PositiveThe Spectator (UK)Certain novels complicate the very notion of literary enjoyment ... Despite its gripping narrative, compelling structure and vivid characters, every time I picked it up it was with a sinking heart. In telling the story of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 through the viewpoint of a variety of Cairenes both for and against, Alaa Al Aswany holds out the slender straw of hope against the slashing shears of repression ... If Wissa is a thoroughly attractive figure, Nourhan is a fascinating female villain, a paradoxically pious seductress who targets powerful men ... The novel ends with one small, sweet act of redress. But given the material, Al Aswany declines to offer us the full satisfaction of a happy ending. Retribution remains a purely literary concept.
David Diop, tr. Anna Moschovakis
RaveThe Spectator (UK)David Diop’s powerful novel, not much more than novella length, is full of echoes and portents ... Translated from the French, the text revolves around recurring images and verbal tics, as though Alfa is trying a series of keys to unlock his troubled psyche ... With elegant brevity, Diop presents a world with no firm dividing line between courage and madness, murder and warfare.
RaveFinancial Times (UK)O’Connor is masterly at evoking the late Victorian era; its train journeys, street scenes, formality and banter. Magnificent set pieces include the burning of a prop store and Bram and Ellen’s visit to a private asylum for purposes of research. O’Connor conjures up the saucy backstage world with its deliberate sexual blurring — Stoker and Irving trading camp insults, Harker cross-dressing, even Terry late in life wondering if she could have been a lesbian ... The theme running through Shadowplay is that of the secret self, the occult wellspring where art and creativity and possibly murder rise from.
RaveThe Spectator (UK)...be assured that the sex scenes between Yale law students Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton in Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel are cringe-free — even the one involving manual stimulation that takes place in a moving car. They’re young, they’re in love, it’s adorable ... Fortunately, Sittenfeld is a great stylist and moves on quickly to a voice that’s plain yet pained, subdued yet supple, with unexpressed depths beneath the surface ... Just when you might be wondering what the point of a novel based on real and living people might be, Sittenfeld begins to rewrite history ... It’s an ingenious yet plausible glimpse of an alternative reality, and so involving that it occasionally comes as a shock to realise that there is a different reality, and we are living in it. Readers who are up to speed with the minutiae of American politics could take a deep dive, matching the text diligently against the facts, noting who’s real and what never happened, and admiring Sittenfeld’s skill ... The book is illuminating, grimly so, about the degree of scrutiny given to public figures in the internet age ... The novel dramatises how eerie it feels to be the object of mass projection.
MixedThe Financial TimesRich in literary references — to Tolkien, the Brontës, Edward Thomas, Tove Jansson — Dark Skies is also rippled through with memoir, with Francis exploring the roots of her love for nature in school trips and childhood holidays ... It’s a warmly personal narrative, perhaps overly so when it comes to Dave, her regular companion on hikes and camping trips. Their relationship waxes and wanes over the course of the book, but his presence makes you wonder whether the publisher demanded an emotional undertow to Francis’s sensitive nature writing. I’m afraid the sentimental climax, bringing the two strains together, made me reach for the sick-bucket.
PositiveThe Spectator (UK)It’s chillingly believable, but Zed is also extremely funny, especially when the hitherto compliant Veeps begin to malfunction ... The novel runs out of steam at the end, as though exhausted by its own ingenuity, but nevertheless Kavenna remains one of the most brilliant and disconcerting British writers working today.
PositiveThe Spectator (UK)This narrative is even more aggressively masculine than the Iliad, with Nellie and Henry’s wife Anna ...far less resonant than their originals. In the Iliad, it’s the Greeks who are usurping others’ territory, the Trojans who are on home ground. But that’s the beauty of Hughes’s schema: when it clicks you admire his ingenuity, when it doesn’t you contemplate the irony ... onvoluted talk of political machinations and ‘back-channels’ in Belfast, Dublin and London update the action, while Country’s grim, anti-heroic tone sometimes veers on the humorous ... More relentless are the equivalents to Homer’s ghastly passages about the hacking of human bodies in war. Knowing what’s going to happen lessens the tension; it’s easy to guess how Achill will re-enact the desecration of Hector’s body. A certain moral equivalence is granted all the fighters, though ultimately Hughes is less subtle and even-handed than his original. But there’s no shame in that.
RaveFinancial Times (UK)Miller is not one of those novelists who puts 21st-century pieties into the mouths of historical characters. Instead, as John heads northwards, Miller paints a richly detailed portrait of a society in some ways familiar, in others impossibly strange. Startlingly exact details accrue, of life on board ship, how to make cartridges for a gun, or the (literally) cutting edge of contemporary eye surgery. Miller takes delight in loose ends and dropped threads, introducing characters who are distinctive and surprising rather than essential to the plot ... Outlaws, whores, clerks, naval men and tavern-keepers add to the sense of a teeming world ... Miller is always interested in something more profound than mere action. Here, a moment spent looking at flowers in a meadow or into the wondering eyes of a horse has as much significance as the gravest peril.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Patsy’s hardscrabble experiences range from the hilarious to the tragic as she negotiates life without papers. The series of temporary alliances she forms highlight Dennis-Benn’s ability to conjure vivid characters with the lightest of strokes ... Patsy is a thoroughly absorbing saga of two female protagonists’ unstoppable determination to thrive, no matter what obstacles are placed in their way.
Rita Indiana, Trans. by Achy Obejas
PositiveThe GuardianA dry, sardonic tone anchors the pulpy narrative, with its bloody violence, brutish sex and futuristic flourishes, all seasoned with bitter humor and a hint of the occult ... Whether we would really want to change the past, given the opportunity, is one question posed in this blast of a novel; what it is to act beyond self-interest is another. Tentacle reads like Kathy Acker with a tighter narrative grip.
PositiveThe Financial TimesHolland’s focus is thus circumscribed, but within these limits is wide-ranging and erudite ... Many curious characters populate these dense but enjoyable pages ... [a] sweeping survey.
PositiveThe Financial TimesHow pleasant to know Mr Lear! Jenny Uglow certainly thinks so. Before reading this biography I could take or leave Edward Lear’s nonsense poems ... In a charming preface, Uglow describes her undertaking as setting out \'in my sieve of words\', rather like The Jumblies ... Crammed with Lear’s delicate drawings and paintings, this must be one of the most beautifully produced books of the year.
MixedThe Financial TimesThere is a narrative arc but little plot, as Darling moves from an appalling situation in which she is happy, to a comfortable situation in which she is unhappy; from the influence of one group of friends to another, shallower group … Eventually, the book comes to a halt rather than resolves, closing with another grim image. If Bulawayo is better at individual scenes than overall structure, she is at least in full command of her sparkling prose.
Sylvia Plath, ed. by Peter K. Steinberg & Karen V. Kukil
PositiveFinancial TimesThis vast collection of unexpurgated letters to friends and family is only half the story, and at a wrist-busting 1,424 pages it can’t comfortably be read in bed or bath or even held up. Faber should have provided a stand ... Some niggling textual decisions pitch this volume somewhere between the general reader and the academic ... This volume is as big as a bible and has the feel of Holy Writ, where every word is sacred. Did we need endless letters from summer camp, or the juvenile ones about stamp collecting? These deflect us from the poet rather than revealing her ... After more than 1,300 pages, it feels like the real story is just beginning.
PositiveThe Financial Times\"Alderman’s core observation is that people do bad things \'because they can.\' There’s no innate nobility in the female sex: atrocities begin, at first in justified retaliation, then just for the hell of it. Women haven’t just gone rogue, they’ve gone full Bacchic. Alderman evokes Euripides in a genuinely chilling episode when Tunde, checking out a remote cult, realises too late that his media credentials mean very little in the storm of unreason that has broken out in the mountains ... By gleefully replacing the protocols of one gender with another, Alderman has created a thrilling narrative stuffed with provocative scenarios and thought experiments. The Power is a blast. But still, it’s a mystery why the men don’t simply wear rubber boots.\
PositiveThe Financial TimesDevotion is short enough to devour at one enjoyable sitting and thought-provoking enough to deserve re-reading. As with her previous books, it is interspersed with Smith’s own monochrome photographs: of Camus’ and Weil’s graves, and sites of personal significance in Paris — including one of young Patti leaping for joy in a favourite street. The story comes full circle as she returns to her desk in New York, complete with notebook filled with exquisite handwriting. It’s a privilege to spend any time with Patti Smith, however brief.
Eka Kurniawan, Trans. by Annie Tucker
PositiveThe Financial TimesThere is little change of register in the switch from comic to tragic material; the writing is dispassionate and matter-of-fact, without wasting any time on hand-wringing. The many scenes of combat in the book, however, are gleeful and cartoonish ... At times it’s more like reading a treatment for a Tarantino film than a novel, complete with jump cuts and temporal juxtapositions; three styles spliced together, by turns a soft porn flick, a manic road thriller and a martial arts movie ... Ajo’s impotence and his reaction to it could be intended as a metaphor for Indonesia’s lower classes, assailed by corruption, unmanned by poverty, with no recourse except recreational and by extension political violence. His bodily quietude fosters a sense of otherworldly calm in Ajo for a while. But it seems religion is not the answer either. It’s a blast of a book, by turns beguiling, horrifying and silly. Whether or not a political fable is intended, the squelch of blood and the crack of breaking bones tends to muffle any deeper message.
RaveThe GuardianSourdough is a soup of skilfully balanced ingredients: there’s satire, a touch of fantasy, a pinch of SF, all bound up with a likeable narrator whose zest for life is infectious. The novel opens a door on a world that’s both comforting and thrillingly odd. Shelve it alongside Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette and your hipster cookbooks, and savour.
PositiveThe Financial TimesThe bare-bones text is fleshed out with allusions and traces of other works. Echoing William Blake’s dictum, Buckmaster notes, 'I needed to create a system.' His predicament recalls that of Chris McCandless, the idealistic young American who starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness in an attempt to come mystically closer to nature. A dash of Nietszche’s abyss; a hint of Arthurian quest; even the circling camera movements in the moorland scenes of An American Werewolf in London come to mind ... Buckmaster’s frantic dash over the moor also recalls the 'mad' scenes on the heath in King Lear, with one difference: Shakespeare’s moody Dark Age monarch still had a retinue, even if a parodic one, of losers and lunatics; tellingly, modern man has nobody.
PositiveThe Financial TimesBefore the internet, a book like this would take months of research in a big library. Now a quick search pulls up factual nuggets and sometimes Stroksnes sounds like he’s saving us the bother of getting the computer out ... The book is stuffed with curious facts. Cod’s tongues can be as big as fishcakes! Seals sleep on the bottom of the sea! The flesh of the Greenland shark contains nerve gas, and without proper preparation renders the diner 'shark drunk,' a form of poisoning ... There’s folklore too, with tales of mermen and chatty mermaids with huge breasts, and sea monsters such as the Kraken or hafgufa, with horns as big as ship’s masts.
PositiveThe GuardianIn putting Alice centre stage, Underdown has to work out how, without violating period norms, her heroine can discover what Matthew is up to. Thankfully, there is only one episode of overhearing a conversation through the wall, that other trusty standby. Gradually she puts things together; there’s a slow burn of horror, the sense of something huge she is powerless to stop. n order to be a witness, Alice becomes, to a certain extent, complicit; when she tries to confront her brother, he slaps her down easily. If the novel has a fault, it is that Matthew remains inscrutable, none of Alice’s hypotheses gaining much traction ... Little is known about the witchfinder’s sudden demise, which gives Underdown free rein. There’s also a chilling twist, indicating that the darkness never really goes away. This is a clever novel that stays faithful to its period and its premise.
MixedThe Financial TimesPatricia seems determined to extract every ounce of humour from her parents, hanging around the house ready to transcribe each doom-laden conversational gem that falls from her Irish mother’s lips ... Past and present intertwine, there’s no particular flow, shape or purpose, and individual chapters form discrete narratives ... The tone falters whenever she strives for high style or moral purpose, but at least the reader never has to wait too long before the next bon mot. At times the sheer fictionality overwhelms. Greg appears to be a particularly broadly drawn Dickens character rather than an actual human being ... A thoroughly modern mess of a book, replete with whimsy and charm.
PositiveThe Financial TimesThe narrative is pared down, the pace is slow and sombre; this is no lush paean to Australian flora and fauna but the evocation of a dead zone ... What most impresses is Harper’s presentation of a largely male world and viewpoint. Aaron must face down the town’s blustering hardnuts in their sour, men-only enclaves. The female characters are regularly appraised with a flicker of sexual interest as Aaron clocks a flirty outfit or a pair of blue eyes. The dialogue is gruff and to the point, and the dogged psychological realism of the novel precludes the deployment of the sort of shock twist that upends the action but falls apart logically on closer inspection ... The no-frills storytelling is indicative of Harper’s career as a journalist; though this won an Australian literary award for an unpublished manuscript, it’s a crisp and functional whodunnit rather than a literary work...Nevertheless The Dry is skilfully written and absorbing, and unlike many a body-strewn thriller, its unfortunate victims are made to seem more than just blood-spattered ciphers.
PositiveThe Financial TimesThe book is full of appealing titbits ... The standout is 'A Ghost Story,' set in the Bernese Oberland where a British party is celebrating the new year ... it’s gratifying to see that even Mrs Winterson eventually gets to come in from the cold.
MixedThe Financial TimesSobel has a knack for a crisp narrative and a cracking story ... Human lives being infinitesimal specks in comparison to the stars, Sobel’s dramatis personae flare and die out like so many novae over the decades of her narrative ... It’s an admirable, rather than a thrilling read.
MixedThe Financial TimesIn plot terms, Birch has little leeway since she must stick to the historical facts. If readers can resist looking Pastrana up on the internet before finishing the novel, they will be rewarded by the sort of bizarre twist that can happen only in real life ... The brief sections concerning Rose are not particularly successful — although figuring out how the two stories will eventually conjoin provides a frisson of suspense ... However enjoyable and moving, the novel in the end doesn’t totally convince, perhaps because Julia remains a cipher.
MixedThe Financial TimesKing has some sifting to do in the matter of truth versus perception in Bainbridge’s life. This doesn’t altogether explain the heft of this bloated tome, all the more surprising when you think of the stiletto-sharp leanness of Bainbridge’s own prose ... King goes into far too much detail about these lovers, even given that many of them made their way, transmogrified, into the fiction. Without being merely gossipy or racy, this is an enjoyable read, and the account of Bainbridge’s predicament as a gifted, unusual woman negotiating the 20th century amounts to fascinating social history. Where King falls puzzlingly short is that the fiction itself is given cursory attention.
RaveThe GuardianThe joy, as before, is in the narrative voice. Semple foregrounds forty- and fiftysomething women who have all the zest, poor impulse control and boiling emotion of 20-year-olds, only with added menopause and fear of Alzheimer’s ... Semple reaffirms her gift for creating memorable, monstrous characters ... Semple is skilled in holding back revelations and planting clues to later emotional payoffs. Somehow she makes her seethingly intolerant and dissatisfied heroines lovable for all their flaws.
PositiveThe Financial TimesAlthough this development has more than a tinge of the supernatural, Shaw’s descriptions are visceral and matter-of-fact ... The non-fiction nature writing in vogue in recent years seems to have migrated into fiction. Shaw’s climax is like nothing else, though, crescendoing with almost CGI levels of spectacle as Tarantino meets Middle Earth. The Trees is very odd indeed, but certainly compelling.