MixedUSA Today...a swift, smart, angry new novel ... as a feat of world-building, Underground Airlines is astonishing, immediately taking its place in the genre’s very first rank. Its success lies in the accumulation of subtle details, whose unintrusive presence gradually give the book its own, powerful reality, at once completely familiar and completely alien ... [Victor's] journey is supposed to be epic, but many of its big turns are anticlimactic, and Winters never truly develops the idea of an underground movement that he initially promises. It’s a strangely underpopulated novel, too, and doesn’t quite succeed in integrating Jim’s personal history with the mystery he’s solving. But its vibrant imagination never slackens, and its savage attunement to the evil of slavery feels important, in a moment when our cultural focus is on the black community, which traces so many of its difficulties to our nation’s original sin.
PositiveUSA TodayThis could be appallingly didactic, but Barkskins is miles from that. That’s because its characters are never one-dimensional — even the worst of them are complex, their greed often driven by insecurity and loss, their individual lives too brief for them to apprehend the full scope of their collective destructiveness. Nobody is at fault; everybody is at fault. The cigarette companies are full of wonderful mothers and fathers ... Barkskins is masterful, full of an urgent, tense lyricism, its plotting beautifully unexpected, its biographical narratives flowing into one another like the seasons ... It’s not that Barkskins is perfect — some of the later eras she describes feel rushed and sketchy — but that it’s so consistently vital.
The Girl from VeniceMartin Cruz Smith
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewThe Girl From Venice is a classy, lightweight affair, agile in its handling of action, smooth in its writing, thoroughly professional. For a long time I couldn’t decide whether it was a passable novel or a very, very bad one. I think, alas, that it’s the latter. The problem is its bone-deep complacency. It’s a book that has completely internalized the lessons of popular war fiction ... every gesture of midcentury Romanticism in The Girl From Venice is a received one, repackaged and presented as the most profound wisdom...It feels cheap.
The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead
RaveUSA Today...[a] masterful, urgent new book ... a tragic, disturbing necessity: that describes the feeling of The Underground Railroad. The book has imperfections – Ridgeway’s gang brushes just up against kitsch, for instance – but these imperfections overwhelmed by its immense vitality ...one of the finest novels written about our country’s still unabsolved original sin.
PanThe New York Times Book ReviewVyleta is a skilled, inventive writer, and his idea here is inspired; in its initial burst of creative energy, Smoke is headily like the fiction of David Mitchell or Michel Faber. Unfortunately, the novel’s strong premise is betrayed almost immediately by problems of both storytelling and world-building, which are first distracting, then grave and finally fatal. The plot is the more serious of Vyleta’s difficulties. It seems badly underthought — too compressed in time, inexcusably dependent on contrivance and coincidence — and its intricate strands, tracking smokeless savages and hidden shipboard compartments and mad schoolmasters, never really cohere ... Vyleta is talented enough to fill Smoke with plenty of good scenes and good writing, all the way through. But his novel never attains its own reality.
God Help the ChildToni Morrison
PositiveUSA TodayBy the end of this brief and beautiful book, we don't know precisely whether the change was real or imagined; nor does it matter, because of course the accident of skin color and the penalties that can come with it aren't 'real,' either. Morrison also has a secondary theme, the sexual abuse of children, though it's sketchier and less successful than her handling of race ... In all, though, God Save the Child is superb, its story gliding along the tracks of Morrison's utterly assured prose.
Rogue LawyerJohn Grisham
PanUSA TodayRudd is supposed to be one of those superficially unlikeable heroes we end up loving. Instead he’s just…unlikeable ... [Rogue Lawyer characters are not paper-thin, because paper is as thick as a thick, juicy steak compared to them ... Even by Grisham’s inconsistent standards, Rogue Lawyer is a weak novel. And yet I couldn’t stop reading it. That’s because of the quality that saves Grisham from himself again and again, which is how relentlessly interesting he is when he’s writing about the law. Each of Rudd’s clients, from the victim of a raid by an absurdly militarized police team to a death row inmate trying to beat the needle, showcases the author’s magical trait, which is his ability to find intense drama in the little skirmishes that play out across our legal system every day.
Zero KDon DeLillo
RaveThe Chicago TribuneThe result of this premise is something that I'm not quite sure DeLillo has ever produced until now, at 79 — a masterpiece...Zero K is excellent in many ways: it's full of DeLillo's amazing inimitable scalpel perceptions; it's fluent in the ideas we'll be talking about 20 years from now; and it reads like a book a millennial could have written. Given that its author is nearly 80, that's dumbfounding. But the book's most satisfying element isn't its high standard of execution, it's the slight feeling of unbending in it, the scope and generosity of its conclusions.
Everyone Brave is ForgivenChris Cleave
PanUSA TodayThere’s a heartfelt author’s note at the end of Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, the new novel by Chris Cleave, about his grandparents, who inspired the book. It’s touching and engaging; the tale that precedes it, unfortunately, is a flavorless replica of dozens of others, offering us the same shattered glass, the same air raid sirens, the same soldiers on foreign soil ... Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is mawkish and manipulative and cutesy; its first half is punishingly boring; its minor characters, from a dyslexic young black American to a stammering Army pal, are each little factories for producing melodrama. Yet somehow, for all this, Cleave’s novel finally did begin to work its way under my skin. He’s an undeniably skillful writer, fluid, clever, and often graceful.
High DiveJonathan Lee
RaveNewsdayLee is a wonderful writer; High Dive a novel with extraordinary qualities. The trouble is that, however much you might will yourself to, you don’t fall in love with qualities. It takes the whole person — and I could only ever fall in like with High Dive. There are two principal reasons for that, and both are the pitfalls of this particular brand of cool realism. The first is that Lee has written a largely static book, whose method of close scrutiny can make for ponderous reading...The second failing of High Dive is its guardedness.
Ways to DisappearIdra Novey
PositiveUSA TodayNovey’s scattershot plotting is reminiscent of Paul Auster in his weaker tales, with madcap gangsterish encounters suddenly producing, unconvincingly, real and terrible consequences. But she offsets that fault with moments of sly, lovely writing, many of them exploring the nature of a translator’s odd invisible art, and in Raquel, Beatriz’s hard-bitten daughter, she has created a heart-rending portrait of the price someone always ends up paying for genius.
Where My Heart Used to BeatSebastian Faulks
MixedUSA TodayWhere My Heart Used to Beat is a funny book. It has wonderful strengths, especially Faulks’ lucid, philosophical voice, and it’s filled with scenes of genuine power, particularly those set in battles. On the other hand, its large gestures, including Robert and Luisa’s affair and Pereira’s slow-burning revelations about Robert’s father, never quite cohere into anything as believable as the tales in Birdsong or A Possible Life, the author pressing toward poignancy rather than letting it emerge from his story.
The WhistlerJohn Grisham
PanUSA Today[We get] are the ingredients of a good thriller. They’re just presented in mystifying order. Grisham’s last big narrative flashpoint comes about a third of the way into the book, and from there, it’s only a matter of tying bows on the plotline. Without any tension, it’s inoffensive but also uninteresting ... Grisham’s legal knowledge is impressive, and his ability to convey it unparalleled in popular fiction. But that’s not enough to sustain a novel without suspense.
M TrainPatti Smith
MixedThe Chicago TribuneThe moments like this one...have remarkable power...But in less charged passages, that style can become monotonous, or even (he whispered, quietly) self-serious. The terse, dashed dialogue, the black-and-white photographs reminiscent of Sebald or Berger or Barthes — these are signifiers of the authentic, and therefore faintly inauthentic, unworthy of so indisputably authentic a person.
Night SchoolLee Child
MixedThe New York Times Book Review...for 100 pages or so the book careens forward, drawing the death of a local prostitute and a group of German nationalists into its engaging search. There, however, it stumbles. Child gives away too much, too soon, a rare unforced error for this series, and more significantly Reacher seems strangely out of place in a military investigation ... When he’s battling a corrupt private military firm, the terse, forceful prose with which Child describes him serves to confirm Reacher’s toughness and credibility. But when he’s battling a jihadist group, that same tone seems like little more than a shrewder variety of fakeness, a subtler posturing.
MixedThe New York Times Book Review...a smart, tight, occasionally tiresome novel ... Mr. Ellis made his reputation in graphic novels, and Normal has many of that genre’s virtues — efficiency of storytelling, a kinship with the peripheral and the strange. His writing is absolutely alive, unflattened by fear of errors, which means that there are errors but also that there are lines of descriptive brilliance on every page ... How much you love Normal will depend on whether you can tolerate its portentousness, which sometimes makes it feel as if you’re listening to a stoner hold court at a kegger ... Mr. Ellis is fascinating when he glances at an idea but tedious, at least to me, when he begins to pontificate.
The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov Edmund Wilson and the End of a Beautiful FriendshipAlex Beam
RaveUSA Today...[a] smart, agile, good-natured account of one of America’s most famous literary brawls ... On one level this is a farce. On another, which Beam wisely allows to suggest itself in this knowledgeable and readable volume, it is a sort of minor tragedy — two men, driven to literature at least in part by feelings of insecurity and loss, found and then lost to each other in that same refuge. The Feud brilliantly contours both Wilson and Nabokov in their human rage against each other, places them finely in their milieu, and ultimately elicits in us what each, so profoundly prideful, would have least wished to have from posterity: pity.
The Fall GuyJames Lasdun
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...exceptionally entertaining ... There’s something reptilian in Lasdun’s gaze, a coldblooded interest in furtiveness, in the lithe selfishness of the genteel. The Fall Guy reads like early Ian McEwan or late Patricia Highsmith ... Lasdun is masterly in his story’s construction. His clues never seem like clues until they bind tightly around one of the three leads. This is exactly what a literary thriller should be: intelligent, careful, swift, unsettling. Its author deserves to find more readers on these shores.
The ChemistStephenie Meyer
PositiveUSA Today...an engrossing new novel ... Meyer’s heart is still in Forks, Washington, despite the change of genre. Her millions of readers will be happy ... There are a hundred objections you could make to The Chemist. Its biggest twist is visible from space. It’s full of the same daffy blitheness toward blood and pain that always made the Twilight books unsettling, at least to me. Alex’s foes within the government never quite come into focus in the third act, one lesson she didn’t take from Baldacci or Child. But Meyer is also just a really good storyteller. The Chemist is consistently fast-paced fun.
Innocents and OthersDana Spiotta
PanThe Chicago Tribune[Spiotta's] prose in Innocents and Others veers between the superb and the insipid ... In this new book Spiotta's ideas seem to precede her characters and their emotions. It makes for an anemic, aimless narrative ... And yet, for all that, I felt glad at the end of Innocents and Others that Spiotta had written it. The recent fashions in fiction have favored fine-tuned varieties of realism, from Franzen to Knausgaard to Ferrante. Spiotta, by contrast, remains unswervingly committed to ideas — of spectatorship and simulation, of the potential aloneness of the never-being-alone of modern culture.
The Girl BeforeJP Delaney
PositiveUSA TodayThe Girl Before has major faults. It leans hard on one of my least favorite tropes in genre fiction, the 'My, you look strikingly like the previous Mrs. (insert name)!' that has been unavoidable since Rebecca, but should be permanently retired to Manderley. Jane’s backstory, involving a stillbirth, feels similarly cliché. The word 'Girl' is in the title. Most significantly, the mystery’s solution is an implausible mess. Yet for all that, the book has a great deal to recommend it. Delaney has created a genuinely eerie, fascinating setting in One Folgate Street, a house that radiates Monkford’s controlling presence ... Emma, who is somewhat unstable and also self-aware enough to understand how and why, is a fascinating character. The novel’s structure, volleying back and forth as first Emma and then Jane begin to question their improbable luck, is beautifully handled. The pages fly ... Its ending doesn’t erase the pleasure of its first three-quarters and its digressions on police procedure, anorexia, technology and starchitects feel well-researched and solidly founded, never improvised or flimsy. It’s worth a few hours of idle pleasure.
Surrender New YorkCaleb Carr
MixedUSA TodayIts good parts justify its bad parts, and its bad parts are awful enough that they’re never boring. Not uninteresting lodgings, if you can handle a little unpredictability.
4 3 2 1Paul Auster
PositiveNewsdayFew authors are consistently great, and to judge Auster by the intermittent failure of his tricks is to forget his first and most significant gift: for storytelling. It’s present in fierce abundance in 4 3 2 1, his huge, absorbing, moving new novel, which, at nearly 900 pages and coming after a silence of seven years, feels like a bid to re-enter the first tier of American authors ... 4 3 2 1 is far too long, and its prose, though chatty and readable, is often amateurish. On the other hand, his company from line to line is a joy, and each of Archie’s four destinies, stories spilling across stories, is genuinely engaging ... Such novels have always had obvious faults, but they could also be magnificent. To me it felt weirdly moving to read this final artifact of the grand old male narcissism — one last time, four more times.
Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper LeeWayne Flynt
PositiveUSA Today...probably the most well-informed and clarifying book that has emerged from the Lee-industrial complex ... This closeness grants credibility to the information Flynt offers about Lee’s final years and final publication, so that while it’s a short book, it appears to answer several difficult questions ... More than half of Mockingbird Songs is comprised of the professor’s own letters, which, depending on your perspective, will either seem gracious, witty and Christian, or unctuous, calculated and personage-collecting ... Mockingbird Songs contains just enough information, just enough of Lee herself, just enough, taken all in all, to transcend its equivocal participation in the ugly and no doubt unfinished fallout of its subject’s final years.
Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders
RaveThe Chicago TribuneIt's remarkable ... If Lincoln in the Bardo were only the polyphonic narrative of Oak Hill's residents, it would be a beguiling book...But its truly transcendent moments begin when, just as Willie himself is going to disperse, his father, the president, strides into the cemetery alone in the middle of the night ... profound, funny and vital, a meditation on loss and power, every bit as good as Tenth of December. The work of a great writer.
The Marsh King's DaughterKaren Dionne
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...subtle, brilliant and mature ... Two elements make Dionne’s book so superb. The first is its authenticity. There’s a strain in the contemporary American novel defined by a knowledge of nature that feels intimate, real and longitudinal, connected to our country’s past...The second is the corresponding authenticity of Helena’s emotions about her father, painfully revisited and refined as she tracks him ... In its balance of emotional patience and chapter-by-chapter suspense, The Marsh King’s Daughter is about as good as a thriller can be.
Proving GroundPeter Blauner
MixedThe New York Times Book Review[Blauner's] garrulousness salvages a story that’s only intermittently engaging ... They converge from different angles on the same possible perp, who is, alas, catastrophically easy to spot. Luckily the people who fall for Proving Ground will care far more about its voice, filled with moments of surprising New York stoop-sitting joy. Blauner is a bad-ball hitter — he’ll miss on an easy description, overwriting Dresden’s widow for instance, but then capture with beautiful easy precision, for instance, a flash of dialogue between cops, who talk skells and Rockefeller time, 'flip tin,' banter at each other to signal that they care ... Blauner’s fable seems truer to its emotional beats, Natty and Lourdes powerfully real in their lucid, disillusioned idealism.
The Idiot.Elif Batuman
PanThe Chicago TribuneThere are mica-glints of beauty everywhere in it, the author's voice eccentric, funny, enormously intelligent ... But Batuman also attempts to make The Idiot the kind of novel that tells a story — sort of, anyway, the story of a young woman's first year at Harvard, and the story isn't good at all. The effect is half-ruinous, a skilled writer forcing herself into the contours of a weak book. It would be hard to regret reading it; harder still to read it a second time ... the second half of the book, it falls apart. Selin goes to teach English in Hungary, and her account of it is interminable. I kept willing The Idiot to lurch forward a year, even a month, to offer a surprise. Instead it marches grimly on, as if in tribute to some forgotten army from the country where it's set ... In general, in fact, Batuman has no gift whatsoever for character, at least not one that's evident here, the Svetlanas and Bills and Ferns as blurry in their outlines as your own freshman-year acquaintances probably are to you ... Batuman finds herself trapped between mocking her autobiography and cherishing it ... [an] honorable defeat, its unforgettable spikes of truth embedded in a wasted plot.
Do Not Become AlarmedMaile Meloy
PanThe Washington Post...the book is essentially a write-off. To begin with, it’s a thriller without thrills. The parents’ pursuit of their children is hysterical but static, mistaking emotion for action, while the children’s experience itself is implausible and dull ... These may seem like technical problems, but in fact they spring from the book’s bedrock failure, which lies in its design, its desultory attempts at bigness, at significance ... Again and again, Do Not Become Alarmed trots out a vague sense of social responsibility, while focusing emotionally on a handful of nervous Americans. There’s something ugly about that; the whole project, in a way, replicates the colonialism it deplores.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageHaruki Murakami
RaveThe Chicago TribuneThe book's plot is simple. Tsukuru, its title character, is a designer of train stations, successful but with a strong sense of disconnection from his self — a powerful feeling of absence, or colorlessness ... Murakami's books may move within the banal dream of adult life, but their homeward pull is toward youth ... As Tsukuru tracks down his friends, this enables the author to ask very basic questions with new freshness: What makes a person? What was the past? And where did it go? ... Tsukuru's pilgrimage will never end, because he is moving constantly away from his destination, which is his old self. This is a narrow poignancy, but a powerful one, and Murakami is its master.
Mrs. FletcherTom Perrotta
PositiveThe Chicago Tribune...you will either like Perrotta's new novel Mrs. Fletcher a lot, or else you will like it a lot and also loathe it a little bit at the same time. Those are your only options; it's such a charismatic, intelligent book that even when you feel its author consciously (cynically?) examining cultural fault lines — transgender identity, rape, autism — you never want to stop reading ... To his credit, nearly all of Perrotta's books have a great female character at their heart, and Eve is another. She's smart and brave, her vulnerability forcing her into acts of courage ... That's the paradox of Perrotta's work. When he's most eager to tell us who we are, he occasionally falters, whereas in his more realistic, less topical moods, he stands on a par with our finest writers of popular literary fiction.
The Cuckoo's CallingRobert Galbraith
PositiveUSA TodayIn The Cuckoo's Calling, a detective novel that Rowling published under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, she returns to the strengths that made Harry Potter great — the beautiful sense of pacing, the deep but illusionless love for her characters... Rowling's hero is Cormoran Strike, a shaggy, oversized private detective with a brilliant mind and a disintegrating personal life ... His task is to investigate the death, seemingly a suicide, of a Kate Moss-like model, Lula Landry ... As the novel races to its finish, the truth materializes in a series of excellent twists ...presses too hard on the theme of fame in the tabloid era — not an unworthy subject, but stale by now and without fresh treatment here ...shows that all great fiction — even if it only concerns our workaday world — has its own kind of magic.
The SilkwormRobert Galbraith
PositiveUSA Today...a great detective novel: sharp, immensely readable, warm-hearted but cool-headed, with a solution worthy of the immaculately plotted Harry Potter series … Rowling tells her story in quick, darting, entertaining chapters, populated with dozens of memorable characters. The writer she most resembles to me is Charles Dickens: like him, she has prodigious, otherworldly gifts of invention, and like him she has a fierce satirical instinct, having used Galbraith to skewer first the paparazzi and now the publishing world.
Magpie MurdersAnthony Horowitz
RaveThe Washington PostAnthony Horowitz’s sleek, fun, cunning new novel is a complex reckoning with Christie’s immense popularity, and what it says about us as readers ... a flawless imitation of the Golden Age mysteries of Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham ... Horowitz captures Christie’s uncanny ability to glide at lark’s height over a village’s inhabitants, exposing their little weaknesses, dreams, secrets; everyone, even if it’s not murder, is guilty of something ... Each of the narratives in Magpie Murders is engaging and fluid, each with its own charm, though Horowitz’s joyful act of Christie ventriloquism is, in particular, spectacularly impressive.