Mark Athitakis has written on books for numerous publications. He serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Barnes and Noble Review, and many other outlets. He is the author of The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt. You can find Mark on Twitter @mathitak
Imagine Me GoneAdam Haslett
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...mental illness in contemporary fiction is often lousy, too. Readers endure either earnest clinical depictions — usually thinly veiled critiques of the pharmaceutical-industrial complex — or out-there prose that's supposed to evoke madness but instead reads like gassy rambling. Adam Haslett's brilliant second novel, Imagine Me Gone, is a remarkable exception, capturing two troubled minds with rare empathy, realism and insight. ... a memorable, funny and ultimately heartbreaking trip.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewDespite its funhouse-mirror version of 1970, Hystopia is a straightforward chase yarn — will Singleton and company catch up with Rake, and what will they find when they do? What the novel’s length allows him to do is to explore the multitude of ways memory worms into our consciousness, despite our best efforts to suppress it. Tripizoid’s effects can be undone by good sex, or cold water, or thinking too hard, or talking to another enfold too much, or pressing hard on your temples, or just being mean-spirited enough — Rake was an early enfolding experimentee. That’s the grand joke that emerges over time: The simple business of living is going to force our trauma to the surface. Whether we’re capable of responding to it well is another matter.
Little NothingMarisa Silver
RaveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewLittle Nothing, is a marvelous book. I mean 'marvelous' in the this-critic-approves sense, sure: Her command of character, style, and storytelling is expert and sustained. But I also mean it in the sense of being full of marvels ... Little Nothing is steeped in strangeness, but it’s driven by a basic question that frees the best novels and their heroes when the time comes to explore their worlds: What if there’s something else out there?
Carousel CourtJoe McGinniss, Jr.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewThe tension is in that disconnection — how much of our lives do we need to live via text message and selfie, in anonymous hotels, in half-abandoned housing communities, before we lose our sense of self? McGinniss is gifted at cultivating a feeling of emotional distance in response to that question ... Phoebe and Nick have about three too many hollow squabbles followed by hollow reconciliations, and he could stand to be funnier; Carousel Court‘s dark mood leaves little room for dark satire. But his dry, crisp, sun-glared vision also suggests a path for fiction that is at once existential and operatic, slick but with a moral imperative, too.
Neon GreenMargaret Wappler
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesA closer cousin to Neon Green is Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, partly because of its mysterious-invader-in-the-burbs plot, but also because of its downbeat brand of satire ... But as Cynthia’s health worsens, the overall mood dims and Wappler writes in a dry, plainspoken tenor...At times these tonal shifts can be queasy-making, and some of the plot mechanics in Neon Green aren’t entirely persuasive ... But Wappler has found an entertaining way to make a point that’s often neglected in suburban and alien-invader novels: Being an outsider is a matter of perspective.
Fortune SmilesAdam Johnson
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe stories in Adam Johnson’s excellent second collection, Fortune Smiles, tend to open by introducing a cryptic word or phrase whose meaning isn’t fully revealed at first. That’s a handy way for any short-story writer to hook a reader. But Johnson hides especially dark and peculiar meanings: Those innocent unexplained words soon lead to visions of emotional and physical wreckage, from North Korea to post-Katrina Louisiana to East German torture facilities. Gotcha, you imagine Johnson saying, each time.
Gold Fame CitrusClaire Vaye Watkins
PositiveNewsdayWatkins is a magnificent writer about the ways the west offers freedom and oppression in equal measure ... The best parts of Gold Fame Citrus explore how the apocalypse has cranked up the spiritual absurdity ... But Gold Fame Citrus ultimately narrows its scope, its brainy apocalyptic adventure story fading into a conventional tale about Luz's conflicted romantic affections.
City of SecretsStewart O'Nan
PositiveMinneapolis Star TribuneCentered on one survivor of the camps, Brand, a man who’s stateless and romantically adrift, it evokes austere postwar existentialist literature. And in its no-nonsense portraits of femme fatales and double-crossers, it could pass at times for a Raymond Chandler novel...What O’Nan is counting on — and rightly so — is that this will all feel alive and current for readers regardless.
Alice and OliverCharles Bock
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesAlice & Oliver is at its best as a story about how a couple must develop an internal GPS to recalculate the path through unfamiliar territory, when the things that attract them to each other and the comfort of their routines begin to get scraped away...the true-life elements of the novel are meaningful only in terms of the novel's main flaw: If the book avoids wearing its heart on its sleeve the way Love Story did (thank goodness), it does sometimes overshare its research.
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally HemingsStephen O'Connor
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings is a lengthy novel, but it hardly ever reads as one. Its chapters are clear, short and episodic, and O’Connor writes about slavery and intimacy with equal grace. His vision of romance in a society defined by division is wrenching, and proof that dreaming can expose reality better than any hard truth.
The Art of X-Ray ReadingRoy Peter Clark
MixedThe Barnes & Noble ReviewLittle of Clark’s advice is bad. And his love for the books is plain. Yet the thing that makes literature great is that it resists efforts to put it to such pragmatic purposes.
The Man Without a ShadowJoyce Carol Oates
PanUSA TodayThe Man Without a Shadow is strongest at highlighting the consequences of this professional despair across decades, how Elihu is cruelly and unwittingly used as a pawn for both professional ladder-climbing and emotional solace. Margot is a brilliant but lonely woman who resents her mentor, but she can’t help modeling his behavior. But how Oates strains to keep this story together!
The Portable VeblenElizabeth McKenzie
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribunethe novel is consistently concerned with people with messed-up heads. But McKenzie successfully plays up the humor ... If there are a few too many scenes of parents and kids rolling their eyes at each other, the extra bulk serves the point that escaping past your past isn't easy.
The Double Life of LilianeLily Tuck
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneIn its restrained, patient way, Tuck’s novel successfully creates a whole person, even if she knows that creation is inevitably a fiction.
Fates and FuriesLauren Groff
PositiveBarnes & Noble ReviewThe novel falters when its unreality (a brilliant play written in five hours!) rubs too closely to its portentous sentences. But the novel is remarkably cohesive, considering how far Groff is willing to push her central characters...Fates and Furies doesn’t blow up marriage, but it’s a ferocious attack on its pieties and commonplaces. The marriage plot is forever, but Groff has found a new way to court the reader.
Shame and WonderDavid Searcy
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThese pieces aren't rocking-chair reminiscences but attempts to make the familiar feel brand-new — like a down-home Roland Barthes, his quirky observations and sudden narrative turns remind us of the strangeness we miss every day.
The Givenness of ThingsMarilynne Robinson
MixedMinneapolis Star-TribuneGrace and generosity define Robinson's fiction, but this book reveals how much labor goes into understanding them.
Sweet Lamb of HeavenLydia Millet
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneLydia Millet's new novel has the bones of a thriller — there's a woman threatened by a stalker ex-husband and a kidnapped child. But 'thriller' implies high action, and Sweet Lamb of Heaven is softer and more emotionally interior. But 'psychological thriller' doesn't work, either: The term leaves little room for the loopy, music-of-the-spheres philosophizing its heroine engages in. We didn't know we needed a metaphysical thriller, but here Millet is with a fine one.
The Eastern ShoreWard Just
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe Eastern Shore, has an elegiac, almost funereal tone ... An old-school journalist himself, he’s mastered the art of intimately understanding institutions without being impressed by them ... The Eastern Shore has an episodic shape and loose style that amble around these issues rather than attack them, often digressing into Ned’s musings on old jobs and past girlfriends. But if it’s lesser Just, its nostalgic, autumnal tone is also fitting.
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesThe twist in Ellis’ brisk, harrowing new novella, Normal, is that while its eye is on what’s next, its structure is decidedly old-school — he’s bringing the bad news in the form of an Agatha Christie-style locked-room mystery ... Ellis does have a message about our future to deliver via those creepy-crawlies. But first he delivers a witty, if somber message about our present ... Ellis is engaging in the very soothsaying that he’s poking fun at, an irony which can be grating ... he has a knack for taut, fast, cliffhanger-driven installment writing. To that end, the closing pages of Normal have both the propulsive power of any solid thriller and the kind of social awareness Dickens might appreciate.
Enigma VariationsAndré Aciman
RaveThe Barnes & Noble Review...a sublime series of portraits of one man’s sexual history ... Aciman writes tremendous lust scenes — moments where the erotic power of a man or a woman is so strong it reshapes its well-educated but heedless hero ... The fractured structure of Enigma Variations is key to the novel’s strength — the book is built on variations on a theme, not a familiar arc of love-gone-wrong or happily-ever-after. This leads to some contrivances, like the section about the woman Paul tumbles into bed with once every four years. But the push-me-pull-you relationship is also a surprisingly tender way to explore the idea of 'relief [and] its terrible partner, indifference, which is the impulse to let go before we’ve even begun reaching for what we crave' ... There’s something here for everyone, along with the appealing notion that everybody can be encompassed by this book’s particular someone.
The NIxNathan Hill
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe Nix is a durable, entertaining, at times harshly skeptical novel ... aspires to both the sweep and social critique of the past generation’s big-book authors — Tartt, Franzen, Eugenides. Hill has the style and bravado to belong in that company, and a candor that, if he can sustain it, suggests a brash new path as well.
Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer
MixedThe Washington PostThe Blochs are witty and whip-smart and engagingly dour in ways that sometimes evokes J.D. Salinger’s Glass family...But Foer’s microscopic attention to a couple of days in the life of the Blochs pushes off the novel’s dramatic geopolitical crisis for hundreds of pages ... Foer’s ambition in Here I Am has more to do with scope than with language, but once he’s put in the position to write about serious consequences, he again retreats into precocity and tiny domestic tussles.
Another BrooklynJacqueline Woodson
PositiveUSA TodayThe language in Another Brooklyn isn’t much more complex [than her YA books], and Woodson sticks to brief episodic scenes. But it’s a much more dynamic book, alert to the confluences of dramas that a teen absorbs all at once, from racism to sexual abuse to the loss of family members. For all the tough lessons she delivers, though, Woodson also writes with a consistent warmth and compassion.
Dear Friend from My Life I Write to You in Your LifeYiyun Li
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewA remarkable — if very hard to love — memoir of the small comforts of literature and a sizable urge to throw off the baggage of personal history ... But Dear Friend isn’t a defense of the virtues of that absence so much as a first attempt at exploring what a life might be like without relying on them so heavily. If that does seem coldhearted, the flipside is that the very same attitude that made her a writer: She abandoned a promising career as an immunologist to pursue fiction, in part by neglecting all of those narratives about destiny and appropriate professional trajectories ... Literature is full of departures and disconnection — a hero goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town. Li’s book proffers an extreme vision of that emotional separation, but it’s not one that most readers will find unrecognizable. We’re all on that journey; it’s just that Li is traveling light.
The Tiger's WifeTéa Obreht
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneObreht aspires to erase our compulsion to commemorate war through old gestures of gritty realism or melodrama. Here metaphor will carry the day, as colorful and sturdy as the copy of The Jungle Book
Lonesome Lies Before UsDon Lee
RaveThe Washington PostWhat Lee has written is a subtle novel about how people on the edge of a financial cliff are forced to sacrifice their ambitions ... If Lee dwelled exclusively on the friction between his three main characters, he’d have delivered a thoughtful working-class tale burnished with some Dylanesque wisdom. But Lee also weaves Yadin and Jeanette in a matrix of larger social pressures ... If Lonesome Lies Before Us isn’t the best American novel of the year, it’s one of the most American American novels. It’s intensely concerned with the civic institutions that shape everyday lives, and with who’s affected when they disappear. That’s too much weight for the average country song to bear, but Lee’s novel carries it just fine.
American WarOmar El Akkad
MixedThe Minneapolis Star Tribune[Certain lines] reveal the biggest problem with American War, one common to Dystopian novels: It has to speak the language of oppression and resistance, which is usually stiff, bureaucratic and militaristic. Great for rallies, tough on novels. But El Akkad, an Egyptian-born journalist who’s covered the war on terror, has a knack for giving that material as much of a heartbeat as possible. His imagined speeches, transcripts, history-book passages, censored letters and news stories feel accurate while highlighting institutional deceptions and omissions. Better, El Akkad clears plenty of space for human-scale storytelling amid the geopolitical scaffolding ... There are few glimmers of humor, though, or even much of the optimism that most Dystopian tales gesture toward in their final pages.
The One-Eyed ManRon Currie
MixedThe Los Angeles TimesThere are a lot of places a premise like this can go, and it’s not always to the credit of The One-Eyed Man that Currie eagerly pursues so many of them ... Covering all this turf while keeping the tone uniformly comic can make the novel feel at times ungainly and forced. But Currie is also an experienced hand with this material ... He can cogently explore the theory of relativity, capture his friends’ exasperation at hearing about it ('When did you turn into Mr. Roboto?'), and evoke the grief that sent K. on this trip to Rationalia.
The Idiot.Elif Batuman
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...the novel’s lifeblood is Batuman’s observations of our struggles to communicate. Whether it’s teaching ESL classes or studying linguistics, Selin is cornered into moments that expose just how prone to confusion we are ... Selin is aware that an American teenager is 'the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person.' But Batuman also knows that her struggle is a timeless one. 'Why were we all so bad at writing stories?' her hero asks. 'What were we missing? When would we get better?'
Black MosesAlain Mabanckou, Trans. by Helen Stevenson
PositiveThe Los Angeles TimesFor all the novel’s humor, Moses himself is a cautionary if not tragic figure. The latter sections of Black Moses turn on his loss of memory and the inability of either neuropsychologists or folk healers to repair the damage done to him. His amnesia might be real, but it’s also a symbol for his cultural condition — stateless, parentless, tribeless, faithless ... Making this point while preserving a sense of humor is a tough trick, and in the early pages Mabanckou (via his translator, Helen Stevenson) doesn’t seem entirely up to the task — the prose is more dryly expository than brightly quixotic. But once Moses’ essential conflicts emerge — church versus state, good versus bad, family versus isolation — the brief novel gains liftoff, as pointed as it is funny.
The BlindsAdam Sternbergh
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble Review...a critique of our best-intentioned it-takes-a-village sentiments that’s both more realistic and more weaponized than similar treatments ... The premise of The Blinds is so intriguing that you don’t dwell too much on that erasing-memories business, even though it’s the most volatile material you can pick up at the Hubristic Tropes Store ... the implications of the concept get a little messy in the telling in the closing chapters ... But Sternbergh sells the basic point: We mess with our psyches at our peril, and one way we mess with our psyches is persuading ourselves that we’re just a few regulations away from maintaining order.
Bed-Stuy Is BurningBrian Platzer
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThat anger eventually explodes, but the mood before that happens is less one of rising tension than of novelistic furniture being carefully arranged. Caught-between-two-worlds characterizations abound ... Such contrivances frustrate because Platzer clearly knows his turf. A Bed-Stuy resident himself, he convincingly sketches out how thin the neighborhood’s peaceful veneer is without lazily singling out one cause of dysfunction ... This awareness of the complexity of the neighborhood, though, is often at cross-purposes with the tidy narrative line of the novel itself.
Moving KingsJoshua Cohen
RaveThe Los Angeles Times...a brilliant book whose brilliance comes via a bait and switch. It opens as a comic portrait of a midlife crisis, but concludes as a somber cautionary tale frothing with cataclysms, including fire and gunplay ... It comes on as unassuming yet stylish, but circles around tricky questions of occupation and power in the U.S. and Israel. And yet none of it feels messy or overreaching — indeed, it feels master-planned to slowly unsettle your convictions, as the best novels do ... Cohen has a brain-on-fire intellect and a Balzac-grade enthusiasm for understanding varieties of experience, which encourages the reader to stick with his provocations ... Americans and Israelis may not be engaged in the same conflict, but they share a similar challenge in solving complicated questions of faith, race and the law. Cohen’s book is a comic and harrowing study of the consequences of ignoring them.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetDavid Mitchell
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe surfaces of David Mitchell's vibrant, exquisitely written new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, suggest a conservative, even antiquated tale...But Thousand Autumns succeeds in part because those old-fashioned storytelling skills are so firmly in his grasp … Mitchell's prose is a pleasure in itself, never better than in virtuosic passages when de Zoet's musings collide in real time with what he sees, sentences of thought and observation ping-ponging against each other. This novel is about language – how it connects and distances – and Mitchell revels in wordplay, nautical jargon and jokes. And he does it with little flash: The novel is mostly dialogue and crisp, brief paragraphs.
The MountainPaul Yoon
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe stories in Paul Yoon’s debut story collection are told with a placidity that belies their violence — reading The Mountain is like admiring a glowing sunset before realizing that what you’re really watching is a wildfire heading your way ... Yoon grasps the reader’s urge to root for heroism and survival, then slowly nudges us toward reality. All six stories in The Mountain play with this tension of how to describe loss and failure simply but without clichéd bluntness — his sentences read like Hemingway stripped of his machismo ... working at a smaller scale, Yoon sometimes has a more difficult time maintaining a balance between storytelling and atmospherics, leaning on a soft metaphor — a missed train stop, a drifting rowboat — when a firmer line would better highlight his characters’ crises. Even so, The Mountain is remarkable as it is, as close as the short story can get to poetry without losing its grip on plot. The people in its pages are struggling with the kind of crises that are hard to make concrete.