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.