MixedThe New York TimesKafka on the Shore is as layered and convoluted as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is still the author's most drop-dead feat of pyrotechnics. But the new book is more ambitious in ways that render it more vague … The book's only conventional aspect is its uninspired cross-cutting format. This novel makes pendulum swings between the story of how Kafka runs away from home, and how good-hearted old Nakata, the cat whisperer, embarks on a peculiar quest. Kafka and Nakata are not acquainted, but their lives overlap in piquant, spooky ways … Kafka on the Shore specializes in overlapping metaphors and symbols that may or may not have any true connection...It's clear that they are powerful but less clear that they are deep.
The RoadCormac McCarthy
RaveThe New York TimesThis is an exquisitely bleak incantation — pure poetic brimstone. Mr. McCarthy has summoned his fiercest visions to invoke the devastation. He gives voice to the unspeakable in a terse cautionary tale that is too potent to be numbing, despite the stupefying ravages it describes. Mr. McCarthy brings an almost biblical fury as he bears witness to sights man was never meant to see … His use of language is as exultant as his imaginings are hellish, a hint that The Road will ultimately be more radiant than it is punishing. Somehow Mr. McCarthy is able to hold firm to his pessimism while allowing the reader to see beyond it. This is art that both frightens and inspires.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayMichael Chabon
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Chabon has fashioned a big, ripe, excitingly imaginative novel and set it in the world of his grandfather, a New York City typographer at a plant where comics were printed. The book's world is also one of impending crisis, with World War II looming and Joe's Jewish parents and brother still in Czechoslovakia, from which they urged Joe to escape … Even when Mr. Chabon is slipping deftly from realistic narrative into wittily hyperbolic comic-book-ese, as he does to take part in the characters' bursts of creativity each time a new character is invented, the book's essential seriousness and thematic heft are never diminished.
1Q84Haruki Murakami, trans. Jay Rubin & Philip Gabriel
PanThe New York TimesYou, sucker, will wade through nearly 1,000 uneventful pages while discovering a Tokyo that has two moons and is controlled by creatures that emerge from the mouth of a dead goat. These creatures are called Little People … 1Q84 has even [Murakami’s] most ardent fans doing back flips as they try to justify this book’s glaring troubles. Is it consistently interesting? No, but Mr. Murakami is too skillful a trickster to rely on conventional notions of storytelling … It used to be customary, in a book of this magnitude, to explain unanswered questions and tie up loose ends. Mr. Murakami clearly rejects such petty obligations, and he leaves many of the parallels in 1Q84 cryptic and dead-ended.
Ready Player OneErnest Cline
MixedThe New York TimesWith its Pac-Man-style cover graphics and vintage Atari mind-set Ready Player One certainly looks like a genre item. But Mr. Cline is able to incorporate his favorite toys and games into a perfectly accessible narrative … Real life on an impoverished, resource-depleted Earth has grown increasingly grim. So the characters in Ready Player One spend their time as avatars bewitched by online role playing. They live as shut-ins and don’t know one another in the flesh … The breadth and cleverness of Mr. Cline’s imagination gets this daydream pretty far. But there comes a point when it’s clear that Wade lacks at least one dimension, and that gaming has overwhelmed everything else about this book.
The DinnerHerman Koch, Translated by Sam Garrett
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewMr. Koch confines his story to one fraught restaurant meal, where malice, cruelty, craziness and a deeply European malaise are very much on the menu ... This book has been widely described as both thriller and chiller, but it really is neither. Nor is it much of a cultural parable, though that seems to be part of Mr. Koch’s intent ... Mr. Koch sets forth a personal history for Paul that is full of dangerous flashes of violence and indicates that Michel, his and Claire’s son, is an apple fallen right off the paternal family tree ...the reader may be propelled by sheer voyeurism about the Lohmans’ capacity for ugliness ...The Dinner has been wishfully compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (and enthusiastically endorsed by Ms. Flynn) for its blackhearted deviltry ... Her sneaky spouses were delectable in their evil genius. The Lohmans are indigestible.
Everything is IlluminatedJonathan Safran Foer
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Foer incorporates himself and his family into this dazzling literary high-wire act. He places them at the center of recent history. And he writes so audaciously that no editor seems to have dared to lay a glove on him … Early in Everything Is Illuminated, Mr. Foer describes the act of remembering as a kind of prayer. That is what it becomes here, for all the book's wild flights of fancy and its irresistible humor. By the time it reaches a devastating finale, it has summoned a deep gravitas that has as much to do with Trachimbrod's obliviousness as with its fate … Everything Is Illuminated is a complex, ambitious undertaking...but the payoff is extraordinary: a fearless, acrobatic, ultimately haunting effort to combine inspired mischief with a grasp of the unthinkable.
Empire FallsRichard Russo
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Russo has turned Empire Falls into the setting for a rich, humorous, elegantly constructed novel rooted in the bedrock traditions of American fiction … Deceptively casual in tone and modest in scope, Empire Falls begins with a beautifully wrought prologue in which a rich man, one C. B. Whiting, pits himself against divine will and assumes he can win ... In this pre-modern, irony-free (despite the priceless dialogue) world, small-town neighbors actually affect one another through their actions and frustrations. And this is a book, however lighthearted and funny, that means business when it contemplates the sight of the church steeple. That Miles means to help paint the steeple but fears heights, just as he cannot seem to rise out of Empire Falls, is another condition diagnosed by Mr. Russo with a gratifyingly light touch. This book works like a prism, regarding the same people and events from different perspectives until they are finally, deeply understood.
Lord of MisruleJaimy Gordon
RaveThe New York TimesThis novel is so assured, exotic and uncategorizable, with such an unlikely provenance, that it arrives as an incontrovertible winner, a bona fide bolt from the blue … The book’s dramatis personae are of the two- and four-legged varieties. And Ms. Gordon seems to fathom both species equally well … Ms. Gordon is magically adept at fusing the banal and the mythic in a creature like [Lord of Misrule]. She’s also keenly attuned to all the aspects of carnality and power that infuse this story … Lord of Misrule edges toward some drastic final twists without ever escaping the impression that it is more of a short-story cycle than a full-fledged novel. And its texture is thick even when Ms. Gordon is at her most lighthearted.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellSusanna Clarke
PanThe New York Times Book Review...those who find enchantment in books about magicians will, by and large, be amazed at the elaborateness of what [Clarke] has done. But this novel can be as fussy and poky as it is clever. It could have been improved by an editor with a magic wand ... The tricks, spells, illusions and footnotes — endless footnotes — also arrive at a tireless yet wearying pace. Inevitably, the book's drama is eroded by so many minor goings-on. They detract from the real wonders that the author has wrought ... Though she sorely lacks Ms. Rowling's expert timing, the two share a similar sense of play ... Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been celebrated as an adult Harry Potter story, but it is more like a flatter and flabbier one ...it does become the basis for a brand new fantasy world, an intricate and fully imagined universe of bewitching tricks. Maybe that's enough.
The LuminariesEleanor Catton
MixedThe New York TimesThe book’s astrology-based structure does not exactly clarify anything. Its Piscean quality, she writes in an opening note, ‘affirms our faith in the vast and knowing influence of the infinite sky’ … Here on Earth, The Luminaries is more baffling. The story begins on what is apparently a dark and stormy night (find this witty if you must), that of Jan. 27, 1866. Walter Moody, one of the book’s principals, has escaped a shipwreck to arrive at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand … This book is well past its midpoint — that is, at about Page 500 — before it truly begins to click. Its later, increasingly breathless sections have the suspenseful option of finally, at long last, putting all these pieces together.
True History of the Kelly GangPeter Carey
PositiveThe New York TimesIn a spectacular feat of literary ventriloquism, the Australian-born novelist Peter Carey invites the outlaw Ned Kelly to tell his story. He summons the rollicking, unschooled, hugely colorful voice of Australia's best-known underdog for a bravura book-length performance … In providing Ned's side of the various skirmishes that form the basis of his notoriety, and in drawing upon a post-bank-robbery 8,300-word public statement of Kelly's for some of the book's lively syntax, Mr. Carey delves into the relative minutiae of police and journalistic accounts of Ned's life. These particulars might threaten to eclipse the bigger picture if they were not rendered so atmospherically, complete with wombats and banshees, cockatoo pie and roasting kangaroo.
Half of a Yellow SunChimamanda Ngozi Adichie
RaveThe New York TimesIt doesn’t take long for Ms. Adichie to weave these characters into a finely wrought, inescapable web. In a major leap forward from her impressive debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, she expands expertly and inexorably on these early scenes. And the many-faceted Half of a Yellow Sun soon develops a panoramic span. Taking its title from an emblem on the flag of Biafra, the book sustains an intimate focus and an epic backdrop as Biafra secedes from Nigeria and genocidal hell breaks loose … Ms. Adichie’s symbolic gestures are delivered both forthrightly and with a light touch. In the later part of the story, Olanna and Odenigbo are raising a little girl they call Baby, and the sisters have become estranged. The novel appears too preoccupied with large, ominous changes in Nigerian society to explain these smaller ones, but it turns out Ms. Adichie has saved them for more dramatic effect.
The Finkler QuestionHoward Jacobson
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Jacobson doesn’t just summon Roth; he summons Roth at Roth’s best. This prizewinning book is a riotous morass of jokes and worries about Jewish identity, though it is by no means too myopic to be enjoyed by the wider world. It helps that Mr. Jacobson’s comic sensibility suggests Woody Allen’s, that his powers of cultural observation are so keen, and that influences as surprising as Lewis Carroll shape this book. Mr. Jacobson stages a Mad Seder that brings Carroll’s Mad Tea Party to mind … Treslove so loathes his old friend Finkler that he has turned ‘Finkler’ into his own private synonym for ‘Jew.’ So the real meaning of book’s title, The Finkler Question, is The Jewish Question, and that’s only where the Finklerisms begin. Obsessively, and with a razor-sharp acuity that justifies the Roth comparisons, Mr. Jacobson has Treslove begin cataloging what he thinks are Finkler traits, Finkler talents, Finkler customs and so on. What unifies all of this in Treslove’s mind is that they’re things he doesn’t have.
How to Be BothAli Smith
PositiveThe New York TimesHow to Be Both has a lot more allure than its overall rigor suggests, thanks to the obvious pleasure Ms. Smith takes in creating her peculiar parallels and exploring the questions they raise. Strange as it may seem, the British teenager and the painter who must curry favor with wealthy fools if he wants work have quite a bit in common … The inspiration for this mélange of a book, sometimes so ingenious and sometimes just willfully odd, is Francescho del Cossa’s fresco at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy. Take one look at pictures of this work and you will want to race right off to see it, which is apparently what Ms. Smith did. But How to Be Both is not a book that grew out of a tourist attraction. It is a synthesis of questions long contemplated by an extraordinarily thoughtful author, who succeeds quite well in implanting those questions into well-drawn, memorable people.
Bring Up the BodiesHilary Mantel
RaveThe New York Times[Wolf Hall] was a hard act to follow. But the follow-up is equally sublime … Yes, you can read it cold. Knowledge of Wolf Hall is not a prerequisite to appreciating what Bring Up the Bodies describes, because Ms. Mantel sets up her new book so gracefully … Ms. Mantel makes Cromwell a wholly unexpected figure: self-made, belligerent because he had no choice, obsessed by abstract power as much as the actual kind, and confident in his ability to control and fathom what others are thinking. He is wise enough to know that being Henry’s henchman, fixer and stand-in (he even ghostwrites a love letter as Henry courts Jane) is a mixed blessing. So as Bring Up the Bodies tightens its focus suspensefully — in ways that explain what that cryptic title means — Cromwell’s confidence is shaken.
The PassageJustin Cronin
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Cronin gets The Passage off to a vigorous start. We meet Amy Harper Bellafonte, who is modestly billed in the book’s first sentence as someone who will become ‘the Girl from Nowhere — the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years’ … In The Passage scientists aren’t the only ones who treat ‘vampire’ as a word to be shunned. Mr. Cronin avoids it too, preferring to use other terms when undead, bloodsucking creatures start entering his story … This already-exhaustive book is studded with diary entries, academic papers and other ostensible evidence that its fictitious stories of destruction are true. Every now and then, as when the Gulf of Mexico is described as an oil slick, these accounts are even scarier than intended.
Major Pettigrew's Last StandHelen Simonson
RaveThe New York TimesGrief is what it took to make the rigidly correct Major notice Mrs. Ali, or anything else around him. This 68-year-old widower, a man who has taken some of his greatest satisfaction in reading and rereading his will and is proud to grow a type of clematis vine that his neighbors think is worth stealing, has long been immune to human companionship … As the story hums along, it contrasts change for the better with change for the worse. In the first category there is the Major’s extremely correct yet warm friendship with Mrs. Ali, who is 10 years his junior, is also conveniently widowed and shares many of the Major’s tastes … There is never a dull moment but never a discordant note either. Still, this book feels fresh despite its conventional blueprint. Its main characters are especially well drawn, and Ms. Simonson makes them as admirable as they are entertaining.
Winter of the WorldKen Follett
RaveThe New York Times Book Review...it dispenses with some of the waxenness of its 985-page predecessor and breathes life into its fictional characters, many of whose parents appeared in the first book ... Winter of the World (covering 1933 to 1949) less strenuously views history through the eyes of purely fictional characters, dim though they may be ... But Mr. Follett is best appreciated as a novelist, not a historian. What he knows how to do is put readers’ hearts in throats...best of this book, the latter half, is as gripping as it is manipulative. It makes the biggest tectonic shifts of its era — the struggle between Communism and Fascism, the irreversible march of science toward nuclear weapons, the laying of groundwork for the coming cold war — feel momentous indeed ...it would be surprising if this second installment did not prove to be the most powerful part of Mr. Follett’s trilogy.
PositiveThe New York TimesThe strange thing about Horns is that its opening scenes aren’t all that strange. Its author, Joe Hill, is able to make Ig’s problem seem like the most natural thing in the world … Horns seems to have one or two miscreants too many. But they do allow Mr. Hill to wheel out his full arsenal of demon references, to the point where pitchforks and snakes get to be business as usual … the heart of Horns — and it unmistakably has one — has to do with Ig’s deep love for the woman he has lost. And Mr. Hill is able to equate that love with a quest for goodness.
Beautiful RuinsJess Walter
RaveThe New York TimesThe book takes its title from Louis Menand’s New Yorker description of Richard Burton at 54. It takes its essence from Milan Kundera, in a passage about the elusiveness of the present moment. Yet not for nothing is Cleopatra the vortex of the novel: the great Hollywood debacle, the love story as train wreck, the project so crazy it made other, crazier projects look sensible by comparison. And yet it was a romance. Mr. Walter has built his book around Cleopatra as a monument to crazy love.
A God in RuinsKate Atkinson
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Atkinson does not play the same kinds of flagrant time tricks here that made Life After Life so dramatic. She needn’t erase one story to tell the next. But she does skip easily back and forth among decades, so that Teddy’s boyhood in the 1920s or Queen Elizabeth II’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee are both within easy reach of any other point in the book’s timeline … Structure, and its way of coalescing from the seemingly casual into the deliberate, has been a main attraction in other Atkinson books. In this one, the main attraction is Teddy, and the way his glorious, hard-won decency withstands so many tests of time. Everything about his boyhood innocence is reshaped by his wartime ordeals, which are rendered with terrifying authenticity thanks to the author’s research into real bombers’ recollections. And after the war he re-enters a world in which he can take nothing for granted.
The TwelveJustin Cronin
PanThe New York TimesThe second installment in Mr. Cronin’s trilogy is The Twelve, and it will spoil nothing to reveal that this book is strictly a gap filler. It moves from the steaming wreckage left by The Passage to a battle cry for the third installment: ‘You bastard. Here I come’ … If only this silliness could be enjoyed somehow. But The Twelve gurgles and drowns in it, to the point where it’s impossible to believe this book is 200 pages shorter than The Passage. (Though it is.) Both drag interminably (and strangely unglamorous: The Twelve snakes its plot around the Texas oil business, replete with rust, sludge, shafts and winches.)
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Hill envisions an epic battle between real and imaginary worlds, makes this fight credible and creates a heroine who can recklessly crash from one realm to the other. She is a brave biker chick named Vic McQueen, who rides a Triumph, of course. When she says ‘Come on, honey’ as the story goes into high gear, she’s talking to that bike … NOS4A2, as in Nosferatu, F. W. Murnau’s classic vampire movie, loves playing with words. The book’s villain is a wizened ghoul who tries to lure children to a place where it is always Christmas, with fun features like a Sleigh House, and you don’t have to be Cassandra to know there’s something nasty about that. And NOS4A2 is not really a vampire story, anyway; Mr. Hill’s imagination is much more far-ranging than that. Which is scarier: bloodsucking vampires or the unexpected sound of treacly Christmas music suddenly playing in the summer?
The Late ShowMichael Connelly
RaveThe New York TimesConnelly has never had much success writing memorable women in supporting roles, but this new star is a beauty ... The pacing of Ballard’s debut story is breathless. Unless she’s in the water, she never has a peaceful moment: There’s always a lead to follow, a house to scope out, a late-night call to make ... The novel moves so quickly, racking up so many witnesses and suspects, that it ought to be hard to follow. But Connelly expertly hides a trail of bread crumbs that leads straight to the denouement, with so much else going on that it’s impossible to see where he’s heading ... Ballard is complicated and driven enough to sustain the series Connelly doubtless has in mind for her. Connelly writes passionately about, and captures especially well here, the detective’s high when the pieces of a puzzle fall into place.
The ForceDon Winslow
RaveThe New York TimesThe Force recalls Sidney Lumet’s great New York police films (Serpico, Prince of the City) and makes their agonies almost quaint by comparison. Winslow’s novel takes place in 2017, but he doesn’t frame it as a time of good cops and bad cops, black or white. He paints a realistic tableau of police privilege, pragmatism, racial bluntness, street smarts, love of partners and loyalty to what they call the Job ... The Force has a lot of exposition to get through in its initial pages. Denny’s background is kept deliberately incomplete, because key parts of it are needed for the book’s cinematic denouement. There are many characters and locations and illicit police habits to introduce. But the pace is kept up by the Winslow way with words, which almost entirely defies being quoted here, either because of the slang (Elmore Leonard league) or because of the everyday obscenities that lace every funny line.
The Book ThiefMarkus Zusak
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Book Thief is perched on the cusp between grown-up and young-adult fiction, and it is loaded with librarian appeal ... Mr. Zusak's narrator offers constant manipulative asides, as in the clever Lemony Snicket books, although in this case wit is not much of an option. The narrator is Death ... While it is set in Germany during World War II and is not immune to bloodshed, most of this story is figurative: it unfolds as symbolic or metaphorical abstraction. The dominoes lined up on its cover are compared to falling bodies ... a long, winding tale, punctuated by Death's commentary ... It will be widely read and admired because it tells a story in which books become treasures.
Since We FellDennis Lehane
PositiveThe New York TimesSuffice it to say that this second part of Since We Fell is sharply different from the first. Instead, it’s packed with signs that Lehane sold this story to the movies, which he did, in 2015, and that he loves the Hitchcock classics that prey on mistrust. Suddenly, he begins delivering nonstop suspense only loosely rooted in Rachel’s story and its foundations ... Rachel works extremely well as the focus of the book. Lehane has always written wrenching female characters into his stories, and he has no trouble giving center stage to one ... Her options narrow as the book becomes more crime-centric and throws her into life-or-death situations rather than contemplative ones. But she’s as much of a pragmatist as anyone Lehane ever dreamed up.
A Visit from the Goon SquadJennifer Egan
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Egan’s vision is mostly dystopian, but what makes it most memorable is the eccentricity. She imagines that the aftermath of 15 years of war have led to a baby boom. And technology has eagerly leapt to accommodate a new demographic group: gadget-loving children. Pity the poor rock stars who find themselves at the mercy of toddlers who have purchasing power. Ms. Egan slyly turns one Goon Squad recurring character into one of those stars.
Truevine: Two Brothers a Kidnapping and a Mother's QuestBeth Macy
PositiveThe New York Times...[an] expert work of nonfiction ... Its story has gaps that are impossible to fill, though that is part of what makes the book so lifelike ... Though Truevine can’t get into their heads, it does a fine job of describing what their circus companions were like and how lost the brothers must have felt once stranded back home in Virginia.
Into the WaterPaula Hawkins
PanThe New York TimesIf The Girl on the Train seemed overplotted and confusing to some readers, it is a model of clarity next to this latest effort ... Her goal may be to build suspense, but all she achieves is confusion. Into the Water is jam-packed with minor characters and stories that go nowhere ... Hawkins does not so much introduce these characters as throw them at the reader in rapid succession. There’s no time to process who’s who, and not much detail about any of them.
The YidPaul Goldberg
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Goldberg has written a book that revolves about Stalin’s final blow against the country’s remaining Jews. There is evidence for this, but The Yid is a novel, not a heavily researched historical document. More important, Mr. Goldberg comes up with a team of Yiddish-speaking jokester-superheroes who are at the heart of his story, and who make it their mission to avenge countless acts of anti-Semitism, both real and anticipated.
Life after LifeKate Atkinson
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewMs. Atkinson’s wide-ranging body of work includes several novels that resemble mysteries, but she has never had the narrowly deductive mind to suit that genre. Life After Life is a big book that defies logic, chronology and even history in ways that underscore its author’s fully untethered imagination ... It’s more like a narrative multiverse, in which different versions of Ursula’s life compete for the reader’s attention and keep a conventionally one-note story well out of reach ...an exceptionally captivating book with an engaging cast of characters ... As powerful as the rest of Life After Life is, its lengthy evocation of this nightmare is gutsy and deeply disturbing, just as the author intends it to be.
West of Eden: An American PlaceJean Stein
PanThe New York TimesDespite its provenance, West of Eden is strangely unfocused, especially when compared with Ms. Stein’s indelible Edie ... [it] includes only a terse set of biographical notes, which is an extreme annoyance; it needed the full biographies, genealogical charts and abundant illustrations that were so necessary to Edie.”
PanThe New York TimesLike Under the Dome, Sleeping Beauties is straightforwardly written. There are no long, dreamy passages in italics here. That’s the good news; the less happy news is that this co-authored book is sleepy in its own right. It too has a lot of characters, but very few of them spring to life, and many of them seem repetitive. Without speculating on what the father-son writing process was like, it feels as though some kind of politesse kept this 700-page book from being usefully tightened ... Sleeping Beauties will inevitably wind up on the screen somehow. Whoever adapts it will have to beef up the characters and deflect attention from the nonthrilling main theme ... What you may well come away thinking is: meh. For a book about resetting gender stereotypes, this one clings surprisingly tightly to them. Women are healers (though there are some tough customers here, thanks to the cast of law enforcers and prison inmates); men are either warriors or jerks who deserve to die. Everyone who survives this story is a little nicer by the time it’s over, but the basics still apply. And for a book that separates the sexes, the sudden impossibility of heterosexual sex goes strangely unnoticed ... Stephen King didn’t become Stephen King by waffling this way.
Fall of GiantsKen Follett
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewFall of Giants begins on June 22, 1911, a time, as Follett fans may longingly note, nearly 100 years before the invention of the e-book reader. But the march of lightweight book technology is hardly its main concern ... Given the pacing that he prefers, that leaves Fall of Giants no room to spare ...it tries to coax forth a grand panorama of history from a mosaic of everyday lives ... Whatever their nationalities, most of Mr. Follett’s main characters enjoy amazing front-row seats to the great historical events of their day ... What he does not have is any great talent for capturing real human interaction — not until his characters have mingled for hundreds and hundreds of scenes, and he has developed some semblance of a story ... He had the building of a cathedral, the Middle Ages and the Black Death to hold interest, but Fall of Giants is less exotic.
Invincible SummerAlice Adams
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Adams has managed to combine a hoary premise, a familiar plot, readable to iffy prose and pigeonhole-ready characters and spin their story into a heart tugger with seemingly honest appeal. This amazing feat doesn’t rival those of the Large Hadron Collider, which plays a cameo role in Invincible Summer. But it’s close ... Invincible Summer, which takes its title from an uncharacteristically upbeat Camus quotation, means to focus on bigger, less fluffy things: moving from a sheltered academic life to an unprotected one, facing increasingly consequential problems, making serious decisions and, inevitably, serious mistakes. It also takes some notice of the world around its self-involved foursome ... Ms. Adams captures the way that freedom begins to erode as each character defines himself or herself more clearly. As the lines that separate them are drawn, the friendships become more competitive and awkward ... Ms. Adams’s story develops an increasing power that can be created only incrementally. And by the novel’s end, regardless of whether you buy the plot’s string of remarkable coincidences, its message of friendship, love and loyalty hits home.
News of the WorldPaulette Jiles
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewLike [Ron] Rash, Ms. Jiles writes books that bring the natural world to life and are also agonizingly eventful ... They will learn to trust each other, though not in a hokey way; Ms. Jiles is much too good to let her book sink into sentimentality ... a narrow but exquisite book about the joys of freedom; the discovery of unexpected, proprietary love between two people who have never experienced anything like it; pure adventure in the wilds of an untamed Texas; and the reconciling of vastly different cultures. That’s a lot to pack into a short (213 pages), vigorous volume, but Ms. Jiles is capable of saying a lot in few words.
Victoria: The QueenJulia Baird
PositiveThe New York TimesWhen Ms. Baird goes after those myths, her alternative versions are exhilarating ... This book shows how Victoria’s girlish naughtiness turned into a regal, willful, complex nature that other biographers have tended to simplify...Ms. Baird brings a strong feminist awareness to the ways in which Victoria’s letters, edited by two men, have been censored to excise the full range of her personality, and also to the subordinate role any wife was expected to assume when Victoria was a young bride ... If there’s one thing missing from the book, it’s Ms. Baird’s thoughts on why Victoria let herself become submissive to Albert for so long, but perhaps the answers to that are too obviously linked to the loss of a father so early in life.
Fates and FuriesLauren Groff
MixedThe New York TimesWhenever Fates and Furies has a dark undercurrent to trumpet, it announces its insights before readers can make their own discoveries. In this much more manipulative and even conventional book, the shock value of the main characters’ secrets wipes out too much of the sublime subtlety and originality that distinguish Ms. Groff at her best. Ms. Groff’s prose can be gorgeous, especially with the erotic heat she brings to it here. It can also be florid and odd...But she’s still a writer whose books (which also include the short story collection Delicate Edible Birds) are too exotic and unusual to be missed, and whose brief career has been one of immense promise.
The CrossingMichael Connelly
MixedThe New York TimesThe best Connelly books take on terrific momentum in their final chapters, but The Crossing isn’t at that level.
The NestCynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Nest doesn’t need much in the way of set dressing. It just has the author’s excellent antennas for describing the New York area and that evergreen fuel for food fights: an inheritance meant to be divided among adult children. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney lived in New York for many years before relocating to Los Angeles. Her familiarity with both cities animates The Nest, about the four dysfunctional (what did you expect?) Plumb siblings and their fiscal expectations.
We Love You Charlie FreemanKaitlyn Greenidge
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Greenidge has charted an ambitious course for a book that begins so mock-innocently. And she lets the suspicion and outrage mount as the Freemans’ true situation unfolds. This author is also a historian, and she makes the 1929' on Toneybee plaque tell another, equally gripping story that strongly parallels the Freemans’ 1990 experience. A question that hovers over this book is whether the Freemans will learn from past horrors or become so dysfunctional that they merely relive them.
All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr
RaveThe New York TimesThe heroine is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, whose loving father, a talented locksmith, goes to extraordinary lengths to help her compensate for the loss of her eyesight...Mr. Doerr’s acutely sensory style captures the extreme perceptiveness Marie-Laure has developed by the time World War II begins. Much of the story unfolds during the war, although it jumps back and forth. The book opens in August 1944, two months after D-Day, with the sound of things falling from the sky and rattling against windows. Marie-Laure knows these are leaflets. She can smell the fresh ink … Werner’s experience at the school is only one of the many trials through which Mr. Doerr puts his characters in this surprisingly fresh and enveloping book...Mr. Doerr’s nuanced approach concentrates on the choices his characters make and on the souls that have been lost, both living and dead.
Wolf HallHilary Mantel
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Mantel takes an extremely contemporary approach to Cromwell by appreciating his toughness, his keen political instincts, his financial acumen and his intimate knowledge of the workings of power. Almost unimaginable, in the midst of Henry’s impetuousness, Anne’s ambition and More’s self-righteous condescension, Cromwell emerges as the most sympathetic member of the wolf pack that populates Wolf Hall … Her book’s main characters are scorchingly well rendered. And their sharp-clawed machinations are presented with nonstop verve in a book that can compress a wealth of incisiveness into a very few well-chosen words … Deft and diabolical as they are, Ms. Mantel’s slyly malicious turns of phrase would count for little more than banter if they could not succinctly capture the important struggles that have set her characters to talking. But she is able to place Cromwell on plausibly familiar terms with royalty and on a fair moral footing with More, that paragon of self-sacrifice.
The HelpKathryn Stockett
PositiveThe New York TimesThe trouble on the pages of Skeeter’s book is nothing compared with the trouble Ms. Stockett’s real book risks getting into. Here is a debut novel by a Southern-born white author who renders black maids’ voices in thick, dated dialect … Expectations notwithstanding, it’s not the black maids who are done a disservice by this white writer; it’s the white folk … Though The Help might well have veered off into violent repression of these maids’ outspokenness, Ms. Stockett doesn’t take it there. She’s interested in the affection and intimacy buried beneath even the most seemingly impersonal household connections.
The SonPhilipp Meyer
RaveThe New York TimesThe Son spans 200 years, six generations and a great many eloquently evoked downfalls. It concentrates on one proudly purebred American family, though the delusion of that heritage will die by the end of this story … In some of the best sections of his vivid narrative, Mr. Meyer delineates the process of Eli’s assimilation...The most fascinating of many questions raised by The Son is how Eli, a dauntless little boy, grew from helplessness into absolute power … The reader learns in riveting detail about Eli’s Indian days. They are made that much more approachable by the book’s profanity, which sounds anachronistic but certainly adds colloquial flourish.
RaveThe New York TimesMr. King pulls off a sustained high-wire act of storytelling trickery. He makes alternative history work — but how? It’s at least as interesting to examine Mr. King’s narrative tactics as to discover his opinions about conspiracy theories … Perhaps it’s the gravity of the Kennedy assassination that makes this new book so well grounded, but in any case 11/22/63 does not lay on the terror tricks. Mr. King’s description of America in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, fearing imminent nuclear annihilation, is at least as scary as anything he ever made up.
Dear Mr. YouMary Louise Parker
RaveThe New York TimesThe book is written in a smart, beguiling voice that is inextricably entwined with qualities that Ms. Parker radiates as an actress. There’s as much flintiness as reckless charm. Flirtation and mischief are big parts of her arsenal. So is the honest soul-searching that gives this slight-looking book much more heft than might be expected.
When Breath Becomes AirPaul Kalanithi
RaveThe New York TimesPart of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him — passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die — so well. None of it is maudlin. Nothing is exaggerated.
Boys in the TreesCarly Simon
PanThe New York TimesThis book’s style recalls that of her songs: a little precious, a little redundant, a little too much.
Before the FallNoah Hawley
RaveThe New York TimesThis is one of the year’s best suspense novels, a mesmerizing, surprise-jammed mystery that works purely on its own, character-driven terms ... Mr. Hawley does a beautiful job of turning his book into an extended tease, with separate chapters about each passenger and revelations about why each could have been a target.
The Second Life of Nick MasonSteve Hamilton
RaveThe New York TimesMr. Hamilton gives this book a superb set of road maps, one for the Chicago Nick knows so well, another for the inner workings of Nick’s mind. Because Nick is a first-time character faced with a terrible moral dilemma, his thoughts need to be grippingly complex, and they are ... Though he flirts with some obvious clichés here, Mr. Hamilton uses them to his advantage. After all, chases and club scenes and daughter-loving dads wouldn’t be so popular if they didn’t work. And The Second Life of Nick Mason kicks off this new phase of Mr. Hamilton’s career at full gallop. It’s a tight, gripping book about a man hellbent on reinventing himself against long odds. By a writer who knows whereof he speaks.
The FiremanJoe Hill
MixedThe New York TimesThe Fireman is big. It creates an alluringly weird world. It has a highly developed code of honor, not to mention an ever-surprising lineup of surreal tricks its characters can pull. And it thrives on fear, but has hope at heart... if Mr. Hill’s overarching plot has its problems, he remains a terrifically ingratiating writer when it comes to ambience and spirit.
At the Existentialist CaféSarah Bakewell
RaveThe New York TimesAt the Existentialist Café is a bracingly fresh look at once-antiquated ideas and the milieu in which they flourished. Ms. Bakewell’s approach is enticing and unusual: She is not an omniscient author acting as critic, biographer or tour guide. As someone who came back to this material by rereading it later in life, she has made her responses part of the story.
A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara
MixedThe New York Times[A Little Life is] a big, emotional, trauma-packed read with a voluptuous prose style that wavers between the exquisite and the overdone ... Ms. Yanagihara’s prose is always ripe with modifiers, as when the book conjures rats that go 'squeaking plumply underfoot'; is it possible for rats to squeak skinnily? A lot of this 720-page book is devoted to torrentially long and powerful descriptions, and without question, they pack a lot of power. But her mixing of metaphors makes for a mess ... A Little Life eventually develops a relentless downhill trajectory. It might have had even more impact with fewer wild beasts prowling through fewer pages. But Ms. Yanagihara is still capable of introducing great shock value into her story to override its predictability.
Everybody's FoolRichard Russo
PositiveThe New York TimesConsider Everybody’s Fool a delightful return to form...It’s fitting that this book’s eye-catching cover depicts a dog with a lot of personality — and some signage discreetly hiding its nether parts. That dog represents a real character who’s just as rascally and perverse as the book’s humans. The dog is just better at expressing himself. Mr. Russo’s people prefer to sideswipe, wisecrack, sneak, scheme and talk to figments of their imaginations. It’s a joy to spend time with any of them, two-legged or four.
Heat and LightJennifer Haigh
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Haigh is an expertly nuanced storyteller long overdue for major attention. Her work is gripping, real and totally immersive, akin to that of writers as different as Richard Price, Richard Ford and Richard Russo. They are part of the stellar literary lineup of her admirers. With this book, she moves one big step closer to being in their league.
Rogue LawyerJohn Grisham
MixedThe New York TimesRogue Lawyer is one of [Grisham's] better recent books, partly because of the format: It’s broken up into short episodes that interlock only as the plot reaches its final stages ... Rogue Lawyer ushers in Rudd as a potential series star for Mr. Grisham. The man has a son he loves but barely knows; an ex-wife who left him for another woman; a shockingly good way of assailing important targets, like badly written laws; and a few wild-guy qualities that are balanced by his love of golf. Roguewise, he’s right up there with Robin Hood.
PanThe New York TimesIt’s hard to find much escapist fun in a book about a woman whose main attributes are deadly sins. Greed, lust, envy, pride and wrath — she’s got five of them covered, and perhaps even a little gluttony, if you count all the times Ms. Hilton lovingly describes the delicacies that slide down her heroine’s gullet. This is meant to make Judith a creature of insatiable appetites, which is meant to be alluring, especially since she keeps herself so saleably slim...But the hot stuff grows repetitive very quickly. And it begins to feel obligatory. Excitable as Judith is, she has a limited imagination, and she vents it at regularly timed intervals. By the time Maestra reaches its suspenseful conclusion — three little words, 'to be continued' — she seems to be running out of positions. With two books to go.
Valiant AmbitionNathaniel Philbrick
PanThe New York TimesThe title of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition says everything about it, because it says nothing...from the book’s outset, it’s clear that Mr. Philbrick did not approach this project with a clear thesis. He approached it with a mandate, a methodology, a book contract and a couple of big names to connect. At least that’s how Valiant Ambition reads.
End of WatchStephen King
RaveThe New York TimesThere is perfect symmetry to the way Stephen King aligns the opening of End of Watch, the smashing final installment of his trilogy, with that of its first installment ... when [King] writes here about pain, he does it with astounding honesty ... This is his best book since the vastly ambitious Under the Dome (2009), and it's part of a newly incisive, reality-based part of his career. At some point, the phantasmagorical became less central to him than the frightening prospects to be found in the real world. And he uses his ever-powerful intimacy with readers to convey the damage life can wreak.
Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of JoyElizabeth Winder
PanThe New York TimesRarely has a book about Marilyn Monroe been more maddening than Elizabeth Winder’s Marilyn in Manhattan...Winder has sloppily crafted an answer to suit her own question ... Most of her anecdotes are either unattributed or ascribed to Kindle editions of recent books, with no page numbers given. Movie magazines from the 1950s are taken seriously ... The bulk of what’s here is a strangely culled, often repetitive set of anecdotes from only a few easily obtainable books that most Marilyn fans probably know about ... [all] hot air and specious detail.
Truly Madly GuiltyLiane Moriarty
PanThe New York TimesIt has all the requisite trademarks of one of her hits (The Husband’s Secret, What Alice Forgot), a three-word title included. It probes some of the things she writes about best: fraught friendships, covert backbiting, stale marriages. And its format has become standard for her, with brief, maddening flashes of Whatever-It-Is that don’t gel until she’s ready to let them. All of it is formulaic by now. But it’s a shame to see her resort to the level of contrivance that this book requires. You’d have to be a very dedicated Moriarty fan to believe much of anything that happens post-crisis.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewNamed for the skill with which its adult characters handle their inhibitions, Little Children presents the full cultural and emotional underpinnings of this suburb-shaking event ...will be Mr. Perrotta's breakthrough popular hit, but its undercurrents are more somber ...Mr. Perrotta is too generous a writer to trivialize that. What distinguishes Little Children from run-of-the-mill suburban satire is its knowing blend of slyness and compassion ... In the end Mr. Perrotta presents Little Children as a moment in amber rather than a sudsy melodrama.
RaveThe New York Times Books Review...Mr. King has gone short-winded with Full Dark, No Stars, a set of four spooky moral tales. Two of our most dependably prolific and popular authors have both switched gears ...has a lot of straight-up horror. The sheer size of its rodent population is enough to stamp it with the horror label. But it will serve as a page turner even for the reader who is aghast at some of the whisker-twitching particulars, especially in '1922,' the opening story ... What’s most interesting about this story is not the terrible secret that the wife will uncover. It’s that Mr. King, who seems able to write compact tales or gargantuan ones with equal ease, can invest a bland, coin-collecting accountant with any kind of frisson at all.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...The Racketeer is an unusual book for Mr. Grisham. Unlike many of his others, it has no soapbox to stand on and is not out to teach lessons about justice ...is much more duplicitous than that. In its early stages it does follow the familiar Grisham template, in which a lawyer finds himself unexpectedly in legal trouble ...this is not a story about a triumph or a miscarriage of courtroom justice. It’s the more devious, surprising story of a smart man who gets even smarter once he spends five years honing his skills as a jailhouse lawyer — and then expertly concocts an ingenious revenge scheme ... Mr. Grisham writes with rekindled vigor here. Perhaps that’s because he hasn’t mired this book in excessive research.
Razor GirlCarl Hiaasen
RaveThe New York TimesCarl Hiaasen’s irresistible Razor Girl meets his usual sky-high standards for elegance, craziness and mike-drop humor. But this election-year novel is exceptionally timely, too ... [a] wonderfully overstocked book ... Finally, Mr. Hiaasen’s dialogue is too good to go unmentioned.
The TrespasserTana French
RaveThe New York Times...a tour de force ... The Trespasser is brisk but not breathless. It would be a pity if Ms. French raced through such beautifully conceived and executed material ... [French] has become required reading for anyone who appreciates tough, unflinching intelligence and ingenious plotting.
The WhistlerJohn Grisham
PositiveThe New York TImes...the Grisham formula hasn’t gotten old. Or older. When he’s on his game, as he is with his latest, The Whistler, it really works ... Despite the bits of leaden language, Lacy does manage to come to life on the page. The Whistler also has a strong and frightening sense of place, painting part of the Panhandle as a lawless region where terrible things might happen, and do. And Mr. Grisham deserves credit for dependability: He is at heart an optimist who believes that wrongs can be ferreted out and righted. We could use a little of that these days.
The Wrong Side of Goodbye (A Harry Bosch Novel)Michael Connelly
PositiveThe New York TimesEach of these books is as memorable for its locations as it is for narrative or even denouement, and The Wrong Side of Goodbye really takes Harry traveling. ... All of it is etched in indelible detail and with great care. The people of The Wrong Side of Goodbye may not be with you by the next time Harry comes around. But the settings will be etched into the Bosch road map of California life.
Night SchoolLee Child
PositiveThe New York Times...while it’s surprising to find him as part of a group in this book, the changeup works. Unlike most Reacher books, which start at breathless velocity and then wind up having to work through huge, empty action scenes later, this one gets better as it goes along. Its complexity pays off with a better than usual MacGuffin and real teamwork against a global enemy ... the choices he’s made for Night School are smart ones.
Bright Precious DaysJay McInerney
PositiveThe New York Times...it’s never quite clear how detached [McInerney] is when he starts inhabiting Russell’s memory or recapitulating a pretentious young man’s hero-worshiping fatuousness ... revives the memory of Tom Wolfe’s social X-rays. (As with vintage Wolfe, when he’s writing about elite New Yorkers’ fetishes he knows whereof he speaks) ... Russell is both more comfortable with Corrine and more comfortable with this newer, more aggressive generation. He’s ready for a fourth installment. Dear Mr. McInerney, please write one.
Today Will be DifferentMaria Semple
PositiveThe New York TimesToday Will Be Different, can be outrageously funny. But it cuts closer to the bone than Bernadette did, and its main character’s problems feel more real. This time Ms. Semple delivers less satire and more soul ... Speed bumps notwithstanding, Ms. Semple is an immensely appealing writer, and there’s something universal in her heroine’s efforts to get a handle on a life spinning out of control ... And Ms. Semple’s descriptions of Seattle continue to be priceless.
The DryJane Harper
RaveThe New York Times[Harper] has jampacked her swift debut thriller with sneaky moves that the reader has to track with care ... Ms. Harper throws out so many teasing possibilities that it’s hard to believe this is her first novel ... The Dry is a breathless page-turner, driven by the many revelations Ms. Harper dreams up for Falk during his visit ... The dryness that gives the book its eerie title looms large in the novel’s finale, when certain kinds of weapons become even more terrible than those used to butcher the Hadlers. And a book with a secret on every page now has threats blooming everywhere, too. The Dry has caught the attention of Reese Witherspoon, who has a solid track record for spotting novels with strong movie potential. But Ms. Harper has made her own major mark long before any film version comes along.
The Devil in the White CityErik Larson
RaveThe New York Times[Larson] relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel, complete with abundant cross-cutting and foreshadowing … The Devil in the White City is given shape and energy by the author's dramatic inclinations. He succeeds in affirming the historical and cultural importance of the 1893 exhibition, which, he says, may have helped to spawn such other wonders as Disneyland and Oz. And he unearths a crime story of enduring interest, if only because Holmes, in the words of The Chicago Times-Herald, was ‘so unthinkable that no novelist would dare to invent such a character.’ A smart nonfiction writer did it instead.
The Cat's Table
MixedThe New York TimesThe Cat’s Table prefigures its narrator’s adult life through a series of shipboard adventures and revelations. The table of the title affords him a fine vantage point. He is not one of those select passengers who sit at the Captain’s Table, ‘constantly toasting one another’s significance.’ Instead, he is seated with the ship’s outcasts, all of whom turn out to have wisdom to impart … The Cat’s Table opens in a spirit of exuberant freedom, then constricts a bit as it goes along. At the end of the book, Mr. Ondaatje supplies moments of unexpected and not really necessary denouement. This artificiality serves only to underscore how authentic the novel’s most understated insights and narrative observations have been. Mr. Ondaatje succeeds so well in capturing the anticipation and inquisitiveness of boyhood that the melancholy of adult life seems ordinary by comparison. The past and latter-day sections of the book are slightly out of sync.
In the Garden of BeastsErik Larson
RaveThe New York Times...by far [Larson’s] best and most enthralling work of novelistic history … In the Garden of Beasts has the clarity of purpose to see the Germany of 1933 through the eyes of this uniquely well-positioned American family...There has been nothing quite like Mr. Larson’s story of the four Dodds, characters straight out of a 1930s family drama, transporting their shortcomings to a new world full of nasty surprises … Mr. Larson makes every aspect of the Dodds’ domestic lives reflect the larger changes around them. When looking for a home in Berlin, he writes, the Dodds found many good prospects, ‘though at first they failed to ask themselves why so many grand old mansions were available for lease so fully and luxuriously furnished’ … The Dodds’ story is rich with incident, populated by fascinating secondary characters, tinged with rising peril and pityingly persuasive about the futility of Dodd’s mission.
The Bettencourt AffairTom Sancton
PositiveThe New York TimesSancton lacks a gift for dish. But he is an excellent straight-up reporter, and he has dug deeply into the many, many elements that complicate this story ... For most of the book, Sancton makes Banier sound like a pure social climber. But suddenly, near the end, he begins to celebrate the man’s protean talents...Sancton’s account leaves Banier in 2016, through with his ordeal and not too much the worse for wear. He was sentenced to four years in prison, but got out of serving any time in a follow-up judgment. He likes fame, though he insists otherwise. This book may give him another shot at it.
The Girl BeforeJP Delaney
MixedThe New York TimesThe Girl Before generates a fast pace with frequent cuts between chapters labeled 'Then: Emma' and 'Now: Jane.' And it milks suspense from matching scenes in which Emma and Jane do exactly the same things with Edward, who consciously sets up these parallels. That’s the good news. The downside is the author’s clumsy trickery. No spoilers here, but the novel’s denouement is improbable enough to have flown in from outer space ... The author, clearly writing with commercial success in mind, has used as many other familiar genre ploys as the book can hold ... Edward is very rich in ways that allow the book to indulge in both shelter and merchandise porn ... The book has more trouble bringing its women to life. We know about their past problems, their secrets and their reactions to Edward. But they never really emerge as strong characters ... Mr. Delaney intersperses ethics questions on stand-alone pages throughout the book. A fairly tame sample: 'You have a choice between saving Michelangelo’s statue of David or a starving street child. Which do you choose?' The unnerving ghoulishness of these questions hovers over the book, and the single most ingenious touch is that we’re not provided either woman’s answers.
American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping Crimes and Trial of Patty HearstJeffrey Toobin
PositiveThe New York TimesMr. Toobin has used the same winning formula of delving deeply into an American crime story that had tremendous notoriety in its day and retelling it with new resonance ... The book’s legal pièce de résistance is how Mr. Bailey bungled Ms. Hearst’s defense in charges of robbing the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, the first of several crimes for which she was accused.
Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists AgencyJames Andres Miller
PanThe New York TimesRight from the get-go, there are two enormous things wrong with it. The first is 'oral history': Sometimes this means a seamless narrative pieced together from the words of many speakers, but not here. In Powerhouse, it means a 700-page string of skips, jumps, tangents and otherwise dizzying non sequiturs. The second is that Mr. Miller is this book’s sole author, which means he’s missing his secret sauce ... by and large this book is so full of fawning that even the gossip is hard to find.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewIsaiah Quintabe, a self-made Sherlock operating out of the same part of Long Beach, Calif., that produced Snoop Dogg, is the completely original star of IQ, Joe Ide’s debut novel ...is apt to be a madly lovable new detective series about this smart guy and the vibrantly drawn criminal culture that surrounds him ... Almost all of the book’s characters speak fluent brag and dis, with the exceptions of strait-laced Isaiah and his beloved older brother, Marcus ...features a duct-tape-carrying creep, an innocent teenage girl and Isaiah, a bystander who picks up enough clues to know instantly that an abduction is in the works ... Mr. Ide packs a lot of action and scenery into the book’s investigation scenes. But he has also built and bolstered Isaiah as a fine, durable character for the long run.
Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach BoyMike Love & James S. Hirsch
MixedThe New York Times...[a] frequently bilious book ... Mr. Love’s book ranks high in gossip and readability, even if it’s stuffed with tedious chart positions for Beach Boys records ... bragging is something he knows a lot about. And you’ll find a lot of it in these pages ... more than a half-century’s worth of inside information about the Beach Boys, who were all the rage until they were ancient history, has undeniable appeal, especially from a new perspective.
PositiveThe New York TimesPart of the fun in reading Brown comes from not taking him too seriously as a stylist. He brings to mind Joseph Heller’s Yossarian in Catch-22, who has the job of censoring letters and turns it into an arbitrary game. There are Brown sentences that could happily lose their modifiers: 'The grisly memory was mercifully shattered by the chime of the jangling bar door.' There are phrases that beg you to ask friends to fill in the blanks: 'Clear and penetrating, ____ _ ____.' (Like a bell.) There’s an air of overstatement that’s more gleeful than egregious, but it can’t be mistaken for good. And the hyperbole is sometimes the stuff of giggles ... Then there are the tricks. All that symbology he and Langdon bring to the game is never without its gee-whiz excitement. Brown has told The Times that he loved the Hardy Boys books, and it shows. The hunt here for a 47-character password yields the niftiest feat of gamesmanship in the book, as does Langdon’s self-important analysis of what looks like an exotic symbol on a car’s window. It appears to be something that not even an expert of his caliber has ever seen before. It’s not. Brown loves winking at Langdon, the literally dashing version of himself, and inviting readers to share the joke. And for all their high-minded philosophizing, these books’ geeky humor remains a big part of their appeal.
The Daily Show (The Book)Chris Smith & Jon Stewart
MixedThe New York Times...this book seeks a serious understanding of everything about him, especially the thinking that shaped the show. But Mr. Smith lets hero worship and repetition slow the book’s momentum. And doses of snark from embittered ex-staffers sound like exactly what they are ... He omits transcript material that’s important to the show’s history...It would have been worth the extra space to remind readers what Mr. Stewart sounds like when he’s in a cold fury ... Mr. Smith carefully follows the show’s arc to the start of the war in Iraq and the video-clip milestone that had the show staging Bush vs. Bush debates comparing Gov. George W. Bush’s statements about Iraq with those of President George W. Bush.
Big Little LiesLiane Moriarty
PositiveThe New York TimesMs. Moriarty keeps her books long and gossipy, primarily by stalling. She introduces several sets of major characters, cuts back and forth among them, and scatters the narrative with foreshadowing about the terrible, terrible night … Ms. Moriarty writes all this in an easy, girlfriendly style that only occasionally lands with a thud…a low-level bitchiness thrums throughout the narrative, becoming one of its indispensable pleasures. The witnesses’ descriptions of whatever happened are usually comically distorted, as in a game of telephone, so that everyone’s understanding of Trivia Night is at best half-wrong … The ferocity that Ms. Moriarty brings to scenes of masculine sadism really is shocking. A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality.
Gone GirlGillian Flynn
RaveThe New York TimesIt almost requires a game board to show how Nick and Amy move through this book … the game Ms. Flynn has in mind is a two-sided contest in which Nick and Amy tell conflicting stories … Like many a less clever unreliable narrator, Nick likes lies of omission. The reader has to figure this out very gradually, because Ms. Flynn is impressively cagey about which details she chooses to withhold … Gone Girl is Ms. Flynn’s dazzling breakthrough. It is wily, mercurial, subtly layered and populated by characters so well imagined that they’re hard to part with — even if, as in Amy’s case, they are already departed.
The Girl on the TrainPaula Hawkins
PositiveThe New York TimesThe Girl on the Train has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gone Girl...Ms. Hawkins’s story has three women to narrate it. But Rachel, the main one, hits a new high in unreliability … Ms. Hawkins keeps all these fibs, threats and innuendoes swirling through her book, to the point where they frighten and undermine each of her characters. None of them really know which of the others can be trusted or believed … One sign of this book’s ingenuity is the way key details are effortlessly omitted. And you’re not apt to miss them until the denouement, when it is pointed out that certain characters never appeared and supposed facts were never explained.
RaveThe New York TimesMs. Russell is one in a million. The proof is in Swamplandia!, a novel about alligator wrestlers, a balding brown bear named Judy Garland, a Bird Man specializing in buzzard removal, a pair of dueling Florida theme parks, rampaging melaleuca trees, a Ouija board and the dead but still flirtatious Louis Thanksgiving. Sound appealing? No, it does not. Unless Ms. Russell had you at ‘alligator wrestlers’ — not likely — you may well recoil at every noxiously fanciful item on that list...But wait. Ms. Russell knows how to use bizarre ingredients to absolutely irresistible effect … Fizzy as these ingredients may be, Swamplandia! also manages to be a suspenseful, deeply haunted book … For all its gorgeously eerie omens Swamplandia! stays rooted in the Bigtree family’s emotional reality.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkBen Fountain
RaveThe New York TimesThough it covers only a few hours, the book is a gripping, eloquent provocation. Class, privilege, power, politics, sex, commerce and the life-or-death dynamics of battle all figure in Billy Lynn’s surreal game day experience … There are such bravura scenes in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk that this book never seems narrow or small … Mr. Fountain describes the erotic fireworks of a Destiny’s Child performance mixed with the military fervor of an accompanying marching band...The stimulation of these extremely mixed signals simply explodes in Billy Lynn’s brain; the effect of this ‘porn-lite out of its mind on martial dope’ on readers will be just as devastating … The halftime of the title isn’t about the pause in the football game. It’s about this brief, stunning, life-changing pause in the way Billy Lynn, two-week American hero, goes to war.
AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie
MixedThe New York TimesThough Americanah takes the shape of a long, star-crossed love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, it is most memorable for its fine-tuned, scathing observations about worldly Nigerians and the ways they create new identities out of pretension and aspiration … The first half of Americanah (the title refers to the newly Americanized Ifemelu) is tough-minded and clear. But Ms. Adichie disappointingly allows her story to slip to the level of a simple romance, leaving her readers to wonder, not very much, whether Ifemelu and Obinze will be reunited. The plot ultimately feels like an excuse for the venting of opinions — and the opinions carry far more conviction than the storytelling does.
RaveThe New York TimesIf Room remained purely claustrophobic throughout, Ms. Donoghue and her reader might tire of Jack’s version of events, not to mention Jack’s bubbly cheer. So it’s fortunate that this novel has the dramatic turning point that it needs. Eventually the spell is broken: Jack and Ma are freed. They can leave Room behind, but they’ll have to make Outer Space their new home … Ms. Donoghue makes the gutsy and difficult choice to keep the book anchored somewhere inside Jack’s head. So anything that happens to his mother is filtered through his fear, love and curiosity about her. And when the book presents him with a cavalcade of new experiences, everything Jack sees must be measured against the strangely idyllic time that he spent inside Room.