Ellen Akins is the author of the novels Home Movie, Little Woman, Public Life, and Hometown Brew, and the short story collection World Like a Knife. She has published short stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, and The Southwest Review. She has written reviews for numerous publications and is a regular contributor to The Minneapolis Star Tribune. Ellen can be found on Twitter @ellenakins
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineGail Honeyman
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThat Eleanor’s social awkwardness is extreme, sometimes painfully and often comically so, is far more apparent to the reader than it is to Eleanor herself — and that we get this through Eleanor’s own narration is a credit to the author’s cleverness and craft ... If Eleanor finds her way to some semblance of normality, and to a reckoning with her awful past through therapy, that may be a bit more real than the earlier goofiness has led us to expect — but that doesn’t make the goofiness any less delightful, or Gail Honeyman’s reflections on loneliness any less poignant.
A Little More HumanFiona Maazel
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...more often [than not] the writing is bright and shiny, as fun to follow as that bouncing ball ... Occasionally we dip into the shallow consciousness of Maazel’s characters, who think and talk like this: ' "I can’t make it without you," he said. "I know it hasn’t seemed like it for a while, but you are my life." ' But mostly we skate on that bright surface, which in this novel’s terms makes a certain sense. If consciousness and experience are so suspect and subject to distortion, forgetting and loss, perhaps it’s better not to go too deep. If only we can remember that.
The Schooldays of JesusJ. M. Coetzee
PositiveThe Minneapolis StarPrecise and spare in features and language, nearly to the point of flatness, the book has the feel of allegory, but in the unmoored manner of Kafka’s stories where the ideal and the practical, the personal and the universal, collide in startling and often comical ways ... The wonder is that Coetzee, in his matter-of-fact style, conveys the longing that gives that mystery its power and meaning.
RaveThe Washington PostFrom the dreamy, disorienting opening of Autumn, we are in the strange territory that will be familiar to readers of Ali Smith, whose books play slyly with notions of time, character and plot ... Daniel, who takes Elisabeth to see The Tempest, is something of a Prospero to her Miranda, a fatherly magician summoning the wealth of words and images that will shape her life ... a novel that, under all its erudition, narrative antics, wit and wordplay, is a wonder of deep and accommodating compassion.
Margaret the FirstDanielle Dutton
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneConjured in a prose at once lush and spare — so precise and yet so rich in observation — Danielle Dutton’s Margaret is a creature exquisitely of her own creation, who can tell herself, and perhaps believe, that she 'had rather appear worse in singularity, than better in the Mode.'”
The House at the Edge of NightCatherine Banner
PositiveThe Dallas Morning News[Banner's] touch is light and her style accommodates both the foibles and magical thinking of Castellamare's more curious inhabitants and the subtler moments of happiness and heartbreak her main characters experience across several generations ... the island is alive with stories, as is The House at the Edge of Night.
Mothers, Tell Your DaughtersBonnie Jo Campbell
PositiveThe Star Tribune“It's a hard-luck, hardscrabble life in the world of Bonnie Jo Campbell's stories, a landscape that's as fertile as it is unforgiving, where families crop up and wither with the weather but manage some piquant humor and moments of worthy reckoning along the way.”
What Is Not Yours Is Not YoursHelen Oyeyemi
PositiveThe Dallas Morning News'To speak of things as they are:' Again and again Oyeyemi’s fiction demonstrates all the promising improbability of that enterprise.
History of WolvesEmily Fridlund
PositiveThe Dallas Morning News...the puzzles, in this debut novel by Emily Fridlund, are both practical and profound ... Fridlund's neatly calibrated narrative gives us to understand, nature, no less than a feeling, is subject to loss.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneIt’s a canny strategy, tapping the current penchant for 'auto-fiction,' but allowing for the free play of the author’s considerable gifts in the traditional storytelling mode ... Back and forth the narrative moves, prompted and interrupted by the narrator’s questions, between the dying grandfather and the account he is supposedly giving of his past, all rendered in richly novelistic detail ... Threaded through it all is the wonder of the universe, the dream of spaceflight that has forever animated and frustrated the grandfather.
A Doubter's AlmanacEthan Canin
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneIn his mind, Hans tells us, 'all the other academic disciplines — including the physical sciences … were irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance.' And this is where the genius of Ethan Canin’s storytelling lies — negotiating that space between pure thought and substance where all of us have to find a way to live.
A Doubter's AlmanacEthan Canin
PositiveThe MillionsIn A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin gives us a truly convincing picture of what it’s like to experience the world as most of us, probably, don’t ... Though Canin wants us to care about Milo and his mathematically gifted children and grandchildren, what’s far more convincing is what’s familiar: 'We watched a pair of red ants pitilessly drag a thrashing inchworm across the sand. It was like the ending of a great novel.'
The High Mountains of PortugalYann Martel
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneLate in 1904, grief-stricken Tomàs travels from Lisbon to the High Mountains of Portugal, only to remark upon his arrival: 'There are no mountains in the High Mountains of Portugal.' In a novel by Yann Martel, whose work has featured a philosophical castaway tiger (Life of Pi) and a Holocaust play starring a stuffed donkey and monkey (Beatrice and Virgil), it's no surprise to discover that something is not what it's supposed to be. Nor will it spoil any of the delights of his new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, if I tell you that the remarkable, perhaps transformative medieval artifact Tomàs seeks turns out to be an ape on a cross.
The Queen of the NightAlexander Chee
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesAfter pages and pages of Lilliet's speculation about the significance of the possibility of the chance that the meaning of (and so on), I came close to tearing my hair out in my own operatic fashion. And yet I was nonetheless mesmerized by Chee's portrait of Second Empire Paris at its glittering heights and in its bloody fall...
The MareMary Gaitskill
RaveMinneapolis Star TribuneIt’s done so well, you feel it, too, every slight and fear and tremor of desire. No one can speak fully or clearly to one another in this book, and yet they all communicate like crazy, with each other and with us — even to the point of a wordless epiphany.
RaveMinneapolis Star TribuneWhen, a few years ago, researchers at the New School in New York City conducted a study showing that reading literary fiction increases empathy, The Round House was one of the books they gave their subjects. It was hardly a startling pick, or outcome, because empathy is the guiding force in Erdrich’s writing — and so it is in this sad, wise, funny novel, in which the author takes the native storytelling tradition that informs her work and remakes it for the modern world, stitching its tattered remnants into a vibrant living fabric.
Zero KDon DeLillo
PositiveMinneapolis Star TribuneTo reconcile the two — the fear of death that informs so many egregious acts, for instance, and the little everyday moments that make up so much of life — is the problem DeLillo takes up again and again, and the impossibility of it is what makes his work so powerful, so comical, so frustrating and so fine.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047Lionel Shriver
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneIf much of the speculative Dystopian future in Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles seems wildly improbable — from its onset to the armed confiscation of gold to the population’s willingness to have transaction-monitoring chips implanted in their necks — it’s certainly fully realized. The book is thick with future slang and technology, grounded in a future recent history and rife with such ironic natural developments as the Mexicans putting up a wall to keep out fleeing Americans and the Chinese shipping their aged to America because it’s cheaper than taking care of them at home. Because so much has happened, characters have to spend a lot of time describing the events to each other (i.e., us), with a wink from the author.
Grief Is the Thing with FeathersMax Porter
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...sounds pretty heady — and indeed there are moments of poetry and impressionistic observations and odd little otherworldly exchanges, allusions to brands of psychology and fables. But piercing the wordplay and abstractions and flights of fancy are the sharp specifics that make the family’s loss clear and their grief that much more real ... To call this tiny but potent book a novel is to grossly misrepresent it — but maybe that says more about our constrictive definition of the novel than it does about this book, which uses the writer’s, and Crow’s, whole bag of tricks to transform the indescribable absence that is grief into palpable, undeniable life.
Today Will Be DifferentMaria Semple
PositiveNewsdaySemple has a singular genius for turning the ordinary inside-out and looking at it slantwise. While the mystery of Joe’s disappearance supplies the book with the somewhat shaky architecture of plot, all the in-between business keeps us happily occupied with its peculiar mash-up of the madcap and the poignant.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneMoving fluidly from one character to another and back and forth in time over 50 years, Patchett manages to capture those moments of life that, strung together, however awkwardly, constitute family history ... each of these characters is uniquely real, sympathetic and interesting by virtue of being so clearly and credibly drawn.
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...a thoroughly entertaining romp through the theater of revenge and redemption ... The cast and crew, a colorful ensemble of criminals, offer amusing variations on Shakespeare’s dramatis personae.
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneA world so carefully marked between out and in, us and them — where each spring ‘we bump our children’s heads against the boundary stones, so that they’ll not forget where they and all of us belong’ — is in the process of being turned inside out. The whole terrible story, entirely absorbing, has been a subplot in the larger narrative of progress, as town, in the person of a new master, encroaches on village, and the old deep ways of farming are displaced by sheep. All told and slowly understood by Walter, himself an outsider up to 10 or so years ago (a blink of the eye in this world), the story holds us in suspense with its minute and exquisite observation of every particular until, like the unsuspecting villagers, we are let go, left to contemplate ‘wherever is awaiting us.’
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe profound ignorance and innocence of the Crakers allow Atwood to exercise her waggish wit and to play with the complexities and absurdities of understanding and communication — as Toby tries to explain, for instance, what writing is, why creatures die, why humans have two skins (clothes), all in the language of Dick and Jane made mythic. Furthermore, the Crakers have become fascinated with Zeb, whose story is coaxed out of him by a perhaps even more interested Toby, who in turn narrates it to the Crakers … There is something funny, even endearing, about such a dark and desperate view of a future — a ravaged world emerging from alarmingly familiar trends — that is so jam-packed with the gifts of imagination, invention, intelligence and joy.
How to Be BothAli Smith
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneLet me start, although my edition didn't, with George, christened Georgia, who is real in a way that Francesco, however charmingly ebullient, isn't quite. In a book about how stories speak to us in different ways at different times, we see George in the year after her mother's death at the same time as we see the two as they used to be, the cheeky teenager working out her identity under — and often against — her remarkable mother's tutelage … The making of these frescoes is at the center of the other story. From the sketchy record, Smith re-imagines Francesco as a disguised girl, the stonemason's child becoming an artist in a rich Renaissance mishmash of sharp wit, low comedy, pathos and historical detail.
The Ninth HourAlice McDermott
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneTold from the first in McDermott’s careful way, observing but with a certain intimacy, the story is set in motion by a suicide that leaves Annie, a pregnant, very young widow, alone in the world, at the mercy of circumstance ... Almost at once we encounter the tension that runs through the book, creating suspense of a metaphysical sort. With the Catholic Church as template, each character struggles to balance the physical against the spiritual, the earthly against the heavenly ... we begin to understand how the story has been spun, knitted together from a family’s memories — a fiction, really, but no less of a world, and no less true, for that.
Manhattan BeachJennifer Egan
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneMuch of what these characters think and do seems more explained than felt — and yet they’re real enough to be moving. Much of what we see and hear — in a cramped apartment or the shipyard, at a nightclub or aboard ship — seems awash in particulars for the sake of verisimilitude, and yet it is convincing enough to take us where we’re supposed to be. It is when we come to the sea, 'an infinite hypnotic expanse that could look like scales, or wax; hammered silver; wrinkled flesh,' that artifice and experience invariably merge, and we witness the full reach of Egan’s writing. 'The strange, violent, beautiful sea. … It touched every part of the world, a glittering curtain drawn over a mystery.'
Future Home of the Living GodLouise Erdrich
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...steeped as it is in dystopian darkness, Cedar’s diary is most remarkable for the amiable, heartfelt way in which it captures what’s familiar — in friendships and families, in communities and in nature. It is against this prosaic background, so artful in its seeming artlessness, that the loss anticipated in this novel registers in all its depth and sorrow.