the beginning and end; most of the plot unfolds through dialogue, which is one of French’s greatest strengths. She has always had a pitch-perfect ear for the shifting power dynamics in conversation, particularly the police interrogation ... The narrative is slower than in the procedural novels, but the rewards are greater; the big questions linger in the mind long after the superficial ones are resolved. The [Witch] Elm should cement French’s place in the first rank of literary novelists.\
PositiveThe GuardianTranscription continues this exploration of the lies and inventions that make up a life, particularly during a time when all prior certainties—including identity—have been upended ... This idea of consequences, and of every choice exacting a price later, runs like a watermark through Transcription ... At times, the novel is guilty of making its historical parallels a little too emphatic ... Transcription stands alongside its immediate predecessors as a fine example of Atkinson’s mature work ... an unapologetic novel of ideas, which is also wise, funny and paced like a spy thriller. While it may lack the emotional sucker punch...Transcription exerts a gentler pull on the emotions, offering at the end a glimmer of hope, even as it asks us to consider again our recent history and the price of our individual and collective choices. It could hardly be more timely.
PositiveThe GuardianBrockes’s book is the more straightforward and satisfying of the two, perhaps because it has a more conventional narrative momentum, but largely because it is shot through with a dry humour and self-awareness ... Brockes plays at once the wry observer of the slick American fertility industry, with all its attendant comedy, and the naive rube negotiating a world that proves more complicated than she ever expected ... important contributions to the arguments that continue to rage around motherhood and feminism.
PositiveThe Guardian\"It’s no coincidence that her most intense scrutiny is concentrated on Lessing’s personal relationships; her writing leaps to life in the chapters where Feigel is examining Lessing’s attitudes to sex, marriage and motherhood, and how she might redefine her own in their light, as she and her husband discuss the possibility of divorce.
Feigel’s clear-eyed self-examination includes an acknowledgment that she is describing what might fall under the mocking banner of first world problems ... There are no easy answers, either in life or in the writings of Doris Lessing. Perhaps the most insistent lesson from Free Woman is how little has changed in 50 years, how women are still obliged to negotiate and define our role as lovers, wives, mothers, artists, to keep reclaiming our liberty from definitions that seek to contain us. Free Woman is a valuable and brave contribution to a discussion that shows no sign of resolution – and perhaps this continuous sense of reinvention is part of what freedom means.\
MixedThe GuardianThe resilience and potential treachery of our genes is one of the novel’s most insistent themes. While Cedar goes in search of her biological heritage, society is suffering a genetic catastrophe: evolution has stopped progressing and appears to be reversing … The rapid, almost overnight decline of society feels too sketchy … Though the narrative often sparkles with dry humour and Erdrich writes beautifully of the ferocity of maternal feeling and the terrors of pregnancy, it reads as if she has tried to cram in too many ideas in and with too little room to breathe. She is undoubtedly a writer of great skill and imagination, but this novel feels as if it hasn’t quite fully evolved.
RaveThe GuardianA God in Ruins is the story of Teddy’s war and its legacy, ‘a companion piece rather than a sequel’, according to the author. At first glance it appears to be a more straightforward novel than Life After Life, though it shares the same composition, flitting back and forth in time … This is a novel about war and the shadow it casts even over generations who have never known it, but it is also a novel about fiction. Though it may appear to lack the bold formal conceit that made Life After Life so original, don’t make the mistake of thinking that Atkinson has abandoned her interest in authorial playfulness. The book ends with a breathtaking volte-face which will infuriate some readers and delight others, forcing us to reconsider how we understand fiction and the uses of the imagination.
PositiveThe Guardian...also a meditation on the nature of religious faith, a theme that also dominates Faber’s latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things ... Faber eases his readers gently into the strangeness of his imagined world. The novel opens as Christian pastor Peter Leigh is preparing to be separated from his wife Bea for the first time since their marriage ... Faber crafts a sense of dislocation through the accumulation of meticulous detail ...a slow-burning novel in pared-back prose; momentous apocalyptic events take place at a distance, relayed in Bea’s messages, while Peter’s life is focused on small, everyday dramas... Readers resistant to sci-fi may take a while to warm to the setting, but their patience will be rewarded.
PositiveThe GuardianThe Winter’s Tale, one of the late, 'problem' plays, is a story about loss, remorse and forgiveness, and the nature of time. Winterson has captured all this with evident respect and affection for Shakespeare’s text, and made it new with her own bold and poetic prose and her insights into love and grief.