Annalisa QuinnAnnalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR. Quinn studied English and Classics at Georgetown University and holds an M.Phil in Classical Greek from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Cambridge Trust scholar. She can be found on Twitter @Annalisa_Quinn
RaveNPRAlthough Barkskins is full of strange and vibrant humanity, that 'vast invisible web' is its central character. The woods are alive...The long and slow sickness — humanity — that ravages this gasping, living place is the book's theme. The humans that pass over the earth flame brightly and then disappear. A book with this many people flitting through it could be hard to keep track of, but Proulx sketches each person with vigorous, unforgettable strokes ... It is that wonder at monumental nature, and simultaneous grief at its diminishment, that animates Barkskins. So, read it, absorb its urgent message — and try not to think about all the trees that probably went into those 713 pages.
PositiveNPRSweetbitter is a young person's novel, full of the joyful pain that comes from almost-having, a feeling like happiness that would disperse if the object were actually caught...When people mention purple writing, they mean something saturated and embarrassing: something that tries too hard, wants too much, doesn't play it cool. This is a book that tries hard, really hard in a way that is tempting to dismiss; it is voluptuous writing, ripe approaching 'the precipice of rot.' It balances on the edge of too much, too strong, too sentimental, too dramatic, too overdrawn or overwritten. But it works, because that is what it feels like to be young and in a big city: like it's too much, and at the same time not nearly enough.
Patient H.M.Luke Dittrich
MixedNPRPatient H.M. is part pop science book, part family history, and part worrying essay about the ethics of medical research ... Most readers won't be in a position to judge the science (I'm not), but the writing is satisfying and graceful, with a flair for dramatic emphasis that only occasionally veers into showiness ... The person of H.M. remains necessarily hazy, but Dittrich writes a vivid and painful story of the dark tension between desire for knowledge and that most basic tenet: First, do no harm.
The House at the Edge of NightCatherine Banner
PositiveNPRThe House at the Edge of Night is a family saga that demonstrates that ideas don't have to be new to be good ... The novel does not suffer from the fact that it uses familiar building blocks, or the fact that the inner lives of characters mostly stay there. Instead, it has the gnomic and suggestive simplicity of a folktale, koanic rhythms that let you fill in whatever complexity you can into the elisions ... this book is sweet and heady with nostalgia; not radical, maybe, but comforting as a quilt.
PositiveNPR...wit and self-awareness will go far in making improbable adaptations work. In Nutshell, we see a bookish mind at play. And it turns out that a fetal Hamlet — bound, watching the inevitable event grow nearer, an extravagant and erring sprit confined in doubts and impotence — is actually just about right ... Nutshell fails when McEwan turns earnest. I initially took the fetus's long monologues on world events as part of the larger joke, but it's clear after a while that some of them are sincere ... Nonetheless, Nutshell is a joy: unexpected, self-aware, and pleasantly dense with plays on Shakespeare.
You Will Know MeMegan Abbott
RaveNPRMegan Abbott has written a book with the taut and muscular ruthlessness of a gymnast, a book that disorients with eerie countermelodies, constant reminders of the vulnerability of bodies, even in its festive moments ... You Will Know Me takes swift, unsettling, apparently effortless flight.
The Voyeur's MotelGay Talese
PanNPRThat lack of consent is the book's original, irreducible sin. Out of it stem other, lesser faults — faults of fact, taste, and ethics — but it is this violation that makes the whole book basically untenable ... if Talese has consulted victims, lawyers, or the vast academic literature on voyeurism, there is no hint of that research in this book. He never even performs the basic exercise of imagining what it would feel like to be the victim of voyeurism.
The Hatred of PoetryBen Lerner
PanNPRI don't think [Lerner] wanted to write a comprehensive treatment of our collective hatred of poetry. I think he wanted to write a personal account of his relationship to poetry, and he fell into the same mistake he accuses bad poets of: confusing the personal and the universal ... In The Hatred of Poetry, a personal feeling has been dressed up, given a few distracting academic tassels and a vague, impersonal 'we.' But maybe I just resent being spoken for. I, for one, like poetry.
Little LaborsRivka Galchen
PositiveNPRThe book is cyclical and sideways, structured in the loosely associative manner of actual thoughts rather than in logic or argument. I get the sense that it does not aim to please or appease — not because it is brash or defiant in any way but because it is quiet, queer, on the sidelines examining the grooved soles of its sneakers rather than running the race ... Galchen's implicit proposition — that babies can be the subject of serious art, that we may coo and think simultaneously — feels surprising, even radical, in a world where motherhood and intellectualism are still placed instinctively at odds. It may be a little book, but it is not a small one.
The Red PartsMaggie Nelson
RaveNPRNelson's resistance to the easy answer, her willingness to reach a kind of conclusion and then to break it, to probe further and further, to ask about her own complex and not entirely noble intentions instead of facilely condemning others, make The Red Parts an uneasy masterpiece. It is a sounding, a wondering, not an autopsy (It was murder, I say!) or a condemnation. Nelson allows space for the truth: Maybe grief is a repeating cycle, not a hurdle to be passed, maybe there is no immunization, maybe we'll never feel entirely safe. Maybe women will always have to negotiate between freedom and safety, on and on in endless compromise.
The Little Red ChairsEdna O'Brien
RaveNPRIt is remarkable that O'Brien captures an extraordinary and almost holy innerness in each of her characters, however minor, and then plants those characters amidst the terrible velocity, the terrible pull of world events. O'Brien is truly at her best when she describes the private corners of minds, those quiet and wild corners, our meditative and our inspired selves.
A Doubter’s AlmanacEthan Canin
PanNPRBecause of the author's skill, Canin's women look almost like real ones, but closer examination reveals that they are just furniture: soft, accommodating, stable, and ancillary. Like a certain topologist who can map the world but not the heart, Canin renders half the world with precision and beauty — but, as for the other half, like Milo, he does not even know what he can't see.
The Lost Time AccidentsJon Wray
RaveNPRThe Lost Time Accidents is a feast, but not a glut, in part because its author leaves so much to the reader's deduction, both in terms of the book's central mystery and in the dense web of allusion and in-joke that decorates each page ... The book may involve 'the Gestapo, and the war, and the speed of light, and a card game no one plays anymore,' but it is really interested in simple emotional truths rather than complex scientific ones.
Good on PaperRachel Cantor
PositiveNPRIn Good on Paper, translation serves as a continual metaphor for relationships: Translation is a kind of betrayal because pure fidelity to a text is impossible ... Cantor creates a compelling vision of what love is. It's not a feeling but — like translation — an act: a willful opening of one self to another.
The Road to Little DribblingBill Bryson
MixedNPRAt its best, The Road to Little Dribbling is a funny and pleasant travelogue ... At its worst, it's a long and grumpy Yelp review.
My Name is Lucy BartonElizabeth Strout
RaveNPRIn My Name is Lucy Barton, there are no plot twists to distract or verbal acrobatics to charm: the story must rest instead on its bare emotional truth. The result is a novel of gorgeous simplicity and restraint.
A Gentleman in MoscowAmor Towles
MixedNPRA Gentleman in Moscow is a novel that aims to charm, not be the axe for the frozen sea within us. And the result is a winning, stylish novel that keeps things easy ... All of the verbal excess, the gently funny mock-epic digressions, the small capers and cast of colorful characters, add up to something undeniably mannered but also undeniably pleasant. A Gentleman in Moscow is like a quipping, suavely charming dinner companion that you are also a little relieved to escape at the end of the meal.
Shame and WonderDavid Searcy
MixedNPRSearcy hunts for odd resonances and likes to get caught on the familiar corners of the world, turning them suddenly strange so you step back and see the ordinary world for the odd and lonely and magnificent thing it is ... But for every thought that emerges slow and lovely like a sunrise from an ordinary view, there's a clunker. The issue, I think, is that Searcy's writing, though searching and gorgeous and meditative and all that, lacks a sense of play and self-awareness.
Alive Alive Oh!: And Other Things That MatterDiana Athill
RaveNPRThe nearness of death could make this a grim book, but instead it is a joyous and vivid one...there is plenty of unhappiness that could be brooded over, made large and obscuring, but she chooses instead to savor the beautiful.
The Gap of TimeJeanette Winterson
PanNPRReaders unfamiliar with the play will gain little from Winterson's retelling: her characters are incorporeal without Shakespeare's characters standing behind them.
I Am No OnePatrick Flanery
RaveNPRThis is undeniably a novel with a point to make, one about privacy in this 'new regime of data collection [that] does not see innocence first but assumes guilt by algorithmic association.' But Flanery resists the obvious at every turn. This is not a polemic — instead, emotional and psychological precision are the order of the day ... This question — what would be worse outcome, insanity or appalling government overreach? — gives the novel its taut and eager force. The nuance, on the other hand, comes from a quiet and subtle counter-melody of anxiety about the opposite of surveillance ... [a] seductive and frightening novel.
RaveNPRThis collection is many things, but one of them is a study of people (especially women) who cut through language ... Throughout Float are these gestures of power and of rage: taking back the story, or, failing that, ruining it. Biting the apple, lighting the fire, marking the letter, blowing the kazoo. 'If you are not the free person you want to be, you must find a place to tell the truth about that,' Carson writes at one point. She herself has written something wild and weird and luminous. She writes how you might write if you were not constrained, not afraid of being misunderstood. We can't be free all the time, but Carson provides the hint of a door — or, failing that, a match.
Sex ObjectJessica Valenti
PositiveNPRSex Object offers little redemption, and none of the familiar bubblegummy positive-thinking strategies that place the onus on women to magically think their way out of being told, on a daily basis, that public spaces are not for them. It is a relief to read a book on harassment and violence that simply acknowledges, rather than exhorts: 'Buck up!' 'Lean in!' 'Girl power!'...Maybe instead of solutions and angles and strategies, there is power in saying, simply, 'This is how bad it is.'
RaveNPR[Commonwealth] is the kind of book that makes you think not of great adventures or faraway places but your own modest choices, and crooked shots at forming a life that suits you. How to make a life? How to make a family? These are, after all, the real questions, the momentous choices ... In Commonwealth, Patchett shows that great drama isn't necessary. Guns and floods and fire and terrorists needn't kill us. Ordinary life will suffice.
Shrill: Notes from a Loud WomanLindy West
PositiveThe GuardianWest’s range is wide. Shrill’s early chapters flash with wild, exuberant profanity ... Later, she becomes more sober and personal, writing about her father’s death and her love for her husband. Shrill mixes humour with pathos so effectively that those qualities magnify each other rather than cancelling each other out. West has somehow stayed open and vulnerable in the face of constant attack, abuse that would turn a lot of people into a brittle shell, instead of a warm, capacious and funny writer.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
RaveNPR...the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity ... The women of Swing Time are case studies in the different ways people hunt for an identity ... Some writers name, organize, and contain; Smith lets contradictions bloom, in all their frightening, uneasy splendor.
The Spider and the FlyClaudia Rowe
PanNPRAs it happens, Rowe's book is not a piece of reporting, but an amalgamation of clichés: intrepid lady reporter becomes obsessed with rapist/serial killer who murders women who resemble her, and begins sending him emotional letters. She isn't interested in facts unless they illuminate some aspect of her own life. Rowe knows it isn't true journalism, and says so: 'The first rule of reporting is that the writer is never the story.' But even if she abandons the guise of journalist, it just isn't appropriate for her to be the center of Kendall Francois' story, particularly in the callous way she goes about writing it ... The ethics of writing a book that sexes up a serial killer while mostly ignoring his victims is queasy at best. There are two axes of weakness: aesthetic and ethical. And the horrible truth is that I'd be much more willing to put up with the way Rowe more or less sells out these women if she did it with subtlety and élan. That's not fair, of course: It's like being easier on bank robbers who burgle with brio. But her writing, if competent, is purple, and her reporting patchy.
Human ActsHan Kang
PositiveNPRMercy is a human impulse, but so is murder. In Human Acts, Han Kang's novel of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and its aftermath, people spill blood, and people brave death to donate it. With a sensitivity so sharp that it's painful, Human Acts sets out to reconcile these paradoxical and coexisting humanities ... Each word of Human Acts seems hypersensitive, like Kang has given her sentences extra nerve endings, like the whole world is alive and feels pain, not just human flesh — even a slab of meat on a grill thrills with horror. She finds violence at the heart of things ... Human Acts has style problems. Long sections are written in the second person, a strategy designed to collapse the distance between character and reader but which actually enhances it...And then, Deborah Smith's translation feels undeniably like a translation: It is stilted, with odd register switches ... Nonetheless, Human Acts is stunning.
The MothersBrit Bennett
MixedNPRThe Mothers illustrates how rare major books that treat black families and friendships are, where racism and suffering are present in the story but not the entire story. Brit Bennett should not be exceptional, but she is; The Mothers has many strengths, but it is extraordinary for that one miserable fact. Here, at last, is a novel about ordinary black lives ... The Mothers is good, moving and astute, but it could be much better. It's a book that makes much of other people's unknowability, but doesn't demonstrate it ... Here, everyone fulfills the précis of their characters exactly. Each character has one — but no more than one — distinguishing trait.
The Lesser BohemiansEimear McBride
PositiveNPRI like these early parts best, before the love story begins, when we get our moonish unpunctuated lady with an 'unflat stomach and vociferous wants' to ourselves. Her inner self, here inviolable and quiet and whole as a pebble, somehow loses its contours when she falls in love ... I'm being horrible and unfair — Stephen grows into a compelling character — probably for the same reasons I'm mean to my friends' new boyfriends: They take something private and whole away. In this case, I miss Eily's solitary eye, her solid self ... The Lesser Bohemians is a love story, yes, but it is really an electric and beautiful account of how the walls of self shift and buckle and are rebuilt.
I'm Supposed to Protect You From All ThisNadja Spiegelman
MixedNPRSpiegelman is insightful about the malleability and power of memory and eloquent about the hidden currents in her family's mythology. But I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This suffers from aggressive, artificial poignancy: Laden ashtrays and meaningful silences and figures forever disappearing portentously into the night. Just a little bit of humor or self-awareness would dispel the lingering and sticky too-muchness of these moments, the heaviness of lyricism for its own sake.
The Devil and WebsterJean Hanff Korelitz
PanNPRThe Devil and Webster, while intelligent, is an underwhelming contribution to the genre ... it lacks the intellectualism of the best campus novels ... Naomi's inner world — her story and friendships — could make up for some of this lack of theoretical heft, but as a character she's flat, blindsided by easily predictable events, and the relationships that take up much of her attention aren't well-developed ... The Devil and Webster is a suggestive exploration of what tolerance, inclusion, and identity mean, but the nuance stays submerged in that ideological swamp.
Wait Till You See Me DanceDeb Olin Unferth
RaveNPRUnferth knows how to change direction. Her absurd and tender story collection is full of sentences like clear glass doors, and you, reader, are the bird ... The way she writes these people is reminiscent of the unsentimental, often absurd, compassion of George Saunders, for whom there are no heroes and villains, just various kinds of achingly familiar weirdos trying to inhabit the same planet without more humiliation than is necessary ... The temptation to write neat and linear cause-and-effect is overwhelming. But Unferth resists, because the truth is that we contain queasy, flickering, tender multitudes.
Women Who WorkIvanka Trump
PanNPRWomen Who Work is a sea of blandities, an extension of that 2014 commercial seeded with ideas lifted from various well-known self-help authors. Reading it feels like eating scented cotton balls ... a long simper of a book, full of advice so anodyne, you could almost scramble the sentences and come out with something just as coherent ... Over and over again, Trump's message is: Take whatever you can get, and then print your name on it.
All Grown UpJami Attenberg
MixedNPRSometimes I feel like we've all made some blood pact to call this voice original and brave 20 years since it's been either. In fact, All Grown Up is a book so of the zeitgeist that if you took it onto the G train it would just dissolve and merge with the air ... [The] opening is meant to signal a right-thinking book. This performative privilege check on page one — like it is a coat you must store before the show — tells us a lot about this character, whose empathy is so meager that it appears in feeble gestures, in acknowledgments of other people's hardships but no stake in them ... This book is attractive in several ways: the reading is so easy you slide through it like a knife through butter. It's occasionally witty. The structure is surprising and original ... All Grown Up purports to defend something legitimate and defensible – i.e., not having a spouse or children — but actually seems to promote something indefensible — not being at all responsible for other people.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewMaum’s writing is easy, eager and colloquial, as oxygenated as ad copy. People 'quip' or 'croon' rather than speak, metaphors mix promiscuously, points are made twice, italics tilt madly from every page. Less finished but more lively than Maum’s last novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, Touch sometimes reads like an email from a hallucinating brand strategist trapped on a silent retreat ... Maum shines when she writes about creativity, the slow burn and then sudden rush of ideas that lead Sloane to change her life. Having new ideas feels like love. We use the same liquid, luminous metaphors for both: lightning, fire, magma, light bulbs. But while love stories are almost mandatory parts of novels (including this one), good writing about creativity is rare. Maum captures that fragile, gratifying, urgent process.
PositiveNPRIn Priestdaddy, portraits like this abound — in which each sentence shimmies with wonderful, obscene life, but the person behind it isn't quite visible through the dance ... Lockwood's descriptions of trauma, a rape and a suicide attempt, for instance, are mere paragraphs, and then we return once more to the wheeling, dancing circus. She doesn't owe us these revelations, of course, but Lockwood is best when she is concrete. The force of her sentences, though stunning, is not enough to carry the family portrait past the first 150 pages. Her writing about the Catholic Church, however, is scorching ... At her very best, Lockwood is antic, deadpan, heartbreaking — and so, so gross.
Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002)David Sedaris
RaveNPRDavid Sedaris' diaries are not especially introspective. They offer different kinds of pleasures: those of the cultural historian, rather than those of the snoop … It's relentlessly interesting to read about daily life in a time that's within memory but somehow also impossibly far away — not only the wildly different attitudes towards homosexuality, but all the weird stuff they (we) ate, the fact that people were named things like ‘Ronnie,’ that typing was considered a skill, that people were always just calling each other up and stopping by, without texting first.
Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly WomanAnne Helen Petersen
PositiveNPRPetersen herself can't be called an unruly writer per se. In its cautious accessibility, this collection is less exuberant, less spiky and less strange — less unruly, in short — than it could be. She leaves much of the boundary pushing to her subjects. Petersen's cutting, still-by-still analysis of TV shows and music videos is wrapped in glosses, potted histories and pleasantly readable, if not radical, prose. But if Petersen is dancing on the same line of accessibility and acceptability as her subjects, can we blame her — if she'll reach more people, change more minds? ... Petersen is responsible in the best sense: She doesn't just cite her sources but elevates them. She is deeply but quietly unelitist, incorporating academic theory when necessary but with lucidity and care. She acknowledges her debts and her advantages. And once Petersen has introduced her subjects, her analysis is deeply thoughtful. Sections on Minaj (too slutty) and her unrelenting experimentation with norms are particularly brilliant.
A SeparationKatie Kitamura
RaveNPRThere is one decisive moment that strikes like a sudden blow to the head — the moment when we discover where Christopher is. Not much else happens in A Separation, but the rest of the novel is taut with quiet suspense. Like the burnt landscape, it is barren, always a 'whiff of char in the air.' It is wonderful to read a book that respects its readers in this way; Kitamura allows our imaginations to do much of the work ... The narrator, it seems, would be almost embarrassed writing lush or gorgeous prose — instead, her sentences are awkward and anemic, with the unlikely beauty of a lunar landscape. A Separation does not leave us with any of those satisfying nuggets of wisdom or emotional climax we sometimes pan books for. Instead, it left me with an indistinct but unshakeable mood, a sense of being at sea with the knowledge that the shoreline isn't quite where I thought it was, and the currents are strong.
The Essex SerpentSarah Perry
RaveNPRThe best kind of nature writing celebrates not the placidly, distantly picturesque — mountaintops and sunsets — but the near, dank, and teeming. The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry's gloriously alive historical novel, squirms with bugs, moss and marsh ... Perry is good at catching the special collective dread that enflames communities — the fear that something sinister is stirring, waiting just out of sight. That gives a special magnetism to a story that needed none ... At its very best moments, when it shows how love, death, and regeneration all go hand-in-hand, The Essex Serpent is so painfully lovely that it removes a bit of that padding, only just as much as we can bear.
The Idiot.Elif Batuman
PositiveNPRThe Idiot is full of that wonderful, embarrassing kind of early pretention that consists of trying on roles like coats ... I loved these moments, when Batuman lays bare the script we follow without thinking about it ... The Idiot encapsulates those years of humiliating, but vibrant, confusion the come in your late teens, a confusion that's not even sexual, but existential and practical ... The Idiot replicates the feeling of those years when stories don't seem to match up with lived experience and it's not clear if it's your fault or the world's. Like that time, The Idiot is both boring and strangely intense, fraught and apparently meaningless, confusing and inevitable, endless — and over in a moment.
Made for LoveAlissa Nutting
MixedNPR...the setup, for all its toomuchness, is seeded with promising ideas about intimacy, need, projection, and surveillance. But these ideas are never more interesting than in their first iterations. The novel's opening is satisfying: Hazel and Byron's courtship plays out as a perfect parody of Fifty Shades of Grey, and Nutting mocks wealthy tech culture with scorching glee. But after this sketch of lurid alienation, the rest of the novel relies on the outrage of the premise when it should tease out these conceptual underpinnings. Good satire locates some bone-deep but unarticulated aspect of our human experience and whips the veil off of it when we least expect it. It's like charisma — some inexplicable combination of timing and electricity. Whereas Nutting introduces an ostensibly crazy concept (sex with dolphins!) very plainly at the outset, and then simply shades in the details. Her humor is not antic, mischievous, fleet, or unexpected — just shocking ... Made for Love has a deviant instinct that make it initially captivating — but it doesn't do the necessary other work of a good novel.