PositiveOpen Letters Review\"Humane can often employ the melodramatic, and the Dodo plot might be if it were not the backside of McBride’s patchwork quilt of characters, some comic, some eccentric, some just plotlessly living along as they see fit ... The Jews in The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store just don’t have the music of counter-punching orality that the jazz musician McBride most loves to write ... Every so often McBride’s 21st century voice breaks through the voices of his characters and makes fairly obvious generalizations about the effects of racism and religious prejudice, conclusions that would not be news to his 1930s characters or his contemporary readers. The authorial interventions unfortunately imply that representation of a variegated group struggling to be humane is not sufficient. In McBride’s National Book Award-winning Good Lord Bird, he had John Brown to do the lecturing ... When I interviewed Toni Morrison many decades ago, she said she wanted to write “village literature, fiction that is for the village, for the tribe,” novels that could be read and understood by the Black characters within the books, readers without high-level educations. She had difficulty hewing to this ideal. Though I haven’t read all of McBride’s work, I think Deacon King Kong and The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store are what Morrison had in mind.\
PositiveOpen Letters ReviewWhitehead is having way too much fun in the two novels ... I shared the fun Whitehead must have had researching Harlem after the Renaissance, the local street life, the clubs, the food, even the furniture his protagonist, Ray Carney, stocks in his store. Also the fun of inventing short back stories and quirky first names for the novels’ numerous capering characters.
RaveOpen Letters ReviewThis compression of fictional time and space is a challenge for Ford since Bascombe novels usually advance at a leisurely and sometimes digressive pace with lots of close attention to different locales ... Be Mine is no place to begin Bascombe ... Frank’s realtor’s eyes register the built landscape with his usual wit and, perhaps, new sympathy ... About everything all at once.
R. F. Kuang
PanOpen Letters Review\"Yellowface sounds as if it were typed over a summer ... Maybe—and this is the saddest speculation of them all—the [novel\'s] limitations are the ultimate reason for [its] popularity: mediocre fiction for a media-debased audience, whatever their race or sexual orientation ... I’m still trying to figure them out, why those benighted or gullible souls praised novels as undistinguished as Yellowface.\
PanOpen Letters Review\"Taylor makes it difficult to care about their under-represented voices because The Late Americans resembles a collection of linked stories, a non-commercial form that diminishes readers’ engagement with necessarily somewhat underdeveloped characters. Every artist faces rejection. Taylor’s publishing strategy seems to be abjection, narrowing his audience, flattening his characters, employing an uncongenial form. And yet here he is a success ... has so many thinly developed characters that the reader needs, as at ballparks before electronic scoreboards, a program to keep the players straight ... Great fiction has been and can be written about compulsion—but not by collecting, as Taylor does, a bunch of characters who have the same compulsion. While establishing the presence of Blacks and gays and gay Blacks as a visible minority, Taylor sacrifices depth for breadth, eschews psychology for biology, and, in a way, plays into the racial and sexual stereotypes you might think that he would hate.\
RaveOpen Letters ReviewNBA fanatics, along with casual fans, will find much to learn and appreciate about hoops in Thomas Beller’s Lost in the Game ... If there is a weakness in Lost in the Game, it is Beller’s sidestepping (Eurostepping in contemporary hoop parlance) around color, around race ... But in his book he usually keeps silent about the white elephant in the room—his relationships with the mostly Black guys he plays with and against ... Serious fans of the NBA will find Lost in the Game is rich with reportage ... Fans also want emotion, and Lost in the Game has that ... [Beller] mostly avoids the curse of nostalgia ... [Beller\'s] play, his prose, is consistently skilled, in the moment and moving you on, interesting you in the action to come.
PositiveOpen LettersAs usual, McCarthy is excellent on the settings and weather Bobby passes through ... You should know what you would be getting into if you chose to ride along with McCarthy’s plot: not a detective novel but a defective novel, one that has reasons for not meeting conventional expectations of solutions ... Perhaps meant to balance Bobby’s usually low-key realistic chapters, the melodramatic and stylized hallucinatory chapters go on much longer than the reader needs to arrive at a plausible solution to the mystery of Alicia ... Nihilism saturates the novel, implying that we all are passengers with little knowledge about our past and large delusions about our future.
Olga Tokarczuk, Tr. Jennifer Croft
PositiveThe Open Letters Review... a monsterpiece and, perhaps, a masterpiece ... Although the pre-Enlightenment world of the novel will seem alien—partly because of Tokarczuk’s obsession with theological and quotidian detail—a bogged reader can push though by recognizing the novel as a distant mirror of seductive and destructive charisma ... Geographical and moral boundary crossings have their analogues in Tokarczuk’s quick shifting among genres and styles: anecdotes, journals, dreams, travelogues, songs, and more ... Challenge can be frustrating, and I believe Tokarczuk sometimes suffers from graduate student dissertation disease, including in her book information she discovered in her research that could have been left out. Not so much information about daily life as arcane theological theories and disputes ... worthy portable companion to that monument of memory.
PositiveOpen Letters ReviewMcCarthy...has composed with impressive ingenuity a Futuristic and partly futuristic work that should add to his reputation as one of England’s most inventive authors ... readers who expected to be moviegoer passive could lose patience with the effort needed to see how McCarthy’s disparate disciplines and data patterns do connect. If you wanted action, to process this novel your mind will need to be active—except when reading a précis of Incarnation about which everything is explained in both a send-up of sci-fi and the easy-reading realistic novel ... the single master-pattern of motion eludes characters, but McCarthy does no less than redefine what a human is, not a sidereal Cartesian cogito but—like the many athletes observed in the novel—a flowing participant in multiple systems of movement ... For readers who desire action presented in the seemingly transparent language of traditional realism (think Franzen), McCarthy’s numerous lingos will be an impediment . . . unless you realize they are the realism of the now and future. You don’t need to understand all the discourses if you’re willing to believe McCarthy does and if you also believe that linguistic special effects are necessary for scientists—and novelists--to describe and communicate processes far beyond the capacities of what Wittgenstein called \'ordinary language\' ... With this novel, McCarthy scales up and out and around and back this wisdom in an intricate work of collaborating and conflicting information, action of a cognitive kind on every page. As my inclusion of other novelists suggests, The Making of Incarnation is a grand—yet compact, like the body—open and active system of systems, literary and scientific.
MixedOpen Letters ReviewFerris is good on the possible consequences of surgical trauma, charting Charlie’s slow recovery, which includes a temporary psychotic break and extended lack of energy ... It’s difficult to understand why Ferris felt the need to create the fiction of Charlie’s post-operative life—and then to negate that fiction. If life is cruel (plenty of evidence in the novel), should the novelist be cruel to the reader to represent life? ... Charlie Barnes suggests that the novelist driven to be a desperate double-dealer of cruelty is the limit case of the desperation that Ferris has written about in his earlier novels. If you can tolerate this kind of novelistic sadism, there is plenty to like in Charlie Barnes ... Ferris well represents the competition and conflicts of Jake’s siblings, none of whom sees the goodness in their father that Jake does ... It’s difficult to imagine where Ferris can go after the essential nihilism of A Calling for Charlie Barnes ... It’s the function of novelists to create illusions. But here is my bottom-line objection to A Calling for Charlie Barnes: Ferris does not persuade me that humans, whether characters or real, can live only by adopting illusions.
PanOpen Letters ReviewDedicated to \'Mad Kids,\' Hell of a Book sometimes has the feel of a Young Adult novel gone rogue ... All this possibly autofictional, probably unreliable, and definitely postmodern gamesmanship, Mott’s \'now you see me, now you don’t\' act, has the unfortunate effect of making the author’s—and Mott’s – response to violence against Blacks more important than the violence itself ... Mott’s choice of that sensibility makes Hell of a Book a work of sentimentalism in which the emotional responses described and elicited exceed the stimuli. The novel overflows with feeling—the pain of the author’s early life, the suffering of his success, his belated anger about Black lives in general. But given the author’s \'condition,\' it’s difficult to trust his passions ... A large part of Hell of a Book satirizes the book tour from hell ... Mott may intend to support the Black Lives Matter movement, but the detailed tour narrative within Hell of a Book is an audience-pleasing, commercial story from which an engaged political novel unsuccessfully struggles to emerge ... Is it possible that Hell of a Book is a parody—like Everett’s \'My Pafology\' – of just the kind of sentiment-exploiting novel it seems to be? Or maybe an attack by Mott on Black writers who have come belatedly to writing about systemic racism? ... Because Hell of a Book is far removed from the art of these recent winners, giving Mott’s novel the award seems a travesty.
RaveOpen LettersWhat saves The Promise from earnest, grave-digging melodrama and post-apartheid political correctness is Galgut’s combining the tragic downfall of The Sound and the Fury with the antic comedy of As I Lay Dying, where another dysfunctional family has very different motives before and after the burial of the mother ... Galgut’s characterization of the individual Swarts could have been heavy-handed had he not turbo-charged the constantly and quickly shifting narration of As I Lay Dying to create an immersive style that might be called Group Gossip ... Of this year’s six Booker finalists, I have read three besides The Promise and on the basis of this partial sample believe Galgut’s novel is probably a wise choice ... With his swart [sic] comedy and gossipy style, Galgut sneaks under taboos and around fixed ideas.
RaveThe Daily BeastNate is the product of a politically correct education and wants to have sex with similarly educated women in publishing, so he torments himself with scruples that never lead to changed behavior but do produce some of the most sophisticated (and comic) rationalizing since Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert defended child-molesting in Lolita ... Nate’s thinking is so cleverly sophistical that a man might sympathize with him. Several of the women characters do. Even the author seems to! And this sympathy or its near simulacrum is how Waldman succeeds at telling her story through Nate’s point of view ... If Nate were a first-person narrator, he might get away with his good-guy self-defenses...But using third-person narration, Waldman allows Nate just enough rope to hang himself but not enough to swing off to safety like some Park Slope Tarzan ... In the coils of Nate’s consciousness when I first read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P,, I confess I didn’t fully appreciate Waldman’s intellectual reach and artistic ingenuity, how her novel about one man’s dating history could represent economic, social, moral, and aesthetic issues while maintaining an amusing surface and bemused tone. Thanks to the paperback edition, I’m no longer an obtuse male like Nate. Or at least not obtuse about The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
MixedOpen Letters Review\"Just as The Underground Railroad recalls nineteenth-century escaped-slave narratives, The Nickel Boys contains numerous reminders of Ralph Ellison’s up-from-the-Jim-Crow-South classic, Invisible Man ... Why Whitehead might want The Nickel Boys to remind readers of Invisible Man is a mystery to me. Ellison’s novel is a grand literary epic of the great migration, and his characters therefore often represent large cultural, economic, and political forces. Invisible Man is also a compendium of different styles from Joycean stream of consciousness to vernacular realism. The Nickel Boys is by comparison a much more limited work, its purview narrower and more personal. But the novel has a saving grace—or horror: its historical exactitude ... Whitehead may have chosen his rather diffident style and narrative speed to avoid melodrama and sentimentality, features that sometimes flawed The Underground Railroad. But to me The Nickel Boys is more like the outline of a novel than like the best novels that Whitehead wrote before the success of The Underground Railroad.\
PositiveOpen Letters Review\"Doten gives Rachel enough backstory with her family to make her a sympathetic character, but she is primarily an agent of the plot and window on the Internet ... Doten’s villain \'Birdcrash\' sounds like... part profound in his analysis of Internet economics, part silly in his proposed replacement of the Internet with birds like carrier pigeons, a little tedious in his repetitions, and wholly crazed in his drilling (literally) into Rachel’s skull to change her brain ... I realize that [the comparisons to Coover, Pynchon, and DeLillo] may seem to diminish Doten’s achievement, but I use these eminent novelists as a critical shorthand to describe and emphasize that achievement ... Trump Sky Alpha is jagged ... I’m not crazy about every part of the patchwork. Some of the sci-fi and detective conventions are tired (even when mocked) ... Trump Sky Alpha will be a much-appreciated and long-remembered introduction to a young novelist worthy of comparison to those twentieth-century old masters of American politics and literary forms.\
PanFull Stop\"... Shields makes no rigorous psychological argument and his book tells us little new about [the charater Trump plays] or [the \'real\'] Trump ... The least original element of Nobody Hates is the assemblage of quotations. They come from a very wide range of reading by Shields or by the dozen or so research assistants he credits at the end ... I can imagine Nobody Hates Donald Trump More Than Donald Trump appealing to readers who haven’t played hide and seek with [Shields] before and to readers who know little about Trump’s background.\
PositiveOpen Letters Review\"Although ostensibly set in a future several presidents after Obama, Hark is the best novel I know about Trump time ... [Lipsyte ]is an extremely aggressive stylist, never satisfied with neutral expression, always trying to break through the ordinary with his focus, his descriptive exactitude or emotional rant ... Lipsyte’s... realistic rage in Hark cheers me, but this novel is not for those readers who need books as likable as Hark the person. Hark the novel is, like Coover’s Burning and Melville’s description of Moby-Dick, \'broiled in hell-fire.\'\
PanFull StopSelf calls himself a 'psychogeographer,' and the novels connect the illnesses of their characters to historical, social, and technological material culture ... Even though Phone is primarily set in the early years of this century, and didn’t require the historical research of the previous books, Self has unfortunately continued to narrow his focus on the personal ... Some reviewers in Great Britain have criticized Self’s trilogy for being too diffuse, too difficult. I found Phone not diffuse enough: too narrowed on two basic stories. Not too difficult but too detailed and repetitive in the telling of these stories ... Maybe it’s because I don’t own a smart phone. I doubt younger readers who do will have the patience for Self’s 617 pages. But I do recommend Umbrella and Shark, and if you find their excesses artful you may read Phone with more enthusiasm than I was able to summon.
MixedFull Stop\"The Mars Room also has an \'exotic\' setting but is more limited in its scope and more visceral in its effect ... Yes, it is a fiction, and some of its devices — such as metafictional references and multiple viewpoints — remind readers of that fictionality, and yet it appears that Kushner wants readers to believe — and feel — that the book is transparent, almost literally true ... Most of the inmates of Stanville admit they are guilty of felonies. I think that Kushner is also guilty — of an aesthetic misdemeanor, earnest sentimentality...Like that American classic of sentimentality Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Mars Room takes its title from a closed space of exploitation, but Kushner’s novel has nothing like the cultural range or moral authority of Stowe’s.\
RaveFull StopPowers knows, and a psychologist in the book says, that humans need \'good stories\' to be persuaded by scientists’ alarms, so Powers creates a band of varied and lively characters with back stories and understories to make his novel a \'bottom-up,\' as well as a top-down, fiction, one that equals his best work ... Powers is one of America’s greatest living novelists ... A novelist who writes with soteriological intent, Powers is insightful about the motives of his eco-terrorists, their appreciation of natural life after personal traumas, their hatred of industry and police, their idealistic desire to save other humans from their suicidal destruction of forests ... Read the e-book version of this 500-page novel, save a tree, spread Powers’s words, become a seed of information, contribute to the \'learners’ global truth, and think about performing some arboreal action for the sake of your grandchildren.
MixedThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewNo spoiler alert is needed because we know the narrator escapes to tell the tale, which is ponderously plotted, often abstract in style and not very scary, possibly because Annihilation is the first book of a projected trilogy but probably because the novel is really about itself and its genre … Details from the biologist’s past — she was a loner who would rather observe a tide pool than participate in her marriage — fill out the metafictional allegory, but without convincingly establishing the biologist’s motivations for her risky behavior, motivations that might have made Annihilation not just intriguing but affecting.
William T. Vollmann
PositiveThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewThe stories come as ‘pincer movements,’ as pairs that give readers manageable units to ponder between segments of the Shostakovich ‘novel.’ The pairings are almost always set in the same approximate time and usually in opposing spaces – Germany and the Soviet Union. Often one story sketches a minor political character or articulates an ideological position, and the paired story will be longer, more personal, more subtle … Although Vollmann has composed and arranged this whole opera of mostly doomed souls, he speaks in his own voice only in the notes. Like an intelligence agent tapped into the telephone exchange, he records narrators both sympathetic and repugnant, authentic and propagandistic, fumbling and crazed.
PanThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewShadow Country has three ‘books’ that roughly correspond to the [earlier] separate novels … While providing smooth segues between speakers to form an essentially linear account of Watson’s rise and fall, Matthiessen uses his multiple narrators to create tantalizing ambiguities, not so much about the justice of Watson’s death or even about the facts of his life but about the contradictory attitudes of the poor ‘crackers’ and mixed-bloods who called him ‘Emperor Watson’ … Because Watson narrates right up to the moment of his death and because he reads or refers to poems he was unlikely to have known, this final book feels like a literary contrivance … It’s hard to know if it’s Watson or Matthiessen who makes Watson into a case study of pathology, a victim of child abuse. Either way, it’s a diminishment.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewMaazel’s omniscient narrator performs a more conventional kind of literary mind reading, revealing the thoughts of these characters and detailing their various motives. But the prevalence of plotting tends to reduce potentially complex figures to narrative devices ... Maazel’s prose, meanwhile, is less style-conscious than it was in her previous books and more lab-manual functional — sometimes technical, usually straightforward and active, rarely figurative or buzzing. For these reasons, A Little More Human seems intended to be as much a high-concept entertainment as a literary novel ... This is an unquestionably brainy book. I only wish it were as free-spirited and buoyant as the two that preceded it.
Javier Marias, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble Review\"At 450 pages, Thus Bad Begins is certainly elaborate and sometimes over-elaborated ... Those who don’t read James and Faulkner with pleasure may be impatient with Marías’s slow-developing and unpredictably ramifying plots, but his barbed wit and Nabokovian puzzles entertain as Thus Bad Begins slouches forward, lurches sideways, and winds back upon itself.\
Juan Gabriel Vásquez
MixedThe Barnes & Noble Review...the appeal of Reputations is not its quickly concatenating plot but the questions about the motives for and the effects of events ... Though briskly paced, Reputations is sometimes heavy with the kind of ponderousness that omniscience seems to encourage ... An admirer of Vásquez’s wider and larger novels, I’m both disappointed by and fascinated with Reputations.
MixedThe Barnes & Noble ReviewI hope every word of Leve’s recovery story is factual, but some of it, as well as her presentation of her father, can seem too good to be true ... he book also may leave others wondering what Ariel was like as a teenager and why she has been unable to write the liberating letter to her mother until she is forty-six ... If An Abbreviated Life were a novel, I’d call its narrative underdeveloped, overdetermined, and mistitled ... I want to believe that An Abbreviated Life has a parodic and deconstructive intent, using readers’ conventional expectations and stock responses against them.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewRadically non-hierarchical in its presentation of character and splintered among multiple points of view, The Throwback Special refuses to furnish any simple conclusions to readers ... I found his rule-breaking admirable, his insistence on the paradox of ritual wise, and his pages often witty, but when compared with the very best sports novels The Throwback Special is ultimately a bit facile, and its reenactment weekend can seem a convenient place to deposit mini-stories about male malaise.
PanThe GuardianIn lieu of plot, Harrigan offers twinned and twined chronological development, maneuvering – not always plausibly – his Zelig to be around Lincoln at critical moments ... Although Harrigan’s dialogue has period twang, his set pieces –descriptions of battles, natural settings, social events – often sound as if they had been written by a 21st-century historian, an effect compounded when Harrigan inserts unnecessary flash-forwards.