National Book Critics Circle board member and longtime All Things Considered commentator Marion Winik is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, Highs in the Low Fifties and many other books. She is a professor in the University of Baltimore MFA program in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts, writes a monthly column at BaltimoreFishbowl.com, and reviews books for People, Newsday, KirkusReview, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. She can be found on Twitter @marionwinik
How I Became a North KoreanKrys Lee
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe plot is full of drama and the writing is crystal clear, with sharply drawn images and evocative word choices while at the same time giving each of three narrators a distinct voice. Still, I found myself just shy of completely absorbed in the story. Between the rotating viewpoint, the ongoing introduction of characters and the continual pausing to look things up in Wikipedia, the book never let me fully relax. This might not be true for better-informed readers, and does not take away from the novel’s message, or the usefulness of giving dopes like me a chance to fill in some of our blanks in geography, history and cultural awareness.
Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but HereAngela Palm
PositiveNewsday...most of thoughts in this book are well-put, often worth stopping and mulling over. But what keeps the pages turning is the current of Angela and Corey’s doomed relationship ... From the first pages to the last, “Riverine” is full of questions. One of these is the purpose of writing. 'Could I better understand the significance of the angle of a man’s bottom lip, of an illiterate man registering to vote, of rotten milk, because I am compelled to notice?' she asks.Taken as a whole, Riverine is an answer to this question. Yes, she can.
Almighty: Courage Resistance and Existential Peril in the Nuclear AgeDan Zak
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneWith this thorough examination of the 70-year history of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, longtime Washington Post reporter Dan Zak launches a mission to regain our attention ... Dan Zak’s wake-up call is right on time.
You Will Know MeMegan Abbott
RaveNewsdayWhat puts flesh on the bones of Abbott’s flying cheetah of suspense is her insight into parenting, marriage and various sorts of interpersonal rivalry ... lifts Abbott above other writers in this genre, making her something of a Stephen King, whose work hangs right on the edge of the literary while making your skin crawl.
Modern LoversEmma Straub
RaveNewsdayWith all the writers who live in Brooklyn, we read a lot of books set in its neighborhoods. The bar is high, the field is crowded, and the demographic represented in Modern Lovers gets a lot of coverage. Emma Straub’s particular take is wry without being snarky, and smart without being affected. With cleverness and warmth to spare, her aim is to entertain, and she breezily succeeds.
A Manual for Cleaning WomenLucia Berlin
RaveNewsdayThe vivacity, humor, sorrow, pragmatism and sheer literary star power that fill the 43 stories collected in A Manual For Cleaning Women hit with such immediacy and vigor that it seems unbelievable that their author, Lucia Berlin, died in 2004, at the age of 68, before most of us ever knew about her ... Anyone who loves the stories of Grace Paley and Lorrie Moore will find another master of the form here -- and will feel immense gratitude to the supporters who brought us this collection, selected from earlier small-press editions of her work.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing LifeWilliam Finnegan
MixedNewsdayWhat's a break, you may ask. It is one of many, many technical surfing terms you'll come to know by the end of this book without their ever actually having been defined. It's like an immersion course in a foreign language. Just let it flow over you. By the end, you'll have some idea what's going on ... A surfer from Oregon named Andre explains why 'chicks' have such a tough time when they get involved with surfers. 'It's like if you or I hooked up with a fanatical shopper,' he said. . . . 'You'd have to accept that your entire life would be traveling around to malls. Or, really, more like waiting for malls to open.' How about reading a 447-page book on that topic? If anyone could make it work, it's the stylist and storyteller William Finnegan.
Alice and OliverCharles Bock
PositiveNewsdayMuch as I loved this novel, the acknowledgments at the end — where Bock speaks candidly about the origins of the story and its relationship to his real life — made me love it twice as much. Instead of blurring the beauty and truth of the novel with inevitable questions about 'how much is true' and 'why didn’t he write a memoir,' those questions are directly answered — and the answers make you see why fiction was a great choice, allowing him to develop his heroine in a way that would have been impossible in memoir...
The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American CityLaura Tillman
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...a dogged attempt to understand what happened, a review of the psychological, sociological and spiritual explanations for the crime, a meditation on the death penalty and on the city of Brownsville ... Tillman closes with a last look at the building, still standing. Behind it Tres Ángeles Community Garden now thrives, its name recalling the 'three little angels' who 'live in each root and stem and leaf.' The short lives of these 'small ghosts' are given lasting meaning in this book.
True Crimes: A Family Album Kathryn Harrison
PositiveNewsdayLike other ultra-candid essayists, Harrison deliberately keeps the issue of her own likability in the foreground ... What is fair game in memoir, and what is TMI and voyeurism? Should Kathryn Harrison be telling us these stories? If you are asking yourself these questions, Harrison has you where she wants you, whether you’re comfortable there or not.
All the Single LadiesRebecca Traister
PositiveNewsdayThough I found no breaking news in All the Single Ladies, it’s a well-written and unabashedly feminist analysis of the history and current situation of single women in America. When we all 'put our hands up,' as Beyoncé urges, it is clear we are a force to be reckoned with.
The High Mountains of PortugalYann Martel
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle...what you really want to know is, is it as good as Life of Pi? The answer is not quite. It’s just as ambitious, just as clever, just as existential and spiritual, and also concerns characters facing unutterable loss ... The High Mountains of Portugal is a much more complicated creation, with three stories full of dramatis personae, events and situations, magical realist flourishes, much reliance on surprising twists and recurrences, and frankly, more dry spells in the narrative.
The Red CarMarcy Dermansky
PositiveNewsday[Judy's voice] creates a particularly unresolvable sort of grief, a plaintive and genuine emotional note running through the dreamlike narrative ... This seemingly artless but in fact very controlled novel is on one level, a fairy tale complete with fairy godmother, and on another, a whispered goad to the reader: Live the life you really want.
Dear Mr. YouMary Louise Parker
PositiveNewsdayJust one sticking point: why only men? What happened to the women in her life? Perhaps she should have explained this decision somewhere, as one can't help but wonder. Or maybe she's planning a companion volume. In any case, she's a serious writer, and I doubt this is the last we'll hear from her.
Avenue of MysteriesJohn Irving
PanNewsdayEven the die-hard fans might prefer a less busy route next time.
Hunger Makes Me A Modern GirlCarrie Brownstein
PositiveNewsdayBrownstein has insightful things to say about growing up with a closeted gay dad and an anorexic mom, about how the creative process works, about the performance' of the audience at a concert, about the punk aesthetic. She deconstructs Sleater-Kinney's music as a rock critic would, sometimes giving in to a touch of self-importance, forgivable in light of Sleater-Kinney having been anointed 'the best rock band in the world' by Time magazine.
The GirlsEmma Cline
RaveNewsdayEvery page of this book offers small pleasures of language — Chinese ribs with a 'glandular sheen,' the 'rotted pucker' of sherry, both served at a party where Evie’s mother 'hovered nervously around the buffet: she’d put out chopsticks, but no one was using them, and I could tell this disappointed her.' That watchful, judgmental eye is unmistakably an adolescent girl’s, a perspective Cline renders perfectly. Cline is also skillful at maintaining suspense...If these were its only virtues, The Girls would be a good book. But it is more than that. By using fiction to explore the moral issues raised by a confounding historical event, it takes a shot at greatness.
Strangers in Their Own LandArlie Russell Hochschild
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneHochschild is a brilliant sociologist and a great teacher, able to explain complex ideas in lucid, logical prose. But to get alienated parties over this very high empathy wall, she has to be a great human being, too. Her connection and kindness to the people she meets is what makes this book so powerful.
The WonderEmma Donoghue
PositiveNewsdayThe unraveling of the mystery here will bring into play another Donoghue obsession, something even creepier than superstition and ignorance. As much as we can count on her to plumb the heart of human darkness, Emma Donoghue loves a happy ending. Readers who feel the same will enjoy the blaze of romance and drama she ignites to end Lib’s Hibernian adventure.
Cruel Beautiful WorldCaroline Leavitt
PositiveNewsdayThe omniscient narrator of Cruel Beautiful World is the work of an accomplished fiction writer with 10 novels to her name ... However, as this narrator keeps moving from Lucy to Charlotte to Iris to Patrick to William, recounting back story after back story, the emotional intensity of the book becomes a bit muffled. Five is too many. With this merry-go-round narrative style, neither the tragic climax nor the chain of disappointments that follows hits quite as hard as they should. Still, Cruel Beautiful World is a page-turner — recommended reading for those reveling in the current literary ’60s revival.
How to Set a Fire and WhyJesse Ball
RaveNewsdayIn 14-year-old Lucia Stanton, the putative author of the book, Ball has created a voice that echoes the beloved narrators of J.D. Salinger and John Green ... This is perfect summer reading for cool kids of all ages. Move over, Holden.
How to Survive a PlagueDavid France
RaveNewsdayThere are two things you need to know about David France’s book How to Survive a Plague. First: It’s flawless. Masterfully written, impeccably researched, and full of feeling for the living and dead heroes of the AIDS movement...Second: It’s too much. Exhaustive, and also exhausting ... a complete and correct record of this terrible story and its heroes.
The Private Life of Mrs SharmaRatika Kapur
RaveNewsday...a short, simple novel, the first-person narrative of several months in the life of a woman in Delhi. There are just a few characters and settings, a straightforward plot and a wonderfully funny narrative voice. It is an easy pleasure to read ... The feel of contemporary Indian life, caught between tradition and modernity, is brilliantly captured in the details of Mrs. Sharma’s predicament ... I will be devouring all past and future work from this clever, wise writer.
Swing TimeZadie Smith
RaveNewsday...gets away with being unabashedly gossipy by also being culturally rich, globally aware and politically sharp ... One sentence of Zadie Smith can entertain you for several minutes ... Both a stunning writer on the sentence level and a cunning, trap-setting, theme-braiding storyteller, with Swing Time Zadie Smith has written one of her very best books.
Perfect Little WorldKevin Wilson
PositiveNewsdayThough the setup — on-site postdocs, unlimited funds, buildings covered with olive-green AstroTurf — is quite different from the classic hippie communes featured in Lauren Groff’s Arcadia and T.C. Boyle’s Drop City, many of the same dynamics are at play. Sexual tension is one problem. Public opinion, now magnified through social media, is another ... the novel’s grand finale, with no lack of pulled pork or romance, reminds us that not everything unpredictable is painful or bad, and that conventional arrangements have no monopoly on the profound connections that make family.
RaveNewsday...[a] delicious if not very straightforward novel ... The grandfather is a fantastic and complicated character: a genius and troublemaker, brooding logician, ethical brute, romantic, funny, macho, unquestioningly devoted to his difficult wife and daughter, both brilliant characters as well.
A Really Good DayAyelet Waldman
PositiveNewsdayThanks to the author’s intelligence, self-awareness and wit, this book is a lot of fun. There’s just one thing — the elephant in the room referred to only as 'my husband'...for many readers, the conviction that they would never need to know another thing about the incredible love of Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. Those readers must be warned. 'When I gaze at my husband, when I feel his body along the length of mine,' she writes, 'I feel a deep, contented joy, a warmth that begins in my belly, spreads out to my limbs and through the top of my skull.' And: 'For six hours, we talked about our feelings for each other, why we love each other, how we love each other.' Grit your teeth — it’ll be over in a few pages.
PositiveNewsday...a rich and complicated New York saga that bounces around in time — 2001, 2009, 1981, 1992, and on to 2021, each chapter shifting the spotlight among the characters. It’s an exciting read, sometimes a little confusing, but ultimately all the pieces fit together; the reader’s patience is rewarded ... AIDS drops like a stone into the pool these characters live in. Those of us whose lives were deeply affected by it, and have lived on past it, will recognize and admire the crescendo and diminuendo Murphy traces ... Capacious yet streamlined, it is a very fine book.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?Kathleen Collins
PositiveNewsday...so vivid and sharply drawn ... While various forms of ironic self-consciousness and formal experiment are found in many of the 16 stories, two of the standouts ('The Happy Family' & 'Dead Relatives...Dead Dreams') are more traditional.
White TearsHari Kunzru
MixedNewsday...begins as a coming-of-age story, takes a turn into surrealism and horror, and ultimately reveals itself to be a gritty moral fable about cultural appropriation ... Like James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, White Tears uses magical realist elements to capture aspects of the history of racism. But for this reader, the novel’s punishment of its characters seems to outweigh their crime, making two somewhat generic white fanboys the surrogates for centuries of theft and violence.
The RefugeesViet Thanh Nguyen
RaveNewsdayThe opening story, 'Black-Eyed Women,' is told by a ghostwriter who specializes in survivors of tragedy...This is the most brutal story; others have a softer kind of melancholy, with ironic moments created by the absurdities of life — such as what happens when a man looking to thank the family of the donor of his new liver finds there are hundreds of people with the surname Vu in the Orange County phone book ... As our first major Vietnamese-American writer, Nguyen is a prodigious genius is making up for lost time. Good thing we let him in.
Anything is PossibleElizabeth Strout
RaveNewsday...after finishing Elizabeth Strout’s new collection of linked stories, Anything Is Possible, I had to reread her previous book, My Name Is Lucy Barton — and then I went straight back to Anything Is Possible. I read the two books twice, and was happy about it. Now I’ll just be sitting here waiting for the miniseries ... Gossip has a bad reputation, but sometimes it’s just being interested enough in people to want to know more about them than they might want you to. That’s exactly what this book feels like ... The only real question here is whether you should you read My Name Is Lucy Barton before you read Anything Is Possible. I think either way works. If I’m any guide, you’ll be reading them both twice anyway.
RaveNewsdayThe key to counteracting the seemingly inevitable prurience of the story is Donoghue's decision to let Jack tell it … Outside ends up seeming more bizarre than the world within. Donoghue's description of the experience of release from captivity is well done (and based on research from the real cases), but it cannot measure up to the magic of the story before Ma and Jack leave Room. This dark and beautiful fairy tale about the parent-child relationship is what you'll never forget.
Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders
RaveNewsday...[a] strange, profound, melancholy and often silly book ... Only George Saunders would think of such a bizarre and elaborate conceit to address those questions, and wrest from it so much feeling, so much humor and sorrow. Historical fiction will never be the same.
PositiveNewsdayIf the sexual harassment plot unfolds a bit predictably — men are dopes and liars, women are sisters under the skin — the cleverness of everything else is such that you almost don’t notice. Shafrir is priceless on topics from millennial office culture to the Russian immigrant lifestyle of Katya’s parents to the vast chasm dividing today’s 20-somethings from 30-somethings.
A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara
RaveNewsdayYanagihara's most impressive trick is the way she glides from scenes filled with those terrifying hyenas to moments of epiphany. 'Wasn't it a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable? Wasn't friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely? Wasn't this house, this beauty, this comfort, this life a miracle?' A Little Life devotes itself to answering those questions, and is, in its own dark way, a miracle.
PositiveNewsdayTo try and explain the complications that ensue would be folly. Just look at the size of the cast ... Almost everyone from From Rockaway gets to make at least an appearance. Despite the overcrowding and the kookiness of the plot, Swell is anchored in real understanding of the people of Rockaway, what they went through in those years and their recourse to black humor.
Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002)David Sedaris
PositiveNewsdayGood tidings, ladies and gentlemen of the fan club. While some of the pleasures of Theft by Finding are familiar from the earlier books, it has virtues that make it a standout among them ... Sedaris’ personal essays are put together so carefully that none of the seams show; they often ingeniously build to a sneak attack of wisdom or poignancy in the final lines. Here, the relatively artless diary entries, short and long, sequenced and non sequitur, add up to something we’ve never gotten before — a big, juicy narrative arc. It comprises 25 years of an essentially heartwarming success story, any potential ickiness kept in check by Sedaris’ judicious minimalism ... Career success takes a toll on the narrative momentum. Entries from 2001 and 2002, mostly about book tours and life in Paris, feel more dilatory and less pithy than what’s come before.
Mrs. FletcherTom Perrotta
RaveNewsdayBecause he has perfect pitch when it comes to shading the emotional states of his characters, Perrotta can make you believe anything ... a delicious, tragicomic and finally forgiving take on the mistakes we modern people can’t seem to stop making. Mrs. Fletcher is a delight.