Laura MillerLaura Miller is a books and culture columnist for Slate and the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. Follow her on Twitter @magiciansbook
MixedThe Guardian...not every virtuoso of one form excels equally at the other, and Hystopia shows the strain of an author pushing to adapt to a form in which he is not at home ... For the first two thirds of the book, these characters seem mired in a drug-fuelled state of gluey semi-stasis, while all around them the novel sizzles and hisses with proliferating what-is-real palaver reminiscent of the fiction of Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace ... When he turns, instead, to another character’s beautifully precise observations of the natural world, the book settles into itself, but to keep things moving forward it must revert to its frantic efforts to wrestle with 'big ideas'.
Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane JacobsRobert Kanigel
MixedSlate...where Jacobs’ writings tore down and reconstructed the way we understand cities, Kanigel never quite succeeds in digging down to his subject’s foundation ... Eyes on the Street is haunted by the impression that Jacobs has gotten the better of her biographer...Despite the ostentatious familiarity of the book’s tone, his subject remains always at arm’s length.
PositiveSlateZink fears nothing—or at least nothing in the form of moral, political, or artistic reproach. Her novels contain not a speck of cant or piety from any position on any spectrum ... The ideological stew of millennial activism serves as a backdrop. Zink’s approach to this milieu is remarkably subtle—too sympathetic, perhaps, to qualify as satire, but uninclined to let anyone off the hook ... Nicotine hasn’t really got a moral, despite the high-minded types who populate its pages. It spills out like the endlessly unfolding events of life itself.
The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead
PositiveSlateAt moments in The Underground Railroad, the novel feels a bit hemmed in by its obligation to present a historically accurate atrocity exhibition and explain its precise significance ... Such dissonance between subject and sensibility means this novel ought not to succeed, yet it does. Whitehead finds his commonality with the fierce but rather prim Cora through her stalwart longing to do an honest day’s work for people who will honestly appreciate it ... The Underground Railroad makes it clear that Whitehead’s omnivorous cultural appetite has devoured narratives of every variety and made them his own.
Get in TroubleKelly Link
RaveSalonKelly Link belongs to that tiny population of authors whose short story collections never leave you wondering when she’ll write a novel. It’s occasionally tempting to fantasize about what she’d do if some genius hired her to show-run a cable TV drama; does any writer have a better, deeper instinct for the subterranean overlap between pop culture and myth? But then we’d have fewer of her stories, and let’s face it: There are far too few of them as it is ... When Link published her first collection, Stranger Things Happen, this sort of fiction, with its playful intersections of the banal and the wondrous, was rare. There’s more of it now, but Link remains the master of a delicate genre; she never descends into the cutesiness or shtick it is too often heir to. She has also never lost her keen understanding of adolescence, but she’s added a more seasoned, worldly perspective to her repertoire.
The Regional Office is Under Attack!Manuel Gonzalez
PositiveSlateAdd it all up, and you’ve got two central characters, each with two different timelines and a nameless omniscient 'historian' filling in all the background information. Then Gonzales tosses in this slightly uncanny 'interlude,' which feels both artificial—because who really thinks and speaks collectively—and alarmingly realistic—because this, you sense, is the unflattering truth of how it really would go down in most hostage situations. It sounds like a crazy salad of a novel, but what binds the whole thing together is a persistent, self-contradictory human desire to both be extraordinary and to fit in, finally, somewhere.
Lab GirlHope Jahren
RaveSlate...Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a riot, a profusion, a veritable jungle of ideas and sensations...
Bullies: A FriendshipAlex Abramovich
MixedSlateBullies is expertly written in the style of the magazine feature that spawned it. Abramovich sets out a collection of vivid scenes, pithy bits of local history and a lot of bar-stool racounteuring, all of it arranged like tarot cards on a table: not touching but clearly related in ways you need to figure out for yourself ... But instead of burrowing under this facade, Abramovich gets sucked into the unreflective ethos of the Rats, whose only stunted avenue for understanding and expression is their fists.
What is Not Yours is Not YoursHelen Oyeyemi
RaveSlateOyeyemi has her flashes of lyricism, but they’re so fleeting that they leave you refreshed and yearning rather than drenched in verbiage; her stories are never mere set pieces for the display of exquisite prose ... her stories will remind some readers of those of Kelly Link and Angela Carter. But her buoyant embrace of the multicultural milieu her characters inhabit also recalls the joyousness of early Zadie Smith, especially White Teeth. Hers is a vision where identity matters, but it doesn’t trump everything. What has the power to transcend it is love and literature.
The TrespasserTana French
RaveThe New YorkerMost crime fiction is diverting; French’s is consuming ... French has figured out how to expand the series’ scope without abandoning the intensity of its focus ... Antoinette and Stephen get saddled with a third detective, a fatuous, patronizing showboater whom French deploys to delicious comic effect ... [most fictional] detectives investigate crimes, but French’s pursue mysteries, the kind that can never be completely solved, although we all spend a life’s worth of days in the trying.
The Lonely CityOlivia Laing
PositiveSlateWith The Lonely City, a mixture of biography, memoir, travel writing, and criticism, [Laing]'s still producing the sort of book that at first seems to wander as extravagantly as Baudelaire’s flâneur. But that impression is deceptive; Laing is always circling back toward a piercingly relevant observation. And, oh, those observations!
The VegetarianHan Kang
RaveSlateThe effect of Kang’s prose is difficult to convey. I’ve scoured The Vegetarian in vain for a passage to quote that will illustrate how the novel transmits a feeling of great stillness even as its characters undergo convulsions of rage, sorrow, and lust .... it has an eerie universality that gets under your skin and stays put irrespective of nation or gender.
In a Different Key: The Story of AutismJohn Donovan & Caren Zucker
PositiveSlateWhile neither as literary nor as searching as, say, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, In a Different Key is grounded and sensible, which in the contentious world of autism activism constitutes a kind of grace.
In the DarkroomSusan Faludi
PositiveSlateSusan Faludi is a formidable reporter, an old hand at beguiling secrets out of sources and digging up incriminating facts ... Most of In the Darkroom, and the best of it, consists of the epic battle, and eventually the epic rapprochement, between Susan and Stefánie—an irresistible force meeting an immovable object ... Susan never truly can sort out her father’s slippery identity. Given her skepticism about the notion of any fixed identity—the 'Holy Grail' of contemporary American life, as she puts it—this makes for a happy ending to a book whose complexity fascinates.
The White Road: A Journey into ObsessionEdmund de Waal
PanThe New York Times Book Review[The White Road] is a diffuse and often tortured book, full of clouded narrative lines and vague poetical musings that strain too hard after the momentous...De Waal can tease a lot of atmosphere out of the most unprepossessing archival research...He’s not, however, a natural travel writer, and the many places he visits flicker past without making much of an impression, backdrops to his perpetual agitation.
The Story of the Lost ChildElena Ferrante
RaveSlateAs the Neapolitan novels progress, the books come to seem less and less a work of realist autobiographical fiction about female friendship and more and more a covertly mythic tale of the creation of a self through agonizing division and uneasy reintegration.
PositiveSlateI read these passages as sheer impishness, the high spirits of an author relaxing into his considerable native gifts. Of all the things people expect from a new Franzen novel, who’d have anticipated that more than anything else it would be so much fun?
Fates and FuriesLauren Groff
PositiveSlateEach [part] comes with its own comforts and terrors, its own insights and blind spots. Fates, published alone, would have felt slight. Furies, published alone, would have seemed farcical. In binding them together and letting the parts reflect each other like distorted mirrors, Groff reminds us that while Lotto may live in a dream world, he’s not the only one.
The Art of MemoirMary Karr
PositiveSlateThe Art of Memoir attests to how hard [Karr] works at getting her words just right and how deeply she understands the way great writing works.
The Point of VanishingHoward Axelrod
RaveSlateWhat makes his book completely mesmerizing—besides his lovely prose, that is—is how exquisitely it balances between the poles of revelation and disintegration.
The WitchesStacy Schiff
PanSlateA former editor at Simon & Schuster, Schiff is a publishing industry veteran rather than a historian. She, surely, can be trusted to focus on the crowd-pleasing elements of the Salem crisis, rather than getting bogged down in the pettifoggery of historical accuracy. Yet the result, The Witches: Salem, 1692, is a disappointment.
Strangers DrowningLarissa MacFarquhar
PositiveSlate“Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning is one part modern-day Lives of the Saints, one part confirmation that this is no age for saints.”
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in AmericaNancy Isenberg
PanSlatePoverty, in the form of miserable living conditions, dirtiness, ignorance, illness, violence, and despair, was viewed as the inherited misfortune of blighted bloodlines. Isenberg shows how consistent this prejudice has been over the centuries, carrying on with only a few alterations right down to the present. The first few chapters of White Trash can be heavy sledding due to the density of information and occasional clumsiness of Isenberg’s prose ... If White Trash is rather weak at weaving its assorted elements into a coherent narrative, it sheds bright light on a long history of demagogic national politicking, beginning with Jackson. It makes Donald Trump seem far less unprecedented than today’s pundits proclaim ... White Trash is weakest in its handling of race, a theme intimately entangled with the notion of a white-trash identity, but a subject Isenberg avoids when at all possible.
The GirlsEmma Cline
PositiveSlateThe Girls works a well-tapped vein in literary fiction: the queasy exploration of how young women with crippled egos can become accessories to their own degradation. Joyce Carol Oates and Mary Gaitskill are masters of this theme. Cline’s contribution is a heady evocation of the boredom and isolation of adolescence in pre-internet suburbia, in houses deserted by their restless, doubt-stricken adult proprietors where 'the air was candied with silence.' The novel is heavy with figurative language; Cline has a telling fondness for the word 'humid.' Not all of this comes off effectively (Evie’s mom makes Chinese ribs that 'had a glandular sheen, like a lacquer'), but most of it does (Evie, dazzled by her father’s girlfriend, thinks she has a life 'like a TV show about summer.') And in this case, the languorous effects of the prose match its subject: that state of feeling as if you’re stuck in life’s antechamber, scrutinizing the static world around you for clues on how to get out, hoping to be rescued by someone more real than yourself, someone who deems you worthy.
Sweet Lamb of HeavenLydia Millet
RaveSlateMillet gives us a new paradigm; her adversary isn’t horror’s usual bad guy, an atavistic entity hell-bent on destruction for its own sake, but the modern world’s infatuation with manufactured, convenient sameness. The showdown still comes decked out in all the suspenseful trappings we love best—a plot filled with surveillance and intrigue; a terrifyingly malevolent antagonist; an endangered child; a ragtag crew of brave resistors—but the soul of humanity is only one modest portion of what’s at stake. Her vision of the good is transhuman. In opposition to Ned’s cold, hollow will, Sweet Lamb of Heaven champions the fractal beauty of the chaotic and fecund...What does it take to make these things seem worth fighting for, you can almost hear the novelist ask. Good question.
American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping Crimes and Trial of Patty HearstJeffrey Toobin
PositiveSlateToobin frames American Heiress as a tribute to her resilience: what he sees as the 'rational' response of a determined survivor to a string of extraordinary challenges ... [Hearst] appears as the only ordinary person in a parade of weirdos, creeps, fanatics, scoundrels, idealists, firebrands, and outright maniacs ... Yes, the SLA were idiots who didn’t have a viable plan for changing the world, but Toobin leans so hard on the meaninglessness of their agenda that he creates the impression their idiocy was obvious to everyone around them.
Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death FraudElizabeth Greenwood
PositiveSlatePlaying Dead belongs to that genre of popular nonfiction best exemplified by Jon Ronson...It’s a form that above all requires a likable, self-deprecating, curious narrator, and Greenwood fits the bill, although her prose lacks the polish of Ronson’s deceptively casual wit.
The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov Edmund Wilson and the End of a Beautiful FriendshipAlex Beam
PositiveSlate[Beam] never quite stops laughing through the 200 pages that follow, which is exactly what makes The Feud such wicked fun ... The most sublime and insightful words, more often than not, emerge from decidedly ignoble creatures. You could wring your hands over the misguided senselessness of it all, but it’s saner to follow Beam’s lead and learn to laugh.
Innocents and OthersDana Spiotta
PositiveSlateWithout a doubt, Spiotta is a novelist of ideas, but she’s extraordinary in her ability to shrug off the refrigerated grandiosity that typically infects such writers, including DeLillo himself...Spiotta’s idea-driven fiction feels extraordinarily alive because she’s just as interested in the tensions between two artist friends as she is in the friction between morality and creativity or truth and art or identity and time.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
PositiveSlateSwing Time can rightly be called a return to the kind of fiction Smith does best and seems to enjoy most, whatever her concerns about its significance ... Some of the best chapters in the novel describe this weirdly subsidiary existence, tending to someone who inhabits a customized reality, who is both ridiculous and impressive ... To live in the syncopation between what ought to be and what is, in swing time, is to know that the latter, for all its unruliness, is always more human and often more interesting. Every once in a while, it can even be more beautiful.
In the Great Green RoomAmy Gary
PositiveSlateGoodnight Moon is less a story than an incantation. It summons a cocoon around reader and listener, a sensation of being pulled out of the hurly-burly of the world into a pocket of charmed tranquility. Amy Gary’s new biography, In the Great Green Room, replicates this spell for adult readers ... Gary has written the book as an intimate, immersive narrative, closely following the chronological unfolding of Brown’s life and focusing almost entirely on how Brown experienced the events described ... you won’t find much background [information] in In the Great Green Room ... Her relationships, for all their persistent frustrations, gave her much joy, and Gary successfully conveys how the delight that Brown took in her merry friends, her summers in Maine, and her work suffused most of her days ... The fairy-tale tinge of In the Great Green Room can occasionally be perplexing...yet this faint aura of unreality made the book into a blessed retreat during a rough season, a bit like a P.G. Wodehouse or Barbara Pym novel.
Scratch: Writers Money and the Art of Making a LivingEd. by Manjula Martin
MixedSlate...as Scratch repeatedly demonstrates, the nitty-gritty on this stuff is in short supply in the wider writerly imagination, while fantasy, evasion, and envious brooding runneth over. Strayed is among the few prospering contributors to this collection of essays and interviews who speaks so explicitly. ('We’re only hurting ourselves as writers by being so secretive about money,' she told Martin.) Another is Roxane Gay ... Like most anthologies, Scratch is uneven; not every contributor is equally talented and none is able to drill very deeply into the relationship between work and money in writers’ lives ... But if the mission statement of this anthology is to demystify 'how, exactly, literature and the people who make it are valued,' many of the pieces here seem to deflect away from transparency as if repelled by a magnetic field. If their authors set out to write about money, they end up spinning their wheels on the more formulaic and far less interesting subjects of self-discovery, dream-following, and 'career' ... as none of the contributors has quite the nerve to state baldly, in order to support themselves, they train others to do the work that isn’t providing them with a viable living.
MixedThe New YorkerTaken in as a panorama, Homegoing can be breathtaking ... Gyasi has conscientiously assembled the furniture of each of these American historical periods, but she never seems quite at home in them. The farther back in time she goes, the more prone she is to jarring anachronisms ... Too often, however, Gyasi struggles to make the linked-story form suit her epic enterprise. There are significant challenges to overcome, not least the lack of a central character to arrest the reader’s attention and carry it through the book ... Rough as it is page by page, hampered as it is by a form that would daunt a far more practiced novelist, Homegoing succeeds, by the end, in accumulating no small emotional power.
Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer
MixedSlateHere I Am worms its way closer to the squirmy kernel of Foer’s talent ... Foer never brings this drama from background to foreground; it’s ghostlike and theoretical, the undercurrent to Sam’s long-delayed bar mitzvah ... Here I Am returns him to what worked best in Everything is Illuminated: the uncomfortable probing of his own conscience. If too much of his fiction has felt cooked, this, at least, tastes raw and true ... This political gloss on a private misery can come across as an imitation of the social novels of Jonathan Franzen, just as the scattered passages of dirty talk and reveries on masturbation seem to ape Philip Roth. Here I Am is strongest when it dares to be unlikeable in its own, funny way.
Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De QuinceyFrances Wilson
PositiveSlateWilson makes De Quincey a character so immediate you half expect him to materialize ... But Guilty Thing is short on literary analysis and long on dish; Wilson spends more words on De Quincey’s epic, late-life financial woes than on the Confessions themselves. Her De Quincey is more literary character than literary figure ... Wilson is refreshingly uninterested in explaining De Quincey’s character and behavior in light of contemporary understandings of addiction. This book is much more rewarding as a cautionary tale about the dangers of placing too much faith in art and as a jaundiced portrait of what it’s like to inhabit the fringes of greatness.
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted LifeRuth Franklin
PositiveSlate... a fresh effort to frame her as an artist with extraordinary insight into the lives, the concerns, and—above all—the fears of women ... Gender is not the only prejudice that has kept us from acknowledging the brilliance of Shirley Jackson, but Franklin’s biography is a giant step toward the truth.
We'll Always Have CasablancaNoah Isenberg
MixedSlateWe’ll Always Have Casablanca is less a history than a scrapbook: a digestible assembly of interesting facts, a few fresh quotes, ongoing controversies about who wrote which bits of dialogue, and tributes—from Simpsons parodies to Saturday Night Live sketches—meant to illustrate Casablanca’s lasting legacy. But as the 75th anniversary of Casablanca’s release arrives, Isenberg doesn’t seem to perceive the subtle but distinct transformation of the movie’s cachet over the past 10 or 15 years ... Certainly, Casablanca is a movie about political resistance, but it’s also a clarion call to cast aside isolationism and self-interest to fight on behalf of the invaded and oppressed. Although Isenberg doesn’t include interviews with conservative students who supported the Vietnam War, it’s not difficult to see how they might have interpreted the movie as an argument on behalf of their side.
Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American TownBrian Alexander
RaveSlateBrian Alexander’s Glass House belongs to a new and still fairly accidental genre: the on-the-ground Trump explainer, a nonfiction book illuminating the desperation driving white small-town Americans, as told by a native son ... Glass House reads like an odd—and oddly satisfying—fusion of George Packer’s The Unwinding and one of Michael Lewis’ real-life financial thrillers. Alexander pings back and forth between portraits of despairing and bewildered Lancastrians and the labyrinthine corporate history of Anchor Hocking ... By the end of Glass House, as Alexander works his rhetoric up to this fiery pitch, all the preceding chapters in which he carefully detailed the arcane financial engineering that enabled private-equity financiers to strip Lancaster of its hard-earned wealth and ultimately its soul pay out like gangbusters. The case he makes is damning.
Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders
MixedSlateIt’s not that Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t worthwhile. It has many moments of power, and even passages of the sort of lushly sensual prose that hasn’t previously been a Saunders specialty. It definitely marks an advance into new formal territory. It’s just that the timing on this thing is really, really bad. A George Saunders novel seems like just what we need right now, but chances are Lincoln in the Bardo is not the George Saunders novel you’re looking for ... Jaded readers may suspect that Saunders needed to contrive a selfless cause—saving Willie—to unite all the ghosts in a group effort, thereby providing a plot and the opportunity for redemption in community. The metaphysical apparatus must be explained to some extent, and those explanations are both a bit tedious and at odds with the moral center of the book, which is the grief of Lincoln ... [a] melancholy, inward-looking, often lovely and moving but fundamentally private novel ... Saunders is a writer whose satire has long seemed a bit too monstrous for mainstream success, yet now that he has published what is surely his most gently accessible work, reality has abruptly caught up to his darkest visions.
Age of AngerPankaj Mishra
PositiveSlate[Mishra] wants to remind Westerners of our own painful, violent transition to modernity and to emphasize that much of the turmoil in the developing world is a symptom of the same ordeal ... There are two aspects to Mishra’s argument. One is that the Western model of secular rationalism—whether it takes the form of democratic capitalism or state socialism—promises equality, opportunity, and dignity for all and then fails to deliver on that promise. The other is that the malaise of modernity afflicts even the privileged because the promise itself is hollow ... Age of Anger is a short book into which a lot of intellectual history has been packed ... Only occasionally does Mishra explicitly address the rise of Donald Trump and similar demagogues in Europe and the U.K., but anyone reading Age of Anger with them in mind will find that nearly every page illuminates the current political climate of 'cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality' that has left many feeling sideswiped and bewildered.
4 3 2 1Paul Auster
MixedThe New YorkerHe packs the books with minor characters of assorted races and ages, and attempts to conjure up a jaunty urban cacophony. That goal, however, is incompatible with Auster’s habitual style, which is a top-down, summarizing narration that closes like a fist around the proceedings. His novels are short on dramatic scenes and dialogue, and it’s not easy to celebrate a polyglot metropolis when you’re unaccustomed to letting characters speak for themselves. Whoever is telling the story—whoever is speaking, period—always sounds too much like Paul Auster ... Sprawling, repetitive, occasionally splendid, and just as often exasperating, 4 3 2 1 is never quite dull, but it comes too close to tedium too often; there is no good reason for this novel to be eight hundred and sixty-six pages long, or for every Archie’s love of baseball and movies and French poetry to be rhapsodized over, or for every major headline of the nineteen-fifties and sixties to come under review.
RaveSlateSmith knows how to tease the glory out of the most plainspoken English. Smith is sometimes classified as an experimental novelist, a label that may impute for some readers a grim, chorelike quality to the reading of her work. But Smith’s literary spirit is essentially playful ... Autumn’s most daring formal move is to attempt the immediacy of journalism, depicting the national mood while the nation is still feeling it ... At first Smith’s choice to start with autumn seemed out of character, but of course that means that this ambitious four-novel sequence will end with summer and Smith in her element. If we are all very lucky, perhaps the world will catch up with her there, too.
White TearsHari Kunzru
PositiveSlateOne of the small pleasures of this novel is the precise way Kunzru etches the awkward parameters entailed in befriending the very rich ... [Kunzru's] novels share a suave yet searching confidence and a fascination with how technology, so often viewed as a catalyst of the future, tends to dig up the unresolved messes of our past ... Whatever, exactly, is happening, Kunzru creates the overwhelming sense that White Tears is spiraling down into the shadowy heart of the matter, to the poisoned center of America’s past. The novel’s momentum is irresistible. Call it a ghost story or a rumination on art, possession and responsibility—or both—it has all the force of a truth that can be neither denied nor buried—at least not for long.
Kafka on the ShoreHaruki Murakami
RaveThe New York TimesMurakami is an aficionado of the drowsy interstices of everyday life, reality's cul-de-sacs, places so filled with the nothing that happens in them that they become uncanny … The author achieves this effect by doing everything wrong … Clichés, the ephemera of pop culture, characters who proclaim their thematic function -- these sound like the gambits of postmodernism, tricks meant to distance the reader from the artificiality of narrative and the sort of tactic that gets a novel labeled 'cerebral.' But Kafka on the Shore...doesn't feel distant or artificial. Murakami is like a magician who explains what he's doing as he performs the trick and still makes you believe he has supernatural powers. So great is the force of the author's imagination, and of his conviction in the archaic power of the story he is telling, that all this junk is made genuine.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeMark Haddon
RaveSalonAn autistic savant who can list all the prime numbers up to 7,057, he’s not so good with emotion, and since the story he relates in Mark Haddon’s delightful first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, concerns the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and the precarious nature of the care he needs to survive, we have to read between his lines … In tracking down the truth about Wellington’s untimely death, Christopher discovers more than he bargained for...Haddon depicts his hero with expansive sympathy and an irresistible humor … All of this makes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time feel light, but that’s deceiving. There are vast reservoirs of human suffering and courage beneath its sprightly, peculiar surface.
Into the WaterPaula Hawkins
PanSlateInto the Water isn’t an impressive book. Its tone is uniformly lugubrious and maudlin, and Hawkins’ characters seldom rise to the level of two dimensions, let alone three. Their depth is telegraphed by the way they brood over their failings while staring into the dark waters, and they seem to be constantly exclaiming, 'You don’t understand what I’ve done!' Hawkins makes liberal use of coy suspense-building devices, such as having people think in vague terms about an important event or object without describing it clearly enough to give away later plot developments. Yet few readers will have difficulty figuring out who’s guilty of what well before Hawkins delivers the obligatory twists.
RaveSalonIan McEwan’s latest novel is a dark, sleek trap of a book. It lures its readers in with the promise of a morality tale set in an English country manor in 1935. There will be a crime, we learn, and so far the novel’s furnishings are at once cozy and exciting...Once we’re caught in his snare, though, McEwan takes us deep into far more menacing territory … Of the lies people tell themselves to make life more palatable, however, some are more dangerous than others. Briony’s coming of age involves a hard lesson in the difference … The question about atonement goes back to the root of the word: it means to be ‘at one,’ and sometimes refers to the sacrifice by which Jesus united man and God. A human being who becomes God in the act of creating fiction, though, is only all-powerful within that fictional world.
PositiveThe New YorkerTheir world is a version of the lost and longed-for territory of fantasy and romance, genres that hark back to an elemental, folkloric past roamed by monsters and infested with ghastly wonders ... Borne is VanderMeer’s trans-species rumination on the theme of parenting. 'It' becomes 'him.' Borne learns to read and to play. He asks the thousands of maddening questions familiar to any adult who has spent much time with a four-year-old ... The novel’s scope is of human dimensions, despite its nonhuman title character. But VanderMeer’s take on the postapocalyptic fantasy is not without subversive ambition...The novel insists that to live in an age of gods and sorcerers is to know that you, a mere person, might be crushed by indifferent forces at a moment’s notice, then quickly forgotten. And that the best thing about human nature might just be its unwillingness to surrender to the worst side of itself.
AusterlitzW. G. Sebald
RaveSalonAusterlitz’s story is told through his conversations with the novel’s unnamed narrator. The two men meet from time to time over the course of years, sometimes by appointment and sometimes by coincidence. Their conversations wander, as conversations do, and so do the ruminations of the narrator … It isn’t difficult to guess what happened to Austerlitz’s parents; even his own mind tries to protect him from the truth by conceiving an unexamined aversion to the German language and 20th-century European history. And yet, Sebald implies, inside each of us lies an impulse toward understanding, toward remembrance and toward feeling that fights to escape into the open air and will give us no peace if we deny it … The seemingly miscellaneous digressions in Austerlitz are pieces of a puzzle that, when assembled, form a man’s soul and make him whole again for the first time in decades.
PositiveThe New Yorker[Augustown] exemplifies the belief that everything you want to know about human beings can be found in an overlooked, out-of-the-way little community, as long you pay it sufficient attention ... The barely perceptible Caribbean lilt in Miller’s prose exerts a hypnotic effect that is one of the great pleasures of Augustown, even if every so often he uses it to deliver a horror ... Augustown isn’t without its storytelling flaws...But these are the peripheral stumblings of an expansive talent, of a writer stretching to catch up with his own curiosity and fertility. The center of the novel, Miller’s portrait of Augustown, holds.
Gone GirlGillian Flynn
RaveSalonFlynn’s particular specialty is ‘unlikable’ narrators: Not freakish killers, but ordinarily selfish, resentful or sarcastic types, the kind of characters that readers often seem to dislike because they offer an uncomfortable reflection of their own mundane shortcomings … Gone Girl has two such narrators, the halves of a broken marriage...and the novel has two mysteries: What happened to Amy, and what happened to Nick-and-Amy? … For the first half of the novel, these two contradictory yet strangely harmonized accounts of the marriage’s decay command most of the attention … You couldn’t say that this is a crime novel that’s ultimately about a marriage, which would make it a literary novel in disguise. The crime and the marriage are inseparable.